Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Ni No Kuni

Ni No Kuni is a fantastic game and probably the best thing Level 5 has produced since Dragon Quest VIII. The game is very similar to DQVIII but has a better combat system, better characters, and a more interesting story; on the other side it has slightly worse music (admittedly still excellent) and the world exploration progression doesn’t feel quite as natural. Dragon Quest VIII is a mammoth game clocking in at around 90 hours and Ni No Kuni is merely around 40 or so, so maybe it is slightly easier to pace a much longer game in a notoriously lengthy genre.

We start out with Oliver in Motorville, home of douchebag Phil. Douchebag Phil makes Ollie go and crash a car which mysteriously kills his Mother somehow or other and then his doll comes to life and they’re transported into JRPG land. This all sounds a fair amount dumber than it actually is and truth be told they handle the emotional aspect of the game extremely well, making the vast majority of the game a fun, exciting experience with only a brief handful of moments being particularly emotional one way or another. This isn’t on par with something like Vagrant Story, Xenosaga, or Final Fantasy Tactics in terms of storytelling but it certainly does much better than various games (almost every Final Fantasy, Rogue Galaxy, Grandia, and so on) that fall short of the titans in the genre; and as far as the last generation goes it is probably in the top 5 of best storylines in games.


What really does shine is the game’s incidental dialogue, the stuff that isn’t in cutscenes, isn’t voiced. Almost all of it is extremely self aware, humorous, or interesting in one way or another. As a small example Oliver has an imaginary friend effectively in the “real world” that his other imaginary friends aren’t aware of so they mock him for having one. This is the second version of Ni No Kuni to be released and said imaginary friend is not in the original game; it is simply brilliant that they actively make fun of their own design decision like that, and it all adds an additional layer of levity to almost every conversation. Mr Drippy really is a fantastic character just for comic relief, and most of his best parts aren’t voiced, they’re simply written or translated extremely well.

The plot itself is sort of weakened to start out with due to the obvious over arching additions to the original storyline. Basically the game has 2 final bosses spread 10 hours apart or so, but for the first 30 odd hours of the game it’s all about the main guy from the original game. However you have these random scenes with a council of dudes and the titular White Witch who constantly make fun of how incompetent Shadar is, which makes Shadar a lot less intimidating than he could be. However, the main additional character is legitimately good so it kind of works out in the end anyway.

Speaking of 2 final bosses this game’s difficulty is a little bit all over the place (I don’t think I died once without really grinding at all, but I’m pretty good at JRPGs so this is mostly a thought on how much of a pain XYZ battle was, or how much I had to abuse items to succeed). Most battles are fairly simple press the X button affairs, but randomly you fight a tank that’s resistant to physical attacks and that shit doesn’t fly anymore. After a while every boss has a massive aoe damage spell that’s next to impossible to interrupt (even though the game wants you to) because the enemy gets it off so fast; so you just wind up defending with your main guy and hope your relatively stupid AI buddies manage to defend (they won’t). Ultimately the healing abilities that are in the game are vastly inferior to the restorative items, which means you just have to stockpile a shitload, and I do mean a shitload, of recovery items.

For the first final boss fight you have to go through the hardest dungeon in the game by far, then 3 boss fights, then immediately after this you’re transported to another dungeon followed by another boss fight. You can’t go to the world map in this process once you begin the first boss encounter. Like any good Level 5 game there’s a casino to abuse, and I did abuse it however taking a mild sum of 15 “restore 200 health to the party” items (the maximum health endgame is around 300-400); which I thought would probably be good for the rest of the game. Wrong. The dungeon ate up at least 2 or 3, the first boss fight (probably the hardest fight in the game) took up another 7, the next phase another 2 or 3, then randomly an MMO boss where you don’t stand in fire and win, then a boss that spams his AoE like no other in which it was completely impossible to keep the party alive; lucky for me I had dozens of cheeseburgers to keep Oliver alive and you can kind of abuse the recall familiar feature to dodge physical attacks. The actual last boss is a pretty decent challenge, though there’s random mega experience mobs that I somehow got 3 of and that might have made it a fair amount easier; still plenty of using those healing items because the actual aoe healing spells are garbage.

Look, I prefer difficult games and I wouldn’t even classify this game as difficult, but for the love of God just keep it consistent. Easy at the beginning, hard at the end? Good. Hard as fuck at the beginning, Harder as Fuck this game at the end? Even better.  Randomly difficult at more or less unpredictable spots? Not good. I can’t even imagine what you do to the stupid anti physical boss if you somehow don’t have an air caster in the party, you’d have to use virtually all of your consumables up to that point in the game to succeed. Sure the not last boss was difficult but did his dungeon have to be a ridiculous gauntlet of much harder regular battles than anywhere else in the game with the longest distance between save points in the game? Backloading a totally random dungeon at the end of the not last dungeon for no reason? What the fuck? The game is definitely better than Rogue Galaxy (easy first dungeon, randomly hard as fuck second dungeon, super easy for the rest of the game) at managing difficulty, I’ll give it that. But I still don’t understand what’s so difficult about tuning bosses in a single player game. Rant over.

Overall I definitely recommend the game, I don’t know if I’ll go back and grind out the Platinum (not really a challenge, just a grind), but I enjoyed it and now I get to say my most shameful backlogged game is finally cleared out. If you’re a scumbag like me then go back and play Ni No Kuni, don’t let it just sit there forever. JRPGs are rare enough you might as well play the good one.


Saturday, January 10, 2015

Inherent Vice

I’m something of a connoisseur of weird drug movies, despite having absolutely no interest in partaking myself. There’s something weirdly novel about having a vicarious experience of a drug addled person, and this is a decent enough film in that regard. PT Anderson directed this, and he doesn’t do movies particularly often. Anderson is often cited in the same category as Christopher Nolan and David Fincher of the young, best directors; personally I have only seen There Will Be Blood aside from this. That film was excellent mostly due to Daniel Day Lewis’ performance (I drink your milkshake, I drink it up!), but I haven’t seen the majority of his work so hard to judge.

This film is solid enough but doesn’t hold up in comparison to higher end Nolan stuff or anything (not much does). Inherent Vice is based on a novel by Thomas Pynchon, who I had just read a different book of prior to watching this. Essentially Pynchon books are a random series of events with many of the characters involved randomly appearing and disappearing for chapters at a time, some having only one appearance. Each of these characters is memorable but not impactful enough to drive the story forward. The protagonist is simply an observer of these strange events and he wanders about somewhat aimlessly, perhaps accomplishing something, perhaps not. In this case our protagonist is “Doc” Sportello (played admirably by Joaquin Phoenix), a perpetually high PI in the 70’s hunting down some sort of conspiracy that involves the FBI, the LAPD, Dentists, a 70’s Brothel, and a boat amongst other things.

If all of this doesn’t make much sense to you don’t worry, that’s the essence of Pynchon; it’s still fun enough to read or watch but as far as substance goes it may be somewhat difficult to find. Yes Josh Brolin delivers a fantastic performance, but he’s only in like 35 minutes of this 2 hour and 40 minute marathon.  Apparently every PT Anderson movie is ridiculously long so fans of his surely won’t complain, but as a neutral observer you could probably cut out 25-30 minutes and have a better movie.

There’s a few characters in the film that are just not all that interesting. The initial inspiration for Joaquin’s quest is driven by his preposterously tall former girlfriend who tells him there’s a plot to kidnap a rich land mogul in the area; however said girlfriend is not a particularly good actress and basically all of the scenes with her drag on for too long for no reason. Additionally Doc’s other main protective interest is played by Owen Wilson, who is not a terrible actor by any means but in this he’s simply boring; even though his wife delivers an excellent, totally random 5-10 minute role and then vanishes.

Inherent Vice is not one of the best movies of the year and shouldn’t be treated as such. It certainly has its interesting moments but compared to something like Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans it falls well short. Perhaps if Brolin was the protagonist and in every scene this could have been an excellent movie, but as is it’s relatively underwhelming. The film is still worth watching despite its flaws, particularly if you’re primarily interested in an entertaining, humorous experience.