8.28.2013

Playing The Final Fantasies: Episode VI

Cast of Final Fantasy VI

Usual spoiler warnings, for those of you who have yet to play this. Also, don't be like me and wait 20 years to play it. Play it now. Play it YESTERDAY.

In my last post I detailed how I've been going through as many of the Final Fantasy games that I can this summer, many of which I have never played before. Last time I covered my first foray into the 3D world of Final Fantasy with my post on Final Fantasy IX, which was the first PS1 entry into the series I had played as well as the first game on my list for the summer. In short, it ended up being my favorite, even after playing several others.

However, do not let that deter you from playing Square's sixth title in the numbered series. To clear some confusion up, VI was actually released as the 3rd Final Fantasy here in the US for the Super Nintendo. The "true" 3rd game never saw American shores until it was released for the Nintendo DS in 2006. Since VI's original SNES release, it has been ported to the PlayStation and the Gameboy Advance. I wanted to play the original, so I fired up the emulator and played the SNES version on my Nexus 7.

Let me just say this - Final Fantasy VII might be the most iconic and recognizable game in the series (and for good reason), but it is its predecessor is the game that is often cited as being the best in the series, as stated here and here and also here. I'm no stranger to it, as I owned the GBA port but for some dumb reason never finished the game. I also attempted to play it on an emulator on my laptop, which also ended up going nowhere. 

After playing it, I have to agree. It's the best in the series (that I've played). 

There's something magical about the opening scene. A mysterious woman, apparently hypnotized, accompanies two soldiers to a snowy village to obtain a powerful creature called an esper. I will never forget the picture of those armored soldiers trudging through the snow. Those who have played the game know what I'm talking about:

Magic, I tell you.

I know that these are SNES graphics. Heck, the game was released twenty years ago. I played the original version, and unlike its predecessor Final Fantasy II (IV in the US), the translation is amazing. I found myself thinking countless times throughout the game that upon its original release in 1994, this game was way ahead of its time. Like, unfairly ahead.

So what makes this particular game so amazing? In my highly unqualified opinion, it succeeds in the story, character, and gameplay departments to the highest degree. I mentioned in my post about Final Fantasy IX that playing that game was the first time a game made me actually feel something. Usually I just breeze through games without really paying much attention to the struggles of the characters. Following in the same vein as IX, VI moved me even more. Strange to think that sprites and pixels could do this, but it's true. 

First of all, the story is just flat out awesome. Serving as a transition between the pure fantasy of the first five games and the use of more modern technology in the seventh game, VI utilizes a steam-punk atmosphere, while retaining a good amount of the "fantasy" in the series' name. There were so many epic sequences that I find myself struggling to pick a favorite. The game had me rushing down a dangerous river on a raft, fending off monsters to protect the leader of the Returners, the rebel faction opposed to the Gestahlian Empire. One of my characters had to pose as a famous opera singer to prevent another character from kidnapping the real actress during the show. You got to fight a freaking phantom train that shuttled souls to the underworld. A PHANTOM TRAIN.

You know you've all tried to suplex this beast with Sabin.

You can't mention how great this game is without discussing the awesome characters. Seriously, this game has the best cast in any of the FF games I've played (not to mention the largest amount of playable characters - 14). You have everything from a feral beast child that imitates the actions of enemies, to a king with a mind for technology and a knack for the ladies. You also get to recruit a yeti. A YETI. He's not very good, but how many games let you use the abominable snowman as a playable character?

Not only are the characters awesome, but they have equally amazing backstories. Terra (who is arguably the main protagonist) starts the game off not knowing who she truly is, due to her having her mind controlled by the Empire to find espers. She eventually amazes the others with her inherent skills in magic, which haven't been seen in a thousand years - and goes on to figure out she is actually half-esper herself. My personal favorite character (and a fan favorite) Sabin is a martial arts expert who abdicated his right to the throne after his parents died, leaving his older brother Edward to assume the position of monarch. 

The developers stated that their intention was to attempt to make every character the main character. Because of this, you are often bounced around from one character to the next, switching perspectives many times - as you sneak around an Empire-occupied city as Locke or feed a dying old man as Celes after the world goes through a near-apocalypse. This worked for some characters but not all of them. It didn't bother me much because I never used Gau. Or Relm, Umaro, and Cyan, for that matter.

No protagonist can exist without a villain, right? Well Final Fantasy VI introduced us to not only the best villain in the franchise, but arguably the best villain in any RPG period. You know who I'm talking about. Kefka Palazzo:

Clowns will always be scary.

Take a look at that picture. He's a freaking clown. Kefka looks ridiculous, but his appearance matches his animated personality, which is one of outright insanity. Final Fantasy V's Exdeath wanted to destroy the world for being imprisoned by the Dawn Warriors and taking him away from his planet. The ever-famous Sephiroth went berserk when he found out his true origin and summoned a giant meteor to destroy the planet so he could merge with its source of power - the Lifestream. Kefka is just an insane sadist who wants to destroy the world just because. He goes against orders and poisons the water supply of a city, killing all of its inhabitants and effectively causing a genocide. He murders one of the Empire's foremost generals after the general challenges Kefka's methods, finally realizing his insanity. He then kills the Emperor himself. Finally, he nonchalantly breaks the balance of magic by shifting the three statues that hold the world in place, unleashing espers into the world of humans and scarring the planet until it resembles a post-apocalyptic landscape.

He doesn't care.

Truth.

I also enjoyed the gameplay, as it employed the tried ad true battle system of the previous games while including a slew of new features. I liked that you could "equip" espers to characters and have them learn magic as they fought battles. I also found it cool that each character has their own special techniques. You could input button combinations to have Sabin unleash a powerful Blitz skill. Cyan had his Sword Techs, Gau had his Rages, and Setzer had his Slots. Some of them were admittedly worse than others (*cough* Sketch *cough*) but it made for a fresh experience as no two characters felt the same.

There was a scene in the second half of the game that made me question my life. Literally. It's after the balance has been shifted between worlds and you assume the role of Celes, who believes that all of her friends are dead, due to Kefka's breaking of the balance of magic. She is alone on an island, trying to take care of a dying man. After he ultimately passes away, leading her to believe she is the only one left in the world, she laments the outcome of her life and tosses herself from a cliff into the sea.

What the heck, Square? 

While there is always a happy ending, powerful scenes such as this and the many I've mentioned have persuaded me that this is indeed the best of the Final Fantasy games. It's not my favorite - that title belongs to IX - but I can see that changing. Many of the things I mentioned may not seem very revolutionary in terms of gaming, but as mentioned this game came out twenty years ago. It has aged exceedingly well, and you would be remiss to pass up this title. 

On a random note, I liked how you could make any one of your characters a god by equipping them with the Genji Gloves and Offering relics. It's incredibly overpowered. 

And lastly, let me mention the final boss. Good heavens, that fight. Easily, easily the most epic boss fight/boss music EVER. Maybe that's because I haven't finished Jet Force Gemini yet...

Exhibit A:


Skip to 4:10 for the fight. The last form is around 13:30.

Anyways, I believe I've said enough about this game. I recommend it to EVERYONE EVERYWHERE EVER. Seriously.

Thanks for reading! Next time I'll be talking about my playthrough of the best-selling Final Fantasy game in the history of the series' existence. 

Oh yeah. You know.

Prepare yourselves,

JDS



8.19.2013

Playing The Final Fantasies: Episode IX

Cast of Final Fantasy IX


DISCLAIMER ONE: I know that lately it may seem like I'm blogging about frivolous things like video games and concert reviews, but I assure you that original thoughts from my deranged mind haven't ceased, they just take much longer to formulate into written word.

DISCLAIMER TWO: Spoilers abound in here about this game. I'll try to keep it vague just in case. YOU'VE BEEN WARNED.


A Brief Introduction

You can hardly call me a diehard Final Fantasy fan, but for some arbitrary reason I decided to play through as many of them as I can this summer. I'm no stranger to the series, having played 1-6 before but only ever completing 1, 2, 4, and 5. Of course, that means I'd missed out on some of the best installments in the series, namely the PlayStation One titles. 

I've always been a fan of the old-fashioned. Sprites and 16-bit tales are incredibly endearing to me. Seeing as how I hardly play anything but RPGs anymore, you can assume that I was very fond of the early titles in the FF franchise. Because of this, I was always reluctant to play the newer 3D games. The old man in me wanted to bark at them to remove themselves from my virtual lawn. Still, it makes no sense to deprive myself of some of the very best titles the series has to offer, so I decided to play through all of them, starting with IX (for you non-nerds, the series isn't strictly chronological; each game is a standalone affair).

This was a big step for me. I hardly ever go for 3D RPGs. All I knew were the sprites of old. I still had high hopes. In particular, Final Fantasy IX is a callback to the roots of the series. The franchise employed typical high fantasy elements such as dragons, wizards, and empires threatening to take over unsuspecting worlds, as well as a number of charming original ideas (Moogles, anyone?). However, starting with FF VI, the fantasy elements were exchanged for those of steampunk and technological advances. I shied away from the newer titles because of this. Like I said, I was very old-fashioned.

As mentioned, IX was a return to the ideas that made the franchise popular, doing away with the corporations and futuristic environments of the previous two installments, VII and VIII. So I thought it would be a good place to start, seeing as how it hearkened to the old days.

Needless to say, when this charming little ditty greeted my ears upon popping in the first disc, I was pretty much instantly hooked: 


Those flutes.

For these posts, I'm not going to explain the entire plot of each game and go into detail about how great the graphics are because I can see the reflections of my spells in my character's eyes when I cast them (you can't). All I will say about the graphics is that for my first 3D FF experience, it was very enjoyable. I loved the cutscenes:


Could never tell if Steiner was wearing eye makeup or not...

Within an hour of playing the game, I began to question myself as to why I had deprived myself of this game for so long. The overall tone of the game is admittedly much more lighthearted than its two predecessors, but I found it to be incredibly charming, especially since it was serving as my indoctrination into the "newer" FF titles. The characters are quirky and humor runs rampant. Instead of the brooding ex-soldier Cloud Strife (FF VII) or the completely uncaring and gunblade-wielding Squall Leonhart (FF VIII), you play as a happy-go-lucky traveling actor with a monkey's tail, by the name of Zidane. Also, he is quite full of himself and fancies himself as a ladies' man:

Reminds me of me - delusional.

All of the main characters were pretty lovable (even if Quina was obnoxious and Amarant felt added on). Each of them possessed rich backgrounds. From the austere and duty-bound knight Steiner to the mischievous and naive summoner Eiko, each character held a special place in my heart. I know it sounds absurd, but this game was the first to ever make me feel something. The subject's been beat to death, but as an old-fashioned gamer, I've never really experienced videogames as an art medium (other than watching an old college roommate play Metal Gear Solid 4). It was much easier to feel something for 3D models as opposed to sprites. Of course, the graphical advantages of the PlayStation allowed for prerendered backgrounds and intense cinematic sequences, whereas all the previous FF titles I'd played were extremely limited in these departments. Nevertheless, the game gripped me in a way that no game ever had before.

Then there was this guy:

Who knew something so adorable could be so awesome?

Vivi. He wasn't even the main character and he was my favorite. You know how in every book, movie, game, etc. there is always one character who stands above all the others in terms of overall awesomeness? Yeah, that's Vivi in this game. He easily replaced Cecil from FF IV as my all-time favorite character in the series.

Apart from his cool factor, the real reason Vivi captured my attention was because of his story. The dude has no idea where he came from and is shocked when at a certain point in the game he comes into contact with other members of his race, who he sadly discovers that they are nothing more than facsimiles manufactured to perform evil. We're not talking about a Jason Bourne-type "I don't know where I came from" - it's more of a Tarzan thing. Terrible comparisons aside, Vivi's character goes through pretty much the entire game pondering his existence and his purpose, wondering why there are others like him in appearance, who are completely unlike him. When he finally does learn the truth of his origin and his eventual future, it's truly a heartbreaking revelation.

I won't say much more about the game other than that as an introduction to the FF games that I haven't played, I don't believe I could have picked a better starting point - especially since I've played several more since I finished IX. It's a perfect balance of lightheartedness and saving the world, with the epic art styles and enjoyable cast to prove it. Minus the Trance ability, the card mini-game, and the randomness of the final boss, this game was pretty much perfect. I clocked about 33 hours into my file, not really putting time into sidequests and only stopping to grind two or three times. Next time, I'll put in hopefully twice as much. You can bet I'll be going back to it again soon.

As a parting gift, here's a battle scene because why not:



The music, every time.

Final Fantasy IX is a perfect place to start for those of you, like me, who tend to lean towards old-school RPGs. It's funny because IX is already 13 years old - heck, they're going to release XV soon - but I'm talking about in comparison to the classics, aka 1-6. It replaced IV as my all-time favorite, which is a big deal because IV was the first one I ever cared about because it got me into the series in the first place.

Thanks for reading! Next time, I'll talk about the next classic Final Fantasy title I played. Hint: it has the best villain in the entire franchise and you can get a Moogle as a playable character.

Prepare yourselves.

JDS


8.10.2013

Concert Review: Misery Signals

Welcome music lovers, to the fourth edition of my adventures in live music in the wonderful city of Seattle. Last time, my ears were subjected to the lovely sounds of Eisley. I recently journeyed back to high school to witness one of my all-time favorite metal acts, Misery Signals. As expected, it was a wild night. Also as expected, I came home with a few new wounds.

MISERY SIGNALS - 8/5/2013 @ Studio Seven
w/ Vessels, Never Met A Dead Man, Elitist, and The Color Morale


There are a handful of bands that I started listening to in high school that I still enjoy to this day. Even fewer of those bands are actually good, retaining a spot on my iPod for more than feelings of nostalgia. Lastly, I can count the number of bands on one hand that heavily influence my playing style. As Cities Burn, My Epic, and of course, Misery Signals.

One of my friends introduced me to the band via the song "The Year Summer Ended in June," the single from the band's first full-length album, Of Malice & A Magnum Heart. I hadn't been listening to heavy music for that long and this music astounded me. I was used to the brutality, technicality, and just pure heaviness that metal offered. I was a product of the massive popularity of metalcore back in the second half of the 2000's. Bands like All That Remains, As I Lay Dying, and Still Remains were regularly blasted in my car. Misery Signals stood out over all of these bands in the sub-genre. They were the first band I ever listened to that successfully wove heaviness & beauty all in one. I couldn't believe how seamlessly they transitioned from crushing off-tempo breakdowns to mesmerizing chords layered over a soft rhythm section. Here's the video for the aforementioned song:

This song was one of my anthems in high school.

It's not the best representation of their sound, but you get the idea. The production of their debut left a lot to be desired. Of course, its sound is welcome to my ears all these years later, with the heavily layered vocals and punchy sounding drums that seem so right.

Before the release of a sophomore effort, their original vocalist left the band and was replaced by Karl Schubach. The vocals took on a much more massive sound, as Schubach's vocal range demonstrated the force of his thundering lows. Exhibit A:

"Weight of the World" from the 2008 release, Controller.

The albums Mirrors and Controller were released in 2006 and 2008, respectively. I was fortunate to catch them three times between those years, all at the same venue. The first time I saw them open for Between The Buried & Me and Norma Jean, they blew me away, opening up with "Something Was Always Missing But It Was Never You" - a song that has directly influenced one of the songs written for my band - and closing with "Five Years" just like they always did.

Each time they were better and better. They went on a hiatus after Controller, and stopped touring for a number of years. However, it was announced earlier this year that new material was being written, despite most of the band members living thousands of miles apart. The resulting effort was Absent Light, the band's first new music in five years. I can't remember the last time I was so excited for an album. I jumped on the Indiegogo campaign and donated the heck out of that. I needed new Misery Signals.

Not only did I get it, but in conjunction with their album, they announced a headlining tour in the fall. I flipped when I saw the Seattle date and purchased tickets months in advance (I have a habit of doing that). I hadn't heard new music from them in five years and I hadn't seen them live in even longer than that. It was going to be a momentous blast to the past.

And indeed it was. Just like the New Found Glory show, I had decided against going through with my normal concert attending demeanor, which is usually to stand well out of the way of the imminent chaos (if it's that kind of show) and admire the music. It was that kind of show, and I wanted to be in the front.

Studio Seven is a tiny venue plagued with scores of high schoolers and scene kids. It's bad. I showed up super late on purpose and managed to miss three openers, but was unfortunate enough to witness the shipwreck that is The Color Morale. Thoroughly uninspiring, I emerged from the shadows when they were done playing and made my way to the front. It was relatively easy, considering most people left after that.

I remember standing next to two massive dudes discussing how stoked they were for the band. I looked around. I was blown away by how many people had left. At the same time I was relieved because most of them were the annoying scene kids, leaving the most unassuming concert-goers to be revealed as Misery Signals fans. If there was one thing I learned that night, it's that you can't tell if someone listens to MS just by looking at them.

When the band took the stage, a rush of memories flooded over me. I had't seen these guys in so long. They ripped through the set, stopping between songs to say that they didn't normally travel out this way very often, but promising that they would do so more in the future. Karl related to the crowd how amazed they were that people still came out after all these years of little to no news of touring or music from the band and that they still screamed along to every lyric. I was one of those people, and it was a great feeling.

Despite having seen them three times in the past, I've never seen the band perform the song that turned me on to the band, "The Year Summer Ended In June" live. I think the reason for this is because the song was penned by the original vocalist Jesse Zaraska about how two of his friends and former bandmates of the group Compromise were killed in a car accident. The song is extremely personal and thus was never performed by the band with Karl as vocalist. However, they started playing it in the past couple of years, and that night was no exception. I got to check something off of my live music bucket list - get handed the mic during a performance of this song. Karl gave me the opportunity several times throughout the set, but I'll never forget the moment he did when they played this song.

Here are the highlights and lowlights.

Highlights: Being in the front. Having Karl's sweat slide down his wrists into my mouth (something I distinctly remember from previously seeing them). Getting the mic multiple times. My cool new fight shorts and shirt. At one point Karl said they were going to play some really old songs and asked if anyone knew them. I raised my hand and he gave a disbelieving look, asking "Really? From our first album Of Malice & A Magnum Heart?" I nodded resolutely. DUH. One of the most important albums of my youth! 

I also got to talk to him after the show as he sat on the edge of the stage chatting with fans. I never stay after shows to meet band members, but this was Misery Signals - few bands are more important to me musically. I told them how I had seen them three times - all at the same venue down in San Diego - but that it had been over five years since the last show. He responded by telling me about the super small venue they had played at in San Diego just the week before. He ended with a firm handshake and a warm "Welcome back."

Lowlights: As always, the most annoying part was the crowd. Holy cow, the crowd. There was a girl wearing a backwards had that said YOLO on it. I nope'd out of there and stood in the back where I could easily ignore the antics of the youngsters dancing like buffoons in the pit.

Also, there was exactly one stage dive during Misery Signals' set, and the diver's right foot just happened to make contact with my left temple, leaving a lovely mark that I didn't notice until I got home and my roommates freaked out, asking what happened. SO METAL.

I'm too old for this stuff.

I'll leave you with this because Misery Signals:



I'll be nursing my not-so-serious wounds until the next show. See you there!

JDS