Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Final Fantasy Tactics A2

Picture the following:
You sit down to play a classic game of chess. You make yourself comfortable (but not *too* comfortable, lest your complacency and false sense of security cause your army to be demolished, your king and queen beheaded, and your precious castle be burned down to the ground) as you struggle to remember the rules of the game.

The 'King' is the most important piece, but only slightly more useful than the pawn (symbolism?). The 'Queen' is the most powerful player on the board and can do irreversible damage to anyone caught off-guard. And the 'Knights' ... well, they fucking suck - inexplicably.

The thing about chess is that the battlefield is mirrored so that both players have equally powerful pieces - fair and square.
This allows for the more cunning and better seasoned strategist to come out the victor (usually?).
All things considered, it's a decent -if outdated- pastime.

Now, picture what an evolved game of chess could potentially resemble:
First off, there is no useless 'King' piece! You have not one, but two 'Queen' pieces completely capable of murdering everyone in the trenches. One is a 'Sniper/Assassin' and the other is a punk-rock 'Hunter' who flies with dragon wings and hunts down enemies with bows and knives.
Also, your shitty knights have been replaced by a superior, large man-dog 'Beastmaster' who can tame and command wild creatures to do your bidding, and a child-sized rabbit who shoots lightning bolts from magical pistols (a 'Fusilier', as they're called).

This, my friends, is the ridiculously awesome game of 'Final Fantasy Tactics A2' for the Nintendo DS (compatible with the 3DS), and one of my favorite games in existence!

As the title implies, this is actually the 2007 sequel to the 2003 title, 'Final Fantasy Tactics Advance'.
Why there aren't annual updates to this isometric, turn-based series while the rotting 'Pokémon' franchise gets double-milked to death is beyond me, but allow me to sell the idea to you even further if I haven't already.

What I've described above is a totally plausible scenario, but there are countless ways to play the game, and it's great enough that you'll soon forget what the hell the story was all about to begin with.
Something about a young boy (that's you, the main protagonist) who ends up in a magical land and needs to find a way to get back home. That old story!

Before you know it, you wind up managing a zany clan of warriors (a maximum of six can battle at a time, but your gang can include a maximum of up to 24 characters - not recommended, fyi) who take up job requests which more often than not consist of beating rival clans until they beg for mercy (only half kidding).

The biggest highlight of the game (as with most Final Fantasy titles) is the job system which allows your characters to become skilled in a wide variety of 50+ classes. Be aware that there exist limits, however.
For example, human characters -being the most versatile- can excel in jobs like 'Thief', 'Black Mage' and 'Ninja'.
The child-sized rabbits (moogles, officially) are likewise capable of becoming skilled in the arts of thievery and black magic, but they cannot become ninjas. They have their own exclusive classes, such as the aforementioned 'Fusilier'.
So on and so forth for the other 5 "races" of recruitable characters.

The extra nice thing about this game? Unlike 'Pokémon' characters which can only access a maximum of four attacks at a time, FFTA2 characters can retain moves from any two classes of your choosing (usually a maximum of around 12 or 14 attacks when 'perfected').
Perhaps you're not satisfied with your favorite character mainly leveling up their magic stats. Well, you can take said 'Illusionist' and "teach" them the way of the sword so they can fight as a magic-wielding samurai (frankly, one of my favorite combinations)!

But wait, of course there's more!
Certain weapons and 'accessories' can drastically change your battle plan before you jump in for your first attack.
A Flame Shield will not only protect you from any and all fire-based attacks, but they will actually heal your shit!
Combine it with a 'Thunder Robe' (again, there are always exceptions to who can wear what) and congratulations! You are now immune to fire & lightning!! Not only that, but you can now use your supporting cast of fighters to save you by shooting you with said magic attacks.

'Ribbons', on the other hand, are an item which *usually* only female characters can 'equip' (note: they aren't actually visible when you "put them on").
So what the hell do they do? They protect you from harmful magic attacks which can render your character blind, poisoned, or incapacitated. I'm fairly certain that ribbons won't protect you from certain doom, though (yes, that's an actual thing!).
Oh, what? I failed to mention status buffs & debuffs?

As previously stated, the layers and combinations to this game are immeasurable and there remain plenty of cool details I don't have enough space to get into.
The many variables which affect your gameplay are fairly easy to keep track of, and with enough careful planning your team of level 50 warriors can beat the odds in order to bring down level 99 monsters!
I've accomplished as much and it's one of the most satisfying of feelings.

This game isn't perfect, however. If I have to complain about anything, it's the fact that many missions are pointless, a few jobs useless, and enemies repetitive. More importantly, because there are so many missions in this game (300, but not all required in order to beat the game), you won't receive the most important weapons and items until dozens and DOZENS OF HOURS into the game.
That said, acquiring the best weapons in the game can kill most any challenge and make your battles incredibly easy towards the end.

It's certainly no dealbreaker, but the whole thing could've been shortened and better balanced.
Regardless, stop playing chess and buy this fantastic piece of software because there's no sign of a direct sequel being released anytime in the near future!
I'll just warn you to pace yourself, keep your party as small as possible, and enjoy the ride because it can last well over 100 hours if you let it.

Final Fantasy Tactics A2: Grimoire of the Rift

Final Grade: A+

Friday, April 22, 2016

One Piece

I've reviewed this gorgeous gem once before (indeed, it was the first official review I published on the previous version of this blog), but I find it imperative to revisit it once more, with feeling!

One Piece is a Japanese manga comic penned by Eiichiro Oda which began its weekly run way back in 1997 and continues to this day. With an impressive 824 chapters at the time of this typing, the series also boasts a rounded estimate of approximately 850 named characters (canon, and not including characters from non-official 'filler' material).
Statistically speaking, that's about a new character in every chapter!

In all sincerity, it's my favorite thing ever and a major influence on my own writings. And if I didn't point this out last time, it's also where the banner on this blog originates. Let's dive straight into the story, though.

This epic adventure commences as Luffy (a dopey and hungry young man of 17, our main protagonist and pronounced 'Lou-Fee') sets off on his own in search of adventure and legendary treasure, determined to become the Pirate King of the World. Certainly an ambitious goal if there ever was one, but you start believing it may be possible when he knocks out a gigantic eel monster (several times Luffy's size) with a swift punch to the side of the face by the end of the first chapter.
Wait ... how?? Well, because his body is made of rubber and he can stretch his limbs long distances and snap them like rubberbands in order to fight.

Insane as this already sounds, everything else in the living and hyperventilating world of 'One Piece' becomes much more surreal, absurd and wonderfully chaotic. As you may have already guessed, this is a show in which many characters exhibit supernatural powers and mutant abilities as they do in shows like 'Heroes' and 'X-Men'. Capabilities which in instances are considerably more terrifying than a stretchy, rubber body could ever be.
The ability to manifest into deadly poisonous gas, for example. Or transforming into one of several ferocious and carnivorous beasts. Another, it turns out, is the powerful ability to create and control strings - much more frightening than you'd initially imagine.

But there also exist lesser-scary and more peculiar abilities, such as the ability which allows an animal to gain human attributes, the ability to turn into a giant, golden Buddha statue, or the ability to turn real-life objects (and people) into works of abstract art.
When it comes down to it, Luffy has to find ways to become strong enough to overcome (through physical battles, or otherwise) people who are ridiculously strong in their own right and ready to fight for their own beliefs. Sometimes, it happens by inadvertently converting enemies into friends or allies - the lives of which he values above all else and will risk his own in order to defend.

That's the basic premise, but the entire story as it steadily approaches the 1,000 chapter milestone is enormous as new and interesting plot elements are constantly introduced which manage to intrigue and shuffle alliances around enough to make every plot point as unpredictable as can be.
This is without even mentioning all of the political, sociological and philosophical aspects which become surprisingly complex within the main story. Nor have I touched upon the remainder of the dozen or so main protagonists which join, fight and sail with Luffy under his flag -including a cyborg, a living skeleton and a reindeer- else this entry would go on forever.

Ok, great. So it's a whimsical tale about a bunch of kids playing pirates (traveling an insane world from snowy islands to islands in the skies, and an island made of cake) and fighting grown adults who want to see them dead.
Fantastic!


My most favorite thing about the story (aside from the fact that it's the only thing which often brings me close to tears) is how seriously it takes the concept of cause and effect.
If you choose to live a benevolent life of crime by sailing under a pirate flag, the government and their monstrous officials will hunt you down to put an end to your fun adventures.
Cause enough mayhem and a bounty will be put on your head (the biggest of which are displayed with great pride) until you're brought to "justice" by being sentenced to a hellish, inescapable, underwater prison.
In short, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.
It's literary physics, people!

Some of the most entertaining and satisfying scenes occur in between story arcs whenever the heroes of the story receive increments in their bounties and all of their friends and family members (as well as deadly adversaries) see their faces in the newspapers and respond accordingly with shock, laughter or absolute fury.

That said, I do have one significant criticism which the author inexplicably does not apply the 'cause & effect' rule to, and that is the concept of death. For a story in which great danger lurks within and around every island, the story contains numerous instances in which characters are implied to have died a certain death but somehow manage to survive through some bullshit reason.
It annoys me to no end, but it's about my biggest complaint in this magnificent tale which I'd recommend everyone to read.

On that last note: there's also an animated version of this incredibly popular series, of course. It contains fantastic visuals, an amazing score of classical music and brightly colorful voice acting and thus I'd also be inclined to recommend watching the show, but be aware that the pacing after the first 300 or so episodes (out of 737) can sometimes really drag (so that the show doesn't catch up to the published comic). The grading here will be for the comic book, specifically.


Final Grade: A+

Monday, April 11, 2016

Deadpool

For those of us who tend to live our lives out of the fucking loop, Deadpool is a 2016 comic book film about Wade Wilson - a crass, wise-ass mercenary and assassin who kills all of the bad guys and gets all the ladies.
Before going any further, but I must declare it a real treat to finally get an R-rated movie of this magnitude up on the big screen, which modern movie studios have been aiming to avoid for the longest time, now.

So should you run out and catch it while it's still playing in theaters?
Well, not so fast....

The action and the humor are most definitely there and pulled off with finesse (though I did feel the editing was a bit choppy and not quite so seamless in regards to frame continuity), but the execs at the film studios did manage to commit what is -in my personal view- a terrible sin. More on this later.

Concerning Deadpool himself, his mutant powers are nothing to write home to grandma about. Like Wolverine, he has top-notch regenerative abilities, but that's it as far as the movie made clear to me. He certainly displays great agility and skill with guns and blades, but I suspect it's supposed to be the results of his own personal training.
His most special ability, however, is his breaking of the fourth wall. Ridiculous as it sounds, it's perfectly fine when it's a wink or a nudge here and there, but I found it to happen annoyingly often in this film.

Another thing that irked me throughout the film was how anyone failed to mention what the specific powers of the supporting cast were supposed to be. I remember something about the main villain being unable to feel any pain (bo-ring!!), and his main assistant is a really strong woman, but come on!!
A great deal of us appreciate it when these characters are accompanied with more colorful descriptions!
But perhaps I just fell asleep at some point and missed it (guys, I'm old! I definitely caught myself nodding off for a few seconds right in the middle of the slowest scene. Also, I was at the 2:30pm matinee showing....).

That said, Deadpool himself almost has too much buildup for my own personal taste. We weave back and forth between current ass-kickings and backstory one too many times, resulting in a slower pace than the trailers would have you expect, and all of the fun and games lead to the early climax of the film just as the DMX track hits to warm up our engines.

All things considered, it's still a solid Hollywood movie with excellent casting (this is the role Ryan Reynolds was born to play - for better or worse) and very much worth watching ... sort of.
My biggest problem with this movie (unexpectedly) turned out to be just how well it was promoted by the marketing department.

Ads for the film have been up all over the place and it's certainly helped it achieve box office success as it's currently the highest grossing R-rated film of all damn time.
What this all means is that if you've been keeping an eye on the previews and tv spots then you've pretty much watched all of the highlights from the movie before you even sit down to open up your gummy bears.
I sincerely left disappointed having heard most of the jokes ad nauseum and with a lack of genuine surprises and chimichanga references by the time the credits rolled.

I feel it would've been a smarter move to include more of the backstory in the trailers and just remove them from the actual movie.
If you're old enough to remember, this was a tactic Pixar used to great effect (in the past) in order to give audiences a taste of what types of lovable character personalities to expect even if they provided zero details pertaining to any plot or conflicts.

If you've watched the previews for Deadpool, the biggest surprise will likely be the mandatory Stan Lee cameo - which is admittedly my favorite so far.
I still look forward to the sequel, but I'll have to avoid watching any and all commercials for it before it releases.

Deadpool [Blu-ray]

Final Grade: B+