Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Pegasus in Flight (1990)

Pegasus in Flight (1990) is the talents book that nobody asked for, one written to link up with her other psychic books set in the Nine Star League. Fluffy to a fault, the future depicted in this work is simultaneously utterly terrifying and authoritarian, and that's the good guys. The bad guys are worse.

The book itself follows three main plot lines: Tirla, Retinger, and the forced labor building of a space station. You read that right, forced labor. People are scared of talents because they're different, which is weird because the population should be scared of talents for their mind control which is systematically used to keep the population docile. (This is not an exaggeration. This is literally one of their jobs.) Working conditions are horrible, yet nobody goes on strike. In fact, on the space station, working conditions are murderous, yet even that can't get the building supervisor removed.

Properly, this tale should be a short story, or a novella at best. There's just not enough going on to sustain an entire novel. Anne frequently presents the same information multiple times, or wanders down a dull and easily cut siding.

As usual, McCaffrey's villains are not only pedestrian and dull, they're so stupid that they kidnap psychic kids. (If you want to destroy your own secret human trafficking ring from the inside, kidnap a psychic kid. They really were stupid.) The other villain is just a stupid and demanding manager who should be assailable just because she's so incompetent, criminally mismanaging the construction of a space station.

If this book isn't sounding very fun, it isn't, which is exactly my point. Nothing about the book is fun. Nothing. It's good for a skim and that's about it.

You'll notice that I have nothing to say about the characters. That's because there is nothing to say about most of the characters. Not one of them shone for me. One's a street smart scamp and the other is a future super-psychic, and together, they fight crime. That's not a joke, either.

This book goes onto my "cannot recommend for any reason" list.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Mitsubishi Tredia (early-80's)

After my dad got done with his Chevy, in the late 80's he bought a used blue Mitsubishi Tredia. What I recall most was the orange digital control panel, which I hated. Because there was no speedometer, I had to look at the number to determine the speed, which irked me.

A second thing that I hated about the car was the gas indicator. When I started the car, the gas always showed at reasonable levels, but by the time that I got anywhere, the gas showed itself as significantly lower in level. This caused some fights with my dad because I didn't fill the tank. We were both right, because it was the digital gauge that stuck. For years afterwards, I refused to trust any sort of digital gauge.

Other than those two facts, I remember nothing about the car, which means that he must have bought the 2.0L i4 88hp mated to a 3-speed automatic, because it definitely wasn't the turbocharged version Those numbers were for a 2200 lb car, so handling wasn't amazing, but it wasn't awful.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Final Fantasy IX (2000)

Final Fantasy IX (2000) charmed me straight out the gate and kept on charming me all the way through. It wasn't without its rough spots, but I liked far more things than I didn't.

FF9 returned to the psuedo-medieval, semi-tech aesthetic of earlier games. If you've played the older games, this combo should feel familiar, because it's the same combo. Everything that worked back then works just as well now, with nicer graphics and better gameplay. You get everything that you expect, pretty much in the order that you expect. The FF formula here is alive and well.

I loved the stylized, cartoony design of the characters and the world. I needed this after the uglier designs of FF8, and the blocky designs of FF7. While there was some uncanny valley going on, for the most part, this helped avoid the uncanny valley. Each character had their own story, their own internal emotional journey to travel on, which made each character interesting. This gave me lots to care about. The genders were fairly split, with many prominent female throughout as NPCs. In my mind, this is one of the best gender-balanced games that I've ever seen, and nothing about that felt like pandering. The game obviously targeted itself at both genders, in my estimation, hitting the mark wonderfully.

The story often felt a little too railroaded. If you aren't constantly exploring where to stop and scrape up XP and AO, your find your characters falling behind. I had that happen to some characters, with them falling behind, resulting in battles which I barely survived. (This became a theme.) Eventually I reached a place where I just ground out AP as safely as possible, catching all my characters up to a reasonable level, and getting them all the skills that they needed. That took three days of mind numbing play, but proved worth as I aimed for the end.

There are places where the cut scenes get to be too much. At one point, I had to wade through 45 minutes of plot. So, having a great story is good, but having too much story at once is a bit tiresome. At least they let you pause most cut scenes this time around, which greatly helped with family harmony.

Skills were acquired through items in this version. Each items allows you to equip an associated skill, and if you earned enough AP, you would gain the skill permanently. This included all the summonable creatures, which were very well integrated with the plot.

Characters do not change between classes, with each class being tied very closely to the identity of the character, so that part of the early FF series didn't come over.

I often found myself unprepared for boss fights, and more times than not, squeaked by them with multiple character's KO'd. I found that the end especially spike in difficulty, with many creatures fielding insta-kill style abilities. I died against the end a few times because the final boss mostly killed me on the opening round with a comet, but a little reading showed me that I'd just gotten massively unlucky two times in a row. With a bit of tweaking, my characters slipped through and managed a win. I actually beat the end boss this time.

The ending felt satisfying.

The game contains many themes that will be seen in Final Fantasy X, and even many of the same situations. There's a freedom loving blond boy who falls for a girl summoner feeling the weight of her duties.

Active time battle is used again, for better or worse. (I dislike ATB.) It didn't aggravate me too much this time. The world map is open for exploration, but there wasn't that much special to find. (Maybe I missed something?)

I certainly didn't find all the side-quests and equipment.I got through anyhow.

In my opinion, IX is exactly what a Final Fantasy game needed to be: full of heart, sincere, and good hearted.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

A Borrowed Man (2015)

A Borrowed Man (2015) is an SF/mystery by Gene Wolfe. The clone of a mystery writer is borrowed from a library from a desperate and beautiful woman trying to deduce why a book is valuable.

As Gene Wolfe books go, this one is fairly readable, makes sense most of the way through, and wraps up fairly reasonably. Gene's often weak with his endings, but as this is a mystery, the ending will be the reveal, so that saves him from too much wandering. I found most of the characters plausible most of the way through, with only a little over-coincidence happening. The setting style is retro, feeling like an older decade set in the future, with strains of the 1950's flowing throughout.

As a mystery, it's about average. There's a point where the protagonist knows what's happened, but isn't talking, which always annoys me, and I assume that all the clues were fair, but I'm not good at solving mysteries, so opinion is rather limited on that count. Gene mostly keeps to his SF rules, with some hand waving, so it's very possible to resolve the murder without any SF elements. If you yanked the speculative fiction elements, the book still mostly works.

The premise of people as property is dealt with a little, but no more than a little. As the protagonist is a clone, the view is that of an ordinary clone just trying to get by and get along, not change the world. He spends most of his speculative time on this. There's other SF elements as well, but they're played without much comment, used more to set the time than to explore.

I don't know if Gene's getting less demanding of his readers in his old age, but I found the book an easy read and fun in the journey. Strangely for a mystery, I found that I didn't really care if there was a solution. I think that's because we only get to know one character, and she just didn't get the page time that she needed for us to get close. That leaves the solution feeling rather clinical.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Godzilla: Monster Planet, Ep 1 (2017)

If I had been the studio executive responsible for this show, I'd have tossed this script into the incinerator and fired the writer. Somehow, the writer followed all the proper beats for this type of script, yet utterly failed to deliver any engaging characters, engaging situations, or engaging battles, yet somehow manage to pack the episode with so much meaningless verbiage that it collapses your soul into a black hole.

What producer approved this script? The writer should have been sacked immediately. He clubs you on the head with backstory that doesn't matter, sets up tensions that don't matter, and drops in characters who are supposed to mean something but don't mean anything. The technobabble is beyond useless.

I have to say that the plan to take on Godzilla rates as one of the most astonishingly stupid plans that I've ever had the displeasure to witness. Don't scout. Don't learn. Just drop everyone and fight it out. Yeah, that's a smart one, dude. And people agreed to this plan?

The only character with any sense demanded that they retreat. He died. The rest plays out as stupidly as you might expect.

While some reviewers remarked on the animation, I didn't mind it so much. I'm a child of the bad animation era, so I have a high tolerance for less than the best. Some bits of design I enjoyed, but mostly, it served its purpose.

I can't recommend this anime for anyone unless you're a veteran Godzilla fan and amateur film critic. It's a great study in what not to do when making a Godzilla film.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

All the Weyrs of Pern (1991)

All the Weyrs of Pern (1991) by Anne McCaffrey strives hard to recreate the golden age of Pern, seeking that alchemy that made The White Dragon. The recipe contained all the same ingredients, but the culinary results weren't quite as appetizing, striving to meet the expectations of a shrinking fanbase and a changing SF market.

Continuing from where The Renegages of Pern ended, the AI called Aivas leads humans in the final eradication of thread. Meanwhile, a small group of objectors to this new technology express their concerns badly, only to have their concerns put aside and never examined. Opportunity wasted, which is par for McCaffrey.

While the writing is reasonable, most of the book consists of conversations between various people talking about their problems, and other other part is a summary of what they did. Wedged between those two thrusts are the actual adventures of the main characters.

Jaxom and Ruth get the bulk of time in the work, and even with all that time, they and their relationship feels like they didn't get enough time and what time they did get they got short shrift. The same is true of Jaxom and Sharra. These are the characters that we know, on autopilot with little need to grow, but they're the reason why we're reading these books.

Aside from the leads, the rest of the book has an ensemble cast, where you either know the characters or you don't. If you know them, they make enough sense, and if you don't, they're just names on the page. There's little to distinguish one person from another. This is especially true of third tier characters, who are little more than names, titles, and political positions.

For a Pern fan, the book will itch enough itches, but it won't capture what made Pern so alluring. For a non-Pern fan, this is the wrong book to start with.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Final Fantasy VIII (1999)

Final Fantasy VIII (1999) left me feeling empty like no other FF game has before. Set in a techno-magic world with pretensions to the 1930's,  the story follows the fight against the Sorceress, a villain from the future bent on something or another, and she means it.

I didn't enjoy my time with this game at all. The game did not connect with me at the story level, the character level, and the game mechanic level. The only reason that I kept on playing was my research into why Final Fantasy is so popular.

In tone, the designers ditched almost all charming elements (boo!), substituting that with teen male angst, producing a heaviness across the board. The FF series has always had whimsy and humor to it, and the loss of that hurt. There were a few nods along the way, but not nearly enough. I suspect that the designers decided to focus entirely on the young male audience to the exclusion of all other audiences, which is another decision that I vilify and say fie upon.

From a story perspective, the game is a hot mess. The tale clunks between narratives with the smoothness of a bad transmission, jerking here and there with every change. Themes show up out of nowhere, and drop out later with no apparent good judgement. We get to know the other characters a little bit, but only a little, and they don't get much of an arc. This is not an ensemble piece, which is bad news for this type of story, because Squall just doesn't carry the load. Because most of the characters have no back stories, and nothing to strive for, I have no reason to cheer them on. Their goals never become my goals.As a result, whatever Squall does doesn't matter, especially as he broods frequently, often, and with great broodiness.

And what is the story? There's a sorceress from the future doing bad, and its up to SeeDs to stop her. As such, the tale begins as a school story, one of classmates, but when it moves away from that narrative, it never really sells us on the other characters as team mates. School should have been a great theme tying the game together, but that theme gets lost somewhere in Disk 3, so much so that I completely forgot about the school.

Our hero Squall has a rival in Siefer, but Siefer gets converted into a tool of the Sorceress early on, meaning that we barely see him, and his actions may or may not be his own. By the time that I reached the climactic battle with Siefer, I didn't care because nothing between the two main characters was at stake. Seifer had no shot at no redemption, no final settling of a score, and no possibility of forgiveness. The rivalry only seem to happen because Siefer is a petulant angry brat, and that's it. A rival should challenge the main character, should have similar goals, and similar skill, but with Siefer off stage, none of that happens and his power as a rival diminishes to absurdity.

I found the Sorceress unengaging as a villain. I wish that there had been more to her. Her ultimate plan made no sense because it boiled down to, "I really really wanna destroy everything just because." Don't get my wrong, I loved seeing a female villain, but beyond the villainous "ha-ha-ha," there is nothing, which is a shame because she has a cool mechanic. A villain from the future operating on the past should have been engaging and exhilarating, but her time powers never caused the party any complications until the very end, where it worked more to cinematic effect. If nothing else, she could have added fear, uncertainty, and doubt unlike any other character, and that elicits emotion, which is good.

The world fell flat for me. Not long ago, there'd been a war to imprison the Sorceress Adel, but that's transmitted so badly that the existence of the war comes as an info dump, and not as a collective memory of the society. The world exists, but it has no real awareness of itself. To be honest, the world could be anywhere with any purpose. All the texture is given through the art, and very little is given to the would through the script.

On the mechanics side, my chief issue with the game system (besides active time battle, which I despise) is the constant feeling that I was playing the game in ignorance. I could have looked at various guides, but I far prefer to play such games blind, as a new player, to get the full experience of the game while avoiding spoilers. This was a bad choice, one that I, as a player, should not be punished for. There were simply too many choices in the game that were opaque to an average player. The game did have a useful auto mode for allocating your resources, but when you really needed to understand how these setups worked, the game was no help. I felt like this opacity was purposefully so that I would have to buy the strategy guide (which was big business back in the 1990's).

For me, the battles usually devolved into summoning fests, as that was the only way to live. As the summonings take 15-20 seconds each, I spent most of my times watching redundant summoning scene after redundant summoning scene crawl through, which is a stunningly boring way to enjoy a game. The GFs were too effective while the weapons were no effective enough (unless you had the strategy guide).

The mini-games drove me bonkers. On the PC version, all the buttons are listed as B1 to B10, with the problem being that I have no idea which button is which, and when rushed, I press the wrong one. Every single mini-game depended on pressing the right buttons, which usually meant me resorting to button mashing as I hoped to get it right.

Limit breaks didn't work for me as they required that a character be near death, which usually meant that character was either too well to use a limit break or too dead to use a limit break. Even here, the controls felt funky and the graphics felt boring.

If you're looking for an easygoing, forgiving JRPG, this game is not it. However, if you enjoy twiddling with character setups, analyzing character guides, and getting the most out of a game, there's lots here for you.