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).

4 December 2013

Dark Wings of Steel (Album Review)

My followers might know I'm something of a Rhapsody of Fire fan. Their epic, symphonic sound and multi-album-spanning fantasy saga rather captured my imagination when I was first discovering the world of metal, several years ago.

A couple years ago, however, they wrapped up the story they'd been writing since the band's debut (ten albums in all), and soon after announced the band was splitting in two, with lead guitarist Luca Turilli founding his own band called Luca Turilli's Rhapsody.

I must admit my interest in the band(s) has somewhat waned after these events. But I've still been buying their new albums. I wrote about Luca Turilli's Rhapsody's debut Ascending to Infinity earlier this year. It was an... interesting album, if not quite what I might have hoped for in all ways. And now the remaining members of Rhapsody of Fire have released their first studio work since the split, titled Dark Wings of Steel.

Long-time members Fabio Lione (vocals), Alex Staropoli (keyboards) and Alex Holzwarth (drums) remain in Rhapsody of Fire, while bass duties were taken over by Alex Holzwarth's brother Oliver, and guitars by Roby De Micheli (following Patrice Guers and Luca Turilli's departure). Perhaps largely due to Lione's familiar vocals this still feels like the 'real' Rhapsody to me, so I was particularly interested in what direction they would take. Turilli's skilled guitar playing was of course a major part of the original Rhapsody's sound, but De Micheli does a competent job, I think. There might be less emphasis on neo-classical shredding and a little more focus on heavier riffs, but it's still decent metal.

One of my first impressions when listening to the album was that there seem to be many relatively slow numbers. While there are a few tracks more reminiscent of the fast paced power metal of Rhapsody's early works (like 'Silver Lake of Tears', which is probably one of my favourites off the album), the overall atmosphere seems perhaps a little more atmospheric, even sombre, which is also reflected in the lyrics, now written by singer Lione. Alas, there's no new epic fantasy saga here, but rather more abstract, poetic explorations often dealing with sorrow and melancholy. But the work still remains pretty 'epic' in nature, of course, with its choirs and orchestral arrangements.

Comparing the works of the two Rhapsodies isn't really fair, but can't really be helped, I suppose. Overall, I think Dark Wings of Steel feels like a somewhat more straightforward and cohesive metal album. It's not trying too hard, which maybe works in its favour, although Ascending to Infinity's sometimes over-the-top pomposity is entertaining in its own way, as well... It's interesting really how different these two albums feel while both still clearly displaying their roots.

So yeah, although I rather miss the storytelling of the classic Rhapsody of Fire albums, Dark Wings of Steel isn't a bad little album. I had very little expectations when I bought this album, but I can't really say I'm disappointed. It's obviously not going to live up to the first few albums of the band, and there's certainly room for improvement (particularly in the lyrics, which, alas, failed to make a deep impression on me), but I find myself enjoying listening to the music, which is of course what really counts.