Sunday, 22 July 2018

Shining Force Refrain (Video Game Review)

The problem with describing Shining Resonance Refrain, is that it plays and feels like a “best of” compilation of other releases. You have ideas, mechanics and characters which are all but openly lifted from other titles, meaning that it can be hard to pick out just where it succeeds and fails on its own merits.

The game is ultimately extremely derivative in its mechanics, but it’s easy to see where it has picked and chosen the best parts of other successes. Influences from Eternal Sonata and Ar Tonelico are both evident in the use of music as a method of buffing and debuffing enemies, while the relationship links system seems like something straight out of Persona. However, it does these well enough that it’s difficult to fully hold it against the game, while the core combat system is dynamic and fast paced enough to easily disguise some of its more derivative core elements.

Another major point in its favour is the artistic direction, which is bright and extremely vibrant. It has every anime element you would expect from the big eyes to the superpowered attacks, but it’s so carefully crafted that there’s a distinct charm to it. It manages to walk a very careful line between traditional and overly generic which repeats many older inspirations and designs, but still manages to retain its own identity. There’s rarely a level or boss which doesn’t help visually build upon the world in some way, and that’s definitely to its benefit.

Shining Resonance Refrain’s greatest failing lies largely with its lore. The setting and overall concept is as stock as it comes, often playing and feeling like a SNES era Final Fantasy clone. It consists of stock characters, stereotypes, and generic overplayed concepts we have seen too many times before. Having the evil Empire hunting an ancient power that the protagonist is tied to is bad enough, but when that links into dragon lore and an extremely weak protagonist, it’s difficult to become engaged. It’s only made worse by how the game continually tries to keep the player engaged through dating sim elements and embracing relationship cliches. Combine that with the overly long cutscenes, and the experience it offers can be downright soulless at times.

Ultimately, Shining Resonance Refrain is a game of extremes. The combat system is solid, art direction is beautiful to the point of overcoming its poor graphics, and the Persona style bonding system works well. Yet, with a boring story and forgettable characters it can become a chore to force yourself through the experience. If you value mechanics over storytelling you might get a kick out of this one, but JRPG fanatics should look elsewhere for their next big hit.

Saturday, 21 July 2018

STAR WARS: THE CLONE WARS Revived for a New Season

One of the major casualties of Disney taking over the Star Wars license was the ongoing Clone Wars cartoon. Despite having a substantial fanbase and frequently receiving critical acclaim for its stories, the series came to an abrupt end with no true finale. While Star Wars: Rebels attempted to offer some closure to key storylines, particularly those of Darth Maul and the Mandalorian Civil War, the cartoon went without a true ending. That changed today in San Diego Comic-Con 2018, where series creator Dave Filoni unveiled a brand new trailer to celebrate the cartoon’s tenth anniversary.

Friday, 20 July 2018

The Legacy of Final Fantasy IV

Every generation has its favourite Final Fantasy, from VII on the PSX to X on the PS2 and VI on the SNES. Also technically XII for the PS3, but something tells me that was due to a lack of a choice. The point is that a few always stand out above the others in this long-lived series, and they tend to benefit from much bigger fandoms. These can range from the mechanics to ambitious stories or even release dates. However, IV is an oddity which has unfortunately been lost in the mix of things. No one will doubt it had a significant impact on the series, but all too often it tends to be reduced to a momentary mention in the series' history. This is fairly disingenuous as without it we would never have seen the heights the franchise reached. We may not even have ended up with the modern JRPG.

While I will freely admit that this is coming from someone who loves every Final Fantasy to some degree - to the point where he will even come to II's defense - IV is where the series as we know it truly began. The characters in I, II and III ranged from simple puppets there to drive the plot along to figures who had a vague hint of a backstory, but lacked any meaningful drama or character development. Really, when it came to the core characters, "Guy speak beaver" was about as detailed and dynamic as you got. Everything else was vague if not outright non-existent. As such, not only was the very idea of having an act structure to a game focusing on the protagonists something IV pioneered in video games, but as were things like character conversations and introductions.

If you think that this is hyperbole, really stop and compare this game and its predecessors for a moment:

I - A group of heroes arrive at Coneria, show the king they have proof of their link to a prophecy, and are sent to kick arse for the elements.

II - Firion, Maria, Guy and Leon flee their village from raiders sent by the Empire. All of them are knocked unconscious, while Leon himself is taken captive. The group is then recruited into the White Rose Rebellion in the hopes of retaking their home.

III - Four teenagers with attitude young children find an underground cavern and are granted a small portion of a mysterious crystal's power. They are then sent forth by their adoptive family to restore balance to the world.

IV - The elite fleet of airships, the Red Wings, attack the city of Mysidia to claim their water crystal. Forced to slay those within its temple to capture it, they return to the Kingdom of Baron with their prize, despite enduring repeated assaults from new monsters which plague the land. The Red Wings' commander, the Dark Knight Cecil, continually questions the King's increasingly tyrannical decrees until he openly voices his concerns. Cecil is promptly stripped of his rank and is parted from Rosa, his beloved. In penance for his insubordination, Cecil is tasked with taking a mysterious ring to the village of Mist. Along with the Dragoon Kain Highwind, he journeys to this place, home to the world's population of Summoners.

While direct, it's leaps and bounds above all that came before, quickly establishing the prior life of the protagonist, his standing in the world and relationship to the others. At the same time, it creates far more of a sense of mystery and raises as many questions about the world as it offers answers. As video games go, it's a perfect hook to grab the player's attention and establish some early world building along with sparking character arcs. While it's certainly basic by today's standards, this really would be like jumping from a Lumière brothers production to a Laurel and Hardy film within the space of just a couple of years. 

Beyond the story itself, core concepts and mechanical ideas which would become series staples were solidified here. For starters, the then unique system of turn-based combat where every action was tied into a timer really took off. This was made in response to how players were seemingly frustrated at having to wait to take their turn, allowing battles to have a more obvious flow of events and some degree of real-time progression. While this could have easily been a case of trying to reinvent the wheel and messing everything up (just look at Mystic Quest to see how badly that could go wrong even in the early series) this was instead refined and used as an asset. You ended up having to think over actions with a sense of urgency and there was less of an opportunity to think out how and when to best use an optimal move.

Even the soundtrack underwent a transformation. The enhanced technology behind the SNES' sound chip allowed the likes of the Crystal Prelude theme to become the iconic song so closely associated with the franchise. The additional tones, layers and new details all went towards refining and developing what had been set down before, making it truly stand head and shoulders above its contemporaries. Even when you sit down and compare the original scores to those found in IV, it's clear that later installments owe far more to the tracks introduced with this story than those before it.

If it's not been made clear, this game is where Final Fantasy truly began. All that was introduced before it, from the stumbling efforts of I to the vastly improved mechanics of III were the baby-steps taking before it started to truly hit its stride. With that said, it is clear that there are lessons found within IV which the series needed to more closely adhere to: The beauty of simplicity. This was most evident during XIII where a genuinely interesting story and an engaging world was marred by an overly complex plot, incoherent storytelling elements and several major characters which lacked a clear direction. The series went back and forth on this for some time, but often games were attempting to over-engineer what could have been direct and easy story elements. While it is difficult to pin this down to a single incident, the highly detailed story of VI and the dense, borderline insane, plot behind VII are likely to blame. With VIII following it, and X only taking a general step back toward normality, it was as if the series' creators had lost sight of what made their games great in the first place.

When it came to IV, you had a direct and easy premise which was gripping and engaging. One which never fails to grab the attention of players today when it's offered to them. Simply put: IV is Star Wars if Darth Vader was the hero.

The overall arc is ultimately one of rediscovery and redemption as a result of Cecil's role in the story. His need to shed his role of Dark Knight is one of rebirth and new direction, along with overcoming his prior mistakes and a multitude of storytelling elements reflect this well. The large supporting cast is one of the few times the series did nail frequently swapping out one character for another, as it allowed for a very fluid and natural storytelling quality to events. The locations were extremely varied and diverse, with several changing through the story while the major twists were delivered in a clear and concise manner. Each was executed such a way that you never forgot prior events, or lost track of what was going on, even as the plot rapidly thickened.

The very fact that IV could support such a large number of characters related heavily to how it made each one distinct and easy to remember. Kain? The guy with a big stick-sword whose loyalties are divided between Baron's rulers and what he personally believes is right. Tellah? An angry old man out for revenge, no matter the cost to himself. Rosa? Bow-wielding support character who links directly into several major twists. Yang? Polite, taciturn and willing to take on an army of monsters if it's the right thing to do.

Now, it's true that you can argue that this has carried over to many other games. While this is another element that IV is the progenitor of, and other games have learned from its example, it's something which it does better than many others. There's no single character here who feely superfluous or tacked on for needless reasons, while the same cannot be said of a multitude of other games even today. Calling out Mass Effect: Andromeda might seem like a cheap shot, but the truth is that I could only keep track of a few character's names due to their seemingly tacked-on roles. Those who I can, like Drack, were possible only thanks to belonging to the same archetype as another character in prior games. Jade Empire suffered from the same issue, while even series lauded for their storytelling such as Persona or Phantasy Star can suffer from this depending on how they integrate characters into the story. 

The overall point of this article really is both to highlight how Final Fantasy IV reshaped its series, genre and served as a turning point for a major staple of video games. At the same time, it's not one which should be forgotten or overlooked despite gaming having long since moved on to more complex narratives. If anything, it's an installment which should serve as a guideline on how to execute so many elements without losing track any single one, and a reminder that simplicity isn't a sin. 

Now, bait-and-switches, that's a whole other matter.

Thursday, 19 July 2018

Octopath Traveller (Video Game Review)

Octopath Traveller is a story of stories. Eight travellers agree to unite in their travels, following their own goals while they wander the world. From a ruthless thief to a pious knight, each is given the chance to tell their own tale, and occasionally take centre stage while following their own arc. In layman’s terms, it’s the Samurai Champloo of JRPGs, and the story is every bit as good as you would think from that comparison.

At one moment you can be participating in a heist, at another investigating a missing member of a character’s family, or hunting for a tome of lost knowledge. The game proves to be bizarrely episodic, but through this it allows every one of Octopath Traveller’s characters to have far more distinction than the usual divide between protagonist and supporting cast.

The combat system is extremely well developed, and proves to be elegantly simplistic. It’s a turn-based system which hinges on exploiting weaknesses in foes and utilising Bonus Points to augment skills. You can generate these during fights and choosing when to use them allows players to chain together potentially devastating strikes if conserved and used correctly. It makes battles remarkably engaging, and it’s one of the best examples since Chrono Trigger on how a game can make a simple but tactically complex system.

Even without this, the side-quests prove to be engaging even when their rewards are lacking. This is largely thanks to the Path action system the game utilises, where characters can perform tasks relating to their role outside of combat. These can open up any number of new opportunities, with the likes of Ophilia the priest being able to recruit NPCs, or Olberic the knight to challenge people to duels. This offers the game a much higher level of replay value than the average JRPG.

Where Octopath Traveller fails to fully succeed lies largely in how it fails to fully debunk a few underlying problems within the JRPG genre. There are multiple points where the game descends into a grind, typically when you’re up against a brick wall of a boss. This drags the story to a screeching halt and, even without these narrative speed-bumps, this only further highlights a few problems with the story structure. While juggling between plots, several stories resort to very abrupt conclusions to close out certain elements. These prove to be very hit and miss, with some succeeding in terms of surprise drama, while others feel like a cheap way to rapidly resolve dangling plot threads.

Despite its two failings, Octopath Traveller succeeds where the likes of Lost Sphear stumbled. It manages to perfectly call back to yesteryear without falling into the same old traps. If you have a Nintendo Switch, this should be an essential addition to your gaming library.

Wednesday, 18 July 2018

A Single Typo Ruined Aliens: Colonial Marines' AI

Every time it’s seemingly done and buried, Aliens: Colonial Marines comes back to haunt Gearbox in whole new ways. The game has been subject to heavy criticism and a lightning rod for controversy in the five years since its release. Both Randy Pitchford’s willingness to blame his audience for having high expectations, and a final product which barely resembled the vertical slice demo, have been particular sore spots among fans. However, a whole new problem has been uncovered by modder jamesdickinson963, who has been attempting to fix Colonial Marines with his TemplarGFX’s ACM Overhaul. Apparently the game’s much derided AI was the result of typos within its basic scripting prompts.

Sunday, 15 July 2018

Director Duncan Jones Hints at Upcoming Comic Book Movie

In a recent Tweet, Moon director Duncan Jones has announced that he will be involved with an impending film adaptation of a comic book property

Thursday, 12 July 2018

The Love of Luthor AKA The Misguided Hatred of Superman

The subject of Lex Luthor has always been a bizarre one in the comicbook world, thanks both to his presentation and who he opposes. When you sit down and look at him, the character is one of countless contradictions and contrasting elements, thanks as much to his history as the man he opposes. He's depicted as a ruthless businessman atop a skyscraper while also a self-made entrepreneur. Someone who is a philanthropist but also a representation of capitalism's worst excesses, and a figure who could accomplish great good but is held back by all too human failings. He's hardly relatable in any way, and yet an odd number of people continually root for him. Some so as far as to claim that he is the true hero of the story rather than Superman.

The question is, why?

By every definition Luthor is an unrepentant figure who would sooner tie the entirety of Metropolis' population to railroad tracks than admit Superman's thoughts had any merit. He will take the most convenient route to gain what he wants, and will never lose sleep over murdered innocents or broken laws required to get there. Worse still, his ego and superiority complex often drives him from necessary evils to acts of outright spite, often going out of his way or even wasting precious resources in such endeavors. Unlike those who try to take extreme measures for the betterment of others, no matter how misguided they might be, Luthor is instead just an outright bastard with a small handful of redeeming moments. Unfortunately, that is all too often forgotten in the face of the man he opposes.

Superman is, by every standard, the boy scout. There have been plenty of jokes over him in past years in this regard, and the varied number of abilities he has. However, the problem is that with his standing comes every criticism possible. It ranges from the usual misguided and cherry-picked theories that he is unrelatable and inhuman, to people going through Silver Age stories to cite how he is a prick. Even when he's de-powered people seem to dislike him, claiming he doesn't fully live up to expectations, and I think in the minds of many this is where the issue lies: His abilities. When you make a character a god, or give them enough power to move the entire planet, all too often those figures are the villains. They're treated as detached from reality, seeking to rule over us, and must be beaten by a far more human hero with less power. There's plenty of examples of this, but ultimately when one character is being forced to outsmart a more powerful opposite, it's usually the hero against the villain. 

Equally, an issue stems from how there is a perpetual conflict between characters who are relatable and those who serve as escapist figures. Iron Man is considered an escapist figure, but because he repeatedly makes very obvious mistakes, suffered from alcoholism, has a titanic ego and has a bitter past, people tend to ignore him. With Superman, while he has the loss of his father and planet, many other events have never reached public consciousness. You can name multiple plotlines and key events which do contradict this, and even a multitude of major A-list villains who do contradict the idea of his invulnerability. A personal favourite among these is Parasite, if you're wondering. Yet, because he is openly idealistic, openly hopeful and seeking to make the world better without being bitterly cynical or sarcastic, he's seen as distanced from humanity. 

The issue of his distanced nature is only made worse thanks to the fact his abilities aren't born from magic, science or some ingrained enhancement, but a part of his natural biology. As a result of this, so many people want to see someone like Batman repeatedly beat him in a fight because they feel that they're the underdog, and that they have earned their skills. People will argue that he relies far too heavily on powers he gained due to circumstance or sheer luck, and that he didn't build them up like others, often overlooking facts like how he gradually developed them during his childhood. 

The unfortunate end result of all of this is that those with only a passing familiarity with comics or even go from pop culture knowledge simply go from where Superman stands in power. Rather than fully looking into it, the baseline elements are judged. This isn't an exact damnation of the trend - it's present in damn near everything, entertainment media or otherwise - but it is still a problem, as media has developed in a way which leaves Superman at a disadvantage. One where, after so many years, people are predisposed to support the person individually less powerful and seemingly working off of personal innovation over natural strength. To quote Grant Morrison:

"It's essential to find yourself rooting for Lex, at least a little bit, when he goes up against a man-god armed only with his bloody-minded arrogance and cleverness."

So, with all this said, why do people like Superman? Why is it that he still has supporters, when he has so many inherent advantages, and Luthor is in a position which would typically be heroic? Once again it all comes down to power.

What people tend to forget is that Superman and Luthor are in a very similar position in many regards. They are an authority unto themselves, they have access to resources which entire countries cannot hope to match, and stand above the average person in almost every sense. Then, consider how they use them.

Luthor argues that Superman diminishes humanity via his sheer presence, and that humanity cannot be fully allowed to simply rely on him. However, that only comes about thanks to how Superman has chosen to use his power. No matter how noble the act might be, Luthor's every decision boils down to self-service. He could save an entire orphanage or guarantee a man's family safety, only to kill them as part of a scheme to make Superman look bad. He's actually done that as well, if you want to look up Lex Luthor: Man of Steel. If he offers up a charity event it's to bolster his ego, and if he tries to uplift someone in society, it's largely done to keep the spotlight on him. On its own, this might not be inherently wrong, as heroic characters like Booster Gold have retained this as a character trait. Yet, when combined with his lack of morals, it ensures that he would burn down all of Metropolis, if not the Earth itself, if he could be rid of Superman and remake it in his image.

By comparison, you could stop and look at any moment where Superman has acted to help others, save lives or defeat villains, simply because it is the right thing to do. Not out of ego, self-satisfaction or even a misguided attempt to create his own legend. He has the capacity to help others who cannot help themselves, and he uses that in order to do things humanity cannot currently deal with. It doesn't matter if it's a supervillain or a natural disaster, the reasons are always the same. It would be easy to set himself up as a king among them, and yet refuses, and doesn't hold humanity back either, hoping one day that they will "join him in the sun."

Even if you do argue that Superman's abilities stem from some genetic advantage over a personal creation, that can still apply to Luthor as well. He was born smarter than others, had none of the genetic disabilities which plague others, and had the ingrained ruthlessness which allowed him to murder his parents for financial gain. He only reached the heights that he did due to his specific advantages in brain and body, ones he started out with from an early age and gave him a benefit many typically lacked. Perhaps some amount of that animosity (or even a substantial part of it) could be seen to come from how he beat Luthor at his own game, earning a far more beneficial head start due to his alien origins. We do see, after all, in events such as Blackest Night that he ultimately wants to be Superman, and that his justifications and arguments stem from a bruised ego over a personal ideology.

Yet, if there is nothing else to consider, take a moment to think of class. Over the last several years, the divide between lower class and upper class has become ever greater, to the point where "working class" is considered a bad joke. Almost every story we have about these individuals in power is constantly negative, be it from the USA, UK or Russia, and those are just the ones which make the headlines. The bad doesn't simply eclipse the good, it swallows it whole, until the news of a billionaire or politician actually doing the morally right thing is downright shocking. Luthor emulates these figures in almost every sense, from the extreme self-interest to sheer arrogance they radiate. By comparison, Superman is an embodied hope, the desire that someone who would end up with that power from a lower standing would use it to do good. Keep in mind that, while Luthor lives the high life, Superman was raised as Clark Kent first and foremost - Someone who worked on a farm, and then lived as a reporter with a middling salary. 

Perhaps more than anything else though, it's the idea that someone from a lower standing in life might end up with power to oppose those who would abuse it. That someone of humble origins and without the benefits of a richer environment might gain the power to fight back, and to push back against bullies who would use their abilities to make life hell for others.

Or, if you want to boil this final point down to a clip, compare it with this, just replacing Loki with Luthor and the Hulk with Superman:

It's a one-sided fight, painfully so. But what makes it so satisfying is the fact that Loki has spent the entire film lauding over others, proclaiming his superiority and acting out of spite. As such, rather than it seeming unjust, that moment offers a sense of much-needed catharsis in seeing someone being given a taste of their own medicine. Hulk meanwhile, whatever his flaws, is using his powers to try and stop him from taking ove the Earth, even after being shunned for so long by those same people.

An entire book could be written on the subject, but I just personally wanted to touch on these themes. It's easy to see why someone might fall into the trap of sympathising with the devil, and defending Luthor as a possible hero simply due to his standing and who he fights against. At the same time though, it's hardly a chore to recognise why Superman is needed in fiction, and the dream he inspires is needed more than ever.