Sunday, August 29, 2021

The Academy

The Academy (The Seven Kingdoms #2)The Academy by Cordelia Castel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The second entry of author Cordelia Castel’s Seven Kingdoms series opens with Rilla continuing to elude the man to whom she was promised marriage, Lord Orson Bluebeard, going to the city of Metropole to Prince Armin’s palace. Lord Bluebeard quickly has his fiancé put on trial for alleged violation of their contract, with Rilla escaping her arranged marriage due to conscription in the Anti-Magic Army and attendance of its Academy. However, she quickly learns that life at the Academy isn’t exactly ideal, for while she does make a few friends such as Millissa, others, chiefly princesses with whom she shares a dorm, disdain her.

Rilla also struggles academically, as she initially fails her Art of Assassination class for not presenting her thesis, due to an attempt against her life that led to her hospitalization in the school infirmary. Lord Bluebeard warns his fiancé about the pitfalls of the Academy, and another attempt at her life comes in the form of her stumbling into a subterranean dragon’s den in the middle of the woods. Events at a tavern also lead to Rilla’s arrest, although Lord Bluebeard promises to cover her fines if she goes to a royal ball with him, to which she agrees.

A hands-on combat exam will decide whether Rilla will stay at the academy or face expulsion, several twists culminating in the final chapters, accounting for a satisfying sequel that like its predecessor isn’t shy about its fairytale inspirations, with Millissa for instance having backstory alluding to the tale of Rumpelstiltskin. I could definitely relate with Rilla’s negative experience in school, given my own social hardships during my grade-school tenure. There are some occasional unclear details within the narrative, although I would definitely recommend this novella to those who enjoyed its precursor.

View all my reviews

Smaugust 2021 Artwork

 


Saturday, August 28, 2021

Luca (film)

 Luca (2021 film).png 

Sort of a typical "fish out of water" story (largely literal in the film's sense), focusing on the eponymous boy who is a sea monster when exposed to water and a standard human when dry. Not exactly the most original concept Pixar has produced, given themes like xenophobia, but it has some good music and was overall a decent movie. 

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Dune: The Butlerian Jihad

The Butlerian Jihad (Legends of Dune, #1)The Butlerian Jihad by Brian Herbert
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This Dune prequel authors Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson dedicate to their editors, with acknowledgements to Penny Merritt for helping to maintain the literary legacy of her father Frank Herbert, not to mention editors, beta readers, and other Merritts and Herberts. In the prologue, Princess Irulan writes that true students must realize that history has no beginning, with backstory exposed occurring ten millennia before the birth of Paul Atreides, hero of the original Dune by Frank Herbert. Around this time was the founding of the Imperium, an Empire arising from the ashes from the Battle of Corrin.

Another key component of the Duneverse’s backstory is the Great Revolt, or the Butlerian Jihad, a war against thinking machines. It was also during this conflict that the betrayal creating the long-running rivalry between the Houses Atreides and Harkonnen occurred. Many other organizations play part in the Duneverse’s background such as the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood, the Spacing Guild and its navigators, the Swordmasters of Ginaz, the Suk Medical School, and the Mentats. There are also the oppressed Zensunni Wanderers who went into the deserts of the arid world of Arrakis and became soldiers known as the Fremen, leading to the birth and life of the Muad’Dib.

Before these times, in the age of the Old Empire, humanity lost its drive, with Terrans spreading across their galaxy, and eventually letting machines take over their typical tasks. A man named Tlaloc wished to overthrow the Old Empire, recruiting allies such as General Agamemnon, his lover Juno, and a programmer named Barbarossa, who made machines intelligent, and succeeded in disposing of the Empire, becoming known as the Titans, their chief foes being the League of Nobles. When Tlaloc died in an accident, Agamemnon took control, with he and Juno having their brains preserved and placed into machines, becoming cymeks, machines containing human brains.

The Time of Titans would last a century, with one of them, Xerxes, surrendering access to an artificial intelligence network known as Omnius, which spreads across space, taking over Titan-controlled worlds and Agamemnon and his confederates becoming reluctant supporters. Before the Butlerian Jihad, Omnius ruled the Synchronized Worlds with an iron fist, with humans surviving on the outskirts of these planets, and the League of Nobles deflecting attacks from the machines. Commencing each of the main chapters is a fictitious philosophical quote, the first of many of these from Sister Becca indicating that humans signed their death warrant when creating intelligent machines.

The main action of the prequel novel opens with machines approaching the League of Nobles-controlled world of Salusa Secundus, intending to crush the feral humans they term hrethgir. In response, Xavier Harkonnen, a tercero in the Salusa Militia, the local branch of the League Armada, fights back, recalling that a cymek attack killed his parents and brother. The mastermind of the novel’s titular conflict, Serena Butler, is also introduced when she addresses the Hall of Parliament, with a discourse of abolitionist politics, of which she is part, favoring the end of slavery, playing a role throughout the narrative.

The cymek attack on Salusa Secundus ultimately causes the Parliament to evacuate, with Xavier fearing for Serena, and believing humans must make their stand against the thinking machines, headquartered on the Synchronized World of Corrin, and receiving reinforcement in the form of neo-cymeks that were traitorous humans. Sporadically within many chapters is the tale of the orphaned Selim, who lives on Arrakis, and is banished from his tribe for water thievery, having run-ins with sandworms that ultimately come to play part in his development. Vorian Atreides, born of the Titan Agamemnon’s sperm impregnating a female slave, is also eventually introduced.

The incident that sparks the titular Butlerian Jihad comes in the latter portion of the book, which is ultimately engaging and enjoyable, with the quotes preceding each chapter, for one, giving it a feel that the book’s events are a thing to come in the future, alongside plenty of action and conflict with vivid descriptions. One, however, could argue that the book is derivative, since the theme of intelligent machines has been done by media such as the Terminator and Matrix franchises, but Frank Herbert, given his son Brian’s research of his father’s notes, likely had the idea long before them.

View all my reviews

Commission by Sofia Ciel

 


Pic I commissioned since Brazil and Mexico's Independence Days are in September (and Cinco de Mayo is Battle of Puebla Day, not Mexican Independence Day).

Sunday, August 22, 2021

Gaming Update, 8/22/2021

Currently Playing:

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD - My younger brother had warned me about this game's controls, although I opted for button-only control, and I've been having a decent time thus far, though as with other games in the series, the localization team really didn't make much of an effort to make the dialogue sound realistic.

Xenosaga Episode I: Der Wille zur Macht - I'm aboard the Durandal during the invasion by human soldiers, and I've spent a few hours grinding, which has been surprisingly fun, and I even was able to up the speed of one of Jr.'s Techs that attacks all enemies so that I can easily smack down enemy parties.

In My Backlog:

Baldur's Gate I + II: Enhanced Editions - Low priority.

Dragon Quest - Don't know when I'll get to this, if ever.

Fallout Tactics: Brotherhood of Steel - Might or might not be my next game, depending upon whether I beat anything for the rest of August.

Ultima II - A potential candidate for my next game, depending upon whether what I'm currently playing lasts me into September.

Ultima III - Will of course only play this after beating its predecessor.

Castlevania (TV series)

 Castlevania netflix titlecard.png 

Mostly based on Castlevania III and follows the last surviving member of the demon-hunting Belmont clan, Trevor, as he battles the forces of Count Dracula, vengeful against humans for killing his wife, executed by the Church for delving in science. Definitely far better than most videogame-based movies, and they should more do Netflix series based on games instead of trying to cram everything into two-hour films.

Saturday, August 21, 2021

Fire Emblem: Three Houses

 Cover art of Fire Emblem: Three Houses

Monastery Schoolhouse Rock!

In my three-plus decades of gaming, my experience with strategy RPGs has somewhat been mixed, with Shining Force on the Sega Genesis my first title in the roleplaying subgenre, though I wouldn’t see it through to the end until a few generations later. We would eventually get a Sony PlayStation, among the titles we purchased being Final Fantasy Tactics, which I thought would be a good experience, since it was my second tactical RPG, although it frustrated me to the point where the game disc got scratched and I had to pay for another copy, given the Japanese RPG kusottare of potentially wasting significant time on losing battles unlike in Shining Force, nice to players when they die.

Around the time I finished the first Shining Force title did another prominent strategy RPG series come to America, the Intelligent Systems-developed Fire Emblem games, which would on the Nintendo DS see a remake of the very first game in the franchise, subtitled Shadow Dragon for Anglophone players, and I saw it a good opportunity to dive into them. However, it became, for several years, one of few games I wouldn’t be able to finish, given the potential to lock oneself in an unwinnable situation, and I gave up on the franchise until the Nintendo 3DS release of Awakening, which made optional one of the series’ staples, the permanent death of player characters.

Awakening restored my faith in the franchise, and I had a similar positive experience with the trio of Fates games. However, along came Echoes, a loose remake of Fire Emblem Gaiden on the original Famicom, which like Shadow Dragon I found myself unable to complete due to the game locking me into the final battle without a chance to back out, although I did give it another playthrough from the beginning and finished it. The Nintendo Switch would eventually come along, and Intelligent Systems would develop the latest entry of the tactical franchise, Fire Emblem: Three Houses, which definitely has appeal to different player skillsets.

When starting a new game, the player has several difficulty settings from which to choose, such as making permanent character death optional. Three Houses has a somewhat-different setup from its precursors, integrating social elements akin to the third Persona game and beyond, the player’s character being a professor in a schoolhouse setting, with turn-based tactical battles in between, along with optional battles for supplemental experience if desired. The aforementioned social elements, maybe a few optional battles depending upon the difficulty setting, and other things such as teatimes with allies, cost activity points the player receives in between storyline struggles.

Battles follow generally the same formula as in previous Fire Emblems, minus the weapon triangle system part of many mainstream entries, with the player and the enemy having separate turn sessions, players able to move around their units, bring up a helpful “danger zone,” and have their units attack the enemy, with both participants in a skirmish exchanging commands. Should all the player’s characters die, they can reverse time to a point before their defeat, or trigger a Game Over, though on the easiest difficulty, they can restart the battle with all experience acquired in the recent attempt retained.

The class system in Three Houses is somewhat different than in prior series entries, with the player able to reclass their characters into intermediate, advanced, and eventually master classes with the use of seals that allow class-changers to take exams that they have a percentage of passing, depending upon how much experience they have in certain affinities such as mounted combat, reason, swords, axes, and the like, and if they pass, they naturally advance to the new class, though compulsive players who flunk exams will most likely desire to quit and reload until the desired character passes.

Fortunately, players can definitely live without changing classes until their characters have a better chance of passing reclassing examinations, and character levels remain the same regardless of their current occupation. Levels tend to rise quickly in combat, with a few characters becoming potential tanks that can take on pretty much anything. The weapon durability system which was absent from Echoes return, with each character having special moves that cost more sturdiness than standard attacks, although consumption of materials and money can allow players to restore broken weapons to working condition, and the protagonist eventually acquires a special armament that resting and passing days instead of participating in scholastic activities can restore.

The game mechanics generally work well, with plentiful anti-frustration features making this particular entry more accessible to mainstream players that a few prior entries, although there are a number of issues such as the potential to overlook certain mechanics without the accompaniment of an online guide, not to mention the unwieldly disposition of the battle controls, which may make many players want to use AI options for their whole party instead of manually inputting commands for their characters, although these techniques aren’t foolproof. The game also locks players into battles if they want to retain experience unless they reload, although the battle system definitely has its positives.

Not so much the control, however, the awkward battle interaction among the many issues prominent in Three Houses, whose menus definitely require a lot of getting used to, with the inability, for instance, for the player to access their item convoy directly, the difficulty of exchanging items among allies given finite inventories, the lack of an auto-dash feature when the protagonist navigates the monastery school (although fast travel is available), and the need to have consumables that increase character stats in the inventory of the character whose stats the player wishes to increase, among other things. Granted, the game is definitely beatable without a guide, given the linear structure preventing players from losing themselves, but the developers could have given the control aspect a once-over.

One can say the same about the storyline, although it definitely has its positive aspects, with the conversations between characters that unlock eventually when they perform actions close to one another in combat adding some development, and as the game is fairly rigidly-linear, there’s virtually no getting lost. While most of the dialogue is skippable as well, some parts of the narrative feel forced down the player’s throat, and there are derivative elements such as a protagonist with a mysterious past and ambiguous age and an “evil” empire later on in the plot, although a choice of one of the three eponymous scholastic factions adds some motivation to go through the game again, and beating the game gives epilogues to surviving player characters.

The localization is probably the nadir of Three Houses, with Nintendo America demonstrating that not even their translations are infallible. While the general storyline is coherent, and there is some profanity they didn’t censor and mature themes, there are plentiful odd stylistic choices such as the use of “OK” instead of “okay,” and there seems no fathomable excuse, except alcohol, why anyone would think it natural for a character to say, for instance, “How vexing” before dying. There are also some discrepancies such as the use of the oath “Gods” when the game’s world has a singular goddess, and some horrid names such as a villain named “Nemesis.” In the end, the translators could have definitely made an effort to make the dialogue sound more believable, polished, and natural.

The soundtrack, however, is significantly better, with a version of the franchise’s musical motif played on an organ, alongside other uses such as the monastery’s bell mimicking the theme’s opening notes. Most of the battle themes, with a few exceptions such as vocals in the final battle theme that sound like yodeling, are good, as are the sound effects. The voice acting is largely solid as well, despite a few weak performances and hiccups such as the annoying of characters’ whining when low on health in battle and death cries. Regardless, Three Houses is largely easy on the ears.

The game is easy on the eyes as well, with a beautiful cel-shaded style accompanied by occasional CG cutscenes, although there are technical issues such as a fair bit of choppiness, poor collision detection, and plenty of pop-up of character models when navigating the monastery.

Finally, a single playthrough can take players, especially if they turn off all the things that tend to pad games of this sort, at least twenty to thirty hours, with the choice of three academic houses theoretically adding lasting appeal, although a single playthrough was enough for me, given the general user-unfriendliness and absence of achievements.

Overall, Fire Emblem: Three Houses is for the most part a decent strategy RPG that hits the right notes regarding its game mechanics, musical direction, and above-average artistic vision, although it does have issues of which potential players need to be aware such as the ponderous control, the derivative plot with lackluster localization, and the consequential belief that one playthrough would be enough despite theoretical replay value. Regardless, I definitely don’t regret experiencing this game and would consider it a step above Echoes, although I am somewhat glad that I borrowed instead of purchased it, and diehard Fire Emblem fans are the ones likely to get the most out of it.

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

The Good:
+Deep, strategic mechanics with adjustable difficulty.
+Good soundtrack.
+Nice visuals.

The Bad:
-Very user-unfriendly.
-Lackluster plot and translation.
-One playthrough may be enough for most players.

The Bottom Line:
A half-decent strategy RPG.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Game Mechanics: 7.5/10
Controls: 4.5/10
Story: 6.0/10
Localization: 4.0/10
Music/Sound: 7.5/10
Graphics: 7.5/10
Lasting Appeal: 6.5/10
Difficulty: Adjustable
Playing Time: 20-30+ Hours

Overall: 6.5/10

The Suicide Squad

  The Suicide Squad (film) poster.jpg 

James Gunn definitely did a good job with this film, given plentiful of self-aware humor, and it was overall an improvement over the original Suicide Squad (though I did like Will Smith, Jared Leto, and Margot Robbie, who shows up in the new film, in that iteration), even if a little gratuitous in terms of violence (and I find it odd that language, which I didn't mind at all, is more likely to up a film's rating in the US than blood and gore).

Friday, August 13, 2021

The Magestaff

The Magestaff (The Seven Kingdoms, #1)The Magestaff by Cordelia Castel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The initial entry of author Cordelia Castel’s The Seven Kingdoms series opens with protagonist Cendrilla Perrault, nicknamed Rilla, serving tea to her stepsisters and stepmother, laboring for her household in an analogy to the classic tale of Cinderella. Rilla’s hand in marriage her stepmother promises to an ambassador, Lord Bluebeard, whom Rilla finds to have been abusive to the point where he murdered his previous wives. Rilla consequentially flees her household, encountering a man named Jack Galloway, who provides backstory on Bluebeard’s heritage. As a reward for rescuing a magical boy, Rilla receives the book’s eponymous quarterstaff.

Rilla and Jack quickly find themselves in the home of a miller, who is coercing his daughter Catherine to wed someone she doesn’t want to, after which they meet a talking cat named Puss, whom they take to his old mistress, who holds the key in healing the wounds Jack receives from powerful bluebirds sent by Lord Bluebeard to hunt his fiancé. Jack eventually leaves Rilla after reuniting with his family, with the wielder of the Magestaff making it a point to travel to the city of Metropole, where she hopes to stay low until she comes of age and Lord Bluebeard gives up on her.

The first book ends with a cliffhanger that obviously ties into its first sequel, and generally I found the first Seven Kingdoms book to be an enjoyable read, given its various fairytale analogies, and I could definitely relate to the ostracized protagonist. The story does slightly suffer from a smidgeon of unoriginality, particularly regarding the names of characters such as Lord Bluebeard, although the author made some effort to distinguish her work, with Cendrilla being a good alternate form of the name Cinderella, for instance. Those who grew up on old fairytales from authors such as the Grimm brothers will be the ones to appreciate this work the most.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Battlefield Earth: A Saga of the Year 3000

Battlefield EarthBattlefield Earth by L. Ron Hubbard
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

While critics and audiences largely regard the movie Battlefield Earth starring John Travolta a cinematic turkey (though I’m pretty sure it’s better than, say, any political documentary), the book upon which it was based is fairly enjoyable, and inarguably science-fiction author and Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard’s magnum opus. An introduction precedes the main text in which the author gives his various reasons for writings and discusses the definition of what constitutes science-fiction literature, with mention of his meeting with John W. Campbell and the sci-fi genre being the herald of possibility.

The novel proper opens with Terl, part of an alien race known as the Psychlos, saying that man is an endangered species, with his species having dominated Earth for a millennium, during which the human hero Jonnie Goodboy Tyler wants a formal funeral for his late father, afterward visiting the ruins of Denver, Colorado, where he has a run-in with an alien vehicle. Jonnie ultimately finds himself captive by Terl, who takes fascination at his human prisoner, who quickly learns how to speak the language of the aliens. Terl further instructs Jonnie on the nuances of Psychlo vehicles, intending to show off his skills.

Jonnie’s love Chrissie and her younger sister Pattie ultimately follow him, finding themselves captives of Terl as well, although they quickly plot escape. Jonnie himself secures the alliance of a tribe of humans in Scotland, and ponders ways to take advantage of Psychlo breathe-gas’s vulnerability to uranium. Terl also forces his human slaves to seek gold to use as leverage in his plans against his Psychlo superiors, with Jonnie further fascinated at the aliens’ teleportational technology, seeking a way by which to transport explosives to the Psychlo homeworld in hopes of destroying the planet.

Throughout the novel, there are hints of its backstory during the previous millennium, the Psychlos having gassed most of the human species to death, their last refuge being the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado. Jonnie further seeks possible guards against the radiation caused by mining uranium, and a chase ultimately emerges where he needs to beat a Psychlo drone to Scotland before it unleashes gas upon them. He and his fellow humans also train in the art of flying battleplanes so they can resist the Psychlos when war emerges, and a young Scot named Bittie MacLeod serves as his squire.

In the latter portion of the story, Jonnie seeks to understand Psychlo mathematics, which have a base of eleven given the aliens’ having five fingers on one hand and six on the other, although inquiring about specifics causes the males to go berserk and the females to fall unconscious. One of the humans who ultimately serves as an adversary later on is Brown Limper Staffor, son of a parson in Jonnie’s hometown, with other alien races, some friendly and other hostile, coming to Earth to get in on the action against the Psychlos.

Day 92, during which Terl plans to blow up Earth and return to his homeworld, eventually comes, with further conflicts against the Psychlos erupting, and the fate of their planet settled, Jonnie at the end getting a lesson in Psychlo math. Several lyrics to songs Hubbard composed for his novel follow the main text, and overall I found Battlefield Earth to be a good long novel sure to please fans of science-fiction, with plenty of memorable characters such as Terl and Jonnie, and it’s definitely readable in small bursts, given the relative shortness of most chapters. Some distinguishment between the appearances of the various alien characters would have been welcome, but I’m not hesitant to recommend this sci-fi epic.

View all my reviews

Sunday, August 8, 2021

Gaming Update, 8/8/2021

Currently Playing:

Fire Emblem: Three Houses - I'm in Chapter 4, and spent an hour grinding quickly in missions, before finding thanks to the internet that it's apparently a better idea to change classes for characters earlier.

Xenosaga Episode I: Der Wille zur Macht - I don't know why, but I just had a strange itching to go through this game again, despite my mixed feelings on it from ages ago. It's actually a lot better than I remember it despite its flaws, and for some reason I've been having a blast grinding.

In My Backlog:

Baldur's Gate I + II: Enhanced Editions - Low priority.

Dragon Quest - Don't know when I'll get to this.

Fallout Tactics: Brotherhood of Steel - Depending upon the circumstances, this may be the next game I begin.

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD - Another game my younger brother loaned me. He warned me that it has issues with its controls, and I'll probably hold off on it until I beat Three Houses.

Ultima II + III - Low priority too.

Art by Me, 8/8/2021

 


Since the 9th is Smokey the Bear's birthday.

Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey Redux

 

A Journey That Begins Where Everything Ends

Ever since the release of the third mainline Shin Megami Tensei game on the PlayStation 2, subtitled Nocturne, the series would develop a following outside its native Japan, with most games in the long-running franchise afterward seeing English versions. It would be many years before the release of the next mainline game, Atlus content to put out spinoffs such as the Digital Devil Saga duology and additional installments of the Persona subseries, until they released what they considered the next “official” entry, subtitled Strange Journey, for the Nintendo DS. The following generation, the game would see an updated rerelease for the 3DS entitled Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey Redux, with several tweaks that make it the definitive version.

Redux opens with an expeditionary team investigating a phenomenon known as the Schwarzwelt appearing over the continent of Antarctica, the player controlling an American member of the group tasked with terminating the abnormality, before which he must navigate many bizarre labyrinths and gets the ability to summon monsters to help him fight. The story is generally well-told, with a great deal of originality and decisions throughout the game dictating what ending the player receives, an extra dungeon known as the Womb of Grief adding more narrative. There are some superficial similarities to the plots of prior Megami Tensei games, but the plot definitely helps far more than hurts.

The translation, fortunately, helps matters, with well-localized dialogue that’s largely free of spelling and grammatical errors, not to mention occasional oddities inherent in text localized from Japanese, although as Redux released towards the end of the 3DS’s lifecycle, the new voice acting remains in Japanese, but there are no other major issues aside from that.

Solid gameplay also backs the experience, with the original version of Strange Journey having in some respects returned the franchise to its roots, given the first-person dungeon exploration, with a Metroidvania-style formula of several enhancements assisting the protagonist’s exploration of each labyrinth, with occasional encouragement to explore prior dungeons after each upgrade to the player’s Main App. These include things such as unlocking hidden doors, changing the layout of certain areas of labyrinths through special tiles, detecting hidden enemies, making visible the walls, floors, and ceilings of “dark” areas, and the like.

As the protagonist explores labyrinths, an indicator gradually shifts from blue to red to indicate how close he is to encountering enemies, as always alleviating the tension associated with random encounters, certain Sub Apps able to increase or decrease their rate of occurrence. When the player does encounter an enemy party, they can either negotiate with them to get them to join the playable party, which typically requires items such as Life Stones and Shin Megami Tensei’s macca currency mostly gained from victory against antagonists. The player can also negotiate for other things such as items and money, though I didn’t find myself ever doing this.

Strange Journey Redux for the most part features a traditional turn-based system where the player inputs commands for their party of the protagonist and up to three demons and lets them and the enemy fight in a round. The typical trope of unpredictable turn order comes into play, although the player can acquire a Commander Skill, active or passive, that guarantees their party’s characters will all go before the enemy. Battles end when the player escapes or all characters/enemies are dead, the latter instance naturally resulting in a Game Over, although luckily, the rerelease’s liberalized save system somewhat cuts wasted playtime.

Whereas Nocturne featured the strategy of the player’s characters and the enemies able to obtain advantages by exploiting one another’s weaknesses (luckily visible any time in battle if the player has attempted a skill of a certain element), Redux sports its own twist, where if the protagonist or one of his demons exploits a monster’s weak point, all other characters of the same alignment (Law, Neutral, or Chaos) will unleash an additional attack, with a Sub App able to allow exploiters of weakness to transcend orientation. One major plus is that this system doesn’t work in the enemy’s favor at all.

The protagonist can equip different types of firearms to shoot regular rounds or elemental bullets at foes, ensuring he has some part to play in combat. Players won’t want to attach themselves to a particular party, and to keep up with more powerful enemies throughout the game, they can fuse demons, two at a time, to create empowered ones, the player able to register specific versions of monsters in the Demon Compendium for future resummoning at the cost of some macca. Fusion ultimately became my main method of acquiring new demons, and I very rarely had to negotiate with enemies, with some DLC allowing for faster leveling and money gain if desired.

The game mechanics work very well, with some elements to consider such as only the protagonist being able to use consumable items, which, while stackable, have limits to the amount the player can have in their inventory at any time. Players will also want to have demons in their convoy to summon in case any in their active party dies, the hero also only able to change demons. While the death of a demon removes it from the frontline party, a spell and item allow for simultaneous resurrection and resummoning of deceased demons. The different difficulty settings and mentioned DLC also make the rerelease accessible to most gaming audiences, and in the end, I found the gameplay more than joyful.

Exploring the first-person labyrinths can be fun too, upgrades to the Main App enhancing exploration akin to a Metroidvania, but one might find it easy to get lost at a few points, and there are things to consider such as the need to face respective walls to uncover hidden doors, leading to meticulous exploration without the aid of maps online. Despite this, there are plenty pluses to control such as the easy menus and liberalized save system, with two kinds of saves: field saves, which the player can make any time during exploration, and standard saves players make aboard the Red Sprite or at terminals. All in all, interaction is one of the game’s weak points, but the other aspects compensate for its flaws.

A nice soundtrack with an emphasis on orchestral instrumentation and ominous chanting accompanies the experience, with pretty much every track being solid, and there being different boss battle themes depending upon the kind of bosses. Redux adds Japanese voice acting, which remains in its mother tongue due to the remaster’s rerelease towards the end of the Nintendo 3DS’s lifecycle, although most voices fit their respective characters, with the demons participating in battle on either side having voices or aural effects of their own, enhancing the experience. There are some silent portions, but otherwise, the game is more than easy on the ears.

It’s easy on the eyes as well, even if there isn’t a whole lot of graphical improvement from the original, with a strict first-person perspective during cutscenes, exploration, and combat, but the player’s demons have good animations, and there are nice ability effects in battle. The lack of 3-D is disappointing, BUT while it like control is one of the game’s weak points, it has its strong suits.

Finally, a straightforward playthrough can take as little as sixty hours, although there is plenty side content and lasting appeal in the form of different plot branches, achievement medals, and a New Game+, but the occasional annoying dungeons may deter some players from going through again.

Overall, Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey Redux is a worthwhile remaster and one of many great swan songs for the Nintendo 3DS, given its solid strategic gameplay and exploration, enjoyable narrative with multiple plot branches and a polished localization, an excellent soundtrack, and nice stylistic visuals. There are a few issues to consider such as the occasional annoying dungeon (although Main App upgrades somewhat rectify that particular issue), the lack of English voicework, and the strict first-person disposition of the graphics, although the rerelease definitely does the dungeon crawl far better than the Persona Q games, and is one of the high points of the Megami Tensei franchise.

This review is based on an single playthrough of a copy digitally downloaded to the reviewer’s Nintendo 3DS, with DLC purchased and used.

The Good:
+Great gameplay accommodating to different player skills.
+Tight control and exploration.
+Enjoyable narrative with multiple plot branches and polished translation.
+Excellent soundtrack.
+Nice visuals.

The Bad:
-Some annoying dungeons.
-Voicework left in Japanese.
-Visuals strictly first-person and without 3-D capability.

The Bottom Line:
An excellent monster-capturing dungeon-crawl.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Game Mechanics: 9.5/10
Controls: 9.0/10
Story: 9.5/10
Localization: 9.5/10
Music/Sound: 9.5/10
Graphics: 9.0/10
Lasting Appeal: 9.5/10
Difficulty: Adjustable
Playing Time: 30-60+ Hours

Overall: 9.5/10

Saturday, August 7, 2021

Vivo (film)

  

A good animated film with nice music and occasional traditional-animated segments alongside the general CG about the eponymous kinkajou who travels from Cuba to Florida to deliver a song his owner wrote in honor of his significant other's last concert.

Sunday, August 1, 2021

Legend of Mana

 

Mana World Ransom

Square-Enix’s Seiken Densetsu series, known as Mana outside Japan, began as a spinoff of the Final Fantasy franchise, the first installment for the Gameboy known to Anglophones as Final Fantasy Adventure. While North American gamers would receive its first sequel for the Super NES, Secret of Mana, its sequel, only a few years prior given the official English name Trials of Mana, remained absent outside Japan until recently. The next Mana game Anglophone players would receive after Secret was Legend of Mana, with Square-Enix in recent years breathing new life into the series with remakes and remasters, Legend among the recipients of this treatment for Windows, the Nintendo Switch, and PlayStation 4. Is the rerelease worth playing?

Legend of Mana occurs in the world of Fa’Diel, where war incinerated the Mana Tree, and all the world’s various lands and inhabitants stored in artifacts, the first of which is a mailbox that creates a home serving as the playable male or female protagonist’s home base, with the primary hero or heroine tasked with rebuilding the world to its former glory. There are plenty of well-developed mini-stories throughout the game, and many memorable characters, although the central narrative is somewhat lacking, along with the general poor direction of the overall plot and accommodating gameplay.

The translation largely remains unchanged from the PlayStation version’s, which is a good thing, as it was one of the strongest ones of the original incarnation’s era, with nary a spelling or grammar error in sight, different dialects for certain characters such as Teapo’s Cockney speak and the pirate penguins, general comprehensible dialogue, occasional humor with references to things such as “getting stoned” and “being hard,” and the like. The font choice was definitely good, as well, with only minor spots in the localization regarding certain names such as “tako bugs”. Regardless, the translation very much helps the remaster far more than hurts.

Legend features a methodical structure where the player, largely through the completion of story quests, receives artifacts they place on the overworld to rebuild a town, dungeon, or field, new adventures encountered provided they’ve conversed with the right NPCs, entered an area, or fulfilled an objective that admittedly might necessitate use of a guide to uncover. Many quests revolve around traversing open fields and dungeons and maybe defeating a boss, and after a mission’s completion, the player can converse with Li’l Cactus at their home to get him to write a brief journal entry, with opportunities for obtaining these missable should players complete another quest in the meantime.

Within fields and dungeons, the player will frequently encounter enemies, which causes the screen to lock into place, akin to a beat-em-up arcade game, the general combat mechanics taking plentiful cues from the aforementioned gaming genre. When starting a new game, the player can select the hero or heroine’s initial weapon, although they can change to other weapon types throughout the game, and in the game menus, the player can assign skills such as jumping and dodge-rolling to two buttons, whilst the other two dictate weak and strong attacks, players able to string these in combination strikes.

There are plentiful safeguards against potential frustration with the game mechanics, such as the ability outside battle, new to the remaster, to toggle enemy encounters on or off except for storyline battles necessary to advance a subplot, not to mention the protagonist and his/her two allies starting each fight at full health. The player’s companions typically consist of a character central to the storyline and either a “pet” the player can capture through certain means and raise or a golem with fixed stats, sentient allies and pets able to level alongside the protagonist.

One of the main issues with Legend’s game mechanics, however, lies in its reward system, with defeated enemies dropping either an item for instant health recovery within the battle (with there being no system of consumable items, although a character’s health will slowly restore when they stand still), an item for various uses in things that may necessitate a guide, or experience crystals and coins any of the characters can collect, although without the use of a certain accessory or an additional player to control the second character, leveling allies can be somewhat taxing, and the hero or heroine will very easily be an experience hog, and experience crystals disappear after a few seconds.

Fortunately, battles tend to be quick affairs, although they generally don’t become too complex, the protagonist occasionally getting special skills they can use when their ability gauge is full, although these tend to require a great deal of foresight, given that their execution causes them to stand still for a few seconds before ultimately unleashing the skill, with enemies having ample opportunity to get out of the way. Should the main character or one of his/her allies lose all health, they naturally remain unable to fight, although gauges gradually fill that, when full, thrust them back into action with full health, but all characters losing all hit points results in a game over.

Given the generous save system, more generous in the remaster, however, wasted playtime is minimal, and as long as the player takes advantage of things such as blacksmithing to create better weapons and equipment, they’ll have little problem making it through the central storyline. The game mechanics generally work decently, battles being optional in the remaster being a major plus, along with some nifty features such as enemies blinking before executing powerful skills, although there are issues aside from the reward system such as having to track down certain allies to get them back in the party, given that they leave whenever the player enters their home, and in the end, the gameplay is largely serviceable.

On the subject of saving, Legend of Mana still has golden sprite statues where the player can record their progress, but most of the time outside combat, they can save anywhere, somewhat making said idols superfluous. The menus are generally easy to get a handle of, with an auto-equip function for the protagonist and no need to worry about the equipment of allies, although there exist major issues with regards to the field and dungeon designs, which can be convoluted, the total absence of in-game maps not helping. There’s also the difficulty of finding out how to advance the game without consulting a guide, and in the end, the remastery team could have made some effort to increase user-friendliness.

Yoko Shimomura’s soundtrack is one of the game’s highlights, with plenty beautiful town themes such as in Domina and Gato, and epic field and dungeon themes, the player able to choose between orchestrated or original instrumentation, and listen to any track within the game. The sound effects are somewhat generic and lack diversity, but otherwise, the remaster is a definite aural treat.

One could possibly say the same about Legend of Mana being eye candy, given plentiful positives such as the superb character and enemy designs and gorgeous environments scaled to contemporary widescreen televisions, along with a new, nice anime introduction before the title screen. However, the pixilation of the animate character and enemy sprites is very noticeable, and there are some reskins and recycled environments as well, and while the graphics rise above average, they don’t reach excellence.

Finally, the game can take as little as twelve hours to beat with a straightforward playthrough, up to twenty-four if the player decides to partake in every available quest, with a New Game+ theoretically adding replayability, although the weak control and ability to do every quest in a single playthrough (some are, however, missable), may deter players from wanting to go through again.

Overall, Legend of Mana is a bit of an odd duck, undoubtedly a polarizing game, given some of the unrefined aspects such as its game mechanics (which are otherwise decent), its control, the general absence of a strong overarching storyline, the unpolished parts of the visuals, and the average lasting appeal. However, it does have many astounding aspects, particularly its engaging mini-stories, the solid localization, and the beautiful soundtrack. Much like the Final Fantasy franchise from which the Mana series derives, the game, like many before and after it, dared to be different, and for the most part did a decent job in that respect, warranting a look, if nothing more.

This review is based on a playthrough of the PlayStation 4 version digitally downloaded by the reviewer.

The Good:
+Serviceable game mechanics.
+Interesting subplots.
+Excellent translation.
+Superb soundtrack.
+Good art direction.

The Bad:
-Guide necessary to get most of game.
-Dungeons and fields need maps badly.
-Weak overarching storyline with poor direction.
-Some rough spots in remastered graphics.
-Can be slightly tedious to go through again.

The Bottom Line:
Not the best Mana game, but still a decent remaster.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: PlayStation 4
Game Mechanics: 6.5/10
Controls: 5.0/10
Story: 8.5/10
Localization: 9.5/10
Music/Sound: 9.5/10
Graphics: 6.5/10
Lasting Appeal: 5.0/10
Difficulty: Moderate
Playing Time: 12-24 Hours

Overall: 7.5/10