Archive | April, 2011

I Like Final Fantasy 13 and You Might Too

30 Apr

Reasons why I enjoyed one of the most hated Final Fantasy games and reason to give it a try if you haven’t yet.

I know this will get me a lot of flack but I like Final Fantasy 13. I like it a lot. It is probably in my top five favorite JRPGs ever. Even worse, many of the reasons I like it are commonly mentioned as reasons why others hate it. I know for a fact that my love of Final Fantasy 13 was spurned on by my ever growing hatred of many of the classic features of the JRPG genre. The one I played right before it was nearly the straw that broke the camels back. It was Suikoden 4 and it was one of the worst games I’ve ever played. (Note: This one is a bit long because I explain why many of the negative arguments about FF13 are wrong or didn’t bother me while stating its positive features. For a quick summary of why you should try the game, check the end of the article.)

Many classic JRPG features were poorly executed in Suikoden 4. One of these was open explorable world. The setting was composed of bland cities and large stretches of ocean. While each city had its own theme, block by block each city looked the same. Forgot exactly where the weapon shop is? Well feel free to wander aimlessly through this maze of boring brown walls. The towns were tied together with a terribly sailing system. The controls were awkward and sailing anywhere spawned random encounters. Due to that combo it sometimes took me up to twenty minutes to get from one island to another nearby island. An open world that was both a pain to explore and not worth the effort softened me up for Final Fantasy 13.

Yes, Final Fantasy 13 is just a chain of long pretty corridors and yes, the shops are just a list of menus you can access at any save point. That doesn’t bother me. Aside from being sick of poorly implemented exploration, two other genres I like might explain why losing the ability to wander didn’t bother me: Tactical JRPGs and Shooters. In Tactical JRPGs, all shops are just menus which are available at towns and movement from location to location is as easy as selecting it from a list or clicking on the locations icon on the map. And as for shooters, they can often be corridor after corridor of guys to shoot and if the shooting is good or the plot is interesting, I won’t even notice until someone points it out. If exploration is done well, I don’t mind it but I definitely don’t miss it when its gone.

My favorite part of all of Final Fantasy 13 is the combat. Some JRPGs have good turned-based combat like Persona 3 which actually requires strategy but most just require you to use your biggest attacks as often as possible and remember to heal periodically. FF13 has rapid combat that requires strategic thinking to succeed and get a good score. Each enemy has its own elemental strengths and weakness. As well as paying attention to those as you select your abilities, the best way to hurt any mob though is to get them staggered. Enemies become staggered once you have filled their combo bar. To build a combo you need to use both of the two types of damaging classes. Ravagers build up combos fast but the combo points they generate fade rapidly. Commandos generate less combo points but they keep the Ravager’s combo points from fading. Aside from Commandos and Ravagers there are classic classes like Tank, Healer, Buffer and Debuffer. Each of the characters can be several of these classes and you can switch their class actively in battle which you will need to do often to keep up your combo while keeping your party alive. I hear it is possible to use a tank, a healer and a ravager and slowly grid your way through each fight. Not only will this not give you a good score on the fight but it is not any fun. The combat of Final Fantasy 13 when done correctly is strategic and some of the most fun I’ve ever had in JRPG combat.

Another positive thing about the combat is that none of the fights are random. Similarly to Persona 3, you can see all the fights in your path. Also like Persona 3, not only can sneaking up on the enemies give you an advantage in the fight versus them but if you try, you can avoid certain fights all together. Random encounters don’t allow you to attempt to get a strategic edge and they force you to load the whole fight before it will allow you to run away to avoid that particular fight. Well implemented visible encounters can add a lot to JRPG combat, forcing you to pay attention and plan ahead as you cross the terrain.

One of the biggest complaints I hear about Final Fantasy 13 is that the characters unrealistic and drama queens. For a prime example of unrealistic character reactions, all I need to do is refer back to Suikoden 4. Near the very beginning of the game, a horrible accident occurs which kills the protagonist’s mentor/father figure. One of the other characters interrogates the main character to see if he killed his mentor. Sadly, Suikoden 4’s main character is a silent protagonist so it goes something like this.
Other Character- “Hey you there, you just killed your surrogate father figure, didn’t you?”
Protagonist- *blank monkey-faced stare*
OC- “I can’t believe you would do that. If you didn’t kill him, just say something.”
Protagonist- *Blink Blink*
OC- “Well since you don’t object…For your horrible and unforgivable crimes which we’d exonerate you of if you’d just say it wasn’t you, we will banish you from the only home you know and love.”
Protagonist- *blank monkey-faced stare*
It is hard to feel sorry for a guy who won’t speak up to keep himself from a lonely existence of eternal banishment. Though an extreme example, this is what unrealistic character reactions to tragedy look like.

When people say that Final Fantasy 13’s characters are overreacting to everything, I feel that most people don’t understand the seriousness of the events that occur at the beginning of the game. To say it in the most basic terms, they have become their cultures equivalent of demons. Specifically, they are banished from their homeland after being cursed to follow the orders of a deity of an opposing nation which is often referred to as hell. All of the events of the game happen within hours after this traumatic and life changing experience occurring. On top of this, one character just lost his mother, one lost his girlfriend, one lost her sister and one thinks he will soon lose his son. If you expect them to react calmly, then you have no concept of how grief effects a person. The characters of Final Fantasy 13 are just dealing with their recent tragedies in a natural and human way.

Though the characters of Final Fantasy 13 start out as standard JRPG stereotypes, each of them grows and changes, resulting is better characters then many JRPGs offer. I’ll focus on the three most hated characters and quickly without spoiling anything explain why they are better characters then most people give them credit for. I’ll start with Hope, my personal least favorite character. Hope begins the game as a weak and sniveling whiner. I often joked that Vanille was holding his testicles for him since she was always trying to help him stand up for himself. Over the course of the game though, Hope changes from a pussy to being on a vengeful rampage to coming to terms with all that has occurred and growing up a little. Even though early on Hope made me want to choke him, the fact that he grew and changed as a person made him a better character then I expected.

Snow is another widely hated character but I liked him the instant I met him. For one, instead of being the classic Cloud-angsty-and-too-cool-to-care-about-anyone, he is deeply devoted to his girlfriend much as the main female character of JRPGs often is to their boyfriend/love interest. Seeing a male character who really loves his girlfriend instead of thinking of her as disposable is a nice change of pace for any type of male character let alone the angsty world of JRPGs. He also is an optimist. I feel this is where he got on most people’s nerves but it was apparent at least to me that he was pretending to believe everything would be alright so as to bring hope to himself and the rest of the team. Snow belongs to the school of thought of “fake it until you make it”. His frequent declarations of how he is a hero so there is no way anything bad can happen scream of a positive mantra repeated so as to hopefully make it true. Snow did sometimes annoy me but his willful positive attitude and love of his girlfriend helped him stick out from the classic JRPG male stereotypes.

My favorite character and another of the most hated is Vanille. Based on the reviews I read before playing Final Fantasy 13, I expected her to be the classic Zany character, always doing or saying something silly to the point of being annoying. Instead I found her immediately likeable. While Vanille does say some odd things from time to time, it becomes increasingly apparent as the story progresses that she say them because she struggling with her own problems while lying to the rest of the group about them. She doesn’t want them to worry about her but she also doesn’t want them to figure out her secret. This causes her to react to questions in odd ways or pause momentarily before she says certain things, particularly when she is lying or trying to make the others feel better. Vanille is a character whose depth gets revealed as you continue through the story, saving her from being just that annoying zany character.

I will say it loud and say it proud, I enjoyed Final Fantasy 13. The combat was some of the best JRPG combat I’ve ever experienced, I grew to like all of the characters who were neither as shallow nor as irrational as some people said they were and I didn’t mind the corridor structure of the areas you cut through. I hope that this article convinces a few people who disregarded FF13 due to all the negative hype to give it a chance.

In summary, play Final Fantasy 13 if you:
-Like your combat strategic and fast
-Don’t mind running down corridors for most of the game
-Hate random battles and like to be able to avoid entire encounters before they even start
-Are sick of many of the standard JRPG features, especially due to experiencing them done poorly recently

And don’t play Final Fantasy 13 if you:
-Want to tape down X to win all your fights
-Are unwilling to comprehend that tragedy effects characters’ reactions
-Love every JRPG as long as it is filled with your old standbys of turn-based combat, open world setting, a must-save-the-world plot and angsty teens with lots of buckles no matter how poorly any of these features are executed

Kuragehime

24 Apr

An Anime and Manga Recommendation

I’m a fan of anime and manga in general but for a series to become a favorite of mine, it needs to stand out from the crowd in one way or the other. Kuragehime also known as Princess Jellyfish is one of those that quickly went from being recommended by a friend to one of my favorite series in recent memory. It is a josei series with a tone that is two parts hilarious and one part heartwarming. Kuragehime is about an all girl apartment building packed full of the most awkward nerds you’ll ever meet. They refer to themselves as the amars which is the Japanese word for nun. Each of the girls has a different obsession from trains to kimonos and each of the girls is brimming with personality. Having a show where the majority of the characters are otaku is an uncommon feature that helps Kuragehime stick out.

Though the general group of the nerdy girls is interesting, the interactions of the two main characters are what will keep you watching. The first main character you meet is Tsukimi. She is the youngest of the amars and her obsession is jellyfish. She is awkward, creative and has no self confidence. One day she meets the second main character, a trendy girl named Kuranosuke. Though normally the amars don’t talk to stylish people, Kuranosuke helps Tsukimi rescue a jellyfish from a pet store, which causes Tsukimi to be slightly more friendly towards her then she normally would be. Kuranosuke takes this opening and runs with it, refusing to leave Tsukimi or the amars alone. Kuranosuke is an impulsive, stubborn dreamer and as the amars and particularly Tsukimi warm up to her, her influence causes their reclusive existence to be turned upside down. From trying to save their beloved apartment building to having their first encounters with love, Kuranosuke’s friendship pushes them out of their comfort zone and in to the world.

Kuragehime stands out from the crowd with more then just its unusual supporting cast and interesting main characters. Despite the plot revolving around the general concept of a trendy girl befriending nerds, the main focus isn’t about her making them all “beautiful”. Sure, Kuranosuke does give them makeovers but this is mostly due to her liking to play with clothes and hoping to give the amars more confident through the usage of these clothes. These trendy clothes are portrayed and even described as armor for the amars to use in their battles on the front lines of real life. Kuranosuke doesn’t think they need to change. She thinks they are beautiful the way they are and even yells at her old friends for mocking their attire. She appreciates the amars for who they are and doesn’t think they need to become stylish which is a refreshing take on the makeover story this series seems like it is destiny to become.

On this blog, I focus on character and plot most of the time so it may come as a surprise that one of my favorite features of Kuragehime isn’t writing related but is in fact the art. Every frame of the anime and panel of the manga blows me away artistically. It is not only detailed but also very pretty. Each of the amars is drawn with personality which makes them distinct and cute despite their awkwardness. Kuranosuke is beautiful and interesting to look at due to her constantly changing hair and outfits. Tsukimi is attractive even before Kuranosuke makes her over and the jellyfishes are surprisingly elegant. On top of looking great, all of the characters have vivid and expressive faces that get their emotions across. Kuragehime is one of the best looking animes I’ve ever watched.

To begin your Kuragehime experience, I recommend that you first watch the anime then once you are frustrated and disappointed with the rushed ending of the anime, read the manga. The stuff that isn’t just portrayed completely in the anime starts on chapter 20 but if you really enjoyed the anime, rereading the events in manga form can be a fun way to relive your positive experience. I truthfully recommend this series to everyone and hope that some of you will give it a try.

NoBrandCon

16 Apr

NoBrandCon is Eau Claire’s premiere anime convention. It has everything a con needs: anime, gaming, cosplayers, a vendor room and most importantly, interesting people to meet. I have worked the con two years in the past as a volunteer and I loved it. This year I am excited and honored to have a table featuring my crafts in the Artist’s Alley. In lieu of a nicely written blog entry, I just going to post photos of the stuff I have for sale at the con.


If you happen to be in the area, swing by and say Hi!

Pan-Fried Noodles Out of Whatever You Can Find

8 Apr

A Recipe

Like many nerds or generally awesome people, I have a thing for Asian food. Japanese is some of my favorite but I like Chinese and Thai food as well. Making nice tasting Asian food though can be a difficult process or at least requires have the correct ingredients. I can’t even count how many times I’ve wanted pan-fried noodles but had none of the traditionally expected ingredients to make it out of. It is thanks to my mother’s influence and my stubborn nature that I can provide this non-specific recipe for pan-fried noodles. There are several important components and for each component, I’ll offer several options, both so that it can match your own person tastes and match what is in you cupboard/refrigerator. Note that due to the imprecise nature of the recipe, each time you make it will taste different and there is a small chance of it being not particularly delicious. Failures like these are always a factor when cooking from such fluid recipe but I feel that that makes the successes all the more delicious.

Sauce
One of the trickiest components of the pan-fried noodles. If you happen to have teriyaki sauce or other actual Asian sauces on hand and like the taste this part is easy. Otherwise there are many things you can make a suitable sauce from that can be found in a normal kitchen. Below are some good options but feel free to try others.

Sweet Bases: Orange Juice, Barbecue Sauce, Pineapple Juice (from can of pineapple chunks okay), Brown Sugar, Ketchup, Jelly

Salty Bases: Soy Sauce, Peanut Butter, Chicken Broth, Beef Broth

Spicy Bases: Salsa, Hot Sauce

Spices: Cumin (smokey), Chili Powder (spicy), Curry Powder

An important thing to remember when mixing these together to make a sauce is to balance out salty stuff with some sweet and sweet with some salty. Also remember to mix these sauces together in a separate bowl and taste frequently to see if it is turning out as desired. Make plenty to make sure that you have enough to cover your all your ingredients.
Examples: Peanut Butter + Soy Sauce + Brown Sugar = Salty
Orange Juice + Soy Sauce + Hot Sauce = Sweet and Spicy
Barbecue Sauce or Ketchup + Beef Broth + Cumin = Sweet and Smokey

Protein, Vegetables and Fruit
This is really a matter of taste and what you can find. Below are some personal suggestions.

Proteins: Chicken, Beef, Pork, Shrimp, Ham, Tofu, Nuts (crushed), Eggs
For eggs, crack the desired amount of eggs into the dish once all the food is mixed together and being fried up. Flip and stir for a long time, at least until the dish appears filled with scrambled eggs. Cook all other raw proteins in either oil or the sauce you have prepared until done.

Vegetables: Bell Peppers(note: red and yellow are sweet while green are slightly bitter, keep in mind with sauce prepared), Carrots, Broccoli, Celery, Water Chestnuts, Bean Sprouts, Spinach (gets slimy but some people don’t mind that texture), Mushrooms, Bok Choy, Sweet Potatoes, Onions

Fruit: Pineapple, Normal Oranges or Mandarin Oranges if you like that whole fruit in stir fry thing
For both fruit and vegetables make sure to cut in to small pieces. Separate out any of the firm vegetables such as carrots, broccoli, or sweet potatoes from the rest of the stuff.

Noodles
Any long, thin noodle will work. Some personal favorites are: Ramen, Spaghetti, Udon, Rice Noodles
Put water on stove. Add sweet potatoes if part of your dish. Bring water to boil. Add noodles. Add carrots or broccoli if either are a part of your dish Prepare noodles according to instructions. Strain and keep in strainer.

Prepare
Now it’s time for the final step, putting it all together. Find a large saucepan/fry pan or actual wok. Add just enough oil to coat the base of the pan (canola or olive are best). Heat up pan. Once oil is hot, add noodles, protein, vegetables, fruit and enough sauce to coat it. Toss in oil until vegetables start to brown and everything seems warm. Eat!

While these impromptu pan-fried noodles might never be as good as the ones you can get from you favorite Asian food restaurant, they are easy to make and can add a little taste of Asian cuisine to your day to day life.

The Adventures of Bitch Shepard Begin plus Miracle of Sound

1 Apr

-Bitch Shepard

I’m naturally a kind person. I hold open doors for strangers, smile at those who pass me by and do favors for my friends. Therefore when I play Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2, I naturally lean towards Paragon. Some people might tell you that paragon is “good” while renegade is “evil”. This is not the truth. Both alignments of Shepard are trying to save the galaxy. They are both looking out for the greater good. The difference is how they go about it. Paragon Shepard is kind, friendly, trusting of strangers, idealistic, overall follows the law and treats all races as equals. This results in sometime is a Shepard which gets duped, sounds high and mighty from time to time and earns less money from not dealing with shady characters.

Renegade Shepard, on the other hand is an awkward mix of pragmatism, professionalism, badass-ness, racism, and being a jerk. The first three traits work fine together but with the racism and being a jerk thrown in there, it results in a Shepard who acts highly unpredictably. If you are seeking to develop a consistent Shepard in your mind, renegade playthroughs can make that hard. Also, wavering on which alignment you choose can have some negative implications since having a high renegade or paragon score are required to select some of the most powerful conversation options. So if you want to be kind to your crew but a son of a bitch to strangers, you’ll see your lack of single-minded character development harm you in the long run.

Though not a perfect solution, I think I have figured a way to make Shepard come across as less crazy. It involves using a feature added to the radial dialogue system in Dragon Age 2. When you hover over a dialogue choice, a picture is displayed in the center of the radial. The picture hints at what the nature of your response will be such as a heart for flirting. If the pragmatic and professional aspects could get a symbol (let’s say a pistol) and the racism and being a general ass had another (like a fist), you could avoid the aspects of renegade you dislike and form a much more consistent character. Of course a similar set of symbols would be implemented for paragon so to help those who’d like to be kind without being taken for a chump. While not a perfect system since it requires learning a set of symbols, it would help clarify Shepard’s intent while still allowing the ability to continue to navigate the dialogue quickly. Without such cues, either Shepard but particularly renegade Shepard comes across as a rather inconsistent character.

The difficulty of realistically characterizing a renegade Shepard more then any other reason has dissuaded me from doing a renegade playthrough until just recently. Well-developed characters are one of my favorite things in the world. While Shepard is probably one of the least interesting characters in the Mass Effect trilogy, they are the gateway through which the player interacts with the world and therefore it detracts from the experience if Shepard is too inconsistent to be considered a real character. To get through the experience of a renegade playthrough, I vowed to myself that I would not attempt to mentally characterize this Shepard and instead am treating her has an exercise in hyperbole. I will play this Shepard as renegade as possible to see where those choices lead as well as to laugh at how schizophrenic she comes across. I mentally refer to her as Bitch Shepard as I play.

So far it has been pretty funny, though I’m not very far yet. My favorite moment that has happened so far was when I knocked out Manuel, the slightly crazy assistant of a scientist I found in the area where the player is first introduced to husks. My Shepard first said “Night Night, Manuel” in a creepy voice and then punched him so hard he passed out. The scientist freaked out at my treatment of her assistant and I calmly and pragmatically explain that he was unstable, unpredictable, and could have hurt someone at any moment. Sound like anyone you know, eh Shepard? I hope to recount the funniest or most thought-provoking bits of my experience with my renegade in a reoccurring segment I’ll call The Adventures of Bitch Shepard. Tune in from time to time to see more hilarious hijinks and thoughtful in-game character development commentary.

-Miracle of Sound

This next bit is slightly Mass Effect related but mostly just a quick recommendation I wanted to get out there. Miracle of Sound is a musician best known probably for his original song, “Commander Shepard “

It doesn’t matter if you haven’t played Mass Effect, this song is dangerously fun, catchy and rocks quite a bit more then most people would expect a song about a video game to rock. And just this week, The Escapist, my favorite nerd lifestyle website, started featuring his music. His newest song, Age of the Dragon, is one his best yet with its earworm refrain and driving guitar. I haven’t even played Dragon Age 2 (which it is about) and I already downloaded the song from iTunes because I enjoyed it so much. It is always exciting to see someone with this much talent and creativity get rewarded for their efforts, but since I was already a fan and he is getting featured on one of my favorite websites, I’m doubly excited. Aside from the two songs I mentioned above, he has two other songs I really like: Gordon Freeman Saved My Life about Half-Life and I Suck at Call Of Duty. Sure his lyrics can be silly and his hooks are considered cheesy by certain people but hopefully some of you will give him a listen and discover that music about video games can rock. He will be uploading a new song that can be found at the Escapist ever two weeks of so on Wednesdays.