Sunday, September 26, 2010

Final Fantasy XIII (video game)

Platform: X-Box 360, PS3
Developer: Square-Enix
Genre: RPG
ESRB Rating: T
Release Date: March 9th, 2010

When you're a developer with the history of Square-Enix, your reputation not only precedes you, but can also be your own worst enemy. The expectations are higher and the bar you yourself raised must not only be met, but surpassed every time. The worlds eyes turn to you, watching expectantly. What would be a small disappointment in the hands of lesser developers is a big disappointment for you. Your own standard of excellence turns against you. But for Square, they've managed to surprise and succeed, even if their decisions became iffier after the merge with Enix.

At least, they have up until now; the fact that the disappointment is the long awaited thirteenth entry in their most venerable franchise merely makes the sting that much worse. In fact, there's a feeling of ever-present laziness in this title. It starts when you realize that anyone with a firing synapse is going to immediately notice Lightning looks suspiciously like Cloud from FFVII with pink hair and goes on down the line.

The story brings a lot to discuss, so I'll get the other stuff out of the way first. The music? Still excellent. This is the first game without the compositions of Nobuo Uematsu and I'll admit I was deeply concerned. Uematsu is the premier video game music composer as far as I'm concerned and frankly, I was not at all convinced that anyone could score this game as well as he would. But the new composer manages to maintain the epic feel of the franchises music. It doesn't always hit the same highs the franchise did previously, but there are times when you'll forget someone new is working the franchise. The graphics are also befitting, taking advantage of high definition. especially later in the game.

The gameplay? Not so much. To put it simply, this game is Final Fantasy for Dummies, even moreso than Mystic Quest ever was. This game practically holds your hand the entire way through. All exploration is gone; most of the game is you running down narrow paths getting from point A to point B between cutscenes, with the occasional monster battle thrown in. There are no towns at all, either; you bring up a menu at save points to buy something and the details of the world Squares crafted, you learn from what's basically an in-game thesarus with a Beastiary attached. No minigames either; in the past Squares been criticized for having too many - a position I thought was laughable - but they overcompensated here in response.

Combat is even stupider. Literally, there is an "auto-battle" option that will use AI to choose the best moves for a given situation. You may as well use it, because aside from one battle this game is so easy you won't need to manually choose your moves until very late in the game. After every fight, your health is recharged as well, rendering potions essentially useless. MP is gone; you can cast magic as much as you want. If all this sounds like the combat system has been stripped down to an automatic it-practically-plays-itself laughingstock, that's because it is. Even worse, even the most basic options from previous entries are missing. Have I mentioned yet that you cannot run away from battle at all? Yup. Get caught, you need to fight it to the end. There are some interesting wrinkles added that would have been more than welcome in prior games - for example, you automatically have access to a monsters stats, weaknesses and so on with the press of a button, with the different statistics being filled out the longer you battle or being filled by an item - but they're not enough to save what is essentially the franchises weakest combat system to date.

All this combines to make this game an impossibly boring exercise in pure tedium. Square may as well have put us in our stroller and given us our baa-baa. They clearly don't think we're man enough for the old fashioned approach.

So now you're thinking, what about the story? The story saves it right? Square always pulls through on the story if nothing else.

No, it doesn't save this game.

Basically, you play a group of rebels fighting a government that wants to deport them because of fear they were "infected" by an evil god-like beast called a Fal'Cie. Basically, the first two chapters are your stock zombie movie "civilians sent to their deaths by the gubermint" deal. After that, they're still on the run, not just from said government, but from a destiny to destroy the world. Either they destroy it and turn to immobile crystal for the rest of eternity, or they turn into big shambling, soul-less zombies for the rest of eternity or until they're killed (again). Great choice, huh?

Here's the problem; this games story literally does not kick into gear until twenty to thirty hours in, depending on your play style. Half of the main characters are infuriating and close to unlikable for most of that time. One of those likable characters disappears for about ten hours of the game, his return being the point the game finally picks up. You have to force yourself through thirty hours of the most boring RPG gameplay ever devised just for the story to get interesting. I'm a stubborn bastard, so I stuck it out, but I can't blame folks with less patience for just bailing. There were times I didn't want to go any further myself; I had to literally force myself to move on in the opening half of this game.

The fact that it's a slow burn isn't the real problem with the story. There have been past Final Fantasy's with stories that simmered until later in the game. Unfortunately, this combines with the bad gameplay design choices to literally sink this title. If the story had a steadier pace throughout, or maybe just got to the juicy stuff quicker, it might have been able to work past the questionable gameplay. Part of what makes the gameplay as crushingly boring as it is in the early going is that there's literally nothing interesting going on; with many of the optional diversions available in previous titles gone and the story plodding on, you'll find the game as fun as carrying around a hundred pound weight for the day.

Then there's the proverbial shot to the junk that is Chapter Eleven. Chapter Eleven takes place on the wide expanses of Gran Pulse. This is literally what the game should have been. Wide open expanses to explore, side missions, all sorts of diversions, monsters that take more skill than just mashing auto-battle. It's friggin painful, because if they managed it here, what the hell is their excuse for the rest of the game? I know, I know, they tried saying the linear nature is the only way they could have pulled the games story off. To which I say they're full of crap. It's not like we didn't have a similar "on the run from everything" story in, say, the previous goddamn entry in the series. Worse still, once you move past this chapter, you're back on the damn rails again on a collision course with the finish; by that point, the stories interesting enough to hold the game up, but it's a bad comedown from the options of Gran Pulse.

Gran Pulse even brings about a potential problem for the story. By the time you get there, you've been fighting boredom and tedium for so long that it's like the games been injected with life again. If you're like me, you're going to binge and put off getting back on the story path for as long as possible. Which pretty much grinds the stories momentum to a halt in ways the previous games did not; whereas in those games you always had something to do, here you're strapped in for so long you might just end up blowing so many hours into Gran Pulse that you start losing track of previous details in the story. Of course, there's the handy in-game story recap journal, but that doesn't help the loss of momentum and the feeling of dread accompanying the thought of leaving Gran Pulse.

I think that's probably enough for this review, as I think I'm rambling now; the short version is this game both disappointed and pissed me off in ways the previous games never did, leaving me with the feeling that the total package was not worthy of the moniker "Final Fantasy".

The Score: 6 out of 10

It almost pains me to give that score, but this game just does not live up to the protracted development cycle or the hype. There is potential to this game and if the games story had, say, XII's gameplay style, we could have had a modern classic on par with the holy grails of the series, Final Fantasy VI and VII. Instead, the series is marred with a major disappointment and for the first time my faith in Square is shaken. If you're a glutton for punishment or are just really interested in experiencing the story, by all means play it; but if you're anything like me you'd probably be best served giving this game a wide berth. It does not live up to it's pedigree.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Op/Ed: Event After Event, Event After Event, We Stuck No Breath or Motion

Are we ever truly free from events? Sometimes, it really doesn't feel like it, especially right now. After Siege, Marvel said "we're not doing major events for a while, but you might see smaller scale events among families of titles". At the time, it sounded relatively appealing, as long as it wasn't a constant thing, but it quickly became apparent that things were actually the same as ever and arguably much worse.

At the moment, Shadowland currently has the street level heroes wrapped up in an event, one that I hear isn't exactly all that hot. Chaos War is on the way. Both have a plethora of tie-ins; and from the sound of it, more is on the way. No, we're not dealing with major scale events at the moment, but things are about as bad as ever and I'm starting to have the feeling that the folks at Marvel just don't get it.

It was asked what fans thought about the smaller scale events; surprise, surprise, the fans pretty much felt that things were worse than ever with several different events. Well, Marvel responded and pretty much went on the defensive, bringing up that they didn't feel that the smaller events equaled the large ones they used to do and so on. Also, it's again pointed out that you don't need to read all the tie-ins and that part of fans problem is that they feel like they have to get them all. Not only did said answers kind of make asking the fans their opinion seem pointless - as did the later to come "vote with your wallets instead of your mouths" bit elsewhere - but it felt like they didn't really grasp what they were doing or why it was as bad. Not to mention there seemed to be a disconnect with what exactly constitutes an "event"; they may be big stories, but I'm pretty sure the "Punishment" storyline with Punisher and Daken or "Three" in Fantastic Four aren't events. If anything, big stories in the ongoings is probably what they should be doing to start with.

Even if you look at it from a basic standpoint, the problems pretty obvious. Sure, it ain't one huge event, but two to three smaller ones will add up to that level. So here we have Shadowland, which has multiple tie-ins and has taken over more than a few events. That ends the same month Chaos War starts, which embroils a whole new sect of Marvel in a crossover. So on, so forth. It perpetuates an event mode for certain parts of the line; and honestly, there's a lot of potential for this to get out of hand. Besides which, I'm pretty sure neither needed to be a big crossover with eight or nine tie-ins. It just seems like it never ends.

But the big trouble, to me, is that it feels like it hurts otherwise excellent ideas in the long run.

Look, I'll level here. I don't do events, for the most part. Especially not Marvel events. I've felt like they've been terrible for the better part of this decade. Hell, the only event with a spot for the trade on my bookshelf is Infinity Gauntlet, an event from over twenty years ago. I've gotten excited for my fair share, sure, but one of the best parts about being a tradewaiter is that I'll have a pretty good idea way ahead of time as to whether something is a pile of crap or not. As you've likely guessed, with Marvel events, this is all the time, pretty much. So I end up not buying them; if I read them, it'll be because of the library on down in the city and nine times out of ten I find I made the right choice in skipping it.

So the events suck; so what, right? Well here's the problem. The tie-ins? Never gonna escape them. They've got the branding, they often have big references or ties to things in the event and - for better or worse - they're not going to escape it. If an event sucks, who the hell is really going to want to read the tie-ins, good or not? You see the problem; and no matter how good a tie-in story may be, it's in service to the larger story. If that larger story is a dud, it's screwed.

I can only speak for myself - I'm only one guy, after all, and not representative of the entire readership - but event branding can be an outright turn-off. Especially if the associated event is a pile of crap. For example, I've not read a lick of Incredible Hercules, at least not yet. It's gotten gobs of praise, the scans I've seen have made me want it and it sounds like a good time. But those goddamn tie-ins have kept me away; I'm only now considering sucking it up and just diving in. Literally every other story arc of Incredible Hercules is a tie-in to some larger event. The launch was a tie-in to World War Hulk, then after one story arc there was a Secret Invasion tie-in, then after one more it was Dark Reign, then after one more the series closed out with the Assault on New Olympus mini-event, before we had a story arc in mini form before the coming Chaos War event. Maybe it's just me, but that is not very attractive to me as a reader and it's a lot of why I've skipped Incredible Herc thus far; I want to read about Herc's adventures, but it seems like every other one is roped into some event.

Can you imagine if Walt Simonsons Thor run had an event tie-in every other story? That's another thing. I don't think it's coincidence that it's the great runs on ongoings that are remembered far into the future. Someone is probably going to talk about something like Peter David's Hulk down the road more than most events. Hell, can anyone even fondly remember most events? Say the 90's for example. Didn't think so. So in favor of runs that are like building blocks - like how Daredevil's had ten years solid of long runs by creators before Shadowland derailed him - we go to lots of events, only on a small scale. Great plan guys; I'll be over here reading something else.

The sames likely to go for other projects. There's a Power Man mini tying into Shadowland. Whereas I might otherwise be interested in it, if only because of the creative team, I doubt I'm going to try it. Jeff Parkers Thunderbolts sounds like a good read, but come trade time, I'm going to be wary, because it seems like it's always either crossing over with something or tying into an event (hello, Shadowland tie-in). Probably going to pass on Dead Avengers (Chaos War). This is just what I can think of. It's even more ridiculous when you see Thanos Imperitive has the right idea and is running alongside these events.

Street signs read anywhere, anytime. Can you stop the bus? This is where I wanna get off.

To tell the truth, this is also part of why I don't read much Marvel. Seems like whenever I see something interesting to me over there, it's tied into something. Pretty annoying. Though it's not like DC doesn't do it; I'm convinced the overt ties to Infinite Crisis in the latter half of Batman: Under the Hood are why it's not a modern classic of a Batman story.

I think another problem with it is that the readership in general starts to become ever more reliant on events. After all, they're these big blockbuster storylines designed to at least try and thrill. When you've got big hyped events left, right and center, it's kind of hard to see that the regular titles might have a story just as big and probably even better, only with a difference in scope. Then comes the question of "what's next". After all, if you do big, then you need to do bigger and bigger. Eventually, going back to just stories in ongoings without the huge stakes seems less exciting.

Unfortunately, you can probably argue that this has already happened. Imagine my dismay when IGN's Comics crew made it pretty clear they wanted major events back. Something they mentioned that was damn near depressing was apathy for things that were going on, which mirrored a lack of a huge event. Of course, they then went on to argue their case, but that was the point that stuck with me. Despite quality books left, right and center, the lack of a huge event hit their enthusiasm for comics. Granted, when done well, an event comic is a beautiful thing, but how often does that happen?

Is that what we've come to now? Is that what comics have come to? If there isn't a huge event, it feels slow and nothing is exciting? Jesus Christ guys. How absolutely friggin' depressing. It's like comics have become the movie industry; if there isn't a huge, blockbuster event at the center of the summer, no one cares and everything's a failure.

This is what event comics have slowly done to the market and the higher ups just don't get it. So it's probably a matter of time before they come back; and really, the only change will be it going back to one big one instead of a couple smaller ones. Sales have slipped and as Tom Breevort points out, fans are idiots who talk a good game but get roped into the events every time while ignoring most of the other stuff unless it has a nifty banner. He's right to point it out; fans, after all, often have little sense come time to cash out but big mouths. Meantime, come trade time a lot of interesting series are saddled with tie-ins that lose relevance over time.

What a god damn shame.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Flash: Rebirth (comics)

Writer: Geoff Johns
Artist: Ethan Van Sciver
Collects: Flash Rebirth #1-6, extras

Going into this story, I wasn't much of a Flash fan. I knew nothing of Barry Allen, little of Wally West outside of the JLU cartoon - though I did love the cartoons version of him - and only ever knew Bart Allen as Kid Flash. I'm probably about as new to reading Flash comics as it gets; I don't really have the history that many do with the character and preferences, so I don't have a horse in the race when it comes to the stupid "WALLY IS THE BEST/NO BARRY IS" arguments. I looked into this story mostly because of Geoff Johns, of whom I'm a fan, rather than because of any real affection for the Flash.

So that's where I was at coming into this story. If anything, I guess I'm probably the sort of fan they were hoping to get with this project to start with. Now, as far as the content itself goes, I have to give credit; after this story, I'm genuinely interested in the Flash and by the end I'm interested in where things may be going. But this story is not without it's problems.

Unlike it's Green Lantern counterpart, Flash: Rebirth starts with the titular hero already back from the dead. He came back in Final Crisis, but you don't really need to have read that story, as you get the important bits. But while Barry is alive again, he doesn't seem all too pleased about it. To him, something feels wrong, but he can't pin down what. Meanwhile, the whole of the superhero community is celebrating his return. But the celebrations won't last long; something is seriously wrong with Barry and by the end of it all, new facts about the Speed Force will be revealed and his greatest foe will have returned.

First off, I'd like to mention that I enjoyed the story playing with the idea of how your life is often romanticized after your death. This is largely a fact of life; someone may hate your guts when you're alive, but drop into a six foot hole and they'll have nothing but the best to say about you. But with Barry it's taken to the extreme; he's not just romanticized, the time dead has seen his legend turn into one of sainthood and martyrdom. He doesn't quite get it; it feels like an honest reaction and I could imagine it happening if the impossible happened and someone returned from the dead in real life.

Anyways, if there's one thing I noticed with this story, it's that it laid a lot of groundwork for what I assume are future stories. The Speed Force in particular finally sees some kind of explanation in that there's a positive and a negative, Barry is re-centered as even more central to the Flash name - kind of like how when Hal came back he was summarily toted as the greatest Green Lantern - the Flash Family is both rebuilt and expanded and a couple characters have both their codenames and costumes repositioned to get things in place for the future. There's a fair bit of ground covered.

On the same token, this story is probably a bit too concerned with laying that groundwork at the expense of the title character. Whereas there's a fair bit of exciting things teased, I didn't feel like I truly "got to know" Barry Allen. Sure, I liked him well enough and had an inkling or two by the end of the story - and I felt like there were a fair amount of places to go with him - but this was Barry Allens return story. This is my first exposure to the character and I didn't feel like the story truly presented who he was to me. Sure, it presented facts and backstory of his life before his death, but his personality did not really shine through. He's emotionally distant for most of the story - which is not how he is, according to his closest friends, but we don't get much indication here - so by the time the story actually wants to get around to showing us who he's supposed to be, it's already way too late in the story to do anything significant. I got a great primer on the Flash legacy, the changes and some track laying for the future, but I didn't walk away feeling like I'd truly met Barry Allen and it's probably this stories greatest flaw.

On the other hand, the story sets up the new Flash series rather well and left me ready to see more. I'm interested in the Flash for the first time, so I suppose that the story did it's job to some extent. Still, I don't think it's quite the slam dunk everyone probably expected. I just hope the ongoing takes time to delve into the character a bit more.

As far as the art goes, I like it a fair amount. It's no secret that Ethan Van Sciver is the reason this series saw atrocious delays. But DC soldiered on and I'm glad they did. I think part of why this story worked despite it's flaws is that it's a visually consistent book. Van Sciver seems to have drawing motion down pretty well and the work is solid throughout. If there had been a jarring artist change midway through the book, there would have been a very real risk of the book falling apart. Few things can truly compound a stories problems quite like jarring art shifts, so kudos to DC for not bowing to the pressure and howling from fans incensed by the delay. It will likely serve this collection better in the long term.

This is also a very colorful book, which is another plus for me; there's a lot of color here, there and everywhere during fights and as a result it feels more visually engaging as a result. I can see this being a fun element moving forward with Flash stories; I like it when stories are colorful, especially because it feels very "comics" to me. That's a good thing, by the way.

The Score: 7.5 out of 10

On the whole, I felt this story did it's job. I'm interested in seeing what comes next and I'll be checking out the new Flash series in trade. Still, I think it dropped the ball in regards to Barry Allen himself and it hurt everything overall, at least enough to keep Rebirth from being truly "great". Still, it seems like a pretty good launching pad for what's to come and I don't feel like I wasn't given the tools I needed as a new reader, which is key in a jumping on point. On the whole, I feel it's worth a read; but it may end up being more important for what it sets up for the future than for the "Rebirth" of the hero in particular, which is indeed somewhat unfortunate.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Batman: Face the Face (comics)

Writer: James Robinson
Artists: Don Kramer, Leonard Kirk
Collects: Detective Comics #817-820, Batman #651-654

Much like Supermans "Up, Up and Away" storyline, the first Batman story taking place after Infinite Crisis and during the One Year Later initiative is a crossover built to serve the purpose of a reintroduction, jumping on point and a general reset of the status quo. Prior to One Year Later, the Batman franchise had become impossibly bogged down with a series of bad decisions meant to change the game that only ended up hindering the character and his world. Face the Face changes that, in effect bringing back many important pieces that had been removed from the puzzle entirely.

In effect, this is probably the most important thing the story does on the whole. It re-establishes the Batman and Robin team - actually, it probably tries a bit too hard to convince us of their effectiveness - brings Gordon back to his spot of Commissioner, returns Bullock to the force, brings back the Bat signal, re-establishes some characters that had strayed back to villainy and other smaller things. The status quo becomes something much more familiar, rinsing itself of the crust that had accumulated, which is only a good thing, really.

As a story, however, it has it's problems.

After a year away to find himself, Batman has returned to Gotham. Before too long, it's business as usual, but with a catch. Someone using the familiar MO of Two-Face is offing Z list Batman rogues. But Harvey Dent had been cured, right? Batman had even put him in charge of Gotham while he was away. Something doesn't quite add up and Batman knows it; but still, there is the nagging doubt in his mind, one that just might cost him.

It's a decent hook for a basic Batman story and Robinson writes it rather well. James Robinson has a reputation for his writing being purple as hell and this story doesn't do much to dispel that notion. But he does seem to have a decent handle on Gotham in general. This was my first true exposure to James Robinson, so I came away with a decently favorable impression of his writing.

Also, the story continues a loose "fathers and sons" theme that seems to have run through Batman since Under the Hood. Much is made of Tim Drakes lost family and friends, including his father. All of which culminates in the last few pages. It's a nice scene, really; and a pretty decent set-up for what would begin a month or so later. Another appreciated bit is a new officer introduced, who is a relative of an old superhero; we get Batmans outlook on the "legacy hero" and a bit of a knock towards it, which in some ways is overdue.

Unfortunately, that's where the praise ends. I've already established that the entire point of the story seems to be resetting Batman back to a better status quo. Technically, the story gets the job done and it's an admirable goal, as I'm no fan of the direction Batman was headed before IC and OYL. However, the trouble is that the story does nothing to convince you that it's anything but that; and while it's technically a success if your story accomplishes it's general status changing goals, if it doesn't build an engaging story around it, you're in trouble as far as anyone remembering it or giving a damn a couple of years down the road.

This is the central issue Face the Face has and it's one it can't really overcome. Robinson never really builds a story here that convinces you that this is anything but a status quo cleaning exercise and it eats up eight comic issues to do it. If you can't really convince the audience you're doing anything but franchise spring cleaning, you may as well just do it in two to four issues. This story really isn't much more than a slate cleaner for coming writers Grant Morrison and Paul Dini.

So that's an issue to be sure, but the story also has narrative failings. The story seems to want to position itself as a mystery. Typically, you're meant to follow along with the characters and be able to piece it all together yourself. Good luck with that here; it doesn't even reach a Scooby-Doo level of mystery competency. Against the piles of evidence that Two-Face is back, you get one measly clue deep into the story; and unless you're a goddamn expert in Batman villains, it's not going to be enough to figure it out. Hell, even if you are you may not guess it. There isn't even a way to realize or connect the new Tally Man to the ultimate mastermind until Batman lays it all out.

In the old days, this would sometimes be how you'd see a stories mystery played out; the hero figures it all out by some obscure piece of knowledge you'd never have thought of, the answers ridiculous and so on. But back then it took one issue, usually half of it, actually; or in the case of television cartoons, everything wrapped in half an hour. It didn't cost much. Face the Face's mystery operates at about the same level and takes eight issues. Plus it costs fifteen dollars SRP. Not sure I need to say much more.

The choice of villains used in this "re-introduction" story is also rather questionable. Most of the villains Robinson lays focus to in the story are practically Z list nobodies and he ends up killing most of them (which I hear is actually common in Robinson stories). Aside from Two-Face, the biggest name in here is Poison Ivy; who is reintroduced rather well, but shows up only to be smacked around a bit so Gotham knows Batman is back. Killer Croc shows up to eat somebody, get a few hits and then vanish, accomplishing little other than a bit of mid-story action. Other than that we're dealing with villains on the level of Magpie, a character created by John Byrne in an early Man of Steel issue to get Batman and Superman to meet who did a whole lot of nothing after that. While it's appreciated that Robinson didn't immediately go to the old Joker well, I'm not sure he chose the best lineup for such a story (nor am I sure he needed to kill several of them, though admittedly I kind of doubt anyone gives a crap about Magpie and her triple mohawk).

The art is pretty good though. I'll admit it, I'm not as much of an art critic as writing when it comes to this. For me to truly take notice, it needs to either be really good or really bad. One of the two - Don Kramer, I think - is pretty good with facial expressions, while the other holds up their end of the bargain, but doesn't do anything special I can think of. I'd talk more about the art, the similarities and the differences - I think one artist was doing 'Tec and one was doing Batman issues of this crossover, which alternated titles - but DC didn't see fit to put art breakdowns in the credits, so I couldn't tell you who did what.

The Score: 6.5 out of 10

Face the Face, in all, is a decently drawn story that kind of screws up narattively. It doesn't do much other than clean the slate; it's pretty much just a stopgap that follows Judd Winicks "Under the Hood" and sets up both Grant Morrison and Paul Dinis books. It can be skipped without worry, unless you've just absolutely gotta know what happened for there to be a new female Ventriloquist. It's serviceable, but never really rises up to be a genuinely good Batman story; and I hesitate to recommend it when so many legitimately great Batman stories immediately follow it that are far more worth your coin. Recommended only for completists or those who care about "bridging the gap".