Thursday, April 30, 2020

The Man in the High Castle (TV series)

The Man in the High Castle logo.svg 

Adaptation of Philip K. Dick's alternate-history novel where the Germans and Japanese win the Second World War, and North America is partitioned between the Japanese Pacific States and the American Reich, with the Rocky Mountains serving as a buffer between the territories. In the show's case, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is a series of films that shows the Allies winning WW2, with the eponymous character being responsible for it, and the series overall creates a good atmosphere. It somewhat jumps the shark at the end of the third and the fourth and final season with the exploration of alternate realities, and while I somewhat prefer the book, I definitely don't regret watching it.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Animal Farm

Animal Farm | Animal farm book, Penguin books covers, Animal farm ... 

George Orwell’s novella Animal Farm is undoubtedly one of his most iconic works, alongside the lengthier 1984, and opens with the prize pig Major rallying farm animals against human “tyranny” that concludes with the song “Beasts of England.” After Major’s death, his followers draft a series of seven commandments all animals are to obey, and yield a great harvest without the aid of their former human master Mr. Jones. News of the animalian insurrection spreads across the county where Animal Farm is located, with men and the animals fighting a few battles throughout the text.

However, not all are fully supportive of the new order, among them being the horse Mollie, despite the pig leader Napoleon’s insistence that all animals are equal. Although their labor borders on slavery at times, the animals are largely content in their work, with occasional natural occurrences hindering their efforts such as rain, and the destruction of a critical windmill, with the humans making the pig Snowball the scapegoat in its downfall. Executions of insurgents among the animals occur, “Beasts of England” becomes a taboo tune, and the seven commandments receive frequent amendment, with the pigs and humans indistinguishable in the end.

All in all, Orwell’s novella is an enjoyable treatise on the pitfalls of political revolutions and the potential for their leaders and followers to forget their roots, and is sure to appeal to readers such as those in the furry fandom who really appreciate intelligent animal characters. Granted, that it’s inarguably an iconic work doesn’t mean it’s infallible, since one can easily forget which species specific characters belong to without reference of the worldwide web, but otherwise, Animal Farm very much proves that volume is scarcely an important factor in the enjoyability of literature, and is definitely a bucket-list book.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

The Return of the King

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The final installment of author J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy opens with wizard Gandalf and hobbit Pippin riding the former’s horse Shadowfax into the city of Minas Tirith in Gondor, meeting the Steward of the High King, Denethor son of Ecthelion. Mordor has decimated other cities in Gondor, with the forthcoming night predicted to be the city’s last. Meanwhile, the hobbit Merry rides with the remnants of the scattered Fellowship of the Ring, including the human ranger Aragorn, elf Legolas, and dwarf Gimli, with the company venturing to the Gate of the Dead in the Haunted Mountain.

Mordor’s siege of Gondor ultimately commences, with the Lord of the Nazgûl, the nine former humans who surrendered to the will of Sauron when given their respective rings, showing himself on the frontlines. Aragon then enters the battle, with the armies of the West soon assembling at the gate into Mordor, when the Eagles come. As this is occurring, Sam spies on the orcs for his captured master, Frodo, after which they make their way to Mount Doom to send the One Ring into its lava. A final conflict with Gollum decides the fate of the Ring, after which the Eagles come to their rescue.

Most of the former Fellowship ultimately reunites, and the hobbits make their way homeward, where conflict arises in the Shire thanks to an individual terming himself Sharkey. Overall, the final book of the trilogy is, like its predecessors, mostly enjoyable and straightforward, and while some have protested the alleged plot hole of the Eagles potentially aiding in the return of the One Ring to Mordor, it wouldn’t have been that easy due to the potential corruption of the avians by the Ring. After the main narrative text come several appendices giving insight into the lore of Middle-earth, which is welcome.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

The Secret Commonwealth

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The second entry of author Philip Pullman’s The Book of Dust trilogy begins a score after its predecessor and after the His Dark Materials trilogy, with Lyra now a student, and her dæmon Pantalaimon witnessing a murder. Lyra admires the work of various philosophers, and has the ability to “separate” from her dæmon, which leads to a philosophical argument between her and Pan that leads the latter to abandon her “in search of her imagination.” Lyra consequentially goes in search of Pan, believing a location known as the Blue Hotel is key to finding her dæmon.

Pan has his own adventures, at one point visiting a German school for the blind, whilst Lyra travels across Europe to get clues on where to find the Blue Hotel, visiting Prague at one point. She soon arrives in Constantinople, where the assassination of a high-ranking religious official occurs, and in the meantime, Pan meets with another individual who has lost her dæmon named Nur Huda el-Wahabi. Furthermore, a man named Malcolm seeks to find Lyra before a vengeful man named Bonneville does, and the book concludes with Lyra meeting Nur Huda.

All in all, I reasonably enjoyed this novel, although the major time jump from the first book in the series to the second definitely won’t appeal to everyone looking for a standalone story, and reading the His Dark Materials trilogy is a must to understand the general structure of the setting and such. That it’s significantly more mature, given some coarse language and adult situations, definitely won’t appeal to younger audiences, either, although as an adult, I definitely didn’t mind. The significant gap between the first and second books in The Book of Dust definitely makes me wonder what direction the conclusion of the trilogy will take.

Thursday, April 23, 2020



Anime about a world where anthropomorphic carnivores and herbivores coexist, with much of the focus being on a school where a violent devouring has occurred, and carnivores are consequentially held in disdain. The protagonist is the wolf Legoshi, who develops a relationship with the dwarf rabbit Haru, with equal focus given to the red deer Louis (although the dub is somewhat inconsistent and he's sometimes referred to as Rouis). All in all, definitely an enthralling series, sort of a more mature Zootopia, given the level of violence, and I would definitely not hestitate to recommend it.

The Two Towers

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The second entry of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Ring trilogy opens where its precursor left off, with a certain character gravely injured and sent off in a funeral boat, after which the survivors of the fellowship agree to pursue the lost hobbits from whom they separated. They ultimately encounter the Riders of Rohan, who bear concern over the wizard Saruman’s alliance with Mordor (the sequel’s title referring to the alliance of his and Sauron’s respective towers). Meanwhile, hobbits Pippin and Merry find themselves captive of Orcs, hellbent on keeping the halflings prisoner.

They soon find themselves free and wander into the woods, where they meet the Ent Treebeard, who relays Middle-earth backstory and transports them to the Valley of Saruman, where he and fellow tree-shepherds agree to go to war given the wizard’s decimation of their woodlands. The fate of Gandalf is resolved, with the seekers of the hobbits meeting King Théoden of Rohan, who finds himself captive of the advice Saruman’s servant Gríma Wormtongue. A battle with Mordor’s forces at Helm’s Deep arises, after which comes a trip to Isengard and a reunion with hobbits Merry and Pippin.

Meanwhile, the other halflings Frodo and Sam are en route to Mordor to destroy the One Ring, with Gollum in pursuit, consequentially being “tamed” so that he can serve as a guide into the Land of Shadow. A trip to the Black Gate of Mordor yields negative results, so Gollum agrees to lead the hobbits to a secret path into the Land of Shadow, although along the way, they find themselves captive of Men led by Faramir. An encounter with the giant spider Shelob rounds out the second book, along with a cliffhanger in between western Middle-earth and Mordor.

All in all, the second Lord of the Rings entry is, like its precursor, an enjoyable and straightforward fantasy novel that has plenty of action and twists, although like its predecessor and The Hobbit, Tolkien continues to depict specific races as black and white, with there being a dearth of “good” Orcs, though the humans are more “gray,” given the presence of some who ally with Mordor whom Frodo, Sam, and Gollum encounter. Like Tolkien’s other work, it’s definitely essential reading for fantasy enthusiasts, and was well ahead of its time in the previous century.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Final Fantasy

The First Fantasy of Many

Developer Square originated as the software division of a power company, initially releasing several unsuccessful titles for the Nintendo Famicom. Inspired by fellow videogame corporation Enix’s release of Dragon Quest (called Dragon Warrior in North American until the release of that franchise’s eighth installment), they developed the roleplaying game Final Fantasy, believing it would be their last title. Its success proved otherwise, as Final Fantasy would become a legendary franchise, and the first entry would see remakes and ports, with the iOS version among the latest of these, and proving the definite way of experiencing the influential RPG.

Four elements, earth, fire, water, and wind, dominate the world, each having a symbolic crystal, all of which begin to dim, causing ecological distress worldwide. A quartet Light Warriors are fated to rescue the world from the darkness, first rescuing the princess of the Kingdom of Coneria from the clutches of the rogue knight Garland. Afterward comes the quest to defeat four elemental Fiends, with time travel playing a part in endgame events. The plot was okay for the 8-bit incarnation’s time, but otherwise, the player’s party lacks backstory, as do the villains.

The translation is on par with Square-Enix’s other efforts, with coherent dialogue, a noticeable absence of spelling and grammar errors, and as with retranslations of their past work, they retain iconic lines such as “I, Garland, will knock you all down!” Characters such as dwarves also have their own speech patterns, and aside from occasional compressed ability names and name choices such as Garland (which really doesn’t have a sinister connotation, particularly since the first thing that springs to mind is the actress with the surname), the translation is well more than adequate.

Fortunately, the gameplay serves the original Final Fantasy well, with players immediately needing to set up a party of four playable characters of six different classes. The Warrior specializes in melee combat and can even cast lower levels of (mostly-)defensive white magic spells after the primary promotion quest. The Thief is initially weak but promotable to Ninja, in which case they become more powerful and able to cast (mostly-)offensive lower levels of black magic. The last main melee class is the Monk, which specializes in fighting and in fact ultimately becomes more powerful without weapons, and can’t use magic.

That leaves the magical classes, the first of which is the White Mage, which specializes in defensive healing magic, upper levels accessible after the main promotion quest. The second is the Black Mage, which specializes in offensive magic, and the last is the Red Mage, which has okay attack capability and can only use certain white and black spells. Players obtain new magic spells for each character by purchasing them from special shops, although each character can only have three spells per level. As with the Game Boy advance version, moreover, the system of finite uses of spells for each level is ditched in favor of pooled MP.

Fights themselves are randomly encountered, with the rate of this lamentably being inconsistent, with certain tiles in dungeons, moreover, having fixed encounters, namely those before treasure chests containing decent rewards. Battles are turn-based, with the payer inputting commands for all characters, after which they and the enemy exchange turns, largely dependent upon agility, although turn order can vary wildly, even when battling foes of the same type. Certain strategies can help standard fights pass more quickly, such as incinerating undead enemies with the White Mage’s Dia spells or the Black Mage’s fire magic.

Eliminating all enemies nets all characters who aren’t dead or petrified experience for sporadic level-ups, money, and occasional items. Overall, the battle system is generally quick and enjoyable, with contemporary fixes over the 8-bit version, such as attacks not going to waste against deceased foes, and the save-anywhere feature significantly reducing wasted playtime, although the ability to nullify encounters with weak enemy parties akin to the Dragon Quest titles would have been nice, and things such as multiple enemies attacking at once would have added more speed to battle. Despite the issues, the gameplay definitely helps the first Final Fantasy more than hurts.

The ability to record progress anywhere, along with the absence of points of no return in the game, is one of the strongest suits of the first entry’s control, along with the equip-best function available within the menus, although there are issues such as the lack of maps for dungeons (despite there being one for the overworld, in which case the finger indicator can obscure the player’s view), which can be labyrinthine at times. The ability to warp between visited towns a la the Dragon Quest games would have been welcome as well, and overall, while the game doesn’t interact as well as it could have with players, things could have certainly been worse.

Perhaps the best aspect of the original Final Fantasy is composer Nobuo Uematsu’s soundtrack, which contains iconic tracks such as the prelude and main theme that would find themselves in future entries of the franchise. The overworld theme is adventurous, as are the sailing and airship themes, and the dungeon tracks are rarely out of place, perhaps the strongest of them being the techno-sounding floating castle music. The various battle tracks are good as well, although more diversity for standard combat music would have been welcome. Regardless, the game is a joy to listen to.

The visuals mostly mimic those of the PlayStation Portable version of the game, with chibi character sprites and colorful environments, the latter for the most part looking good. The sprites themselves don’t show much emotion, and there’s a noticeable absence of CG or anime cutscenes. The monster designs look nice, although there are palette swaps aplenty, and enemies just blink to indicate they’re performing actions. The ability animations look nice, although the player’s characters telekinetically execute standard attacks against their adversaries. In the end, the graphics aren’t a deterrent, but are by no means flawless.

Finally, the inaugural entry of the fabled franchise will run players somewhere from twelve to twenty-four hours for a single playthrough, with the extra dungeons from Dawn of Souls serving as primary sidequests, and the potential setup of the player’s party providing decent replayability, although there are no storyline variations or achievements.

Overall, Final Fantasy on the iOS is a solid port of the classic RPG title, given its quick, strategic battle system, good localization, and especially its excellent soundtrack. It preserves the best aspects of the Dawn of Souls iteration as well, such as the four bonus dungeons and save-anywhere feature, and is preferable to the original NES version of the game, which hasn’t aged well. The latest version of the game does have issues such as its underdeveloped storyline with weak direction at points and recycling of enemy designs, but those hoping to play a piece of RPG history likely won’t be disappointed.

This review is based on a playthrough of a copy digitally purchased for the iOS on an iPad Pro with help from an Apple Pencil, starting with a party of a Warrior, Monk, White Mage, and Black Mage.

The Good:
+Quick, strategic battle system.
+Good localization.
+Excellent soundtrack.

The Bad:
-Sometimes poor direction on how to advance main storyline.
-Barebones narrative.
-Writes the book on palette-swapped enemies.

The Bottom Line:
The best way to experience the classic RPG.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: iOS
Game Mechanics: 7.0/10
Controls: 5.0/10
Story: 5.0/10
Localization: 7.5/10
Music/Sound: 9.5/10
Graphics: 5.0/10
Lasting Appeal: 6.0/10
Difficulty: Depends on Classes
Playing Time: 12-24 Hours

Overall: 6.5/10

Lunar: Dragon Song

A Vile Dragon Song

Game Arts’ Lunar franchise began on Sega’s compact disc peripheral, gaining a sizeable following outside Japan thanks in part to translator Working Designs’ localization, making their mark by injecting an ungodly amount of popular culture references when they similarly didn’t exist in the Japanese iterations of what they translated. However, the series wouldn’t get past two main installments, The Silver Star and Eternal Blue, both which would see endless remakes on various systems. The latest original installment, Lunar: Dragon Song, released on the Nintendo DS as one of its inaugural RPGs, and demonstrates well why its developer wouldn’t move beyond two primary titles.

Dragon Song is a prequel to Silver Star by a millennium, focusing on a delivery boy named Jian Campbell caught up in a conflict to stop the Vile Tribe from taking over the eponymous world of Lunar, which the goddess Althena created out of the Blue Star’s moon and protected with four dragons. Aside from the backstory, the narrative isn’t really anything special, with little connection to chronologically-future Lunar games, scarce character development aside from a twist regarding one characters (filched from Silver Star), and a lackluster localization from Ubisoft that, while legible, is full of errors, unnatural dialogue, overuse of exclamation points and ellipses, and the like.

That leaves the game mechanics to shoulder the burden, but unfortunately, things don’t fare any better in that regard. Players will immediately notice that dashing, whether in towns or in dungeons, gradually chips away the party’s HP, which can really add up early on, and if their health is low enough, they’ll be totally unable to dash until HP is restored. As with other Game Arts titles within and without the Lunar franchise, enemies are visible in dungeons, and contacting them initiates fights. However, their movement behavior is sometimes erratic, sometimes running from the player’s characters or charging them regardless of their levels.

Battles themselves are turn-based, but to call the game “traditional” would be a stretch. To be honest, true traditional command-based battle would have been preferable, since Dragon Song does things significantly worse in this regard. The player’s party of three characters, with the lineup changing sporadically throughout the game, faces off against a number of enemies that populate the top and bottom screens of the Nintendo DS, with adversaries almost always outnumbering the player’s party, oftentimes accounting for lengthy, drawn-out fights especially if the player yearns to conserve MP.

Although players can speed up battles by holding the L and R buttons, encounters still prove lengthy, with many enemies taking a higher-than-average time to attack one or more of the player’s characters. Outside battle, moreover, the player can choose between two different modes of fighting foes: Combat Mode, where the enemies drop only items, or Virtue Mode, where defeated adversaries yield Althena Conduct, which is, to say, experience that occasionally levels characters. Considering that virtually every other RPG in the world rewards both experience and items in combat, along with money, this design decision makes little sense.

However, there is a minor bright spot in this unusual segregation of item and experience combat rewards, which is that many areas in dungeons have blue chests that defeating a certain number of enemies in Virtue Mode unlocks (with a clock on the bottom screen chipping away at checkmarks indicating the number of vanquished adversarial parties after one full rotation), and fulfilling this requirement partially restores the party’s HP and MP. Blue chests can actually contain helpful items such as better equipment and money, the latter of which also has its own separate means of acquisition.

With the protagonist being a delivery boy, Gad’s Express, the company for which he works, serves as the primary method of acquiring money in the form of missions that require him to deliver a certain number of items obtained from Combat Mode to various customers across the game’s setting. One major issue is that fast-travel across the game’s world is unavailable until before the final dungeon, necessitating that that player traverses the same environs repeatedly to get to towns with the NPCs having the requests, and even waste significant time searching for said delivery customers. Furthermore, said characters sometimes have inconsistent names.

Another issue is that Dragon Song doesn’t have an in-game database of which enemies drop what items. As for the commands the player can issue their characters in combat, they include attacking, using an MP-consuming ability, using consumable items, or using cards with special effects sometimes obtained from defeating foes in Combat Mode (I made especial use of one that fully restored the party’s MP throughout the game). Regarding attacking, the player cannot target specific enemies at all, since instead, the game randomly selects which foes characters attack. Some enemies, furthermore, may defend to reduce damage, a feature unavailable to the player’s characters.

In the end, the game definitely sets a new wooden spoon standard for turn-based roleplaying game combat, given its segregated systems of obtaining items, experience, and money, which adds unnecessary grinding throughout the course of the narrative, and is inexcusable since other titles in the genre reward all three often simultaneously in their battles. The “turbo” mode in combat also does little to assuage the length of many fights, and the need to retrace the same areas the player has visited prior to accessing the final dungeon makes moneymaking even more difficult. In summation, combat becomes a chore throughout the game.

Not even control can save the game, given things such as the aforementioned health drain of dashing in dungeons and in towns, not to mention the sluggish, clunky menus, the need to go into the items menu to change equipment, the lack of in-game compendia on what particular enemies drop, the difficulty of finding delivery customers at times, the lack of maps for dungeons, the absence of fast-travel until right before the final dungeon, the lack of a soft-reset feature (which would have been handy since enemies can steal your equipped items, and you don’t get them back at the end of battle), and so forth. Pretty much the only saving grace is the save (mostly)-anywhere feature.

Perhaps the only remotely-passable aspect of Dragon Song is its aural presentation, starting with the title screen theme, which definitely has the feel of the Lunar franchise. The town themes are good as well, as are some of the dungeon themes such as the sitar-laden jungle track, and the battle music is enjoyable as well, although more diversity regarding standard fight tracks would have been welcome, given that the main battle tune will constantly loop, given the length of battles. The lack of voicework is forgivable, since more often than not it hurts more than helps, and along with decent sound effects, the aurals are one area where the game doesn’t hurt too badly.

The title screen also hints at the good art direction of the game, with every character, including NPCs, having their own portrait, although many of these are palette swaps. Enemies in battle too frequently contain recycled designs, and the edges of the character and monster sprites in combat are noticeably pixilated, although their animation and effects are okay. The spritework is at its best outside battle, with character sprites containing good proportions, although they don’t show any emotion, and there’s a total absence of shadows. Fans of the two main Lunar games will also bemoan the absence of anime cutscenes, and overall, the visuals aren’t a major draw.

Finally, total playtime ranges from one to two days total, and to replay the game, frankly, would be tortuous, given the unenjoyable nature of performing guild missions, lack of storyline variations, etc.

Overall, Lunar: Dragon Song isn’t exactly a worthwhile exploration of the expanded series universe, given aspects such as its separate systems of acquiring items, experience, and money, which singlehandedly adds hours of superfluous playtime. The control is also clunky, the main narrative doesn’t cover new ground, the localization hurts more than help, the visuals leave plentiful room for improvement, and there’s almost no reason to come back for more, with only the audio being remotely passable. One would hope that a remake would rectify its issues, but the franchise has remained inert since the PlayStation Portable’s Silver Star Harmony, so the series’ future is up in the air.

The Good:
+Passable audio.

The Bad:
-Separate systems for acquiring items, experience, and money.
-Clunky control.
-Weak storyline.
-Lackluster localization.
-Graphics leave room for improvement.
-No reason to replay.

The Bottom Line:
Probably the weakest entry of a series that already has its share of weak installments.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: Nintendo DS
Game Mechanics: 0.5/10
Controls: 1.0/10
Story: 0.5/10
Localization: 0.5/10
Music/Sound: 5.5/10
Graphics: 2.5/10
Lasting Appeal: 0/10
Difficulty: Artificial
Playing Time: 1-2 Days

Overall: 1.5/10