Super Mario Odyssey

This is going to be a short one. I don’t have a lot to say about Super Mario Odyssey that isn’t unrestrained gushing about how much I loved it. Because I did love it. The Mario series has more stone cold classics than disappointments. And even the disappointments are only disappointments in comparison to those classics. While it might be a little early to judge, Super Mario Odyssey seems to be squarely in the classic category.

There are two games that most prominently come to mind when playing Super Mario Odyssey: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Super Mario 64. Like Breath of the Wild, Super Mario Odyssey shows Nintendo looking backwards and finding a new path forward. Super Mario 64 is the game that Super Mario Odyssey is clearly looking backwards to. Breath of the Wild turned away from decades of increasingly restrictive Zelda titles to find something that strongly reflected the exploratory origins of the series. The original Legend of Zelda was a game that dropped the player down in the middle of a relatively large world and let the player explore at their own pace. Breath of the Wild does the same thing, but without bringing along many of the good things the series had done in the intervening years. (This is not the place for this argument, but I would say the moment to moment gameplay of Breath of the Wild is very similar to Skyward Sword.) Super Mario Odyssey does something similar. It eschews the more limited levels of the last couple of decades and deliberately fashions its game after its earliest 3D adventure.

While this might be interpreted as a jab at Super Mario Galaxy and Super Mario 3D World, I don’t think that is accurate. Super Mario Odyssey is very much a product of that lineage. Super Mario 64 burst onto the scene with this big, immersive playgrounds, but Galaxy its successors honed those into smaller, more focused levels. They also honed things like the controls, the moveset and the challenge structure. Super Mario Odyssey takes all of those things, and brings back the more expansive levels. There are only a dozen and a half stages here, but each one is big and varied. Each one is a world of itself, and provides a broad and interesting set of challenges. Each of these stages is beautifully realized. There are classics like the ice world, the water world and the fire world, but even those are done in an interesting way. The fire world, for example, is set up as a cooking world, and the lava is fire beneath the pot. The rest are highly inventive, from the prehistoric world to the slightly unsettling New Donk City.

Super Mario Odyssey is, in pretty much every way, the realization of everything that Super Mario 64 tried to be. Super Mario 64 is the first great 3D platformer. Super Mario Odyssey is the latest and greatest such game. I have nothing to criticize; not the way it looks, not the way it sounds, not the way it plays, nothing. I am sure there is more to say about this game, but I am still too overwhelmed to say it.

Mario + Rabbids

Of all the games I thought to buy when I got a Switch, Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle was not one that came to mind. Even ignoring the WiiU ports, which as one of the few owners of the WiiU I had already played most of them, there were still quite a few games to get me started. The new Pokemon, Super Mario Odyssey, and Fire Emblem Three Houses just for a start. But those games are still full price, while I was able to get Mario + Rabbids for song. I like Mario and I like strategy games, so I thought I’d give it a try.

Mario + Rabbids is a strange game. I mean, from conception it is odd. There is not a lot of overlap in sensibility between the Mario games and the Rabbids. Mario is Mario. The Raving Rabbids were kind of a proto-Minions that spun out of the Rayman series all the way back in the early days of the Wii/fading days of the PS2. They starred in a series of chaotic mini-game collections, starting something of a craze that lasted for a while, but by the time of the Switch launch they had largely been banished to mobile for half a decade. Still, it wasn’t much of a surprise to see Ubisoft try to resurrect them with a new game for a new system. I think its says a lot about where Nintendo was after the failure of the WiiU that Ubisoft was given the keys to Mario Kingdom to help relaunch these characters.

On top of the weirdness of mixing the two franchises is the genre of game that Mario + Rabbids is. It is not a reflection of either Mario or the Rabbids, both of whom at their hearts come from platformers. Mario is known for showing up in absolutely anything; he’s been in sports games, racing games, rpgs, you name it. The Rabbids have mostly been in party games and mini-game collections. So, of course, Ubisoft went with a strategy game. And while it never stops being weird, it mostly works.

The game has got a good mix of characters with some real tactical choices to make once you get a full party. The game eventually gives you the central Mario crew: Mario, Luigi, Peach, and Yoshi. They are joined by Rabbids versions of each of the four. You start with just Mario, Rabbid Peach and Rabbid Luigi, and the others join one or two per chapter. Each version of each four characters fill similar roles, but each of the eight characters is pretty different. Mario is forced on the player for every battle, but fortunately he is good enough that you will likely want to use anyway. He is the all around character. The others have more specialized roles. Rabbid Peach has an actual healing ability; regular Peach has a defensive boost, a shotgun and a healing ability tied to her jump ability. Rabbid Luigi is a pure support character, great at weakening and giving status effects to enemies. Regular Luigi is the team’s sniper. Every character has maps where they shine, where their skills are absolutely essential.

 

 

 

For the most part the game works. Where I thought it kind of fell flat was how it tried to integrate Mario’s platformer roots into the tactical battles. Each character can move a certain number of squares on the grid map, but instead of actually being able to only move, for instance, 6 squares, the game gives a character a range of 6 squares. This makes for some weird choices with the available movement attacks. Each character can perform at least one run by melee attack per turn, but since your movement is based on range, your best choice is generally to run around bumping into every enemy near you before settling in where you want to shoot from. Then there are the warp pipes; these reset a character’s range to a specified number of squares, for some characters nearly the same as their initial movement range. In maps with a lot of pipes, some characters can pretty much go anywhere. It makes things very unpredictable if you don’t know exactly how far enemies can move, both pre and post pipe.

 

 

 

Also kind of awkward and unsatisfying are the parts in between battles where you find chests and solve simplistic puzzles. They feel vaguely in the Mario vein, but mostly end up feeling like padding. I guess there needed to be some connective tissue between stages but these puzzles mostly feel like they are just taking up your time.  It does nail the tone of the Mario series. I am far from an expert when it comes to the Rabbids, but the Mario characters feel about like they would in a Nintendo developed game. I would say I can’t imagine seeing Mario wielding a gun in a Nintendo game, but Smash Bros exists. Mario is the can-do hero, Peach alternates between being sidelined and wanting to get in on the action. There are various goofy Toads. Luigi is the weird schlub also-ran to Mario. Bowser doesn’t make an appearance until late, but he is on brand and honestly this is about as enjoyable as Bowser Jr. has ever been. The highlight is the opera ghost boss, who opens with a song.

 

 

 

Mario + Rabbids is just a strange enjoyable little game. Its creation reeks of desperation on both companies behind it, but the result is a good time.

Final Fantasy VII Remake

Final Fantasy VII Remake should not be as good as it is. I mean, nothing in the last decade or so from SquareEnix suggests that they were capable of this kind of big, cohesive game. I’ve enjoyed the last few Final Fantasy games, but it is fair to say that they have gotten mixed reactions. Final Fantasy VII Remake, which despite being a remake is essentially the next game in the series, has followed a pattern not unlike previous games, with the protracted development and all. But somehow, this game turned out amazing.

I am kind of surprised at how hyped I was for this game. I have never been a huge fan of Final Fantasy VII. I like it well enough, and I’ve really come around on it in the last half decade or so, but for a long time I was kind of resentful of the game. I did not get a Playstation until the redesign in 2000. I missed out on the initial wave of adoration for the game. While that was going on, I was still exploring Final Fantasy III and Chrono Trigger. I eventually played the PC port of the game, but not to completion and that is not really the best way to experience the game. And by then, Final Fantasy VIII, as well as plenty of other much better looking rpgs were out. To me, Final Fantasy VII was the ugly little game that sucked all the attention away from better games that came before and after. I was more than happy to leave it in the past.

The thing is, even before I played it, I knew a lot about the game. It was pretty much impossible to be into video games in the late 90s, into jrpgs especially, and not know at least a few Final Fantasy VII spoilers just by osmosis. This game was a seminal moment for the Playstation. Every game was compared to Final Fantasy VII; even I did it based on my limited play time with the PC version. Many people found other games wanting; I was determined to do the same for FFVII. I finally played it years later and really came around on it. It is a great game. The graphics are rough and I can’t fault anyone for not being able to find the charm in its clumsy polygons. But in every other way it is an achievement. I still like FFIII better; but I get why people feel the opposite way.

Even with me coming around to being a fan of Final Fantasy VII doesn’t really explain why I was excited for Final Fantasy VII Remake. I mean, Square Enix put out a lot of Final Fantasy VII material about 15 years ago and most of it was junk. At least, that is how I remember it. The only thing worthwhile to come out of the Compilation of FFVII was Crisis Core. That stuff should not be any indication that Square Enix knew what to do with a follow up or return to this game. Still, as the release drew nearer, I did get pretty excited. The game turned out to be pretty much the best case scenario for this sort of thing.

I remain incredibly impressed with Final Fantasy VII Remake. It is a game that takes the first quarter or so of the original game and extends it out to the full length of the original game, treating the old Midgar section as something like an outline or a rough draft. It manages to not feel natural, to not feel bloated or padded. Instead, it merely feels fully realized. What works best, storywise, is that the game shows a better understanding of what made the original FF7 effective than whatever they did with the Compilation stuff. Something that often seems to get lost when FF7 characters appear elsewhere is that Aerith and Tifa are kind of the opposites of what their character designs would suggest. The short-skirted martial artist Tifa is actually the quiet, traditional girl. The prim looking healer Aerith is actually the rough and tumble tomboy. The game absolutely nails that dynamic. Tifa is the one who often looks sad; she is uncomfortable with the militancy of Avalanche and unsure what has happened to Cloud in their years apart. Meanwhile Aerith takes nearly everything with a sly grin and a devil may care attitude. She actively wants to be involved in the adventures in ways that neither Tifa nor Cloud seem to understand. Cloud is also incredibly well realized here, with his cold reticence very evidently more a product of insecurity and awkwardness rather than genuine aloofness. And Barret is still a cartoon. A cartoon that is much more incongruous with his surroundings in this more realistically styled world.

Honest, his cartoonish is another thing that shows that the developers really understood what made the original great. The juxtaposition of strange and ambitious elements is a large part of what kept people coming back. The game manages to be super serious, even dour, at times but also include a lot of (usually) well integrated levity.

What the remake adds, generally, is depth. Take Jessie, Biggs and Wedge. The Avalanche crew were pretty minor characters in the original. Sure, it was affecting when they died, but you kind of knew it was coming. In the remake, the game takes the time to flesh them out as characters, gives them pasts and hopeful futures. So when the big moment comes, it is that much more crushing. It does without, aside from a few very intentional exceptions, contradicting anything from the original game. The game does play with the idea of this being the second iteration of this story, but I’ll reserve judgment on that part for now.

The biggest change, aside from the visuals, is how it plays. They kept the materia system and it is largely unchanged. However, everything else is pretty different. Yow now level up weapons with different skills. This allows the developers to limit the player to just a handful of weapons, but also give the player a lot of choice in how to approach the game and different challenges. While some weapons are pretty clearly better than others, all of them have their uses. The battles are now a pure action rpg rather than turn based. While I mourn the death of turn based battles, FFVII Remake’s battles are a lot of fun. It manages to maintain a lot of the feel of the active time battle system despite playing completely differently. It’s not perfect; it can often be hard to tell what is going on with the battle, especially when it comes to spells, but for the most part it is pretty smooth.

The nostalgia bug hit me really hard with this, and maybe things worked better for me than they might have if I did not have long standing memories of this game and this series. This game presents the first part of Final Fantasy VII the way I always imagined the game. It isn’t necessarily the way it used to be, but it doesn’t clash with rose-tinted memories.

What I Watched April 2020

Movies

Uncorked – A largely enjoyable movie about a man who wants to be a sommelier, but his dad wants him to take over the family’s BBQ restaurant. It is mostly about a father and son struggling to connect, that the son does not really want to follow in his father’s footsteps. It is solid. ***

Coffee & Kareem – Ed Helms gives it his all, but this movie just isn’t funny. The concept is solid, a buddy cop movie with the buddies being a cop and his girlfriend’s son, who hates him. The elements are all there, it’s sad that so much of the humor falls flat.**

Wayne’s World – I tend to forget how enjoyable this movie is between viewings. I remember the Bohemian Rhapsody scene and the Scooby-Doo ending, but this is a really solid comedy. Mike Myers has always had a way of creating very strong comic characters, and Wayne is no exception. He is both something of a straight man and a source of humor. It is a fairly referential movie, but somehow doesn’t feel dated despite being about 30 years old. In fact, Wayne’s basement shot tv show still seems pretty relevant in a time when everyone has a youtube channel. *****

The Willoughbys – This animated movie is about a group of siblings having to deal with their awful parents. It is unsettling how little of reason is given for their neglect, but it makes you side with the kids as they plot to remove their parents from the equation and their efforts to find a life without them. For the most part, it works. ***

Extraction – Chris Hemsworth stars in a John Wick like action movie. It tries really hard, and Hemsworth is pretty great, but the story varies from non-existent to bad. The action is good, at least. This movie just didn’t do anything for me. **1/2

A Secret Love – A sweet and interesting documentary about two women who have been together for sixty or so years. One of them even played for the women’s baseball league seen in A League of Their Own. I don’t know that it quite pulls everything together as well as it could, but it is solid. ***1/2

TV

Star Trek TNG 3-7 – I’ve watched this show before, and the current situation felt like the time for a rewatch. I didn’t really consciously choose to skip the first two seasons, my Netflix was left at the season 2 finale and I just started watching from there. I underestimated how much I like this show. I mean, I would tell I like The Next Generation, but I didn’t realize how easy it is to just put on and let play. I also underestimated how many episodes that I just completely forgot about. I last watched the show half a decade or so ago on Netflix, generally as I went to sleep. So there were quite a few episodes that I remembered the opening of, but not how it ended. There are a lot of ways this show shows its age, but for the most part it is still really good.

Star Trek Deep Space 9 Season 1 – I have not watched DS9 before, at least not more than a couple of isolated episodes. I know these shows take some time to find their footing generally, but I don’t know that Deep Space 9 is doing it for me. That isn’t to say I am not liking it; it is just that the cast is taking some time for me to connect with. Maybe it is just that this show was hyped up to me by friends as the best Trek show, but it just isn’t working as well as it could for me. Even this early it is noticeably darker than other Star Trek shows. (I am given to understand that this aspect gets more prominent as the show goes.) There is a lot of potential here, but I do not think the show reaches it in the first season.

The Innocence Files – It is kind of sad that Tiger King is the docu-series that has taken the world by storm, because this is the better series. The Innocence Files deals with people who were wrongfully convicted. Its nine episodes deal with three different categories of wrongful convictions. It looks at junk science evidence, at faulty eyewitness testimony, and at prosecutorial misconduct. All three can lead to putting innocent people behind bars. The first looks at bite-mark evidence, which it largely unconfirmed (or outright debunked) results and inconsistent methodology. However, when the state puts a man with Dr. before his name on the stand and he says the evidence proves someone did it, it is powerful for the jury. Eyewitness testimony is known to frequently be unreliable, but our criminal justice system is very reliant on it. It just shows all the ways the system can fail, and how hard the system fights against admitting its failures. Amazing show.

How to Fix a Drug Scandal – This is just a shocking look at institutional incompetence and neglect. It shows the different ways that the Massachusetts drug testing labs have failed. There are two separate scandals here. One is about a lab technician who started dipping into the evidence, eventually smoking crack at work. The other is about a lab worker who falsified results to go through the evidence faster. Both undermine the credibility of the criminal justice system. I was not as over the moon with this show as with The Innocence Files, but it is an amazing story.

Little Fires Everywhere – This show finished up and it was mostly strong. Reese Witherspoon has created one of the great TV villains on this show as a nice (white) lady who is just trying to help, and she just keeps digging and trying to force things to be exactly what she wants it to be and becoming more monstrous as the show goes on. She is not the only flawed character on the show, almost all of the characters make mistakes. But she is unique in how she keeps doubling down on those mistakes and refusing to learn from them. This show isn’t really my thing overall, but it was really well done.

The Big Show Show – There is no reason to watch this. I mean, it isn’t the worst thing I’ve ever seen. The Big Show is reasonably good as the affable patriarch to his family. But the show seems to be aiming straight for the middle and coming up short. The kids are that too precious type that tend to show up in a lot of bottom tier sitcoms. They can work; the youngest daughter is not too different from Louise from Bob’s Burgers. The difference in the quality of the writing around them. I think there is an audience for this type of thing, but it isn’t me.

Brews Brothers – This is another new Netflix sitcom from veteran writer/producer Greg Schaffer and his brother Jeff. It is about two brothers who brew beer, with diametrically opposed views on how it should be done. As things tend to work in sitcoms, they are forced to work together to operate a brewery. It’s pretty raunchy and intermittently funny. I think it started to find itself near the end of the season. I would watch more.

Ozark S3 – This season has got a lot of positive reviews, but I think this show is really starting to lose me. Laura Linney is great. So are Jason Bateman and Julia Garner. I don’t know, I just find myself progressively less interested in the moral decay of this family. I can’t really say why this is. I am not, as a rule, a big fan of this kind of show. I have never made much progress into Breaking Bad. I don’t have a problem with the craft of the show, it just isn’t the kind of story that really interests me. Ozark drew me for its proximity to where I grew up, a relatively short drive from Lake of the Ozarks, but that isn’t enough to carry me through anymore.

Letter for the King – I ended up liking this quite a bit. It is a story about a young kid who wants to be a knight. In the midst of a ceremony raising him to the knighthood, he stumbles onto a quest, which can be guessed from the title. It is a solid fantasy series. Aimed at a somewhat young audience, but still reasonably enjoyable for anyone.

Brooklyn 99 S7 – It was a short season, but Season 7 of Brooklyn 99 continued to be really good. It had a solid set of guest spots for Vanessa Bayer. The demoted Captain Holt was fun for a few episodes. Just some good stuff.

Always Sunny S14 – That this show is still going strong this deep in is amazing. I don’t know that the 14th season is the best, but this show hasn’t really lost a step. The Janitor Always Mops Twice and Thunder Gun 4: Maximum Cool are both great episodes of television. This is just a great show.

Columbo S2 & 3 – I’m working my way through my DVDs of this series. There are some really good episodes in these two seasons. There isn’t a lot of say about individual episodes. I haven’t run into a bad one yet. And Columbo pretty quickly has all the characteristics he’s famous for. Watching him work never gets old.

What I Read April 2020

I read a lot in April. The situation kind of allowed me to indulge in sitting with my kindle for long periods of time. I expect similar results in May.

The Bully Pulpit

Doris Kearns Goodwin

I loved this book. It looks into a fascinating time and one of the most interesting stories in American history. The book follows three separate, but related threads. The first follows the life and career of Teddy Roosevelt. The second does the same for William Howard Taft. And the third follows the muckraking journalists, from the magazine McClure’s that were influential at the time, both influencing and being influenced by Roosevelt and other progressive politicians.

It does a good job of condensing the history into a readable story. I have read several Theodore Roosevelt biographies, and this does an excellent job of giving a quick, yet fairly thorough look at his life and his time as president. I know less about Taft, but it makes for a readable look at his life and the forces that shaped him. I knew next to nothing about McClure’s and this book does an excellent job of showing how the magazine came to be and why it was so important for a time.

The real meat of the book is the friendship between Roosevelt and Taft, and the completeness of its rupture during Taft’s presidency. It plays out almost like a Shakespearean tragedy. How they worked together so well while Roosevelt was President to the inevitability of everything coming apart once Taft ascended to that office. Roosevelt had this absolute need to be the center of attention, and he was never going to be comfortable stepping aside. Especially since he honestly could have won a second/third term had he run for it. While Roosevelt was brash and commanding, Taft was slower and more contemplative. He lacked the force of will to get things done that Roosevelt had, and Roosevelt treated his compromises as turning his back on the things they did together. So things fell apart.

The Bully Pulpit really changed my opinion of Taft. He comes across as the true tragic figure here. From his continually put aside desire to be a Supreme Court justice to his wife suffering a stroke early in his presidency to his demoralizing defeat in the 1912 Election. He comes across as a flawed but reasonable and conscientious man. The most crushing part is the anecdote from an interview, which never ran, from just before the 1912 election, where he was asked about what happened between him and Roosevelt and all he could say was that Roosevelt was his best friend.

This is a great look at a very interesting time in American history.

Dragon Weather

Lawrence Watt-Evans

This book is a take on the Count of Monte Cristo, but with dragons. The protagonist, Arlian, loses his family to a dragon attack when he is young. In fact, he is the only survivor from his town. Unfortunately, when he is found by the scavengers searching through the destruction, instead of saving him, they sell him into slavery. After growing to adulthood in some mines, Arlian manages to escape and sets out to get revenge on the men who sold him as a slave and the dragons who destroyed his town.

I really struggled staying interested in the first part of the book. After Arlian gets out of the mines and starts to plot his revenge I liked it a lot more. There are still things that give me pause. This book has a lot of mutilated women. It is a harsh book all around, but it is all seen through the eyes of the protagonist, and he seems to focus on women missing body parts. That said, it is mostly an enjoyable read. I don’t really have a lot to say about it.

Fairest

Gail Carson Levine

This is related to Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted; this time a retelling, of sorts, of Snow White. Aza feels ugly compared to the rest of her adopted family. She does have the power of magic ventriloquism. A useful skill in a land that greatly values one’s singing voice. This eventually leads to her getting entangled with the beautiful, but weak singing, new queen of her homeland. It deals a lot with how much Aza lets her perception of how people see her control how she acts. The queen, who isn’t really evil here, has similar problems, focusing mostly on her looks and being afraid to let people know her weaknesses. It was an enjoyable enough take on a fairy tale retelling.

The Mystery of Three Quarters

Sophie Hannah

Another of Hannah’s Poirot continuations. I enjoyed this quite a bit. I don’t think it really reads like Christie in the prose, but the mystery is suitably inventive and it does a good job of fleshing out a wide variety of characters to be potential suspects. The book starts with four separate people coming to Poirot, angry about a letter he had written to them, accusing them of murdering a man. Poirot is confused, both because he did not write any such letters and because the letters accused the four of them of murdering the same person. That person was an old man who died without any suspicion of foul play. Still, Poirot begins to investigate, as the letter writer likely intended.

The four people initially seem to be unconnected to each other, but as Poirot digs in, some connections start to turn up. Also, all four appear to be keeping some secrets from him. Somewhere in those secrets is the truth about who wrote the letter and who, if anyone, committed a murder. It seems to play fair, and the mystery keeps you guessing. I don’t know that I completely buy the big revelation near the end, but it did not lessen my enjoyment.

The Crime at Black Dudley

Margery Allingham

I’ve now read two of her books, and I do not think Allingham is for me. I have found both this, and its sequel Mystery Mile, which I accidentally read first, to be kind of muddled. Nothing about them comes across particularly clearly; not the characters, not the plots. This one clearly sets the eventual starring detective Albert Campion as a clear side character. It is about a group of guests invited to a house party at a remote manor, the titular Black Dudley. It is a mysterious old manor, with hidden rooms and secret passages. Things start to get strange when they play a party game based around a family heirloom jeweled dagger. The owner of the manor falls ill, with some of the guests convinced he is actually dead. It is soon pronounced, by a doctor present, that he is indeed dead. Things get weirder from there, with the victims’ associates, who are not part of the house party being thrown by the victims nephew, confining everyone to the manor and sabotaging their cars. One fly in the ointment is Albert Campion, a party crasher who seems to know more than he lets on.

The central figure to the mystery is one Dr. Abbershaw, who is trying to get to the bottom of everything and win the heart of Meggie, another guest at the party. It plays out as much like a spy adventure novel as it does a mystery. Really, there isn’t much mystery to it. Maybe knowing who Campion is going changes how I viewed things, but it seemed pretty clear who were the bad guys and who were the good guys. It was also pretty clear generally what people were up to, though not all the detail. I just can’t tell you much about Abbershaw or Meggie, let alone the bad guys. It’s just not for me.

Manners & Mutiny

Gail Carriger

This is the fourth of Carriger’s Finishing School series. They are kind of hard to define; steampunk historical supernatural adventure romances, I guess? It has been some time since I read the first three. I remember enjoying them, but I don’t really remember the details of what happened. I did retain a solid memory of who the characters are. Sophronia is now close to graduating from her finishing school. That school is set on an airship that flies around an alternate reality Great Britain. And this finishing school trains its students to be expert spies and assassins. Sophronia is just as much of a go getter as she ever was. She has taken her lessons to heart, and she is a very talented operative, if not an especially stealthy spy.

In this book, the school gets taken over by the nefarious Picklemen, and Sophronia, who knows more about what is going on than even her teachers, stays on the ship to try to stop them. That is the big climax, the first half is exactly how Sophronia came to have that knowledge. It also has her dealing with her love life. While she seems to have pretty definitely chosen between the two handsome young men who are interested, social issues seem destined to keep her and her love apart.

It doesn’t have the impact it likely would have had I read it closer to the rest of the series, but once I got into it, it was really enjoyable.

Now Playing April 2020

Beaten

Owlboy – To start with, this game is gorgeous. Just some of the best sprite work I’ve ever seen. It is impossible to overstate how good this game looks. I wish it played as well. It’s not bad, it is just kind of pedestrian. The central gameplay mechanic, of having Otus, the protagonist and the owlboy of the title, carry around an ally who actually does the fighting. A lot of the game is based on grabbing and tossing and the mechanics are just slightly clumsy. The story is involved and really good. The game creates quite a few well realized characters. It verges on being too much and getting in the way of the gameplay, but mostly nails the balance. It is just an interesting game. It makes such a great initial impression because of how it looks, but doesn’t quite hold to that level as it goes on. Still, as a first physical game I bought for my Switch, I think I made a good choice.

Golf Story – This is a charming little rpg where the battle system is golf. The golf is pretty solid and a lot of fun. Some of the challenges seem a little unreasonable or really fiddly, but those are mostly near the end and are designed to be hard challenges. Also, the game is not nearly as funny as it thinks it is. That is very much just my take; comedy is hard and maybe it will hit other players better. The overall flow of the game is just very relaxing and addictive.

Bravely Default II Demo – I am not particularly impressed with anything other than aesthetics from this demo, but I have really enjoyed the previous two Bravely games, so I am willing to give this a chance on full release. Especially because a big part of my problem was about the balance in this weird slice of demo. Assuming that stuff is at least somewhat straightened out by the time the game comes out, I am ready for this.

Final Fantasy VII Remake – A full post is coming soon. This game is kind of amazing.

The Alliance Alive – A post went up. Good game.

Transistor – I feel like I did this game a disservice because I had trouble hearing it while playing on my Switch Lite. A lot of the plot seems to happen in incidental dialogue as you traverse the game world, and I missed anywhere from a third to half of it. Otherwise, it is short and sweet and really pretty interesting. The game gives the player a bunch of skills and lets the player combine them in different ways. The skills have different properties depending on how you use them. For example, there is a charm ability. If you set it as an attack, you charm an enemy. If you set it as a modifier, then the main attack will have a charm status added to whatever that attack is. Or you could set it as a character modifier and (I think) give Red, the protagonist, a boost to her hp. With 20 or so skills, there is a lot of customization available for the player. The plot, which I’ve already admitted to missing a significant amount of, seemed simple, but enjoyable. Red is a singer attacked by the Camerata, some kind of shadowy criminal group. She ends up with the transistor, a sort of big sword that can fight the Process, the robotic enemies that the Camerata have lost control of and are taking over the city. So you are fighting on two fronts, with little idea of what is really going on. The game is just a lot of fine.

Ongoing

Dragon Quest XI – I don’t want to write a whole lot about this, mostly because I will be writing a full post about it soon, but this game has been a really interesting contrast with Final Fantasy XV and Final Fantasy VII Remake. Both series started in roughly the same place, and while Dragon Quest has had its experiments, like 9’s multiplayer focused game and 10’s MMO, it has stayed fairly close to its root, while Final Fantasy, especially over the last decade or so, has really gone wild places. For the most part, Dragon Quest has remained Dragon Quest. This game is the future version of the Dragon Quest games on the NES, as though there had been little evolution in the series in the decades between. It is wonderful.

Valkyria Chronicles 4 – I loved the original Valkyria Chronicles, and tolerated the PSP sequel. This one, through the first four chapters or so, the game feels like a refreshing turn back towards the original, though it still feels a little more simplistic than the original. Or maybe I am blinded by nostalgia. The game does make me feel like my R1 button is broken, because it takes forever to pull into shooting mode. Still, this has been a lot of fun so far.

Earthlock – This was cheap when I got my Switch and seemed interesting. Reviews I read compared it to Final Fantasy 9, which I love. This game didn’t really do it for me. I played for roughly 5 hours, and I am still waiting for the plot to do something interesting, the writing is pedestrian, and the battles are just ridiculously slow. It felt like treading water. I might go back to it at some point; but it has fallen to the bottom of my list.

Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle – Another game I picked up on sale with my Switch. I’m going to have a full post soon, but this is a strange game. I have some problems with some of this game’s mechanics, like how new enemies show up and the dash attacks, but it is mostly a really interesting strategy game with a very odd mix of characters. I’ve nearly beat it, and after I beat some other things I’ll come back for the challenge levels and the Donkey Kong DLC.

Upcoming

Final Fantasy VII – Beating the remake has made me kind of want to go back to the original game. Honestly, I have something of a hankering to replay the entire series. I’ve got FFVII on my PS4, we’ll see how that goes first.

Super Mario Odyssey – I have to get this from my brother, but this game is a big reason why I ended up taking the plunge with the Switch.

Tales of Vesperia – I have a weird love/hate relationship with the Tales series. I really enjoyed Tales of Symphonia and absolutely hated Tales of the Abyss. I find the anime aesthetics of the series both somehow attractive and repellent. I am in right now, and will play this Switch version of Vesperia I picked up on the cheap.

Shantae and the Seven Sirens – This is lined up to come out late in the month and I am going to jump on it. The series hasn’t led me wrong yet.

The Alliance Alive

After finding Final Fantasy XV to have a surprising number of connections to Final Fantasy VI, I found myself comparing another relatively recent game to that SNES classic. The Alliance Alive has some shades of Final Fantasy VI, too. In fact, there are shades of a great number of games in The Alliance Alive; not just Final Fantasy VI, but its spiritual predecessor Legend of Legacy, various games from the SaGa series, and the first two Suikoden games also clearly influenced that game. Those influences blend together into a game that manages to feel like something original.

That said, I am not a fan of all of those influences. Specifically, I am not a fan of The Legend of Legacy or the SaGa series. I know those games have their fans, and I do not begrudge them their enjoyment, even if I cannot share it. The very things that fans of SaGa like about it are the things that turn me off. I do not want a different experience every time I play the game, I want it to react in entirely predictable ways. I do not want to learn abilities or gain stat increases at random. The Alliance Alive is not particularly bad about this, largely because most of the characters’ stats are static. You do get random HP and SP increases, but they occur on a schedule that makes it pretty clear when you have reached the maximum level for an area. If you are gaining HP after fights, that is a sign you need to keep fighting. Once you go a battle or two without an increase, that is a pretty good sign it is time to move on. The learning of abilities is more problematic, but I tended to learn them fast enough that even if there was a hole in a character’s skill list, there was something else to use instead.

One thing it keeps from its immediate predecessor, Legend of Legacy, is this sense of opacity. While the information might be there, the game is not particularly clear on what a lot of its little systems do. While truly engaging with them is hardly necessary, there is some frustration at not knowing how things actually work.

Where I feel the game is much more successful is how it has echoes of Final Fantasy VI and the first two Suikoden games. Like FFVI, this is a game with no true protagonist. To start with, various characters take the role. You start with Azura and Galil, then move through Vivian to Gene, all with an assortment of supporting characters before they all meet up to form one big party. It is an eclectic and interesting group of characters. Tiggy is a child prodigy who goes into battle inside what is essentially a duck mecha; Robbins is a tiny little penguin warrior. It really nails that feeling that Suikoden and FFVI had of assembling all the people who just happened to be there to aid in the fight. Robbins is an optional recruit, not unlike Umaro or Gogo from FFVI, or any number of Suikoden weirdos. The Alliance Alive, on a couple of occasions, did the trick that Final Fantasy VI and Suikoden did so well, putting their large casts to good use by dividing the large party up into several smaller parties. Suikoden II has the big showdown with Luca Blight where the player has to make 3 different teams for different phases of the fight. Final Fantasy VI has several big dungeons that have split parties. The Alliance Alive does not lend itself Final Fantasy VI’s light puzzle dungeons. That said, it still does not really take advantage of the idea. The big split party moment in The Alliance Alive feels kind of like the big climax of the game, after that things kind of fall apart.

The first three quarters of the game are filled with events and interesting dungeons. The full team’s first mission is the splitting party mission. It is a big moment and the game never tops it. It never really even tries to top it. The next dungeon is long, but absurdly straightforward. And the end is rather simple. It is almost like the game just kind of gave up. It finishes things off, but still feels kind of unfinished.

The story is kind of similar. It starts with each of its protagonists getting pulled into the mystery of what exactly is going on in this world. The Daemons control the world, using Beastment to keep the humans in line. The mysterious Dark Current divides the world into quarters, with passage through it impossible. Of course, all is not how it seems. It is told in a style reminiscent of SNES jrpgs, playing out more like a sketch or an outline than an in depth plot. It leaves a lot of space for the player to fill in the gaps; to invent depth where none may actually exist. I could see it leaving people cold, but to me it was broad and comforting.

In a lot of ways, The Alliance Alive is not quite what I wanted it to be. It is really close to being everything I wanted, but in a lot of small ways it just isn’t. Still, I really enjoyed it. It is the kind of game that if I was in a different part of my life I could spend a lot of time really learning, getting into all the various systems and really picking this game a part. Instead, I am treating it as a largely pleasant romp that reminds me of other games I’ve loved.

Final Fantasy XV

(There are going to be some Final Fantasy 15 spoilers in this)

I don’t know that I actually expected to enjoy Final Fantasy 15. I was aware of the troubles of its long development cycle. How it started as Final Fantasy Versus 13, before disappearing for years, only to reappear, reimaging and rebranded as the fifteenth main entry in this series. The legacy of the Fabula Nova Crystallis is not a great one, hampered by development delays and other conceptual problems. But Final Fantasy 15 is the best game to come out of that ambitious project.

I don’t have a lot to say about the gameplay here. The battle system is functional and intuitive, but I would be lying if I said I ever fully grasped the nuances of it. I mostly just let it happen, and tried my best to use the skills the game gave me. It works, but I can’t say I ever developed anything like a strategy with it. But that is not too different from most games in the series. Outside of some outliers with the job system, the series often tends to the easy side.

I was definitely not prepared for how much this game takes from Final Fantasy 6. In my experience, that SNES classic is considered one the best games in the series. However, it does not tend to be one of the more influential or referenced games in the series. The modern series is built on the image of FF7, and throwbacks tend to look to the first five games. FF6 is more of a transitional game. Still 2d like its predecessors, but with sensibilities that are closer in line with the next few games in the series. FF15, though, brings back many elements from FF6, often recontextualizing them.

The big one is FF6’s signature twist. Throughout the first half of the game, the player has built a party to combat an Empire bent on conquering the world through the use of magically enhanced soldiers. The empire has largely acted through two of its leaders; the fierce but honorable General Leo and the devious clown Kefka. When the Empire raises a floating continent from which the Emperor plans to rule on high, it appears to be setting up the endgame, only for Kefka to turn on his master, usurping his power to destroy the world as the player knows it. The player is put back at square one, having to rebuild their party and put the new world to right.

Final Fantasy 6 is likely not the first game to do this, and Final Fantasy 15 is not the first to copy it, but it seems to share the most direct elements with its predecessor. The big twist comes later overall in the game, and the revelation of the big bad guy and his plan is a little less of a swerve, but it still follows a similar structure. Near the end of the game, the bad guy wins, and the player has to fight through a destroyed world to achieve a somewhat hollow feeling victory.

There are more concrete connections between the two games as well. The existence of Magitech, for example. The game has both magically enhanced soldiers, like FF6’s Celes, and the magic shooting mechs. The summons are imagined as characters in similar fashion to the espers from FF6. FF6’s tools, probably its longest lasting contribution to the series, are here as well. For a game that has long felt somewhat lost in the legacy of this series, Final Fantasy 15’s connections to Final Fantasy 6 are greatly appreciated by a big fan of that game. That is not to say that FF6 is the only previous game in the series that 15 echoes. For starters, even though it is no longer Final Fantasy Versus 13, the game did not completely exercise its feeling of connection with that game. Many of the gameplay systems feel reminiscent of Final Fantasy 12, from its open world aspirations to its monster hunts to its freeform feeling battle system. Also, the brief glimpses the game gives of the empire and its machinations feel reminiscent of FF12 as well.

Final Fantasy 15 manages to stake its own claim to originality in this, a big part of which is from a somewhat controversial design decision: limiting the party to just the four (male) main characters. It is a choice that does not feel in keeping with the series’ history. Plus, there are plenty of characters that feel like they belong in the party. Iris, Lunafreya, and even Cidney would be obvious choices to add as permanent party members. That is leaving out temporary party member Aranea. Excluding those characters from the party limits the impact they can have on the story. They are each limited to small interactions with the main party and end up feeling kind of inconsequential. That said, the four person party ends up being one of this game’s biggest strengths. The first two thirds of the game are all about this foursome cruising around the continent in their sports car. The game does an excellent job building the camaraderie between them, as well as showing the cracks that crop up in the later part of the game. Noctis is the somewhat spoiled prince; he means well and tries hard, but at the start of the game is not ready for the burden he must take on. Gladio is his dedicated bodyguard; he is generally pretty laid back, but his patience for Noctis’s floundering is limited. Ignis is his counsel; he is the calm and collected member of the group that keeps things together even as it all falls apart. Finally, Prompto is simply Noctis’s friend; he is comic relief and the instigator of many interactions.

Where Final Fantasy 15 really succeeds is in the first section of the game, where the player builds a connection to these four characters and they build connections with each other. The game gives the player a fairly open-ended quest, finding the tombs of the previous kings and earning their magical blessings, that lets the player just explore the continent to their heart’s extent. Then the game switches gears and things get more serious. The larger elements of the plot (more on that later) start to come into focus and Noctis gets closer to his long awaited meeting with his betrothed Lunafreya. The game then has the player leave the continent and cross the ocean, and the open world aspect of the game falls away.

It is there that it all falls apart, but in the narrative and as a narrative. Things go awry for the party, and it strains those relationships built in the first part of the game. They end up maimed and separated, fighting desperately to finish a quest that feels increasingly quixotic. When an angry Gladio lashes out at a sullen Noctis, it makes sense. You might not agree with Gladio; the player has seen recent events through Noctis’s eyes, but you have to admit he has a point. But the greater problems with the game crop up there. The open world falls away, leading to some very limited areas and an extended solo/stealth dungeon that is sure to test players’ patience. Also, the general lack of story starts to become apparent.

The long development cycle of Final Fantasy 15 is felt in how the story pulls the player one way and another in the plot without ever really giving the player a clear idea of what everything means or who the pieces fit together. Some of it is how the game sticks to Noctis’s POV; if he doesn’t have access to the information, then the player does not. But much of it feels like it was left on the cutting room floor. I am not talking about stuff that is reserved for DLC; that stuff is clear and I will eventually buy it and experience it. Other parts feel like they were excised in order to get the game finished, and added back in as a data log or a radio broadcast. Just so much of the story of the game does not appear to be in the game. It is frustrating, especially in an otherwise very enjoyable experience.

Final Fantasy 15 feels a lot like the last few entries in this series. It is largely an incredibly enjoyable, innovative experience that feels compromised in some way. I consider it absolutely essential playing, a more than worthy entry in the series, but one that has noticeable flaws. I still need to play the DLC and to watch the movie, things I intend to do, but I do not expect them to fix the larger flaws with the game.

What I Read March 2020

Given the way things are now, I expected to finish more books in March than I did. However, I am certain I will have read a greater number of books in April, I will have read more if I just finish the ones I started in March. Though I am not making the progress I thought I would be being stuck at home. Still, three books in March is not bad, given everything else that is going on.

Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth

Sarah Smarsh

This is a non-fiction look at poverty in America, and how growing up poor can affect your entire life and outlook. It reflects Smarsh’s personal and family history, but it also highlights larger problems. There are no systems or structures in place to actually help people get out of poverty. The time period covered by the book details the erosion of much of what could help, especially in the farmland where she grew up.

Smarsh’s story does a great job of showing the cycle of poverty that catches people in ways they can’t escape. Her grandmother keeps moving, but cannot make enough money anywhere to give her protection when any sort of financial or personal tragedy hits. No amount of hard work or skill can counteract the weight of the system against the poor; meritocracy is a lie.

If there is a weakness to the book it is the sentence to sentence writing. Smarsh uses a conceit where she is writing to her unborn daughter, a conceit I do not think really works. Other parts are just kind of awkward. None of that really gets in the way of the power of the story she is telling. I grew up in a similar area, if just a little more well off than her family. Smarsh really captures the feeling in rural communities.

Justice Brennan: The Great Conciliator

Hunter R. Clark

My second biography of one of the greatest Supreme Court Justices to ever sit the bench. This one is less in depth than the previous one, but it is still good and gives an excellent look at the life and jurisprudence of William Brennan. As the title indicates, this book highlights Brennan’s ability to build consensus. While other Justices were often brilliant, they could also be rigid. Getting Hugo Black or William O. Douglas to agree to a compromise in an effort to reach a decision that the requisite number of judges could agree on was no easy task, even if one agreed with them. The same could be true of conservative justices like Rehnquist or Burger. Brennan had the ability to determine where the disagreements were and to build a consensus. When the court took a rightward turn in the 1980’s, he used that ability to limit the damage they did to the court’s jurisprudence. Brennan is not one of the most exciting figures of the court; he has nothing on the life of Douglas or Thurgood Marshall, but he was definitely one of the most effective justices.

Myths & Mortals

Charlie N. Holmberg

The second of Holmberg’s Numina trilogy. I do not have a lot to say about this book. I liked Holmberg’s Paper Magician books, but this one feels a little like the story is chasing its own tail. It is the same characters doing the same things, never really feeling like they are making progress. I am intrigued by the world and the characters, but until near the end here, I do not think this book did much. I will likely read the third book at some point, but I have not been crazy about these.

Now Playing March 2020

Beaten

Final Fantasy XV – read about it here.

Yakuza 3 – read about it here.

Chrono Trigger – I’ve been building a save file on the DS port of this game since it was released more than a decade ago. I’ve seen roughly half the endings on this save. If I was truly determined to complete the save file, then I would have done it already. But when the mood strikes me to play Chrono Trigger, which the mood does fairly frequently, I have lately tried to get another ending filled in and get my save that much closer to being complete. Of course, sometimes you just want to play the game the right way, no New Game + or any of that, and I’ve done that a few times. But I have my first file, and I keep playing at it. At some point I am going to do the new stuff added to the port that I was warned off of all those years ago and never truly investigated for myself. Chrono Trigger is among the best games ever made, and it remains unsurpassed 25 years after it was first released.

Ace Attorney: Dual Destinies & Ace Attorney: Spirit of Justice – read about them here. (and here and here)

Ongoing

Rune Factory 4 – This was the game I intended to fill my 3DS time with after beating some other games. And I did play it. Some. About a week of game time. I really like the idea of Rune Factory; I like it more, it seems, than actually playing it. This game seems to do just about everything right, the combat is relatively fluid, the farming stuff is intuitive, and the game manages to mix the two almost seamlessly. I just can’t get into a comfortable playing rhythm. I am still intending to keep playing this game, but I think it is going to be sporadic. That is, unless it really grabs me and I get pulled in. That has happened before. But this is feeling like it might be the last game standing in my 3DS backlog.

River King: A Wonderful Journey – The problem I am having with this game is that I am just not the habit of turning on my PS3. It just feels foreign these days. And the hour or two I spent with River King do not do a lot to make me want to stick with it. The game is fine, if a little bit slight.

The Alliance Alive – On paper, this game is everything I want out of a video game. A colorful cast. Directed by the creator of Suikoden. An interesting world. It does have some SaGa-like elements, and those have never been good. I am saving a full explanation of that for when I finish this. But I gave it barely four hours when it was released and kind of forgot about. Its efforts to be old school make it kind of not fun to play at times, but as I get further into it, I am at about fifteen hours now, its charms become more apparent. I expect to be finished with it in a week or so and will have a full write up then.

Shin Megami Tensei Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers – I put another hour or two into this. It is not a great game for easing the player back in after a long break. This is a twenty year old game and while there are some acknowledgements of modern quality of life improvements, this still largely plays like a 20 year old game. I need time to acclimate myself to that, and I am not really feeling SMT right now.

Double Dragon and Kuni-Kun Retro Brawler Bundle – I am still kind of sampling these games instead of really digging into them. I don’t know that I will do much more. The Kunio sports games are made for sampling, though they often hide surprising depth. Renegade is just not good, and there is no reason to play it. If all this bundle turns out to be a place for me to play River City Ransom, I still think it was worth the money.

Dragon Quest XI – I made a little progress, but this game got sidetracked by Yakuza 3 and then Final Fantasy XV. I am getting back into it, though Final Fantasy VII Remake is on the horizon and likely to sidetrack it again. The plot is kind of revealing itself, finally, 30 hours in. I have pretty much the whole cast together finally. It really feels like I am about out of the introductory phase of the game and hitting the real meat. Luckily, Dragon Quest games are pretty episodic, so picking it up after a break is not really a problem.

Upcoming

Final Fantasy VII: Remake – I am shocked at how excited I am for this game. I was never the biggest fan of FFVII. I was super excited about it when it came out, but I didn’t really get to play it (other than a few hours with the PC version) for almost a decade after its release. I like it, but it is not one of my favorites in the series. Apparently though, I have a lot of nostalgia for this game, because seeing trailers for this game has me really excited. I am ready to go.

Valkyria Chronicles 4 – With being stuck at home I have a lot more time for video games. I picked this up on a sale, but I have never really had the time to play it. While I will have to get through FFVII and probably DQXI, this is next on the list.

Legend of Legacy – With me actually kind of getting into The Alliance Alive, I intend to get back to its spiritual predecessor soon. I did not connect with this game about five years ago. I am not sure I will connect with it going back to it. I do not like a lot of its character progression systems. I do like the aesthetics, so I will give it another go. Plus, I am straight running out of 3DS games.