Okcate’s Out and About: The Circle + Calaveras = A Fine Pairing

Today, as I write this entry, my tummy is full and happy. It is full of delicious Mexican food from Calaveras Mexican Grill, a new restaurant that lies in the heart of the Kendall-Whittier district of Tulsa. This area of town has seen much renovation and development over the past few years—changes that have been nothing but beneficial to our community ‘round these parts.

Out in front and leading the charge, and adjacent to Calaveras, is the historic Circle CinemaAs I have mentioned before, I moved to Tulsa nearly ten years ago. At that time, The Circle, as us locals call it, was undergoing a new wave of renovation, one that I have been lucky to witness as it has expanded and brought in new theaters and screens.

It’s mission, “to foster understanding and appreciation of the diversity of the human experience, and create community among the viewers in the restored historic Circle Cinema”, is being realized as it grows with an ever-improving Tulsa.

Through its community events and involvement in the growth of the Kendall-Whittier area, it enhances the culture in this part of town. It hosts everything from movie events around social justice and activism, to workshops for young filmmakers, to the annual Academy Awards live broadcast event.

Which brings me to my happy and filled tummy. Okay, so maybe I didn’t eat this much, but here’s a visual of some of the goodness…

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With a business card like that, how can you go wrong?

My sister’s and my birthdays fall thirteen days apart in the shortest month of the year. It’s hard to celebrate her day with friends and family, my day with friends and family, and still manage to do something with just each other for some bonding time.

This squeeze usually results in many mini-celebrations with different folks throughout the month. There’s also our dad’s birthday, and those of a few cousins and friends, as well. If you see me out and about in February, it’s usually because someone I care about is getting older.

So, for our joint celebration this year, Tallulah (yep, her name is all kinds of unique too) and I decided on a girls’ night out at the Circle Cinema’s OSCAR® Experience. For just $15 ($10 for members), you could have access to the event, light eats, a cash bar, and a night of award show excitement.

Enter Calaveras Mexican Grill.

Now, usually, when I hear the phrase light eats, I don’t generally get all kinds of excited about it. However, the light eats they promised that night were so very tasty! And better yet, they didn’t leave you feeling heavy—but they were substantial enough to keep the hangry away during the three-hour-plus event that was filled with all the award excitement you would expect. Like opportunities for red carpet arrival pics, giveaways, and meeting your favorite (cardboard) celebrity…

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What a guy!

Attendees were encouraged to put their fanciest foot forward, and Tallulah and I love old-Hollywood glamour. She went all out, and I helped her get ready for the night by doing her makeup and hair. We even completed her look with a vintage fur I’d inherited from a friend of mine. 

I, however, had been up since 6:30am that morning and had been at work until noon. And as much as I love dressing up as much as the next lady, I was not feeling it much that night. Plus, the temperatures had dropped steadily throughout the day. Donning a dress was not my idea of staying warm and toasty—hence the casual look to my photo above. Still, I pulled on my best pink sweater and a nice pair of jeans (to my credit, I did put on lipstick and sparkly earrings) and happily played assistant to Ms. Silver Screen.

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Pictured above: My college degree at work, folks.

A fun time was had all around (shout out to the fabulous host Kristin Dickerson of KTUL), and best of all, the proceeds went to The Circle! And like I said, the food was phenomenal. I love that the two businesses partnered up for the event, in true community fashion.

So, this weekend, when the time came to pick a place for a birthday lunch with my in-laws today, I recalled that certain deliciousness I had experienced last week and chose Calaveras. You know, just to make sure I liked it. One can never be too careful when researching a good restaurant, you know.

Apparently, I chose wisely. The place was a hit with everyone. The menu is extensive, featuring a wide array of vegetarian and meat dishes. I chose the wet burrito (so filling and full of distinct flavors!), and my husband, who rates Mexican food restaurants on his personal tamale scale, said they were some of the best he’s had. And when I ate a slice of chocolate mousse pie for dessert (because, birthday lunch), I thought I may have heard angels singing, just a little bit. It’s flavors were complex, and though it was decidedly rich, it was not overwhelmingly sweet.

Bonus! The atmosphere is fun and artistic. The walls and ceiling feature artwork, much of it centering around sugar skulls and dancing skeletons—I really dig the look of the Dia de los Muertos decor in this space.

All in all, to make a long post short, the next time you want to support the artistic and socially relevant aspects of movie-making, check out the Circle Cinema. And because being a patron of the arts is hard work, get you some tastiness next door at Calaveras Mexican Grill. As a certain movie star might say, “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful (and delicious) friendship.”

Okcate’s Out and About: The Mark Gibson Duo at The Fur Shop

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I’m no career musician; I’m no professional singer. But I have been listening to all kinds of music since I can remember, and I do know what exceptional talent and hard work looks and sounds like.

It looks like The Mark Gibson Duo. It sounds like Mark Gibson and Ryan Magnani playing their hearts and souls out for nearly three hours (taking only one break) at The Fur Shop, which featured a newly rearranged upstairs.

Or anywhere else, that is.

I’ve watched them perform a handful of times over the past year and a half, but as of late, I’ve been able to see them on a more regular basis. And I will tell you this; when they play, worlds collide, galaxies form, and solar systems are born. Okay, that’s maybe a bit hyperbolic, but only a bit. Each performance is new, inspiring, and fresh, and I could easily go to every one of their sets, but then I would be a creeper, so I’ll just stick to every other time… right???

Now, I have seen Gibson perform solo, and man, that guy will take you places with his vocals and guitar skills; I honestly could listen to him for hours. In a totally “I’m literally here for the music because I love live music and don’t want to be a groupie” kind of way.

When these two musicians come together, like they did last night, this experience is only amplified. If there is a zone that is solely made up of acute rhythms, moving, groovy bass lines, intricate, rocking melodies, and soaring, passionate vocals, they were there. And they were in it. And they shared this zone with the audience. And it was awesome.

Well, that’s all well and good, you might say, but why were they awesome? Well, I’m glad you asked. I will break it down for you, right now.

1) Mark Gibson’s vocals: This man has one of the best voices in quality and range I have ever witnessed. To put it in theatre terms (acting training and all that) Mark Gibson sings with the immediacy and all encompassing depth of your best Shakespearean actor. Mark Gibson Billy-Shakes. This. Stuff. Up.

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He was on the breath, he was on the meaning; he let the lyrics and melodies flow through his entire being until the only thing to do with them was to let them escape, fully realized, out of his mouth. To those who do not have a background in Shakespeare—he was so amazingly good! Go see him; let me know how it goes.

 

2) Mark Gibson’s guitar skills: This man can take an acoustic guitar to new heights. He not only worked the strings like a person who was born with a six-string in his hand (and he’s only been playing since high school which makes his skills even more awe-inspiring), but he also knows his tech.

He balanced the audio in the room like no one’s business—you know, so you could actually hear the notes. Now, I say he because, like I said before, I’ve seen him play solo, and his awareness of the space he plays in is never in question. But, no doubt, Magnani deserves just as much credit for this balance as well.

Speaking of Ryan…

3) Ryan’s Magnani’s four extremities: A bass guitar in both hands, a tambourine strapped to his right foot, and a kick drum worked by his left. If the guy put a harmonica in his mouth, he could roll down the street in his own one man band.

You know how some people can play multiple instruments? Well apparently multiple instruments wasn’t enough for Ryan. He had to learn how to play them—all at once.

And he kills it. I’m telling you, the layering of these fellas’ music is incredible. Incredible. You hear it all. You get the the rhythms, the bass line, the melody, the vocals, and you get the words! Mark Gibson is intelligible when he sings! Oh my, I thought they didn’t make them like that anymore.

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4) They looked so happy to be there: They were feeling the music; they were sharing it with the audience, sharing it with each other; they had fun, and they supported each other on stage. There was no sense of upstaging or competition, just the music working as they rolled out song after song—exciting originals and superb covers. And as a bonus for the evening, near the end of the set, Ryan and Mark led the audience in song, wishing Ryan’s mom (who was in attendance) Happy Birthday! Also, they totally welcomed dancing at this set, which I was happy about.

Confession: I dance in public… Oh, the struggle is real.

Well, that’s about it. Follow them, go to their events… I hear tell of a trio, which I will definitely have to see. Download Mark Gibson’s debut album, Beautifully Deconstructedit features a more mellow sound than what The Duo had going on last night, but nonetheless, it is very well done. Support makes the new albums happen (there’s one coming out this year!).

Thanks to The Fur Shop for hosting a stellar night of music, and thanks to The Mark Gibson Duo for helping my friends and I celebrate my soon to be 30th birthday. It’s actually the 26th, the same as Johnny Cash’s, which made the “Ring of Fire” cover they rocked all the more awesome for me.

Can’t Stop the Signal

North Korea is scared of these guys, apparently.

North Korea is scared of these guys, apparently.

Recently, I sat down with some friends to watch The Interview, now that it’s made its debut on Netflix. It was surprisingly funny and much better than I had expected, and a great time was had by all, but I’m actually not writing this to review the film. The next day, reflecting on the experience, I realized that, if it hadn’t been for the cyberattack on Sony Pictures and the threats and controversy surrounding the film’s release, there’s an excellent chance I never would have heard of The Interview, much less watched it.

The Interview had virtually no buzz or advertising that I was aware of leading up to its release. If it hadn’t been for the controversy and outrage surrounding the suppression of the film, I almost certainly would have remained blissfully unaware, and I’m pretty sure that the vast majority of people who have now seen the film are in the same boat.

The film’s meteoric rise into public awareness was so impressive, I’d almost be tempted to accuse Sony of faking the hack to generate publicity, if the leaked documents didn’t serve to make Sony look so terrible.

The attack, allegedly perpetrated by North Korean agents (“allegedly” only because there isn’t ironclad proof that they did it, but really, who do they think they’re kidding?) was purportedly done to prevent The Interview’s release, and initially it looked like they had been successful in that goal. Sony caved and cancelled the film’s theatrical release, to the disbelief of just about everyone. For lack of a better expression, it looked like the terrorists had won.

But they didn’t. The outrage to Sony’s surrender was so palpable that on December 23rd, Sony caved again and released The Interview digitally. And the film went on to become Sony’s most successful digital release to date.

Ultimately, more people have seen The Interview than likely would have if these hackers did nothing at all, and North Korea, far from being seen as a world power to be feared, is being ridiculed for its Supreme Leader’s inability to take a damn joke. If the hackers’ goal was to prevent people from seeing Seth Rogen and James Franco besmirch the glorious name of Kim Jong Un, it’s hard to see how they could have failed much harder than they have.

Less than a month later, terrorists attacked the offices of satirical French newspaper Charlie Hebdo, wounding 11 and killing 11 more, in retaliation for its irreverent depictions of the Prophet Mohammad.

While I’m not about to compare Sony having embarrassing e-mails and early script drafts leaked to the deaths of 11 innocent civilians, again we have a group using brute force to silence comedians whose message they don’t like. And in the Charlie Hebdo case, the outcome is nearly identical.

Far from being cowed, the staff of Charlie Hebdo defiantly, triumphantly, returned to work, and their next issue sold seven million copies in six languages. People who had never even heard of Charlie Hebdo before (which I’m guessing is the majority of the non-French-speaking world) were buying copies.

The newspaper had become a household name world-wide. And far from being praised by fundamentalist Muslims for their actions, the attackers were condemned by the Ayatollah Khatami himself. Again, I’m pretty sure that’s about as far from success as these terrorists could get.

Time and again throughout human history, thugs who lack the wit or intelligence to retort when they’ve been mocked try to crush their detractors through force. And time and again, they have failed. Because their methods not only failed to refute what their detractors were saying, they became proof positive that everything that had been said about them was true.

It’s a lesson these particular thugs might have learned, if they had watched The Interview.

Fashionably Late: Bayonetta

Bayonetta 1

Technically, reviewing this game is almost a cheat on my part, since I’ve actually beaten Bayonetta before. Well, I’ve beaten one version of the game before; namely, the PS3 version.

Some of you just spontaneously groaned and facepalmed on reading that sentence. For the rest of you, a bit of explanation is in order.

You see, at the start of the 7th console generation, Sony bragged that the PS3’s Cell processor made it the most powerful console on the market. And on paper, this was true; the Cell was a beastly chip at the time it was released, and Sony achieved some impressive results with it in their first-party titles.

However, harnessing the Cell’s potential took a lot of time, effort, and coding wizardry, and on top of that, Sony’s documentation for the processor was apparently both badly translated and massive. By comparison, the Xbox 360’s Xenon processor, while ostensibly less powerful, was much easier to fully utilize.

Xenon was a pretty typical PowerPC chip, an architecture most developers were familiar with by that point. This meant that not only was the Xbox 360 easier to program for, it meant that programming for the PS3 and fully utilizing the Cell meant practically reprogramming the game from scratch, or the next best thing.

Third party developers releasing multi-platform titles had a decision to make. They could effectively build two completely different versions of the same game, using two different teams, when building one version that already cost millions of dollars. Or they could build their game for the Xbox 360 and brute-force code the game to run on the PS3 with minor modifications, albeit looking and performing noticeably worse than its 360 counterpart.

Another factor to be taken into account was that there were more 360s in peoples’ homes for most of the 7th generation than there were PS3s.

So guess which option third-party developers and publishers chose?

No worries. It's not like we paid a lot of money for the system or anything.

No worries. It’s not like we paid a lot of money for the system or anything.

Yep, brute force coding…

Platinum Games didn’t even work on the PS3 version. That was handled by a B-team at the game’s publisher, Sega, who had never worked on a PS3 game before. Even before the PS3 version released, it was apparently clear that there were problems since Sega requested (and received) staff from Sony to help finish the port.

The resulting port was a mess, with frame rates that frequently dropped well below 30 fps (I’ll explain why this is such an issue later), worse textures, even more screen-tearing than the 360 version (which has plenty to go around), and horrendous load times due to the PS3’s sluggish Blu-ray drive. This issue was resolved with a patch that installed large portions of the game to the PS3’s hard drive, an exploit that a lot of PS3 titles used to get load times under control. And because I only owned a PS3 when the game came out, this was the version I got.

In spite of all the technical issues, Bayonetta’s quality shined through, and it quickly became one of my favorite titles of the last generation. So, when the long-delayed, recently-resurrected sequel was released on the Wii U, along with a port of the original that promised to be the definitive version of the game, I jumped at the chance to play Bayonetta the way it was meant to be experienced. And I was not disappointed.

Bayonetta is a third-person action brawler developed by Platinum Games. Platinum, made up mostly of refugees from Clover Studio after Capcom bought them up and subsequently shut them down, have since made a name for themselves releasing frequently violent, over-the-top stylized action titles, not unlike Grasshopper Manufacture. And Bayonetta played a big part in cementing that reputation.

Oh, and like the last game I reviewed, Bayonetta is an M-rated title that makes the most of its rating. So, you know, be warned.

Groovy.

Groovy.

Bayonetta is, appropriately enough, about Bayonetta, a witch who is a survivor of a long-extinct clan called the Umbra. Bayonetta was sealed in a coffin, sunk at the bottom of a lake, and awoke prior to the events of the game with barely any memory of her past. All she remembers is that she’s a witch, she needs to kill angels on a regular basis to satisfy the various demons she has contracts with, and the secrets to her past involve a pair of gems called the Eyes of the World.

When one of her business contacts, a Mafia stooge named Enzo, gives her a tip that one of the Eyes is located in the isolationist, theocratic city of Vigrid, Bayonetta travels there in search of the truth, leaving a trail of maimed angels in her wake. Along the way, she must contend with Jeanne, another witch with ties to Bayonetta’s past; Luka, a journalist who blames Bayonetta for the murder of his father; and a little girl named Cereza who claims to be Bayonetta’s daughter.

Bayonetta’s world revolves around a Trinity of Realities–the Human World, our world; Paradiso, realm of the angels; and Inferno, realm of the demons. In between lies Purgatorio, a sort of parallel dimension to the Human World where the denizens of the three realities can mingle if they have the magic to do so.

Ages ago, two clans of magic-users oversaw the Trinity and maintained balance among the worlds; the Lumen Sages, aligned with the Light and the angels; and the Umbra Witches, aligned with the Dark and the demons. However, war broke out between the two sides and the Umbra were driven almost to extinction by witch hunts, orchestrated behind the scenes by the Sages, leaving Bayonetta as one of the few surviving Umbra.

If this description makes the game sound over-wrought and melodramatic, it’s really not. From start to finish, Bayonetta has its tongue planted firmly in its cheek, with hilariously over-the-top moments throughout the game, a wicked sense of humor and more references to other games than I can count. Hell, the game quite literally opens on one of the minor characters pissing on a gravestone bearing the name of the director, Hideki Kamiya. If that doesn’t tell you how seriously Bayonetta takes itself, I don’t know what will.

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Thought I was kidding? You should really know better by now.

That’s not to say the game is shallow; while the prospect of a game where a demonically-aligned witch butchers angels may sound like a high school goth’s fantasy, it’s actually a bit more complicated than that. Thematically, Bayonetta makes it clear that Light isn’t necessarily the same as good, and Darkness isn’t necessarily evil.

The angels of Bayonetta aren’t the beautiful creatures of Renaissance art; they’re much closer to how angels are actually described in the Bible: monstrous, inhuman creatures that look like something out of a nightmare. They come in a variety of forms, from eagle-headed winged humanoids to gryphon-like beasts to flaming wheels and cherub-faced giants. And they’re as prone to cruelty and violence as they are to benevolence; in short, they’re not creatures that you’ll feel bad for beating up, but rather monsters wearing a guise of holiness. Given the dark turns religion has taken throughout history, even modern history, I think that’s an idea that’s eminently relatable for most people.

Funny enough, for such a potentially controversial theme, the nature of Bayonetta and her antagonists hasn’t really drawn any controversy that I’m aware of. Rather, there’s another elephant in the room that I should probably address before continuing with the review–the game’s extremely overt sexuality.

Bayonetta is represented as an openly sexual character; she’s got a very dominatrix-like personality, using sexuality as a lure and a weapon, and gleefully tormenting and torturing her enemies in combat. She wears a skin-tight bodysuit which is made of her hair, the same hair she uses as a magical medium to summon demons from Inferno to attack her enemies. As a result, Bayonetta becomes partially or fully nude as she summons these attacks, though the more “explicit” regions of her anatomy are always obscured through camera tricks and carefully-placed swirls of spiraling hair.

Like so.

Like so.

This overt sexuality may make some players uncomfortable, and I can understand that. I think it’s important to be aware of this aspect of the game going in, and I’m not going to call anybody a prude for refusing to play it on those grounds. But what does bug me some is the controversy that’s come to surround the game and the character in recent years, namely the accusations that the game is exploitative and anti-feminist, and that Bayonetta is objectified.

This debate is interesting to me, because I don’t remember hearing much of this talk five years ago when Bayonetta was originally released, but it seemed to swirl around quite a bit with the recent release of the new edition and Bayonetta 2.

My personal theory is that ideas of feminism and sexual exploitation and objectification in games have come much more to the forefront of our minds. Recent ugly incidents like the #GamerGate affair and harassment of female game developers, feminists, and critics like Anita Sarkeesian have brought the issue more to the fore. People are now talking about these ideas with regard to gaming much more than they were before.

And don’t misunderstand me, I think that’s a very good thing. I think video games as a medium and the games industry both have serious, deep-seated issues with women and female characters that need to be addressed if we’re ever going to go forward as a medium, an industry and a fandom.

However, I do think that the sudden surge of reflection, introspection and examination has prompted overreaction on the part of a number of people. Rather than examining how a game portrays its female characters from a sexual standpoint, they take the position that any confluence of female characters and sexuality is a bad thing, and that’s simply not the case.

Female characters are sexually exploited and objectified when they are portrayed in a sexual manner that has nothing to do with who they are as characters. These are the characters whose sexuality is never addressed, but nevertheless are running around a battlefield in outfits that would make a stripper blush, or who pose provocatively apropos of nothing, or whose anatomy the camera visually fondles completely out of context with anything else that’s going on.

Like so.

Like so.

Bayonetta, on the other hand, is open, aware, and in charge of her sexuality. Any time she’s on display, fires off an innuendo-laden quip, or gets naked, it’s entirely of her own volition. She makes it clear that this is the case, and she’s clearly enjoying herself.

In short, Bayonetta is empowered by her sexuality as she’s portrayed in the games, not reduced by it, and is in fact elevated above other characters by it, including every single male character in the game. Nor is her sexuality her only character trait, or even her defining character trait. And her design, which has often been mistakenly identified as a male fantasy, was in fact created by a woman.

In short, Bayonetta is a female empowerment fantasy. I’m not saying that the solution to poor representation of women in video games is to make every character like Bayonetta  (that presents problems of its own), but she certainly isn’t an anti-feminist character.

In fact, I’m of the opinion that she’s one of the most pro-feminist characters in gaming to date, and the game is one of the few I’ve ever played that passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors. Now, whether you’re comfortable with the sexual focus of the game is another matter, but accusing it of being anti-feminist is just plain inaccurate.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s talk a bit more about the game itself.

Bayonetta, as I’ve mentioned, is an action brawler, so the gameplay revolves primarily around melee combat with groups of enemies. Each level in the game consists of a series of encounters with foes who must be defeated to advance. This could result in a very dull game if handled incorrectly, but Bayonetta’s combat gameplay is complex, rewarding, and punctuated by moments of sheer, awesome insanity.

Bayonetta has three primary means of fighting her enemies; punches, kicks, and guns. She can string chains of punches and kicks together to create combos, which not only do more damage than individual attacks, but also stagger enemies and keep them from recovering in between blows (though tougher enemies are much harder to stun). These combos can also culminate in Wicked Weaves, attacks where Bayonetta will conjure demonic fists, kicks and weapons to smash her foes for huge amounts of damage (and which result in the aforementioned partial nudity).

Of course demons wear stilettos. Why wouldn't they?

Of course demons wear stilettos. Why wouldn’t they?

By default, Bayonetta is armed with her bare hands and feet, as well as four pistols called the Scarborough Fair. She wields a gun in either hand, and two guns strapped to each shoe, which enables her to extend any punch or kick by holding down the attack button, resulting in a burst of gunfire (no idea how she pulls the trigger on a pistol strapped to a high heel, though). As the game progresses, Bayonetta can also recover Golden Angelic Hymn LPs, which she can trade with the game’s shopkeeper, Rodin, for a variety of new weapons, ranging from the fairly ordinary (katanas, whips and shotguns) to the downright bizarre (magical ice skates and grenade launcher tonfas).

These weapons, when equipped, will alter the properties of Bayonetta’s attacks in a number of ways, but most of her combos and the dynamics of extending attacks will remain the same. And whatever weapon she has equipped, Bayonetta can always shoot at her opponents with the press of a button; gunfire doesn’t do much damage on its own, but it’s great for extending combos and hitting foes that are just slightly out of reach until you can close the distance with them.

On the defensive, Bayonetta has a lot of movement options; she can lock the camera onto a foe and guard against their attacks, she can run around the battlefield freely, she can jump and double-jump to evade or follow an opponent into the air to continue an attack. But her single best defensive strategy, and probably the core defining mechanic of Bayonetta, is her ability to dodge.

With the press of a button, Bayonetta will somersault out of the way of an enemy attack, avoiding damage. It’s not difficult to dodge most attacks, but the real trick is waiting to dodge until the last possible instant before Bayonetta is hit by an attack. If you can manage that, Bayonetta will enter a state called Witch Time, where her enemies are either stopped in their tracks entirely or dramatically slowed down for several seconds. The opening provided by Witch Time allows Bayonetta to deliver some truly punishing combos to her helpless foes, and a feature called Dodge Offset allows Bayonetta to continue a combo she started prior to a successful dodge, enabling her to dish out even more pain.

Bayonetta, being a witch, also has other magical powers at her disposal. As she attacks her foes, her magic gauge will fill with power. Once full, Bayonetta can execute a Torture Attack on her opponents, an unblockable attack that will either kill an enemy outright, or deal massive damage to it. These Torture Attacks involve Bayonetta conjuring some sort of instrument of torture out of the blue and using it to savagely maim her foes, from Iron Maidens to guillotines to serrated pommel horses, and the attack animations include a mini-game that asks the player to hit a button as quickly as possible, awarding them with a bonus of Halos, the game’s currency, for a good performance.

This angel's about to have a very bad day. And several new holes.

This angel’s about to have a very bad day. And several new holes.

There are other uses for accumulated magic, mainly in the form of effects granted by magical talismans available for purchase from Rodin, but these items cost so many Halos it’s unlikely a player will be able to access them on their first playthrough of the game. Also, just as Bayonetta’s magic meter grows by hitting enemies, it depletes whenever she takes damage. Combined with the Witch Time mechanic, this results in a game that greatly rewards players for avoiding damage, and punishes them severely for getting hit, even beyond the risk of death (despite being a pretty tough lady, Bayonetta can’t actually take that many hits before it’s Game Over). Thus, having the game run at a high framerate isn’t merely a cosmetic concern, it’s a major factor in how well the game plays.

The rest of the gameplay mostly consists of moving from the stage of one enemy encounter to the next, but that’s not to say it’s filler. There are often branching paths and hidden areas in the environments that conceal items, upgrades and challenge rooms called “Alfheims,” where the player must defeat enemies under certain conditions (i.e., within a time limit, using only a certain number of punches or kicks, taking no damage) to win a prize.

The path is also sometimes obstructed by a platforming segment, or a basic puzzle that needs to be solved (such as assembling the pieces of a key to open a door, or using Witch Time to move through a gate before it closes), but the bread and butter of Bayonetta is the combat, and that’s as it should be. There are a few other level types to break up the variety, including a motorcycle chase with the theme from Afterburner in the background (why they didn’t use music from Outrun or Hang-On is beyond me), and a flying shooter level that’s one giant homage to Space Harrier. For the most part, however, Bayonetta sticks to what it’s good at; fast-paced, brutal combat.

On the subject of items, in addition to equipment, there are a number of consumable items that Bayonetta can acquire in her quest, either by finding them in the environment, purchasing them from Rodin, making them by combining Concoction ingredients (also found in the environment), or winning them in the shooting gallery-style “Angel Attack” mini-game that occurs after each level. These items can heal Bayonetta, restore her Magic,  temporarily boost her attack power, make her momentarily invincible, resurrect her from death, or deal damage to enemies. There are also permanent health and magic upgrades in the form of Witch Hearts and Moon Pearls, which can either be bought whole from Rodin, or assembled from pieces found in the environment or won in the Alfheims.

The game grades players on their performance, awarding them a medal after each encounter, ranging from Bronze to Platinum or Pure Platinum depending on how much damage they took, how many combos they performed, and how long the battle took. Each level is also given a grade, based on the player’s performance in each encounter, as well as how many times they died and were forced to continue, and how many items they used (each consumable item is worth half a death); the player’s overall grade drops one whole level per death, which not only affects the award they get, but also the bonus in Halos that is paid out at the end of the level, so if you’re a player wanting to unlock those expensive items in Rodin’s shop, you’ll have to learn the game’s mechanics inside and out to get those high scores.

You want statues like these, you gotta work for them.

You want statues like this, you gotta work for ’em.

The normal levels are also punctuated by levels consisting of boss fights with massive angels, the Cardinal Virtues. These battles are massive, multi-stage fights that will put a player’s skills to the test and featuring some spectacular moves and finishes that would put God of War to shame. Though ironically, these boss fights are often very easy to get good scores on, since much of the challenge of Bayonetta’s levels comes from running the gauntlet of multiple enemy encounters while avoiding damage. The bosses don’t provide nearly as much of an endurance test, with the exception of some of the later battles, which can be absolutely grueling.

On the subject of Bayonetta’s spectacle, many of the coolest things in the game happen in cutscenes and usually involve Bayonetta absolutely wrecking an enemy in some completely improbable and hilarious manner–or avoiding certain death with style. Many of these scenes are included as the capstone to a fight with a particularly difficult enemy, where Bayonetta initiates a “Climax” and summons a gigantic demon (one of the instances where she will be fully nude) in a manner that plays out similarly to a Torture Attack writ large (including the button-mashing mini-game).

However, this brings me to one of the few truly annoying parts of the game; the quick-time events. Many cutscenes in Bayonetta feature quick-time events, where the player must press a particular button at a particular time to avoid instant death. Quick-time events have a bad reputation among most gamers as being needlessly frustrating and unfair, and I have to say that, in most cases, Bayonetta’s QTEs fit this description to a T, especially since few of them utilize the controls in the same intuitive fashion as the rest of the game.

To the game’s credit, if you fail a QTE and die, the game will let you continue right before the event happens, so you can try as many times as you need to pass it. Unfortunately, the deaths suffered during QTEs count against your score at the end of the level, which is very, very frustrating when you’re trying for a high score, especially when you’ve been doing well at the actual gameplay.

Thankfully, Platinum seems to have learned from player feedback, and though QTEs do show up in subsequent games of theirs, they usually control in the same fashion that such an action would in the main gameplay (i.e., the button to punch punches, the jump button jumps, etc.), but it’s still an issue in this title.

There’s plenty of content to experience here, with several levels of difficulty, and much of the equipment only available to unlock after the first playthrough. If you enjoy Bayonetta, there’s certainly a lot for you to do beyond simply beating the game (which takes roughly 10 hours from start to finish, not counting re-tries from dying), though the challenge of the game might prevent a lot of people from reaching 100% completion.

Expect to see this screen. A lot.

Expect to see this screen. A lot.

Visually, the game is a treat to behold. As I’ve mentioned, the game’s cinematics are absolutely bonkers and perfectly encapsulate the over-the-top aesthetic behind the design. The characters are all well-designed and visually striking, as are the various monsters. The levels are all well laid-out and make for great environments to run around in; with a wide variety of settings ranging from old-world cities, to craggy mountains, to modern skyscrapers and even Heaven, you’ll rarely if ever get that “been there, done that” feeling.

I will say that, in terms of the environments, the game’s color palette is a little muted; funny enough, I never really realized this until playing the sequel, but the world of Bayonetta has a washed-out, sepia feel to it. This just makes the colorful cast and monsters stand out even more, so I’m inclined to think the designers did this on purpose, rather than simply copying the “brown is real” trend of early HD games. Still, it’s one of the biggest things that changed from Bayonetta to Bayonetta 2, so it’s worth pointing out.

The sound design is equally strong and eclectic. The music is an odd mix of J-Pop/Techno, slow jazz and very grandiose orchestral pieces (complete with God Choir) that somehow fits the game’s oddball tone perfectly. The game also has a kind of musical theme going on; Bayonetta’s signature guns are called the Scarborough Fair, after the folk ballad of the same name, and the flowers named in the song’s refrain (each gun being named after one of the four) all have thematic significance to Bayonetta’s character as the story progresses.

Also, the song “Fly Me To The Moon” is a recurring motif, with a J-Pop cover being used in many scenes, Bayonetta herself singing the song at points, and an early recording of the song (sung by Brenda Lee) that plays over the game’s credits. I’m not sure why this song was tapped, other than the fact that it seems to have some pop culture cachet in Japan (it was used as a closing theme for Neon Genesis Evangelion), but it does work rather well here…though if they wanted to use a tune popularized by Sinatra, I can’t believe they missed the opportunity to go with “Witchcraft.”

The sound effects and foley work are spot on, even for the most esoteric things (it can’t be easy to decide what the sound of an angel being crushed and impaled by an Iron Maiden must sound like), and the voice work is spectacular. The game’s cast of characters is fairly small (Bayonetta spends most of the game “between worlds” in Purgatorio, so she doesn’t encounter many people in person), but each one is perfectly cast and each performance makes the character memorable and props up the story, which might be a little weak otherwise.

The stand-out performance is definitely Hellena Taylor as Bayonetta. She carries the game with easy grace and really helps cement Bayonetta as a rounded character. Whether she’s purring a line like the cat that ate the canary, or displaying genuine shock, sadness or anger with surprising understated weight, it’s her show from start to finish and she makes the most of it. Other notables include veteran Grey DeLislie as rival witch Jeanne, Dave Fennoy as Rodin, and Yuri Lowenthal as intrepid journalist/wannabe ladies’ man Luka (in a rare instance of Lowenthal not playing a supremely punchable asshole).

Case in point.

Case in point.

The Wii U version also has a few additional features that weren’t available in the original game, aside from the improved graphics. There’s an optional touch and motion-based control scheme utilizing the Gamepad’s touchscreen and gyroscope for those who want it, but I haven’t yet tried it out, so I can’t speak to its quality.

Additionally, there are several included Nintendo-themed costumes that players can dress Bayonetta up in that alter the game in minor ways; they’re not game-changers, but they’re certainly fun extras. Also there’s an added Japanese language track (kind of an odd choice, given that the English vocal track predates the Japanese), but when the English vocals are this good, why bother?

Bayonetta is easily one of the best action titles released in the last 10 years. If you can get into the game’s over-the-top, graphic sense of style, there’s a great experience to be had, with tons of humor and challenging gameplay.

It’s not difficult to track down a used copy for the PS3 or 360 for relatively cheap (though again, I do not recommend the PS3 version). If you buy the Wii U version, you will get Bayonetta bundled for free with Bayonetta 2, and you can play both games for the price of one. It’s easily one of the best values in retail games right now, so if you have a Wii U (and if you don’t by this point, you should strongly consider it), this is definitely the option to take.

Well, I’ve been playing a lot of modern titles for a while, so I think it’s time I stepped back and went retro for my next review. Let’s go for a demonic trifecta…

Status Update

molemenn88

The rumors of my abduction by the Mole Men have been greatly exaggerated.

I realize it’s been a while since my last update on this blog, so I thought I’d take some time to update you all on things that have been going on and the current status of my various projects.

First, my team and I had our very first panel appearance at a con at the first annual Wizard World Tulsa Comic Con! We had a great turn-out for a first-time group and had a lot of fun waxing philosophical about superhero fiction and talking about the writing and independent publishing process.

Many thanks to Brittany Walloch and all the great staff at Wizard World for working with us and helping to make the panel possible, as well as Nate and Lacey for helping run the panel.

As for the status of upcoming projects, those of you who have been following my Facebook page are probably aware by now that we are planning to release a print version of The Astonishing Bobcat: Hero Worship in the near future. This has proven to be a bit more involved than previously anticipated, as my wife/manager/ombudsman and I have had to start up our own LLC for tax reasons prior to publication.

While this isn’t as complicated as one might fear, it’s definitely time-consuming, especially with my new, more rigid daytime work schedule, so the process is going a bit slower than anticipated. We still plan to have the print edition out in time for Christmas, so for those who have been waiting on a physical copy before taking the plunge, keep checking back here and on my Facebook page for a firm release date.

The next Bobcat adventure is still in progress; my work on writing it has been slowed down over the past few months by adjustments to a new job schedule, preparation for Wizard World and some minor health issues.

Still, the new book is underway, and we plan to release it sometime next year, as well as a new Bobcat short story. Keep an eye on this blog and on the Facebook page for more details, which will be announced as they’re available.

Finally, with regards to Fashionably Late, I know that I teased that Silent Hill 2 would be my next review, but unfortunately, I won’t be reviewing that game next. The simple reason for this is that Silent Hill 2 is an emotionally demanding, stressful game (intentionally, and in a good way), and with everything that’s been going on in my life lately, I simply don’t have much energy to spare on the completion of such a game.

I am continuing to progress and have actually made it further in the game than any previous playthrough attempt yet (I’m about to enter the Otherworld Hospital, for those who are curious), and I will do a write up once I’ve finished it, but for now I’m going to focus on other titles.

I actually have another game lined up already, and it’s one that, thematically at least, is probably a more fitting follow-up to Shadows of the Damned than SH2 would have been, anyway. Keep an eye out for that review in the next week.

Thank you very much for your readership and support, and I wish a Happy Thanksgiving to you and all your loved ones. I’ll see you soon with another update!

Fashionably Late: Shadows of the Damned

SotD 1

Just so you know: Shadows of the Damned marks the first M-rated title I’ve reviewed on Fashionably Late, and it makes the most of that rating. SotD isn’t an “oh, those aliens squirt a little too much blue blood when the space marine shoots them with his assault rifle” kind of “M”–it’s packed full of graphic violence, profanity, disturbing imagery, nudity, sexual humor and lots of alcohol (ab)use. It’s so over-the-top with its adult content that I’m simply not going to be able to describe the game to you without a fair amount (possibly) offensive content, so be warned.

I briefly talked about Suda51 in my last E3 writeup, but I don’t think my brief mention of the man and his work, and that of his studio, Grasshopper Manufacture, quite conveyed the sheer insanity of their catalog of games. Therefore, to properly do them justice, I’ve provided a list of a few of their key games below, along with a brief summary of each one. Please note, all of the descriptions below are accurate, and in no way exaggerated:

  • Killer7: A wheelchair-bound assassin uses his seven split-personalities, including a gangster, a barefoot woman and a luchador, to fight an evil bio-terrorist and his minions on behalf of the U.S. government, all while receiving advice from a man in a red gimp suit suspended from the ceiling who speaks like the adults in a Peanuts cartoon.
  • No More Heroes: A nerd named Travis Touchdown buys a lightsaber off of eBay and fights in a death-match tournament to become the best assassin in the world…when he isn’t shopping for new outfits, training with his ghostly sensei, recovering hidden red balls for a drunk Russian, playing with his kitten, renting VHS tapes to learn wrestling moves, or saving his game by using the toilet.
  • Lollipop Chainsaw: A zombie-hunting cheerleader fights an evil goth mastermind and his army of musically-themed super-zombies with cheerleading moves, a sparkling, rainbow chainsaw and the still-living severed head of her boyfriend, who hangs from her belt like a fanny-pack.
  • Liberation Maiden: The President of Japan (who is a teenage girl) fights an invading empire seeking to plunder Japan’s natural resources from the back of a giant flying robot, all while receiving updates on her approval rating in real-time.

So when I tell you that Shadows of the Damned is about a Mexican demon-hunter named Garcia Hotspur who, aided by a perverted, flying British skull named Johnson (who can transform into guns and motorcycles), travels to Hell, heals his wounds by drinking absinthe and feeds brains to baby-faced door knockers, all to rescue his girlfriend from the Lord of the Underworld (named Fleming), you know that the preceding sentence was not a joke.

Oh so much graphic violence...

Oh so much graphic violence…

SotD kind of feels like a movie Robert Rodriguez might make if he teamed up with Guillermo Del Toro and the two of them spent the pre-production phase playing Super Mario Bros. and dropping mescaline. And comparing the game to an R-rated Mario is neither inaccurate nor a disservice.

The story revolves around the protagonist, the aforementioned Garcia Hotspur (whose middle name may or may not actually be “Fucking”– it’s hard to tell), a Mexican demon hunter who manages to kill so many demons that the Lord of the Underworld, a gargantuan six-eyed demon named Fleming, kidnaps Garcia’s girlfriend Paula and drags her down to hell, where he plans to torture, maim and kill her for all eternity as retribution for Garcia’s interference.

Garcia (who at one point actually does borrow Rodriguez’s “I’m a MexiCAN, not a MexiCAN’T” line) is having none of it, and travels to Hell with his partner, the reformed demon Johnson, as his guide, fighting his way through legions of demons to defeat Fleming and save the woman he loves. The plot seems like a pretty straight-forward retelling of the “knight saves princess from dragon” story, but it’s actually more of a subversion, as the game builds up to a nice and well-earned twist at the end that I won’t spoil for you here. The game’s ending didn’t blow my mind, but it did leave me thinking, “OK, well-played.”

The characters themselves aren’t very fleshed-out, since most of the game’s running time is devoted to Garcia and Johnson’s trek through the underworld. Nevertheless, they certainly are memorable, in large part thanks to some dynamite voice acting and funny writing. Garcia and Johnson’s buddy-cop-esque relationship forms the cornerstone of the game, and it works fantastically.

Step aside, Murtaugh and Riggs!

Step aside, Murtaugh and Riggs!

Garcia is a pretty typical Suda51 protagonist; he’s an awesome, tough, over-the-top and occasionally comical action hero, but is given moments of genuine pathos where the fate of Paula is concerned. He’s helped a lot by an excellent vocal performance from Steve Blum, whom most people will know as Spike from Cowboy Bebop, but I remember most fondly as Jamie from the too-good-for-this-cruel-world series Megas XLR. It’s kind of odd to realize that’s the same guy putting on a heavy Mexican accent, but he does it well and the character definitely isn’t an offensive stereotype, so it doesn’t really bother me.

Johnson, on the other hand, is almost a carbon copy of Bob from The Dresden Files…which is fine by me, because Bob is freaking hilarious. Johnson’s a little less lecherous than Bob, but he has the same dry British wit and the same know-it-all function in the plot as he guides Garcia through the underworld and its bizarre twists and turns.

Johnson has a leg up (so to speak–he’s just a talking skull, after all) in that beyond simply dispensing advice, Johnson acts as Garcia’s partner in battle, transforming into a torch, various guns, and even a motorcycle. As Garcia puts it, Johnson is the right tool for every job, which cements his position as one of my favorite sidekicks in video game history.

The villains of the piece don’t get much characterization, but they’re so ridiculous they’re memorable regardless; from the foul-mouthed flying demon Stinky Crow (whose only line of dialogue is screeching “FUCK YOU!” at the top of his lungs) to opera singer Justine to Fleming himself; they all stand out as worthy, memorable antagonists through style and presentation alone.

The only real problem member of the cast is Paula herself, who is the definition of objectified in this game. She’s reduced to a plaything for the demons (being graphically murdered on screen more times than I care to count), and a trophy for Garcia to rescue, though it’s clear Garcia genuinely does love her.

Did I mention Paula dies a lot? 'Cause she does.

Did I mention Paula dies a lot? ‘Cause she does.

Still, I have to think that Grasshopper knew exactly what they were doing with their portrayal of Paula, given that they flipped the gender roles in their next game, Lollipop Chainsaw, by having protagonist Juliet using her helpless boyfriend Nick as a literal object for solving puzzles. It feels more like Grasshopper is deliberately playing with tropes here, rather than playing into them.

This notion is cemented later on in SotD when Paula becomes homicidally furious at Garcia, both for his failure to save her from being butchered over and over and for putting her in such a horrific position in the first place. As such, it almost feels like a deconstruction and commentary on gender relations in video games…once you look past the weirdness, psychological horror and lewd jokes, anyway.

Shadows of the Damned is a really interesting game from a design standpoint, in that it’s the brainchild of three prominent developers with their own unique styles. On the one hand, you’ve got Suda51, but on the other hand, you have Shinji Mikami, best known for his work on the Resident Evil games, and on a third, mutant hand, you’ve got Akira Yamaoka (most famous for his work on Silent Hill) doing the sound design.

So here you have a developer known for zany action games working with two of the biggest icons of horror gaming on a single project. You’d expect the result to be a disjointed mess, but oddly enough, SotD may be the most cohesive, polished title Suda and Grasshopper Manufacture have produced.

"Polished" here being a relative term.

“Polished” here being a relative term.

The core gameplay borrows very heavily from one of Mikami’s most beloved games, Resident Evil 4, copying its third-person over-the-shoulder camera view and shooting mechanics very closely. Like RE4, SotD has the player moving Garcia with the left analog stick, moving the camera and aiming with the right stick, readying his gun with one shoulder trigger and firing with another. It even uses the sprint button, dodge roll and melee mechanics popularized by RE4.

Now, I’ve gone on record as saying I do not like the Resident Evil series, for a variety of reasons. And yet, even though the controls are virtually identical, I like the control scheme so much better in SotD than I do in its predecessor. I think it works much better here; SotD isn’t nearly as stingy with ammunition as RE4 (the only times I ever ran out were during a few protracted boss fights) and the aiming is much more accurate (it helps that Johnson projects a laser sight in all of his gun forms).

Combat in SotD is based almost entirely on gunplay; Garcia does have a melee attack where he can use Johnson (in his torch form) to bash enemies if they get too close, but it does no real damage. Demons need to be dispatched using Johnson’s gun forms, either by riddling them with ammunition (which comes in the form of demon bones, teeth and skulls, rather than bullets), dropping them to the ground by shooting their limbs off and then finishing them off with a stomp attack, or by shooting them in the head. The melee attack is only used for pushing enemies back if they get too close (it’s surprisingly difficult to shoot the demons at point-blank range), or to rid them of a protective coating of Darkness.

This stuff? Better than body armor.

This stuff? Better than body armor.

Similar to Allen Wake and a few other games, SotD has a Light and Darkness mechanic, where demons will sometimes be coated in the Darkness of the Underworld. Demons coated in Darkness are invincible, and their protective shield must be stripped before they can be damaged. This is accomplished in one of two ways, either by hitting the enemies with Johnson, or by shooting them with a Light Shot from Johnson’s gun forms.

There are also times when an area will be flooded with Darkness, which not only makes the demons invincible, but also will begin to drain Garcia’s life after a short time. Sometimes Garcia simply has to run through a Darkness-filled corridor before it kills him, but other times he’ll have to dispel the Darkness by using his Light Shot to shoot a mounted goat head (per Johnson, goats are a natural source of Light).

Of course, demons don’t like Light very much even when they’re not coated in Darkness; a Light Shot will stun them temporarily for easy dispatch (some enemies can only be killed this way), and demons will often store Light in conveniently placed, highly unstable barrels, which will explode and severely damage nearby demons when shot. The Light Shot can also activate lanterns to improve visibility, and prompt land-bound angler fish to guide Garcia through darkened areas.

Again, I am so not kidding.

Again, I am so not kidding.

As previously mentioned, Garcia only has Johnson and his own wits at his disposal to fight the hordes of the underworld, but luckily, that’s all he needs. Johnson has three gun forms he can take, a pistol that fires demon bones (called, appropriately enough, the Boner), a shotgun-like form that fires demon skulls, and a machine gun form that fires demon teeth. The guns and their respective boxes of ammo are color coded (red for pistol, green for shotgun and blue for machine gun), allowing the player to easily tell what gun they have equipped and what ammo just dropped in a hectic firefight. It’s a bit “gamey,” but it works well.

Johnson’s gun forms can be upgraded as the game goes on by acquiring blue gems from boss demons, with each upgrade unlocking new functions and increasing firepower (the Boner upgrades to a Hot Boner, and subsequently, a Big Boner), and the guns’ parameters, as well as Garcia’s health, can be upgraded with red gems (“Performance enhancers! Very illegal!”) found in the environment or purchased from the game’s half-demon merchant, Christopher, using the game’s currency of white gems. Christopher also sells ammunition and drinks, the health recovery items of the game, though you can also find booze in the environment or purchase it from vending machines.

SotD settles into a pretty comfortable rhythm of moving from fight to fight while solving any puzzles that get in the way, though it’ll occasionally throw the player a curve in the form of a side-scrolling shooter level, turret level (shooting at giant demons with the aforementioned Big Boner), or demon bowling or pachinko, which are pretty typical of Suda51 titles.

Grasshopper tends to have an “everything and the kitchen sink” approach to game design, where if they have a cool idea for a level or a sequence, they’ll stick it in regardless of how well it meshes with the game overall. Sometimes this can lead to a disjointed (if fun) experience, but in SotD it feels very cohesive and fits well in the game’s oddball vision of Hell.

It may be Hell, but at least you have the chance to work on your bowling technique.

It may be Hell, but at least you have the chance to work on your bowling technique.

This is still a game about Hell, though, so it’s not all a barrel of laughs. In between the zany non-sequiturs, dirty jokes and references to movies like Evil Dead and Ghostbusters, there’s some genuinely unsettling imagery and horror to be found, usually in the form of something gruesome happening to Paula, who is repeatedly killed off in ways that wouldn’t be out of place in a Nightmare on Elm Street movie. The violence, gore, and dark, cloying atmosphere serve to make SotD as effective at horror as it is at humor.

From a visual standpoint the game is dark, gothic, and makes effective use of the light and shadow motifs. The character and monster designs are all visually interesting and well-rendered. It’s worth mentioning that the game was made using Unreal Engine 3, which is the kind of thing that ordinarily makes me roll my eyes–UE3 was a plague on the last console generation, giving us a ton of games full of texture pop-in, dodgy framerates, physics glitches and screen-tearing. But Shadows of the Damned lacks most of the hallmarks of a UE3 game; in fact, I dare say it’s probably the best-looking UE3 title I’ve seen on the PS3. So I really have to give Grasshopper props for using the engine well when so many other studios didn’t.

I’ve already touched on the voice acting, but the rest of the sound design is equally impressive. The score by Akira Yamaoka is haunting and evocative, blending a wide range of styles and genres that seem like they shouldn’t belong together but somehow fit the game perfectly. The sound effects are top notch, and the whole arrangement works wonderfully on a surround sound system, enabling you to hear demons sneaking up from behind or objects like goats or baby locks needed for solving puzzles. It’s extremely immersive and really helps tie the game together.

Though it's not recommended as a feeding "how to" for new parents.

Though it’s not recommended as a feeding “how to” for new parents.

In summary, Shadows of the Damned is a truly unique game. In a crowded field of same-y shooters and zombie games, it brings some unique, polished gameplay, fun and horrifying writing and a truly memorable game world to the table. I can honestly say I’ve never played anything quite like it, and that’s not something I get the chance to say very often (unless I’m reviewing a game about dolphins).

Well, October’s not even halfway over yet, and I’ve already gone through Hell. I guess next I’ll have to go somewhere even worse. Join me next time as I take a trip to a little resort town on Toluca Lake…

Fashionably Late: Back to the Future: The Game

BttF 1

Video games based on licenses from other media have long had a reputation for being extremely bad, and that reputation is definitely not undeserved. I remember many a frustrating weekend as a child where, for my weekly rental from the video store, I succumbed to my naiveté and picked out a game based on my favorite TV show or movie du jour, only to find myself stuck playing a subpar piece of crap for the next two days.

These games were typically made by toy companies who bought the rights to make a game the way they would buy the rights to make action figures, then handed the project off to a no-name developer, gave them a strict deadline and told them to have it ready to release on that date, whatever it took. In the case of movie-based games, that deadline often coincided with the release of the film in question, which meant that developers typically had less than a year to make something playable.

OK, "playable" might be a bit of a stretch...

OK, “playable” might be a bit of a stretch…

These titles weren’t all bad, mind you; there were exceptions. Most of the games based on Disney licenses were pretty solid, being developed first by Capcom (of Mega Man and Street Fighter fame), and later by Virgin Interactive. Konami made a few really good games based on Warner Bros. cartoons like Tiny Toon Adventures, Animaniacs and Looney Tunes, and some great Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles games.

Anything Star Wars or Indiana Jones-related was developed by LucasArts, so it was bound to be good. But for the most part, if a game was based on a TV show or movie, and it had any other publisher or developer’s logo on the box, it was in your best interest to stay far, far away.

These days licensed games have been making something of a comeback. Thankfully, this time around, parent companies seem to have realized that making a good game takes time–often as much time as making a movie, if not more–resulting in longer development times.

The projects themselves tend to be going to much more competent developers, as well. And with the advent of smartphone games, companies looking to use a game as advertisement for a movie are much more likely to hire a developer to make a cheap mobile title, cloning another successful game, than they are to crowd the console and PC market with low-quality material.

Additionally, now there are companies who are buying the licenses to old films and making strong games for the fans of these enduring franchises. Granted, some of these are still ill-advised cash-ins (the recent Rambo and Aliens games come to mind), but most are labors of love, developed by fans of the source material for fans of the source material, often featuring voice talent from the original cast or even original writers contributing to the story.

Just think of this the next time you fire up Borderlands...

Just think of this the next time you fire up Borderlands…

Telltale Games’ Back to the Future: The Game thankfully falls into the latter category. When the Back to the Future films were originally released, they received very poor treatment on the video game front; if you want more details on those abominations, James Rolfe (as his Angry Video Game Nerd character) released a video covering them in far greater detail than I could here.

But a few years ago, Telltale announced that they were partnering with Universal to adapt some of their classic movie properties into games, and one of these titles was Back to the Future. This was honestly some of the most exciting video game news I’d heard that year.

Telltale, for those who don’t know, is a company that’s sort of been acting as a spiritual successor to LucasArts’ old adventure game division. They’ve made new installments to both the Sam and Max and Monkey Island series, made a hilarious game based on the long-dormant Homestar Runner web cartoon, and recently they’ve been working on more serious fare with The Walking Dead (based on the awesome comic book, not the mediocre TV show) and Fables.

They are the company for graphic adventure games, or at the very least they’re neck-and-neck with Tim Schafer’s Double Fine, so they were a great choice to make this game.

As excited as I was to play this title (I bought the season pass as soon as it was released), I ended up getting side-tracked from it for a few years, mostly, I think, due to the episodic nature of its release. Telltale has this habit of releasing its games in downloadable form, through a series of episodes. All of the previous Telltale titles I played, I bought and played all the episodes at once. Back to the Future was the first one I started following from its release, and I quickly discovered that this format only served to allow me to be distracted by other games in between releases.

And that’s how it took me almost three years to play through one of my most anticipated games of 2010; from here on in, I think I’ll just stick to waiting on Telltale titles until all the episodes are released, then shotgunning them at one go. Hell, it works for Netflix, why mess with a good thing?

BttF 4

I suppose I could just take the DeLorean ahead a few months…

The story begins on a rather depressing note 7 months after the end of Back to the Future Part III. Doc Brown hasn’t been seen in Hill Valley since that time, and the bank is selling off his estate to cover his debts.

Marty, who is desperately trying to convince people that Doc is still alive, is surprised when another DeLorean time machine, identical to the destroyed original, arrives outside Doc’s house with Einstein (Doc’s dog) in tow. Inside the DeLorean, Marty finds a recorded message from Doc, saying that he’s stuck somewhere in the past, and that the new DeLorean’s auto-retrieval function sent it to seek out Marty for a rescue.

Marty must travel back to 1931, where Doc has been mistaken for the arsonist who burned down a speakeasy, and enlist Doc’s 1931 counterpart to help break Doc out of jail and save him from lethal reprisal at the hands of Biff’s gangster father, Kid Tannen. However, this series of events alters the timeline, forcing Marty and Doc to fix the damage they’ve done in order to prevent a horrible future and the destruction of Hill Valley itself.

And yes, young Doc is every bit as funny as you think he is.

And yes, young Doc is every bit as funny as you think he is.

It’s a fantastic story that feels right at home with the original trilogy (no doubt thanks to the involvement of trilogy screenwriter Bob Gale) and plays with the alternate timeline elements I love so much in Part II. The new characters introduced by the game feel like they belong with the returning ones, and the game is packed with the all the humor, witty writing and Easter eggs you’d expect from a Telltale game.

The gameplay is that of a classic graphic adventure title. Players control Marty, move him through the environment, and click on objects to examine them, collect them, and solve puzzles with them, or to talk to other characters.

To advance the plot, the player must solve puzzles, which usually involves some combination of talking to the right characters, using the right combination of items and working with simple logic. Most of the puzzles make enough sense that an experienced player can solve them easily, but a few of them are more tricky and could easily obstruct game progress.

Trust me, it's more exciting than it sounds.

Trust me, it’s more exciting than it sounds.

Fortunately, Telltale built in a hint system, which progressively gives more information on how to solve the current puzzle each time it’s used, before finally telling the player the answer if they’re truly stumped. Of course, a few of the puzzles are difficult not because the solution is hard to guess at, but because it’s hard to implement, requiring a series of specific actions in a row or requiring fairly precise timing to pull off, so the hint system is far from being a “win button.”

The controls, while generally simple and solid, do occasionally cause problems. A few puzzles in particular are difficult to solve on a console version of the game (I played it on my PS3), because of the game’s tendency to try to correct for the imprecision of using an analog stick (rather than a mouse) by having the selector automatically target items in the environment as Marty moves past them.

This auto-selection can result in you accidentally clicking an object you didn’t mean to click on, which presents a problem in some puzzles where the goal is to click a particular object at a particular time. Fortunately, there aren’t very many of these puzzles throughout the game, so the frustration level is pretty minimal, but it is still a minor issue that needs to be addressed.

Next I’ll talk about the graphics and sound design, but before that, I need to get something off my chest; I love Telltale’s games, but I really loathe the Telltale Tool engine they use to make them. I have never played a single game from Telltale that was without issues. Their games are, on balance, very simple both graphically and in terms of design, but you wouldn’t know that from the way the Telltale Tool struggles with them.

Framerates are wildly inconsistent regardless of the platform, which can cause cheap deaths in a few of their titles, and some of their games are very crash-prone; I still haven’t finished their Monkey Island game because it’s so prone to crashing on my PS3. Back to the Future is one of their more stable titles, but it still suffers from graphical hiccups and lag.

Someday, Guybrush...someday. *Sigh*

Someday, Guybrush…someday. *Sigh*

All that being said, I like the visual design of the game. Rather than try to make the game photorealistic (I shudder to imagine the uncanny valley versions of Marty and Doc), the game uses a caricature-like style to render its characters, and the environments are similarly colorful and cartoony. The graphics are simple, but they work, and aside from the aforementioned framerate issues, they’re quite pleasing to the eye. Nothing to write home about, but perfectly serviceable.

The sound design, on the other hand, is excellent. The soundtrack features several pieces from the films, including Alan Silvestri’s orchestral theme and “Back in Time” by Huey Lewis and the News, as well as some original compositions that, while not quite up to Silvestri’s standard of excellence, fit in unobtrusively with the rest of the score. The sound effects are likewise very good, and feature all the effects you’ll remember from the movies.

But perhaps the best aspect is the voice acting. The voice acting in Telltale’s games is always excellent, and while they had to bring in a number of sound-alikes to voice some of the returning characters, they did manage to get some key talent to reprise their original roles.

The biggest of these is Christopher Lloyd, returning to voice Doc Brown, and I’ve got to say, hearing Lloyd play Doc again makes the entire game worthwhile for me, and I looked forward to every interaction I had with Doc as a result of it. Claudia Wells, the original actress who played Jennifer Parker, also reprises her role, and does an excellent job of it.

Though she is a bit, uh, different this time around...

Though she is a bit, uh, different this time around…

Regrettably, Michael J. Fox apparently wasn’t available to reprise the role of Marty when production began on the game, but Telltale found an absolutely amazing sound-alike in A.J. LoCasio. He’s a dead ringer for how Fox sounded at that age, and it’s incredibly easy to forget that it’s not Fox voicing the character. But they were able to bring Fox in during the final episode to make a couple of fun voice cameos that I won’t spoil for you here; suffice it to say that if you are a fan of the films, you’re in for a real treat.

And really, that’s the best way to summarize this review; if you’re a fan of the Back to the Future trilogy, then this game was tailor-made for you. For all its flaws, there’s so much heart, wit and love for the source material on display that you just can’t stay mad at this game, even at its most annoying moments.

Developers take note; if you’re going to make a game based on a beloved film property, this is the way you should do it. My only real complaint is that, after the game’s (slight) cliffhanger ending, there is no firm word of a Season 2 yet. Maybe once Telltale is done with The Walking Dead or Fables, we might hear something. But still, if this is all we get, I think I’m satisfied.

Well, Halloween is fast approaching, and in the spirit of the season, I’m playing through a horror game. Join me next time for my own road movie through Hell…

Collateral Damage

Homeless Vet

Last week, as my mother and I were looking through a family photo album, she pointed out a picture of my great-grandfather in his military dress. I had always known he served in World War I, but that day I found out just how much his service cost him and his family.

After the war, because of the traumas he experienced on the battlefield, he suffered from life-long Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. My great-grandmother supported their family as a seamstress; her husband couldn’t hold down a job due to severe and chronic alcoholism. His illness and the way he attempted to cope with it overshadowed the rest of his life.

This kind of story was, and still is, all too common among veterans returning from active duty. In my great-grandfather’s day, it was called shellshock, and was frequently attributed to a “lack of moral fiber,” which was a military euphemism for “it’s your problem, not ours.” Today, we understand what Post-traumatic Stress Disorder is; psychologists have identified the causes, the symptoms, and even outlined effective treatments for it.

So why, then, are we still seeing so many soldiers needlessly suffering from PTSD? Why are we still seeing so many veterans becoming homeless after they are unable to re-acclimate to civilian life? Why are we still seeing horrific incidents like the murder-suicide committed by an Iraq war vet last Thursday? Why are more veterans dying from suicide than in combat? Why are there still so many veterans suffering silently, self-medicating, and just managing to get by the way my great-grandfather did?

Well, for one thing, while our government talks a good game about “supporting the troops,” it’s shown that political interest in “the troops” ends as soon as their deployment does. For a very long time, while Congress was quite happy to write check after check to fund the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to the tune of trillions of dollars, they were much more reluctant to fund the Department of Veterans Affairs and other programs that would help veterans returning from combat.

Recently members of Congress have introduced bills intended to direct more funding to help veterans, but predictably these bills have been caught in the gridlock of the least productive Congress in history, so I wouldn’t count on those agencies receiving more funding anytime soon.

However, Congressional double-talk and inefficiency isn’t the cause of this issue, but rather another symptom. The root cause is that, despite all the progress made in the field of psychology in identifying, analyzing and treating PTSD, societal perception of the problem doesn’t seem to have progressed very far beyond the “lack of moral fiber” days that my great-grandfather suffered through.

Mental illnesses like PTSD and clinical depression aren’t viewed in the same light as physical illnesses like influenza or cancer. They’re viewed, to a large extent, as a personal flaw, a character weakness, and stigmatized as such.

This problem is further exacerbated by the fact that most veterans are men, and men in our society are taught from a very young age that expressing discomfort or pain is a sign of weakness and femininity. This belief is especially reinforced by the internal culture of the military, where raw recruits who conform to the norms of modern society, where violence and killing are strictly verboten, are turned into soldiers who must be ready to follow orders without question and kill at a moment’s notice.

Is it any wonder, then, that these veterans, rather than seeking help for their condition, try to ignore the problem and stifle their feelings until it ends in tragedy?

Recently, Harry Potter actress Emma Watson, now the Goodwill Ambassador for U.N. Women, gave a speech announcing a new campaign for gender equality called HeForShe. In this speech, Watson discusses how the issue of “women’s rights” is, in fact, an issue of human rights that affects men equally.

“I’ve seen young men suffering from mental illness, unable to ask for help for fear it would make them less of a man…I’ve seen men made fragile and insecure by a distorted sense of what constitutes male success.”

On hearing her words, I couldn’t help but be reminded of my great-grandfather, who suffered his whole life because his pain was considered an un-manly weakness, rather than the natural consequence of sending a young man to kill in the name of his government.

They made me think of how his pain must have affected my grandmother, in turn affecting her children, and in turn affecting my brother and me. It is a pain that echoes down through generations, simply because society told him that as a man, he couldn’t seek help.

Something’s got to give, people. Because if I have sons, I don’t want them to grow up in a world where they’re called weak for seeking help, any more than I want daughters growing up in a world where they’re told they can’t be strong. We have to speak up. We have to make a change, for our children, and our children’s children.

If not now, then when?

“Dear Boss,”

Aaron Kosminski

On Sunday, September 7th, news broke that caused a stir world-wide; Jack the Ripper, the notorious serial killer who terrorized London over a hundred years ago, had finally been identified as Aaron Kosminski, a hairdresser with schizophrenia who died in a mental asylum several years after the Ripper murders had ceased.

After years of fruitless police investigation and still more years of amateur, enthusiast detectives (affectionately referred to as “Ripperologists”) painstakingly researching the case, the Ripper finally stood unmasked, thanks to the brilliant detective work of Mr. Russell Edwards. Edwards, who purchased a shawl at auction that belonged to the fourth “canonical” victim, Catherine Eddowes, had the garment examined for DNA, and found seminal DNA linking Aaron Kosminski to the shawl. Case closed!

Or not.

Not even two days after the announcement, Ripperologists around the world weren’t so much poking holes in Edwards’ theory as they were driving semi-trucks through it.

The shawl has been known about for years but never conclusively linked to Eddowes except by a “family tradition” that makes less logical sense than Edwards’ argument itself. The DNA evidence is inconclusive at best; it’s mitochondrial DNA, which only proves that it came from a member of a large group of people to which Kosminski belonged, and that’s leaving out issues of contamination, the experimental method used to extract the sample, and the fact that previous DNA testing on the shawl failed to yield any results.

And then there’s Edwards himself, who owns and operates a Jack the Ripper souvenir shop in London, guides Jack the Ripper-themed tours, and made the announcement of his discovery just days before the release of his book Naming Jack the Ripper, detailing his theory about Kosminski. Put all that together, and it paints a pretty clear picture of a man parlaying a specious theory into a book to make money off of a dubious piece of “Ripperana” he bought at auction the better part of a decade ago.

And yet, despite the clear problems with the theory and how quickly after the announcement the counter-arguments have come out, there is still a large contingent of people who believe Edwards’ claims. The Jack the Ripper Wikipedia page, at the time of the announcement, was locked from editing for several days in an attempt to protect the information from an editing war that began almost as soon as the announcement was made. Even Casebook.org, the Ripperologist website that has led the effort to debunk Edwards’ claims, has a growing contingent of forum members who believe that Edwards has conclusively proved Kosminski to be the Ripper.

This is far from the first time a wild theory about the identity of Jack the Ripper has captured people’s imaginations, and it most likely won’t be the last, but it is a valuable, unfolding example of the power that the printed word has over the human mind.

When a “fact” is put into print from a source with some degree of authority, be it a book publisher, a newspaper or website or even an e-mail from a trusted friend, people are inclined to believe it, oftentimes without looking further into the matter or even reading beyond the headline. This means that many people never attempt to follow a story further and determine if it’s been retracted or corrected, not that it seems to matter either way, since misinformation continues to affect the brain long after correct information has been learned. So, regardless of how flawed his theory is, Edwards’ assertion that Kosminski is the Ripper will continue to be viewed as “fact” by a large percentage of the population.

And admittedly, in the grand scheme of things, Edwards’ claims won’t do that much damage. After all, he’s accusing a dead man (who was already considered a Ripper suspect) of committing murders that happened over a century ago. Even Kosminski’s family likely doesn’t remember much about him, given that he had no children and died alone in a Victorian mental institution.

But this undying quality of false information can be greatly damaging to society in other contexts. Thanks to a disproven study claiming that autism is caused by vaccinations, we’re seeing a resurgence of diseases like Rubella and Whooping Cough that were all but extinct as frightened parents cling to the old (mis)information and refuse to vaccinate their babies. Another (falsified) study led to millions of women undergoing post-menopausal hormone replacement therapy to protect themselves from cancer…a process that cost US citizens billions of dollars and may have actually increased cancer risks…and a process that is still widely advocated and available despite proof that it does more harm than good.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. How about big business-funded studies to disprove climate change and justify industrial pollution? Or a misleading documentary that shut down a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting people from losing their homes to predatory mortgage lending? Or an infamous experiment that used doctored data to prove that we’re one issued order away from being the next Josef Mengele, thus re-shaping the entire field of psychology for the better part of a century? I could go on and on.

The bottom line is, our society has been shaped and damaged by false claims that continued to persist long after they were disproven, simply because it’s a hundred times harder to dispel a lie than it is to tell one in the first place. So while Edwards’ “little white lie” isn’t likely to do much damage in the grand scheme of things, the practice of abusing the authority of publication to advance one’s own selfish interests has done untold amounts of harm.

As such, every writer, reporter, documentarian and scientist has a duty to think beyond the moment, to consider what the consequences of our actions will be, and to examine the claims we are making for as long as it takes to verify them before unleashing them on the world. To do any less is unethical and irresponsible at best, and malicious at worst.

Fashionably Late: Final Fantasy IV: The After Years

After Years 1

Final Fantasy used to be my favorite video game series of all time, and several Final Fantasy games still rank among some of my favorites ever made. Almost every one of these games Square released was a mega-hit that surpassed the one that came before it, and even the ones that weren’t were interesting experiments. Final Fantasy, for a time, was the opus of Square’s catalog.

Now, I’ve briefly mentioned Square-Enix in this blog before and my distaste for the way they’ve handled some of their recent titles, specifically in the Final Fantasy series. Back in the 1990s, Square (pre-Enix; that merger wouldn’t happen until the early 2000s) was the developer for RPGs on consoles. But right around the time of the merger with Enix, Final Fantasy began to unravel.

The series’ budget had been ballooning for a while, but it really began to skyrocket starting with Final Fantasy X, and along with that increasing budget came a sense that Square was more interested in making a game that was marketable than a game that was good.

The stories and characters started to feel focus-tested for a teenage Japanese audience, and the gameplay became steadily less and less complex (though it’s worth noting that FFX’s combat system was probably the best in the series).

This trend culminated with the Final Fantasy XIII “trilogy” (yes, they made two sequels to one numbered sequel; I’ll get back to that in a minute), which dumbed the gameplay down to the point where the game barely demands (or seems to want) player input, and paired it with stories that are literally among the worst pieces of fiction I have ever encountered.

Each FFXIII game has seen steadily worsening sales, which has reportedly prompted Square-Enix to reconsider the path they’re taking with Final Fantasy. I sincerely hope this is the case, but given what has become of the series, I won’t be holding my breath.

However, in between FFX and the present, Square, desperate to stay afloat after the disastrous bomb that was Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within destroyed the newly-formed Square Pictures and left the studio teetering on the verge of bankruptcy, accepted a loan from Sony and merged with long-time rival RPG maker Enix to stay afloat. Yet, this was still not enough to return the studio to profitability, and so they broke with long-standing tradition and decided to make a direct sequel to FFX.

Prior to this decision, each Final Fantasy game had been unrelated, plot-wise, to the previous installments. Though they shared common gameplay elements and the same creative team, each game had a different cast, world and story. However, hard-up for cash, Square-Enix decided to make a sequel to their mega-hit, Final Fantasy X, and thus Final Fantasy X-2 came to be, and opened the door for other direct sequels.

Never forget...oh, God, I wish I could forget...

Never forget…oh, God, I wish I could forget…

And like most sequels, the majority of these were terrible. FFX-2 was the first Final Fantasy that was almost universally agreed to be a genuinely bad game; it basically threw everything that was remotely good about the original game out the window and replaced it with fanservice, bad J-Pop, tedious mini-games and side-quests, and (somehow) an even worse localization.

But, riding on the hype of FFX and combined with the fact that the game re-used so many assets from FFX that it cost a fraction of what the first game did, FFX-2 was massively profitable for the newly-formed Square-Enix. As a result, almost all other FF sequels have followed suit.

That being said, there is one notable exception to this trend, and that is Final Fantasy IV: The After Years.

Originally released as a cell phone game before the iPhone made cell phone gaming an actual market with some viability, After Years eventually received a US release on the Wii as a downloadable title, and has since been ported to the PSP, iPhone and Android platforms.

And it’s no surprise that the game has performed well, selling more than 3 million downloads as of 2009; out of all the direct Final Fantasy sequels, After Years is the only one that somehow manages to truly capture the spirit of its predecessor; it feels as though it was written and designed by people who played and loved the original game just as much as fans did.

In brief, Final Fantasy IV (original released as Final Fantasy II in the US, due to the actual II and III not seeing localizations until the 2000’s) was Square’s first project on the Super Nintendo, and it also marked a substantial departure from the three games that came before it.

Final Fantasies I through III were among the earliest console-style RPGs, and told rather simplistic stories where the characters had little to no identity or personality. The characters in those titles were fully customizable; you got to choose their names and their roles in the party according to how you wanted to play the game. They were games more focused around the battle system and exploring dungeons than they were on telling an overarching narrative.

By contrast, Final Fantasy IV marked Square’s first foray into making a truly story-centric title. Its characters are non-customizable and have names and defined personalities and backgrounds and the plot is driven as much by the characters and their personalities as events.

Granted, its story is still rather simplistic and wouldn’t have been out of place in a typical Saturday morning cartoon at the time, and the original localization wasn’t much better than just running the game’s script through Babelfish, but that was still more ambitious than anything most other video games had attempted at that point. As a result, it had a tremendous impact on a generation of young gamers, and is still a beloved classic to this day.

Truly, the most quotable game since Super Mario Bros.

Truly, the most quotable game since Super Mario Bros.

So, Square-Enix and Matrix Software (After Years’ co-developer) had a lot to live up to in making a sequel. And surprisingly, rather than mess with a winning formula, they opted to make the sequel as much like FFIV as possible. In terms of visuals, gameplay, music, and even story structure, After Years borrows as much from its predecessor as it possibly can. And after having lived through the harrowing experience of popping a Final Fantasy X sequel in, only to be greeted by this:

I can’t adequately express how grateful I am that Square-Enix declined to re-invent the FFIV wheel and ruin it in the process.

The gameplay is almost identical to that of FFIV: you command a party of up to 5 adventurers, exploring an overworld map, towns and dungeons on your way to your next objective to advance the story. Along the way, you’ll be confronted by random monster encounters, as well as planned boss battles at the end of most areas. You issue orders to your party in turn-based battles, taking advantage of their unique abilities to formulate a strategy that will allow you to win.

The flow of the game is very basic, and the battle system is virtually identical to that of FFIV, save for a few key tweaks.

Memoriiiies...like the corners of my miiiind...

Memoriiiies…like the corners of my miiiind…

The Active Time Battle (ATB) bars that dictate when your characters go are now visible, much like they were in all subsequent FF titles that used that system, so it’s easy to tell when your characters will get their next turn. You can also see a visual representation of how long it will take a particular character to execute a command, which takes the guesswork out of planning around the casting of a particular spell or ability.

Another change is the Moon Phase system. As you play the game, the moon shifts through different phases; a shift will happen after enough time passes, or any time your party sleeps in a Tent, Cottage or Inn. Depending on what phase the moon is in, one kind of battle command with be strengthened, and another will be weakened; for example, under a Full Moon, physical attacks will be weakened, but Black Magic will become more potent.

The Moon Phase system adds an additional level of strategy to the game, as each party member will be more effective in particular phases, and players must plan around the phases to maximize their characters’ strengths. Also, monsters are subject to the phases of the moon as well, so a skilled player can weaken a tough boss monster and strengthen their own characters by fighting it during the correct phase.

I think the Moon Phase system adds a great deal of depth to the game, but it can be annoying having to waste Tents just to advance the moon to an advantageous phase, especially in the portions of the game where you’re stuck with a fixed party of characters.

The final major change to combat is the Band system. Anybody who’s played Chrono Trigger will be instantly familiar with this concept; the Band system allows characters to perform powerful team attacks, provided that all characters involved have enough Magic Points and are able to act.

Unlike Chrono Trigger’s Dual and Triple Techs, however, characters won’t instantly learn Bands simply by being in a party together and knowing the requisite skills; players have to manually try to discover Bands with those characters in a party together. On the one hand, I like the feeling of experimentation that this encourages.

On the other hand, pretty much anybody who picks this game up is just going to look up a list of Bands online, so the manual search aspect just becomes pointless busywork. Either way, I do enjoy the depth of strategy this opens up, especially once you’re able to choose your party members towards the end of the game and can decide how important Bands are to you when forming a team.

...Misty watercolor memoriiiies...of the way we weeere...

…Misty watercolor memoriiiies…of the way we weeere…

The graphics, sound and music are almost completely identical to FFIV’s as well. The character sprites have been completely redone (they look more akin to FFVI characters than FFIV), but the monster sprites, spell effects, towns and dungeons are almost all recycled from FFIV with minor tweaks and smoothing, and a few new locations and creatures added for good measure. The sound effects and music are also mostly recycled, with a few original melodies here and there.

I know that sounds incredibly lazy, and to be completely honest, it kind of is, but it actually does work with this game. After Years is all about revisiting the past, finding out where these characters have come in the intervening years, and having them revisit familiar locations and experience familiar sights and sounds is appropriate and feels right here.

And this game is very much a retro trip; when I say it plays almost exactly like FFIV, I mean it, including the high level of difficulty. The random encounter rates are through the roof, battles will wear your characters down and wipe them out if you don’t take the time to grind for experience and money every so often, and boss battles (as well as late-game regular battles) will quickly wipe the floor with you if you don’t react fast and with the appropriate strategy. In short, it’s very much an old-school RPG, and you’ll either like that or you won’t. Personally, I found it to be a welcome return to form.

While the game has a lot going for it, the one thing that really doesn’t work is the pricing. You see, the game is broken up into several chapters that must be bought piecemeal, each one dealing with a particular group of characters and telling their portion of the story. 

The WiiWare version of the game costs about $8.00, and that includes the first two chapters. Each subsequent chapter has to be purchased for an additional fee, adding up to a grand total of $37.00 for the whole game, which, for a title that’s essentially a glorified ROM-hack of FFIV (albeit an excellent one) is borderline extortion.

Frankly, I’d recommend picking up one of the other versions of the game over the Wii version if you’re interested; even the iOS version is a better deal at $15 (though I can’t vouch for how it controls with the touch-screen).

And it looks pretty good, too.

Hmm…22 bucks or touch controls…tough call.

You’ll notice that I haven’t talked much about the story so far. There’s a reason for that; namely, that it’s impossible to go too much into my thoughts about the story without revealing massive spoilers for both FFIV and After Years. And honestly, if I try to go too far into my thoughts on the story, I’d be writing this forever. I know because I started to do an analysis and it added roughly 3 pages to the review before I’d even begun to scratch the surface.

Suffice it to say that the story of After Years makes perfect sense in the context of where our characters were left 17 years prior with the end of FFIV. Everybody’s position and development in After Years fits their character perfectly. There are even some interesting reversals (Kain and Cecil, in particular, each end up in much the same position the other was during FFIV). And while the reveal of the game’s new villain is kind of odd and a bit cliche, ultimately I think it fits the story, and really, that’s the most important thing.

It's no weirder than Zeromus, at any rate.

It’s no weirder than Zeromus, at any rate.

These characters all feel like the same ones we fell in love with so many years ago, and the resolution to their stories feels satisfactory and more conclusive than the finale of FFIV did. And after suffering through sequels like FFX-2 and Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children that completely butchered the characters whose stories they were supposed to be continuing, that’s incredibly welcome and refreshing.

If you’re a fan of Final Fantasy IV, definitely give this game a shot. It’s more of the same, and that’s a very good thing. If you aren’t a fan of Final Fantasy IV, then this won’t do anything to change your mind. If you haven’t played Final Fantasy IV…well, what are you waiting for? There are plenty of different re-mastered versions to choose from, so pick one up and play it!

Personally, I like the 2008 DS remake; it’s got the best localization, the best version of the combat system, and plenty of added secrets and side-quests to keep you busy. And if you don’t have a DS or 3DS, the 2008 version was recently released for iPhone and Android, so it’s easy to come by.

I’m still feeling nostalgic, so next time we’ll cover another game that’s a real blast from the past. Until next time!