10 April 2014

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

Been a while since I played an entirely new video game, largely because I've been working my way through the Mass Effect trilogy, which has turned out to be a fairly lengthy undertaking. I decided to to take a little break from it, though, and played Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons.

This is quirky little indie adventure game from Swedish developer Starbreeze Studios. Two young brothers in a medieval fantasy world set out to find a cure for their ill father. Their journey takes them through a variety of strange places. Most of which seem to be in a fairly ramshackle state and difficult to navigate through...

The characters all speak in a made-up language, and the story's relatively simple. Starting out, it looks like a pretty light-hearted, non-violent adventure game. Be warned, though, towards the end the story gets pretty grim and emotional, as the brothers encounter their share of destruction and death along the way. Can't say much without spoilers, but some of the twists actually managed to surprise me.

For a fairly small indie game, Brothers looks really nice, with its grand landscapes and whatnot. Music's pretty cool and atmospheric, too. The gameplay is largely puzzle based, with a twist: you control both brothers simultaneously, one with each analogue stick, using the left and right trigger buttons to make the characters interact with the environment. And that's it. Controlling two characters at once can be a little disorienting at first, but you get the hang of it.

The puzzles honestly aren't very hard. Certain sequences require fairly precise timing, but once you get into the swing of things, the game progresses pretty smoothly. I found it pretty fun and relaxing, overall. It's not a long game, I played it through in just a couple sittings. Since the game is highly linear and puzzle based, and not particularly challenging, I'm not sure it really has a whole lot of replay value, though... Still a fun experience, though, for anyone who likes fantasy and adventure games. Nothing much more to say.

7 April 2014

New Things, New Games, New Experiences

Been very lazy with my bloggings lately. Nothing really major going on in my life, but several little titbits I probably should write about. Starting a new Tumblr, subscribing to PlayStation Plus, trying games I never thought I'd play...

1. First of all, I've been trying to rework my daily routines in an effort to be more productive (I'm not sure it's actually helped much yet, but it's a gradual progress). One thing I'm trying is starting my days with a little gaming, to relax and invigorate me for the day to come, and perhaps also in order to have a regular timeslot for gaming that wouldn't have to compete with other hobbies. Then I came upon the idea that perhaps I should write some kind of journal about my experiences. So I started a new Tumblr page for this purpose, which I'm calling Ben's Breakfast Battles. (Why Tumblr? I felt this should be separate from my other outlets, and Tumblr seemed like a relatively light weight system for writing and sharing these short posts.)

2. In today's post I received the Iron Sky Director's Cut Blu-ray. It's a 'limited edition steelbook' version, signed by director Timo Vuorensola, to boot. (This was part of a merchandise package I bought last year when they were crowdfunding the production of the Iron Sky sequel.) But perhaps the real blogworthy news here is that this is, believe it or not, my first ever Blu-ray movie. Even though I've had a PS3 and HD TV for many years already, I've still heavily favoured DVDs when buying movies and TV shows. There are some simple reasons for this. Firstly, DVDs have been, and I think still are, cheaper than Blu-rays. Secondly, not every location I regularly watch movies and shows at (namely some family members) still has a Blu-ray player, and I want to keep my options for when and where I watch open. Even when that changes, price will still be major factor, although I might be more willing to look at the alternatives.

3. I have been watching a lot of gaming streams lately, particularly by LoadingReadyRun and Day[9]. (Well, a lot of these I've watched on YouTube, because the time zone difference makes catching most streams live hard at best.) It's interesting to see games I haven't played and (often) am not likely to play. Sometimes watching stuff like this might even inspire me to try new games and genres. (See below. And as I mentioned in an earlier post, watching Hearthstone footage was partially to blame for my rediscovered interest in Magic: The Gathering.) And a good, engaging streamer can make it really entertaining, too.

4. Perhaps somewhat related to the previous, I've been thinking about my options for new games to play, once I'm through with my current playthrough of the Mass Effect trilogy. There's a bunch of games that I'd like to try out, but I have limited money to use and a lot of these games are still pretty pricey. So somehow I found myself once again looking at PlayStation Plus. I have scoffed at the idea before, and I am, generally speaking, not a big fan of subscription based services in most fields. I'd much rather just buy an item and be done with it. But here's the reasoning that finally made me cave in and buy a three month subscription, to try it out. The 'meat' of Plus membership, I think, is the selection of 'free' games you can download. Even if you'd only play a few games that way during, say, a year's membership, I guess you've pretty much got your money's worth. Still, I'd much rather have games on disc than download games I can use only as long as I'm a subscriber. What sold me was the idea that the games I'd be downloading, for the most part, probably aren't games I would normally buy. If I'm spending money on a specific game, I kinda want it to be something I know I'm likely to enjoy, like a new title in a favourite series. There'll be less experimentation, which I'm hoping these downloadable games will inspire more of. (The ability to back up save files in the cloud is an additional bonus. Wish I'd had that last autumn when my old PS3 broke down...)

5. The first PlayStation Plus member game I downloaded from the PSN store, once I'd signed up, just yesterday, was... dramatic drumroll... XCOM: Enemy Unknown. This was inspired by Cam Lauder playing the game (well, technically the expansion, Enemy Within, but that wasn't available to download) on the LoadingReadyRun channel. Now, I never played the original classic UFO: Enemy Unknown, nor do I have a lot of experience in general with tactical games, so this is entirely new territory for me. I'm sure I'll write more once I've had a chance to play more.

11 March 2014

First Steps of a Planeswalker 2: Cubed

So I haven't had a chance to actually play yet since my recent post about buying new Magic: The Gathering cards. But Magic has been much on my mind, and I'm gradually preparing things for when I actually do get around to playing. Among those things is building some decks, of course. (For my first deck, the pool of cards I had led me to choose green-white. But I might write more about that if and when I actually play with it...) Today, however, I'm writing about something different...

As I've said before, one of the things I love about Magic is the variety of formats. Limited play is... interesting, but not something I'm necessarily very keen on, as such. I don't want to purchase new boosters every time I want to play. And I'm not that crazy about making decisions on the spot, like when drafting cards. (Drafting, for newbies, is when you open boosters and each player in turn picks cards to build their decks with.) However, cube draft is a whole other matter. Ever since I heard about it, it's been something I thought I might like to do some day.

What is a cube? Here's what WotC's page on casual Magic formats says: 'To prepare for this format, a player ... prepares a "cube"—a specifically selected set of at least 360 different Magic cards. ... Once the cube has been built, you can use it for any draft format. The most popular option is to build makeshift "booster packs" out of 15 randomly selected cards from the cube and then run a regular Booster Draft.'

One of the obvious pros of cube play is that everyone doesn't need to have their own decks, and it also places players more or less on the same level (although knowing the cards in the set will of course be an advantage when drafting).

I didn't imagine this would be something I'd do very soon, since obviously it's something that requires a reasonable number of cards to get started with, and creating a balanced set of hundreds of cards wouldn't exactly be easy. I toyed around with some ideas about what might make a fun, cheap, easy to make cube. But, as it happens, an opportunity presented itself. I took a little peek at what a local online auction website had in way of Magic cards, and one thing that caught my eye was a guy selling a complete set of four each of all the common cards from the Theros expansion (that's a total of 404 cards), for what I felt was a pretty reasonable price.

Initially I wasn't that interested in buying just common cards. But then it struck me: what I had here was basically an instant cube. Since it was a complete set of cards from a single expansion, it was bound to be pretty well balanced, and it would obviously be highly themed and flavourful. A playable set of cards with next to no work building it. Sure, it's not the most creative way to make a cube (a format that lends itself to almost limitless possibilities), but it was easy and affordable.

OK, so currently it's a pauper cube (i.e. it only has common cards), and has a somewhat limited number of individual cards (101 total). I might consider some day expanding it with uncommons from the same set, or even cards from the other Theros block expansions. But I think it should be fun to experiment with already as it currently stands.

That's it for now. Maybe next time I write about Magic, I'll have actually had a chance to play it...

3 March 2014

First Steps of a Planeswalker: Rediscovering Magic

Well, the last month was kinda slow, blogging-wise. But of course there's always something going on. The last week in particular was quite busy and interesting. I got to see Within Temptation live. It was a great experience. There was a BioShock Marathon, benefiting Child's Play Charity, by the g33kWatch team, which kept me glued to my computer for much of the weekend. It was a lot of fun, like previous g33kWatch events (and boy am I pretty tired after it).

But the thing that's probably most worthy of a blog post is my growing interest in Magic: The Gathering.

A month ago I blogged about trying out the video game version, Duels of the Planeswalkers. Since then, I found myself reading more about Magic—its history, lore, the variety of formats etc. I also started watching related material on YouTube. One of the first shows that hooked me was Friday Nights by LoadingReadyRun. This is a semi-fictional comedy series about the LRR team's experiences playing Magic. (Here's a YouTube playlist.) (The team also does a video podcast called TapTapConcede, where they open booster packs and discuss various aspects of the game—pretty entertaining.)

(I must admit I wasn't familiar with LoadingReadyRun before. I have since watched a lot of their other material as well, though. But that's an unrelated story.)

OK, so through all this, my interest in the game and its various formats was steadily growing. There's so much depth and variety to the game. I was approaching a point where buying some news cards was pretty much inevitable, even though I wasn't sure how much chance I would have to actually play, so I mentioned my interest to a few friends (some with past experience, some newcomers potentially interested—none of them currently active players, afaik), and last week me and a couple of them finally got around to visiting one of the local gaming stores.

I wanted a decent, but reasonably affordable, pool of cards to start with. What I ended up buying was a Deck Builder's Toolkit and a Fat Pack of the latest expansion set, Born of the Gods (I might've actually preferred a Theros Fat Pack, since it's the first set of the current expansion block, but the store didn't have them in stock). Let me walk you through these products briefly.

The Deck Builder's Toolkit is a pretty good product for novice players. It features 100 basic land cards, 125 'semi-randomized cards' and four booster packs. In the current (2014) version of the box, the cards appear to be drawn from the 2014 core set and the Return to Ravnica expansion block.

Fat Packs contain nine booster packs of the set in question, together with 80 basic lands, a custom d20 (for use as a life counter), a 'Player's Guide' booklet covering core concepts of the set (with a complete card list), and a decent looking cardboard card box.

Now, a Fat Pack is priced at almost twice the price of a Deck Builder's Toolkit, but actually contains a little less cards. There are reasons for this, I guess. Except for the boosters, the cards in the Toolkit are all commons and uncommons. You'll get more rares (and potentially mythic rares) in a Fat Pack. And even though the Toolkit states that 'no two toolkits are alike', the bulk of the cards are only 'semi-randomized'. I expect it's probably not really worthwhile buying multiple Deck Builder's Toolkits, unless you really need the land cards or a lot of commons for something (like, say, building a cube).

Even a Fat Pack is probably not something you'll be buying very often, since it costs a little more than just the boosters. Unless, again, you need the lands. The booklet is a neat thing to have, I'd like one for every expansion out there, but it alone doesn't quite justify the extra cost.

I haven't been through my cards very thoroughly yet. I did check what my rares where, of course, but alas, no really expensive cards there, I think. Should still be some interesting stuff in there for playing, of course. The art and design of the cards is quite high quality. The aesthetics, I think, have come a long way since the 90s, when I last bought Magic cards. I think I already have more cards in total here than I ever had back then. Like I've said before, I never really got into the game then. Of course I still have those old cards, too. There may be some in there that could be useful for some decks. But I think for my first decks I'll favour the new cards.

Speaking of different decks, one aspect that fascinates me about Magic is the variety of formats (that is, different rules variations for building decks, playing with different numbers of people, etc). I'd definitely like to try Commander, or building a cube for drafting. These types of play probably require a little more cards to get started with than I currently own, though. I would also be very interested in trying some kind of co-operative play.

So, next up, I should try to figure out some kind of sensible deck from the cards I have. Not exactly a small task, even with the fairly limited pool, when I'm hardly familiar with the cards. And hopefully some day I'll get a chance to actually play as well...

4 February 2014

Hydra (Album Review)

I rather enjoyed Within Temptation's 2011 album, The Unforgiving. It had a fresh feel to it, perhaps a touch more 'rock' than some of the band's previous albums. (Not that I don't enjoy their other works as well. I think they have actually been rather growing on me over the last couple years.)

But now the band's new album, Hydra, is out. I pre-ordered it already last year, and it finally arrived yesterday. So, let's dive in!

First of all, I really love the case. I have the two disc mediabook version of the album. The cover image is simple but quite elegant, greyscale with silvery lettering. It features a 100 page booklet! OK, so most of it is just tour photos that, honestly, don't really add that much value for me. But still. I'm sure I've mentioned before how much I love albums as physical objects, and this one is certainly right up my proverbial alley.

But on to the music itself. The Unforgiving was, in some ways, perhaps the most focused work Within Temptation had made. This was probably largely because it was sort of a concept album, with a tie-in comic book series. Hydra is perhaps a little more varied (which is apparently where the album's name comes from, as well), and one immediately noticeable element is that it features guest vocalists on several tracks. Previously the album The Heart of Everything had featured a guest appearance by Keith Caputo on 'What Have You Done', but Hydra obviously takes this aspect to a whole new level. Some of the guests are more obvious than others...

When female fronted 'symphonic metal' began to gain popularity in the late 90s, two bands in the forefront of the movement were Within Temptation and Nightwish. So it seems kinda fitting that ex-Nightwish singer Tarja Turunen appears on the track 'Paradise (What About Us?)'. Howard Jones and Dave Pirner, appearing on 'Dangerous' and 'Whole World Is Watching', respectively, are less familiar to me, but they perform their parts well enough and the songs are pretty good. The most surprising and experimental guest is probably rapper Xzibit on 'And We Run'. Now, I'm not a fan of rap music or hip hop, but, strangely enough, I quite like that song.

What with the variety of guests and the apparent lack of focus compared to the previous album, I really didn't know what to expect when first listening to the album. But, as it turned out, I was fairly pleased with what I heard, and I've now listened to the album several times over the last couple days. I'm not too good at analysing musical style, or comparing it to an artist's other works. There seems to be a little of the freshness and drive of The Unforgiving, but the symphonic metal background is strongly present, as well. Interestingly, the album also features a little bit of grunting on one or two tracks, something Within Temptation hasn't done much since their debut album. There are catchy fast numbers, and pretty slow numbers. Sharon's vocals are as good as ever. A nice and entertaining mix, overall, I think.

Lyrically, there seems to be an overall theme of living in the moment and taking chances. To be honest, the lyrics have never been the main attraction of Within Temptation for me, and I don't necessarily always pay them all that much heed. But I have no complaints.

The bonus CD features four covers from artists I don't really know, somewhat more pop-oriented and unexpected choices (like an Enrique Iglesias number), but they're fairly entertaining. It also features several 'evolution tracks' that contain experts from different stages of a particular song's development. This, honestly, seems pretty pointless to me. I might listen to them once, but that's it; there's no reason I'd want to listen to little excerpts from songs over and over again. A full alternate version of a song might have been marginally more interesting, but much rather I'd just have all new material.

So, bottom line, I liked Hydra, and I'm glad to have pre-ordered it. That's pretty much the only thing that really needs to be said.

29 January 2014

Magic Revisited: Duels of the Planeswalkers First Impressions

So here's a series of events.

1. Last autumn, the Geek & Sundry YouTube channel premiered Spellslingers, a show featuring Magic: The Gathering. I wrote a blog post about it, and other competitive games, back then.

2. That show introduced me to Sean 'Day[9]' Plott, who has his own YouTube channel, focused on StarCraft II, but also featuring other video games.

3. In a moment of boredom, looking for random content on YouTube to watch, I ended up watching some videos on Day[9]'s channel. Some of the most interesting I found to be his videos of HearthStone: Heroes of Warcraft. This, as you might know, is a collectible card game video game spin-off of World of Warcraft by Blizzard (jeez, what a sentence). As far as CCGs go, it looks like a fairly fun, light, fast game.

4. Of course HearthStone won't run on any of my devices, me being a die-hard GNU/Linux user and console gamer. But, strangely enough, I found myself curious about the genre. This often happens when I'm exposed to things, even if, on some level, I know it's really not 'my thing'.

5. The ultimate, the original CCG is, of course, Magic: The Gathering. Like I wrote in the blog post I linked above, I played a little back in the 90s, but never really got into it. But looking at potential CCG style video games, one that popped up was Magic: The Gathering: Duels of the Planeswalkers. I eventually decided to give the latest game in the series (Duels of the Planeswalkers 2014—the fourth incarnation of the game to date) a shot. (The fact that it had a free trial for PS3 helped that decision along, somewhat. But I bought the game pretty soon after trying it.)

OK, so on to the main part of this post, my first impressions of Duels of the Planeswalkers 2014.

One of the first things to note is that, unlike its material world counterpart, Duels of the Planeswalkers isn't really a collectible card game. You play with preconstructed decks. As you play, you unlock new decks to play with, and also new cards for the deck you're playing with. But overall your options are relatively limited.

Going in, I was a little sceptical about how playable a sophisticated card game like Magic: The Gathering would be with a game controller. But I must admit I was a little surprised by how intuitive the controls were in the end. Just use the left analogue stick to pick cards (switching between only the relevant set of cards, like your hand, or your creatures when you're attacking/blocking), use a shoulder button to zoom into a card, cross button to play it, etc...

Some downsides to the game too, though. I think a card game should be something you can jump into quickly and easily, to just kill a little time with. Playing the game on a console somewhat defeats that purpose. Having to start up your console (and TV) means it's not really something you do on a whim. And even after that, this game is incredibly slow to start. Like, seriously, one of the slowest loading games I've ever played on the PS3. And it's a friggin' card game, hardly the most visually impressive thing out there. Not that it doesn't look pretty decent, there's a lot of cool card art prettying up the load screens and such. But still. Also, the game only runs in 720p. You'd think that with a game that's relatively simple visually, but contains a lot of text on cards and stuff, they'd want to make it as crisp and clear as possible...

There's a relatively short single player campaign, with a very superficial storyline. Better than nothing, I guess... I'm still working my way through it, though I've only got a few matches left. I'm not sure how much longevity the game will have after this. I've never been interested in online gaming. I'm pretty convinced I would just lose all the time to non-AI opponents. 'Cause, seriously, I'm just crap at anything requiring serious skill or fast thinking. It is, however, a relatively affordable game, so I can't really begrudge the somewhat limited content.

It is, I must admit, kinda fun to be playing Magic: The Gathering again after all these years. It is, after all, one of the truly classic geek gaming franchises out there. Something of a change of pace, too, after the action games and RPGs I mostly play. If Duels of the Planeswalkers only captured the collecting aspect of the game a little better, it could be a real gem. But for its price, it's not a bad game. There's still some interesting stuff to come, game modes I haven't tried and such. I'll just have to see how long it can keep up my interest...

20 January 2014

A Passion of a Lifetime: 40 Years of D&D and the Role-Playing Game Industry

It is the 40th anniversary of the publication of the mother of all cult games, Dungeons & Dragons!

Well, not today per se, but now-ish. There exists, to the best of my knowledge, no precise date recorded for when the game first went on sale, but it's believed to be around January 1974 (see, for example, this blog).

D&D, of course, kick-started the whole tabletop role-playing game phenomenon. The impact this had on geekdom in general, and for me personally, has of course been, well, phenomenal. So the anniversary is about much more than a single game, it's about an entire hobby and industry.

RPGs have, of course, come a long way since those original D&D rules (as has D&D itself). The variety out there for gamers to choose from is simply staggering, from highly technical miniatures based games to creative, free form storytelling games. But they all can be traced back to this one box and its three little booklets of rules.

Who would I be without RPGs? I honestly have no idea. They have been one of my most important hobbies, if not the most important, since I was a teenager. Particularly important is that it's a social hobby. I, as an introvert, have precious few social outlets in my life that I feel comfortable with. If it weren't for RPGs, I'm not sure I'd ever really meet anyone face to face.

I game mastered one of my own campaigns just yesterday. Next weekend I'll be playing in a friend's long running campaign. Neither is a D&D game, and stylistically probably pretty far from the early days of the game. But in a couple weeks I'll be running my Pathfinder game again as well, which is of course a direct descendant of those original rules. Variety is the spice of life, they say. And there are few hobbies with more potential for variety.

I know I'll be playing RPGs for a long, long time to come. Thank you, Gygax and Arneson. It was indeed, as Gygax once wrote in a letter, 'a reallu superp game'.

6 January 2014

That Time I Took Mass Effect on the Road

Oh hey, so 2013 happened. Not a whole lot to say about it. No really dramatic changes in my little universe. Did a reasonable amount of gaming (though probably could've done more, if I wasn't such a lazy sod).

For me, it was, perhaps most of all, the year of Mass Effect. Technically it begun already in late 2012, but over the last year I played a lot of Mass Effect, and enjoyed other related activities, as documented in this blog. But here's one more entry to add to the list.

I bought the mobile game Mass Effect: Infiltrator already last summer, in preparation of several weeks spent away from home (and my dear consoles), but I never got around to playing it. I just spent a week at the family's country house again, and, particularly as I'm currently re-playing the Mass Effect trilogy on PS3, I figured it was about time I gave it a try. (And oh yeah, 2013 was of course my first year with a smartphone. How did I ever survive without one?)

Randall Ezno is a operative for the shady paramilitary organization called Cerberus. He returns from a mission to find things at his base are amiss, and... Well, I won't spoil the plot. There's not really a whole lot of it. The 'proper' Mass Effect games are famous for their plots and dialogue, but Infiltrator is more of a straightforward action game. You don't get much choice about the main character or how the story develops. It's not a lengthy game, either. I easily played through it over my holiday week, and while I can't quote an exact time, it's not like I spent hours gaming every day.

The action emulates the style of the main games, of course, meaning it's a shooting game with emphasis on the use of cover, except you don't have any support from squad members. You don't get experience points, but you get credits you can use to improve your weapons and special abilities. And you can replay earlier missions in order to get more credits, which was handy as a few fights a little way into the game proved kinda tough for me.

The touch screen controls were... OK, I guess. Took a little getting used to, obviously. You target enemies simply be tapping on them, and move between covers by swiping in a particular direction. Actual running around using touch controls is a little awkward, of course, but since you spend much of the time behind cover, it's not as big an issue as in some mobile games. One thing I noticed, however, was that after an intense session my hands and wrists would be aching pretty bad. I do much prefer a decent traditional game controller.

The graphics looked pretty OK for a phone game, in my mind, but it still ran fairly smoothly on my no longer quite state of the art Galaxy S II. When it ran, that is. The game crashed multiple times over my playthrough. Which is never good, of course. And there were occasional other glitches, too. Like in one boss fight, a large portion of the boss kept disappearing, rendering it incapable of either damaging or being damaged....

Battery life is always an issue with mobile gaming, and this game was no exception. It's not something you actually want to do while literally 'on the road'. You want to know pretty well when and where your next opportunity for a charge is.

Overall, I didn't think Mass Effect: Infiltrator was a particularly great game. It didn't have a great deal of depth, the battles and environments were kinda repetitive, it was fairly short, and there were numerous crashes and glitches. But for a phone game, I guess it's a decently entertaining title. Certainly there is space in the Mass Effect universe for many more stories than what the main trilogy tells, and, despite all its simplicity, Infiltrator is still a Mass Effect game. Now that I'm back home, however, I can't wait to get back to my playthrough of Mass Effect 2...

20 December 2013

On Re-Visiting a Beloved Universe, and the Lasting Repercussions of a Console Breakdown

This is mostly a test to see if this post goes through to Facebook without problems. 'Cause my previous one didn't. I use twitterfeed.com to automate posting new blog posts to social networks. Apparently, however, Facebook has recently changed so that connections with apps are only valid for a couple months and must then be manually reconnected. Which is obviously a pain in the arse. And also impossible to remember to do. You don't remember such a thing until your latest post suddenly fails to show up in your news feed as expected... Yeah yeah, Facebook sucks, so what else is new?

Maybe I'll take this opportunity to write a quick update about my gaming. Earlier this autumn I wrote about the tragic death of my PS3. Some time ago I finally got my hands on a replacement, albeit a used one. (Probably almost as old my broken console. But I got it pretty cheap.) I was still playing FFX then on PS2 so it took me a little time to start gaming with it, but here I am again.

Last summer I'd begun replaying the Mass Effect trilogy and had worked my way through the first part before being sidetracked by holidays and other games. Now I was finally getting anxious to get back to the series again. Only trouble was, my old save files were (and still are) on the broken PS3. Which means that they are basically inaccessible without getting the console repaired. Yeah, maybe I should have done backups occasionally...

Anyone who's played the trilogy will know that decisions you make in one game can affect events in later games. Now, I could have begun ME2 with the 'default' options. In fact I did. However, almost the first sentence spoken was contrary to my experience in the first game. My brain just couldn't cope with that. So I quit, and popped in the first game and have now been playing it over the last couple weeks. Again.

I'm getting pretty far into the game now, and even though this is my third playthrough in just a little over a year, I'm still enjoying it a lot. And I can't wait to replay the other two parts. They should feel pretty new and exciting after a couple playthroughs of the first game. All in all, these games should keep me busy for a good while yet.

Assuming this PS3 holds up, that is...

Why a Witch in the 21st Century? (A Few Yuletide Thoughts on Faith)

Tomorrow is the day of the winter solstice, and the Wiccan sabbat commonly known as Yule. Yule is about the rebirth of the sun, the first step of the long journey towards spring and summer. It's about the cycles of nature, the seasons, birth and death. These are fairly universal ideas associated with midwinter celebrations in many cultures.

Naturally this has me thinking about spiritual matters again. And I've also been sharing my thoughts a little more openly, for anyone who might find such things interesting. Living life out of the 'broom cupboard'. Below is a little more about my personal history and feelings on religion. If such matters don't interest you, that's fine. I wish you a good midwinter, however you choose to mark it!

Earlier this year I wrote at some length about my religious background and current feelings on the topic. But obviously there are many questions that remain unanswered, and many viewpoints one could discuss the topic from. (I mean, we are talking about religion, probably the most written about and debated topic of the entire history of mankind...)

The big questions are the whys. Why any religion in general? Why Wicca in particular?

I tried to go a little way towards answering that in the previous post, but basically my answer boiled down to 'I happened to read about it and it appealed to me'. Let's see if I can go into this with just a little more depth.

First of all, how it happened. This was many years ago, so I don't really remember all the details perfectly. I think it sort of began with buying my first tarot deck. I believe I was contemplating some RPG rules at the time and thought tarot cards might make an interesting alternative to dice (the rules were never really completed, though, and I soon abandoned them). This, however, naturally led to wanting to learn a little more about tarot, which eventually led to the local library's occult section. That is where I also encountered books on Wicca. On a whim I decided to check them out.

By this time I was already a big fan of Buffy. And there were many other things with witches and so-called Wiccans in popular culture. I think that pop culture image of witchcraft actually had made me somewhat wary of the topic. I didn't want to look like I was getting into something just because cool shows were referring to it. But once I actually started reading about Wicca, I soon discovered it had pretty much nothing to do with its pop culture counterparts. Shows like Buffy have basically used the word simply as a synonym for 'witch', and usually have very little if anything to do with the religion of the same name. (Nothing really wrong with that, just an important distinction to be aware of.)

Which leads us to another important topic. Throughout my life, if there has been one thing that I really am, that I really identify as, it is a geek. Above all else, I love fantasy. From Tolkien to Buffy to Final Fantasy to... a myriad works of imagination, many of them drawing upon the myths of ages past. Now, we all know there are certain religious fundamentalists out there preaching the evil of fantasy. Frequently books are blamed as gateways to witchcraft. Of course to these people witchcraft is synonymous with evil and Satan, a stance I obviously strongly disagree with. But is there a kernel of truth there about the connection of fantasy and witchcraft?

Naturally I'd like to think my religion is about just me and my relationship with the universe. But I think it would be naive to claim my decades of love for fantasy hadn't made me more inclined to find interest in a religion laced with mythology, mysticism and the occult. I'm obviously not saying you need to like fantasy in order to be Wiccan, or vice versa, but I suspect there is likely a little more overlap in these two fields than between many other genres and religions.

Even if when starting out popular culture might have made me a little wary, I think in more recent years I've come to embrace it as an inspiration rather than hindrance. So many works of popular culture are among the things I love most in this world, it would be foolish not to draw inspiration from them. So what if they're not always historically accurate or even remotely realistic? That's really not the point. It's about the emotions they instil. These are things that are much more present in most our lives than any ancient deities. It's inevitable that influence should bleed into many other aspects of life, including spirituality. There certainly should be no shame in it.

But why Wicca in particular among all neopagan, occult and other alternative religion movements? Perhaps partly because Wicca is a melting pot, of sorts. It's right there at the centre of the modern neopagan and occult world, drawing influence from many directions. Particularly the way it combines nature oriented pagan sensibilities with western occult tradition has always appealed to me. As I wrote in that earlier post, I found much of traditional occultism a little too complex and abstract, while Wicca's more down-to-earth nature appealed to me. Compared to many other neopagan faiths it is also more general and neutral in nature, not being focused on any particular ancient pantheon.

One of the most difficult questions I've had to tackle over the years, however, is why practise religion at all, when I am, at heart, a naturalistic, empirical person? It has occurred to me that in many ways religion is like a hobby to me. There is nothing forcing me to do it. No culture or tradition coercing me. No promise of an afterlife. No one listening to my prayers. (At least as far as can be confirmed by current scientific evidence—which is plenty enough for me not to waste too much time contemplating such things.) The only real reason I can come up with for practising religion is that I enjoy it. It fascinates me and entertains me. I get to play with beautiful objects and recite lofty, mystic words. It adds a little variety to my life.

But enough of this for now. I wish everyone a great holiday season, whatever their chosen traditions or lack of them!

6 December 2013

Bringing the Calm to Spira (a Decade Late)

Final Fantasy X was released in 2001 for the PlayStation 2. I was by then a huge fan of the series, but I recall not being entirely impressed by the adverts I saw, with their colourful, sunny imagery (give me doom and gloom, please), and (gasp!) sports themes. Of course I eventually bought the game anyway (not really an option not to), although second hand. I played it about halfway through, and then... it crashed. And it crashed over and over again at the same point. I'm guessing a scratch on the disc was to blame. (I must say, though, I've bought plenty of second hand games over the years, and this is the only one I recall ever having problems with.)

Eventually I bought another copy, when the game had a 'Platinum' re-release and was pretty cheap. But of course then I was deep into other games, and the years dragged on... I actually even played the direct sequel, Final Fantasy X-2, a couple years ago (I'm not sure why I picked that instead of the original back then, I guess I was just in the mood for something new, rather than replaying something I still vaguely remembered from a few years ago). Until this autumn when my PS3 broke down and I decided it was a good opportunity to look back at some neglected PS2 titles.

So I begun again, from the beginning, and last night, with close to 60 hours on the game's clock, I finally beat it. And I enjoyed it a lot.

Going into an in-depth analysis of a decade-old game that fans of the series are likely already familiar with probably wouldn't be very worthwhile, but of course I'll have to briefly write about some main points. In a nutshell, it's no Final Fantasy VII, but the story and characters are reasonably interesting and imaginative. One thing of note is the highly linear nature of the game. Unlike previous titles, there's no 'overworld' to explore between 'dungeons', but a steady progression of environments. This bothered me less than I thought it might, I must say. Close to the end you get the option to visit earlier locations again, but I felt little need to do so.

When the series moved from the SNES to the PS1 it took great leaps in technological advancements, featuring 3D polygon characters and detailed pre-rendered backgrounds. Since this was the first title on the PS2, there were naturally new steps forward. Most obviously 3D environments instead of static backgrounds (although you can't control camera angles yourself) and voice acting. The latter is fairly decent for a game of its age. Judging the graphics more than a decade later would be pretty pointless, but lets just say, even if it looks a mite crude and fuzzy today, I had few complaints.

Music has always been a big part of the Final Fantasy franchise, and the music in FFX was... pretty decent, though perhaps not always quite as memorable as many earlier titles. This marked the first time that Nobuo Uematsu was not the sole composer for the game. There are some nice tunes in there, but some bits were... kinda simple and repetitive, I'm afraid.

When I played FFX-2, I was a little disappointed about how easy the game was. I didn't really get that feeling with this game. It was by no means hard, but I did spend some time occasionally levelling up, and some opponents did need at least a little tactical thinking. Speaking of which, the combat system is pretty heavily geared towards tactics. They removed the real-time element of most 90s titles and made it strictly turn-based, and you can also switch party members on the fly at any time. As you have all the time you need to think about your next move, it's all about which character's abilities work best in the situation. The unfortunate side effect of this is that, because only characters who participate in battles gain experience, the strategy of typical battles becomes less about how to best defeat enemies and more about how to involve as many characters as possible. Which can soon get a little tedious.

And yeah, there's a brand new system for levelling up and many other differences from previous titles that would be pointless to delve into now. But Final Fantasy games have always been unique, each one trying out some vastly different systems and settings. There are enough familiar elements to make it a real Final Fantasy, I think.

And though I said I wouldn't go into it very deeply, this post probably ended up just as long as most of my blog video game reviews... Bottom line, I found Final Fantasy X entertaining enough to play through. Like its predecessors, it's a quality JRPG with many innovations, even if it probably won't quite take the place of certain 90s titles in my heart. There's also an HD re-release coming soon for the PS3, but I was happy enough to play the original (and doubt I'll have any need for the new version in the foreseeable future).