Sunday, January 31, 2021

Shining in the Darkness


More Darkness than Light

The original Shining Force on the Sega Genesis was my very first strategy RPG of which I have decent memories, despite not finishing it until the turn of the millennium. I had no idea that the tactics game had a traditional RPG prequel, Shining in the Darkness (changed slightly from the Japanese title of Shining and the Darkness), also for Sega’s sixteen-bit system. Fortunately, unlike with some later releases, Sega had the foresight to keep the programming code for rereleases, most recently as part of Shining Force Classics for iOS devices, making the inaugural Shining game playable for contemporary audiences. Has it aged well?

Shining in the Darkness occurs in the Kingdom of Thornwood, where the protagonist, son of a lost knight, allies with the monk-in-training Milo and the sorceress Pyra to explore a labyrinth and defeat Dark Sol, who has kidnapped the king’s daughter. For the most part, it’s a typical damsel-in-distress story, although there is decent background, even if the placement in the Shining series timeline is somewhat obscure. There are also occasional humorous scenes that Sega didn’t censor (like Nintendo would have), although a plot twist later on seems filched from a certain science-fiction franchise. The plot may have been “good for its time,” but never reaches excellence.

Unlike Nintendo, Sega largely didn’t bother with Bowdlerization of translated titles, with some occasional things that got past whatever censors there were such as a scene involving Pyra and her mother, and the dialogue is generally legible and free of error. However, the localization team put character and enemy names in all caps, and many of the latter are a bit on the Engrishy side such as “Lancerot.” There are also definite reminders of the game’s Japanese lineage in the form of the ending credits interposed with the endgame anime scenes, although these do have English subtitles. In the end, the translation was competent for its time, but far from perfect.

That leaves the gameplay to shoulder the burden, but lamentably, things don’t fare much better in that regard. Unlike its successor series, Shining in the Darkness is a first-person dungeon-crawler RPG, with simple exploration and conversation interfaces for the main town and castle, and the bulk of the game mechanics executed within the massive random encounter-infested labyrinth. At first, it’s just the protagonist whom the player names, although he ultimately receives two allies: the monk-in-training Milo, physically adept and skilled with healing magic; and the sorceress Pyra, physically weak but excelling with offensive magic.

Battles, as mentioned, occur randomly, although the rate of fights seems vastly inconsistent, at times being one encounter per map title, although later on, Pyra obtains a spell that can nullify combat with enemies whose levels are lower than those of the player’s party (said spell will fail if foes’ levels are higher than those of the main characters). The main character can only attack with his weapon, use a consumable item, or attempt escape (although the lead character, and the next lead one depending upon whether or not one or more luminary is dead), although his allies can cast MP-consuming magic with adjustable levels, good for different martial situations.

As in most traditional turn-based RPGs, the player inputs commands for each character, and they and the enemy exchange commands largely depending upon agility, although actual turn order can sometimes vary, even when battling enemies of the same type, although typically, Pyra then Milo take their turns, then the enemy, and finally the main hero. As usual, the option to escape doesn’t always work against higher-level adversaries, and eliminating all foes earns all living characters experience for occasional leveling and money to purchase new equipment and consumables. The whole party’s death leads to valkyries whisking them away to the town’s shrine for full revival, stealing half their money.

However, there are alternate courses of action to take in case the player doesn’t want to risk financial loss (although late in the game money becomes at best a nonissue), such as using an Angel Wing or Pyra’s Egress spell to leave the labyrinth for recovery and shopping in town. The iOS incarnation ups the ante with three cloud save slots that players can make any time, even in battle, with most gamers likely wishing to reload their last progress recorded in this fashion instead of dying and losing money. Another feature present in the iOS version is the ability to rewind gameplay by fifteen seconds, although since fights can take a while, there is an off-chance that players might find themselves stuck in the same round of command execution, and there is a wait time in between such rewinds.

There are other quirks like the ability to use certain weapons as items, the main hero’s most powerful sword, for instance, able to unleash lightning upon all foes, not to mention rings that can cast magic yet crack and shatter after enough use, repairable by the trader whose shop opens late-game. At said storefront, players can give Mithril Ores or Dark Blocks occasionally found in the labyrinth (I snagged one of the former from a random battle, too) and money to forge equipment, although the final equipment for the main hero is more powerful than armaments obtained through crafting, and some items the player can craft for him Milo can use, as well, and end up being his most powerful outfits.

That the game has to narrate every action that occurs in battle somewhat bogs down combat, and players may find themselves liberally reloading cloud saves in case things go awry, although doing so reveals occasional issues with the programming, namely the potential to encounter exactly the same set of foes before the reload. Shining in the Darkness also doesn’t indicate the effects of items or spells, or indicate that certain weapons the player can use to cast spells, and there is an enemy-infested stretch (with some occasional “fixed” encounters with powerful foes) between the only late-game labyrinth recovery point and the final battle that naturally has multiple forms. In the end, there are some positives to the game mechanics, but the negatives very much outweigh them.

The game’s control also has more cons than pros, with the latter including of course the contemporary enhancements like cloud saving, and the ability to use a spell or item to egress instantly from the labyrinth. However, the negatives include the constant barrage of dialogue and confirmations when shopping, the often-terrible direction on how to advance the central storyline, the lack of descriptions for spells and items, the ease of getting lost in the labyrinth, the poorly-implemented teleportation system using two halves of a medallion in golden fountains, and the inability to see how equipment raises or lowers stats before purchasing it. Ultimately, the first Shining game is far from user-friendly.

Pretty much the biggest redeeming aspect of Shining in the Darkness is its sound, with two solid dungeon tracks and battle themes, though they lack variety, and some audio accompanying combat actions isn’t convincing. Every character, moreover, has a “voice” rising or falling in pitch based on who’s talking, and there are other good tracks such as the overworld theme, the three variations of the town music, and the beautiful music that accompanies balcony traversal between different sides of a few of the upper floors. However, the Genesis’s audio capabilities were somewhat inferior to that of its sixteen-bit rival by Nintendo at the time, although the aurals still remain a zenith of the first Shining title.

There are some visual aspects Shining in the Darkness did better than its sixteen-bit Nintendo contemporary, such as the general anime style including full-bodied character sprites with decent proportions, lip animation, and other movement to accompany spoken dialogue, although there is a heavy degree of pixilation that the iOS version doesn’t smooth out. The game also remains strictly in the first person, with the player only briefly glimpsing Milo and Pyra before they join (and never the main hero, except on the Don Bluth-esque North American cover art). Moreover, the first Shining entry pretty much writes the book on reskinned enemies, with lazy animation in the form of jiggling and mirroring when executing commands. The graphics aren’t an eyesore, but definitely could have been better.

Finally, the first Shining is beatable in around a day’s worth of playtime, with little in the way of lasting appeal save for minor plot variations depending upon whom the player has rescued from the labyrinth.

Overall, Shining in the Darkness wasn’t a luminous start for the Sega franchise, given negatives like the slow battles, weak control, hackneyed storyline, and lack of lasting appeal. However, there are occasional bright spots such as the cloud saving present in the iOS version, the great soundtrack, and the nice anime style done better by Sega than Nintendo during the sixteen-bit era. Regardless, unless players wish to experience a piece of RPG history (and contemporary gamers can play for free with ads or pay $5 to eliminate them as well as in the two Genesis Shining Forces included in the iOS collection), there isn’t much reason to play, and mainstream audiences aren’t missing much.

This review based on a playthrough of the version included with Sega Shining Classics on an iPad Pro, with ads disabled through payment.

The Good:
+Cloud saving makes game more playable.
+Story was okay for its time.
+Great soundtrack.
+Okay visuals.

The Bad:
-Battles feel slow and generic.
-Weak control.
-Hackneyed plot.
-Little reason to go through again.

The Bottom Line:
A classic that hasn’t aged well, despite contemporary conveniences.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: iOS
Game Mechanics: 3.0/10
Controls: 2.0/10
Story: 3.5/10
Localization: 5.0/10
Music/Sound: 7.5/10
Graphics: 5.5/10
Lasting Appeal: 1.5/10
Difficulty: Inconsistent
Playing Time: ~1 Day

Overall: 4.0/10

Saturday, January 30, 2021

Fallout 2


Apocalypse Later

Until recently, the original Fallout held the distinction of one of few RPGs I found myself unable to complete, although several years after purchasing it, I managed to make it through to the very end with the aid of a good walkthrough. Given my recent refusal to go into games, especially older ones, totally blind, I printed out a walkthrough for the franchise’s first sequel, Fallout 2, believing that having developed my gaming skills with Western RPGs via the original game, I would be better ready for the second entry. Does the second entry improve upon the first?

The first Fallout sequel for the most part uses the same turn-based tactical battle system as its predecessor, although things don’t necessarily play out as well. The player chooses from one of three protagonists to start, sets stats, and chooses a few bonuses before the game throws them into the action. Action points dictate how many commands the player’s character can perform when they reach their turn, with occasional ally NPCs obtained, although players can mostly fight solo. While the general game mechanics are at least bearable with a guide, there are a number of issues such as the lack of saving in the middle of battle, the AP cost of opening the item menu even if just viewing inventory, slow leveling, the scarcity of money, and so forth.

Control only mildly fares better, especially with the ability to save progress any time outside battle and dialogue that’s skippable most of the time, although there’s terrible direction on how to advance the central storyline, the game doesn’t clearly indicate interactable elements on-screen, NPCs sometimes get in the player’s way, slow overworld travel without a car (difficult to obtain without a guide), and the limited inventory space that can really become burdensome later on, and so forth.

The narrative is one of few passable elements, occurring fourscore after the first game, and focusing on the player’s created character known as the Chosen One, tasked with retrieving a Garden of Eden Creation Kit (GECK) for their hometown of Arroyo. The general mythos is superb, there are differences based on decisions made and the character chosen, and given the skippable dialogue, the plot rarely feels forced in the player’s face, although there’s the aforementioned terrible direction in how to advance the central storyline, and the present-day events receive scarce development. Overall, the storyline isn’t excellent, but doesn’t bring the game down too much.

The aurals are another passable element, with some rare decent old-timey music, superb voice acting, and solid ambience and sound effects, although there’s a noticeable lack of memorable music, and many areas that are silent.

The visuals are almost exactly the same as they are in the first game, with a general good realistic style and nice art direction, although there are many instances where they negatively impact the gameplay, given the lack of indication of interactable elements and walls obscuring the player’s view of certain areas, and the FMVs contain blemishes such as a bit of pixilation.

Finally, the first sequel takes a bit longer to beat than its precursor, somewhere from one to two days’ total playtime depending upon sidequests undertaken, and while there is theoretical lasting appeal in the story differences, there isn’t enough entertainment to warrant additional gameplay.

Overall, Fallout 2 is a disappointing sequel, given its relative unplayability without the aid of the internet, the horrible direction on how to advance the central storyline, the unengaging plotline, the lack of a memorable soundtrack, the recycled graphics, and the general torture of going through it another time despite theoretical replay value. Despite these glaring flaws in the game, it somehow attained favorable critical acclaim, which brings to question the integrity of mainstream gaming journalism, and the sequel to date is very much a relic of a time when Western RPGs hadn’t quite emerged from their niche.

This review is based on a playthrough of the Steam version as Chitsa.

The Good:
+You can save anywhere, except in battle.
+Story is okay, with some differences depending on character.
+Aurals don’t offend.

The Bad:
-Virtually unplayable without a guide.
-Terrible direction on how to advance.
-Unengaging plot and characters.
-Not a whole lot of memorable music.
-Lackluster visuals.
-Not fun enough to go through again.

The Bottom Line:
A relic of a time when Western RPGs hadn’t broken out of their niche.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: PC
Game Mechanics: 2.0/10
Controls: 3.0/10
Story: 5.0/10
Music/Sound: 5.0/10
Graphics: 3.0/10
Lasting Appeal: 3.0/10
Difficulty: Adjustable, but still hard.
Playing Time: 1-2 Days

Overall: 3.5/10

Friday, January 29, 2021

Heart of Black Ice


The final entry of the late Terry Goodkind’s Nicci Chronicles opens with the antediluvian wizard Nathan Rahl observing the vast army of the formerly-petrified General Utros, recently reeling from the incineration of thousands of his soldiers, although his forces still remain formidable. Meanwhile, the lands of the Old World under the relatively-recent jurisdiction of the D’Haran Empire will ultimately face a secondary threat, the Norukai navy spearheaded by King Grieve. Among Utros’ army, Adessa adores the severed head of one of her antagonists, with Nicci in the meantime encountering the strange, shadowy people of the city of Orogang.

Bannon finds himself a slave to the Norukai, and Nicci encounters hostile enigmatic entities known as the zhiss. Whilst the former Sister of Darkness seeks to help Orogang’s Hidden People against the bloodthirsty zhiss, she simultaneously fears that General Utros’ army will overrun the city. Nicci and the teleportative sliph also find themselves at odds, and the general’s military eventually clashes with the Hidden People in Orogang. The freedom fighters of the Old World find themselves fighting on two fronts, the land against General Utros’ forces and the sea against King Grieve’s.

The nautical folk known as the selka also have a brief battle with the Norukai ships, and Nicci soon receives the news from Lord Richard Rahl that the New World will not send reinforcements to the Old, although she receives a tiny artifact that plays a significant role in the book’s later events. Nicci and General Linden prepare Tanimura for battle on both its fronts, and things truly intensity towards the end, and while the fourth Nicci Chronicle was advertised as the conclusion to the sequel series, a good one at that, the ending still leaves room for future stories, likely never to come to fruition due to the author’s death.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Fair Trade


Continuing from the second Kanti Cycle book, the series’ eponymous protagonist, a geroo, a likely-kangaroo-like alien, finds himself in slavery, and yearns to go home to his love Tish. The third and final entry follows Kanti’s life as a slave, during which he attempts to improve their living conditions to be bearable, although he does find positives such as a good harvest. He constantly changes owners throughout the book’s events, and his love Tish finds herself in her own dire circumstances that somewhat climax when Kanti does finally return by her side.

All in all, I found this a rather-disappointing end to the Kanti Cycle, which, despite my involvement in the furry fandom, wasn’t all that engaging or memorable, given in particular the lack of descriptions or reminders as to the appearances of the various characters and alien races, and while there are a few illustrations by Rick Griffin, indicators on which luminary was which would have certainly been welcome. There is a bit of mature content and some sexual references, although the third book like its precursors highly downplays them, and I would definitely be hesitant overall to recommend this read.

Birthday Art by Blue Mario


Saturday, January 23, 2021

Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel! Ultimate Edition


Moonraker, but Good

The year 2009 saw the release of the Gearbox Software-developed and 2K Games-published Borderlands, which caused quite a stir given its hybrid shooter and RPG mechanics, and its success would lead to its transformation into a franchise that would see several rereleases and remasters, as had been the trend for videogame developers seeking to fill their wallets through nostalgic appeal. Among the later entries of the franchise would be an interquel between the first and second number titles, its latest release titled Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel! Ultimate Edition, “part” of the Legendary Collection for Nintendo Switch (albeit obtained through a one-time-use download code), which like its chronological precursor definitely feels at home on the Big N’s hybrid system.

Upon starting a new game, the player can choose among several characters, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Gameplay largely resembles that from the first chronological Borderlands game, with the player’s character initially able to wield two equippable firearms, although this ultimately expands to four, and the chosen protagonist can also wear a shield, grenade modifier, class modifier, and, given the game’s outer space setting, and oxygen modifier. The Pre-Sequel’s oxygen gauge one could consider the equivalent of classic Western RPG systems such as the food mechanic in the early Ultima titles, and it luckily doesn’t hamper the game.

The chosen protagonist’s oxygen modifier also allows him or her to get a boost in the air and slam below to deal damage to surrounding adversaries, which can really come in handy in oxygenated areas (since using said slam or boosting costs some of their oxygen) against multiple ground foes. Of course, as in the other games, the player can shoot their guns at antagonists to get experience and occasional drops such as new weapons, money, ammunition, and health recovery vials. As in The Pre-Sequel’s brethren, moreover, damage from enemies initially goes to the player’s shield before damaging their health, with death coming whenever HP reaches zero.

Fortunately, like other Borderlands titles, the game is nice to players when they die, allowing them a window of opportunity to kill an enemy near death to revive with some shield capacity and health, and one strategy I really found handy was keeping a bazooka on hand, given their high damage capability, to kill foes more easily when close to demise. Should the gauge that appears during death expire, the player’s character revives at the last checkpoint, with some of their money lost (less than ten percent), a fair penalty, especially compared to the harshness of death in many Japanese RPGs. One character ultimately gets an alternate death mode with a better opportunity to kill foes and revive.

As in other entries of the franchise, each character has a unique combat skill that lasts for a minute or two and takes some time to restore, with Wilhelm, for instance, able to summon two drones, one which gradually heals him and the other which attacks the enemy. Leveling fully restores the player’s shields, health, and action command cooldown (although gaining levels happens more slowly compared to many other RPGs), and gives the player a skill point they can invest into one of three skill trees, more powerful skills accessed as they invest points into lower-level skills. Class modifiers can give bonus points to these skills, some actually being fairly useful and critical to completing the game.

Other notable features of the game mechanics include the grinder, where the player can combine three firearms or other equipment (though these have certain limits depending upon the rarity rank) into another of the same type, sometimes with bonuses (and using moonstone, a material also occasionally gained from killing enemies, can increase the chance of a rank up), which definitely helps ease the stress of inventory management, since the number of items the player can carry and store in a facility in Concordia (one of the only towns players encounter in the game) is finite, albeit increasable, along with ammunition capacity.

The mechanics definitely work well, with the difficulty being relatively above average but certainly manageable, especially with the right equipment and abilities, although there are a few occasions, such as one boss towards the end, that drove me to seek help from the internet. Another thing to keep in mind is that certain foes are weak to the different elements that weapons can inflict: shock, freeze, burn, and corrosion. Those unskilled with first-person shooters will also need a steady trigger finger to appreciate the game fully, and there is some repetition should the player die and fail to revive. Despite these issues, the battle system very much serves The Pre-Sequel well.

Control, not so much. While the boosting and slamming system via the oxygen modifiers can be fun to mess around with, they account for some horrid level design, and while there are in-game maps, The Pre-Sequel doesn’t have separate ones for different floors of areas. A suspend same would also have been nice, since saving and quitting the game doesn’t preserve the player’s current location, and if in the middle of a story mission, they most of the time have to start from its beginning when resuming gameplay. There are some bright spots, however, such as the clear direction on how to advance the central plotline and many sidequests, but things could have certainly been better.

The narrative, however, very much serves The Pre-Sequel well, although, despite its setting mostly between the first and second numbered titles, some players may be lost in terms of continuity, and a refresher on events from the first game would have been nice. There are plenty of colorful characters, and the sidequests add decently to the plotline, with a few aspects paying homage to the Star Wars franchise. The script is also reasonably mature, and the clear direction mentioned is a definite plus to the story. However, it does feel somewhat forced down the player’s throat, given the unskippable voiced dialogue, but is otherwise good.

There are a few good tracks in The Pre-Sequel’s soundtrack, such as the theme in the opening level, not to mention the ending theme, and the sound effects very well aid the outer space atmosphere of the storyline, with breathing and laser effects, among other things. The voice acting is also well above average, with a few characters having Australian dialects, although more memorable music would have definitely been welcome. Regardless, the aurals very much help the game more than hurt.

The same goes for the graphics, with a cel-shaded style similar to other Borderlands entries and character models that are both anatomically-correct and look well-designed. The colors are bright and vibrant, and the environments, except for some occasional dithering and blurry, pixilated textures, are more than believable, very well conveying an outer-space atmosphere. The enemy designs are nice as well, as is the overall art direction, although there’s also some choppiness at times. Regardless, The Pre-Sequel is a definite visual treat.

Finally, one can finish the game in a little over one day’s worth of playtime, although there’s plentiful lasting appeal in the different characters, side missions, and Vault Hunter mode (though not all will appreciate going through the oftentimes-badly-designed levels again) accessed when finishing the main storyline, with a potential for up to around five days’ worth of total playing time.

All in all, Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel! is a solid interquel with many things going for it such as solid shooter-looter mechanics, the entertaining storyline and dialogue, the good voice acting, and pretty visuals. However, it does have issues of which mainstream players need to be aware such as the need for a steady trigger-finger, not to mention the dismal level design, general lack of memorable music, and the fact that the story might not seem well-enough connected to the game’s chronological precursor. Regardless, I very much enjoyed what time I spent with the interquel Borderlands game, and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it, especially to fans of first-person shooters.

This review is based on a playthrough of the version digitally downloaded through the code included with Borderlands Legendary Collection as Wilhelm.

The Good:
+Refined looter-shooter mechanics.
+Enjoyable narrative.
+Great voicework.
+Pretty visuals.
+Plentiful lasting appeal.

The Bad:
-Often requires a steady trigger finger.
-Horrid level design.
-Needs suspend save badly.
-Soundtrack largely forgettable.
-Some graphical impurities.

The Bottom Line:
A fine addition to the looter-shooter series.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Game Mechanics: 7.5/10
Controls: 4.0/10
Story: 7.5/10
Music/Sound: 7.5/10
Graphics: 7.5/10
Lasting Appeal: 8.0/10
Difficulty: Hard
Playing Time: 1-5 Days

Overall: 7.0/10

Charlotte's Web (1973)


I've seen this several times throughout my childhood, and it really resounds with me to this day since I was somewhat the "runt" of my family, about a pig named Wilbur who is saved from the chopping block by the eponymous arachnid's ability to weave messages into her webbing, based on the book by E.B. White, which also had the honor of being one of the very first full-length novels I read and remember. It has a decent musical score as well by the Sherman brothers somewhat reminiscent of their other work, like for Mary Poppins, and the title theme (sung during Charlotte's first nighttime web-weaving) actually sounded to be an inspiration for John Williams' Wizarding World theme.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

The Mandalorian


Waited until all episodes of season two were out on Disney+ to rewatch the whole series thus far, with the first season focusing on the eponymous bounty hunter's escort of a Force-sensitive youngling known as "The Child," (although he ultimately gets a name) with the second having some good twists, including a luminary from the Clone Wars and some characters from the original trilogy. Definitely enjoyed it, and look forward to the third season and planned spinoffs, if they ever release (due to the widespread shutdown of the entertainment industry).

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Siege of Stone


The third entry of Terry Goodkind’s The Nicci Chronicles opens with the Old World’s city of Ildakar still ablaze from civil war caused by an insurgent group led by the enigmatic Mirrormask. The ancient stone army outside the city also becomes animate after a millennium and a half of petrification, led by General Utros, who served the long-deceased Emperor Kurgan, and aims to conquer the very city that had turned him and his soldiers to stone in the first place. Meanwhile, within Ildakar, Bannon, joined by Lila still finds himself haunted by bad memories of its fighting in its arena.

Moreover, the nautical Norukai, led by King Grieve, plan to attack Ildakar as well, whilst the Ildakaran Wizard Renn meets the traveling Verna, who seeks the fabled archive of Cliffwall. Former Sister of Darkness Nicci briefly meets with General Utros, with Nathan Rahl, recently regaining his magical abilities, discovering a sliph in Ildakar, a transportation method used numerous times by his distant descendant Richard back in the Sword of Truth saga. The imprisoned Sovrena Thora broods in her captivity, still believing Ildakar to be hers, and Bannon is distraught at the city’s new enemies.

Ildakar’s wizard duma discusses how to combat the massive ancient army, with Nicci working day and night to rally the city’s defenders into fighting shape. In the meantime, General Utros laments over his long-lost love Majel, and attempts to seek an alliance with the gray dragon Brom, who is reluctant to join his crusade. One significant possibility to counter the threat of Utros’ forces is the development of transference magic, and the forces of the General and the Norukai ultimately catch Ildakar in a pincer attack. The action truly intensifies in the final chapters, with Utros and Norukai forming an alliance, and the general narrative left unresolved.

Regardless, I definitely enjoyed the third entry of the late Goodkind’s Nicci Chronicles, given its endearing characters and fantastical action, with plentiful backstory and some reminders as to things such as Nicci’s background and origin of her magical abilities. Siege of Stone also didn’t seem to suffer from the frequent punctuation errors prevalent in the Sword of Truth stories, and the relative brevity of the chapters makes the book readable in small bursts. Granted, maps of the Old World, with only the New World cartographically depicted back in The Sword of Truth, would have been welcome, but I definitely wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this novel to those who enjoyed its precursors.

Art by Angel_Ef

 In day and night versions:

Monday, January 18, 2021

Birthday Art



Disney+ version of the musical whose main gimmick is "American then, as told by America now," with ethnic actors mostly portraying the country's forefathers. Learned a few things by reading about the musical and of course watching it.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Mulan (2020)


Another enjoyable live-action Disney remake. It even uses an instrumental version of "When Will My Reflection Show?" from the animated film on which it's based as a central theme, and has vocal versions in English and Chinese during the ending credits.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Small World


In the second installment of Gre7g Luterman’s Kanti Cycle, a commissioner mistakenly allowed his previous cleaning crew to starve to death, and thus, the kangaroo-like geroo protagonist Kanti, alongside forty-nine teammates, have to live in a one room-barracks, a singular airlock protecting them from the poisonous atmosphere of the planet they occupy. The ship on which they were formerly, the White Flower II, has vague objectives, and the commissioner visits the planet Krakuntec, home of the reptilian krakun species. A series of events leads to Kanti finding salvation at the hands of a being known as a sourang, who demands his obedience in return.

I didn’t really appreciate this sequel as much as the first book, largely due to the fragmented nature of many of its events, and the relative interchangeability of the characters, with little description to set them apart, although Rick Griffin’s illustrations do look nice. However, indicators below the pictures on which of the dramatis personae were which would have definitely been welcome. I definitely did appreciate the racy content of the plotline, and the novel is definitely for mature audiences, but said content is largely nothing to write home about. It’s certainly not a bad novel, but I just didn’t find it a terribly-memorable read.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Radiant Historia: Perfect Chronology


Sliding Doors: The RPG

The year 1998 saw the release of the romantic comedy-drama film Sliding Doors, which depicts two parallel timelines depending upon whether or not the protagonist catches a train, later an inspiration for the bowling episode of Malcolm in the Middle. A few years over a score later did the Nintendo DS RPG Radiant Historia release, whose narrative has a similar concept, along with time-travel elements akin to the ballyhooed Chrono Trigger. Several years later did it receive an upgraded port to the 3DS entitled Radiant Historia: Perfect Chronology, which adds significant new story content, and proves overall a solid rerelease.

Upon starting a new game, the player can select a mode that dictates how it handles the new narrative content, depending upon whether one is familiar with the DS version. Probably the most significant addition is the Friendly mode, which is undoubtedly one of the best casual modes in the history of Japanese RPGs. Enemies are visible on fields and in dungeons, with protagonist Stocke able to slash them to get the advantage in combat, although on Friendly mode, the enemy dies right away and rewards the player with money and experience for occasional level-ups, which will happen quite frequently, and the need to grind is minimal.

The actual battle system itself isn’t half-bad. A party consisting of Stocke and two characters participates in a turn-based engine against a set of enemies arranged on a three-by-three grid, with the uniqueness that the player’s characters aren’t on a grid of any sort. A turn order meter shows who takes their turns when, with all the player’s characters and the enemy typically taking their turns together. The player inputs commands for all the characters that can attack before the enemies can do so, with commands including attacking with equipped weapons, using MP-consuming skills, using consumable items, exchanging turn order with another ally with a slight penalty, or attempt to escape.

Regarding the enemy grid, certain skills can push enemies in one of four directions across it, with the perpetual strategy of “bunching up” foes so that character skills can affect them all at once, with combat tracking the number of hits the player’s characters have executed. Character execution of commands flows fluidly, with the aforementioned tactic making fights go by more quickly, characters in some cases executing their orders simultaneously (particularly when it comes to standard attacks). Enemies tend to accomplish the same once they reach their turns, and sometimes they may move across their grid, rarely assembling into formations that can grant them benefits.

There are times during execution of the characters’ skills when allies not in the party may contribute a support command, and mercifully, all PCs have their strong suits and are far from benchable. Whilst the player’s characters attack the enemy, the game tracks the number of hits on an enemy or enemy, with alleged additional damage with a higher number of hits (which is in fact necessary to beat the absolute final boss, so definitely don’t rule out use of combos). When the player emerges victorious within a standard battle, Perfect Chronology grants the typical JRPG rewards of experience for sporadic level-ups, money, and the occasional item (which one character can also steal from foes).

The battle system definitely works well, with the different difficulty settings very much accommodating towards players with divergent skillsets, and the Friendly mode making it easier to experience the narrative. The player is further able to jump back to viewed events, so the game is beatable regardless of whatever situation in which the player may find himself or herself, and the save system is more than generous, with very frequent opportunities within the space of a few minutes, sometimes even less, so if the player happens to die, wasted playtime is minimal. Probably the only real issue with combat is that the player’s characters, if an enemy has completely lost its HP, still keep attacking it, with no transferal of their commands to other foes. Regardless, the game mechanics very much shine.

The rerelease for the most part interacts well with players, with easy menus, shopping that allows them to see how equipment will increase or decrease character stats, the generous save system with added suspend save feature, a menu indicator of the next objective, a dot-connected overworld where the player can skip past visited areas in later chapters, mostly-skippable voiced text, and the ability to skip cutscenes entirely once the player has viewed them once. Pretty much the biggest issue is the poor direction at many times on how to advance the central storyline, and I actually found myself dependent upon a guide to get to the ending credits. Regardless, control serves the game well.

The narrative does as well, focusing on an agent named Stocke who must ponder a key decision that results in two parallel timelines. Several allies assist him in both periods, all having some kind of story behind them, as does the world in which the game occurs, with desertification a major theme. There are also a number of good twists, not to mention multiple “bad” endings where the player has to revisit the point before the critical decision and choose the “right” one. Given the ability to skip through the dialogue in case players would rather read it than listen to the voicework, the plot doesn’t feel forced down the player’s throat, although there are some derivative elements such as an evil queen and dying world. Regardless, the plotline is worthwhile, and a largely-spotless translation very much helps.

The aurals aid the game well too, with composer Yoko Shimomura, as always, doing a fantastic job with the soundtrack, the beautiful J-pop tune “Falling Flower, Flowing Water” accompanying the introductory anime cutscene. The enigmatic title screen theme foreshadows the mysterious disposition of the plot, and town themes such as that in Granorg really stand out. The voice acting is also largely good, and mercifully not forced down the player’s throat given the ability to skip most dialogue, although there are some minor annoying voices, mostly NPCs. There’s also an issue with the audio warbling at times, but otherwise, Perfect Chronology is easy on the ears.

The rerelease is easy on the eyes as well, like the original DS version utilizing a visual style with three-dimensional scenery and two-dimensional character sprites, although it lamentably doesn’t use the 3DS’s 3-D capabilities. Regardless, the graphics still have plenty going for them, such as the pleasant color scene, the believable scenery, and the character sprites looking like their portraits (with the port sporting new designs, although the original art and chibi-style designs are available via DLC), although some of the sprites within and without battle are reskins. There’s also a lack of shadows for the sprites and some jaggies, but otherwise, Perfect Chronology is more than visually competent.

Getting to the ending credits necessitates around a day’s worth of playtime, although there are plenty sidequests and temporal nodes to discover that really enhance lasting appeal, alongside a New Game+ and the aforementioned multiple difficulty settings.

Overall, Radiant Historia: Perfect Chronology is an ideal enhanced port that makes a great game better, given its positives such as engaging mechanics with an inventive casual mode, tight control, a well-written narrative and polished localization, an excellent soundtrack, pretty visuals, and plentiful lasting appeal. One, however, probably won’t fully appreciate the game by going into it blind without a guide, and there are admittedly some issues with regards to the plot’s derivative elements, the technical hiccups with the aurals, and certain aspects of the visuals. Regardless, I definitely don’t regret experiencing this port, and consider it one of the highlights of my videogaming career.

This review is based on a playthrough on Perfect mode and Friendly difficulty.

The Good:
+Superb game mechanics with one of the best-ever casual modes.
+Mostly-tight control.
+Well-written narrative and dialogue.
+Excellent music.
+Great art direction.
+Plenty reasons to come back for more.

The Bad:
-Guide necessary to get most out of game.
-Story has derivative elements.
-Some technical hiccups with aurals.
-Visuals could have used more polish at points.

The Bottom Line:
A crowning achievement among Japanese RPGs.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Game Mechanics: 9.5/10
Controls: 9.0/10
Story: 9.0/10
Localization: 9.5/10
Music/Sound: 8.5/10
Graphics: 8.0/10
Lasting Appeal: 10/10
Difficulty: Adjustable
Playing Time: 1-2 Days

Overall: 9.5/10

Saturday, January 9, 2021

Shroud of Eternity


The second installment of the late Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth sequel series, The Nicci Chronicles, opens with Nicci and her company, chiefly the antediluvian ex-prophet Nathan Rahl, encountering disembodied heads as a warning of advancing through the Old World, now part of the D’Haran Empire. Afterward, they come across a petrified army that plays a role in the book’s ending events, and they eventually reach the city of Ildakar, shut off from the rest of the world by a magical shroud, and where an insurgent group led by the enigmatic Mirrormask causes trouble for the ruling wizard duma.

The city’s wizards welcome their visitors with a magnificent celebration, with the ungifted Bannon Farmer, also part of Nicci’s company, feeling somewhat out of place. The Wizard Commander of Ildakar, Maxim, makes his acquaintanceship with Nicci, and Nathan makes his with the skin-specializing Fleshmancer Andre, who creates a martial abomination that plays a sizeable role in Ildakar’s gladiatorial arena and has a past connection to Bannon. Meanwhile, Verna, a minor character from the Sword of Truth saga, feels the call of what remains of the Palace of the Prophets, with other minor dramatis personae including the scholar Oliver, Peretta, and the fisherman Kenneth.

Nicci ultimately discovers that Ildakar still practices slavery, formally outlawed in the D’Haran Empire, and makes her case to the wizard duma, the civic sorcerers preparing to further isolate themselves from the rest of the world. Bannon soon finds himself involved in the gladiator battles, whilst the scholar Oliver values the knowledge he gained traveling across the Old World. Ildakar’s Sovrena Thora finds herself in a bind at the hands of Mirrormask’s rebels, the identity of the insurgent leader himself revealed, and the city goes into flames, with Nicci and her companions departing in the end.

The second installment of Goodkind’s Nicci Chronicles is overall an enjoyable sequel with plentiful expansion of the world established by the Sword of Truth saga, though some maps would have been welcome, with the New World cartographically depicted in some entries of the prequel series but never the Old World. Furthermore, some of the chapters involving rather minor characters within the franchise’s universe seem somewhat unnecessary and don’t seem to contribute much to the central narrative. Regardless, those who enjoyed the books that occurred chronologically before it will most likely enjoy Shroud of Eternity, and I look forward to reading its successors.



Sanrio anime series about a Japanese red panda named Retsuko who dislikes her day job, largely due to her misogynist boss, the pig Ton, and vents her frustration via death metal karaoke. Towards the end of the first season, she develops feelings for a fellow red panda, and in the second, she becomes intimate with a tech executive, the donkey Tadano. In the third, she accidentally backs her car into someone else's, which throws her into pop stardom. Definitely an enjoyable series, and I look forward to the forthcoming forth season.

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Star Trek: Discovery


The third season of Discovery launches the eponymous vessel and its crew a few decades shy of a millennium into the future, with the Federation in shambles, and the crewmembers including Michael Burnham and Captain Saru attempting to pick up the pieces. It's probably for the best that they launched the ship into the future since it seems somewhat out of place in a timeframe that allegedly took place fifteen years before The Original Series, and I definitely enjoyed the latest season.

Sunday, January 3, 2021

Skeleton Crew


The first entry of Gre7g Luterman’s Kanti Cycle opens with a ceremonial euthanasia of a kangaroo-esque geroo after sixty years of life, with protagonist Kanti giving a eulogy. The chief setting is the spaceship metropolis White Flower II, where the richest geroo live towards the top of the vessel, whereas the poorer inhabitants, Kanti among them, live towards the bottom. The geroo coexist with the reptilian krakun, with Kanti exploring the vessel and hearing about the fabled skeleton crew, although it seems to be a taboo topic. Kanti works as a geroo recycler, and finds love early on.

Ateri serves as captain of the White Flower II, later serving as a scapegoat among the disgruntled inhabitants of the vessel. Kanti investigates a tragedy that leaves him upset for several chapters, with mysterious circumstances surrounding his birth token that is essentially a license to live. Kanti becomes intimate with Tish, although certain events cause her to believe that he is disloyal or has a secondary occupation. The action of the novel climaxes with the poorer inhabitants of the vessel attempting mutiny against Captain Ateri, who ultimately lauds Kanti as a hero.

All in all, I mostly enjoyed this science-fiction novel with anthropomorphic characters, with several illustrations from Rick Griffin that give visual assistance mainly for the geroo and krakun, although pre-text notes such as a list of dramatic personae would have been welcome, and the characters are largely interchangeable as far as their appearances go. It’s also a slight hodgepodge of other science-fiction such as Logan’s Run and Soylent Green, although it definitely stands decently on its own, and I would mainly recommend it to furries seeking a good niche novel.

Friday, January 1, 2021

Wild Arms


Lufia Goes West

In the latter portion of the sixteen-bit console era, Nintendo was in talks with Sony to develop a compact disc-based add-on to the Super Famicom / NES, although these negotiations ultimately fell through, and the latter company eventually turned their idea into the successful independent PlayStation system. While roleplaying games would find a niche on the system, Sony’s American branch at the time had a policy against the localization of RPGs that lasted until its chief Bernie Stolar jumped ship to Sega. Among the early roleplaying games for the system was Wild Arms, which definitely shows as one of the pioneer titles for the console.

Unlike the purely-fantastical setting of most roleplaying games, Wild Arms attempted to bring a wild west theme to the genre, although it often comes across as an afterthought. The playable protagonists, collectively known as Dream Chasers, include the enigmatic wielder of Ancient Relic Machines (ARMs) Rudy Roughnight, the equally-mysterious Jack Van Burace, and Princess Cecilia of Adlehyde, all who have decent development. However, the main antagonists, the Quarter Knights, don’t have a whole lot of backstory, and come across as ripoffs of the Sinistrals from the Lufia franchise. The dying world theme also echoes the original Final Fantasy, and in the end, the narrative isn’t a major draw to the game.

The translation doesn’t help matters, with Sony’s American branch having demonstrated at the time their incompetence with regards to videogame localizations. There are endless grammatical errors that even a middle-schooler could see, the font choice is terrible, Japanese quote brackets still remain, with many phrases within the dialogue encased in them, there are Engrish names like the “Fenril Knights,” and there are occasional lines such as “I’m back at this place of hatred; the hatred between a parent and a child.” Sony also poorly attempted to capture the spirit of Working Designs’ translations with things such as an anachronistic reference to the U.S.S. Missouri, and ultimately, they didn’t adapt the game very well for Anglophone audiences.

That leaves the game mechanics to shoulder the burden, and Wild Arms actually does okay in this department in many respects. Players randomly encounter battles, with this rate mercifully reducible with a spell later on in the game, and there are only three characters to worry about outfitting with equipment. Rudy can use the gun-like ARMs, each with a finite number of bullets the player can restore at inns, with players able to upgrade their attack power, accuracy (though his “Lock-On” Force ability largely makes doing so pointless), and maximum number of bullets.

Jack can use MP-consuming skills known as Fast Draws, which question marks initially indicate upon acquisition at certain points in the game, and reveal themselves randomly after several attempts with them in their “hint” states. Cecilia can cast MP-consuming defensive and offensive magic that the player can form through Crest Graphs at magic guilds, and Wild Arms follows the traditional turn-based battle structure of the player inputting commands for all playable characters, with them and the enemy exchanging commands in a round depending upon agility. As one can expect, turn order can be unpredictable, sometimes random, though Cecilia’s speed-affecting magic somewhat solves this issue.

Each character also has a Force gauge of up to 100%, with each character having unique abilities in this regard such as Rudy’s Lock-On skill that guarantees an ARM will strike an enemy or enemies, Jack’s Accelerate ability that guarantees him the first turn in a round, and Cecilia’s useful Mystic skill that expands a consumable item’s effects to all characters. Battles generally end quickly, although some animations appear drawn-out, and each character receives experience for occasional level-ups and Gella for purchasing ARM upgrades, consumables, and equipment. Other features include the ability to reduce the MP cost of Jack’s Fast Draws through Secret Signs.

The battle system definitely has its positives, although there are a number of issues such as the aforementioned problem with turn order, the finite supply of certain helpful consumables, the annoying endgame where death necessitates the player reload their last save (with opportunities to record progress often inconveniently placed) as is the case with standard encounters, and that enemies don’t decide their commands until reaching their turns, which can result in instances where, for example, the player revives a deceased character, only for the enemy to kill them again. The combat mechanics are serviceable, but far from perfect.

Another chief aspect of the gameplay is that each playable protagonist acquires a number of tools necessary to solve various puzzles in the game’s dungeons, which can be fairly enjoyable at times, although there are cases where I had to use a guide to figure out how to advance, which especially goes for the central storyline, given terrible narrative direction. Shopping is easy, players can see how equipment increases or decreases stats before purchasing it, and inventory space is more than generous, but an additional problem is the lack of maps for the sometimes-convoluted dungeons. In the end, Wild Arms only averagely interacts well with players.

Inarguably the high point of the first game is composer Michiko Naruke’s soundtrack, which contains many toe-tapping tunes such as the whistle-laden central theme “Into the Wilderness,” the festival music, and many dungeon tracks. There are some rare bad tracks such as one dungeon theme, and many tunes such as the main battle theme don’t last a long time before looping. The sound effects fare significantly worse, with many such as the laser-esque sounds sounding like they came straight from the Atari 2600. Regardless, the soundtrack is perhaps the game’s strongest suit.

While Wild Arms features beautiful opening and ending anime cutscenes, not to mention competent character design, and the town and dungeon environments look nice, the rest of the visuals fare significantly worse. For one, depicting the humanoid characters within and without battle as, for lack of a better term, Bombermen, doesn’t really play well for the graphics, with combat faring the worst in this regard, lending the impression that the developers played a little too much of Hudson’s Bomberman franchise. The monster designs aren’t any better, appearing incredibly jagged, and all in all, the sight is one of the original game’s weakest aspects.

Finally, the original installment isn’t terribly lengthy, although the in-game clock is a little slow, showing a little under nineteen hours for me to clear the game, but more in reality being somewhere around a day’s worth of playtime.

In summation, the original Wild Arms does have a few things going for it such as the serviceable game mechanics and puzzles, the enjoyable soundtrack, and that it doesn’t take up too much of the player’s time. However, it does sport some serious flaws of which mainstream gamers need to be aware such as the difficulty without a guide, the derivative plotline and poor translation, the primitive sound effects, the uninspired visual direction, and general lack of lasting appeal. Regardless of its flaws, it would spawn an RPG franchise that at times has been polarizing, not to mention a remake for the PlayStation 2 that bears a highly-divergent style.

This review is based on a playthrough of the digital version downloaded to a PlayStation Vita.

The Good:
-A few convenient battle mechanics.
-Some good puzzles.
-Decent soundtrack.

The Bad:
-Can be difficult without a guide.
-Derivative plotline.
-Poor translation.
-Primitive sound effects.
-Uninspired visual direction.
-Not a lot of lasting appeal.

The Bottom Line:
Not a good beginning to the series.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: PlayStation
Game Mechanics: 5.0/10
Controls: 5.0/10
Story: 3.5/10
Localization: 0.5/10
Music/Sound: 6.5/10
Graphics: 2.0/10
Lasting Appeal: 4.5/10
Difficulty: Moderate
Playing Time: ~1 Day

Overall: 3.5/10