Alien: Isolation (PS3) – Review

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Prepare to die.

Alien: Isolation is a peculiar game. At first, playing it is a delight, the first sections doing an excellent job of establishing an atmosphere of fear and isolation. Set on a dying space station in deep space, Sevastopol, the game re-creates the look and feel of the first Alien film in a way not even that film’s own sequels have been able to do. The text and audio logs dotted through the station’s dark corridors and its flickering lights and derelict areas go a long way to create the sense this place was in a downward spiral even before the fateful events of the game itself. Playing as Amanda Ripley, who is trying to find out what happened to her mother Ellen and the crew of the Nostromo, players have to contend not only with the eponymous Alien but also with the increasingly desperate denizens of the station as well as its unpredictable, malfunctioning android population of ‘Working Joes’.

The game’s first sections do a good job of building atmosphere, and are so effective because nothing that much happens, aside from a few scripted events. The first encounters with the Alien are very dramatic and the game has some memorable scares and set-pieces throughout. Ripley is a resourceful protagonist, like her mother, but throughout she feels extremely vulnerable and outmatched, befitting the tone and feel of the classic entries in the Alien universe.

The problem is that what makes for exciting cinema does not necessarily create an enjoyable or rewarding video game experience. This is a game where you will die constantly, with the Alien often appearing out of nowhere to kill you instantly. The Alien is invulnerable, and although the game eventually gives you a few tools to banish it from the screen for a few seconds, resources are scarce and the Alien’s return is often literally just around the corner. You can hide, but the Alien will just keep searching for you and generally catch you as soon as you break cover, making hiding a dissatisfying waste of time. You have a motion tracker but considering the Alien can just re-appear from a vent above your head it’s pretty useless for large stretches of the game.

There are often long gaps between save points, and auto-saves are very rare; combined with the game’s considerable loading times, this can mean you will sometimes spend half an hour or more trying to traverse a few meters of corridor. When your reward for succeeding and reaching a save point generally just means crawling along another corridor with instant death lurking all around you, the desire to continue can wane. There are few moments of levity or really any changes of pace throughout the game, and the incessant nature of the gameply means it wears thin after a while. Sitting through a film for ninety minutes is one thing, but enduring this for 15-20 hours in a video game is quite different.

It’s frustrating because the game does a very good job of depicting a bleak space station environment, probably better even than something than Dead Space; having the genuine Weyland-Yutani aesthetic is a big part of this. But the game and its scares are simply not very much fun. One of the reasons I enjoyed the first Dead Space so much was precisely because you didn’t have to re-play that much of it: if you died you generally re-spawned pretty much where you were. Dead Space 2’s insane difficulty was one of its biggest weaknesses and the same thing applies here.

A few changes would have made a big difference, in particular the addition of more auto-saves. As it stands, re-playing sections half a dozen times (or more) just becomes tedious and completely immersion-breaking. This is even the case on easy difficulty. There’s not really a way you can make the game easier if the central mechanic is based on an unkillable monster who can instantly teleport to your location at any moment; but more save points would certainly have helped.

The Alien is one thing, but there is no excuse for the sections later in the game where facehuggers appear and can also cause instant game overs. You have a couple of weapons that can take them out, but it’s often the case that you will have one chance to make a shot with your shotgun and if you miss, you’re dead. No QTE. No chance to dodge. It sounds good and dramatic on paper, but after going through the same sections several times, the ‘coolness’ or novelty wears off. There was also one section towards the end of the game where one of the rare auto-saves actually spawned me in the middle of some burning detritus, causing a game over whenever I re-loaded. (Fortunately I could revert to an earlier save.)

It’s really too bad, because the game gets some important things right. Again, the aesthetic is perfect, borrowing heavily from the original Alien film. Even on PS3, the graphics and lighting are largely awesome, and the minimalist sound adds significantly to the atmosphere and sense of dread. The game has a few interesting weapons and a serviceable crafting system allowing you to make weapons like pipe bombs and molotov cocktails. But after a few hours of playing, I found myself not caring about it at all. After the game kills you for the umpteenth time, you just start to feel cynical about it and getting through it just feels like a trial of perserverance rather than a dramatic story.

Ripley is a resourceful but shallow character and none of the rest of the cast has any charisma or lasting impact–and neither does the story, either. The ending feels like a blatant hook for a sequel that now seems unlikely to be made thanks to the game’s underwhelming sales. Considering the game’s ludicrous difficulty and penchant for repetition it seems to me that only a fairly narrow audience of enthusiasts will find much of enduring value here.

Overall, the game feels like a 15-minute proof of concept demo that was stretched into a full-length game. The story is actually quite long and the game’s longevity would not have suffered by allowing the player to progress more smoothly. While striving so meticulously to make a ‘faithful’ sequel to the first Alien film, Creative Assembly forgot to create a game that was any fun to play.

6/10

WWE 2K16 (PS3) – Review

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I’m always conflicted about buying WWE games. For most of my childhood–say from 1991 to 1998– I was about as devoted a follower of WWF and WCW as it was possible for a child to be who lived in the UK without satellite television. These days, I would describe myself as a fan of the art of professional wrestling, and I follow what goes on and listen to occasional radio shows and podcasts, but I don’t watch the current ‘product’. Like many people, I’m very nostalgic about pro wrestling of the 80s and 90s, but have little more than contempt for the WWE as it exists today.

I regret that, because there is a huge amount of wrestling talent in today’s WWE, which is portrayed in WWE 2k16. Present-day superstars like Dolph Ziggler, Daniel Bryan, and Dean Ambrose are all present and correct, as are female stars (sorry, ‘Divas’–apparently women can’t be superstars) like Paige and Natalya. There are a wide array of stars of yesteryear, too, with personal favourites like British Bulldog, Rick Rude, and Jim Neidhart featuring alongside staples of recent WWE games like like Stone Cold Steve Austin, Bret Hart, The Rock and The Undertaker. The roster for this game is probably the best I have encountered since WCW/nWo Revenge on the Nintendo 64, and this is one of the game’s main selling points.

So, the game does a good job of showcasing the array of talent in the WWE of today and of years gone by. The production values of the game, like those of the shows you see on TV, tend to be very impressive, with some wonderful entrances for characters like Goldust and Chris Jericho. However, the game is deeply flawed and its problems mirror those of the real-world WWE. In-ring action tends to be quite stilted, with matches generally lacking the kind of rhythm one would expect in high-quality wrestling. 2K made a big effort to push the fact this game featured a new reversal system, but that only seems to have made it to next-gen consoles because the matches in the PS3 version are the same old reversal-fest as before.

It’s absurd, but basically the only way of getting a move in against a competent player is to reverse their reversals of your own move. It’s neither realistic or fun. Against the computer it can be teeth-crackingly frustrating. It’s well and good to point out that the system has been changed on PS4/XBOne, but it strikes me as a tawdry and cynical decision to leave the old system in place on the younger sibling consoles. Similarly, there is supposed to be a new pinning system on PS4, but on PS3 you’re stuck with the stupid ‘hold A until the bar reaches the right point on the meter to kick out’ system. This was a stupid system in the first place and I really can’t believe they left it in here.

The PS3 version also lacks the ‘career’ mode found in the next-gen versions. It would be easy to complain about this, as another way 2K has engineered the PS3 version to be inferior, but personally I’m not bothered. I can think of few things more soul-crushing in today’s world than the travails of a young wrestler trying to climb through the ranks of the WWE, and the career mode apparently features Triple H as a prominent antagonist trying to bury your career. This is literally what happens to everyone in today’s WWE and I have no desire to put myself through it in a video game. The PS3 does include the ‘Showcase’ mode, which is essentially a retrospective on Steve Austin’s rise to stardom in the WWE, dating from late ’96 to about 2003. Even as an Austin fan, there are only so many Stone Cold matches you can get through without getting bored. It starts well, but after what feels like 100 matches against The Undertaker and unlocking the 10th alternate Stone Cold attire it is natural to lose interest.

So, that leaves us with WWE Universe. This is the mode where you get to create your own shows, build your own rosters, and play out WWE the way you want to without everything being decided by Vince McMahon. It sounds good on paper, and every couple of years I get excited by this prospect and pick up a WWE game, but I never get very far with this mode. I think booking a wrestling show the way I’d like it just makes me more depressed about the state of wrestling in reality. Also, it’s, er, a bit of an embarrassing time sink for a man in his 30s.

The control you have over your ‘WWE Universe’ is also more constrained than you might think. For example, like many people I’m fed-up with John Cena, who was the highest-rated wrestler in my game (96). The second-highest in the game is my own most hated wrestler of all time, Shawn Michaels (95). Want to change a wrestler’s attributes? You can, but–you have to buy the ‘Accelerator’ DLC! This is literally just to change a bunch of numbers. It’s one thing having extra wrestlers as DLC, or even moves or arenas, but to make people pay to do this is downright offensive. Sadly, it’s also characteristic of today’s WWE.

Another gripe is with the online functionality. This is heavily touted, both for playing matches against other players online, as well as to download wrestlers created by other people and to upload your own creations. However, in the five days I had set aside to play this game, the online servers were completely and utterly down for the first four. That’s right, it was not possible to do anything online–no matches, no downloads, nothing. When I had WWE ’12 I had the same problem–the servers never, ever worked–but for that I blamed THQ, the publishers of that game, who were going through their death throes. But the fact this seems to be a recurring problem is ultimately the fault of WWE. Everyone knows how obsessively WWE’s senior management micro-manage every single aspect of their business; indeed, it’s one of their biggest problems. This is an embarrassing and ongoing fault with their games and I can’t believe it’s impossible to get it right.

It is possible to have fun with this game. In ring action tends to be largely boring and stilted, but there are moments of genuine comedy, especially when playing with other people, and sometimes a match ‘clicks’ and starts to feel something like the real thing. On the whole, though, the gameplay is not very satisfying. People have been saying it for years, but the developers have to try and find a game engine that delivers drama, momentum and physicality and doesn’t just feel like a technical simulator for showing people ‘this is what this move looks like’. Maybe the PS4 version is better–I wouldn’t know of course, because 2K decided not to include their major gameplay changes in the PS3 version. And that last was a fact I barely saw reported anywhere in the promotional literature or critical responses to this game.

In essence, this game lacks a soul. It doesn’t play like a game that has been created to bring joy or happiness to human beings. It just plays like a product that has been created to satisfy the requirements of WWE management. Guess what? That’s exactly what watching WWE today feels like, too. So this game is a good facsimile of current ‘sports entertainment’, and no doubt it will make a profit for WWE and for 2K. But from an artistic and entertainment perspective it is utterly moribund. I walked away from this game feeling even more depressed about wrestling and WWE than I did before I played it, which I didn’t think would be possible.

5/10

I really need to learn not to watch WWE anymore.

Apparently Undertale is the Best Game Ever

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A few weeks ago I posted about a ‘best game ever’ poll/competition being hosted by the website GameFAQs. I was less interested in the poll itself than in a user-made tool that allowed you to simulate the system and come up with your own list. The tool worked well and I had a good half hour or so playing around with it.

I haven’t thought much about the poll since but this morning looked it up and found that it had concluded and the winner is: Undertale. Undertale defeated Zelda: Ocarina of Time in the final by a vote percentage of 60/40. In previous rounds it had seen off games including Pokemon Red/Blue, Super Mario 64, and Super Smash Bros. Melee.

Its margin of victory actually was higher in the final than in previous rounds and I think that points to a certain amount of tomfoolery going on here. Undertale has apparently sold up to half a million copies on Steam now, which of course is a number dwarfed by the sales figures of the games it defeated. I’ve seen stats suggesting the number of people who voted for Undertale in the final was around 90,000. Did 1 in 5 people who’ve played this game really vote for it? I have my doubts.

I haven’t played Undertale myself, yet, though I plan to play it next year. Blogger The Otaku Judge commented on my previous post on this subject that it would be nice for Undertale to win just for a change from Ocarina winning–as it almost always does. I can understand the desire for something different. But I think in the bigger picture, it is far too soon to be able to make a judgment about an indie-developed game that has been out for only a few months and the cultural impact of which is, so far, minimal; and certainly much less so than that of the games it defeated (Super Mario 64? Pokemon?).

It does strike me that there is an element of pseudo-intellectual posturing in some of the support for games like this; just like when people hype up a film like American Beauty or Donnie Darko which, a few years after release, nobody apart from film students talks or really thinks about any more. In contrast, the stuff that actually sold well and had genuinely mass appeal does tend to endure and have an impact on our cultural landscape for many years. I don’t like the franchise personally, but the cultural impact of Star Wars is undeniable and if it won a best film ever competition I’d have no objections, despite the fact I don’t care for the film. Same for something like ET.

It reminds me a bit of some of the nonsense that came out about Portal after its release. It impressed a few jaded games journalists trying to make themselves feel relevant, but its impact on mainstream popular culture was approximately zero. I’m not saying this from a standpoint of anti-intellectualism–I’m a proponent of more intelligent writing and content in all media, as I hope this blog generally conveys–but in an educated society genuinely profound art will find a way to resonate with relatively large cross-sections of the public. Mass Effect did that, as did Ocarina of Time before it. Undertale hasn’t, yet, so its very inclusion in this poll strikes me as premature, let alone its triumph.

As I said, I plan to play this game in the new year and will post my thoughts on it then. But I think this whole thing tells us more about mass psychology on the internet and online polls than it does about the relative merits of Undertale and Ocarina of Time.

 

Thoughts on Steve Coogan and Alan Partridge

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Steve Coogan

It’s so easy to take things for granted. In Alan Partridge, Steve Coogan created one of the best comic characters of the last quarter-century. In particular, the six episodes of Knowing Me, Knowing You, and the first season of I’m Alan Partridge approached comedic perfection, striking a perfect balance between satire and pathos that endures to this day and is pretty much endlessly re-watchable. But after the second season of I’m Alan Partridge, released in 2002, Coogan seemed to want to distance himself from the character for a while, pursuing other projects for much of the rest of the decade.

I can certainly understand that. In his other work Coogan has demonstrated an impressive range not only as a comedian but as a writer and a serious actor. I’ve not seen the well-regarded film Philomena but the TV series Sunshine, in which Coogan plays a gambling addict, is a very tragic, moving and humane story and one of the best portrayals of addiction that I’ve seen on television. But in the UK, for long periods he has been almost entirely associated with the Partridge character and not necessarily for the most benign of reasons.

In light of that, it’s really something to be thankful for that Coogan has returned to the Partridge character with such gusto in the last five years or so. What’s even better is that he has done it so well. Although not everything has hit the heights of the first TV shows–which nobody should expect–the different material he has put out has consistently ranged from good to excellent. The Mid-Morning Matters web-series of shorts, in which Partridge is filmed delivering his horrendous radio show alongside a put-upon junior colleague, Sidekick Simon, was very good; and the energy from this continued into the movie, Alpha Papa, which was very enjoyable. It may not have been non-stop hilarity but it had a number of great moments and was certainly an effective entry in the Partridge universe.

The film was also a lot better than I think many people expected, and Coogan deserves a lot of credit. He has spoken about how hard it can be when people (ie, the media) are waiting for you to fail and deliver a dud, especially considering the run-ins he has had with most sections of the UK press over the years. So to continue making this stuff is actually quite brave, even setting aside the fact it’s generally very, very good. But Coogan has spoken about the benefits of having his own comic creation (I don’t want to say alter ego) into which he can dump all his own dysfunctions and awkward interactions. So perhaps it just does him some good.

The recent Partridge work for which he deserves most credit, to my mind, is the autobiography, I, Partridge. I’m re-reading this for the first time and it’s a really terrific work. It’s very funny, featuring some wonderful turns of phrase and highly original imagery, and full of biting satire on the media and various aspects of British life and culture. It’s also profoundly sad and, like much of Partridge (and indeed much of the best comedy in general) at times captures the essence of some of life’s moments and interactions better than any other genre.

I think this is one of the things that gives the series its enduring qualities. I would personally hesitate to crown it as the best TV comedy from the British Isles over the last thirty years (for me, that has to go to an Irish comedy: Father Ted), but if we take into account all formats and also its longevity, Partridge has to win. He’s been around for over 20 years now doing stand-up stand-up, radio, TV, cinema, and books (printed and audio).

And this is what I mean about taking things for granted. I really don’t see that Coogan has received much acknowledgement in our popular culture for this, which only struck me recently since I started reading the book again and watching the old shows on Netflix. His work carries the torch of the best 1980s and 1990s comedy at a time when so much of our comedic landscape has been shaped by misanthropy or sneering at the less fortunate. I’m looking forward to Partridge’s appearance on TFI Friday later this week–I hasten to add, a show I would never normally watch–and maybe that will bring the point home to a few more people.

Keep it up Alan, I mean Steve.

Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag (PC) – review

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The game sports sublime vistas and visceral combat. And who doesn’t want to be a pirate?

Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag really took me by surprise. I only have this game because it came free when I bought my new PC in early 2014. Since playing AC2 in 2009, I have always looked down on the franchise because of its notorious cod sci-fi, conspiracy theory, sub-Dan Brown schtick. But I have to say that Black Flag has made me revise my opinions about the franchise and consider how quick I am to dismiss things.

In essence, Black Flag is a pirate game, and a damn good one. The bulk of the game casts you as Edward Kenway, a charismatic and self-motivated rogue out to make his fortune in the Caribbean. He’s a winning lead and very well-voiced by Matt Ryan. The game features the typical AC malarking around buildings and up scenery, which is largely smooth and good fun. Combat has been improved, to my mind, and the swordplay in particular is generally very satisfying. There is a ‘counter’ button when an enemy attacks and the animations are the most impact-ful and entertaining I have encountered outside the Batman Arkham series. It’s terrific fun. Kenway has various other tricks in his armory, including some firearms, and it’s a satisfying arsenal. The only time it falls down is when boarding ships, as the number of people can make for clumsy targeting and collision detection. This makes for some of the game’s most frustrating moments when you take too many hits and fail a boarding attempt.

The game prominently features ship-based naval combat and it is done well. This is not something I expected I would enjoy at all but the naval combat is quite dramatic and well-balanced. It takes a while to get used to handling the ships and managing the different forms of attack, but you get there eventually. I was disappointed not to get to command more than one ship during the main storyline, but your ship, the Jackdaw, does at least have significant scope for customization. There is a cool minigame where you can get dispatch ships you’ve captured out on trading missions to make money, and it’s quite addictive. You need to get some really powerful ships after a certain point, though, and it’s a pain to capture them. You have to do so during certain story missions, and it would be nice if the game let you keep those ones, but it doesn’t.

Sailing is good fun and can be quite relaxing, while the sea shanties your crew sings in fine weather are surprisingly enjoyable. It’s always a good thing to see a video game take up an aspect of human cultural history and portray it with some degree of care and intelligence, so credit to the designers for that.

The game’s story is adequate, as Kenway is reluctantly dragged into the usual Assassin-Templar shenanigans. This still felt like the worst aspect of the game and largely unnecessary–the game would probably have been better if it was just played as a swashbuckling historical drama, without the weird sci-fi trappings. The storyline is punctuated with sections set in the present day that are probably significant for the overarching AC story but completely redundant in the context of this one game. I did love that the game did such a good and sympathetic job of depicting historical figures like Blackbeard, Mary Read, and Ann Bonny. For all my indifference to the AC universe, it is pleasing to see a major franchise addressing historical subject matter in a reasonably intelligent manner.

The environments and lighting in this game are largely stunning, with some really beautiful coastal vistas. It is an absolute treat to explore the more open regions of the game, although the intermittent jungle terrains are more claustrophobic and largely uninteresting. The ambient soundtrack is wonderful too. As ever, there are a lot of different collectibles and side missions that pop up, and once you get the hang of the game’s mechanics the side-quests can be a lot of fun (although some of the collectibles and crafting mechanics are a bit perfunctory).

There is a bit of a steep learning curve and the the game’s pacing lets it down. It is slow to hit its groove, with too much of the early game set in a tedious and sterile present-day environment where you are just walking around offices. The story is probably too long, as well, which I would attribute to the writers having to write a good pirate story as well as shoehorn in the typical AC mumbo-jumbo. They largely manage it, but the latter stages certainly dragged on a bit for me. There was a surprisingly poignant ending to the story, which was not at all connected to the Assassin-Templar feud, and there’s a lesson there for the franchise. Not one that will be heeded, I’m sure, but nevertheless, I’ll have fond memories of Edward Kenway’s story which was entertaining and surprisingly mature.

I played this on PC and I must say the keyboard controls took a bit of getting used to. It worked out fine in the end although I did get a bit of wrist stiffness now and again after extended sessions. Future games I’ll make sure to play on console. I did try playing it with the Steam Controller (actually one of the reasons I bought that piece of junk) but it didn’t work well at all. Hey ho. The game was forty quid plus when it came out and I got it for free so it all evens out I suppose.

Overall, I had a lot of fun with this game, and it also resonated with me emotionally much more than I expected. That said, there are still inherent weaknesses in the artistic conception of this series and those do hold back the single-player campaign from fulfilling its potential. As it stands, this almost does for pirates what Red Dead Redemption did for cowboys, but it falls slightly short of that mark. Still no mean feat, though.

I didn’t play the online multiplayer at all so can’t comment on that. My rating for the single-player game is an eight. If I had played the multiplayer I might have given it a nine, but as the game has been out for two years one imagines its been superseded by more recent games.

8/10

 

Final Fantasy X-2 HD (PS3) – review

I probably didn’t play Final Fantasy X-2 in the best frame of mind. I’ve been looking to get it finished fast so I can move on to other, more recent games, and so I probably haven’t done it justice. I do like that they centered the game around Yuna, who is a likable protagonist, and they even made her a bit more of an action girl with the addition of a jump button. The game’s tone is largely upbeat and feel-good and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, I still think it’s fair to assert that this is a vastly flawed game and far from a strong entry in the Final Fantasy series.

I wrote about some of my concerns last month in my First Impressions piece on this game. Those problems persist throughout the game. First and most obviously, the dialogue and voice acting are more or less dire throughout. The dialogue lacks any semblance of wit: its attempts at humour come across as juvenile and bland; and the vast majority of the characters are of no interest whatsoever. This is made worse by the voice acting which is the worst I can remember hearing in a modern video game. Yuna, Maechen and Rikku are not bad, but most of the others are atrocious, especially Brother, whose diction is simply bizarre; while the Hypellos are even more annoying than Jar-Jar Binks. I was staring at the screen in disbelief that they would make people endure this.

In this day and age it stands out and it’s significantly worse than FFX, which was not good either. The animation doesn’t help: there is little to no effort to match face movements with speech, while characters often jerk around nonsensically or gesticulate uncontrollably while speaking. Most of the secondary characters use extremely ugly character models and faces too. At times I found it literally unwatchable and just left the room to let cutscenes play out. I also dislike the naming system (or lack of one), with characters often being given random assortments of syllables to make up a name. What kind of a game gives people names like Nooj and Beclem? These sorts of details are significant when you’re trying to build a coherent world, but it seems to have been lost on the writers here.

The plot is largely forgettable and not very engaging. The whole threat-to-Spira thing has been done already with Sin, and they try to top that with a giant machina named Vegnagun, but it doesn’t work. The mission design also sucks, as the game throws at you a huge variety of different minigames and gimmicks that are underdeveloped and today feel massively limited. Considering that all the environments were already designed and are just re-used here, you would have though they could spend some time crafting something new that was satisfying to play.

They do have one new system in the form of the monster arena, whereby you can catch monsters and other characters in the wild and train them up to use in your party. There’s no incentive to do so, however, as they don’t seem to get any stronger than the ones you start with; and the characters are massively unappealing, either generic monsters or unbearable, idiotic squadmates. It is literally just another thing you have to grind. Maybe there were people who still wanted to do that in 2004 but in on the cusp of 2016 it seems preposterously dated.

The unfortunate thing about all this is that the core game mechanics are still solid, and the most fun from the game comes from its combat. The game has a solid underpinning and it is a shame that the writing and direction lets it down so badly. The Dress-sphere system works fine, and it is cool to have unusual classes like Dark Knight, Samurai and Gun Mage to play with, in addition to the usual archetypes. Boss design is impressive, continuing the theme of FFX which adopted a different style of boss than we see in most games. Regular monsters look as lame as ever, for the most part. Moreover, some parts of the game are teeth-grindingly frustrating as random battles pop repeatedly as you are trying to find your way around using the inadequate map. You can always equip a no-encounter item but then you run the risk of being even more under-levelled for some of the boss fights. And some of the bosses in this game are as hard as fucking nails.

I have to mention a certain end-game puzzle as well, which involves running around standing on plates to figure out which musical notes you’re supposed to play on a series of pianos to de-activate some electrical gates that spawn an (almost) un-killable monster if you get it wrong. I hope my description captures a sense of how lame, stupid and frustrating it is. I am so glad they don’t make them like this anymore.

The environments are often stunning, just as they were in the FFX re-master (they are pretty much all exactly the same). The soundtrack is fine but nowhere near the level of some of the earlier ones. But this is a sequel rather than a full-on FF game so it’s probably to be expected.

I don’t have a clear sense of how FFX-2 is viewed in series canon, but playing it now without rose-tinted glasses, it is extremely dated and not very much fun. You could always say “don’t bother with the crap side-missions”, but if you try to rush the game you will hit a wall eventually with some of the bosses. I finished the game with a 72% completion; there were certain questlines that required massive backtracking and grinding, and I am not all prepared to put in the time. The game clocked me at 35 hours for completion but there were probably another 10-15 hours in failed boss fights. So I don’t think I got as happy an ending for Yuna as she might deserve. But again, if Square wanted people to be that invested in the story they should basically have done a better job in writing it. Sorry.

5/10

 

Sword Art Online (anime) – mid-term review

WARNING: moderate spoilers below.

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Asuna and Kirito make for an awesome battle couple. 

The first half of Sword Art Online’s 25 episodes includes some of the most enjoyable, memorable and entertaining anime I’ve seen. The VR world of Sword Art Online is very well-realized and the main characters, Kirito and Asuna, are likable, engaging and sympathetic. The early episodes feature some great individual storylines, lovely environments, and terrific fight scenes and boss designs. It’s a constant pleasure to see MMORPG mechanics and tropes reproduced so lovingly and in amusing ways, and to see the dynamics of player interaction portrayed on-screen.

SAO also manages to capture an uplifting energy, despite the setting, which is quite inspiring. In fact, Asuna explains this herself towards the end of SAO’s first half: it was Kirito’s positive attitude and ability to relax and find pleasure in the moment of living, even in terrible circumstances, that attracted her to him. At its best, the show does a great job of capturing a sense of joy and compassion that is often one of the hallmarks of the best anime.

I didn’t mind that several episodes were devoted to Kirito and Asuna’s “marriage” and honeymoon, even though it distracted us from the main storyline. It was a nice change of pace and really charming, and allowed for a couple of moving episodes about a young child seemingly lost in the game. It was quite welcome, as well, that they pulled the trigger on Kirito and Asuna’s relationship, in contrast to so many shows that beat around the bush (excuse the phrase) so much that you’re tired of the pairing before they finally get round to hooking up.

We were enjoying the show so much that the events of episode 14 came as a shock and actually were quite distressing. That probably sounds melodramatic, but the sudden and abrupt ending to the story arc felt massively premature and we weren’t emotionally prepared for it. They really should have done a better job of teasing what amounted to the end of the world (albeit a VR world) beforehand. Precisely because the world of SAO was so rich and deep, the fact it was suddenly obliterated was somewhat upsetting. I suppose I should stop being so sensitive, but it kind of sucks if you feel like you’re being punished for your emotional investment in something. Clearly the characters in SAO were being forced to stay there against their will–although some had found happiness and meaning through their relationships there, as Asuna explained–but I was enjoying the ride. Oh well. There are eleven more episodes for us to watch but my enthusiasm is well and truly sapped at this point, which feels like a shame.

As a flippant aside, it amused me to find out by episode 14 that Kirito is 16 years old, implying he was 14 when he started the game. No wonder he was so zen about spending his life inside SAO. How many 14 year olds would jump at the chance to fast forward a couple of years and spend the entire time playing video games? Bit different to those older players with wives, families, careers etc on the go.

It’s difficult to give a score to SAO, but here goes. I’ll forever have fond memories of the first 13 episodes, which rank among my favourite anime; but the abrupt ending to the arc felt wrong and premature. So for episodes 1-14 I’m settling on an eight.

8/10