Sunday, October 15, 2006

Game Review: Phantasy Star IV

A word of warning: I believe my overwhelmingly positive response to this game may be influenced by the nostalgia it invokes (which affects me as someone who'd played through the series to that point) and by what I call the Manna Effect - after two "okay" games and an abysmally awkward third, anything more than halfway competent is bound to look like a Godsend by comparison. Objectively speaking, though, I have no doubt that "Phantasy Star IV" is a substantial improvement over its predecessors, and is certainly the best of the four.

Don't let the title fool you; this is actually a sequel to the second game, not the third. In fact, looking back on "Phantasy Star" as a whole, PS3 really comes off as the "Freddy's Revenge" of the series - the black sheep that could be erased from the canon altogether without making any difference. But in any event, we're back in the Algol star system, a thousand years after Rolf Landale and his friends destroyed Mother Brain. In the interrim, civilization has collapsed and everything has changed. It's the same trick PS2 used to distance itself from the first game while maintaining basic continuity: since we don't get to witness the changes as they occur, we're thrust into unfamiliar territory once more even though it's the same world.

Chronologically, we've reached the early '90s here (1993 to be exact), and this is when RPGs took a turn for the better on the creative level. PS4 uses a number of interesting narrative techniques, such as a telescoping plot and a false protagonist, and it features a cast of distinct characters with individualized personalities. Sure, none of them are particularly complex, but they don't need to be - it's enough that we can see them as people rather than stick figures, and watch them interact with each other and the world around them. Diversity is also another big plus: at various points, your party will include a Dezolian priest, a Motavian axe-warrior, a Numan, two Espers (a male sorcerer and a female warrior) and a pair of androids. Easily the most varied bunch ever seen in a "Phantasy Star" game, leaning more towards the "band of misfits" archetype than homogenous adventurers.

The story begins with renowned huntress Alys Brangwin and her 16-year-old protege Chaz Ashley. On a routine assignment, the two accidentally stumble upon an impending planetary crisis; as their journey progresses and they gather up allies, the cause of Motavia's troubles seems to be Zio, a psychotic warlock out to destroy the world. But Zio is only the puppet of a darker power, concealed behind many masks and guises. The party must ultimately face a cosmic entity and end the cycle of violence and destruction that has plagued Algol for so long.

It's the very definition of the telescopic plot - starting small and local, and growing in scale with every plot twist until it ends on a global/galactic level. The key to success is having us get invested in each stage of the unfolding tale, and "Phantasy Star IV" achieves this largely through the likeable characters and their subplots. I think what makes them so compelling, despite a seeming lack of complexity, is the fact that most of them reflect basic human concerns: Gryz wants revenge but finds no reason to continue with the team once he gets it, Raja just wants to have fun, Kyra's out to prove herself to her peers, Rika's determined to test her lab-learned knowledge against life experience... and, of course, Chaz is forced to grow up and stand on his own. In fact, Chaz really surprises me towards the end of the game: when he's told of the cosmic battle between Light and Darkness, and is tasked to destroy the Darkness, Chaz refuses - not out of fear or an ulterior motive, but because following the commands of a disinterested metaphysical entity doesn't make him any different from Zio and Dark Force. It's a surprisingly profound point, worthy of the most sophisticated modern RPG.

While we're on the topic of characters, I have to give one last round of cookies to Sega; whatever problems I may have had with the "Phantasy Star" games, there's no question that I appreciate their concentrated contribution of strong female protagonists to the RPG genre. The fact that Alys Brangwin is a well-rounded, interesting figure in her own right is even more commendable.

The graphics are spectacular by "Phantasy Star" standards, showing full animations for spells and physical attacks while using illustrated manga-esque panels to enhance cutscenes. Everything is so much more dynamic here; this is the only game in the series where I didn't feel the need to disable random encounters, because they were genuinely fun to watch. Fun to play as well, which is another important note: after three wildly erratic games, "Phantasy Star IV" finally achieves the perfect balance of encounter frequency and difficulty. With the added incentive of macros (allowing the characters to execute pre-programmed attack sequences) and combination-attacks (where two or more party members combine their abilities to create more devastating techniques), you'll probably spend most of the game wanting to get into fights. The Hunters' Guild side-quests are also worth mentioning: during certain lulls in the quest, you can undertake some optional missions for Alys' and Chaz's guild, running the gamut from rescuing a dog to halting an invasion of cyborgs. Most of them are pretty fun, and you can get plenty of EXP and money per mission; again, it's the sort of level-building side-quest that's typical of modern RPGs, and "Phantasy Star IV" does it just as well as its contemporaries.

Nostalgia is a big part of PS4's emotional payload - and it's the little things that have the most power. Stepping into the Bio-Plant and being greeted by PS1's Tower theme; Rika being the perfected version of Nei; the wreckage of the worldship; Lashiec and Daughter representing the villains of the past; meeting Myau and Lutz; the statue of Alis in Termi (which provides the last frame of the finale); and, of course, the Elsydeon scene, where Chaz meets the heroes who came before him. There are also things the game doesn't explicitly spell out: for example, towards the end of the game you're sent to find the Aeroprism, which Lutz concealed in the Soldiers' Temple. Except he'd given it to Rolf before the Noah mission, which means someone made it back alive from the end of PS2 after all.

Of course, most of this won't mean anything to players who haven't gone through the first two games at the very least, which suggests to me that PS4 was primarily targeted at the pre-existing fanbase, offering as much closure and continuity as possible. It's a nice gesture, and one that serves to wrap up the "Phantasy Star" series at its peak.

On an unrelated note: this was my last review for the next few months, as "Sententia" goes on hiatus while I get married and make some life changes. I'll probably be incommunicado until March, but comments are welcome as always. :)

Monday, October 9, 2006

Comics Review: SBC

This post collects most of my reviews for Silver Bullet Comic Books, from April to October 2006.

Amazing Spider-Girl #0:

X-Men: Phoenix - Warsong #2:

Captain America #22:

Wetworks #1:

Wonder Woman #2:

Astonishing X-Men #16:

Martian Manhunter #1:

Y: The Last Man #48:

Jack of Fables #1:

Spider-Girl #100:

X-Men #188:

All-New Atom #1:

Uncanny X-Men #475:

Batman #654:

Astonishing X-Men #15:

Fables #50:

Exiles #82:

Hard Time #7:

Wonder Woman #1 (fourth one down):

Manifest Eternity #1:

Runaways #16:

Son of M #6:

X-Statix: Dead Girl #5:

Exiles #81:

X-Men: Fairy Tales #1:

Fables #49:

New X-Men #26:

Hard Time #6:

Exiles #79-80:

X-Factor #6:

Captain America #16-17:

Saturday, October 7, 2006

Diana's Adventures In TV Land: New Seasons

A bit late, because I've been waiting until all my marked series had at least one new episode out.

Veronica Mars: It's good to know Rob Thomas is so dependable when it comes to strong season premieres. For the third time in a row, "Veronica Mars" begins with a captivating episode that hits all the right marks: the teaser (re)introduces our titular protagonist and lets her demonstrate her sharp wit and formidable detective skills, and then we segue right into a fantastically well-written blend of mystery, snark and good old-fashioned drama. As always, Kristen Bell, Jason Dohring, Enrico Colantoni and Ryan Hansen deliver stellar performances, but special finger-snaps go to Tina Majorino and Chris Powell. The former rocked the hell out of the long-awaited Dick/Mac face-off without saying much of anything, and the latter portrayed newcomer Piz so adorably that my Maggie Beckett Syndrome didn't flare up at all ("Sliders" fans will peg the reference, I'm sure).

One quality that makes "Veronica Mars" stand out from its contemporaries is the fact that its creators learn from their mistakes. The "season-long mystery" format worked perfectly well in the first season, and not so well in the second - rather than risk failure again, the writers made the admirably bold decision to restructure the series as a sequence of smaller, more compact story arcs/mysteries. Also, last season saw the introduction of Jackie Cook, an obnoxious twit who ended up being so irrelevant I had to look up TWoP recaps just to remember her name. This time, Piz and Parker are presented as likeable and sympathetic from the moment we meet them. It's preferable to me wishing I could gnaw Tessa Jackson's face off week after week.

A minor complaint: I'm sick to death of the Fitzpatrick storyline. On the other hand, if this show were perfect it'd probably be cancelled by now, so I'll endure it. :)


Heroes: I'm a bit anxious here. Quite frankly, "Heroes" seems to be a very ambitious and interesting project, and I enjoyed the first two episodes very much... but I can't help thinking about the last ambitious and interesting project I liked. We all know how "Lost" turned out.

On the other hand, the distinct lack of J.J. is a big advantage, so who knows? I love what I've seen so far: an ecclectic mix of characters and powers, solid acting, inventive criss-crossing of subplots... and Santa, if you're listening, I want a talking Hiro doll for Christmas. :)

Bottom line: Cautiously high hopes. Let's wait and see what happens.


Smallville: Good lord, is this still running?! Times like this I wish I knew a "Summon Doomsday" spell. Oh, Dan Jurgens, if only you worked in TV and hadn't spent your Superman-killing mojo already...


Supernatural: Hmm. Okay, I think the premiere should have served as last season's finale, because it's all about the loose threads: the Colt of Contrivance, the John/Sam feud, and Dean's complicated feelings about death all serve to underscore and complete plot points raised in the first season. Things end in this episode, the protagonists are irrevocably changed, and that emotional climax would have made an excellent pre-summer farewell. As it stands, there's no time to really process what's happened: the first episode wraps things up and a week later, we get new beginnings, new recurring characters and a new perspective in the wake of tragedy.

I have to admit my sharkey-sense was tingling after the premiere - it occured to me that they might be setting up a "Sam isn't really Dean's brother" twist. Which is just dreadful. Granted, there's nothing to substantiate my faint hunch besides John knowing "the truth about Sam" and refusing to tell him; that just sends me shrieking into Soap Opera Land. Still, I'm reasonably convinced Eric Kripke and friends can do better than that, so I'm probably way off-base.

In any case, Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki are still devilishly pretty, and I remain fond of their characters, and Alona Tal's finally bringing some estrogen into the mix. I doubt anything short of ixnaying the aternalsfray will have me ditching "Supernatural" anytime soon.


Nip/Tuck: Every few months, I tune in and try to determine whether Christian and Sean have fucked yet. Sadly, that's about the only thing about "Nip/Tuck" that has me even mildly curious - sure, Julian McMahon spends a lot of time naked, but even his extreme rowr-ness can't get me to watch this crap on a regular basis.


Drawn Together: A recent discovery, though it's been around for a while. My boyfriend hates it with a fiery passion, but I just can't get enough of it! :) I love the central conceit - an animated parody of a reality TV show, complete with confessionals and the occasional challenge. I'm equally impressed by the many targets "Drawn Together" hits simultaneously: reality TV, superheroes, Pokemon-style anime, faded sex symbols, Hanna Barbera cartoons and effeminate video game characters (because you just know Mark Foley whacks off to pictures of Link from "The Legend of Zelda").

Sure, the humor can get very crass and revolting (especially when Spanky Ham is involved), and in that respect it's not dissimilar to "South Park". But the kids from "South Park" aren't particularly amusing - the humor derives from relatively normal kids in bizarre and abnormal situations. By contrast, the cast of "Drawn Together" is made up of some very hilarious analogues that have clearly been given some thought: Clara, for example, is a typical Disney Princess... except she's also a Christian fanatic and an ignorant racist, because of the environment in which she grew up (oh, and an evil witch turned her vagina into a tentacle monster). Captain Hero is strongly reminiscient of the Timm/Dini design for Superman, except he's a walking bundle of neuroses, masochistic tendencies and general idiocy. It's all very entertaining.

What's more, I was genuinely surprised by the degree of self-awareness: lesser writers would be content to trot out the stereotypes and walk away, but when Clara is sent out to stop a Jew from poisoning the well, she finds he's just tossing in water purification tablets. Critics who vilify the series for its offensive material miss the point - it's the Archie Bunker paradigm, we're supposed to ridicule the stereotypes themselves rather than the minorities they represent.

And being really, really funny certainly helps. :)


Lost: Yeah, right. Like I'd put myself through that again. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me three times, you get a dynamite suppository.

Thursday, October 5, 2006

Game Review: Phantasy Star III

Oy. kazekage was right; this one was a real bitch to play. Even cheating my butt off and fast-forwarding 95% of the time, I still came very close to quitting several times.

On every practical level - gameplay, characterization, music, visual design - "Phantasy Star III" is an enormous step down from its predecessor. This, in itself, isn't uncommon where game series are concerned: generally speaking, if they spike up they can drop down just as easily. And if "Phantasy Star III" were simply a lousy game, it wouldn't be such a big deal; the real problem is that, as Marlon Brando put it, "it coulda been a contender". I'm going to do something a little different this time, to demonstrate:

1. The Gimmick

Why it could have worked:
You don't see many multi-generational sagas in RPGs; "Phantasy Star III" follows Rhys, then Rhys' son, then his grandson, three generations of a family undergoing various quests, all of which are connected to the Dark Force (primary antagonist of the "Phantasy Star" series). You'd have three self-contained tales which all interconnect to form a larger tapestry. What's more, the game allows you to determine how Rhys' bloodline evolves, by letting you choose who Rhys should marry - and, at a later point in the game, who his son should marry. The choice of wife/mother determines who the next-generation protagonist will be. Thus, you actually have six different games in one (the two possible sons of Rhys, and the four possible third-generation heroes). With distinct storylines and characterizations, replay value would be extremely high.

Why it didn't work: There's no characterization at all - the main characters might as well be the sodding Light Warriors for all we know about them. As a result, you're not really inclined to care who should marry whom, since there's no basis for any kind of romantic tension; imagine if "Final Fantasy VII" had given its players the choice to pair Cloud with either Tifa or Aeris. People still debate about that triangle today. But since character interaction is non-existent in "Phantasy Star III", you reach the point of choosing a wife without any reason to pick one or another at all. To make things worse, the third-generation storylines are way too similar, so it ultimately doesn't matter how you manipulate the family line - a monumental waste of a very clever device.


2. The Big Twist

Why it could have worked:
From the very beginning, it's clear that the world of "Phantasy Star III" doesn't quite fit with its predecessors; the environment is distinctly medieval, with princesses being abducted by dragons and held captive in ancient castles. In fact, there's not a hint of technology in sight... until you're called upon to travel from your world to an adjoining planet, and the passages connecting the worlds look like something out of "Tron". Nevertheless, besides a single name-check of the Dark Force, there doesn't seem to be any tangible connection to the "Phantasy Star" universe; the mythologies are all wrong, you're clearly not in the Algol system, and no prior characters make an appearance. Then the truth is revealed: the planets you've visited are sections of a thousand-year-old worldship, the Alisa III, carrying the descendants of the survivors of Palma (the planet destroyed towards the end of "Phantasy Star II"). It's an excellent twist, because it accounts for every single anomaly: the medieval environment is due to Palman civilization being "rebooted", which also explains the wildly different history that shapes the plot. This revelation undermines our whole perception of the game reality - a twist worthy of the Wachowski brothers.

Why it didn't work: I actually think this is the only aspect of the game that turned out right; granted, the dramatic effect is diminished by the fact that you're not really invested in events due to bland storylines and persona-non-grata characters, but it's still a big surprise and a clever, pleasant link to the previous games.


3. The Multiple Endings

Why it could have worked:
This one's self-explanatory; multiple endings grant the player a certain amount of control over an otherwise-linear storyline. You'll come back for more if the outcome promises to be different.

Why it didn't work: Except the outcome isn't really different. Aside from the fact that the four endings are painfully abbreviated and anticlimactic, they're also very, very similar. In fact, two of them are practically identical, with the same sequence of events and the same dialogue (the only difference is the presence of a black hole in one and a sun in the other). What's more, only one of the four makes any kind of sense in the context of the series: in Aron's ending, the Alisa III goes through a black hole and emerges near Earth, thousands of years in the past. Though the sequence itself ends there, the implication is clear: the people of Earth make contact with Alisa III, are exposed to Dark Force, and use Palman technology to create Noah and Mother Brain (as seen in "Phantasy Star II"), all part of Dark Force's plan to return to Algol. History comes full circle. Sadly, none of the other endings invite even this amount of speculation: one ending simply promises that the people of Alisa III will fight Dark Force again in a thousand years, while the other two announce the intent to settle on Earth in the present (and anyone who knows how PS2 ends knows they're not going to find anything there). At the end of the day, you're not rewarded for a second or third playthrough; instead, you're left feeling incredibly stupid that you went to all the trouble for nothing.


4. Visual Design

Why it could have worked:
even though there's a considerable gap between "Phantasy Star" and "Phantasy Star II", you're still broadly in the same solar system, visiting the same planets. The Alisa III, by contrast, is a completely new world, something we've never seen before. Quite frankly, the creators had an opportunity here to construct an appealing, engaging fantasy world on their own terms.

Why it didn't work: They didn't. Not only do the worlds of Alisa III look more or less the same, they're comprised of huge, sprawling maps that are empty. You can walk for fifteen minutes in any given direction and never find the slightest trace of your next destination. And it's not just on the level of the world maps themselves: all the towns on all the worlds follow the same visual design, including the very confusing shop signs which make no fucking sense: why does the Armor Shop have a picture of a duck over its door? Why is the Inn's logo an urn? Why is it that the icon for executing a turn in a battle menu is a crank key and a fish? It's all horrendously abstract and arbitrary, all the more outrageous given the clean and ordered designs "Phantasy Star II" had sported.


I could go on, but the point remains the same: "Phantasy Star III" is a sloppy, shoddy mess, all the more condemned for the many ways it could have succeeded with the tiniest amount of effort.

Tuesday, October 3, 2006

Movie Review: The 24th Day

Bloody hell, that was one of the most intense films I've ever seen.

Enormous props and kudos to Tony Piccirillo, who weaves together a minimal, yet irresistably compelling story with only two men and a sealed room. The real strength of his script lies in its theatricality - I wasn't surprised to learn that "The 24th Day" originated on stage (Piccirillo also authored the original play), because all the emotional impact is concentrated in the dialogue between protagonists Dan and Tom. Minor excursions aside, the entire narrative is an extended conversation between the two men, going back and forth as a verbal manifestation of the power play between them. That sort of thing plays out extremely well in theatre.

The premise is, at once, delightfully simple and marvelously complex. Dan is lured to Tom's apartment with the promise of a one-night stand, only to learn that he'd slept with Tom in a drunk stupor five years ago. Now Tom has HIV and is convinced Dan gave it to him, so he takes Dan hostage and sends a vial of stolen blood to a lab for testing. In 48 hours, the results will arrive: if Dan has the virus, Tom will kill him. If Dan's clean, he goes free. This is the framework for everything that follows; as they wait for the results, Dan tries to talk his way out of his situation while Tom vacillates between dissecting Dan's life and slowly unraveling his own.

The script is tremendously clever, both on the macro and micro levels: in one scene, for example, Tom reveals a childhood wish to be an archaeologist, even as he digs at Dan to expose buried truths. Big-picture-wise, Piccirillo's characters are multi-layered enigmas who deceive each other and themselves, and you're never sure what they actually believe about themselves: is Dan really so sure that he automatically uses a condom when he has sex? Why did Tom sleep with Dan in the first place? The ambiguities and contradictions make us feel like Tom: we want to tie them both up and demand the truth, the pure truth, regardless of the fact that we can't verify anything at all. It's a poignant, engaging tale of revenge and desire and lies, and it all builds to a spectacular final scene that drives home the emotional climax. That, right there, is art, pure storytelling mojo.

The film adaptation stars James Marsden as Dan and Scott Speedman as Tom. I'm familiar with both actors from past works - Marsden from the X-Men films and "Heights", Speedman from "Felicity" and "Underworld". Needless to say, I didn't have very high expectations from either of them. The good news is that Speedman threw me for a loop; he plays Tom as this delightful mix of psychotic detachment, crushing despair and the tiniest sliver of lust, as if - despite everything - part of him still wants Dan. And his line delivery is laser-precise; when he tells Dan "Nothing else matters to me; if it comes back positive, I'm gonna kill you", I literally got goosebumps. Who knew he could do that? And why doesn't he do that more often?

Unfortunately, Marsden was the wrong choice for Dan. It's basically the same complaint I had about his character in "Heights" and his portrayal of Cyclops: the role requires someone with a degree of flexibility, an actor who can convincingly go from murderous to desperate to terrified and back, and Marsden is just too statuesque for something like that. I'll give him the backhanded compliment that he's not quite as "rigor mortis" here as he's been in the other films I mentioned - odd, considering "The 24th Day" was filmed after X2 and before "Heights" - but to make Dan's character work, you need someone with natural charisma, someone who can confuse the viewer into believing what he says. Ewan McGregor could've done it, or maybe even Noah Wyle (who played Dan in the original theatre production), but Marsden is transparent; if you look hard enough, you can tell when Dan is lying, which makes Tom's "interrogation" a bit pointless. Also, the closing scenes require someone who can hit those emotional high notes in rapid succession; Marsden gives it a good try, but the poor dear just doesn't win me over.

Still, I don't think a bit of spotty acting is enough to really bring this movie down a notch; in my opinion, it's definitely worth watching.