Sunday, October 20, 2019

Final Fantasy XV (Square Enix, 2016)


It took me two years on-and-off (mostly off) to slog my way through the first five chapters of Final Fantasy XV, about a month of intermittent play to plow through the middle four, and only a single day to sprint through the last five. It’s a JRPG with a split personality, to a degree I haven’t encountered since Xenogears.

Many players bemoan the unrealized potential of the open world, which midway through the campaign becomes closed off and gives way to a rigidly linear experience. In the case of such a story-driven JRPG as Final Fantasy XV, I personally feel that leaving players to explore at their leisure undermines the alleged urgency and high stakes of the characters’ situation even during the earlier part of the game, and would make zero sense once things shift into high gear later. For me, Final Fantasy XV becomes much more interesting after it narrows its focus. This despite the story not being very good.


Following a one-line prophecy and an intense but absent-context flash-forward, Final Fantasy XV’s story begins with the protagonist prince and his party setting out to rendezvous with his fiancee, while the king prepares to host “guests from Niflheim.” The loading screen for Chapter 1 clarifies that this is a political marriage you’re off to, but then your car immediately breaks down, and you find yourself consequently steered toward a series of detours and quid pro quo errands for the bumpkins you meet on the road.

During those first 2-3 hours, the party’s tedious on-screen activities became so disconnected from the sparsely detailed plot that very quickly I lost sense of either—the former because I could hardly become invested in fetch quests, the latter because I never knew it to recognize it from easily overlooked bulletins and overheard conversations. Thus, when—SPOILER (but not really, since it’s the first significant event of the story)—you receive word that your home has fallen to Niflheim, your father slain, your bride-to-be gone into hiding, the very existence of this evil empire felt like news to me, so long had it been since I’d heard the name “Niflheim.” (And having not read the lore guide in the optional tutorial, I did not recall ever being informed in the first place that we were at war.) In the wake of these calamitous tidings, you are shortly invited to resume hunting marks and selling your services to the yokels who remain cluelessly unaffected by the geopolitical turmoil.

This is a game whose narrative is another casualty of the inexplicable and insufferable arms race toward inscrutability that has overtaken Square’s storytelling since the PS1 era. In the SNES days, getting the latest Final Fantasy was like receiving a stylish new pair of pants. Then Final Fantasy VII was like a pair of one of those "distressed" jeans. You scratch your head at the frayed ends and pre-ripped holes, but then you see staged photographs of some hot-yet-cool model showing you the “right” way to wear them, and maybe you’ll grant there is something to the look that works. Unfortunately, Tetsuya Nomura and Kazushige Nojima decided that that “something” needed to become everything, and so by the Kingdom Hearts sequels, we were getting only bags of tatters, and paying full price for them.

Final Fantasy XV’s mess of a plot is not as wantonly opaque as Kingdom Hearts (insofar as the basic laws of its reality do not feel moment-to-moment fluid), and the manner in which it tells or doesn’t tell its story deserves less credit, because there's not even a sense of calculated elusiveness to its disjointedness. When pivotal events or major character deaths occur off-screen, or when proper nouns are mentioned for the first time yet treated as though they should be common knowledge, these don’t read as considered creative decisions. Instead, it just feels like, over the course of the aforementioned generations of escalation toward increasingly obscure storytelling, even the editors can’t keep straight anymore when the writing is being deliberately enigmatic, versus when they are simply forgetting to mention things because their blind spots have blotted out their vision.

Cynics might posit that the flimsiness of the story is because Final Fantasy XV was intended to be a multimedia product, and the main game’s many holes were intentional to force audiences to seek answers through the companion movie, anime webisodes, and post-release DLC, among other projects that never materialized. (And this is without even taking into account its complicated origin as "Final Fantasy Versus XIII" and attendant murky connection to the Fabula Nova Crystallis mythology.) I watched the atrocious Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV movie, and while it helps a little to set the scene and clarify the roles of figures who are allegedly major to the plot yet scarcely appear in the game, mostly it is just more of what is wrong with Final Fantasy XV: underdeveloped characters, nonsensical lore, and action that suffers from a lack of properly discernible beats because the ceilings of these characters’ abilities are never elucidated.


A microcosmic example of the game’s fundamental storytelling inadequacies: At one point the party receives word that a minor character has died. Everyone acts devastated by the news, but my immediate reaction was “Who?” As if hearing me, the game then cut to a few sepia-toned flashes of the character from when they were introduced. But that flashback didn’t exist when the game launched. It was patched in later, precisely because players couldn’t remember who the hell this character was. And you know what? The addition ultimately doesn’t fix anything. Yes, I remembered now who this one-scene nobody was. But I still did not care!

That was the stages of me processing Final Fantasy XV’s story in a nutshell. First would come exasperated confusion: I have no idea what anybody is talking about. Why won’t they just explain who/what this is? Then in my foolishness, I would look up the extended lore on the wiki to try to find answers, only to arrive at hollow resignation: I now know what they were talking about, and yet it all still feels as meaningless as when I did not. When I eventually learned to skip straight to resignation, the experience became more enjoyable. Although the story never came together in a coherent (or competent) way, I found it worked on a primal level, becoming oddly compelling through its absurdly high stakes and sheer force of spirit.

Many of the details actually echo Final Fantasy XII—political marriages, imperial backstabbing, treating with gods, legends of hero kings—but that’s all dressing in Final Fantasy XV. Once the story finally picks up steam (around Chapter 9), it becomes clear that it was never more (or less) than a tale of good guys against bad guys in a literal fight to save the world. The layers of nonsense over top of that never amount to anything meaningful, but the base level still has some draw, especially as few other games would even dream of going as big as Final Fantasy has and here does so again in depicting the end of everything. A major point of tension straining willing suspension of disbelief in Final Fantasy XV is how modern the world feels—cars, smartphones, consumer culture—while still maintaining a high degree of arcane religiosity, with oracles being the most discussed public figures of the day. But it does make for spectacles of fearsome grandeur, gods sundering cities, and a potent mood of bleakness, as things continually go from bad to worse, and civilization’s total collapse seems to take all of a few hours.

I haven’t discussed the gameplay of Final Fantasy XV at all yet, because that was never the appeal of a numbered Final Fantasy for me even in the heyday of the series, and now in my mid-thirties with limited gaming time, I can hardly feign interest in learning a whole new set of complex RPG mechanics. Stupidly, I’ll admit in retrospect, I even took as a point of pride that I was not going to try to learn to play Final Fantasy XV. I would instead just set it to the easiest difficulty and cruise through the main scenario. (Which did not really work out, by the way, because the only thing that makes “Easy” mode easy is the fact that, every time your party gets wiped out, Carbuncle will resurrect you for free, allowing you to die and die again as you chip away at enemies out of your league.) This I regret, because the game was actually kind of fun to play once I finally grasped some of the systems toward the end of my playthrough.

If I could offer my past self some advice, here are the pro-tips I wish I’d figured out much sooner:

  • There is no traditional white magic for your characters to learn, so get used to relying on other means of healing.
  • You don’t get money just for winning battles. Instead, you collect junk, and that junk can be sold for cash. Seriously, unless you sell that junk, you won’t have enough funds even to buy basic potions or pay to rest at inns.
  • If Noctis gets low on HP, you can warp to nearby ledges. While hanging from them, he’ll automatically heal at a fairly rapid rate.
  • The skill tree screen has multiple pages. On the “Recovery” page, each of Noctis’s allies can learn the “First Aid” ability. Additionally, Ignis can learn “Regroup” on the “Techniques” page and “Regenerate” on the “Teamwork” page. These abilities by themselves should suffice to get the party mostly self-sufficient with healing on Easy mode.

I won’t say exactly how long it took me to realize each of the above, but you can infer that, for a significant portion of the game, my potion stocks were stuck in the single digits, and I basically could never heal myself during combat. Once I learned these basics, Easy mode went from “getting resurrected three times by Carbuncle is about par for a boss fight” to “now I’m cruising.”

The very first screen that loads when you boot the game is the message "A Final Fantasy for Fans and First-Timers," a clear statement of the development team's intention to restore the brand to relevance after it fell so mightily the previous generation. Final Fantasy XV is the first numbered Final Fantasy I’ve beaten since 2001's Final Fantasy X, so I can see myself a bit in both demographics, and I don't feel it serves either. It evokes the classics only in its lack of subtlety, but between its narrative deficiencies and mechanical density it also doesn't feel like a game of modern sensibilities or mainstream accessibility. I still don't think I've fully processed that it's over. Part of that is me not comprehending what was happening at any given time—either the story or the combat—but I also feel some genuine mixed emotions. I can't say with confidence whether I ultimately liked it, but I won't deny that the second half was at the very least engaging. In keeping with the pattern of senselessness, I really don't know anymore what it means to be "A Final Fantasy," but I suppose Final Fantasy XV does just enough, albeit through terrible means, to live up to the name precisely by keeping the franchise identity hard to pin down.

I beat Final Fantasy XV, and all I have to show for it is this photo of a Tonberry going in on Gladiolus’s crotch.

Monday, December 31, 2018

The Theory of Everything (James Marsh, 2014)


I didn’t realize until the end credits that this biopic of Stephen Hawking was actually based on the autobiography of his first wife, Jane Wilde. That explains why the film seems so much more interested in their domestic drama than in his seminal insights toward the pursuit of a “theory of everything,” or in the breakout success of his own book, A Brief History of Time, which established him as the most widely recognized scientist of his generation. And I can appreciate, certainly, that her memoir, about the trials and tribulations in courageously holding together a marriage and family through his unrelenting physical deterioration, must have proven far more adaptable to a mass-appeal, Oscar-baiting motion picture than might have any of Hawking’s non-narrative publications.

It is an admittedly affecting film, buoyed by the late Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score, and by Eddie Redmayne’s Academy Award-winning performance as the male lead. For better and worse, this was the part that inspired the actor’s pivot from period drama role-player to the creature of extreme and constant physicality and theatricality that now headlines those Harry Potter prequel movies. I find him rather like a loaded gun in the hands of his agent and casting directors. The weapon itself is conscienceless and indiscriminate, tragic when mishandled. But when he is attached to the right projects, the results are astonishing. Though I’ve heard praise for Benedict Cumberbatch’s turn in 2004’s Hawking TV movie, it’s hard to imagine another actor inhabiting the role as Redmayne does here, transforming incrementally over the course of the film to vividly depict a man afflicted by rapid physical decline yet still possessed of brightness and mischief. Granted, as the movie goes along, there is arguably less and less demanded of Redmayne, and obviously he doesn’t do the signature voice (though I don’t doubt he would have been happy to try).

Even without knowing that the film was based on his first wife’s book, I was most curious to see how it would handle the end of their marriage. Every account I’d heard of this episode in Hawking’s life had portrayed it as one of his more ignoble chapters—basically, as his celebrity grew and attracted hordes of flatterers and groupies, he meanwhile grew weary of his long-suffering saint of a wife. The movie does not contradict any of that, though its politeness invites skepticism (and this is a point on which the film apparently diverged from Jane Wilde’s book). Elaine Mason, his nurse-turned-second wife, is charming as played by Maxine Peake, though not explored in any depth here.

Hawking’s celebrity is mostly incidental in this telling of his story, and science only slightly less so. The result manages to both humanize and dehumanize him. Certainly, Felicity Jones as the tirelessly self-sacrificing Jane Wilde, persevering by love and faith through circumstances that would topple most men, makes for a more readily moving story than lectures on theoretical physics that most of us would scarcely understand and never apply. And it’s not as if a person needs to be famous and/or a scientist in order for their story to be worth telling. Still, so much of the movie is concerned with questions of how Stephen and Jane cope with his disability. How will he take to having to use a wheelchair? How can he be her partner in parenting their children? Who can they turn to to relieve her from having to be both spouse and sole caregiver? I can’t help but feel that all reinforces the average moviegoer’s notion of Stephen Hawking vaguely as that scientist who is really really smart, but mainly as that guy leaning back in the wheelchair with the robot voice.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

My Top 10 Most Hated Star Wars Characters

Here it is. As of Episode VIII, these are my "Top 10 Most Hated Star Wars Characters."

Note: This is a serious exercise, so only significant characters from the live-action films were eligible—no Clone Wars-only characters, no obscure extras, no non-speaking Jedi created purely to sell toys. I debated with myself whether to include Rogue One, but after trying to do this without it, I realized that I am not naturally a hateful person, and I would not have been able to name 10 characters I despised from only the saga films.

Also, the order is from "No. 1 Most Hated" to "No. 10 Least Hated of the Most Hated." I'm not gonna drag out the suspense. Starting from the top:

  1. Poe Dameron
  2. Cassian Andor (the Rebel captain from Rogue One)
  3. Chirrut Îmwe (the blind Donnie Yen guy from Rogue One)
  4. Maz Kanata
  5. DJ (the stuttering Benicio Del Toro from The Last Jedi)
  6. Young Anakin (Jake Lloyd version)
  7. Bodhi Rook (the pilot with the aviator goggles from Rogue One)
  8. Bail Organa
  9. Vice Admiral Holdo
  10. Chancellor Valorum
This is a living list. It is subject to change as new movies come out, or as my mood changes. Snoke contended for that last spot, but I realized that it was not so much the character I hated as it was the way he was handled.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

A Final Fantasy Renaissance?

After a decade spent in development, Final Fantasy XV is due for release finally in just over a month. Another new console Final Fantasy, World of Final Fantasy, will be arriving even sooner at the end of October. A little further off, the long-demanded Final Fantasy VII remake is at last going to be a thing too (maybe?). After some pretty fraught years when the series was clearly relegated to B-tier status, we may be coming upon a Final Fantasy renaissance. Or if Final Fantasy XV underperforms, this may be a last gasp for the series, the developer, and the JRPG genre.

Personally, I already know I won’t be playing Final Fantasy XV. I’ve watched the trailers with the Japanese male model protagonists, and the image they’re pushing with this game just has zero relevance to me.


By no means am I implying that I've outgrown the series. The truth is, I’ve been playing a ton of Final Fantasy lately. It just so happens that all of that gaming has been on mobile platforms, where I would say Final Fantasy truly is experiencing a renaissance.

Final Fantasy Record Keeper



I recently updated my blog post about Final Fantasy Record Keeper to better reflect how awesome the game has become. Read my full review or check out some of my videos for a better sense of how it works, but, in short, imagine one of those JRPG coliseums—one where you can team up all of your favorite Final Fantasy characters to take on classic battles from throughout the series. From the gameplay to the visuals to the music, it’s a veritable best-of edition of Final Fantasy, and, more than anything else bearing the name in the last decade, it has helped to remind me that, once upon a time, I loved this series. No, there isn’t much of a plot to Record Keeper, but, through the battles, longtime fans get to relive some of the best moments of past stories, which is probably better than having to slog through a new, terrible story.

I’ll add that right now is also a great time for newcomers to jump in. A recent update to the game made the gacha lottery mechanic far more generous. Now, any time you spend 50 mythril (or, alternatively, about $30) to enter the 11-item drawing, you are guaranteed to pull at least one 5-star relic. Furthermore, there is currently a beginner-themed banner offering enhanced odds to pull the most useful weapons in the game, and, on top of that, you get to select an extra 5-star armor to go with your 11 other items. This means that, for the price of 50 mythril (which can be earned in about a week or less), you’re guaranteed to receive at least two 5-star items, with a pretty good chance that one of them will be among the best in the game. The game now even starts you off with one 5-star item completely free. When I started playing, it took me about a month to obtain my first 5-star, a Danjuro dagger from FFXII, which carried me a long while after. If you were to start now, you could pretty quickly have an entire party armed with 5-star gear and be able to tear through the early-game content.

Final Fantasy: Brave Exvius



Pretty much everything Final Fantasy Record Keeper gets right, Final Fantasy: Brave Exvius gets wrong. My understanding is that Brave Exvius is essentially a Final Fantasy-themed re-skin of developer A-Lim’s hit free-to-play mobile RPG, Brave Frontier, and its origins in that unrelated franchise may explain why it doesn’t feel very much like Final Fantasy.

Like Record Keeper, the big draw of Brave Exvius is its inclusion of a ton of Final Fantasy characters to collect and rotate into your party. The difference is that, in Brave Exvius, you can only obtain these characters via the gacha lottery, and the odds of pulling your favorite are slim. Brave Exvius further dilutes the pool by including a bunch of characters that would not be on anyone’s radar. Maybe some fans will be mildly pleased to finally play as Giott from FFIV or Lani from FFIX (though probably not after you’ve pulled your third useless Giott). But the lower ranks are populated primarily by generic “original” characters created just for this game. Unless you have a ton of real money to burn to bypass the odds, chances are you’ll be spending weeks, if not months, playing with a garbage party of no-name commoners before you finally win any of the famed heroes of Final Fantasy lore. Before long, you’ll wonder why this game even bears the Final Fantasy name, except to tease you.

Even once you acquire some name characters, the actual experience of playing with them is disappointing. In Brave Exvius, the weak characters (which includes most of the name characters) are hopeless and interchangeably so, because what they all have in common is that they can’t use the few key abilities that make the strong characters good. And the strong characters still are not fun to use, because these good abilities are merely better versions of the numerous crap abilities in the game. Basically, you just hope you get a strong character (which may not be a character you otherwise like), and then you use the same ability over and over again. Everything else is a waste of space. The battle system itself is turn-based, not taken from any previous Final Fantasy, but simplistic enough to feel familiar to any JRPG veteran. It’s not inherently flawed, but the game balance so far has not been conducive to tactical depth or tension.


In its favor, one could point out that, unlike Record Keeper, Brave Exvius actually includes most of the elements of a full-fledged standalone RPG. There are dungeons and towns to explore, and there is a story and lots of dialogue. I personally find that these things bog down the mobile experience. I don’t have time to go on fetch quests, and I don’t enjoy wandering around using clumsy touchscreen controls and getting caught in random encounters en route to a dead end in a dungeon. As for the story, it’s laughably poor and nowhere near worthy of the Final Fantasy name. A mix of dull cliches and asinine banter between the two dimwitted male leads, it feels like any random uninspired C-tier JRPG from the 32-bit or even 16-bit era.

The only bright spots to Brave Exvius are the music and the hi-res graphics, which are all brand new. The art style is colorful and cartoony. It doesn't do much for me personally. It doesn’t offer the nostalgic appeal of Record Keeper’s SNES-style sprites, and it also bears no resemblance to the art of Yoshitaka Amano or Tetsuya Nomura. Basically, Edgar and Sabin in this game don’t really look like Edgar and Sabin to me, which further contributes to the perception of Brave Exvius as an “impostor” Final Fantasy.

Mobius Final Fantasy



Unlike Record Keeper and Brave Exvius, Mobius Final Fantasy is developed internally by Square Enix, and immediately it comes off quite a bit more ambitious than the other free-to-play mobile games. The 3-D visuals, evocative of Final Fantasy X, are perhaps of the caliber of last-gen console graphics, though lacking the variety of a full-budget release. There are also fully voiced cutscenes. Perhaps what really sets it apart, though, is that, unlike Final Fantasy Record Keeper, Mobius Final Fantasy actually has a story and, unlike Brave Exvius, that story actually feels like a real Final Fantasy, albeit stripped down.

The plot could be considered a very loose reimagining of the first Final Fantasy. The amnesiac player character in Mobius Final Fantasy is referred to as the “Warrior of Light,” and there is also a Garland, a Princess Sarah, and a Chaos. There are also numerous references to other Final Fantasy titles, but the game doesn’t lean on nostalgia. Mobius Final Fantasy feels like a new addition to the Final Fantasy canon, and that is something I can respect. Mind you, I’m not saying it’s an especially interesting tale, but the telling, in keeping with the rest of writer Kazushige Nojima’s oeuvre, is gloomy and introspective, and there are elements of mystery and intrigue that are at least more compelling than anything in Brave Exvius.


The battle engine is also mostly original, and, as with the story, I respect the ambition, though I don’t love the actual experience. The combat is quasi-card-based. You can equip up to four ability cards to take with you into battle, and these will cover your spells, healing, special techniques, basically anything other than regular attacks. Once in battle, these abilities in turn are powered by elemental orbs that are randomly drawn each time you perform a regular attack. When it works, it can feel quite strategic, and you’ll pat yourself on the back for knowing when to play which card to win a round in the minimum number of moves. At other times, it will seem like the game just refuses to deal you the right orbs, and you’ll curse the randomness of it all.

Currently, the game’s undoing is that the battles take too long and occur too frequently. The pacing, in terms of both the plot and the leveling system, is plodding. Your gameplay progression can be measured in the number of job classes you’ve mastered. To even unlock most jobs, you have to pull from the gacha system. One positive is that there are no “doubles"; the gacha will never deal you a job you already own, so you’re guaranteed to eventually get the job you want. Honestly though, unlocking a new job class just isn’t as exciting as unlocking a new character, so this isn’t all that enticing to begin with. Then, even once you get a new job, in order to level it up, you have to grind through thousands of tedious battles to gather the right materials.

I’m still keeping one eye on Mobius Final Fantasy, understanding that it just came out and might take another month or two to get going, but right now the story is too limited and the gameplay far too repetitive for me to actively invest my time in it.

Evolving Together


Three free-to-play mobile games may not seem like much of a renaissance, especially when only one of them comes recommended. But, like I said, Final Fantasy Record Keeper has helped to remind me that I really do love this series. Some of that is nostalgia, true. But a large part of what makes Record Keeper work has to do with how it departs from the Final Fantasy games of my youth. I have outgrown the series as represented by Final Fantasy XV, but it isn't because it has become overrun with sullen pretty boys. At least, that isn't the only reason. At my age now, I can't see myself ever having the time to invest in another console Final Fantasy. And that's why I'm so pleased to find the game evolving, in its better mobile incarnations, into something more considerate of my circumstances—something I have on hand at all times but can play in short bursts without it taking up all my time. Even just five years ago, the idea of one of my favorite video game series going mobile is something I would have fought. Now, I find that Final Fantasy on mobile is the Final Fantasy comeback I'd been waiting for, and I'm excited to see more.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Evo 2016 - Street Fighter V Preview



It’s that time of year again. This weekend, July 15-17, thousands of fighting game players from around the world will gather in Las Vegas to compete at Evo. This year, however, we will have a brand new game as the main event. After a good seven-year run, Street Fighter IV has been retired, with Street Fighter V taking its place.


With the game only just having been released in February, the competitive scene is yet in its infancy, many of the Street Fighter IV veterans still struggling to find their way with new characters and new mechanics. On the one hand, this means we may not see the same high level of polished play and depth of competition that we saw the last two years with Ultra Street Fighter IV at Evo. On the other hand, a new game is more exciting to watch for the simple reason that the competitors themselves are more excited. There’s much more room to grow as a player at the beginning of a game’s life than at its end, so it’s more fun and not as much of a grind.


But Evo is especially exciting this year because 2016’s season so far has provided a real narrative heading into the tournament. For the first time since—well, since Street Fighter IV’s worldwide debut in 2009—we’ve had a serious rivalry brewing, with two players, Japan’s Tokido and South Korea’s Infiltration, clearly ahead of the rest of the field. Four times these two players met in grand finals this year: three times in Premier events (next to Evo, the highest tier of tournament on the Capcom Pro Tour) and once in the prestigious Red Bull Kumite invitational.


The Road to Evo 2016



I’ve said before that, nine times out of ten, the fittest player is the one who wins. Pretty much from the moment he made his Street Fighter V tournament debut at Final Round in March, Tokido has looked like that guy. Immediately you could see that he was playing much more cleanly than anyone else. With his immaculate Ryu, he was the only guy who seemed to arrive at Final Round with a complete game, as meanwhile other players were still kind of just mashing their way through with Ken. And, just like Momochi in 2015, like Bonchan in 2014, he had that gift of seemingly being able to make his opponents move in slow motion. Usually, this is the effect you get when one player has been playing the game a crap-ton more than his opponents. He has become so familiar with myriad scenarios and has honed his perfect responses to be instinctive, such that he can basically play the game without having to think. That’s why his opponents, who are thinking hard, look like they’re moving so much slower. Alternatively, you could say it looks like this player can see into the future—a phenomenon that players back in the day used to describe with the term “psychic DP (Dragon Punch).” In my experience, the only way to beat someone like that is to show them something they haven’t seen before, something they can’t just process automatically.


Infiltration did exactly that. Repeatedly. As far ahead of the rest of the field as Tokido was, Infiltration seemed just that much farther ahead of Tokido. If Tokido was playing as though he could see one second ahead, then Infiltration looked as though he was playing from two seconds into the future. Playing Nash in a way that the game’s designers never conceived of, and that opponents and spectators alike were at a loss to follow—patternless back-and-forth dashing, random standing jab checks, springing forth with the offense unexpectedly but always at the perfect moment—Infiltration blew Tokido away at Final Round to claim the first ticket to the year-end Capcom Cup. A week later, at NorCal Regionals, he was not eligible to win a second ticket, but he decided anyway to once more deny Tokido that Capcom Cup spot (it will instead, at season’s end, go to the ninth highest-ranked player without a Premier championship).


At that point, there had been two Premier events so far on the Capcom Pro Tour, and the same guy, Infiltration, had won them both, both times beating Tokido in the grand final. When the two met again a month later at the Red Bull Kumite exhibition, first in the winners final and then in the grand final, it looked like we had ourselves a story. If only the rivalry weren’t so one-sided.


As the season progressed, Infiltration, having secured his Capcom Cup spot, cut back on most of his traveling. Tokido, meanwhile, seemed to finally be losing ground to the rest of the field. At the next two Premier events, Stunfest in May and Dreamhack Summer in June, with no Infiltration to stand in his way, Tokido was instead foiled by his fellow Tokyo players Momochi and Fuudo.


Finally, at CEO, traditionally the biggest tournament before Evo, Tokido and Infiltration were both in attendance, as was Momochi, who, in addition to beating Tokido in multiple tournaments, had managed a stunning perfect record against Infiltration over the course of the Street Fighter 5 Crash team competition.


Sure enough, the tournament would come down to these three duking it out for supremacy.


First, Tokido battled Infiltration in the winners semifinal.


(If you don’t have time for the whole video, just skip to 12:27 for the highlight.)



It looked like Tokido had studied hard for this match, as he confidently won the first game. The scary thing about Infiltration, however, is that not only is he hard to read in the first place, but the moment you think you’ve figured something out, he adjusts very quickly to make sure the same trick doesn’t work on him a second time. Once again, Tokido looked lost, as Infiltration won the next three straight, including one ridiculous sequence of four throws in a row. Was Tokido’s mind completely shattered at this point?


Next, in the winners final, Infiltration got his chance to redeem himself against Momochi.

(You don’t really need to watch this one. The two videos after this, however, are the two best matches of the year so far.)


Maybe people got a little carried away crowning Momochi the new No. 1-man after he won a few games against Infiltration in a three-on-three off-tour weekly event held for Korean television. Or maybe this was another case of Infiltration learning and adapting with a vengeance, because he convincingly 3-0’d Momochi this time.


In the losers final, it was then Tokido and Momochi in an all-Japan Ryu vs. Ken classic.





With that amazing comeback in the third game (6:00), Momochi certainly appeared the mentally tougher, more confident player. Yet somehow Tokido managed to compose himself after that dispiriting collapse to stage an even more remarkable recovery from down 0-2 to winning three straight.


Once more, it was Tokido vs. Infiltration in a grand final.





Coming from the losers bracket, Tokido needed to win two sets in a row against the guy who had had his number all year—indeed, the guy who had just a few matches ago beaten him here. How did Tokido do it? With style, for one thing.


It’s hard to account for how Tokido adapted so dramatically to turn things around. Partly, that’s because I could never account for anything Infiltration was doing in the first place. I’ll say that those parries, besides being incredibly hype to witness, may actually provide key insight.


The parry, when it was introduced in Street Fighter III, altered competitive Street Fighter in a fundamental way. It was a tool that could literally beat every attack in the game, which meant attacking suddenly became the riskiest play at all times. If you could just anticipate your opponent’s next move, the parry gave you the power to turn the tide in an instant. That’s what Evo Moment #37 was all about. In Street Fighter II and Street Fighter Alpha—almost any other 2D fighting game up to that point—Daigo would have been a dead man for sure. But because of the parry, all it took was one godlike read (and some tremendous execution) to turn what once would have been assured defeat into the greatest comeback in Street Fighter history.


As amazing as that moment was, the parry itself remained a divisive mechanic, and it did not return in Street Fighter IV. In Street Fighter V, however, Ryu has a parry, yet it has not affected the game in any fundamental way. It hasn’t even really been a factor. Everybody seems to forget it exists and just plays the game as though it were Street Fighter II. At least, that was the case up until this grand final.


Analysts have been reluctant to directly tie the outcome of the match to the parries, cool as they were. Each of Tokido’s three moments (2:06, 9:31, 12:26) did lead into victorious rounds, but they didn’t really come at tide-turning junctures. But remember that, at high levels (not for scrubs like me, who occasionally just guess right), parrying is principally about anticipating your opponent’s moves. It’s about reading the other player and the situation. It’s about being psychic, in other words. And here Tokido was pulling it off against an opponent who, for so long, had seemed unreadable. There could be no more emphatic way for Tokido to assert that, at long last, he had well and truly ascended and figured Infiltration out. As I watched the turnaround in that grand final, returning to that idea of Infiltration playing from two seconds into the future, I now visualized Tokido catching and outrunning him mid-race.


The Path to Victory



So what does this mean for Evo? Well, it would certainly suck for me to have written all that only for both Infiltration and Tokido to crash out early. I mean, it could happen. This is Evo, after all. But is Evo really so different from all the other tournaments these guys have dominated?


The difference between Evo and every other tournament is the scale. No other fighting game event draws multiple thousands of entrants to compete in a single game. Before this year, even a thousand competitors at any other tournament was unheard of. Street Fighter V at Evo has over 5,000 people registered—more than double Ultra Street Fighter IV’s record-breaking number from last year.


That doesn’t mean, however, that Infiltration has to beat 5,000 other players. The minimum number of matches for any player to win Evo this year is fourteen. That’s if they can stay in the winners bracket all the way through. Fourteen matches sounds easily doable for a player of Infiltration's caliber, right? But that’s not all.


Compared to a regional major, the larger number of entrants at Evo traditionally means that it’s longer in the beginning (because of all the extra no-names to wade through in pools), tighter in the middle (because ALL the name players are present, including people who don’t usually travel), and pretty much the same once in the top 8 (i.e. mostly Japanese guys, plus a few other East Asians and maybe one or two lucky Westerners who drew easy brackets).


With 5,000 entrants this year, that beginning stage will be longer than ever, but I have my doubts about the tightness of the pack in that middle stage. Street Fighter V being still such a young game, I don’t think, frankly, that there are even thirty-two elite-level players in the world yet. (Unless there are a bunch of super-good Japanese guys we’ve just never heard of. There are a bunch of random Japanese players registered....)


When you look at it from that perspective—Infiltration only has to win fourteen matches, and the opponents don’t start getting serious until maybe eight matches in (when he might potentially have to face Sako)—then it doesn’t seem like such a mountain for a clearly superior player to climb.


Thus, I’d say Infiltration and Tokido are pretty much locks for the top 8, and I’ll throw Momochi’s name in there too. (I mean, just check that guy’s expression when he plays. He’s not in this to lose, and you can bet he’ll have done his homework since CEO.) I would consider these three to be the co-favorites. Between the three of them, it’s much harder to call, but I’ll say that, after CEO, the ball is in Infiltration’s court.


Standing in the Way



Assuming the current brackets hold (and it sounds like they’re pretty much final, as of this writing), Infiltration and Tokido are actually in the same half of the draw, which means they would likely meet at the start of the top 8 on winners side. Momochi, meanwhile, is in the other half, with Fuudo being his likeliest opponent in top 8 winners.


I’d consider Fuudo to be right behind the three co-favorites. His character, R. Mika, is not as steady, and he hasn’t won a major tournament yet this season. But he has definitely shown himself capable of beating Tokido and Momochi. These guys play each other all the time in Tokyo, so they’ll all know what to do against one another.


For that same reason, I’d consider the other big Tokyo players, Mago and Kazunoko in particular, as threats, not to win Evo, but to potentially spoil Tokido’s run. They’d have to get pretty deep into the bracket before that can happen, but Tokido could be running into random Japanese players as early as his second pool (his fifth match, supposing he doesn’t lose beforehand), and he could potentially face Daigo in the second round of the quarterfinals (ninth match).


Besides Infiltration, Momochi, and Tokido, there are actually two other guys who have won Premier events on the Capcom Pro Tour this year. Phenom of Norway, the highest-ranked player in Europe, won Dreamhack Summer. There’s not enough data to say with certainty where he stands in relation to the rest of the world, but that tournament was attended by pretty much all of the Japanese name players, none of whom seemed prepared for his Necalli. Necalli is not at all a rare character, and Phenom’s did not have any special tricks. It was almost the opposite; he just dispensed with the mind games and kept nailing the Japanese with wakeup uppercuts (the most obvious option, which at high levels is among the least expected). We’ll see if that will hold at Evo.


China’s top player, Xiao Hai, won G-League, his home Premier, which was actually the most recent Premier event, taking place just this past weekend. For some reason, those Asian tournaments almost always have crazy results, so I wouldn’t read too much into Tokido and Momochi’s shockingly low placings at G-League. I don’t know how it went down, because the garbage Chinese stream was garbled or worse for most of the event. All I heard is that, at the end, Xian brought out Ibuki, which is crazier than all the rest of it. Xiao Hai still took it 3-0, though, which is not a huge surprise. As was the case in Street Fighter IV, Xiao Hai can beat anyone in the world but will just as likely fold to second-tier players. Either could happen at Evo.


About that Ibuki from Xian, it’s crazy because that character was only added to Street Fighter V a little over a week ago. One of the exciting things about the Capcom Pro Tour this year was that the game was expected to continuously evolve, not only because players would be learning a new game, but because downloadable characters would be added every month. Capcom couldn’t quite maintain that monthly schedule, and, so far, the downloadable characters have been designed more conservatively to be fairly mid-tier. Still, when it was announced that Ibuki and Balrog (boxer) would be legal for use at Evo—a decision met with cheers from spectators, grumbling from competitors—the fear was that, with the community not having had time to adequately vet or practice against these characters, some mountain man might show up to Evo and bust out some totally broken secret Ibuki tech to score a major upset.


Xian, a former Evo champion, has been fairly quiet in Street Fighter V, and most blame that on his character of choice, F.A.N.G., being among the worst in the game. But if he’s discovered something with Ibuki (and he is exactly the sort of player to find and exploit these things), that could be a game-changer. Sako, the Capcom Cup 2013 champion, is another player that comes to mind. He lives in Osaka, which is more on the fringes of the Japanese scene, so he hasn’t been seen much in tournaments. He has an affinity with the character of Ibuki, having used her in Super Street Fighter IV: AE 2012. And he’s known to be one of the most technically skilled and innovative players in the world.


As for the US players, there was some optimism before the season began that this might be the Americans’ year. There would be no arcade release for Street Fighter V, which cut out a significant chunk of the Japanese competitive scene. Evening the playing field, everybody got their first looks at the game at pretty much the same time via the worldwide beta test. A handful of California players even managed to get their hands on the final version of the game before anyone else. And the game itself was simpler and more streamlined than Street Fighter IV. It was closer to Street Fighter II, which the US used to occasionally win at Evo. All that optimism faded quickly, however, after the top four spots at the first US Premier event ended up going to foreign players.


And yet it probably is true that the chances of a US champion at Evo are higher than they’ve been in years. That is, one specific player has an outside chance to win. Through a string of victories in second-tier Ranking events, Justin Wong has actually risen to the top of the Capcom Pro Tour leaderboard, ahead of Tokido and Infiltration. Outside of Premier events, which have all been gobbled up by foreign invaders, he has been clearly the best player in North America, almost as untouchable as Tokido and Infiltration. He even extended his dominance to South America, doing in Brazil much the same thing that Japanese players have repeatedly done in the US: making their top local players look like rank amateurs. His character of choice, Karin, suits his methodical style of play much better than Rufus ever did. At NorCal Regionals, he came within inches of beating Tokido, and, while he’s yet to get a crack at Infiltration, many believe he matches up stylistically very well against the South Korean. The problem for Justin is that his local competition is nowhere near good enough to prepare him for the depth of foreign experience he’ll eventually have to fight through if he progresses far enough. As the No. 1 seed thanks to his ranking, he does at least have a favorable bracket. He won’t run into any real contenders until the top 32 (tenth match, assuming no losses), when he’ll likely face either Hong Kong’s HumanBomb or NuckleDu, the next-best player in the US.


After NuckleDu, the rest of the US is pretty free. For a minute, it looked like SonicFox—the teenage LeBron James of fighting games, who has been completely dominant in Mortal Kombat and Injustice (and random other games nobody cares about)—might become both the worst nightmare and the best hope for the US Street Fighter community, as he promised to finally bring his talents their way in Street Fighter V. Unfortunately, his skill in Mortal Kombat X hasn’t quite translated. Still, the kid is a fighting game genius who thrives on the big stage, so I wouldn’t count him out entirely.


The Evo Factor



The other factor that makes Evo different from smaller tournaments is Evo itself—just the gravity of the event. Over the length of the three-day tournament, the tension is only going to build, and then, once the finalists are on that grand stage competing for the most storied trophy in all of fighting games, anything can happen. You could argue that the big names have all been through this before, but the reality is we’ve seen that professionals across all sports and at every level still experience nerves. They’re only human. That’s kind of what makes it great.


Oh wait, Tokido’s a god. One of Japan’s five gods of fighting games, isn’t that what they say? I guess we’ll find out this weekend.

Monday, February 29, 2016

The Vision of Escaflowne – Funimation's Kickstarter


This April will mark twenty years since the original broadcast of The Vision of Escaflowne, which premiered on Japanese television on April 2, 1996. Probably not actually conceived as an anniversary project, but well-timed nonetheless, a Kickstarter campaign went up two days ago to fund the creation of a new English-language dub for the upcoming release of the HD extended cut. The project is on pace to crush its $150,000 goal; as of this writing, with twenty-nine days to go, already $136,388 has been raised by 882 backers pledging an average of $154.63 apiece. That’s pretty cool, if only because it attests to a persisting, modestly sized but clearly passionate, fan base for what remains one of my favorite shows of all time.

Created by Shoji Kawamori (Macross) and directed by Kazuki Akane, The Vision of Escaflowne was, in many ways, the sum, the apotheosis, the quintessence of anime up to that point. The Sunrise production featured giant robots in a medieval high fantasy world, and, maximally broadening its appeal, it centered around an ordinary Japanese schoolgirl as its point-of-view character. The series successfully blended mecha and shoujo like no single anime before it, even as it evoked so many of its predecessors across genres. Far more than a stew of tropes, Escaflowne brought together nearly everything about the art form that so captivated anime fans of the ‘90s, particularly those emerging enthusiasts in the West. Full of action, romance, and drama, the tightly serialized production possessed enough imagination to deliver a hand-drawn otherworld sufficiently removed from reality to be enticing yet mature enough in tone and content to feel relevant and even, at times, profound. Topping it all off, the series was elevated by an incomparably epic score from Hajime Mizoguchi and Yoko Kanno, along with production values that far outstripped just about any television anime prior.

In North America, Escaflowne was one of Bandai Entertainment’s first releases (originally subtitled-only on VHS in 1998) and ultimately one of its all-time bestsellers. It was an immediate hit with the hardcore sect, but it actually took a few more years before an English-language dub was produced for the new DVD format. The dub, handled by Vancouver-based Ocean Studios, first debuted on TV, with a heavily edited “Saturday morning cartoon” version airing on YTV in Canada and (briefly) on Fox in the US in 2000.

Even without a wide-reaching Cartoon Network run, Escaflowne’s success with Western audiences was enough to encourage Sunrise to adapt the story into a theatrical film in 2000, but the series has since largely faded from the spotlight. That’s nothing so unusual, given how quickly the anime industry must move on, with more and more new shows being released every year. For all its quality and broadness of appeal, Escaflowne was probably never unique enough to endure alongside, say, Neon Genesis Evangelion, roughly its contemporary and one of the singular works to still grip audiences’ imaginations long after its run. It probably also doesn’t help that Escaflowne never had much in the way of tie-in merchandise. Even the many DVD releases and re-releases are now long out of print in the US, so I don’t imagine most anime fans of the last decade have ever seen the show.

That brings us to this Kickstarter. With Bandai Entertainment now defunct, Funimation has picked up the Escaflowne license and intends to release the series and movie on Blu-ray. What’s more, this will be the English-language debut of the show’s extended cut.

As the story goes, when the crew was early on still finding its feet with the production, episodes were coming out overlong and then had to be trimmed to fit into the allotted Japanese broadcast minutes. The deleted footage was later restored for the Japanese home video release, but for whatever reason, Bandai’s English version was based on the broadcast cut.

I’ve never seen the extra footage, but from what I’ve heard, it doesn’t amount to more than a few minutes in the early episodes. In any case, the complication is that, if Funimation were to dub those additional scenes in English for this new release, the likelihood of them being able to maintain continuity by bringing together the original English-language cast is probably quite low after all these years (supposing anybody would even want the original actors back). The old DVD audio also probably would need quite a bit of enhancement to make it suitable for an HD release today. It would be easier to record a brand new English dub for the entire series. Of course, it would be even easier just to release it with no English-language track at all, as has become common in the North American anime market. So, basically, Funimation is turning the fate of the Escaflowne English dub over to the fans via Kickstarter.

The whole campaign is a bit sketchy, and it’s certainly not helped by the evasive answers given by Funimation’s representatives in the exclusive ANN interview that introduced the project. Two points: 1) the $150,000 that Funimation has set as its goal would certainly not be enough to fully a fund a new dub, and 2) regardless, Funimation surely has enough money to budget for a new dub without having to call for direct funding from the fans. Rather, Funimation basically admits that the Kickstarter is more to measure consumer interest (i.e. Funimation already has enough money, but it needs to know whether it’s worth spending on a feature people might not care about) and then, supposing the goal is met, to serve as a pre-order campaign. I don’t doubt that the Kickstarter will succeed and that Funimation will come through with all the rewards promised to backers, but I must say, the $155 reward tier for the complete series and movie would be a ridiculous price for the same product at retail. So there’s clearly a lot of extra money going to Funimation, which they probably don't need as funding.

But hey, I’m happy to know that I’m not the only one that still loves this show, and as long as this dubbed extended cut is getting made anyway, I’m looking forward to experiencing the series anew. Actually, I haven’t watched The Vision of Escaflowne in about fifteen years, so I can’t say for sure if it holds up, but I’ll gladly take this release as an occasion to revisit it!