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.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Birthed from Womb of Dragon's Maw

After a ridiculously grueling play session that ended at about 6 AM this morning (at which point I abruptly fell asleep), I finally finished the Android version of Final Fantasy IV. It really is no wonder that my initial playthrough of Final Fantasy IV for DS stalled out right around when I got to the moon. The difficulty level really ramps up on a level that can't adequately be compared to other versions of the game. For comparison, I've generally finished my runs of Final Fantasy IV on other platforms at anywhere from level 45 to 50 with 16 to 21 hours of playtime. On the DS and Android versions of the game, my playtime is closer to 30 hours with levels in the mid to high 60s. I've never considered FFIV an easy game (barring the initial North American release), but the Matrix Software versions of the game really take it to a new level. Of course, this makes the final battle even more satisfying to complete, even if the laborious trek leading up to it might have been a little much.

I've always really enjoyed Final Fantasy IV's combat system because even though it consists primarily of selecting options from a menu, it manages to feel stressful and frenetic. Enemies make decisions in real time, meaning that the player must think quickly to decide the appropriate course of action. It's important to stay on top of keeping the party healed and buffed while dishing out the appropriate amount of damage. I've always found this challenging playstyle addictive since the very first time I played one of the game's many versions. There are many completely turn-based games that somewhat replicate this feel, but none really replicate the intensity that I'm looking for. For whatever reason, Active Time Battle is a relatively rare thing outside the main Final Fantasy series, and of course it's a concept that even that series eventually abandoned.

Games like Etrian Odyssey and Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne are punishingly difficult, but they also give you an adequate amount of time to consider your actions in combat. In Final Fantasy IV, it is important you execute your actions as quickly as possible lest you are struck down by the enemy's frequently powerful attacks. Bosses often employ spells capable of destroying the party in a single blow if the right strategy isn't executed. The final boss in particular casts the dreaded Big Bang attack which will generally wipe out the party if everyone doesn't Defend just beforehand. Fortunately, he rumbles ominously to forecast the attack.

The Android and DS versions of Final Fantasy IV distinguish themselves from other versions of the game both graphically and through gameplay. Although the trajectory of the game is largely identical to other versions, the game's graphics are completely redesigned and rendered in 3D--albeit primitively, since it was designed to take advantage of the Nintendo DS's limited hardware. The Android version's textures are noticeably improved, but it's still pretty apparent the game is a port from a technologically weaker device. Final Fantasy IV for DS and Android also distinguishes itself from other versions with its interesting Augment system.

Final Fantasy IV is well known for its large cast of mostly temporary characters. Cecil encounters a number of allies over the course of the game and eventually settles on a motley band of adventurers in the game's latter half and sticks with them for the game's remainder. Some versions of the game (like the WonderSwan Color and Game Boy Advance versions) addressed this issue by allowing the player to field a party of whatever characters they wished for the game's final sections. I found this to be a fun and satisfying twist on the original game's mechanics and gladly tossed Cid into my final party after acquiring his ultimate hammer in an optional dungeon added just for the Game Boy Advance version's release. In the case of the DS and Android versions, Matrix elected to instead scrap the modular party and use the Augment system instead, a mechanic in which various temporary party member abilities could be transferred to other characters. It became possible for Cecil to use Kick and for Kain to use Darkness. A variety of new abilities were introduced with this system as well, such as Phoenix (a passive ability that sacrifices MP to revive all party members when slain), Dualcasting (cast two spells per turn), and Omnicasting (cast single target spells on all targets).

Final Fantasy IV for Android is the fifth version of the game I've completed, the others being the North American SNES release (FF2 Easytype), the fan translation of the Super Famicom version, the Game Boy Advance version, and the DS version. I have no interest in the WonderSwan Color of PlayStation versions of the game, but I am interested in the PlayStation Portable Final Fantasy IV Complete Collection. Unlike the DS and Android versions, it's completely 2D--and gorgeous, too. I've been meaning to try it out for a long time but never got around to it for some reason. If I ever buy a Vita, I'll definitely download it and give it a play. I've heard that it restores the ability to switch party members like the GBA and WSC versions of the game--a feature I've always enjoyed despite it breaking from convention.

Of course, there's also Final Fantasy IV: The After Years to consider, which I've never really played. I played the first episode the game when it initially released on WiiWare, but never got back to it, despite willing to give it a try. It always struck me as a fangame that somehow got an official release, since it so liberally reuses artwork and music from Final Fantasy IV. Of course, Matrix released a 3D remake of the game on Android/iOS and it's included in the Final Fantasy IV Complete Collection so there's a good chance I'll be playing it. I've heard some pretty mixed things about it, but I'd be happy to form my own opinions.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

RPG Bliss

I'm playing a lot of different games right now, but I don't find it stressful or overwhelming. In fact, I'm pretty happy with the situation because I'm really enjoying just about all of them--particularly because two of them I'm playing cooperatively with different people. There's something so satisfying about socializing while playing a game. It's such a wonderful hobby to share with others, particularly when it comes to story-driven RPGs. When both players are working toward a goal and planning and strategizing together--it's really rewarding. I'd previously lamented what I'd identified as "RPG burnout" but I think really what I was dealing with was several games in a row that were lengthy and insanely difficult. That's what happens when you play three Etrian Odyssey titles back to back. Fortunately, games like Icewind Dale: Enhanced Edition and (on the complete opposite end of the RPG spectrum) Tales of Xillia have gone a long way toward allaying my frustrations with the genre.

Don't get me wrong--I loved the first three Etrian Odyssey games, but there's no denying that they're tremendously time consuming and unforgiving. I think I made a wise decision not to jump right into Etrian Odyssey IV despite having purchased it at the same time as EOIII. I'm healthily enthralled in the games I'm playing now in a way that I was afraid I wouldn't be. I felt I might have needed to cleanse my palate with a game of a completely different genre, whether it be action, adventure, or otherwise. Of course, I'm still open to those games and I may well move on to them after this batch of games is done. Crypt of the Necrodancer is a fiendishly addictive rhythm-based roguelike that I find I quite enjoy, for instance--and the recently fan-translated Ace Attorney Investigations 2: Prosecutor's Path scratches that adventure game itch. It could easily convince me to revisit such games as Dreamfall: The Longest Journey and Monkey Island 2.

For now, I'm enormously excited to be playing Icewind Dale: Enhanced Edition, as it more or less eradicates any issues I had with the original version of the game. It's important to have variety when creating a party of six characters, and IWD: EE delivers by importing all of the new and fleshed out classes and subclasses from Baldur's Gate II as well as what I can only assume are a few new ones added just for Beamdog's Enhanced Edition. The amount of diversity in classes is really refreshing. I'm having a lot of fun with it and I can't wait to move on to the enhanced editions of both Baldur's Gate games, having worshiped the original versions for many years. We have tentative plans to play them in three-man co-op, but we'll see how that works out. And then, maybe Neverwinter Nights on down the line? Icewind Dale II? Who knows?

I'm also playing Final Fantasy IV for Android because it's one of the few versions of the game I haven't yet played. I have tentative plans to follow up by playing Final Fantasy IV: The After Years despite some decidedly negative reviews. I think I'd like to give it a try and form my own opinion on it. If it's only useful as fanservice then I'm probably the right audience for it since FFIV was a pretty important part of my childhood and I never really tire of replaying the game.

Hopefully I'll have more fleshed out entries on individual games coming up soon, but considering my bizarre mood swings lately it's difficult to say just when they'll come!


Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Checking in

Let's take a moment, shall we, to discuss what pitiful reasons I might have to have entirely skipped the month of April for updating this blog. I have no good reasons to share other than my dreadful tendency toward laziness. I've continued to play games and I've continued to adhere strictly to my diet--if not my exercise plan. I've made a few trips to the gym but I haven't been going nearly as often as I'd originally planned. Some of this has to do with social anxiety, but far more of it has to do with simply being lazy.

Laziness is such an insidious and depressing vice of mine that I feel I am doomed to struggle against on a daily basis. It is fueled by but separate from my depression. If I were happier I'd find myself with better tools to combat my laziness but I feel pretty strongly that it'd always be there. Whether I like it or not, it seems to be an irrevocable part of my personality. On good days, I'll be able to overcome or even ignore my lazy tendencies, but unfortunately, I've found it very difficult to want to get off the couch lately unless I'm absolutely required to do so.

Despite my poor track record at the gym, my weight loss continues to progress at a satisfying rate. I weighed in at 213 on Saturday, which is roughly 40 pounds from my starting weight. My body shape has visually changed and I've gone down a couple of pants sizes and I feel pretty comfortable wearing a large shirt--but my discomfort with my body and anxiety about my body have not gone away. In some ways, I feel more stressed out about it than before because I'm now less complacent about the state of my health. Because I'm no longer in denial I find myself forced to confront the way I really am and just how out of shape I was and continue to be. I can only hope that my feelings will improve as I continue to shed more weight--and perhaps more importantly that I will overcome my sloth and get my ass to the gym on a regular basis. I went recently and pushed myself really hard and that felt good after the ache subsided. Now that the pain is almost completely gone I feel like a slob! If I don't remain in constant motion I feel like I'm failing. I feel like I'm failing a lot.

It would have been so easy for me with my vast amounts of free time to visit this blog and write entries, most likely about the games I've been playing. I certainly have things to say about them. I've started to feel a little weird, however, about writing about my fitness journey. I almost feel like I'm jinxing myself even though I haven't yet plateaued. I'm continue to lose weight at a steady pace but I'm afraid that I'll stop and start gaining it back at any minute. Those fears aren't completely without a basis even though I have been very consistent with my diet. I have to exercise. It's important. Even if I do maintain the diet and continue to lose weight, I'll still be flabby and unappealing.

Self loathing and anxiety aren't typically great motivators, but when I'm sinking I'll grab anything that seems like it'll keep me afloat. I'm just worried that even if I do chisel my body into something much more appealing, my anxieties will remain--except this time it'll be called body dysmorphia because in reality I'll have nothing with which I should be concerned. That would be better than my current situation, I guess.

Honestly, I have a whole world of thought I'd like to explore, but it's late and the caffeine I've consumd is really doing a great job of blocking my thoughts from getting out. I have games to talk about and more to discuss on my current mental state--but that'll have to wait for another entry. Let's hope I follow up in less than a month this time.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Only one of us shall escape this domain alive.

I'm really glad that I decided to finally start playing Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne for real recently, because it's a fantastic game. My co-op partner and I have been making steady progress on it for the past couple of weeks. A large percentage of our playtime is spent deliberating on which demons we should fuse and what movesets they should have. We disagree a lot on what abilities are most useful, but that's part of what makes playing through the game collaboratively interesting. Still, these discussions do tend to add a lot of artificial time to our playthrough. We're at something like 45 hours into the game and I'm not quite sure how much more we have to go. I think it's safe to say we're a little over half the way through, but I'm sure the last couple of dungeons are going to be daunting--and the optional content will be even more time consuming if we choose to attempt it.

Nocturne features demons, spirits, and beasts that I've already seen in the Persona series but this time in a much different context. Persona is about the human characters. The demons themselves are generally secondary and serve merely as sources of power for the game's characters. In Nocturne, the demons are integral to the plot and to the theme and atmosphere of the game. Demons like Matador, Daisoujou, and Mizuchi feel impactful and memorable not just because of the mythological beings they represent, but because they exist in the game as characters, as powerful entities which the demonic protagonist must defeat. When the demi-fiend (the aforementioned protagonist) encounters Matador by surprise in a darkened hallway, as he grasps him by the legs and drags him into some hellish dimension--it is chilling. It is memorable. And the twisted music that accompanies this encounter (and future fiend counters) is positively spine-tingling.


The demi-fiend wanders a post apocalyptic world populated only by the souls of the dead, demons, and bizarre sentient manikins that move and twitch unnaturally as they speak to you. The only remaining living humans are those that were fortunate enough to be inside Shinjuku Hospital at the very beginning of the game before the Conception occurred. The demi-fiend will encounter these humans--some of whom were friends before the world changed--and will discover that each has different ideas about how the world should be reborn. And it is up to the demi-fiend to decide, ultimately, how that will happen.

Although Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne doesn't contain some of the features I loved about the Persona series, it more than makes up for it with atmosphere, challenge, and variety. There are tons of demons to fuse and try in Nocturne, all of which can be placed into your active or reserve party. Reserve party members can contribute outside of battle with healing and utility spells like Estoma, which reduces the encounter rate--or Liftoma, which nullifies the effect of damaging floor tiles. The demi-fiend himself learns skills through Magatama, strange parasites that can be ingested. They also impart resistances (and frequently weaknesses) to various elements, as well as bonuses to certain stats. It is in this way that the player can customize the protagonist to their liking with up to 8 total skills. There isn't as much diversity in the protagonist's playstyle as in Persona 3 and 4, but considering the variety available in party members, I can't fault the game for this.

Suffice to say, it's a wonderful game and I can't wait to play other titles in the main series. I just might backtrack and start from the very first one.


Sunday, March 22, 2015

Sunday Fitness Rant #3

Okay, well, I think, I've resigned myself to writing these fitness entries on Sundays instead of Saturdays. It's becoming routine for me to stay out pretty late on Saturday nights (for video game purposes, of course) and I find I'm frequently too tired to return home and write out an entry! That's okay though, because I don't feel the need to write an entry every day--just every day that I feel it's warranted. I can only hope that I can maintain a pace that results in 5-6 entries per week, but we'll have to see how that goes!

Anyhow, I am happy to report that I have reached the 220s on the weight scale, coming in narrowly at 229 for this week. Additionally, I made it to the gym this morning and had a legitimate workout. I hadn't been for about a week and a half because of things that kept getting in my way (and of course me making excuses) but I feel much better now that I've gone. Like I've mentioned previously, I'd love to be able to go at least three times a week, but more would be even better. I pushed myself pretty hard today and actually felt a little queasy after getting off the treadmill. I was worried for a bit that I'd maybe overdone it, but I feel fine now. I think that level of cardio is just going to take some getting used to. I'm confident I'll be be able to increase my pace and endurance considerably over the next few months.

I spoke with my uncle briefly today about my progress and he warned me that I shouldn't try to lose weight too quickly or I might run into issues with loose skin. If I'm being honest with myself, I'm terrified that might happen--but at this point I feel like there's little I can do to stop it. I'm so accustomed to this diet and so comfortable with it that the pounds are melting off without me doing any exercise at all. I want to actually get in shape while I'm losing all this weight, though, so these gym visits will hopefully help with that. I'd be really bummed if I lost a lot of weight and still had saggy skin, but I guess I'll have to deal with that when I come to it. At the very least, there's nothing stopping me from getting in shape and I know I'm going to feel better, even if my body shape doesn't end up exactly where I want it to be.

An old coworker of mine commented today on how much weight I've lost. That felt really good to hear, because it's not something I've heard much yet. I can see the progress I've made--a little bit, anyway. And of course I have the scale to prove it, but the validation from hearing it from others--it's tremendously gratifying. I know I still have a long way to go, but knowing that my efforts have not gone unnoticed is a huge boost to my motivation.