Monday, March 1, 2021

Bloodfire Quest

 


The second entry of Terry Brooks’ Dark Legacy of Shannara trilogy opens with Arlingfant Elessedil, or simply Arling, hearing the voice of the dying tree Ellcrys, which says she is the chosen, although Arling doesn’t want to become its successor, and converses with her sister Aphenglow, Aphen for short, about the matter. Aphen researches the history of the Ellcrys, discovering that her ancestor Amberle Elessedil was the last Chosen to become the tree, the history she reads up on having significant gaps. Aphen informs her sister of her discovery, further mentioning the Bloodfire, whose magic can quicken the cultivation of a new Ellcrys.

The human-dominated Federation has since abandoned their occupation of the Druid Keep Paranor, and in the meantime, the Ard Rhys and her party traverse the hostile country of the Forbidding, where they fend off attacks from umbral beasts, also encountering some Jarka Ruus, those imprisoned by the Forbidding. Within the Federation, the assassin Stoon meets the new Prime Minister a woman named Edinja Orle, with plenty politicking occurring, and the new PM allegedly being pro-magic. Aphen and Arling deal with a hostile mother when they visit her, and find clues in a trunk holding old texts.

The second entry ends with Aphen finding her sister missing, naturally serving as a cliffhanger to the trilogy’s concluding entry, and overall being a competent but generic fantasy novel, with a map depicting the Four Lands that had once been the Pacific Northwest of Old Earth. Bloodfire Quest also somewhat distinguishes itself from other fantasy stories by depicting races such as Trolls as being good, although as with other entries of the franchise new and old, there is frequent lack of clarification as to which races the various characters belong to, and occasional long gaps between names and pronouns. Regardless, those who truly enjoyed the first book will get the most out of the second.

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Odin Sphere

 


When development for the PlayStation 2 began dying down and the gaming world was focused on the following generation of consoles, the PS2 still had some life in it, gaining several notable RPG releases such as Persona 4. Among the other titles that Sony’s first sequel console received was Odin Sphere, exalted for its art direction under developer Vanillaware and director George Kamitani, whose previous credits included the Japan-only title Princess Crown. The original Odin Sphere would see rerelease as a digital title on the PlayStation 3 and as a companion to the refined version, Odin Sphere Leifthrasir. Does the original incarnation still hold up?

The game focuses on five different playable characters who participate in events leading to Armageddon, with a heavy Nordic influence. Each luminary receives plentiful development, with some good supplemental backstory revealed through texts acquired throughout each character’s quest, and a satisfactory ending, with variations depending upon which characters the player use to battle each of the five final bosses, although given the unskippable voiced dialogue in cutscenes, the plot feels forced down the player’s throat. The translation contains an old-world English disposition, and is legible for the most part, although there are some literal portions such as “Demon King Odin,” errors such as “to whence,” and asinine names such as “Muggle” for a fruit and “King Valentine,” among others.

The game mechanics have plenty of good ideas, with each character having their own unique fighting style that eases up on the repetition, although some players won’t appreciate the need to start fresh with a different protagonist after spending hours developing the last. Odin Sphere’s gameplay occurs in various stages with a certain number of toroidal areas where the player has to eliminate all antagonists and receive a score based on the performance in battle, dictating how much treasure they receive as a reward, which includes seeds to plant and grow into consumable food that heals HP and provides hit point experience, ingredients for cooking recipes at restaurants that provide fixed maximum HP increases and supplemental experience, and coins used to purchase items and cooked recipes.

Key to cultivating plants is the release of Phozons when enemies die, which the current protagonist can either absorb to increase Psypher experience for occasional leveling and increased attack power (sometimes alongside the occasional skill that consumes a number of stored Psypher levels when executed). However, players can allow planted seeds to absorb these, in which case they gradually grow and release fruit or other food. In the case of the former, the player can wait for some time and obtain rotted version of the cultivated fruit, which is actually sometimes necessary to formulate certain recipes obtained in stages and used to cook food in restaurants sometimes accessible in between chapters.

The gameplay works alright for the most part, although there are several issues such as the potential difficulty of late-game battles, even on the easiest difficulty setting, and consequential need to spend time grinding for Psypher and HP experience (which players can mercifully accomplish for each character before the final quintet of boss battles). There’s also a heavy emphasis upon inventory management, with players initially able to have up to two eight-item bags, although these don’t become available until each character’s later chapters, and there is potential to waste money on pouches that hold fewer items, with no facilities to store excess items.

The mentioned issue with inventory management is a chief complaint of the original version’s control aspects, alongside the inability during cutscenes to skip through voiced dialogue, sure to alienate hearing-impaired gamers, although the scenes themselves are fully skippable, and players need not rewatch them before things such as tough boss battles. The save system is also fair, with players able to preserve progress in stages in toroidal areas that have shops, and the structure of the game is fairly linear, with little opportunity to get lost. However, there are other issues such as the awkwardness at times of each character’s unique control scheme, along with the fact that the in-game clock doesn’t track time spent in the often-lengthy cutscenes. On the whole, interaction is average.

One of the stronger aspects of Odin Sphere is its aural presentation, with the voice acting, despite the developers forcing it down the player’s throat during cutscenes given its unskippability, being good for the most part, the battle voices luckily not annoying. The soundtrack chiefly composed by Hitoshi Sakimoto and Masaharu Iwata is great as well, with plentiful standout tracks such as the vocal title screen theme, which receives several remixes towards the end, and different tracks in each stage for non-enemy-infested areas and battle toroids. However, there is a technical issue with the same music restarting when the player transitions between visited areas in a stage, but otherwise, the aurals are generally pleasing.

Odin Sphere utilizes a two-dimensional visual style, with character and enemy sprites containing good anatomy and animation, with lip movement during cutscenes as well, not to mention pretty environments and vibrant colors, although the game’s beauty one could describe as superficial. I say so, given the myriad of issues such as characters changing handedness depending upon whether they’re facing left or right, the choppiness when attacking enemies, the cookie-cutter environments for each area of a stage, some reskinned adversaries, and nothing in the way of FMV cutscenes. Generally, the graphical presentation isn’t appalling, but there are various kinks the designers could have worked out.

Finally, including the time spent in cutscenes, finishing all characters’ chapters and the endgame takes somewhere from one to two days’ total playtime, although the in-game clock will certainly show less, and there’s plentiful lasting appeal in the form of PlayStation Trophies, the adjustable difficulty settings, the battle rankings for each area of the various stages, the ability to skip cutscenes and not have to rewatch them (with each scene preserved for later viewing, in case the player wants to view the narrative chronologically), and the general fun of building Psypher and HP levels, although there’s little in the way of sidequests, given the linear structure.

In summation, Odin Sphere definitely is an amazing game in several respects, such as its fast, oftentimes enjoyable gameplay, the enjoyable narrative, the solid sound, the good art direction, and the abundance of lasting appeal, although it does have some serious issues of which players need to be aware before experiencing it such as the bit of grindiness, the overabundance of inventory management, the unskippable voiced dialogue during cutscenes, the average localization, and the various kinks in the visual presentation. Given these various issues, it’s hardly surprising that Vanillaware would refine the mechanics in Leifthrasir, and I would recommend that iteration instead.

This review is based on a playthrough of the Original Mode included alongside Leifthrasir, digitally purchased and downloaded to a PlayStation Vita.

The Good:
+Gameplay can be fun.
+Enjoyable story.
+Solid sound.
+Good art direction.
+Plentiful lasting appeal.

The Bad:
-Can be hard and grindy, even on easiest difficulty.
-Too much inventory management.
-Unskippable voiced dialogue during cutscenes.
-Average, sometimes literal, translation.
-Game’s beauty is superficial.

The Bottom Line:
Not a bad experience, but you may want to play Refined Mode instead.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: PlayStation Vita
Game Mechanics: 6.0/10
Controls: 5.0/10
Story: 7.5/10
Localization: 5.0/10
Music/Sound: 8.0/10
Graphics: 5.0/10
Lasting Appeal: 9.5/10
Difficulty: Adjustable
Playing Time: 1-2 Days

Overall: 7.0/10

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Over the Moon

 


I watched this due to a review by my friend Moonhare, and reasonably enjoyed it, being about a Chinese girl who loses her mother and her father moves on, and she tries to make a homemade rocket to the moon to prove the moon goddess Chang'e exists. The animal imagery was definitely the highlight of the film.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Ember Falls

 


Like its predecessor, the second entry of the Green Ember tetralogy by S.D. Smith opens with an excerpt from The Wreck and Rise of Whitson Mariner, with Prince Lander questioning how he will die, with one possibility being monsters carrying him away. The main chapters open with Picket Longtreader traversing fog with Prince Jupiter Smalls, still seeking his missing family. Birds of prey give chase, and the two find nothing in an enemy camp. Picket’s sister Heather, in the meanwhile, is training to become a doctor, finding her initiation bittersweet.

Some chapters give focus on the slaves of the avian villain Morbin, including the female Sween, a skilled songstress. Picket continues to train with his master Helmer, and there is revelation of royalty thought lost. The rabbits have several battles with the antagonistic wolves and their allegiant birds of prey, and lapine loyalties regularly go to the test. One of the characters, Emma, ponders sacrificing herself to reach a ceasefire with their enemies, although Heather goes in her place, finding herself in Morbin’s lair, the second book ending with one of Sween’s songs giving her hope.

All in all, I found this a fairly enjoyable sequel, given its focus on animal characters, many of which are far from interchangeable, although akin to fellow animal-focused literary franchise Redwall, some species have no “good” members among them, although the rabbits are more black, white, or gray in that respect. The backstory is also good, and the pacing is relatively quick given the brevity of most chapters, the illustrations giving readers further insight into the relative “look” of the events in the book. Those who enjoyed the first book in the series will most likely in the second, and after reading the excerpt from the next book, I’m definitely game to read it.

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Deep Look - Super Mario Sunshine

 Super mario sunshine.jpg


Mario’s Dark Side

Recently, I had the chance to borrow a copy of Super Mario 3D All-Stars for the Nintendo Switch, collecting three of Nintendo’s resident plumber’s adventures in three dimensions, beginning with Super Mario 64, which many critics hailed as a revolutionary achievement in a largely-lackluster gaming library for the Nintendo 64 system. Despite the critical bootlicking the game received, it left me incredibly unimpressed, given its incredible reliance upon typical Japanese videogame cheapness such as the ease of death. I expected the next 3-D Mario for the GameCube, Super Mario Sunshine, to be an improvement, which it was in respects, but it proved to be just as excruciating an experience.

Sunshine opens with Mario and Princess Peach vacationing to Isle Delfino, encountering a goop-covered piranha plant that the plumber battles with a Flash Liquidizer Ultra Dousing Device, or F.L.U.D.D., which he then uses to attempt to clear his name, as an entity resembling him known as Shadow Mario has been polluting the island. The storyline adds a little new content to the overall Mario mythos, but eventually devolves to a typical damsel-in-distress plot when Peach finds herself kidnapped. The translation is legible, but messages such as “Shine!” when acquiring one of the plot-centric golden stars somewhat make obvious the game’s Japanese origins.

Thus, it’s up to the gameplay to shoulder the burden, and while the camera is a major improvement over that in Super Mario 64, there are a host of other issues that prevent the gameplay from being even remotely passable. The mechanics are largely similar to those in the preceding 3-D Mario game, with Mario able to go through graffiti to enter other areas of Isle Delfino, each with several sequential episodes, the seventh of each being the pursuit of Shadow Mario. Fulfilling certain gameplay objectives rewards Mario with a Shine Sprite, necessary to advance the central storyline.

Mario can shoot water at enemies and sludge from F.L.U.D.D. and hover in the air for a few seconds with fluid from the sentient backpack, the player able to refill the mechanism through one of many water sources available in the game. As in Super Mario 64, moreover, the plumber can execute three consecutive leaps with each being higher than the previous (although players can turn him around and instantly use the most powerful jump), and do a straight vertical stomp that’s oftentimes necessary to kill enemies. He also has a life meter that regular coins can replenish, with the loss of all life, or a fall into a bottomless pit, costing him a life and kicking him back into the hub of Isle Delfino.

There are also mandatory stages where Shadow Mario steals F.L.U.D.D. from his adversary, and the real Mario must traverse a three-dimensional level where death via falling into the bottomless abyss will happen very, very frequently, and if this happens, the player has to start from the very beginning, with the exhaustion of all lives resulting in a Game Over and the need for the player to retrace their steps to said level. One could have very easily made a drinking game out of the instances where I advanced through one of these areas only to encounter the same exact situation that killed me in the first place, and the repetition is nothing short of maddening.

Unlike in Super Mario 64, the player has to advance through a stage’s episodes sequentially in order to advance the central storyline and see the ending, if that even miraculously occurs, and the overall inconsistent difficulty really hurts the game, bordering on unplayable, even with the assistance of the internet. Many episodes are essentially walls preventing the player from seeing the game from start to finish, and the above-average, oftentimes artificial, difficulty makes Sunshine incredibly inaccessible to mainstream gamers. There are also countless areas when falling off a ledge and the need to retrace steps is necessary, needlessly wasting the player’s time, and all in all, I didn’t exactly find the gameplay a joy to experience.

Those familiar with the controls in Super Mario 64 will undoubtedly find those in Sunshine easy to handle, although the art of firing water from F.L.U.D.D. while keeping Mario still takes lots of getting used to. The plumber’s jumping patterns are also wildly unpredictable, and he sometimes performs his most powerful somersaulting leap when the player doesn’t intend him to, which can make safe landings to be incredibly difficult. While the player can save progress any time, moreover, doing so doesn’t preserve their current location, so they can’t just quit in the middle of an episode and resume where they left off. Generally, the game is fairly user-unfriendly.

Sunshine has okay music, even if much of it consists of remixes of tracks from prior Mario games such as the subterranean theme, and there is a little voice acting, although players will quickly tire of hearing Mario wail when falling into a bottomless pit, along with the horns that blare whilst he loses a life and when the player sees the Game Over screen for the millionth time.

The visuals have actually aged slightly better than those in Super Mario 64, with Mario, Princess Peach, and other character models scarcely being blocky, the colors being vibrant, and the rippling heat effect and water reflection being nice touches, although there are many reskins of Isle Delfino’s NPCs, and some of the environmental texturing is blurry and pixilated.

Ultimately, that I needed to use a guide to figure out how exactly to win the first boss fight in the game should have served as a warning indicator as to the true quality of Super Mario Sunshine, and I hardly had a fun time with it, given its many classic Japanese videogame kusottare such as the ease of instant death and maddening degree of repetition. While it does have areas that Nintendo improved over Super Mario 64, such as the camera, the various other issues this particular entry introduced bring it down, and for the sake of my mental health, I couldn’t bring myself to play it to completion, and certainly won’t touch Galaxy with a yardstick.

This deep look is based on a playthrough of eight hours on the version included with Super Mario 3D All-Stars, borrowed by the reviewer.

RECOMMENDED?
NO

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Super Mario 64

 Screenshot


A Revolution Rife with Atrocities

In recent console generations, videogame developers have prided themselves in remastering older titles graphically and porting classic games to contemporary consoles, provided they actually held onto the programming code, unlike some game corporations (*cough* Sega *cough*). That aside, Nintendo would release a collection of three Mario games on their Switch hybrid console, Super Mario 3D All-Stars, similar to what they had done generations prior with classic Mario titles on the Super NES, with the first three-dimensional game in the franchise, Super Mario 64, among the games in the anthology. Has it stood the test of time?

The inaugural 3-D Mario opens with Princess Toadstool, now identified as Peach, inviting Mario to her castle for cake, although Bowser holds her hostage, and it’s up to Mario to save her. It’s more or less the same plotline as in prior Mario games, and while there are a variety of worlds the plumber visits, they don’t receive any backstory, and there’s little, if any, contribution to the overall Mario mythos. The translation is mostly a decent effort, although there are several kinks such as the initial voiced dialogue in which the princess addresses herself as “Princess Toadstool…Peach!” when “Princess Peach Toadstool” would have sufficed, not to mention the general unmemorable nature of the writing.

That leaves the gameplay to shoulder the burden, and lamentably, Super Mario 64 doesn’t fare any better in that regard. While some of Mario’s moves are fun to mess around with, the absolutely terrible camera and controls really hurt the experience, and while the plumber has a life meter, it becomes pointless in the face of easy instant death from long falls, which will happen quite frequently due to the camera seeming to have a mind of its own. Simple tasks such as chasing a one-up mushroom and walking across narrow paths become herculean, and the battles against Bowser where Mario has to grab him by the tail, whirl him about, and launch him towards mines, are needlessly tedious. In the end, the gameplay is often absolute torture.

Super Mario 64 would have also benefited from better checkpoints, and I experienced many cases where I revealed a star, their collection necessary to fight Bowser and advance what little narrative there is, only to die and have to repeat the tasks needed to reveal the star in the first place. Save opportunities also only occur upon collection of one of said stars, and despite contemporary technology, the Switch port doesn’t include a suspend save. Given the three-dimensional gameplay, furthermore, minimaps for each area would have been welcome, and there are plenty of difficult jumps and largely unrefined level design. All in all, the game scarcely interfaces well with players.

Pretty much the only remotely passable part of the game is its aural presentation, with several standout musical tracks such as the regal interior castle theme, the pretty nautical area music, and so on. However, there are plentiful lackluster tracks such as the Arabian-esque hot area tune, and the voice acting can be grating, especially when forced to hear Mario’s screams for the umpteenth time, and Bowser’s taunt whenever the plumber loses a life can be insulting. Ultimately, the sound is pretty much one of few areas where the game doesn’t fail, but certainly doesn’t excel.

The visuals, however, haven’t aged well, with blocky three-dimensional character models and scenery that contains plenty of blurry, pixilated texturing, along with plenty of environmental popup, and things such as the various Toads throughout the palace appearing ghostly the further Mario is from them. The characters, though, look as they should, and the colors are believable, but otherwise, the graphical presentation very much falls short.

Finally, the first three-dimensional Mario game is longer than its 2D precursors, with players possibly able to get through it in as little as twelve hours, and while there is theoretical lasting appeal in the collection of every star, the experience isn’t nearly enjoyable enough to warrant supplemental playtime.

Overall, time definitely hasn’t been kind to Super Mario 64, and while most can agree that it was a revolutionary title in its era, that doesn’t really mean it’s a good title, given its absolutely-abominable gameplay and control, the high degree of repetition, the generic narrative, the lackluster visuals, and the sheer torture of playing it longer to achieve one-hundred-percent completion. It really lends the impression that Nintendo rushed to release it without bothering to test it for quality or even playability, given its relative unrefinement in most of its aspects, and it’s incredibly difficult to recommend to mainstream gaming audiences.

The Good:
+Music is okay.
+Short.

The Bad:
-Not short enough.
-Loads of repetition.
-Horrible camera and controls.
-Generic Mario plot.
-Graphics haven’t aged well.
-Tortuous to invest additional time in.

The Bottom Line:
The first 3D Mario, and it definitely shows.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Game Mechanics: 0.5/10
Controls: 0.5/10
Story: 0.0/10
Localization: 4.0/10
Music/Sound: 5.0 /10
Graphics: 2.5/10
Lasting Appeal: 0.5/10
Difficulty: Incredibly Artificial
Playing Time: 12-24 Hours

Overall: 1.5/10

Wards of Faerie

 


The first installment of author Terry Brooks’ Dark Legacy of Shannara series opens with protagonist Aphenglow Elessedil, or simply Aphen, finding a diary written by a young princess from the age of Faerie, Aleia, who meets a Darkling child of the Void. A search for the magical Elfstones initiates, and Khyber Elessedil, Ard Rhys of the Fourth Druid Order, wakes from her lengthy Druid Sleep as a result of the Elfstones calling out to her. As Aphen researches the diary, siblings Railing and Redding Ohmsford are up to mischief, with Mirai Leah visiting with her airship, the Quickening.

Khyber too comes to visit the Ohmsfords, although their mother Sarys is reluctant to have accept her into their lives. In the meantime, the Prime Minister of the Federation, Drust Chazhul, and his advisor Stoon, plot against the Druid Keep Paranor, and the main heroes find themselves visiting the Forbidden, where all sorts of dark creatures are imprisoned by the Ellcrys. Several battles conclude the first entry of the trilogy, with the cliffhanger of a voice calling out to one of the characters serving as a lead-in into the first sequel of the Shannara subseries.

All in all, this was an okay beginning to the Dark Legacy of Shannara trilogy, with plenty links to prior subseries and a good deal of fantastical action, the occasional politicking thrown into the mix. However, one can definitely find it difficult to keep track as to what races the various characters belong to, and while there is an illustration depicting several of the dramatic personae after the primary text, there’s no indicator as to who is who, and better descriptions of the appearances of the characters would have been welcome as well. Regardless, I would still be interested in reading the rest of the subseries.