Monday, April 29, 2013

[Game Review] Final Fantasy XIII


Oh, boy! Where do I even start with this one? I bet you think I can't write this without flailing. 

The Final Fantasy series has never been a favorite of mine. The best I've done with this series is finishing Final Fantasy VII and playing all the Tactics games... if you don't count Kingdom Hearts. I keep wanting to give the series a fair chance because everyone keeps telling me how much I'd love it if I just sat down and played it on my own. Funnily enough, I know tons about the series because of friends and family members who play, but people still think if I sit down and play it myself that things might be different.

Maybe it was a bad idea to start with this game in the series. Many people don't seem to care for it much, but I started here because I was told I might enjoy the combat more since I prefer ARPGs to turn-based RPGs. While there is certainly much more maneuverability with the combat system, it's not quite turn-based and it's not quite action based. It seems to straddle a fine line between those two types of play. I did enjoy the combat system more than I originally thought, especially after the paradigm system was introduced. This was one thing I inexplicably liked about the game. It really kept me on my feet. 

Playing this game made me realize what disconnects me from the series. I can't get emotionally invested in the stories or characters, with the exception of VII (and Kingdom Hearts if it counts). I'm not saying every game I play touches me on a deeper level, but Final Fantasy is obviously a series that Square Enix puts so much of themselves into. It would be a discredit to the series if I said Final Fantasy is just a mindless game because it's not. The stories tend to feel too melodramatic, too over-romanticized, for me. It makes the issues presented in the game feel silly, and I spend a great deal of time rolling my eyes and chuckling at the goofiness of it all. And maybe I'm being hypocritical since I love other games that are guilty of these same offenses, but I guess it's all in the presentation and how I personally perceive it. And maybe it's not necessarily that I'm emotionally invested in these other stories, but that they appeal to me for whatever reason.

I've broken this up into different sections, and depending on how long this actually turns out to be, I may even break it up into more than one post. 

Characters

Unpopular opinion. I don't think Lightning is a very compelling character, and I feel like I've missed something since so many Final Fantasy fans seem to worship the ground she walks on. However, this same group of people also worship Cloud's used toilet paper, and he was another character I didn't care for much. Sorry, not sorry. So, maybe my coolness toward Lightning is just residual dislike stemming from Cloud because she reminds me of him in so many ways that are not good at all. Either way, I didn't feel like she was participating in the story more than just being pulled along because she happened to become involved because of her sister.

I never felt any real connection even after she softened up later in the story. Most of her time seemed to be spent in sullen silence in the game. It's great to see the lead character being a female protagonist, which is basically a first for the Final Fantasy series, and it's great that they tried to break the mold and make her a tough, kick ass female who wasn't over emotional either by being too weepy or being too bitchy. But at the same time, it felt like they tried too hard with her, and instead of making this awesome female character that I love, they gave me Cloud but with boobs

Another unpopular opinion. Snow is an idiot, but not just any old idiot, a fumbling mess of a fool that should've really spent most of his time just standing there being cute. Everything about him was just completely overblown and then overblown again. I could never get over the over dramatic hand gestures while speaking like he'd just stepped out of a low budget hero movie that couldn't afford Robert Downey Jr. so they settled for Ian Ziering who has such movies as Tyrannosaurus Azteca and Sharknado under his belt.

I can appreciate him wanting to play hero, leading a revolution, saving all the people, but in the beginning, his hero shtick is just borderline delusional and half-cocked. We eventually find out that it's a front to hide the fact that he's keenly aware that he can't save everyone, that he can't be everything for everyone. After this moment of epiphany, what does Snow do? His fists continue to make ridiculous sound effects and I still have to listen to this "FOR SERAH!" war cry. I get it. Now, I need you to get yourself together, Snow.

Hope and I had a very precarious relationship. I understand that Hope was upset about his mother. He should be, and I can even understand him being upset with Snow because some people don't know how to properly direct their feelings. It was a perfectly valid response from him to blame Snow for not doing more and being upset that Snow seemed so blasé about people caught in the crossfire. However, it was just so annoyingly done that it was so hard for me hold empathy for him very long. His mother made a choice to try to fight, and it wasn't something that Hope ever really acknowledged. Putting aside his differences with Snow seem to come from the fact that Hope knows he can't change things, which is also true.

I didn't understand the drama with Hope's father either. From the way he talked about him, I expected Hope to be estranged from an aloof, uncaring father. Then, when we finally meet his father, we find out that not only are they not estranged, but his father doesn't treat him like some infestation set loose on the world. And once father and son reunite, there's not any mention whatsoever in game about what their relationship might've been like prior to the game for Hope to feel the way he did about his father. Once his drama was over, he was mostly tolerable. I still didn't use him much (but when he is handy, he is really handy), but at least he knew how to mostly quiet and provide some thoughts here and there.

No Final Fantasy game is complete without it's overly cheerful girly girl. Vanille answered the call. I liked Vanille, but man, the noises that come out of her mouth. She always sounds like she's always on the verge of an orgasm. Vanille may be a seemingly eternal optimist, but she had her moments where she was sad and contemplative as she thought about her role in her current focus and the destruction that she'd had a hand in nearly 500 years ago.

At Vanille's side is Fang, a wildly impulsive woman who is very protective of Vanille and would go to great lengths to protect her. She speaks her mind and stands her ground. She comes off as the bad girl with a heart of gold. You can really see and feel her love for Vanille and later in the story you see her exhibiting those same feelings for their new "family." I found out later that Fang and Vanille's lived in a communal type dwelling where everyone is family, which is probably the reason why they take to the others so well because they were used to being surrounded by people who supported one another. Since their own family is gone now, they've become part of a new family.

Last, but not least, there's Sazh. He's the oldest of the group, considerably older, and tries to act as the father figure and the voice of wisdom, but he's not without his own pressures in the story considering his son is turned into a Sactum l'Cie and eventually crystallized after he fulfills his focus, which was to locate the Pulse l'Cie (his father and the gang). Sazh is an obvious techie type who can do everything from flying planes (though I wanted to banned him from flying because we kept getting attacked) to fixing mechanical toys. I wondered if we'd find out that he'd been in some type of military or paramilitary profession, but we don't.

His overall story felt the most real to me. He's the one who acted in a way I would equate with real people. It wasn't all melodrama and struggle fists and sulky silences with him. He had his moments when he did things that stereotypical or a bit nutty, but I liked him all the same.

Battle System

This is perhaps one of the the very few things I absolutely liked about this game with one complaint. I enjoy ARPG. I enjoy actively fighting rather than waiting my turn. That's not to say that I don't play and enjoy turn-based RPG. It's just not really my preferred style of play. I'm sorry to all you turn-based purists out there. However, as I mentioned this wasn't exactly completely action based. You didn't have a "turn" per se, but you had to wait until a gauge filled to attack and some attacks required more of the gauge to be filled than others. You have the option of attacking before the gauge is completely filled if you have enough of the gauge filled for the attacks you'd like to use. In this way, you can kind of keep a steady stream of attacks going. 

Keeping a steady flow of attacks is important because the more you chain your attacks the more your enemies "stagger" bar fills. Usually quick, magic based attacks (ravager role) by one or more of your teammates help to fill this pretty quickly (my preferred method was all characters in the ravager role or two characters in the role and one on sentinel during tougher battles), even if it doesn't deal much damage against certain enemy types. What good is that you ask? Well, once you've staggered an enemy, they become vulnerable to a wide-range of attacks including magic attacks they may have taken little damage from before being staggered. 

There are six roles in this game--commando, ravager, sentinel, synergist, saboteur, and medic. Not every role is available to every character in the beginning. In the beginning, it feels like roles are available to characters because that's what sort of "fit" who they were like who doesn't see Snow and Fang being the tanks? Or Sahz and Lightning being the all around mercs? Or Vanille and Hope being more of the support? (FYI: Vanille is probably the best medic in the whole game, even after I got other characters to a comparable level of healing. Her AI is frighteningly competent and vigilant to be an AI.)

With those six roles, you can mix and match to create various paradigms. This was a feature of the game I really enjoyed. Say you created a paradigm where two characters would be medics and one character would be the sentinel to keep the heat off the medics, and you'd get a paradigm called "Combat Medic." Or let's say you created a paradigm where one character is a commando for big damage, another character is a sentinel to hold aggro, and your last character is a saboteur to debuff and you get a paradigm called "Dirty Fighting." It was fun to mix and match to see what works and what doesn't. And the strengths and weaknesses of the enemies are varied enough that sometimes you're shifting quite often in battle. For me, that was part of the thrill. 

Another thing with this combat system, you only control the "leader" of the team. At first, you don't have much say so over who acts as leader, but later in the game, you can switch leadership between characters. And you may think that you'll do fine playing one character as leader and choosing teammates here and there, but sometimes, you find that you need to assume a role to use a strategy that you can do better than the AI. Not that the AI isn't competent, which is a relief, but the AI is always going to use the "ideal" powers for a scenario. And that ideal might not fit with what you need and you'll find that you need to take control of the character to get them to work outside of that ideal. I had that happen to me more than a few times with my sentinels (Fang and Snow).

The only complaint I had about the battle system? The fact that I couldn't manually move the characters and/or have some way of directing them where they need to go. I know that's not a normal thing, but given how much more action-based this system is, it was really annoying to have characters moving to positions that were more harmful than helpful. Say for instance, if I was running a team with Lightning, Fang, and Vanille. Fang, of course, always assumes the role of sentinel when I need it in that grouping. Sometimes, the characters have a bad habit of being right next to (or right behind) the sentinel. While they're not the target of attacks, being so close to the sentinel puts them at the prime position to get caught in AOE attacks such as the Behemoth King's "Sunder" attack, which he will release repeatedly when he's almost down to no health. Low HP characters take a real beating that way.

It seems like they should back away from the targets when I have them in a role like medic or saboteur or synergist rather than toward the sentinel and thing, but the whole moving during battle thing was just generally pretty random and without reason unless I switched the characters to a role that requires they be right on the enemy (commando, pretty much). The only way I could maneuver a little is to switch the sentinel into the commando role, which would require them to move closer to the target (sentinels find a prime position on the battlefield and don't move much after that) and away from the AI hugging them.

Game Elements

I call this section story elements because I'm not just going to complain... er... discuss the storyline itself but other elements in it such as upgrading, the datalog, and all that.

First, this open world thing caused me SO MUCH ANGST. Every time I thought I might be in the open world, I was wrong. About 30 hours in is when I finally hit the open world, which was mildly disappointing for me. I wasn't feeling these side quests you could do for the Cie'th Stones. You could treasure hunt a little bit, ride chocobos, but other than that, it's just a bunch of wildlife and dinosaurs that can stomp on you and sheep things that I kept mistaking for treasure chests. And Behemoth Kings... I really hate Behemoth Kings. 

It's good for grinding, but I became a little bored with it after a while and moved on without finishing side quests. This is not normal for me. I am a completionist down to my core. There aren't many games that I won't attempt to complete. However, the game tricked me near the end of the game when it opened up some portals back like TURN BACK NOW OR YOU'LL BE SORRY, and I thought, "Maybe I didn't grind enough. I should probably go back and make sure everyone's sufficiently leveled for this." Uh-huh, yeah, I ended up grinding to get all the characters' stats maxed and finished more of the quests.... only to go back to the endgame and have to grind my way to the boss, which was very, very annoying.

Honestly, you can pretty much grind at any point in the game since the stuff respawns all the time, and I swear that whole Ark chapter (which is basically l'Cie Camp) is nothing but a "creative" way to get you to grind by calling it "training" to get a handle on your new powers. 

Upgrading wasn't explained at all, or if it was, it was in the datalog like 90% of the information in this game. And look, I love journals, codex entries, etc., but the sheer amount of the story that was told through the datalog rather than actual game play is pretty ridiculous. And if you don't read some of it, good luck... I was never given a proper introduction to the upgrading system. I knew enough to know I needed to use material to level up my weapons, but I didn't know about using things to transform them other weapons and what not. I didn't even realize that I wasn't utilizing the upgrade system to it's full potential until my friend, Sparkle, sent me her Upgrading Weapons in FFXIII For Dummies email right before the second Barthandelus fight where I'm sure I would've been frustratingly stuck on if she hadn't explained a thing to me about upgrading. 

As for the story itself? It was pretty painful, and not necessarily in a good way. You're going to get the most understanding of it from reading the datalog. I mean, you could probably sort of pick up what's happening without it, but you really need to read it to get the full story. Even then, it's stupid. It had the potential to be great, but I have no idea why the characters had to go through all this trouble. There are many other ways the fal'Cie could've gone about their business of manipulating humans to achieve their goals than what happened in this game.

I typically love stories that play around with theistic elements, human manipulation by god-like beings, but this was just plain dumb even with some of the elements that I thought were really interesting such as Dysley revealing himself to be a fal'Cie controlling Sactum and the real reason why they made sure Cocoon stayed safe for so long. There were hints of brilliance in the story, but it was hidden by all the other crappy parts of it and shady, shaky direction at best. The story and canon elements are vague at best and so much of it, even after you do read the datalog (if you do read the datalog because honestly...), is just unexplained like someone just said, "Nah, too much work. They don't need to know all that anyway."

Conclusion

How was my first venture into a Final Fantasy game that wasn't Tactics or VII? Um... I don't even know what the hell I just played to be honest. I'm not sure if this was the best game to start with in the Final Fantasy lore for story/character reasons (but as far as the battle system reasons go, it was a great choice), but I'm not sure if it would've made much of a difference what game I started with for a couple of reasons. First, I know more than any non-fan of the series should know about the previous games. That's because many of my friends are huge fans, and they have to flail about me about their feelings. And I allow it. That's what friends are for. Second, I now understand what it is that has pushed me away from the series in general. Even though this is probably a very extreme example, the overall feeling of this game is something that is true of every single Final Fantasy game. I don't know what it was about VII that helped me to overlook that fact, but I guess that it has something to do with the presentation for me. I've started to play FFXIII-2 now, and while the story is currently much more cohesive, I still find that I'm a bit over the melodrama already. 

Will I play another Final Fantasy game after I finish this? Well, even though I have a list of complaints, I have a bad habit of seeing things through to the end, and I may play the third installment in this series just for my own curiosity. Friends are encouraging me to try some of the earlier games. Now, I have watched someone play completely through FFX and FFX-2, but that was nearly a decade ago. And I can still remember a pretty good bit of it, or at least, that's what I'm telling myself. Wait, does my undying love for Kingdom Hearts count since it's Final Fantasy-ish? We'll see what happens in the future.
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Friday, April 19, 2013

[Book Review] Irredeemable, Vol. 1


Irredeemable, Vol. 1
Irredeemable, Vol. 1 by Mark Waid

My rating: 3 of 5 stars



You tell a man he's a god enough times, and he'll start to be believe it. You strip away his humanity by worshipping him, and eventually he'll think it's his right to lord over you. Continuously mention that his powers are the only reason the planet still turns, and one day that virtue that compels him to save you will turn into the vice that causes him to decimate whole cities without remorse.

However, despite that recipe for disaster, there's still one more key ingredient. The inner struggle that a person like this would face. Someone who struggles with difficult decisions everyday in regard to the safety of others. Out of millions of people, who do you save and who do you let die? How do you deal with humanity's capacity for ingratitude when you don't save them in the manner they wish to be saved? How do you deal with people who try to marginalize your feats by calling you a "pervert in underwear?"

The answer is simple in the case of Plutonian. You've ignored that he is human (or humanoid) and has human weaknesses and emotions. You've rejected his attempts to be normal, to give him something that anchors him to his human side. There's no longer any need for him to act like a mere human. You've made him a god, and now, he becomes a god. He has every right to judge anyone--hero, villain, and civilian--because he's your god, a monster of human creation.

I know I'm still in the early stages of this series, but the above is what I gathered from the first volume. These opinions may change as I continue to read this series, and I'll acknowledge that when the time comes. Once Plutonian turns, he doesn't discern between friend and foe--taking some lives, leaving others alive to suffer his carnage. Making a hero, a hero who questioned Plutonian before his heel turn about how it felt to be responsible for so many lives, choose ten people out of millions to save and then killing the rest before that same hero's eyes while telling him: "This is what it felt like."

While Plutonian is inarguably the greatest super-powered being on earth (I know Max Damage from Incorruptible is pretty strong himself and can, at the very least, withstand Plutonian's abuse, but I'm not sure yet if he could actually beat Plutonian at this point), this story for me isn't just about the greatest superhero on earth becoming the greatest supervillain. It's a story about a man who wasn't allowed to be human, so he became a god instead.

Waid has also taken some traditional superhero tropes and turned them on their ear such as what if a hero did confess his identity to someone one close to him, expecting their inexplicable acceptance of who he is and forgiveness for hiding his identity all this time to protect them. Yeah, this ain't Superman, honey. What if a hero didn't get all the acceptance and support he needed from the people around him? What does he do then? Waid is addressing things that I've questioned in comic stories.

And I really love this about the story.

However (you knew a HOWEVER was coming), I'm not as drawn into the story as I'd like to be even though I do like the foundation of it. And maybe this partly by my own design because instead of focusing on this series first I read the first volume of The Boys which I really, really enjoyed. When I love something and I start moving on to other similar media/genres, I expect them to keep my enjoyment buzz going. That isn't this comics fault, and as I said, it's not a bad comic. I probably should've waited a few more days when I wasn't thinking about The Boys anymore. I have a tendency to ponder things long after I've read them.

Another problem I'm having is with Volt who is an African-American superhero with electricity powers. Most of his panels include switching into AAVE (African-American Vernacular English) to prove how racist the white people are and how little they expect of him, which was true in a couple of panels. Other times, it just seems kind of random and unnecessary. He also enjoyed pointing out a black superhero with electricity powers is a cliche when nobody said anything about it, but what can he do about it? The only thing he really said that spoke to me, something that I’ve spoken about with other comic book fans of color, is the need to add BLACK to the beginning of some black or ambiguously brown heroes’ names. He’s Volt, guys. Just Volt. PREACH, Volt!

I’m hoping Waid does better than this with Volt because as it stands he feels silly, forced, and unnatural at times as if Volt is incapable of being a normal person while facing issues that concern his race. It seems he can only be one or the other, but not both at the same time. So far, instead of pointing out why such behavior is problematic, Volt would rather sarcastically respond to their micro-aggression by slipping into jive talk and leave them to their “accidental” racist tendencies. And while I think Waid is an exceptional writer when it comes to showing the moral standings of heroes, I’m not sure if I think he is capable of providing an adequate portrayal of how an African-American superhero deals with racism as a person and as a hero.

This was an interesting beginning, though, and I'll move on to the next volume, but only time will tell whether Waid handles the complex issues he's setting up expertly or not.



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Wednesday, April 3, 2013

[Book Review] Ringworld by Larry Niven

RingworldRingworld by Larry Niven
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Crossposted at Bibliosanctum.

Tempted by an alien from a race of equine-like aliens known as the puppeteers, Louis Wu, Teela Brown, and a kzin named Speaker-To-Animals head out to a world known as Ringworld, an earth like planet, a planet that is 300 million times bigger than the surface of earth, that could become the future home of sentient beings. A supernova is on course to destroy the galaxy in twenty thousand years, but this new planet coupled with the puppeteers'experimental form of space travel (that cuts travel time down by four-fifths) could help them successfully evacuate their planets when the time comes. However, one question remains. Who resides on the planet now?

I didn't like this book much, and that's because of the narrator. I think I would've really loved this book, but Louis just rubbed me raw. Since this story is told from his point of view, I couldn't escape him no matter how much I wanted him to swallow, choke, and die. The amount of antipathy he managed to pull from me starting from nearly the beginning of the story is pretty amazing. Louis Wu is a shallow, condescending, ridiculous human being whose sense of self importance is laughable. I'm not sure if I was meant to like him. I didn't receive the memo if I was supposed to take this man-child seriously.

However, despite my deep loathing of Louis, the aliens, the voyage, the world they landed on were all fascinating. The science behind the creation of this world and it's technology were nice to read about. I love reading about the hard engineering involved in worlds such as these. Learning the history and idiosyncrasies of these races and earth's various changes over the last few centuries really tickled and indulged the sci-fi geek inside me. Niven knows how to create a world even if I find his (human) characters lacking. I can appreciate the science of it.

There seems to be some persisting debate about whether people should be offended by Niven's treatment of women in this and other books he's written. The era and the relative newness of feminism are used as points why people shouldn't be offended, but also seems to suggest that the author was incapable of changing gender roles in a science fiction book chock full of futuristic ideas. He can make new alien races who look vastly different from their human counterparts, but he's unable to figure out what to do with those pesky women.

Regardless, people are allowed to be offended. There's no golden rule book that outlines how and when people should be offended by something. This is a legitimate response to something that is problematic for some, and they don't have to shrug it off because supposedly the author didn't know any better. Airing grievances about something such as this asks the writer to give pause and think about the reaction of the readers to this aspect of the story. Whether the writer decides this is something that needs addressing or not is entirely up to him.

To his credit, there are moments when Teela shows that she's much more aware of what's going on around her than Louis gives her credit for, but then, such moments are quickly dismissed because she is young (even though Louis lusts after her, but then will regard her as a child that he's trying not to browbeat when she tries to assert herself, eventually giving into her because sex), has no real wants, and isn't interested in knowing anything outside her own short scope of life on earth. She's not a terribly rounded character, and I'm not sure whether to blame Niven's writing or Louis' grossly misogynistic and self-serving views of her because I want to believe that Niven intended for us to catch these glimpses of Teela being more than just some thing for Louis to enjoy.

I can't rate this book more than two stars no matter how much I enjoyed certain elements of it, and it will find new life on my DNR (do not resuscitate) pile where books I never intend to read again go. I will attempt the second book on an optimistic note and hope there is a new narrator that is far less aggravating than Louis Wu and that by some small chance Niven's female characters have achieved better status than being treated like insolent children who should be seen and not heard.

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This blog is a mishmash of thoughts, pictures, and rantings among other things about games I've played, games I will play, and games I am currently playing. From time to time, I may post book reviews that I've written that are about different games and/or game worlds. Feel free to recommend games or add me on the platforms I've listed. I don't do competitive multiplayer much anymore, but I'm always down for some co-op these days. I'm usually DigitalTempest everywhere unless otherwise specified.

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2016 Reading Challenge

2016 Reading Challenge
Tiara has read 6 books toward her goal of 52 books.
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Tiara's bookshelf: currently-reading

The Elfstones Of Shannara
tagged: upcoming-reads, currently-reading, 2016-audiobook-challenge, classi...
Gardens of the Moon
tagged: currently-reading, fantasy, z-narrator-ralph-lister, 2016-audiobook...

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Tiara's bookshelf: read

Deceived
really liked it
Review to come.
tagged: 2016-star-wars-reading-challenge and 2016-audiobook-challenge
The Girl from the Well
liked it
More reviews @ The Bibliosanctum TL;DR Review 2.5 to 3 stars. Not badly written… I’m just disappointed by the squandered potential. I’m going to reread Anna Dressed in Blood to make myself feel better about this Longer Review: T...
tagged: 2016-women-of-genre-fiction-reading, horror, and young-adult
Thirteen Reasons Why
I don't think this quite captures the complexity of bullying and suicide, and some of the issues that Hannah started facing toward the end of the novel really seemed to detract even more from the feelings she was going through by having ...
tagged: young-adult, popsugar-2016-reading-challenge, 2016-audiobook-challe...
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
liked it
Spoiler free review to come.
tagged: 2016-star-wars-reading-challenge
The Phantom of the Opera
really liked it
tagged: classic-horror, classics, audiobook, 2016-audiobook-challenge, horr...

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