Saturday, December 31, 2016

Game Review: Eiyuu Densetsu: Ao no Kiseki Evolution (PS Vita)

Ao no Kiseki Evolution is a JRPG that adheres to formula: the bland hero, the colorful supporting characters, the weirdly sexual henchman who turns out to be the final boss, the mini-games, the pointless exposition...see Every JRPG Ever for the full and accurate description. Despite that, Ao is a delightful game with a gentle message of friendship and family. It has so much packed into it that it takes a minimum of 40 hours to finish. It took me 80+ hours -- but hey, I was writing a walkthrough while playing! 

Ao no Kiseki Evolution is the sequel to Zero no Kiseki Evolution. Both games are part of the Eiyuu Densetsu (Legend of Heroes) series. Ao follows the members of the Special Support Services (SSS), a small police group that handles odd jobs. The main setting is Crossbell, a small independent state located in the middle of the feuding Erebonia Empire and Calvard Republic.

Below is my feelings-based rating of the game:

Characters: 10/10
Ao primarily has six main characters. Your active party can only have four members, so two must be designated as Support Members. Each character has unique stats, weapons, and sets of skills, and it's fun to swap them around and see what team is most effective. You can also change who leads the team on the field.

Because I love you, here are character portraits with a dose of FAN SERVICE! Ladies first:

Elie, Noel, and Tio

  • Elie is a privileged young woman whose grandfather is a Crossbell State leader, and her uncle's the city mayor. She fights with a gun and is terrible at lying. If you choose her as your partner in the Castle of Mirror, she will wish for...the well-being of her parents, whom she hasn't seen since they separated when she was little. Sad! 
  • Noel is a former officer in the army. She's extremely straight-laced and will actually be a tough mini-boss later in the game. Take her on the roller coaster; she'll have a blast! Literally, she will be blasting things!
  • Tio is 14, so no swimsuit photo! She's the classic kidnapped-and-experimented-on kid, except she's actually become well-adjusted and saves the team's bacon many times with her hacking skills. The Youths, they are our hope.

Next, the men!

Lloyd, Randy, and Lazy

  • Lloyd is the idiot-savant team leader who cluelessly bumbles around until he suddenly drops truth bombs on allies or bad guys alike, based on the evidence you've collected so far. His big brother was killed a few years ago, and his big brother's former girlfriend keeps trying to ship him with everyone, including Lazy. Lloyd is only bland in comparison with the other guys on the team, now that I think about it.
  • Randy is a beefcake ladies' man. But he was also a merciless mercenary in a past life, which he gets upset about whenever it's brought up. In this game, I think the voice actor's mike was turned way down low because I could never hear what Randy's growling about.
  • Lazy describes himself as a "cool beauty" and it's a running joke that he looks like a woman. He used to work as an, ahem, companion and constantly makes inappropriate jokes as well as uncomfortable observations. In short, Lazy is my spirit animal. Also, he's secretly a knight for the church.  

And then there are the NPCs (non-playable characters), and of course I have their swimsuit portraits, my ducklings:

Rixia, Ilya, and Cecil

  • Just kidding, Rixia is actually a regular playable character, but only after she gets super pissed off! She's a trained assassin masquerading as a theater performer. Her main client actually figured out her secret identity by comparing the times she's turned down a job with the theater performance schedule. Try harder, Rixia! 
  • Ilya is the flamboyant and much-loved star of the Arc-en-Ciel theater. In the game, I chose her as the best swimsuit wearer because she is rocking the hell out of that sultry little number. Ilya is why Rixia gets super pissed off and joins the SSS, and I am shipping those two SO HARD.
  • Cecil was Guy's girlfriend before he got shot in the back, and she's since focused her energies on finding a suitable match for little brother Lloyd. She works as a nurse at the local hospital.

There are many, many more NPCs, each with their own backstory, others with secret identities. Basically, Ao rewards you for talking to every single person, be it with an item, a recipe, or just the warm glow of knowing that someone cared enough to invent backstories for little sprites, just for you.

In short, characters are a strength of this game, and I heart them all.

Combat: 9/10
Ao features a turn-based combat system that can be utterly wrecked with attacks called Special Crafts (S Crafts). Your characters have a CP (craft points) bar that fills up when you attack or are hit, and when it reaches 100 or better yet, 200, the character can immediately trigger a devastating attack that usually wipes the field. Naturally, S Crafts come with ostentatious animations (that you can choose to skip) that are freaking hilarious because you have little chibi sprites trying to look badass and looking adorable instead. The fun part about this comes during the tough boss fights, when you have to decide when to deploy and what attack (or shield) to use, lest you be annihilated -- because bosses have S Crafts, too!

You can also choose to avoid enemy encounters, or smack the enemy from behind before engaging in combat for maximum advantage (i.e. all your characters attack first). The "team rush" mechanic has a higher chance of popping up, too -- this is when every single member rushes at the enemies. Then there's "Burst," which is a gauge that shows up in certain locations and when it fills up, Arts (spells) can be cast instantaneously, and the team has attack priority until the bar is depleted again. In short, there are a ton of fun ways to triumph in normal and even boss encounters.

The Orbal system is one of the cruxes of the combat system, and fans of the Legend/Trails series will be familiar with it. Characters equip quartz that grant the use of spells and/or new abilities (like seeing chests on the mini-map) or stat buffs (e.g. speed up). While I barely paid attention to this in the earlier part of the game, toward the end I had everyone armed with Tear (healing) and Seras (resurrection), and had worked out a way for my main caster (Elie) to spam powerful Arts so I could end boss fights quickly. MWAHAHAHAHAHAAAAA~

My only complaint is accidentally running into much weaker foes. See, enemies flee when your team out-levels them. Except for some reason, some run toward you in the process of running away from you, leading to an unnecessary fight. What the--?!

But otherwise, combat in Ao is a great mix of easy against normal enemies and sweat-inducingly difficult when it comes to certain bosses (Arianrhod!!!), so it's pretty great overall!

Gameplay: 9/10
The story has five chapters, divided into days. The story advances by completing the main mission of each day, and you can complete subquests for money and points that improve your rank as an investigator.

Now, I have to confess that I was super annoyed by how trivial some of these subquests were, especially the ones that came with SO MUCH EXPOSITION like the one where the team had to find some guy's long-lost father. But interestingly, the game's world is so small and so rich at the same time that there are a lot of surprise connections -- in the case of this annoying task, the dad is someone the team had previously met on an assignment from City Hall. Plus, you can actually skip all that exposition by pressing "X"! Don't worry, the menu has a journal function that tells you what your next step should be, so skip away!

It's also nice how small Crossbell is, and the developers make it super easy to get from one place to another -- within the city, you can teleport, basically, and outside the city you can drive your car or take the bus. In true JRPG fashion, you get an airship by the final chapter. Woot woot!

Soundtrack: 9/10
The music tracks are bomb and the voice work is outstanding. Since Falcom Sound Team jdk is responsible for the OST, everything sounds like an improvement/variation of all their best work from other games. For example, boss fight themes, "Unfathomed Force" and "The Azure Arbitrator," are reminiscent of the Ys series. For me, the most Ao track is "Truth of the Rainy Day" because it's so recognizable and like, sad, but like, also hopeful?

Story: 9/10
What's terrific about Ao no Kiseki is how so many elements from Zero no Kiseki pay off. The identity of Guy Banning's murderer and KeA's true nature are resolved here. What I thought was particularly genius was how the small daily tasks assigned to the SSS (e.g. finding a lost kitten) made the CMOA (crowning moments of awesome) such a sharp contrast, and therefore all the more awesome. For example, there's a hidden subquest where the team helps Sully practice her dance, which is part of a new major performance at the theater. When Chapter 4 begins, Sully is doing that dance, and I'm like, "Oh, nice, I helped her practice for this!" and then all hell breaks loose. I won't spoil it, but I screeched during this sequence.

And, during the mandatory talking prior to the final battle, all of our annoying running around is rendered noble because the villain wants to recreate the world with none of the dark stuff. The SSS team members passionately defend the sanctity of the small, everyday foibles that help us grow, the mistakes that we need to make so we can learn, and the importance of family and friends. It touched me in the feels.

Villains: 9/10
With villains, the goal is always conquest and/or utter destruction, so they ought to be judged on methods and style. And on that note, I present Ms. Mariabell Crois:
Translation: "Hahaha, very well."

When she's not slinking around in massive shoulder pads and leading with her cleavage, Ms. Crois (if you're nasty!) is president of IBC, Crossbell's premier financial institution. I say it's about time a banker did something villainous, amirite? So refreshing and so unlike real life!

While she's the main antagonist in this game, she's not the final boss, because JRPG. However, she was certainly a greater challenge than the actual boss, who, of course, had two forms.

Let me also give a shout out to the mini-bosses: Wald, Sigmund, Shirley, and Arios, all of whom my team hilariously left behind, unconscious in the final dungeon, on the premise that they posed a danger to our airship crew (well, except Arios). Safety first!

And OMG Arianrhod, who was so hard to defeat. She was 20+ levels above my team, for starters, and although the story would've continued even if I'd lost, my honor compelled me to defeat her. And of course, it turns out she's not really that bad, she simply agreed to KeA's request to stop us so we wouldn't be in further danger.

In fact, none of the villains in Ao no Kiseki are truly bad, per se. They're all acting according to their beliefs or upbringing. Each mini-villain is a foil for one of the characters (Randy and Uncle Sigmund, Lazy and Wald, Lloyd and Arios, etc.)

This brings me to my beef with the villains. Mariabell and Elie have a relationship that was established back in Zero no Kiseki, but here, as Mariabell reveals herself to be the scion of a family with centuries-long secret machinations, Elie doesn't get the same spotlight as her teammates. Unfair! And where is her final ultimate weapon, eh? Everyone else got one in the final dungeon!

In short, all the villains are fabulous, worthy adversaries, but the writers shorted one character and I am thus subtracting one point.

Visuals: 9/10
Ao no Kiseki Evolution is actually a port of a PSP game, so the visuals are spectacular for the system. Water and woods are rendered particularly well in the background. Combat animations are fun to watch. There are certain stretches of lovely scenery that automatically get a camera pan, like the waterfalls in Mainz Road or the flower fields of Armorica.

As for the bulk of the graphics, the combination of beautiful character portraits and cute sprites works, especially in scenes like these:
Translation: "W, well, here I go..."
HAHAHAHA!!!

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Overall, Ao no Kiseki boasts endearing characters, enjoyable gameplay and combat, and a charming mix of old-school designs and modern graphics technology. So much love is lavished on every aspect of Crossbell, resulting in overlong sequences of everyday things such as cars driving down roads or rain falling gently on the roofs. It's also a pleasure to see seemingly unconnected events come together, such as impulsively having a conversation with two NPCs and then receiving a call the next day about them going missing.

Assorted musings:

  • GameFAQs published my walkthrough! Click here for a spoilerrific  guide to the game!
  • As a bonus, here is a more complete Japanese walkthrough
  • I squee'd when Sora no Kiseki characters showed up.
  • Title explanation: Zero no Kiseki = Trails of Zero, Ao no Kiseki = Trails of Azure. Both of them are about KeA, who is a homunculus created to house the power of the "Treasure of Zero," which can manipulate the elements of Illusion, Space, and Time. KeA creates/becomes a giant azure tree in preparation for rewriting history.  
  • Now I have to play Trails of Cold Steel!

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TL;DR: Terrific game that will consume SO MUCH OF YOUR TIME. Worth it!

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This post brought to you by New Year's eve! Goodbye, 2016!

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Movie Review: Rogue One (2016)

Rogue One is a fast-paced, sometimes amusing and often dark story of how the rebels got their hands on the Death Star plans. As with any campaign in a protracted war, there are numerous moving parts, goals and priorities shift, and trusting the right person is critical. With so much happening, Rogue One can feel rushed at certain points, but overall it tells its story well. Bonus points to the excellent soundtrack by Michael Giaccino.

Because stunning cinematography and graphics are a given these days, I look to the characters to judge a film's success. A good movie shouldn't need a character being an idiot to drive the plot. *cough*Fantastic Beasts*cough* Plus, let's face it, most of us went into this movie knowing what it's about and how it ends.

Rogue One delivers a solid cast -- Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is a steely, competent lead who is ably supported by an equally determined Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and the terrific duo of the blind Chirrut (Donnie Yen) and well-armed Baze (Wen Jiang). Imperial defector Bodhi (Riz Ahmed) proves his worth to the rebellion to the very end, and the droid K-2SO delivers plenty of one-liners while being exceedingly useful. Meanwhile, the main villain, Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), is appropriately unlikeable and is a legitimate threat, since he's determined to see his superweapon perform to its potential and is backed by the Empire despite the setbacks to the Death Star project. Darth Vader also makes a welcome appearance.

In addition, character reactions are realistic -- for example, in the middle of a firefight, one person doesn't have the luxury of saying a proper goodbye to a long-lost loved one, and instead is rushed to safety. This event marks a turning point in the story, as Jyn pleads her case to the Rebel Alliance and gets a small group of volunteers to infiltrate the Imperial archives base where the plans are stored. This third act was particularly enjoyable in its high tension and well-choreographed action sequences, which had me so fixated that I refused the clarion call of my bladder and stayed firmly in my seat until the bitter, bitter end. While this part of the movie had plenty of last-minute, nigh-impossible saves, the Rogue One team's victory is Pyrrhic.

The ending is particularly wrenching because of Carrie Fisher's recent passing. RIP, Princess Leia. You rocked.

Assorted musings:

  • Grand Moff Tarkin is a distractingly CGI character because Peter Cushing died in 1994. I think they should have recast instead.
  • I thought this was scored by John Williams until I saw the credits. Giacchino is a busy man!
  • It would have been nice to spend a little more time with Jyn, Galen, and Lyra
  • Why is Alicia Vikander the new Lara Croft when Felicity Jones has showed us her goddess-like upper body strength via multiple climbing scenes?
  • Awesome job cutting in the flying scenes from the original! 

so nostalgia
such memory

TL;DR: With all its action, drama, and sacrifice, Rogue One puts the "war" in Star Wars.

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This post brought to you by Blue Ribbon BBQ!

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Paint Nite!

Last night I joined the "Oops" Paint Nite event hosted by the Club Cafe in Back Bay. About 12+ people came to relax and have two artists guide them through painting this original work:


The point was not to slavishly duplicate "Oops" -- we were instructed to make it our own, to relax, and not to utter the words, "Mine sucks," "Can you do this for me?" or "I thought this was paint-by-numbers!"

Speaking of dashed hopes, I had assumed that wine was included. I had done something like this before, only it was in the morning and we all got mimosas. Not so here! While the artists were setting up, I schlepped over to the bar and was rewarded with a generous pour of Cabernet. Now I was ready.

The setup: Everyone got a 16" x 20" canvas, three paint brushes, and a palette (a paper plate) with red, yellow, blue, and white paint. One artist (Brian) had the microphone and would paint with us, while the other was the assistant (Kory) who would patrol the room and offer guidance.

Pre-painting tips: 
  • Use water to keep the paint creamy
  • Allocate space well on the palette for mixing 
  • Use the lighter color first when mixing
  • Streaks are good
The structure: Brian would explain how to paint a section, and blast awesome music while we went at it. 

Phase 1: To make the background, we mixed white and blue and streaked away. The light source was meant to come from the upper left, so we had to go lighter in that area. If the background got too dark, we could add white to the canvas to lighten it up.

Phase 2: For the ground, we made purple by combining red and blue. Since there would be a tree between the ground and the light source, the right side would be darker.

Intermission: Since the event was supposed to take two hours, we got a break about halfway through. Below is an actual conversation I had with a man peering into the event space:

Him: What's going on in there?
Me: Paint Nite!
Him: What do you do on Paint Nite?
Me: (oblivious) We paint!
My friend M: Did he just ask you what happens on Paint Nite?
Me: (realization dawning) Oh, yeah. That was kinda dumb, wasn't it.

Phase 3: Time for the tree! We mixed white, yellow, and blue to make an intermediate green shade as the base. Then we went for darker on the left side. Finally, a bit of yellow to lighten the right side. The unfinished work below gave me Chewbacca vibes:


Phase 4: Decorate the tree! Here, I chose to honor Sheba's memory by having her be the star. We also made round ornaments colored red, yellow, and orange.

Phase 5: The painting's subject is supposed to be a dog, but since we were to make "Oops" our own, I painted my little peanut instead. When I asked Kory how to make black, she gave me black paint. Ask and ye shall receive!

Phase 6: The pièce de résistance: the cord wrapped around the tree and the seated observer. I used my black paint for this one. Since apparently old-school artists signed their work using the last color they painted with, I signed in black under my spawn's derrière.

Here is the finished product:


Brian ended the night with a call to action: be kind in the face of all the anger and hate floating around out there.

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The next morning, I asked Junior where he was in the painting, and he said, "Right there!" And then he flipped it over onto the floor and announced, "I'm going to hammer it!"

Toddlers, amirite?

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TL;DR: I went to a Paint Nite and painted a thing.

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This post brought to you by winter sniffles! Poor Junior is miserable.

Movie Review: Black Panther (2018)