Thursday, January 11, 2018

Review: Romancing SaGa 2

Romancing SaGa 2
Platforms: iOS, Android, Steam, Windows 10 Store, PlayStation Vita.
Publisher: Square-Enix
Developer: Square-Enix, ArtePiazza

SaGa is not your typical JRPG. SaGa looks and plays like a JRPG, but it's anything but. It has a very peculiar vision of what an RPG is. The series is obtuse in the best and worst ways.

Square-Enix has many franchises, but the SaGa series is their experimental line. Nonlinearity and branching choices are series hallmarks, and Romancing SaGa 2 has a lot going on under the hood.

SaGa wants to be replayed, it wants every person's playthrough to be unique and personalized. At the same time, it wants everyone's path to be a valid path. Want to create a team of magic users? Go for it. All swords? That can work. Rapiers only? Groovy.

Romancing SaGa 2 follows a family line throughout the centuries battling the seven legendary heroes. The player chooses an emperor or empress at the start screen, and the game begins at the start of their lineage. Each generation will advance the kingdom, opening new spells, equipment, and techniques.

Gameplay follows a straightforward path. Every generation skip you can pick from several heirs, and within that generation several scenarios appear. They can be tackled in any order the player wants, but once several of them are completed, a

As each emperor dies, all their experience inherited by the next emperor. So don't worry about dying.  It's not a game over, but a retry. Think of something like the Souls series, and you'll understand the gameplay loop SaGa goes for.

This remake of Romancing SaGa 2 brings HD visuals from backgrounds to sprites. Luckily, Romancing SaGa 2 avoided the RPG Maker look some of the mobile Final Fantasy remakes have been given. Side-by-side comparisons show an accurate likeness to the original. Even in full screen, the pixels hold up clear.

Note: Initially, the Steam version was just an Android port, complete with the on-screen buttons still there. A patch has come out that removes those buttons while also having labeled controller support on the menus. If you go on Steam, you'll see a lot of negative reviews about these things when they were present.

In addition to the revamped visuals, new dungeons, extra classes, New Game +, and a new scenario are all featured in this game. Now, will the game tell you how these systems work? No. Not at all.

A lot of people play up the difficulty of the SaGa games. This is a bad way to describe them. SaGa games are hard. They'll absolutely throw a mega boss on an under-leveled party, but every encounter has options. This requires a different mindset. Abilities are learned through Sparking, which means a light bulb appears over their head through RNG. The more swords they swing, the more likely they'll spark a sword ability. The more bows they use, the more bow abilities they'll have. Stats also increase in this manner.

This RNG helps promote an individual's style of playing. Whatever you choose, your characters will improve and get better. A typical JRPG is about grinding until your party's numbers until they are bigger than the enemies numbers. Battles in Romancing SaGa 2 resemble more puzzles than anything else.

The scariest part for new players is the fear of grinding. SaGa uses a global encounter meter, which means the more fights the player is involved in, the more difficult all enemies become. This plays more like a tightrope act, where if the player grinds too much, the general monsters will be difficult, but if they grind too little, the bosses will be too strong to overcome. Grinding is just a habit in RPGs that has become the standard. After every battle, every single character will return to full health. If they reach zero health, they lose one Life Point from the number that they have. Once all Life Points are gone, permanent death.

This sounds like a scarier mechanic than it is. Emperors inherit everything from the previous generation, so there is no real loss, and party members can always be recruited again. The generation skip means you'll always be going through party members, which means your party will should always be topped up on LP.

Scenarios and castle management also play a large role in how the game will play out. Branching events will alter the gameplay experience. Choosing certain quests may mean the next dungeon is easier, but at the cost of something else. Certain events don't trigger unless you build up the correct resources in your castle. Certain bosses change based on how many encounters the party has faced. Some bosses will appear based on sheer luck.

Due to the number of scenarios and knowledge about them, this means there isn't any true way to play. A game like Persona is built around min/maxing a schedule of school work, studying, sidequests, and grinding in dungeons, but SaGa does not. Party member formation, building the Magic research Facility, making the correct friends, these are all variations to the quest at large. Play, lose, learn, repeat.

My verdict for Romancing SaGa 2 on Steam is a high recommendation, with the knowledge that this is a SaGa game. Even in 2017, a remake of a SNES game feels fresh, which is a testament to Akitoshi Kawazu's insane vision. There isn't another RPG like this. A real one-of-a-kind. The ability to play with a controller is a good reason to choose the PC version over the mobile version. If you love old school RPGs with high difficulty and can look past the port job, Romancing SaGa 2 will give you an experience you didn't know existed.

This wouldn't be a SaGa game if the mechanics weren't obtuse. Here I'll give you some tips and tricks to make your experience a little more comfortable.

Don't grind. SaGa games don't like grinding. There is a reason they completely heal you after every battle. Forward momentum is key! Every fight is supposed to be about resource management and a little bit of RNG. Don't worry if you don't feel in control. Hidden stats make sure you don't fall into unwinnable situations. Save scum if scared.

Sitting on the throne is how you build your empire. Sit often and see what you can make.

Stop running into battles! When you run into battle, your formation breaks. If you're using a certain formation to keep your glass cannons in the back, you'll find that the battle starts in you in a free-for-all formation. Take care of your surroundings and run when you have to run. If enemies are close, slow down before you engage.

Sparking. You don't have levels, and levels don't matter. All that matters is the light bulb above your head. The light bulb takes place when a character learns a new skill. Learning anything has a little bit of RNG, so you never know when a spark is going to happen. The probability of a spark taking place increases as you encounter a tough enemy. If all you do is grind low level enemies, your probability to spark drops. Again, don't grind.

LP means life! There are a few rare items that will restore LP to characters.

If characters tell you they're good at one thing, that's what they're good at. Many of the scenarios allow access to new classes, such as martial artist, pirate, ninja, thief, so don't be afraid to experiment with new characters using new formations.

Building new areas or researching new weapons and armor will be based off number of battles fought. Grind a couple of battle out and see if progress is completed. Another hint, make sure to check on your Orchid often, so the tree will grow and kingdom revenue will increase.

Magic doesn't spark like skills do. Instead, use of magic at least once per battle will level up that element. Once a "global" level of magic reaches 15 in each element, go to the Magic Research Facility that must be built and learn new magic. The global level is the cumulative levels all party member add, so even previous generation increase this number.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Review: Bright

Netflix internally has a lot of different products ranging in genres and mediums. They have highly successful television shows and award nominated movies, but they don't have The Big One. Bright is Netflix's attempt at a big Hollywood blockbuster film.

Coming off Suicide Squad, David Ayer directs this Shadow Run-esque take on Los Angeles where humans and fantasy races coexist. Anyone will absolutely know they're watching a David Ayer film right from the beginning.

If you've liked what David Ayer has written, Training Day, or you've like what he's directed, End of Watch, Harsh Times, Street Kings, then you'll love Bright. If you didn't like any of those movies, you probably won't enjoy Bright.

You will get two cops talking in a car. You will get harsh dialogue. You will get hood life. And by God and Country you will get killer Latino gangbangers.

Bright is about a human cop and an orc cop coming to term with their own differences while keeping a magic wand out of corrupt cops, gangsters, and an elf on the Magic FBI's most wanted list. It's a nightmare night where everything that can go wrong, does go wrong.

Will Smith and Joel Edgerton have quite a bit of chemistry with one another. Much respect to Edgerton who still acts through those heavy layers of makeup and prosthetics. The character of Jakoby really shines through right when he's introduced, and keeps as a strong highlight of the movie.

The rest of the cast is rounded out nicely while portraying their very stereotypical characters. There really isn't much going on with characters except for Smith and Edgerton, but it never feels like there needs to be.

What Bright does have is action. Several fun action scenes take place that never feel the same. Whether it's a gun fight between speeding cars, a shootout in a strip club, or a handcuffed brawl in a convenience store, there is always something looking to entertain the audience.

There are some downsides to the film, besides the very Ayer's direction. Some plot threads introduced early in the film are dropped without warning, which is a shame, since the majority of buildup has an eventual payoff. There are multiple POV sections that go on, but eventually it narrows down to protagonist and antagonist POVs. This means several interesting characters disappear and then reappear near the end.

The biggest issue is even at two hours and 27 minutes, it still feels like there is a piece missing. Something that would connect everything together.

Bright is a solid movie, but just that, solid. Given today's offering of major film products, a solid buddy cop movie was exactly what I wanted.

In relation to other David Ayer directed films, this is certainly above Suicide Squad and Harsh Times, but it never manages to match the grittiness of End of Watch or the crime thriller highs of Street Kings. We're not even going to bring up Sabotage.

Bright has more going on than most films, it has a fun world, and the always entertaining Ayer's eye. With that being said, I liked that this was on Netflix. Perhaps Bright is just as good as any blockbuster going to theaters, but it feels a little too small in scope and structure. There is this difficult feeling to shake that Bright is just a few inches away from really nailing its landing.

I liked it, but I didn't love it. Bright  is a very good rental, so it's right where it needs to be.

If the trailers or anything I've written has peaked your interest, check out Bright. It's as easy as can be and doesn't cost any extra. If you really don't like David Ayer from Suicide Squad or any of the other films he's directed, than you should steer clear.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Lessons From 2017

This year was a giant year of change for me. Things got back on track, in more ways than one. Opportunities expanded. Readership has increased. Evolution imminent. All great things.

This post is to share the biggest turning points for me in 2017, and a reminder to head into 2018 with.

Create Something That Matters

This is something I learned from my own work. Sales of my books favor The Way of Wolves over Wildstar. Themes of anxiety and depression worked with people more than adventurous fluff. It showed me that appealing to more mainstream readers really wasn't worth it, because they liked my weirder stuff more anyways.

The more and more I looked at the things I'm attracted to, and the things that live on years after they release, I noticed something. I saw they came from a need that wasn't being met, and still not being met.

I think I would tell new writers, and a younger version of myself, to assume the worst case scenario for your story is possible. Assume it commercially flops. Does the story still hold up? Would I still be proud of something I created after nothing?

For The Way of Wolves and Wildstar, I am. Throwbacks to heroic fantasy and good fantasy drama is what I've been looking for, and if I could find it, I would be reading rather than writing. It made me think about future projects and how I want them to come out.

Remain Human

Any line of work, including art, means there is a lot micromanagment. Marketing, promotions, sales, year-over-year, month-over-month, sales graphs, inputting into your Excel document, daily/monthly/yearly goals. A lot of people get on Facebook and Twitter to extend their "brand". It's all about numbers, whether it's followers, buyers, or newsletter subscribers.

This is the opposite approach to be taken. So be human, or better said, stay human. Don't let reality break you down into another work drone. Don't put on a mask of who you would like to be. Be yourself.

I go to cons and meet with writers because it's fun. Thankfully, the vast majority of my sales take place online, so handselling is an excuse to go to an event. I always feel energized from folks. The fun is on the ground level. And this is why we got into writing in the first place. It's fun. Make sure it stays that way.

There is a lot of business going on, and it's easy to forget why we started.


Change is one of the scariest words to people. It means losing out on what they know. It means inconvenience. That's generally an emotional hangup. Support the people and businesses that need it the most.

My purchasing habits have been from Amazon-centric to diversified. That means dispersed capital to more businesses or people, or at least keep a healthy equilibrium of competition. I don't use Bing because I love Microsoft. I use Bing because a bigger Bing makes Google honest. I shop at Best Buy because orders go to the store instead of getting lost in the mail, plus Gamers Club Unlocked is a hell of a savings unmatched anywhere else. Barnes & Noble IS my local book store. I shop there because without them, the next bookstores are 45 minutes to an hour away. It helps that Barnes & Noble has great workplace equality practices.

After making these changes, I've experienced better service and prices. I still shop at Amazon, because some things are obscure/cheaper with them. I don't intend to stop with Amazon, but the majority of my money is spread around. I use December and January to buy ebooks from Smashwords, because it's easy to find indie authors and support them when they keep 80% of the sales price. It's a great way to end their year and begin the next.

Respect Your Online Real Estate

A blog is a terrible thing to waste.

The loss of Net Neutrality has energized this point. Digital real estate is just as important as physical land. What we own, from our content to our website domain, matters. A website is more than a portfolio. It's ownership.

I think back to Facebook. Facebook was the hub everyone went to, so individuals make Facebook Pages for their business. It was free, it was easy, and it was where the people were at. I saw some authors refuse having a website because they had a Facebook account. And in the blink of an eye, Facebook made their system Pay-to-Play. If you made a post, a single digit percentage sees it unless you pay to boost it.

So authors flocked to Twitter, because followers always receive tweets in a chronological order. And then that changed. YouTube's subscription box breaks all the time, so content creators have to fight chance and a stacked algorithm.

People did it to themselves. It didn't used to be like this. Hosting your own website, selling ads, driving people to merch shops, that used to be the norm. I mean, the 2000's was the web comic scene! And it matters more than ever now that gatekeepers to the Internet arrives.

Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Tumblr. All these platforms come and go, but your work is meant to last forever.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Science Fiction Films in 2017

2017 is a phenomenal year for science fiction films. One can look at quality, or quantity, or fandom, but right now we're going to look at capital. Studios are hungry to capture audience's attention with the future. They're throwing money at the wall and trying to light a fire.

What I find intriguing is the activity of a genre. It helps me gauge how much interest there is for that style. Fantasy may be big with Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings, but if you're not George R R Martin or Tolkien, people aren't buying.  Science fiction over the past few years has ramped up. Plenty of films are being made with modern or far-future takes, and they're being made with big bucks.

Our two fine examples are Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets and Blade Runner 2049. Two sides of a science fiction coin. One half offering a positive outlook of the future, the other showing a cynical outcome.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a personal favorite of the year. We see the return of Luc Besson to the director's chair. We see more of the fantastic visuals of The Fifth Element. This was a major passion project of Besson's, and it showed.

Does Valerian have flaws? Absolutely. There is no need to go to bat for this product and its criticisms, which there are many. What can be looked at is the type of science fiction presented. Valerian shows us a humanity that seemingly put its differences aside (detailed in the opening), becomes accepting of other life (opening), and taken to the stars with hundreds of other life forms to explore the universe. Outside Star Trek's television run, we haven't seen a hopeful future built on cooperation. In fact, even Star Trek with the recent Discovery has chosen a future full of strife.

With a budget of over $200 million, the largest independent film ever, they EuropaCorp bet big that audiences wanted a more optimistic science fiction experience. There isn't an ounce of pessimism to be found. No last minute betrayal showing the real villain (there is some major telegraphing who is the villain from far away), no mean-spirited turn of events. Romance is front and center. Major side characters are not looked down upon. It's all designed to please.

And audiences weren't feeling it. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets's opening weekend in the U.S. was $17 million, landing it in fifth place, also resulting in the departure of the Deputy CEO of EuropaCorp.  

How did we exist in the luckiest timeline that has a 35-year-old sequel to Blade Runner that actually turned out good? We could have had another Terminator: Salvation or a Son of the Mask. Even if Blade Runner 2049 came out respectable, that would have been a solid win for us. But good? Great?

Blade Runner 2049 was supposed to kick off an entire Blade Runner universe. We're talking films and television spinoffs were planned. This was supposed to be the beginning of a brand new franchise, like what The Avengers did for Marvel, Blade Runner was for Warner Brothers. And Warner Brothers tried this earlier in the year with King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, with a six-film cinematic universe.

With a budget estimated at $150 million, Blade Runner 2049 was supposed to be the big splash. $150 million is an epic budget, and I'll give them credit, they did it right. Blade Runner 2049 is an epic film with epic themes. What does it mean to have a soul, what is free will, do our memories shape who we are, what does it mean to be special? All that wrapped in a future where humanity has exhausted the Earth. No more animals. No more green vegetation. No hope of any of those things coming back. And life still persists.

It's hopeful in its own way.

Audiences found it too slow, too boring, too artsy. In a world of blockbusters populated with quick-witted action heroes, Officer K is not who you envision. K is as pathetic an individual as Theodore is in Her. Different films, different goals,  but just like Valerian, Blade Runner 2049 under-performed, putting Alcon Entertainment in serious trouble.

And the Future?

We had two high profile, bombs that both chased after completely different audiences. Both had capable direction. Both had the money on display. And both were rejected. 

There is still one last behemoth of an in-house, Hollywood, SF film coming out. Star Wars: The Last Jedi. The House of Mouse knows how to milk a property in perpetuity, just look at their revitalization of their princess movies. Star Wars is no exception. Starting this weekend, The Last Jedi is going to clean the box office. 

Something about that feels appropriate, doesn't it? We get fine products presented to us, but we gravitate to the mainstream, audience-approved mega brand. It's the path of least resistance, the reason people pass over most titles on Netflix until they see Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows.

I'm not even being mean-spirited to Star Wars. Rian Johnson is a fine director, Brick is a good time. Disney are fine people, they are very talented in finding out what audiences want. The Last Jedi going to be a groovy time for all. 

What I find interesting is what's going to happen in the next few years. Will Dune turn things around, or will we all enjoy our mass-produced mush? Time will tell.