Friday, 14 February 2014
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
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 (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.
Sunday, 15 December 2013
My thoughts are based on a 2D screening of the film, as 3D kills my head.
Disney's 'Frozen' (Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee, 2013) centres around the story of two princess's in the kingdom of Arendelle - Elsa and Anna. Elsa was born with the magical ability to summon ice and snow, and uses her gift to conjure snow so she and her sister can play. In an unfortunate accident, Elsa strikes Anna with her magic, almost killing her. Anna is saved thanks to friendly trolls that live in the nearby forest, but Elsa is told she must hide her powers from her sister forever.
Locking herself away in the castle, Elsa shuts herself out from the rest of the world, Anna included. Even after the death of their parents, the two sisters remain apart, until the day Elsa comes of age and is to be crowned queen, where the castle is opened to the outside world once more. Anna (voiced as an adult by Kirsten Bell) bumps into, and immediately falls in love with, Prince Hans (Santino Fontana), and introduces him to Elsa (now voiced by Idina Menzel). Elsa, infuriated by her sister's behaviour, accidentally reveals her magic to the kingdom, who quickly turn on her. Scared for her life, and the safety of her sister, Elsa flees to the mountains, accidentally casting an endless winter over the kingdom. Blaming herself, Anna heads after her sister, enlisting the help of ice merchant Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), determined to convince Elsa to return and dispel the winter.
'Frozen' is beautiful. There is no way to great around that - it is simply gorgeous to look at. Every aspect of the film has been rendered with an amazing level of care and attention, with the animation being incredibly lively and fluid in that lovely Disney style that manges to be cartoonish yet realistic. Of particular note is the snow, which far exceeds any other screen effort, and looks almost real whilst blending with the cartoon style of the characters. The snow reacts to the movement of the characters, and impedes them, enhancing the film's animation and beauty.
Stepping aside from the beauty that is the visuals, Frozen does a decent job of its writing. It is very much aware of the archetypes and stereotypes associated with Disney films (particularly the 'Princess' films) and does its best to circumvent and lampshade these, poking fun at Anna's whirlwind romance with Hans and the 'talking with animals' traits present in early Disney films. The film also keeps up with the precedent set in 90's Disney films of including joking references to modern culture, such as Kristoff fussing over his sleigh as though it were a prized car.
The characters are all well written, with plenty of character and decently defined personalities and traits, and the film once more does its best to subvert tropes in regards to character design and personality. The dialogue between them is well written and full of charm and wit, and the cast do a wonderful job of bringing them to life (aided, of course, by the animation).
This charm and quality even carries over to the 'kid-appeal' character of Olaf (Josh Gad) the walking, talking snowman, who manages to skirt annoyance by being oddly charming in his naivety and innocence, whilst making a lot of comments that make him seem a lot more observant than he appears.
As with a great many of Disney's films, 'Frozen' is a musical, and a good one at that. The songs are all charming and well written, and are responsible for a lot of the early moments of character development and plot delivery. Whilst the film is oddly front-ended with songs (save for a reprise and the odd song in the second and third acts), these songs flow well into one another and they work well as a solid foundation. In particular, the song 'Let It Go' is a beautiful piece that perfectly encapsulates the character of Elsa and the problems (and solution) of excessive pressure placed upon people. It's one youtube, so go give it a look.
The only particular faults I could pick for the film are that the film doesn't explain much, such as Elsa's powers or how trolls are capable of healing people. The film is also, as mentioned, very heavy on the songs at the beginning of the film and sparing for the remainder, and that does lead to some minor issues in regards to pacing. These are problems that are prevalent in a lot of Disney films, and its somewhat odd that they never seem to get addressed (aside from 'Wreck-It-Ralph' and 'Tangled', which both managed to circumvent these issues).
As a side note, there was a short Mickey Mouse cartoon entitled 'Get A Horse' before the film. A return to classic slapstick comedy, the short starts as a traditional black and white short, reminiscent of the early classics, and enforces this by using old sound clips as dialogue and audio (including Walt Disney himself as Mickey!). The short quickly moves into an affectionate homage to these shorts and their medium, whilst playing around with 3D and modern technology, resulting in a short that could sit perfectly with the Looney Tunes short 'Duck Amuck' as a playful use of the art of animation.
In conclusion, 'Frozen' is a brilliant film that is brilliantly reminiscent of older Disney, whilst also deliberately making great steps away from the previous formula. It is glorious, and almost without fault, filled with beautiful scenes and music, and a wonderful script. 'Frozen' is a film that should be seen.
Friday, 13 December 2013
The word to describe those that retreat from society and confine themselves to their home or rooms, rarely venturing out except to quickly purchase the occasional item - usually items that can't be delivered.
An Acronym meaning ' Not in Education, Employment or Training'.
These two words go hand in hand - so much so that the term SNEP (Solitary Not Employed Person) has been created to combine the meanings, and it is common for a Hikikomori to be a NEET (the opposite is not always true).
It is somewhat depressing to note that situations where these terms apply are growing less and less rare over the years, to the point that it has become quite the problem in Japan, with an estimated 2.8% of the population now being classified as Hikikomori.
In 2002, a book was written with a Hikikomori as the main character - Welcome to The NHK (NHK ni yokoso) by Tatsuhiko Takimoto, who described himself in the afterword of the first edition as being 'a recovering Hikikomori', and in the 2005 re-printing as being 'reduced to a NEET... living as a parasite off of the royalties of the book', and describes himself as being unable to write and incapacitated. There is a seven year gap between the publication of his works ('Chojin Keikaku' was released in 2003, followed by 'Boku No Air' in 2010), and his serial novels were delayed extensively. (He got better at some point.)
The Novel of NHK (which I haven't read, as it was never released in the UK, and I can't afford to import the book from America) was adapted into a manga, also written by Takimoto. In 2006, an Anime adaptation was released, and that is what I am looking at today.
I've mentioned NHK before on this blog, but this is a more thorough look at the series, based on the DVD collection released by MVM in 2012.
The NHK (Nippon Hoso Kyokai/ Japanese Broadcasting Corporation).
If you asked Tatsuhiro Sato (voiced by Yutaka Koizumi/ Chris Patton), all of these terms are related. A Hikikomori of three years, Sato lives off of a generous allowance, provided to him by parents that are under the assumption that his life is going smoothly. His room is a cluttered mess, filled with junk and garbage. He sleeps for 16 hours a day, and eats the most basic of food, spending his days smoking and drinking beer, tormented by the constant noise of the theme from the anime Puru Puru Pururin, blasted by his neighbour every hour of the day.
The effects of isolation have begun to come into play. Sato's mind wanders aimlessly, from topic to topic, littered with crazed ravings and memories of better times. His grasp on sanity is weak, and his only contact with the outside world is through the television he watches, primarily through the NHK.
Conspiracy - a memory of that word, as spoken by Sato's enpai Hitomi Kashiwa (Sanae Kobayashi/ Luci Christian). The world is full of Conspiracies - could Sato be involved in one? One set up by the NHK, designed to transform the youth into mindless Otaku, driving them into hiding and isolation?
The NHK - the Nippon Hikikomori Kyokai, the Japanese Hikikomori Corporation - are they the ones that have trapped Sato in a conspiracy, forcing him to become a worthless Hikikomori?
The bitter reality is that there is no conspiracy. It is simply a coping device created by an individual that has spent too long away from the real world, and is slowly losing his grasp on reality. Unable to accept the fact that he simply was capable of withstanding the pressure place upon him, Sato creates an elaborate web of lies and conspiracy theories to place the blame on an intangible object, allowing him to pretend the world is set against him, determined to crush his spirit.
Conspiracy - two missionaries - a middle aged woman and a teenage girl - knock on Sato's apartment door, wishing to inform him about the Hikikomori epidemic, and offer help through the worship of God.
Paranoia seeps in, and Sato panics. He lies, and hides in his room until they leave, simply reinforcing suspicions that he is a Hikikomori, and not a particularly mentally sound one. He sees the missionary girl linger, and wonders what she thinks of him.
Wishing to dispel these suspicions, and break himself out of his Hikikomori life style, Sato checks local job listings, and finds a part time position at a small manga cafe not far from his home. Sato braves the walk to the shop, and enters to apply, but finds the missionary girl sitting at the counter.
He panics and runs, dropping his CV in the store. Returning home, he falls further into his melancholy and despair, and contemplates suicide. After all, he's simply a worthless Hikikomori - who'd miss him?
A rattling at the door - Sato's CV is returned, a note scribbled on the back, telling him to go to the nearby park that evening, where he finds the missionary girl who introduces herself as Misaki Nakahara (Yui Makino/ Stephanie Wittels), and says she wants just one - to cure Sato of his Hikikomori ways.
Not long after this, Sato seems to find himself being haunted by shadows of his past. The noisy neighbour turns out to be Kaoru Yamazaki (Daisuke Sakaguchi/ Greg Ayres), a friend of Sato's from high school. Yamazaki is an Otaku, whose room is filled with statues of his favourite anime girls and x-rated hentai manga. Loud and irritable, Yamazaki suffers from delusions of grandur that he is the only one that understands videogames and anime. He introduces Sato to the extremes of Otaku, and his presence is as much harmful as it is beneficial.
And then there is Hitomi, now a public servant that finds herself ignored by her job and neglected by her boyfriend. She's turned to medication in order to keep her mood balanced, and has a variety of doctors to provide her with a range of drugs. She spends her free time on the Internet, lying about her life for sympathy and pretending to be the victim of physical and psychological abuse.
The world of 'NHK' is not a cheerful one - quite the opposite. Whilst the show is not constantly depressing and has a lot of humorous moments to it, it constantly reminds you of the reality of the situations and the effects of everything that happens. It does get very depressing and upsetting, but it never feels as if there's no hope left.
The series excels in it's emotional core, which is possible the strongest I've seen in a series. These characters feel like real people, albeit somewhat exaggerated for effect, and each is presented as a flawed human that struggle with their own personal issues and the world the live in. It's very easy to get attached to these characters, and identify with them, keeping you invested and interested until the series conclusion.
Then there is the way the show deals with its many social issues. A great deal of social and psychological issues are raised, but the show rarely uses these for cheap sympathy or judges these people for what they do, nor does it glorify these people and their issues. Everything is treated with respect and dignity, even if it arguably does not deserve it.
The series has almost no problems or areas to critique, with the exception of the animation itself. As with a lot of anime, the animation is very limited, and often comprises of either 'talking heads' or still shots. Scenes where there is a great deal of animation have a tendency to drop in the quality of the drawing, especially in short scenes. Conversely, there are some incredibly well animated sequences, and some excessively detailed shots, leaving the animation to be an incredibly mixed bag. There are some other minor quality issues in the audio quality, where the voice actors (particularly Yamazaki's) seem to yell loud enough that they distort or otherwise disrupt the audio quality.
At its core, the series is a superbly written drama/ romance, with little to pick fault with. It may be one of the best animes ever made, and I highly recommend everyone watch it.
As for the presentation and contents of the DVD's... it's okay. The case (which is a chunky, VHS style box to encase the four disks) is solid, and the cover is attractive and encapsulates a lot of character elements. The blurb - which provides definitions of Hikikomori and NEET - gives a great description of the series (better than mine - shorter too), as well as a couple of lines from a highly positive review.
The discs, on the other hand, are bland. They are all identical save for a disc number, and consist of two tones (black and orange) and a small CGI rendering of one of the NHK mascots seen throughout the series. The rendering is ugly, crude, and has none of the charm of the drawn image.
The DVDs themselves mostly just consist of the episodes, with the only other option being the language options, which allow you to turn the language from Japanese to English, or turn the subtitles on. The only Subtitle option is English. The final disc has one bonus feature on it - creditless opening and closing sequences. The ugly CGI renders are also present on the bonus menus, and the title menu is the box cover with slight animation.
The DVDs are very lacklustre. A series such as NHK allows so many possibilities for interesting bonus features, such as a look into Hikikomori culture, a look into the many issues brought into the anime, the reasons for Hikikomori behaviour and its effect on culture or a biography of the author and his own experiences. There aren't even any trailers for the series, either for NHK or any other series. The lack of language options, particularly for subtitles, is also slightly disappointing, especially for those that aren't particularly fluent in spoken English.
The slight plus is that the DVDs are only £20 for the complete series, which is pretty damn good for 10 hours of anime.
In conclusion, I fully recommend this series, even if you don't watch anime regularly.
Tuesday, 26 November 2013
Not long after I started my Foundation year at University, a game called 'Batman: Arkham Asylum' was released. Having been a gamer for well over a decade by that point, I was cautious of the title, as licensed games aren't particularly well known for their quality, especially not Superhero games. License
Not long after its release, I got a phone call from my brother, telling me of the games amazing reviews, and how awesome it looked. Curious, I headed over to the university Library to look it up on the Internet. I brought it the next time I was home.
Arkham Asylum was something really quite ground breaking. A third person brawler game at heart, it gave the player the ability to wander around the titular Madhouse during an outbreak of the inmates, allowing you to wander into the paths of a great many of Batman's rouge gallery. But the thing that sold the game was the ability to experience being Batman - you could glide, hid in the shadows, throw batarangs and perch upon gargoyles, preying on the unsuspecting inmates. This was all helped by tight controls, a simple yet sophisticated and deep combat system, and the inclusion of detective mode, that allowed you to see enemies through walls, showing their weapons and state of being, as well as allowing you to find clues and items of interest scattered around the grounds of Arkham. This was all topped off by the inclusion Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamil, the voice actors for Batman and The Joker from the 90's animated series, and writing by Paul Dini, also of animated series fame.
Two years later, and I've been eagerly following news of the sequel "Arkham City", but never enough that I would know exactly what was in it. I kept myself at arms distance, and let excitement build up. I brought the game a few days after my birthday, willingly paying the extra for the collector's edition for the artbook, soundtrack and Batman statue that came with it.
Everything Asylum had done well had been perfected, every flaw completely removed. Arkham City was almost the perfect game. It counts as one of the few games that genuinely upset me upon completion. It is a masterpiece of gaming, and ranks higher in my books than a vast majority of the games released for the past generation of gaming.
This year. Arkham Origins was announced, out of the blue. It featured an expanded version of the Gotham city map from City, revamped to show the difference in years. It promised a new take on the origins of Batman's relationships with his foes. With a great deal of the principle voice actors from Asylum and City had left, it offered a new cast of equally talented performers.
My parents and brother brought me the game for my birthday - again, the collector's edition. It arrived some four days later than it should have, and I didn't get the chance to play the game until Halloween.
I was sceptical. Origins had been met with divided critical opinion, and no one quite knew what to make of it. Reports of glitches and bugs arose within a matter of hours of release, and spoilers and rumours flooded the Internet almost as quickly.
I finished the game almost two weeks ago from the day this is posted. I've actually completed a whole new game in time distance between the two. And, in that time, I formulated my thoughts.
Arkham Origins is a great game. I find it hard to believe anyone can consider it to be anything else but great. True, it reuses assets from the previous game. Yes, it's made by a different studio. Yes, there are glitches, and the difficulty spikes and dulls almost at random. The voices are different, as are the designs. It has an unneeded mulitplayer element (which I haven't yet played).
But that doesn't stop it from being much better than a great many games that have been received greater praise. All sequels use assets of the prior game - they all use the same engine, and usually reuse a great deal of the previous games graphics and sound design. City contained a great deal of reused elements from Asylum, but most people ignored this due to it containing a lot of content that was new.
Origins weakness is not that it reuses part of City's map. Very few character models are the same as the prior games, and what it does bring from City is heavily modified. The complaints that you are revisiting a part of Gotham city previously explored are unfounded, as it is part of an established city. It would be the same as complaining that you explore New York in every Spiderman game - that is where that character lives, it's not going to change.
There are aspects of reuse that can be criticised - Batman's gadgets are all remarkably similar to those in City. But this is a prequel, so it's to be expected. True, there could have been more imagination utilised, but there are variants and new gadgets that weren't present in either two of the proceeding games.
The combat has had some embellishment from City, but retains the basic functions. The buttons all do the same thing as previous games (square to punch, Triangle to counter, Circle to stun, X to dodge), and the shortcuts from weapons are all the same two. What is different are the moves themselves, which are certainly more violent and rough than the previous games, showing the unrefined and incredibly anger creature the untrained Batman is. This does make some actions and moves somewhat slower than previous games - the counter requires faster input to give time to block, and the final hit of a combo tends to be slower than the prior punches, and cannot be stopped without removing your current combo streak, making it a more tactical choice to move from enemy to enemy than to focus on a single individual.
There are some slight variations in enemies too. As well as there being the usual selection (basic, shooters, knife wielders, riot shields, stun batons, armoured and 'big'), there are occasions where you fight 'really big' enemies, that tend to be quite the pain to defeat, especially as they tend to draw quite a variety of specialised enemies with them, and require stunning three times before you can get a decent combo on them. The larger amounts of enemies also makes combat a lot more hectic, and raises the difficulty of a lot of encounters, especially when combinations of armoured with weapons appear.
Travelling is the same as City, and all the better for it. The glide and dive function perfectly, and the boost you get from grappling to areas allows for the easy covering of great distances. Fast travel has also been introduced, which is especially useful when trying to hunt down the last few collectibles in different areas.
Fast travel, however, is locked from the game until you complete parts of a sidequest, as the Riddler (here known as Enigma) has hijacked the radio towers scattered throughout Gotham, and is using them to scramble Batman's jet's Guidance system. A good deal of these can be completed quite early on, but you soon find that one or two require certain gadgets, making them inaccessible until later in the story - same story for the collectibles scattered around.
On the subject of collectibles, there are two side quests that prove quite the pain. Enigma, like in the previous games, has scattered items around the city, whose location you can find thanks to unwilling informants. However, there are two quests that require the scanning of hidden symbols scattered throughout the city, and these proved to be quite annoying, as there is no way to find their location except by accident or very intricate searching. This can, as you would expect, take a very long time to do, especially with the large amount of gangs and thugs wandering the streets (later in the story snipers start appearing on the rooftops, who can easily kill you unless you deal with them quickly and quietly, making exploration annoying).
As if finding the couple of hundred hidden items around Gotham wasn't enough, there are now also a series of challenges spread over four categories - Combat, Stealth, Travel and Detective work. These add an extra bit of motivation for doing well by adding enhanced gadgets to your arsenal upon completing certain milestones, as well as unlockable artwork and character trophies. For the most part, these aren't too hard, with one exception - The stealth challenges. In theory, these are relatively easy, as they simply require creative thinking. But the difficulty comes in that there are very few areas that actually count as Stealth areas - maybe about 20 specific rooms. With 15 challenges to complete, it is imperative you do these early, or you'll have to wait until you start the New Game + mode after completing the game.
As for the story, the game does a wonderful job of rolling time back and adapting source material in order to create an interesting narrative that provides a decent grounding for character motivations and relationships. Although there is one scene that directly contradicts events from the previous games (a meeting of a particular criminal couple), and a few hints that Batman's training is quite different from what is usually accepted, The story manages to make canonical sense for the Arkham universe, and allows for a good narrative.
This is bolstered by some well thought out character designs that make them look considerably younger, and by the voice talent that accompanies the characters. Whilst there are certainly trace elements of the previous cast (this is, of course, a prequel), the new cast does a great job of adding personality to their characters. Mention should be given to Troy Baker, the man who had the job of filling the large shoes of Mark Hamil, and gives a brilliant performance as the Clown Prince of Crime.
As for glitches, I only stumbled across a few, and none that had an real impact on the game. I had a few framerate drops whilst the game was saving (not helped by the fact my Playstation had been on for some four hours by that point, or the lack of space left on its hardrive), and a few button inputs didn't register correctly. Textures occasionally took their time to load (but that's nothing unusual these days), and there was the occasional hitbox error. The most noticeable glitch I found was simply hanging onto an invisible ledge.
The only flaws come from some slightly disappointing side quest ends, which ultimately add nothing to the experience. This is noticeable in that the collection of all Enigma items reveals nothing but a room hinting at his suspicion Batman is Harvey Dent and a reference to Asylum. Riddler himself never appears in the game (though he does have a character model), making for a somewhat anticlimactic ending to the games longest sidequest.
In conclusion, Arkham Origins is a great game. If it weren't for it's few issues, it would be almost on par with City. As it stands, it rests between City and Asylum in terms of quality. I would highly recommend it, especially to Batman fans.