Monday, August 31, 2020

Commission by Danger_Potato


Sunday, August 30, 2020

Into Darkness

 44671501. sy475  

Unlike its precursors, the final entry of Terry Goodkind’s Children of D’Hara series, a successor to the Sword of Truth books, is a full-length novel, opening with Kahlan having issues with her pregnancy that the plant mother’s breath can rectify. Richard and company go to the city of Bindamoon, whose streets are deserted, with its queen desiring to meet them. Glee and a man named Iron Jack hamper their progress, with a meeting with the queen ultimately coming, in whom every member of the company sees a vision of their mother.

Richard is quickly separated from Kahlan, taken by a coven of witches that wants her to birth her twins, in which case they would kill them, given the prophecy that one would be a “monster.” The Lord Rahl and his companions give chase, and the journey soon takes them to the city of Aydindril. A confrontation with the Golden Goddess ultimately comes, and Richard finds himself stuck in the world of the Glee, with one of them, named Sang, helping the Lord Rahl. The fate of the sequel series’ eponymous children of D’Hara is naturally resolved at the end.

Overall, I definitely enjoyed the Children of D’Hara series, having liked its prequel books, and it somewhat goes quickly, given the relative brevity of the chapters, with plenty of addition to the world of Richard and Kahlan. Not all is perfect, however, as Goodkind’s editor overlooked some misused punctuation, and I had a bit of a difficult time imagining the appearance of the Glee. Regardless, if this sequel series was meant to bridge the gap between The Sword of Truth and its chronological successors, The Nicci Chronicles, I’m definitely game for those books.

Atelier Meruru: The Apprentice of Arland DX

Alchemic Kingdom Hearts

Despite being around before the turn of the millennium, the Gust-developed Atelier series didn’t receive exposure outside Japan until Nippon Ichi Software’s North American branch localized Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana for the PlayStation 2. Since then, most mainline entries of the franchise have received English translations, among them being the Arland subseries that commenced with Atelier Rorona on the PlayStation 3, which would see several enhanced rereleases, among the latest being Atelier Meruru: The Apprentice of Arland DX on the PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch consoles, the latter which this review covers.

The third installment focuses on the eponymous princess of Arls, a kingdom north of the Arland Republic, who aspires to be a great alchemist to her father the king’s chagrin, and receives the goal of significantly boosting her country’s population within three years. The storyline is generally enjoyable, with plenty of humor and different endings, not to mention an endearing cast of characters, although some may find the plot too saccharine. The localization definitely helps, with perfectly legible dialogue and some funny battle quotes such as “Suck on THIS!”, although there are occasional oddities and errors. Regardless, the plotline helps the game far more than hurts.

The gameplay too serves the Arland trilogy’s conclusion well, being very mechanically similar to its precursor games, with a great emphasis on alchemy, harvesting items for alchemic use, exploration of Arls, and occasional turn-based battles, with a nice twist being that one needs not fight a final boss to see one of the standard endings. Alchemy is generally fun, with Meruru’s alchemic level rising even with failed syntheses, and the battles, where enemies are visible in fields and in dungeons, tend to flow quickly, even without the turbo mode that slightly increases speed.

Moreover, Meruru takes cues from RPGs like EarthBound, with the titular character able to swat visible adversaries with her staff and, if she’s powerful enough, instantly kill them. She can take two allies with her for experience and leveling, and the game actively encounters the use of offensive, defensive, and healing items synthesizable at her workshop. She can also get achievement points that allow for the construction of facilities in the kingdom to increase population, such as killing a certain number of enemy types. Overall, the third entry definitely excels in terms of gameplay, with the only real issues being the restriction on party size and occasional brevity of usable item descriptions.

Control also serves the game very well, with little opportunity to get lost, given the general straightforward nature, easy menus, quick shopping, a fast-travel option available within the royal capital, a generous save system, in-game tracking of playtime, minimized wasted time due to things such as a Game Over (nonexistent in Meruru), and so forth. The only major problems here are that the player can only fast-forward through cutscenes rather than skip them completely (though fortunately, voiced dialogue is skippable), and the inability to see how prospective weapons and armor increase or lower a character’s stats before synthesizing it. Generally, a user-friendly game.

Meruru’s musical style is similar to that of its predecessors, with plenty of happy, bouncy tracks, and while there are tracks reused from the last two entries, they’re remixed and feel sufficiently fresh. The battle themes are good as well, with the most common one having a flamenco feel, and others a rock-n-roll style. The sound effects are good, as well, and the English voices definitely fit the characters, although there are occasional weak performances, but if the player doesn’t like them, they can switch to the Japanese voices. Ultimately, a superb-sounding game.

The graphics also have plenty of things going for them, such as the bright, vibrant colors, anatomically-correct and cel-shaded character models, good monster designs, beautiful environments, and so forth. Granted, there are occasions, like in the game’s precursors, where the visuals “fuzz out” to have cutscenes narrated by static character portraits (although these show plenty of different emotions and still look good), many enemies are reskins, and the framerate is fairly choppy if there are a lot of elements on the screen. Regardless, the graphical presentation is definitely above average, even if it doesn’t reach excellence.

Finally, the third game is fairly short, taking as little as six or as long as eighteen hours to finish, with plenty of side content such as synthesizing every item, the various areas to explore, the different endings, and even a New Game+, very well enhancing lasting appeal.

In the end, Atelier Meruru is a solid conclusion to the Arland trilogy, given its engaging game mechanics, tight control, endearing story with good localization, the superb sound, the pretty graphics, and plenty reasons to come back for more. There are some rare issues, such as a few rough spots in the translation and the inconsistent graphical quality, but the game ended up in my opinion as one of the stronger entries of the Atelier franchise, not to mention one of the highlights of my videogaming career, and I would more than easily recommend it to those that enjoyed its precursors and other entries outside the subseries.

The Good:
+Great game mechanics.
+Tight control.
+Endearing story.
+Good translation.
+Superb sound.
+Pretty visuals.
+Plentiful replay value.

The Bad:
-A few incongruities with the localization.
-Some minor issues with the graphical presentation.

The Bottom Line:
A great conclusion to the Arland trilogy.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Game Mechanics: 9.5/10
Controls: 8.0/10
Story: 9.5/10
Localization: 7.5/10
Music/Sound: 9.5/10
Graphics: 7.0/10
Lasting Appeal: 10/10
Difficulty: Easy
Playing Time: 6-18 Hours

Overall: 9.0/10

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Pokémon Sword

 Pokemon Sword (US)

I Got to Buy It, I Got to Buy It

In Japan in 1996, Nintendo released the first pair of debut titles of the Game Freak-developed Pocket Monsters franchise, called Pokémon overseas, for the Game Boy, with their success spawning a mega-franchise. The series would continue on Nintendo’s future portable systems, with their hybrid system the Switch the latest recipient of Pokémon titles starting with the Let’s Go! games. The franchise would continue its evolution with Pokémon Sword and Shield, sporting stylistic changes and improvements from its precursors that make them somewhat more accessible to newcomers, but do they make the games worth playing?

Sword features more or less the same story as its predecessors, with the player controlling a random nobody that goes on a trip to catch Pokémon and become a champion. The protagonist’s main rival is Hop, and while there is okay backstory, much of it rips off Final Fantasy VII, and the narrative never reaches excellence. The translation is good, although much of the dialogue sounds unnatural, and some of the name choices for characters, such as the aforementioned Hop, and others such as Rose for a male character, are unusual. Regardless, the franchise has never been about story, and Sword is no exception.

That leaves the gameplay to shoulder the burden, and luckily, Sword fares somewhat better in this area than the franchise’s predecessors. The player first selects one of three starting Pokémon, with others ripe for capture visible on fields between towns and in dungeons, where contact naturally begins a battle. Sword ditches the capture system of the Let’s Go! duology in favor of fights starting with the frontline Pokémon summoned. The player has a variety of Pokéballs to capture enemy Pokémon, with a higher success rate against adversaries whose HP the player has lowered to critical.

Battles generally follow the same rules as prior entries, with one-on-one, occasionally two-on-two, fights between player and opponent Pokémon, with each being of one or two different types that dictate resistance and weakness to moves of different types. Each Pokémon has up to four abilities with a fixed number of uses that the player can recover at healing facilities, with one major improvement over prior games being that the game shows whether or not an attack will do any good against the opponent. The player can further glimpse, when deciding to switch the current Pokémon (up to six usable in battle at a time), whether other units’ moves will do any good against the enemy.

However, as with previous entries of the series, switching the player’s current Pokémon wastes their turn and leaves the one brought in vulnerable for one turn to the opponent’s attack, a step down from the vastly-superior character-swapping systems of other RPGs such as Final Fantasy XBreath of Fire IV, and Wild Arms 2. Moreover, while defeating the opponent Pokémon, in battles against NPCs that reward money for successful termination of all their Pokémon, gives the player a chance to switch their current one, they can’t view the type(s) of the one the opponent is preparing to bring in, requiring memorization of specific monsters’ elements.

The player can use money to purchase various healing items, monster-capturing balls and new moves for their Pokémon at shops, although money can be hard to come across since the player can’t rematch previous opponents until post-game, and thus, items can be in finite supply, with the potential to waste them in tough battles. The game’s difficulty can also vary wildly, with many opponents oftentimes having cheap moves that can OHKO the player’s Pokémon, and there are points where the player can get stuck in a cycle of healing fainted Pokémon while the current one becomes a punching bag.

The game mechanics in general definitely have plenty of good ideas, with the elemental strengths and weaknesses of different Pokémon adding a layer of strategy present in the game’s predecessors, and capturing as many as possible can be fun, with the fact that all living Pokémon in the player’s party gain experience after capture and defeat of enemies making grinding easier. However, the game doesn’t seem to encourage even leveling of all the player’s monsters, but rather keeping certain ones dedicated, and things like evolutions and finding certain Pokémon can be hard without a guide. Ultimately, the battle system doesn’t always work as well as it could have.

Control fares somewhat better, with the save-anywhere feature present in the game’s predecessors present in Sword, alongside clear direction on how to advance the main storyline and a fast-travel option becoming available early on. However, while the player can view a map of the overworld, detailed maps for areas in between towns and dungeons are unavailable, making exploration of every corner a crapshoot. There’s also occasional poor placement of healing opportunities, and the menus barrage players with unnecessary flash and pizazz. Overall, this particular generation of Pokémon doesn’t interact as well with players as it could have, but things could have been worse.

Sword’s soundtrack is stylistically similar to that of preceding generations, with some decent tracks at times, though much of the music is generally unmemorable, and actually sounds more like noise at times. The sound effects are good, with most Pokémon having unique cries, but the lack of endearing tunes is nonetheless a detriment to the aurals.

Perhaps the strongest aspect of the game is its visual presentation, with character models containing good anatomy, cel-shading, and believable animation and emotions. The dozens of Pokémon types, with nary a reskin, also look great and have cel-shading as well, and the environments are pretty and colorful. Granted, there is a bit of popup with regards to NPC character models, and occasional fuzziness of distant objects, but otherwise, the game is a visual treat.

Finally, total playtime with a straightforward playthrough can range from one or two days, with plenty of lasting appeal in the post-game content and capturing all monsters, though one can find it difficult to do so without a guide.

In the end, Pokémon Sword is a decent evolution of the fabled franchise, given the enjoyment of capturing all monsters, the save-anywhere feature, the pretty visuals, and plenty reasons to come back for more. However, the sometimes-grindy nature of the game mechanics are sure to be off-putting to those who are virgins to the franchise, the menus are a bit clunky, the storytelling and translation are weak, the soundtrack doesn’t have a whole lot of memorable tunes. Regardless, I definitely don’t regret my time with the game, and would be willing to play its companion game, not to mention future entries of the franchise to see how things improve.

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

The Good:
+Catching ‘em all can be fun.
+Save-anywhere feature.
+Nice graphics.
+Plentiful lasting appeal.

The Bad:
-A little grindy.
-Menus a little clunky.
-Weak storytelling and translation.
-Unmemorable soundtrack.

The Bottom Line:
A step forward for the franchise.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Game Mechanics: 5.0/10
Controls: 6.0/10
Story: 2.5/10
Localization: 5.0/10
Music/Sound: 5.0/10
Graphics: 8.0/10
Lasting Appeal: 9.5/10
Difficulty: Unbalanced
Playing Time: 1-2 Days

Overall: 7.0/10

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Earth Shadows

 33310931. sy475  

The fifth entry of Daniel Arenson’s Earthrise series opens with one of the main protagonists, Addy, a prisoner of the antagonistic aliens known as the marauders, who yearn to fatten up their prisoners before feasting upon them. Addy plots insurrection with the other humans, and is ferried back to the ruinous planet Earth, where she seeks her old boyfriend Steve and his friend Stooge. She ultimately forms the Human Resistance with survivors of the marauder conquest, given the decimation of the formal Human Defense Force (HDF) by the aliens, although other factions such as human supremacists somewhat mar Addy’s attempt to unite her people.

Meanwhile, Marco, Lailani, Kemi, and Einav Ben-Ari fly through space far from Earth, quickly abandoning their vessel, the Saint Brendan, in favor of the captured alien ship, the Anansi, with which they continue to outrun the marauders tailing them whilst continuing to seek the fabled Ghost Fleet that could hypothetically turn the tide in the war. They eventually find themselves on a planet with peaceful and intelligent beings, the four-armed and -mouthed Nandakis, one who joins them in their adventure. Furthermore, the remnants of the HDF make one last stand against the marauders under the leadership of Brigadier-General James Petty.

Overall, I definitely enjoyed this entry of the series, with the different plot threads generally being easy to follow, with occasional humor and popular-culture references from the latter half of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. The fifth book also divulges some backstory on Addy and Einav, with the latter learning the true fate of her vanished father later on in the story. It’s certainly by no means a flawless story, and some reminders as to the appearance of the characters and alien species would have been welcome, but I would definitely recommend it to science-fiction fans in general.

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Sonnet to My Parents


You nag, lecture, insult intelligence;

Say things to me I would ne’er say to you.

You have towards me no empathetic sense;

Your words are bitter like vegetable stew.

You accept me not for how I exist,

Though I tease you not for your own odd ways.

Tension festers like a malignant cyst,

And shall haunt me towards the end of my days.

You bore me false witness and helped me cheat,

Instead of giving better solution,

And scorned me with a far harsher beat

To suppress familial revolution.

My wounds run deeper than those which you see;

I love you not how you claim to love me.

Saturday, August 22, 2020

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Earth Fire

 32830282. sy475

The third installment of Daniel Arenson’s Earthrise series opens with the pursuit of the source of a distress signal, with the scum being the primary suspects, and a warning that “nightmares are coming.” Meanwhile, Marco and Addy receive formal discharges from military service, although they both are broke, and both encounter tragedy when they return home, not to mention the loss of their apartment. They also find harassment by the antiwar Never War organization, with its lawyers wanting to put Marco and Addy on trial for alleged atrocities against the scum that served as antagonists in prior entries.

Marco and Addy ultimately decide to go to a colony known as the Haven on a habitable planet orbiting Earth’s nearest star system, Alpha Centauri, although it’s not what they anticipated it to be, and they have trouble finding residency and work. Meanwhile, Captain Einav Ben-Ari and Kemi encounter the threat of another hostile alien race, the marauders, and seek to break Corporal David Min-jun Greene, nicknamed Noodles, out of a prison term for cybercrime. Earth and Haven eventually experience the fury of the marauders, with room naturally left for sequels.

Overall, I definitely enjoyed the fourth installment of Arenson’s science-fiction series, which one could suggest is the All Quiet on the Western Front of the genre, given its focus on life after the horrors of war, and definitely raises good points about the nature of conflict and the divide between pouring resources into alleviating human suffering or boosting militaristic might. Granted, the darker tone of the novel might alienate certain readers, and occasional topical references make it something of a period piece, but otherwise, I would very much recommend Earth Fire to those who liked its precursors.

Saturday, August 15, 2020


 Wasteland (Children of D'Hara, #3) 

The third entry of Terry Goodkind’s Children of D’Hara series picks up where its predecessor left off, with Kahlan telling her husband Richard to get to the Wizard’s Keep via the sliph, although he ultimately decides against doing so, fearing for the pregnant Kahlan’s safety, and thus, alternate means of travel are contemplated. One of the Lord Rahl’s Mord-Sith, Vika, is held hostage by the main antagonist of the novella, Moravaska Michec, with Richard and his companions learning about a room containing an illusionary labyrinth known as the Wasteland when looking over maps of the People’s Palace.

The action intensifies towards the end of the novella, with a cliffhanger ending that definitely leaves me eager to read more, and overall, I definitely enjoyed this short novel, which adds nicely to the Sword of Truth mythos, although given its violent content, it’s definitely not for the squeamish. As with the novella’s precursors, moreover, the editorial work is inconsistent, with some occasional misused punctuation. Regardless, it’s very much a quick and engaging read, although those unfamiliar with the franchise would best start from the beginning of the Sword of Truth saga.

Dora and the Lost City of Gold

 Dora and the Lost City of Gold poster.jpg 

The eponymous Nick Jr. explorer, now a teenager, transfers to high school in America, where she and a few friends are kidnapped and seek the titular lost city of gold. Could have been really bad, given the source material, but was actually fairly enjoyable, with plenty of action, adventure, and self-aware humor, and probably a much better live-action Nickelodeon cartoon adaptation than The Last Airbender

Friday, August 14, 2020

Hi Score Girl

High Score Girl

The second season of this anime was released some time ago, so I decided to give it a rewatch. Basically it's about a mediocre Japanese student named Haruo Yaguchi who finds a rival, love interest, and fellow gamer Akira Ono, with their relationship developing through videogame rivalry, chiefly fighting games such as the Street Fighter series, and later on characters such as Akira's lackadaisal older sister are introduced. Has some occasional inconsistencies in the dub, which chiefly calls games and consoles by their American names, such as the TurboGrafx-16, although it's later on referred to by its Japanese name, the PC Engine, but I definitely found a place in my heart for the series, since I've been a lifelong gamer.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Earth Rising

 31549833. sy475  

The third entry of author Daniel Arenson’s Earthrise series opens with a rather unimportant character, Colonel Yardley, enjoying a sunny day in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada when pods of the literary franchise’s main antagonists, the scum, precipitate from the sky. The action quickly moves to the military fortress Nightwall, with cadet Kemi Abasi aiming to head home to Earth. According to the android Osiris, the mayday signal that had come from the mining colony of Corpus, where the scum were fought in the previous book, was four years old.

Training for a final assault on the scum at their homeworld, Abaddon, occurs, with protagonist Marco Emery and his fellow soldiers introduced to mechanical exoskeletons that will prove central to the conflict against the antagonistic aliens. The journey to the scum’s world begins, with several space battles erupting with them that wear down the human forces and their friendly alien allies. During the trip, Marco completes the novel he had been working on for the previous entries of the series, with his love Lailani central to the impending battle against the scum.

The fleet has the primary goal of taking out the scum’s emperor on Abaddon, with the third Earthrise novel being generally enjoyable like its precursors, and full of good science-fiction action and endearing, developed characters, with Lailani’s backstory nicely elaborated. Furthermore, while the plot arc involving the scum sees its resolution, the final chapter leaves room for the series to continue, which, given its many installments, is far from over. Granted, some odd nomenclatural choices such as referring to the enemy aliens as “the scum” still abound, but I would gladly read further books in this series.

Monday, August 10, 2020

Final Fantasy X HD Remaster


Sin and Punishment

When I graduated high school back in 2002, my graduation present was a PlayStation 2 along with the original version of Final Fantasy X and its accompanying strategy guide. I had decent memories of my first PS2 RPG, to the point where I sunk well over a hundred hours into it, and would gladly play Final Fantasy X HD Remaster on the PlayStation 4 over a decade later. Certain circumstances would lead me to borrow games from my younger brother, among them being the Nintendo Switch version of the tenth entry of Square-Enix’s beloved franchise. Has it stood the test of time?

Final Fantasy X opens with Tidus, star player of the Blitzball team known as the Zanarkand Abes, participating in a game, when a malevolent force known as Sin attacks, launching the athlete into the world of Spira, where he seeks to return home, in the meantime serving as a guardian for the summoner Yuna, who becomes something of a love interest. The characters are well-developed and at times memorable, such as the deadpan-snarking Lulu, and Auron, the leader of the group, and the lore is good for the most part. However, the narrative is fairly derivative, the collection of summonable entities borrowing from a few Tales games, for instance, and never reaches excellence.

The localization is good for the most part, with the battle dialogue, for instance, actually sounding somewhat believable, and there are no spelling or grammar errors of which to speak. The enigmatic Al Bhed language, deciphered through dictionaries found throughout the game, the translators also handled very well. Granted, there are some scenes that probably would have been better left out of the English version, for instance one where Tidus and Yuna guffaw loudly to relieve stress (although to be fair, it probably didn’t sound any better in Japanese), and the lip-syncing is often off, but otherwise, the translation was one of Square’s better efforts.

Final Fantasy X ditched the active-time battle system of its predecessors in favor of a fully-turn-based engine, battles randomly-encountered, more akin to that in the Grandia games, albeit without real-time elements, necessary foresight, and the need to consider, with the exception of maybe a few boss fights, character positions on the battlefield, and definitely has plenty of good ideas. Characters and the enemy take turns depending upon their agility, with a gauge luckily showing who goes when. The player’s characters execute their commands immediately upon input, with a recovery time necessary until they reach their subsequent turns.

Three characters serve on the frontlines of combat, and during their turns, if they’re alive, the player can swap them with an ally in backup. Character commands include attacking with equipped weapons, using abilities that may or may not consume MP, using consumable items, defending, changing equipped weapons and armor, or attempting to escape (in which case only the character using this command escapes, and as long as at least one character makes it away, and even if the enemy kills an active character, the player will leave the battle). The escape option naturally doesn’t always work, but one of Tidus’s skills guarantees evacuation of standard fights.

Regarding standard attacks, each character has an attacking style that is central to advancing through fights. For instance, Tidus’s quick sword attacks are good for slaying small, agile enemies, Wakka’s blitzball is good for knocking out aerial enemies, Auron’s heavy sword is good for armored foes, and the like. Characters can also execute skills such as white and black magic, with Yuna and Lulu respectively good in those areas, and, since their standard attacks are fairly weak and they have ample MP, the player can dedicate them to performing those particular actions.

Final Fantasy X divides consumable items into two types: those that any character can use regularly, and those only Rikku can use per a special command, such as throwing grenades at foes. Each character also has an overdrive gauge, which initially fills when they take damage, although as the game progresses, options to change to fill method to other means such as attacking become available. However, the game is somewhat unclear as to how the player acquires these alternate methods, as there doesn’t seem to be some sort of visible subsystem in this regard.

Overdrives naturally vary depending upon the character, with Tidus for instance having powerful “swordplay” skills, where repeated use slowly unlocks new ones, although I acquired a grand total of three in my latest playthrough. Other notable commands include Yuna’s Aeons, basically her summon spells, where the summoned entity alone participates in battle, having its own health and other stats, not to mention overdrives. While Aeons tend to be powerful, the game is designed so that they can’t be spammed, with most bosses able to instantly kill them, although at times the player can still use Yuna’s overdrive to call a summon with a full gauge and unleash its special attack.

The player naturally wins a battle when they’ve eradicated all enemy units, with all characters that executed at least one command obtaining experience for occasional levels, which the player can use to move them across the Sphere Grid, serving as the game’s primary means of acquiring higher stats and new abilities. When starting a new game, the game offers players a choice between the standard Sphere Grid or an “expert” version, in the latter case where the characters start off closer to one another and can more easily branch out into other skillsets.

The Sphere Grid has four different levels of locks that separate spheres representing character stat increases and new abilities, with occasional powerful abilities behind higher-level locks, the keys to these restrictions coming rarely. The tenth Final Fantasy’s character development system is generally fun, with lots of possibilities regarding character builds, although an in-game compendium detailing things such as what enemies drop or what Rikku can steal from them would have been nice, since some of the items allowing advancement are uncommon, for instance the consumables that activate luck-increasing spheres, not to mention the sphere locks.

There are also a number of minigames that figure into the general game mechanics, given their potential rewards to make the main quest significantly easier, and while some, such as dodging two hundred lightning bolts on the Thunder Plains, can be frustrating, perhaps the most enjoyable is the sport Blitzball, where the player can assemble a team that plays across another in Spira for two rounds, with plenty of strategizing, and rewards such as special spheres and even new overdrives for Wakka. Granted, that doesn’t mean the minigame is perfect, since the random number gods can oftentimes be cruel, and the interface for the sidequest is somewhat user-unfriendly.

The mechanics in battles themselves have issues as well, such as that a character’s death results in their removal from the turn order gauge, with no indicator of when they’ll take their turn when revived, not to mention the death of all frontline characters resulting in a Game Over, with no attempt by backline allies to take over. The endgame sequence is also incredibly annoying, with an unskippable portion with the potential for several enemy encounters and a subsequent cutscene the player can’t skip (as they can’t do for other cutscenes). Cheap enemies and bosses also play part, one needs a guide to make the most of certain areas, and ultimately, the game mechanics don’t work nearly as well as they could have.

Along with the aforementioned user-unfriendliness of the Blitzball interface and total inability to skip cutscenes, in most cases skip through voiced text, there are other issues with control. Chief among them are the drawn-out puzzles in Aeon temples necessary to advance the storyline, bearing no significant rewards other than an occasional item the player likely won’t have significant use for, which actually led me to using the internet to make things easier. The save point system can also be stingy, with occasional long stretches between opportunities to record progress. Furthermore, the player cannot enlarge the minimap to view a greater map of the area, and overall, interaction is where the tenth entry is weakest.

Where Final Fantasy X is strongest, however, is its aural presentation, with notable music such as the peaceful “To Zanarkand” and its various remixes serving as one of the game’s central themes, along with the vocal version of the main theme “Suteki Da Ne” and its remixes sans singing. Other significant pieces include a pop remix of the Final Fantasy prelude that plays in the intro sequences, a grunge-type piece that plays early on and serves as one of the final boss themes, the forest theme, and the Calm Lands music. Granted, the quality of the voice acting, particularly regarding James Arnold Taylor’s performance as Tidus, is somewhat inconsistent, although the soundtrack more than makes up for it.

The tenth installment also shines with regards to its visual presentation, with an updated widescreen presentation of the game and anatomically-correct characters models with good animation, emotion, and reflection of Tetsuya Nomura’s character designs, along with plenty of good designs for the fiends, reskins uncommon. The colors are realistic, the environments believable with plenty of excellent designs, and shadows reflect their respective character models. The CG FMVs also appear superb, with only a few issues with the graphics such as some blurry, pixilated texturing, poor collision detection at times, and a general shakiness to the character models, but otherwise, the graphics look nice.

Finally, with a significant amount of my time devoted to Blitzball alongside the main quest, it took me somewhere from two to three days total to finish the game, and while it is fairly linear, there’s plenty of side content such as collecting monsters for the Monster Arena to fight later on, the other minigames, and some replay value in that one can bequeath Al Bhed translation dictionaries from previous saves towards the beginning of a new quest, although there’s no actual New Game+, and the lack of a scene-skip feature can tax additional playthroughs.

In conclusion, Final Fantasy X certainly has many amazing aspects, particularly with regards to the Sphere Grid system, the good lore with solid localization, the excellent soundtrack, the pretty graphics, and plentiful side content. However, it does have serious flaws that mainstream, casual players need to consider such as the grindy nature of the game at many points, particularly the ending, the mandatory puzzles that mar the pacing several times, the need to use a guide to make the most of the game, and the derivative storyline. Although the game initially held a place in my heart, as George Ball said, nostalgia can be a seductive liar.

This review is based on a playthrough of a copy borrowed by the reviewer.

The Good:
+Sphere Grid system.
+Great lore.
+Solid localization.
+Excellent music.
+Visuals have aged decently.
+Plentiful side content.

The Bad:
-A bit grindy towards the end.
-Puzzles difficult without online assistance.
-Guide necessary to get most out of game.
-Story is fairly derivative.

The Bottom Line:
Not nearly as good as I remember.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Game Mechanics: 5.0/10
Controls: 3.5/10
Story: 5.0/10
Localization: 8.0/10
Music/Sound: 9.0/10
Graphics: 7.0/10
Lasting Appeal: 7.5/10
Difficulty: Variable
Playing Time: 2-3 Days

Overall: 6.5/10

Saturday, August 8, 2020

Hateful Things


*spoilers ahead*

The second entry of Terry Goodkind’s sequel novellas to The Sword of Truth, Children of D’Hara, continues where its precursors left off, with the revelation that Kahlan, the Mother Confessor, is pregnant with a twin boy and girl, having back in the preceding books lost her first pregnancy, and she doesn’t want her husband, Richard, the Lord Rahl, to know, for fear that her unborn would be vulnerable. The gifted of the People’s Palace are gathered in hopes of combating the forces of the Golden Goddess, specifically the phantasmal “scribbly men” and what are identified as “the Glee.”

One of the gifted’s ungifted daughter, Dori, proves significant among them, and plays a role in the twists on in the story, which ends with the need of Richard, Kahlan, and their gifted companion Shale, to use the sliph, which helped Richard plenty of times back in The Sword of Truth novels. Ultimately, I found this a fairly enjoyable, quick read, decently continuing the storyline of Richard and Kahlan from the prior novels in which they starred, although there are some odd stylistic choices such as referring to adversaries as “the Glee.” Regardless, I will definitely read the next Children of D’Hara novellas.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

Earth Lost

 31146330. sy475

The second installment of author Daniel Arenson’s Earthrise series opens with Kara walking the streets of Corpus City as the skies “bleed,” with an alien cornering her in the mechanical subterranean city. The action quickly returns to Marco and his fellow soldiers aboard a transport rocket in space, which they find more technologically-advanced than Earth. Marco is homesick for his father and his girlfriend Kemi, with whom he ultimately has a reunion. Marco finds time to work on his novel, distraught at learning that only half of soldiers sent to fight the scum return home.

The soldiers receive a distress call from the lunar colony Corpus, where their ship impacts and it loses its azoth heart, a second one compatible with the crashed ship’s engine deep within the moon. Corpus City is deserted, and as the crew delves into the colony, a saboteur proves to be among their ranks, with the android Osiris the initial suspect. As they progress deeper, several battles with the scum that had caused the colony to fall erupt, some twists and deaths towards the end of the book, which ends with the nightmares they experienced on Corpus behind them.

All in all, I definitely found the sequel to be a fairly straightforward and consequentially enjoyable science-fiction story, with plenty of action and twists, and room naturally left to continue the storyline. As with most literary series, interested parties would best begin with the first entry of the franchise, given the return of most characters, and the author could have definitely called the antagonistic aliens something other than “the scum.” Regardless of its flaws, I would definitely recommend Earth Lost to those that enjoyed its precursor, and look forward to reading its successors.

Monday, August 3, 2020

Disgaea 1 Complete

Disgaea 1 Complete

Japanese videogame developer Nippon Ichi Software first dove into the roleplaying game genre with the Marl Kingdom titles, the first of which Atlus localized as Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure. Given the rather polarized reception for that particular game, N1 wouldn’t reemerge in North American markets until the English release of Makai Senki Disgaea, known initially outside Japan as Disgaea: Hour of Darkness, which would receive several ports to systems such as the PlayStation Portable and Nintendo Switch, the latest of which came to iOS devices as Disgaea 1 Complete, perhaps the definitive version of the game.

From the start, the player can choose to play as Laharl, Prince of the Netherworld, or one of his servants, Etna. The former wakes from a years-long slumber to discover that his father, King Krichevskoy, has died, and the Netherworld has plunged into chaos, with Etna having tried for a long time to wake the Prince, and he seeks to secure his patriarch’s throne from other contenders. In Etna Mode, she accidentally kills Laharl while trying to wake him and thus tries to affirm her succession as Queen of the Netherworld. Both stories are generally enjoyable, humorous, and well-developed, with multiple endings and the potential for variant events, although there are occasional clichés such as amnesia, and some ass-pulls later on. Regardless, the narrative is one of the game’s high points.

Lamentably, the localization effort felt fairly rushed at times, given things such as misspelled words during and after the ending credits, that vocal tracks with English versions in Hour of Darkness regress to their Japanese iterations, and so forth. Granted, most of the dialogue is alright and ably-translated, and the story is far more than coherent. Regardless, the translation team could have definitely put more thought into the English text.

Fortunately, solid gameplay backs the narrative experience, with among its many positive aspects being the total absence of random encounters, and tactical battles only occurring at the player’s will. Party maintenance occurs in Laharl’s palace, where he can walk around, talk to NPCs, check Etna’s secret room to view her diary entries, shop for consumable items and equipment, and, of course, engage in one of many story or side-battles. There are various battlegrounds that unlock as players advance through the central storyline, often one per episode but sometimes more, with cutscenes, mercifully skippable, usually preceding and following fights. The same rules apply in Etna Mode.

Battles occur on 3-D grid-based maps, the player able to withdraw up to ten characters from a base panel and move them. When close to enemies, they can attack with their equipped weapon, which, except in the case of monster-based classes, will cause the character’s proficiency with the armament type gradually increasing and leveling to unlock SP-consuming skills. Important story characters usually have special skills obtained with experience levels, with the termination of enemies resulting in the greatest point gain, although an improvement over prior versions of the first Disgaea is that magic-based classes now obtain experience through the use of healing and stat-boosting spells.

Also helpful for leveling weaker characters is that the player can have them stand on any of the three open sides of an attacker, with a certain chance the adjacent allies will perform a combo, and they share in experience gain, should the combination succeed. Characters also gain Mana that the player can use at the Netherworld Senate to create new characters (with the ally-creators able to learn abilities from their “pupils” in battle when standing alongside them, and this can be particularly useful for allowing classes such as healers to learn offensive spells from attack-magic-based characters for easier leveling).

Different humanoid classes have base incarnations and four or five advanced versions that have higher stats and proficiency with certain weapons. Leveling lower-level classes unlocks higher incarnations, and when the player wants to upgrade, they can “transmigrate” a character to that particular higher-level class, in which case their experience levels revert to zero, and the player gets a certain number of points depending upon how much Mana they have to distribute among initial stats. Monster classes exist as well that have different higher-level reskins, with the player unlocking them through killing the specific monster type in battle, with the more of one particular incarnation killed lowering base Mana cost.

In order for characters to be able to transmigrate, the player needs to get them up to three ranks, which involves the characters on their own fighting an enemy party. This can also unlock higher-Mana-costing proposals that the player can bring before the Netherworld Senate, with the player before a vote able to bribe Senators with items in their battle inventory. After a vote, the Senate either approves or denies a request, and in the latter instance, the player can either go back to Laharl’s castle, with the Mana used lost (and if the player will likely want to, they can reload a prior save before the vote), or attempt to force the proposal through by fighting the dissident Senators.

I was unable to take on the Senate to force through proposals in Laharl Mode, although I was eventually able to do so when I carried my stats to Etna Mode, which requires a tad more grinding. One bright spot that may appeal to those reluctant to try the game is the ability to unlock, through a Senate proposal, Cheat Mode, where the player can adjust the gains for battle rewards such as experience that can make grinding significantly easier (though this still doesn’t make the game necessarily a cakewalk). At the Senate, the player can also make enemies more powerful or weaker (with a fixed base level as to how weak they can be), and increase or decrease the quality of goods at the castle shops.

Buying items from the shops gradually increases their level, also contributing to the availability of higher-level consumables and equipment, and Laharl’s castle also has a hospital where the player can pay to fully restore characters dead or damaged from battle, which in turn occasionally provides players rewards such as powerful equipment. In battle, the player and the enemy have separate turn sessions, so there’s usually no question of who takes their turns when. Another bright spot, which the game’s sequels would implement, is a turbo mode to significantly reduce attack and ability animations, which in my experience shaved off well over a hundred hours of superfluous playtime to get through both quests.

If one of the player’s characters loses all HP, they disappear from the battlefield, with no chance to revive them except back in Laharl’s castle in between battles, and the number of units the player can have on the battleground consequentially decreases by one, with a Game Over and a trip back to Laharl’s castle the result of losing ten allies, with no experience in the battle preserved, an issue prevalent in most Japanese strategy RPGs. Thus, grinding is admittedly necessary to keep up with the enemy, and luckily, there are plenty of stages that make for good leveling grounds, namely those with Geo Panel tiles offering multiplied experience points.

On that point, many maps have colored Geo Panels with Geo Crystals providing various effects such as increased experience for enemies killed on the tiles, heightened attack or defense power for either the player’s characters and the enemy, or just the latter in some cases, adding a certain degree of strategy at times. The player’s units can also lift allies or enemies and toss them across the battlefield, with throwing one enemy onto another creating a new enemy with heightened levels and stats. The player can further destroy Geo Crystals of a color different from that on the tiles they’re sitting upon, which can potentially start a chain reaction with damaging color changes that increases the bonus gauge level.

One particular character class can alter the Geo Panel and Crystal makeup on the battlefield one time per map, which can definitely be useful in case the player falls short in increasing a bonus level a certain amount and they need an extra boost. Sparking chain reactions is especially useful in acquiring rare items in the Item World, where the player can delve into an item, with higher-level enemies and rewards the higher the floor number, players able to skip levels entirely via the portal to the next level or kill all enemies to acquire a floor’s prizes. The Item World can definitely be a good grinding locale, since a special consumable, Mr. Gency’s Exit, safeguards against wasted playtime there.

Ultimately, the game mechanics definitely serve the game well and are sure to please aficionados of the strategy RPG subgenre, although there are a few issues aside from the grinding such as the pickiness at points of elevation restrictions when executing certain skills, the lack of a forecast of how effective an attack will be before using it, the all-or-nothing reward mechanics of standard battle maps outside the Item World, and the gross unpredictability of the auto-battle mode. Regardless, I can say that despite not caring much for tactical RPGs, I oftentimes found the original Disgaea a joy to experience.

The rerelease is like prior incarnations linear, so there’s no getting lost or spending hours finding out how to advance. The menus are fairly easy to use as well, although given the potential for a large playable cast, auto-equip and equip-best commands would have been welcome, and there are other issues such as how the game only shows increased or decreased stats while changing equipment rather than old stats alongside new stats, not to mention the lack of a suspend save in areas such as story battles or the Item World. Overall, interaction isn’t game-breaking, but could have certainly been better.

Perhaps the best aspect of the original Disgaea is its aurals, mainly Nippon Ichi composer Tenpei Sato’s soundtrack, with the central series theme bringing to mind John Williams’ score to the Wizarding World franchise, and plenty of other catchy tunes such as the different castle themes for Laharl and Etna Mode. Other tracks such as Captain Gordon’s motif definitely evoke his disposition as a beloved superhero, and there are various vocal pieces throughout the game. The player also has a choice between English and Japanese voices, the former sounding good and fitting the comical nature of the game, although there are occasional weak performances. Regardless, the first game is an aural delight.

Although the developers “touched-up” the graphics of to be more artistically in line with the game’s successors, the results are mixed. For, most character sprites were replaced, and while in Hour and Afternoon of Darkness the main ones like Laharl faced eight directions, in Complete they only face diagonally. There are also inconsistences such as most winged characters not having visible wings with regards to their sprites, and the environments have blurry, sometimes pixilated texturing. The game certainly is far from an eyesore, but the touchups could have been far better.

Finally, given the turbo mode, playing through both storylines of the rerelease takes significantly shorter, a little over to days’ total, with a surprisingly-high amount of lasting appeal due to things such as being able to grind thousands of experience levels, the Item World, side content such as extra maps, in-game compendia with percentage-complete indicators, storyline variations, and alternate endings.

Overall, Disgaea 1 Complete for iOS devices is undoubtedly the definitive version, given the touch-ups to the game mechanics like the turbo mode and different means of acquiring experience for certain character classes, the well-developed storyline, the excellent aurals, and endless lasting appeal. Granted, it does have issues regarding the potential for its admittedly-dense mechanics to off-put some, the rushed translation, and the lackluster graphics. Despite its issues, those who truly enjoy strategy RPGs will likely appreciate the deep, engrossing mechanics, with Nippon Ichi proving itself to be among the prime producers of tactics games.

This review is based on a playthrough of a copy digitally downloaded by the reviewer and played on an iPad Pro with an Apple Pencil.

The Good:
+Deep, engrossing mechanics.
+Funny, developed story.
+Excellent soundtrack and voicework.
+Plenty reasons to come back for more.

The Bad:
-Mechanics may be too dense for some.
-Control can be finnicky.
-Inconsistent translation quality.
-Visuals haven’t aged well.

The Bottom Line:
Sure to please strategy RPG aficionados.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: iOS
Game Mechanics: 8.0/10
Controls: 5.0/10
Story: 8.0/10
Localization: 5.0/10
Music/Sound: 9.5/10
Graphics: 5.0/10
Lasting Appeal: 10/10
Difficulty: Hard
Playing Time: 2+ Days

Overall: 7.5/10


Cursed Title Card.png 

A somewhat-darker take on Arthurian legend, which has plentiful gratuitous violence, but was otherwise enjoyable, and I would definitely continue watching this series.

Saturday, August 1, 2020

The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening (Nintendo Switch)

Artwork of a boy in a tropical island environment, with a mountain capped by a purple-spotted egg in the background; the game's logo printed in the center

Nightmares and Dreamscapes

I’ll admit it—I’m not a big fan of Nintendo’s Zelda series, and in fact consider it, alongside Soulsborne, one of the most overrated videogame franchises of all time. There are certain entries in the series I liked, such as A Link to the Past on the Super NES, albeit mostly due to nostalgia, and I had decent memories of The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening for the Game Boy, although I actually didn’t care much for critical darlings such as Ocarina of Time and more recently, Breath of the Wild. I actually looked forward to playing the Switch remake of Link’s Awakening, and while it does have plenty positives, it often exemplifies what I dislike about the series.

The remake, like the Game Boy original, opens with series protagonist Link braving the stormy high seas on a derelict boat, when lightning strikes and he finds himself stranded on the enigmatic Koholint Island, under temporary care of a girl named Marin, who resembles Princess Zelda. Link goes on a quest across the isle to collect the eight musical instruments of the Siren and awaken the legendary Wind Fish to escape. While there are occasional positives in the plot such as a village populated by intelligent animals, the narrative doesn’t contribute a whole lot to the franchise’s mythos, and is unremarkable.

The translation doesn’t have any glaring spelling or grammar errors, is legible, and doesn’t give much indicator as to its Japanese roots, although there seems absolutely no reason, except alcohol, why anyone would think it natural for someone to taunt, “Annoyance! You are only getting in the way!” There are occasional dated expressions as well such as “by the by,” it seems really odd that people would proclaim, “Yahoo!” when doing yardwork, and there is occasional odd onomatopoeia. The localization certainly isn’t game-breaking by any means, but the translation staff could have definitely made some effort to make the text sound far more believable.

Luckily, the gameplay largely compensates, with Link primarily wielding a sword with which he can attack normally and execute a spinning assault, and a shield he can extend forth to defend against and occasionally deflect attacks. The player can also assign two tools to two of the letter buttons, and while things such as his dash have permanent button assignment once acquired, things such as his ability to jump after receiving a certain tool would have definitely benefited from button permanence, given that I found jumping particularly useful at many times throughout the quest.

The randomization of enemy drops is another potential turnoff for players, although I didn’t experience any monetary difficulties throughout the game, and there are occasional offsets to keeping his health high such as being able to bottle a fairy for recovery, and a special medicine that fully restores his hearts when he loses all. Rules present in other entries of the fabled franchise such as receiving additional hearts when defeating dungeon bosses, termed Nightmares in the remake, and being able to collect four heart pieces for supplemental health, play part too.

Link can use the various tools he acquires to both battle foes and solve the puzzles in dungeons, and except for needing to sometimes kill minibosses and enemies to uncover secrets like keys, combat is mostly optional, and scarcely a burden. Granted, there are points that left me somewhat stumped and relying on the internet to find out how to do things such as beat certain bosses, in particular the various phases of the final battle, but luckily, the endgame isn’t terribly drawn-out, the player doesn’t need to worry about a lousy camera, and the gameplay helps the remake more than hurts.

The remake’s control is more of a mixed bag, since while the player can get tips from tree phonebooths on how to advance, direction on where exactly to go next isn’t always clear-cut without using a walkthrough, and dungeons, despite being small compared to other Zeldas, can be time-consuming and require tons of backtracking. One major redeemer, though, is that whenever link does things such as acquiring a key or treasure, the game autosaves, handy given that many players could easily forget the ability to record progress anywhere. However, saving doesn’t always preserve Link’s current location, namely in dungeons, even though the images accompanying save files would indicate otherwise, and while interaction doesn’t break the game, it isn’t always perfect.

Undoubtedly the strongest aspect of the Link’s Awakening rerelease is its aural presentation, with a significant use of orchestration, and many tracks such as the various version of the traditional Zelda overworld theme sounding wonderful, with homages to other Nintendo titles such as the Super NES SimCity, given two variations of the “good approval rating” music from that particular game (which itself derives from Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance”). There are also some catchy jingles such as Mambo’s Mambo, which resembles “Tequila” by the Champs, and while the dungeon music is often too ambient, traces of the original Game Boy version’s digital instrumentation show, and Link’s screams and the near-death alarm can be annoying, the sound is well above average.

The Switch remake utilizes anime cutscenes during the game’s opening before the title screen and the ending credits, with the rest of the game using a top-down visual presentation that makes Link, his enemies, and the many nonplayer characters resemble chibi toy figurines, which somewhat clashes with the style of the aforementioned animated scenes. The environments do look good, with vibrant hues alongside plenty of polish, with little in the way of blurry textures or pixilation, although there is the occasional graphical slowdown and choppiness. In the end, the graphics don’t reach excellence.

Finally, a single playthrough is relatively short, somewhere from six to twelve hours, with side content such as acquiring all heart pieces, and a “hero mode” where the player’s health is restricted, although there isn’t the potential for much variation in future playthroughs, and things such as the ease of getting stuck mar the lasting appeal.

Overall, the Link’s Awakening Switch remake definitely has things going for its such as its solid top-down Zelda gameplay that doesn’t suffer from many of the pitfalls of the three-dimensional iterations of the franchise, not to mention the great aural presentation, but it does stumble with regards to the ease at times of getting stuck without referencing the internet, the minimalist storytelling, middling visuals, and lack of many reasons to go through again. It definitely improves over the Game Boy versions, but oftentimes exemplifies what’s wrong with the series, and is recommended only to true fans of the franchise.

This review is based on a playthrough of a copy borrowed by the reviewer.

The Good:
+Good top-down Zelda gameplay.
+Great soundtrack.

The Bad:
-Easy to get stuck.
-Minimalist storytelling with lackluster localization.
-Middling graphical presentation.
-Not a lot of lasting appeal.

The Bottom Line:
An okay remake.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Game Mechanics: 7.5/10
Controls: 5.0/10
Story: 4.0/10
Localization: 4.0/10
Music/Sound: 8.0/10
Graphics: 6.0/10
Lasting Appeal: 4.0/10
Difficulty: Inconsistent
Playing Time: 6-12 Hours

Overall: 5.5/10