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

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

The Magician's Nephew

The Magician's Nephew (Chronicles of Narnia, #6)The Magician's Nephew by C.S. Lewis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When author C.S. Lewis wrote his Chronicles of Narnia books, he did so in various parts of his world’s timeline, with early editions of the series reflecting writing order rather than chronological order, which contemporary collections of the stories do. Thus, what had been the penultimate Narnia book he wrote, The Magician’s Nephew, became the first entry of modern editions, appropriate since it’s largely an origin story of the pantheon’s eponymous world. The narrative opens with a boy named Digory and a girl named Polly meeting and going into the attic of the former’s home, finding his Uncle Andrew’s sitting room, the titular magician wanting to use the children as guinea pigs for an experiment.

Andrew introduces the children to two different colors of rings, yellow teleporting their wearers to a land away from their world (Earth), and green transporting them back to their planet. Digory decides to go after Polly when she mistakenly touches a yellow ring and vanishes, the two finding themselves in the Wood Between the Worlds. Before they return home, however, they decide to try one of the portal pools in the forest to another world, finding themselves in a place with reddish-lit building and a dark sky, not to mention a palace with apparent static waxworks and a bell with a hammer to ring it.

To do so brings to life one of the aforementioned figures, claiming to be Jadis, the last Empress of the World, serving as a primary antagonist, the city where the boy and girl are being Charn. As Digory and Polly seek to return home, Jadis follows them back to Earth, where she causes chaos with her massive stature compared to typical humanoids. Back to the Wood Between the Worlds they eventually go, along with Uncle Andrew and a few others, ultimately finding themselves in a darkened world with mysterious singing that brings forth illumination.

The singer turns out to be the lion Aslan, whose song spawns forth the elements, intelligent speaking animals and other races such as nymphs, dwarves, and whatnot, with the feline telling his fellow beasts that evil has entered his new world, Narnia. After Aslan gives the Cabby that entered the world with the others charge of the animals, the lion gives Digory the task of retrieving an apple from a special orchard as penance for bringing Empress Jadis into his world, and he agrees, with the feline transforming the horse Strawberry into the winged pegasus Fledge to serve as transportation.

Digory and Polly retrieve an apple for Aslan, having warned the children only to take the fruit for others to forbear, and next coronates Frank and Helen as monarchs of Narnia, further giving Digory an apple for his ailing mother Mabel. Before the children leave, Aslan warns them about their world potentially meeting the same fate as Charn, and the rest of the text settles the fates of the characters, ultimately serving as a nice prequel to the other Narnia books that definitely deserves to be read first. There are some nuances non-British readers likely won’t pick up, such as the path to Uncle Andrew’s sitting room, but the book is otherwise an enjoyable origin story.

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Monday, July 25, 2022

Shin Megami Tensei - Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers

The Nintendo 3DS cover depicts Nemissa, a young woman with light blue hair and black clothes, with her eyes just out of frame. Behind her is a group of people, rendered with a light blue tint.

The Devil (Summoner) Is in the Details

During the 1990s, Atlus’s Megami Tensei series didn’t really get much exposure outside Japan, save mostly for the first Persona game and one of its sequels (with the other part of the second game not seeing a legal English release until the PlayStation Portable came out), although the third mainline entry of the main Shin Megami Tensei franchise, Nocturne, reigned in popularity among North American gamers to the point where many future MegaTen games would receive official translations. Another game Anglophone gamers initially didn’t receive was Shin Megami Tensei – Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers, originally for Sega Saturn before a port to the Sony PlayStation and over a decade later to the Nintendo 3DS, with North Americans getting that particular release.

Soul Hackers occurs in the fictitious Japanese harbor town Amami City, where Algon Soft has its headquarters, aiming to make it a “city of tomorrow”. The player’s character is a member the hacking group, the Spookies, whose founder holds a grudge against Algon Soft. The game tells its story well, with mature themes and introductory text for characters entering the narrative, but there are some elements filched from past MegaTen titles such as one character becoming host to an ethereal being. The translation doesn’t hurt, but is one of Atlus’s weaker efforts, with lines such as “It is in no state to user the computer!” when foes disable the protagonist, not to mention asinine names such as one of the Spookies named “Lunch” and characters addressing and referring to the group’s head as “Leader” when “our leader” in scenes where he’s not present would have sounded better.

However, the gameplay largely compensates for whatever narrative and translational shortcomings the game has, with the male protagonist and female deuteragonist able to equip different types of melee and ranged weapons, not to mention other pieces of defensive equipment, the hero able to summon up to four different demons to help him and his companion in battle, accounting for six active characters in combat. First, though, the player must converse with enemies to get them to join, and luckily, the conversation system isn’t nearly as convoluted, random, or guide-dang-ity as in the first three Persona games or even in the mainline Shin Megami Tensei titles.

It may, however, take a few tries talking with particular demons to get any reward from them, be it money, an item, magnetite (which is necessary when having demons summoned since completely running out of it causes them to take damage with each step the player takes in first-person dungeons and other areas except the various overworld maps), or, of course, alliance. Which conversational decisions yield rewards and which make enemies run away, angry (in some cases resulting in all encountered enemies attacking the player’s party in one round), or simply do nothing seems set in stone throughout the game, although whatever dialogue they speak does appear random at times.

Encounters themselves are random, the rate being fair and increasable or decreasable through special items or TP-consuming magic, another quirk being that one of many apps the hero can install in his devil-summoning program can indicate the relative strength of enemies in a particular dungeon, which can somewhat be a good indicator of whether the player needs to grind. Another app can allow players to record their progress any time outside battle, which can significantly reduce the amount of time wasted when the protagonist dies in battle, resulting in a Game Over and trip back to the title screen.

One thing that is lamentably necessary to repeat is sometimes-lengthy cutscenes before critical boss battles, with no option to skip them or retry battles in case of defeat. Difficulty is also adjustable any time throughout the game, sure to accommodate players of different skill levels. There are also other quirks in the game mechanics such as opponent demons refusing to ally with the player depending upon which specific demons they have in their party, and the ability to fuse two or three monsters to create more powerful incarnations, the skills they receive, either TP-consuming magic or HP-consuming physical abilities, fixed and not randomized like in a few other early entries of the MegaTen franchise.

All in all, while Soul Hackers does slightly play like a JRPG originally released in 1997, given things like unpredictable turn order after the player selects commands and lets them and the enemy demons exchange orders, the mentioned contemporary enhancements such as selectable difficulty and the app allowing players to record their progress anywhere prevent it from falling completely into the gameplay abyss. There are also things the player must keep in mind such as when either human character levels, and they get the opportunity invest points into stats, intelligence and magic are useless for the protagonist since he doesn’t get any magic. There are also a few other issues such as demons not always doing what the player wants, but otherwise, the gameplay very much helps the game more than hurts.

Control definitely has many things going for it such as the mentioned save-anywhere feature, not to mention a “hack” that allows the players to view complete automaps in dungeons instead of needing to fill them out by exploring untouched parts of the three-dimensional areas, easy shopping, an equip-best feature in the game interface, fast movement speed, and so forth. However, there are occasional issues such as the poor direction at maybe a handful of points (although in some cases the fortuneteller in the Paradigm X virtual app can help guide players to the next plot point), and lack of a soft-reset or in-game load in case things such as losing a demon to fusion occur, but otherwise, Soul Hackers generally interfaces well with players.

Sound is perhaps the game’s strongest aspect, with plenty of good tracks such as the various battle and shopping themes, not to mention the variety of tunes in the Paradigm X application. There’s also voicework during most cutscenes, with its quality inconsistent at times, though given the ability to skip through much voiced text, it doesn’t completely feel forced down the player’s throat.

Conversely, the graphics are another one of the game’s weak points, although it does have many positives such as the superb demon designs that contain absolutely no reskins whatsoever, good combat effects, some CG cutscenes, great human character art, and so forth. However, there are plenty of weaknesses such as the laziness of the battle visuals, given the EarthBound-esque psychedelic backgrounds, limited animation for the monsters, and strict first-person perspective. Occasional pixilation and choppiness round out the graphical weak points, but the game is still far from an eyesore.

Finally, the game is one of the shorter entries of the Megami Tensei franchise, around twenty-four hours for a straightforward playthrough, although there is some postgame content, a few occasional sidequests, different difficulties, and things such as filling in the demon compendium. However, a guide may be necessary to play the game to one hundred-percent completion, and given the annoyance of a few dungeons, not all will want to go through it again.

In summation, Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers is definitely one of the older entries of the Megami Tensei series, with solid gameplay accommodating different player skill levels, along with handy features such as the ability to record one’s progress anywhere, not to mention a solid soundtrack and enough lasting appeal for players to invest more time into the game. It does have issues regarding the unpolished translation, absence of a scene-skip feature, and the lack of refinement at many points for the visuals, although the game proves to be a worthwhile port, and given my experience, I definitely look forward to playing the forthcoming sequel.

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

The Good:
+Great game mechanics.
+Save-anywhere feature.
+Good story.
+Solid soundtrack.
+Decent lasting appeal.

The Bad:
-Still often plays like a JRPG originally released back in 1997.
-Some control quibbles.
-A little weak narrative direction.
-Average translation.
-Graphics could have been better.

The Bottom Line:
One of the better older Megami Tensei games.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Game Mechanics: 8.0/10
Controls: 7.5/10
Story: 7.5/10
Localization: 5.0/10
Music/Sound: 9.5/10
Graphics: 6.0/10
Lasting Appeal: 7.5/10
Difficulty: Adjustable
Playing Time: ~24 Hours

Overall: 7.5/10

Saturday, July 23, 2022

Dinotopia: Windchaser

Dinotopia: WindchaserDinotopia: Windchaser by Scott Ciencin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In what is thus far the only entry in the dinosaur-centric book series to appear in Kindle format, this Dinotopia novella opens on September 20, 1863, with one of the main characters, Raymond Wilks being aboard a vessel bound for an Australian penal colony, with his father Stephen, the ship surgeon, thrown overboard by rioters, his son meeting the same fate. However, a dolphin saves his life, the storm during which the prisoners rebelled clears, and both Raymond and one of the ship’s inmates, the teenage Hugh O’Donovan, find themselves in a land with exotic plants that they at first suppose is Australia.

They traverse the woods, noticing huge footprints that belong to the island, Dinotopia’s, intelligent dinosaurs, with one of them, the diminutive Bix, leading them to Waterfall City, where Raymond and Hugh noticing the humans and dinos peacefully coexisting. Sollis the Edmontosaurus becomes the boys’ teacher, and emphasizes the importance of education, Raymond taking it seriously but not so much Hugh. The novella’s eponymous winged Skybax has an injury that deems him unable to soar properly, with his backstory eventually revealed, and both Raymond and Hugh invited to Skybax Camp to fly with other members of Windchaser’s species.

When alone, Raymond heads for Windchaser’s isolated lair, finding that the Skybax laments his former master Daniel, with Bix ultimately informed about the communication between Raymond and the winged creature. On another visit, the boys find the lair deserted, with several dangers rounding out the final chapters of the book, along with a surprising revelation about the philosopher/diplomat Laegreffon, and Windchaser’s future soon settled, along with those of Raymond and Hugh. Overall, I definitely enjoyed this short and sweet Dinotopia story, aside from a lack of reminders as to the appearances of the characters, and hope others in its series ultimately arrive in Kindle format.

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The Bad Guys

 The Bad Guys poster.jpeg 

Follows the eponymous animal criminals, with main character Mr. Wolf attempting to go good after performing a good deed, although he constantly finds himself torn between old and new ways. I didn't care much for the toilet humor but did really appreciate the animated style that at times appeared between 2-D and 3-D, and it was an enjoyable film overall.

Tuesday, July 19, 2022


Biomutant cover art.jpg

After Earth, But Good

Depending upon how players define the term, open-world videogames can possibly date back to the 1970s, given the existence of titles with limited boundaries, nonlinear gameplay, and no concrete goals, although developers wouldn’t elaborate on the concept until games became more complex in the ‘80s, with early RPGs such as the first Ultima trilogy being possible examples. The turn of the millennium would see the idea expand even more, with non-RPG cases such as the commercially-successful Grand Theft Auto III. Games such as The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild many critics deemed “revolutionary” for open-world games, and other companies would attempt to rival it, among them being Biomutant.

The game begins in a post-eco-disaster world inhabited by anthro mutant characters, the player customizing a protagonist when starting a new game. Regardless of whatever form they take, they have excellent backstory largely revealed in the initial hours of the game, and the Green Aesop narrative never feels ham-fisted. The storytelling style is also interesting, with the characters speaking in squeaks and grunts, the player’s Automaton translating the gibberish dialogue, although given the wait times between the babbling and the translations, the plot slightly feels forced down the player’s throat. There are also some grammatical errors in the dialogue, but generally, the plot helps the game far more than hurts.

Luckily, solid gameplay backs the narrative, with the player’s character able to battle enemies with melee, ranged weapons, or a combination of both. Players receive different kinds of skill points when leveling that can unlock “magical” abilities or physical skills that necessitate a combination of different button presses. New weapons the player can craft from various base materials, with equipment upgradeable as well, and there are plenty of goodies obtainable from the sidequests, which generally have good direction and are trackable in-game. Different difficulty settings accommodate players of different skill levels, and aside from a few annoying enemies, including one of the four “World Eaters” they must defeat to advance the plot, and long loading times if the player’s character dies, the gameplay is far from tortuous.

Control, however, is the weakest aspect of Biomutant. While akin to most Western RPGs the game is fairly liberal about when and where the player can record their progress (aside from during missions involving the seizure of rival tribes’ outposts), and the direction on how to advance sidequests and the main plot is largely clear (except for maybe one or two instances), the aforementioned long loading times abound, along with the lack of a minimap and occasional irritating level design. Regardless, this area could have definitely been far worse, and has plenty redeeming aspects.

Western RPGs in my experience tend not to have memorable soundtracks like their Japanese counterparts, and Biomutant is no exception, largely reliant upon ambience, although there is occasional music that sounds decent, the sound effects are good, the gibberish is mildly-adorable, and the constant narration from the Automaton is perhaps the aural high point.

The visuals two have many things going for them such as the customizable appearance for the player’s character, the vibrant colors, the good environments, diversity in character models, and the main character’s appearance changing with different equipment. However, there is a great deal of environment popup, dithering, and blurry/pixilated texturing when viewed up close, although the game is definitely far from an eyesore.

Finally, a straightforward playthrough can take anywhere from twenty-four to forty-eight hours, although there are plenty things to extend playtime such as the myriad of sidequests, a New Game+, and PlayStation Trophies, but the annoyance of one particular boss fight may mildly deter supplemental temporal investment.

Overall, Biomutant is definitely a more-than-serviceable open-world RPG with solid gameplay, the always-welcome ability to record one’s progress most anywhere, a decent environmental-themed narrative, good voice acting coherent and gibberish, nice graphical presentation. It does, however, have issues with regards to its long loading times, unmemorable music, and visual hiccups, although the game is another instance where I vastly disagree with mainstream videogame critics, and I actually preferred playing it to the ballyhooed Breath of the Wild, and in my humble opinion, Biomutant is sure to scratch both those open-world game and anthropomorph-centric RPG itches.

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

The Good:
+Great open-world gameplay.
+Save (mostly) anywhere feature.
+Good audiovisual presentation.
+Plenty lasting appeal.

The Bad:
-Long loading times.
-Story a bit derivative.
-Soundtrack unmemorable.
-Some visual imperfections.

The Bottom Line:
A great open-world Western RPG.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: PlayStation 4
Game Mechanics: 9.0/10
Controls: 7.0/10
Story: 8.5/10
Music/Sound: 8.0/10
Graphics: 7.5/10
Lasting Appeal: 9.5/10
Difficulty: Adjustable
Playing Time: 24-48 Hours

Overall: 8.5/10

Friday, July 15, 2022

The Lost World (Crichton)

The Lost World (Jurassic Park, #2)The Lost World by Michael Crichton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The first and only literary sequel to the late Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park opens with mention that the late twentieth century experienced a significant growth in scientific interest regarding the subject of extinction, with 99.9% of all species that ever existed meeting the fate. In the prologue that follows, chaos theorist Ian Malcolm notes that too much change in any given area is just as destructive as too little, with one of his students entertaining the notion of a “lost world” where dinosaurs still exist. Also sharing the belief that dinosaurs still exist is Richard Levine, although despite his own experiences, Malcolm denies the InGen incident of the previous novel.

Similar to how he divided Jurassic Park, Crichton organized its sequel in specially-named sections, in this book’s case “configurations” that show more complex shapes as the novel progresses. The First Configuration opens with Levine and his partner Marty Gutierrez going to Costa Rica, the former obsessed with past scientific history. On a beach they discover a carcass that leads Levine to speculate its species, although soldiers order its incineration. Levine ultimately travels to an island whose cliffside he climbs, after which he discovers three-toed footprints. In the meantime, seventh-graders Kelly and Arby work for Dr. Thorne, who finds that Levine is in danger.

The Second Configuration opens with Thorne, Arby, and Kelly visiting Levine’s apartment, where they discover he had purchased an InGen computer. Crichton notes the changing history of the public’s general perspective of dinosaurs, first as the “terrible lizards” that caused them to get their name, then as “gentle giants” in the latter portion of the twentieth century. Animal expert Sarah Harding, working on the African savannah, gets a call from Dr. Thorne and joins the other characters in the Americas. Furthermore, Ian Malcolm’s office is broken into, with further mention of the Biosyn Corporation’s goal to exploit dinosaurs for commercial gain.

The Third Configuration begins with the expedition party heading to Isla Sorna, where dinosaurs have appeared, off the coast of Costa Rica, with the group arming themselves in case they encounter the carnivorous among the allegedly-extinct animals. Arby and Kelly manage to stow away on the trip, and find more than they bargained for when they think they glimpse a tyrannosaur. In the meantime, the adults find and enter a derelict manufacturing plant, analyzing its computer database, with the mastermind of reviving the dinosaurs, Henry Wu, receiving mention, along with John Hammond, who had before the resurrection of the dinosaurs had done so for the extinct equine quagga.

In the Fourth Configuration, experts Lewis Dodgson and George Baselton discuss whether to publish their discoveries and go to Isla Sorna themselves, ultimately selecting the latter option. Crichton occasionally injects factoids into the novel regarding things such as the long necks of giraffes and that after great environmental cataclysms, extinction of affected species tended to occur millennia or even millions of years afterward. Sarah Harding in the meanwhile is en route via ship to Isla Sorna, although storms cause her to go overboard and fight for her life. The subsection ends with the science assistance Eddie stealing an infant tyrannosaur.

The Fifth Configuration begins with said purloined dinosaur baby receiving medical treatment for its injuries, with Thorne yearning to take Arby and Kelly to a part of the island known as the “high hide” to view the creatures safely. Dodgson eventually reaches the island and comes under attack, seeking shelter in an abandoned shed. As the infant t-rex receives treatment, one of its parents approaches the interconnected series of trailers, which consequentially come under attack, with those within finding themselves fighting for their lives. A helicopter to take the expedition members to safety is around five hours away, with the party making it a point to leave the island.

The Sixth Configuration commences with Sarah and Kelly escaping the dinosaurs on a motorcycle, the two attempting to impede the animals’ progress by shooting at them, although among the other members of the party, Thorne and Levine find themselves without firepower. The escapees reach an abandoned worker village, where they find brief solace from the danger, not to mention food, with Dodgson serving as something as an antagonist in the novel. The raptors continue to prove the greatest danger to the humans, with the tyrannosaur having its share of the action in the final moments.

Overall, The Lost World is just as great a classic among dinosaur-related fiction as its predecessor, with countless moments and characters not present in the film adaptation and general explicit direction on how the story advances, and plenty of good action. Ian Malcolm continues to prove to be an awesome character, entertaining the idea of intellectual diversity in addition to other kinds as a form of survival for the human race. As with the first book, however, it’s generally up to the reader’s imagination as to how the characters look, and Crichton could have picked an alternate name for his story since Sir Arthur Conan Doyle used it (such as Beyond Jurassic Park), but otherwise, this sequel is highly recommended.

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Thursday, July 14, 2022

Art by ThatCrazyRabbit


This artist does good retro-style cartoon art and can be found here on DeviantArt.

Friday, July 8, 2022

Dangerous Games

 Dangerous Games (Forgotten Realms: Netheril, #2)

Dangerous Games by Clayton Emery
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The second installment of author Clayton Emery’s Netheril trilogy opens with magician Candlemas continuing to seek a solution to the blight that has been plaguing crops, although the sequel quickly forgets this subplot. Meanwhile, Sunbright misses his former companion Greenwillow, and attempts to move on, feeling that he needs time alone in the woods. Candlemas and he find a mysterious shard from the skies in the forest that has explosive properties, with the two thrown through time and dealing with whatever comes their way as they attempt to find a way back home to their period.

The main antagonist of the second entry is the magician Karsus, a cousin to a woman named Aquesita who serves as something for a love interest to Candlemas. Sunbright himself finds a love interest as well, in his case a shaman-in-training named Knucklebones. Playing a minor role throughout the story are a group of spirits known as the Phaerimm, who conspire against the humans. Karsus is believed to be savior of the empire, and researches high-level magic, involving Candlemas as well, and developing an interest in the fallen star piece.

A number of climactic conflicts conclude the story, which is for the most part an enjoyable sequel, although it does sport occasional clichés prevalent in the fantasy genre such as time travel, an adversarial empire, racial unrest, the quest for godhood, and so forth. However, the relationships between the characters are definitely believable and have some semblance of development, and the story is full of action up until the very end of the sequel, which I would definitely recommend to those who enjoyed its precursor, and I look forward to reading the trilogy’s conclusion.

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Thursday, July 7, 2022

Jurassic Park

 Jurassic Park (Jurassic Park, #1)

Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The late Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, which would spawn a highly-successful Amblin Entertainment media franchise, has an interesting style, with occasional intermediaries between a few chapters, not numbered in his magnum opus, depicting the evolution of a fractal curve in sync with the crisis that occurs at the book’s eponymous dinosaur-populated resort. After the beginning visualized fractal curve, Crichton begins with admonition about the commercialization of genetic engineering and how scientists tend to ignore national boundaries, believing themselves to be above the concerns of politics and even international conflict, with the private corporation InGen’s genetic crisis going unreported.

The official prologue of the book tells of a teenager who allegedly received an injury during a construction accident at the forthcoming Jurassic Park, when really it was the result of one of the more-intelligent dinosaurs resurrected from their period of existence, the vicious velociraptor. Another incident involving them occurs at the Cabo Blanco Biological Reserve, on the western coast of Costa Rica, where a young girl named Tina is victim to an attack by a diminutive dinosaur, after which comes a mysterious illness. Doctors deem the perpetuator of the attack to be the result of a normally-harmless basilisk lizard, except that the number of toes was inconsistent, the creature also having avian features.

John Hammond, the aged proponent of Jurassic Park, finds himself under suspicion by lawyers, although his he confident in his forthcoming resort, believing visits by attorneys to be purely social, and had used a diminutive elephant in past fundraising efforts for his scientific ambitions. In the meanwhile, the Biosyn Corporation of Cupertino, California, calls a meeting of its board of directions, discussing InGen and the successful cloning of long-deceased dinosaurs. Another skeptic of Hammond’s dinosaur park is Ian Malcolm, skilled in chaos theory, who believes the resort to be an accident waiting to happen.

Archaeologist Alan Grant and his companion Ellie Sattler receive invitations to visit Jurassic Park, the two impressed by the successful recreation of dinosaurs, with Dr. Henry Wu being the mastermind of resurrection thanks to extracting dino DNA from prehistoric amber, filling in their gaps with frog genes, which somewhat proves critical to what ultimately happens in the resort. A high mortality rate in San José, Costa Rica, causes concern, given the possibility that dinosaurs and their respective influenza escaped the island. Wu himself desires “upgrades” to the park’s dinosaurs, rightfully wanting weaker incarnations, although Hammond disagrees.

John Arnold, in charge of the park’s control mechanisms, believes the resort’s computer systems to be secure, with the suggestion that Jurassic Park would ultimately come to feature “rides”. Crichton gives occasional factoids such as the greatest scientific advancements beyond the Second World War coming from private laboratories, as well as the inception of computers in the late 1940s due to mathematicians’ desires to predict the weather. Malcolm yearns to keep track of the exact number of dinosaurs on the island, with the revelation that despite Wu allegedly making all the animals female, they are somehow reproducing.

Disaster comes to encompass Jurassic Park thanks to the antics of the resort’s information technology specialist Dennis Nedry, who wants to make money off of frozen dinosaur embryos, with the electrified fences failing and a tyrannosaur escaping onto the main tour road, with John Hammond’s grandchildren Tim and Lex, along with Grant, Sattler, and the visiting lawyers, struggling for their lives, and Arnold doing his best to restore power and get the park back in order. The velociraptors prove just as big a threat as the t-rex, and given the crisis, consideration is given to bombing the island resort, with the novel’s ending hinting that the incident was only the beginning.

All in all, Jurassic Park is undoubtedly Crichton’s masterpiece, providing great sociopolitical commentary about the arrogance, danger, and fallibility of unchecked science and its consequences, with the agreeable implication that dinosaurs are better off extinct. Most of the introductory material is absent from Steven Spielberg’s iconic film adaptation, although many of the action sequences, with occasional diversions from the novel, are present. Some of the lamer elements of the film such as Arnold’s “Hold on to your butts” and Nedry’s “Uh-uh-uh!” are mercifully absent from the book, and aside from possible lack of visibility for the appearances of characters and the dinosaurs, I would very much consider it one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century involving the long-extinct animals.

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Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Star Wars: Obi-Wan Kenobi

Obi-Wan Kenobi (TV series) logo.jpg

Takes place a decade after the titular Jedi's pyrrhic victory over his apprentice Anakin Skywalker turned Sith Lord Darth Vader, with many actors from the prequel trilogy reprising their roles in the miniseries, such as Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan and Hayden Christensen as Vader (though James Earl Jones still voices him in his iconic life-support armor), and touches upon decade-old Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia, with the latter getting significant attention. It definitely does a decent job filling a few of the holes that the films leave, with Obi-Wan's hideout plan on Tatooine not being foolproof, with one of the Imperial Inquisitors, the human Third Sister, seeming especially-interested in tracking down the Jedi in exile, and Luke's stepuncle Owen Lars gets a Jerkass Has a Point moment when he tells Obi-Wan, upon hearing his wish to train his stepnephew, retorting, "Like how you trained his father?" Decade-old Leia also comes a bit off as a Bratty Half-Pint, though her twin brother Luke comes across as more level-headed, getting most of his notable moments in the final episodes of the season. Definitely worth watching, largely striking the balance between being good fanservice and an enjoyable series.

Sunday, July 3, 2022

SaGa 3: Jikuu no Hasha - Shadow or Light


A Champion Among SaGa

Ever since its monochrome beginnings on Nintendo’s Game Boy system, Square-Enix, at the time Squaresoft’s, SaGa series has been the odd duck among the company’s franchises, given its nonstandard traditions, with its later entries exemplifying its unorthodox disposition. However, the third installment of the franchise, given the misnomer Final Fantasy Legend III during its initial release, was far more traditional in terms of its mechanics, given SaGa creator Akitoshi Kawazu’s decision to devote effort to the first Romancing SaGa on the Super Famicom, although the Japan-only Nintendo DS remake, SaGa 3: Jikuu no Hasha - Shadow or Light (the subtitle meaning “Champions of Time and Space”), brought the gameplay more in line with the rest of the oddball series.

Shadow or Light features an encounter system similar to the DS SaGa 2 remake, where enemies wander fields and dungeons, and always charge the player regardless of strength. Contacting one aware model indicating an enemy party when another or more are close causes them to “chain”, although unlike in the second SaGa’s remake, the player doesn’t face all adversaries at once, with combat having a far-lesser scale. Rather, the encountered antagonists “queue up”, with an indicator in the lower-right of the DS’s screen indicating the foes of various volumes sitting in line to face the player’s four main characters and one guest ally, and enter battle whenever sufficient space opens up.

Like most Japanese turn-based RPGs released in the original game’s time, SaGa 3 features a traditional setup where the player inputs commands for their party, with their characters and the enemy exchanging commands dependent upon agility. However, in a rarity for an RPG of its kind, the top screen shows who, either among the player’s party or the enemy, will execute their command when, which is incredibly handy, especially when considering things such as healing characters low on health. Commands include doing nothing, attempting to escape, or, which will be the player’s preference most of the time, using one of equipped items or skills, which consume a certain number of action points, restorable at special facilities, health at inns.

Each weapon and spellbook has up to four abilities, one initially available, with the others randomly “sparked” in the middle of battle when using those then accessible, with a character’s base stats occasionally increasing during combat after they execute their commands, as well. During the execution of commands, the player’s characters and the enemy may execute combination attacks with bonus damage, the last participant in a combo occasionally performing a “transcendence” ability native to the weapon whose skill they use in the attack chain. Weapon skills can affect individual enemies, groups of the same enemy type, or in the rare case all adversaries at the forefront of the antagonistic queue

Battles end either when the enemy kills all of the player’s characters, in which case the player can restart or accept a Game Over, or the player wings, after which they acquire money (not a problem so long as players fight frequently), and the opponents may leave behind meat or mechanical parts an ally (except for the current guest member) can consume, which can change their current race (or recover all their health if they don’t). Races include humans, beastmen, espers, cyborgs, mechas, or different types of monsters, each which their own strengths, weaknesses, and affinity for certain types of weapons (and in the case of espers magic), players able to see how racial metamorphosis affect stats before consumption (unless changing to an undiscovered monster form that a red question mark indicates).

Gameplay in the SaGa 3 remake definitely has enough positive moments to make it more than passable, although most bosses, particularly the various phases of the final battle, can have a lot of health, and standard encounters can feel a bit drawn-out (even with attack animations disabled), although what really saves the game mechanics is the easy mode where the use of weapon and magical abilities is completely free, and as long as the player has unlocked healing and revival magic that affects all characters, they won’t have any problem with making it through most of the game. Standard SaGa difficulty is available for those who prefer the franchise’s traditional experience, although the remake is easily the most accessible entry I’ve ever played.

As is the case with other series installments, the SaGa 3 remake allows players to record their progress mostly anywhere outside of battle (and gives a warning in the rare case when they encounter a point of no return, mercifully rare and not the case with the final dungeon), and there are in-game maps that eventually indicate unopened treasure chests. One step down from the DS remake of its numerical predecessor, however, is that the game only indicates excavation points when players first enter a new map of a dungeon or field, eventually disappearing and never reappearing on the maps, although indicative icons are visible when the player reaches said points during navigation on the top screen.

The remake also has an overworld system where dotted lines connect the various towns, fields, and dungeons, with the player able to enter them and explore. A time-traveling airship also quickly becomes available that has various facilities such as different types of shops, many towns having these facilities as well. The dungeon maps on the bottom screen also conveniently indicates the entrance to the current map whence they entered the area, and items that allow instant exit are available. One irritating design choice however is that SaGa 3 limits the different item types the player can carry in the inventory separate to those each character has, though they can put excess items into storage. Regardless, the rerelease generally interfaces decently with players.

As has largely been the case with most new installments of specific Japanese roleplaying game series, the remake of SaGa 3, much like those of its numerical predecessors, occurs in a completely-separate world from other entries, in its case a world where a giant water jug hovers in the air perpetually pouring its fluid into the oceans to raise sea level gradually, with monsters also emerging from said jar. There are past, present, and future periods that the player traverses to solve the world’s various crises, with a few substories as well, some humor, and generally-decent storytelling, although while the primary plotline has good direction, sidequests largely don’t. The original version of the third game also predated Chrono Trigger with a time-travel element to its narrative, so one certainly cannot accuse the remake of plagiarism in that regard.

The soundtrack is enjoyable with a nice variety of tracks, including the return of the central theme of the original SaGa trilogy that plays on the title screen, in the remake’s case a remixed version different from that of its numerical predecessors. There are different battle themes for standard encounters with one enemy party, skirmishes where adversaries queue up to fill in the space that their defeated brethren formerly occupied, different boss types, and of course the endgame conflicts, all solid in spite of often looping. One of the town tracks also contains comical instrumentation in the form of dog woofing and cat meows, and the sound effects don’t detract either. Generally, a nice-sounding game.

The visuals largely remain unchanged from those of the preceding SaGa remake, with character and enemy models having a cel-shaded style, although while the player’s party members aren’t mere reskins of one another and show distinctions when they’re of different races, reskins occur endlessly with the various antagonists they face in battle. The colors are nice, and the environments can be pretty, although jaggies and pixilation are frequent, and in the end, while the graphics have many things going for them, they could have used more polish.

Finally, playtime ranges from twenty-four to forty-eight hours, with plentiful lasting appeal in the form of a New Game+, different difficulties, and plentiful sidequests with percentage indicators for total completion, although one may need to reference the internet to achieve one-hundred percent.

On the whole, one could consider the Nintendo DS remake of SaGa 3 to be a fluke in the franchise, given that while it does retain many of the franchise’s unorthodox mechanics, particularly in regards to combat, the easy mode makes it accessible even to those who don’t enjoy games of its kind, and it does have other things going for it such as the decent control, good time-travel plot, and enjoyable soundtrack. Granted, being the best doesn’t wholly equal perfection as it has issues such as a slight degree of sluggishness in battle, the odd inventory limit without combat when doing so solely within would have sufficed, the weak sidequest direction, and the spotty graphics. Regardless, Western gamers definitely missed out on this game, although a fan translation exists for Anglophone players to experience the inarguable crown jewel of the SaGa series.

The Good:
+Refined, accessible mechanics.
+Good control.
+Nice time-travel plot.
+Enjoyable soundtrack.

The Bad:
-Many battles can feel drawn-out even with animations turned off.
-Limited inventory.
-Some poor sidequest direction.
-Graphics often lack polish.

The Bottom Line:
The strongest entry of a series whose quality has largely been lackluster.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: Nintendo DS
Game Mechanics: 8.5/10
Controls: 8.0/10
Story: 9.0/10
Music/Sound: 9.0/10
Graphics: 7.5/10
Lasting Appeal: 9.0/10
Difficulty: Adjustable
Playing Time: 24-48 Hours

Overall: 8.5/10