Sunday, June 29, 2014

Fire Emblem Awakening: First impressions.

Fire Emblem Awakening is a strategy RPG that came out last year for the Nintendo 3DS, and it's one of the few games I've bought for full price around the time it came out. So far it has not been a disappointment. The story revolves around an amnesiac being found by the prince, his bodyguard, and his sister while on patrol, and them proceeding to fight undead soldiers across the country, in addition to defending villages from the undead as well as foreign raiders. I've been playing on Hard, with Classic turned on. I set out with the condition that I had to finish the game without losing a single character in battle, and aside from one, I've made good on that.
During avatar creation I didn't change a whole lot aside from the hair, which I made sorta darkish brown. That was partially due to the large and small models looking a little too unnatural. Then there's the voices. I picked the middle one because it sounded the most natural, and least forced. In case you were wondering, I created a male avatar named "GalanDun" because every avatar I create is named GalanDun and I like to think that his last name is "Hammermor" just to make my player-insertion complete...
I wound up turning off voices anyways, because in the regular (non anime) cut-scenes, the input of random reactions, sounds and words tended to distract me from the impact and wording of the dialogue. One example was when the characters were talking solemnly after a battle, and the random interjections was distracting me so much I proceeded to shut off the in-game voices (But not the FMV voices) entirely. In a game like this, they should have taken a little longer and at least recorded the voice actors narrating the lines, rather than just having a small pool of random words and sounds. Even a few more, less intrusive phrases and sounds would have sufficed. Unfortunately, that also turns off the pre-kill and post-kill taunts, which I liked. Personally I thing it's a small price to pay for the dialogue not being interrupted by random words and grunts. 
I like how FEA has an option to see your opponents attack ranges, it's just a shame that they don't let you keep it on between battles. 
This being my first Fire Emblem game, I have nothing to compare it to outside of Growlanser and Final Fantasy Tactics. I'm not sure I like the weapon degradation system, but it does add a certain level of extra interesting tactics to it all, and personally I like tactical anything. Keeps you on your toes, know what I mean?
Something else to mention is the combat, and how during combat it lets you switch between a dynamic camera, a first person view, and a side-view. Personally I really like the dynamic camera. The game also lets you slow down, pause, and speed up the action. I like to combine fast-motion with slow-motion during combat myself. It's interesting the play with and it helps liven up the combat if you ever get bored of it.
Now, the music is something I've left for last here. I like the music. I really like it. It's some good stuff to listen to, but the thing is there's not a whole lot of it. It gets real repetitive real fast. Something I noticed was that it sounds a lot like the music from Zelda. I like the music from Zelda, but since there's so little variety I just popped in The Lord of the Rings soundtrack and cranked down the volume. This is where I'm going to criticize something about the 3DS. I know that the 3DS lets you play music from the music player, but not letting you play custom music in-game means I need to crank up the volume, pause my MP3 player, and remove my headset in quick succession when the anime cut-scenes start. That's a small complaint, but if they'd had more, better music, possibly akin to that of The World Ends With You or one of the Sonic The Hedgehog games I wouldn't have a problem with it.
You can pair units up in battle for many benefits. The more two units are paired up in battle the better they work together, and the better their relationship gets. You can use this to ship your preferred couples together, and I was immediately smitten with Lissa, the younger sister of Chrom. By "Me" I mean my in-game avatar, but she is sort of what I would call "My type." Kind of goofy, and she seems like a person I'd actually like to spend time with. So I improved GalanDun's relationship with her until he proposed.
It's funny that people were raging about the lack of homosexual relationships in Tomodachi Life when there's more than enough homo-eroticism in this game to cover that and more. Seriously. Not kidding. At all.
You can press X to see the maximum range of all your enemies attacks, and I find that heavily invaluable. Unfortunately, you still have to select each enemy to see their individual range. That's kind of petty of me though.
After a while I'd managed to get two of my characters up to maximum level and I upgraded them to the next class. Personally, I'd say you should wait until they hit level 20 (The max) and upgrade them right then, because otherwise you'd miss out on a lot of XP. Since gold is in high abundance if you spend it right, you should be able to upgrade most of your max-leveled characters quickly.
Now, I have something to talk about with the pairing system. You can always pair up any two units to improve their relationship and to increase your ability to cut down more enemies. Although some of them can't have their relationship improved, and it seems fairly arbitrary. I was pairing Chrom up with a high-level Pegasus knight to try and improve his relationship with her until they got married, and I found out I was wasting my time a few hours later, mainly because they work so well together in battle. That just sucks, and there's no real reason why a lot of them can't be paired. I mean, Chrom and his sister is creepy but what's wrong with pairing him with the merchant girl that certainly seems his type? Or the overly serious veteran of the Pegasus Knights who's even more his type? Anyways, I decided to marry her to Stahl since he seems like a nice enough guy.
I haven't played any of the DLC yet since I haven't bought any so far.
So. onto the story. Spoilers inbound, be prepared to skip this review if you haven't finished the game yet, you know the drill.

So anyways, it's started out kinda strange. The intro seems to have absolutely no connection to the game as a whole outside featuring GalanDun and Chrom, the other main character. I have a feeling that the events of that opening are going to have some kind of relevance later on, but who knows? I don't have much in the way of plot criticisms other than one I will get to in a moment. When Marth shows up for the first time it's to defend Chrom and the party from a random zombie that was ambushing them, but his presence wasn't exactly necessary considering that I'd just wiped the field of an entire squad of those things a few minutes prior. I've been going out of my way to recruit every character I can, and while Donny is apparently supposed to be one of the most powerful characters in the game, he's hard to level up without leaving him open to death, and during his paralogue to recruit him I lost Sully. Not exactly an uneven trade-off, but I was hoping to pair her up with the French bowman who was so smitten with her. At that point in time though, I was almost done and I had two different horseback units that were better than her, so I just went on with the game because I was tired and I didn't want to have to replay the mission ten more times just to save one worthless character that was honestly a liability in combat. In one mission, where you have to defend the Exalt, there's a somewhat unreasonable number of enemy forces you have to defeat, and that chapter alone took me about ten tries to get right. It was an XP goldmine though, so I'm not really complaining, more like giving a synopsis. After a while my brain clicked with the specific system Fire Emblem Awakening has, which is a lot more advanced then the one from Growlanser 2. The plot so far is interesting, but there are a couple of things I need to bring up. Right before that mission where you defend the exalt, you run into Marth again. His mask gets cut off, and it's revealed that he's a girl. The strange thing is that her voice actress seems to have used a deeper voice for the female Marth than she did for when she was disguised. That just strikes me as kind of odd. Later on in the game, after Chrom's older sister was kidnapped by an enemy army, we've rounded up our allies and a large party of badass hard-hitting killers from both sides of the border. Mercenaries that switched sides, random people who we picked up from around the country who can destroy things, etc, etc. So we go on and destroy the enemy army and recruit two more people into our elite team of special-forces shepherds. AND THEN!
After stopping the mad king, who kidnapped the exalt in the first place from, in order of occurrence, assassinating and executing her, his pet necromancer raises about five over-powered zombie archers from the field and took out three of my allied Pegasus Knights in a total of three hits. Okay, that's reaching, but not too hard to believe since archers do get advantage over flying units. But then there was that one little thing. The thing that made me close the 3DS, sit back in my chair, and say aloud "Nintendo, you bastards."
You see, the game give you two options. Hand the Mad King a priceless artifact of untold power, or let the one person keeping the country from falling into chaos die. And at this point I had three thoughts. One is that he's probably going to kill her anyways, since he is "The Mad King." 
Two, is that THEY. ARE. ARCHERS!
Even if their luck is cranked up to maximum, they still can't hit if you're in a square adjacent to them. At this point in time all of the characters I'd be hitting them with could wipe them out in a single hit. I have enough units to take all of them out, and I could easily gank the mad king and his scantily-clad necromancer girlfriend without breaking a sweat immediately after rescuing the exalt.
Third thought: WHERE THE HELL IS MARTH!?
I'm serious, she's been here to keep the characters from being killed three or four separate times in the past, so either she's gonna step in and save the day no matter what, or she's gonna wind up showing up late for one of them.
So that's where I stopped, sat down, and decided to write my first impressions up. It's the 22nd, and I started this on the 21st. This is actually the second article I've written in a two day period, because contrary to the usual, I didn't have a lot to do last Saturday.
It's now the 24th, and I selected not to sacrifice Emm, so Chrom offered the Fire Emblem to Gangrel, but Emm decided to sacrifice herself so that Chrom wouldn't try to save her. Guess where Marth was? She was late. It's heavily implied that she's a time-traveler so why would you EVER be late for anything?! So I decided to save to an empty slot and restart the chapter to see what happened when I chose to not offer the Fire Emblem to Gangrel. I figured that since choosing not to let Emm die killed her, I figured that choosing to sacrifice her might have her live, right?
Wrong. There's a different exchange between GalanDun and Chrom, and then Chrom decides to do exactly what he did when I chose the other option! I think Nintendo missed the whole "Role-playing" part of the role-playing game. Marth shows up late, as in the other option, and the same anime FMV plays out as before. But funny thing, I found that even though I watched it three times trying to figure out how to save her, the cutscene only got sadder.
Afterwards, I set up my units for the next chapter, and I have to say that the music in it was so tremendously sad. The whole chapter was sad. There was a conversation between the general and one of his men, about how he was having qualms about the rightfulness of fighting us, about how he had no will to continue risking his life in the service of a king that cared naught for their lives. The general said that he and anyone else with doubts could leave, and that he would take the burden of punishment. The soldier said that he'd fight for his commander before his king, and it was really touching. Then at the very end, when I killed the general his last words were a plea to spare his men now that he was dead. And I burst into tears at that, because I'd killed every single member of his army on my way to him. Throughout that entire chapter, I felt worse and worse throughout. At the very end, I felt like a terrible person. The very enemies that I'd taken glee in killing throughout the entire last fifteen hours of gameplay, I felt sorry for. They had families and friends, and hopes and dreams and lives and loves and hates and imaginations. They were people, unique people. And I ended their lives.
So, I've just realized this is really bloody long and I should probably get around to stopping. I'll see you next week with either Mockingjay or another Pirates of the Caribbean review. Or possibly another double feature like I had last week depending on what I've got bouncing in my head. See you around.

Here's part 2 of the review.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Catching Fire and Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl

At the end of the Hunger Games, I didn't really think that it needed a sequel. It felt more like a standalone book than the first part of a trilogy. That being said, if it required a sequel this is the one it needed. I've heard some people talk about how long it took to get to the Hunger Games part of it, but I liked how it was paced. If it had moved faster it would have seemed insubstantial, and if it moved slower it could have been boring. What I like about it is that everything in it has an impact on the characters, and they all have some kind of personality that's easy to relate to, rather then project onto.
As I said in the Hunger Games review, they actually feel like they could be actual people. I liked how it acted out the interactions of all the characters. Not much to say about it that I haven't already said in The Hunger Games review, so I guess I'm just gonna talk about why I like it.
Catching Fire is a book from 2009 that's a sequel to The Hunger Games. It's not as visceral as The Hunger Games, but it's still a good read. It doesn't really feel like it hurts you as much as The Hunger Games does, and as such it's a decent break from the hard-core survival in the first book.

 In a lot of ways it reminds me of Back to the Future II, only with political intrigue and love triangles.
Now, I probably shouldn't address this, but the triangle in this actually has some kind of impact on the situation the characters are in, as opposed to simple teenage politics with bastardized werewolf and vampire lore surrounding it. The thing is, in a world like the Hunger Games, where public image is everything and appearance keep people alive, there's actually some potential impact to it all, as opposed to the real world with a few random supernatural creatures running around because Buffy and Dante forgot to kill some stuff.
All in all, it was a tad less excruciating than the prequel, but still fairly hard on the characters.
I give it a 9.4* rating.
Now that that's over with, I might as well review a movie since this is a little too short.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl is eleven years old, and I like it. It's a fun movie to watch, and the funny moments are great to keep the pace up.
I was gonna say that I don't know why it's good, but I can tell you why it's good. Amazing choreography, stunning special effects, and a story that nobody cares about, but has some really cool turns to it that work well if you're paying attention. It's got some good characters in it that are as timeless as the seas, the set-pieces are amazing, and I just like watching it. Johnny Depp is great as Jack, you never know what he's going to do. He works well as Chaotic Neutral. I like Orlando Bloom as Will Turner, he does a good job of bringing forth a sense of bravery and nobility, and Keira Knightly isn't the greatest, but she's pretty good as Elisabeth Swan. Geoffrey Rush is great as Barbossa. It's hard to tell what his motivations are. It would seem like simple greed and selfishness, but at the very end he felt somewhat sympathetic. Not greatly so, but still not totally and completely despicable. All in all I guess I don't really know what all I like about it, but it's a nice film to watch. I give it an 7.98* rating.
Bloody hell, that's two different ends of the serious spectrum ain't it?

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Hunger Games

This week I was planning on reviewing John Green's The Fault in our Stars, but I wasn't able to get the bloody eBook reader to work properly, so it's time to review Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games.
Back in 2008, when the book was first published you'd have been forgiven for not knowing what gender Katniss Everdeen was, because Katniss is exotic enough a name that it doesn't really have any binding to either gender. (Although given that it's been six years since it was first published it certainly does now)
Given that I already knew Katniss was a girl, the only reason I bring this up is because she's not referred to with any pronouns until about ten pages in. Maximum Ride did this as well, considering that the main character is named Max and that they don't refer to her as female until several chapters in.
Now, I feel I need to say this because even though the book has been out for six years, if you're just getting into it you need to avoid reading the cover blurbs for the books. They give away too much of the story and in this day and age I'd like to put this out there: If you're interested in something you shouldn't read the covers. Be it a game, a movie or a book. The people who design them CANNOT get it into their heads not to give away the twists and turns of a thing in the promotional material. This isn't like Uncle Ben dying, or Anakin Skywalker being Darth Vader, where the thing's been around for long enough that's it's permeated popular culture. Then again, I didn't know anything about it aside from what the title gave away, so maybe I'm talking nonsense. The Hunger games is a riveting book about tactical survival in a constructed situation for the entertainment of the masses. So it's like a Gladiator type thing, only more crossed with Metal Gear Solid 3. I'll get around to talking about that later, but for now let's talk about the book.
There are moments in it that almost physically hurt me. The writing style is as such that it seems like it is actually happening as you read it. Ready Player One felt like that as well. But something I haven't seen in any book ever is the first person present tense display, which really does a lot to make it come alive.
Something I loved about the book is that it doesn't spend too much time doing things that don't matter. The way it flows is as such that it seems like you're along for the ride inside Katniss's head, and outside a handful of books I've not felt this immersed in a story in years. It's amazing how well written this is.
The book to the very end had me riveted to my seat. I spent a morning reading through it and by the end I was awestruck to the point of speechlessness. Throughout the book it felt like the world was alive, and that's something that a lot of books don't do. An example of a book that seems like the only things that're happening happen around the main character is The Dangerous Days of Daniel X. It's like Splinter Cell, nothing going on outside of the prearranged and strictly linear stages, and as such it's not very interesting.
So very few pieces of fiction paint a world that feels like there are things going on in it outside the focus of the main characters. So few works have things in them that are out of the control of the main character, and I applaud The Hunger Games for that. It's nice to have something that is willing to break from the cliches of writing. Although given that it's been a few years since the series started out, so breaking cliches may indeed be a cliche by now.
So all in all I really liked the book. It's something that needs to be read and I'm sorry it took me so long to read it. Since summertime is the season I set aside for catching up on popular books I haven't read, you can expect me to review some more books over this sweltering hot time of year.
Now, onto the thing I put off earlier.
The Hunger Games is a great book, but it doesn't strike me as something that would make the transition to the silver screen successfully. And I know the movies are popular, but haven't seen them (BTW, expect reviews on them as well) so I don't know how well it's transitioned. But the jaded literary and cinema critics inside me keeps reminding me how poorly the adaptations of Goblet of Fire and Order of the Phoenix turned out. The Hunger Games strikes me as a game that would do good as a video game. And by video game, I mean something like Metal Gear Solid 3, crossed with Hitman and Mass Effect, or Skyrim. The open assassination approaches of Hitman, some RPG elements from Bioware or maybe Bethesda games for conversations and choices, and the survival and stealth elements from MGS3 (But tweaked to be a little less annoying). It would be such a great game, and the sad thing is, there's no chance of Konami, Bethesda, Square-Enix, Scholastic and Lions Gate combining forces to make a game like this. I've got the first two movies reserved at the local library, and I've already finished Catching Fire. So I've got the whole franchise pretty much lined up for the summer.
I might as well post the score, since I've rambled on about the book and modern literature for several paragraphs long enough. 10.5*. I'll see you next week with either Catching Fire, Fire Emblem Awakening or TFIOS depending on which one I'm in the mood for.
Check out my Catching Fire review.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug came out last December, and it's the sequel to one of my favorite movies of 2012, An Unexpected Journey. The last movie in the Hobbit Trilogy is coming out later this year, and it's not being called "There and Back Again." And I'm not sure I support the title they chose. I'll get to that in the review for that movie.
As for the actual films, I freaking love them. The Hobbit is one of my favorite books of all time, and I love what Peter Jackson is doing with these movies. I really don't have any kind of complaints to level against it, honestly.
In the Harry Potter movies, after a while they started cutting out more and more to the point of it undermining the quality of the films. Things just started not making sense after a while.
In this, there are a few things that got cut out that I noticed, but all of that was essentially just space filler that would have made the movie flow a sloppier.
The movie clocks in at about two hours and thirty minutes, which leads me to my justification for why they cut stuff out. While The Hobbit went from one movie, to two movies, to three during production, it would have been as anemic as the later Harry Potter movies had it been any shorter. I really like what they added from the movie that fleshed out the characters actions. Not to mention that this is one of those movies that just grabs you and holds your attention until the end, to the detriment of one of my weekend movie nights, which ran until 1:00 AM. It's looking like we're gonna have to watch the last one in the theater, and then the rest of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. So the movie gets a recommendation from me, because this is a movie that I want future generations to remember like we remember Star Wars.
Now, onto the special effects. It's awesome. I can't tell actors from CGI. The makeup on the elves looks like it's real, and Smaug is an awesome looking dragon. Pretty much the rest of this review is gonna be me gushing about how much I like the movie, so I'll post the score here and then ramble on for a while:
Benedict Cumberbatch does a great job as The Necromancer and as Smaug. Nobody else could do it. It's like how I can't picture anyone else playing John Harrison in Star Trek: Into Darkness, or Sherlock Holmes (Well, Johnny Lee Miller does a good Sherlock too. But he's not my favorite.) Cumberbatch brings a lot to the character of Smaug that the infamous dragon would be lacking if somebody with less talent was voicing him.
And in addition to that, Sir Ian Mckellen is the man to play Gandalf. As is Martin Freeman the man to play Bilbo. In fact, there's not much to say against the cast. Aside from the one thing where they cast Stephen Fry and Ryan Gage as some stereotypical corrupt medieval officials, but while in most fantasy movies that's a detriment to it, this was actually a little bit fitting for the setting, considering that I've gotten tired of the dirty, corrupt medieval fantasy settings, that's quite an accomplishment.
All in all, nothing really ruined the movie for me the way that a lot of medieval fantasy movies do. So I'm just gonna say that after about seven months of waiting for it, the movie satisfied my expectations. It ends on a massive cliffhanger, but it's a great one. I can't wait to see what the last movie does with the end of the series. So onwards to the future!

Sunday, June 1, 2014

J. J. Abrams Star Trek reboot/sequel

Star Trek is one of my favorite Sci-Fi franchises. Star Wars, Stargate and Animorphs are a few others. While I didn't particularly like Star Trek: The Original Series for a lot of reasons, this revived my interest. You see, for every decent episode in my eyes, they had many that were extremely uncomfortable to watch. That sometimes happens with shows, but I just found The Next Generation so much more polished, entertaining and fun. Granted, I will watch it occasionally when it's on TV, which says something about the state of Television these days if a show from forty years ago that had a ton of episodes that were just unsettling and horrifying in their content, if not downright boring when you watched them more than once is better then anything else on TV. Besides, I much preferred the books based on TOS to the actual TOS. That might infuriate some people, but I just like TNG better. Why? Well let's put it this way: Holodecks, and a lower mortality rate.
But now, into the actual review.
Star Trek is a 2009 film that is a quasi-reboot for and quasi-sequel to the classic Star Trek franchise, which utterly tanked with the failure of the last film in the series, Nemesis. Whether that was due to them slicing the film up to draw attention to a confrontation that wound up being short, sad, lame and anticlimactic, or due to the fact that it (Almost completely) destroyed a beloved ship and killed one of the main characters, just like in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (And wound up having exactly the same amount of long term impact as the events of ST2 did) the relevance of this statement is fading, so let's talk about Star Trek.
The movie feels as if it's had a few scenes cut out, but not in the amount or severity that its predecessor was subjected to. In the end, it feels a lot tighter, and it's most definitely a better movie. I remember thinking that this was a horrible idea, that it wasn't going to be any good, and that it couldn't live up to the things that came before. Then I saw Star Trek Nemesis.
I'm going to level with you, I liked all of the Star Trek movies except Nemesis. I'm weird like that, but then again I did see them all one after another in the space of about a month.
I've been going off on a lot of tangents in this review, so I'm gonna reign myself in and talk about what the header says I should talk about.
The special effects and music are as good as the ones from the sequel. I've found when review a sequel before its prequel you can't say much about it that you didn't say about the sequel, demonstrated in my Modern Warefare 2 and CoD4 reviews. But here, they're two very different movies. Star Trek is very much about both how the universe came to branch off from the main one, and about how the characters became who they are, and that's something that hasn't been explored much in official materials as far as I know (But there are so many Star Trek books out there I could be wrong and just not know it because I didn't read them) and it makes for a good movie.
One thing I have to complain about is that the kid they got to play young Kirk doesn't look like Chris Pine, the guy they got to play the adult Kirk. Other than that, there's not much. It took a while for me to get used to the idea of Zachery Quinto as Spock, but eventually it clicked for me. And as for the other actors, I pretty much like all of them. Scotty doesn't look a whole lot like James Doohan, but he knows how to act like him. And Leonard Nimoy has a rather major role in the plot as the Spock from the main universe.
The plot is actually both swift and sweeping, despite the fact that the movie seems to pass like Sonic The Hedgehog was tapping into The Speed Force while jacked up on caffeine.
But a movie that passes too quickly is always better than one than has you tracking the time until it's done. It might not be the perfect movie, but in the end that's not what matters. What matters is that it's a better movie then what came before and it's spawned what could be this generations epic science fiction series. Star Trek: Into Darkness is one of my favorite movies from last year, and it's also one of the best I've seen.
Star Trek has a few flaws, but the original series had its flaws as well. As did TNG, DS9, Voyager (Ugh) as well as the movies.
All in all, it's a movie that begs watching, because it's something that's fun to watch. It's something that lets you escape the drudgery of everyday life and step into the shoes of adventurers who travel the cosmos, saving worlds and solving mysteries.
Perfection is not what to look for, because that's unimportant. A good movie has its flaws, but the polished bits overshadow them. Looking back upon when I first saw it several years ago, I remember it fondly. For everything someone might say is wrong with it, it's fun.
Check out my review of the sequel, Star Trek Into Darkness.