July 17, 2010
Distant Worlds II
I attended the Friday half of the Distant Worlds: music from Final Fantasy at the San Francisco Symphony last night. I really enjoyed it, although I would have enjoyed it more if I had the entire hall to myself. ^_^ Primarily because the audience acted less like a symphony performance and more like a get-together. So there was a lot of clapping and cheering and even a few jokes called out. I didn't appreciate all the clapping during the credits, which prevented me from hearing Terra's Theme.
I kept my eyes closed as much as possible, during the performance, so that I wouldn't get distracted by the visuals they had up. They played pieces from a variety of Final Fantasy games, including one from the upcoming FFXIV online game. I know Roger Ebert is skeptical about the artistic nature of games, but having played the games added a lot of emotional depth to the music I was hearing. I have a much deeper understanding of what the music is trying to convey, and an emotional attachment to the songs. I got goosebumps during Aerith's Theme, JENOVA, as well as a few other songs. (No goosebumps during One Winged Angel because that was played sort of like karaoke&emdash;I chanted but the choir was a little weak.) The music from FFXI and FFXIII didn't have the same effect on me, because I didn't really have any context for it. There was an older couple sitting in front of me that didn't even know what Final Fantasy was, and I don't think they got much out of it and were somewhat confused by everyone else's enthusiasm.
One thing that I was confused about was clarified for me last night. I'd picked up the FFXIII soundtrack while in Japan, and although I haven't taken the time to listen to it (on purpose) I did listen to a few songs. And my immediate thought was that this is not Final Fantasy music. It didn't sound right. Sounded much more like a typical classical soundtrack. I thought perhaps Nobou Uematsu was doing something different. But, the FFXIII soundtrack was entirely composed by Masashi Hamauzu.
After getting back to Alla's place, I ordered both Distant Worlds CDs. (The Symphony Store was selling them for $20 each so it was cheaper ordering off Amazon.) I really enjoyed some of the new compositions, and want to be able to listen to them at home.
October 5, 2008
Final Fantasy XII
I finally finished Final Fantasy XII. This is probably the first Final Fantasy where I ended up trying to do all sorts of unnecessary and somewhat hard to find side quests. I suspect mostly because of the new combat system, which is a lot like combat might be in a MMORPG and no doubt a lot of the engine came from the work put into Final Fantasy XI. Exploring and moving through the environments was more engaging and interesting, because combat just happens without you having to enter a special game mode. Which makes moving between places feel more natural.
In this new combat system, you control one of your three party characters and can switch back and forth at will. The other two characters are set to execute commands in a prioritized list, using what Square Enix calls gambits. So you might set Penelo to heal whenever someone gets low on HP, but otherwise cast haste and then finally attack if none of those spells are necessary. Because I ended up doing a lot of exploring and side quests, I did get all of my characters to level 99. That's the first time I've done that in a Final Fantasy. It did help that you can equip accessories that will increase your experience awarded.
The party I ended up using most was Ashe, Penelo, and Fran. That provided a pretty good mix of close-combat, healing, and ranged-attack. Bathier wasn't particularly interesting to use with his guns. Vaan is sort of a basic all-around character, and Basch was my pole-arms fighter. In Final Fantasy XII, you sort of have complete control over how your characters end up developing because you can purchase skills on the License Board. In the beginning it makes sense to focus characters on different skill sets so you have a good combination in your party. Later on, it is possible to purchase all the licenses and the characters are then differentiated by their natural talent (i.e. stats).
Final Fantasy XII is set in a world called Ivalice. It's a very rich world, with good back story and everything was made consistent. There are a number of different races, the most interesting being the Viera who are an apparently all-female race of rabbit-like humanoids that live in the woods, separate from the rest of civilization. Only a very few leave the wood to live among the other races. I'm not entirely sure how the Viera reproduce. This isn't made clear in the game, but there is one side quest where a Viera and Hume begin a relationship although it seems clear the two species cannot reproduce with each other.
The graphics of Final Fantasy XII aren't all that different than that found in Final Fantasy X. Perhaps a bit more polished, and the world environment is certainly different because it is fully 3-D and can be explored that way. I do feel like the music was bit less memorable and more background than thematic though. The environments were large, and you tended to spend quite a bit of time in them just since you have to travel by foot, and the music was composed to match.
The story was good, and typical of what you expect from the higher-numbered Final Fantasy games. Interesting, fully fleshed out, but also somewhat grounded and less fantastical than the ones put together for the earlier stories. For me, this is a bit unfortunate because it doesn't have the feel of a sweeping epic or provide me with an intense emotional connection.
April 13, 2008
Karen will be leaving to Switzerland soon. I have to remember it's Switzerland and not Sweden by remembering it's the neutral place. She and Sebastian are moving there, because Sebastian got a professorship at the University. It's going to be a big change for her, and this'll probably be the last time I get to see her for a few years.
We drove up and then took BART into San Francisco to meet up with some of her other friends. Ended up going around to a few bars and just hanging out. One place was really tiny and crowded and the music was really loud. The other place was larger and so we had more room. Played one of those cheap video game kiosks and some darts. A bunch of people were playing beer pong in the back room. Looked kind of gross considering everywhere the ping pong ball was going.
Anyway, Karen had a lot of fun so that's good. It'll give her a good memory before leaving.
February 23, 2008
Visit from Silke
Silke's back in San Jose again after about two years. She's the new team lead for development in Germany, and Karsten who used to be the team lead is now a manager. So IBM flew her out to meet some of the people she's working with in San Jose and for some training. This was her first time meeting Luna, although I'd mentioned Luna to her the last time she was here.
We went to eat at Sato Sushi. The food was good although a little pricey as usual for a Japanese restaurant. We mostly talked about how things are at IBM and what the people there that both of us know are doing now. Luna talked a little bit about her classes. Luna thought it was strange that Silke would go to live at a monastery and learn Kung Fu.
Afterwards, we came back home and played a game of Hunters and Gatherers. It was actually a very close game until I got lucky and pulled out the shrine which let me get all of the field, which we were previously sharing, to myself. If I hadn't pulled that I wouldn't have won, because I was trailing by a fair margin the entire time.
January 9, 2008
Wii with Karen + Sebastian
Luna, Iris, and I went up to visit Karen and Sebastian tonight because Sebastian will be leaving to Switzerland soon to start working there as a professor. Karen won't be joining him until after she graduates from Stanford, which should be sometime this summer. We went out to Thai food, which was good and reasonably priced, and I think I spent most of the time talking to Sebastian and Karen about the Presidential candidates and public policy ideas. Karen thinks it is unfair that people are fined based on their income in Switzerland, for example, while Sebastian and I think it makes sense because fines are supposed to be punishments rather than to be fees or to reflect any particular costs.
Afterwards we went back to Karen's place and played Wii Sports. It's the first time Luna or I had played a Wii; Iris had played before. I was okay at Wii Tennis, but I couldn't do well at Wii Boxing or Wii Bowling. Boxing seemed to have a very heavy delay between movement of the remote and nunchuck, and the most effective techniques really didn't look anything like what the characters on screen were doing. I don't really know what was wrong with bowling though, because I just couldn't get it to swing the arm and release the ball correctly.
Lastly we played a round of Pictionary. The teams were Karen, Luna, and me versus Sebastian and Iris. Our team pulled ahead early on very quickly, but then we got hit by a short period of losses and they caught up. In the end we got to the finish first though, and won the game. A couple of times it was easier to guess off the other team's artist, but that's okay because Sebastian likes to do that and so it's acceptable strategy. :)
November 27, 2007
Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem
Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem is an interesting mix of dark plot, adventure game, and action horror. But more than all that it is creepy. Really creepy. That's the part I liked most about the game, but also the part that sometimes made me say I need to stop because it's too dark right now and I'm sitting by myself.
The gameplay takes place over a period of a little over 2000 years, and begins with the corruption of a Roman centurion, Pious, by one of three gods. Each god commands one aspect of the world: physical, mental, or spiritual. The three aspects balance each other out and this cycle of strengths and weaknesses plays an important part in your ability to defeat this centurion turned Lich as you use magic and physical weapons to defeat the undead and overcome obstacles. At different points in time, a person comes into contact with Pious' plans for his god, and you play as that person to unravel a little bit more of the story and learn new magic spells to combat the darkness.
I did like how the story unfolded, and learning how the lives of all those people involved thread together to prevent the coming darkness from being successfully unleashed upon the world. It's not particularly complicated, but it is well written and kept me curious and trying to piece the parts together.
Unfortunately, I was not as pleased with the combat system. It's a bit awkward, because you cannot execute movements and attacks as fluidly and naturally as I would have liked. It doesn't have the capabilities or easy of control found in many action-RPGs or fighting games. There was also a bit of a learning curve, but once I figured out how things were supposed to behave and how to work with the movement and combat system, it wasn't too bad. But definitely not exciting.
As I mentioned above, what was really great was the creepiness. There were sounds that got to me, especially the first time I heard them and was expecting something to happen with those sounds. And there are lots of little visuals that are subconsciously disturbing as you pass by, and then even more disturbing if you try to pay closer attention. The designers put a lot of attention into all of this, and it pays off.
You can also play through multiple times, with slightly different enemies and corresponding strategies, based on whom you choose, acting as Pious, to be your god. I don't think that's worth too much though, since the story will remain the same.
November 11, 2007
Settlers of Catan and The Crazy Stone
Tonight was originally a movie night, but Mitch and Tintin had to cancel which prompted Wendy to ask if we could have a game night instead; she said she was movied-out. So it ended up Wendy, Brian, Matt, Ling, and Thomas showed up, but I was a little annoyed because everything came together so haphazardly. For starters, Brian asked if we had any coupons to get food after I IM'ed him that morning, and I thought we had confirmed going to King Buffet at 7pm; that Matt and Ling would be carpooling with Wendy and Brian; and that Thomas was not coming because he never replied to the mailing list and Brian said not to count him in. Brian did say he would call back if that changed, but I missed his calls and didn't see any of Wendy's IMs (which ended up on my work computer).
With me, things aren't going to go very well with last minute changes or decisions because I am not easy to reach when I am home. I also rarely like to do things on short notice. Anyway, what happened is Luna and I drove to King Buffet and it was only after we were there for a while that I discovered Wendy's voice mail. We ended up ordering from Golden House Chinese and picked up on the way home to meet Wendy and Brian to eat. Matt and Ling would show up later, because they already ate, and I didn't even know Thomas was coming until later.
Regardless, we played a Seafarers scenario of Settlers of Catan. Wendy and Brian played as a team. I ended up getting trapped into a corner very early in the game because I took a risk on more resources rather than ensuring I could not get trapped. So it became a very tough game for me to enjoy. Luna had a lot of fun though, because she kept exploring. The rest of the players thought she was far ahead because she explored so far, but she wasn't building anything which would hurt her later. Wendy and Brian ended up having enough room to build a little on the mainland while maintaining the resources needed to explore out and establish themselves on another island. That, with their development card victory points, won them the game.
Afterwards, we watched Crazy Stone because Luna really wanted to watch it and kept talking about it all night. Wendy and Brian ended up staying, I think, just because Luna was so enthusiastic about it. They were really tired though, and left before it finished because Wendy was falling asleep. I thought it was okay; I don't like that kind of humor so much and found the way it was cut a little disorienting. Matt thought it was very funny though.
October 22, 2007
Tomb Raider: Legend
Tomb Raider: Legend is the first Tomb Raider game I've actually purchased and played all the way through. I picked it up because it received critical reviews as a platformer that took Lara back to her original roots in great ways. And I have to say I was very pleased with the game, and went through it quickly and thoroughly in only a few days. (I did look at spoilers to find some of the harder trophies, but otherwise went through the puzzles and time trials on my own wits and skill. It might have been easier for me to find the trophies without cheating if the contrast on the TV was better.)
The graphics are great. Nothing awe inspiring, but there are rich environments in many different locations around the globe, as Lara tries to uncover the truth behind her mother's disappearance and unlock the legend of a sword and seemingly ubiquitous stones. It was enjoyable to move between these different places, seeing different things, and navigating the different puzzles with the platform variations in each location. There are a large number of cut scenes, rendered in the game engine, with wonderful voice overs by voice actors who did a fabulous job.
I think the music is better than the graphics, and that's saying something. The soundtrack was exciting, engaging, fit the mood and storyline wonderfully, and well done. I actually am a little disappointed that the subwoofer and speakers I have for our video game set up aren't that good. I think I would have enjoyed the music even more if they were.
I should mention that the hard difficulty setting isn't actually that hard. I played through everything on hard the first time through, and never really died as a result of combat. Mistakes yes, but not from bad guys hitting me with bullets. This game is not a fighting game. It's in there, as a nice change of pace from the platforming elements, as well as an opportunity to do some minorly cool things, but it won't win any awards or present a real challenge. There are also a few vehicle sequences thrown in for good measure.
What this game is really good at is presenting a platforming challenge with good puzzles that require you to think on your toes and interact with the environment to move forward. If you're into that sort of thing, you should definitely give this game a go.
October 15, 2007
Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones
Ubisoft has created a masterpiece with its trilogy of Prince of Persia games. The third and final installment in this epic story is Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones. In the first chapter, things are set up. The Prince's foolish pride and noble birthright open him to temptations that result in a catastrophe. In Warrior Within, the consequences of that catastrophe have tormented the Prince, twisting his soul. The Two Thrones offers the Prince a path out of the darkness, and a chance for redemption. The character development of the Prince and his interactions with Farah and Kaileena are wonderful to follow.
The mood, environment, and music of this chapter of the story reflects the Prince's opportunity for redemption. It is no longer dark and twisted, although at times the Prince's dark nature is reflected both in his physical appearance and in his location. But as he falls between the dungeons of the castle and climbs back up to fight the Vizier, the Prince begins to find his compassion and humanity again through the efforts of Farah. Unfortunately Farah serves only as a puzzle point and a focus of the Prince's thoughts, and not as a companion in combat like in the first chapter.
In terms of platforming, a few new elements have been added that keep the third game from being solely an extension of the first game. These new elements make it possible for the designers to create new platforming puzzles that are unfamiliar to the player. But the biggest change is the addition of quick kills to the combat system. If you are able to sneak up on an enemy, or multiple enemies, you can issue a series of timed reactions to quickly dispatch them without them having a chance to fight back or alert others to your presence. The hard difficulty changes in this respect, because quick kills become a necessary expedient, especially during combat where backup can be called upon. Quick kills are also integrated into the boss fights, so defeating bosses becomes a combination of strategy and timing, instead of pattern-based combo attacks.
As you can probably tell from the timestamp, I only spent a few days playing The Two Thrones. This is partially because it was so much fun, but also because it's a lot more straight-forward than the second game and quick kills are easier and faster for moving forward than trying to take care of a bunch of enemies without dying on the hard difficulty setting.
October 14, 2007
Game Night at Karen's
Luna and I just came back from having a game night (afternoon) at Karen's place. Ilya and his wife Katya also came; the last time I saw them was at Jamie and Keelan's wedding in Philadelphia. We played a game of Settlers of Catan, without any expansions. It was a close match, but in the end Katya had more resources and managed to pull ahead because I lost longest road to Karen. With longest road, I only needed one more victory point but Katya managed to pull that one off with a development card. Luna even tried to help me win, but she only traded me enough to upgrade to a city and get one point. Ilya suffers from the same sickness as Sebastian, and was constantly peeking at Katya's cards.
Ilya and Katya had to leave because they had other dinner plans, but the rest of us went to dinner at a fancy Indian restaurant. Good food, but not a whole lot of it for the price. I guess some of it was too spicy for Luna, because even though we ordered non-spicy dishes she said they were all too spicy for her liking.
Sebastian will be leaving for Switzerland at the beginning of next year, and Karen will be going after she graduates. So I'm not sure if we'll meet up with Sebastian again before he leaves. He's going to be doing post-doctoral work at a university there, and Karen plans to get a job in industry.
After dinner, we played a couple games of Apples to Apples. It's a party game where you try and pick a card from your hand that best matches the idea for that round. For example, the idea might be arrogance and you might have a card that is for an actor you think is arrogant. Or you might have nothing similar, in which case you'd play something completely unrelated. Each round, there is a judge who picks the card they like best, and whoever played that card wins a point. Conceptually it sounds like it might be amusing to play, but in reality it wasn't that much fun. Perhaps with more players, or judges who picked by some more ridiculous criteria, it would be.
October 12, 2007
Prince of Persia: Warrior Within
Prince of Persia: Warrior Within is the immediate sequel to Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. It picks up where the first game left off, with the Prince travelling to an remote island in an attempt to stop the Empress of Time from ever creating the sands of time, because having changed the past there is a creature hunting the Prince to remove him from timeline. This creature, the Dahaka, torments the Prince and thus the Prince himself has become a tormented soul. Everything about Warrior Within reflects that darkness with a Prince that has lost all compassion and acts out of desperation, and combat that is vicious and violent.
That's the first thing that will hit you when to start playing Warrior Within. The prequel was bright, morally simple, and contained a fair share of playful banter between the Prince and his partner Farah. That has completely changed here as the environments are dark and monochromatic with enemies and creatures obscenely disfigured and hellish in their appearance. The soundtrack is loud, harsh, and violent during combat but can be quite nice and ambient otherwise. (Think Quake and Trent Reznor.) The combat is extremely violent now, with finishing moves like decapitation or full body-length splices. Instead of disappearing into sand, the enemies now exhibit blood and gore before turning to dust.
Whether or not you feel this change is for the better or worse, the gameplay itself is a significant improvement, taking something great and making it excellent. The platforming is not as simple, although the basic elements are the same. Hand holds and ledges are integrated into the environment and structures. There are new elements that you must use to move forward and new traps as well.
The new combat system is a lot more fun. It's more intense and you can do so many more things than before. In much the same way as Oni, you can grapple with, throw, and manipulate your enemy directly during combat. Unlike Oni, though, you can use all of your moves from the beginning, instead of having to learn them over time. But you can also make use of the walls and poles around you, allow for leaping, spinning, and other acrobatic attacks and escapes. There are a bunch of combinations you can execute, and then chaining combinations together makes for exciting and challenging battles. If you choose the hard difficulty, using your environment wisely and identifying the most effective strategies for each enemy becomes very important. It also makes combat very hard overall.
The plot and motivations of the Prince and the other primary characters is very different this time around. Instead of trying to save others, the Prince is motivated by a selfish desire to save his own life, selfish in that he does not care who else has to die in order for him to accomplish this. There is no doubt or conflict involved in his decisions to murder those that would oppose or obstruct his goal, regardless of their motivations.
Overall an excellent game. I ended up playing it a second time through, right away, to get the better ending, and when doing so it was just as enjoyable as the first time through.
October 7, 2007
Game Night at Matt & Ling's
Luna and I just got back from a game night at Matt and Ling's place, up in Fremont. They live very close to Shannon and Yvonne, actually. Wendy, Brian, and Quyen were there and Thomas showed up later at 8pm. We ate some random stuff for a while before starting the games. Luna wanted to play Bohnanza again so we played that first. Wendy won that with 13 points; I had 12 and Luna had 9. By that time Thomas had arrived so we needed to figure out how to get eight people into a game. We ended up splitting into two groups. Luna played Settlers of Catan with Wendy, Ling, and Brian. And I played a game called Nexus Ops with Quyen, Thomas, and Matt.
Nexus Ops is a little remiscent in the look of its units to Starcraft. The basic idea is to acquire victory points by completing missions and winning battles against the other players. There are six types of units, with the cheaper ones being very weak and the more expensive ones very powerful. The mid-level units have certain abilities that make them more useful in some situations than in others. You're also limited in the number of a type of unit you can purchase, and the combat system makes it benficial to have a good mix of unit types.
The main mistake I think many of us made was to consider this a territory game. That's how the board looks, and also how many similar games are designed. But Nexus Ops is a capture game, which means there is no reason to try and take and hold territories unless there is some immediate benefit. Losing a territory makes sense if that lets you win a battle somewhere else. It's a pretty fun game, but tense because just about everything you might do is likely to leave you open to a successful counter-attack. It becomes important to figure out the trade-offs. I ended up coming in second place, with 11 points; Quyen was the first to 12. I think if I'd been more aggresive I could have won, because I would only need to win one more battle to reach 12 points before Quyen.
October 3, 2007
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
Ubisoft really captured the essence of the original Prince of Persia with their updated version, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. The original platforming gameplay has been redone in 3D but with the same essential ease and simplicity of the original by keeping the direction of movement in the six primary directions, by maintaining discrete movement units, and by including many of the same elements. Combat is also very similar to the original, although with updated moves and new acrobatic techniques. Each enemy tends to have a specific set of attack and defense vectors, requiring you to identify and then use their weakness against them. The difficulties in combat arise from having to combat many enemies at once and keeping everything straight during the fast-paced action. It's also important to continually avoid entering a bad combat situation.
The difficulty of combat and the platform puzzles increases over the course of the game at a very nice pace. I found myself with sweaty hands on many occassions when trying to jump from place to place and figure out the right way to proceed, especially nearer the end when a wrong move spells certain death. Combat becomes fierce enough to give your hands and wrists a good workout. Many of the puzzles are similar in their elements but put together present new challenges and will require you to think things through. Thankfully there tends to only be one path by which you can proceed through an area, so you don't have to worry about putting yourself into a dead end.
I also liked the introduction of the Prince's partner, Farah. In a vein similar to Ico, Farah must be kept safe from enemies (although she usually is, being able to move and think on her own and attack from a distance with her bow) but she is also able to help solve puzzles because she is thinner than the Prince and can fit through cracks. She also moves the plot forward because she knows what needs to be done to undo the sands of time and is someone the Prince can have a conversation with.
September 30, 2007
The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords
I started playing The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords a long time ago, with Shannon. In fact, I pretty much bought it because it can be multi-player and I wanted to play it with Shannon and Yvonne. But we haven't seen much of each other in a while so I decided I might as well finish it up. While this Zelda is really good, it is just more fun to play with other people because that's how it was designed. Plus, you can only play the Tingle mini-games with more than one player.
This version of Zelda is much closer to the types you find on the Game Body platform, instead of the recent console platforms. Partially because it makes use of the Game Boy Advance screen to provide different views for each player. It's very similar in look and feel to The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past from the Super Nintendo, but with updated gameplay and nicer graphics technology. Being able to control four Links, either on your own or with other people, lends itself to new and interesting puzzles that require cooperation or can be done more quickly or easily with friends at hand.
Nintendo really did something cool, with GBA multiplayer games. It's an expensive hardware investment, but it does make for some really fun and engaging play with friends.
September 29, 2007
GameStop Ratings Advisories
Luna and I stopped in at GameStop today, and while we were browsing through the games I heard something interesting. There was a mother in, buying a game for her son who was not there with her, and as she was paying for the game, the GameStop employee was informing her of the ESRB rating and description. I suppose this is normal policy now, when selling games to parents or grandparents, because of all the public outcry, lawsuits, and legislation attempts over children ending up with violent or sexual games.
Of course, I'm in the camp that believes the responsibility for making sure your children play games that you think are suitable belongs entirely with the parents/purchaser. But since computer and video games are something the majority of that generation don't understand, they want a ratings board and laws to do that for them.
September 24, 2007
Okage: Shadow King
I picked up Okage: Shadow King from the bargain bin for $5. It's a little old, and I vaguely remembered hearing about it, so for $5 it seemed like a good thing to take a chance on. As it turns out, the price I paid is pretty close to what it's worth, relative to the cost of other RPGs you could buy, either back then or today. The premise is strong, but the execution is weak.
In Okage, you play the role of a teenage boy named Ari who is possessed by an Evil Shadow King named Stan, and then rushed off by your parents to go questing to destroy other Evil Kings. Stan, as a Shadow King, is your shadow. He's tethered to you that way, and actually far from evil and quite powerless. Most of the fun in Okage comes from the amusing and cool dialogue and silliness of its plot.
The visuals are pretty nice, anime-styled, bright, and colorful. The music is okay, but not anything special, and suffers from having been written without knowing how it was going to be used. In other words, the music isn't appropriate to the mood or action that is taking place on the screen, in my opinion. But that's a nit compared to where the game really falls apart.
The biggest problem is with the mechanics of the game. Instead of walking up stairs, or through open doorways, you have to hit a button. And sometimes it seems like the animators took the easy way out and moved the camera to first-person-view instead of animating the action, like when you go up and down ladders. Load times are very slow, and until I got used to it moving between rooms or areas was always a test of my patience. Load times are also slow after combat, with no indication as to when it is okay to hit a button and continue your journey. Instead, I would just keep button mashing until the post-combat screen exited. Experience and level ups are handled in series, instead of in parallel, and when the level up music plays everything stops for the full music duration.
Another annoying aspect of the combat is the transition between menus. It's very hard to identify the currently selected menu choice, and when you select a menu item the next menu does not immediately appear but instead transitions in. This transition is slow enough that you cannot enter commands from memory without inserting conscious pauses, and the fact you cannot easily see the current menu choice means you need time to look, to avoid making mistakes.
The game also comes in a little short, and I finished it in about 25 hours. I think the majority of time was spent in combat, sometimes fighting enemies that I originally fought while at level 1, because the designers do not adjust the enemies in different areas based on your progress. Most combat was boring, until I realized you can fight more efficiently by executing combination attacks and there was a real-time aspect to the turn-based actions, similar to the first Final Fantasy where it might pay off to select different enemies from the start. Then it was no longer simple button mashing, but unless the enemies were difficult, it also meant battles were pretty much the same if you hit the same monster groups.
Overall, Okage is about what I'd expect from a group of developers and designers who had never put together an RPG before, possible one of their earlier video game works, and who aren't avid RPGers themselves.
September 16, 2007
Nine Person Game Night
We hosted a pretty big game night yesterday evening. It started out with plans for just Brian, Wendy, and Tintin in addition to Luna and me for a total of five people. But Thomas, Matt, Ling, and Quyen (somehow pronounced like Quinn) showed up as well. Matt and Ling brought four huge pizzas from Mr. Pizza Man because they had organized a tailgate type party up in San Francisco and there were leftovers. I'd never heard of Mr. Pizza Man before. The pizzas aren't great, but they were free and a lot. They only brought cheese and pepperoni, which I don't like so much anyway, so maybe the ones with lots of toppings taste better. The crust was pretty nice where it met the pizza.
Quyen brought a big tub of games to choose from, but with nine people it was pretty hard finding a game. We played something called Bohnanza. Basically, each turn you are forced to plant beans that you have in your ordered hand or that you received by trading, and the goal is to create large bean patches that you sell into the discard piile in exchange for gold. There is a different number of each type of bean, which is inversely proportional to their gold value. Selling beans removes some number of those beans from the game. The person with the most gold at the end wins. I thought it was okay, but not really my type of game. Luna, however, likes it because it's straight-forward and moves quickly.
Next we played a six-player game of Settlers of Catan with the Seafarers expansion. The doubled-up teams were Matt and Ling, Luna and me, and Wendy and Brian. Even on the same team, Wendy and Brian didn't always act in agreement, which shouldn't be a surprise. I think if this game had involved military pieces, they'd have somehow gotten themselves into a civil war. :p Despite that, they won very handily because they were the primary producers of wheat, with enough sheep and ore to puchase a huge number of development cards. They ended up winning with cities, victory points and largest army, and always had a huge stock of resources since seven didn't come up very much. Luna and I were in second place, and would have done better if I had listened to Luna and placed our second settlement at the corner of some resoures on the other side of the board, but instead I chose the wood port on a single brick hex.
Luna keeps making fun of me for losing whenever we play Settlers of Catan. I think it's been too long and I'm out of practice, since when we played in North Carolina, it was often me or Alan in first place.
September 9, 2007
Tintin & Bottle Rocket
Tintin came over yesterday evening to play a game of Settlers of Catan. We played the basic version, just Tintin, Luna, and me. Tintin didn't pick very good starting locations, which ended up making it very difficult for her to do well. Luna got really lucky with a bunch of rolled elevens and ended up winning by a pretty good margin.
As it happens, Tintin's movie also arrived yesterday and so we ended up watching it after the game. She got Bottle Rocket, a Wes Anderson film starring Owen and Luke Wilson as a couple of reckless friends who don't really know what to do with themselves and end up holding up a bookstore. This is followed by escaping to a motel where the maid becomes a love interest, and then returning to try and pull off one more heist that couldn't have gone more wrong.
If you're familiar with Wes Anderson's quirky sense of humor and movie style, and you like it, then you'll probably like Bottle Rocket. If his movies don't really appeal to you, then it's more of a 50/50 chance as to whether or not you'll think this movie is something special. This was his directorial debut, as well as the acting debut of the two Wilson brothers.
September 6, 2007
Xenosaga: Episode III
It's been a long time since I finished a video game, and there were several points in time when I didn't play for a week or more, but the final chapter of the epic saga is done and I do believe Xenosaga: Episode III to be the best in the series. I'll go into technical details later, but the all of the open questions, character backgrounds, and plot twists are finally explained. But because the authors never shy away from taking as much time as necessary to tell the story, it doesn't at all feel rushed or artificial. This time, the lengthy cut scenes did not leave me feeling impatient to continue, because everything from the previous two episodes starts to make sense and held my interest. I think they also made a conscious decision to leave out cut scenes or portions of cut scenes that did not reveal any new information, or at least hint at something that you want to know.
I also found the ending very satisfactory. It'd say it ranks up there as one of the best endings of any role-playing game. No doubt it helps that there is so much depth to the story. The ending sequence is quite long and feels both sad and triumphant at the same time. It does not trivialize the long journey that you, the player, had to go through in order to reach it and bring things to a conclusion. Things will be different from now on, but finally things will also be all right. It really shows a remarkable attention to quality to see such a large storyline succeed over the length of three games.
Visually, Xenosaga: Episode III is a nice improvement over Episode II. The body movement of character is more natural during the pre-rendered scenes, and now have subtle facial expression changes that were not done before. I would say the visuals during gameplay are very similar though, and if there are any improvements they are minor enough that I could not notice them outright. The environments are much nicer, more detailed, and feel more open though. I think some effort must have been taken to try and make urban and natural environments that felt more realistic and interesting than they did before.
The music is well done again, and there are some really nice final battle music. Not as memorable or emotional as the most famous of them all (Kefka) but I noticed them and liked the mood created by the music during those battles.
Travel is still handled the same way as before, with larger world maps that have areas you can enter, and the majority of your travel occuring via the Elsa during which time you can work on side quests. Movement through combat areas is also pretty much the same, as is the feel of the puzzles you encounter. The puzzles are new, which is good, and some of them are forms of less common types of puzzles, which is also good.
One of the most important aspects of any RPG is the combat system, and I think Episode III finally got the character battles right. You have enough EP, or you can make it so you have enough, to utilize ether skills and tech skills liberally which is the primary strategic aspect of combat. The boost and special attacks are still there, and share the same gauge. It's possible to increase the maximum of that gauge as well, which can be extremely useful. Special attacks are used to maximize awarded points at the end of combat, so it's important to use them often, which means you won't use boost often. However it is nice to have it there because boosting can make a big difference when in a pinch. Overall, you have a lot more control over things and the different tech skills provide more variety during combat. You can also use the ether skills to good effect most of the time.
The E.S. combat is still not as fun though, even if it is less boring this time because of the inclusion of special combinations depending on the attacks you use and a much greater importance on using the right types of attacks and support items during boss battles. However, regular E.S. combat might as well be holding down the attack button. The boss battles are also only difficult in that they have to be extremely drawn out. Since there really aren't a whole lot of options during E.S. combat, the only way to make them hard is to make them long, with special high-damage attacks by the boss that you need to prepare against. I would have been perfectly happy with the E.S. battle system left out, even though it isn't as bad as before.
A new skill upgrade system is also introduced this time, although it is very similar to the one from Episode II. You still spend points to unlock skills along a few set paths, but there are only two primary paths this time and you can traverse them in parallel if desired. However, completing a primary path gives you a special master skill which can be very useful. At certain times during the story you can also find items that will unlock additional EX skills. These skills do not require you to follow a path to obtain them, and you can learn them at any time provided you have enough skill points. These skills let you give a character a useful auxiliary skill that doesn't have anything to do with their primary paths, or taken as a whole may let you adjust the combat or support options available to that character in a significant way. I found this skill system to be less annoying and confusing, and more flexible, than the previous ones.
August 26, 2007
First Game Night with Wendy
We had our first game night with Wendy, Brian, and Thomas just now. They have game nights fairly often, with a usual crowd which Luna and I haven't met before. This time, though, game night was at our house and it was just the five of us. Which is a good number. We ordered take out from Buca di Beppo because I had a $10 gift card that I received in the mail at some point, but Thomas is picky about food or something and brought his own Chinese food. Wendy was really happy to meet Nami and Kiba, and to play with them. I think she said she likes Nami more, but that might have just been because Nami was wearing her cone which makes her look cuter. Brian couldn't remember their names. :p
Afterwards, we played Settlers of Catan. I think SoC is my favorite board game, and it's one that Wendy and Brian really like to play also. I guess they are used to playing with someone who has some house rules and does some things a little differently, while I'm only used to playing by the specific rules mentioned in the rule books. I guess they have also never played any of the non-predefined maps, because this time we played random (which actually shows up in some of the map books) and they were a little surprised. Brian won the first game, and Wendy the second; we played with Seafarers the second game.
Wendy and Brian are incredibly competitive, but Brian more so I think. Brian spends a long time trying to figure out the right move, and tries to be tricky about his cards and trading and stuff like that. They were sitting next to each other and often arguing (in a friendly manner) about trades and points and strategies and other things like that. Often poking or pinching each other too. :) Thomas was a lot quieter, but built steadily. Luna and I were also kind of poking at each other, but not so aggressively as Brian and Wendy. Even though Luna played before, with Karen and Sebastian, she'd forgotten all the rules.
It wasn't anything bad, except for one time that Brian tried to take one of Wendy's resource cards after using the robber without waiting for her to give it to him. He grabbed a development card instead, which Wendy smacked down on to make sure he couldn't see what she had. But that ended up bending the card pretty badly. Brian gave me a replacement card though, which was nice of him. Otherwise it'd be really easy to spot the card in the development card deck.
For the second game, Luna and Brian switched seats so Brian and Wendy couldn't reach each other anymore. Things became a little calmer then; I think it's probably best if they are out of each others reach for these kind of games. After the game though it doesn't matter. They don't hold grudges or anything like that.
The second game ended after I traded a sheep resource to Wendy, which allowed to her build a city and reach twelve points. In retrospect, it may have been wiser to not trade with her, but I don't think I had that good a chance of winning anyway. The early game had stuck me with very little resources after being cut off by one of Wendy's settlements, and I needed longest road or largest army to have a chance, but Thomas was far ahead of me in road length and Wendy had like six soldiers out.
Anyway, we ended around 3am, and they left shortly afterwards. Luna had a really good time. Better than she thought she was going to, and she wants to play again sometime soon. It'll probably be a while before we play again though. Alla is coming back for the Labor Day weekend so we're going to meet up with her then. Maybe the weekend after.
July 6, 2007
The Last Carcassone
So Alla will be leaving soon for the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania to get her MBA. Her orientation classes start at the end of the month, and next week is her last week at IBM. She's really busy getting everything ready, and planning to take a short vacation before she flies out to start classes. And so last night she and Eric came over for one last game of Carcassone. I ended up making some mistakes, and didn't build any cities which is why I didn't win the game. Luna ended up with the most points by playing under the radar and won the game.
Alla also met Kiba and Nami for the first time, and she really liked Nami until she tried climbing up her back during the game. She played with Nami a little bit before dinner, but Kiba didn't come down until later.
It also seems like Alla might have broken her toe. She told me someone at work stepped on her foot by accident, really heavily and with some hard shoes, and it's been a week already but it still hurts to walk and move. I think it should be okay.
June 17, 2007
Shannon & Yvonne for Dinner
Shannon & Yvonne and Mei-Ling came over for dinner last night. It's been so long since Luna and I last saw them, which was when we went over to their house shortly after Luna arrived. Luna made a bunch of Chinese dishes for them to eat, and a fruit plate. They brought some leftover ice cream for dessert, even though we'd bought ice cream before, and orange juice too. Of course the first thing they all wanted to do was find the kitties. They all ran under the bed at first, but after a while Niea and then Asuka came out. Yvonne managed to scare Chie out later on, and after I held him for a long time he calmed down and Yvonne and Mei-Ling could also hold him.
After dinner, Luna started playing her PSP, and Yvonne looked for a movie to watch. Since Shannon wanted to play a board game, Yvonne could watch whatever she wanted and she and Mei-Ling watched Monty Python's The Meaning of Life. Shannon and I played Scrabble, and I won by a few dozen points. Shannon kept trying to make up words so she could use her high-point letters. After a while Luna sat next to us to watch.
It was after the movie ended that Yvonne actually scared Chie out. And Shannon petted Shelly while I held him out of the aquarium. Shelly wasn't too scared. Probably since he'd spent a lot of time around Luna and me while I was trying to grow the plants and Ellie was having disinfectant put on every day. I put Blue Man Group's The Complex Rock Tour Live on to play in the background during this time. After they all left, Luna and I watched it for a short time, before going to bed.
June 15, 2007
Kingdom Hearts II
I'm more than a little late to the game, but I just finished playing through Kingdom Hearts 2, although I'm not entirely sure if I'm ever going to get around to going for 100% with this one. In terms of gameplay, technical features, and the visuals, Kingdom Hearts 2 is the same as Kingdom Hearts. They kept the same voice actors, which really would be a requirement for something like this, and the story continues where Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories ended. It's not required to have played KH:CoM, but it will help.
The world situation is a little different in KH2. While the worlds in KH tended to be more "dungeon-like" with many passages and places to explore as you tried to find your way around, the worlds of KH2 (some of which also appeared in KH) are more natural. You'll go through hallways and foyers or through mountain paths and towns, but for the most part there aren't any extra halls or rooms created just as something to go through. This also means finding treasures isn't a puzzle; they're all laid out in front of you as you move forward.
You also end up visiting each world multiple times. Each visit is a little shorter than they would be otherwise, but as the storyline progresses, things change on the worlds and you have to come back to find out what's going on and advance the plot. At first, I felt like there wasn't enough meat in each world's episodes. Too short and very straightforward. But after a while it felt more like a book, where the chapters aren't too long and you can read one chapter at a time, letting you then choose if you wanted to stop or continue.
I do seem to vaguely recall the storylines of the movies each world is based upon, being followed to some degree in KH. But it seems odd that coming back to those worlds in KH2, the storyline of the movie is played back again, but with some different angles. I'm not sure though, because I can't remember very well exactly what happened in each world of KH in terms of story.
There were some interesting worlds presented in KH2, which I wasn't expecting. The world of Tron makes an appearance, which was pretty cool. I was pleasantly surprised to find a world based on Steamboat Willie (I think the boat is referred to as Willy in KH2) and they really went out of their way to make it feel right. Luna was excited to see Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean, and Beauty and the Beast (I still think there are real problems with that film) and Chicken Little.
I finished my first run of the game in about 55 hours. That included several hours playing through the Gummi sections, trying to find everything. But since it's so hard to know what you need to do to get some Gummi blocks, I ended up with about 95% completion there. I also didn't complete all of the Jiminy journal entries at this time, because it looked like that would take a long time to do. And it did.
I wasn't bothering to use my Drive forms or Summons for most of the game (I also didn't actually know how to initiate a Summon for a long time) and leveling all of those up, and completing the Moogle synthesis stuff, probably took another 10 hours. At this point I reached level 99 and could fight Sephiroth without dying in a few seconds. That battle is one of my favorites, both in KH2 and KH. I'm at about 70 hours now, and the only thing I have left open, besides the Gummi blocks, is the final Paradox Cup tournament. Apparently finishing that cup takes about an hour straight through.
May 24, 2007
Shadow Hearts: From the New World
So I ended up not playing Shadow Hearts: From the New World because Luna played through the entire thing. Which isn't too bad, since it turns out to be a lot like the previous Shadow Hearts: Covenant. It's basically the same engine and in a lot of ways the same characters too, with a sort of simliar storyline. I think the fact all the characters are the same is a real turn off, although I really did like the new world look set in the Americas. She wanted to do everything and get all the items, including get both endings, which meant a final playing time of over 90 hours.
The reason I say all the characters are the same is because the skill sets and even some of the combat mechanisms and special abilities are the exact same. The initial protagonist, Johnny, carries a camera just like Anastasia. Although Johnny isn't all the strong at magic or fighting, so he actually isn't a great character to use for most of the game, but you have to keep him in the party to use the camera. Shania is this chapter's Yuri. Frank is Joachim (even down to the silliness and weird way of walking). Hilda is also like Joachim because she transforms into different attack modes depending on use. Ricardo is Lucia, except with a stupid guitar-weapon. Natan is like Karin, but not as interesting or important. And instead of a wolf (Blanca) now we have Mao (a giant talking cat) that doesn't have wolf bouts but instead tries to make a movie by fighting other giant talking cats.
Graphically, things are basically the same since it's the same engine, but with some minor improvements. Bodies and faces are smoother, with better polygon integration. Especially during movement. You won't see clipping or tearing. Motion capture also seems more natural. I really liked the initial look of the backgrounds because they're much more colorful and natural looking than the dark look of the previous games. So much so that I didn't feel the gothic vibe at first, and in fact I don't think this game has as strong a gothic vibe.
The combat system is a little improved as well. Combination attacks are a little more interesting because you can't just perform combos all the time. You have to increase your stock gauge by attacking and being attacked, and then use up a stock unit to combination attack. Performing combo magic requires you to consume two stock units. So first you have to beat on the enemy a little and then attempt combo magic. This usually means only being able to execute combo magic once per boss fight. Also, if there is a combo break, you don't lose the character's turn. The addition of stock is sort of in trade for SP to execute combos.
I didn't like the new Stellar and Stellar Chart magic system though. It made it very hard to assign magic to characters, since you first assign magic into groups (the chart), which has some limitations unless you spend money to improve the chart's flexibility, and then you have to assign the charts to the characters. Since you can't really tell what magic is already on a chart without moving the cursor onto each individual one, it becomes a somewhat labor intensive process. And it's not at all clear if doubling up stellars results in lower cost magic, which was one of the best ways to make magic affordable in Covenant.
Luna liked the game, but thinks it was a little short. It was only one disc, but I don't think it is that short. Luna probably could have finished it faster if she didn't try to find every last item. If you can read Chinese then you can read her entry about it.
May 7, 2007
Magic: The Gathering Draft Tournament
I drove up to Stanford myself today to participate in a Magic: The Gathering draft tournament. Luna doesn't have any interest in playing, so I went by myself to an event organized by Karen's boyfriend, Sebastian. It was the first time I'd participated in a draft tournament, so I didn't really know what to do. Plus, the expansions we were drafting from were ones I was totally unfamiliar with. I ended up building a blue and white sliver deck which didn't do all that well. I won two out of six games, resulting in 2nd-to-last place.
Basically, in a draft tournament each participant opens a booster pack and selects a card before passing the remaining cards around the table. You then pick a card from the bunch you just received from your neighbor. And you continue this way until you've picked cards from the pack. You repeat this with two more booster packs, resulting in a total of 45 cards in your hand.
I was kind of operating under the assumption that I would need a fair amount of the picked cards to build my deck, so I ended up picking only blue and white, and only cards I felt would be compatible with each other the entire time. But in reality you should end up using only about 25 of your picked cards to build a 40-card deck. After I lost the first round (partially due to mana problems), Sebastian advised me to build a 40-card deck that included 17 lands. I did a little better once I did this.
I should have been more flexible in my drafting and picked cards from many different colors, independently of what I originally started drafting. Because I would have a decent chance of selecting 23 cards from a pair of colors that would be compatible with each other, and would have ended up with stronger cards. Instead, I didn't even incorporate any rares into my deck, and only had one viable strategy at the end. If I had not limited myself to blue and white as cards were passed around, I could have done better.
Plus, the new expansions are more complicated than the old cards. There are things like double-strike, and flanking, and other strange things like cards that can be used as either one or another card. The Time Spiral series also includes things like vanishing and suspend, or other time-based effects that result in cards appearing and disappearing from gameplay over time.
Anyway, there were eleven of us total, and the tournament took about five hours to complete, once you included organization overhead and then the final rare redrafting process at the end. This redrafing is done to prevent people from just taking rares during the draft process so they can keep them, regardless of whether or not they build a good deck.
May 2, 2007
Shadow Hearts: Covenant
I just finished playing Shadow Hearts: Covenant, after about sixty hours of gameplay which is a little bit longer than I was expecting. But I ended up trying to find all of the best items and completing all of the sidequests, so the total time actually isn't that surprising. Covenant continues the story of Shadow Hearts, with Yuri continuing his role as protagonist. In fact, the storyline is very much a continuation, with characters and motivations from the first game carrying over into the second.
Overall, this sequel is an improvement in all aspects over the first game. Both technically and in terms of the story and gameplay. I'll start with the combat system, since that's probably where most of the time is spent. The introduction of combination chain attacks, different elemental physical and magical attack types, and useful auxiliary spells makes combat fun and strategically interesting. This is a much needed improvement over the combat system of the first game, where it was almost mechanical.
The judgement ring serves the same combat purpose in Covenant, but there are some customizations available depending on how you like to play. I preferred the "technical" setting, which makes hitting the correct areas a little harder and the punishment for missing a little more severe, but also allows for very nice combination attacks if you get good at it.
The graphics are also much improved. Character polygon counts are much higher and rendered and FMV scenes allow you to get right up to the characters and environments without things looking blocky. Motion capture, or careful animation work, is applied to all characters and monsters so that different movements are possible. This makes things look much better during predefined animation sequences, and also during combat since the different types of attacks can result in different enemy and character motions.
Another great thing about the graphics this time is that enemies don't always turn into crazy monsters or ghosts. Fighting a human actually involves fighting a human. Many monsters look more realistically physical, rather than spiritual manifestations, like snails or giant insects. Of course, demon possession and other magical or spiritual transformation still takes place, but in a much more accepting manner.
The music is also better overall, although I still found the music too repetitive in many cases. Especially for combat. I would have liked more variety in music as I travelled between different places and entered combat in different places. But the music seems to be limited by disc. So the music you encounter changes once you get to disc two, but then you're still restricted to the portion of the disc which was alloted for music.
A lot of the problems I mentioned in my earlier post for Shadow Hearts are resolved in Covenant. I didn't have to deal with not enough of a particular accessory, forcing me to keep swapping out accessories between characters. And the only time you ran into enemies that you really couldn't defeat without knowing ahead of time their special attacks or weaknesses was in special battles, where generally a loss would be okay and you could try again.
I did really like how the plot continues from the first game, and also continues the trend of not really having evil antagonists (for the most part) but instead simply people with different viewpoints about how they want to change the world. Although there are a few times when insanity or just plain evil surface, due to humans losing control or great tragedy befalling them, for the most part. Regardless, if you liked Shadow Hearts, you'll like Covenant a lot more.
I'm looking forward to the next one, Shadow Hearts: From the New World, but Luna says she wants to play that one. So I'll probably end up watching most of the time, so I don't miss out on the story. But because of how Covenant ended, it looks like FtNW won't have any direct connection.
March 11, 2007
Bridge and Settlers of Catan
Karen and Sebastian came over yesterday night. Luna spent most of the afternoon preparing food for our dinner. She made beef curry, mapo tofu, some cooked vegetables, some sort of soy sauce flavored chicken, and a fifth dish I can't remember now. This was the first time Sebastian's been here, so he spent some time looking at the bookshelves and turtles and playing with the cats. I think Karen sort of played with the cats vicariously at first, but then later on she played with Niea with Luna's rope. Her allergies didn't act up because I'd vacuumed a lot that day.
After dinner we played bridge for a few hours. I was partnered with Sebastian this time, so it was boys against girls. We didn't play perfectly; Luna didn't bid something she should have when she probably had ten of the clubs and both Sebastian and I bid wrong once. But in the end Sebastian and I beat them by a hundred or so points. It was a pretty long game.
There was some time left after bridge before Sebastian and Karen wanted to go home, so we played a game of Settlers of Catan. Luna dropped out after a while because she was too tired (although after she napped for a short time she was awake again). Near the end of the game Sebastian and Karen were vying for first place, trading the Longest Road points and attempting to build as quickly as possible since they were both getting most of the resources. But I built slowly, with three cities cut off from expansion and each other, and with very few resources. And on my final turn I grabbed Largest Army and revealed two victory point development cards, allowing me to leap from six to ten points as a surprise to both Karen and Sebastian.
February 18, 2007
I just finished playing Shadow Hearts, a gothic RPG set in 1913 shortly before World War I. It features some traditional RPG concepts like elemental magic and standard dungeon exploration and combat. The biggest differences are in the mood which is more spiritual and religious while set in realistic environments and the use of a "judgement ring" as your key to successful action both in and out of combat. It's also a little shorter at about 30 hours, in part because it eschews world travel in favor of moving directly between individual locations.
The storyline and environments are interesting and fully realized. Since you move between locations without having to manually traverse the distance, and the locations can only be seen from one angle, they are fully rendered with detail and care. Over time, you'll come to understand the motives of both your archnemesis and the protagonists in a very natural and fluid manner. And at the end, when everything is revealed, those motives are ones you can sympathesize with.
The judgement ring deserves special attention since so much of what you do involves it. It's most often used during combat to successfully execute the action you chose from the battle menu. As a spinner turns, you have to time your button press as it passes through certain areas. Depending on how well you an time things, you may or may not succeed at performing your selected action, and you may be able to perform the action with a bonus like extra damage or stronger magic.
The ring is also used at various parts outside of combat to open doors and win items. This secondary use is somewhat pointless as there isn't any real penalty for failure since you're always close to a save point and in most cases you don't lose anything—you just have to try again.
Unfortunately, the judgement ring is probably the only thing that keeps combat from becoming a boring button pressing session. Since you have to constantly focus and concentrate on timing, the ring keeps your attention. Otherwise both you and the enemy will end up performing the same actions over and over again. There is little need for variety in attacks since your choices are so limited (there are not a lot of spells or special skills to choose from). That's not to say combat doesn't require some strategy and thought. It's turn-based and the enemies are strong enough that you'll have to pay attention to healing and status abnormalities.
Also, some of the bosses are difficult because they have unique attacks often with status effects and there is no way to plan ahead for protection against those effects. You'll only find out the best form of preparation after you've entered battle, and by then it's too late to change your equipment or characters. Since you are limited in what accessories you can equip, I often found myself in trouble for not having the right things equipped, and there aren't enough of the rarer items to keep them equipped on characters all the time. Eventually I was removing all accessories before swapping a character out.
Graphically, the monsters and characters aren't all that great. The polygon count seems low, although perhaps not for the time, and the movements a little jerky. Plus, all the monsters look very strange. They're often some form of deformed ghost or spirit, and even normal enemies that you would expect to be human become some sort of monster during combat to reflect strange occult experiments that were performed on them or their mental state.
I did like the music. It fit the mood and environments very well, although they are not the best compositions.
February 11, 2007
I had my 27th birthday party today. Luna and I cooked Italian food, including spaghetti and meatballs, some fried salmon, and a tomato-based chicken dish. We had bread and cheese, some green grapes, and ice cream cake for dessert. Alla showed up, of course, as did Ellen, Tintin, and Samir and Jamie. Dantam couldn't make it because she was caring for one of her friends who was sick. A lot of people arrived late, and then Ellen left early because she had plans to go dancing in San Francisco, and Samir and Jamie left around the same time as her.
Alla, Ellen, and Dantam pitched in to get me a Logitech Harmony 550 remote control for the upstairs system. Samir and Jamie got me Xenosaga: Episode III, and Tintin got me an interesting little postcard for Neon Genesis Evangelion. Luna got me the two volume manga of Le Portrait de Petit Cossette and a copy of .hack//AI buster.
Since Alla and Tintin stayed around, we played a game of Puerto Rico. It moved a lot faster this time since we knew what we were doing, and we also discovered that some of the things we'd done the first time were incorrect. This time Luna won. For a short period of time in the middle Tintin and Alla weren't paying much attention because they started talking about French movies and the language.
January 29, 2007
Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater
I've finished playing Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. It's very similar to the style and pacing of Metal Gear Solid 2 but the approach is a little different. There's a greater emphasis on camoflauge, which made it easier for me to hide in this game, and also on using things to fix yourself up in the field. I was a little confused at the beginning because I didn't realize this game chronicles the first mission of Snake, but not of Solid Snake.
I found the storyline of Metal Gear Solid 3 to be less thought-provoking than the previous ones. It was only at the end that reasons and motivations were revealed, and those revelations weren't that interesting. Just somewhat basic and expected. There is, however, an ongoing dialogue regarding the idea of allies and enemies as they change over time with the political landscape. Perhaps an interesting new thought to some, but not to me. I do think it is a little sad how the notion of a soldier in this game results in so much sacrifice, even though it's a noble idea.
January 22, 2007
Magic: The Gathering and Bridge
Luna and I just got back from visiting Karen and Sebastian. We went up and first played a little Bridge. Karen had to re-teach me and teach Luna how to play. I think Luna and I did okay, especially considering that Karen is really into it. She didn't really know what to do when I started playing a little irrationally, but that made things more interesting. After playing a while we got hungry and went to a Thai restaurant to eat. The food was pretty good. We talked about random things like Sebastian's research and television shows, then went back to their place to play cards a little longer.
I also played a few games of Magic: The Gathering with Sebastian. He's still really into the game, and recently went to a tournament. While we played that, Karen and Luna played a different card game but I'm not sure what. Sebastian has some newer cards and dealt more with direct damage or disabling effects which posed a major problem for my creature-based decks. There are some very interesting cards available now, which unfortunately can really alter the balance of gameplay in my opinion if you're not up-to-date.
January 19, 2007
I got Alla the board game Puerto Rico for Christmas. It's an economic building game where players compete against each other to produce goods and build the colony. This was our first time playing. Alla also invited Christian, Marcus, Duncan, and Marie. Luna and I were on a team, as were Alla and Marie although Marie didn't really pay attention. The rules are a little complicated so we spent a lot of the initial time reading each rule as the game progressed.
Once we got the hang of things, the game is actually pretty fun. I still don't like it as much as some other games because although you are competing against each other, you don't directly interact with each other as much. The way things progress is a little strange at first, but then makes sense. And the way you pick roles ends up introducing some strategy which is more subtle than one might first think.
January 8, 2007
Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King
I just completed Dragon Quest VIII. It took me about 75 hours, which is not as long as I thought it would since Bryant told me it took him 110 hours because he kept dying a lot. The game is very good, although I found myself spending a lot of time in combat. The battles are not too boring or repetitive, so that's not necessarily a bad thing. The character design is by Akira Toriyama, who is famous for his particular drawing style. There are several great things about this game, with a few minor issues that don't really detract from the overall experience.
The arching storyline is long, well developed, and interesting. Things start out fairly simple, and get more complicated and involved as little things are revealed and discovered along the way. It really helps that there are some well developed supporting characters, as well as very well developed main characters, who give the story more feeling. The voice acting, of which there is a fair amount, really helps flesh out all of the people involved.
Although I did like the character design, after it grew on me, it is slightly annoying that so many of the people you meet look the same. Maybe several dozen character designs were made for the people you will meet casually, which means you're going to see the same person over and over again in many places. The monster design is very interesting though, because lots of animations were developed for each monster.
There is a flaw in the combat system though. Dragon Quest VIII takes the approach where you have to choose the actions for all party members at the beginning of each turn, thus requiring you to make some strategic decisions to maximize the effectiveness of each turn. However, if you change your settings so that Jessica, Yangus, and Angelo make their own decisions, you'll actually get a better result. This is because in this mode, each of them makes a decision on what to do right before they do it, rather than at the beginning of the turn. So they can make much more informed decisions that are appropriate for the moment. They also seem to have more information about the current status of each enemy's remaining hit points and their weaknesses. So you can become a much more effective in combat if you don't take control.
I liked the music, from an orchestral point of view, although I don't think there's anything particularly special about it. I wouldn't be interested in the soundtrack, or really be able to tell you about any specific songs. The same music was used in many places many times, which is not unexpected, but it also reinforced the problem of repetition that you saw with the characters.
Another minor issue I had was with the controls. Two buttons act as confirm depending on the situation. So sometimes I found myself trying to open the menu but instead performing an action. You get used to it, but every once in a while it still gets you.
The alchemy system is a little interesting, but not that exciting. Many of the better items can be made using alchemy, but you're best off just getting a list of recipes and continuously shoving stuff in your alchemy pot. If you try to put stuff together that doesn't create anything, you find out right away, so there's not a whole lot of point in experimenting. Sometimes you do create something worse, but most recipes don't end up that way.
I really liked the ending. It's actually an interactive ending, so while the ending moves forward you can walk around and explore and talk to people, and also make some more of the yes/no decisions that pop up throughout the game. I don't actually think the yes/no decisions, during the game or during the ending, affect the ending or the storyline though. Mostly you can just use them to change the response you get for that particular question. I think it would be great if more games adopted interactive endings.
December 24, 2006
Alla's Final Essays
I spent most of today over at Alla's place, going over her MBA application essays. Got there around 11:30am and left around 6:30pm. I'd say we probably spent about four or five hours with me reading and offering suggestions for improvement. But these should be her final drafts, pretty much. She's getting some feedback from Ellen and Tomer as well. She also hired a professional review service for $300, but wasn't entirely happy with the results. I think I've probably spent a couple dozen hours working with her on her essays over the past few months.
We also exchanged Christmas gifts. I knew what she was getting for me because she told me not to order "anything". She gave me season five of 24. I also gave her present to her, although I'd had it ready a while ago. She didn't want it before. I got her the board game Puerto Rico. She wasn't very surprised. But I haven't played a board game with her in a long time. This might be the last board game I get her, since it's hard to find really good games and you don't want too many since you won't play them that often.
December 11, 2006
Christmas Presents w/Shannon and Yvonne
Yesterday I went to visit Shannon and Yvonne having not seen them in a long time. I brought them their Christmas presents, but also had to show them how to order things online to order my own Christmas present. :p They both wanted to get me Kingdom Hearts 2 because they want to see it. Hopefully they know how to use a shopping cart and go through the checkout process now and can do it again in the future. During dinner we talked a little bit about things like the video game controversery and the different attitudes towards sex and violence seen in the United States and Europe.
Afterwards, we decided to go to rent some movies. Wasn't sure what to pick. It's hard to find good movies at the store because the selection is so small. Shannon wanted something funny. Yvonne kept picking weird movies like the black and white Robin Hood. We settled on Beetlejuice, The Princess Bride (again), and Back to the Future. Beetlejuice is too creepy for Shannon, so only Yvonne and I watched it. Yvonne got creeped out too though. They both really liked Back to the Future and we need to rent the sequels next time. Back to the Future gave Yvonne a chance to make fun of me for being old. XD I'm just going to have to get them a copy of The Princess Bride rather than keep renting it.
December 6, 2006
Shadow of the Colossus
Shadow of the Colossus is the prequel to the cult favorite Ico, but developed after Ico by the same team. It has much of the same mood and atmosphere, and control scheme that tastes familiar although is more advanced and refined. The graphics are improved, and the sound track was done by Kow Otani, whom I think is an excellent composer. The coolest thing about this game is how you take on the giant colossi.
That's something which I think would be extremely hard to accomplish. You have a person of normal height, and you have to defeat colossi of all shapes and sizes, both in the water, on land, and those that go through the skies. The behavior and AI of the colossi seems natural although limited in their actions. Each has a particular weak spot or specific sequence of events that allow you to defeat them. Identifying the correct sequence of actions to take, and how to approach each colossus, is the real puzzle and a wonderful puzzle.
The ending is excellent. I was left with a feeling of foreboding, having played Ico, and at times felt saddened with a sense of loss, then at times held hope. The music and scenery and how things transpire in the end made me wonder if I'd done everything I could, and also wondering if I'd done the right thing. But that's where the hope comes into play.
Shadow of the Colossus also provides additional challenges for those who want to play through again. Apparently there are special items and weapons you can acquire if you play through on hard mode or with the time challenge. Those don't interest me a whole lot because the basic attack strategies are already known to me and I also know what the ending will be.
November 7, 2006
I just fiinished playing Chrono Cross, the sequel to the extremely enjoyable Chrono Trigger, although it's a sequel in terms of world and events, rather than characters and timeline. Chrono Cross has everything that was great about the first game, in terms of characters, plot, and time interest. But for some reason I found myself sometimes having trouble coming back to the game to continue forward. Still, there are lots of interesting aspects to the game and once I got into it I tended to keep going.
I found the combat sometimes on the boring side. Most battles were very easy, unless you cared about trying to set element traps or get special items. You can pretty much just do whatever to win most battles. This isn't true for bosses or other certain battles, where elements come into play. The element system is simple but effective and inserts a level of strategy that can make battles interesting and fun. When the elements would make a difference. For the vast majority of normal encounters, selecting melee attacks over and over worked.
The plot is very good and twisting though, and certainly held my interest. Although as things neared the end, I felt like everything was being revealed through narration rather than exploration or discovery. People tended to start monologuing and the whole of things would be revealed through information databases or other access terminals.
As far as sound and music goes, I wish the regular combat music was more interesting, or would change more often. I didn't like it that much and found it repetitive. Special battles and other environmental music was pretty good though. At those times, the music was good at conveying a mood or invoking certain emotions complementary to what was occurring on screen.
October 30, 2006
A Spanish Skeleton
This weekend I spent a lot of time with Shannon. She came over with her mom on Saturday because they needed back the mattress. They don't sleep over anymore because they're all so busy with school and things like that. And they have a guest visiting now so they needed the mattress. We played some more of The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures and Shannon ate some of the food I cooked even though it has tomatoes.
I took Shannon back home and then slept over that night because we worked on making her a skeleton for her Spanish class today. They do this every year for Día de los Muertos, although Shannon didn't pay attention and didn't know what it was for. We ended up cutting out the basic shapes from styrofoam and sticking them together with the metal wire from inside of twisties.
The rest of the day both Shannon and Yvonne did a lot of studying and homework. I helped Shannon study her Spanish and also a little with her English. But for some reason I was very tired so I took a nap. I think maybe because it was so cold.
October 22, 2006
I gave Killer Bunnies to Shannon for her birthday, and got to play it with her and Yvonne this weekend. It turns out to be a very fun game, as recommended by the owner of the Legends store at Oakridge. The rules are a little bit complicated, which made Shannon give up on reading them, but once you understand them the gameplay is very simple and relatively fast moving. What's great is that strategy, planning, and competition are strong elements while not being overwhelmingly complex. And it's just plain fun. It would be even more fun with more players.
One drawback is that winning is to some extent luck. You can do a great job of dominating the game by killing off the other players bunnies efficiently and quickly, but if you don't happen to end up with the correct carrot, you can still lose. So even though you are the better player, you aren't guaranteed to win despite winning everything along the way. I suspect this was done to make things a little less annoying for younger children where poor players might just give up completely. It also makes it so the game can continue even though one player has gathered a plurality of the carrots.
Another issue is that you can keep buying expansion packs to get stranger cards and more wacky behavior. I do think they took a less money-grubbing approach than other collectable card games, since you just buy specific expansion packs in a certain order that provide specific cards. And that certainly allows the game to stay fresh for longer. But there are a lot of expansion packs and you probably do want to get them all.
After we played Killer Bunnies, we watched The Chronicles of Narnia. Shannon and Yvonne both remembered the books much better than I do, and were able to point out some minor inconsistencies that seemed to have crept in as a way to meet the film's time limits and make things a little simplier to absorb. I think they both liked it, and Yvonne did agree the women in the film weren't exactly the greatest. Mei-Ling kept getting scared for no real good reason. She said the music was very erie and that was making her get scared, even though the rest of us didn't feel that way.
Before I left, I helped Yvonne with her chemistry homework. I hope she understands better the shells and energy levels and concepts about atomic geometry a little better now. But mostly she just tries to find the answer and write it down without thinking much about why that's the right answer. We found the Atomic orbital entry on Wikipedia quite useful. Especially for visualizing the orbital shapes.
September 28, 2006
Radiata Stories takes the world of RPGs to an entirely new level. The one word that really describes the world and people and culture of Radiata is vibrant. It just seems so alive. There are over 200 different characters, each with their own personality, daily schedule, and role to play in the game (small or large). As I learned more and more about each person, I came to know them all fairly well. I knew their names, places they would frequent, and sometimes motivations. The scenery, maps, and architecture are brilliantly realized; this is not a tiled map. I would often admire the scenery as I travelled on roads (yes, roads, like normal people).
From a technical standpoint, this game really delivers. There were several new technologies put in as nice touches which you wouldn't really notice, but help to put polish on the game and also add more life to the world. Some examples of this are the random behavior of street lamp halos, or the POV display of characters during battle, or correct shadow placement, or texture and lighting shaders applied to the screen.
The music is also very good. It's environmental but exciting and always fits the mood. The only thing I wish was that the battle music would be a little more interesting. I found it a little too monotone or repetitive to my liking.
In fact, the only thing that wasn't so great was the combat. There was a little strategy involved, where guarding and moving to a new position could help. And you have to order your teammates to perform certain things in support on some occasions, although the AI is pretty decent regardless. But overall I felt like it was a little on the button-mashing side and once you've picked a decent set of attacks it doesn't matter anymore. You can't really do any special moves and getting new abilities or attack modes requires you to change your party members.
Another thing that's really great about the game is how you can make a real life-altering decision halfway through. It completely changes how you have to view things, having to choose between two mutually exclusive choices. Either choice requires you to make compromises which in an ideal situation you wouldn't have to make. And each side can be considered right and wrong at the same time.
Because the split makes playing through the game a second time worth it, I clocked in about 75 hours total. That sets a new record, beating out Star Ocean by a few hours.
September 6, 2006
Mom over Labor Day
My mom visited this past weekend because it was Labor Day weekend. She arrived Saturday night and left early on Tuesday morning. She did bring me the pluge router I wanted. She also brought me two small albums of the wedding photos Luna and I had done last time I was in Shanghai. The photos look good, but the albums are a little crappy if fancy looking. They have the name of the studio on the front, instead of our names, and the veneer is missing from the back of one of them. My favorite picture is the one where Luna looks angry and is holding the Hello Kitty dolls.
Sunday morning my mom and I went to a Church in Fremont because Calvin went there to say a few words about Labor Day. He really only talked for about 5 minutes, and I had to sit through all the sermon stuff and preaching. I wonder if preachers recognize some of the hypocricy they spout. In this particular sermon, the only reason you might not consider it hypocritical is if you aren't willing to question your own faith. Which is the point, I guess.
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 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
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.
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.
July 9, 2006
As a movie, Indigo Prophecy is a dramatic psychological thriller. But as a game, it's crap. From basic point of view, Indigo Prophecy is a movie script adapted to a choose-your-own-adventure video game. And just like those books, there are different premature endings and a few different final endings you can end up with. But the path is extremely linear as well, where your choices really don't have much impact on the overall flow of things unless you hit a premature ending.
What makes Indigo Prophecy a crappy game is the gameplay. Of which there isn't any. There are three action types: simon-says, button mashing or balancing L/R, and one time of target practice. Every single action sequence, such as dodging cars or fleeing a scene, involves simon-says. Whenever you're supposed to be exerting effort, you button mash L/R. Whenever you're supposed to be controlling effort, you balance L/R. The target practice is one time at a gun-range so it stands alone. But that's it for gameplay. Many times the button mashing L/R occurs for no apparent reason as well.
The regular action choices and conversation choices are selected by moving the right analog stick, rather than a menu. That's not innovation or even intelligence, especially since the displayed choices are so vague. A person's name might show up, and selecting that name might result in you asking about that person, or it might result in hearing that person's thoughts. The single verb stay might me one thing in one context, and a completely different one in another. So just as with the gameplay, the menu system is crap.
Lastly, moving around is crap as well. The camera moves too slowly for decent manual control, changes angles on you all the time so you're no longer pressing a direction on the analog control stick that makes sense, and it's too hard to get your character to actually walk in the right direction. So you're going to look like you're walking and running around drunk, slamming into walls and walking diagonally or in circles. Plus, you have to line up correctly with items to interact with them, but it's not easy to do that as turning isn't really possible as a separate behavior.
I'm just glad to get the game over with. Total playtime about 6 hours, not including the numerous premature endings that resulted in reloads. Which happens to be another stupid aspect of the game. Loading takes a long time, and it occurs often as scenes change. And if you hit a premature ending, you have two choices: load last save or stop. If you select load last save, the game completely reloads the state even though you were just in the same place. Everything should already be in memory.
June 13, 2006
I finished Pikmin 2 after a gruelling 25 hours of gameplay. Pikmin 2 builds on all of the strengths of the first game, and adds the twists of white poisonous and purple heavy Pikmin, which have a sometimes minor and other times interesting effect on gameplay. I think the addition of the purple and red juices has a much greater impact on strategy and skill, because of their effect and limited duration which can be used to extreme advantage at times. The wider range of enemies and and requirement for more fine-grained and speedy control of your Pikmin army makes things more challenging and more fun at the same time.
June 10, 2006
Netflix 5M Celebration
Today Netflix had a company party to celebrate reaching 5 million subscribers. Shuttle service was provided to Nestldown, a private park-like area in the Santa Cruz mountains. The theme of the party was a carnival, so there were some carnies, carnival games, and food like hot dogs and cotton candy.
I learned how to play Bocce Ball from William, and played against him, his wife, Donna, Tod, and one of the event people (who was also a Netflix subscriber, going through the top 250 movies off IMDB). I did okay, especially at the beginning, but later on I wasn't thinking about it as much so didn't do as well.
Afterwards, Tod and I went down to the pond and listened to some live music from a quartet playing a violin, two guitars, and an acordian. All of the instruments were amped though. I saw Lin's daughter Alexandria there so went up to talk to them. Then Alex wanted me to go with her into the forest so I went up. We walked around in there for a while and we were going to go back but then she changed her mind and started hiking some more. She ended up seeing the train and running after it, and I couldn't get her to stop so we could tell Lin we were going after the train.
We followed the train for a while then stopped in the games field to play some volleyball and frisbee and use the swings. Then we'd been gone for a while so I told her we had to go back, and followed the train tracks back to the pond where she met back up with her dad. Turns out Lin didn't realize we had run off and so went looking for us back at the cabin area.
Afterwards, I met up with Samir and Jamie and we rode the shuttle back down to Netflix HQ and then I drove home.
June 9, 2006
Poker at Alla's
Tonight was the first time I'd played Texas Hold'em, although I'd watched Bryant play before. Alla wanted to have people over so she invited me to play at her place. I didn't realize, although I should have known, that we would be playing for money until after I got there and asked. I also didn't want to stay very late. We were going to start at 8pm, and I was planning to leave at 9pm.
But things didn't really turn out that way. No one else showed up until 8:20pm, and even then many people didn't know how to play either so we didn't actually start playing a game until 9pm. A lot of people showed up, I think 13 total people were there including Alla. And so we split into two games. I ended up at the table where most of the other people didn't know how to play either, other than Paul and Alla.
Anyway, I started with $9, and we played maybe a dozen hands. In the end, I tied with Kristie at finishing with $17, although she started out with $10. The last hand also resulted in me giving her a couple of dollars because I was already pretty ahead, and so I played it through even though I knew she had better cards than me. It was kind of uncomfortable playing, because it was very warm with so many people there.
June 6, 2006
0:2 at Settlers of Catan
Alla came over last night to viist, mostly motivated by desire to pick up her movies. Anyway, we ended up playing two games of Settlers of Catan, the second one with the Seafarers of Catan expansion. Unfortunately, I lost both games.
May 29, 2006
Today Shannon and I went to FanimeCon 2006. I woke up early at 7:40am because I had to go pick up Shannon from her house. Then we came back and got the usual orange juice and bagel sandwiches before taking the VTA light rail from my house up to the San Jose Convention Center. We got there around 10am, and it was actually very quiet. Lots more people showed up around lunch time.
The only thing that really interests either me or Shannon is the dealer room. Finding hard to find items at lower than usual prices (if you shop smart and have a knack for bargaining) to make up for the registration fee is what we're both interested in. The first thing we did is find gifts for the people we wanted to get stuff for. I found a set of Keroro dolls for Luna, some Sailor Moon figures and accessories for Dantam, because I missed her birthday, and a Bleach plushie for Yvonne. Shannon bought some Inuyasha figures for her friends and a Bleach plushie for Yvonne.
Afterwards, we went around and bought stuff for ourselves. Shannon got some Pokémon plushies, and a Yu-Gi-Oh! booster pack. I think she should have bought something else too at least. I found a bunch of good stuff, including Range Murata's Robot Vol. 2, a bunch of Ghost in the Shell figures, some of which I got real cheap because the dealer wanted to unload them, and a really cute Tonberry plushie.
We met up with Alla's brother, Sasha, for a few minutes and his friend Simon shortly before we left. But then came home as soon as we'd finished shopping. Shannon was a little tired from all the walking and standing, and she wanted to visit the kitties and and I wanted to play video games with her.
I challenged her to a two-player battle in Pikmin 2 where I thoroughly stomped her even though I tried to help. She didn't really want to play that anymore. I thought it was fun. So we switched over to The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures which I specifically bought so we could play together. This was lots of fun, and Shannon really liked it too. Although she has trouble defeating enemies efficiently sometimes.
We got to Death Mountain before I had to take her to meet her mom and Yvonne at some place for them to go have dinner with someone they know. Today was a long but really fun day.
May 22, 2006
Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty
I just finished playing Metal Gear Solid 2. It was just as good as the first one, although with even more effort going into the gameplay, missions and map design, and storyline. One thing that really impresses me, after going through the game, was how smoothly the combat, sneaking, and activities are handled. Everything felt very natural and continually moving forward. There are no load times, or strange responses that make you wonder why the character just did something when you meant something else. Being able to pull that off is impressive.
The story of this game is much more complex and layered than the previous game. I won't reveal anything and risk spoiling things for people who haven't played the game (although it is old now) but it is a story that is extremely well thought through. The story slowly unravels as you move forward in the game, revealing ideas and motivations that require you to think for yourself about the issues and current events that are going on in your world today.
Some might find it surprising that it is a Japanese game maker that would explore American ideals to such depth, rather than an American game maker. But Hideo Kojima is someone who you can tell really has deep belief in what he does and that it is important to try and make other people think about their lives and the world around them. In many ways the ideas presented are universally applicable, despite being based in New York City and on American ideals. I think, actually, that American publishers would not be willing to distribute a game that might carry such a heavy political and social message.
May 17, 2006
Xenosaga: Episode II
I just finished Xenosaga Episode II: Jenseits von Gut und Bose and I did enjoy this installment much more than the first. While there are still many flaws, a great deal of the gameplay was improved, and in particular combat was no longer a drag. I also liked the updated character designs and 3-D models, and the more detailed and cleaner environments rendered in full 3-D. The music was done by Yoko Kanno, and so actually much better than the first game in my opinion.
Some people have complained about the combat system in this episode, but I liked it quite a bit, even if I found that magic still played an incredibly minor role due to not being able to chain magic but being able to heavily chain regular attacks. As a result, it is much easier to do significant damage using normal attacks and chaining and attempting to do so with magic is pointless. Having the boost gauge be shared, and allowing up to four combination attacks per character, with chaining depending on boosting and character turns, made things much more strategic and interesting. And being able to switch characters during combat is both important and allows for a more enemy-specific strategy during combat.
Battles still did sometimes have a tendency to become repetitive, but that was less of an issue unless there were exactly two or four combatants involved, as the combat sequence revolves in a four-stage cycle. Double attacks were pretty useless for me, for the same reason as magic. What was interesting is that in the same way you can use boost and chain attacks to take out an enemy very efficiently, the enemies could sometimes (although rarely) do the same to you. The AI doesn't seem to have been made intelligent enough to take advantage of this the same way you can.
A couple of the annoyances that still persist are having to confirm the use of elevators and having character target selection sometimes opposite the controller direction pressed. I don't know why the developers still haven't figured that out. And while the cutscene sequences are shorter than the first episode, there is still a great deal of time spent watching. But the story is still this game's greatest strength, so I didn't mind the cutscenes this time. They were short enough to deal with.
I do think the developers missed out on some great opportunities for mini-games instead of cutscenes. There are several situations where having to press the correct buttons with correct timings, or pilot a ship, could have added to the fun.
I also thought the skill system was extremely flawed. All characters have access to the same set of skills, which technically means you can customize them. But it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to customize them "incorrectly". Yet accessing more powerful skills requires you to unlock less powerful skills in specific sets to get the required amount of class points. As a result, you will often have to learn skills you have absolutely no interest in to access skills you do want. This is wasted class and skill points, and you now have a skill you'll never use. This is not all that different from the first game, except those were all status-based skills, while these skills include magic. So you might have to get Ziggy, a fighter, skills like Medica or Boost +1 when all you're really interested in is Expansion Slot.
Perhaps the most annoying part of the game is the Good Samaritan side-quests. The vast majority of these quests are scavenger hunts involving a lot of back and forth fetching and delivering. This, coupled with the somewhat slow load times and the fact you cannot execute a quest before it gets triggered even if you know what to do, becomes quite annoying.
May 8, 2006
Visiting Luna Again
I just got back from my second visit to Luna in Shanghai. I flew out on April 29th and got back today, because the first week of May is a Chinese holiday and she didn't have work, so we could spend a lot of time together. The week went by really fast, and I was sad to leave. Luna's family picked me up at the airport, and I had dinner with them at Pizza Hut because Luna wanted either that or McDonald's. Afterwards, her dad took me back to my dad's place.
One of the things we did was to take a bus trip to her uncle's house, someplace north of Shanghai. The bus trip took around four hours, and including waiting time probably six hour total. I met her uncle's family and we went to a nearby park with his grandchildren to ride paddle boats. I accidentally dropped Luna too hard on the ground and she hurt her knee. We stayed overnight in a nearby hotel, and the next day went to a different park which involved lots of hiking. Some parts of this park were almost too crowded to enjoy. To return, we took a train back. Boarding the train was a little crazy, with everyone pushing to get on even though it is not as if the train will leave until everyone is on anyway.
While in Shanghai, we visited her grandparents, and also the family of one of her cousins. Her cousin has a PlayStation 2, and we played a few games including Naruto: Narutimate Hero 3, Devil May Cry 3, and Shinobi. I wasn't very good at the Naruto game, because I didn't know the controls for any good moves, and Devil May Cry 3 was very boring. Shinobi was a little fun, but not much. It's very much like a 3-D version of the original.
Luna and I watched lots of various things. She wasn't at all interested in Sneakers, but after I finally convinced her to watch Battlestar Galactica: The Miniseries, she got into it and wants to watch the rest of the seasons. She originally said she didn't want to watch it anymore because a baby was killed early in the show. We also watched Juon, which really came across as a B-movie to me, but it is a bit creepy. Just very hard to follow because of how it is structured. Luna says it helps to have read the story first. She also really likes Kamen Rider, even though I think it is silly.
Shanghai was extremely crowded, even more so than last time, because of the holiday. Many Chinese tourists were there. In the popular spots, such as The Bund, you could sometimes barely move. The pollution and smoking got to me much more this time, especially when we went to a fancy restaurant and there was so much smoke in the room I started to feel sick. Luna kept taking me outside or to the window to get fresh air. I got a sore throat from all the pollution, I think.
Two special things we did were to get Luna her engagement ring, and to take the wedding photos. We went to a lot of different jewelry stores, probably more than a dozen, although that's not as hard to do as it sounds as a department store will have several jewelry stores on a single floor. After looking at a lot of different styles, we found a signature cut at one of the stores that Luna really liked. It was a decent price, although I still haven't figured out how the discount was calculated and why, and she's happy with it.
For the wedding photos we went to Milan Studios, which Luna says is the best wedding photo studio in Shanghai. It's certainly a big production, and they provided the clothing and makeup, and seem to have purchased a fake building in the park for their photo shoots. I asked Luna not to pick any of the photos that have fake English words in them. The photo shoot took around twelve hours to finish, because there were so many people and not enough photographers and sometimes even not enough clothing (of the right type). Some of the costumes were a little strange to consider for wedding photos, unless you are specifically looking for an older time period, and it was very tiring for Luna. Partly because she had such a hard time following directions for posing.
All of those activities took up most of the week. Saturday and Sunday we finally relaxed. We were both very tired from so much walking around and doing so many things, including time spent shopping for gifts. So these last two days are when we just spent time at home watching things and resting.
April 11, 2006
Beyond Good and Evil
One of the best action adventure games ever. That's how I would sum up Beyond Good and Evil. In addition to great gameplay, on par with any of the 3-D Legend of Zelda games, this game features an amazing story, wonderful music, and extreme levels of polish. It was tons of fun, and I only wish it had lasted longer. It is somewhat short at only a little more than a dozen hours.
The basic interface is extremely easy and intuitive to use. You will never have to refer to your manual or think about how to accomplish something. Key combinations or sequences were not difficult at all, and you are introduced to actions and behavior through fun immersive action. For example, you'll learn how to fight almost immediately through a sequence that tightly flows with the story.
In some ways, the cinematic aspect of the game is not even noticeable. Unlike other games that involve cutscenes or a clear break between story presentation and gameplay, BGaE incorporates that part of the game right into your basic activities. But more importantly, the storytelling never takes over from your control of the characters, and sometimes even takes place parallel to your character control. So it never feels like you're stuck waiting for the action to start again.
Having a great and intelligent story, along with memorable characters with real personalities, helps a lot in that regard. The basic story is relatively simple: the Alpha Section arm of the military is protecting the citizens of Hillys against the alien DomZ attacks. But there's a much deeper and complicated truth behind that. Your job is to discover and expose that truth. There could have been more done with that, but I suspect that some of that mystery has been left open in hopes of a sequel. Unfortunately, I doubt a sequel will happen as BGaE did not have a large number of sales to my knowledge.
In terms of content, no two battles are ever the same. And combat is fun because of the simple but fun to use attacks. The maps are filled with puzzles that involve lots of different ideas, some traditional, some more inventive, and the puzzles are not the same thing over and over again. When an idea is duplicated, it is done in a way that requires you to think of new approaches and analyze the situation carefully. I constantly felt challenged but never overwhelmed or tired of the puzzles.
Minigames are also built in without them being as a side-track. There's racing, vehicle combat, a game like air hockey, and also side puzzles that are not necessary for advancement but can be done for fun. If you manage to complete one particular side-quest, you can unlock a really difficult two-handed independent coordination game. Anyone that can get far in that will have developed excellent hand-eye coordination along with parallel spatial tracking.
The music was also great. This is one game where I felt like I would have really benefitted from playing it on my home theater system, instead of the lower-end system I have set up for gaming. It's rich, detailed, and heavily supports the emotions and mood of the game.
April 2, 2006
Alhambra and Shannon
Around noon, I drove to Irvington High School and picked up Shannon from her Chinese class there. I was really hungry by then, as I hadn't eaten anything in a while, so we went to Sweet Tomatoes. I hadn't been there in a long time, and so I stuffed myself. Didn't eat any dinner or anything else as a result. Shannon wanted to play Settlers of Catan because she really liked it when we played last time. So we drove to Great Mall and picked up a copy of Alhambra, winner of Spiel des Jahres 2003.
Alhambra is pretty fun, although not as interactive as Settlers of Catan because you build a city in your own space, without affecting other players. Instead, your city plan might be influenced by the purchasing actions of other players, but you can't really do anything that would ruin another player's strategy. Shannon liked it though, so that's good. I left the game at her house so we can play it whenever I'm over there.
I also fixed their coffee table and some of their chairs. They weren't really broken. Just the screws were loose or had come out and Mei-Ling had no idea what to do. Easy to fix, just took some time to screw everything back in and tighter. There's still a gap in the base of one chair, which is because the screws went in at an angle that drew the boards apart from each other, but that's only an asthetic problem.
March 27, 2006
Xenosaga: Episode I
I finally completed Xenosaga: Episode I. I'd started it before changing jobs, but all the movies in the mail distracted me from my gaming. The great thing about Xenosaga is the story. About 40% of the actual gametime, which I clocked in at about 44 hours, is spent in cutscenes. This can be a little annoying, because it means you start watching a movie instead of playing a game. And the cutscenes can be very long. Regardless, the story really drives things forward, and does make me want to play the sequels despite the follow-up games also having problems. Xenosaga is a flawed game, and besides the story, most of the time is spent in a dungeon-crawl.
So the story is excellent, and the visuals, graphics, and music used during the telling of that story are first rate, although a little dated now. Facial expressions are cartoonish, but at least they have them. The thing that was lacking was really mouth expression. They got the eyes pretty well, but mouths didn't do anything except open and close. Now for the things that really needed work.
The background music was a little boring. Combat music especially so because it never changed throughout the entire game, and was extremely repetitive. The audio logic was also messed up, because sounds came out of the speakers relative to the character on screen. But this meant your character may be on the left side of the screen and something to the right of him or her, but still on the left side of the screen, would come out of the right speaker.
There was a similar problem with combat navigation. Depending on the camera angle, tapping left on the D-pad might select a character to the right on screen, and vice versa. Combat itself was also a bit boring and very repetitive. Your normal attacks do very little damage, so you must always use your tech attacks. And using those attacks involve longer action sequences during which you cannot do anything except watch. The only way combat maintains your interest is because to make sure you advance statistics fast enough, you must control the sequence of turns by delaying or interrupting the natural sequence. Watching the same thing over and over again, with unimaginative action, gets boring.
One other thing that annoyed me was how the game always asked for confirmation when using an elevator. If I step onto the elevator, it means I want to use it. Same with buttons and switches. The game doesn't ask if I want to go into another room when I walk through a door, so why is it asking that for the elevator? Random destruction of objects using a vaporizer-type weapon is also a little strange, although the developers do poke fun at that.
I also didn't like the controls. The combat menu button is also the normal cancel button. Sometimes you have to use the confirmation button to continue through a menu action, even though you want to go backwards. In other words, you're using the confirmation button to perform an exit command. Navigation through the in-game menu is also annoying. It is too many levels deep and hard to move between characters because sometimes you need to back up before you can switch to another character. This becomes especially annoying as some screens are naturally tied together, such as equipment and skills (equipment can provide skills, and you can also set skills) which would be much easier to manage if they were on the same screen.
The A.W.G.S. units were useless. You don't do more damage or take less damage even though you're in a giant robot, your turns occur much more slowly, and if your robot breaks down, you cannot exit it. It's a complete waste of money to invest in your A.W.G.S.
Offensive magic is also useless. I used them only a few times to discover that they don't do any more damage than your normal attacks, but your tech attacks can be upgraded to do more damage. So, offensive magic uses up magic points, doesn't do any more damage than normal magic-based attacks, and cannot be upgraded to do more damage while your physical- and magic-based tech attacks can.
There aren't enough technology points to go around. As it happens, I sort of lucked out and didn't use any technology points for statistic or attack upgrades until near the very end of the game. I horded my point upgrade items as well. I probably could have benefited from better statistic upgrading, but then I wouldn't have had enough technology points to really upgrade the final tech attacks to be as powerful as I did. If you really want to do stat raising, which can be very effective, then you won't be able to do tech attack upgrading. The only alternative is to engage in even more repetitive combat to earn more points.
March 19, 2006
Today Shannon finally came to visit me at my place, although Mei-Ling and Yvonne didn't come. I think Shannon's the only one that's actually interested in coming to my place, and I don't think Mei-Ling likes the long drive. So I picked Shannon up from her house around 3:30pm. They had all gone to the dentist today, and Shannon got one of her teeth pulled out because she says the dentist said it would have crowded her mouth. We stopped at Target on the way back so she could buy birthday gifts for Winnie and someone I don't know named Samuel.
The first thing we she when we got to my place was to look for the kitties. Asuka and Niea were around just fine, but Chie was hiding. I'm not really sure why he hides whenever Shannon comes over, but he does. I think Shannon needs to visit more often so he will remember her better. Then I taught Shannon how to play Settlers of Catan. She liked this game, and it was pretty close; she almost won except I built some roads and stole the longest roads points from her.
Then we talked to Luna for a little bit on the webcam. This was the first time Luna got a chance to see Shannon. Her mom and dad also saw Shannon. For dinner Shannon wanted a bread bowl, so I put some soup in the cut ends of some fresh French bread I bought this morning. I also made some spaghetti and fish, but Shannon was full off the soup and bread bowl so didn't eat much of that. We watched Bruce Almighty while eating.
We played a couple of games of Magic: The Gathering. I let Shannon use my old deck, which my mom brought over when she visited for Christmas. She had some problems with the deck though, and lost both times. I think my old deck has better cards and is better balanced for a wide variety of opponents, but my new white deck does have a much more aggressive creature approach which Shannon was unable to defend against. Plus, new cards often have effects that can only be efficiently countered using cards from that same series.
March 9, 2006
Cranium + Scattergories
I had some friends over for a game night today. Dantam, Alla, Samir, Jamie, and Ellen showed up, although Ellen didn't play anything and left early. Jamie and Dantam didn't want to play any "brainy" games, so although Alla and I would have preferred to play Settlers of Catan, we ended up playing Cranium and then Scattergories.
For Cranium, the teams were Samir and Jamie versus me, Alla, and Dantam. Ellen wanted to be the question reader, and also sat next to me so my left ear got some pounding. Samir and Jamie had gotten the game for Christmas (as well as Scattergories) and this was the first time they'd played. I find the game fairly easy, and we got some lucky purple rolls, so we ended up winning, although it was a little close at the end.
I don't think Scattergories is much fun though. The basic idea is to come up with different words that start with the same letter, one item per category. And there's a three-minute time limit. But you're really just playing against yourself, as you look at the lists and come up with words, with almost no gameplay involving other people. Jamie likes it though.
December 27, 2005
Iris' Departure Day
So Iris left yesterday at noon time. I took her and Dennis and my parents to the airport, dropped them off, then circled around to pick everyone back up except for her. Afterwards, we came home and I took a three hour nap because I was so tired. My leg also felt better after the nap, but my mom woke me up before I was done sleeping because she wanted to go out to eat with everyone.
We drove to pick up Calvin and then looked for a place to eat. Since it was Christmas day, everything was closed. Dennis didn't want Chinese food, but the only thing open was King Buffet which serves Chinese, Japanese, and other stuff like seafood and steak. So we ate that. My dad likes buffets because they are all-you-can-eat. I thought I had a coupon for it but I couldn't find it. Turns out it was in my wallet, which my mom started going through when I wasn't looking.
Later that night, my mom played some DDR and I played a little bit too. Then we watched Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, which I think both Dennis and my dad really liked. And then after that, Dennis and I watched Black Hawk Down.
December 25, 2005
Christmas Eve Shopping
Today was less busy than yesterday, but I was feeling kind of exhausted. Dennis and Iris still needed to buy me a Christmas present, so I took them to Oakridge. They had a hard time finding what to get me, but eventually bought some stuff from Borders. I bought a cheap second dance pad for DDR. While we were doing this, my mom went with Hsiuli and Spencer to buy food. My brother and dad disappeared somewhere else.
When we got back, my mom and Hsiuli started cooking. Dennis went to sleep. Iris, Spencer, and I started playing DDR. But Spencer kept smashing the floor way too hard; I don't think I'll let him play at my house again. Iris is extremely good at DDR, and can handle standard difficulty just fine, and even move onto heavy. I think she did a song on heavy just to impress me. Spencer's ego continued to get artificial boosting, which probably isn't a good thing since he hasn't learned humility yet.
Spencer also kept walking around on my carpet and into the kitchen with his shoes on.
December 11, 2005
I found an excellent Flash-based adventure game called Samorost2. It's a lot like the original Myst, which was one of the most important and influential games of all time, and one of my favorites. Samorost2 is a much simpler though, as the gameplay is very linear and the puzzles are essentially solved by clicking in the correct sequence. So it's not as great because you don't actually have to solve things with your brain. I do like the artwork very much though.
I had a potluck today with a bunch of people. I picked up Shannon early, and she helped me to make the plomeek soup (various recipes are available online) and also to plan the tribble trap. Georges was the first to show up, with Alla's tiramisu. Alla arrived a little later and then Sasha. Ellen and Rita arrived around 6pm, and Yvonne and Mei-Ling around 7pm.
Besides plomeek soup, I also made durani lizard skins, and a ham with vegetables. Sasha brought bananas and pasta. Alla showed up with some white wine that Mei-Ling ended up taking the rest of. Ellen and Rita brought pasta and mashed potatoes. Szu-Huey brought a pumpkin cheesecake that she made. There was also chips, crackers, cheese, pepperoni, drinks, and a few other things to eat.
After making the food, which Georges also helped out with a little since he arrived first, people seemed a little bored so we put on The Incredibles. It was after the movie ended that Shannon asked Rita to get something for her from the cabinet, and the tribble trap was sprung. Unfortunately, my photo timing was a little off so I did not get the tribbles actually falling on her, only her running away a second later.
We started playing Scrabble afterwards. Alla had to leave to a birthday party, so she and Georges and Sasha left around then. Ellen and Rita were not very good at making words and scoring a lot of points. It was them on one team versus me and Shannon. They challenged "raze" and then also tried to put down "coe" so Shannon and I ended up two turns ahead. We more than doubled their score very quickly. Rita also tried to find music to play that she recognized (not much since she only listens to the radio and is Clear Channel brainwashed). So Shannon called her the useless one.
Yvonne and Mei-Ling arrived while we were playing, and Rita and Ellen left before the game ended, but they had no chance of winning. Yvonne finished up on their side and scored the two highest turns for their team. We ended up using every single letter, but of course Shannon and I won. Yvonne and Mei-Ling started using the computer to look at random things then while Shannon and I went upstairs to play DDRMAX2. Later Mei-Ling started playing too but she was really bad. Yvonne just watched. We stopped when Shannon got an A score. Mei-Ling couldn't even get a B on beginner.
December 9, 2005
Came across an interesting new video game for the Nintendo DS tentatively called Lapis. It's a little like Nintendogs but with a bunny instead of dogs, and the gameplay is different. The interesting thing is what activity the game was modeled after, and its target audience. Anyway, the game is still in the prototype phase at Ubisoft, but it looks like something that should be finished and published. As long as the Protect the Children™ groups don't have their usual zealot way with things.
November 25, 2005
Last night Shannon and Yvonne came over to sleep over. Yvonne didn't do much except read. She brought and finished some fantasy book by Mercedes someone, and also The Lost World. She also read my copy of Fight Club. Shannon started reading volume one of Azumanga Daioh.
In the morning, Shannon and I watched Star Wars: Episode III. She hadn't seen it before; Yvonne didn't want to stop reading to watch, even though she hasn't seen it yet. She'll have to watch it some other time. What's interesting is that if you consider President Bush as Emperor Palpatine, the movie takes on a very specific political stance. One which I happen to agree with. We also watched some of the special features, which made Mei-Ling say that she feels bad about watching pirated copies because they do so much work to make the movie.
Shannon went on a hugging rampage with Asuka and Niea. She kept trying to hug them a lot, but was usually holding them wrong so they would wriggle away. Chie kept hiding under the beds, but he did come out last night while I was sleeping, and also again around noon. I took him down so they could pet him, but he got scared and ran away back upstairs to hide inside my bed again.
After we finished watching Star Wars, Shannon and I played some Magic: The Gathering. I beat her with my deck so we swapped, and then she won with my deck. So she started to redo her deck but got annoyed at it because she picked too many cards. She doesn't know how to decide between cards, and always just tries to pick cards that are good without thinking about strategy or cost. That works in simple games like Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh but doesn't work in Magic.
While we were doing that, Mei-Ling watched Hero, and Yvonne started to watch with her after she finished reading. Then they left to have Thanksgiving dinner with some people they know.
October 19, 2005
The Suckage of EA Sports
September 16, 2005
Nintendo Revolution Controller
Looks like Nintendo has given a sneak preview of the new Revolution controller which is pretty interesting. Check out the review, but the short is that it looks like a remote control (with the ability to finally remotely power your console on and off) with less buttons but it is motion aware.
August 27, 2005
Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex
I just completed the missions of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex on the hard difficulty setting. Unfortunately, this game just isn't that great. Production I.G put a lot into the voices, dialogue, story, music, and graphics but very little into the gameplay. I suppose that's to be somewhat expected, as they are primarily an animation studio. Unfortunately, everything is great except the gameplay.
There is a very good stand-alone story going on in this game. However, it can be hard to follow it closely as there are large portions of actual gaming taking place between cut-scenes. Plus, it can be difficult to pay attention to the dialogue when you are trying to stay alive and take out some bad guys. But if you can keep up, there is a good story unfolding before you.
The graphics are not excellent, but about what you would expect. This game is almost a complete take-off of Oni, only not as fun and exciting to play. You cannot execute combat moves yourself. Instead, you will find yourself tapping a single button and having the game choose which moves to execute. Plus, unlike in Oni, it is basically impossible to take on multiple baddies in melee combat, as you cannot control who you are attacking and how. The artificial intelligence of the enemies is primitive. Shoot one of them, and the rest don't care. They have no strategic patterns or cooperation. They're all deaf and blind.
There are two particular mission segments which I think are simply horrible. The first is having to wall-jump several times up the side of a building to access a console. This is annoying. The second is even more annoying which is to outrun a pack of snipers. One-shot one-kill. I had to continue this segment more times than I can count, because it becomes trial and error as you figure out the right thing to do. A wrong move and you're shot and have to start over.
There are some redeeming qualities to the gameplay however. You can unlock additional features by completing the game on higher difficulties and by finding additional object interactions. The controls very quickly become second-nature, despite appearing at first to be cumbersome. Figuring out the correct course of action can be entertaining, as you are not always pushed one direction and one direction only. There are a fair number of weapons to choose from, although the use of those weapons is somewhat stilted; there is no agility possible, and you cannot perform actions when crouched or jumping. Adding the hacking feature was a nice touch since that is often used by Section 9. There is also support for multiplayer.
And I am still impressed by how well the non-gameplay aspects were executed. It really does play back as one of the television episodes. I'm not sure yet whether or not I will attempt to unlock more features. But I may do so, as some of the feature seem to be interesting in themselves. However, if you are looking for this type of game, I would recommend Oni over Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex.
August 24, 2005
Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes
I finished Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes last night. Total gameplay time was about 12 hours, and I had only started it on Sunday. So didn't take me very long to complete it. It was lots of fun though, just not particularly long. I originally thought it was a combination of Metal Gear Solid and Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, but turns out it is simply an improved remake of Metal Gear Solid with some of the gameplay and graphics features from Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty.
Twin Snakes is an excellent sneaking game, with a very good storyline. There is also the option to play it again on harder difficulty levels, and to try and collect as many dog tags as possible. But I think I would end up just getting frustrated, at having to ensure you are not seen by the enemy for the entire game.
One of the great things about this game is the very strong anti-nuclear-weapon, anti-war theme. This is especially powerful because of the real-life footage used during cutscenes, and the strong background in nuclear warfare of the Japanese people. This is supplemented by a theme that portrays the idea of genetic fate as something which should not be viewed as a constraint, which is similar to the view expressed in Gattaca. And there is also a very strong thread of self-discovery within the protagonist, Solid Snake, about figuring out what life is worth fighting for. This part is similar to Battle Royale.
August 21, 2005
Final Fantasy X-2
I've finally completed Final Fantasy X-2. This is a very interesting and new type of Final Fantasy. The majority of this game is free-form and composed of small quests and mini-games. Completing the story does not require you to explore most of what is available. Because of this, I only completed the game with 78% of the quests, and there is a new option New Game Plus that allows you to play through a second time with the items and completion percentage you finished the game with. So as to allow you to aim for 100%.
Unfortunately, because of the side quest and mini-game nature, the central story line can sometimes feel disconnected. That's not to say that is a bad thing, but it does mean you may often put the central story line on hold for several hours as you are exploring. People who complain about Final Fantasy games being too linear may welcome this change. I found it a nice approach, but one which I would not want most Final Fantasy games to use.
The combat system is also new. The technology has improved so that action is even more real-time, with multiple players executing their turns simultaneously. The character switching from Final Fantasy X has a slightly different twist now, with Yuna, Rikku, or Paine being able to change their job during combat in the style of magical-girl anime. I found this pretty interesting, and wouldn't be unhappy to see it carried into future Final Fantasy games. Although I doubt that will be the case, as Square Enix will continue to try and improve on the combat system.
July 27, 2005
Warcraft III - Frozen Throne
I finally completed the campaigns of Warcraft III: Frozen Throne. The undead campaign featuring Arthas and Sylvannas was very difficult on hard, and is what delayed my completion for so long. The bonus campaign, on the other hand, is an interesting grouping of hero subquests. Kind of enjoyable, but the lack of challenge did not make it as satisfying.
July 26, 2005
Yvonne celebrated her birthday on Sunday. I got her two DVDs: Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Airplane. We visited her Dad's memorial (Shannon wanted me to come along) and then had dim sum for lunch. We went to New Park Mall to find presents for some of the people they are going to be visiting in Taiwan, and then went to Fry's when we couldn't find something good. I ended up buying the Lain Soundtrack by Chabo, Face/Off, and Ghost in the Shell Stand Alone Complex.
We also ended up watching two sports movies. Yvonne really likes Shaolin Soccer, and has seen it a few times already. I thought half of it was kind of boring. She pointed out that it is a lot like Prince of Tennis but with soccer. Since so much of the stuff is crazy like fireball soccer balls.
Later we watched The Rookie, which both Yvonne and Shannon found boring. A lot of talking going on. I thought it was okay. Nothing special.
May 27, 2005
Final Fantasy X-2 Froze
I was playing Final Fantasy X-2 (about 40% of the way through now) and during combat the game froze. Music continued to play but no commands were going through and the picture froze. At least I saved shortly before that happened.
March 27, 2005
FF X Complete
I finished Final Fantasy X Thursday night. I ended up not doing all of the side-quests that I knew about. These side quests didn't seem to do as much for character development as side-quests have done in earlier Final Fantasy games. It was a little rough going at the end, because it really helps to have a good strategy against some enemies. But finally got through to defeat the final boss and see the beautiful and touching final cinematography. I don't think the ending is as powerful as the one for Final Fantasy IX, however.
FF:X does introduce a new turn-based combat system which is probably the only turn-based system that does not feel slow or simplistic. Each character's agility statistic determines their initiative. And each character also has both an initial specific strength or skill that makes them valuable during combat, but you do not need to worry about having a semi-useless character in battle because you can switch characters in and out during combat.
Plus, the sphere-grid system for powering-up your character statistics and abilities encourages specific character development (e.g. focusing Lulu on magic and Auron on strength) while allowing you enough freedom to customize character development. A good example of this is putting Rikku on either Yuna or Lulu's track to develop her as a magic user. Or giving Wakka some of the status attacks off Auron's track.
The game does suffer from linearity. As with other Final Fantasy games, you are given choice of where to go after getting the airship. However, you get control over the airship late in the game, and can only land at specific points in the world. That being said, there are side-quests to complete once you have that freedom, and some of them are interesting.
March 3, 2005
Sergio showed me this Flash game: Nanaca Crash. It's a fun game that is very simple, but there are actually a lot of things you can try to do to improve your score, including combos. So far, my maximum distance is about 11800m and my maximum height is about 440m.
January 2, 2005
Dark Cloud Complete
I just finished Dark Cloud, a remake with plot of the traditional dungeon crawl (e.g. Angband/Moria/Rogue or more recently Diablo). However, I'd gotten my fill of the boring dungeon crawl genre years ago on those text-based versions. And the story and gameplay of Dark Cloud don't make things exciting enough for this game to really stand out.
It is fun and interesting to rebuild the towns that were destroyed by the Dark Genie, but the entire premise is very contrived. At the very end of the game, you start to see exactly what is going on, but up until that point, things don't really make much sense. The Fairy King is a pretty uninspired plot device.
The most frustrating and pointless game feature are the six characters that join you during your quest. There really is no point to having six characters. You only play one at a time, and except for the stupid character-specific obstacles and "magic" only allowing you to choose a specific character on one dungeon floor, they serve no point. The entire game can be completed by one ranged attacker. In fact, unless you are into mindlessly leveling up, you need only concentrate on one character at all. Just switch to the others when there is a character-specific obstacle, which of course are inserted into the generated dungeons for no real reason. On the other hand, if you decided to only focus on a melee character, you can't even finish the game.
It is also very annoying that your weapon can break and be completely destroyed. It may take you dozens of hours to get a weapon built-up, and then if it breaks because of carelessness, you're completely stuck. No one is going to continue the game at this point, and will just reset to the last saved game. So there really is no point of including this other than to annoy the player. In the originals, you could not load previous games. So if a weapon broke, it broke for good. However, you did not have to spend hours and hours to build up a weapon; you would find them or buy them. So if your weapon was lost, you could try to find another one of comparable value without too much difficulty.
The combat was not too bad though. The combat is very similar to the Zelda games for the GameCube or N64. The main character even looks a little like Link. My only gripe is that for some enemies, melee attacks just won't work well.
December 24, 2004
Wild Arms 3 Complete
Just finished Wild Arms 3. Completing this game is pretty satisfying. The story was really good, and became quite involving once it started to take off. It's also one of the most non-linear RPGs I've played, which was both very nice and a source of annoyance. The music was excellent, but the sound effects could have used some work to make them fit in better. My favorite part of the entire game would be Maya.
The combat engine was very nice. Intuitive and also a nice change. But combat itself was pretty boring. All monsters had only one or two types of attacks, and since everything was turn based, fighting the same monster again became a matter of routine. Combat was way too deterministic and lacked any variety. The encounter avoidance feature and auto-battle are nice ways to get around this, but combat is still very frequent and sometimes you can't use auto-battle to implement the best attack.
The developers did not make use of the analog stick. This meant one button was wasted on walking, and another button wasted on running. That is not too bad, except the run button is also the action button. This means when you want to perform an action, you might instead run. Or, also bad, after you complete an action you will start running. This is a real problem when they let you fall off cliffs.
Being able to fall off cliffs is quite annoying. They worked it in as a test of reflexes but it became very frustrating at times. Especially since some of the reflex puzzles had no margin for error at all. I don't mind a reflex puzzle if they don't expect it to require perfection to complete it. I did like the thinking puzzles, but the problem was they came up with one type of puzzle, and then would make you go through variations of it several times. No really harder so much as longer. Thus more tedious and both boring and annoying.
Another disappointment was the summoning action sequences. The summoned creatures look like something out of Zoids, only they move a lot worse. And the damaging summons are absolutely worthless. It was more efficient to cast magic or just attack than to bother summoning. I never summoned anything after I'd seen it once, and those sequences were painful to watch.
Magic itself was kind of stupid too. One character is very good for magic use because he can target multiple enemies and has a strong magic stat. But rather than making him the magic user, you have to make everyone magic users because you equip the magic sources. So magic becomes kind of useless for those other characters, because they can't target multiple enemies and also because their magic is very weak. You can rearrange equipped magic during battle but it is a hassle since you also have to reassign the skills associated with the magic sources if you move them between characters, and because it is just faster for all non-boss battles to just use regular attacks than to waste time rearranging magic. This also makes the ability to target multiple enemies less valuable, since that character only has a few elemental magic attacks at his disposal during any given battle.
In fact, there are only a few spells worth having at all. Heal, Valiant, and Fragile are about the only spells I used at all. Unless a boss required a specific spell to defeat it. I only used Permanence during one battle, and Reply only during one battle. I never used anything like Shield, Protect, Reflect, and rarely used elemental attacks because it would have to by chance be equipped to the one character who could target multiple enemies.
I did not want to move magic around a lot, depending on which enemies I was fighting, for a couple of reasons. First, in any given location, there are a number of different elemental weaknesses you could exploit. But, I always want to be able to target all my characters with heal, so that limits one choice. And then the stat boosters and personal skills associated with the magic sources make it undesirable to move magic around too much or to use certain combinations. Once I'd gotten Valiant, all battles because a mix of Valiant and Heal. I didn't even make a lot of use of the personal skill enhancers that I found. You can use these to add personal skills to magic sources, such as resistance to elemental attacks. But I didn't care about getting hurt, given Valiant, and I didn't have a lot of spare skill points to make use of them anyway.
Targeting multiple enemies was also handled badly. Enemies can only be targeted in groups of two to four, depending on how that battle was laid out. So, even though there might be 12 enemies, you could only target 4 of them. Plus, you could only target enemies of the same type. So you could not cast the same spell on all the enemies even if wanted to. This isn't necessarily bad, since different enemies have different weaknesses to magic, but sometimes even with the same enemy type, they weren't grouped by the combat engine and so you couldn't multiple target anyway.
This game would have been much, much better with a better implementation. The non-linearity, character development, and story were great. But the boring and tedious combat, bad magic system, and annoying puzzles made me not want to explore or spend time on things. I was just trying to get through as quickly as possible, and this meant looking things up in GameFAQs when I got stuck for more than 15 minutes.
December 14, 2004
I just finished ICO (US site), a cult classic released for the Playstation 2 in 2001. This was one of the first games I really wanted to get a PS2 for, and maybe the only PS2 game I had interest in besides RPGs. It was a very short game, at seven hours, but it was also very good. It would have to be the best puzzle game I've played in a very long time.
The plot is relatively engrossing, for a game that depends more on puzzle elements than the story, but the ending leaves certain things unanswered. It feels more authentic with two different spoken languages, only one of which is displayed in English subtitles. This requires you to provide your own interpretation for what is going on, but the voice acting is good enough for tone and emotion to help convey the messages.
I also really enjoyed the background art (although it was lower-resolution than what gamers are accustomed to today) and the ambient audio. Playing ICO really felt like an amazing place to explore, and with the volume up and the lights off, I could lose myself in ICO's world. (I actually turned up the volume to -25dB for ICO, because the audio was so enveloping. I normally play video games at -40dB.)
I will have to get the follow-up game, Wanda and the Colossus. It's not a sequel, but it's been developed by the same team as ICO and features the same sort puzzle-solving gameplay.
December 13, 2004
FF IX Complete
I just finished Final Fantasy IX, which now that I've completed, I have to agree with the people who stated it is the best Final Fantasy yet. (I haven't played FF X or FF X-2 yet.) But although Squaresoft took the best of all the previous Final Fantasies and put them together in just the right mix, I think it is the ending that I will remember most. This ending has a much deeper meaning and emotional story behind it. And what happens is really unexpected and special. I have to purchase the soundtrack for this one too.
Playing and finishing Final Fantasy IX at this time is also a little nice because there is a minor tie-in with Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles. I won't give away any spoilers, but having played and finished Crystal Chronicles the day before, some of what is revealed in the end makes more sense and has more meaning. The two games could in some ways be said to have parallel storylines.
Yesterday I went over to Shannon & Yvonne's house and we finally finished Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles. We had probably been playing it for something like nine months by now. A couple of weeks ago, I asked them if I should play our characters single-player to raise their stats faster. So I put in about twenty hours on my own and got our characters enough artifacts for us to easily get through the final stage. The ending was pretty good and the story at the last stage was good too. I liked how the stuff we had experienced along the journey became clearer and more tied together once we'd gotten to the end.