Sunday, September 29, 2019

Interesting Times


The fifth Rincewind novel of the late Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series opens with the statement “May you live in interesting times” considered a curse. The opening text focuses on gods throwing dice, Fate playing chess, and always winning. On the Counterweight Continent, five families feud, including the Hongs, the Sungs, the Tangs, the McSweeneys, and the Fangs, with the philosopher Ly Tin Wheedle noting that chaos is most abundant where order is sought. Moreover, the Quantum Weather Butterfly is responsible for storms across the world, and it is said that Ephebe, Tsort, Omnia, Klatch, and the city-state of Ankh-Morpork surround the Circle Sea.

A few opening chapters focus on a shark yearning for food in the form of wiggling legs and toes, with the wizards of Unseen University debating how to respond to a message demanding a Great Wizard in the Counterweight Continent, Rincewind ultimately chosen to be said sorcerer, and is transported there. A metal statue of a dog replaces Rincewind whence he is teleported, and there the wizard sees Cohen the Barbarian and his Horde, aged significantly since the last time they met. In the Counterweight Continent, sword ownership is subject to regulation, and the current Emperor is dying, the aforementioned families fighting on who will replace him.

Long Hong is the most ambitious among the feuding families, and the capital city of Hunghung is under siege, threatened by the revolutionary Red Army. A Great Wall completely surrounds the Agatean Empire, with its inhabitants having colorful names, Rincewind in particular meeting a girl named Pretty Butterfly. Cohen and his Silver Horde talk of entering the Forbidden City within Hunghung, and gradually make their way through the town, learning of the art of acting civilized along the way. Rincewind finds himself revered by the country’s rebels, although he received incarceration for attempting to create a hole in the wall around the Forbidden City.

While the Red Army wants the Emperor dead, the Silver Horde simply wishes to kidnap him, and there are many humorous character interactions and allusions to Japan, such as ninjas, samurais, sumo wrestlers, and the like. The book also somewhat more humorous than its precursors, with references to urinating dogs, the Lord High Chief Tax Gatherer considering taxation on fresh air, and the like. Rincewind finds himself again an accidental hero, with Death playing a minor role, and the novel ending on a humorous, if abrupt, note. All in all, this is another enjoyable Discworld novel, somewhat longer than the average entry of the series, although chapter breaks, as usual, would have been welcome.

Hero Mask

Hero Mask promo art.jpg 

An anime about a detective, James Blood, who works in a fictional version of London, hunting down criminals who can alter their appearances through supernatural masks. Fairly enjoyable, but nothing overly memorable.

Monday, September 23, 2019


Marianne series.jpg 

A French horror series about a young novelist named Emma who discovers that the characters she writes in her horror novels appear in real life. A little violent and with occasional scares, but nothing overly memorable.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

The Moment of the Magician


The fourth installment of author Alan Dean Foster’s Spellsinger series, which he dedicates to Tim Hildebrandt, opens with the Quorum of Quasequa debating the salamander magician Oplode the Sly, who is tasked with going to the Isle of Kuntaweh and fetching Pandro the raven. In the meanwhile, a human magician named Markus the Ineluctable is on the rise, gradually consolidating power, while protagonist Jon-Tom prattles with the turtle wizard Clothahump about his love for Talea. When Jon-Tom hears about Markus hailing from Earth, he thinks the magician may hold the key to returning home.

Thus, Jon-Tom fetches Mudge the otter for another adventure, with the two aiming to cross the river Tailaroam. They soon meet the prairie dog General Pocknet, who brings the travelers to his subterranean home, with he, gophers, and moles fighting in defense of an ugly sculpture known as the Mulmun. Following this, Jon-Tom and Mudge encounter a Will-o’-the-Wisp, a despotic eagle called Gyrnaught, and doppelganger mimevines. The adventurers ultimately find themselves crossing wetlands, where dwells a goop mountain named Brulumpus. The insectoid Plated Folk play a minor part in the narrative, briefly holding Jon-Tom captive.

However, a holt of otters on an island in Lakes District rescues the spellsinger, with the lutrines aiding Jon-Tom in visiting the Quorumate to meet Markus. Unexpected help arrives when the spellsinger’s visit to the magician goes awry, with a battle of sorts concluding the novel’s action. Overall, this is another enjoyable novel in Foster’s series, with plenty of memorable animal characters, mature themes, and references to Earth music. Some of said allusions to said songs might pass over the heads of younger generations of readers, but I definitely appreciated this animal-driven story from a mainstream author, and would recommend it to those who enjoyed its precursors.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Atelier Rorona: The Alchemist of Arland DX

Atelier Rorona ~The Alchemist of Arland~ DX Box Art
While Japanese RPG developer Gust’s Atelier series began on the first Sony PlayStation, foreign players wouldn’t receive any entry in the series until a way into the PS2 era, with fellow developer Nippon Ichi’s North American branch translating Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana for Anglophone audiences. Since then, most entries of the franchise have seen release outside Japan, with the series transitioning to the PlayStation 3 with the Arland trilogy, which would see rereleases on the PlayStation Vita, and recently, versions on the Nintendo Switch, the first entry of the subseries, titled for the system as Atelier Rorona: The Alchemist of Arland DX, marking the beginning of the trilogy’s overarching narrative.

The first of the Arland trilogy follows the eponymous protagonist, Rorolina Frixell, Rorona for short, working for master alchemist Astrid Zexis, to pay off her parents’ debt. One day, a knight for Arland, Sterkenburg Cranach, Sterk for short, informs Rorona that her shop will be shut down unless she can prove it can function as part of the city’s economy, and she is thus given twelve different assignments over three years to pass to avoid closure. The story is generally enjoyable, with a cast of likeable characters, Rorona in particular far from being a blank-slate protagonist, decent pacing, different endings, and clear direction on how it unravels.

The localization generally serves the game well, with very few, if any, spelling or grammatical errors, and legible dialogue, which has occasional mature content that escaped the censors, although there is occasional overflow of text from textboxes, and there are some odd expressions such as “if your party gets ruined” during the explanation of what happens if the player’s party falls in combat.

Rorona, true to its plot, divides into twelve different three-month intervals where Rorona must fulfill certain objectives to avoid her workshop’s closure. Typically, these goals involve synthesizing items she needs to turn in to Sterk at the royal palace, with a number of stars rewarded depending upon things such as the quality of the ingredients she used to synthesize said items. During each term, moreover, Rorona has a number of side objectives she can fulfill to earn vouchers and stamps on a three-by-three grid (whose central square fills when she fulfills the primary term objective), where completing lines of three stamps earn her a reward such as equipment, more vouchers, permanent stat increases, and so forth.

Rorona can exchange vouchers for items, although there are points where she needs to turn in certain items with various qualities to improve the inventory from which she can choose. She can also take on a number of requests that involve things such as synthesizing a certain number of items, turning in one or more ingredients, and killing monsters of a specific type. In her workshop, she can synthesize items from raw materials or other synthesizable items, although attempting to formulate high-level items may result in failure, although regardless of synthesis’s success or failure, she earns alchemy experience for occasional level-ups, increasing alchemy’s successfulness.

In town, Rorona can hire up to two story characters she encounters throughout the game, who cost a certain amount of money to take out of town into dungeons or fields, these divided into various maps that have gathering points and wandering enemies. Striking a visible foe with her staff grants her party the initiative in combat, with foes contacting Rorona first commencing a fight normally, the first turn granted to whoever has the highest agility. Fights are turn-based affairs, with a turn order meter akin to Final Fantasy X showing who takes their turn when, a feature beneficial to other similar RPGs that, unlike in the Xenosaga trilogy, is not half-hearted and updates constantly.

During their turns, each of the player’s characters can execute a normal attack, defend to reduce damage, use an MP-consuming skill (which necessitated HP usage in the very first version of the game), or attempt to escape. During her own turn, Rorona can use a synthesizable consumable item, and when enemies attack, if a special gauge has accumulated enough points, one of her allies can take damage in her stead, which consumes a level of said meter. Moreover, when using skills, particularly those that affect single enemies, the same gauge can allow the ability user to execute an additional attack.

Victory nets all participants, even those who have lost all health and become incapacitated, experience for occasional level-ups and increases in stats, along with occasional ingredients. Combat tends to be a quick affair, even in the most challenging of fights, most which come late in the game, and after battle, Rorona has a few seconds where she’s invulnerable to more encounters on the field/dungeon map where she fought the last battle. Fortunately, death of all characters in combat results in a trip back to Rorona’s workshop, effectively minimizing wasted playtime, culminating in general solid game mechanics, the only major issues being that travel between field and dungeon maps is irrevocable, and the player can’t see which enemies and ingredients areas have before consuming days to visit them.

Control has its share of strong points, such as the general inability to get lost given the game’s linear structure, the skippable cutscene dialogue, the easy menus, the in-game clock, the generous save system, and shortcuts for visiting certain areas of Arland. However, various issues bog down this aspect, given the aforementioned issues with the interface’s databank not specifying where to find certain ingredients, which items enemies drop, a few load times, the limit on how much Rorona can gather from fields and dungeons, the need to search around town to find hirable allies, and the inability to see which items and enemies fields and dungeons have before consuming days to visit them. Overall, interaction is perhaps the port’s weakest aspect.

Like previous Atelier titles, Rorona features bouncy, energetic music that’s very rarely out of place, with a number of vocal theme songs kept in Japanese that sometimes serve as central themes. The workshop music, town theme, and shopping tracks (which contain different remixes depending upon the shop), are solid, as are the dungeon and field exploration pieces and the battle themes, the primary one of which very rarely loops, given the quickness of combat. English voice acting also exists, which is good for the most part and never sounds miscast, the ability to skip cutscene text a boon to those who finds the voices annoying, alongside the availability of the original Japanese voices. There are some occasional incoherent voices for human enemies, music for the load screens would have been welcome, and there are some silent portions, but otherwise, the game is generally easy on the ears.

The graphics have their own share of strong points, such as a good cel-shaded style, alongside the rare anime cutscene, such as that which plays whenever the player loads the game, and superb artistic style. The enemy models, along with those of the human characters and NPCs, look believable as well, with good proportions, although there are occasional reskinned adversaries. The battle animations flow nicely and look pleasing, too, although one major issue is the choppy framerate that occasionally plagues exploration sequences. There’s also the odd decision to narrate most cutscenes by “fuzzing out” the three-dimensional graphics and using static character portraits (which still show ranges of emotion) instead. Regardless, the visual style is generally pleasing.

Finally, the game lasts about twelve hours, which may not be everyone’s cup of tea in terms of RPG length, although there exists plenty of replay value, given the different endings depending largely upon Rorona’s performance, along with a clear game mode upon successful completion of the storyline.

In conclusion, Atelier Rorona DX is for the most part a solid port that hits many of the right notes regarding its enjoyable gameplay systems, tightly-paced narrative, superb sound, and plenty of reasons to come back for more. It has issues, for certain, including various flaws with the control, some localization oddities, technical quibbles with the visuals, and its length, although these largely don’t detriment from an otherwise-solid experience. Those who haven’t played prior incarnations of the game let alone a single Atelier game will be hard-pressed to pass over the latest version for the Nintendo Switch, which is undoubtedly its definitive port.

The Good:
+Great battle and alchemy systems.
+Enjoyable narrative.
+Superb sound.
+Plenty lasting appeal.

The Bad:
-Some interface quibbles.
-A few localization oddities.
-Issues with the graphics.
-Players might not like the shortness.

The Bottom Line:
A great opportunity for Nintendo Switch owners to experience this classic.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Game Mechanics: 9.0/10
Controls: 5.0/10
Story: 10/10
Localization: 7.5/10
Music/Sound: 9.0/10
Graphics: 7.0/10
Lasting Appeal: 10/10
Difficulty: Easy
Playing Time: ~12 Hours

Overall: 8.5/10



The fourth Rincewind novel of the late Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series is a loose parody of the tale of Faust, opening with Death tending to his bees, and the mention of summer getting underway in the franchise’s world. Rincewind finds himself summoned to the eponymous teenage protagonist, Eric Thursley, who, thinking the wizard is a demon, yearns for three wishes: mastery of all kingdoms, meeting the most beautiful woman who ever existed, and immortality. Meanwhile, Astfgl, the new King of the Demons, keeps a close eye on Rincewind and company throughout the story.

Rincewind and Eric soon find themselves in the jungles of the Tenzuman Empire, where they meet an imprisoned explorer named Ponce da Quirm, who seeks the fabled Fountain of Youth, intended as a sacrifice to the primitive people’s god Quezovercoatl. Rincewind’s Luggage, in the meantime, has its own adventures, with the wizard himself launched back in time to the Tsortean Wars due to Eric’s desire for the supposedly most beautiful woman of all time, Elenor. They witness the creation of the Universe, and have a brief excursion through hell itself.

In the end, the story is a short but sweet parody of the tale of Faust, and I definitely could get the literary allusions to the folktale, alongside the analogy to the Trojan War in the real world, but while the many situations are comical, I didn’t personally laugh out loud. Regardless, one could consider Pratchett to be a contemporary Lewis Carroll, given his penchant for penning literary nonsense, of which there exists plenty in the book, and I would recommend it to those who enjoyed its predecessors and audiences seeking a good break from the norm of traditional fantasy stories.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress: The Battle of Unato

Image result for kabaneri of the iron fortress the battle of unato
An anime film divided into three episodes on Netflix about a Japanese-influenced island during the industrial revolution, with some steampunk elements, where a virus turns people into zombie-like entities. Fairly enjoyable, although I would have liked to have seen its precursors first, and it has the standard English dub trope of actors without a drop of Asian blood voicing the Japanese(-esque) characters. Granted, the characters do look Caucasian, with anime rarely depicting the Japanese people accurately, but I think it'd sound more authentic with Asian performers versed in English or at least actors who Play Great Ethnics.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Another Life

Another Life (2019 TV series) Title Card.jpg 

A fairly enjoyable science-fiction drama that has good effects. I would definitely watch a second season were there to be one.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

La Pucelle: Ragnarok

La Pucelle: Ragnarok Box Front

L’Art pour l’Art

Japanese game developer Nippon Ichi has a storied history, stemming from their early games, the Marl Kingdom series on the Sony PlayStation, its first installment localized in North America by Atlus as Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure, although its sequels would remain in Japan. When the series moved to the PlayStation 2 with Angel’s Present, N1 wouldn’t fully take advantage of the hardware and retain two-dimensional character sprites alongside three-dimensional environments, which they would do with their first outing in the tactical roleplaying game subgenre, La Pucelle, this game remaining in Japan during its initial release.

It was not until Atlus had success with the North American English release of Nippon Ichi’s second strategy RPG, Disgaea: Hour of Darkness, when the game’s spiritual predecessor would receive attention, particularly from independent publisher Mastiff Games, which translated La Pucelle for Anglophones, giving it the odd one-word subtitle of “Tactics” (La Pucelle: Tactics). Fearing crucifixion from North America’s moral guardians, moreover, Mastiff purged the English release of all Christian symbols. While the game would receive an enhanced port for the PlayStation Portable, La Pucelle: Ragnarok, this would remain in Japan, a shame given its improvements.

The protagonist, the mouthy member of the eponymous demon-hunting church group La Pucelle, Prier, yearns to become the Maiden of Light, although she competes with fellow trainee Alouette for the position. The cast of characters, some of which includes a group of anthropomorphic felines headed by Captain Homard, is generally likeable, with decent backstory for most of the characters, some good twists, themes such as religious corruption and brotherly love, and so forth. There are occasional hackneyed elements such as time travel and amnesia, but the storyline is generally a draw to the game.

Fortunately, solid gameplay backs up the plotline, with Ragnarok, like the original PlayStation 2 version, being a tactical RPG, dungeons divided into grid-based maps, and the player drawing up to eight characters from a “base” tile to battle enemies. The player can move characters around the battlefield, with a number of options available to assault to enemy, such as standard physical attacks, allies adjacent to the main attacking party member participating in a combination attack occurring on a separate screen where the PCs and foes exchange attacks (adversaries able to execute combination attacks too).

Alternatively, characters can use SP-consuming abilities that empower with repeated use (with skills such as magic eventually receiving increased ranges of effect), in which case the game also takes players to a separate screen where the skill executes, albeit without a counterattack by the targeted enemy or enemies. The player’s characters and the enemy have separate turn sessions akin to the Fire Emblem franchise and Vandal Hearts, with the extermination of all foes resulting in a victory and a reward of money used to purchase new items from shops, and the obliteration of Prier’s party yielding a Game Over and unceremonious trip back to the title screen.

Killing enemies earns the character(s) responsible for doing so experience for their stats (with up to four equippable items dictating stat growth) and standard level. One major improvement over the original version of the game is the ability to turn off the scenes players need to sit through when their characters and the enemies attack, accounting for increased battle speed and faster grinding for experience and money if necessary (somewhat the case for the endgame battles). Another feature that may appeal to those who normally don’t enjoy tactical RPGs is that in standard dungeon maps, the player can have one of their characters exit the map for saving if necessary, with experience preserved.

Other notable features of battle include characters such as Prier being able to “purify” elemental portals to get an extra boost of movement across the battlefield, with purification power sometimes boosting with increased stat levels. However, during battles that follow story scenes, the player can’t back out, and are consequentially stuck until they either win or lose it. There are other issues with the gameplay such as the endgame grind and that characters are stuck in their current battlefield position after using SP-consuming abilities (and can in instances get stuck on the player’s base tile). Overwise, the game is generally a good spiritual predecessor to the Disgaea series.

Control is generally good, with easy menus, crystal-clear direction on how to advance the main storyline, a generous save system, minimal loading times, skippable cutscenes and dialogue, simple dungeon navigation, and an in-game clock viewable most of the time except in the middle of combat. The only real issues are that changing equipment and “fitting” it on characters while shopping only shows stats increased or decreased instead of previous stats and new stats together, not to mention the lack of an equip-best option. Otherwise, Ragnarok generally interfaces well with players.

Perhaps the strongest aspect is Nippon Ichi composer Tenpei Sato’s soundtrack, which consists of a few vocal pieces that serve as central themes, many remixes of which occasionally make themselves heard throughout the game. Most tracks have a general sweet, happy, bouncy feel to them, and are rarely out of place, some standout music including the overworld theme, which is basically an instrumental version of “Princess Kururu” from Little Princess (the untranslated sequel to Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure). The Japanese voice acting is also good, with no miscast characters, although the performers often struggle with the French names that populate the game. Regardless, Ragnarok is an excellent-sounding game.

Likely the weakest aspect of the port is its graphical presentation. Perhaps the strongest area, however, is the prerendered scenery visible during cutscenes and in towns. The art direction is good, although Nippon Ichi’s character designer admitted in an interview that he had to compromise his designs to accommodate the developer’s refusal to move to fully-three-dimensional visuals. While the three-dimensional scenery in combat has good colors, there’s a fair bit of blurry and pixilated texturing, and there are occasional discrepancies between character portraits and their sprites, such as Captain Homard’s eyepatch changing eyes depending upon the camera angle. The game isn’t an eyesore, but there are definitely other strategy RPGs that look better, such as Stella Deus.

Finally, with the ability to turn off animations in battle, the port takes significantly less time to complete than the original version, one to two days total, with plenty of side content in the form of the Dark World and a New Game+ mode, with different modes selectable after completing the game a first time.

Overall, La Pucelle: Ragnarok is a solid port that hits most of the right notes, given its tight gameplay and control, enjoyable story and characters, and excellent soundtrack and voicework. While the art direction is good, however, the visuals are technically weak, and prevent the game from excelling. Whether certain audiences will actually enjoy it, moreover, is a bit of a paradox: those who really enjoyed the Disgaea games, mayhap consider them infallible, might not appreciate it, while those who didn’t care much for Nippon Ichi’s future tactical offerings will probably like it far more. N1’S North American branch was definitely mistaken to overlook the game’s definitive version for localization.

The Good:
+Great gameplay mechanics.
+Tight control.
+Good story.
+Excellent soundtrack and voicework.
+Plentiful lasting appeal.

The Bad:
-Graphics haven’t aged well.

The Bottom Line:
A great rerelease Americans were unfortunate to miss out on.

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

Overall: 8.0/10