Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Rematch

Like most true Americans, I grew up loving Rocky IV. And like most people who watched it as kid, the match between Apollo Creed and Ivan Drago was the first really traumatic instance of my life. Even now that I am two decades older, every time I see the movie on TV, I still secretly pray for a different outcome. I've suggested before, only pretending to kid, that maybe Sylvester Stallone could go back, bring together Carl Weathers and Dolph Lundgren again, and film an alternate cut to finally give the fans some peace.

While that may never happen, Weathers and Lundgren were finally reunited for a rematch (of sorts) on the third season premiere of The Jace Hall Show. YouTube user OfficialRob2KProds has helpfully cut together the relevant portions for viewing here. You can also watch the full episode at IGN, although I wouldn't really recommend it.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Ultimate Chronicle?

Yesterday, Nintendo revealed its upcoming "full-scaled RPG" for Wii, The Last Story. This is not to be confused with The Last Remnant, Last Rebellion, Last Ranker, The Last Guardian, or Star Ocean: The Last Hope. Yes, those are all real game titles. With the exception of The Last Guardian, they are also all Japanese RPGs, the oldest of them having come out in late 2008. Nintendo's trademark for The Last Story was first discovered last September, after which it was at times confused with Last Window, the upcoming sequel to Hotel Dusk: Room 215.

But the one title that The Last Story may be intended to evoke is Final Fantasy, for this is the next RPG from Mistwalker and Hironobu Sakaguchi, the father of Final Fantasy. The teaser site reveals almost nothing about The Last Story, but Sakaguchi himself has confirmed on his blog that this is his mysterious blockbuster project that he first mentioned over a year ago.

Mistwalker's two HD JRPGs, Blue Dragon and Lost Odyssey, met with mixed reviews, the general consensus being that, despite being clearly conceived as rivals to the post-Sakaguchi Square Enix catalog, they posed no real challenge to the supremacy of the Final Fantasy name. I wouldn't hope for too much from The Last Story either, but that is one loaded title, and I would find it hard to believe that it could have been anything other than intentional.

Equally exciting for me, Nintendo will also be publishing Monolith Soft's next RPG, which was first announced last E3 as "Monado: Beginning of the World." It has since been renamed Xenoblade, and Nintendo has revealed that Tetsuya Takahashi, creator of Xenogears and Xenosaga, is involved.

Now almost two years since the Japanese release of Takahashi and Monolith Soft's Soma Bringer for the DS, Nintendo still has yet to announce a North American release for that game, while Reggie Fils-Aime has practically ruled out a stateside release for Monolith Soft's Disaster: Day of Crisis for Wii. Hopefully Xenoblade's name will lend it a bit more juice to help the game find its way over here.

All in all, these are exciting times ahead for Wii-owning JRPG players. In addition to the aforementioned two titles, Tales of Graces, the latest "mothership" entry in Namco's Tales series, is also a Wii exclusive, and Square Enix already committed Dragon Quest X to the Wii as well. Final Fantasy XIII notwithstanding, I think it's fair to say that the genre has not thrived on the HD platforms the way it did on the PS1 and PS2, so perhaps these developers don't have much to lose by returning to weaker hardware.

I also find it quite interesting that, as market conditions threaten to stretch this console generation into another entire cycle, while Microsoft and Sony seem intent on stealing some of that casual space with their own motion-control devices, the Wii in turn seems to be lining up some pretty hardcore titles for the next year or two.

Friday, January 29, 2010

And you notice!

Since landing the role of Nathan Drake, hero of 2007's Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, voice actor Nolan North has been on a roll, with notable appearances--usually the lead--in a string of high-profile video game releases, including Prince of Persia (2008), Shadow Complex, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, Assassin's Creed II, and Dark Void. He has also been cast as the lead in the in-development Spec Ops: The Line. I personally have yet to play any of these titles, but many players have begun to cite their fatigue at his ubiquity. It is not just that he is starring in all of these games, but that he is apparently playing much the same roguish Nathan Fillion-esque character in most of these performances.

In 2007, the Indiana Jones-like Nathan Drake was applauded as a refreshing departure from the musclebound badasses that dominated action game covers. North's command of his everyman persona was considered a defining part of the character and game, such that it seemed inconceivable that there could ever be a Drake without North's voice. In a surprising twist, however, it seems now it is the voice that remains the same, while the character gets swapped out for knockoffs. Considering how closely identified North is with his breakthrough role as Drake, I would think that recycling that performance for a slew of unrelated derivative characters would dilute the identity of the voice and simultaneously weaken all of those characters.

Of course, that's not really North's problem. He can and does play other types of characters. A prolific voice actor even before Uncharted, he paid his dues in minor parts (he was Vossler in FFXII!), and his filmography lists many even very recent "additional voices" credits. Well-received though his performance as Drake may have been, I rather doubt it led to studios actively casting him for his name recognition. He's a good voice actor with a pretty good agent, I imagine, but video game acting is hardly the big time. I'm sure he still needs to audition for as many roles as he can get.

If there is a lack of creativity currently afflicting Western game character design, the problem is in the writing. As long as they are writing Nathan Drake into every game, shouldn't North take advantage of his innate suitability for the part to get as many jobs as he can before the paradigm crashes? Would it really be better for companies to deliberately cast different actors just to try and disguise the similarities? Casting North at least lends one authentic element to the imitation.

That said, there is one Nolan North casting that I must take issue with. Earlier this year, he was the new voice of Elliot Salem, one of the two main characters in Army of Two: The 40th Day. I haven't played beyond the demo of this game either, so I can't comment on North's performance, but this is definitely not a Nathan Drake-type role. The problem is that Elliot Salem already had a damn fine voice actor in the original Army of Two:

At any given time during my playthrough of Army of Two, I could not tell by looking at them which masked mercenary was which. So, for me, the character of Elliot Salem began and ended with Josh Ryan's voice. I honestly could not have made it through the game without his wantonly obnoxious yet sickeningly pitch-perfect delivery as the cocky and amoral soldier of fortune. I don't know why Ryan and the rest of the original cast did not return for the sequel, but this is all very depressing. And don't try to tell me that this stuff doesn't matter, because it totally does! For me, Josh Ryan is Elliot Salem, just as much as Nolan North is Nathan Drake.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Years of Wrath

I had a dream that our leader committed suicide. In the aftermath, his sons and generals fought over succession, but, as his former personal secretary, I still had the key to his "war room." This was where the missile controls were, and so I locked myself in and became the most powerful man in the world.

Apparently there was also a radio that allowed me to broadcast to all of America. As its new leader, I thus made my one and only address to the people:

"I'm not one of those liars. There is no hope."

I then proceeded to launch all missiles on Kansas.

I don't know why I did these things, but the feelings of desperation grew surprisingly much worse once my missiles were gone. I had no food, but I couldn't leave the safety of my headquarters to go looking for any. All I could do was wait in fear and solitude until I starved to death.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Two hours into Metroid Prime

It seems I can only handle this game in twenty-minute sessions. It's nothing to do with motion sickness or "Nintendonitis"; I find that the experience takes more of a spiritual toll for me, which I don't think I was adequately warned about when I signed up for this.

You're lost and completely alone out there, never knowing what awaits you in this alien world devoid of any intelligent life, where everything wants you dead. There's no support, no dialogue whatsoever, no props when you annihilate an enemy. There aren't even computers to talk to. Wandering blindly from one empty room to the next, with no idea what I'm even after, it is just endless desolation. In short, this is a game that leaves me, every time I shut down after saving, feeling like I need to hug my loved ones.

It all does give me an enhanced appreciation for Samus Aran as perhaps the toughest protagonist in video games. Although the game details little of her background and conveys even less of any personality, I figure it must take a superior psyche to continually engage in these extended solo missions in harsh, hopeless environments. I don't think Solid Snake could do it. With no backup and no evac, Marcus Fenix probably wouldn't last very long out there. The Castlevania characters can do it when they have to, but most never have to face Dracula more than once in their lifetimes. It makes me wonder what kind of person could do this for a living. It must be some kind of sickness of the mind or soul at work. Maybe the pay is just that good. But then what kind of life does she go home to? I don't know if Samus's creators had such questions in mind when they designed her, but, in the absence of any real story, these are the things that I think about while exploring this world.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Pull the Trigger


Speaking of Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, remember that amazing ending? Remember that part where our hero was asked, by the most important person in his life, to end theirs after having faced and defeated them in exhausting single combat? Remember how stunned you were when you realized that it was you, as the player, who had to pull the trigger in order to finish the game? Well, did you know that that moment was a complete ripoff of the ending to Gungrave, which did it better two years earlier?

Okay, maybe better is debatable, but that awe-inspiring moment of the player being forced to pull the trigger was, first of all, done already in Gungrave. Moreover, the memory that many people have of the MGS3 take is somewhat of a lie. It is apparently a little known fact that, in Snake Eater, Snake actually will fire the shot if left on his own. It might take about two minutes, and I'm sure it's not more than five. I know because, one time, I left the gun in his hand while I took a short bathroom break. It was my third time through the game, my second playthrough in one week, and I really needed a break after having to snipe a Kerotan, capture three unique food items, and defeat The Boss through stamina-kill, all before the bombers were supposed to arrive. When I came back, The Boss was dead and Snake was cut scene grappling with young Ocelot. I was quite surprised, but, just to be sure there had been no foul play, I replayed the fight and verified that, yes, Snake eventually does pull the trigger on his own.

Anyway, it's not a big deal. They were both great games. Just sayin'.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Way to Fall

In case you haven't heard, Final Fantasy XIII will be (or already is in Japan) the first numbered Final Fantasy without original series composer Nobuo Uematsu. He only contributed one new track to Final Fantasy XII, but ask any fan to recall their favorite moments from the older games and there's a good chance that you'll catch them humming one of Nobuo's classic melodies as the theme music to the memory. Even in FFXII, the most "Final Fantasy" moments were probably those accompanied by rearrangements of old Nobuo themes. Needless to say, he's been an instrumental part in Final Fantasy's popularity, and the series wouldn't be (and hasn't been) the same without his sound.

Supposedly, Nobuo is now busy scoring Final Fantasy XIV, and that's the only thing that interests me about that MMORPG project. In order to focus his energies there, he opted to pass on composing the theme song for FFXIII, instead leaving Masashi Hamauzu (SaGa Frontier 2, Dirge of Cerberus) to come up with a few vocal themes (along with the rest of the game's score).

But the story gets a little more complicated for the English-language releases. Alongside the announcement of the North American and European release date, it was revealed that the theme song for the Western releases would be "My Hands" by multi-platinum English singer and X Factor winner Leona Lewis, of "Bleeding Love" fame. Yesterday, Square Enix released a new trailer featuring the song:

I do like Leona Lewis's voice, and I think getting her to sing the theme song for FFXIII would indeed have been quite a coup. But that's not really what happened here. "My Hands" is just a track that has been borrowed off her latest album, Echo, which was released last November. I think it's a pretty good song, albeit rather generic. On its own merits, I definitely prefer it to Hamauzu's theme, and it's better-produced by far than the average video game song. But it has nothing to do with Final Fantasy, and I think it sad that, for all Square Enix's aspiring to present FFXIII as the most anticipated video game release of all time, the inclusion of licensed pop music for its main theme is somehow a strategic move to raise the game's profile outside Japan. It tells me that games are still far from attaining the prestige of movies. Even Square Enix CEO Yoichi Wada has admitted that this was not the ideal route, but it's what we're getting.

Here's Masashi Hamauzu's Japanese theme song, performed by Sayuri Sugawara, for comparison:

This is also pretty boring and generic, but there is a certain comforting cheesiness and sentimentality that somehow feels more appropriate for a theme song to a young adult-oriented fantasy story. Does anybody else agree?

(Incidentally, the US Bayonetta commercial, featuring La Roux's "In for the Kill", is much slicker than the Japanese commercial.)

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Sometimes I forget that Metroid is a woman

So I started playing Metroid Prime (Wii Trilogy version). I'm not very far into it yet, but Retro Studios definitely got the atmosphere down. I never experienced the GameCube version, but even over seven years after its original release, the graphics and audio hold up quite well.

The Wii Remote controls are pretty nifty, though again I don't know what it was like on the GameCube. This is the first "FPS" I've played on the Wii, and comparing this setup to a 360 controller, I wouldn't say this is more accurate necessarily for precision shots, but I do feel like I can track enemies more quickly and naturally. My experience with traditional gamepads with this genre is not that great either, but it usually feels clumsy and disconnected unless I'm sniping. Being able to point with my wrist, on the other hand, it's very easy to zip (roughly) in the direction of the target. The enemies I've faced so far haven't really had "weak points," however, and I suspect the hard part would be trying to focus in and keep it steady on a small target.

What I don't so much get is the scanning mechanic. It seems very tedious and cumbersome having to constantly scan everything, especially since you have to turn off your cannons and manually activate scanning mode just to see what you can scan. I'm not even sure why I'm scanning these things. It certainly doesn't make any narrative sense for Samus to have to take fire without responding for several seconds so that she can download some mostly irrelevant data on an aggressive hostile. In a lot of other games, enemies just get added to the bestiary after you defeat them. In this game, it seems as though I seriously spend more time scanning than doing anything else. I guess that's what it's like to be an explorer, but I thought I was supposed to be playing a bounty hunter. Am I just not getting it?

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Persona 3

Although it has only lately garnered attention in North America, Atlus's Megami Tensei series has been a fixture in the RPG landscape of Japan since the Nintendo Famicom days. Usually set in modern Japan and starring high school students with the ability to summon devils, the venerable and prolific series distinguished itself early on from its D&D-inspired genre peers with its realistic settings and occult themes. For its longevity and originality, it is widely regarded as the number three RPG in Japan, behind Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy.

Persona, the first Megami Tensei title to arrive in North America, was an offshoot about teenagers crossing over into a parallel dimension to combat demons that were quietly intruding on and corrupting the city. Instead of summoning devils to help them fight, the characters called upon their individual "Personas," phantasmal manifestations of their own psyches (very much like the "Stands" from JoJo's Bizarre Adventure). Persona spawned its own sub-series of games, most of which have actually made their way across the Pacific. Its breakout hit--indeed, the breakthrough title for the entire Megami Tensei meta-series outside Japan--arrived in 2007 (2006 in Japan) in the form of Persona 3 for the PlayStation 2. A "director's cut" released the following year, Persona 3 FES has been my introduction to both Persona and Megami Tensei, and I'm definitely interested in seeing more.

While not directly connected to any previous entries in the series, Persona 3's story follows the same basic premise as the first game--a shadowy otherworld is encroaching on an unsuspecting Japanese city, and it is up to a select group of high school students to stave off oblivion by evoking the power of Persona. The modern setting offers something refreshingly different from the typical Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, or Tales game, while the occult elements further add a dark edge rarely encountered in the more mainstream JRPGs. A shocking moment during the opening scenes, when a character fearfully points a gun at her own head, sets the tone right away as something altogether distinct from swords-and-sorcery romanticism. As it turns out, shooting themselves in the head with gun-like "Evokers" is how the characters release their Personas, and that's not the extent of the perverse imagery peculiar to this series.

Where Persona 3 most differs from other JRPGs, including its Megami Tensei predecessors, is in how it is structured. In a typical JRPG, including even most of the best games, the experience essentially consists of a progression along a linear path and a repeating formula, from town to dungeon to boss battle to dramatic non-interactive story sequence. Players get caught up in many fights along the way and perhaps roam about a world map. In the better examples of this JRPG formula, the combat should be interesting enough that we can bear the repetitiveness, but really it is the last step, the story sequences, that alone makes it all worth it. Looking at all the JRPGs I've played, I can think of few where the rest of the experience was anything more than busywork. I find it hard to argue in favor of the formula, yet Japanese developers have mostly stuck with it for the last two decades. I think that the best Final Fantasy games and clones have been excellent in spite of their design, but I can understand perfectly the apathy of many Western gamers toward the genre these days. Persona 3 deserves far better than the sighs and eye-rolling that the term "JRPG" might elicit, however, because it is a Japanese RPG that bucks the trend.

Surprisingly, Persona 3 sets itself apart and revitalizes a genre by, of all things, borrowing elements of the Japanese dating sim, a genre that I've been unfairly dismissive of in the past. I still have no particular interest in delving deeper into that world, but I realize now that my misgivings were due, not so much to the concept, but to my perceptions of the typical motivations and marketing. Implemented into an RPG such as Persona 3, the mechanics show their potential as a means to convey story through non-violent interaction. Instead of just slaying monsters to earn those cut scenes, you spend a lot of time getting to know people, buying them presents, listening to their problems, and offering them advice and encouragement. Not only do the social elements give you a rare sense of a fleshed-out world beyond the central battle, but they make it easier to identify with the mute protagonist, since he is reflected in the company you choose to keep. Cleverly integrating the sim components with the combat, your relationships even appropriately enhance your Persona powers. True, the links you form, not only with romantic interests, but also with friends and other more complex relations, develop in fairly linear fashion, through scripted sequences and extremely limited dialogue choices. But the stories are thoroughly engaging, and choice still comes into play when you realize that you more than likely won't have enough time to pursue all of these relationships within a single playthrough (and of course, you may specifically choose NOT to be friends with some characters).

You see, the most brilliant innovation of Persona 3 is its calendar-based structure. Major events (i.e. boss battles) occur on scheduled dates once a month, but the game progresses one day at a time. There may occasionally be scripted events between the monthly missions, but on most days, you simply attend class in the morning and are then free to spend the rest of the afternoon and evening however you choose. You can work on your relationships, enter the game's one dungeon to train your characters, or take on some of the many optional side quests for rewards. You can even study to raise your "Academics" stat, which improves your performance in class and also boosts your chances at forming relationships with certain characters. You can only accomplish so much in a day, however, and time continually marches forward with little regard for how or how well you spend it. Persona 3 effectively eschews the typical JRPG formula, and standard combat and level-building only made up about half my experience. Yet this structure is about more than just the freedom to explore, which a Western RPG such as Fallout 3 might very well pull off better.

Transpiring over the course of a Japanese school year, it realizes the unfulfilled promise of Final Fantasy VIII, as a video game simulation of adolescent life. The mission gives the characters a reason for banding together, but you could almost do without the supernatural angle otherwise. For me, it was not the dramatic events but the day-to-day that kept me going. As the only ones aware of and able to combat the shadows, the protagonists carry a heavy burden. But like it or not, the enemy only reveals itself once a month on schedule, and as the characters wait, that is when life happens. Indeed the stretches of inaction may be the most stressful part for these teenagers, who still have to worry about school and relationships, their futures, with all the uncertainty that adolescents do. And even the dramatic moments must be met with a level of muted sobriety; when loved ones die, they do not get to skip the grieving or bury it beneath rage. Only time can heal those wounds, and this is one game that has the courage to put its characters through that.

Whereas so many blockbuster games today pattern themselves after movies, Persona 3 is a video game that feels like an accomplished novel, and closer to Jane Austen than J.R.R. Tolkien. That is not to say that it imitates the form of a novel, but its story enjoys a scope that rarely translates to film, and the experience has a weight to it that you carry with you even after the ending that leaves one emotionally exhausted. It's hard to put into words, but this is a game that you live with for 70+ hours (for real, it took me over 100!). At some point, it becomes a part of you.

I was no big fan of Heinlein's Time Enough for Love, about a man who loved life so much that he simply refused to die, but I could well understand the melancholy conviction that the fullness of life cannot be contained within a single human lifetime. I think it accurate to say that I read novels and watch television precisely because, through the experiences of fictional characters, I am able to live vicariously beyond the confines of my own transient existence. I will never be a detective, or a surgeon, a sailor, a cowboy, or a wizard, but these stories allow me to share in the lives of those who are. Thus, while I may have only one life, I am able to experience thousands of stories over the course of it. And like a Jane Austen novel or a Harry Potter, the experience of Persona 3 is all the more affecting because of its realistic attention to the passage of time, inviting us to share, not only in the big events that we sometimes mistake life for, but also in everything in between. After all, without the quiet and mundane moments to provide context, just a laundry list of achievements of even the largest life can become utterly abstract and meaningless. Atlus's game is one of the rare works to grasp that, and however accelerated the experience may have been, at the end of it I felt like I had a spent a year with those characters.

That said, I won't say the system is perfect. Although the dating sim stories always arrive at fulfilling conclusions, they do not impact the main quest in any way. No matter how close you get to a female party member, it will never affect their attitude toward you in the main storyline. The opposite is also true and even more disconcerting--your love interests at school will never remark on the mysterious happenings around the city, giving the impression, when things get dire, that they are unusually dimwitted. Worst of all, in most cases, after you "max out" a relationship with a classmate, they will still hang around at school, but there will be nothing for you to do with them, leaving you potentially months of just awkwardly passing them in the halls. Ironically, the moment the link graduates to a lifelong bond is the same moment that any meaningful interaction ceases. In fact, these characters thereafter become even less interesting than regular NPCs, since they will only repeat their maximum-I-love-you lines for the rest of the game.

You'll note that I have yet to get into the combat, except perhaps to imply that the game excels other JRPGs precisely because there is so much more to it besides fighting. That's because it's kind of a drag. It's not particularly worse compared to any other JRPG, but it is very old-school and repetitive. Very typical turn-based stuff, it is the only major disappointment in this game that is so innovative in other areas.

As noted, there is really only one dungeon in the game--a tower of 200+ randomly generated floors, with a non-story boss battle every few floors. The tower is divided into several blocks, and every month the next block will open up, usually not long after that month's scheduled event. It's also not at all connected to most of the story events and battles, so going there is technically kind of (but not really) optional. Frankly, because exploring it felt so pointless, I kind of slacked on it early on. That was the beauty of the open schedule, after all--that I was at leisure to go there only as often and for as long as I felt like it, which I quickly realized was never. As it turns out, the danger of such freedom is that it's hard to tell whether or not your characters' levels are where you will need them to be, until the next scheduled operation commences and you find out the hard way that your characters are woefully unprepared. The tower is essentially the training ground for getting your characters in shape, and if you can take out the highest boss in the current block, then you should be good to go for the next event battle. After I grew more familiar with the game, I started to just reserve two nights out of every game month for scaling the tower. Those would be some long nights, but I think it was still less dungeon-crawling than most JRPGs, and it freed up my schedule for unbroken hours of doing the things I enjoyed.

Combat plays out like a more severe form of Pokemon. Every normal attack and offensive ability falls under an element type, and almost every Persona and enemy is strong to some elements and weak to others. If you target an enemy's weakness, not only will the attack do more damage, not only will it stun the enemy, but you will get a free turn to move again. You could use that turn to stun the next enemy, which then grants you another turn. Repeat the process and you could potentially end up stunning the entire enemy party in a single round. Of course, the same rules can work against your characters, although enemies rarely have the depth of offensive abilities or presence of mind to stun multiple members of your party. But they really only have to stun your character, thereby robbing you of your turn for the round. Thus were there some brutal moments where I just happened to get caught wielding the wrong Persona against the wrong enemy, leading to agonizing minutes of complete non-interactivity, as I could only watch my inept teammates making all the wrong moves while the enemy chain-stunned my protagonist to death.

You see, the game allows you direct control only over the nameless protagonist, while your allies operate under loose directives (e.g. "full assault," "focus on healing," etc.). This reminds me a bit of the arcade NBA Jam, where, unlike in most sports games, you only controlled one player, even if your teammate had the ball. To an extent, it gave you the authentic sense of playing as a member of a team, instead of as the godlike puppet master of all units on a game board. In Persona 3, however, I would like to believe that the characters are not the idiots that they present themselves as when controlled by the AI in battle. Too often would I have to watch Mitsuru waste away her magic on pointless moves instead of just finishing off the enemy, or Yukari healing a single character instead of the party, or everybody failing to remove status effects unless specifically set to focus on healing, which I can't set them to now, because my character is the one berserked, leaving me no control over him or anyone else. And this is a game where a character at full health is maybe three hits away from death, so a berserk, confuse, or charm spell against the protagonist can completely turn even what should have been a routine victory against you. In fact, it happened to me two hours into the final boss fight. Oh, don't be too intimidated by the "two hours" thing--no other battle in the game is nearly that long. Plus, I was actually only a few strikes away from victory when everything went to hell, which, yes, only made it that much more frustrating. No, the game is not all that hard. In fact, it's my understanding that Persona 3 was partially conceived as a mainstream take on the notoriously hardcore Megami Tensei series. There is even an option to select an "easy" mode (which I should have chosen) before starting a new game. But I wouldn't call it a game for casual RPG players.

Having said that, I would still heartily recommend that any true gaming enthusiast give Persona 3 a try. It doesn't escape the grind, but it offers much more than fighting and effectively allows you to rearrange the formula as you see fit. More than any other game, I think it offers a glimpse into the future of RPGs, or even just non-violent narrative-based gaming, but it also happens to be a great story with great characters for right now. What began as a game seemingly full of too many empty periods for inconsequential side quests slowly became a schedule with not enough time to do all the things I had planned. As the days continued to tick by, I grew ever more sorrowful that there had to be an end, that I could not have just one more uneventful day spent sipping coffee or singing karaoke. Unless you absolutely cannot abide turn-based JRPG combat, this is as essential an experience as any other game released within the last four years. I hesitate to call it the greatest RPG of the same period only because I have yet to play Persona 4.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Man Without a Face

I was playing Resident Evil Code: Veronica X a few years ago, when my brother walked in, picked up the game case and asked, "Who the hell is this guy?"

He could be forgiven his skepticism upon my answering that the generic-looking white dude on the cover was Chris Redfield, original Resident Evil leading man. This was after the release of the Resident Evil remake for GameCube, and this Chris bore hardly any resemblance to the one we knew from that game:

Of course, the original Chris was actually this guy:

It is a bit of a shame that the stars of Capcom's biggest franchise seem to lack consistent identity across the generations. People sometimes make fun of Tetsuya Nomura's designs, but the reason Cloud Strife's hair is like that is so that you can always identify him, no matter how drastically his face changes over the years. Leon S. Kennedy has a bit of that, but the other RE protagonists have at times been recognizable only by the colors they wear (Chris-green, Jill-blue, Claire-red). It wasn't until Code: Veronica on the Dreamcast that the characters could even have actual faces outside of cut scenes.

Then, realizing that the GameCube could do better, Capcom scrapped all that and seemed to have finally set out to establish a consistent look for the characters across the remake, RE0, RE4, and later even Umbrella Chronicles for the Wii.

Then came the first promotional image from RE5:

I still remember forum fools misidentifying him as Carlos Oliviera from RE3, or even Bruce McGivern from Resident Evil: Dead Aim. I could not believe I was hearing such ridiculous suggestions, but most people (those who actually cared about the characters of Resident Evil) thankfully had sense enough to see, as I did, that it was obviously Chris.

Of course, it was obvious only by the process of elimination--it was clearly a guy, and it definitely wasn't Leon, so it had to be Chris. Capcom was not even close to announcing a release date for RE5, and it wouldn't have chosen just some random spin-off guy or minor supporting character to be the image to get fans pumped up in the meantime. But if that shot had been handed to me with no context or exposition, then no, I wouldn't have guessed that that was Chris. Capcom had again reset the designs of the characters, leaving many fans scratching their heads over what they were even looking at. He wasn't even wearing his signature green color.

By the time the game actually came out, this was what RE5 Chris looked like:

Comparing him against the GameCube Chris, maybe RE5 Chris inherited some of the brow and jawline. Better hardware added some stubble and better definition to the hair. But I could understand if people had a hard time recognizing him.

Although Chris would not have a large role in Resident Evil: The Darkside Chronicles, one of the things I was actually most curious about was how, in essentially last-gen graphics, they would handle his character design in light of his new RE5 look. What form would this potential missing link between GameCube Chris and HD Chris take?

As it turns out, Darkside Chronicles Chris is pretty much just GameCube Chris:

But again my brother was left shaking his head. I suppose this time it was the 'roided-out RE5 Chris that he had grown accustomed to.

When you get right down to it, only Wesker really endures as the face of Resident Evil.

Anyway, here are some bonus clips of Chris Redfield to close things out:

Although he is traditionally regarded as the tank among RE protagonists, he is not without moves!

Of course, sometimes muscle is what's called for, and Chris has got what you need. What could Leon have done to get out of this one?

Wentworth Miller from TV's Prison Break will be playing the live-action Chris in the next Milla Jovovich movie:

I would have thought Leon a more suitable role for Wentworth, with Chris being more a Dominic Purcell kind of character, but Miller's face is not too far off here (not that I expect movie Chris to resemble game Chris in any way).

Sunday, January 3, 2010


Avatar is a movie that I wish I could have seen when I was seven.

It had been more than a decade since James Cameron's last "real" film, and I could only wonder what sort of passion project had so consumed the time of this visionary writer and director who had given us Terminator, T2, and Aliens. Then finally the first Avatar trailer debuted, and upon seeing the blue people in a CG FernGully, my expectations were lowered somewhat. We still had months to go before the film itself hit theaters, however, and in that time I had somehow come back around. I suppose I wanted to be amazed. Now having seen it, I can say that Avatar is a good film, at times a great one. I think it's a movie that I would have loved as a kid. But it's not one that I love right now.

Avatar is a bit Disney's Pocahontas, a lot Dances with Wolves, and what seemed to me a pinch of Gorillas in the Mist. But the script is not the reason to view this film, and visually this is more like the second coming of Jar Jar Binks crossed with, yes, FernGully. There was nothing so mind-blowing for me as seeing the CG Transformers for the first time, but there are some amazing sights in this film. The giant six-legged panther was a highlight, and I wish I could have seen more of those anime-esque mech suits that came equipped with oversized hands for gripping oversized knives. The final battle (actually the only one, I'm pretty sure) ranks up there with any of the action scenes that thrilled me as a child. Unlike Coraline or Up, the 3-D in Avatar feels more layered and thoroughly implemented, suggesting it was a more deliberate part of development. At the same time, it's also less gimmicky than Beowulf, which contained multiple shots of pointy things stabbing in the audience's direction.

Of course it is a beautiful film and a technical achievement. Not only are the panthers and mechs created out of nothing, but Cameron and crew have, in Pandora, painted an entire world both wholly convincing yet unlike anything on Earth. But I found that I was having to force myself to appreciate the craft on a technical level, rather than enjoying it on a personal level.

The problem is that I've already seen the greenscreen stuff, Zemeckis's performance capture stuff, and a few of the recent 3-D pictures. I've seen Jar Jar Binks before, I've seen Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, and I've seen Beowulf. Avatar is perhaps more technically sophisticated than any of the things that came before it, but because I've seen the evolutionary steps leading up to it, this doesn't astound me as a revolution in special effects. It doesn't change the way I view film. And as complete experiences, setting aside the sheer numbers behind the effects, I would say that I enjoyed all of the aforementioned films more.

It is the plot of Avatar that I just can't get behind. We've seen it before in Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai, and any number of other stories; white man goes native, proves himself a better savage than any of the real savages, then saves them by leading them into war and indiscriminately slaughtering scores of soldiers who could just as easily have been him, had not fate or some "deity" chosen him for a higher purpose. The story is so tired that I needn't even bother marking spoilers. Within seconds of meeting the characters, you know exactly who the good guys are, who the bad guys are, which hostile jerk is going to come around and redeem himself before going down in a blaze of glory. I didn't come into Avatar expecting to love it for its story, but I also didn't expect it to bother me as much as it did.

As the story developed, I realized that I didn't respect our "hero," Jake Sully. In fact, I think a small part of me even kind of hated him. Near the beginning of the movie, he narrates that he told himself he could "pass any test a man could pass," but what does that even have to do with anything? He scores the Avatar assignment, not because of any personal merit, but because, by some horrible fluke, he happens to be the one guy alive who can step into the role of this multi-million dollar investment. Paraplegic due to a combat injury that ended his career as a soldier, he is delighted upon first entering his Avatar and being able to walk and run again. After he later switches sides, he claims that the humans ruined their own world and would do the same to Pandora. But Earth is never actually depicted in the movie, and because of Sully's personal situation, of course he'd find his Avatar life preferable to his impaired human existence. He was supposed to aid diplomatic relations between the two cultures, but there's no indication that he ever even broached the issue of the miners' intentions during his three months among the natives. From what we see of his time in the village, he was not interested so much in helping either the humans or the natives, but rather in enjoying himself. Ultimately, what I perceived in Jake Sully was a coward, running away from an unpleasant reality and waiting for fate to simplify his choices. Even the word "avatar" makes me picture some overweight World of Warcraft player pretending to be Viggo Mortensen. These are the things that I would not have seen as a seven-year-old, but I cannot now ignore them.

Cameron at least tells his story with confidence, and were I still a child, that might have been enough to instill belief in the movie's simple themes. Avatar is a family film, but it gets the difference between family film and kids movie; the characters are all adults, and it doesn't resort to including obnoxious comic relief characters to distract the audience from possible script deficiencies. And whether or not I like what it has to say, Avatar is clearly about something, unlike, say, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen or The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Maybe Cameron is a little too confident, as the film is way too long. As was the case with Ponyo earlier this year, I hate to accuse a film of such visual craftsmanship of wasting even a minute, but the reality is that I grew bored of Cameron lingering on his own creation.

Avatar is a well-made film, worthy of attention. I liked it as a whole and loved parts of it. I wouldn't say it was worth waiting twelve years for (and I'm glad I didn't actually spend the last twelve years waiting for it), but it does not shake my belief in James Cameron. I think he at least knows what he wants to do, and I can only hope his next project will be closer to what I want to see.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Resident Evil: The Darkside Chronicles

The much anticipated (at least by me) followup to 2007's Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles, The Darkside Chronicles is a predictably similar yet very much superior experience.

Umbrella Chronicles felt slapped together as a package, liberally reusing assets from Capcom's GameCube releases to cash in on the popularity of the Wii and the resurgent Resident Evil brand. Darkside Chronicles, inspired by the success of Umbrella Chronicles itself, is again an on-rails shooter that retells the events of previous core titles in the franchise. This time focusing on the adventures of Leon S. Kennedy and Claire Redfield, Darkside Chronicles covers Resident Evil 2 and Resident Evil Code: Veronica, the two chapters that Umbrella Chronicles omitted, almost certainly because there were insufficient GameCube-era assets to draw upon. Without all the old art and movie files to recycle, Darkside Chronicles feels much fresher, with far more effort put into it, despite ultimately running off the same simple mechanics as its predecessor.

Darkside Chronicles is still an on-rails shooter using the infrared pointer capability of the Wii Remote to crudely mimic a light gun. The accelerometer is used to reload by shaking the remote or for swinging the knife, although occasion for the latter is minimized compared to Umbrella Chronicles. Actually, I found that the gameplay of Darkside Chronicles felt slightly simplified overall compared to the last game. For better or worse, it's an easier, more accessible game, boss battles aside. Zombie packs are never as large or in-your-face as in the hairier stages of Umbrella Chronicles, and critical headshots seem to occur with greater frequency. The number of weapons is also much smaller this time, although players are now able to access the inventory mid-mission via the pause menu. The game no longer scores you on how many destructible objects you shoot, which gives hardcore players one less grade to measure themselves, but the many items hidden about the environment still compel you to fire constantly at everything.

The most significant change to the mechanics may be that the player can no longer control the camera at all, and my greatest concern, based on pre-release footage, was that it might go overboard with the shaky cam technique, robbing players of the joy of lining up shots precisely. As it turns out, that's not a concern at all, as there are still plenty of things to shoot at during the course of the game, which, at about ten hours, is, like Umbrella Chronicles, uncharacteristically full for its genre.

What really makes Darkside Chronicles so much better, however, is its story presentation. Although Umbrella Chronicles purported to retell the stories of Resident Evil, Resident Evil 3, and Resident Evil Zero, in practice it conveyed very little of those games' plots and would have been largely useless to anyone who hadn't already played the original titles. Covering the most story-intensive entries in the series, Darkside Chronicles thankfully does a much better job of actually filling in Wii-gen newcomers to the series on what they've missed.

The Resident Evil 2 chapter fares the better out of the two. The Darkside Chronicles take understandably trims and excises subplots here and there, but all major events are retained, and what remains is a complete and self-contained story. And it's surprisingly better than a B-movie!

It is helped along by much higher production values than Umbrella Chronicles. Whereas that game reused character models from the GameCube games and even included the same movie files from Resident Evil Zero, Darkside Chronicles takes many characters not seen during the GameCube era and features them in a story paced by a large number of new pre-rendered cinematics. The real-time graphics are fairly consistent stylistically with the GameCube games, but even many of the elements that could have been recycled, such as the Raccoon City Police Department from Umbrella Chronicles, appear brand new and better than ever. Meanwhile the cut scenes are quite nice and help to raise the game's look above the Wii standard.

The Code: Veronica chapter is a little less coherent, as it cuts most of Chris Redfield's journey and downplays Wesker's role, perhaps because we got enough of those characters in Umbrella Chronicles and Resident Evil 5. To be fair, the original Code: Veronica was already by far the looniest installment in the series, and in Darkside Chronicles, the best bits survive mostly intact, with the one notable exception of the portrayal of Steve Burnside, which I found to be a bowdlerization that rather missed the point of the character.


In Code: Veronica, Steve was, at first glance, an annoyingly cocky punk, but his poorly supported facade of cool repeatedly broke down in more genuine moments of fear and weakness, revealing one of the most human characters in video game history. Rather than being the hero himself, he was one of the tragedy's victims whom I wanted to protect, and, believe it or not, that was one of the first cases that convinced me that being a video game hero might entail more than just killing things. When I was ultimately unable to save him, and instead he was the one that finally accomplished something heroic, I felt defeat unlike any "game over," but I also felt like he really fought for it and earned that moment.

Darkside Chronicles presents an initially intriguing take on a Steve who, when taunted by the villain, responds with a fury beyond reason, such that even Claire seems a little frightened. He is clearly using anger to escape having to deal with other emotions, but when the story finally sets him face-to-face with what he's been running from, the release is nowhere near as cataclysmic as one might expect. He deals with it a little too easily, and even as terrible things continue to happen, the bravado never really ceases. In other words, this Steve trades human warmth for the distant coolness of action heroism.

Again, this won't affect anyone who didn't play the original Code: Veronica, and what matters most now is that players of Darkside Chronicles can enjoy themselves without feeling like they have to go back a decade to get the full story.

Like Umbrella Chronicles, Darkside Chronicles also includes one chapter of new material, again set during that six-year gap between Code: Veronica and Resident Evil 4. Detailing Leon's history with Jack Krauser as hinted at in RE4, it's nothing revelatory, nor even as significant within the canon as the "Umbrella's End" scenario from Umbrella Chronicles--whereas the story of the fall of Umbrella was the major attraction of that game for hardcore followers of the Resident Evil mythology, "Operation Javier" in Darkside Chronicles feels more like an afterthought to flimsily tie together the flashbacks to RE2 and Code: Veronica within one narrative--but as with all the other stories in Darkside Chronicles, it's better-executed than anything in Umbrella Chronicles.

The only truly disappointing thing about Darkside Chronicles, compared to Umbrella Chronicles, is the lack of any bonus chapters, such as the Rebecca and Wesker missions that added new perspectives to established stories. Umbrella Chronicles also had the two RE2 side missions starring Ada and Hunk, so maybe there wasn't as much left for Darkside Chronicles to explore, but this should have been the time to finally address persisting questions about Sherry's fate or Ada's true employer. At least there is still plenty of Resident Evil fan service in the form of collectible files, including some cool audio recordings that reveal a bit about some of the villains and supporting characters.

The completionist in me also would have liked to have seen a chapter based on Degeneration, especially as I believe an on-rails shooter could make better use of that material than the movie did. The optimist in me hopes that Capcom and co-developer cavia are saving that for a third Chronicles game, which I would be all for.