Sunday, October 31, 2021

Frozen Heart

The Frozen Heart (The Seven Kingdoms #8)The Frozen Heart by Cordelia Castel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Rather than continue the story of its precursors, the eighth installment of author Cordelia Castel’s Seven Kingdoms series opens with a different set of main characters, chiefly Elisa the Snow Queen who serves as something as an adversary, hearing about the defeat of her husband King Rhinoceros by Cendrilla Perrault in the Rite of Royal Worth. She seeks to marry King January of Prevern so that she can eventually kill him and inherit is thrown in her quest to conquer the Seven Kingdoms, with their wedding and following consummation going swiftly, although she delays in killing her husband.

The humans of Prevern protest January’s marriage, and Queen Elisa inquires about the country’s defenses so that she can build it as a military powerful and potentially stop those who would dare challenge her rule, including Cendrilla herself, and visits the nation’s parliament so that she can gain the rapport of its politicians. Things become tense in the final chapters, with several twists that affect Elisa’s marriage to January, along with the trolls that disguise themselves as high-ranking officials in Prevern. At points the book gives backstory on Elisa, with an epilogue wrapping things up.

Those who really like the prior entries in the Seven Kingdoms series might not particularly care for this particular tale in its universe, although I found the change of characters to be a breath of fresh air, with plenty of politicking and fantastical military action, and Queen Elisa receives plenty of development and evolution through the story, along with King January. There are occasional issues with the text such as a lack of visualization of the trolls masquerading as luminaries of Prevern, not to mention a few unresolved portions of the tale such as little spotlight given to Cendrilla, although one more book in the series does give a chance at overall resolution.

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Gaming Update, 10/31/2021

Currently Playing

Learn Japanese to Survive! Kanji Combat - I'm on Chapter 3, I think, and have rebuilt a few structures in town. Sort of reminds me a little of Actraiser but instead with turn-based combat teaching the readings and meanings of kanji.

Shin Megami Tensei - Persona 2: Innocent Sin  I'm at Aoba Park, mapping every corner of the dungeon, and while this game isn't perfect, it is at least bearable with a guide to enemy contact so I can get a ton of tarot cards. Somewhat annoying, though, when the enemies throw in philosophical questions and can annul their pacts if you don't answer correctly, and I've tried to remember the right answers.

In My Backlog

Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition (Nintendo Switch) Still sealed in its package collected with the second game, and low priority.

Baldur's Gate II: Enhanced Edition (Nintendo Switch) Likewise.

Dragon Quest (Nintendo Switch) This may be the next game I play through unless Chris gives me another Switch game to borrow, which I tend to prioritize. I'm definitely returning Bravely Default II to him.

Slime Forest Adventure - This will likely wait until I'm done with Kanji Combat.

Ultima II: The Revenge of the Enchantress - I don't know if I'll try this again unless I find a workaround to the glitch preventing me from starting a new game from scratch.

Ultima III: Exodus - Won't play until I find a way to play the second game safely.

Saturday, October 30, 2021

The Nightmare Before Christmas


I got the idea to watch this from the lead analyst on the traffic team, who said it was a Halloween tradition, and I definitely appreciate it, as it was as good as when I first saw it long ago.

Deep Look - Bravely Default II


Bravely Frustrating

In 2012, Square-Enix published the Nintendo 3DS title Bravely Default, which many videogame critics hailed as a throwback to instalments of the Final Fantasy franchise of old. It would receive a sequel for the system, Bravely Second, which continued the story of its precursor. The Nintendo Switch would take the 3DS’s place as a hybrid handheld and home console, with the company releasing Bravely Default II, which has no connection to the original game or its direct sequel, and continues the franchise’s tradition of turn-based battles with an emphasis on classes. It also sports some interesting changes, but are they for the better?

As mentioned, Bravely Default II, much akin to its brethren franchise Final Fantasy, has no narrative connections to other games in the franchise, and follows four playable protagonists: the enigmatic main character Seth, the refugee princess Gloria, the traveling scholar Elvis, and the mercenary Adelle. They embark on a quest to retrieve four elemental crystals while dealing with adversaries who utilize Asterisks, giving characters the ability to change classes. The sequel isn’t shy about its story’s resemblance to that of the original Final Fantasy, and is one of its primary detriments, although the background is decent.

The localization is mostly legible, although terrible decisions such as naming one of the protagonists “Elvis” really distracts from its okay quality, along with unnatural dialogue like “Protect! Protect! Protect!” and so on. The old-world speak is decent, and there’s a notable deficit of spelling and grammar errors, but the translation team could have given this aspect a once-over.

That leaves the gameplay to shoulder the burden, with the general mechanics containing many similarities to the prior two entries of the series. Rather than having an adjustable encounter rate, however, this entry contains visible enemies wandering dungeons and the overworld, with fights naturally triggered through contact, Seth able to slash foes on the field to give his party the advantage. Battles start with Seth’s party facing an entourage of enemies, with speed determining turn order, this mechanic somewhat different from the traditional turn-based structure of prior games. Characters and foes instantly execute their commands, akin to titles such as Final Fantasy X.

Rather than having a turn order gauge, however, Bravely Default II opts for having enemies show exclamation point icons to indicate their turns are imminent, with Seth and his party having active time gauges that determine which character goes when, and given some necessary foresight, an actual meter showing command order would have definitely been welcome. The sequel sports mechanics bequeathed from its precursors such as being able to Default, which serves as defense and accumulating one Brave Point, characters and enemies able to have a maximum of three Brave Points, and able to get extra commands within their turns.

As in prior entries, the game caps the number of executable orders per character and enemy turn at four, and it’s possible for both sides to have negative Brave Points, where they have to wait until reaching zero, recovering one Brave Point per turn, until they are able to execute another command. Much of the gameplay meat comes from the Asterisks the player acquires from defeating bosses who have them, which allows Seth and his companions to change classes, each with twelve abilities, passive and active, that they learn through leveling the class until mastery at level twelve for each vocation.

Characters have standard experience levels alongside class levels, with victory against the toughest bosses far more dependent upon which abilities the player has from their classes. Commands aside from Defaulting and executing supplemental turns include attacking with equipped weapons, using HP or MP-consuming abilities obtained through class mastery, using consumable items, or attempting to escape from the enemy, which naturally doesn’t work all the time, particularly against foes whose levels are on par or higher than the player’s. Victory nets all characters who are still alive base level and class experience, as one would expect.

Outside battle, characters can equip a subclass in addition to a primary class, which allows them to access that subclass’s abilities provided they have acquired a few levels in the vocation. For instance, players can have a fighting monk that can cast the white mage’s healing spells. Furthermore, the player can adjust the difficulty level, although even on Casual mode, bosses can still be walls preventing players from advancing the main storyline, having tons of HP, powerful enemies fighting alongside them, lots of cheap tricks, and taking upwards to an hour to complete, with failure resulting in an unceremonious Game Over and trip back to the title screen, largely necessitating online guides for strategies.

Control is superficially decent, with a fair save system, skippable cutscenes, clear direction on how to advance the central storyline and even subquests, auto-dash, the ability to see how prospective equipment affects stats before purchasing it, easy menus, a skill allowing to see how many treasure chests remain in an area, and so forth, although dungeons would have seriously benefitted from maps, their absence inexcusable given that even games from several generations past such as The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past had this feature. There are also plentiful load times, unskippable startup company screens, and the absence of a soft-reset or actual ability to pause the game, but in the end the controls are passable at best.

The soundtrack is probably the strongest aspect of Bravely Default II, with a number of solid tracks such as the overworld theme’s variations, the town themes, the battle music, and so forth. Sound effects are believable as one would expect from a game of its time, and there is voice acting as well, though its quality is somewhat mixed, especially in the case of a few annoying accented characters such as Elvis, who sounds somewhat like the eponymous ogre from the Shrek films.

The visuals are more of a mixed bag, with a three-dimensional chibi style similar to prior games in the franchise, which generally look decent, although there are some hiccups such as the player’s characters and enemies not making contact when attacking one another, some blurry and pixilated texturing, and a great deal of choppiness that somewhat bring them down.

As I didn’t complete the game, I can’t accurately gauge the time necessary to play it to completion, although at twenty-three hours, I was still partway through the second of seven chapters, so one can expect to spend quite a while if they wish to see it through to the end.

In the end, Bravely Default II is another Japanese RPG that I really wanted to like, but it just didn’t love me in return, given the various JRPG screw-yous in its gameplay mechanics, control issues such as the total lack of maps for dungeons, the generic narrative, mixed voice acting, and average visuals. It does have a few positive aspects such as its music, although frankly, that’s reason to purchase a soundtrack, not a videogame, and I can safely say there are far better Nintendo Switch RPGs out there, and won’t be revisiting this franchise anytime soon.


Friday, October 29, 2021

Mentats of Dune

Mentats of Dune (Schools of Dune #2)Mentats of Dune by Brian Herbert
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Authors Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson dedicate their second installment of the Great Schools of Dune trilogy to their wives, acknowledging them, their publisher, and their editors in the section afterward. As with other books in the Duniverse, fictitious philosophical quotes precede each chapter, with a cluster in the beginning opened by Butlerian leader Manford Torondo, who notes that advanced technology can make for various excuses, with Josef Venport not knowing whether to fear or laugh at the Butlerians, and Emperor Salvador Corrino indicating that whenever one crisis sees its resolution, another shows up.

In the beginning, Gilbertus Albans, Headmaster of the Mentat School, wants neither the Emperor nor the Butlerians to take it away from him, with Mentats being humans with minds so organized that they can rival computers. Some backstory figures into the initial chapter, with the late Emperor Jules’ consort Orenna being known as the Virgin Empress due to Jules’ three children not coming from her womb at all, but rather three different concubines. In the meantime, Vorian Atreides continues to wander the galaxy in search of a place to call home, being over two centuries old due to the life-extension treatment his father Agamemnon made him undergo.

Furthermore, Prince Roderick Corrino, brother to Emperor Salvador, contemplates deposing his sibling, a thought that plays part in the latter portion of the novel. Josef Venport continues his struggles with the Butlerians, finding Draigo Roget, a star pupil of the Mentat School, to be helpful in VenHold’s mercantile operations. The Emperor ultimately establishes the Committee of Orthodoxy to oversee technology and ensure it doesn’t overtake human lives as it did preceding the Butlerian Jihad. In the meantime, Valya Harkonnen plots revenge against the Atreides family, seeking to murder two of Vor’s descendants, Orry and Willem, with aid from her sister Tula.

Moreover, Ptolemy tests out his new Navigators, essentially cymeks, and the Sisterhood’s leader, Raquella, contemplates a successor, given her advanced age. A climatic conflict between Gilbertus and the Butlerians culminates towards the end, with this entry being generally enjoyable, given the rich mythology, action, and endearing characters, although there is minor confusion regarding whether certain characters are alive or dead. Even so, those that enjoyed the first book of the trilogy will definitely enjoy the second, and those new to the series would best begin with Sisterhood of Dune to be prepared for its sequel.

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Sunday, October 24, 2021

Saturday, October 23, 2021

The Kingdom

The Kingdom (The Seven Kingdoms #7)The Kingdom by Cordelia Castel
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The seventh installment of author Cordelia Castel’s Seven Kingdoms series picks up where its predecessor left off, with Rilla having restored the statues of her father Prince Evander and his fairy brethren to animate form, although the prince isn’t exactly happy to reunite with his daughter, who loses a subsequent fight challenge against him. Rilla leads her companions to a village whose babies elves have stolen, and promises to rescue them. Early on, Evander seals off his daughter’s fairy magic and alters her form to become more reflective of her ogre lineage, although a Kiss of True Love can restore her standard stature.

As Rilla seeks someone to kiss, she and her companions venture to Elf Mountain, which non-elves term Mount Magma due to being a volcano, although the King of Elves initially refuses to return the stolen babies. However, the chance to relocate to Bluebeard Mountain changes the elven monarch’s mind, although when they leave the mountain, they find forces from the Alkahest Alliance awaiting them, having taken over the country in a bloodless coup. Rilla ultimately needs to infiltrate the Academy in Metropole, with some twists abounding in the last few chapters, an epilogue occurring three years later and ending the initial plot arc of the series.

All in all, this was definitely one of the better books in the series, given its initial inciting incidents with Rilla’s father, although there are some events towards the end, one critical, that somewhat eluded me. The action is generally good, although before the main text, a synopsis of the book’s predecessors would have definitely given those who have briefly broken from the series a chance to catch up and receive reminders as to the crucial events of the narrative. The ending is definitely satisfactory, given the time skip from the main events of the series, and while the story isn’t great, I do definitely express interest in how the plot of the characters continues.

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Dune: Part One


The Atreides family of the planet Caladan moves to the eponymous world, real name Arrakis, to take over spice operations from the Harkonnens, who are reluctant to comply. Definitely a gorgeous piece of cinema, and I hope it does well enough so that we get Part Two.

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Sisterhood of Dune

Sisterhood of Dune (Schools of Dune #1)Sisterhood of Dune by Brian Herbert
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Authors Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson dedicate this first installment of the Great Schools of Dune trilogy to fans of the Duniverse worldwide, and acknowledge various individuals in its production, such as their spouses, publishers, editors, and beta readers. As with other entries of the franchise, fictitious in-universe quotes precede each new chapter, providing good philosophy and making the story seem genuine, espousing things such as geniuses stretching the limits of the human imagination, and giving supplemental history with the belief that although the defeat of the thinking machines was thought to bring peace and prosperity, the real battle only just began.

Sisterhood opens eighty-three years after the end of the Butlerian Jihad covered in the Legends of Dune trilogy that the Battle of Corrin officially terminated, with Faykan Butler adopting the new surname Corrino in honor of the planet, establishing himself as the first Emperor of the new Imperium. Vorian Atreides, hero of the Jihad, has disappeared, blamed by Abulurd Harkonnen for disgracing his family’s name, his clan exiled to the backwater world of Lankiveil. On Rossak, Raquella Berto-Anirul becomes the first Reverend Mother of the titular Sisterhood, and Gilbertus Albans, adopted son of the thinking machine Erasmus, establishes his own school of thought and declares his pupils Mentats.

Meanwhile, the descendants of Aurelius Venport and Norma Cenva build their financial empire of Venport Holdings, and antitechnology fervor spreads through planets of the known galaxy, setting the stage for the official opening of the story, which introduces Manford Torondo, who lost the lower half of his body to an explosion. Valya Harkonnen is also introduced, desiring to become a member of the Sisterhood, which the story reveals believes in eugenics, weeding out “inferior” populations so that the remaining humans can procreate to establish an alleged master race, a movement that once held sway in the early twentieth century before the Nazi’s use of the science deemed it unpopular.

In the meantime, Vorian Atreides wants to fade from history, though the circumstances won’t allow it, and deals with slavers who kidnap children. The current Emperor is Salvador Corrino, whose brother Prince Roderick serves as an advisor of sorts, and whose sister Anna yearns to become part of the Sisterhood as well. The antitechnology movement still holds sway over much of the galaxy, with Butlerians vandalizing memorials composed of former machines. Gilbertus occasionally converses with a sphere holding the memory of his adoptive father Erasmus, and fosters a few prominent pupils such as Draigo Roget.

In the latter portion of the novel, twins seek to assassinate Vor, who also comes to rendezvous with Griffin Harkonnen, who wants vengeance against the Atreides family for the disgrace of his family’s name at the end of the Butlerian Jihad, with an attack on a supposed remaining machine outpost occurring as well. Overall, this is an enjoyable start to the Great Schools of Dune trilogy, and while it does contain occasional pleonasms such as “end result,” it’s still a worthwhile read for diehard series fans, and while this reviewer prefers to start with series from the earliest books in their chronology, even those that haven’t read any entry of the franchise prior can start with Sisterhood.

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Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Learn Japanese to Survive! Katakana War


Survival of the Fittest

Kickstarter campaigns would become commonplace during the 2010s, where everyday people fund campaigns to raise money to develop videogames, with many independent developers relying upon this fundraising method to produce games that they feel mainstream companies haven’t been making. In my continued quest to conquer the Japanese language so I could comprehend titles that likely won’t see English versions in the near future, I came across a series of Steam RPGs that said method had funded to teach Japanese hiragana, katakana, and kanji in a trilogy, the second of which is Learn Japanese to Survive! Katakana War, which is a competent sequel.

The first successor in the franchise opens in Japan, which enemies based on Japanese katakana characters terrorize, and it’s up to the protagonist and his/her companions to put a stop to them by reciting their readings or, in the case of the parallel world sometimes encountered, their respective symbols. The narrative doesn’t seem to have a whole lot of connections to the first game, although the more the player uses characters in battle, the higher their affection levels become, which can unlock developing cutscenes. There are occasional errors in the text, although the direction tends to be clear, and the plot definitely has its positive moments.

Unlike the random encounters in the first game, the sequel switches to visible monsters in dungeons, which aren’t terribly difficult to avoid, but the player may wish to fight them in order to keep pace with their gradually-growing levels. Fights are turn-based like in the prequel, although Katakana War adopts a structure more similar to Final Fantasy X where a gauge shows which character or enemy takes their turn when, with abilities executing immediately upon input, so little to no foresight is necessary for battles. Standard attacks consist as in its predecessor of answering the correct reading or symbol for characters or syllables, with incorrect guesses resulting in zero damage.

Characters also have MP-consuming magic, with the twist that offensive spells can’t actually kill enemies, who must die from standard attacks, although those that attack all foes tend to be somewhat useful, as do healing abilities. Winning battles nets all four participating characters experience for occasional level-ups, with the sequel having more allies than the limit that the player can adjust in Osaka. There are also a number of sidequests typically involving Japanese language aspects that net rewards such as new vocabulary and bonus points that the player can use at the crystal in Osaka for bonus level-ups.

Players may also come across shards that they can exchange at said crystal for stat-increasing items, which can be somewhat handy. The battle system generally works well, more so than in the first game, with a fluid pace to combat, and fights generally not forced down the player’s throat most of the time, along with a generous difficulty curve. There are negligible flaws such as how the player’s allegedly-elemental spells actually don’t make difference at all in how much damage they deal enemies, but aside from this, the sequel definitely improves upon the first game’s mechanics and are solid overall.

Control is just as solid, with great direction on how to advance the central storyline, an always-useful save-anywhere feature, the generous view of towns and dungeons nullifying the need for in-game maps, in-game tracking of playtime, the ability to see how equipment affects stats before purchasing it, and so forth. There are issues regarding things such as the need to talk to allies in Osaka in order to change party setup, along with occasional glitches such as one encountered when viewing the final affection scene with characters. Otherwise, the sequel interacts well with players.

The soundtrack, as in the first game, is surprisingly good for a Western RPG, with a number of solid tracks such as the peaceful town and overworld themes, the energetic battle themes, vocal version of some of the central themes, and the like. Voices for the pronunciation and some cutscenes also abound, with the former having more diversity this time around, and generally being solid. A few issues are present such as alleged ethnic characters having no accents, along with the music frequently audibly looping, but otherwise, the sequel is an aural delight.

The game is a delight visually, albeit to a lesser extent, with vibrant colors, great anime-inspired art direction with character designs aplenty, great environments, and so forth, but the chibi sprites won’t appeal to all, and battles contain the typical Japanese RPG trope of characters telekinetically attacking enemies, which also have a number of palette swaps. Regardless, the graphics are hardly a dealbreaker.

Finally, the sequel is short like its predecessor, around eight to twelve hours long, with sidequests boosting playtime along with achievement and postgame play, although the player can get all things accomplished in one playthrough and there aren’t any narrative variations.

Overall, Katakana War is for the most part a solid sequel that hits most of the right notes regarding things such as its educational battle system, great control, well-developed characters, and strong aural and visual presentation. It does have occasional hiccups such as occasional glitches and unskippable sequences, not to mention weak spots in its visuals and a general lack of lasting appeal, although those who enjoyed the first game will likely appreciate the second, with the sequel appealing to RPG enthusiasts not to mention Japanese language-learners, and I definitely look forward to playing the third game in the franchise.

The Good:
+Refined educational game mechanics.
+Tight control.
+Excellent soundtrack.
+Good art direction.

The Bad:
-Generic plot.
-Frequent audible loops in music.
-Art won’t appeal to all.
-Little lasting appeal.

The Bottom Line:
A refined sequel.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: PC (Steam)
Game Mechanics: 9.5/10
Controls: 8.0/10
Story: 6.5/10
Music/Sound: 9.0/10
Graphics: 7.5/10
Lasting Appeal: 4.0/10
Difficulty: Easy
Playing Time: 8-12 Hours

Overall: 7.5/10

Saturday, October 16, 2021

Brother Bear 2


Now a bear, Kenai is haunted by memories of his past love Nita, and ultimately seeks to destroy an amulet that signified their promise so she can move on. Has some cliched elements like Koda and Kenai having a spat and briefly separating, and the ending was hardly a surprise, but this was definitely one of the better animated Disney sequels, which I think stems from its predecessor's basis on an original story.

Birthday Gift Art for Blue Mario


Friday, October 15, 2021

The Banishment

The Banishment (The Seven Kingdoms #6)The Banishment by Cordelia Castel
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The sixth installment of author Cordelia Castel’s Seven Kingdoms series opens with the antagonistic Jack talking of orchestrating an attack with Ogrebane. In the meantime, Rilla prepares for a trip to Vern, wishing to know where the Order of the Alkahest’s hideout is, allegedly Castle Azoth on the other side of Springton. The Snow Queen returns as a villain, having offered the Order fairies in exchange for capturing Prince Alex, another love interest of Rilla’s. Cendrilla meets with the Orangutan General Sumatra of the Pongo clan, and is taken to meet the Fairy Queen, although her welcome into their realm isn’t exactly wholesome.

Rilla is rendered incoherent by her meeting with the Queen, with a doctor named Mallard healing her, and she eventually begins her instruction in fairy magic with Prince Vanus. Cendrilla’s relationship with her betrothed Lord Bluebeard has definitely cooled throughout the series, although he yearns for a woman named Paloma instead. A later chapter opens with an unfamiliar character named Ella waking for breakfast and having no memory of what had previously transpired, the action ultimately returning to Rilla as she seeks the lair of the Snow Queen, and begins battle against her.

Overall, I definitely wanted to enjoy this installment of the Seven Kingdoms series, although it somewhat locks out those who are especially familiar with its predecessors, and a plot synopsis of the stories up to the point would have definitely been welcome. The chapter beginning with the character Ella also proves somewhat unnecessary, and the book borders on literary nonsense at times. The battle scenes towards the end of the book are good, although around this point the series is starting to lose its luster, given many prior average entries, and definitely isn’t recommended reading.

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Sunday, October 10, 2021

The Winds of Dune

The Winds of Dune (Heroes of Dune #2)The Winds of Dune by Brian Herbert
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Before the main text of this tale of Dune, the wives of the authors lament how difficult is it to be in a marriage with writers, with Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson acknowledging as before their publishers and the former’s family. Among the opening lines of this story is that Paul Atreides is different things to different people, with the Muad’Dib robbed of his sight by a stone-burner, and the childbirth of his newborn twin children to concubine Chani ending up killing her. Paul afterward leaves care of the Imperium to his sixteen-year-old sister Alia before heading out into the deserts of Arrakis.

Paul rules the Imperium for fourteen years after his overthrow of the Corrino Emperor Shaddam IV, moving the capital of the Known Universe to Arrakeen on Dune. In the meantime, the former Padishah Emperor yearns for his throne back, with propositions that one of his many daughters or his only grandson marry one of the Muad’Dib’s twins in the future, Paul’s scion ultimately named Leto and Ghanima. A funeral for Paul is held towards the end of the first part, although Bronso Vernius of Ix sabotages the ceremony and is thus on the run.

The second section of the novel goes back in time to when Paul was twelve years old after the War of Assassins, indicating that Paul and Bronso were once friends, with a tragedy affecting the latter’s father, Rhombur, accompanied by a revelation about Bronso’s true lineage that ultimately causes the boy to run away, with Paul following. The two join a roaming Jongleur troop, eventually partaking in a performance where another tragedy occurs, and the rift between Paul and Bronso that plays part in the story’s latter portions coming to fruition.

Two months after the end of the Muad’Dib’s reign, Alia prepares to wed Duncan Idaho, with Paul’s sister and their mother Jessica ultimately coming to term with the atrocities committed in the name of the Muad’Dib. A deal is eventually struck between the Atreides and Bronso that somewhat heals the wounds between them, with an execution terminating the story, which is generally enjoyable, although those who haven’t read Frank Herbert’s original Dune stories may find themselves lost, as most of the action occurs after the franchise’s first sequel Dune Messiah, and overall, while a good yarn, probably isn’t the best starting point in the series.

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Saturday, October 9, 2021

Brother Bear


An indigenous post-ice age man in old Alaska kills a bear and is transformed into one as a result, thus seeking to regain his human form. The love/hate relationship between Kinai and Koda is a tad cliched, and the tone is a bit inconsistent, but I still enjoyed the film.

Learn Japanese to Survive! Hiragana Battle


Worthwhile Edutainment

I’ve been a gamer for as long as I remember, and saw them as a form of escapism from my hectic domestic and scholastic lives. I was largely unaware, until elementary school, that education and gaming could mix, and remember growing up on edutainment such as OutNumbered! that enhanced mathematical skills in addition to being an entertaining game for young students. In my continuous quest to conquer the Japanese language, I would discover a series of RPGs released on Steam that teaches Japanese, the first of which is Learn Japanese to Survive! Hiragana Battle, which is generally an enjoyable title regardless of age group.

Hiragana Battle follows a group of students and their teacher, the former sporadically taught Japanese hiragana characters, including stroke order and pronunciation, necessary to defeat animate hiragana symbols that serve as random encounters (and in the parallel world, the romaji represented by said characters), summoned by an evil wizard. The narrative isn’t anything spectacular, with the main playable cast and villains largely underdeveloped, alongside occasional grammatical errors in the English text, but it’s certainly far from a game-breaker, and there is a cliffhanger ending that likely ties into the next game in the series.

The first entry of the Learn Japanese to Survive! series sports randomly-encountered turn-based battles, with the playable cast squaring off against a number of hiragana-based antagonists. As with most traditional turn-based RPGs, the player inputs commands for the four active characters, with the attack command having the twist of being either a reading of a hiragana symbol or, in the mentioned alternate realm, the hiragana a romaji pronunciation indicates. Guessing the pronunciation or correct hiragana symbol deals damage to the enemy, whereas incorrect guesses result in no damage. Characters also may have MP-consuming magic, although aside from healing spells, these rarely tend to be critical.

Characters can also attempt to escape or use consumable items, with a generous limit in the latter instance, although I rarely, if ever, needed use of these particular options. Winning fights nets all participants experience for occasional level-ups and money to purchase weapons, armor, and consumables from shops. From the completion of sidequests, it’s also possible to obtain bonus points that the player can use to purchase additional levels for their party. The game mechanics work well for the most part, although some may bemoan the above-average (though not extreme) encounter rate, and the potential to waste attacks if a targeted hiragana symbol dies beforehand.

Control is just as solid, if not more so. The menu system, navigation, shopping, and such are generally easy to accomplish, and the player can record their progress anywhere, with occasional opportunities to save after things such as completing a hiragana lesson. The direction on how to advance the central storyline is crystal-clear as well, and pretty much the only real hiccup in interaction is that the player has to back out of a character’s equipment screen in order to bring up another’s gear.

The soundtrack is also surprisingly good for a Western RPG, with decent diversity in what kind of music plays depending upon the environment and situation, although there isn’t any variation regarding the vocal pronunciations of hiragana during lessons, and many of the themes such as those in battle not lasting very long before looping.

Hiragana Battle has decent anime-influenced art direction, with some nice-looking environments, although the chibi character sprites don’t show much emotion, and in battle, the player’s characters and the enemies telekinetically attack one another akin to classic RPGs such as Final Fantasy VI, and there are occasional visual glitches. Generally, the visuals are by no means a deal-breaker, but could have certainly used more polish.

Finally, one can potentially beat the game in one sitting, with a playtime at least six hours, though sidequests can possibly boost playing time. Regardless, there isn’t a whole lot of lasting appeal considering one could accomplish everyone in a single playthrough.

All in all, the first entry of the Learn Japanese to Survive! series definitely hits many positive notes with regards to its educational battle system and effectiveness as a learning tool for those seeking to make sense of the enigmatic language, with tight control as well and a great soundtrack for a Western RPG. Granted, not all is wholly positive, given the generic narrative, average visuals, and lack of lasting appeal, although I found the game to be a good experience for brushing up one of the Japanese language’s character systems, and certainly wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to audiences old and young.

This review is based on a playthrough of a copy digitally downloaded through Steam purchased by the reviewer.

The Good:
+Educational combat.
+Incredibly tight control.
+Great soundtrack.

The Bad:
-Underdeveloped story.
-Average visuals.
-Not a whole lot of lasting appeal.

The Bottom Line:
A good educational RPG.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: PC
Game Mechanics: 7.5/10
Controls: 9.5/10
Story: 5.0/10
Music/Sound: 9.0/10
Graphics: 5.0/10
Lasting Appeal: 4.0/10
Difficulty: Very Easy
Playing Time: 6-12 Hours

Overall: 7.0/10

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Star Wars: The Bad Batch

 Star Wars The Bad Batch logo-2.png

Continues the story commenced by the eponymous Bad Batch from the extra season of The Clone Wars, who have genetic mutations that differentiate them from clone host Jango Fett, with the Galactic Empire replacing the Republic, and the Bad Batch going on their own series of missions, their inhibitor chips malfunctioning and giving them free well from Order 66 that turned the mainline clone soldiers against their Jedi Masters. One of them, Crosshair, pledges loyalty to the Empire, whereas his brothers in the Bad Batch perform various tasks across the galaxy. Definitely a good start for this series, and I'll gladly continue watching it once the entire second season releases.

Monday, October 4, 2021

The Usurper

The Usurper (The Seven Kingdoms #5)The Usurper by Cordelia Castel
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The fifth book of Cordelia Castel’s Seven Kingdoms series opens where the last book left off, protagonist Rilla near an ice wall that she suspects the Snow Queen created, with the wall able to attack those who draw near. King Rhinoceros is sought for interrogation, and Rilla finds herself under arrest, although the Ogre Senate can overrule her captivity. As an airship flies over the Cursed Sea, the wall of ice attacks, and there arises the dilemma of getting through the Seven Kingdoms undetected. When they reach one of the countries, Vern, its king wishes his daughter purged of a curse in exchange for passage.

Foreign magic is detected within Rilla, and she herself fears the power, with some training in the use of her enchanted staff. The King of Autumn’s death is plotted, and a fairy mine is sought, as well, with the dilemma on how to seal it. The book reveals that a kiss between Lord Bluebeard and Rilla can offset the foreign power within the latter, and the last few chapters deal with the conflict against the Snow Queen, who yearns to marry Prince Grost so that she can rule as consort once he accedes to the throne.

Like its precursors, the fifth installment ends with a cliffhanger involving a hypothesis of who orchestrated an attack that occurs at the end. However, this particular entry of the series is one of the weaker ones, given occasional confusion about the various characters to whom pronouns refer, given the distance between their names and how the book references them, although the action is definitely decent and well-described. Given its solid connection to previous and future books, a reminder on the plots of its predecessors would have been welcome, and the book overall is hardly bucket list-worthy.

View all my reviews

Saturday, October 2, 2021



Disney's iconic adaptation of the Carlo Collodi story about woodcarver Geppetto being granted his wish of his puppet Pinocchio becoming animate and dealing with several unsavory characters on his journey to boyhood. There are some dangling threads such as what happens with Honest John and Gideon, who were probably my favorite characters, but it's definitely worth a watch.

Tales of Phantasia: Cross Edition


Cress Cross

Namco’s Tales series commenced on the Super Famicom back in 1995, although it wouldn’t receive any spotlight outside Japan until a fan translation over a decade after its release, with North America’s first exposure to the franchise being Tales of Destiny for the Sony PlayStation. Phantasia would see a remake on the PlayStation, although this too remained in Japan, one on the Gameboy Advance hybriding elements from the SFC and PSX iterations that would see an English release, a fully-voiced port to the PlayStation portable, and a touched-up version released on the PSP with the remake of Narikiri Dungeon entitled Tales of Phantasia: Cross Edition, to date the definite version of the game.

Phantasia opens with warriors from the past sending an evil lord named Dhaos into the future, where their descendants seal him inside a sarcophagus. Years later, the son of two of said warriors, Cress Albane, goes hunting with his best friend Chester Burklight, during which soldiers incinerate their hometown of Totis in search of one of the pendants used to seal Dhaos that Cress received from his father Miguel as a birthday gift. Cress eventually separates from Chester and meets other companions such as the healer Mint Adenade, whose mother had also participated in the sealing of Dhaos.

Cress and his companions’ journey will take them through the past and the future of their world, during which they meet other companions, including the summoner Claus Lester, one of the primary tasks of the narrative being his formation of pacts with various elemental spirits. Aside from the somewhat-tried time-travel aspect, the game generally tells its story well, with the heroes and villains largely being believable, alongside some potential variations in the form of extra characters such as the ninja Suzu and, new to Cross Edition, the time-traveling Rondoline Effenberg. There’s also a subquest involving two star-crossed lovers that can have differences depending upon the player’s choices.

Fortunately, the gameplay backs the narrative experience well, with random encounters on the overworld and in dungeons whose rate is mercifully less than in the Super Famicom version, and increasable or decreasable respectively through Dark and Holy Bottles. Phantasia sports a combat system with side-scrolling two-dimensional gameplay reminiscent of a fighting game restricted to two dimensions, the player controlling protagonist Cress and the AI controlling up to three active companions. Cress can chain attacks of either the slashing or thrusting varieties (most of his weapons having different attack power for each type), and execute TP-consuming special skills.

Cress can master physical skills after a hundred uses for each, allowing for the use of combination abilities that he largely gains by purchases through warriors across mostly in the past and future. His companions’ abilities also necessitate the use of TP, although enemies can interrupt the use of special skills by Cress and his confederates, and the AI admittedly isn’t always cooperative when it comes to Cress’s magic-centric allies. Fortunately, the targeting system is actually much better than in other action-based RPGs in that the action pauses while the player is switching enemies for Cress to target, most effective in Semi-Auto mode.

Also helpful is a minimap that shows the locations of the player’s characters and enemies on the linear battlefield, even showing when units on either side are in the process of casting magic, giving a bit of foresight as to whom to focus Cress’s attacks on. Eliminating magic-based antagonists is largely preferrable in that their spells, especially late in the game, can be especially deadly and decimate the player’s party easily, in which case death results in the typical Japanese RPG kusottare of a trip back to the title screen, wasted progress if far from a checkpoint, and needing to reload a previous save.

There are admittedly areas that would have benefitted from better placement of save points, although the gameplay is generally fast and as long as the player is playing on Normal difficulty, there isn’t a huge amount of time possibly wasted. Winning battles nets all living characters in the party, even those on the bench, experience for occasional level-ups, money to purchase new equipment and consumables, sporadic items, and a number of grade points depending upon performance largely stemming from who’s survived the battle and the maximum number of hits chained that the player, after an initial playthrough, can use to carry over certain elements into a New Game+.

Characters such as Claus, Arche, and Suzu don’t learn new skills from leveling, but rather in the first character’s case story events when contracting with spirits, the second’s case of purchase from NPCs and treasure chests, and the last’s case mostly the same as Arche. One element changed from previous incarnations is the replacement of the food sack system with a cooking system, new recipes gained from a chef found mostly in food shops, with successful cookery of dishes resulting in certain effects such as partial recovery of party HP or TP.

Perhaps the biggest improvement over prior versions of Phantasia is that, during the player and enemy’s spell animation, the action of battle still continues, accounting for faster combat and reducing the fluff in previous iterations. Generally, the gameplay works well aside from some occasional annoying enemies and fetch quests that necessitate the player gain random drops from certain enemies (two dungeons respectively needing fire and ice-protection accessories equipped on all characters to prevent death from field damage), and I can provide some tips such as using transformational Rune Bottles on stat-increasing items to increase their potency.

Control does have its positive aspects, such as the easy menus, shopping, quick dash, skippable text, and whatnot, although there are things that could have been better such as the absence of maps for the sometimes-convoluted and consequentially annoying dungeons, not the mention the odd placement of save points at times, with occasional long distances between save points and mini-bosses. Given the language barrier, as well, a guide is almost wholly necessary to make it through the game without a hitch, and there are a few points where, after completing dungeons, the game makes the player tread all the way back to their entrances, and exit items and magic would have been nice. Generally, the game doesn’t interact with players as well as it could, but things could have certainly been worse.

One of Motoi Sakuraba’s early soundtracks, the music is one of the high points of Phantasia, aside from the absence of the main theme from the PlayStation and Full Voice editions, with plenty of nice tracks such as the town theme, the main battle theme, mini-boss theme, “Fighting Spirits” (the summon boss battle music), and so forth, with other pieces such as “Aviators” definitely making the player stop and listen to the whole track loop. The voices also fit the characters in and out of battle, and aside from the typical seiyuu butchery of English names for skills, the sound is definitely one of the highlights of Cross Edition.

The visuals outside battle also imitate those of the PlayStation remake, with pretty colors, good anime art direction, and characters sprites that actually look like the luminaries they represent unlike in the SFC version, although their chibi design might be an acquired taste. One major difference from previous versions, however, is the battle graphics, with the player character sprites having much better anatomy, the spell animations being pretty as well. Perhaps the biggest strike against the visual presentation, however, is the heavy degree of recycling in terms of palette-swapped enemies and many rooms in dungeons looking exactly the same, but generally, the graphics are very much easy on the eyes.

Finally, the game will last players around twenty-four hours, with plenty of extra content such as the deeper floors of the Mines of Moria, and plentiful lasting appeal in the form of a New Game+, with a Grade Shop allowing players to carry over elements from their last playthrough into a new game, although some of the issues regarding the annoying enemies and dungeons may make the player hesitant to go through again.

Even so, Tales of Phantasia: Cross Edition proves to be the definitive version of the Namco classic, given its fast and fun battle system made even quicker through the lack of standstills during ability animations, well-written narrative, excellent soundtrack and voicework, and pretty visual direction. As mentioned, though, it does have issues regarding elements such as the ease of death at times and sometimes-convoluted dungeons, although it definitely puts prior incarnations of the title to shame, and certainly warrants a rerelease onto contemporary consoles, given the franchise’s rise in popularity outside Japan during the previous decade and odd lack of remasters during that time.

The Good:
+Fast, fun battle system.
+Great story.
+Excellent soundtrack.
+Nice visuals with some touch-ups.

The Bad:
-A lot of annoying enemies.
-Likewise, dungeons.
-The language barrier.
-A lot of graphical recycling.

The Bottom Line:
The definitive version of Phantasia.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: PlayStation Portable
Game Mechanics: 9.0/10
Controls: 6.0/10
Story: 9.5/10
Music/Sound: 9.5/10
Graphics: 9.0/10
Lasting Appeal: 8.0/10
Difficulty: Slightly Hard
Playing Time: ~24 Hours

Overall: 8.5/10

Friday, October 1, 2021

Deep Look - Fallout Tactics: Brotherhood of Steel


A Wasteland of Time

The Fallout series of Western RPGs isn’t one I’ll admit I’m fond of, given my opinion that the games haven’t aged very well and largely necessitate use of the internet to make sense of their mechanisms. Over a decade ago I had purchased a collection on Steam that included the first two mainline games and Fallout Tactics: Brotherhood of Steel, a tactical RPG with greater emphasis upon the gameplay, although given a rather-shallow initial experience with the first game in the franchise, I didn’t bother with its successors until going back through the original with help from a guide. Given that I didn’t consider the gameplay one of the highlights of the titles, I definitely held doubts about the strategy RPG offering, very much warranted.

Fallout Tactics does not continue the story of its predecessors, focusing on the eponymous Brotherhood of Steel, tasked with restoring civilization to the world, and receiving eventual division into various factions. The narrative focuses on an Initiate into the recruit who is traveling the American wastelands in search of allies to aid in rebuilding civilization, with a mission-based structure, most of the plot coming in the form of the briefings and debriefings before and after the battles, character development being fairly scarce, with only short blurbs about the many recruitable characters. There are also occasional grammar errors in the dialogue, and the plot never reaches greatness.

Lamentably, the gameplay can’t salvage the game, borrowing the bulk of its mechanics from the main Fallout series, which actually does translate well in theory to a strategy RPG, given the tactical gameplay of the first and second installments, with the player’s party including the Initiate and five recruits tasked on missions that the player can’t back out of with certain objectives. Throughout the game, the player has bases of operations that frequently change as the plot advances, with an overworld connecting them and the battlefields where missions occur, and it’s generally not difficult to find out whither to travel next to further the narrative.

As the player travels across the wastes of the former United States, they’ll frequently come across encounters that are sometimes optional, but unless a character’s Outdoorsman skill is at least 100%, many of these skirmishes will be mandatory, the party beginning in the middle of a random map, and able to move towards one edge to depart back onto the overworld. There is a chance, however, hostiles will be on the map, and when they notice at least one of the player’s characters, they’ll attack, players able to choose between real-time or turn-based combat, the latter either unit-based or turn-based.

Each character has a certain number of Action Points that deplete when they move across the battlefield or execute attacks melee or ranged. When leveling, each character receives a number of skill points they can invest into various talents such as the mentioned Outdoorsmanship, Big Guns, Small Guns, Energy Weapons, and so forth. Unfortunately, the game doesn’t very well clarify what constitutes a “big” or “small” gun in the descriptions for the countless firearms, and an incredible amount of foresight is necessary with regards to these abilities, since there are a few points when players may, for instance, need energy weapons to harm powerful robot-based antagonists.

After a certain number of levels, a character may gain a “perk” such as Action Boy, which increases their maximum AP by one, although most others seem pointless and hardly helpful. Levels also rise incredibly slowly as seems the case with most Western RPGs, so if a player has trouble with certain missions, it can definitely be a chore wandering the wastelands trying vainly to grind their party. Odds are, however, the player won’t have trouble coming across enemies, since the encounter rate is incredibly high, even more so than a certain Camelot-developed PlayStation RPG, with many of these battles as mentioned being mandatary sans investment of points into the Outdoorsman skill.

As also mentioned, the player is unable to back out of missions once initiated, so if they’re having trouble, they have to reload the last save they hopefully made before entering the battlefield in order to try to grind their characters. One good point of the game mechanics is that the player can save their progress any time, a blessing given the relative ease of making mistakes such as accidentally moving a character around when they intended to shoot an adversary. Missions can also take several hours, making the potential for wasted time even greater, and combat is generally sluggish even with options to make them go faster in the game menus.

At the player’s current base of operations, they can purchase new equipment, ammunition, healing items, and whatnot from the quartermaster or chief medical officer, and most enemy units are also fairly liberal about the amount of loot they drop which the player can sell for money, shopping occurring in a barter system based on equivalent exchange of goods based on value. Lamentably, the shopping interface is absolutely horrible, with the game unwisely not pooling the player’s total funds, and shopping accomplished with only one character at a time, the player’s character with the highest Barter skill level being ideal for purchasing and selling items.

There isn’t much of a soundtrack to Fallout Tactics, with the bulk of the sound coming in the form of historical recordings, ambient noise most audible during combat, and the shooting of firearms. There is occasional voice acting that’s easily one of the high points of the game.

The visuals are near-note identical to those in the first two mainline Fallout games, and are pretty much one of the sole aspects done okay, with some decent environments, character and enemy sprites containing good anatomy, plenty diversity of character portraits, and nice blood and gore effects. One issue that hampers gameplay, however, is the fog of war that prevents players from seeing dangerous enemies ahead of time, so the graphics generally don’t reach excellence.

Finally, I made it through roughly three fourths of the game with a forty-plus-hour playtime, and to invest any more into the game would, frankly, be tortuous.

In the end, Fallout Tactics is a disappointing spinoff of a series that pretty much disappointed me from the get-go, and I had only played it and its precursors due to an offer for all three games over a decade ago on Steam that the strange positive reception they received amount mainstream videogame critics lured me into purchasing. I can safely say that I won’t be looking into any of the game’s successors in the near future, given the vagueness of Tactics’ general mechanics and unfriendly difficulty curve, alongside other issues such as the absence of a memorable soundtrack and user-unfriendliness aside from the save-anywhere feature, and if I could turn back time, I would definitely take back the time I felt I wasted on the game.