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The Last Continent (Terry Pratchett)



Back at the end of Interesting Times Rincewind wound up teleported to Totally-Not-Australia, and a few Discworlds later we finally check in on him. Or rather, we alternate between his adventures through Aussie stereotypes, and several of the Unseen University wizards who got warped to thousands of years in the Discworld's past and have to explain the birds and the bees to a creator god tinkering with evolution. So for the most part, Last Continent reads like a mashup of Darwin's Theory of Evolution and "Bart versus Australia," with a short visit to Mad Max early in the book.

It's definitely one of the more entertaining Discworlds, though not necessarily the most profound. We have delightful set pieces like the oblivious wizards talking to a god like he's a child and the gloriously fucked up prison break scene towards the end, but there's also a lot of creative wordplay like how a wizard's reaction to danger is to overanalyze it trying to figure out just how great a danger it is until it gets bored and goes away, and "Logic could only take you so far, then you had to get out and hop." Although it took me longer than I care to admit to realize Rincewind's experiments with "beer soup" created marmite, not Branston Pickle.

Also, Ridcully's cognitive facilities are so in line with people on the Internet it's almost not funny.

Rating:


Undertale: Determination



The Determination album is two discs of Undertale soundtrack remixes available from Fangamer.com. The Red Disc consists of rock remixes of the battle themes, with varying results. The versions of "Heartache," "Bonetrousle," and "Spear of Justice" are pretty badass, but others.... not so much. While not a godawful song by any means, the fight with the Mad Dummy was clearly written for a vaudeville music style, and a rock rendition of that is about as fitting as, say, an a capella of "Megalovania." Likewise, the "Death by Glamour" cover has some decent parts, but because it was written for a keyboard synthesizer or maybe even jazz style, most of it sounds like electric guitar noodling. And why does the "Metal Crusher" remix shift into a damned kazoo halfway through? And the rock theme turns the already cacophonous "Your Worst Nightmare" into a mess. Still, that "ASGORE" remix is pretty bitching.

And this is just a pet peeve of mine, but I don't like it when albums omit blanks between tracks and blend the songs together so the disc plays like one long song. At least with this album most of the songs can be opened up in Adobe Audition and have their endings tinkered with so they don't abruptly end after some gibberish, but the "Bonetrousle" track starts with the remnants of a guitar riff from the previous track I can't find any way to get rid of. And for cying out loud, people, don't include cat meows in your songs because it makes the listener go "Gah, what do you need, cat??"

The Blue Disc focuses on the town and dungeon songs, and it is definitely the weaker of the two. While the Red Disc is rock, the Blue Disc is synth. Bad synth, to be exact, in a textbook case of keeping the notes but losing the music. The first song is based on the Ruins theme, and it's... tolerable, but lacking the soul of the original. Next up is a song based on "Another Medium" which starts off okay, but once the main theme kicks in about fifty seconds in, it goes off the rails. Then you get to the remix of the Temmie Shop theme which was already one of the weakest songs on the original soundtrack, and it is obnoxious. The Snowdin Town theme actually starts out as a nice Christmasy song but then descends into gibberish halfway through, the covers for "CORE" and "Reunited" sound out of tune, and "Here We Are" is actually decent for the first loop then turns into a drawn out mess for the second. The best songs are merely "okay" and even then I think they only get passes because they're based on songs resistant (though not necessarily immune) to the cockup virus like "Undertale" and "Waterfall".

Rating: for the Red Disc, for the Blue Disc


The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past: Four Swords (GBA)



I talked about Link to the Past several months ago, so this is mainly going to be about how well this works as a port. I guess if it was somehow the only version of Link to the Past you could get your hands on it's acceptable, but you definitely want to go with the SNES original if you can. First of all, in this version you have to listen to Link yell every damned time he swings his sword, falls down a pit, or takes a hit. And I don't know if it's the GBA SP's flimsly D-pad or the awkward shape of the system, or maybe both, but this version just felt harder to control than the original. The smaller screen size compared to the sprites doesn't exactly help, and the sound took a major hit in the system change.

The most interesting change is the puzzle at the end of the Ice Palace was altered so it can no longer be bypassed with the Cane of Somaria. If you're curious that change might be interesting to see, but I can't recommend going out of your way to pick this version up just to see that.

Rating:


Final Fantasy XII (Playstation 2)



You can't really talk about Final Fantasy XII without talking about the clusterfuck that was its development, so let's go over it as quickly as I can: after Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within blew up in Squaresoft's face and cost them almost $100 million (!!), they canned Hironobu Sakaguchi and the reins of Final Fantasy XII were given to Yasumi Matsuno, the guy behind Final Fantasy Tactics and Vagrant Story. But after two years of hellish development that included the merger with Enix and having a chunk of the staff drop out of the project to join Sakaguchi's new studio Mistwalker, Matsuno had a nervous breakdown and resigned from Square Enix. The task of finishing Final Fantasy XII was then handed over to Akitoshi Kawazu, the guy behind Final Fantasy II and the SaGa games.

After all that, the final game being even playable is impressive.

The first thing that stands out about XII is how much of a departure it is aesthetically from previous Final Fantasies. Which I guess is expected, since it was pretty much made by the Final Fantasy Tactics and Vagrant Story team. The soundtrack was even done by Hitoshi Sakimoto with his old friends Masaharu Iwata and Hayato Matsuno contributing a handful of songs, making it the first mainline Final Fantasy soundtrack that Nobuo Uematsu wasn't really involved in (he co-wrote X's soundtrack with two other people, but he only contributed one "bonus" song to XII). Throw in some story elements like how the Mist is pretty much the Dark wearing the disguise of an FF9 plot device and Vayne is essentially Guildenstern and Sydney merged into one (not to mention Larsa is Joshua with an actual personality, with Gabranth serving as his Hardin), and the game could have been called Vagrant Story II and it would have been just as relevant. Hell, it even takes place in the same world as Vagrant Story, the church of Kiltia is a thing, there's a Darkness-aligned enemy called the "Leamonde Entite", one of the Clan Ranks is "Riskbreaker."

Needless to say, Final Fantasy XII is probably the most divisive Final Fantasy among fans; I don't think even X splits people like this one. Even I'm not sure what to make of it. I guess I basically liked it, but there were moments that really tried my patience. At the beginning money is so hard to come by that I had to spend a night stealing fruit from little onion men to sell so I could un-ass my gear. I had to consult an external resource to figure out how the hell Quickenings worked, and even then there's too much luck involved in them for my liking. The Great Crystal dungeon got effing old effing fast. And call me spoiled by WoW, but if this game wanted to invoke the feel of a MMORPG it needed a reliable taunt.

The combat system was also altered from turn-based random encounters to real-time with cooldown periods. To help you out with controlling three characters you get to program them with Gambits, which are basically case switches that tell the characters to automatically attack, heal, or cast spells, which is where Final Fantays XII's reputation as a game that plays itself comes from. I... didn't make the most use out of them, I guess? Mostly I just programmed "Attack leader's target, or nearest enemy if not applicable" and "Cast heals and buffs plzkthnks" which, yeah, carried me through everything but boss battles.

And then there's the Hunts. The majority of the game's sidequests are glorified Warcraft quests where an NPC wants something dead, you go stab it, then return to the NPC for money and crafting reagents or equipment. Completing enough of them also unlocks a couple of useful spells so it's worth it to complete that many. But they also throw off the game's pacing when there's a death fortress moving in on your home city and you're off knocking over trees and entering and leaving an area trying to get a turtle to spawn.

The cast is also all over the place. There's Balthier, who started out as a third contender for title of "Best 3D Final Fantasy character" but... went sort of quiet after a certain scene on the Phon Coast, at least until the ending rolls around and he gets his big moment (although at the risk of spoilers, I don't know how to feel about them wimping out of what could have been a memorably gutsy, if depressing move). Then there's Basch, who really feels like there's a character in there trying to get out and does to an extent towards the very end of the game, but he got screwed over by Matsuno's departure, upper management fuckery, or more likely both. Then there's Vaan. You know, there were times where I wanted to reach into the screen and cuff Tidus on the back of the head, but for the most part I actually did not have a problem with him. Vaan, I wanted to shove off a cliff. I've read that Matsuno intended for Basch to be the main character, but the higher ups at Square Enix said "NO! It has to be somebody the kids can project onto!" and so that worthless twerp got shoehorned in.

While I very much doubt a game is developed in the order it's played in, I'd still like to know what parts were Matsuno and which were Kawazu. Right now I'm inclined to say the leadership change occured when fucking Johnny Bravo appears out of nowhere 28 hours in. It's also at this point Vaan starts to come back into the spotlight after fading into the back when the full cast got assembled, like somebody said "Oh yeah, wasn't he supposed to be the main character? Despite being the second most unnecessary character in the entire game after Whatshername?"

As for the story, like the rest of the game, it's unfulfilled. The translation is... interesting, I guess is how I'd put it. But at times it's so needlessly flowery that I didn't know what anybody was actually saying. My favorite was when the camera pans over a bunch of airships, them zooms into one of them and a Judge says aloud "The Empire's debts grow Legion." ... like, what does that even mean? The plot itself is actually very straightforward, especially for a modern Final Fantasy; Empire wants to take over underdog city, resistance fights back, and it happens to coincide with humans taking their lives back from the gods. In fact, there's only two types of plot twists: "this character used to be a Judge", and "this character's real name is..." I was really expecting a twist where Cid did something to Balthier's mother, whether he used her as a guinea pig for Mist experiments or just stabbed her up. But hey, at least the voice acting is better than X's.

After ruminating on the game for a few weeks I'm still not sure why this game didn't anger me more than I feel like it should have. Maybe I want to be kind to it because of what a shitshow its creation was. Maybe it's how well it presents what is there. There's some rich environments, ranging from ancient ruins to futuristic fortresses to cursed marshes, and many of the boss are well designed (even if it feels like the game only has a dozen or so common enemies, palette swapped ad nauseum). And Hitoshi Sakimoto's soundtrack is amazing. Though following on from Final Fantasy X and its obsession with "The Hymn of the Fayths," XII has a leitmotif that runs through half the soundtrack: it's that string that plays in the opening movie theme from :51 to 1:12, then doubled at 2:34 to 2:57. Sometimes an entire song is based on it, sometimes it comes out of nowhere in an otherwise different song, and sometimes it's only recognizable if you're really paying attention, but yeah, expect to be hearing that bit a lot.

I guess the overall feeling I get from Final Fantasy XII is that there's something here that wasn't fully realized. Can't imagine why that would be.

Rating: Kinda flip-flopping between and here.