Saturday, May 30, 2020

The Best of the Realms: Book II


A collection of Forgotten Realms short stories by Ed Greenwood.

“The Realms Wait for Thee” – Alaundo of Candlekeep narrates this introductory story, stating that he envies the reader and has seen many things.

“Not the Most Successful of Feasts” – A look into when Elminster the wizard was a child at twelve.

“Dark Talons Forbear Thee” – At the end of one of Greenwood’s novels, Elminster was tasked with rearing three silver-haired babies as his fellow Chosen, and gives some focus to Vrasabra the Anointed, elated at being called the Great Mistress.

“The Whispering Crown” – The Lady of Dusklake and Rammast feud over the eponymous artifact.

“So High a Price” – Opens with a fragment of a text called The Ballad of a Tyrant, and focuses on how Zhentarim came to hold sway in Zhentil Keep.

“One Comes Unheralded to Zirta” – Allegedly the earliest Forgotten Realms story penned in 1967 before Greenwood’s eighth birthday, telling about the swordsman Durnan, the old rogue Mirt, and the wizard Elminster.

“A Dance in Storm’s Garden” – An episodic tale about a string of occurrences in Storm Silverhand’s garden.

“A Slow Day in Skullport” – A tale the author describes as a “romp”, with the character Durnan allegedly being a thinking man’s version of Robert E. Howard’s Conan the barbarian.

“Bloodbound” – A story written with the attitude that destiny is bested avoided, with the protagonist Tace discovering the wickedness of the order of Red Wizards.

“How Wisdom Came to the Maimed Wizard” – A coda to Shandril’s Saga, detailing the fate of Eirhaun the Maimed, a mage of the Zhentarim.

“The Eye of the Dragon” – Another Bildungsroman about a fledgling sorceress, Ambreene, who wants to deal with Khelben “Blackstaff” Arunsun, the Lord Mage of Waterdeep.

“Nothing but Trouble” – Narrates an incident in the life of Mirt the Moneylender of Waterdeep, who thinks he’s better than wizards.

“The Grinning Ghost of Taverton Hall” – The architect Glarasteer Rhauligan investigates the alleged appearance of the titular specter.

“The Place Where Guards Snore at Their Posts” – A young man learns magic to impress his love, with the appearance of the creatures sahuagin as well.

“Living Forever” – Written with the author’s fascination with the ruined city of Myth Drannor.

“The Long Road Home” – Tells of the tragedy of King Azoun of Cormyr, fourth monarch of the name to rule the Forest Kingdom, and nicknamed the Purple Dragon.

All in all, a good collection of stories, though there are a few unclear things such as who the “Master of Oysters” is in one of the tales.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Kingdom Hearts Re:Chain of Memories

Re:Cycled and Re:Hashed

Given the success of the first installment of the Disney and Squaresoft crossover franchise Kingdom Hearts, it was unsurprising that they decided to turn it into a series, although they did so in a rather offbeat fashion. Although they announced a numbered sequel that would become Kingdom Hearts II, they opted to develop a title for the Game Boy Advance subtitled Chain of Memories, which, rather than being an actual spinoff, was an actual continuation of the first game’s storyline to lead into the “second” entry. Towards the end of the system’s lifespan a 3-D remake released on the PlayStation 2, Kingdom Hearts Re:Chain of Memories. Does it improve over the original version?

The remake, like the original version, picks up where the first Kingdom Hearts left off, with Sora, Goofy, and Donald Duck on a road in the middle of nowhere, eventually stumbling upon the enigmatic Castle Oblivion (whose backstory Birth by Sleep relays). Upon entering, the three find all memories of the previous game’s events forgotten, and must traverse the castle to regain them, dealing with the equally-mysterious Organization as they do so. The concept of a fortress that inflicts amnesia unto those who enter is, quite frankly, one of the most asinine excuses for a sequel in RPG history.

That’s not the worst of the plot; most of the narrative consists of Sora and company retracing their steps across most Disney worlds from the first game, minus Deep Jungle due to legal issues with the estate of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Replacing hackneyed dialogue about hearts and darkness is speech emphasizing memories, with the translators not bothering with the use of thesauri so that the text would sound far less redundant that it does in the game. There’s also an absolute absence of comic relief, with characters such as Donald, Goofy, and Mickey Mouse and serious storytelling being like oil and water.

As with before, moreover, the writing isn’t bad in an enjoyable way; it’s bad in a completely excruciating fashion that can make the game unbearable for older audiences to play. The translation also doesn’t help matters (aside from general polish), given the repeated emphasis on remembrance of past events (and a reiteration on hearts and darkness during Reverse Rebirth), and as with most Japanese RPGs, the writing is worst in combat, and is, in the words of Vexen’s annoying, unnatural taunt, “No good!” There seems absolutely no fathomable reason, except alcohol, why anyone would think it natural for a character to shout “Courage!” or “Power!” when using an ability.

Fortunately, the game mechanics somewhat redeem Sora and Riku’s separate storylines, having a methodical structure as they traverse the various revisited worlds. Each consists of a number of chambers whose connections the player can open through the use of room cards obtained from defeating Heartless, colored red, green, and blue. Red cards specialize in customizing rooms full of Heartless with varying degrees of number and activity. Green cards specialize in granting Sora or Riku an advantage when he slashes Heartless. Blue cards can create rooms with save points or treasure.

However, the encounter system has issues, one being that while the game shows targets for Sora as he explores each world’s rooms, the player can’t lock onto them at all, which can create undesirable effects such as mistakenly slashing an environmental object instead of a Heartless. Moreover, slashing said elements may occasionally unleash green health-restoring balls, red spheres indicating Moogle Points, or even cards central to the game’s combat, although if a player contacts an enemy without collecting them, then they forfeit said rewards, which disappear completely after the subsequent battle.

Contacting enemies takes Sora or Riku to a separate screen for combat, with a fixed arena mercifully devoid of platforming that would otherwise necessitate retracing steps the player had taken within the prior entry. As with before, however, the camera can prove a nuisance, which is inexcusable considering the Game Boy Advance version didn’t suffer from issues in this regard. The targeting system also has issues like it does outside combat; while the player can lock onto foes to keep the camera on them, they unfortunately can’t instantly change targets like in the first game, and defeating a targeted foe doesn’t automatically lock Sora or Riku onto another.

Battles themselves utilize different kinds of combat cards, for Sora coming in three varieties: Keyblade cards, which symbolize different types of the signature Kingdom Hearts weapon; magic cards, which indicate magic and summon spells; item cards, which can replenish Sora’s deck; and enemy cards, which provide innate effects such as preventing foes from breaking cards he uses. The rules of the real-time combat system for both Sora and Riku largely follow the same rules, with the player able to use one card at a time with a value from zero to nine.

Enemies can “play” cards as well, with whatever active card has the higher value “breaking” the other, in which case the command symbolized cancels. One major advantage the player has over the enemy is that they only use one card at a time, which can make the use of sleights, executed from combinations of three cards, help battles go by quickly. There is the catch that the execution of a sleight removes the first card used from the player’s deck until the next battle or use of certain item cards, but the fact that green “friend” cards randomly appear and aren’t affected by this rule makes sleights more appealing.

Cards can also come in “premium” varieties, which take up fewer capacity points in Sora’s deck, although this comes at the price of one-time use (unless second or third in a sleight), with specific item cards only able to restore their use within the same battle. Capacity points dictate how many cards the player can have in Sora’s deck (although since Riku’s is fixed and varies within the various worlds he visits, this doesn’t apply to him), the player able to increase the limit when leveling, although for Sora, players can increase his maximum health or learn a new sleight when available.

In Reverse Reverse, players also have the option to increase Riku’s maximum hit points, boost his attack power if available, or increase his dark points, which dictate how long he can be in his powerful darkness mode. Riku’s story better imitates the fast-paced Keyblade contact of the previous game, and Sora’s can as well as long as the player demonstrates skill in deck construction. Certain combinations of cards can really come in handy; for instance, Simba’s Proud Roar ability was central to me plowing through regular encounters, as did Cloud’s Omnislash, useful in repeatedly striking individual bosses too.

Killing enemies makes them drop gems symbolizing experience that disappear after being on the battlefield for some time, a system that works for and against the player. In the middle of standard encounters, the player can approach the edge of the arena and escape after a few seconds, retaining all acquired experience. Completing a battle causes Sora or Riku to obtain all dropped gems that haven’t vanished, with bosses dropping significant amounts as well once the player has beaten them. Most bosses, unlike standard enemies, use sleights, in which case zero-value cards can cancel them.

Cancelling boss sleights is pretty much the only positive of zero cards, since any other card can cancel them. Regardless, it’s best to keep around three in a deck before facing bosses that use sleight, lest they slaughter the player with their abilities. Both Sora and Riku’s quests feature nasty difficulty spikes, with certain bosses essentially being walls preventing the player from advancing the narrative, even on so-called “Beginner” mode, though they tend to end quickly either in the enemy or player’s favor. Regardless, the experience on higher settings would undoubtedly be nightmarish.

Control doesn’t fare any better. While the general straightforward nature of the gameplay prevents players from ever getting loss, and the interface is easy to handle, some of the same issues that plagued its predecessor plague Re:Chain of Memories, namely the inability to skip text during voiced cutscenes (although the scenes are fully skippable), sure to alienate hearing-impaired players. There’s also the rare tendency of the game to crash, and thus, autosaving after events such as cutscenes that boss fights don’t follow would have been welcome, too. All in all, the remake could have definitely interacted with players a lot better.

Being a narrative continuation that reuses most worlds from its predecessor, it’s natural that the music used in the prior game would return, but Yoko Shimomura could have done better, considering that many of the Disney worlds this remake and its precursor derive have dozens of musical numbers, Alice in Wonderland in particular coming to mind. The original music, such as the Twilight Town theme, is decent, and the voices fit the characters, if clashing with the game’s serious disposition, but the appeal of the aurals present in its precursor lose their allure in Re:Chain of Memories.

The visuals too lose their allure, particularly regarding the recycled worlds, character models, enemy designs, and whatnot, and the chambers formed through different types of room cards are cookie-cutter in nature. There’s also a noticeable amount of jaggies, in addition to a framerate that noticeably drops during any kind of story sequence. There’s also no FMVs at all throughout the game, and the imperfections visible in the prior game’s visuals such as blurry, pixilated texturing show themselves in this entry. Overall, the graphics could have definitely used more polish.

Finally, completing Sora’s quest takes a little less than a day’s total of playtime, while finishing Riku’s side of the story takes a little over six hours. The Trophies do add some lasting appeal, and the ability to skip cutscenes totally eases the tension of acquiring them in subsequent playthroughs, though the games aren’t enjoyable enough to warrant additional playthroughs.

In the end, one could consider Kingdom Hearts Re:Chain of Memories a minor improvement over the Game Boy Advance version, given the addition of a Beginner mode, though given that it’s hard even on that particular setting, recommending the narrative follow-up is difficult, especially given the degree of recycled content and especially the excruciating narrative. Younger audiences would ideally be the game’s target audience, but the tedium of the gameplay makes it hard to recommend even to them, thus making its targets ambiguous at best, and those interested solely in the storyline would probably be better off reading online synopses.

The Good:
+Combat has plenty good ideas.
+No getting lost.
+Aurals get the job done.

The Bad:
-Hard, even on so-called “Beginner” mode.
-Excruciating narrative with weak localization.
-Loads of recycling.

The Bottom Line:
One the weaker installments of the Kingdom Hearts series, with little original content.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: PlayStation 4
Game Mechanics: 6.0/10
Controls: 5.0/10
Story: 1.0/10
Localization: 2.0/10
Music/Sound: 5.0/10
Graphics: 4.0/10
Lasting Appeal: 5.0/10
Difficulty: Hard
Playing Time: 1-2 Days

Overall: 4.0/10

Sunday, May 24, 2020

The Best of the Realms: Book I


This anthology’s introduction by Philip Athans indicates the content of the collection derives from an online survey on what they considered the best short stories of the Forgotten Realms assortments.

“Rite of Blood” by Elaine Cunningham – This short story is divided into chapters and follows Liriel, who prepares for a ceremony called the Blooding, which celebrates what it means to be a drow.

“Elminster at the Magefair” by Ed Greenwood – Elminster and Storm collaborate.

“Darksword” by Troy Denning – Delves into past of Melegaunt Tanthul.

“Blood Sport” by Christie Golden – Deals with elven vampire Jander Sunstar.

“Six of Swords” by William W. Connors – Answers the question of what adventurers do when retiring.

“The Rose Window” by Monte Cook – Supposedly deals with readers “changing” the story.

“The First Moonwell” by Douglas Niles – Written by the author’s view of the Moonshae Islands under the Goddess Earthmother being among his favorite fantastical locales.

“The Greatest Hero Who Ever Died” by J. Robert King – Draws inspiration from a village high on the Snowdownia Mountains in Wales.

“Tertius and the Artifact” by Jeff Grubb – Inspired by Tolkien’s Middle-earth with the British sensibilities of P.G. Wodehouse.

“Red Ambition” by Jean Robe – The author notes that she loved the villainous character of Szass Tam.

“The Common Spell” by Kate Novak-Grubb – The writer notes that she took inspiration from a Dickensian orphan being mystified by a city’s shop signs.

“Assassin’s Shadow” by Jess Lebow – The author indicates that the scenes in Karsus were fun for him to write.

“And the Dark Tide Rises” by Keith Francis Strohm – The writer definitely isn’t shy about his obsession with the Celts.

“Empty Joys” by R.A. Salvatore – The voices of the characters Artemis and Jarlaxle “spoke” to the author.

All in all, I enjoyed this anthology and would recommend it to fans of the Forgotten Realms series.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Fantastic Mr. Fox (film)

Fantastic mr fox.jpg 

It's a bit of a curse for films based on the literary works of Roald Dahl to do poor business at the box office despite positive reception, and this adaptation of his book of the same name was no exception. George Clooney was perfect to play the eponymous vulpine protagonist, forced back into a life of crime of stealing food from farmers to support his family, since it was essentially the same role he played in the Ocean's movies.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Valkyria Revolution

Valkyria Azure Revolution.png

De fem forrædere

Sega’s Valkyria Chronicles debuted on the Sony PlayStation 3 in 2008 to warm reception and sales that inspired them to turn it into a franchise, its two sequels, the third game not receiving an official release outside Japan, appearing on the PlayStation Portable. Similar to what they accomplished with the Phantasy Star series, which moved from turn-based to real-time gameplay, Sega would attempt a spinoff game with a greater emphasis on action-based roleplay entitled Valkyria Revolution, which released on the PlayStation 4, PS Vita, and Xbox One. Does the shift in gameplay style work?

Revolution features an interesting storytelling method occurring around a century after the main events in the game, where a student in the Kingdom of Jutland is working on a paper about a group of individuals known as “The Five Traitors,” whose story his teacher Richelle, great-great-granddaughter of the teacher of Jutland’s Princess Ophelia, unfolds. The Five Traitors are the survivors of a fire at an orphanage led by Amleth Grønkjær, deciding to wage war against the Ruzi Empire for sake of avenging their caretaker Maria and thus forming the Anti-Valkyria squad specialized in defending against the Ruzi Emperor’s godlike battle maiden.

The story has some pretty good sociopolitical commentary on the nature of war and revenge, with the characters the player controls and their adversaries hardly being black and white, although the plot itself is incredibly derivative. The backstory of The Five Traitors somewhat parrots the backdrop of the characters in Final Fantasy VIII, and the concept of the “evil empire” has been done to death within and without the videogame medium. There’s also a great deal of resemblance to the storyline in the first Valkyria game, although the narrative is well-developed, if somewhat forced in the player’s face given that cutscene dialogue is almost entirely unskippable.

The translation isn’t half-bad, considering Sega’s inconsistent track record in this area, with the story and dialogue for the most part being legible and free of spelling and grammatical errors, along with uncensored language that moderately pushes the ESRB Teen content rating to its limit at times. The style of character names is also fairly consistent, oftentimes exotic, although there is a bit of a clash of dialects at times, ranging from Ophelia’s formal disposition to casual speech. There is also the rare redundant dialogue, not to mention the poor syncing of character lip movement with speech, but otherwise, the localization helps the spinoff more than hurts.

Revolution features mission-based gameplay, with the player able to purchase garbs for their characters, not to mention elemental Ragnite that doubles to provide them skills and improve their Final Fantasy X-esque status grids, where affinity with specific elements and other stats such as attack power consequentially increase. Higher elemental affinity means characters can equip higher-level Ragnite, with the increase of the points of each circle on their grids dictated by how powerful the shard the player uses is. Overall grids for specific characters, namely Amleth and Ophelia, become bigger at fixed points throughout the game’s narrative.

At Basil’s factory, players can also use money obtained from winning battles to purchase upgrades for all characters’ firearms and grenades, each of which have fixed uses throughout missions, accessible at HQ. There are many different types of missions involving objectives such as killing specific enemy soldiers on the battlefield, disabling bombs, and capturing adversaries’ bases, with side-battles providing ample opportunities to grind for experience and money, and story battles of course being necessary to advance the central narrative. Also at headquarters, the player can receive special rewards for fulfilling conditions such as killing a certain number of enemies with one of the four primary elements.

Before going into battle, the player can select a party of four characters of four different classes with their own strengths and weaknesses, including Shocktrooper, Scout, Shield, and Sapper, the last class for instance able to disarm landmines and specializing in long-range attacks and magic. Combat during missions is more action-based than in the mainline Valkyria games, with the player controlling one character and AI controlling his or her allies on the battlefield. Depending upon performance in combat, the player receives a number of “nodes” to use outside missions in the game menus to customize ally AI, dictating things such as conserving Ragnite abilities.

The AI for both enemies and the player’s allies can be inconsistent at times, though in the latter case the player can simply take manual control of them if they aren’t helping. One major positive of combat, however, is that when boss units such as the frequently-encountered Valkyria, giant machines, and so forth are about to execute powerful area-affecting attacks, the game shows their regions of effect before their charge, providing ample opportunity to move to safety. In this regard, though, ally AI is largely unresponsive, and taking manual control to move them out of the way can be troublesome since the last controlled character may just go ahead and reenter the skill’s area of effect.

Fortunately, if one or more characters lose all HP in battle (with the Easy difficulty setting mercifully being incredibly generous in this regard), the player’s controlled character can approach the fallen ally and bring them back into battle with partial health restored, with a clock ticking down from one minute indicating how long they have to bring them back into the action. The demise of all participating combatants results in a failure of the mission, in which case the game returns the player back to headquarters with no experience or spoils of war retained from the lost battle.

Victory, on the other hand, nets all participating characters experience for level-ups and increased stats, in addition to money and Ragnite shards usable for either spells (if elemental affinity is high enough) or stat enhancement via the mentioned grid system. Aside from the issues with the AI, all-or-nothing reward mechanics present in most mission-based RPGs, and a jerky camera, the battle system generally works well, given its many positive aspects such as the anti-frustration feature of boss units having the areas of effects for their abilities indicated prior to execution, the ability to exploit enemies’ elemental weaknesses adding further strategy.

Given the straightforwardness of the game’s structure, becoming lost and unable to advance the main storyline is virtually impossible, and the interface is generally easy to work with, with an efficient menu system, easily-viewable playtime, and such, although there are issues regarding the sometimes-long loading times, the unskippable cutscene dialogue sure to alienate hearing-impaired gamers, the slight tediousness of upgrading character’s skill maps, and the inability to suspend-save in the middle of battle. Ultimately, the control aspect of the game isn’t game-breaking, although there are areas that could have certainly been better.

Inarguably the strongest aspect of Revolution is composer Yasunori Mitsuda’s soundtrack, and fortunately, unlike in RPGs such as Xenosaga Episode I, his talents don’t go to waste with endless silent areas. The music is full of sweeping epic tracks such as the variations of what plays in the city of Elsinore, and tracks such as the factory theme bring to mind Gustav Holst’s The Planets suite. The voice acting is also superb, with few weak performances aside from the occasional unnatural battle dialogue, and overall, the game is a joy to the ears.

Lamentably, one cannot say the same of the visual presentation, which is easily the game’s nadir. Rather than use the graphical style of the original game, Revolution uses a style neither fully realistic nor cartoony, and looks worse. While the character models contain good anatomy and the colors are realistic, there is a heavy degree of blurry textures and pixilation in the environments, along with choppy stop-motion-esque animation of enemy models when seen from afar, pop-up of distant foes, an irritating camera, no CG or anime cutscenes, and so forth. In the end, the spinoff could very easily pass for a PlayStation 2 RPG rather than one for the Vita.

Finally, completion of the game can take from one to two days’ worth of playtime, with a New Game+ and Trophies enhancing lasting appeal, although the game is a bit long and there’s little in the way of storyline variation.

All in all, Valkyria Revolution is definitely a valiant effort at a spinoff from the main Valkyria series, since its gameplay helps more than hurts, the narrative contains excellent sociopolitical commentary, and the aurals are generally pleasing. However, it stumbles with regards to its lengthy load times, unskippable cutscene dialogue, derivative storyline, and especially the subpar visuals, and winds up an average offshoot game overall. Regardless, I definitely don’t regret experiencing it, although it’s far from a bucket-list game, and those in particular who think the original Valkyria Chronicles infallible would be the ones least likely to appreciate Revolution.

This review is based on a playthrough of a digital copy purchased and downloaded by the reviewer.

The Good:
+Gameplay gets the job done.
+Great sociopolitical commentary.
+Excellent soundtrack and voicework.

The Bad:
-Plentiful loading times.
-Derivative storyline.
-Could pass for a PlayStation 2 RPG.

The Bottom Line:
Not bad, but far from a masterpiece.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: PlayStation Vita
Game Mechanics: 6.5/10
Controls: 5.0/10
Story: 4.0/10
Localization: 6.0/10
Music/Sound: 9.0/10
Graphics: 1.5/10
Lasting Appeal: 6.0/10
Difficulty: Adjustable
Playing Time: 1-2 Days

Overall: 5.5/10