Friday, September 29, 2006

Game Review: Phantasy Star II

I'll start off with praise for the mighty Game Genie, because without his "No Random Encounters" and "Instant Level 50" codes I'd probably still be EXP-gorging in Paseo. Thank you, Genie; Barbara Eden's got nothing on you. :)

"Phantasy Star II" represents a major leap forward from its predecessor, largely due to the move from the Sega Master System to Genesis. Graphically, musically, in story and gameplay, it's... different. Some areas have improved substantially, some not so much.

Let's start with visual style. I overlooked this in my review of the first game, but the "Phantasy Star" series offers something I haven't seen in your typical RPGs: it's situated firmly and directly in the science-fiction genre. It's not that other games don't make use of futuristic settings - "Final Fantasy VII" comes to mind - but there's usually some kind of religious/mystical undertone woven throughout the storyline (in FF7's case, the Jenova/Cetra/Lifestream subplot). "Phantasy Star", conversely, is pure sci-fi: everything that happens is rooted in technology and space travel. There are no gods, no demons, nothing otherworldly at all except for the Dark Force, which has yet to be explained. Visually, this is apparent in the design of the characters and the towns/worlds: sleek, metallic, a little cold and inhuman... and as we later find out, this isn't just because of the genre, but because of something that's actually going on in the game. Battle sequences are improved, though, as we can now see the participants on both sides facing off and delivering blows.

This game has one very notable flaw on the technical level: lack of variety. Dungeons are back to 2D overhead point of view (the first game had switched to first-person view during these segments), so you're basically stuck with the same perspective throughout the game. Most of the towns look the same, there's very little variation in how battles unfold thanks to the tweaked combat system (which allows you to automate a fight after issuing commands to your party members), and the music... well, even the boss fights don't have unique tracks, it's the same melody over and over again. A bit more work in that area would've kept ennui from setting in - as it was, I ended up fast-forwarding through most of the dungeons. You do get to build your own team out of a roster of eight, each with unique skills and attributes, but by mid-game the strongest and most useful characters become painfully obvious.

The story takes place a thousand years after Alis Landale defeated King Lassic and the Dark Force, becoming Queen of the Algol system. It's been an eventful millenium, and "Phantasy Star II" makes good use of continuity not by preserving the past, but by presenting familiar elements in a completely new context. Motavia, the desert world, has become a lush, green paradise, and whereas the bulk of the first game's actions took place on capital planet Palma, Motavia is at the heart of the story this time around. We begin the game with an introduction to Rolf, an agent of the Motavian government who dreams of Alis' final battle with Dark Force. With him is his... I'm not sure what Nei is to him, but she's there when he's assigned to check out apparent malfunctions in Mother Brain, the omnipotent computer network that regulates and controls virtually all aspects of life in Algol (Samus Aran would pitch a fit, I'm sure). Soon Rolf, Nei and their allies are drawn into an interplanetary conspiracy, with disastrous consequences.

So far so good... but pace becomes a major problem for this game after a while. For some reason, we get a string of random, minor events (reuniting a thief with his kidnapped daughter, learning to play the piano, investigating the source of the monsters plaguing the world), then the death of a main character. It's sudden, and a bit of a surprise, but there's no emotional depth because like their predecessors, the cast of "Phantasy Star II" have minimal personalities. It's just hard, if not impossible, to care about the fate of a complete cipher. This character is never spoken of again, for reasons that aren't very clear to me (especially since the character's name emerges towards the end of the game, but in a completely unrelated context, and nobody bats an eye). Anyway, after that things start getting awkward: having received minimal exposition so far, the team sets out to Dezolis, which is pretty much the same as it was a millenium ago, and receive a massive infodump from Lutz, nee Noah from the first game. Any pleasant surprise I might have felt at seeing him got utterly lost in the torrent of information that he blurts out: "Hey, Rolf, guess what! You're descended from Alis Landale! That dream you keep having? Really happened! And we've met before, remember that time when you were ten and your parents died on a space shuttle? Yeah, I'm the one that saved you. Oh, and there's an enormous space station on the edge of our solar system that's been watching us for a while. And I think the Dark Force is back and messing with Mother Brain. Okay, bye now."

See the problem? There's no build-up prior to this - you could try and hazard a guess that Rolf is descended from Alis, but we don't know anything about his life before the game starts, let alone why his orphaned status is so important (because the death of Rolf's parents wasn't an accident). And the bitch of it is, there's no time to digest this information, because you're catapulted forward towards the end of the game, and there's a brilliant plot twist where the true masterminds are revealed... it would've been great, but at that point you're so saturated with exposition that any dramatic impact is lost. The story ultimately achieves an ambiguous climax that would've been amazing, had we been given time to appreciate it. Thematically, the game goes all-out at this point: we see how dependence on technology leads to complacency and weakness, and Rolf's ultimate decision is wonderfully ambivalent in the sense that you're wondering whether he knows the ultimate consequences of his actions, and accepts them because the alternative is unthinkable. Lots of clever ideas, hampered by the fact that they're not set up properly.

Side note: continuing a nice tradition from the first game, the toughest fighter and the most efficient healer in "Phantasy Star II" are both women (Anna Zirski and Amy Sage, respectively). Still with minimal personalities, but again, it's enough that they're front and center. And, of course, this is one of the few games I'm familiar with where the final boss is a woman.

An above-average game, though I imagine my opinion of it would be much lower if I'd actually had to fight my way through random battles every five steps. But it gets the job done, and that's what counts.

Monday, September 25, 2006


See? I knew it! So what if she has boobs now, he doesn't care! :)

Game Review: God of War

As a gamer, I admit there's a lot to enjoy about "God of War": the combat system is exhilirating yet easy to master, the voice acting is consistently strong, and the use of Greek mythology provides a wealth of interesting monsters and environments.

Creatively, though, it's a bit flat. The plot is the standard Conan fare of "Barbarian Seeks Revenge", and it's sensible enough... just a bit too straightforward and predictable for my tastes, going from A to B to C in a thoroughly linear fashion. Characterization is rather two-dimensional as well; midway through the game there's an attempt to graft some run-of-the-mill pathos onto the protagonist, but... well, "meh" about covers it.

The closest point of comparison I can make is to "Prince of Persia: Warrior Within" - when I reviewed that game, I indicated that Ubisoft was constantly struggling to find a balance between story and gameplay, and "Warrior Within" had represented a stronger emphasis on cutting your foes to ribbons at the expense of an engaging story. "God of War" falls into the same category: it's amusing enough to grab undead soldiers and fling them around like yo-yos, but there's nothing so compelling that you're desperate to know what happens next.

Fun for a few hours, "God of War" eventually loses its appeal when it becomes apparent that - inventive ways of killing monsters aside - there isn't much substance driving the game forward.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Magic 8-Ball Says "No Shit, Sherlock"

So apparently the latest issue of "Civil War" has ruffled some feathers.

I don't know, maybe it's just my diminishing patience with this sort of phenomenon, but it's by Mark bleeping Millar. If you were expecting something coherent, if you were expecting him to make good on any of his boasts, you've either never had the dubious pleasure of experiencing his work first-hand or you're the type of person who sits in the theatre for hours after the end of "Waiting For Godot", convinced the guy's going to show up sooner or later.

It's Millar, people. Of course it's poorly thought-out and poorly-executed garbage. Criticize as much as you want, but you have no right to feel cheated - you're getting exactly what you paid for.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Diana's Adventures in TV Land: Dante's Cove

Oh lordy. Someone's going to die for inflicting this horror on me. It's so bad, I can't tackle it alone, so I've invited some guest commentators to pop up here and there.

The biggest problem with this review is that I have no idea whether I've just watched 90 minutes of softcore porn aspiring to basic storytelling, or 90 minutes of a soap opera determined to sink as low as it possibly can. It's an important distinction to make, because plotty porn - as awful as it can get - at least makes a minimal effort in the act of creating a narrative, in which case there's no reason to take the creators up Mount Hackwork and feed them to Cthulhu.

See? He's got his tentacle-bib on and everything.

As with "Hex", this is more or less a series that would like to be classified as "the (adjective) Buffy": if "Hex" was the British Buffy and "Supernatural" is the Boys' Buffy, "Dante's Cove" purports to be the Gay Buffy. Orly, do you have anything to say about the Cove's claim to fame?

I thought so. :) As with most imitators, it takes a little more than stated intent to hit anywhere near the mark. I mean, "Supernatural" may not have Whedon's creative genius behind it, but it offers an intense atmosphere and interesting characters. "Hex" at least got the atmosphere right. "Dante's Cove" gives us naked people. Now, I'll admit I'm appreciative of buff guys in the buff, just like other women; isn't that right, Marguerite?

Well, maybe not all other women. But for me, The Pretty can only can cover up so much. The pace goes something like this: five minutes of plot, fifteen minutes of extended gay sex montage, five minutes of flashbacks, fifteen minutes of Disney's Magic Carpet Ride (Themysciran Remix).

I wish I was! I mean, yes, we get it, Toby love you long time. We figured that bit out after the taxi sex. Why we needed to see him and Kevin do it again, and again, and again over the course of a single episode is thoroughly beyond my grasp.

Enough about the sex. Let's talk actors/characters. First off, Tracy Scoggins (who I knew only as Kat Grant from "Lois and Clark") looks amazing for a woman in her fifties. I don't know if it's just natural grace, makeup or plastique surgery ('cause she's "da bomb" and all... oh geez, there goes another brain cell), but it works for her. I don't even mind the diabolical British accent.

Well, maybe just a little. :) I also give props to William Gregory Lee, who hasn't improved much since his time on "Xena" but actually had me convinced he was getting borked in the opening scene. The rest of the cast doesn't stand out much, but again, here's where my major difficulty lies: if they're working with mildly-doctored porn scripts, they're expected to act badly and speak in Austenisms, but if this is supposed to be genuine, then they're a bunch of oiled-up Antizombie and Bitch models who couldn't deliver a line if they had GPS precision-guidance.

And could someone please explain to me why "Dante's Inferno" keeps being referenced even though it has nothing to do with anything in this series?

The plot is... well, it's equal parts "yeahbuhwhat?" and "ohnotheydidn't". In 1840, a sorceress (?) discovers that her fiance is sleeping with a male servant (!). This isn't the first time I've had cause to shout "The butler did it!" during a TV show, but it is the first time I was met with "Nah, the butler got done." Anyway, the witch locks her betrayer in the basement (which, I suppose, is better than a closet) and instantly turns him into an old man (!!), and only the kiss of a beautiful young man will free him (?!?!). About 150 years later, said beautiful young man (whose elevator doesn't run to the top floor, naturally) turns up with his boyfriend, and they and their friends get caught up in some kind of mystical conflict, and the witch's fiance decides to fuck, marry and kill his savior (not necessarily in that order). I've sent "Dante's Cove" to an analyst, let's see what he has to say:

See? If a superintelligent android can't figure it out, what's the point? Maybe a second viewing would clear things up, but I'm not volunteering for the Lot's Wife treatment.

Ah, what can I say? "Dante's Cove" bravely takes a stab at the neo-Gothic, and the neo-Gothic promptly stabs back. The setting is right: desolated beaches, crumbling buildings, the sea, the dark basement... that's all great. But the Gothic is more than just looks, and it clashes horribly with the faux-drama and hysterics of campy soap (or porn, whatever). Remember that scene in "Gremlins 2" where they've all assembled in the plaza lobby, going into a chaotic frenzy of dancing, singing and wreaking havoc, and then they all melt into green muck? Yeah, that's a nice analogy for this show. A lot of noise, then it's all toxic sludge. Someone should page Captain Planet.

To conclude, we have with us an expert on The Stupid: tell us, sir, how much does it suck, really?

That about sums it up.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Diana's Adventures in TV Land: La Femme Nikita

The mid-'90s were a great time for girl warriors. In 1995 a one-shot "Hercules" villain became the star of her own show, and epitomized the pre-medieval female fighter (in your face, Red Sonja!); a year later, Joss Whedon introduced a new kind of modern heroine while raising standards of quality for television; and in 1997, a little-known film called "La Femme Nikita" was adapted into an ongoing series. I'm not acquainted with the source material, so I can't speak to issues of authenticity, but I'm left with very strong feelings towards the show. I'll start by focusing on the first two seasons, which I feel were the strongest.

One thing that stood out was the high level of sophisication: practically every episode had plot twists galore and difficult moral quandaries for our protagonist. The overall plot of the series concerns Nikita, a former street rat framed for murder who is recruited by a covert anti-terrorist organization. This organization, Section One, does its very best to turn Nikita into a merciless killing machine, only to find her stubbornly clinging to her humanity. Naturally, this results in an endless series of problems, as Nikita struggles to avoid being "cancelled" while staying true to her moral values.

The nice thing is that, during those initial seasons, you're not really called upon to pick a side and stick with it. Section One espouses the rhetoric of sacrifice for the greater good - Nikita often finds their tactics deplorable, but is she right to weigh two lives against a thousand? It's an issue both sides of the equation struggle with, and most episodes end on an ambivalent note that lets the viewer come to independent conclusions.

Most of the characters are as complex as the plots. Aside from Nikita's internal and external conflicts, we have Michael, her trainer-turned-love-interest, whose tenure at Section has repressed his emotions to near-nonexistence. I do think the series lost something when the chemistry between Nikita and Michael progressed into actual intimacy - it turned the relationship into an on-again/off-again thing, and then it became the crux of the entire third/fourth season arc. When everyone from arch-terrorists to your bosses to your bosses' bosses are concerned with your love life, it's time to go.

We also have the rest of the "main" Section cast: Walter and Birkoff, a pair of loveable supporting characters whose inherent charm brightens up the otherwise-dreary Section life; Madeline, the enigmatic Chief Strategist whose function overwent a radical shift in the middle of the first season (she went from being a propwoman to head profiler/interrogator for Section); and Operations, the man running the show, a ruthless yet hypocritical figure who denies his operatives the freedoms he himself indulges in. It's a diverse and fascinating bunch, especially when it's not All About Michita. Special mention goes to Adrian, founder of Section One, played exquisitely by Sian Philips. We only see her for a very short time, but she makes quite an impression.

As far as acting is concerned, it's a bit of a mixed bag: Peta Wilson does well enough as Nikita, in terms of the soul-rending decisions she has to make, but to paraphrase Bunny Swan, "she looka like a man". Six-foot-something with a deep baritone, and I can't help flashing back to that scene in "Tootsie" where Dustin Hoffman tells the director "you want some gross caricature of a woman, to prove some idiotic point that power makes a woman masculine." Still, she does all right. I'm slightly less impressed with Roy Dupuis (Michael), because the guy has maybe two facial expressions per season. And while it's all well and good to depict a character as emotionally hollow, it runs the risk of being monotonous after a while. It doesn't help that Michael-in-love doesn't act any different than Michael-not-in-love, so it's almost impossible to know where this guy stands. Conversely, Alberta Watson (Madeline) has the same stone-faced delivery, but at least she has the sense to occasionally offer a tiny smile or a hateful glare, the effect of which is all the more magnified by her usual composure, and it makes her an infinitely more interesting character because you're always looking to see what slips through the cracks in her armor. The others are above-average.

Of course, all this largely revolves around the first two seasons, it goes way downhill after that. For some reason, the series was reconfigured as a melodrama: Michael's married with a kid! Nikita's falling in love with someone else! Birkoff has a twin brother! Operations is blackmailing Madeline!

To make things worse, the technology started crossing the border from science to science-fiction. I mean, in the first two seasons, encountering a brainwashing device is a big deal - we see traces and hints of future-tech, but it's always depicted as a major breakthrough. By the time the third season came to a close (and certainly by the fourth) we had holograms, clones, psychics and goddamn voodoo love potions, all a little too commonplace for my tastes. And naturally, most of these devices were employed to either help or stop Michael and Nikita's relationship, because the fate of the free world is secondary to two anti-terrorist people getting freaky with each other. On top of that, the usual plot twists became so numerous and predictable that after a certain point, you already knew they were coming.

Lest I forget, this series is sadly included in the B.O.D. Club, for series that were Better Off Dead. Apparently, after the appalling fourth-season finale which retconned the last three years of storylines in a manner only slightly less insulting than Bobby Ewing's shower, fans rallied for a fifth season. And if ever there was a case of "be careful what you wish for", this is it, because the fifth and final season starts bad and ends worse, with lots of "shocking" character deaths and meaningless twists and turns.

Still... it had two really fantastic and strong seasons, and later decreases in quality don't change that fact.

A final note: "La Femme Nikita" makes for an interesting comparison to "Alias" in several respects. I think Sydney Bristow is supposed to be a more feminine response to the "butch" Nikita, though in practice this means Sydney gets the shit beaten out of her on a regular basis. And even at its worst, the twists on LFN still made some kind of rudimentary sense - if you can figure out "Alias", you're in a better position than J.J. Abrams.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Run No More

Brian Vaughan's replacement on "Runaways": Joss Whedon.

I was skeptical. I had good reason to be. But I'm woman enough to admit when I'm wrong, wrong, wrong.

Kudos, Marvel - I really didn't think you had it in you.

Baker the Board-Shaker

I used to love Kyle Baker for "Why I Hate Saturn" and "I Die At Midnight".

Now I love him for those, and for this: (scroll down a bit)

To paraphrase the South Park kids, Grandpa Simpson just got served.

And my God, is there any headline he won't glom onto for a little attention?

EDIT: Oops. It's a different Kyle Baker. Oh well. :)

Monday, September 11, 2006

Vivat Grendel!

I'm way too disoriented to write a coherent review of Matt Wagner's "Grendel", so here are some points I thought were interesting:

1. Of all the "primary" Grendels, Christine Spar is my favorite. Not just because she was the only woman to don the mask, but because she's arguably the only one whose actions aren't tinged with madness. Hunter Rose was damaged from the start, Brian Li Sung and Eppy Thatcher were completely insane, and even Orion Assante eventually sees himself as being possessed by the devil. We don't know much about Grendel-Prime, but I imagine you'd have to be pretty screwed up to turn yourself into the Toaster of Doom. Christine is ultimately the only protagonist Wagner justifies - her actions are morally ambiguous, but her intentions and motivations are nothing short of heroic. It's that kind of complexity that makes "Grendel" such an enjoyable, rewarding read.

2. I have never seen another comic deal with the themes of legacy, succession, evolution and chronological ellipses as well as "Grendel". It occurs to me that "Miracleman" might have gone that far, had it run its course, but we'll never know. As it stands, I can't help but be impressed by the sheer scale of the Grendel Saga: in fifty-one issues (including "Devil By The Deed", "War Child" and "Devil Quest"), he spans a period of seven hundred and twenty years. And it's the same world, changed to the point where it's almost unrecognizable save for trace hints that recall the past. That's real vision, right there.

3. Wagner could have ended Grendel with "War Child": the bad guys are defeated, proper rule is restored, all's right with the world. In fact, most of the online resources I've found seem to do just that: in summarizing/detailing the stories, "War Child" is often the last entry. But that's not where the chronology ends, with Jupiter I's coronation on a bright and sunny day; it ends with a half-destroyed Grendel-Prime shooting a man for no reason and riding off into the darkness, the Grendel Empire in ruins. I can understand the desire to exclude "Devil's Quest" - it's just a backup story, and if you read it expecting closure or a finale of some kind you'll be sorely disappointed. Hell, you could even make the argument that it's not a complete story, as it serves to lead into some horrid Batman/Grendel crossover I refuse to read on principle. It's not particularly uplifting either, and I don't know that it makes any significant extension of the series' core premise and themes. Except... well, entropy exists in Wagner's worldview. If there's one thing that's consistent for every incarnation of Grendel, it's that things fall apart: personally, socially, psychologically, globally. Pellon Cross starts out as a driven vampire messiah and turns into a bloated, useless mess. America is ruled by corporations, then the Catholic Church, then the Grendel-Khan, each system breaking down in turn to make way for the next. Christine Spar's life crumbles until she has nothing left. It's the very epitome of the Wheel of Fortune, and in that context "Devil Quest" cannot be ignored, because it's the inevitable culmination of everything that came before it. It's not Wagner's best work, broken-up and disorganized as it is, but maybe that was the plan all along: to have the narrative itself in a state of decay mirroring the setting depicted within.

4. Of all the "Grendel Tales" spin-offs, the only one I really liked was "Devil Child", the in-depth look at Stacy Palumbo. The flip-side of this is I think the Hunter Rose minis ("Black White and Red" and "Red White and Black") were a terrible mistake. There was always something suitably enigmatic about the fact that Hunter Rose has no voice: "Devil By The Deed" presents his story as told by Christine, who got it from Stacy and a bunch of other sources, but Hunter himself is silent, inscrutable. This changes both in "Devil Child" and in the Hunter Rose minis, with one major difference: "Devil Child" is narrated by Stacy, and begins after Hunter's death. In other words, she's already going mad, and anything she tells the readers is subject to dispute. This is brilliantly emphasized by writer Diana Schutz when Stacy tells the story of her rape four or five different ways; she herself can't reconcile what really happened, so how can we trust anything she says about Hunter Rose? And unlike Rose himself, I think there was room for another look at Stacy, because her own mysteriousness was meant to affect Christine, not the reader, if that makes any sense. In other words, it's important that we not know too much about Hunter, but it was only important that Christine not know too much about her mother. By contrast, Wagner's direct depictions of Rose in his prime tend to fall short of the figure built up to such mythical proportions in "Devil By The Deed". We even get a lot of repetition, the Jocasta Rose sequence retold two or three times without significant variation or revelation. And all the other Grendel Tales... well, this is disturbing, because despite the many writers who contributed, somehow all the plots involve an instantaneous romance between two unlikely and poorly-fleshed out figures, with Grendel in the distant background. More often than not, the characters simply aren't compelling enough to hold the story.

5. My favorite moment in the series: the end of "The Devil Inside", the moment where two narratives seamlessly merge into one, and Brian's last words mix with those of Grendel. "I am not afraid to die. For I shall live FOREVER." Absolutely chilling.

And that's about it for now. It was an intense reading experience, one I found immensely and uniquely gratifying.

Wednesday, September 6, 2006

Ode To Marvel

Still ticked about "Runaways", but I've decided to do something constructive with it. And nothing says "fun" like lyric rewrites! :D


You keep saying you've got something for me
Something you call good, but confess
You've been hyping what you shouldn't have been hyping
And now someone else is getting all your best

My boots are made for running
And that's just what they'll do
Better believe these boots are gonna run right over you

You keep ditching, who you oughta be holding
And you keep betting when the odds ain't set
You keep changing what you oughta be saming
What's wrong is wrong, and you ain't been right yet

My boots are made for running
And that's just what they'll do
Better believe these boots are gonna run right over you

You keep hiring where you shouldn't be hiring
And you keep thinking that you'll never get burnt. Ha!
I just found me a brand new box of writers
And what they know you ain't had time to learn

Are you ready, boots?
Start running!

Time To Run

So... Brian Vaughan has just announced that he's leaving "Runaways" after issue 24. And that we'll all be "thrilled" with the new creative team.

Tcha, you know what?


See, I love BKV to bits, but last time he said that we ended up with Zeb Wells. So I guess 24 will be my last issue too.

Quite a pity - I really adored that series. :(

Tuesday, September 5, 2006


My Mark Millar voodoo doll is complete!

*readies pin* This is for "Chosen", this is for "Wanted"...