Thursday, September 29, 2016

Game Review: Suikoden 2 (PS Vita)

Welcome to another edition of Throwback Thursday! Today, I review Suikoden II, a 1998 PS One game about friendship, destiny, and power.

The second entry in the series is an improvement from its predecessor, although once again it’s unclear why a taciturn teenager ascends to military leadership and is repeatedly framed as a nation’s only hope (apart from the obvious appeal to target gamers). As an RPG, it’s certainly certifiable as a classic, with great music, lots of sidequests, customizable parties, and multiple endings.

Combat/Gameplay: 8/10
The combat system is unchanged from the original: players can choose a party of up to six members, dividing them between the front row and the back row. Characters have short-, medium-, or long-range weapons, so players must choose a mix (i.e. no swords-only party!). Certain combinations of characters can perform Unite attacks, which deal variable damage depending on the attack (e.g. 1.5x damage against all enemies or 3x damage against one opponent). Runes equipped on characters allow for offense or healing, and can also be embedded in weapons for status effects (e.g. poison, extra fire damage).

Levels increase by gaining experience through random encounters or boss fights. Characters have only one weapon throughout the game, which can be sharpened up to level 15 for maximum damage. Items, armor, and other miscellany can be bought in town stores, and later on in your very own castle. This is all very standard.

And now, my complaints:
  • The runes are annoying because you need to go to a Runemaster to attach or remove them. So if I get one in a dungeon, I have to wait to use it. And the process isn’t streamlined, either – for instance, if I want to replace a Fire rune with a Thunder rune, I go to the Runemaster, select “Remove,” select the character, select the Fire rune, and then select “Attach,” select the Thunder rune, and then select the character. Much faster if “Attach” automatically removed any rune in a slot. 
  • This game is frustrating for completionists, because instead of enjoying myself I’m frantically checking guides to see if I need to recruit someone else on my 108-must-recruit list or else miss them forever. And then I fall into the internet hole where I’m on a gaming board and someone asks about a hammer, so I click that link and discover another two characters that will be coming up waaaay later in the game…le sigh. It’s my own fault, true. But I will complain about it anyway! (shakes fist) 
  • What’s the point of the castle bath if it won’t heal my characters or lead to funny situations? 
  • WHY IS TEXT INCONSISTENT--NEEDING ME TO PUSH A BUTTON TO CONTINUE DIALOGUE ONE MINUTE, THEN RUSHING THROUGH ENTIRE SPEECHES THE NEXT GRRRR
  • In the war battles, I just let the AI do everything. Pfeh. Waste of time. 

Other than that, gameplay was fun. I especially enjoyed the cooking showdowns, and running around my expanding castle talking to everyone.

Soundtrack: 8/10
Before playing Suikoden II, I listened to the OST on Youtube and was impressed. It’s a vast improvement from Suikoden, much more dramatic and moving. You know it’s a decent OST when you don’t mind hearing the same pieces over and over again or for long stretches of time.

My favorite theme is Vincent and Simone’s – I don’t know the title, but it’s very French and satirical, skewering both weirdos for their pretensions and over-the-top clothing. Cracks me up every time!

Story/Characters: 7/10
Meh. The main protagonist has all the charisma of unbaked dough, the bad guy is a standard-issue “kill-‘em-all” evil villain with no motivation, and the sikrot real villain is only slightly more compelling than day-old pizza. (Real talk: would eat. The pizza, not Jowy.)

As with the first Suikoden, the story is about two big armies fighting each other, but unlike the first game, Suikoden II does start off pretty strongly plot-wise with a betrayal and separation and all sorts of drama. And as your hero fights back and gathers more to his cause, tension spikes up as the villain marches closer and another betrayal occurs. You must fight your best friend omg!

Leknaat, a recurring NPC, appears again to hand out True Runes. “And YOU get a rune! And YOU get a rune! And YOU get a rune!” She’s the Oprah of True Runes. As of this game, players still have no clue what her deal is apart from she has her own True Rune and babbles about destiny. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

As for the 108 Stars of Destiny – let me put it this way: when I finished the game and little tiles popped up telling me what happened to each of them after the war, I was like, “Who is that?” for about half of them. Although it was pretty cool that the characters I recruited who had non-battle roles (e.g. innkeeper, warehouse keeper) dressed up as soldiers to make the enemy retreat at one point. Cool moment there.

Favorite star: Shiro! A white wolf with a blue bandanna tied to his leg who can be equipped to attack twice in one turn! AWOOOOO!

Villain: 7/10
Like I said, the initial bad guy is standard-issue. He just wants to kill everyone and uses rude language too! Boo! Meanwhile, the sikrot real villain is reluctantly thrust into a position where he must fight his best friend. At the end of the day, he acted honorably enough. It’s just that, y’know, he led an army to destroy five major cities because he thought the world wasn’t big enough for his country and its neighbor. So still a tool.

Visuals: 7/10
Suikoden II doesn’t compare to the visuals in some games using the same console (e.g. FFVIII), but its sprites are adorable. I especially enjoyed the animations of the hero shaking salt into a wok during the cooking contests. The character sprite hugs are cute, too. Even highly emotional moments are conveyed well, like when the hero is completely shocked and trembling with rage.

Also, the enemy monster designs are great! Lots of variety!

Bonus category: Grammar
Oh. My. God. Whoever did the localization is a ferocious enemy of the correct use of apostrophe. I recall multiple instances of "it's" used instead of "its." I just can't. 

TL;DR: A step up from the first Suikoden, and an enjoyable RPG in its own right. 

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This post brought to you by hunger! I’m hungry!!!

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Book Review: I Am Malala: the Girl Who Stood Up for Education and was Shot by the Talban (2013)

I Am Malala, by Malala Yousafzai, is a hero's autobiography. Malala is a longtime Pakistani advocate for education, especially girls’ education. Fearful of her efforts and her growing influence worldwide, the Taliban shot her in the head when she was on her way to school. She was 15.

Now 19, Malala continues to work for her heart’s desire: education for every child. In her book, which is mostly chronological, she touches on many broad themes, including:

Home and Identity 

Named after Malalai, “the Joan of Arc” of Pakistan, Malala is put on the path to awesomehood by her father, a determined educator who built schools and was very active in local peace organizations. At every point in his daughter’s life, Ziauddin encouraged her to succeed in her studies, and to take real action to effect change to be of service to the less fortunate. He led her by his example, with every expectation that she would live up to her name. He was so known as a champion for education and progressive values that his family became more and more afraid that the Taliban would target him. Nope, they went for his little girl instead.

Malala loves the valley of Swat, frequently mentioning it and describing it as a paradise on earth. She speaks lovingly of her house’s fruit tree, of the flat roof where adults had tea and the kids played cricket, of the bazaar where her mother bought food and supplies. She also talks about the waters made filthy by human waste, and a mountain of trash that the community’s poorest children pick through for useable scraps. Good and bad, she loves her home – but hasn’t been back since she was airlifted to the UK after the attack.

Malala also explains the many identities assumed by her people: Pashtuns first, Pakistanis or Muslims second, and so on. By laying out these internal complications and conflicting loyalties, she points to possible reasons for the complicity of her fellow Pakistanis in the rise of the Taliban throughout the region.

But there are lighthearted moments, too – like when she describes her fights with her brothers, fantasizing about being a vampire like in Twilight, and chatting with her friend about skin whitening cream (!). She’s a teenager! But, y’know, a Nobel Peace laureate and world-famous activist.

The Rise of Terrorism

Malala illustrates the poverty and ignorance that allows terrorist groups like the Taliban to seed, and the government corruption/weakness and global tensions (particularly anti-US sentiment) that help them flourish. She observes that theirs is a society that shows little respect to the lowest classes, like orphans or manual laborers, and so it these young men who are taken in by radical madrasas and taught a distorted version of Islam.

More specifically, I Am Malala shows how the Taliban grew in her region: one man started a radio broadcast that initially appealed to many in Swat. He called for greater adherence to Islamic teachings, praised individuals by name when they did something “good” (e.g. stopped their daughters from going to school), and collected money from supporters. Then, bit by bit, he escalated his rhetoric and gained enough followers – Talibs – that public beatings and harassment became a practice. They proved to be resilient foes: even the army’s intervention did not completely erase them from the region, as evidenced by the attack on Malala.

Faith 

Malala is strongly religious. Every mention of the prophet Muhammad comes with the acronym PBUH – “peace be upon him.” She has tremendous faith in a gentle, kind god, one who listens to the prayers of children and protects the innocent. She cites the lessons of the Koran as emphasizing education and compassion. Implicitly throughout the book, she is presenting herself, her family, and all others who fight for peace as true Muslims, and the Taliban and their supporters as at best misguided and at worst monsters who are intentionally misusing their shared religion.

They destroy and build nothing new, Malala writes, listing the numerous ancient sites and statues the Taliban detonated in Swat when they were at the height of their power. The Taliban also forbade girls from going to school, the sale or consumption of Western music or movies, and cracked down on petty infractions, like a man’s pants length. Clearly, these are the actions of men without faith. And one reason for that is that many of them are orphans, and were raised in the lessons of jihad. Another reason is the antipathy toward change and Western dominance, which is shared by wealthy Middle East countries, which incidentally also fund radical madrasas. Resentment, anger, and fear are the festering core of the terrorist movement – not faith.

There are more things to praise in I Am Malala, including her absorbing retelling of the events immediately after her shooting – events that were relayed to her afterwards, because she only regained consciousness weeks later. The structure of the book is compelling, beginning with a snapshot of the shooting, and ending with Malala’s musing that she would have answered the gunman’s question – “Who is Malala?” – by identifying herself as Malala, and then telling him that all she wants is education for him, for his children, for all children. And to this day, this is her wish, and because she’s badass, she’s still fighting for it.

TL;DR: An inspiring young woman’s tale of love, education, geopolitics, history, and the bullet that ended her fears instead of her life.

Bonus: Malala’s UN speech at age 16 and her Nobel prize acceptance speech.

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This post brought to you by a light fall shower!

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Summer Reading List

I squeezed in some non-Discworld books this summer, too! Twitter-length reviews below:


Why We Lost: A General’s Inside Account of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars (2014)
Daniel P. Bolger
Great details on combat missions; some analysis on personality, politics, & strategy issues. Author says US lost because forces didn’t stay.

Game Change: Obama and Clinton, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime (2010)
John Heilemann, Mark Halperin
Juicy behind-the-scenes look at the contenders in the 2008 election. Summary: Obama led while Clinton managed, McCain screwed up.

Between the World and Me (2015)
Ta-Nehisi Coates
A heartfelt, often heartbreaking letter from father to son, about his experience being black and recognizing the blinding power of fear.

Science…For Her! (2014)
Megan Amram
Skewers sexism, racism, and other social ills via satirical prose and “fun, flirty” quizzes a la Cosmo. Has whole chapter dedicated to kale.

TL;DR: I recommend all four books pictured above.

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This post brought to you by another cloudy late-summer day!

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

I Have Now Read Every Discworld Novel (Well, Almost)

This summer, my goal was to read all the Discworld novels that I skipped over. The main series has 42 books; I had read 23 so far. My first Discworld book was Witches Abroad (1991), and after that I got my paws on every single story featuring Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, and the other witches up in the mountains. I was also a huge fan of Sam Vimes and the Ankh-Morpork City Watch, so I was fully informed of their fictional exploits up to Sir Terry Pratchett’s death.

So I hadn’t read the one-offs, the Rincewind the wizard stories, and the Death/Susan books. This meant I had to go all the way back to the eighties:

The Colour of Magic (1983)
The Light Fantastic (1986)
Mort (1987)
Sourcery (1988)
Pyramids (1989)

Hot take: All interesting reads, but nowhere near the quality of Pratchett’s later works, where he baked searing social commentary right into the absurd hilarity of the narrative flow. These earliest works certainly explore social themes (e.g. tourism vs. urbanism equality and power, fate, etc.) but the madcap adventures tend to hog the limelight.

So then I moved on to works from the nineties that I missed:

Eric (1990)
Moving Pictures (1990)
Reaper Man (1991)
Small Gods (1992)
Soul Music (1994)
Interesting Times (1994)
Hogfather (1996)
The Last Continent (1998)

By this point, Pratchett really delves into his created universe and the characters inhabiting it.

*Favorite: Hogfather, where Death takes over for the Hogfather (Santa Claus) and his adopted daughter Susan needs to step in.

*Least favorite: Soul Music, which is a commentary on rock ‘n roll, because the main character Imp has no personality. Possibly this points to the music becoming such a phenomenon that the frontman is swallowed by it? Did I miss that?

I now turned to the only two books that I missed from the aughts:

Thief of Time (2001)
Unseen Academicals (2009)

Both are terrific. Thief of Time, which follows the history monk Lu-Tze’s attempt to stop the building of a clock that will trap time, has excellent antagonists that go through their own arcs as the story progresses. Meanwhile, Unseen Academicals is particularly brilliant in its thematic skewerings: bigotry and fear, mob mentality and tribalism, sports and politics, and unlikely attractions. The protagonist in the novel reminds me of Hubby – an unabashed geek, an inspired builder and voracious reader who talks/explains reflexively, sometimes with awkward results.

(Love you, babe! flirtykiss emoji)

Finally, I was ready to tackle Pratchett’s final two works:

Raising Steam (2013)
The Shepherd’s Crown (2015)

Pratchett was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s in 2007. I remember wondering if this degenerative disease affected Snuff (2011), because when I read it, my impression was that it was excessively dense and sometimes repetitive.

However, his last two books proved that Snuff is the one exception, or possibly I sniffed too many permanent markers after entering the real world (thanks to Markers Anonymous for their support! Clean for 8 years!!! Well, maybe a little sniff now and then.).  

Raising Steam, starring Moist von Lipwig, is the perfect Discworld novel: there’s a plucky protagonist, strong supporting players, sinister villains, tense action, and important social themes (progress versus tradition, the exacting nature of engineering, immigration/citizenship, and more). The Shepherd’s Crown, while clearly incomplete (as confirmed by the afterword), is good enough to stand on its own against any of the other fantastic entries in the Discworld series. In many ways, it was the perfect ending for this Discworld fan. In the novel, Granny Weatherwax, foremost among all witches, passes on, and transfers the mantle to Tiffany Aching, a hardworking young prodigy. The inextricability of responsibility, self-confidence and self-care is a major theme here, but of course Pratchett inserts other thought-provoking concepts, such as the man-shed for husbands.

In conclusion: I haven’t read The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, which I understand is a satire of the Pied Piper tale, because reasons. But yeah, I achieved my summer reading goal. Go me!

TL;DR: I read 18 Discworld novels this summer. 

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This post brought to you by rain! FINALLY!

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Game Review: Suikoden (PS Vita)


Welcome to THROWBACK THURSDAY! Today’s topic is Suikoden, an RPG classic originally released for the PlayStation One in 1995. It’s now available for download on the PlayStation Store. Thanks to the success of the first title, there are now five games in the Suikoden main series, plus offshoots for portable consoles.

Suikoden follows Tir McDohl, a general’s son who becomes leader of the anti-emperor Liberation Army despite being, like, twelve.

My review below:

Combat/Gameplay: 9/10
Suikoden 1 has all the features of a classic RPG: an in-town map, dozens of NPCs, treasure chests in highly unlikely locations, a large overworld, and a traditional turn-based battle system. The game can be divided into three sections: 1) Tir becomes leader of the Liberation Army, 2) the Liberation Army growths in strength and influence, and 3) the Liberation Army marches against the final bastions of the empire’s power. The game encourages a linear progression through the storyline, with space for recruitment side quests opening up toward the end of the first section/beginning of the second.

The ultimate goal of the game is to recruit all 108 “Stars of Destiny,” who are basically sprites with character portraits who can be used in battle or perform a function in your castle, such as blacksmithing or selling items. The more Stars you have, the bigger your army, which helps with the army battle sequences. These sequences are a welcome change from the typical monster encounter—they involve a rock-paper-scissors system that requires foreknowledge and strategy. For example, first I send my ninjas or thieves into the opposing forces to suss out their attack plan. If they’re going to charge, I counter with magic. A bow attack will fall to a charge, and magic gets beat by bows.

My only issue here is that there’s no explanation for any of this, so I would have bungled my first battles by knowing nothing had I not checked gaming boards for advice. Same with the one-on-one duels, where you have the choice to attack, defend, or launch a desperate attack. I was always like, “Which one defeats what again?” LOL JUST KIDDING I ALWAYS ATTACK BECAUSE I’M AGGRESSIVE LIKE THAT, JUST ASK MY HUSBAND.

Anyway, on the plus side, moving around the in-game world is fast and easy, especially once you acquire the Holy Crystal (to dash), the Blinking Mirror (to teleport), and the world map. It only took 21 hours to finish this game. In RPGs, anything under 40 hours is wicked short.

Soundtrack: 7/10
There are some nice pieces, like town themes, but overall the soundtrack was pretty underwhelming. I give it a 7 instead of a 6 because of Crystale, a character who lets you change the sound settings. I chose “Animal” for a while, tickled at the meow whenever I confirmed something. That got old fast.

Story/Characters: 8/10
My failure to collect recruit all 108 people is literally the fault of a hardware glitch. See, at one point, I had just defeated one of the Five Generals. My PS Vita then warned me that my battery was low. Since I usually play until the thing dies on me, I went ahead and engaged my defeated foe in conversation, as one does. But for some reason the X button got stuck, so when my entourage asked me if I should execute him, it automatically selected the first option (yes) instead of the second option (no), which my goody-two-shoes nature would have chosen. “No big deal,” I thought at the time, since the game had been giving me false choices up to this point (i.e. my dialogue decisions did not affect gameplay). Only later did I find out that the dude was, in fact, a character who needed to be spared to be recruited and complete the collection and thereby have the glowing satisfaction of achieving the perfect ending. ARRRRRGH.

Am I going to replay the game to get him the next time around? Hah. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

Anyway, I got over 100 folks into my castle, and they all have their own backstories and I'm told I will see some again in the next Suikoden games, so it's all good!

Minus points for Leknaat the Seer advising my character that fate is not set in stone (or something like that), contradicting later statements that Tir was born under the Star of Destiny, ergo destined to lead the Liberation Army to topple the emperor. However, she may have been hinting at the sikrot resurrection of a dead character. Who knows. In any case, it's disappointing that the game is so on rails that Tir never has a chance against fate.

Villain: 9/10
In this aspect, the effectiveness of this game is not how villainous or successful the Big Bad is, but rather how intrigued I am at what happened before, and what happens next. What is the real deal with [REDACTED] and [REDACTED]? Why so sangry (sad and angry)?

Also, the final boss ended up not being a total douche, and the death (I’m assuming) scene is pretty touching. I will always root for villains who are sympathetic and/or successful, and in this, Suikoden gets a thumbs-up from me.

Visuals: 8/10

I mean, I guess the graphics are okay for the time period and the gaming system. There are very impressive flourishes by human-looking sprites, like when they draw swords or hug. It’s cute on the Vita’s little screen. Then again, this was released on the same system that gave the world Final Fantasy VII, so Suikoden can’t compare to that 3D glory.

Overall, good visuals, generic NPC designs, nice character portraits, and the monsters are cool, especially the bigger ones like Sun King. The final boss looked great! roar

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TL;DR: An entertaining classic that creates anticipation for the next installment! Recommended if you’re a JRPG fan!

This post brought to you by Trader Joe’s Cold Brew Coffee Concentrate, which is not delicious when taken black! You have been warned!

Movie Review: Black Panther (2018)