Vandal Hearts Retro-Review

I first experienced this game on the Playstation in the late 90s as a teenager. Nowadays people likely look back on the PSX similar to how early-Millennials like me look back on the Atari or Amiga — antiquated relics of a history long since past.

Vandal Hearts in my day

The original Playstation (sometimes called the PS1) influenced my upbringing considerably. It’s easy to point at the big titles — Resident Evil, Tekken, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, Metal Gear Solid, all standing in the shadow of the magnanimous Final Fantasy 7. Whether FF7 was your favorite (I often hear that 9 is awesome), it’s hard to deny it’s popularity, especially with the confirmation of a remake, the hype of which seems to have died away..

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But I’m not talking about the heavyweights today, though the spotlight of this post can be easily relateable to a super effective Squaresoft title: Final Fantasy Tactics. Today we’re talking about Konami’s Vandal Hearts, a turn-based tactical RPG set in a world that I’ve always found most endearing.

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For the gamers reading this, one could describe Vandal Hearts as “if Final Fantasy Tactics had a baby with Pokemon,” without the whole “catching creatures” thing. Rather, there’s a set cast of characters of whom you have limited control in terms of class delegation, but the system in place offers what I simply think of as Simplified Final Fantasy Tactics. There’s a grid-based map and a variety of abilities to employ.

For non-gamers (and everyone else for that matter) reading this, think of it this way: rock, paper, scissors, with a few extra features.

Swordsmen kill archers, archers kill hawknights (more on them later), and hawknights kill swordsmen. Then of course you’ve got healers and mages, as well as “heavy armor” (stronger-yet-slower warriors who’re susceptible to magic attacks) and monks, who later become ninja. All in all, there aren’t really any new and innovative concepts happening here; the enemy in each turn-based battle is comprised of similar classes and it falls to you as the player to exploit any weaknesses opened. You know, tactical fighting. It’s rather good stuff. But the objectives are quite varied — not all of the levels have the requirement “Destroy all enemies,” and in some cases, attempting to do so would bring about your downfall.

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The blood sprays are especially satisfying, if over the top, and really eye-catching — something that Final Fantasy Tactics noticeably doesn’t have.

The story of this game, despite being pretty good (seeing as it’s a Japanese translation) at the time, exhibits a few predictable tropes by today’s standards, and having played it to completion twice, the dramatic reveals naturally lose their power. Yet, there are a few interesting concepts explored in this game, some of which I realize my teenager-mind had found attractive, though at the time I lacked the mental vocabulary to describe and verbalize my fascination.

First off, Vandal Hearts attempts to draw you in by pitting your heroic characters against familiar types of foes: starting off with random bandits on the first level, later uncovering nefarious schemes on part of malicious politicians in an increasingly decadent and corrupt society. Ishtaria, the country in which the majority of this game takes place, stands about one and a half decades after a brutal civil war, and to maintain order there are a lot of references to “anti-terrorism forces.”

In fact, the hero — Ash — and his companions Diego and Clint (your starting party) are members of Ishtaria’s Security Forces. This game came out in 1997, a few years after the 1993 World Trade Center Bombing in New York, and a few years before the infamous 9/11 attacks. As a barely-sentient teenager, I don’t recall feeling any awareness or sensitivity about the use of the word “terrorism” at the time, but nowadays, at an age that supposedly passes for adult, I can see how this game might have been perceived as “too soon,” or otherwise “too real.”

Yet there is a light-heartedness to the narrative that doesn’t really make you feel overly invested. Vandal Hearts isn’t all that popular (there were several lackluster sequels), yet to me there were some very interesting things that influenced my ideas on gaming, storytelling, and more recently, on magic.

Vandal Hearts Dialog

Though not necessarily from the dialog…but again, a Japanese translation, so it suffices.

We’ve talked already about the gaming experience; it’s simple and fairly straightforward, yet a well-executed strategy leaves you satisfied, like you’re actually a good commander or something. The most interesting aspect of the story is directly connected to a sort of flavor they’ve got with the magic system — and no, it isn’t a gameplay mechanic (mages/priests utilize MP just like any other RPG), but more of the running theme.

Within Vandal Hearts, they toy a little with temporal shifts and time loops — something that often is something best left untoyed. Not only do characters in various media always suffer as a result of trying to mess with space-time, but the writers about such situations tend to not really have a strong grasp on what time travel actually is, let alone its paradoxical implications.

A good example of bad time-travel logic would be Back to the Future. Great movies (some of the best) sure, but flawed. Terminator did a decent job of executing an effective time loop, and Vandal Hearts pulls off something quite similar — except it’s not backwards in time, but forwards.

for vandal hearts blog - rick & Morty

Or you could just cast caution to the wind and do whatever the heck you want. But thankfully Rick & Morty hasn’t touched on Time Travel; just interdimensional travel.

So Ash, the hero protagonist, gets sucked into a warp along with some other friends about 33% into the game, and soon find themselves stranded in some extra-temporal island, populated by various people from different eras. Architecture found there is both ancient and modern, and folks living in this “town at the end of world” seem pretty resigned to their fate as forever-lost.

Your characters encounter a mysterious figure, who turns out to be a powerful mage that had disappeared from history hundreds of years prior, and who helps Ash and the handful of friends that got sucked in there with him back to their own time. The process takes a day, but when they return, three years have passed.

Interesting.

On top of that, one character named Eleni encounters a young child, who in the endgame falls into a similar wormhole/temporal shift doorway whatever you want to call it. Eleni realizes that that child was indeed herself, and she (her younger self) would re-appear eighteen years in the past as a lost, wandering orphan. The circumstances surrounding this …

“Oh no, the little girl was our only hope, what are we gonna do now?”
“Don’t worry,” says Eleni, “that little girl was me…so I can totally do what THAT ONE THING only the little girl could do and thus carry the plot forward!”

…aren’t all that awe-inspiring, but the concept is quite interesting to me.

Lastly, mages in this game sport a number of spells that seem to fall into the category of “magic that fucks with space-time.” Contrast this with most games where schools of magic fall into strict elemental schools, often organized in symmetrical categories and familiar archetypes.

The level 1 spell that mages in Vandal Hearts possess is called Dark Star, and whether it was the intentional artistic direction of the creators to have this spell look a bit polygonal and jagged, I am unsure, but the sharding effect is rather interesting, considering the limitations of the Playstation console. Rather than hardware constraints, though, I prefer to view it as the mage temporarily ripping a hole in space-time, and that’s gotta be painful as well as visually hard to digest.

VandalHearts Dark Star

Later, mages gain access to something called Phase Shift, that really fucks with the landscape and the minds of those assaulted. Taking into account concepts such as relativity and very objective facts (being exposed to outer space is lame, and best avoided, but if someone opens a window to the stars next to you, you’re going to feel it), a spell like Phase Shift feels like hacking reality and breaking some rules — temporarily — in order to cause some serious pain.

I may not even necessarily be affecting the physical realm, just the enemy’s perception of it, which could be enough to deal crippling damage all on its own.

PhaseShift Gif

The spell itself isn’t the most powerful in the game (in fact it becomes inferior after a few levels) but again, it’s the concept that resonates with me.

So we’ve got space-time magic happening, how about the setting? Ishtaria apparently sports elements of steampunk as well, making it dear to my heart. Though air travel (by dirigible, the signature steampunk vehicle, it would seem) is unknown, there is a battle that takes place atop a speeding train. There are ships propelled by both steam engines and wind sails, and the aforementioned hawknights — fighters gifted with the ability to fly, using mechanical apparatuses that give them lift – some with primitive jet propulsion, others with Davincian wings not unlike our old pal Icarus.

Hawknights fascinate me on a conceptual level, but in-game I found little use for them.

The last thing worth mentioning is the soundtrack — I remember reading a review of Vandal Hearts many years ago describing the OST of this game as “nothing remarkable.” You won’t hear a beautifully conducted orchestral score booming from your speakers if you play this one — the synthesized melodies get recycled a few times and a few battle-themes are downright repetitive, but some of the songs actually carry an interesting tune.

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I played this as a kid and dug it. I played it again as an adult, and despite knowing what was going to happen (storywise), I found myself focused and invested. Perhaps this does not come as a surprise, coming from an experience glowing with the nostalgia effect, yet the levels are actually varied and interesting enough to keep the game fun.

Recommended.

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Game Review: Darkest Dungeon

When it comes to dungeon crawlers, a genre of game involving exactly what it sounds like, most veteran gamers will think of things like Diablo or the aptly named Dungeons & Dragons. The concept of lashing together a party of people and delving into dangerous, subterranean locales is not a new concept, particularly as far as fantasy adventure is concerned.

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Whether the hero’s purpose is to seek riches, to defeat the evil found below, to gain glory for one’s self or one’s organization, to discover occult knowledge, or some other unlisted factor, the end-result in terms of this kind of game is generally the same: Descend into a cave/dungeon and survive traps, kill monsters, and bust open treasure chests. It’s a great narrative for a story and an adequate excuse for why people of different paths (like clerics and thieves) might be inclined to work together.

It’s also a valid living if ever there was one, if you ask me.

Darkest Dungeon takes this concept and blends ingredients both familiar and new, delving into an equally familiar mythos in the form of Lovecraftian homage. In terms of gameplay, there is the RogueLike element, however, that makes this stand out from other Dungeon Crawlers. That and the aforementioned homage to a Lovecraftian Horror takes the form of a very real game mechanic, which I’ll detail shortly.

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The story is pretty straight forward. An unfathomably opulant estate has long since fallen into ruin, and under it stretches labyrinthine tunnels and passages and caves. Heeding the call of your ancient relative (uncle?), you employ adventurers of varying dispositions and goals as they arrive by stagecoach every week to plumb the depths and do what adventurers do best.

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Great so we’ve got RogueLike dungeons and motley parties of adventurers bent on combating the influence of an Eldritch Abomination that has made no secret of taking residence nearby. What makes this game stand out?

In a word: Stress. This is literal in two senses.

I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself a veteran gamer, but I’m not a novice either. There is a disclaimer at the opening of Darkest Dungeon warning the player that they *will* lose, and that their characters *will* die. The game is about making the best out of a bad situation; when I saw character flaws manifest themselves in your characters, I mean that shit can get hard, fast.

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I didn’t quite grasp the weight of this until afterward.

What makes Darkest Dungeon unique to many dungeon crawlers, but not necessarily unique to Lovecraftian-themed games, is the Stress Meter mechanic. I think it’s safe to assume that even someone who’s never played a game before in their life can grasp the following concept the same minute they first pick up a controller.

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“This is your life bar. When it reaches zero, you die. Eat food or find medkits or drink red potions to restore your health.”

Therefore, maintaining your party’s health — particularly when they’re suffering from DoTs (Damage Over Time effects) like bleeding or blight (poison) — so that they can keep on swinging is pretty much the opposite of new. Managing the stress of your party is significant for the longevity of your party, and what makes this fascinating is that this is rarely ever addressed in games like Diablo, World of Warcraft, Dragon Age, Baldur’s Gate … the list goes on.

Rarely in these games does the magnitude of the task at hand really affect the characters. Sure you’ve got life-infused characters in Dragon Age, who might express their discomfort in the form of form of emotive voice acting, or even Edward from FF4 who actually has a command option “hide,” something with about as much use as passing on your turn.

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Edward was memorable for a multitude of things in FF4, but being a useful fighter was not one of them.

But these things don’t usually affect both the character and the story except in the form of scripted sequences; of COURSE Edward has the Hide option; the story dictates that his character is a coward. Darkest Dungeon takes this in a different direction — people don’t become fearful because the writers dictated it as such, but because of the unforseeable things that happen *to* them in your randomized dungeon runs. Quirks such as nervousness or anxiety about certain environments or monsters happens as a result of the adventures.

Look, going into a dungeon is a stressful situation for anyone. You’ve got things like horrific monsters, the impenetrable darkness around you, food (or lack thereof), even your own team mates to worry about, as well as any other factors you can imagine that could be remotely connected to these. If your heroes reach too high of a level of stress, they break down — and generally the situation spirals downward from there. If one person breaks, it has an effect on the other party members, and after that it doesn’t take much for the undead horrors, blood cultists, rotting pig-men and other lovely beasties down there to tear you apart.

And when they die, they stay dead.

One misstep and this game will punish you. In fact even when there are no missteps, this game will punish you. It’s a very heavy RNG (Random Number Generator) game, which is gamer-language for “luck.” Therefore you can have great RNG or bad RNG — despite any preparation or how solidly put together you think your party is.

If you’ve played this game before, you’ll understand when I say: “I’ve had luckier runs in this game with a motley group of level zeroes with NO HEALER than with a carefully constructed group of Level 3’s.” As my older brother and I used to say back in the day, when we’d play a game and for all practical purposes we should have succeeded/survived a situation, “The Game just decides [that it wins and we lose].”

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More than once I’ve envisioned tossing my computer out the window thanks to what can be chalked up as “bad RNG,” but I’ve come to understand that that is a major factor in the fun — without difficult times, we cannot compare successful or otherwise “Eh, could’ve been worse” situations. When you experience success in this game, when shit actually goes as planned (or you just downright get good RNG), it’s one of the most satisfying feelings I’ve had from a game since beating Dragon Age: Origins and making decisions that gave me the ending I wanted.

I haven’t even touched on the presentation. Perhaps what wraps Darkest Dungeon together so solidly is the dark, grimy art style, with heavy black lines and a slightly unfinished illustrative look. The minimalist, two-frame action animation works to such an effect that I had never previously imagined possible, and on top of it all we have an excellent soundtrack that succeeds, thoroughly, in cultivating a gloomy and often hopeless atmosphere.

This game gives you a sense of true Lovecraftian Horror; that humanity, despite all its best efforts and accomplishments, is utterly powerless in the face of cosmic evils. It’s not that the universe hates us, no, it exhibits something much, much worse:

Indifference.

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And if you spend enough time thinking about it, insignificance.

Overall, I sense that I’ll one day get fed up with bad RNG, but otherwise this game is a tremendous experience and has helped me grow in terms of storytelling. Whenever I write about adventurers (in a dungeon setting or otherwise), I’ll be paying as much attention to the Stress Meter as their hunger, bathroom and health gauges.

Game Review: Radiant Defense


I haven’t done a game review in a long time. This is largely in part because I’ve hardly played any games, especially since moving to Sai Gon. There is, however, something of a gaming community here, one that I’ve only recently partaken in, and lets just say it’s more than comforting to meet fellow birds of a feather.

Today, though, I’m focusing on a mobile game, one I’ve played in the past and recently downloaded again. Radiant Defense is a title released by Hexage Games, and in a nutshell it can be compared to most other Tower Defense games you or I have played. It stands out, however, with it’s radiance.

This game is heavily saturated with color, and in recent years I’ve come to understand my own personal aesthetic attraction toward bright colors. I love when women dye their hair some unnatural shade of the rainbow, or watching vibrantly painted motorbikes speed by, and even my favorite shirts are very “loud” (though solid) colors. The Candy-esque colors of Bangkok taxis were rather appealing, and the motley of mad skittles-themed clothing from hippies and mountain-tribes alike is fascinating to me.

 

Radiant Defense delivers in the eye-candy department.

It’s a free download, too, though there are expected micro-transactions. When I first played this game – perhaps a year and a half before this post – I did so avidly. During that time, I spent a lot of time on buses or trains during a commute from Woodstock, NY to Manhattan, and had ample time to read or listen to music. More often, though, I used that time to try downloadable mobile games from the Google Play Store.

Apparently it’s available on Steam, too, though not for free. I wager it contains all the tower upgrades.

The same company released an earlier game simply entitled Radiant, a game designed in the loving memory of early top-down shooters – such as Galaga. The developers don’t shy away from making references to such games, even referring to one of the multitude of flying enemy aliens as Galagan in origin. Well, says I, why not? It is most apropos.

Have videogames taught you nothing? Of course ship-sized bugs can fly through space with wings.

 

A cool thing is that Radiant and Radiant Defense do, in fact, occur in the same universe. There’s a special object that can be unlocked called the Eye of the Allfather, granting the ability to use Psionic Terrorshock – a map-wide slow that can make or break a stage. The flavor text for the structure reads as follows:

Vat-grown and stabilized ocular belonging to a terrifying alien specimen that’s believed to be the great ancestor of all alien lifeforms. Genetic material needed for its reproduction had been scraped off the battle-worn starship “Radiant” shortly after the legendary Sergent Max Blaster re-emerged from the past.

Galagan indeed.

There’ve been some complaints about Radiant Defense. After reaching a certain point, progression becomes extremely challenging, if not impossible, unless you purchase upgrades from the in-game store. I myself have in fact gotten a few, as much because I enjoy the game and wanted to support the developer as required them to move on.

At $0.99 each, an upgrade will unlock a number of new towers, meaning I’ve spent a grand total of $1.98 on this game.

And I am stingy as hell in general, let alone with online game purchases. I’m not being sponsored by Hexane games either for that matter – I’ve never received any benefit for my reviews except the for the satisfaction of having put some words out in the embroiling mass of tendrils known as the internet.

In any case, I like this game. Enough to have actually spent money on it. The writing and story is respectably minimal, too – it’s a Tower Defense, how much story is actually necessary for such a game to continue?

There is a little lampshading, though, which adds to the campy humor. Tower Defense games, by their very nature, don’t really follow any kind of logic in terms of actual warfare. You build towers that continually mow down relentless waves of mindless enemies running in a line. To those unfamiliar with this genre, that might sound boring – and in some games, it is. But Radiant: Defense has a mix of interesting towers and peculiar enemies that make it stand out among many other TD’s I’ve tried.

For the record, the best tower defense I’ve ever played, that echoes in my memory as possibly the one to rule them all, wasn’t a standalone game, but rather a modded custom level for Warcraft 3: Frozen Throne. You can download the map here, if you happen to have that game still kicking around in your harddrive.

This’s a reference that’ll click with approximately three of you.

 

Aside from the word radiant being one of my top favorite words — aside which you’ll find the words ambientnoticeable, and amiable, you should try Radiant: Defense.

Review: Sword Art Online (Anime)

It was the final week before my big move. The majority of my time during this time was concerned with tying up loose ends and seeing various persons “for the last time.”

On one of these days, a day was devoted to spending time with an old buddy of mine, and in true geek fashion, we sought out a new anime to watch on Netflix.

“Hmm,” said my friend, sitting at the dining table with a laptop in front of him. “What’s this? Sword Art Online, have you seen that one?”

“No,” I replied, an arm’s length away in the kitchen, fumbling with what would amount to our meal of the day. “Saw the title and cover but haven’t tried it yet.”

“It’s got four stars. Want to check it out?”

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“Four stars, eh?” I said, doubtful. “Fine, why not?”

We watched the first episode, found ourselves hesitantly intrigued by the premise. We established that we would give the second episode a chance, and then the third. My buddy and I looked at one another, mutual understanding passing between us.

“I have an idea,” said he.

We promptly left the apartment to run out and acquire a monstrous bottle of cheap sake, returning to eagerly resume an anime series that, to both of our surprise and delight, turned out to be pretty damn good.

There are some spoilers to be had here, but mostly for the sake of sharing impressions.

A little backstory on my experience with anime. I’m no otaku, so I don’t claim to be any kind of expert on this subject. I consumed a lot of anime and JRPGs in my younger days, but when it came to it, I’ve had people look at me and say, “You’re not an otaku, Jesse. You’re just a nerd.”

Just thought I’d share.

Anyway, I haven’t had the patience to really sit and watch an anime series in some time. Most anime I come across follows the same tropy storylines filled with recognizeably cookie-cutter archetypal characters – and I won’t say that Sword Art Online is bereft of this. Let’s just say that it takes something particular to really catch my attention. SAO did so, mostly on account of the Gaming and Fantasy theme they have going on, but we found ourselves surprisingly engaged by some of the subplots and ideas explored.

If you’re yet unfamiliar with Sword Art Online, the story begins with with the official launch of a Virtual Reality Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (VRMMORPG). Think World of Warcraft, Guild Wars 2, Star Wars: The Old Republic – the difference being a piece of hardware simply called NerveGear, which echoes of the Occulis Rift. It’s essentially the kind of game that people like me used to dream about existing. No doubt millions of other gamers as well, no doubt the target audience for this series.

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Then there’s that plot element where users (about 10,000 on that first launch day) discover that if they die in game, the NerveGear will fry their brains, killing them in reality. The only way out of the game is beat it, so the race is on. At which point my comrade and I exchanged glances once again, coming to an agreement that getting stuck in such a fantasy realm probably wouldn’t be so bad.

There was, in fact, a large body of players who became so accustomed to living in the game world – after the first 2,200 or so deaths in the first month – that they resigned themselves to never escaping. It became the new normal, while their bodies remained hooked up to NerveGear and IVs in (presumably) hospital beds. For the first half of the series, no one has gotten out and no external messages have penetrated the server.

Now, normally I’d be hesitant to invest in an anime like this, simply on account of the main character being a 14-year-old, which in writer speech means the target demographic is a younger audience. This series is undeniably shōnen, a term for manga/anime that can be best summarized by wikipedia:

…a popular demographic of Japanese comics, and often features a teenage cast as well as a combat based plot while exploring themes of protecting those you care about, understanding each other and developing friendship/comradery.

Sword Art Online does not fall short on any of these terms, and while I find nothing inherently wrong with these things, I’m just generally not attracted to such stories. Yet there were surprisingly dark moments scattered throughout the series – suicides, characters you find yourself liking getting killed off early, and a pretty damn despicable villain.

Bottom line is that if you aren’t, or weren’t, a gamer, much of this anime will likely be uninteresting. I’ve heard how the premise is really not all that different from another series known as .hack, so originality goes out the window. On the other hand, it’s often easy to forget the characters interacting with each other are all avatars, and maybe it was the sake talking, but the touching moments hit me right in the feels.

That and I am a self-confessed sap and hopeless romantic, so that factors in too.

This is not a story about the mind-bending exploration of A.I. or the realm of the digital, as seen in Ghost In The Shell or Lain, nor is this about epic adventures in a fantasy realm a la Record of Lodoss War.

They do, however, explore a number of interesting online-gaming themes. Falling perfectly in line with the shōnen genre, we are faced with the question of: “Are the feelings I develop for someone online real?”

The idea of what kind of person you play in an online game reflects your true colors is revisited several times. I found one of the most interesting mini-plots to be a murder mystery. There’s this real-world married couple, and the wife is killed in-game — meaning of course her real-world body died as a result. It’s eventually revealed that the husband had her killed because, outside the game, she was “…the perfect wife. Pretty. Submissive.” But in-game, unbound by the restrictions of conventional life, she was able to blossom. She was strong, brave, independent. The husband hated it, seeing it as though the woman he had loved had died, replaced by something else.

Well done, series. The fact that this opinion was pretty much regarded with disgust by the other characters is pretty progressive, especially for Japan.

We watched the entirety of the series in two days, which is something I ordinarily wouldn’t do, let alone mention in public, except that the experience, shared with an old comrade, made it worthwhile. The idea of binge-watching anything is strange to me still, since it screams “consumer.” I rather prefer get into binge writing or binge editing.

Sword Art Online isn’t mind-blowing, isn’t amazing, isn’t the best anime ever — in fact I’ve read that it’s rather overrated. Perhaps so. But I liked it, and I found myself amazed, at myself, for the range of emotions the story provoked out of me.

That, says I, is what makes a good story.

…And then the second half of the series rolled around, and the experience started going downhill.

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Basically, it felt like the series (25 episodes) was actually two separate seasons. Halfway through, the hero defeats the game, and SAO users are set free. But there’s a new VRMMORPG out there in which the love interest is still trapped, so it falls to the hero to dive back in and get her out for reasons. This time around, the new world is fairy-based; players can fly, they still use NerveGear, but there`s no stakes this time around. In-game death doesn’t mean real-world death anymore; the only thing keeping us in the audience rooting for the main character is so he can Save The Imprisoned Girl and defeat the Big Bad holding her there.

I suppose the most interesting stuff coming out of the second half was actually the real-world ramifications of Sword Art Online. The world (as in, mostly Japan) found itself beset by a small population of peculiar people whose bodies and minds were shaped by their 2.5 year long period trapped in a digital fantasy realm. Some users were small children, and a few years could mean 1/3 or 1/4 of their lives. Formative years.

Adjustment, or readjustment, to the real world would be akin to PTSD in many people. This would have made a more interesting story, but no — instead the second half of the series focuses mainly on the awkward one-sided romantic feelings that the hero’s adopted sister (who is his cousin) develops for him. Thankfully the developers did not take this in an even more uncomfortable direction, if one were to take that factor out, then there’s suddenly almost nothing left to half or a quarter of a series.

A shame.

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Some pretty sick art, though. This here is a tree.

The ending left a sour taste of disappointment in my mouth, especially since things started off so great. Apparently there’s a Season 2, but I think I’ll be skipping that. The music wasn’t half bad, either; I confess having had the first 15 seconds of the opening theme as an earworm.

All in all, though, I feel a familiar feeling when something I enjoy ends. At the end of a great book, or game, or movie or show, there lingers a sense of emptiness. That sounds a lot more dramatic than it actually is, but personally I hate unfinal endings.

The most satisfying endings to an anime, you ask? Not counting Studio Ghibli or other standalone anime: Samurai Champloo, Evangelion (as in, The End of Evangelion), and Death Note (though it took forever for it to end) left me happy.

If you’re into games, fantasy, teenagers going berserk with oversized weapons and the all-too-frequent awkwardness that comes with over-animated young adults, then you’ll likely dig this series. I was really invested for awhile, and despite my willingness to set aside my usual causes for hesitation, the series fell through.

Two out of Five stars. Overrated.

 

Class Progression 2/3 : Druids

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Oh come on, this’s good.

For better context, be sure and read Part 1 of this series, where I focused on my fascination with paladins back when I was a sprout.

For the record, the concept of a paladin remains interesting to me today, but World of Warcraft pretty much destroyed my idea of what paladins represented. This was mostly on account of the people behind their avatars, and how a paladin was, and remains, basically “a knight who has holy magic but does what he wants regardless of the moral implications.”

At any rate, as I matured into that awkward stage of life where hundreds of other people my age, drunk to our gills in hormones, are stuffed together in small rooms (at least that’s how I remember high school), my interest in warrior-related class preferences went through a transition. I was exposed to other concepts of what it meant to be a warrior; I studied Buddhism and developed an interest in East-Asian cultures. As a teenager and with the limited resources available to me (the internet was new at the time), the most readily available media came from Japan. I discovered anime and a slew of games, and through it the exaggerated concepts of samurai swordsmanship. Rurouni Kenshin was a big influence.

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I played the hell out of this horribly mis-painted yet excellent game.

My interest in Eastern philosophies, cultures and traditions evolved, though in many video games I played, this manifested in the form of favoring any character who would/could carry a katana – or better yet, a no-dachi. But alongside them came a healthy respect for a class very often seen in fantasy media: the monk. Martial arts, though not a passion of mine, has remained a strong point of interest and respect for me.

These interests and preferences came from a common root arguably seen in a paladin; warriors who fought and employed abilities that came from an external source, a higher belief, in some form or another. No disrespect to the barbarians and berserkers out there reading this, but when it came to physical combat, I always found myself attracted to warrior-classes that fought for some kind of ideal — as opposed to a warrior that was just “badass.”

The monk, in it’s various incarnations throughout games over these last few decades, often exemplified this almost as perfectly as the paladin — except (usually) with that distinctive “Fantasy-Asian” flavor. I think my favorite monks were found in Final Fantasy Tactics (which also had samurai and holy knights, come to think of it), though I’ll enjoy most any character capable of standing toe-to-toe with opponents armed and armored in tempered steal, with little more than calloused knuckles and foot wraps.

https://i1.wp.com/www.finalfantasykingdom.net/tactics/tacticsmonk.jpg

They could punch through steel armor. That’s freaking awesome.

Yet the monk, and many martial artist-like characters and classes out there, did not quite resonate as “me,” not in the way paladins did when I was younger. Considering the area in which I grew up and the people I knew there, “Eastern” thoughts and “alternative thinking” kinda left me mostly on my own, save a few individuals. What this, and the appearance of certain influential Blizzard games, primed me for was my fascination with the druid.

I cannot remember the first time I had come across the concept of a druid. It might have been during Magic: The Gathering, where they were inarguably green, but at that time I was more drawn to angels. No, it was the Warcraft series, specifically the introduction of the Night Elves, that really got me into things druidic.

And yes, I’m well aware of the historical druids of our world.

Then of course Warcraft 3 followed by World of Warcraft came around, and having favored the Night Elf faction, I rolled a druid the moment I got my hands on WoW. I shan’t linger on the precise mechanics of that game, nor their place in the world lore. What I’m going to talk about is the concept of a druid, which at it’s core, holds strands in common with the druids of other universes, such as that of Dungeons & Dragons (in its many incarnations), Everquest, and others.

Now for those of you unfamiliar with what a druid actually is, here’s a nifty excerpt from TVtropes.org :

“In modern fiction, “druid” is typically used for a nature-themed magic-user that usually has flavour of priesthood, especially if they hail from pre-Christian Europe (or fantastical equivalent). Unlike standard issue Fighter, Mage, Thief or well-defined concepts such as The Paladin, druid capabilities may vary highly based on setting, although in principle it’s a very broad spectrum: their powers govern just about everything connected to living things and unliving manifestations of nature…”

Yup, totally what I saw myself as in WoW. At least when I wasn’t getting ganked.

What we have here is a warrior inspired and empowered by nature. Now there’s an ideal, the power of nature; a spiritual background that appealed to me — a boy raised in the woods by vegetarian hippy parents. A druid, whether a single individual or part of some circle, very ranger-like in their abstaining from society, and were very much outliers in most any given setting. They were loners, preservers, and really had a handle on “the big picture.”

Often enough, nature falls in that gray area between clearly defined Good and Evil, Black and White, Light and Darkness. Nature is its own thing.

These were ideas to which I could subscribe. The druid felt very “me,” and throughout my college years this could be seen in my work as an Art Major (examples of which I will spare you). But more than that, I learned about the concept of adaptability in terms of character class, and this served to develop my personal psychology to lasting effect. Allow me to paint for you a mental picture.

In World of Warcraft, druids were designed to be versatile; not counting actual in-game application (which was in a constant state of flux), the various animal forms a druid could assume allowed for adapting to almost any situation. Turning into a bear allowed for greater hit points and the ability to pull enemies away from your allies; turning into a panther/lion fulfilled the role of a rogue, allowing quick bursts of damage; a moonkin (owlbear to you D&Ders) that blasted enemies with nature magic; and even a tree form to enhance one’s healing spells. Hell, one could even assume the form of a fast beast (a cheetah in the early days, and lately it’s been a stag) for long distance travel comparable to riding a horse, or even take on the form of a bird to fly over mountains and buildings. Sea lion form was available as well, allowing for speeding up rivers and across lakes. One could switch between most of these animal forms in a matter of seconds, without any particular limitation, making druids very slippery and cunning.

With so many options available, I found it unfulfilling to play any of the ‘mimicked’ classes. Rogues and Warriors and Mages did their role arguably better than a druid, but that’s all they did. I wasn’t satisfied with that, and this reflected in my life choices as well.

How could I adhere to one single career path if it meant specializing in one thing for the next 10 years? Or worse, the rest of my life?

How gods awful boring is that?

In the next and final installment of  this series, I’ll discuss which class with which I most identify myself today, as a matured adult in a modern age.

Music selection today is brought to you by, I couldn’t resist, Blizzard. Warcraft 3: Reign of Chaos to be precise, when the night elf race made their debut and druids became “a thing” in Blizzard games (we do not speak of the druids in Diablo 2). This music harkens back to the time before the fall of Blizzard, in the opinion of this humble gamer.

This track is known as “Awakening,” the second of the three original night elf tracks, and it was chosen not only because hey, guess what, I rambled on about Warcraft games again, but because this track is unique among “nature tracks” I know. It begins with a determined mood, accompanied by a peculiar blend of drums and mandolin, then fades into a serene, peaceful atmospheric verse. With your volume up high enough, you can hear birds in the back, can almost see the untouched glades hidden amongst pristine, ancient forests; the wild and magical places of the world that druids call home and swear to protect. Then the music builds once more, back into determined, warlike tones of a mindset aware that if one is to be a “nature lover” in a fantasy setting, one must come equip with a savage side.

Happy writing, dear readers!

 

Review: God of Blades (Game)

Some time ago, I came across a Humble Bundle that allowed me to get a bunch of Android games. The Humble Bundle is great for getting a handful of games (in some cases, movies and soundtracks) that otherwise one may never have been exposed to or even heard of.

Case in point: God of Blades, available over at the Google play store. No, nobody’s paying me for this – like anyone ever as. Rather, I genuinely enjoyed this game and derived some inspiration from it. Let me tell you why.

God of Blades has a very simple narrative, as the game is itself fairly simple. As one of those Endless Running Games, the difference is you run forward with a sword, something that Indiana Jones wannabee from Temple Run could stand learning how to do. Swipes of the finger chop-slash-slice your foes as you push onward. The story is also quite simple: you play as a reawakened spirit, a sort of warrior of cosmic light, and must battle through numerous foes to slay an evil known as the Sable King.

Now what makes this game good is, well, yes there are swords. Anyone into weaponry (and one presumes Fantasy nerds are to some degree) can appreciate this, as the arsenal at your disposal in this game is surprisingly diverse. The common factor is that all of your weapons are two handed swords (though one is described as an ax), but even with that restraint the creators came up with some interesting designs. Personally, I’m rather a fan of Barbarox in concept, the Tower in usefulness, and Whisper in style.

The setting is extremely cosmic, with mention of The Void and Old Gods and the like. Your character is not a mere man, making everything all the more feasible, and your foes are corrupt mortals (possibly) that march upon you with intents of, you know, murdering existence.

This game has a very strong sense of what they call pulp fantasy – though I’ve really yet to nail down a definition of that – but any artists out there will know what I’m talking about if I mention the name Frank Frazetta or, as I’ve read in another review, Roger Dean. The music is odd too, adding a very cosmic air to the fighting and menus that really leaves me feeling small in this vast universe.

But it’s creations like this that inspire me to write on a scale much more epic than “to save the king” or “to save the world.” When existence is peril, well, that’s a bit grandiose to be sure, but this game pulls it off well. The abstract art style, cosmic setting and spacey music combine nicely to really just put you there.

Well worth the couple dollars.

Happy writing!