Sunday, March 31, 2019

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Sony affirms its grasp on the cinematic rights to Spider-Man with this animated film separate from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, featuring a high-schooler named Miles Morales who becomes one of many incarnations of Spider-Man, with villain Wilson Fisk / Kingpin opening a gate to other dimensions whence other forms of the hero come. Luckily, the trailers didn't spoil any of the twists that populate the film, which definitely earned its Oscar.

Friday, March 29, 2019

Tales of Vesperia: Definitive Edition

As the seventh generation of videogame consoles was getting underway, the Xbox 360, surprisingly, developed a bit of a niche for Japanese RPGs, prominent titles including the Mistwalker-developed Blue Dragon and the then-latest mothership Tales game, Tales of Vesperia. Although it would receive a port to the rival PlayStation 3, said version would remain in Japan, but in celebration of the title’s tenth anniversary, Bandai Namco published an enhanced iteration called Tales of Vesperia: Definitive Edition for the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and the Nintendo Switch, the last version this review covers.

Vesperia occurs in the world of Terca Lumireis, in a universe completely different from the other mainline Tales games akin to Square-Enix’s Final Fantasy franchise, this particular installment’s world utilizing the energy source blastia for its needs such as erecting barriers around cities to defend against monsters. The protagonist is Yuri Lowell, an ex-Imperial knight who along with his companions, including the noblewoman Estelle, forms the guild Brave Vesperia, which deals with the planet’s various rival factions that have divergent intentions regarding the abuse of Terca Lumireis’ resources.

Throughout their journey, Brave Vesperia encounters various enemies on the overworld and in dungeons indicated by wandering monster models, and while the ability is unavailable on the world map, the active character can fire a blast from the Sorcerer’s Ring, also occasionally used in puzzle-solving, to stun a monster, make it dizzy to give the player’s party an advantage in battle, or anger it, in which case it will charge the player, as the foe sprites tend to do anyway when the player’s character comes close in their eyesight, fights triggered upon contact.

Consequentially, the player’s party of four active characters faces off against a number of foes in real-time combat similar to that in prior series installments, particularly Tales of the Abyss, where the player controls one character in a linear range of motion dictated by their current target, although free-range movement is possible, the AI or up to three additional players controlling present allies. The controlled character can string a chain of attack combos against the targeted foe, along with base and arcane artes, occasionally unlocked in the heat of battle.

Victory nets all characters, including those inactive, experience for occasional level-ups, in addition to money and skill points used to unlock abilities from weapons and occasionally armor, akin to Final Fantasy IX, with a capacity for equipping these, and which provide effects such as additional battle abilities and additional strikes for combination attacks. Characters can use consumable items on themselves initially, although a skill allows their use on their allies, with occasional pop-up messages indicating imminent item use, the player able to choose whether pressing down the right analog stick will cancel it or give them the okay to consume the item, the team needing to wait before using another.

The battle system definitely works for the most part, with difficulty mercifully being adjustable, higher challenge settings increasing enemy health and allowing the opportunity to acquire more Grade Points upon victory, combat performance in most cases affecting its distribution (and which allow carryovers into EX New Game playthroughs, this reviewer in particular, playing on the easiest difficulty, ending the game with a grand total of zero points). There are also issues with the encounter system, the Sorcerer’s Ring for instance having poor hit direction alongside the randomization of the effect a blast will have on a visible foe, although Holy and Dark Bottles can respectively decrease or increase enemies’ noticing the player. Regardless, combat remains fun throughout the game.

Gameplay outside battle, though, could have used more attention from the developers, given issues, for instance, with the sometimes-vague direction on how to advance the main storyline, with a direction in the in-game synopsis, for instance, being outright false (saying a mansion lies east of a city instead of west like it actually is), alongside the typical Japanese RPG tradition of save points (though a few fully restore the player’s party). Dialogue during skits, unlike in standard cutscenes, is further unskippable, though the latter are for the most part entirely skippable. Fans of the unrealistic game-padding gimmick, furthermore, will appreciate the toroidal overworld connecting towns and dungeons. Even so, the creators could have definitely given interaction a once-over.

The narrative, moreover, is fairly derivative of those in the Legaia games, with the concept of elemental forces repelling enemies from towns filched from that franchise’s first installment, and the early goal of retrieving a water-producing blastia stolen from its only sequel. The trio of guards who perpetually hound Yuri in company also bring to mind Solt, Peppor, and Ketchop from Chrono Cross, and a late-game quest of acquiring elemental spirits echoes prior Tales titles’ narratives. For the plot to make sense was miraculous, given the lackluster quality of the localization, with a dash of redundant dialogue, occasional grammar errors, and terrible names such as Prince Ioder, aer (pronounced just like “air”), Adephagos, Phaeroh (with no Egyptian culture or mythos playing part in the game), etcetera.

As with most JRPGs, furthermore, combat gets the blunt of the game’s lousy writing, with the typical unrealistic tradition of characters calling the names of their attacks (or parts of them), and there seems absolutely no reason, aside from drugs, why anyone would think it natural for characters to proclaim things such as “The sign of victory!” when winning battles. The English voicework, however, is otherwise half-decent, aside from characters with dialects such as Patty with her “pirate” speech and Raven with his “hillbilly” dialect that sound perfectly normal (and the original Japanese voices are available). However, full marks go to regular series composers Motoi Sakuraba and Shinji Tamura for another enjoyable soundtrack, with the opening anime’s theme song “Ring a Bell” dubbed in English, serving at times as a central theme. Despite the issues, the sound is more than tolerable.

The same goes for the visuals, which utilize a cel-shaded style and generally look pleasant, aside from a wildly-inconsistent framerate, occasional blurriness, and the skit style of conversing square character portraits sometimes being averse to what actually occurs during those supplemental cutscenes. There are a handful of anime cutscenes, as well, and the graphics generally don’t hurt the game.

Finally, the game’s length is modest, somewhere from one to two days’ worth of total playtime, with the mentioned EX New Game making for plentiful lasting appeal.

Overall, Tales of Vesperia: Definitive Edition definitely has plenty of things going for it, such as the signature solid gameplay native to the series, the great soundtrack, the decent visuals, and plenty reason to come back for more. However, it does have issues in areas such as control, particularly regarding the sometimes-poor direction of the narrative and unskippable skit dialogue, not to mention the inconsistent visual framerate and especially the awful writing. Regardless, those merely seeking a good gameplay experience will likely find much to celebrate, especially if they didn’t play previous incarnations of the game, with the worldwide release of the port affirming Bandai Namco’s commitment to keeping the franchise relevant outside Japan.

The Good:
+Solid Tales gameplay.
+Great soundtrack.
+Nice graphics.
+Plenty lasting appeal.

The Bad:
-Game often doesn’t explicitly say how to advance.
-Unskippable skit dialogue.
-Awful writing.
-Inconsistent graphical framerate.

The Bottom Line:
Has issues, for sure, but is still a good game.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Game Mechanics: 9/10
Controls: 6/10
Story: 5/10
Localization: 4/10
Music/Sound: 8/10
Graphics: 7/10
Lasting Appeal: 10/10
Difficulty: Adjustable
Playing Time: 1-2 Days

Overall: 7/10

TV Show Capsule Reviews

The eponymous protagonist continues to cope as a autistic savant doctor, although his duties change a ways into the season. This reviewer is no Shawn Murphy and believes every autistic person to be unique and incomparable with others, but the show is still enjoyable and somewhat relatable.

A supernatural series about a woman named Prairie whose eyesight restores after she reemerges after being missing for several years. Jason Isaacs has a sizeable role in the series, as well, and it was relatively decent, if a bit much human interest.

Begins a few months prior to The Force Awakens, with the first season's final episode actually tying into the film, and generally being enjoyable, although Neeku is easily the Jar Jar of the series.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

The Gathering Storm

Robert Jordan had partially written the final book in his Wheel of Time saga, A Memory of Light, before he died in 2007, with his editor and wife Harriet McDougal personally choosing fellow fantasy writer Brandon Sanderson to complete the epic series, and Sanderson electing to divide the final entry into three novels, given that the last was too big for a single readable book, which opens with a note from Sanderson about the process leading to his selection to finish the literary series. Sanderson dedicates the twelfth entry to Maria Simons and Alan Romanczuk, who he claims helped make his continuation of the saga possible.

Following the fictitious blurb from an unknown scholar is the prologue opening with a minor character, Renald Fanwar, observing an approaching storm in the Borderlands, with one of his neighbors, Thulin, telling of how he buried his anvil and other tools due to his with to flee the storm with many others. The main chapters open with the same windy motif that opens the main sections of the book’s precursors, the wind in this case blowing around the White Tower in Tar Valon, where an Aes Sedai rebellion is underway, and whose leadership wants the captured Forsaken Semirhage.

Within the Tower itself, Egwene endures torture from the Mistress of Novices, Silviana, and does menial chores such as mopping. Meanwhile, the Wise Ones discuss refugees from recent battles, with Aviendha and Min Farshaw having feelings for the Dragon Reborn, Rand al’Thor. Gawyn prepares to lead an army against the Aes Sedai, whilst Cadsuane wants to “break” the captive Semirhage, although Rand forbids torture of prisoners of war, and wants the Aiel he commands to seize cities ruled by the Council of Merchants, further ordering Rodel Ituralde, stuck between a rock and a hard place, to Saldaea.

Egwene continues to battle Elaida for the Amyrlin Seat, the highest leadership position of the Aes Sedai, and is told renouncing her claim to the post would stabilize the White Tower, Elaida allegedly yearning for reconciliation with the rebels of the magical order. Semirhage receives repeated interrogation to little avail, with Perrin Aybara visiting wolf dreams as he had in prior series installments, as well. Meanwhile, the Seanchan Empire sees civil war due to the demise of its Empress, with Rand wishing to meet Tuon, who yearns for the Empire’s Crystal Throne.

Gawyn ultimately makes it a goal to rescue Egwene from captivity in the White Tower, with his sister Elayne safe on Andor’s Lion Throne. Rumors about that Elaida will receive a trial for breaking the law of the Tower, the Dark One tainting the structure, Egwene further considering giving in to her fellow contender for the Amyrlin Seat. Matrim Cauthon, along with the gleeman Thom, seeks the Tower of Ghenjei, visiting a town where they run into citizens seeking to lynch them after gambling. Cadsuane, in the meantime, fears execution by Rand due to her botched handling on the Dragon Reborn, the Dragon himself still seeking to meet members of the merchant council.

Nynaeve further hears reports of insect infestations, with a few by roaches actually occurring, and she interrogates supposed chandler’s apprentices about hostages, with an apprentice named Kerb inquired as well, and even brought before Rand, who believes his life will be forfeit due to the forthcoming Last Battle. Tuon, meanwhile, readies an attack on Tar Valon and the Dragon Reborn, who fails to find peace with the Seanchan. Within the Tower, Egwene believes her incarceration damages Elaida’s rule, with the pretender Amyrlin giving her rival tea to suppress her channeling ability.

The Seanchan ultimately launch their promises attack on the White Tower thanks to damane and sul’dam riding the backs of to’raken, Egwene teaching her Aes Sedai sisters techniques to fend off the invaders, further gathering angreal to help them channel; Gawyn launches his own attack via waterway. Rand, meanwhile, continues his occasional conversations with the long-deceased Lews Therin, hearing about an abundance of food in Arad Doman drawing refugees to the nation, only for the Dark One’s taint to spoil it, and the Dragon consequentially planning a march to Shayol Ghul.

Egwene continues her plans to reunite the Aes Sedai, with the novel concluding by having Rand sit atop Dragonmount, the alleged highest place in the known world, in contemplation, and an epilogue which furthers the ultimate resolution to the Aes Sedai civil war. Overall, Brandon Sanderson definitely did a superb job replicating the late Robert Jordan’s occasionally-verbose style, although the level of detail definitely paints a pretty picture for readers. Sanderson’s continuation of the series, like its precursors, shows its clear Star Wars influences, although he definitely did justice for Jordan’s fantasy saga.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Sword Art Online

An anime about a player nicknamed Kirito who starts up the eponymous MMORPG, only to find that he has to finish the game's hundred floors in order to break away from it, since death in the game means death in real life due to a tick in the virtual reality helmet necessary to play. The second half of the series deals with another MMORPG, Alfheim Online, with the first part feeling somewhat like the .hack anime and games, and a bit like The Matrix series, but I still reasonably enjoyed it.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

One by One Spotlight

Book Details:

Book Title: One by One: A Memoir of Love and Loss in the Shadows of Opioid America by Nicholas Bush
Category: Adult Nonfiction, 245 pages
Genre: Memoir
Publisher: Apollo Publishers
Release date: November 2018
Tour dates: Feb 25 to March 22, 2019
Content Rating: R (due to scenes of drug abuse)

Book Description:

In ONE by ONE: A Memoir of Love and Loss in the Shadows of Opioid America, author Nicholas Bush opens up about his adolescent years in suburban Wisconsin as a heroin addict.

Thanks to drugs, Nicholas ended up in a military school against his will where his back was broken, literally. He was in and out of jail five times, homeless, held at gunpoint, robbed, had his apartment ransacked (more than once), and was in rehab twice. His memoir passionately shares the losses he suffered: five of his loved ones died from heroin overdoses, including two who were shot to death. Most tragic of all, drugs killed two of his three siblings: his older sister Allison and his baby brother Austin.

Offering a personal perspective on our opioid epidemic and a rare survivor story, Bush tells all about what drew and drove him to drugs, what his habit cost him, and how he found salvation. He also makes a compelling case against treating and punishing heroin users like criminals. “People locked in the vise grip of addiction are still just that: people,” Bush stresses.

Buy the Book:

About the Author:

NICHOLAS BUSH is a reformed drug addict devoted to helping people battling addiction in halfway houses and prisons. He has written several articles related to opioid addiction for PBS and the Johns Hopkins Medical Journal, and wrote an Op-Ed piece for USA Today. He grew up in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and now lives in Kansas City, Missouri, with his wife and two daughters.

Enter the Giveaway!
Ends March 29, 2019

The Omen Machine

The first entry of Terry Goodkind’s Richard and Kahlan epilogue series of The Sword of Truth opens with a boy ultimately named Henrik foretelling darkness, with healers unable to help him, and the child soon running away, pursued in the final chapters. Shortly afterward, Richard pays for a prophecy by a blind woman that a roof will fall, and he asks his grandfather Zedd about Kharga Trace, in the Dark Lands on the outlaws of the D’Haran Empire, where people mysteriously vanish. Men seeking Henrik strangely wind up dead, and dignitaries visiting the Lord Rahl have an odd preoccupation with prophecy.

Said fear of foretelling drives one mother to murder her children in fear of a fate for them worse than death, and Richard asks one of his visitors, Abbot Ludwig Dreier from the Fajin Province, about prophecy, given that prophets populate the priest’s homeland. Sinister sensations abound in the People’s Palace, with the eponymous omen machine ultimately discovered below the Garden of Life. The mechanism gives predictions that eventually come to fruition, and is researched; in the meantime, one of the visitors, Hannis Arc, consults with a Hedge Maid, wanting D’Hara for himself.

After several more deaths, the surviving dignitaries ultimately find themselves torn between swearing loyalty to Lord Rahl or Lord Arc given the former’s disdain of prophecy, culminating in a climactic conflict that follows the chase of Henrik into Kharga Trace. Overall, this epilogue book is definitely an enjoyable yarn that decently continues the story of Richard and Kahlan in a new plot arc of The Sword of Truth, given its mystery and action, not to mention this reviewer’s fellow dislike of prophecy, although as with prior entries of the series, it would have benefitted from a better editor.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Art of the Day, 18 March 2019

Easter Luxio
by jmg124 on DeviantArt

The Adventures of Wilhelm: A Rat's Tale

Author Maria Ritter dedicates this Bildungsroman to family and pets, with the foreword, written by M.D. Calvin A. Colarusso, telling of the writer’s “controversial” choice to make the protagonist a rat, despite their ostracized status across the world. Ritter herself prefaces the novel telling of real-life inspiration for the story, with rats taking residence outside her home. The main story opens with the eponymous main character, a rat initially known as Wil but later Wilhelm, announcing to his California family that he wishes to leave his nest to travel the world.

Among Wil’s first friends on his journey is the Chinese rat Ying Yan, with whom he celebrates the Chinese New Year, specifically the arrival of the Year of the Rat, following which is a tour of the Great Wall of China. However, Wil finds himself trapped in a cage by Swedish researchers, who take him and others to their homeland in Europe. Wil is christened as a “service rat” and is taught to identify the smells associated with various diseases, which the Swedish scientists hope can assist with medical research, one further use being a cure for baldness first rested on other lab rats.

A sizeable chunk of the story occurs in Wilhelm’s next destination of Germany, where he first visits a cathedral in Cologne, North Rhine-Westphalia, other encounters in the country including attendance of an opera, a visit to distant cousins, and Oktoberfest in Munich. Following this is a trip southward to Italy, where he and other “ostracized” animals have an audience with the Pope in honor of Saint Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals and nature. Wilhelm’s coming-of-age story ends with his return journey to San Diego via airplane, with a friend brought along, as well.

Overall, this is an enjoyable story, likely aimed at younger readers due to its animal characters, although some adults might find some enjoyment as well, namely those active in the furry fandom. Ritter does regularly pepper her writing with foreign terminology, although she luckily defines them at the end of each chapter, with the subsections generally being short, making the book readable in small bursts, the author doing a good job in not dragging out the story for too long. Granted, that the rat characters could last as long as they do without significant retribution from the humans is a bit unrealistic, but those who can look past this will find Wilhelm’s tale a good yarn.

Book Details:

Book Title: The Adventures of Wilhelm: A Rat’s Tale by Maria Ritter
Illustrator: Teri Rider
Category: Middle-grade Fiction, 210 pages
Genre: Children's Fantasy
Publisher: PartnerPress
Release date: August 2018
Tour dates: March 11 to 29, 2019
Content Rating: G (This is a clean children's book with no expletives, violence, sex or drugs.)

Book Description:

Young Wilhelm leaves home and travels the world. He not only discovers the value of different cultures and the importance of family and friendship, but he also overcomes obstacles with courage and cleverness. He returns home with deep respect for all creatures on this earth and a new sense of rat identity and purpose.

To follow the tour and read reviews, please visit Maria Ritter's page on iRead Book Tours.

Buy the Book:

About the Author:

Maria Ritter is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst in La Jolla, California. She is the author of Return to Dresden (2004), an autobiographical reflection on her childhood in Germany during and after World War II. It is a healing memoir that confronts national guilt for the Nazi past and weaves the broken pieces of loss and grief into a healing tapestry.

Connect with the author: Website

Enter the Giveaway!
Ends April 5, 2019

a Rafflecopter giveaway