Monday, August 31, 2015

As long as there's at least one person in life that understands me, I'll be okay

I've settled into a kind of melancholy over the past few days not necessarily due to events in my own life (although I'm sure those play a part) but instead due to a profound emptiness from finishing the anime series Toradora! I don't watch anime often but I've definitely warmed up to the idea over the past couple of years, as a number of scattered entries on this blog will attest. I wouldn't say I've been profoundly affected by any of those that I've watched, aside from being immensely entertained by Nichijou and drawn in by the drama and action of Attack on Titan. 

Toradora! is exactly the kind of anime I've always (subconsciously) been looking for. It doesn't take itself too seriously, it's not about saving the world--it concerns itself primarily with every day life and the relationships between a group of friends. These same elements are what draw me to the Persona series and to visual novels. The dialogue and interactions between characters are more important than the overall arc of the plot. The friendship between Ryuji and Taiga, their shared hardships and idiosyncrasies--they're so funny and poignant, and so entertaining.

I think I'd watch a lot more anime in general if I weren't so obsessed with multitasking. Toradora! has an excellent dub so I was able to watch it while playing Etrian Odyssey IV. I'll admit, however, that there were many occasions where I was drawn in enough that I found myself ignoring the game and paying close attention to what I was watching. I found something to like in all of the anime's principal characters. Ryuji is kind and driven despite being dismissed for his startling features. Taiga is extremely short both in temper and figure but hopes desperately that she'll find the courage to let herself have what she wants. Minori is immensely motivated and cheerful despite being beset by setbacks at every turn. Kitamura (voiced by the ubiquitous Johnny Yong Bosch) is almost comically well-adjusted but still grapples with his own personal demons.

Ryuji and Taiga form a friendship in order to help each other achieve their goals. Ryuji likes Minori. Taiga likes Kitamura. They both resolve to help the other impress their crushes and a lot of hijinks result. The setup could easily become a very formulaic story but I was so impressed by the amount of respect each character was given in the situation. Minori and Kitamura are never treated as idyllic unobtainable avatars of perfection. They are revealed to be characters just as fleshed out as any other--and I came to root for them just as much as I was rooting for Ryuji and Taiga.

So, now, I do feel some emptiness from having finished Toradora! not just because I miss watching these characters grow and evolve--but also because the resolution left me feeling a little unsatisfied. The last couple of episodes are very cathartic in some ways but I can't help but feel that a couple of the principal characters were left with no particular resolution. My heart breaks in particular for my favorite character, even if I know instinctively that this character is definitely going to be fine in the long run.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

The Titan of Repetition

Alright, I feel I've remained silent on this blog for far too long. When did I decide I could only write entries after completing a video game? I think I might have originally had the idea when I stopped updating on a daily basis and thought that I might switch to long-form reviews every few weeks. Well, that didn't pan out. I wrote about two of them and was appalled at the amount of research and preparation they required to write! I did enjoy writing them, but it made actually playing the games more of a chore than I'd really prefer. Of course, the game on which I'm currently spending most of my time is becoming a chore all on its own.

I have mixed feelings about the Etrian Odyssey series. Obviously there is something engaging and addictive about these games because I've plowed my way through three of them already--and I'm well on my way to conquering a fourth. They are also a great source of irritation and frustration, however, mostly due, I think, to the games' emphasis on repetition. Exploring these games' labyrinths is an exercise in trial and error. Venture as far as you dare--until you feel you've reached the limits of your endurance or skill--and then return to town. Heal up, resupply your characters, and venture out once again, only to retrace your steps. Shortcuts will frequently get you to your destination a little faster than the last time, but you'll still find yourself spending a great deal of time retreading your steps.

One could make the argument that Etrian Odyssey IV has come a long way in advancing the series' overall format. The game's main mazes are generally shorter and more focused than the sprawling labyrinths of games past. Each of these dungeons only have three floors after all, even if these floors are generally quite large and convoluted. To flesh out the game's content, there are several one-floor caves scattered throughout the game's world. In many cases, these caves are entirely optional.

Still, I can't help but feel frustrated at the amount of times I've had to traverse the second and third floors of the game's fourth main labyrinth--the Echoing Library. It is an exercise in soul-crushing repetition that has somewhat soured my appreciation for an otherwise excellent game. I'm happy with the classes and diversity in builds available to me--even if I don't think they're quite up to par with those of Etrian Odyssey III--but I'm not as pleased with dungeon design in many cases. At least I'm never in a situation where I'm forced to walk over literally 20 damage tiles to access an essential part of the labyrinth, ala the original Etrian Odyssey. It's easy to forget the root of this series, even if I did play it for the first time earlier this year.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

A fallen angel is an enemy of God

Let's shift gears for a moment and take a look at a game that until recently had been languishing in my backlog for several years. That game is Tactics Ogre: Knight of Lodis, the lone Game Boy Advance game on my list still left to complete. I'd originally decided to tackle the game so many years ago for two reasons: one, I'm a huge strategy RPG fan; and two, I'm a tremendous fan of Ogre Battle 64: Person of Lordly caliber, one of the best games on the N64 and one of the few RPG representatives on the console. Of course, despite the two games being entries into the same series, their gameplay is very different.

Knight of Lodis is a strategy RPG more in the tradition of Final Fantasy Tactics--but it is perhaps more accurate to say it follows the tradition of its direct predecessor, Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together from the Super Famicom. This game of course predated Final Fantasy Tactics and was perhaps unfairly unrecognized (at least in the West) for its influence on Japanese SRPGs. I haven't played LUCT extensively so I feel unqualified to comment, but it seems impossible to deny just how heavily it influenced Final Fantasy Tactics. Due to my inexperience, I can only really compare it to other SRPGs I've played. I do plan to play through Let Us Cling Together, but it'll definitely be the PSP version.

Knight of Lodis is an SRPG featuring a class system and many unique story characters as well as playable monsters, demihumans, and undead creatures. Like many games in the genre, positioning and terrain are both very important to succeed in combat. In fact, its almost impossible to successfully attack opponents from the front. It's an even worse idea in melee since all attacks made from the front will be met with automatic counterattacks. It's entirely possible to whiff an attack and then get countered for fatal damage. For this reason, units with high mobility are very useful on the battlefield, increasing the value of flying units like hawkmen and angel knights.

Because accuracy is such an issue, I found myself prioritizing magic attacks that hit without fail and melee units that could easily get behind opponents. Early on, I made a lot of use of the ninja class with its ability to walk on water and travel long distances. Wizards and sirens, with their ability to cast elemental magic with 100% success rates, were also a staple of my early strategy. Later on, I equipped a couple of my characters (including the protagonist as a swordmaster) with items that allowed them to teleport around the battlefield, ignoring terrain.

Knight of Lodis is not a game that features stunning class variety (at least not in comparison to Final Fantasy Tactics) but it does make your choices important. Unlocking new classes requires a certain set of minimum stats and frequently a specific Emblem. Emblems are obtained through performing special actions in combat. Most Emblems benefit characters by imparting statistical bonuses, but others only serve to unlock new classes. The Lancer Emblem is obtained by striking two foes in a line with a spear, for instance, and is required to unlock the Valkyrie class, with its balanced stat growths and propensity for spears and magic. Each class in Knight of Lodis has its own stat growths. Planning out the chain of classes a certain character will use as they level up will determine how quickly you unlock more powerful classes. Some of the game's most powerful classes can only be unlocked by dying in combat!

Still, each of the game's classes essentially boils down to a bundle of stats combined with possibly one or two special abilities. Many non-wizard classes can also equip magic, of which there is a decent variety, ranging from low-accuracy projectiles, accurate area-of-effect spells, and devastating multi-hit summons. Many of the game's unique characters can equip these summons and to be honest they made up the bulk of my army by the end of the game.

Overall, I really enjoyed Knight of Lodis despite longing for a little more complexity and variety of choices. The plot, which is largely political until rumblings of an ancient sacred spear come into play, is also well done but admittedly not something I became very invested in. The soundtrack is also very good and echoes themes from Ogre Battle 64. I'm not at all surprised that Hitoshi Sakimoto (of Final Fantasy Tactics and Vagrant Story) fame had a hand in it. It's definitely one of the best games in the Game Boy Advance library. It makes me want to revisit some games I never got around to--which primarily consists of Golden Sun 2, honestly.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Another dimension of Final Fantasy

I've been compiling documents at work in hopes that I would cobble together some of those notes to write some actual entries for this blog. So far, that hasn't really happened for the most part. It might make more sense to just straight up write blog entries from work and maybe finish them when I get home. On really slow days, I might just get them completely done while I'm there, even if the productivity of such an action is extremely questionable.

I've been meaning to write about Final Fantasy Dimensions for some time now even though I completed it pretty early this month. I played through it pretty quickly considering the length of the game. This was at least partially because I was eager to be done with it, if I'm being honest. Dimensions comes from the same developer as the Final Fantasy III and IV enhanced remakes as well as Final Fantasy IV: The After Years, an immensely flawed (but still often enjoyable) episodic RPG. Dimensions is also episodic, but instead of focusing on individual characters in their own chapters, Dimensions jumps back and forth between two sets of parties composed of characters split up near the beginning of the game. These are the Warriors of Light and the Warriors of Darkness.

I'm generally a fan of games in which a group of separated characters deal with conflicts on the way to an ultimate objective in which the groups unite their powers. It's been done time and time again in different ways over the years, but I'm generally excited by working towards that point where my characters come together. Games like Dragon Quest IV and Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn come to mind. Of course, those games mostly consist of static characters that learn abilities at predetermined levels. In each playthrough, they'll mostly be the same characters. Replay value comes from experimenting with different combinations of the characters available. In the case of Final Fantasy Dimensions, the abilities and strengths of the characters are left almost entirely up to the player.

What makes this take on the format interesting is the fact that the Warriors of Light and Warriors of Darkness have access to a different pool of classes. They share the basic classes like warrior, monk, white mage, and black mage--but the light warriors get jobs like paladin and memorist, whereas the dark warriors get ninja and dark knights. Once the two parties reunite, it's left entirely up to the player how to combine the light and dark warriors into a unified party and which classes to take into the final encounters.

Conceptually, all of this is very sound and it seems like it should come together to make a truly excellent game. However, it's not all good. The plot and characters are almost entirely forgettable and the combat is not always exciting. The random encounter rate in just about every location it exists is unforgivably high--and it's often the case that an immense amount of grinding is required to progress to the next location. I found myself relying on Auto Battle more often than not to slog my way through most of the game's dungeons. I can at least say that Naoshi Mizuta's soundtrack is solid, although certainly derivative of the Final Fantasy series as a whole. Whether an intentional homage or not, the boss battle theme echoes Final Fantasy VIII's "Force Your Way" pretty clearly.

Although the game does feature a nice variety of job classes with which to experiment, it doesn't seem to offer a lot of variety in terms of strategy. Negative status effects are almost universally ineffective against bosses (a trait shared by Bravely Default, if I recall correctly), whereas Final Fantasy IV bosses were almost always susceptible to being slowed, at the very least. Almost every tough boss fight eventually boils down to pooping out as much damage as possible while healing the party to full with 1-2 characters per turn. Buffing the party is, at the very least, an effective strategy, but interacting with the enemy in any other way but damage is pointless. This renders spells like Slow, Poison, Bio, Stop, and Silence to be almost completely useless outside of random encounters. Of course, this is not an uncommon thing in Final Fantasy games, but I posit that this should not be the case.

If there's anything about Final Fantasy Dimensions that really made me enjoy it in the end, it was that feeling in the final dungeon of having reached my "end game fantasy." I really chase that feeling at the end of a lot of RPGs in which you've unlocked the most powerful upgrades, abilities, and weapons, and can conceivably tear through anything the game has to offer. That feeling of being powerful after building up for a long period of time is a feeling I look for in just about every RPG I play. Dimensions did at least deliver in that aspect.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Legend of the Doughy Weakling

I've found that I frequently lose motivation to write when I get home either due to being tired after a day of work or something more psychological than that. I associate being at home with unwinding and resting and writing frequently feels like work--even though it should not. If I could more easily organize my thoughts into something coherent then I think I could start enjoying it again, but I've gotten out of practice. Writing every day was fantastic for keeping me self aware and organized in my thoughts. The skills I built up over that year and a half have certainly atrophied. I wonder frequently if I should begin the process anew because my original plan to produce entries of much higher quality on an occasional basis has failed.

I've not been entirely unproductive in the time I've spent avoiding writing. I've gotten stricter with my diet. I'm consuming more protein and fewer carbs, I'm riding my bike every day, and I'm trying to lift free weights every other day or so. My body aches with even this very minor effort but my ambitions to lift heavy were thwarted quite dramatically at the gym a couple of days ago. It was. . .actually pretty embarrassing.

I'd managed to get myself thoroughly pumped up to embark on a new workout plan as laid out for me on Bodybuilding.com. The routine was heralded as an effective way to lose body fat. I was intrigued by this idea because even though I've lost a surprising amount of weight this year, I still can't help but feel I'm very pudgy and doughy. The first day of the plan involved the bench press, chin ups, and a lot of other scary stuff. I had to admit it sounded like exercise a little outside my fitness level but I was determined to try anyway.

I got up absurdly early on Sunday morning (at around 6:30) and fully intended to ride my bike for about a mile and a half--and I'm sure I would have, too, but it started to rain and I didn't want to get my bike too wet. I called it quits after only a couple minutes. This was a setback for the first day of my new routine but I was determined not to give up! I returned my bike to my living room and made myself a protein-packed meal of a pile of eggs and parmesan cheese. (I'm still a vegetarian, even though eggs feel questionable to me.) My energy newly renewed, I headed to the gym feeling pretty confident.

Since it was an early Sunday morning, there were very few other gym-goers around. I headed straight for the bench without considering the fact I'd done very little research on the exercise beforehand. It seemed pretty simple to me--lift the barbell off the thing, bring it down, and lift it back up. Do that until you're done. Simple. I laid down on the bench and extended my arms to the barbell and exerted a pretty significant amount of force on it, or so I thought. It didn't budge. It did not move an inch. Well, I thought, maybe one hundred pounds is a little too much for a beginner. (I didn't know at the time that the bar itself probably weighed 40-50 pounds alone.)

I decided fifty pounds might be more my speed (although fifty pounds of weight results in a much higher total, I didn't know this at the time) and removed a couple of the twenty-five pound weights and tried again. Success! I lifted the bar from its receptacle and felt confident I could do this! Unfortunately, I dropped the bar immediately to my chest and found I could no longer lift it. Momentarily panicking, I awkwardly rolled the bar down to my waist and sat up with a colossal effort. Summoning forth what meager strength I had left, I reversed my grip on the bar and managed to gently lower it to the floor while scanning the gym to see who might be laughing at my weakness. No one was paying attention, of course--or at least they were doing a good job of hiding their mirth.

I managed to--just barely--return the bar to the lower receptacle and I hastily removed myself from the area. I pretended to look at my phone for a period of about five minutes, did some crunches (on a machine that offered me one hundred pounds of resistance) and made a beeline for the exit, bewildered and defeated. Am I really that weak, I wondered? Granted, sitting at home and playing video games all day doesn't go a long way toward building strength. I decided that maybe I was going to have to build up some strength before I tackled those tougher exercises--so I came home and did some military presses with much lighter free weights. Of course, even the amount of force required to lift that barbell in the gym had sapped my strength, so I found the free weights very difficult as well. I'm still aching from that three days later, although I dismissed my pain and did some curls today. I'm determined to keep up with some kind of routine. It's just a matter of what I can actually accomplish.

By the way, I was 193 at my last weigh-in. I never did write about the milestone of going below 200, even though I was really excited about it at the time. I had originally intended to write about fitness every week, but I became disillusioned with the idea after experiencing so much dissatisfaction with my body and the way I look. I'm glad I've finally decided to ramp things up. I've managed to easily stick to my diet for pretty much this entire year, but since that's become easy, I have to add in regular exercise. When that becomes easy, I'll dial up the intensity. It's a process. Let's hope I eventually reach a point of which I can feel proud.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Infinity

Let's discuss for a moment how I've been spending my time over the past month or so. I discussed briefly in a previous entry that I'd been playing the enhanced edition of Icewind Dale (released by Beamdog last year) with a co-op partner. We played through the game in its entirety, including the Heart of Winter expansion and I have to say I enjoyed it a lot. Unlike the Baldur's Gate series which is very plot and character-driven, Icewind Dale is much more about gameplay and atmosphere. There is much in the way of lore that serves as a backdrop for the game but it is not its driving force. For me, it is a game primarily about slaying zombies, trolls, and frost giants while acquiring levels--and it does that quite well. The strategic gameplay and large variety of spells inherent to the series are in full display in Icewind Dale, but I definitely noticed a lot of abilities unique to the game. Bards and druids are less interesting in the Baldur's Gate series by comparison, for instance.

Still, I have to say I was drawn in by the game's wintry setting, its ancient castles and caves, its snowy mountains and mysterious caverns. Castle Maldurek from the expansion was particularly impressive in scope with its many puzzles and tough enemies. I'm immensely grateful for Beamdog for having created an enhanced edition of the game because I doubt I would have powered through the game's original version with its set of decidedly vanilla classes. The sequel, on the other hand--that I may well play, enhanced edition or no. I'm intrigued by the changes it introduced by adopting 3rd edition D&D rules. I'd definitely like to play it before attempting Neverwinter Nights, which of course was the first of the Forgotten Realms RPGs since the original Baldur's Gate to not be built in the classic Infinity Engine.

Speaking of Baldur's Gate, I've also completed Beamdog's enhanced edition of it with a different co-op partner (the one with whom I play games on a regular basis, in fact) and was as usual very pleased with it. Sadly, I didn't get the opportunity to experience a lot of the game's added content save for a sidequest involving Neera the wild mage. I may well go back to it and play through content I missed at a later time. Of course, playing through the original saga in my mind served only to prepare us for playing the Baldur's Gate II Enhanced Edition which for some reason I had not yet played.

As I have discussed previously on this blog (admittedly, probably close to two years ago now), Baldur's Gate II is possibly my favorite game of all time. This most recent playthrough is only reinforcing that opinion. Particularly pleasing is the fact that I no longer have to deal with the inconvenience of attempting to get the original version of the game to run on modern hardware. Baldur's Gate II: Enhanced Edition works right out of the box and seems optimized well for modern PCs, although it is of course not without its fair share of bugs.

Although I really enjoyed playing Icewind Dale, replaying Baldur's Gate II really drives home what it is about the game that keeps me coming back over and over. I've always been intensely engaged by games driven by an ensemble cast of characters. Baldur's Gate II's myriad character sidequests keep me endlessly entertained--and these characters are mostly pretty interesting and occasionally hilarious. The game's emphasis on creating a likable cast of characters combined with an excellent combat system and a healthy amount of exploration and quests really melds together to create an engaging, memorable, and endlessly replayable experience. For this particular playthrough, I'm playing a half-elf skald. I've never done that before and it's working out great.

I could easily become burned out on the Infinity Engine if I keep this up, but for now I feel pretty ready to finally play through Throne of Bhaal.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

The After

After I finished Final Fantasy IV for Android, I decided it was high time I finally played through Final Fantasy IV: The After Years. I think it was a game worth playing as a longtime fan of FFIV and its characters, but it's definitely an immensely flawed experience that smacks of some combination of laziness and/or a low budget. I hesitate to call The After Years a cash-in but I may grudgingly have to admit its true, especially as it pertains to the game's original episodic release. It is a game in which the player is tasked with taking control of many of Final Fantasy IV's various heroes, as well as a number of new characters. In these characters' individual chapters, they traverse two or three repetitive dungeons, backtrack, and get perspective on an unfolding threat.

In some cases, this sort of gameplay is not too bad. Palom's chapter, in which he takes on an apprentice from Troia named Leonora, is sweet and interesting. The prologue chapter featuring Cecil's son Ceodore is cool because it introduces the concept of Bands (the game's combination attacks system) and a mysterious hooded man who is clearly Kain. Edward's chapter is unforgivably bad as it tasks the player with traveling through the waterway north of Kaipo probably three times with a party consisting of Edward only. If that wasn't frustrating enough, the chapter introduces only one other character (by the name of Harley) who is quite possibly even more useless than Edward himself.

An uncomfortably high percentage of these early chapters are an absolute slog to play through, but I felt the game redeemed itself somewhat by the time you reach the game's final chapter--The Crystals. It is at this point that all of the game's characters come together to combat the ultimate threat. After an introductory period in which the party is static, the player is finally given free reign over which characters can be placed into the active party. With a roster of characters pushing 30, this really opens up the player's options for party compositions. There are fewer things I enjoy more than composing parties of characters, be they predefined or not. Bands add a huge amount of variety to these team compositions, as all of the game's characters can perform unique combination attacks with 2-4 of the game's other characters.

The final dungeon consists of parts of the original game's Lunar Subterrane spliced with sections of other FFIV dungeons. Bosses like Baigan, Lugae, and the Magus Sisters return once more and must be fought to advance further into the dungeon. I would say the dungeon took me anywhere from ten to fifteen hours to get through, but I really enjoyed doing so. There weren't puzzles or much in the way of interesting design, admittedly, but fighting my way through all those classic bosses was a real treat in a way I will freely identify as fanservice. I've heard that 2D versions of the game also include bosses from other games in the Final Fantasy series--but the 3D version instead includes the horrifyingly difficult Lunar Dragon, Leviathan, and Bahamut.

I think The After Years had a lot of potential as a game. I love almost any game that features characters that adventure separately until reuniting much later in the game. I like many of the updated character designs, particularly Yang and Golbez. New characters like Leonora and Ursula are really interesting, whereas others (Calca and Brina) are pretty terrible. The gameplay is virtually identical to FFIV, apart from the excellent Band system--which may have been the primary thing keeping me playing. I'm glad that I played (and finished!) the game, but it has a lot of problems and I doubt I'd recommend it to most.