Category Archives: Reviews

Oh Hai, The Room: The Musical Review Readers!

2003 saw the release of The Room, Tommy Wiseau’s seemingly semi-autobiographical clusterfuck of a movie, concerning a man named Johnny, played by Wiseau himself, whose seemingly perfect life is destroyed by betrayal from evil women who “change their minds all the time” and the men in their thrall. It’s pretty much the movie version of every shitty break-up song some lead singer has ever forced on their poor, unsuspecting band.

With that in mind, maybe it was always obvious that the next step for the now-cult classic would be a musical. Chicago’s pH Productions have rushed to realise this grand idea with aplomb and The Room: The Musical currently plays weekly at the pH Comedy Theatre. How does it all work out? Is it any good? Spoiler: The answer is yes. You can keep reading though.

When attempting to skewer something as obnoxiously awful as The Room, there’s a temptation to just play off the audience memories of the movie and have that do the heavy lifting for the performance, like when Family Guy gets lazy and goes “Remember this thing from the 80s? Is that funny?” Luckily, The Room: The Musical sidesteps this potential pitfall and produces something that is legitimately funny and entertaining in its own right.

The musical combines details and dialogue from the original film with its own brand of humour and awareness of the film’s shortcomings that allows the production to have greater continuity and depth in its characters while maintaining the same almost endearingly-awkward atmosphere that made the original such a belated-hit.

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Matt Gottlieb leads as Johnny, looking just right in an ill-fitting suit, which goes well with his bad hair and stilted talking. He doesn’t quite get the accent right because, you know, no one in the world has or ever sounded like Tommy Wiseau. Gottlieb makes Johnny sound more like a confused, naive generic foreigner from a fake European country in some comedy movie about fish out of water foreigners coming to America whereas Wiseau sounds like a Frankenstein monster with a cold impersonating Otto von Bismark. In fact, Gottlieb portrays Johnny so well and so clueless and simple that he comes off as much more sympathetic than the original character. This is pretty commendable as Johnny, the character, is a sinew-y ball of misogyny, impotent rage and bare ass.

Jess Herron, meanwhile, takes Lisa and makes her a much more fleshed-out and interesting character while keeping her a complete bitch and when paired up with Nick De Fina‘s hilariously clueless Mark (“I mean… the candles, the music, the sexy dress? What’s going on here, Lisa?”) and Tristan Tanner‘s fantastically obnoxious and cancer-ridden Claudette the laughs come hard and fast. The song Men! by Herron and Tanner, may be the entire productions stand out track, although act one closer I’ll Show Them All gives Les MiserablesOne Day More a run for its money (hey, I’ve never seen Philip Quast doing jumping jacks during on-stage simulated sex) so it’s a close call.

Denny, meanwhile, played by Dan Wright, takes Wiseau’s (after the fact) intentions for the character and spins that into gold all by himself. Turning Denny into a complete mental regressive with a fascination with balloons may not be the most subtle characterisation but it certainly makes you laugh, and plays well into the ending. Wright is also responsible for some of the musicals best visual gags and, man, is he strong. Either that or De Fina is made of hollow bird bones. Go see it, you’ll see what I mean.

They invited all the main cast of the musical for this photo. Good thinking!

Steve Hund and Mary Walsh don’t have much to play with as blow job-fixated Mike and clearly-on-prozac Michelle but then, that’s the point, isn’t it? What they do, they do well and their intrusion into a plot which really doesn’t involve them is always welcome. Symbol of Love and Act 2 Opener give them the chance to bust out their singing skills and they’re damn good but the comedy lies in their superfluousness and they can really riff on it. They really make what could have been a one note joke work well throughout the show.

Eric Oren, as the Sexy Troubador, makes The Room‘s painful R&B tracks bearable and I dare you to watch the movie after seeing the musical without wishing he was there to capture your attention during the awful sex scenes. Gottlieb, Herron and De Fina, meanwhile, make the musicial’s rendition of Tommy Wiseau’s chance to write himself into the sex he clearly feels he is owed fully necessary and vital love scenes (trimmed in this production to You Are My Rose and Crazy) much more tolerable. There’s certainly more dexterity and passion involved and unlike Wiseau, everyone involved knows that the belly button is not, in fact, where the vagina is located.

While I could destroy the meaning of the phrase “single out” by giving particular praise to De Fina, Wright, Herron and Tanner for their amazing work, if I were forced to pick just one stand out performer from the night I saw the performance I’d certainly have to consider Brett Mannes. As Chris-R, Peter and Steven (also, almost as himself, befuddled by the switch from Peter to Steven), Mannes is extremely impressive in his roles. He shifts between the mannerisms of his three roles pretty seamlessly and shines in two of the productions best songs, I Want My Money and Reefer Madness. Besides which, if nothing else, his outfit as Steven is worth the price of admission alone.

“Oh yeah, sorry about that whole pot and murder thing.”

While I’ve mentioned the performers, the songs are the key, aren’t they? Brad Kemp and Wally List draw from a variety of influences, including some skilled variants of The Room‘s infamous main theme to create a wonderful musical backdrop to director and writer Jason Geis‘ skilled work. Even the chorus get more to do than just waft around in the background awkwardly and I know for a fact that Jamie Jirak, Scott Hogan and Sharla Beaver, in addition to Patrick Serrano and Ben Palin drew out some of the loudest laughs on the night from the eager audience.

From the opening song, Oh Hai, which reveals the phrase to be the lazy script-writing it is to the jaunty Thinking & Girls and onto Tanner’s fantastic showtune turn in You Can’t Live On Love and into the wonderfully surreal Finale that will surely leave everyone going home happy, The Room: The Musical is a labour of love in the most literal sense. With the aid of Thayer Greenberg, Michelle Marquardt and Drew Current, Geis has put together a fully realised work, full of depth and craft and care. It’s amusing to think that if Tommy Wiseau had put half as much effort into his awkwardly surreal, laughably egotistical star vehicle (for himself, of course), then there wouldn’t be such a cult movie to base this wonderful musical on.

The Room: The Musical is currently playing at the pH Comedy Theatre in Chicago, every Saturday at 10:30 PM. Visit their website for details.

Persona 4 Golden: Addition Without Subtraction

In case you missed it the first time around, Persona 4 was an RPG for the Playstation 2 in which you followed a year in the life of Souji Seta Yu Narukami Charlie Tunoku, a Japanese high school student sent to live in the tiny mountain town of Inaba while his parents worked abroad. A series of paranormal murders began upon his arrival, pushing Charlie and his new friends into forming their own “investigation team” – one that involved physically entering television sets and fighting the shadowy aspects of mankind’s collective unconscious.

It was perhaps the biggest hit for Japanese developer Atlus ever, one that has seen its story retold in an array of different media since then, including its own anime series. Now, the remastered Persona 4 Golden has arrived for the Playstation Vita, becoming simultaneously the definitive version of Persona 4 and also the only truly compelling reason to purchase Sony’s troubled handheld aside from the recent expansion of their Playstation Plus service.

Having read those introductory paragraphs, you’ve most likely (and very correctly) guessed that our review for Persona 4 Golden will be almost entirely positive. Congratulations, your Understanding has greatly increased. So with that in mind, let’s focus mainly on Golden’s changes and additions from here on out.

persona 4 golden marie steak
If you’d like to see Marie grant Hiimdaisy’s webcomic ascended meme status, select the highlighted option.

First, the big stuff. There are two new Social Links for players to indulge in. The first is with Marie (pictured above) who falls somewhere between Elizabeth and Margaret on the Persona scale; an outsider who, while naive, isn’t completely removed from the real world. Marie is thankfully the beneficiary of some very strong voice work. The second is Adachi, a familiar face for P4 veterans. Both are important to the overall story rather than being mere side characters.

Both Chie and Teddie have retained their new voices as introduced by Persona 4 Arena and the anime’s English dub. This is a good thing, as both those products are still very recent and switching up the actors any further would be an awkward blow to continuity. That said, I will always prefer the somewhat more mature portrayal of Chie in the original Persona 4, though I do realize that recasting her was a necessity which also opened up new dialogue opportunities with Golden that would’ve been impossible otherwise.

Online functionality has also been added in the form of the Voice and SOS options. It’s not true multiplayer – which is a good thing as such a mode would never fit into Persona 4’s existing structure – but something more akin to Dark Souls and its predecessor. Tapping the Voice button will fill your screen with speech bubbles that indicate what other players did in your current position, which can be useful for weighing your daily options at a glance instead of wandering around town looking for something to do. However, as different players progress through the social aspect of Persona 4 Golden in different ways, there will usually be a few bubbles that won’t reflect your own situation, and you’ll likely have avenues of your own that aren’t shown either.

persona 4 golden sos
An example of Persona 4 Golden’s SOS messaging system. Your options for Engrish hilarity are far wider than you might expect.

Touching the SOS button while in a dungeon will send a distress signal over the Playstation Network, which will provide HP and SP regeneration at the beginning of your next battle if responded to by another player. This works basically the same way as the Invigorate skills already in the game, but depending on how many players respond it can be dramatically more effective. If used liberally, SOS could allow your party to remain in the TV world indefinitely without spending any yen or items on healing, depending on your play style. It could also be a huge boon to players using the Very Hard difficulty setting.

Unfortunately, SOS pauses the game for a moment while the signal is going out, which delivers a slight hit to immersion. This naturally becomes more of an issue if your Wi-Fi network is prone to interruptions or if PSN is on one of its little sabbaticals. Of course, Voice and SOS can both be disabled entirely at any point and the game prompts you to make this decision on every startup.

Voice and SOS are also Persona 4 Golden’s only use of the Vita’s touch capabilities, which could be good or bad depending on your outlook. No one likes control gimmicks that feel tacked on, yet minor uses of such functionality often feel like missed opportunites or wasted potential. Personally, I just dislike getting fingerprints on the screen. It’s for that reason that I wonder if this feature could’ve been mapped to the rear touchpad instead, which like most Vita titles, sees no action at all in Persona 4 Golden.

persona 4 mara
Yes, you can still fuse Mara, the penis chariot Persona.

Tweaks to Persona 4’s existing mechanics are almost too numerous to mention although several stand out from the pack as critical. Chief among them is the ability to cherry-pick your new Persona’s skills before fusion, rather than “The Nose” giving you a random assortment of inherited abilities as he did before. This means that the days of backing in and out of the fusion screen until you get the skills you want, a frustrating limitation of this system since its introduction in Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, are finally at an end.

Another welcome addition to the fusion system is the Fusion Search screen, wherein a list of all the Personas you can create with your current stock are given to you straight up. You can still select two or more of your Personas blindly the old-fashioned way, but with Search, there isn’t much reason to unless you’re intentionally going for a huge multi-Persona fusion job. This isn’t as big a deal as the skill picker, which had me jumping out of my chair and DX crotch-chopping when I first read about it, but it is nonetheless very nice to have.

Skill cards have also been added to the mix. Obtained via the revamped Shuffle Time minigame, you can register skill cards in the Velvet Room in the same manner as Personas which allows you to purchase them later and apply them to any Persona on your active roster. These cards contain skills ranging from the expected staples to exotics that I don’t recognize at all, some of which could be new to Golden.

persona 4 golden combo attack
Persona combo attacks return for the first time since Persona 2. You’ll probably be seeing this one a lot.

In battle, Persona-based combination attacks can now be triggered by All-Out attacks, forming a one-two punch capable of laying-out most basic enemies. Furthermore, S-Link progression now unlocks new skills for your party member’s Personas; for instance, Yukiko’s Persona can now learn Mudo fairly early on, which only helps the never-ending search for enemy affinities and weaknesses. However, a lot of rebalancing has also been done to prevent the player from steamrolling over everything, particularly in the case of bosses, though rest easy knowing that Chie is still perfectly capable of punting a mid-boss into orbit.

A balance pass has also been made over the non-combat gameplay to account for all the new timesinks. New books, new jobs, and new side activities have all been added, many of which can raise more than one social characteristic at once, and the options in this area which already existed have also been improved. Finish reading that Knowledge-boosting manual early on and every subsequent study session will be doubled. Being able to explore the town at night also grants new methods for boosting stats like Diligence and Courage, as does taking a ride on the scooter to neighbouring Okina City.

persona 4 mysterious fox
Mysterious Fox: still mysterious.

With so many enhancements made to Persona 4’s already winning marriage of story and mechanics and with nary a strike to be made against it, Persona 4 Golden becomes the definitive edition of P4 – and the strongest weapon in the Playstation Vita’s wanting arsenal – pretty much by default. Fans of Persona in particular and RPGs in general, with a “J” or otherwise, should consider this a no-brainer addition to your library if you happen to own a Vita already. If not, it’s your best justification yet to grab that new chunk of hardware.

For non-fans or the unfamiliar, consider the following words and phrases: steak; TV world; the Meat Dimension; luchador masks; Mysterious Fox and Funky Student; “the secret animal cracker.” There are so many more, and so much depth beyond just the comical aspects. If you want to discover what any of that means for yourself, Persona 4 Golden the best way to do so.

Wii and U and Her and Her and Her Simultaneously: The Wii U Analysis

So, like many people out there, I’ve managed to get my hands on a Wii U, on the condition that I write words about it. This isn’t a game review, so I’m not really going to base my findings on how fun Nintendo Land is or how ZombiU is clearly bullshit, no matter how long I keep playing and starting over.

The Wii U has been out a few days now. It’s purportedly selling well and although it is not a complete sell out like its predecessor, at least as far as “Basic” units are concerned, neither is it a flop. Without sustained hyperbole, such as Sony’s initial bullish reactions to the notion that PS3s were not selling out across the land in 2006, this seems palatable. Even Sega’s much vaunted 9/9/99 Dreamcast launch was touted as the most successful console launch in history at the time, and look how that turned out. From a casual perspective, there’s not much to worry about, unless you were one of those speculators, hoping to sell your console on eBay for a small fortune.

Cosmetically, the Wii U is sleek and smooth, as is the Game Pad which comes packaged with it. They also absorb fingerprints like the damn things were made of half-melted chocolate so if that’s a concern for you, you’d be wise to invest in some sort of covering for your Game Pad at least. Size wise, the console itself rates about 0.25 Xbox 360, which is roughly 0.01 Sega Game Gear or 0.0001 original Xbox for those using older measurements and is smaller than my Hori fight sticks for the PS3 and 360. You’ll be hard pressed not to find space for it whereas my ancient backwards-compatible PS3 is large enough to cause shelving nearby to creak ominously.

wii u princess peach
In lieu of a real caption, have this Mario/The Room crossover script: “Oh hi, Daisy!” “Hi, I’m Daisy!” “Oh hi, Daisy!” “Hi, I’m Daisy!” “Oh hi, Daisy!” etc.

The Game Pad is large, but well designed, which means it never feels too big for your hands. The screen in the middle may space the left and right hand sides from each other but the pad itself is thin, and unless you have wee T-Rex arms that makes all the buttons easy to reach. It syncs well with the Wii U’s menus and has been used at least adequately in the games available so far. I believe there is far more real potential in the notion of the Game Pad screen than in motion controls, but that’s just me.

The Game Pad screen responds much like the DS/3DS screen, for obvious reasons. Nintendo will be missing a trick if they don’t eventually release a Game Pad that can accept DS/3DS carts. Think of it as the old Super Game Boys, except good. I haven’t experienced much problems with responsiveness but then I naturally pound away at the bloody thing like I was playing Donkey Konga. Do note though that I don’t use capacitive touchscreens much myself so I’m sure I’m “missing out” on the feeling of being downgraded to a resistive model. Score one for the Luddites!

The user interface is similar to the Wii. And the Nintendo DS. And the Nintendo 3DS. I think you have to accept that this is the Nintendo look now. The Playstation line goes for black and blue a la the beating the Vita is taking, the Xbox is aping whatever the current Microsoft OS is and Nintendo is grey, white and blue, the washed out American flag you shouldn’t have left out in the sun all the time.

The transfer of original Wii to Wii U data is much the same as it is for the DS to 3DS transfer, down to the adorable Pikmin helpers carting off your data for newer horizons. It’s more difficult, due to the need to have your Wii and Wii U both operational simultaneously with much switching between inputs but once you get going, it’s not the most inconvenience you’ll suffer.

wii u pikmin
Transferring data is bothersome, but worth doing just for the Pikmin stuff alone. In fact, buy a Wii AND a Wii U just to do this! (Note: Don’t do this)

No, that goes to the 10-15 second loading time whenever you select a menu option. We’re not talking the short loading bursts that drive some gamers into an apocalyptic rage in 2012 where one can only imagine their reaction to seeing the original Tomb Raider load times. This is pretty irredeemable by comparison. It stalls your progression and train of thought and, worse, can actively discourage you from exploring aspects of the Wii U.

On another note, the first day (or not by now, I guess) updates right out of the box are apparently an issue right now. Many people seem to be upset as the worlds of console and PC gaming continue to collide like when Gohan and Cell had that awesome Kamehameha duel in Dragonball Z. Updates! Patches! Energy beams exploding the moon! DLC! Really though, the Wii has had system updates for yonks, not to mention those other consoles. Yes, it’s more annoying than not needing a system update but I think we need to accept this burden in the current marketplace.

It’s a big update though. While not the hour plus download times I’ve seen reported elsewhere (again, because I’ve missed the rush due to tardiness), it’s more comparable to one of Sony’s large fireware updates than one of Microsoft’s tetchy 40 second jobs. Calm down, you can wait half an hour to play Nintendo Land, it’s not like you have 1080p New Zelda Adventure in your hands.

Graphically, the Wii U holds up well against the 360 and PS3. I’m not a huge specs guy, but the overdue leap to HD visuals is wonderful.  From what I can tell, there’s nothing to suggest that the graphics won’t improve further with time but, yeah, expect the Wii U to be outclassed graphically by the newest Microsoft and Sony consoles once they come out. If you’re not hung up over graphics too much, just know that the HD output makes things clear and easy to follow.

wii u suikoden
With the Miiverse drawing option, you can spam game boards with references to obscure 90’s RPGs! Bring back Grandstream Saga, you guys!

The Miiverse, Nintendo’s new friendy-friend system thankfully abolishes friend codes to the trashbin of history along with the Virtual Boy, Daikatana and that bit in Suikoden II where it totally looks like Teresa’s betraying you in Muse. It’s counter-intuitive to set up and I admit I needed to look up that I had to open the menu, select the friend icon and set up my already set up account for friends before I could actually accept or reject them but once I got that sorted out, it seemed pretty easy. Right now, I’m a fan of the “boards” for different games, where questions, discussion and stupid pictures can be shared although that could change as the trolls stream in. We’ll see how that develops.

Some people are upset that TVii has been delayed until December. While this is a blow to Nintendo, as they had hyped it as a day one feature, honestly, another attempt at making a console “the entertainment centre of my living room” isn’t what I’m holding out too strongly for, especially when no one games console can claim to be the damn video game centre of my living room. We’ll see if Nintendo can bridge the gap, but I won’t be betting my soon-to-be-defunct Wii points on it.

Any other flaws? 32GB “deluxe” storage is a joke and Nintendo have probably kneecapped their online store from the start by doing this. Asking players to invest in additional external hard drives is a tough sell. The need to boot up what is essentially a Wii emulator worse than Dolphin to play Wii games is staggeringly ignorant and really, shouldn’t the Wii Shop and the new Nintendo eShop be merged? No? Am I the only person who finds it weird that there are no Virtual Console games on the eShop and that I have to boot up a fake Wii on my new Wii U to access a relic of a store to buy games with a (perhaps) soon-to-be-obsolete points currency? No? Okay.

Right now, the Wii U is a flawed machine. Nintendo’s autocratic attitude means that this is unlikely to change very much. Things will be tweaked and improved here and there but for the most part, this is the Wii U people will be playing for either the next few years, or until next year when the latest Sony and Microsoft offering will murder it like it was so much Dreamcast (I’m sorry, Sega. Power Stone was pretty cool!).

The Wii U is a sequel in the truest sense. It’s an update of the original Wii console, rather than the whole new world the Wii proved to be in comparison to the Gamecube. Evolution, not revolution. This isn’t a bad thing, but it seems Nintendo is having a hard time presenting what the Wii U is and isn’t to consumers. Time will tell how that may affect its prospects.

The Deluxe package is the only one worth considering and $350 is a relatively decent price for a new console out of the gate, especially with a free title and 10% back on downloaded titles, but if you don’t desperately need to play any of the admittedly large selection of launch titles (remember that the Nintendo 64 launched with your options being Super Mario 64 or a wet wipe coated in swine flu), I’d hold off for now.

It’s Dangerous to Go Audio, Take This: Zelda Symphony

Video game music is something that is near and dear to my heart. Even as a wee bairn in the 80s, or was it the 90s? Anyway, whenever it was last century, I could be found using my passed-down cassette player to record the various sounds that console sound chips at the time struggled to force through the family tube television. I think only the addition of rabbit-ears antenna would have made this opening paragraph more dated. Man, I remember listening to FDR on the wireless….

Anyway, my desire to capture the euphoric soundtracks of Kabuki Quantum Fighter and Low G Man aside, I say this because I needed a preface for my next statement: I never really found the Legend of Zelda soundtracks as enthralling as others might. Now, hold your white-maned horses, I’m not saying that I ever found them awful and there are some great tunes in there and I listen to and enjoy a lot of the ZREO stuff, but I never found it resonating with me unlike, say, Suikoden or Shining Force or Breath of Fire or, yeah, some of the Final Fantasies.

So when I decided to attend the Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses event, it was more in support of the concept and the spectacle than the intense physical desire to hear the “dun dun DUN!” bit performed by a hundred bored musicians performing material that they would surely feel was below them. It was also out of a desire to see some big breasted milk maidens, or at least some saucy Gerudo ladies. Failing that, I would settle for a particularly handsome Hyrule soldier. Failing that… I’d go with a Goron. Take what you can get. They seem like they’d be good cuddlers.

I guess I knew things were going to be a bit special when I arrived to the throng of people outside the Chicago Theatre. It was never going to be an empty house, of course, but we’re talking sell-out levels here with about 3,600 people turning up for the event. Everyone, including myself, was using the opportunity to load up on Streetpass connections (thanks for helping me get those Streetpass related Theatrhythm trophies, guys!), which may have dulled conversation a bit but, hey, we were honouring our silent protagonist that way. As an aside, if you’re going to a Zelda concert and are planning to go all Streetpass, don’t make your Mii Link. It’s really the super most obvious thing ever and now I have about 40 of them running around in Mii Plaza and I have to pick which ones are going to be made into Kokiri Burgers. Kudos to that one creative Zelda Mii though.

zelda concert
In a field where even orchestral tracks are usually synthesised, it’s impressive to see any sort of live symphonic performance, I think.

“Excuuuuuuse me, Princess” you might be thinking at this point, seeing as I haven’t mentioned anything about the, y’know, music yet. The music was excellent. I mean, I can’t say much about it, you have to listen to it. It was really good work and made me appreciate the music of the series more. Even the best quality sound file rips pale in comparison to some of the goodness we got that night. I got goosebumps during the opening and as the evening went on, I realised how many more evocative Zelda tracks there are than I had previously remembered.

Speaking of realisations, you don’t really realise how many concerts would be improved by a giant screen showing skeletons being hit with swords until you witness it yourself for the first time. We got served up a dungeon medley, a Kakariko Village medley and then the (awesome) Song of Storms. Of course, being October in Chicago it was already raining so all the jokes had already been made but there you go. Here’s a replacement joke: What do you call it when Link takes a dump in the TARDIS? Legend of Zelda: A Stink to the Past. Ho ho ho.

For those of you still with me after that, then the concert proper kicked in. Four movements, each one revolving around a classic game of the series: Ocarina of Time, Wind Waker, Twilight Princess and Wand of Gamelon. Or maybe it was Link to the Past. Biggest reaction of the night goes to Irish conductor Eímear Noone pulling out her Wind Waker baton (uhuhuhuhuhuh) for the Wind Waker movement. I can’t say that every performer on stage that night loved Zelda or whatever, but both Eímear and organiser Jeron Moore certainly know their stuff.

Even the merchandise was (relatively) reasonably priced. $35 for a t-shirt and poster may seem like a lot but this is in a city where $35 will get you two cokes, if you’re willing to let your server spit in the second one. Always get your merchandise straight away, guys, or you’ll end up like me when I went to an Authority Zero concert and got a small t-shirt after the event in my excitement, which works great for a 6’3” man with a 34” waist. Luckily, I got my swag early and spent my time laughing at everyone else. No, I’m joking, I was really trying to look down Skyward Sword Zelda’s dress. No, I’m joking, it was Saria. Okay, it was Groose (that hair!). Don’t tell anyone.

zelda concert cosplay
Flash in a theater? Last time I did that I got probation.

I tried to get some photos but as my C-F assigned camera is a box with a bird inside holding a slate and chisel a la The Flintstones, I decided to use my cell phone instead. So I was not afforded the chance to herd cosplayers together with my giant camera yelling “Smile! You’re on Herpaderp Website!” but I did get this great shot of my boots when I forgot the camera was on a two second timer. I am not bitter.

Things wrapped up with three encores. Three really obviously planned encores but we ate it up at this stage as no-one was ready to leave. Ballad of the Wind Fish, Gerudo Valley (for the ladies, or at least the ladies who steal men to get themselves impregnated, so the cast of Maury, I suppose) and a Majora’s Mask medley (by popular demand because everyone knows Majora’s Mask rocks). Rocks, moon. No? Okay. You don’t understand how Pavlovian you are until someone pretends to leave and comes back three times and you cheer each time.

Real talk, I’m not saying you should go to this thing if you have no interest in Zelda or orchestras or video game music in general. It’s too expensive for that, the cheap seats are about $30. If you’re on the fence, however, I say go for it. It’s an experience and the sense of a very real, tangible community experiencing this long-running game series with you. The music was great, with some really interesting takes on some of the tracks, the laughs were many and no-one even whined about the convoluted timeline too much. It was wonderful. How many opportunities will video game fans get to enjoy something like this? I doubt I’ll get to see Suikoden: Symphony of the Crap Side Games any time soon.

Regardless of whether or not video games are art, video games certainly contain art and music is one of the most amazing forms of artistic expression. Over the past 40 years or so, composers and technicians have crafted superb tracks first out of beep and boops and progressing further and further to the fully orchestrated soundtracks we (sometimes) enjoy today. Symphony of the Goddesses showcases this art form and evokes so many emotions and memories in the listener as most good music does that there’s really no reason for me to restrict it as “a video game concert.” This is music and you should listen.

For more information on Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses, which will be touring Texas, New York, Florida, California and Alberta, Canada in the coming months, check out their website.

Masked Bishop and the Holy Trinity Sight: The Decadal Suikoden III Retrospective

This week marks the release of Suikoden III in North America ten years ago. The game also came out in Japan at the same time and, infamously, never came out in PAL territories ostensibly due to quality control rules regarding localisation languages in Europe.

Suikoden III is an interesting game in that it marks the end of a lot of things about the series. This was the last game that original scenario designer/all-round Suikoden creator Muryama Yoshitaka worked on, for starters.

Muryama created Suikoden as a one-off game. Through a mixture of good timing and luck, the first Suikoden came out in a relative barren RPG landscape on the original PlayStation. That game did well enough to earn itself a sequel. Suikoden II, although set in the same world as the original game, three years in the future, functions as something more akin to a re-imagining of the original title. The (contextual) success of this title saw Suikoden become a bonafide franchise with three side games and a slightly dizzying array of merchandise and publications separating Suikoden II from its numerical successor.

By this point, Muryama had some sort of idea about the greater plot of the series. Although each game deals with regional wars in a technologically stagnant world, the arcing plot was growing more to encompass the role of the 27 True Runes, the magical crests which governed every aspect of the world. Their role in the struggle between Order and Chaos, intersecting with questions of free will and destiny were commented on in the first two games but really came to the fore in Suikoden III.

Despite the successes of the original batch of Suikoden games on the first Playstation, Konami had reservations about the direction of this overarching plot. The rumours persisted as to the reasoning, from simply busybody executives, to concerns that if the plot were to be wrapped up soon, then the reliable profit earner would be no more but in the end, the result is the same; Muryama Yoshitaka was to leave the team towards the end of Suikoden III’s development cycle.

suikoden iii hugo lilly
Suikoden III’s cartoon graphics allowed the game to maintain a bright and distinct visual style without proving too taxing or costly to make.

Suikoden III was also the swansong for series artist Ishikawa Fumi. Ishikawa was the artist from Suikoden II onwards, replacing Kawano Junko’s slightly more art nouveau style of work with a hard-lined, bright coloured look and more detailed costumes which captured more attention in the early 2000s. Although there is no indication of disastisfaction with her, she would be replaced by her predecessor, Kawano Junko, once a new producer for Suikoden IV was announced. That producer? Kawano Junko.

Let’s not delude ourselves into thinking that Suikoden III was the last traditional Suikoden title before it was overwhelmed by heathens, however. It is important to remember that Suikoden III was a very divisive title when it was first released. Although praised by contemporary critics at the time (the game still holds the highest average Metacritic rating for all Suikoden titles), the game proved to have as many detractors as supporters within the growing quote-unquote “Suikoden community.”

Although the Trinity Sight System that was the core of the games narrative proved relatively uncontentious, some complained of the repetition of visiting previously seen locales with new characters at different points in the narrative. Some were more irked with the idea that enemies, enemies, were Stars of Destiny in this title, showing the growing conservatism that quickly grips the fanbase of any media type.

This conservative element of the fanbase also dismayed of the series jump to 3D graphics over the beautiful sprite work of the first two games which lent the game a distinctive visual style. By choosing a slightly super deformed style over more realistic modelling, the game managed to maintain some semblance of a unique aesthetic while still maintaining clarity.

suikoden iii battle
The linked battle system, combined with the potential to deal collateral damage with wide ranging spells, proved controversial with long term fans of the series.

The majority of fandom complaints however stemmed from the battle system, which featured six characters sorted into three groups of two. You would choose the commands for one character in each group, with the second character entering into a sort of AI-informed support role on each turn, based on the commands selected. As far as RPG battle systems go, it’s fairly unobtrusive and easy to get to grips with even if it’s question what, exactly, it’s supposed to bring to the game but as far as a vocal segment of fans were concerned this was the equivalent of Dirge of Cereberus: Final Fantasy VII.

Suikoden III’s plot continued the themes of the original games, namely that of a local conflict where there are multiple points of view. The Trinity Sight System, however, allowed this to be explored with more than mere platitudes for the first time in the series. The ability to take on three different perspectives in the narrative, with the bonus of three other minor narratives for added detail, allowed Suikoden to process a more complicated and nuanced plot in a segmental manner, allowing layers to fall gradually and gaps to be filled in when dictated by the story and not the linear narrative of the first two games.

Not that Suikoden III’s story should be considered high art. It embraces the noble savage stereotype so hard you expect Kevin Costner to play the lead role and many story and plot elements are either of their time (if you’re being generous) or near farcical (if you’re not). But what it does, it does well, providing a broad stroke look at issues of colonialism, cultural development and the disconnect between war and those who would run them. Combining that with the most developed cast of characters in any of the games and the added layer of the predestination concepts mentioned earlier results in a plot that secures depth through the sheer physical mass of its storyline if nothing else.

In the end, Suikoden III was a game of incremental changes in gameplay, which angered a reactionary fanbase and plot nuances which met with wide approval. As a talisman for the series, it was largely a failure. It certainly failed to galvanise the series and fanbase in the same manner as Suikoden II.

Looking back, many fans view it as a sort of last hurrah for the series, even as it stumbles on like a zombie with 2011s Genso Suikoden Tsumugareshi Hyakunen no Toki not exactly setting the world on fire. At the time, many thought it might mark the beginning of the end. Perhaps, uniquely in this case, they’re both right. Although it is amusing to think that a title which deals so much with stagnation preceded what some see as the biggest run of intellectual stagnation in an RPG series to date.

Final Fantasy XIII is Heathcliff and Other Tortured Analogies

In which Heathcliff is Final Fantasy X, Catherine is Final Fantasy XIII and Nelly is, I don’t know, Chocobo Mysterious Dungeon or Final Fantasy Mystic Quest or something. This is the end of the literary analogies. (Ehrgeiz is Isabella)

Almost three years after its initial release the received fan criticism of Final Fantasy XIII has never really abated. As is the manner of rose-tinted nostalgia, it is still viewed as a milestone marking a plummet in quality for the series by game players of a certain age, much in the same manner Final Fantasy II/III/IV/V/VI/VII/VIII/IX/X/XI/XII/XIV was the beginning of the end for the once always glorious series (hint: it never was that glorious). Isn’t it time for a reevaluation?

I admit, in my haste, I too wrote off Final Fantasy XIII. In my usual nuanced analysis, I used the Caffeine-Fueled forums to state “It’s just shit.” As criticism of a game title goes it’s about as poorly thought out and meaningless as it gets without me calling the people who did enjoy it blind fanboys who want to marry “Squeenix” (you see that’s not the company’s name so it’s very cutting to call them that, much like typing “Micro$oft” instead of “Microsoft”) and give birth to a multi-headed hydra consisting of belt buckles, Dragon Ball Z character designs and characters called Edge Maverick and Fayt Leingod.

Replaying the title earlier this month, however, allowed me to see plainly what this game is. It’s Final Fantasy X, pretty much. It’s all pretty simple and I know I’m not the first person to say it but here we are.

If you’re considered a beauty, it’s hard to be accepted doing anything but standing around.” – Cybill Shepard

“The prettiest corridor scroller you’ll ever see” is the backhanded compliment used to smack around the title. It condenses every stereotype about the series into one implication: Yeah, it looks pretty but it’s coasting on legacy and FMVs. Playing just to see the next rendered movie as if it’s still 1998. Some of the charges stick to some titles better than others. I don’t think it really applies to either of the games I’m discussing here.

The same charges were once laid at Final Fantasy X’s feet and the aesthetic similarities between the games is quite startling. From the frozen lakes featured in both titles to the blue glow tinted forests in Spira and Cocoon, the linearity of the titles weighs second to the physical similarities. Even the aesthetic of the “remnant buildings” in both titles, the cloisters of Final Fantasy X and the Pulse Vestiges of Final Fantasy XIII, is eerily similar.

Concept art for Final Fantasy XIII’s Lake Bresha (left) and Final Fantasy X’s Lake Macalania (right) show one of the many design similarities between the two titles.

You traverse linear paths through exotic locations for most of the game, eventually stumble into some settlements for further plot advancement and around about the final third or so of the game, you come into the game’s big open area; the Calm Lands in Spira and the plains of Gran Pulse.

Of course, all this matters only if you harbour some sort of fondness (or burning hatred works too) for Final Fantasy X. Still, the functional similarities are striking. Even the way NPCs and cities are designed and interacted with feels similar. Functionally, there’s little real difference between putting a shop option at every save point and plonking down O’aka XXIII down regardless of plot relevance beside the save beacon, unless you feel that O’aka and Wantz’s go-nowhere backstory about their sister is the very heart and soul of Final Fantasy X.

You may not be interested in strategy, but strategy is interested in you.” – Leon Trotsky

I think it’s pretty clear that Final Fantasy XIII’s Crystarium System is inspired by the Sphere Grid in Final Fantasy X. If not, here it is: Final Fantasy XIII’s Crystarium System is inspired by the Sphere Grid in Final Fantasy X. It constricts the field considerably in order to avoid overpowered characters for most of the game but the idea of buying stat upgrades and abilities on nodes through accumulated ability points in the absence of traditional level ups is something we’re familiar with by now.

The battle system, on the other hand, owes more to Final Fantasy X-2, which is the James Arnold Taylor fake fake laughter to Final Fantasy X’s slightly less-annoying James Arnold Taylor real fake laughter. Both games feature a focus on rapid role/job switching in mid-battle within a battle field that places some vague, and mostly uncontrollable, importance on positioning and chaining.

Final Fantasy XIII’s battle system is not a mess. It has clear boundaries and definitions, much like Final Fantasy XII’s that will, inevitably, chafe against the received wisdom of what an ATB system should do. Taping the confirm button won’t be enough to get you through a lot of random battles. This is a good thing. The downside is that the lack of job versatility allowed to the player shackles the chance for any real experimentation with the battle system.

Although holding more in common with its controversial sequel, battles in Final Fantasy XIII tend to strive for the sense of scale prevalent in Final Fantasy X.

If we accept that Final Fantasy X and Final Fantasy XIII share some similarities, we can at least arrive at the beginning of some sort of potentially constructive comparisons. It’s not so much that liking the earlier game while loathing its modern counterpart is hypocritical but it helps to demonstrate that even if Final Fantasy X is not universally beloved, neither is it treated as some Eldritch abomination that will drive normal RPG fans mad with the acknowledgment of its existence unlike its comparative partner. Although Final Fantasy could always use some more Lovecraftian references.

If you’ve heard this story before, don’t stop me, because I’d like to hear it again.” – Groucho Marx

The biggest difference between the two games is in their plot. Both have a very tenuous connection to the idea of distrust at a religious governments motivations to some slight pontificating on the cycle of death and life but here’s where Final Fantasy XIII really excels.

I’m trying not to say this in a negative way, but the reaction of the main cast in Final Fantasy X to revelations about Yevon, Sin, the Calm and so on is very JRPG in its nature. Your party kind of staggers for a few moments, someone is going to mutter “no, it can’t be…” under their breath and then 30 seconds later we’re all pumped up again to take down The Man. Fuck you, we won’t do what you tell us! It’s all very cathartic wish fulfillment I’m sure, but as a story that is ostensibly about six main characters and their interactions with a mainly monocultured fundamentalist theocracy it’s pretty lacking. The world is happening around these characters and they can manipulate it but it doesn’t manipulate them beyond pointing the way to the next story scene.

Final Fantasy XIII is different. Its soul-crushing government is tolerated and respected because of the security it ostensibly provides its citizens. The Sanctum’s temporal power does not exist just so as to provide a wall for bouncing concepts off.

The cast of Final Fantasy XIII react to each betrayal in a much more realistic manner. Yes, eventually some semblance of hope is restored because it’s a story but the characters still change. If Snow is chipper and self aggrandising, it’s because deflecting scrutiny of his half-molded personal code through purposeful hyperbole allows him to keep his dismay at bay. He’s not just the chipper character who takes everything in his stride. He can’t be. Snow’s pain, or Vanille’s pain, or Sazh’s pain isn’t there for the “deal with this character’s prerequisite” section of the game. It informs who they are, all the time.

Despite his whimsical design and rare use as a comedic character, Sazh Katzroy is one of the more emotionally developed, well presented black characters in the entirety of video games.

None of them can be the emotionally boisterous yet fundamentally well balanced and honest character archetype that infests JRPGs. Every party member in Final Fantasy XIII suffers from repeated betrayal, shattering their views and their concepts of morality and self. Betrayal from their government, from their pseudo-deities, from their armed forces, from their purported allies, from their fellow citizens and from each other, several times. The characters are still recognisable as the game continues, but the cracks are visible. The cracks in the masks that as human beings we all wear and change dozens of times every day to deal with different people and situations.

That is not to say that Final Fantasy X has no character development. Tidus, for all the knocks he takes, is a very different person at the end of the game than he was at the start. The other party members too go through growth, to varying degrees, albeit in a more traditional RPG manner wherein your party goes to the “Lulu place” and we get her development and next it’s the “Khimari place” and so on.

Final Fantasy XIII is more organic in its character growth. Yes, events happen to each of the characters and they react to them but they also talk in between them. They share information and show personality clashes and views that aren’t there necessarily to be the characters growth point or future Aesop. There are still big events, such as Hope’s return to Palumpolum but it’s different in that it isn’t “The Big Hope Development Segment.” Hope developed before that point and will continue to do so after his homecoming. The same goes for each member of your party. None of their stories is done until the end. When Tidus declares “This is my story.” it also (mostly correctly) implies that the other stories are over.

You can’t just have your characters announce how they feel! That makes me feel angry!” – Robot Devil

While Final Fantasy XIII tries something outside of its own comfort zone as regards narrative structure, it would be foolish to pretend that it accomplishes its goals perfectly. Concepts sometimes are not clearly defined and the facial animations are not yet accomplished enough to portray the kind of deep thought and emotional broadcast Square-Enix obviously wants the game to have.

The shift of this emotional content out of stilted dialogue is a welcome addition, even if vestiges still remain in the infrequent character narration segments. Due to the physical limitations of the characters, however, that content is increasingly shifted to the in-game summary of events. Lightning’s “I’m troubled that my well intentioned words have resulted in a dangerous situation” face is the same as her “contemplating eating a ham sandwich” face. Anger, happiness, sadness are all cromulently displayed but the nuances don’t always travel well and while taking such exposition out of the dialogue does wonders for the flow and naturalism of the script, shifting it into an in-game recap file is a stop-gap solution at best.

While easily rendering less subtle expressions such as rage or fear, true emotional subtlety is just beyond Final Fantasy XIII’s grasp when it comes to its facial models.

The fact still remains that well received or not, objective good or not, Final Fantasy XIII represents a tangible effort by Square-Enix to push the JRPG storytelling medium forward. Perhaps in incremental shifts such as learning Fira rather that some sort of Kefka-esque transformation from the World of Balance to the World of Ruin but it shows that right now, at least, Square-Enix is aware of problems affecting the JRPG market and is willing to leverage its overwhelming clout to shift things.

Final Fantasy XIII’s gameplay is not an abomination, or at least no worse than any other previous game . Its flaws are clear, yet its story provides real spark in a genre seemingly forever content to gnaw at whatever remains of its tail, an Ouroboros ground down to the nub. At this time, with the low prices you can find the game for, it may just be worth a shot if you’ve resisted until now.

New Suikoden a Lot Like Krin: Steals a Lot, Is Annoying But You’re On the Same Side

The so-far Japanese-only Genso Suikoden: Tsumugareshi Hyakunen no Toki (translated as Genso Suikoden: The Game Whose Names Inspires Arguments About Correct Localisation Between Fanboys Who Will Likely All Be Wrong Should This Game Ever Be Officially Localised) is the eleventh unique title in what was once described as Konami’s franchise RPG series. These days, franchise is exactly the correct term seeing as just like any pizza place can get a Domino’s franchise if they don the uniform and put up the sign, any old RPG can get the Suikoden name stapled onto it if it embraces the trappings a little.

If that sounds bitter, it really isn’t meant to be. Rather, it is an attempt to divorce myself and any “classic” Suikoden fans from the idea that a Suikoden game is only as strong as its continuity. That’s simply not what the franchise is about in 2012. This game follows in the footsteps left by 2008’s Suikoden Tierkreis by setting the game in another world that could be considered tied to the rest of the series by the concept of other dimensions, a flavourful bit of background trivia in older games and the basis of the plot for Tierkreis.

So now that we know what this game is not, how about we take a look at what this game is. Lack of inter-game continuity may irk the traditional Suikoden fan but Tierkreis was a fundamentally solid, if uninspiring game. How does Tsumugareshi Hyakunen no Toki stand up to both its ancient ancestors and immediate forbearer? Continue reading New Suikoden a Lot Like Krin: Steals a Lot, Is Annoying But You’re On the Same Side

Eternity Clock Uninspired, Glitchy, Best Doctor Who Game Ever

Doctor Who: The Eternity Clock finally arrives on the PlayStation Network, with later releases planned for the Vita and the PC, after missing its original release date by about a month. Still, that’s OK, the TARDIS often misses its target dates by much larger margins.

Two things need to be said about Doctor Who: The Eternity Clock. First, it is not a very good game. Second, it is the best Doctor Who game ever. If that makes it worth twenty of your preferred currency unit then so be it, you won’t really need a review to tell you what to do. Good for you, mate. Continue reading Eternity Clock Uninspired, Glitchy, Best Doctor Who Game Ever