Saturday, July 31, 2021

The Foundling and Other Tales of Prydain

The Foundling and Other Tales of PrydainThe Foundling and Other Tales of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This collection of short stories by Lloyd Alexander occurs in his land of Prydain, focusing on several events that occurred before the birth of Taran the Assistant Pig-Keeper.

“The Foundling” tells of how the three witches from the Marshes of Morva found Dallben when he was just a baby and adopted him, until he goes off on his own while receiving a book with wisdom as a gift, although it’s slightly unclear if it’s The Book of Three.

“The Stone” tells about an elderly couple, Maibon and Mondrona, with the former (the husband of the pair), receiving a stone from Doli that allows him to stop aging, although he regrets his decision since the artifact stops biological aging all around him.

“The True Enchanter” tells of how Princess Angharad’s mother Queen Regat of Llyr brought several suitors to her, intending her daughter to marry an enchanter, although against her mother’s wishes, she settles upon the least magical of them, Geraint, with whom she ultimately elopes.

“The Rascal Crow” tells about how King Arawn, Lord of the Land of Death, seeks to enslave the creatures of the forest, among them being the eponymous avian Kadwyr, who doubts the skill his and his fellow animals’ guardian Medwyn proclaims among them, although certain circumstances cause the crow to be more appreciative of his fellow beings.

“The Sword” provides backstory on the black blade that plays part in the primary Prydain series, Dyrnwyn, which becomes an inheritance of Rhitta, crowned King of Prydain, although he procrastinates in aiding a shephard named Amrys, claiming many lives along the way and erecting the subterranean Spiral Castle before he ultimately dies from his selfishness.

“The Smith, The Weaver, and The Harper” tells about how the hammer of Iscovan the Smith could work any metal, how the shuttle of Follin the Weaver could weave quickly, and how the harp of Menwy the Bard could play beautiful music, with Arawn the Lord of Death seeking these relics and disguising himself, with the first two craftsmen falling for his deception but the last seeing through his veil.

“Coll and His White Pig” tells of how Coll seeks to rescue his white pig Hen Wen from King Arawn of Annuvin, Lord of the Land of Death, due to the swine’s disposition as an oracular porcine, and meets Dallben, who allows him to partake in the wisdom of The Book of Three.

“The Truthful Harp” tells about how King Fflewddur Fflam aspires for recognition by the High Council of Bards, and while the Chief Bard initially fails him, he does give him his iconic harp whose strings break whenever he utters an aberration, with this quirk allowing him to grow in character.

Doesn’t quite fill all the holes in the Prydain series, particularly with regards to the enigmatic Taran, but definitely a good read, whether before or after the main series.

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Jungle Cruise

Definitely a fun movie, and The Rock did a good job. Personally, I somewhat tire of film critics complaining about the constantly-growing use of CG, since I accept that using lifelike effects would just make films more expensive than they already are.

Friday, July 30, 2021

Dark Space VI: Armageddon

Armageddon (Dark Space, #6)Armageddon by Jasper T. Scott
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The final entry of author Jasper T. Scott’s Dark Space series opens with a list of dramatis personae that includes human clones of characters from prior entries, and thus, one can find difficult keeping track of who is the original and who is the replicant. The main events open eleven years AE (After Exodus to Dark Space), and twelve years since the original Sythian invasion of the galactic sector, with Destra Heston imprisoned alongside her daughter Atta, with a Gor named Torv aiding their escape from captivity. One month later, Farah Hale flies the spaceship Baroness, having once served as a Peacekeeper in god-figure Omnius’s fleet, when Sythians attack her.

Meanwhile, in the Null Zone, the “netherworld” of the planet Avilon, Ethan Ortane, having served as primary protagonist for most of the franchise’s predecessors, is a taxi driver, interacting with Admiral Vee, the leader of a resistance against Omnius. Back to Farah, she ultimately finds herself alongside Destra and her daughter, while Destra’s other child, Atton Ortane, makes it his intent to marry a woman named Ceyla, much to her family’s disdain. In Etheria, Strategian Hoff Heston and his companion Galan Rovik make a living attempting to prevent future crimes, among them being an attempted suicide.

One month later, Destra wakes on the birth-world of humanity, Origin, and some detail the author gives about the reproduction of the Gor species. Occasional time skips occur, with Ethan and Alara’s daughter Trinity aging several years, and certain events driving a wedge between the couple. Ethan himself becomes commander of a fleet, and loyalties constantly waver between Omnius and those who resist him. The epilogue occurs one month after the main events of the book, focusing on another life-changing event that the author indicates in his afterword leads to a sequel series.

All in all, the final Dark Space book definitely does have many things going for it, such as its decent sci-fi action and commentary on things such as human cloning and religion, although the latter subject the author somewhat takes over the edge, with the narrative centered on the replication of certain luminaries, although the question of whether the series occurs in our universe or a parallel one Scott does resolve within the latter portion of the novel. Although I did enjoy most of the earlier entries of the Dark Space series, it somewhat loses its luster later on, and I’ll definitely hesitate to read whatever prequel and sequel series the author has produced.

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Monday, July 26, 2021

The High King

The High King (The Chronicles of Prydain, #5)The High King by Lloyd Alexander
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The final entry of Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain opens with Taran reuniting with Eilonwy, along with Prince Rhun, Glew now reverted from giant size, and Gwydion the Prince of Don, with the Huntsmen of Annuvin having gotten their hands on the dark blade, Dyrnwyn. Early on, moreover, the enchantress Achren shows her true loyalties, after which comes a visit to King Smoit’s castle, where Magg also shows his own loyalties and holds several of the main characters hostage. Thus, Eilonwy summons Gwystyl of the Fair Folk, gaining implements that can help liberate them.

Taran rallies the Free Commots he had visited towards the end of Taran Wanderer to learn various crafts, with Arawn Death-Lord’s forces, chief among them being remaining Cauldron-Born, attacking the free lands of Prydain, with an eventual journey into the dark country of Annuvin. Eilonwy briefly separates from the company, which battles elements such as the cold on their way to the heart of Annuvin, where Dyrnwyn is, and battles against the gwythaints and Death-Lord himself arise. The ultimate fate of Prydain depends on the outcome of this battle, with the conclusion ending the main series neatly.

Overall, I found this a solid conclusion to the Chronicles of Prydain, with Alexander having proven himself to be the American Tolkien, given his fantasy series’ mythological roots, in its case Welsh mythology, similar to how the Lord of the Rings books stemmed from Nordic myths. As such, there are some similarities to Tolkien’s own writings towards the end, although Alexander definitely did a good job setting his series apart from other fantasy works, with his stories definitely being well ahead of their time, surefire treats for children of any generation.

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Saturday, July 24, 2021

The Black Cauldron (film)


Definitely a little dark for a Disney film, and the attempts to combine the stories of the first and second Prydain books results in a bit of disjointment (with deviations from the books such as the Horned King and Arawn Death Lord being one character, as well), but the animation is good, and I thought the characters were mostly depicted well.

Friday, July 23, 2021

Dark Space V: Avilon

Avilon (Dark Space, #5)Avilon by Jasper T. Scott
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The fifth installment of author Jasper T. Scott’s Dark Space series opens in the year zero After Exodus (AE), with Captain Bretton Hale at the helm of the Arkadian, with the world of Roka IV his last stop along the way to Dark Space, when he battles the Sythians and meets the godly Omnius. In the present, ten years AE, Ethan Ortane reminisces about his mother whom he thought was long dead, although he reunites with her on the world of Avilon, with his father Preston oddly missing. Four hours before, Commander Lenon Donali’s escape pod falls towards Avilon, with the city he lands in ablaze, and he’s mobbed once he emerges.

Ethan and his new wife Alara prepare for life on Avilon, whilst the Sythians plot to replace their former Gor slaves with humans crewing their vessels. The newlyweds ultimately move to the Null Zone on the world of Avilon, sort of a netherworld that contrasts with the “heavenly” surface of the planet. The humans’ alliance with the Gors is still incredibly shaky, with some important backstory regarding them revealed throughout the text. In the Null Zone, Ethan deals with various negative facets of life such as a drug called Bliss, with his child pregnant through Alara imminent in birth, and the ending focusing on a resistance seeking to alter the structure of life on Avilon.

All in all, this entry of the Dark Space series definitely has plenty things going for it, although in this installment the franchise is beyond its moment of jumping the shark, given some trite elements such as the use of cloning to achieve immortality, and the hackneyed religious overtones. It does raise some good philosophical points such as freedom potentially being dangerous, although the constant alternation between viewpoints within each chapter can make the narrative feel fairly convoluted, and dividing the main chapters into subchapters would have alleviated this issue. It’s not a bad book, but I’ve definitely read better within and without the science-fiction genre.

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Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Trials of Mana (PlayStation 4)

Trials with Class

While critics and fans largely regard Secret of Mana on the Super NES to be one of the greatest games of all time, its remake for the PlayStation 4 and Vita attracted significant criticism, especially from those who consider the original game infallible (which I don’t). Thus, there was naturally some trepidation at the announcement that Square-Enix was giving similar treatment to the long-untranslated Seiken Densetsu 3, given the official English name Trials of Mana, although expectations were more cautiously-optimistic given the original version’s beloved disposition in the fan translation world, with the remake meeting said anticipation.

Trials follows six different protagonists: the swordsman Duran, the beastman Kevin, the amazon Riesz, the thief Hawkeye, the sorceress Angela, and the healer Charlotte. Upon starting a new game, the player chooses one of these characters to be the main one, with two allies selectable among the bunch. Each character has different prologues before meeting their companions (with players able to play through those of the chosen protagonist’s allies once encountered), and afterward, it’s off to save the power of Mana from exploitation by dark forces. The story has plenty positive elements, such as a well-developed cast, political and religious themes, and the like, but there are little to no links to other Mana games, and one big plot twist in Duran’s quest has been done to death.

The localization is perhaps the remake’s weak point. While the dialogue certainly is legible, lips mostly sync with voices during voiced cutscenes, and the menus are clean, there is a lot of unnatural battle dialogue, with the convention of characters shouting the names of their attacks not translating well to the Anglophone world, and the script makes some questionable decisions such as referring to the Mana Faerie who joins the chosen characters early on as “Faerie” instead of “the Faerie,” which accounts for some awkward dialogue. In the end, Square-Enix does from time to time produce its share of translation turkeys, with Trials among them.

Fortunately, the gameplay largely compensates, with the remake taking more chances in this department than its predecessor’s updated rerelease, visible enemies encountered on fields and in dungeons between towns, and the battlefield limited to a certain area from which the player can escape by running towards the yellow border for a few seconds. However, combat is entertaining enough so to the point where most players likely won’t want to evacuate, and the adjustable difficulty accommodates players of different skill levels. The player manually controls one character, although they can switch control to the others any time during combat.

The controlled character the player can have string a series of combination attacks with the circle and triangle buttons, and even jump to attack aerial enemies. Some foes have a barrier the player needs to eradicate by attacking with a charged triangle button attack, breaking the monotony of battle at times. AI controls the character’s allies, the player having a number of options to adjust it in the game menus, dictating things such as how much of their MP they’ll use before conserving, and the option to use consumable items, nine of each the player can have at one time in battle in the franchise’s trademark item ring (which also has a limit to how many different item types players can have in combat).

One neat feature of combat is that before foes execute special skills, the game shows a “danger zone” that the controlled character can safely evade. Defeating all enemies in a battle nets experience for all characters, which occasional level-ups providing the leveling characters one or more training point the player can invest into five different stats so that they can learn occasional passive and active abilities, the protagonist and their allies initially able to equip up to two of the former, although this limit increases to four and six with respective class changes. When a character reaches level eighteen, the player can change their class in a light or dark direction at a Mana Stone, which unlocks more powerful training abilities. The next class change is possible at level thirty-eight with the addition of a special item gained from planting ??? Seeds, adding further abilities.

In addition to being able to rest and recover at inns, the player can also plant different item seeds to obtain various items, which in turn gradually levels up the item planter, with higher levels meaning better items. The game mechanics generally work well, aside from the tough decision of which classes to which to change the player’s characters and occasional idiocy of the AI in areas such as allies attacking shielded foes with normal attacks and not caring about enemy danger zones, but with the choice of characters and the class system itself, there’s plenty of diversity in playstyles, and the endgames for each character aren’t terribly drawn out.

Trials also interfaces well with players, with an easy menu system that’s light-years better than in the original version as well as explicit direction on where to go next to advance the narrative. Moreover, virtually all voiced dialogue is skippable, even in many instances actions occurring in between the delivery of lines, and maps help players with their journey. The only issues are the lack of a suspend save, given the occasional iffy placement of save points (gold ones fully restoring the party, silver statues allowing saving only), and the lengthy load times, but control is another high in the remake.

Composer Hiroki Kikuta returns from Secret to compose its sequel’s soundtrack, with players able to select between the remixed version in the remake or the original Super Famicom version, as well as select between English and Japanese voices. The main theme is superb, and there are plenty other standout tracks such as the various town themes, field tracks, and dungeon themes, although places such as the Windhall lack music. The voice performances are also of mixed quality, especially with the unnatural battle dialogue, but the sound effects are good, and the remake is overall easy on the ears.

The Trials remake uses a cel-shaded anime visual style that looks pleasant for the most part, with good character and enemy models, the former having moving lips during voiced cutscenes, although many of the latter consist of reskins. While the environs largely look pretty and colorful, there is noticeable environmental popup of distant elements and noticeable dithering at times, alongside blurry, pixilated texturing when the player views scenery up-close. The rerelease is definitely more than artistically competent, but has some kinks the developers could have worked out.

Finally, the remake is fairly short, with players potentially able to blaze through in at least twelve hours, and while the choice of characters when starting a new game and PlayStation Trophies make for nice lasting appeal, there isn’t much side content otherwise.

Ultimately, Trials of Mana, regardless of which platform players choose to experience it on, shows that Square-Enix’s Mana series yet has life, given the solid redesigned mechanics, excellent control, different choice of playable characters, great soundtrack, good visuals, and plenty reason to come back. Granted, it does have issues regarding its derivative story elements and spotty localization, although to date it remains one of the strongest entries of the Seiken Densetsu franchise, certain to please most gamers, most likely those that didn’t care much for the Secret of Mana remake.

This review is based on a single playthrough with Duran, Angela, and Charlotte on Beginner difficulty.

The Good:
+Great redesigned combat system.
+Solid control.
+Different party setups and playstyles.
+Excellent soundtrack.
+Nice visuals.
+Plentiful lasting appeal.

The Bad:
-Some derivative story elements.
-Spotty localization.
-A few weak voice performances.

The Bottom Line:
An ideal remake.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: PlayStation 4
Game Mechanics: 9.0/10
Controls: 9.0/10
Story: 6.5/10
Localization: 4.0/10
Music/Sound: 8.5/10
Graphics: 7.5/10
Lasting Appeal: 9.5/10
Difficulty: Adjustable
Playing Time: 12-15+ Hours

Overall: 8.0/10 

Saturday, July 17, 2021

The Tomorrow War

 The Tomorrow War (2021 film) official theatrical poster.jpg

Fairly derivative in terms of story from films such as the Terminator franchise, and as I don't believe most things in the future are written, I really couldn't relate to the temporal predestination central to the narrative about humans from the future coming to the near-present to get recruits for a war waged in the future. The actions, effects, and actors' performances were decent, but the human interest elements aren't really interesting.

Gift Art for Swift Fox

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Taran Wanderer

Taran Wanderer (The Chronicles of Prydain, #4)Taran Wanderer by Lloyd Alexander
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The penultimate installment of Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain opens with the eponymous hero of the series, Taran, pondering his parentage, and thus setting off on a journey of self-discovery. His first stop is the Marshes of Morva, finding out about the Mirror of Llunet, which he thinks may answer his questions. He visits Caer Cadarn, the fortress of King Smoit, for want of better gear, and stops by the farm of Aeddan. Thence he involves himself in a feud between Lord Goryon and Gast, with the former having stolen the latter’s prize cow and accompanying herd.

Taran is offered the kingship of Cadiffor, although he yearns to learn about his heritage first, and continues with his companions Fflewddur Fflam and Gurgi, with a curious sliver of bone and a peculiar frog found. They confront a wizard named Morda, after which Taran receives a clue about the Lake of Llunet, supposing the Mirror of the same name may be nearby. A lord named Dorath antagonizes the company, and Taran spends significant time with the farmer Craddoc Son of Custennin. Before he finds the Mirror and another confrontation, Taran stops by several masters to learn sundry crafts.

All in all, Taran Wanderer is another enjoyable entry of the Prydain series, fitting into the Bildungsroman subgenre of literature given the titular character’s emotional growth throughout the narrative, although many may find the twists and reversals disappointing. Unlike some other books, moreover, one will probably find it easier to keep track of who is talking, given different dialects such as Gurgi’s rhyming and alliterative speech. Alexander also wrote the book so that it can very much stand alone, although those who have enjoyed its precursors will definitely get the most out of it.

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Monday, July 12, 2021

Dark Space IV: Revenge

Revenge (Dark Space, #4)Revenge by Jasper T. Scott
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The fourth entry of author Jasper T. Scott’s Dark Space series opens with Master Commander Lenon Donali dropping out of superluminal space, implanting Sythian High Lord Kaon’s identichip into one of his clones, with the High Lord wanting him to assassinate Admiral Hoff Heston, who in the meantime takes relief at no Sythian pursuit, although they know where Dark Space is, and the Gors forgive him for his recent slaughter. One month later, Atton Ortane, in a Nova Fighter, encounters an enemy fleet with his squadron, whilst his father Ethan is about to marry his shipmate Alara.

Riots also break out on many Dark Space worlds, with this civil unrest believed to be a greater threat than the Sythians. Admiral Heston also attempts to have his memories removed via mind probe so that he can resist interrogation by the antagonistic aliens. Atton and his squadron also continue to fight for their lives, with Ethan’s son finding himself ultimately adrift without power. Ethan himself and his new wife further celebrate their honeymoon, during which a takeover of Dark Space by the Sythians occur, and they yearn to use humans for starship labor.

The humans seek salvation in the form of the fabled Avilonians, before which Atton and his fellow pilots, put in stasis aboard the Intrepid, wake early from their suspension. High Lord Shondar of the Sythians wages war against the human fleet and their new allies, with many well-described battles and details on the planet Avilon, especially with regards to the Zenith Tower, and the fourth entry of the Dark Space series is overall a satisfactory read, even with the slight bit of deus ex machina towards the end, and constant shift among various viewpoints.

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Deep Look - Shining Force Classics

 Shining Force Classics

Better than Emulation, but Not Flawless

During the sixteen-bit era of videogaming, the Super NES and Sega Genesis were the dominant consoles in North America, the latter aimed at older audiences and the former striving to be “family-friendly,” given Nintendo America’s draconian censorship policies. Both systems would receive their share of respective RPGs, chiefly the Final Fantasy franchise on the SNES, and the Shining and Phantasy Star series on the Genesis, most of which would see many ports during future console generations. Among the latest releases of the Shining titles is Shining Force Classics for the iOS, bringing along with the core games some contemporary enhancements.

The very first Shining game, Shining in the Darkness, is a first-person dungeon crawler with randomly-encountered turn-based combat in the main massive dungeon fought by three protagonists. A single town serves as a hub for performing functions such as resting to recover strength and purchasing new equipment, with navigation being a rather simple affair. While the inaugural Shining title does have some things going for it, such as a great soundtrack and good art direction, the chief game mechanics somewhat mar the experience, given the often-sluggish, generic combat and ease of losing oneself within the voluminous labyrinth.

The franchise would shift to the strategy RPG subgenre with Shining Force: The Legacy of Great Intention, divided into chapters with turn-based tactical battles necessary to advance the central storyline, a change that was certainly for the better, given the straightforwardness of the game mechanics, although there is a bit of character fatigue, some user-unfriendliness, a lackluster localization, and limited lasting appeal. However, story was decent for its time, and there are other positives such as a nice soundtrack and pretty visuals, and overall, the original Shining Force is a competent, if generic, strategy RPG.

The first numbered sequel, Shining Force II, is too a strategy RPG, although the developers didn’t divide it into chapters like the first game, given the less linear progression, which admittedly can lead to some instances where the player can lose themselves on the overworld figuring out what to do next, and there is again a deal of user-unfriendliness and spotty translation. However, it builds upon its precursor’s strategic gameplay for the better, has an original storyline, and has nice aural and visual presentation, although on the whole, it doesn’t quite achieve greatness.

Ultimately, Shining Force Classics is an okay collection of games that somewhat show their age, even with contemporary enhancements like save states. Shining in the Darkness is perhaps the low point of the anthology, given its genericness, although the shift from traditional roleplaying game to strategy RPG was for the better, both Shining Forces being more enjoyable, though they aren’t without their flaws. Those wishing to experience the original Shining Force would be better off playing the Gameboy Advance remake, and the collection needs not rank high in one’s gaming playlist.

This deep look is based on a playthrough to completion of all three games in the anthology.


Sunday, July 11, 2021

Shining Force II


Granseal ‘94

The original Shining Force on the Sega Genesis had the honor of being my first strategy RPG during the sixteen-bit era, and while I enjoyed what little time I spent with it, as we had rented the game, I wouldn’t play it to completion until years later. We had also rented the game’s sequel, Shining Force II, another case where I wouldn’t see the game to the end until a generation or two later. The first numbered sequel would eventually find its way to iOS devices as part of the Shining Force Classics collection, and while it can be fun at times, it’s by no means a masterpiece.

Disaster is the name of the game as far as the second mainline entry goes, with a series of cataclysms wrecking the Kingdom of Granseal, thanks to a rat thief named Slade stealing magical jewels from a shrine, these disasters forcing the country’s inhabitants to resettle elsewhere overseas. The narrative ultimately focuses on a conflict against the devils, led by Zeon, with protagonist Bowie leading his own Shining Force against them. There are a few links to the original game (and gaiden game Final Conflict links the storylines), but a map showing the universe of the series would have been welcome, and there isn’t a lot of character interaction among the massive playable cast.

The translation definitely doesn’t help matters. While the dialogue is mostly legible, there are a series of issues such as the recycled names within the series for the various characters, such as Slade and Luke, not to mention a few name inconsistencies, such as “Nazca” and “Nazka”. There are also many errors within the text and frequent uncharacteristic dialogue such as one character proclaiming “Groovy!”, which really wrecks the mood. The error in prior English Shining Forces of characters obtaining “1 EXP points” also recurs, character names are in all caps, and class names are compressed to four letters. Generally, while the story was good for its time, the localization could have been better.

Shining Force II is a strategy RPG mechanically similar to the original game, albeit with some key differences, prime among them being that it’s significantly less linear than the first game, with the eventual ability to return to previous locations across a vast overworld, and not in a chapter-based division. Still, the tactical battles occur with the player’s party of up to twelve active characters facing off against enemies across battlefields in turn-based combat where speed most likely dictates turn order. When one of the player’s characters reaches their turn, they can move around in a range, movement luckily not ratcheted as in future strategy RPGs such as the original Final Fantasy Tactics.

Each character can attack normally (players able to calculate damage by subtracting enemy defense from attacker strength), use MP-consuming magic spells with each of these abilities having a maximum of four levels (which are adjustable for different situations), use an item (characters able to hold up to four, including their weapon), or simply end their turn. When a character is in range and is able to perform a move for an ally or against an enemy, the game switches to a separate screen where they execute their command, players able to disable the extra dialogue to speed up these scenes slightly.

Performing most commands nets a character experience points, with a hundred needed to advance a level and up to fifty obtainable with commands performed, the bulk of it coming from killing enemies, and largely proportional to a character’s level. Stats naturally increase with raised levels, with the sequel increasing the minimum level necessary to promote characters to twenty, forty being the maximum level an unpromoted character can obtain. Players will definitely get the most out of their characters by waiting until level forty to promote them, and in a twist, certain items can allow them to promote to alternate classes, such as master monk for healer allies, potential tank units.

Battles end in victory for the player when they off the “leader” enemy, whereas Bowie’s death transports players back to the last save point with half their money lost yet experience for all characters retained. Fortunately, the Shining Force Classics version retains many of the same modern conveniences implemented for the original game, such as the ability to keep up to three save states or rewind time by fifteen seconds, handy in case of screwups. However, contemporary features like a turn order meter are absent, alongside other issues such as a lack of balance in leveling and the need to center spells on enemies or allies to execute them. Regardless, the mechanics help the game more than hurt.

Control, alongside the localization, is one of the sequel’s weakest link. Given the reduced linearity, direction on how to advance the main storyline can be poor at times, and the player can’t view a map of the overworld to help in navigation. Reviving deceased characters at churches can be taxing as well, given the ability to resurrect only one at a time, and while the four-item limit for each character adds to the battle system’s effectiveness, managing inventory can be tedious. There are some bright spots, however, such as the sequel, like the original, being one of the earliest RPGs to feature a suspend save, and while it doesn’t interact with players as well as it could have, things definitely aren’t abysmal.

Motoaki Takenouchi’s soundtrack is inarguably the high point of Shining Force II, with a central theme in the form of “Warrior of the Reviving Light” (doubling as one of the primary battle tracks) and its various remixes such as the Caravan music and flying piece. There are also plenty of catchy tracks such as the main town theme, a few militaristic pieces such as the castle music, and enthralling tunes during the battle scenes, which change for promoted characters. The overall quality of the soundtrack could have definitely been better, alongside more diverse sound effects aside from pitches in digitized cutscene voices, but the sequel all in all is a definite aural treat.

The visuals look nice as well, bearing some more polish than the original game, with character sprites containing good anatomy and occasionally showing some gestures such as shaking heads, with their environments looking pretty and colorful as well. The designs for the characters prominent during cutscenes are good as well, their sprites resembling their portraits, with the high point of the graphics being the battle scenes where a character or enemy performs a command, characters and the enemy having great anatomy. There are some reskins on both sides of battle, and pixilation is more apparent on an iPad, but the sequel is more than visually competent.

The second numbered entry’s main source of lasting appeal comes in the form of difficulty selectable when starting a new game, not to mention the endless potential playstyles and extra battle that occurs a few minutes after the ending credits, but there aren’t any major sidequests or a New Game+ (though to be fair, the concept wouldn’t come along until Chrono Trigger), so this aspect is largely middling.

In the end, Shining Force II is a competent sequel that hits many of the right notes with regards to its straightforward tactical mechanics, inventive (for its time) storyline, excellent soundtrack, and great visual presentation, although it does have issues preventing it from truly excelling such as the general user-unfriendliness, poor direction in the main narrative, lackluster localization, and middling replay value. Granted, it is, alongside the original game, one of the better entries of Shining Force Classics, although it’s by no means a bucket-list game, and there are plenty other higher-quality titles within and without the tactical subgenre.

This review is based on a playthrough of the version included with Shining Force Classics on an iPad Pro, on Normal difficulty.

The Good:
+Good straightforward tactical mechanics.
+Original story.
+Excellent soundtrack.
+Nice visual direction.

The Bad:
-Somewhat user-unfriendly.
-Frequent poor direction on how to advance.
-Lackluster localization.
-Average lasting appeal.

The Bottom Line:
A competent sequel.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: iOS
Game Mechanics: 7.5/10
Controls: 4.0/10
Story: 7.5/10
Localization: 3.5/10
Music/Sound: 9.0/10
Graphics: 8.0/10
Lasting Appeal: 6.0/10
Difficulty: Adjustable
Playing Time: 24-36 Hours

Overall: 6.5/10

Kingdoms of Amalur: Re-Reckoning

Thank Chafee

Let me preface this review by saying that I despise American politics to the point where I don’t even look at newspapers for fear of them triggering my dark side, and don’t bother browsing sites such as Twitter. I hate it even more when the topic injects itself into nonpolitical subjects such as videogames, although there are rare cases where the topics intersect in a good way, such as Texas politicians providing initiatives to Austin-based game developers, or a loan from the State of Rhode Island financing the development of Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, which would see a remaster entitled Kingdoms of Amalur: Re-Reckoning, allowing a new generation to experience the Western RPG.

Like the original version Re-Reckoning features deep lore by fantasy author R.A. Salvatore, which is very engaging to the point where even subquests add significantly to the narrative. The game itself begins, unusually, with the player’s character’s death, although the gnomish scientist Fomorous Hugues revives this protagonist, the “Fateless One,” after which the hero embarks on a quest through the Faelands, one of the titular Kingdoms of Amalur, to discover the circumstances of their initial demise and life beforehand. The plot definitely helps the game well, although there are some played fantasy tropes such as the quest for immortality and general lack of distinction from other fantasy mythos.

Fortunately, the gameplay helps Re-Reckoning far more than hurts, with the player creating a customized protagonist of one of four playable races when starting a new game. Players begin as “Fateless,” although they can, when their character levels, invest points (three per level) into one of a trio of skill trees, corresponding to warrior, rogue, and mage classes, each with plenty active and passive abilities. The player also gets to invest one point when leveling into another breed of skills that decide things such as how much money they receive from selling excess items and how much detail the helpful minimap shows such as Lorestones that grant a pinch of experience and supplemental backstory.

Players can also wield a variety of different weapons such as swords, hammers, bow and arrows, knives, chakrams, and staves, with the gameplay generally devolving to hacking and slashing enemies regardless of armament, although charge attacks ultimately become available for each method of attack, as do mana-consuming abilities with active and passive actions, some of which the player can have “sustained,” consuming a fixed percentage of their maximum magic points for a neverending effect. Other notable magic includes one spell from the mage tree that can temporarily summon an AI-controlled skeleton ally that fights alongside the Fateless One.

Difficulty in Re-Reckoning is adjustable to fit different player skill levels, the game mechanics work well, the camera being an issue, and the lack of targeting akin to the Kingdom Hearts series not hurting at all. Battles tend to flow smoothly and accommodate many different playstyles, especially with the different skill trees, and there’s plenty of fun to have. Pretty much the only real issues are that gaining experience bonuses from Reckoning mode (which temporarily increases attack power) requires a great deal of button-mashing, and the player can’t always put up their shield to defend enemy attacks.

The remaster is generally user-friendly, with the rare ability to skip voiced text during most cutscenes, accommodating to hearing-impaired gamers. There’s also an in-game clock as well as fast-travel among visited areas of interest, although there are some points where instant conveyance is unavailable, namely in the middle of dungeons. While the direction on how to advance the main storyline and most subquests is generally clear as well, there are maybe a handful of moments where the player might find themselves needing to use a guide. Regardless, the game generally interacts well with players.

Probably the weakest aspect of Re-Reckoning is its audio presentation, given the relative lack of memorable music akin to many prominent Japanese RPGs, although there is good orchestration and excellent voice acting.

The remaster, however, fares better visually, with good colors and details such as different equipment affecting the protagonist’s appearance, realistic environments, character and enemy models with believable anatomy, and the like. There is a bit of choppiness, environmental popup, and some occasional blurry and pixilated texturing, but otherwise, the game is far from an eyesore.

Finally, while there is a great plethora of side content to prolong the experience, the remaster surprisingly doesn’t feel padded at all, especially due to things like fast-travel, and there’s plentiful lasting appeal in said extra material, although the Nintendo Switch, as usual, lacks achievements.

Overall, Kingdoms of Amalur: Re-Reckoning is a worthwhile remaster that hits most of the right notes with its gameplay, control, well-developed lore, and good graphics, with only a few areas in which it fumbles such as fast-travel not always being available, the lack of distinction from other fantasy settings, the unmemorable soundtrack, and a few technical issues with the visuals. Although the original version sold over a million copies, it was so overbudget it didn’t break even financially, causing some controversy in Rhode Island in the original’s time, but that it’s a great game largely compensates for that, and one could consider it a certain former Senator and Governor’s greatest accomplishment.

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

The Good:
+Excellent game mechanics.
+Tight control.
+Deep lore.
+Nice visuals.

The Bad:
-Fast travel not always available.
-Not a whole lot of distinction from other fantasy settings.
-Soundtrack generally unmemorable.
-Some technical hiccups with graphics.

The Bottom Line:
A great Western RPG.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Game Mechanics: 9.5/10
Controls: 8.5/10
Story: 8.5/10
Music/Sound: 8.0/10
Graphics: 8.5/10
Lasting Appeal: 9.0/10
Difficulty: Adjustable
Playing Time: 30-60 Hours

Overall: 9.0/10 

Saturday, July 10, 2021

Black Widow


The first film of Phase Four in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, long-delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, seeing the eponymous superheroine on the run and confronting her past. Definitely had a lot of good action sequences and gives backstory to the character, as well.

Art by Me, 7/10/2021

Monday, July 5, 2021

The Castle of Llyr

The Castle of Llyr (The Chronicles of Prydain, #3)The Castle of Llyr by Lloyd Alexander
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The third entry of the late Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain series opens with Princess Eilonwy, Daughter of Angharad and Regat of the Royal House of Llyr, leaving Caer Dallben for the Isle of Mona for instruction on how to become proper royalty. The monarchs of the island, King Rhuddlum and Queen Teleria, have their son Prince Rhun be her escort, with Taran and her other companions ultimately joining in the voyage. The main inciting incident of the story comes when the royal palace’s Chief Steward Magg, who doubles as a war-leader, and Princess Eilonwy, vanishing without a trace.

On their quest for the missing princess, Taran and his companions encounter the solitary hut of a potion-maker named Glew, eventually finding what became of him, and have a hostile experience with the feline creature Llyan. As they seek Eilonwy, the companions find her bauble, ultimately termed the Golden Pelydryn, and spend a few chapters trapped in a cavern with a giant they eventually escape. A book that appears to be empty serves as an important artifact, and the third installment ends with several chapters occurring at the fortress Caer Colur with a prior adversary.

All in all, this was another good, quick, enjoyable Prydain story, even if it hinges upon the damsel-in-distress trope prevalent in medieval-set fantasy, although there are plenty of good twists, and in the final chapter the holes that were present before the disappearance of Magg and Eilonwy receive due explanation. Alexander followed the main text with an anecdote about how he loved cats and thus introduced a fantastical feline into the world of Prydain, and one could consider him an American children’s Tolkien, predating many more notable fantasy works ahead of his age.

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An American Tail: Fievel Goes West

 American tail fievel goes west.jpg

Sort of lays on the western movie tropes a bit thick, but the voice performances are good, with some notable ones such as John Cleese as the main antagonist Cat R. Waul, and it's definitely one of the better sequels to a Don Bluth film Bluth himself wasn't involved with, with Steven Spielberg's involvement likely helping.

Saturday, July 3, 2021

Art for Independence Day 2021

An American Tail


Definitely one of Don Bluth's better films (Steven Spielberg's involvement likely helped), about the Jewish-Russian/Ukrainian Mousekewitz family forced to flee their home for America believing (incorrectly of course) that there are no cats there (which serves as a key point for one of the film's songs). There are some things that might be a bit mature for younger audiences such as the smoking and drinking and a few scary moments, but the film definitely did a decent job with its ethnic characterization of the various cat and mouse characters, such as the French-accented Henri le Pigion and one of the leaders of the rodent resistance somewhat sounding like a female Elmer Fudd.

Thursday, July 1, 2021

Dark Space III: Origin

Origin (Dark Space, #3)Origin by Jasper T. Scott
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This entry of author Jasper T. Scott’s Dark Space series opens three years After Exodus, with Destra Ortane attempting to survive on the world of Ritan, with Admiral Hoff Heston by her side and seeing a vision of the lost world of Origin. In present day, ten years AE, Ethan Ortane is incarcerated for having impersonated Supreme Overlord Altarian Dominic, with his love Alara vowing to free him, and Ethan suffers violent interrogation. Meanwhile, Deck Commander Loba Caldin salvages fuel and components from the Defiant to give the vessel Rescue a chance to reach Obsidian Station.

Furthermore, the main antagonist of the series, Alec Brondi, finds the ship he had stolen, the Valiant, to be the continued target of sabotage by the sneaky Gor Roan. The book returns to the year 3 AE, with Destra wandering Ritan, and a doctor rescuing her as the Sythians attack the world, and is the final time the third entry goes back in time, with Destra’s fate settled. That Ethan had been a married man causes Alara distress, and Admiral Heston somewhat struggles with his shaky alliance with the Gors, a number of events causing wavering loyalties.

Ethan further vows to deactivate the slave chip causing Alara to think she’s one of Brondi’s playgirls named Angel, and his son Atton has his own problems to deal with. Several twists about throughout the third installment that are key to its events, with a number of battles occurring, and Ethan Ortane having to confront his past. The occasional bounds back a few minutes or hours somewhat hamper the book’s chronology, but overall I found it a satisfying read like its predecessors, and will definitely continue reading the series to see what happens next in its universe.

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