Wednesday, 16 April 2014


       Note: This was supposed to go up last week, but I apparently forgot to press the publish button. Yes, I am an idiot.

      Videogames haven't always been the most diverse of mediums. Non-American cultures have a long and very noticeable history in other mediums, and a great many of the most praised literary works come from other cultures, and a lot of classic film history starts and thrives in other countries (Russia being a prime example of both film and literary excellence). Videogames, on the other hand, tend to be stuck in either America or Japan.
      Whilst it's true that videogames have a tendency to dip into other cultures than the one they originate in, most tend to exaggerate the more... stereotypical aspects of those cultures in ways that could be considered less than positive. This also tends to lend itself to some of the strangest videogames out there.
      In this day and age, videogames now come from a wide range of countries besides America and Japan, including England, France, Canada, Korea and Poland. Not that most people realise, as a great deal of the games produced by these countries often feels very American, with very few representing their respective countries - Fable is definitely British, but Batman: Arkham Asylum is decidedly American; Rayman has the faintest traces of French ideas but Beyond Good and Evil and Assassin's creed could have been made anywhere; every game by Bioware could be made by any nationality and no-one could tell they were Canadaian unless they looked it up; Korea is most known in the gaming industry for the Crysis games that are as American as shooters come and Poland's most famous videogame series, The Witcher, is too deeply entrenched in European folklore to reflect anything other than, well,  Medieval Europe.
        But, in the many years of my playing videogames, I've never come across a Mexican game. That is, until I played Guacamelee, a game that screams Mexico at the top of its lungs.
       Guacamelee! is a 2013 game by Drinkbox studios, originally designed for and released on the Playstation 3 and Vita, and promptly released on basically every other gaming system under the sun. And it may just be the most Mexican thing I've ever seen.
      Guacamelee! takes place in an affectionate parody of Mexico, and you control Juan, a failed Luchadore turned farmer that is in love with El Presidente's Daughter. However, an evil charro Skeleton named Carlos Calaca kidnaps the Daughter on the eve of the Dios de Muertos, and fatally shoots Juan.
       In the land of the dead, Juan is greeted by Tostada, who gives him a strange Luchador mask that brings him back to life and gives him amazing fighting skills, and even magical powers. And thus begins your quest across the land to save the daughter and stop Carlos before he hatches his neferious plot to rule the world!
       Guacamelee! plays like a traditional 2D action/ adventure game, in the vein of Metroid or Castlevania, where you explore labyrinthine areas in order to seek out upgrades and powers and progress further into the world. Unlike those games, Guacamelee! focuses more on combat, providing a simple combo system and several special attacks to help you make the most out of punching the many varieties of skeleton you face in the game.
         The controls are simple and reminiscent of games from the SNES era; you have a jump button, a punch button, a grab/ throw button  and a special moves button, whilst the trigger buttons are dodging, reality warp and chicken form. To pull of special moves, you simply change the direction your moving when you press the button. And yes, I am aware I listed an extra button than a SNES controller has - it is on modern systems after all, and they're entitled to using all of the buttons if it boosts gameplay.
          With only two real offence buttons, combos are easy to pull off and are more enjoyable, making the many, many battles less of a chore (until a point, anyway). There is a slight problem with the use of the analog stick occasionally resulting in the game becoming confused as to whether you pressed to the side or down, occasionally resulting in a different combo sequence than planned, but it's a minor grip and a rare issue. 
         Of course, with the game also being heavily exploration focused, the special moves also allow you to further move around the terrain and let you find more hidden objects and powerups, most of which are hidden behind some obstacle requiring specific powerups. Again, very much Metroid in design, especially when you discover that you can transform into a smaller, faster form to fit through small gaps.
          To add to the exploration, you later get the ability to swap between the world of the dead and the world of the living, which  causes noticeable differences in scenery and occasionally unveils new areas to explore. This dimension hopping is also the key to solving most of the games sidequests, and is used in combat as enemies occasionally spawn in different dimensions. 
           In all honesty, there's not much in the way of story to the game (though a lot of dialogue), as it amounts to 'save the princess before the bad guy sacrifices her'. There's not a whole lot going on that really needs explanation, even though the game decides to give you plenty of exposition before and after boss fights, which it makes bearable by throwing in plenty of jokes. It doesn't take away from the (deliberately) simple story, but it helps.
            If you haven't quite managed to work it out yet, Guacamelee! is an affectionate homage to the early days of videogames. The game play is classic Nintendo action-adventure (aside from the combat), and there are plenty of nods to classic games, some more subtle than others - posters featuring lucahdore versions of the Mario Brothers, Link or other old characters are scattered around towns, and you get upgrades by breaking 'Choozo' statues that look uncannily like the Chozo statues from Metroid. Amongst these classic references are also several Internet memes or current fads (including a QR code that simply leads to a message thanking you for scanning it).
           Humour is a huge part of the game's charm, and one of the driving motivators for persuading you to keep going, as you wonder what punchline the game has waiting around the corner. It helps that the team have taken what most people recognise as Mexican themes and ran with them, creating a world where Luchadores and wrestling are prized and praised, and where the underworld and dead are brightly coloured and almost cheerful. 
           Visually and aurally, the game is beautiful. Both elements are heavily weighed down in Mexican ideals and imagery, and both pop with vivid energy. The game's art style is lovely, a nice departure from the grim reality presented in almost every non-Nintendo game released today, and the music is catchy and energetic. It's a shame the score is rather limited and doesn't stand up to hearing the same track loop for almost an hour, with the battle music having little to no variety.
            For a downloadable title, the game is pretty lengthy, taking a good few hours if you're trying to get everything without guidance, and can easily be ran through in half the time if that's your choice.
           If there is a problem to be had with the game, it's that it's too easy to find and collect everything. In fact, I got a 100% completion in my first playthrough, even getting the alternate ending by accident. To be honest, I'd wager that the game is almost too easy in general. The only moment I had any trouble with was a single platforming section required for an upgrade, and that simply required patience and practise. Death in the game is not a punishment, simply a minor nuisance as checkpoints are all too regular, and you aren't punished for dying except to move the couple of rooms back to where you were.
            This issue with difficulty is made all the more vivid if you play any of the games that influenced Guacamelee!, as they are brutally challenging, and almost insanely frustrating. Guacamelee! never reaches anywhere near the level of challenge as its inspiration, or even on the level of the more challenging modern games. 
            These issues are compounded by the monotony of later enemy encounters, which grow rather dull when you become aware of enemy attack patterns and the most effective ways to clear rooms, and the enemies gaining shields related to special attacks rarely adds challenge (with some exceptions, such as flying enemies you need to attack from above). Ultimately, the combat wears thin as the game nears it's conclusion.
          Guacamelee! is certainly a game that deserves time and attention towards it, as it's shortcomings are arguably handwaveable. The humour and visuals make it an enjoyable experience, and the basic core of the game is a trait for anyone that like exploration.
        Hell, if Nintendo isn't going to make another Metroid, then hats of to these guys for making something almost as good.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

The Disappearnce Of Haruhi Suzumiya

         This is a continuation of a review posted last week on The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, and will refer to elements from the original review that I'm too lazy to go over again. If you haven't read the first part, you can read it here.

         Some Spoilers for The Melancholy Of Haruhi Suzumiya are included below.


       Kyon, our very normal highschool student and narrator, has accepted his position as the unwitting witness to the bizarreness that is the SOS Brigade and its members - the adorable time-traveller Mikuru, the quiet and detached alien Nagato, the philosophical ESPer Koizumi and the energetic, all-powerful thing that is Haruhi Suzumiya.
       Everything seems relatively normal. It's just before the Christmas holidays, and Haruhi is arranging a party in the club room, having already gotten most of the decorations and decided upon a meal for all of them - a hotpot, as cooked by her - not to mention plans to hold various festivities all through the coming days. Kyon, not thrilled by the idea, is simply happy that everything is relatively peaceful, and he needn't worry about any world changing events occurring anytime soon.
        So imagine his surprise when he wakes up the next morning to find that no-one knows about or has every seen any of the brigade members, a shock that is heightened when he discovers that aliens, time travellers and ESPers don't exist in this world. And, worst of all, Haruhi Suzumiya is nowhere in sight.
      Confused and panicking, Kyon runs to the club room, where he finds Yuki Nagato sitting alone, the sole remaining member of the literature club, and nothing more than an ordinary, if exceptionally shy, highschool girl.
      With defeat facing him at every turn, Kyon begins to hunt for a way out of this reality, determined to head back to the world he knows. But the question is, isn't this world everything he's wanted for the past few months? Does he even want to return, or is it just habit?
        Is being normal worth it?

      The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya isn't actually a story about Haruhi Suzumiya. Whilst she is important to the plot, Haruhi doesn't really appear outside of the opening and extended sequences in the middle and end of the film, and her role in the film is rather minimal. Instead, the film focuses on Kyon and Nagato and is, arguably, more about the latter.
       Whilst a great deal of the film centres around Kyon's efforts in returning home, we actually spend a lot of time with this realities version of Yuki Nagato which, in turn, gives us a better picture of the real Nagato.
         (For the sake of comprehension, I will henceforth refer to the 'real' Nagato as Nagato, and the other Nagato as Yuki.)
        Yuki is, in fact, much of the driving force behind the plot. It is through her that Kyon is given some sort of comfort as a friendly face that doesn't immediately insult or assault him (even if she really should), and her willingness to help out Kyon is what leads to him finding the first clue as to how to return.
         In contrast, Yuki is also quite the hindrance. Seeing what Nagato could be causes Kyon a great deal of doubt as to whether or not he does wish to return, and whether that desire is his own selfishness. After all, the real Nagato is emotionless, a being made simply to observe and obey with debatable control over her own actions. This Yuki, on the other hand, has a full spectrum of emotion. True, she may be a social recluse that is awkward around other people, but she clearly expresses actual human emotions - sadness, loneliness, even love. In the short time we spend with her, we see a person that has the potential to become something more, and the idea of robbing this girl of that opportunity is part of what causes Kyon's internal conflict.
         Kyon also gets heightened development throughout the film - as you'd expect, seeing as he is our protagonist and narrator. Throughout the film we get to see how much he actually does care about the people he surrounds himself with, as his entire journey is to get back to them.He takes the time to question his own mentality and his constant complaining, and whether normality is really what he wants after bearing witness to the many oddities he's faced. Not that he's completely self-centred - he takes the time to ask about others, and, as said, he wonders whether robbing Yuki of the chance to be a real person is the right thing to do. Whilst it may not be the greatest leap in characterisation, it is more than enough for the film's plot, and better than a great deal of other anime tie-in films tend to give.
       Speaking of the tie-in aspect, Disappearance is less a tie-in and more then third series of the show. Clocking in at two and a half hours, Disappearance is basically the first half of a season, though the way the story is presented would make it a rather disjointed and oddly paced series (much like the 'sigh' arc of series 2). In fact, the film presentation gives it the opportunity to spend a great deal of time focusing on an inner monologue matched with bizarre imagery that would run over two (or more) episodes. It also builds upon events that have transpired in the series (especially the first episode of season 2), and a lot of continuity nods refer to things that occurred within the original show, and actually give the audience the first clue that not everything in this new reality is unaffected by Haruhi.
         The film is paced relatively evenly and pretty decently, save for slipping at the end and providing a false ending that leads into the actual conclusion, and moves in roughly four acts - familiarisation of the real world, the discovery of the new reality and acceptance, working (and enacting) the first stage of the return and then the acting out and conclusion of the story. Whilst most films would remove, or shorten, the solidifying of the status quo and simply jump into the action, the inclusion of a decently long 'normal day' actually does quite a lot to enhance the emotional impact of Kyon being shifted between realities. We get to spend a nice amount of time re-acquainting ourselves with these characters and they're personalities before they vanish from the film, allowing for the contrast in their alternate selves become more visible as a result.
         This is heightened by spending time with the secondary characters - Kyon's other friends - to give us a suitable grounding for Kyon believing nothing has changed from one day to the next, as a great deal of the dialogue they give is lacking in specifics, whilst still in character. The familiarity with these characters makes it all the more jarring when strange events do begin to occur, such as the reappearance of a character that was definitely dead in the main series.
         The film progresses from here at a decent pace, never really slowing down (not that it moves too fast to begin with), and takes its time dealing with all the many plot points and alternate characters, letting them have enough time for the viewer to understand whats happening and what has changed. It could be argued that the film moves too slowly at times,  though it has no real need to move too fast - the only moment where that argument is truly valid is near the films conclusion. It also suffers slightly from the basic nature of the show - knowledge of the series gives viewers enough to work out the cause for the whole affair about midway through the film, if not earlier, and that robs the 'reveal' of the cause of a lot of its impact. That is, of course, until you realise why this all happened.

       The technical aspects of the film are, like the series, outstanding, especially when contrasted with other anime productions. The animation is good (though still limited), and the colouring is fantastic. The sound design is as atmospheric as it needs to be, though some sequences are slightly too quite. The voice work is as good as the shows (all of the original voice cast returns), and the music is bolstered by a larger production value, lending a more polished and varied score spanning more instruments.

    In conclusion, The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya is a film that lives up to the original season of the show and greatly bolsters and improves on many areas within. As a stand alone film, it suffers from the wealth of information left out, making it hard for anyone not already aware of every aspect of the show to enjoy (of course, the film was made for people that had watched the show, so that may be slightly pointless to mention). The film's only real weaknesses are in the pacing faults as the film draws to its conclusion and the ability to guess the cause of the whole thing, but the good more than outweighs the bad. It is, at the end of the day, an intelligent and well made film. 

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya

           So, a Time-Traveller, Alien and Psychic (well, ESPer) all become members of a high school club run by the Literal Centre Of The Universe and a completely ordinary and sarcastic man.
           ...This might take some explaining.

           Now, imagine that there is such a thing as an all powerful entity that may or  may not be a God, the key to advanced Evolution or the cause of a massive disruption in time and space. Now, imagine she's a highschool girl in Japan that changes mood at the drop of a penny, and wants nothing more than to find a Time-Traveller, ESPer or Alien and hang out with them. Oh, and drag the helpless form of the only human being that can stand her around with her whilst she tries to find these people.
          That person would be Haruhi Suzumiya.
          And she is not our protagonist.
          No, the protagonist of this series is not the titular character, but Kyon - a sarcastic, yet completely normal (to a given degree of normal) Japanese Highschooler that would like nothing more than not be a part of Haruhi's insanity. Too bad for him that he happens to be part of the cause of the subsequent events.
         As for the afore-mentioned club, that would be the 'S.O.S Brigade' (aka the 'Spreading excitement all Over the world with Suzumiya Haruhi Brigade, or Sekai o ┼îini Moriageru Tame no Suzumiya Haruhi no Dan for the more Japanese minded people that read this), a club whose sole purpose is to seek out and discover the bizarre and super-natural, and then... well, then do something about it.
           The slight problem is that everything that the club ends up dealing with is, in fact, the result of Haruhi. Not that she knows this, or will ever know this, because it is imperative that absolutely no-one should ever tell her that she is, in fact, the centre of the universe. Otherwise the universe might explode, or suddenly be filled with whatever the hell Haruhi feels like.

          Confused again? You'll get used to it.
           First off, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya (or just Haruhi Suzumiya) is an anime based on a series of light novels written by Nagaru Tanigawa and illustrated by Noizi Ito. A light novel, if you don't know, is a short (20,000 - 50,000 word) novella that is illustrated. The series is incredibly popular in Japan, and has been highly received elsewhere in the world.

          So, it all begins on a seemingly normal day. Our hero, Kyon (which is not his name, and he'd rather people not call him Kyon), has just started at North High, a perfectly normal school. What is not normal, however, is one Haruhi Suzumiya - an angry, hyperactive and very bored young girl that wants nothing more than to locate the oddities of the world. And she just happens to sit behind Kyon, even when the pair are randomly assigned new seats.
           Naturally, the pair begin to talk. To a degree. But it becomes clear quite quickly what Haruhi wants with life, and she's fed up of waiting for it. Kyon responds by telling her she shouldn't just wait for these things to come to her, but go out and find them herself.
            Taking these words to heart, Haruhi decides to do just that, and sets out to start a high school club dedicated to the bizarre, as well as seeking it out. Oh, and she drags Kyon into it, for no real reason.
            Of course, a club needs a room and members. Haruhi being, well, Haruhi, has already worked out the best place for the club room - the literature club room, which she gleefully takes over, as well as its remaining member; the quiet and reserved bookworm Yuki Nagato. She follows this up by basically kidnapping the shy, awkward and adorable Mikuru Asahina as their fourth member, and quickly enrols new transfer student Itsuki Koizumi, a philosophical and perpetually smirking young man, as the final member.
             And thus the SOS brigade is born!

           And now for the general oddities to come forth. In the subsequent few days, it becomes very apparent to Kyon that something is very wrong with his fellow club members. You see, Yuki Nagato is not just a reserved girl reading in the corner - In fact, she is a representative of the Data Construct, an alien being of immense power that believes Haruhi to be the key to advanced Evolution, and Nagato was sent to oversee and study the girl. Mikuru has been sent from the far future by an interested party that wished to examine the source of a time altering event which happens to centre around Haruhi. And finally, Koizumi was sent by a mysterious Organisation of ESPers that wishes to monitor Haruhi as they believe she ma, in fact, be a God. Or they don't - it's hard to tell if Koizumi is joking or not.
            Of course, Haruhi cannot know about any of this. If she does, she may realise that she has complete power over the very fabric of time and space, and re-write reality to her will. If she hasn't already done that.
             There is also an added problem. Haruhi's godlike powers have an unfortunate side-effect related to her mood - the more angry, bored or depressed she gets, the more likely it is that she will create a 'Closed Space', and alternate reality version of the world being destroyed by powerful beings that must be destroyed by the ESPers. If these Closed Spaces get too big, then they could lead to the destruction and birth of a new world.
               The only thing that can stop this from occurring is the SOS Brigade. More accurately, Kyon.

          And that's the first four episodes of the first season of the Anime.
           Yeah, there is a lot to digest here.
           Interestingly, though, much of the most important exposition of the series occurs in those four episodes, with the rest of the series being much more light-hearted and easy on the mind. Not that they lack the same complexity of the core idea - especially as time travel become a reoccurring act throughout the series, and several characters (mostly Koizumi) have a tendency to drop into philosophical monologues at the drop of the hat.
           But the series can largely get away with this, as the framing of the series is perfect. The series is narrated by Kyon, who spends most of his time making bitter and sarcastic commentary on the events throughout the series (when he isn't gushing about how adorable Mikuru is), and without whom the series would be a much duller affair. Kyon's narration is, at times, the highlight of the episodes as he makes deadpan jokes and amusing observations, and he quite quickly wins over the audience by just being a charming guy. Not that he can necessarily be trusted, mind you.
          The choice of Kyon as narrator and protagonist is much more than simply because of his personality. As the only normal member of the group, Kyon is a gateway into the absurdities that follow, as he constantly ask the questions the viewer asks. He's the most relatable member of the group, and the one with the most established backstory, making him the solid foundation of the rest of the show.
            The rest of the characters do also get their fair share of character traits and background to. Haruhi, as the centre of the show, is given a solid background that allows us to relate to her lack of attachment to the world, even if we aren't told much about who she is out of school. It helps that Haruhi's personality is oddly infective - her storms of energy and hyperactivity bring about an incredibly sincere (if over-the-top) joy at the prospect of discovery, or even simply existing, even if she does spend a lot of the time being irritating and angry. Her intelligence and fierce drive make her a character that is great to watch, even if you'd never want to be near her in real life.
          Of our three supernatural cast members, they each get their characterisation at an even and slightly scattered pace, and with deliberate planning to make the most of the juxtaposition between what we think we know of the character and the reality of the situation.
            This is all helped, of course, by the brilliant voice acting - Kyon's voice (provded by Crispin Freeman/ Tomokazu Sugita) is a level tone with a sarcastic edge to it; The hyper-ness of Haruhi is brought to life beautifully by Wendee Lee/ Aya Hirano, who both manage a whole spectrum of emotion; Nagato's emotionless tones are provided by Michelle Ruff/ Minru Chihara with no trace of, well, emotion; Koizumi's actors (Johnny Yong Bosch/ Daisuke Ono) give him a charming and cheerful voice, all the more perfect for monologing; and Mikuru is voiced Stephanie Sheh/ Yuko Goto, who match the timid, soft and kind nature of the character, even if their voice work can be a little too high pitched.
            In terms of plot and pacing, well... That's an interesting discussion.
            You see, much of the series does not occur in order. In fact, the entirety of Season Two occurs during the events of season one (and one episode occurs three years in the past as well as at the same time as the other episodes), and the 0 episode of season 1 actually occurs near the end of the first season. This is not helped by the fact that the original broadcast of the show was shown completely out of order - deliberately.
             In all truth, most of the major plot of the series occurs in the first six episodes (not counting the 0 episode), but the issue and general threat of the series is still clearly there - Haruhi is still a god, and can get bored whenever, leading to a potential end of the world scenario everyday. As such, the remainder of series 1 (including the 0 episode) consists of the Brigades way of keeping Haruhi occupied long enough that she doesn't destroy reality. Throughout these episodes, which are more comediacly focused than the main story, we get drops of characterisation, culminating in a satisfiying, if low-key note for the final episode of the first season.
            The exception is, again, episode 0, which barely makes sense in the context with season 1, and actually works better in relation to season 2. You see, episode 0 (aka 'The Adventures of Mikuru Asahina) is a film that Haruhi and the brigade make as part of the school Arts festival, as narrated by Kyon. Not that we are told this, and it creates a very weird opening episode to anyone not in on the joke - aka, me.  
              I recommend watching episode 0 after the actual school arts episode of the season. Or, better yet, watch it after finishing season 2.
              Speaking of Season 2, it can be divided into three noticeable segments: Bamboo Rhasphody, Endless Eight and The Sigh of Haruhi Suzumiya. Bamboo is a single episode (the time travel episode), Endless eight is, exactly what it says on the tin, and Sigh is the final five episodes.
             Most people skip the Endless arc.
             If you ever want to see the quickest way to rob a lot of goodwill from your first series, the Endless Eight is the way to go.  You see, the Endless Eight is a series of episodes which are based around the events of two weeks. As in, every episode is about the same events. Eight times. True, the first three and final episode have some very noticeable differences, but the fact is that a majority of the episodes repeat the same events over and over again. And here's the thing - even though the plot and events are the same, nothing else is. On all of these episodes, each repeat is told slightly differently, with new animation, new pacing and new voicework.
               The arc is one of the most frustrating story arcs put to film. The constant repetition is mind numbing, and nothing is really gained from it, unless you're interested in how you can take the same story and shoot it in eight different ways.
               This then leads to the Sigh, which is actually a good story arc... just not quite as good in the format it's presented in. If all five episodes were edited together, then the Sigh would make for a fun film, but the current form of five episodes leaves a couple of these episodes feeling somewhat unfinished, especially with some of the closing and opening scenes. Again, these are nto bad episodes, but they simply feel odd being so disconnected.
            The plot of the Sigh is actually very good, and somewhat makes up for the Endless Eight. But only somewhat. The arc deals with the making of the Haruhi's short film (the 0 eoisode), and actually makes it quite apparent what the girl is capable of, and the lengths she will willingly go to, as well as dealing with the nature of Kyon and Haruhi's relationship. That it ends with one of the best moments in the series is also high praise for the story arc.
           On the more technical side of things, the quality of the animation and backgrounds is incredibly high for anime standards, with some very nice movements and a relatively low level of recycled animation, with there being surprisingly few loops. Even when they could cut corners, the animators don't, making it one of the more fluid and attractive animes.
         The music of the show is also fantastic, as it jumps from genre to genre, all the time filling itself with as much emotion as it can. The second season opening and closing songs aren't as fun as the firsts, but the rest of the soundtrack is up to par. One song I do want to note is Itsummo No Fuukei, which is Kyon's theme. It's a nice, jaunty piece that is perfect for that moment where you need an internal monologue. 

           Let us finish this up then, seeing as it's getting late. The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya is a very interesting anime - and very weird. Once the first hurdle of accepting absolutely everything that you're told is cleared, the show becomes a very fun and interesting current-age sci-fi series that manages to be intelligent and humorous. Whilst the second season is quite a step down due to the repeated episodes, it still manages to retain the humour and quirkiness of the first. At the end of the day, there is nothing quite like Haruhi.   

           Come back next week, when I talk about the feature length sequel film, The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya!

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

The Lego Movie

        There is generally a correlation between how bad a movie is, and how much it relies upon a toyline or other, 'lesser' source material (including comics). Take, for example, the Transformer movies, which have so far been mediocre at best (save for that one movie from the 80's), not to mention the G.I Joe films and basically any videogame.
         The Lego Movie is not one of these films.
         If The Lego Movie is not nominated for an Oscar, I will be very surprised. In fact, I'll be surprised if it doesn't win the 'Best animated' award. The Lego Movie is easily one of the best non-Disney/ Pixar animated films every made, surpassing almost every rival studio film produced in a long time with little exception.
          The Lego Movie follows a perfectly average mini-figure named Emmet (Chris Pratt). He is, in fact, so normal that most people don't seem to realise he exists - his personality is so bland that he has no defining traits other than his cheerful attitude,which everyone else happens to be.
            Emmet lives in Bricktopia, a perfect city where everything runs perfectly, as everyone follows the instructions laid down by President Business (Will Ferrall). Everyone has the same morning routine, the same TV viewing habits (the most popular show is 'Where are my Pants?'), and the same song is played for hours on end, and everyone loves it (that being 'Everything is Awesome', which will never leave your head, ever).
              Not that all is well and good. Eight and a half years prior, President Business stole the 'Kragle' from sage Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman), an artifact of immense power, and one he intends to use to make sure everything is perfect - at least, perfectly as he wants it. The only hope for this is 'The Special', a master builder (aka: the people that can see every block for what it is and use it to build awesome stuff). The Special will defeat Lord Business via the 'Piece of Resistance', another artifact of supreme power, all of which is foretold by Virtuvius in a prophecy that is true because it rhymes.
                No guess for who this is, and the movie makes no short business in getting Emmet to the Piece of Resistance, found after he tries to chase Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) across a construction site. This leads to Emmet now on the run from Business' robot henchmen and their leader Good Cop/ Bad Cop (Liam Neeson), with his only hope of salvation being the other Master Builders.
              What follows is a brilliant and witty take on what is basically Lord of the Rings - object A must be taken to Object B in order to save the world. What the Lego Movie succeeds in is that everything seems remarkably original and outstandingly funny as the movie knowingly pokes fun at its core story, its genre, and the fact its based on Lego.
             In fact, the Lego license makes what seems like a generic story become something amazing. There are a great many jokes made with the blocks as a basis, and the film delights in referencing old and new aspects of the toy, including its adult fans, its instructions and components (Master Builders can see the component code and official name of pieces) and the very idea of creativity.
                Whats more is that the license allows for the use of a great many other licenses because Lego makes products of them, ranging from DC superheroes to Shaq O'Neal the basket ball player (which makes this the best film Shaq ever appeared in). There is so much to see here visually, it's almost overloading at times.
               Speaking of Non-Lego characters, Batman (Will Arnett) is a major character (and Wyldstyle's boyfriend), and is a brilliant parody of his character, ranging from the ability to disappear and reappear instantly and without movement and a brilliant joke at Bruce Wayne.
                  Note here that I am attempting to stray away from the plot and story as a whole. I want to talk about it, go on about how brilliant the film's final act is and how unexpected it is, and how much the message it delivers is something everyone should take to heart. But, I can't spoil it, as it would ruin everything slightly, and make it a little less than special. Even being as vague as I am isn't helping matters, as now you know something happens.
                The humour of the film is constant and unrelenting, with there being very few times where there are no jokes - except, again, the end of the film - and the jokes range from being relatively subtle to extremely overt. There are constant visual gags, some of them minor background pieces, others up close and personal; some jokes are almost random (until you remember the basics of Lego), some are easy to spot but delivered so perfectly that is seems almost fresh. 
              Visualy, the film is beautiful. Mostly CGI, the film is made to resemble stop-motion with the level of detail in every element exceptional beyond compare. It is almost impossible to distinguish CGI from actual Lego, and everything looks simply amazing. The animation is deliberately made to invoke the idea that everything is Lego - explosions are made of Lego, lasers are Lego, water is Lego. There are exceptions, and these objects look equally good, and never feel out of place with the rest of the film.
            The film sounds as good as it looks. The Lego mentality seems to pass over to the sound design and score, with the sound effects having a great many elements of plasticity to it, and the music being brilliantly creative in its use of varying instruments and genres. It helps that the film has one of the catchiest ear-worms in existence.
         If there is any flaw in the film that the jaded film critic within me can find, it is that the pacing starts off a little too fast, and there is little breathing room in the first act. But, saying that, the film crams so much information into that time and presents this amazing universe that you fully and readily accept as existing whilst still remaining to be incredibly funny and gets you to giddily follow it with all the excitement of a child.
     And in the end, all I can say is that everything is awesome, everything is cool. The Lego Movie was something I doubted for the longest time, but converted me in an instant. My expectations were raised the more I read about the film, and it delivered and surpassed my expectations. The Lego Movie is something anyone should see - a smart, funny and heart warming film that proves kids films are just as much for the child inside the adult.  

Friday, 14 February 2014

Final Fantasy XIII

        The Final Fantasy series has long been held as one of the greatest Role Playing Games series' of all time, and it is arguable as to whether this is true or not. It is certainly one of the most famous RPG series', and it did inspire a great many other companies and games. In general, the series is said to contain some of the all-time greatest games in the form of Final Fantasy VI and VII (neither of which have, unfortunately, aged as well as people would believe).
          That being said, the series hasn't always been the celebrated success it is usually perceived to be. There have been a great many lesser entries into the series, and a long standing history of strange choices that have left series owner Square in dire predicaments.
          If you were to ask any fan of the series what the biggest of these lack lustre entries was, they would probably respond with 'Final Fantasy XIII', a game that stands as an incredibly divisive entry, and what is often perceived to be the beginnings of the downfall of a great series.
          Strictly speaking, this isn't true. Final Fantasy XIII (Which, for the sake of brevity, I will refer to as FFXIII from here on out)was critically deemed to be an incredibly good entry into the series, with only a single element -  the games linearity - being seen as problematic. If anything, there are two much better examples of lesser 'main-series' Final Fantasy games in the form of IV and V, as well as, arguably, X .There are some that say every game since VI was a step back, and that all the games since have been terrible - again, not true, as the earlier entries in the series, hampered by the limitations of their system (The NES) had a great many faults that have since been ironed out in later instalment, with only II truly standing the test of time.
            But what is it that made Final Fantasy XIII such a failure in the eyes of fans? As someone who has played almost every 'Main' entry (I skipped XI and XIV as those are MMO's with paid subscriptions), I feel that I should but my thoughts down (helped by the fact that I just fully completed the game, and the third game in the XIII trilogy is released today).

             The floating city of Cocoon, located high above the savage world of Gran Pulse, is a place where humanity and Fal'cie (effectively demigods) live in harmony. However, the ever constant threat of attack by the Fal'Cie of Pulse leads to drastic measures being taken - such as The Purge, an event triggered after a Pulse Fal'Cie was found hidden away in the beach side town of Bodhum. Upon being discovered, the Pulse Fal'Cie chose a girl - Serah Fallon - to become a L'Cie, given a sacred task to fulfil or else become a twisted mockery of humanity as a Cie'th. As the military are drawn in to deal with the situation and ship the residents of Bodhum to Gran Pulse out of fear they are contaminated, a vigilante group named NORA, led by Serah's fiancee Snow Villers, attacks in an attempt to save Serah and the residents of the town. Further complicating matters is an ex-soldier named Lightning, Serah's sister, who has turned upon the army in an attempt to undue this injustice, aided by pilot Sazh Katzroy, who joins of his own violation.
             As they race to the Pulse Fal'Cie, innocents are drawn into their cause. Snow calls upon the survivors to storm the military, enrolling the mother of Hope Estheim. Seeing his mother fall to Snow's cause, Hope swears revenge, and chases the man after being encouraged by stranger Vanille. As the five approach the Fal'Cie, Serah greets them before being turned to crystal - the reward for completing the Fal'Cie's task. The group then attack the Fal'Cie, before being stuck down and marked as L'Cie, and granted a vision of their destiny - the destruction of Cocoon.
                Now on the run from the military and denounced as traitors to their homeland, the group goes on the run, all the while asking themselves if their destiny is to save Cocoon, or destroy it.

             First of, I apologies for the throwing around of new terms so liberally after introducing them, and that is one of the first things you'll notice about FFXIII. The game opens as though you're aware of events that haven't been explained, and a lot of early dialogue is based upon events we haven't seen - yet. To the games credit, the story does slow down and begin to explain events after the first chapter, with later chapters often having flashbacks to the prior 13 days before the game's beginning so that we, as an audience, can understand every that has come afterwards.
               The story itself does a good job of skirting the boundaries of the cliche and expected. The boundaries between good and evil are often blurred as characters struggle to accept their new place in the world, and attempt to find a new purpose. Every character has their personality and cause gradually deconstructed throughout the events of the game (with the exception of the currently unmentioned Fang), before being rebuilt towards the game's conclusion.
              For the most part, the characters are well written, with a decent back story and reason for their involvement, their pasts affecting their current decisions and actions. At points, they feel very much like real people (particularly Sazh), even whilst still having a heavy layer of more generic personality traits (Lightning is sullen and moody, Snow is the upbeat hero, Vanille is the energetic and cheerful child - all of which get deconstructed at one point or the other).
                I feel a brief note should be made in relation to character names. Lightning's name is a moniker she chose for herself, so it can be excused, and Hope's name is rather ironic. Snow, on the other hand, is a stupid name, and feels like an extension of the weather/element themed names throughout the series (even though Lightning has that covered).
                A rather nice touch to the characters is that a great many of their designs match their personalities. Lightning has efficient and slightly militaristic clothing, Snow dresses in a carefree manner, Vanille and Fang both sport more tribal wear, and Sazh's clothes look worn yet comfortable. Hope's clothes, much like his name, are more ironic, as they are bright, colourful and open to contrast his closed and depressed mood.
                Gameplay wise, the game is a variation of the model seen in FFX, where you spend time wandering around beautifully rendered (if poorly designed) areas before entering into a turn based battle system. The difference here is mostly in the battle system. Usually in Final Fantasy games, you control three character simultaneously (four, in older entries), whereas FFXIII only lets you control one. There is a good reason for this, as battles are much faster paced than previous games (to the point where the average battle is under a minute in length, and it is possible to have battle last less than 10 seconds), and the battle system has been changed so that you now input several moves into a 'chain' before you attack.
                   The battles, it should be mentioned, work in real time. Whilst you have to wait for your chain gauge to fill, your character will still be moving around the field, and enemies and allies will be attacking. This lends a more hectic pace to events, and you'll constantly be changing what moves you use depending on the flow of the battle, as well as changing character classes, which leads us rather smoothly to our next paragraph.
             The character 'Class' System (or Jobs, if you prefer) is a variation on another classic Final Fantasy staple. Each character has access to a variety of jobs, which give them specific abilities to use in battle, and can be changed mid battle to suit the circumstances. This is a highly useful and tactical feature, and also has with it a downside that stops it from being too powerful - whenever you change character class, every one in your party changes class to, as you select a 'Paradigm' to change your party's classes.
           With each character having access to three of six classes at the beginning of the game (Commando (Close combat specialist), Ravager (combat magic), Healer (healing magic), Synergist (party enhancing spells), Saboteur (enemy weakening spells) and Sentinel (defence specialist)), the Paradigm system allows you to have a balanced team on the field that can cover most areas. Bare in mind that you can only have six paradigms available at any one time, so careful selection is the key to victory.
                The beginning of the game and the end game are wonderful examples of the flexibility of the system, as the game forces you early on to deal with having less than ideal team builds and overcome this by clever selection of classes, whilst enemies at the end of the game (especially the post-game material) require constant switching of Paradigms to ensure your foes are sufficiently weak end and you're at a position where you can deal the most damage.
                A few more changes have been made to the battle system that are of note. Magic Points (MP) have been removed, as all spells are simply sections of the move gauge, with more powerful spells limiting the amount of uses per-turn (the basic fire spell takes one gauge, whereas the most powerful, Firaga, takes up three - this leads to the question on whether a single strong attack is more useful than three weaker ones). A new point system has been added in the form of 'Technical Points' (TP), which is used for more advanced techniques that can be used by any class, such as Summoning an Eidolion (more on that later), learning about an enemy or greatly healing your party. Health is now restored at the end of the battle - a decision that makes the game both beneficially easier and removes an aspect of challenge present in previous games.
                Eidolions, or summons, (another series staple) are powerful beings that are vertiable one man armies, and can be called to do devastating damage to your enemies in times of need. At 3 TP, they aren't precisely cheap (and TP is annoying to restore), but they are effective if you need them, as they also heal your entire party, making them a good tactical choice if your close to death against a strong foe. You cannot, however, summon them if any member of your party has fainted. You'll also find you only use them against bosses, and even that is rare.
               The most important new feature in the battle system is the 'Stagger Gauge'. As you attack an enemy, this gauge will rise and, when fall, weaken the enemy, allowing you to deal up to 10x your normal damage. Staggering an enemy can be the only way to defeat it quickly, and requires a constant balance between physical combat (which does little to boost the gauge, but slows it down) and magical (which boosts the gauge quickly, but also causes it to lower faster). Staggering is one of the key ways to ensure success, so it will often be the main concern in battles. Staggering also has the benefit of increasing the damage you do to the enemy, even before you fill the gauge - each hit on the gauge will increase your damage by a certain percentage, eventually maxing out at 999.99% (so 10x damage). Certain enemies will also reveal weak spots once staggered.
              The easiest way to reveal any weaknesses is to use the spell Libra (at the cost of 1TP), which will give you detailed information about health, weaknesses and immunities, allowing you to more effectively dispose of your enemies. You also gain information about enemies by simply fighting them, and Libra will leave some information hidden. The item Librascope does the same, but will reveal everything about your opponent - it is, however, harder to obtain.
               A final note on the battle system is that battles are lost as soon as the controlling character faints - it is irrelevant if the other two are still standing. This can be a little idiotic (as healer characters can restore health to fainted ones), but forces you to keep an eye on your health bar throughout, especially when the screen grows red.
             This new battle system is incredibly fun and interesting, save for a few points. The fact that the game is lost when you die is one of them, especially if the ally AI is still running around. There is also the 'Auto-Battle' option, which earned instant despise upon its inclusion. The reality is that the 'auto-battle' isn't that useful, as it doesn't always pick the best course of action, and won't change paradigms for you. It will also limit itself to using only a few moves, making it worthless if playing a synergist or saboteur, and will never use Libra, so you may find yourself reusing moves that aren't effective against a new target. There are times later in the game where the use of 'auto-battle' is useful, especially when you gain the 'first strike' ability from equipment, as it allows a quick selection of decent moves.
               The biggest disadvantage in battles is the lack of control you have over your character. Whilst you select actions and targets, you cannot control character movement, which will often result in the game leaving your character standing in the middle of an enemies attack range, with no chance to avoid it.

         Out of battle, most of the game is spent traversing rather poorly designed and very linear levels. The game has effectively streamlined the experience of the previous entries into 'keep running forward', and there are very few areas that offer or reward exploration. The areas opened up to you later into the game that offer exploration are a wonderful change, but a firm reminder that the previous areas were very straight paths. This is not helped by the fact levels seem to drag on for a bit too long, especially at the mid point.
        As you progress through these levels, you have the option to access shops via save points (FFXIII does not have an autosave function, so saving the game is very important). These shops aren't particularly useful for a long stretch of the game until more advanced stores open, and even then it'll be a long time before you buy much, as the game requires you to sell items to gain money (or find it in chests), so long periods (especially post-game) will be spent grinding for items to sell.
          The shops main purpose is for a quick way to get items to upgrade your equipment. Upgrading is a long and arduous process, and I highly recommend using a guide in order to find the most efficient ways of upgrading items, as it'll otherwise cost a lot of money and time to get the equipment needed.
          Equipment is one of the main ways in which you'll enhance your characters (other than levelling them up through battles), and all equipment has more than one effect to it - a stand-alone effect, and one that only becomes apparent when used in combination with other items. This offers plenty of equipment combinations and encourages experimentation.
         Later in the game you will also find side quests. There are 64 of these to be completed, and provide some of the most challenging fights of the game. The lack of variety in these is somewhat disheartening, but the challenges are some of the most intense moments in the game.
           There is also a little minigame where you can hunt for treasure whilst riding the chocobos - giant yellow birds that befriend your party after a specific side quest is completed.

           The game does have, unusually for a Final Fantasy game, a good deal for you to do after the final boss has been defeated, as this will unlock the last tier of levels for your characters, and give you the means to take down the larger, more intimidating enemies. This will also make the second half of the sidequests available to you.
           The post game material is incredible challenging, and requires the use of all job classes, and focused paradigms, as well as demanding high level equipment. In order to complete all the achievements and trophies for the game, you'll have to put almost as much time into the game as you spent on the main story.

          To summarise, Final Fantasy XIII isn't as bad a game as people make it out to be. It's just incredibly linear, and it takes a while to get into the game, especially as it'll take a couple of hours simple to access the paradigm system, and a lot more to get full control over the game. It makes a lot of mistakes during it's course, but it is still a fun and enjoyable experience that constantly challenges you and demands more thought - both for the mechanics and the story - than most modern games, and even most Final Fantasy games. The lack of variety is an issue, but one that can be overlooked, as can all the problems present (after all, how many shooters get hand waved for releasing the same linear game with no story year after year?).
          I would recommend Final Fantasy XIII to anyone, even with it's flaws, but with a warning that it will take time to understand what is happening and how to play.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

...what's that? Update my blog? I HAVE A BLOG?



         I... have no reason for the month and a half of nothing. None. Zip. Nada. Other phrase that means none.

         Well, I have a reason for the first two weeks of January. My Laptop screen decided to explode. Well, shatter. But explode sounds more dramatic, so we'll stick with that - makes my life sound like it's filled with tense drama and excitement rather than long periods of me sitting on my butt all day.
            But, other than that, no reason what so ever.

           Well then, let's talk, you and I. Actually, let me monologue, as this is a blog post and no-one ever comments (and if they did comment, I have no idea if there's a reply button or if you just have to keep checking back to see if you got a response), so you'll have to listen to my voice for the next ten minutes or so.
              Well, read my words. And it'll be more akin to five minutes for you, and half an hour of typing for me.

            I will start by saying I seem to be in a much better mood than what I was when I updated my DeviantArt journal half an hour ago. That just made me sound somewhat depressed.
              Ok, let's start with the big thing that happened - the new year came along. Whoop de doo, the Earth managed another solar rotation. Huzzah. Oh, and we had Christmas to, which is much more fun as I get to give people things and see if I actually know anything about my friends and family, and I get stuff in return. Everyone wins at Christmas! (unless you don;t celebrate Christmas due to culture, religion or personal preference, in which case you win anyway!).
              I did think about making new years resolutions, but decided against it, as they very rarely stick. I prefer to set goals, anyway, and I didn't see a point this year (except right now, where I just remembered how painfully thin I am, and vowed to gain weight. But that's more a 'life resolution' than a new Years one).
              This post is very scattershot. Which is how my mind seems to be operating at the moment. I guess I might be tired, but I'm used to being up later than this  (this being 00:03) and being fine. Odd.

             Anyway, let us move onto things that I do plan to do within the coming year, especially the coming months.

              First, I plan to get back to uploading regular content onto this blog, whether it be media related, a general sort of update post thing, or art orientated stuff. Perhaps there may be days of 'Here's a bunch of cool things I found online', where I just assault you with youtube videos or webcomics.
               Second, I have an animated short in the works, that I aim to be done with by the end of March. This may kill me (it is a 4 minute long film), but it will prove I can still animate and finish things. Or I have learnt to finish things. One of the two.
              Thirdly, I will resurrect my plans for Touch and Go and finally do something with it. I had gotten the first few weeks of that mostly finished, so I just need to get on with that. I hope to have that running decently by midyear.
               Fourth, I will be uploading a series of short stories that were intended to be published, but probably won't be now, whether that be from rejection or failure to submit in time. You can debate the quality with yourselves when I release them. Or share them! That'd be nice.
                Fifth, I plan to have a webseries up and running by mid year. It will be about books and film, with the intention of being funny and informative. Because the Internet needs more shows of people being idiots on camera.
              Finally, there may be a series of videos featuring me and my friends as we subject ourselves to terrible movies for the sake of masochism and entertainment. We shot the first episode (well, two out of three of us did), and we're currently wondering if we will upload it or not.

              Oh, and not blog related but on a tangential note, I plan to finish my book this year, now that there are literally no distractions aside from my own laziness. I will be updating on my word count and progress here.

           And I think that's about it for the moment - there you have my plans and ideas for the coming half year, and some random musings to go with it.
           In the mean time, I hope you keep coming back, and you enjoy the content I provide. Leave a comment if you want to say hi or want to say something, and remember to come back often.

          Also, here's a series of links to other places where you can find me.


Until next time, have fun!


Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning

          Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning (2012, Big Huge Games/ 38 Studios) is a game of middling feelings and attitudes. Created by a team of some of the best minds in fantasy fiction - Ken Rolston (the designer of Morrowind), R. A Salvatore (writer of a great many expanded universe books for Dungeons and Dragons and Star Wars), Todd McFarlane (creator of Spawn and one of the founders of Image Comics) and Grant Kirkhope (composer of Banjo Kazooie and the N64 Goldeneye game) - Amalur was to be the first in a series of RPGs that would include an MMORPG.
           This never happened, as a result of mis-managed finances, poor advertising and poor timing. Amalur only managed to make back a third of its budget, leading to the closure of Big Huge Games and 38 Studios.
          But what of the actual final product?

          Amalur is not an easy game to explain plot wise, as its attempt to rearrange fantasy tropes in order to create something interesting and original have led to the creation of a large amount of terms that are hard to remember and harder to spell, and even harder to distinguish.
          I'll try my best to summarise. One of the many factions of elves known as the Tuatha have gone insane and decided they want to kill every one and rule under their god Tirnoch. Whilst this isn't much of a problem for some of the Elves, who are reborn after being killed, it is a problem for the mortal races, such as the two (indistinguishable) human races, the gnomes (who you can't play as) and two other types of elves that are for some reason not immortal (no, it is never explained).
          The player character, whoever or whatever you want to be, is already dead as the game starts, followed quickly by your resurrection. With no clue as to what is going on, you work your way through the tutorial level, pick a class (from either Warrior, Ranger or Mage), and get told that your special and the only one that can stop the invading evil elves. You also soon discover you can rewrite Fate, but only so long as it means killing people.
           From there, your quest is to find out who you were before you died, and to defeat the evil that lurks to the East in the mountainous area that is not quite Mordor, but only because it's covered in crystal instead of lava. You are aided on this quest by a 'fateweaver' (who actually just sees the future) and an elf lady in the skimpiest costume imaginable. It's basically underwear with a couple of belts attached.
           From here, the actual gameplay starts. It's your typical RPG fare - you run around and kill things, get experience and level up, taking on quests and exploring excessively large areas as you go. You have the option here to equip two weapons, and switch between them at will (with the square and triangle buttons being assigned to one weapon each), and you can dodge with the circle button. You run and interact with X. Spells and abilities are accessible by holding down the R1 shoulder button, and then activated by pressing the face buttons. You can also sneak by pressing the R2 button, block with L1 and activate a shortcut menu for items with L2.
           And that's it for depth of combat. There are a couple of unlockable combos that simply require either blocking, dodging or pausing between combos, but there's not really much variety in combat itself. This quickly becomes a problem, as the entire game is nothing but combat, and the only break in monotone is when you change class (which happens rarely as it costs a ton of gold to do so), or unlock a new ability - something which only really apples to the mage.
          As it stands, the combat starts becoming tedious very quickly as a result of this lack of depth, and most encounters just boiled down to using one or two skills, and hitting people whilst waiting for the cooldown, with no variety in tactics. This is made worse for players using a ranger, as there is a limited amount of arrows in your sheath (total is about ten), which you have to wait for them to respawn after you use them, so it becomes incredibly vital you do not miss your target.
          But you almost always will miss your target, as there is no lock-on ability or aiming mode. This has always been a problem with 3D action and RPG games, but has numerous solutions, such as having a character automatically aim at the enemy when attacking. Amalur has chosen simply to let the player roughly guide where you're attacking, with little help when shooting arrows. As a result, a great many attacks will go wildly off mark, which is frustration when it occurs in the middle of a combo, or when the battle is too hectic to do anything but run wildly at the enemy.
       The gameplay isn't aided by the levelling system. Each level you get will grant you a skill point and 3 ability points. Skill points are there to improve your ability in crafting, unlocking or persuading people, and are mostly there to provide access to extra items or dialogue. The abilities, on the other hand, are useful for the simple act of survival, with all three classes being treated to some choice abilities. However, this is slightly broken in its execution, as it allows for the creation of cross-class characters that seem to break the balance provide by the class system. This is not helped by the fact a lot of skills are not particularly useful (Trap laying is a great example, as it almost never comes into play and never does much more than offer a few seconds of time to flee), and it's not too hard to get to the higher level skills. By the time you're half way through the game, you'll probably have learnt the best skills in you starting class, and will have started on a second skill tree - my mage character ended up having a large number of warrior abilities, and I finished the game running around with a giant hammer instead of a staff, and clad in armour instead of cloaks. Whilst cross classes are supposedly intended, it got to the point where I was no longer in any danger of falling below half health whilst playing on the hardest difficulty.
            As far as the difficulty is concerned, there is no discernible difference between normal and Hard modes, except a few bosses have very cheap moves that can kill you almost instantly. The most difficult the game gets is when it spawns elementally attuned sprites that pass their immunities to other sprites (including other elemental sprites) as well as giving them new attacks - and this is only difficult because the attacks never relent enough to let you react. The hardest enemy to beat are trolls, which are immune to everything, and take several minutes of bland dodging and attacking to take down. This becomes an insult when they through two at you at the same time, making for the most boring fights possible.
           The exploration of the game is much the same as the combat.The areas you run across are vast, but almost empty. There a re several caves and ruins scattered around, but these almost always have a quest associated with them, and are pointless to explore (or occasionally impossible to explore) before the quests are activated. The only things of interest are Lorestones, which tell you snippets of tales and history, but these are rarely hidden or worth the effort of finding them, especially when some tell you details you already know. As for hidden treasures or loot, there's plenty - but almost all of it is worthless, either for being weaker than your current equipped items, or for a different class. There are unique and powerful items to find, but these tend to be armour sets that are quickly invalidated before you complete the set.
            On a much more positive note, the game is incredible pretty to look at. Everything is wonderfully stylised, and the environments are bright and colourful. Except when they're oppressive, where they are dark and gloomy. The areas are usually pleasant to traverse, and the characters and enemies look amazing.
            However, the game stumbles here to - a lot of the environments are repeated, and subsections of areas often feel far too similar to others, and the themes of these areas are pretty bland - you have your fields, your forest, your desert, more fields, marshes and a crystal canyon. That last one is the only truly imaginative location, and is the most beautiful location in the game - its a shame that it is the most unwelcome area in the game.
            As for the characters, they have a tendency to become very 'samey', and there have been occasions where I've bumped into NPCs that look identical to my character. This is less true if you choose to be an elf, as they seem to be oddly lacking in a fantasy environment. The facial animation is also very limited, with the character remaining very still from above the lips, making every dialogue sequence feel very wooden, despite the good voice acting.
                  The enemies also suffer from a lack of variety throughout the game - the sprites you fight in the opening areas look identical to the ones at the end of the game - and that's assuming their textures load or, in a few cases, they even bother appearing at all.
            Where the game really shines is in the writing. Whilst a great deal of the lore of Amalur is exceedingly similar to Dungeons and Dragons, it does its best to make variations upon the foundation, and does an admirable job. Whilst there is plenty to fault (the genericness and the fact that the narrative is focus around an evil dragon that is evil because... its a dragon), Salvatore has done a very good job at building a detailed world with mythology and history, and the dialogue and writing is one of the few things that kept me playing through the game.
               (... it's helped that the last D&D styled game I played (Dragon Age) was so stuck in D&D lore and cliche that it became loathsome after a matter of minutes...)
               The music is the other highlight of the game, and Kirkhope's score is majestic and beautiful, and is perfectly tailored to the slightly over-the-top style of the game. Between the two of them, Kirkhope and Salavtore carry much of the weight of the game.

               And thus we come to the real problem with the game, and quite possibly the reason I am so disinterested and negative towards it. Amalur is a big game, no doubt about it. Doing everything in the game takes about 70 hours, not including DLC (which I haven't played). As a result, you can expect the game to have performance issues and glitches - it comes with the territory. What you shouldn't have to deal with are glitches that can stop you from continuing quests, delete items, and prevent you from finishing the game.
               I've had to play through this game twice, because the game allowed me to accidentally sell a quest vital item, which was then destroyed because the trader's inventory was full. I couldn't access the entire last area of the game - after playing it for almost 70 hours.This entire collected thoughts page was supposed to be written several months ago, but the game glitching out prevented me from completing it.
               On my second (much faster) play through, I noticed that several quests didn't activate or stayed active even after I'd completed them, that NPCs would occasionally vanish, the camera (and enemies) would occasionally fall through the floor, I would get temporarily stuck in doors and enemies would not appear in cutscenes designed to show them off. When the game would present a vanity shot of a city (which it does whenever you entire the main city, even if you were already in the city to begin with - and no, you cannot skip these), the city would occasionally not appear for a good 30 seconds, and the textures would take longer to load. The games audio drops in and out during edits in cutscenes, and sometimes is just missing. The cutscenes themselves (providing they actually show their contents) seem to trip over themselves during edits.
               And yet, despite all of this, Amalur is not a bad game. It is not a good game, but it is well above average, and is very much what you'd expect from a first product - raw and unrefined, but filled with potential. I'm sure that the creative team behind the game would be able to create something much better, had they been given the opportunity.
          I do not regret my time playing the game. It was enjoyable to see the amount of effort put into world building, and the amassed lore is stunning to behold. But the game just falters and falls down with the sheer monotony of the main game, the mass amounts of performance issues and the rather dull final presentation.
              In all honesty, I want to recommend people play the game, but I can't do so in good faith unless you get the game for a large discount. There are plenty of good things within it (the fact most of these are superficial bugs me slightly), and if you can experience them without too much cost, then go for it.