Sunday, April 26, 2015

Kitten – "Like a Stranger" / "I'll Be Your Girl" (Live at Amoeba Music)

Chloe Chaidez of the band Kitten performing a soul-baring two-song acoustic set at the Hollywood Amoeba:

Kitten will be performing in San Diego this Friday, May 1, 2015, opening for OK Go at the House of Blues.

Kitten the Band - Live with OK Go

Sunday, April 19, 2015

What Game of Thrones could learn from anime (but probably shouldn't)

Hard to believe that we are now into the fifth season of HBO’s Game of Thrones. Which also means that we are approaching ever closer to that point, dreaded by many fans, when the TV series will overtake its source material. With George R. R. Martin’s sixth novel in his A Song of Ice and Fire series not due for release until next year at the earliest, it is certain that the TV adaptation will conclude before the books—likely well before, as Martin’s current projections include at least a seventh novel further down the line, which, at the rate at which he writes, won’t see release until the 2020s. Varying reports have it that the show will catch up to the books next season, or possibly even during this fifth season.

This dilemma of an adaptation outpacing its source material is rather unique to Game of Thrones among American TV shows. AMC’s The Walking Dead is still a few seasons away from catching up to the ongoing Robert Kirkman comic, but it has already diverged significantly from the original story in many places, so, at any rate, its direction does not seem terribly dependent upon that of the source material. The CW began adapting The 100 before the first book in Kass Morgan’s trilogy was even released, yet the show is so far from the original young adult novels in tone and content that it is arguably not an “adaptation” at all, but merely “based on” some of Morgan’s ideas. In these rather more typical cases, the shows have established their own lives (and audiences) apart from their source material.

Game of Thrones is different. Even if most of the show’s viewers never read any of Martin’s books, still there has thus far been this understanding that showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss have been striving to produce a faithful adaptation of one of the more respected and literary works of modern pop culture. They have made some not insignificant alterations to certain plot points, yes, but none of them pivotal (at least until George R. R. Martin reveals otherwise….). This is not a bold new interpretation that takes liberties for the sake of being different, but one that, for the most part, accurately and respectfully represents the original story to a new audience of non-book-reading geeks. You could enjoy the show purely on its own merits, but, beyond that, fans introduced to Martin’s fantasy universe through the TV series could also have a degree of confidence that they were still getting the real Game of Thrones experience, and could, up to a point, hold conversation with book readers about plot points and characters, in the same way that one could consider themselves reasonably conversant in Harry Potter while only having seen the movies. One way or another, that understanding will soon be tossed out the window. What’s going to happen when the show catches up to the books?

Well, unusual as this case may be, it’s not entirely unprecedented. If you venture into the realm of Japanese anime, you’ll find that this sort of thing happens all the time.


In highly consumerist Japan, it’s crucial to milk an intellectual property as much as possible while it’s still at the peak of its popularity, which means that TV anime adaptations of manga (comics) very often come out while the manga is still ongoing with no end in sight. And, as an anime tends to run on a faster schedule than a manga, almost invariably the anime runs into this problem of catching up to the source material. Different shows have dealt with this in a few different ways, which may give insight into the options available to the Game of Thrones TV writers.

1. Filler Arcs

Any time an anime includes a story not taken from the manga from which it is adapted, that is what is known among fans as a “filler” episode. Longer series, such as Dragon Ball, One Piece, Naruto, and Bleach have entire filler arcs, sometimes lasting as long as twenty straight episodes or more—roughly the length of a full season on US network television, and about twice as many episodes as any season of Game of Thrones.

Whenever an anime threatens to close in on its source material, these filler arcs serve, as you might guess, to fill in time. While waiting for the manga author to get back ahead and provide the next part of the story for them to adapt, the anime writers make up their own tangential episodes. They do plan far enough ahead, so that it doesn’t usually come down to them literally waiting on the author to write the next arc. But, point is, filler arcs serve to slow things down, so that they never catch up.

I should mention, these filler arcs are almost universally despised, usually justifiably so. Anime adaptations tend to hew very close to the original manga, so any time the television writers deviate and insert their own original stories, the results really stick out, and not in a good way. I can’t think of any filler arc that is well-regarded. I’ve even come across cases where a viewer never knew that an anime was adapted from a manga, yet still they could identify a filler arc as noticeably weaker, to the extent of seeming of dubious authorship. “Stall for time” is not exactly the highest of artistic ambitions, after all. Filler episodes have to be written so as to leave nothing out of place for when the real story—the manga story—resumes, which means, in other words, that nothing of any consequence or permanence can occur during these filler arcs; the events will likely never even be referenced again, except perhaps in another filler arc down the road. Someone even created a website designed just to list which episodes of various series are filler, so that viewers can know to skip them. In the worst case, a filler arc can drag on for so long and be so poorly received that the show actually gets canceled before it can get back to adapting the manga. That’s what happened to Rurouni Kenshin, whose back 33 episodes (out of 95 total) were all filler.

The nearest equivalent in American television that I can think of is the hospital arc on The Walking Dead, which had no basis in the comics and arguably could have been excised without any significant effect on the show’s overall trajectory. Another possible example is the Spartacus: Gods of the Arena prequel miniseries, which did end up very much essential to the Spartacus storyline, but originally came about because the producers needed to stall for time while waiting for their lead actor to recover from cancer treatment (which, unfortunately, he never did). Neither of these comparisons is quite apt, because The Walking Dead was only ever a loose adaptation, and Spartacus was never an adaptation at all (well, maybe a loose adaptation of history….). Furthermore, whereas anime adaptations tend to be fairly workmanlike in faithfully translating the manga author’s vision to screen (hence why the writers seem completely lost whenever they stop following that vision), successful showrunners in the US tend to be rock star storytellers in their own right, so perhaps we could trust Benioff and Weiss not to sink the Game of Thrones show even in the absence of George R. R. Martin to hold their hands.

If Game of Thrones were to go this route—filling time with story arcs not directly adapted from the books—the difficulty is that there is no telling how long the filler arcs might have to drag out. Manga chapters are usually released on a weekly schedule, so new material would be continuously pumped out for the anime to adapt. New Game of Thrones books come out on a far less regular schedule, so the show’s writers might potentially have to hold down the fort for years before Martin gives them more material to adapt. Indeed, if the seventh book were, as projected, not to come out until the 2020s, the TV series would by then have to be into or approaching its own teen years, which would be too ridiculous even to consider. It is far more likely that, if the TV show were to truly run out of book material to adapt, then a “filler arc” would carry it the rest of the way to its conclusion (which would come before the end of the book series). That’s something that happens in anime also—TV writers having to come up with their own alternate ending, because the anime wraps before the manga finishes.

2. The Alternate Ending

The behemoth epics of the manga world—Dragon Ball, One Piece, Naruto—get anime adaptations spanning multiple hundreds of episodes (a good quarter or more of which are filler), but that is not exactly the norm. Titles with less massive readerships are only commissioned for specific finite episode orders (usually a couple dozen, or even a mere dozen), with no possibility of an extension, regardless of how long the manga is expected to run. In these cases, stalling for time is not an option. Catching up to the source material might not even be the issue, but, all the same, they run into the problem of “what to do when you know your initially faithful adaptation isn’t going to be able to follow the source material to its end.” It would seem the anime writers have no choice but to come up with their own ending… or not (more on that later).

In the best case, the TV writers can craft their own ending that still leaves viewers satisfied that they got a complete and self-contained story. Take the 2003-2004 Fullmetal Alchemist anime, the entire back half of which was technically “filler” (in the sense that it was not based on the manga), including the ending. The writers for that show were prudent enough and ambitious enough to plan ahead for taking the story in their own direction, so that that back half felt 1) consistent, both in content and in quality, with the earlier parts that were adapted from the manga, and 2) finished and final, even though the source material at the time was far from it.

3. The Non-Ending

It doesn’t always come together that neatly. More commonly we end up with shows closing on that “or not” note. Given, say, twenty or so episodes to adapt a manga that is still running strong with no end in sight, often they will just faithfully adapt twenty episodes’ worth of story, then abruptly end, leaving threads hanging wherever they were when the episodes ran out. Berserk, Claymore, and Fruits Basket are examples of anime that ended their runs in the middle of telling their stories. Sometimes they’ll tack on a half-assed final scene that amounts to a “and life goes on” note to semi-formally sign off on, just to let the viewers know that, yes, the show is over, even if the story isn’t. But nothing can really soften how blatantly and frustratingly unfinished these shows feel (except maybe picking up the manga to get the rest of the story).

When an anime ends like this, the feeling is certainly comparable to when an American TV show gets canceled, with the difference being that usually the anime staff knew all along that they were only ever getting so many episodes to work with, that the story they were telling was always going to be incomplete. So why would they ever script a show to end by design on a cliffhanger? Well, remember that, if a manga is getting an anime adaptation at all, it means that the manga is hot right now. So these intentionally incomplete anime are sometimes meant, to some extent, to promote the manga, not to be complete works unto themselves.

I can’t see any reason why the Game of Thrones TV series would ever go this route—production closing down mid-story just because they decided they’d hit a good round number. There’s a greater likelihood that the show would be actually canceled, although I don’t seriously see that happening either.

4. Going On Hiatus

It’s rare, but sometimes anime that end in the middle of adapting a manga can resume later—years later even—to cover the rest of the story. Inuyasha and Attack on Titan are two examples.

This isn’t something that is generally planned out in advance. In the case of Inuyasha—another one of those epics, whose original run lasted 167 episodes—they went with filler arcs for a long time to extend the life of the show, while the manga author took her time with the source material. After catching up to the manga, the anime eventually became so plodding and repetitive that they decided it was best just to halt production, even though the manga was still running and selling. It ended up taking a full five years—longer than the entire span of the original anime’s run—for the sequel series to arrive. There’s no way they could have planned (and had all cast and crew contractually obligated) that far ahead. Rather, after the manga finally concluded, they gauged that interest was still high enough to justify producing a second anime (much shorter this time, thanks to its being filler-free) to adapt the rest of the story.

As for Attack on Titan, the manga was already very popular when the anime began, yet still a long way from peaking, so the producers could plan things out a little differently. The first season of the anime adapted 25 episodes’ worth of manga, then, instead of degrading it with filler stories, they simply decided to take a three-year hiatus mid-story, confident that the audience would still be there when the anime resumed. In fact, the second season still hasn’t arrived at the time of this writing (it’s due to begin next year), so even now we have no guarantees that everything will go as planned.

Take the case of Nana. The producers of the Nana anime were explicit in their intention not to have any filler episodes, such was their respect for manga author Ai Yazawa and for the integrity of the source material. The anime stopped at 47 episodes, right as it caught up to the manga, but, unusually, both the manga publisher and anime producer not only left the door open for a second series, but openly affirmed that they were just waiting for Yazawa to finish the manga and provide the rest of the story to adapt. But then the manga itself went on hiatus, and remains so six years on. It is now eight years since the Nana anime ended unresolved, and all but the most optimistic fans have now accepted that, rather than a hiatus, this has become simply another example of “the non-ending.”

Extended breaks on American television are uncommon but not unprecedented. Series that have taken more than a year off between seasons for creative reasons include The Sopranos, Mad Men, and Louie. During the recent writers’ strike of 2007-08, many shows also went off-air longer than usual, with some, such as 24, effectively forced to miss an entire season. And then there are the shows that have seemingly ended, only to be resurrected years later, such as Arrested Development, and now apparently The X-Files and maybe even Twin Peaks. That last one, if it comes to pass, would be picking up the story 25 years after the original series was left unfinished.

None of these are exactly comparable to Game of Thrones, since none of them are adaptations. Furthermore, while I imagine many more hardcore fans could bear to go more than a year between seasons, if it meant preserving the integrity of the adaptation, there is no way that the show could go off-air for the multiple years that would be required to allow George R. R. Martin to get back ahead of it.

5. The Do-Over

Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is the only example I can think of of “the do-over.” Five years after the first Fullmetal Alchemist anime, and with the end of the manga then in sight, a second anime series was commissioned. This was vaguely similar to a hiatus situation, with the intention being to finally adapt the rest of the story. Except that the Brotherhood series was not picking up where the first series left off (which was basically impossible, given how it ended, as discussed earlier), but instead was newly adapting the manga all over again from the beginning and with a different staff.

The early episodes of Brotherhood felt painfully redundant for returning viewers, since the first Fullmetal Alchemist anime had already fairly faithfully adapted those same chapters of the manga. But that would not be an issue for new fans experiencing the story for the first time through Brotherhood. I think the do-over worked out ideally for those viewers, who will get to experience Fullmetal Alchemist the preferred way in its preferred form, Brotherhood, and for whom the first anime should be merely a curious footnote that they need never look into. Although I said earlier that that first series left viewers satisfied at the time with its alternate ending, the fact is, I have already met people who only watched Brotherhood, and when I start to describe to them the differences in the first anime (“So, there was no Pride, but Wrath was Pride and not Wrath. And their Wrath was this evil androgynous boy—kind of like a shorter Envy—who was running around with Ed’s missing arm and leg.”), it all just seems so stupid in hindsight and totally typical of filler.

This is something that I could actually see happening with Game of Thrones—a second adaptation, with a different cast and crew, after the book series has concluded. I’m not saying it’s likely, but it’s conceivable. Of course, if it ever were to happen, it would probably be decades from now, and irrelevant to the discussion of what to do about this current series.


So it doesn’t look like most of these outcomes would be desirable for Game of Thrones. It’s debatable to what extent they’ve ever worked for anime. The takeaway, going by these anime precedents, seems to be that there is no good, practical way to handle this sort of situation, and fans will almost always end up disappointed. My prediction is that the Game of Thrones TV series will go the alternate ending route, which is the only avenue that could satisfy at least some segment of the fans—viewers who don't care about and will never read the books. Maybe there could also be some filler arcs thrown in here and there, to buy some time to give them the opportunity to at least adapt the sixth book, though the seventh is clearly out of the question. I really don't see there being any other way this can go.

The one thing that Benioff and Weiss do have, with Game of Thrones, which almost no anime has ever had, is back-and-forth access to an author who claims to have some idea how his story will end. So it’s possible that the source material will be there for them to adapt; it just won’t be available to the public in book form until after they’ve already adapted it for the TV series. This is where some book-first fans are getting into a panic, since they’re afraid that the show will spoil the books for them. But that’s supposing that 1) Benioff and Weiss really are working that closely with Martin, 2) Martin really has plot points planned out that far ahead, and 3) Martin won’t later change his mind about any of these plot points for his books—none of which, in my opinion, are safe assumptions.

The nearest comparison in anime may be Trigun. If you put the anime and manga side by side, this would, at first glance and many years removed from the show’s production, appear to be just a case of an anime alternate ending. But the history of Trigun is more complicated than that. It was actually the manga that was canceled mid-story, before the anime even began airing. The manga did get picked back up later, but, for a while there, author Yasuhiro Nightow didn't know if his manga would ever have an ending. Meanwhile, production on the anime was underway, and, without a complete story to adapt, the show had to find its own way down the final stretch. The anime ending was climactic and moderately conclusive, and included the death of a major character who was, at that time, still alive and well in the manga. Indeed, that character lived on in the manga for several more years... and then died there too.

Although the precise details of the two death scenes differed, the broad circumstances and emotional beats were remarkably similar, and, when all was said and done, this was the only major character death in either version of the story. So, was this character's death something that Nightow planned all along and communicated to the anime writers early on, and did the adaptation thus end up spoiling the manga? Or was Nightow perhaps influenced by the anime, after it got ahead of him—a case of the adaptation taking the lead and guiding the source material (which could happen with Game of Thrones)? Or was it all just a coincidence, which fans should try not to worry about, as they simply enjoy the story in whichever form they prefer (or each story on its own terms)?


Thursday, April 2, 2015

Final Fantasy Record Keeper (DeNA, Square Enix, 2015)

(Updated on September 12, 2016)

About a year and a half on since I summed up Final Fantasy Record Keeper as “a good diversion for about a weekend,” I have logged more time in this game than in any other over the same span. As such, I thought it fair to revise my assessment.

The basic premise and mechanics remain much the same. Each numbered Final Fantasy game is featured as a realm in Record Keeper, and each realm offers “dungeons” reenacting sections from the original games. These dungeons consist typically of three-to-four stages of consecutive battles against basic enemies, usually finishing with a boss encounter at the end of the final stage. There is no overworld, no exploring, and not a lot of story.

What has changed is the breadth of content, as DeNA continues to add new dungeons at a steady rate. If you were to begin playing Final Fantasy Record Keeper today, there would be enough content to occupy you for probably a few months before you would be all caught up. Currently in the global release, no realm has yet been covered in full (although most are close, as of this writing). Sequel and spin-off titles, such as Final Fantasy X-2 and Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, have also proven fair game for inclusion, and even Final Fantasy Tactics has been featured, so there is potentially enough material to mine from to extend Record Keeper’s life another year at least. The impending release of Final Fantasy XV should also help.

Warriors of Light, Dark, and Everything in Between

The most appealing aspect of Final Fantasy Record Keeper is definitely the large quantity of playable characters you can unlock to rotate into your five-person party. Nearly every significant party member from a numbered non-MMO Final Fantasy is currently available, and even some villains and supporting characters have been enlisted into the Record Keeper army.

Considering it’s a free-to-play game, Final Fantasy Record Keeper is extraordinarily generous in how it distributes these unlockables. Characters are not walled behind moneyed barriers or any ridiculous gacha lottery; all of them can be acquired just by completing dungeons. These are not even the hard dungeons; the characters—that is, the most desirable spoils in the game—are the easiest things to acquire. As someone who has been playing since near the beginning, I now have well over 100 party members, including marquee characters of the PlayStation era, classic heroes from the 16-bit generation, and some really cool deep cuts.

They’re not just trophies. The developers have included an impressive amount of detail in adapting the characters to fit Record Keeper’s visuals and mechanics. For characters from the PlayStation era and on, part of the fun is in seeing these originally polygonal heroes rendered as charming 16-bit sprites. It’s even more exciting, however, to see DeNA and Square Enix try to faithfully represent each character’s individual strengths and skills while keeping everyone balanced within Record Keeper’s gameplay. The game incorporates abilities from all of the represented titles and adapts them into an Active Time Battle system based on that of the 16-bit installments, but it doesn’t play exactly like any of them, which means the developers have to take certain liberties in order to fit existing characters into new mechanics.

Take Celes from Final Fantasy VI, for example. The designers must have felt that her signature Runic ability would be a little too juiced as a normal command, since it completely shuts down many enemy spellcasters. Instead, in homage to her job class of Rune Knight—a sturdy, sword-wielding mage—they gave her the ability to use the Spellblade/Mystic Knight’s elemental sword attacks. These are techniques that didn’t even exist in Final Fantasy VI! It’s not strictly faithful to her original form, but her Record Keeper incarnation is an interesting interpretation and one of this game’s more awesome characters.

Gacha: A More Insidious Monster-in-a-Box

Next to the characters themselves, ”5-star” weapons and armors are the most enticing collectibles in the game. The few weapons and armors you can acquire through gameplay are mostly generic items with names like “Knife” and “Leather Armor.” Almost any weapon or armor with even the slightest bit of name recognition is elevated in Record Keeper to storied 5-star status. This includes weapons such as the Buster Sword and Hardedge, both originally among the weakest swords in Final Fantasy VII.

5-star relics are extremely powerful, especially those that have been additionally flagged as “unique.” A unique relic, when equipped by the specific character with whom the item is most closely associated, will bestow that user with a signature Soul Break technique (this game’s equivalent of Limit Breaks, Trance, Overdrive, etc.). These Soul Breaks include powerful attacks hitting for 9999 damage or more, party-wide healing spells, potent party-wide multi-buffs (e.g. both Protect and Haste on the entire party), and a few singular abilities that are mechanics unto themselves (e.g. Celes’s Runic). Unique 5-stars are so positively game-changing that, upon acquiring your first one, your entire strategy becomes likely to revolve around it, at least until you get an even better one.

5-star weapons and armors can only be acquired by chance via the Relic Draw gacha system, and this is where the game’s freemium scheme comes into play. Although every player gets one free draw per day, these “common” draws are not likely to yield even a 2-star item more than once a month. For any real shot at pulling anything better than a 3-star, you have to buy into the rare draws, which requires using either actual money ($2.99 per draw) or Mythril, the game’s virtual currency (with a conversion rate of roughly 5 Mythril = $3). Awarded for completing various tasks, Mythril is not exactly finite, but DeNA controls the supply; you cannot farm it.

Even with the enhanced odds offered in the rare draws, your chance of pulling a 5-star is probably only about 10 percent (there’s a distressing lack of transparency about the exact odds). And even if you do get one, it probably won’t be the specific one you were hoping for. Most purely free players, such as myself, will be glad for any 5-star, but whales with their hearts set on a specific favorite character’s item, such as Sephiroth’s One-Winged Angel katana, can potentially blow through hundreds of dollars before pulling it.

Like any gacha, the game is not above cruelly exploiting those with gambling addictions. That’s really the basis of its business model and a discussion beyond the scope of this post. I will say that I have not spent a single penny on this game, yet, over the year and a half I’ve been playing, I’ve managed to collect a couple dozen good 5-star relics just through spending Mythril. Luck plays a part, no doubt, but provided you have the self-control to resist spending all your money chasing shiny virtual weapons, Final Fantasy Record Keeper is much fairer than any other gacha I’ve encountered. Remember also that 5-star relics, while helpful, are not necessary to win any but the most difficult of optional battles.

A Game for Those Who Fight

As a numbers game, Final Fantasy Record Keeper is every bit as robust as a traditional Final Fantasy. Characters are rated across seven statistical attributes. There are seventeen different ability schools and counting, each providing access to diverse sets of magical or physical techniques divided into six ranks within each school. There are over fifteen weapon types and seven armor types. Each character can also equip an accessory and a passive skill. With minor exceptions, characters’ equipment and ability proficiency levels are set in stone, but you still have a ton of options in how you organize your team and outfit each party member.

With all the experience and gear I’ve accumulated, at this point I can auto-battle through most fights without much thought. The exceptions are the challenge battles that cap off the weekly limited-time events. The hardest of these are the hardest battles I’ve personally fought in any Final Fantasy game. They require serious preparation and planning because they cannot be brute-forced through. These are bosses that are so fast that you need Haste just to keep up. They have so much defense and HP that they can outlast all your ability uses. And they get stronger and more aggressive as they near death, which means they’re at their toughest right when you are at your most spent.

I’ll never forget my victory over the Archaeosaur (T-Rexaur from Final Fantasy VIII) in one of the earlier events. Archaeosaur was a beast that could KO any of my party members in two hits or less, and it had attacks that could target the entire party, meaning it could potentially wipe me out in a mere two turns. Although weak to ice, it would auto-counter any black magic, so nuking it would only expedite my own demise. My narrow path to victory lay through exploiting its many status vulnerabilities. I had to paralyze, blind, sleep, and poison it. The first three were to keep it from killing me, while the poison accounted for most of the damage I dealt, as it slowly ticked the dino’s health to zero. Keep in mind, this boss was also preceded by four stages of very difficult normal enemies that I could only get through by exploiting the janky “Retaliate meta” (a tactic that seemed an awful lot like cheating, except that it was described on the official strategy site!).

The best fights always require a level of ingenuity that I never had occasion to exercise in any of the core Final Fantasy games I played (which includes all numbered installments from I to X). I’ll mention again, however, that, although challenging, even the hardest fights are doable without spending any money—something that I don’t feel is true of most gacha-based games. I’ve managed to clear all content, save for one notoriously unfair event dungeon (the original Parade Float (Elite)), and I’ve achieved mastery rank on all but two other battles (Bahamut SIN (Ultimate) and Kuja (Ultimate +)).

Of course, if you're not interested in taking on these optional challenges, you could instead just have fun toying around with cool or funny team concepts. You can finally assemble the Tetsuya Nomura dream team of Cloud, Squall, Tidus, Yuna, and Lightning. Or how about a five-dragoon party, with Ricard, Kain, Cid (FFVII), Freya, and Kimahri all taking to the skies? My new favorite is the “helmeted villains” team, consisting of Garland, Golbez, Exdeath, and Gabranth. (No fifth member for that team yet, alas. I think there are a few good candidates from Final Fantasy XIV, but they’re not in Record Keeper as of this writing.)

Remembering When Final Fantasy Mattered

Final Fantasy Record Keeper does provide a framing narrative to tie together the dungeoning across different realms, but this is barely developed. The larger part of the exposition consists of text summaries that briefly recap plot progressions between boss fights from the original games.

As someone who dropped the series after Final Fantasy X, I was intrigued at the prospect of being able to experience the more recent stories through abridged “demakes” via Record Keeper. But a few looks at the plot summaries for Final Fantasy XIII and XIV quickly had me reaching for the Excedrin.

I don’t mean that as a knock on those later titles, whose plots I still don’t feel qualified to comment on. Record Keeper’s summaries even for the games I’ve played and adored are somehow both dull and hard to follow, missing far too many details and any of the storytelling craft the series was once known for. Final Fantasy Record Keeper is not built to do justice to the opera from Final Fantasy VI, the ballroom dance from Final Fantasy VIII, the lake scene from Final Fantasy X, or whatever other cutscene might be your personal favorite. But it does recreate almost every boss fight from every numbered Final Fantasy, which should give veteran fans plenty enough to reminisce about.

Because I played Final Fantasy IV and know the game well, I don't really need Record Keeper to explain to me who Rubicante was. When that towering boss sprite takes the field and begins by respectfully addressing an enraged Edge (if he's in the party), suddenly I remember everything as vividly as though it were yesterday—a testament to the original game's captivating power, as well as to Final Fantasy Record Keeper's painstaking attention to detail in faithfully recreating these boss fights.

DeNA and Square Enix certainly did their homework, making sure to include specific lines of in-battle dialogue from the original games (if not perhaps the specific translations you grew up with), the correct battle themes and fanfares (e.g. "Not Alone" playing unbroken across a key series of battles from Final Fantasy IX), and as many battle conditions and mechanics as could reasonably be preserved (use Fire on Rubicante, and he'll return the favor by resurrecting any of your fallen party members!).

There's no denying that Final Fantasy Record Keeper leans heavily on nostalgia—that life support of the franchise through the last several years of Final Fantasy XV delays. You'll get a lot more out of its little touches if you played the original games. I still find many of the Final Fantasy XIII boss fights exhilarating, though, despite never having any idea what the characters are going on about. However well or poorly the series has aged, the Active Time Battle engine remains, frankly, leagues ahead of every other mobile free-to-play game I've encountered.

If you've NEVER been a fan of Final Fantasy, then Record Keeper may not have much to hold your interest. But as character collecting games on mobile go, Final Fantasy Record Keeper is without peer. No other game in this genre offers so large an assortment of cool characters. No other is so generous as to make every one of these characters easily obtainable at zero cost. And no other possesses anywhere near its depth of mechanics once past the collecting. No other I've tried has been worth my time, frankly, but I don't regret any of the countless hours I've now sunk into Final Fantasy Record Keeper.

* * *

(Below, my original, outdated post from April 2, 2015 is kept for reference.)

DeNA's free-to-play mobile game Final Fantasy Record Keeper is a surprising good bit of fanservice. The premise is that the worlds and stories of the numbered Final Fantasy games exist as enchanted paintings, which the player, as some manner of royal record keeper, has been tasked with protecting against an unknown darkness seeking to erase them. The only way to do this is to dive into the paintings and basically live out the stories within.

For longtime fans of the series, this really is like walking through a museum of past adventures. Each game gets its own gallery, where players can relive the story in condensed form. Plot is doled out one dungeon at a time, in the form of just a screenshot from the original game, accompanied by a single-screen text summary. That aspect of the presentation is not likely to draw anyone not already deeply familiar with these stories. But fans should appreciate the trip down memory lane, complete with vintage 16-bit sprites. Not all of the graphics are taken directly from previous games; one of the best parts of Final Fantasy Record Keeper is seeing characters (and monsters) of the PlayStation era newly done in the retro style and fitting in charmingly with the SNES sprites. For better or worse, I don't think any of the 8-bit sprites are in there, and I'm personally a tad annoyed that the gallery for Final Fantasy IV features screenshots of the polygonal remake, rather than the SNES original. But the music is sure to fill any fan with nostalgia. It's all taken from previous games, and, as much as we may have heard some of these tracks almost too many times over the decades, Final Fantasy Record Keeper does contain a large enough selection of enduring classics, so that the sound doesn't get repetitive while you're playing. Indeed, follow up a Final Fantasy IV chapter with an episode out of Final Fantasy VII (as can happen in this game), and one comes to newly appreciate just how extensive was composer Nobuo Uematsu's oeuvre over the 15+ years that he spent on this series.

Now, as a game, Final Fantasy Record Keeper isn't so much the stuff of legend, but it can be fun for a while. The combat is a simplistic take on the Active Time Battle system, where you'll mostly be tapping "Attack" over and over again. You can unlock characters from the original games to add to your party, and this really is the best part of Final Fantasy Record Keeper—collecting all your favorites and putting together a dream team. (I found a five-man party consisting of Cloud, Kain, Wakka, White Mage, and record keeper Tyro to be most effective.) The game does a good job of making the characters feel distinct in their stats, abilities, and equipment. All the equipment is also taken from previous games. And the game cleverly encourages players to rotate party members in and out, because characters (and equipment) receive huge bonuses while in their own realms.

It can be a good diversion for about a weekend, which is fair for the starting price. But it rapidly becomes more grueling after that. Each dungeon consists of a few rounds of regular enemies, followed by a boss. The boss battles are probably the only legitimately exciting part of the gameplay, as many of them require a bit of care (remember to watch out for Antlion's counterattacks!). But they also seem to grow exponentially more difficult after about the fifteenth dungeon or so. And it's especially annoying that the regular enemies that precede them, fairly consistently pushovers throughout my experience, are never any indication of the difficulty of the level boss.

Since new equipment is rare—the only way to get anything good is usually randomly through the daily drawing—your only real recourse is to level-grind. Even if you were down for the tedium, however, this is where Final Fantasy Record Keeper's freemium aspects kick in and impede your attempts to just grind away. The player's ability to battle is limited by their "Stamina." It costs Stamina points even to enter any dungeon, and, once you've exhausted them, your only options are to either wait for them to recharge (at a rate of 1 point per 3 minutes), or spend real-world money to restore them instantly. As you progress through the game, later dungeons require increasingly greater amounts of Stamina to enter and complete, so there's gradually less and less for you to do, unless you're willing to pay up. Money is also used for other things, such as healing mid-dungeon, or getting more tickets for the daily drawing. There is a free alternative to money that can do the same things, Mythril, which can be earned in-game, but there is a finite amount of Mythril to be gotten.

I got bored of the game after about two days with it, not only because of the tedium, but because it just stopped incentivizing me after a while. It was exciting when I was unlocking new realms and especially new characters from the first three worlds—VII, X, and IV—but then I opened up the galleries for V and VI, and neither had any name characters for me to unlock. I don't think I've even come across a single piece of equipment from VI. Maybe they're holding these things back for now, saving them for special events, which are the online aspect. Right now, for example, there is a Final Fantasy VII event that runs until April 11, 2015—a lengthy dungeon, where you can unlock Tifa and Sephiroth to add to your party. Like the rest of the game, this event dungeon becomes quickly more difficult and costlier to your Stamina with each successive floor. And, even though the deadline, as of my writing, is more than a week away, this truly is a multiple-day undertaking. I think mathematically, if you can't manage to keep a certain pace, at some point you just won't be able to keep recharging your Stamina quickly enough to get through the whole thing without paying. What happens when the deadline passes? Will you miss your chance to unlock Tifa and Sephiroth? I have no idea, but, for sure, I'm not going to make it.