Monday, September 5, 2022

Detective Trigger and the Big Break

Detective Trigger and the Big Break (Detective Trigger, #5)Detective Trigger and the Big Break by M.A. Owens
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In the penultimate entry of author M.A. Owens’ Detective Trigger series, the namesake Chihuahua Detective finds himself in Arc City Prison, where he meets many prisoners whom he helped incarcerate, prime among them being the feline Mr. B, or “Mr. Scumbag” as the dog terms him. After he fights with Mr. B, the black cat Warden Beans offers Trigger undercover work throughout his prison, tempting him with freedom along with that of his friend Rick. On the surface, Trigger is set up for maintenance duty along with his imprisoned friend Marty, who becomes his cellmate.

Trigger gets into trouble with the canine floor supervisor Dan when attacked by twin cats, although Marty becomes Mr. B’s head of security whilst continuing maintenance duties. The detained detective further seeks information from Fernando, with whom he physically fights, after which a guard takes him to see Mildred and Lady, who provide him with valuable information and revelations. Lady expresses her wishes to get her hands back on the Grand Gobbler statuette, with an escape attempt occurring throughout the concluding chapters, along with a critical reversal of character allegiances, and an epilogue mentioning cybernetics.

All in all, this entry of the Detective Trigger series was an enjoyable one, with the straightforward continuation of its predecessor’s events, the cover art in particular bringing to mind one of the concluding scenes of the last book, and I had little trouble imagining the prison environment that dominates it for the most part. There is mention of the specific breeds of cats and dogs the various characters belong to, although the absence of the Kindle’s x-ray feature in the series’ six-book collection prevents reminders as to which. Regardless, I definitely don’t regret reading and look forward to seeing how the books conclude.

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Saturday, September 3, 2022

Fire Emblem Awakening

The Emblem Awakens

I’ll confess that I’m not a huge fan of Nintendo’s flagship franchises, among them the strategy RPG series Fire Emblem, which wouldn’t release outside Japan until the Game Boy Advance came about. I didn’t play the initial translated titles, although I felt that the Nintendo DS remake of the inaugural entry, Shadow Dragon, would be a good diving board into the franchise. How wrong I was; it ended up being one of few RPGs I ended up unable to finish, with the final battle being a wall preventing me from seeing the ending, although I did barely make it through the endgame a few years later with the partial help of the player’s guide (although there were nonetheless many tough moments).

I more or less swore off the series, and when the first title for the Nintendo 3DS, Fire Emblem Awakening, came along, I was apathetic, although when I learned that Intelligent Systems was making optional a hallmark of the franchise, the permanent death in battle of characters, I decided to give it a third chance, and luckily, it was a chance for the better. Upon starting a new game, the player has a number of options affecting the difficulty, the ability to toggle on/off permadeath among them, and creates an avatar to serve as chief deuteragonist and tactician for the player’s party, with the need to pick both a talent and a flaw for the customizable character influencing stat growth.

Awakening occurs roughly two millennia after the events of Shadow Dragon and Gaiden (which would receive the remake Shadows of Valentia), with their respective continents receiving the new names of Ylisse and Valm. The player’s amnesiac avatar, default name Robin, dreams of killing protagonist Chrom, who leads a personal army known as the Shepherds. Following this is an episodic military campaign that culminates with Chrom’s crusade against the ancient dragon Grima, with great potential for variation, many playable characters able to marry and have children, and the fates of all survivors settled during the ending credits similar to the Suikoden series.

While the characters receive decent development throughout the game, even more so with support conversations eventually triggered when units attack enemies whilst adjacent to other party members a certain number of times, the narrative clearly derives elements and twists from the Star Wars franchise, among them being a resistance against an unjust government. There is a lot of good dialogue, although the translators often made little effort to make the speech sound realistic, with the oath “Gods!”, for instance, sounding asinine when “By the gods!” would have sounded better (and is used maybe once), mayhap even “Heavens!” The voice clips accompanying many cutscenes also rarely, if ever, match the actual dialogue, and overall, Awakening is at the low end of Nintendo’s translation quality.

Luckily, given the major tweaks to the series’ signature strategic gameplay, that particular aspect is significantly more bearable than in prior installments, with the setting consisting of an overworld connected by dots indicating locations, most of which have shops where players can purchase equipment, money primarily gained from small, medium, and large gold bullions commonly acquired from slaying certain enemies in combat. Those worried about not being able to grind their characters supplementally can rest assured that additional encounters appear regularly on the overworld in between story battles, and Reeking Boxes buyable from a few merchants can trigger additional engagement opportunities, enemy strength dependent upon where the boxes see use.

As in pretty much any other game of its subgenre, Awakening sees cutscenes preceding battles, mercifully skippable in case of instances where either Chrom or Robin dies in combat, resulting in an unceremonious Game Over and a trip back to the title screen, any experience units acquired lost, largely a deterrent against the accessibility of titles of its type. Each character can carry five different items with finite uses including self-healing potions, melee or ranged weapons, offensive magic tomes with close and ranged capability, or staves with supportive effects like healing.

Characters have up to three proficiencies with various weapon types, increasing slowly up to the maximum A grade with a successful, provided an engaged enemy’s counterattack doesn’t kill the initiator of a one-on-one skirmish. Adding strategy to battles in the need to consider the “Weapon Triangle”, where sword bearers beat axe wielders, axe users have an advantage over spear-bearing units, and spears beat swords. Other elements to consider include certain weapons like bows and tomes like wind being effective against aerial units and that magic, in general, can be advantageous versus heavily-armored foes, although spells don’t seem to have their own “triangle”.

The acquisition by a unit of a hundred experience points levels them, increasing their stats, and when they reach ten, they can change into an advanced class using Master Seals, sometimes purchased from shops or gained from slain adversaries. However, it’s advisable for a unit until they reach the maximum in their base class of twenty before promotion to ensure they can acquire the highest degree of stats in their upper vocation, which in most cases has a level cap of twenty, although there are some exceptions such as dancers, useful in giving units extra turns and able to level beyond that limit.

The mechanics work well given especially the optionality of permadeath, features like two suspend save slots in the middle of combat, the ability to bring up a “danger zone” indicating if enemies can attack the player’s characters during their turn session, and skippable actions that can really shave superfluous playtime, although many players will require a fair bit of grinding in order to make it through the primary storyline campaign, leveling weaker characters can be tedious, and tasks such as exchanging items between units like keys to open chests and doors (though thief classes can do so without them) can waste the player’s time. Regardless, the gameplay was definitely a major step forward.

However, newcomers to the Fire Emblem franchise won’t exactly find it the most user-friendly strategy RPG, since the interface for the units and their respective inventories takes a lot of getting used to, and seemingly-simple tasks such as exchanging items between characters feel needlessly tedious. However, given the game’s straightforward structure, finding out how to advance the central storyline is nonproblematic, and as mentioned, the skippable attack sequences in combat can shave hours from one’s total playtime. Another nitpick, though, is that players can’t back out of shopping by using the B button alone, with the dialogue to do so needing them to use the directional pad. Overall, Awakening could have definitely interfaced better with players.

On the plus side, the soundtrack is another high point of the first 3DS Fire Emblem alongside the game mechanics, given many spectacular tracks such as the series’ central theme serving as a common motif throughout the player’s experience, the various battle themes preceded by the preparation music, and the great instrumentation and vocals that sometimes become audible, but many players will ultimately tire of hearing the character death music for the millionth time. The sound effects during cutscenes and one-on-one confrontation sequences in combat sound believable, although the voice acting, despite maybe a few strong performances, is largely lackluster, given things such as the constant grunting and dissonance with the written dialogue. Still, the game generally sounds great.

The visuals had a lot of effort put into them as well, with superb character designs that commonly appear during cutscenes, not to mention the cel-shaded anime sequences occurring at pivotal plot moments. The one-on-one skirmishes between player and enemy units look good as well, with decent colors in spite of frequent pixelation and jaggies, although the three-dimensional character models have odd proportions and the odd decision to make them appear as though they have no feet. The game, however, makes superb use of its respective system’s glasses-free 3D, and while they’re not perfect, the graphics have plenty of redeeming aspects.

Finally, the game can be a bit of a slog timewise if the player sits through every character and enemy executing their actions, but those who turn them off will mostly blaze through the game in somewhere under twenty-four hours. The different difficulty settings, potential plot differences, and the ability to carry maybe an element or two from an initial playthrough into a secondary session make for above-average lasting appeal.

On the whole, while Fire Emblem Awakening I don’t exactly consider a masterpiece, since it does have a few issues regarding the general accessibility of the strategy RPG subgenre, it was a huge step forward for the franchise, given especially the optionality of the series’ orthodox tactical mechanics, along with potential variations in the central narrative as well as solid aural and visual presentation. Granted, it does have issues regarding its unwieldy interface not to mention the derivative disposition of the storyline, but those hoping to get their feet wet in the series will most certainly find it a good starting point.

This review is based on a single playthrough of a digital copy downloaded to the player’s Nintendo 3DS.

The Good
+Accommodating to players of different skill levels.
+Great music.
+Good graphics.
+Plenty lasting appeal.

The Bad
-Can be a bit grindy.
-Controls take a lot of getting used to.
-Story immensely derivative.
-Horrid writing.

The Bottom Line:
A good turning point for the franchise.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Game Mechanics: 8.0/10
Controls: 6.5/10
Story: 6.5/10
Localization: 2.5/10
Music/Sound: 8.0/10
Graphics: 8.0/10
Lasting Appeal: 9.5/10
Difficulty: Adjustable

Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank

For the most part, I’m typically in the mood for a film studded with animal characters, I found out about this animated film earlier this year, and decided to give it a watch when it appeared on Paramount+. The subtitular protagonist is a dog who finds himself a prisoner in a country where cats rule and canines are forbidden and he's appointed as samurai by a warmongering official of a town to offend its people in hopes of driving them out in order to expand his palace. Hank ultimately becomes the pupil of an ex-samurai who ruined a shogun’s birthday party years ago.

The film is basically Blazing Saddles with animals and an oriental setting (with Mel Brooks voicing the feline shogun and having some involvement with the story, along with plenty of allusion to Brooks’ early American Western parody), and Samuel L. Jackson nicely voices the ex-samurai Jimbo. The script does at times feel immature, and I don’t particularly care for toilet humor (except for the main villain’s oversized emerald latrine dubbed the “super bowl”), but it’s far from Nickelodeon’s worst movie and has a few good laughs and decent opening/ending songs.

Sunday, August 21, 2022

Detective Trigger and the Easy Money

Detective Trigger and the Easy Money (Detective Trigger, #3)Detective Trigger and the Easy Money by M.A. Owens
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The third entry of M.A. Owen’s Detective Trigger series begins with the eponymous Chihuahua detective seeking police officer Petey, whom the security guard feline Robby saves from a man dubbed “Mr. Scumbag”. Early on, there’s a reference to a “dated” play called Detective Stone highlighting the racial attitudes between dogs and cats, the latter for a time being chief targets of discrimination in the book series’ setting. When the president of the largest bank in Adria seeks to hire Trigger, the canine detective researches the banker and visits the financial institution, receiving a tour thanks to a Siamese cat that concludes by taking him to Herman’s office.

After Trigger briefly interrogates Herman, the Chihuahua is knocked out and taken to the leader of the Feline Liberation Party, which surprisingly has dogs within its ranks. There’s a reference to “mythological” humans that apparently predated the canines and felines studding the dramatis personae, an aspect I definitely hope the remaining books in the series highlights. Trigger questions the falling out between the feline Mr. B and his adopted daughter Sugarplum, with the detective finding himself on his own with regards to investigating Saint, leader of the FLP. The Chihuahua investigator finds a duffel bag with money under his bed, and ultimately poses as Carson the insurance investigator again when he and Petey go to a boxing match for the final scenes.

All in all, I enjoyed the third entry of Owens’ series, given especially its anthropomorph-studded cast, with the story decently resolving the question of who exactly they are and why readers should care, just as its precursors did. The aforementioned reference to “mythological” humans sort of resonated with me, given a similar concept in stories I had attempted to write that explored the subject, and the racial issues between cats and dogs very much reflect contemporary human society’s unease when it comes to racial relations. While some may occasionally lose track of the characters’ species, I would highly recommend the book to those who enjoy furry-themed literature, and will continue reading the series.

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Thursday, August 18, 2022

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past

A Link Well-Kept

I am not a Legend of Zelda fan; there, I said it. My experience with Nintendo’s fabled franchise has, since I first experienced The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past on the Super NES, been grossly inconsistent, although the first and only sixteen-bit entry of the series was positive for me, to the point where I would happily replay it throughout my early life as a gamer. Regardless of whatever adulation entries in the series would receive, in some cases near-universal, I would encounter serious issues of which I believe mainstream gamers need to be aware before playing. My latest experience with the SNES title subtitled Triforce of the Gods in Japan would be on the Nintendo 3DS’s Virtual Console. Does it still hold up today?

Before starting a new game, players can see the elaborate backstory on the Golden Land, the celestial land where the mystical Triforce lies, although the wizard Aghanim seeks to eliminate the descendants of seven sages sealing the sacred realm, among his last target being Princess Zelda, telepathically calling out to Link, who rescues her yet becomes public enemy number one in Hyrule. The narrative was definitely good for its time and has reasonable pacing given the game’s meager length, with Link himself receiving some background as to his ancestry, the bulk of scenes occurring after boss fights in Dark World dungeons, along with a satisfactory ending. There are some tried tropes such as a damsel in distress and legendary hero, but otherwise, the plot rises well above average.

The translation, however, is one of the game’s weak points, and largely fell victim to Nintendo of America’s draconian censorship guidelines that eliminated any religious references, such as Aghanim in the Japanese version being a priest allegedly with celestial origin. They even edited the Hylian language based on Egyptian hieroglyphs on the grounds it had religious references, despite its symbolism of a religion hardly anyone has practiced for millennia. There’s also a bit of awkwardness, for instance, with reference to the Sanctuary as “Sanctuary” minus “the”, which accounts for lines such as “This path leads to Sanctuary” and “The soldiers are coming to Sanctuary!” The writing was definitely a step above the NES Zeldas, but otherwise unremarkable.

The gameplay, for the most part, backs the experience well. Early on, Link receives his sword from his uncle, able to slash at enemies with it with a decent semicircular range in front of him, as well as to “charge” it and either keep it extended to poke at foes or execute a spinning attack, useful for when adversaries surround him. He also starts with three heart containers indicative of his health that, when depleted, mark his demise, with the biggest penalty of death being the player needing to restart from one of a few fixed points and have Link retrace his steps, with the player’s postmortem playthrough only partially recovering the Link’s life points.

Link also acquires a number of tools that can aid him in his crusade against Aghanim such as a boomerang useful for stunning most enemies from afar and making them more vulnerable to his melee attacks, not to mention collecting random drops such as health/magic point recovery and rupees in case they’re out of range. One particular tool that can actually be the difference between victory and defeat is the bottle, with Link able to acquire a maximum of four throughout the game, and can store things such as fairies that revive him with partial health when he dies, and potions that can fully recover his life points, magic points, or both.

Link does eventually acquire increases to his maximum health, first at the Sanctuary (or just “Sanctuary” as the translation terms it), and then from the various bosses he defeats at the end of dungeons, for a total of ten acquired as part of the main storyline. Twenty hearts is the maximum amount of health he can possibly acquire, with many quarter-heart pieces scattered throughout the Light and Dark equivalents of Hyrule, with the acquisition of any four of these lengthening his life meter by one heart. In contrast, Link has fixed magic points, although he can find a shrine to halve spell costs.

Dungeon bosses tend to involve some sort of trick to defeat them, most of the time through the use of whatever tool Link gains within their respective temples, and generally don’t take a whole lot of time to defeat, the same going for the final battle. While bottling fairies and healing potions can allow some room for error in those regards (though in some cases I actually took more damage from regular enemies and environments than many bosses), finding the bottles themselves may necessitate use of a guide, and inexperienced players in general might find it a tad difficult to go into the game blind with regards especially to the final boss. Regardless, A Link to the Past’s take on the signature series gameplay contains enough refinement to make it more than bearable.

As a Virtual Console game on the Nintendo 3DS, the sole sixteen-bit Zelda has a major enhancement in the form of the ability to create a single-slot save state, which in general nullifies whatever quibbles the player may have with the save system, enemies, and dungeon design, the last in particular being sometimes irritating, and as A Link to the Past doesn’t indicate when chambers have keys in them like Link’s Awakening and its remakes, using a key in the last dungeon on a door between two rooms reachable without one by stairs on the floor above can easily leave players lost. However, the puzzles are generally enjoyable and solvable without referencing the internet, and both the overworld and dungeons have helpful in-game maps. There are other issues such as the lack of fast-travel in the Dark World, but otherwise, the game’s control aspect rises moderately above average.

The franchise’s regular composer Koji Kondo provided the soundtrack, which has many signature themes such as the Light World overworld music, not to mention jingles such as the “discovery” and item acquisition tunes. The pregame backstory music appears in two different varieties, as well, and the Light and Dark World dungeon themes provide good ambience and mystery. “Zelda’s Lullaby” also made its first appearance, and other tracks prove solid such as the main Dark World music and its respective Death Mountain melody. Granted, the near-death alarm native to the franchise returns (which wouldn’t have been too annoying if it stopped after a couple of beeps), and there are other aural oddities such as the “Oof!” from soldiers that notice Link, but otherwise, sound is one of the game’s high points.

The visuals were well above average for an early 16-bit game, with vibrant colors and environments that appear radiant and contain unique twists such as the ringed designs of the trees, and there are some nice effects such as a few character sprites, namely the soldiers of Hyrule and maybe some NPCs, turning their heads, with Link’s sprite showing different moods as well, along with fluid animation for all models. There are some good weather and illumination effects as well, namely in the Lost Woods’ Light and Dark World variations. However, there is some rare slowdown when multiple sprites populate the screen, and some character sprites like Aghanim’s may look odd depending upon how you look at them, but otherwise, A Link to the Past was and still is a nice-looking game.

Finally, despite its scope, the sole sixteen-bit Zelda is fairly short, with skilled players potentially able to finish it in a little over six hours, but those who are new to it may take longer, with absolute completion due to things such as finding every heart piece and all tools possibly necessitating up to twelve hours’ worth of playtime, with little lasting appeal otherwise aside from self-imposed challenges.

When all is said and done, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, has, for the most part, and pun intended, stood the test of time, given its particular refinement of the signature game mechanics working far better than in its eight-bit predecessors and even many of its sequels on future systems, the effective puzzles which luckily don’t tax the mind, quality-of-life features such as in-game maps, the intricate story and mythos, and solid audiovisual presentation. Granted, it does show its age in a few respects, such as the potential difficulty of going into it blind, the possibility of getting stuck in the final dungeon, the awkward translation, and general absence of lasting appeal, but certainly doesn’t scream “the early 1990s”, and is undoubtedly the definitive top-down Zelda experience.

This review is based on a playthrough of a digital copy downloaded to the player’s Nintendo 3DS.

The Good:
+Refined Zelda gameplay.
+Great mythos.
+Excellent soundtrack.
+Good visuals.

The Bad:
-Might be hard to go into blind.
-Some occasional tricky dungeon design.
-Lackluster translation.
-Little reason to replay.

The Bottom Line:
The definitive top-down Zelda experience.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: Nintendo 3DS Virtual Console
Game Mechanics: 8.5/10
Controls: 7.0/10
Story: 9.0/10
Localization: 5.5/10
Music/Sound: 9.0/10
Graphics: 7.5/10
Lasting Appeal: 6.0/10
Difficulty: Moderate
Playing Time: 6-12 Hours

Overall: 7.5/10

Pokémon Y

The Y Pokéromosone

Though the Game Freak-developed and Nintendo-published Pokémon franchise, known in Japan as Pocket Monsters, has existed since the Big N’s original monochrome Game Boy portable system, it wasn’t until series entries began appearing on the DS that I actually got into the games, and while I found the titles to have many positive aspects, I felt their actual gameplay were somewhat unrefined. Regardless, I continued to give future series entries a chance, though surprisingly, I completely missed out on the 3DS installments of the franchise, until I recently downloaded a ton of games to my system’s SD card due to the eShop closing in 2023, among them being Pokémon Y, coupled with sibling title X, which provides an experience largely on par with other entries.

When starting a new game, the player customizes their protagonist, who lives with a single mother and goes on a quest to become the greatest Pokémon champion in X and Y’s respective region of the world, whilst dealing with the sinister Team Flare. There is some decent backstory, although to say that the generation’s narrative is “formulaic” would be an understatement, along with the typical series goal of “catching ‘em all”. The translation is definitely more than legible, although it’s fairly bland, peppered with plentiful unnatural dialogue and some stylistic choices such as using “OK” instead “okay” when in just about any kind of writing the latter has more aesthetic pleasance.

Happily, the series’ signature gameplay largely compensates for whatever narrative shortcomings the X and Y generation has, mostly remaining unchanged from generations before it aside from the ability to grant temporary “mega evolutions” to specific ‘mons, not to mention the ability to toggle on/off experience sharing among monsters in the player’s active party of up to six of the franchise’s eponymous entities. The same positive and negative aspects return, in the former case the ability to exploit Pokémon strengths and weaknesses to triumph in battle, and in the latter instance that switching active monsters wastes the player’s turn. It’s a fun system overall, and a step above the gameplay of the DS entries of the series.

Another aspect with more or less the same positives and negatives is the X and Y entries’ control, with the returning ability to record progress anywhere, adjustable text speed, and eventual ability to use the Fly Hidden Move for rapid conveyance among visited cities. However, some of the same issues return such as the clunkiness of the game menus and confirmations when it comes to things such as overwriting the current abilities of a Pokémon’s move set with different skills, accounting in the end for above-average, but certainly not perfect, interaction with players.

The soundtrack remains a high point of the X and Y games, with plenty of upbeat, energetic tracks (particularly during combat) and pleasant themes for towns and anywhere in between. The sound effects are good as well, and the near-death alarm for Pokémon is less annoying in that it only dings a few times before stopping once a ‘mon reaches low health, although the digitized cries for different Pokémon still sound primitive at times.

The visuals look pleasant as well, with pretty colors, environments, unique designs for every Pokémon, good human character art, nice cel-shading, vivid illumination effects, savvy use of the 3DS’s three-dimensional capabilities especially in battle, and so forth, but there is some degree of pixilation in addition to jaggies and some slowdown most noticeable in combat.

Finally, playtime for the main storyline runs in the upper end of the twenty-four-to-forty-eight-hour range, with plentiful lasting appeal in the form of catching all Pokémon in addition to other postgame content, multiplayer battles via online capability, a starting choice of which element of ‘mon to use, and so forth, although absolute completion of the Pokédex would probably necessitate use of a guide.

Overall, Pokémon Y is another addition to the series that only takes it a few steps forward in terms of gameplay, which is nonetheless enjoyable, whilst having general great audiovisual presentation and plentiful lasting appeal. However, it bequeaths many flaws from its precursors such as the clunk interface, garden-variety narrative, average localization, and that achieving total completion necessitates the use of the internet, be it for referencing a guide or trading with other players. Regardless, long-term fans of the franchise will likely get the most out of it, and those new to the series might find it a little more accessible than its predecessors.

This review is based on a playthrough of a digital copy downloaded to the reviewer’s Nintendo 3DS and completed through the main storyline.

The Good:
+Good Pokémon gameplay.
+Excellent soundtrack.
+Nice visuals.
+Plenty lasting appeal.

The Bad:
-Menus and confirmations can be cumbersome.
-Typical Pokémon plot.
-Lackluster translation.
-Getting 100% completion can require a guide.

The Bottom Line:
Another run-of-the-mill, but still enjoyable, series entry.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Game Mechanics: 8.0/10
Controls: 7.0/10
Story: 3.0/10
Localization: 5.0/10
Music/Sound: 9.5/10
Graphics: 8.0/10
Lasting Appeal: 8.5/10
Difficulty: Varies
Playing Time: 24-48 Hours

Overall: 7.0/10

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds


Both a spinoff of Discovery, whose second season emphasized Spock's pre-Original Series backstory, and a prequel series to ToS, focusing on Captain Christopher Pike's Enterprise and its crew, which includes maybe a handful of familiar faces/relatives of ToS's characters including the half-human, half-Vulcan Spock himself, with a few calls-forward to the ToS films as well, surprisingly including the maligned fifth movie. Unlike Discovery and Picard has largely-standalone episodes, although there are some overarching plot points. They really did a good job modernizing the Original Series' aesthetics with regard to the "futuristic" technology of the time, and the same goes for the music including the opening credits theme and some familiar tunes from ToS, and I really enjoyed the first season and look forward to the second.

The Horse and His Boy

The Horse and His Boy (Chronicles of Narnia, #5)The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In modern collections of English author C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia series, The Horse and His Boy is listed chronologically as the third entry, although the writer published it fifth overall, and it’s more a side-story (or midquel, for those familiar with that term) to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, taking place during the reign of the Pevensie siblings before they ultimately return to Earth after their first adventure, with the Narnian monarchs sometimes appearing throughout the story. As explained in the beginning, the plot occurs in Narnia, Calormen, and the lands between, with a Tarkaan offering to buy protagonist Shasta as a slave, who meets the male talking horse Bree and wants to run away.

Shasta ultimately meets escapee Aravis and the talking mare Hwin, and runs away with them, as well, the girl giving her backstory in an early chapter. The children and their horses soon reach the city of Tashbaan, which the Narnian monarchs visit, and where they are held captive, with the rulers of Narnia in response plotting to kidnap Prince Corin of Archenland and take him north, Shasta mistaken for the royal scion. The rulers of Calormen plot against Narnia and Archenland, the latter where the children and horses make their way, meeting the Hermit of the Southern March and getting directions to Archenland’s monarch King Lune from him.

Twists about Shasta’s lineage ultimately reveal themselves towards the end, accounting for a satisfying story, one occurring unlike most others in its series entirely within the land of Narnia and its neighbors, although there are some stylistic choices the author made with which this reviewer somewhat disagrees, such as the capitalization of some of the generic names for animals such as horses at times, not to mention the lack of a calendar system within the franchise itself indicative of exactly how many years after the main events of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe elapsed before the story opened, although fans of children’s fantasy will definitely appreciate this yarn.

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Sunday, August 14, 2022

Detective Trigger and the Grand Gobbler

Detective Trigger and the Grand Gobbler (Detective Trigger, #2)Detective Trigger and the Grand Gobbler by M.A. Owens
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The second entry of author M.A. Owens’ Detective Trigger series opens with the eponymous Chihuahua investigator looking into a murder, a letter, and the eponymous MacGuffin, owned by a fellow Chihuahua named Agatha who agrees to see the PI when hearing of a murder involving her prized possession. Trigger visits the Swindler’s Den to seek clues as to the Grand Gobbler’s whereabouts, ultimately getting information from a cat named Fernando, who had visited Agatha, after a brief fight. Trigger then seeks an individual who goes by the alias of Bad Kitty, a prime suspect in the theft of the Grand Gobbler.

When a status that appears to be the MacGuffin makes itself seen, there’s strong suspicion it isn’t real, with Trigger eventually talking with Petey at the police station and the feline Kerdy. References occasionally abound to the incarcerated Mr. B from the first book, with Trigger revisiting Agatha, who is to receive compensation for her lost property, Trigger himself receiving “hush money”. A Doberman named Lady, who serves Agatha, becomes a new suspect in the thievery of the Grand Gobbler, with the identity of Bad Kitty soon revealed, and a chase for the confirmed criminal occurring in the final chapters, a trial and wedding winding up the second book.

All in all, the second entry of Owens’ series is a general fun read, with plenty of action, mystery, and animal characters, although as in its predecessor, one can occasionally find it difficult at times to remember which species they belong to, given the absence of the Kindle X-ray feature that would have very likely resolved the issue, but they’re pretty much restricted to cats and dogs. The twists are reasonable and believable, and the callbacks to the book’s predecessor definitely help prevent the story from feeling too disconnected. Ultimately, I will definitely continue to read this series.

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Saturday, August 13, 2022


  Buzz Lightyear in the space ranger suit sees the outer space on the right. 

A "fictional universe within a fictional universe" film focusing on the eponymous space ranger Buzz Lightyear, who appears in the Toy Story movies as a live action figure. Personally, I found it a competent but generic animated science-fiction film.

Saturday, August 6, 2022

Etrian Odyssey 2 Untold: The Fafnir Knight

A Knight to Remember

When I played the original Etrian Odyssey, the series known in its native Japan as Sekaiju no MeiQ (“MeiQ” a stylized form of “meikyuu”, Japanese for “labyrinth”, the full translation being “Labyrinth of the World Tree”), on the Nintendo DS, I didn’t have any expectations other than a chance to experience an old-school Japanese RPG. While it did have its flaws, I enjoyed it enough to the point where I played its sequels, not to mention remakes of the first two games on the 3DS, Etrian Odyssey Untold and Etrian Odyssey 2 Untold: The Fafnir Knight, the rereleases giving players the option of an experience akin to the originals or one with fleshed-out characters.

The second Etrian Odyssey’s remake focuses on the eponymous Fafnir Knight whom the player names, dispatched from the Midgard Library to High Lagaard to help the Duke of Caledonia’s daughter, Arianna, in her quest to complete a ritual in ancient ruins known as Ginnungagap, whilst exploring a labyrinth along with four deuteragonists. The game generally weaves its narrative well, with the five main characters, including the Fafnir Knight, getting good development, with supplemental cutscenes triggered occasionally when sleeping at the inn, and some interesting substories, one involving a hedgehog who appears in the various Stratums of the labyrinth. There are some derivative elements such as a girl who needs to perform a ritual, but otherwise, the plot helps far more than hurts.

The translation is legible and doesn’t mar the narrative, but while there aren’t any noticeable spelling or grammar errors, and the Norse-mythological naming is a nice touch, there are many questionable choices regarding dialogue, particularly that accompanied by voices. During cutscenes, for one, the deuteragonists get a lot of voice clips, and while many aren’t bad, there are some odd ones such as Arianna’s frequent “My!”, and for a few of the optional quests, the localization team mistranslated some of the goals. Battles get the worst dialogue, with most sounding horribly unnatural and occasionally mismatched, although there are a few vocal indicators of enemy weaknesses and hidden elements during dungeon navigation. Regardless, Atlus has certainly done better in the localization department.

Luckily, the game mechanics largely compensate for whatever translational shortcomings the second Etrian Odyssey Untold game has. Whilst navigating the multilayered labyrinth, a circular indicator gradually turns from blue to red depending upon how close the player is to encountering enemies, with battles naturally triggered afterward. The player’s party, organizable into three front-row and two back-row characters or vice versa, faces off against a number of enemies in similar organizations, each character having a number of means by which they can face off against their foes, including attacking with their equipped weapon, using a TP-consuming ability, defending to reduce damage, using an item, changing their current position, or attempting to escape.

After the player has inputted their characters’ commands, they and the enemy exchange blows in a turn order dependent upon agility, akin to classic Japanese turn-based RPGs. Despite this structure, turn order isn’t actually terribly critical to victory or defeat, with one of the playable characters, Chloe the War Magus, having healing spells that activate once for an individual, line, or all characters at the start of a turn, and again at the end of a round, which really spares frustration. The elimination of all adversaries nets all surviving characters experience for occasional level-ups and most of the time materials that the player can sell at the local shop both for money and to unlock new equipment and consumables for purchase.

Leveling also nets the Fafnir Knight and his party points they can invest into the respective skill trees of their current classes, with the investment of a certain number of points in lower-level skills necessary to unlock advanced active and passive abilities. Should the player yearn to experiment with different classes, they can have characters drop five experience levels in exchange for the ability to invest refunded points into the new class’s skill tree. Luckily, the game is perfectly beatable even without experimenting in different classes, and starting a new game gives players various difficulty selections that dictate how the remake handles death, thus accommodating gamers of divergent skill levels.

Another aspect is the ability of characters, when they fill respective gauges, to go into “Force Mode” with enhanced capability and the chance to execute powerful “Break” skills that necessitate the player stay at the town inn to become usable again. Enemies further drop food byproducts that players can use as cooking ingredients at the local restaurant, giving the party bonuses in the labyrinth until they return to town. In battle, furthermore, characters simply acting may spawn Grimoire Stones they can equip at the restaurant for bonuses to whatever skill tree abilities they’ve unlocked, and a few monsters may be “shining” and give experience bonuses when killed, provided they don’t run away during an encounter.

FOEs from other entries of the Etrian franchise return, visible in each floor of the labyrinth, attempting to charge the player’s party whenever noticed. Typically, fighting them isn’t a good recommendation (although they are certainly beatable, at least on the Picnic difficulty), and there’s usually a pattern to avoiding them. However, later on in the game, there’s very little room for error when it comes to evading FOEs, which is probably the biggest issue with the game mechanics, which otherwise work incredibly well, given especially the adjustable speed of combat that can make even daunting battles against enemies such as bosses go by quickly.

The intricate mapping system from other games in the series returns, with a choice in customization options of whether to map walls and tiles automatically, although players would still need to fill out things such as doors, secret passages (with voiced characters luckily indicating these when they’re adjacent), and other details. The menus themselves are generally straightforward, along with other features such as a suspend save outside combat, skippable text, clear direction for the central storyline, the ability to sell multiple items at once (very helpful regarding the materials players gain from battles), and so on. However, Atlus has been really bad about making in-game playtime viewable only after saving, and players can’t see how armaments they wish to sell affect character stats before actually selling them, but otherwise, the second Etrian Odyssey Untold interfaces well with users.

Yuzo Koshiro, as in the game’s originally incarnation, composed and remixes the soundtrack, which is as before one of the highlights, given its diverse style ranging from the peaceful labyrinth stratum themes that at times resemble easy-listening music to the energetic battle tracks, players able to choose between orchestrated and digitized versions of the sundry melodies. However, while the voicework is, as mentioned, sometimes helpful in finding labyrinth shortcuts and time to time reminds players of enemy weaknesses in battle, the frequent abridged voice clips during story scenes, along with the voicework in battle that often sounds asinine and unnatural, it can often grate on players.

The visual style serves the remake well, with superb character designs that are most noticeable during cutscenes, the portraits showing different emotions and having nice effects such as blinking eyes. The labyrinth environments are nice and colorful as well, with good lighting and darkness effects depending upon the in-game time of the day, and the FOEs appear without combat just as they do within instead of as the purple orbs in the original versions of the first two and the third mainline Etrian Odysseys. However, battles are still in first-person, but the enemies, some of which but not all are reskins, contain nice animations, with the effects of the player’s party nice as well. Generally, a great-looking game.

Finally, the main quest of the second remake is fairly short, this reviewer able to complete it in around twenty hours or so, albeit with plentiful lasting appeal in the form of the sundry sidequests (though quite a few may necessitate use of a guide, especially completing the in-game compendia), a New Game+, and both the Story and Classical Modes of gameplay.

In summation, Etrian Odyssey 2 Untold is, for the most part, what a videogame remake should be, given the intricate fine-tuning of the agile game mechanics, the engrossing mapping system, tight control, endearing narrative, excellent soundtrack with a choice between classic and modern styles, and pretty graphics. Granted, it does have a few hiccups regarding its derivative narrative, the unrefined translation that’s at its worst in combat, and a few irritating voice performances, but those that can look past these will be in for a great old-school-style roleplaying game experience, and one of the crown jewels of the Etrian franchise that has since concluded on the 3DS with Nexus.

The Good:
+Quick, tight battle mechanics.
+Intricate mapping system.
+Well-developed storyline.
+Superb soundtrack.
+Good visual style.
+Plentiful lasting appeal.

The Bad:
-Story somewhat derivative.
-Localization feels unrefined.
-Some annoying voices.

The Bottom Line:
A great remake like its predecessor.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Game Mechanics: 9.5/10
Controls: 9.5/10
Story: 8.5/10
Localization: 8.0/10
Music/Sound: 9.0/10
Graphics: 9.0/10
Lasting Appeal: 9.5/10
Difficulty: Adjustable
Playing Time: Less than 24 Hours

Overall: 9.0/10

Saturday, July 30, 2022

Dragon Quest XI S: Echoes of an Elusive Age - Definitive Edition (Nintendo Switch)

The Rainbough Connection

The original Dragon Quest for the NES, at the time in North America known as Dragon Warrior for legal reasons, was my very first Japanese RPG, and despite my fond memories of it, I didn’t play any of its sequels on the system until generations later, and the franchise would ultimately blossom in popularity outside the Land of the Rising Sun. The eleventh entry initially saw release on the PlayStation 4 and the Nintendo 3DS, although North Americans only got the former version, which would, akin to many other Square-Enix RPGs, see an updated rerelease, Dragon Quest XI S: Echoes of an Elusive Age – Definitive Edition, on the Nintendo Switch, with this particular incarnation’s extra content ultimately carried over to other platforms.

In the world of Erdrea, an army of monsters invades and destroys the kingdom of Dundrasil, with the protagonist whom the player names, an infant during the attack, spirited away in a basket down a river and raised in a village, the truth about his disposition as the Luminary eventually revealed, although many believe he is an evil entity. The Luminary embarks on a quest to clear his name and defeat the forces of darkness, meeting several companions on his way such as the thief Erik, a magically-de-aged sorceress and her standard-aged twin sister, the flamboyant Sylvando, and others. The characters are very much endearing, although there are many narrative tropes that are spoilerific, but the postgame definitely does have some good twists.

The translation very much does the eleventh entry justice, adopting the style of other contemporary Dragon Quest localizations, with the various peoples across the world, for one, having regional speech patterns characteristic of Earth’s own diverse inhabitants. For instance, the population of the village that adopts the Luminary have Cockney dialects, those of the Japanese-themed Hotto speak in haikus, and the academy to which he can give mini medals found throughout Erdrea has a French disposition. Furthermore, most characters from the world’s distant path have Renaissance-era speech similar to the Erdrick Dragon Quests. Pretty much the only major issue with the dialogue is the tendency of characters to shout the names of their abilities in battle, which sounds good in any language but English.

The Dragon Quest series has remained traditional in regards to the gameplay of its many entries, but there are key differences in Echoes compared to past titles. As Sentinels of the Starry Skies and the 3DS versions of the seventh and eighth entries had done, visible monsters on the overworld (or in XI’s case the various environments connecting towns and dungeons, similar to Final Fantasy X) and in dungeons replace random encounters, the Luminary able to approach them and slash them with his weapon to deal damage prior to the following battle. A cue adopted from EarthBound is that if the Luminary’s party’s levels are high enough, foes will run away upon noticing his approach.

One minor issue that mercifully doesn’t break the game is that even if the Luminary strikes the monster to deal preemptive damage, the enemy party may still get the first strike against the player’s characters, but luckily ample opportunities abound where the encountered adversaries don’t notice the human heroes or are “too stunned to move” as the eleventh entry, akin to its predecessors, relates. Typically, Dragon Quest games adopted a turn-based structure where the player selects commands for their party and allows them and the enemy to exchange blows in a round, with issues such as the random nature at times of turn order and the potential for foes to kill allies before inputted healing occurs.

However, Echoes of an Elusive Age adopts a turn-based structure similar to the mentioned tenth Final Fantasy (not to mention a few other JRPG franchises such as the Atelier games), where the player’s characters receive independent input from the player of their respective commands (though they can alternatively allow the in-game AI to dictate one, a few, or all characters’ orders), and when players choose one of the many available options for battle, including attacking with an equipped weapon, defending to reduce damage until their next turn, using an MP-consuming spell or ability, consuming an item from their inventory, they immediately execute their action, with the character needing to wait until other allies and foes have taken their turns before their next session.

Unfortunately, one major quality-of-life feature present in the turn-based JRPGs from which Echoes derives its battle structure is a gauge indicating character and enemy turn order. Regardless, there are many other aspects that help the eleventh installment break the mold such as adjustable battle speed that can make even the most daunting encounters go by more quickly, and while the player can move around allies during their turns, this is superficial (except for when players wish to escape skirmishes by moving a character to the edge of the battleground, which I never did), and largely for the purpose of getting screenshots.

Victory nets all surviving characters within and without the active party of up to four characters experience for occasional leveling, money for purchasing new equipment and consumables, and the occasional item. Defeat of the Luminary’s party, on the other hand, gives players a few options such as reviving at the last save point or in the last town saved, with these options requiring half the money the player is carrying at the time, and fully restoring all characters. As in prior entries, however, the player can largely nullify this death penalty by banking their money in thousand-gold increments at banks typically accompanying inns.

Whenever a character levels, most of the time they receive skill points the player can invest into hexagon-tiled grids to unlock active and passive skills of different specialties, such as proficiency with specific weapons and/or special abilities for said armaments. Unlocking one tile unlocks those adjacent except those that questions marks indicate, which necessitate that all tiles contacting it be unlocked. There are occasional secrets such as bonus points for unlocking certain tiles, and there are consumables that increase a character’s skill points by one. At churches, the player can completely undo skill point investment in part of a character’s grid and redistribute them, useful if they want to do things like wield different types of weapons.

Another key part of the game mechanics is the Fun-Sized Forge that the player receives early on, where they can use ingredients in conjunction with recipes found throughout the world to create new weapons, armor, and accessories. Doing so involves a minigame where each area of the piece in production symbolizes an area the Luminary can strike with his hammer, each having a gauge that increases when struck. The hero has a number of focus points that increase with his experience levels, with “Flourishes” costing more alongside regular strikes that do things like strike multiple tiles. The goal is to get each gauge in an area towards their respective ends, with items in the end coming out in poor, standard, or superior quality depending upon how far the gauges are.

Successfully forging an item of standard or superior quality earns the player not only the produced weapon, armor, or accessory, but also Perfection Pearls that the Luminary can use to enhance the quality of currently-owned armaments. While one would perhaps think that making the most of the system would necessitate using a guide, especially when it comes to finding rarer ingredients necessary to forge the best equipment possible, I never needed to, since one major convenience the eleventh entry has is that when you discover a new material, the in-game compendium shows other sources of said material, with some I initially acquired through gambling at one of the two casinos.

Another notable facet of the game mechanics is the mount system, where, after the player exterminates a monster visibly sparkling on the battlefield as well as in battle, the means of transportation whatever “intelligent” being was riding becomes available for the Luminary and his party to ride. These methods of conveyance can allow players to ascend walls via vertical footprints (in the case of skeleton beetles), fly to a higher elevation, and even displace monsters that are weaker than the player’s party, although contact with monsters more powerful than they are triggers standard encounters.

Ultimately, while some would argue that Dragon Quest XI’s gameplay is “generic”, that couldn’t be further from the truth, given its influence by more contemporary (if that term would still apply) Japanese RPGs such as Final Fantasy X, with the refinements to the Yuji Horii franchise’s core game mechanics making a world of difference. The absence of a turn order meter is perhaps the most significant issue with the battle system, especially when changing the active party, and while changing an active ally’s companions during their turn doesn’t waste said member’s turn, replacing them with another character progresses to the next character or enemy’s turn. Regardless, the evolution of the Dragon Quest gameplay in the eleventh entry is definitely for the better.

Control also contains more refinement than in prior series entries. The menus are easily navigable, item and spell effects are present in-game, the player can see how equipment they wish to buy increases or decreases their respective stats, in-game maps for towns, dungeons, and the areas in between exist, and the narrative objective is visible whilst viewing the map of the area where the Luminary and his party are. Interaction contains polish to the point where I finished the game, even the postgame content, without even referencing a guide. There are some issues such as the dialogues and confirmations when shopping, not to mention a bit of loading, but otherwise, Echoes interfaces well with players.

The late Koichi Sugiyama, as usual, did a fantastic job with the soundtrack, given many solid original tracks such as the theme of the overworld areas in between towns and dungeons, not to mention the beautiful town theme and its nighttime equivalent, with many other tracks having twilight variations as well; the standard and boss battle themes also contain excellent bombastic orchestration. There are many tracks filched from prior franchise entries, such as the Medal Academy music that uses the fifth entry’s castle music, and the theme of Hotto using the third game’s oriental track, but otherwise, Sugiyama was a class act that will definitely be difficult to rival for future series entries. The English voicework also helps the game more than hurts, although some such as Veronica’s can be shrill at times.

The eleventh entry utilizes a visual style combining realistic and anime elements, with the characters and monsters, as with prior installments, having designs from Dragon Ball creator Akira Toriyama, who as always did a good job, even if there are a great many reskins among the various adversaries the Luminary and his companions battle. The colors and environments look nice, as do the ability effects in combat and the general animation of everything, although there is a heavy degree of popup with regards to the environmental elements, not to mention jaggies and pixilation that are most noticeable close-up. Regardless, the game is definitely beautiful.

Finally, Echoes can be a fairly lengthy game, especially if the player partakes in the countless sidequests, completion of all compendia, the sizeable postgame content, and the acquisition of all Accolades for accomplishing certain things such as slaying a certain number of monsters, gaining a certain amount of money, and so forth. Restrictions known as Draconian Quests also add difficulty to new playthroughs to enhance lasting appeal, although finding all Accolades may require use of a guide since there’s no in-game indication of how to uncover them.

Overall, Dragon Quest XI paradoxically takes a few small and major steps forward for the franchise, continuing to maintain many series traditions such as its turn-based gameplay, although that in particular features many significant differences over prior entries to give it new life. The eleventh entry is also quite user-friendly, the story is endearing, Koichi Sugiyama’s final composition and the voice acting are mostly solid, and the game graphically shines. There are a few issues with regards to the occasional lack of quality-of-life features such as a turn order meter in combat, not to mention the recycling of music from older Dragon Quests, although Echoes of an Elusive Age is undoubtedly one of the franchise’s crown jewels.

This review is based on a playthrough to the postgame ending of a physical copy borrowed by the reviewer.

The Good:
+Great combat and control.
+Endearing narrative and characters with superb translation.
+Superb audiovisual presentation.
+Plenty lasting appeal.

The Bad:
-Battles lack some key quality-of-life features.
-Story has derivative elements.
-A lot of recycled music from past games.
-Some visual imperfections.

The Bottom Line:
One of the best, if not the best, entries of the Dragon Quest series.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Game Mechanics: 9.0/10
Controls: 9.5/10
Story: 8.5/10
Localization: 9.5/10
Music/Sound: 9.0/10
Graphics: 9.0/10
Lasting Appeal: 9.5/10
Difficulty: Varies
Playing Time: 96+ Hours

Overall: 9.5/10