August 31, 2006
I finished Psychonauts last night, a critically acclaimed but not so widely known platform game where you play the character of Raz, a boy who goes to a psychonaut training camp that is really just like a stereotypical summer camp in the woods for little kids. And that's where all the fun begins. From a gameplay standpoint, the game is full of perfection. You'll do everything from platforming to collecting items and exploring your environment. It's just a fun game in that sense. But where it really shines is the humor.
Everything is insanely amusing. The job of a psychonaut is to use psychic powers in the real world and to enter the minds of others to solve their psychological problems. Thus a large part of your time is spent exploring the minds of people who have psychological issues. Since the real world itself is a little on the crazy side, entering people's minds is even more entertaining. Imagine taking the phrase "it's more afraid of you and you are of it", turn it into a nightmare, and a fish. Then run around in there. That's the kind of humor you'll find in Psychonauts.
I think the game designers did a great job of putting in fun gameplay mechanisms, like facing off against Napoleon in a strategic battle. Or lucha matches with a wrestler that can fly. Emotional baggage is a crying hatbox or purse. And you're going to face off against tiny little men in suits trying to stamp you out. All full of dry hiliarity. I especially liked the milkman. Who is the milkman?
August 27, 2006
Tales of Symphonia
Tales of Symphonia was excellent. Probably the best (there aren't many anyway) RPG I've found for the GameCube, and also one of the best regardless of platform. I was surprised to discover many of the combat features from Star Ocean seem to have originated in Tales of Symphonia, although Star Ocean did improve upon them. In terms of gameplay and mechanics, Tales of Symphonia was excellent. I couldn't complain about anything.
I think the first thing that will strike you in this game is the graphics. The world is bright, colorful, and vibrant and looks very much like the animation cut-scenes because of the cel shaders. Although somewhat simplistic in appearance, the characters and backgrounds are rich and build an excellent environment for running around in.
The story is a bit traditional, although there are a few tweaks thrown in and the basics were expanded upon in depth and with a great attention to detail. One thing that was really well done is making sure there aren't any loose ends in such a complex plot. You really do have to take everything to completion in order to save the world. It's not as simple as defeating a final boss and everything goes back to normal. The struggle to save the world is long and involves many people and enemies.
The only thing I wish was better is some of the dialogue. At times, the conversations are a little out of place because it doesn't seem like the sort of thing people would say in reality. A bit too explanatory and forced at times.
August 21, 2006
Shaun of the Dead
I just watched Shaun of the Dead, a movie that Anthony from work said was really good and funny. It's an odd sort of movie, mixing zombies with a sort of casual attitude and British humor. For example, instead of running away from the zombies, Shaun and his friend decide to sit on the couch and figure things out. I enjoyed it, and it was fairly amusing at times although yucky at other times.
One unfortunate thing I discovered is that one of the Plus 12.3 drivers I received from SVSound is defective. It rattles sometimes, and I found it even rattled when out of the subwoofer just from the initial turn-on thump. I thought this was due to a loose screw or loose fastening before, but turns out it's a defect in the driver itself. So SVSound is shipping me a replacement. They do have some of the best customer service I've experienced.
August 19, 2006
I actually saw parts of FLCL for the first time on Adult Swim while at a hotel somewhere. It was extremely strange and didn't make any sense. And actually, that turns out to be pretty much true even if you watch the series from beginning to end rather than in pieces. The main character, Naota, gets beat up by guitars and robots erupt from his head on a regular basis. And just about every other scene makes fun or something or other, or is done in a comedic fashion. But I have to say I actually enjoyed it as a whole.
FLCL just has some strange amount of extreme energy throughout the entire series. It shows up even during the end credits, which are longer than usual but captivating in its own way. The sound of the show is rock, and it sounds like pure Japanese rock to me—not Western-adapted rock. And it fits and fills the show perfectly.
I guess never knowing what will happen next, coupled with great artwork and visual sequences, energetic music, and crazy memorable characters just makes the series work in a strange way. It's like seeing some artwork that shouldn't make sense but has an unnatural attraction to it anyway.
August 14, 2006
Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children
Amazing. That's the one word that came to my mind almost immediately after beginning to watch Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children. I've been waiting to see this for a while now, and finally managed to find the DVD for a decent price. I think the story was a little too action-focused, but not in a bad way. The visuals were amazing, and the amount of detail and effort they put into the world and sequences is amazing. The soundtrack was very evocative, and the movie brought back so many memories and emotions.
The reapperance of Sephiroth gave me goosebumps. Even though I knew he was coming, seeing him again and feeling the evil with his theme music was very tense and dramatic. It felt like a resurrection of evil. Sephiroth really does epitomize hatred so well, and knowing the background behind him and Cloud and what Sephiroth has done and seeks truly makes him a fearsome character. I do still think Kefka is still a better antagonist than Sephiroth, but Sephiroth has the emotion whereas Kefka is more of a villain.
It does help a lot if you have played Final Fantasy VII, because a lot of the characters and the world and plot depends upon the development of things in the game. While the DVD does include a decent synopsis of events from the game, it doesn't capture everything. But, it would be a good idea to watch the synopsis before watching Advent Children if you've never played FFVII or if it's been a while since you have. Even then, there are things about the film you will not fully understand unless you have played the game.
August 13, 2006
I really liked the first movie, but the sequel Underworld: Evolution lost just about all of the original's culture and is a pure action movie. The action sequences are pretty intense and exciting, and the creature effects are great this time as they were in the first movie. I think the sexuality of both Beckinsale and Speedman are over exploited though. I wish the sophistication of the first movie had remained though.
There was an opportunity here to continue the exploration of the culture, the politics, and the infighting but instead all of those chances are skipped so as to move from one fight scene to the next. What happened to all of the other lycans and death dealers? It's like they've simply disappeared from the conflict, when we know they're still there and should be intimately involved in the chaos. I did like the scenes involving the historian though, as that brought back some of the wonderful sense of mythology found in the first movie.
Instead the majority of non-fight time involves Selene remembering more of her past. This is somewhat important, because it reveals back-story that further enriches her character, but it's also a little convenient in that it's history that wasn't necessary for the character development. And I think the extensive use of flashbacks was a poor choice of directing. Flashbacks in the first movie served real purpose for revealing truths and moving the plot forward. This time, they're more of a gimmick and contain very little information.
So Close is a Hong Kong action movie that looked pretty entertaining from just what I saw and read on the DVD case. And the action part is certainly very entertaining. I think this movie is a good example of Hong Kong martial arts movies, and all three actresses are very good at acting and the choreographed martial arts. Unfortunately, the movie lacks focus because the writers tried to cram too much into it and the sequence of events is not always clear.
Metroid Prime 2: Echoes
I just completed Metroid Prime 2: Echoes and it was every bit as enjoyable as the previous one, although even more expansive because the world is larger. From a gameplay standpoint, Echoes is pretty much identical to Prime, except some of the weapons and gear have been replaced with new variants that lead to new types of puzzles. I did like the change in enemy. Space pirates and metroids play a minor role this time.
Banner of the Stars I & II
It seems I forgot to write an entry for Banner of the Stars, so I'll combine it with my entry for Banner of the Stars II, as they are really too closely tied to be considered sequels instead of the same series. Unfortunately, I still have to see Banner of the Stars III but it isn't yet licensed in the U.S. The story as a whole is what really gives this anime value, so I am really looking forward to watching the next chapter.
As I mentioned earlier in my review of Crest of the Stars, there isn't anything particularly special about the series. Banner of the Stars has the same look, characters, and continues the story. But taken as a whole, the story becomes exceptionally motivating because of the characters. Since so much time and effort is put on developing the characters and also revealing the characters to the audience, I think anyone would start to care for them. And so although superficially there isn't anything special about the series, the normal story and normal characters do create something special which is very complex and takes time to appreciate.
August 12, 2006
Vittorio the Vampire
I finished reading Vittorio the Vampire last night. It has a very different tone to it than some of her other books, and is different in other ways as well. The religious aspect seems to be at odds with the beliefs presented of vampires in The Vampire Chronicles series, and the length of time involved is also very short. It's still captivating in its own way though, and at times interesting to read not so much for the locale or the details as it is for the story.
August 11, 2006
V for Vendetta
A few friends came over tonight to watch V for Vendetta. Jeannie, Gary, and Dantam showed up and Bryant was supposed to be he never did and we couldn't reach him by phone. The movie turned out enormously better than I was expecting. Natalie Portman and Hugo Weaving were excellent, and I was especially impressed by how well the personality and emotion of V could be portrayed even from behind the mask. The visuals, action sequences, and sound were also very good.
One aspect I particularly liked was the basis in reality that the world of V exists within. Although this is a comic book adaptation, the people are not supers and do not have any abnormal powers. There aren't any strange guns or weapons, and the characters are human in their normality and emotion. This is extremely important because the ideals and morality of this film is built upon the idea of you and I, and not the idea of something supernatural or larger than the individual.
There really is too much to say about the ideals and morality present in this film, and they come directly from the comic. The original work is sometimes said to be a satire and criticism of the UK government when Margaret Thatcher served as prime minister, because the comic features the opposing views of anarchism and fascism. The movie was modified to some degree to feature the opposing views of liberalism and (religious) conservatism, to some degree. It's taken a little farther than simple left-wing/right-wing politics.
Unfortunately, the thing that really made this movie have an impact upon me is because it captures so well exactly how I feel about certain things today. I think it's been such a long time since a movie that does this has been produced, where the current political, social, and economic situations are the real focus rather than an intellectual side-note. And it's certainly the first one that takes it as far as this one does for something that I am living through.
I do hope people will understand when it is said "artists use lies to tell the truth" that the statement is as much about the movie itself as it is about what's going on in the movie.
August 8, 2006
The Law of Ueki
I found the first disc of The Law of Ueki for free at work, and watched it shortly thereafter. Nothing special, but I figured it was only one more disc so I might as well finish it. Well, I watched the second disc yesterday and discovered that there are in fact over fifty episodes, and many more discs to come (but not entered into Netflix). So I've decided not to continue watching. It's just not worth it.
The story has a strange and potentially promising premise, here gods are battling for the supreme title, and humans are given a single power to act as their proxies in battle. Ueki is given the power to turn trash into trees. And from that you can figure out the basis of every episode. Each episode involves Ueki meeting one or more combatants and of course defeating them.
There is an extremely weak attempt at creating some background or personality for each combatant. I think it'd have been better to just completely skip that as it doesn't make much sense to have flashbacks during battle and there's no value resulting from the backstory. There's also a relatively weak attempt at justifying the reasons for fighting this way.
There are a few funny points, but not enough of them that are funny enough to save the series. Many attempts at humor were simply lost on me. The voice acting is not that great either. The voices do match the personalities, but don't seem that refined.
August 7, 2006
I ended up watching Tomb Raider again. It's not a particularly great movie, but I like it for the action sequences, electronic soundtrack, and overall high level of energy. There are of course things that just don't seem to fit because the movie seems much more real than the video game, but if you can overlook those then there's no issue. And Angelina Jolie's attitude as Lara Croft is excellent.
August 6, 2006
So a poster at Secrets of Home Theater and High Fidelity asked for speaker recommendations in the sub-$3000 range. I originally suggested he go and listen to a bunch of speakers, but he's interested in getting some more brand names under consideration, I guess. So I replied again with some of my speaker impressions. I've decided to copy that portion of my second reply into my blog.
For myself, I have Monitor Audio Silver S8/LCR/Sfx 7.1 for my home theater. They are overall a little warm, and have some cabinet resonances. The LCR isn't superb, but it's okay. The S8's aren't as precise in sound reproduction as I'd like (maybe cabinet resonances or just the drivers) but they sound pretty good overall. The Sfx speakers are okay. All of them roll off more than I like as they approach 20kHz. However, all of my friends are not audio enthusiasts so everything sounds exceptional to them.
I also have Castle Avon speakers, graciously given to me by JJ, which I also enjoy. Their cabinet build is a better than the S8s, so there is less resonance. But there are only two drivers, the tweeter is located a little low (which is okay because of how I listen to them with my head kind of low) so normally would need stands, and doesn't have as good off-axis response as the S8's, I think. But because of how I use them, that doesn't really matter.
When I auditioned the S8's a few years ago, I also listened to Klipsch speakers in the same room. They seemed too bright and harsh for me. Possibly the horn design being a bad choice in my price range. Possibly the tweeter construction. However others think those Klipsch speakers are perfect for them.
I listened to some B&W 805 (I think) speakers about a year or so ago at a boutique store. They were nice, and did the job very well. I don't have a lot of opinion on them though, as I didn't spend a lot of time listening and was mostly interested at that time in finding an amplifier.
I also helped a friend set up a Hsu VT-12 system. For the money, they are a great deal, but noticeably lower in quality than the other speakers I've mentioned. Especially at high volumes. The sound isn't as realistic or enveloping to me, maybe due to tweeter response. His room has more reflections than mine as well. I pretty much don't have any first-order reflections except off the front wall which is covered in velvet drapes, and my sofa back if I slouch. He's quite happy with them though, as far as I know.
If I were to buy new speakers today, I'd be looking at either the AV123 Onix Reference line or asking James Salk about a Veracity HT3 with higher efficiency (maybe by including a second woofer). And a ribbon tweeter is a requirement for me now. However, I haven't heard any of these speakers or a ribbon tweeter, so I still need to do some of my own listening research. Both of these are outside your price range though.
If I were to buy speakers that I feel are equivalent to my Monitor Audio Silver speakers, I'd be looking at the AV123 Onix Rocket line just to save money by going Internet Direct. But I don't feel the Rockets are a significant upgrade from my current system to justify a purchase. Also, this is not based on personal listening and I'm sure they would sound different than my current speakers but would be relatively equal in compromises. The Rockets are in your price range.
The Fifth Element
I got a little tired of playing video games, so decided to watch another movie. I hadn't watched The Fifth Element in a while so I decided to pop it in. The Fifth Element is one of my favorite films because of the action, music, visual sequences, and mostly because it's just a lot of fun. Crazy things are always happening with crazy characters. So as usual, I enjoyed it a lot.
August 5, 2006
I watched The Incredibles again today. That's probably the fifth time I've watched it. I would have continued watching the anime series I started, except Netflix is taking too long to deliver them. Anyway, The Incredibles has some incredible bass sequences and gave the new Plus 12.3 drivers a workout. One of the drivers wasn't screwed in tight enough, which resulted in some problems during high excursion, so I had to pause the film and fix that.
SVS Plus 12.3 Drivers
The two SVSound Plus 12.3 drivers I pre-ordered to upgrade my pair of 16-46PC+ subs arrived today. I've just finished replacing the db12.2 drivers with these new drivers and recalibrating using my Velodyne SMS-1. I found that I could lower the overall gain by maybe one decibel, but that for two of my low-end filters I had to decrease the magnitude of cut by about 2dB. I don't really hear any improvement otherwise.
I think the Plus 12.3 drivers are a little heavier than the db12.2 drivers, but otherwise very similar in overall appearance except that the Plus 12.3 driver is black without any logo and has a rubber shell on the outer rim. I also think the Plus 12.3 magnet is a little deeper.
I'm hoping I can use the db12.2 drivers for a DIY subwoofer, but I doubt I'll have funds for that anytime soon.
Queen of the Damned
I just finished reading Queen of the Damned again, after having watched the movie a while back with Dantam and Alla. Since the movie wasn't very good, and left out a lot of the real value of an Anne Rice novel, I wanted to go back and compare it to the book. The book is much better, of course, and also very different than how the movie ended up.
I don't like Queen of the Damned as a book as much I liked some of Anne Rice's other Vampire Chronicle books. Maybe in part because it tries to establish the origin of vampires and thus remove some of the mystery. Maybe also in part because it has less to do with the contemporary seductive qualities of vampires or the exploration of history than others. Anyway, it's still good, just not one of my favorites if I were to pick one.
August 3, 2006
Crest of the Stars
Crest of the Stars is the first series of a string of anime based off the works of Morioka Hiroyuki. On its own, this series is an interesting but simple story involving two unlikely teenage companions thrust into the misfortune of war. At times it's touching and exciting, but overall nothing too spectacular. However, I have hopes that following these two through all of the series will result in a sum that is greater than its parts.
I do think the artwork, both 2D and CG, is very good and well integrated with each other. I think they did a good job of spending the time and effort to produce each episode without cheating by reusing scenes too much, although that may be because a lot more of it is CG than I suspect. The background music was also decent, with what looks to be a full orchestral score.
August 1, 2006
I just finished playing Xenogears, which is an old game from 1998 but one with an amazing story and depth of intellect and emotion. From a technical standpoint, it's a very traditional RPG that has all of the hallmarks of the time. Which is good, but lacking in comparison to contemporary games. As a result movement, combat, and the audio are not particularly great. In particular combat is somewhat repetitive although a bit above par for the times. It's really the content that makes this game shine.
The first thing that one needs to realize about Xenogears is there are two layers to everything in the game. On the surface, you are presented with a lot of challenging ideas and plot mechanisms and characters that will really make you think. But beneath all of that is additional meaning which you can only extract if you have the background required to do so. And I am pretty sure I don't have all of it.
Some of the discussion points referenced include World War II and Nazi Germany with themes that can be applied towards anti-semitism as well as prejudice and social caste systems that apply or have applied to many other societies, such as India. There are also references to Freud's ego, superego, and id which make concrete appearances. Some references are to popular culture and include Star Wars, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Volton, Final Fantasy, and Soylent Green. I'm sure I've missed a few.
Perhaps the biggest talking point is how the concepts of religion, the church, sin, sacrifice, and God become the central plot around which everything else revolves. There is meaning behind the protagonist being the one who will destroy God, as well as arguably the reincarnation of Adam while another protagonist is the reincarnation of Eve. Other characters have representative roles as well, including Miang and Cain and Abel. The lambs have both a negative conotation in general speak, but a positive conotation in regards to biblical reference. There is both a clear criticism of how religion has been approached by people and an argument that tries to force you to find your own true faith. People assume certain things when it comes to God and religion because those are assumptions that are comforting. If those assumptions are removed or proven incorrect, are you willing to reshape your own view of the universe?
All in all, while I wasn't particularly impressed by the gameplay I do think many things were done very well for the time. But all of that is of very little importance compared to the storyline and the amount of thought that went into conveying those ideas and questions to the player. The second disc actually goes into a narration mode for significant amount of time, no doubt because expanding upon those parts of the story would easily have doubled the game's play time. I'm very satisfied with where this game ended up.
I do have a few questions which aren't answered. This installment of the game is referred to as Episode V. And there is a clear connection between this game and Xenosaga. But I have no idea how tight that connection is.