Archive for August, 2010

Standing in for the Internet is me. I saw it, yes, and if is allowed to write a review about it, then so am I.

So, Scott Pilgrim. What did I think?

I liked it. I think it was well-made, and I think it was a good adaptation. I feel a little disappointed, but I can’t really determine what by. I think, honestly, I was too distracted as I watched it by the subtle changes to the pacing of the comics–the movie doesn’t follow the manga’s order of events, but it generally fits all the events in there. It’s like clever reediting of the comic, and I approve–but it was distracting for most of the film.

Then I had to get used to the casting. I never fully bought into Michael Cera as Scott, but he does well here. He’s got enough of Scott’s attributes that it doesn’t seem like he’s derailing the character in anyway. He’s Scott–but he’s not necessarilly the one you imagined.

I derail myself slightly to discuss something I read in Scott McCloud’s “Understanding Comics” textbook. In it, he discusses realistically drawn comics and cartoons. Realistic comics can show off more detail in terms of characters and settings, but cartoons get something special. The more simple the drawing, the more the reader imparts their own imagination into it. So, a cartoon smiley looks however you want it to–your mind constructs an image for it, rather than have an image given to it. So, Scott Pilgrim is well known for its distinctive, manga-esque, cartoony style. People get upset about the casting because no actor could ever match what they’d seen in their mind’s eye. The way the characters are interpreted by the reader/audience is unique to every individual reader’s preferences. Scott’s lines, his attitude, his tone and type of voice, his physical appearance are all generated by the reader’s mind, and as such, may not reflect either what the author intended the character to be or how others see the character. Edgar Wright must have taken this into account, and probably just decided to do how HE envisioned the Scott Pilgrim universe to be. No cast could ever cater to everyone’s unique tastes, and with that in mind, the movie’s cast is quite solid.

Everyone gives an energetic performance, the pacing and chemistry between characters is generally pretty good. The movie’s overabundance of style leads to some conversations sounding stilted or forced if only because the actors are also reacting to strange events happening around them, or else are making a pose or performing an action that requires a lot of concentration. Cera’s Scott is definitely not a rehash of his earlier characters–the similarities are there, but they are more token than anything else. Cera does his best to embody Scott’s doofy sort of simplicity and it comes across well, even if it…well, I don’t know. In the end, I still don’t fully buy Cera as Scott. I don’t think it’s any fault of the actor, but I do think it was a bad casting. I can’t imagine who could do Scott to be honest. Maybe a young Will Ferrell. My friend suggested that to me one day and I laughed, at first, but it made sense. Ferrell’s so damned flexible and emotive, capable of hitting highs and lows quickly and effortlessly–if only he was twenty years younger and didn’t have curly hair he could absolutely play Scott. But that’s a digression.

The movie is definitely all about its action sequences. At least half are completely different from what was seen in the comics–which is an added treat for the theater audience. We get much more kung-fu, and crazy-awesome sound effects bounding around everywhere. The style is cool, the comedy is present, and there’s always a rockin’ sound track to accompany it all. Best of all, Sex Bob-Omb, the band Scott is in, is brought to life vividly; leading us into the opening credits and accompanying us throughout the movie. The band holds the movie together as a set piece, a traveling bit of familiarity and fun to mesh all of these scenes together. The music is stellar, fast and loud and crazy as hell, both funny and foot-tappingly strong. The band members grow on you immensely as well.

The supporting cast is done really well. Gorgeous Anna Kendrick plays Scott’s little sister pitch-perfect. Kieran Culkin is really good as Wallace too–he has that sleazy, yet charming sort of aloofness, and probably remains one of the better cast characters. Knives Chau, a very important character, is also very well done. Newcomer Ellen Wong gets the spazzy, obsessive nature of the character as well as her determined, stoic side, and she manages to steal the show in many a scene, though, like in the comics, Knives is a character that starts to grate on you, and the best part of her subplot–her father trying to cut Scott in half for a whole volume–is sadly not in the movie.

A lot was cut, mostly for the better–the movie is overloaded with conversations as it is, so a lot of the character-developing filler was left out. Sadly, most of the Envy Adams chapter got removed as well. She shows up and plays her part and gets a few good scenes, but she’s scarcely more than window dressing compared to the comics. I feel they could have left some of the flashbacks to Scott’s past–if not kept all of them–and not lost too many people in the audience. They really develop Scott, which is important because he’s kind of a dick. He’s called out on it many a time in this movie and in the books, but you really feel for him once you know a little about where he came from and what he’s gone through.

Oh, and of course, the movie is [i]loaded[/i] with video game references. The screen is awash with bleeps and bloops, eight bit numbers, all sorts of stuff. The pop culture overload is embraced whole-heartedly. Indeed, this movie gets that probably best of all, able to bring sound and motion to what were otherwise just throwaway remarks. Most noticeable is a part where Scott mentions he can play the bass line from Final Fantasy II and then just starts strumming away. Most of the references were expanded upon in this way, which makes for another nice treat to the movie public.

Having seen it once and am now familiar with the way the movie goes, I think I’ll enjoy it much more the second time I see it. It’s definitely worth catching in theaters and grabbing on DVD–or Blu-Ray preferably. It’s very fun, certainly on par with Kick-Ass.

Plus, y’know, it’s Scott Pilgrim: the movie. Are you really NOT gonna want to see it?


Why I hate Final Fantasy XIII

Jesus, I know, two Final Fantasy posts in a row. I’ve had it on the mind for awhile, mostly thanks to the last post and, since then, listening to other FF soundtracks–like VII’s. It’s aged a bit–they were still using midis or something back then, so it’s all got this real weird electronic, beeping sort of sound to it. It’s also excessively grim. See for yourself–go and listen to the world map theme music and tell me if that doesn’t sound like the saddest thing you’ve ever heard. It’s like an old dog dying slowly on a porch, his last fleeting moments spent capturing nothing but the green grass lawn stretching far out to…

…that went to a strange place. At anyrate, it kinda makes you wanna kill yourself. FFVII was and is a very dark game. Akin to how the Dark Knight Returns is pointed at as the start of comic books becoming excessively dark and “edgy”, FFVII did much the same thing to video games, or at the very least, RPGs. Before FFVII, RPGs were generally bright, colorful, and rather silly. I mean, Jesus, just LOOK at FFV!

Compare this... THIS

The Final Fantasy series got a hell of a lot darker, but it wasn’t trying to start a trend–the writers just decided that this new story had to have a different tone than previous games. At it’s time, it was strange, edgy, new, and it blasted into popular culture like a flaming meteor.

People say it’s the best FF ever. I disagree, but I don’t want to get into that old argument now. Here’s the point I’m laboriously reaching at–FFVII felt genuine. It felt like it was inspired, that there was passion and energy in it. Everyone was giving their all because they really, truly were behind this. I’d argue that even FFVIII, easily the weakest of the PSX-era games, had at least a lot of fervor and passion behind it. The amount of ludicrously unnecessary detail crammed into that game’s encyclopedia is mindblowing. They were into this shit, and they were with IX and, honestly, X also.

X gets a lot of flack, but I actually defend it. It has some silly designs and silly characters and weird weapons, but I buy it. They wanted to start a new thing, shake off their old trends and go someplace different. They succeeded immensely in that regard, if you ask me. XI I won’t count because it’s an MMORPG and, well, the less you make me talk about those the better.

XII is where we hit a stutter. First off, I absolutely love FFXII. I thought it was incredibly charming and really, really fun to play. I love its battle system more than words can describe, and my greatest frustration is that the vastly, vastly improved International Edition has not been localized for American use. But FFXII had a problem. There was plenty of passion behind it, plenty of drive and hard work, but something was…missing. It seemed directionless, aimless. There was something it wanted to get at, but it couldn’t seem to figure out how to reach it. I still love the game for what it is, and found its story refreshing, if nothing else, to the series’ then-trademark sappy romances.

A headless Final Fantasy is better than a heartless one, at least, and that brings me to XIII. I have a laundry list of gripes against XIII–its lack of player involvement, its shallow, superficial customization, its completely linear nature, its absurdly tedious sidequests, its horrible pacing or even its bland, uninspiring music. But y’know what I hate the most about it? It has no soul. I’m sorry, I just don’t see it. It feels…empty. It feels like a flailing, confused attempt to appeal to as many demographics as possible and losing sight of any sort of creative vision. Though there’s a certain artificiality to FFXIII that truly sparks my ire–the sheer, unyielding attempts to tug at our heartstrings.

There are several things I enjoyed from FFXIII–its cutscenes were very pretty, it has amazing graphics, and its “story” is pretty entertaining, if badly paced. But the game has many, MANY scenes where it just gushes for your sympathies. It plays every old card in the book to make you cry or laugh, and even if it works, it feels hollow, insubstantial.

I feel that FFXIII wasn’t created so much as manufactured, assembled piece by piece–an aging giant piecing together its favorite toy, long after it had cast it aside. I think, somewhere in that mess, there was a real story–fuck that, a real game that somebody wanted to create. Damned if I can find it though.

Since this rank, talentless philistine has somehow managed to not only drive this insufferable blog into the ground, what with his lengthy, rambling essays and, of all things, film reviews–god, I think I’ve just thrown up in my own throat–it seems that it is up to me, the MidiMaestro, to return this video game blog to a rightful bastion of critique, analysis, and cultural relevancy.

Thus, we shall discuss music.

Specifically, we shall discuss the music of Nobuo Uemetsu, the premier video game composer and keyboardist, whom many are familiar with as the longtime composer for the brain-hemorrhagingly popular Final Fantasy series.

In particular, we shall discuss the soundtrack for Final Fantasy IX.

By jove, what an unseemly cast of characters. See if you can correctly spot all the girls in this picture.

To the ill-informed, Final Fantasy IX was the capstone upon what may be seen as the finest era of the Final Fantasy series. The three PSX titles–VII (7) VIII (8) and IX (9)–were considered groundbreaking achievements for gaming, both for their incredibly vivid, detailed graphics as well as their outstanding, bombastic soundtracks. To this date, many would content (and would do so incorrectly) that Final Fantasy VII is the best in the series ever. Even with just three games to its credit, the PSX-era of the franchise remains the most innovative and influential.

Final Fantasy IX is this era’s highest mark, at least in sheer technical terms. Very few PSX games look as good as FFIX does, and only one comes to my mind that could even surpass its graphical legacy. But I don’t give a flying baboon’s arsehole about the damned thing’s graphics–I care about its music.

The score for FFIX is littered with simply outstanding tracks. Considered the composer’s own personal favorite of all the soundtracks he’s done (mostly because he had so much time and freedom to work on it), FFIX is an eclectic blend of orchestral melodies, synthesized trip-rock, grungy guitar riffs, operatic organ tunes and so much more.

I posit this: every and all Final Fantasy game has been vastly inferior to its soundtrack. From 1-10, Uemetsu helmed the series’ musical elements, and in IX he brings together his past and present, blending tunes, melodies, simple chords and entire arrangements into one incredible work of art. Characters who might otherwise remain unremarkable are instead transformed into striking personalities by virtue of their theme song alone. Every unique area and location has its own music, from the murky, isolated Qu’s Marsh to the Burmecian Kingdom, drowning in rain.

A great example is my favorite character from the game, Freya. Freya’s a Burmecian, a race of rat-people who live in a perpetually rainy land, surrounded by monsters. Trained in the arts of spear-wielding, physics-defying dragon knights, Freya’s own somewhat tragic backstory and motivations are, sadly, resolved within the game’s first major act. Subsequently, she ends up being somewhat less pronounced in the later parts of the story, and is often buried in the background. I like her for a variety of reasons–she’s easily one of the best characters you can use in game, she has a really interesting design, a visual homage to the earliest FF games–but fuck that, she has an awesome theme song.

Music is essential to buying into a game’s story–and in general, sound is essential to gameplay. Music in games has evolved from simple sound-effects to accompany actions to sincere and powerful works of art. Every chord in FFIX is lovingly played–you can feel the composer’s passion in every passing sound, every note, and this passion surges under the fabric of the game itself like blood, feeding and enriching the experience, pumping life and vitality into all of the game’s individual parts. Without it, the significance of events–from crushing defeats to powerful confessions of love to intense, dramatic battles would be negligible. The music brings Final Fantasy IX to life.

If you’re one of the (surprisingly many) people who never played FFIX, either because you were turned off by the art style or the return to a more traditional fantasy landscape or just weren’t into the series at the time, I urge you, please–at the very least, buy the soundtrack (or download it, I don’t care). The game is worth playing, beating, and playing again on the strength of its music too–and hey, it’s actually a pretty incredible RPG in its own right.

There’s a lot of people who seem to think the only critique that’s worth a damn is negative, because it’s funny and often more insightful into a work’s flaws, which–when identified–allow the creators to improve upon their creation. However, I think we’re bereft of true, genuine praise on today’s Net landscape. Final Fantasy IX–and Nobuo Uemetsu–earn this praise. The final product is, quite simply, one of the finest–if not the finest Final Fantasy game. It marks the end of an era, and it was probably the last Final Fantasy game that Uemetsu really enjoyed making–especially if the rumors about how demanding Squaresoft was on him during the production of FFX.

It wouldn’t be very good of me to finish a review of this game’s soundtrack without giving recognition to the best song on it. There might be some who argue me on this–and I gladly welcome such meaningful discussion–but those who play this game to the end remember one sequence far and above any other. The moment in the story where the hero is at his absolute lowest, as if all hope is lost and and all that he has been fighting for has been snatched away from him. Unable to trust in anyone, not himself, not even his loyal companions, he goes out into a den of monsters to end his life at their hands. Yet at every battle, his companions rush to his side, and support him, even as he insults, derides, and denies them at every turn. At the end, overcome by emotion, he is unable to carry on by himself, and returns to those he abandoned, seeking their forgiveness–which is readily given. It’s an incredibly powerful sequence, blending gameplay and visuals–and it is set to this amazing song, simply–and aptly–titled “You Are Not Alone”.


You guys ever hear of movies? Y’know, those things that are just like video games, except you don’t actually play them and they don’t cost as much to see or own. Yeah, this post is about them.

Well, actually, it’s about one movie in particular I saw–The Other Guys.

I went to go see this on a whim. I’d seen the trailers, thought the premise was at least kind of interesting, even if Cop Out had just done a similar idea not too long before, and was pleasantly surprised. This movie is a lot of things–a gut-busting comedy, a cavaclade of great cameos and characters, and–get this–a rather adept bit of social commentary.

I am not fucking kidding.

The movie is a ludicrous series of nonsequiters. You know how Family Guy will just cut to random scenes in order to tell a joke? That’s the entire, oh, first two-thirds of this movie, and the ever-increasing degrees of ridiculous scenarios the two main characters stumble into provides more than your ticket’s worth of laughs. Mark Wahlberg plays a somewhat dim-witted, overqualified desk jockey dying to get out of the office while Will Farrell plays a bookish, nonconfrontational, Zen-like accountant who never wants to leave. They fight crime! Sort of.

Mostly they just get into weird, goofy, hilarious situations. New York City is a fairy tale land of bizarre happenings, and it seems to exist solely to shit on Farell and Wahlberg. Deserved or not, every situation they stumble into seems to always go badly for them, yet their dogged perseverance almost demands that you at least root for them to acheive some semblance of a victory. There’s hardly a scene they aren’t in, and consideirng the team-up, the pair have great chemistry. You could call this movie “Marky Mark shouts at Ron Burgandy a Lot” and you’d not be all that wrong. Both characters are well-developed and funny in their own ways, and it’s kind of nice to see that Ferell isn’t really playing the stooge this time, so it’s a change of pace.

But what this movie is REALLY about is the fucked up discrepancies between the rich ruling classes and everyday Americans. In its sluggish and much slower-paced final act, the movie takes a chunk of time to make a pointed political statement about how inadequate the systems we have in place to check and balance corporate investors and their money-lending cronies really are. The main “villain” of the story is simply a money lender who gave away more than he had, forcing him to find some poor saps to con with a Ponzie scheme.

The end credits are one of the finest I’ve seen in a movie–an elaborate pseudo-Powerpoint presentation of graphics and figures detailing the levels of excess and the hard data behind a lot of what is discussed or mentioned in the background of the film. Assaulting fat cat CEOs and con-men like Bernie Madoff with relish, the movie reveals a startling level of, if not outright depth, certainly more complexity.

It becomes a bit…shall we say, incongruous…when you compare how the film sets itself up with how it concludes. The cartoonish, almost random sequences that fill most of the first two hilarious thirds of the movie don’t really make you think of satire or commentary, but now that I’ve seen the whole film, I’d want to rewatch it again, to pay attention to scenes that I’d dismissed as just exposition. Amidst the laughs, there’s a lot of very sharp comments pertaining to the inequality of wealth we have in this country.

Excess. It’s everywhere in this movie, especially in regards to the “villain” (he’s far too pathetic to really be properly considered an antagonist) whose sheer volumes of wealth, his teeth-grindingly self-serving speeches about the value of overspending and lavish living in the center of a vast urban sprawl, made up of miserable, poverty-stricken nobodies or else peacefully apathetic middle classers who just want to keep going, just want to keep their china clean and their bellies full. In a way, the two main characters represent these dichotomies–Wahlberg is blue-collar, through and through, and despite his qualifications and skills he is simply unable to progress in the world, whereas Ferrell is a smart, educated and fairly well-off man who has everything–and believes that only by completely ignoring how good he has it–in fact, by never leaving his desk–he can make it through the day.

I may be overthinking it. The movie is far less pendantic and heavy handed as I am now–but it’s one of the very few comedies released recently that’s really made me think. I’m still completely shocked by this–but y’know what? I can dig it. Considering this is from the same house that built Talledega Nights and Stepbrothers (Christ Almighty, STEPBROTHERS!) I am as shocked as horse that just sprouted a hump that this movie did anything more than entertain.

Check it out. Considering the pedigree, you’re guaranteed a funny movie–and y’know what? You may just get a pretty smart one too.

Well I know it’s been awhile since my last post, but I did warn you. I had to move all the way across town, so I’ve been a bit indisposed–but I didn’t come to give you excuses. I came to give you…excitement! Excitement in the form of a written review of a mostly 2-D first person RPG dungeon-crawler! The thrills never end!

Right, so, Strange Journey.

Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey is a bleak, apocalyptic first-person dungeon crawler. As the trailer informs, the basic premise is that some…thing…is happening in Antarctica, creating an enormous dimensional anomaly that is swallowing up everything that we know and love. If it isn’t stopped then this anomaly, called the Schwarzwelt, will consume the entire planet. You are part of an international team of scientists, soldiers and engineers sent in to research and analyze the phenomenon and attempt to figure out what it is and how to stop it.

Of course, naturally, everything goes to shit as soon as they say “go” and you end up getting marooned inside the Schwarzwelt and beset by terrifying, invisible monsters with a taste for human flesh. A mysterious force gives you access to a computer program that can identify and communicate with these monsters, called “demons”, and only by using this mysterious program can you explore the Schwarzwelt and maybe, just maybe, save the world.

The game’s plot is actually surprisingly good. New characters come and go, everyone is at least decently-written and fairly likeable, and the atmosphere is pitch-perfect. When a game opens with a third of your crew getting slaughtered or driven insane, you know that you’re dealing with a story that doesn’t pull punches. It’s preachy at times, but in a non-intrusive way–most of the demons you encounter lecture you about how humankind has “failed”, either to take care of the environment or care for each other–but at the same time, the creature that is lecturing you is a little winged girl who cracks open human skulls and sucks out their still-warm brains. The dichotomy is surprisingly effective, which keeps the “humanity is ebil” speeches from grating too much.

Yet still I love it.

It comes in a really awesome box with a soundtrack CD! Hurray for gimmicky packaging!

For newcomers to the Shin Megami Tensei who whet their teeth on the Persona titles, there may be some culture shock here. Gone is the J-pop, Japanese honorifics, the high schools and the party dynamics. Instead, the game opens with ominous gregorian chanting and has you telling jokes to angels and devils, getting kidnapped and experimented on, witnessing atrocities and nightmares at every turn. You’ll wander impressive, enormous labyrinths with floors that teleport you, drop you down to the floor below, damage you, or launch you halfway across the map on a conveyor belt. Gamers familiar with Etrian Odyssey will be right at home here.

Like EO, you navigate 3-D maps and battle 2-D monsters in random battles. You’ll have plenty of hidden items to find, hidden doors to open, and the game slowly, steadily gives you more and more tools to use as you proceed deeper into the Schwarzwelt. Getting new weapons and items involves scavenging for materials, called “forma” hidden throughout every map. Hidden enemies, bosses, bonus quests and missions give you new “rare” forma, which allow you to upgrade your power suit and open new doors, fuse new demons, and kill God.

Hm? What’s that? Fuse new demons? Ah, I forgot to mention: this game is a monster-raising sim. Yeah, if you took Pokemon and mixed it with Satan, shot yourself full of Heroin and watched a documentary about the effects of pollution on wildlife, you’ll have this game. There’s over 300 demons to recruit, usually by negotiating with them. Negotiation is basically answering questions–you get three possible answers, with only one or two right answers (and sometimes the right answer changes). Use your charm, money, influence and strength to win demons over to your side, then level ’em up, collect their crystalized souls, and mash ’em together to get more. You won’t ever use any one demon for very long–most have enough weaknesses to counter-balance their strengths, and fusing demons together is often the only way to recruit the powerful boss monsters you defeat, or to learn new, more powerful skills.

Combat is turn-based with an emphasis on exploiting weaknesses (an SMT mainstay) and combos (less so). Every demon has an alignment–Law, Chaos or Neutral–as does your character, based upon moral choices you make throughout the game. Yes, there is a moral choice system, yes it affects the ending, no it isn’t stupid like Bioshock’s. You aren’t deciding between good and evil, but rather–basically–anarchy or fascism. Demons and angels basically convince you to either serve God unquestioningly or try to murder him, and if you pick either option, you’ll have your demonic pals love you a lot more. Same-alignment characters and demons can perform combo attacks together, dealing additional damage by striking elemental weaknesses. Careful party selection can allow you to unleash devastating combos at the cost of a single attack.

Basic combat screen. Note that at the bottom, the name's are colored--those correspond to alignments.

If you’ve casually heard of SMT games, you’ve probably heard that they’re very hard. To be fair, to anyone who hasn’t had a lot of experience playing RPGs before, they can be incredibly daunting. Strange Journey is definitely a challenge–whilst initially forgiving, it quickly punishes you for mistakes without mercy. Later mazes feature conveyor belts that dump you into holes that drop you down two whole floors and force you to spend ten minutes climbing all the way back to where you where to try again. You’ll be relying heavily on the automap feature to decipher some of the more complex mazes, all the while being assaulted by more and more powerful demons at every turn. Yet this game rewards just as much as it punishes.

If you put the effort into it, the game opens up like a warm, inviting souffle. The game discourages grinding much by scaling exp, but grinding for levels is useful when you are trying to farm individual formas, level up demons to get their crystals, or just get up one more level so you can fuse that swamp monster from Algonquian mythology you saw earlier. You never have to do any of this, but doing so gets you more items, more weapons, stronger demons and better abilities. There’s many different ways to approach any given problem–brute force is always available, but you have such wide varieties of demons to choose from that you can, with a little work and patience, put together a specialized team to exploit an enemy’s weakness. There’s nothing more satisfying than defeating an enemy far, far stronger than you just through clever strategy and pre-planning–and that’s the sort of satisfaction that makes Strange Journey great.

It isn’t a game for everyone. It’s light on plot, focusing more on its gameplay, and you’ll be spending more time on the Demon Fusion screen than you will exploring the dungeons. The game is long and very grim, and its turn-based combat and text-heavy, voiceless cutscenes can be off-putting. But if you’ve read everything up to this point and think “hm, that sounds kind of cool” then by all means, check this game out. It’s loaded with content, the story is great, the atmosphere chilling, the monster designs are absolutely fantastic and the soundtrack is phenomenal. It’s hard, sure, and slow-paced definitely. The graphics are a bit antiquated and sometimes the dialogue just turns into reams and reams of exposition–but if you stick with it, when you make it to the end of this Strange Journey, you’ll find it well worth the effort.