Saturday, June 29, 2013

Final Fantasy XIII

Would you ever have thought that the words "brutally simple and spartan" could have applied to a Final Fantasy game?  Final Fantasy was always supposed to be a wild, colorful adventure across massive worlds full of memorable characters, bizarre creatures, and beautiful environments.  These were never games that went for the bare necessities, they threw together every idea that the designers had, filling their canvasses not with measured brushstrokes but a supersoaker full of paint.  What other series could create a game that had time travel, evil witches, card games, space stations, moon monsters, and junctioning in the very same place?  You had huge world maps, entire continents full of cultures and peoples who needed rescuing.  Even at its most linear and restrictive like "Final Fantasy X", there were still Chocobo races, fishtank soccer, and temple puzzles.  Who ever asked for this beautiful gaming experience to be cut down to nothing but the main battle system?  To remove the towns, the minigames, the side characters, the sense of wonder?  Who asked for "Final Fantasy XIII"?

Three years ago, when "Final Fantasy XIII" was first released, I wrote a post explaining why I decided to skip it.  My reasons mainly were:  I thought that Square Enix had simply released a game that wasn't finished.  I couldn't believe that they would intentionally create a linear dungeon-crawler with only the most superficial nods to the history and emotions that made Final Fantasy such a dominant force in the JRPG genre.  As it turns out, "Final Fantasy XIII" isn't an unfinished game - this is exactly what they were trying to accomplish here.  The developers of "Final Fantasy XIII" weren't out to make an RPG, this was going to be something more -  a genre-transcending experience that would be something entirely new.  Pure focused action and story, putting in the pacing of a "Call of Duty" game*, the writing of a cheap anime, and the fastest, most hypercharged battle system ever seen in the series history.  This wasn't made to be an RPG, it was made to be an action game removing every element that director, Motomu Toriyama felt was "vestigial".  When those organs they removed were actually the still-beating heart and arteries that gave Final Fantasy life.

To the "Final Fantasy XIII" team, it seemed like a dream.  To me, its more of a nightmare.  I think I'm over-doing the negativity too quickly for this review, but it should be said quite clearly that "Final Fantasy XIII" is easily the worst main series Final Fantasy game of them all**.  There are buzz words that you can throw around explaining why "Final Fantasy XIII" doesn't work, such as "linear", "no towns", "datalog", and "AI-controlled battle system".  But I think they're all symptoms of the same disease, which comes far deeper within this game's soul.  Its a disease of not really wanting to be a Final Fantasy game, of trying to become an action adventure title but being unwilling to ditch the trappings of an RPG.  This cancer at the heart of "Final Fantasy XIII" makes it this sad step-child in the series evolution, a failed experiment with ever-so-brief sparks of genius, but ultimately ruined by horrific pacing, terrible level design, a confusing and frustrating story, and simply wasted potential.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

World War Z

Have you read a book named "World War Z"?  Oh, no?  Well, don't worry, the makers of "World War Z" haven't read it either.

Its been a good long while since I've seen an adaptation as "in name only" as "World War Z" - the only true rivals to this sort of complete disregard to the source material can be found in the awful video game films of Uwe Boll.  What exactly did "The House of the Dead" have to do with teenagers stuck on an island full zombies?  What does the Max Brooks novel, "World War Z" have to do with the film, "World War Z"?  I'll sum it up:  zombies attack, there's one Israeli character who probably is the same character from the books, and... um... that's really all I got.  The studio behind this generally stupid Hollywood blockbuster, leading man Brad Pitt's own Plan B Productions, claims that this the story of the unnamed reporter who interviews the survivors of the zombie war in the book.  However, in terms of tone, content, and even basic factual points - in order to placate the Chinese the outbreak apparently started in Korea now rather than Inner Mongolia  - the movie gets it all wrong.  To be fair of course, "World War Z" is not an easy topic to cover in a two hour film, but to be less fair, its obvious they just bought the brand title in order to market their own big-budget PG-13 zombie schlock.

Of course, they couldn't actually adapt the original "World War Z" because that shares a passing resemblance to classic George A. Romero zombie films, and this blockbuster really doesn't want to be a zombie film.  It wants to be a huge Roland Emmerich disaster thriller.  Brad Pitt and his family fleeing across cities full of literal tidal waves of undead zombies has about equal thematic meaning as John Cusack's equally vapid adventure against a melting Earth in "2012".  It takes this film right up until the very last act to actually show a zombie up-close, when before the ghoulish armies were just CG creations without personality or spark.  Brook's and Romero's satirical veins have been excised to make room for several truly lousy action sequences - the Jerusalem attack might rank as being one of the most dispiriting moments I've ever had the displeasure to witness in a film.  Its very rare that one hundred million dollars in computer power could make my brain so fascinated by the all-too-slow rhythmic twitches of my watch's second hand.

"World War Z" is at best tolerable as a Redbox rental on a slow Thursday night, or perhaps as a high-budget SciFi Channel original film.  The production values might be absurd in their complexity, but they can't bring any spark to this rather boring movie.  Even Brad Pitt seems bored, reacting mainly to the hordes of a zombified populace with glazed eyelids and a completely perfunctory expression.  He spent millions of dollars of his own money to make "World War Z" happen, you'd think he could've shown some interest, right?  Ironically, "World War Z" does have several tense and interesting moments, but they only occur once the CG artists go home and we have simple tense scenes with small groups of zombies.  Because the zombie film concept is still an interesting idea, its only a shame that "World War Z" couldn't be more true to its roots.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Man of Steel - Why Punching Things Isn't Enough

A vocal review of "Man of Steel", explaining why this movie completely missed the point:

Hopefully the next time I record my voice it will be for something fun again, like "Furious 6".

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Monsters University

I guess its time that we come to accept the fact that Pixar really isn't going to go back to their groundbreaking high-art movies any time soon.  Once upon a time Pixar unleashed a one-two-three knock-out combo of "WALL-E", "Up", and "Toy Story 3", exploding the world of animated films and smashing every previous standard of children's entertainment to a new realm of quality and possibilities.  The world was left stunned, gasping for more of this genius.  This was a company that made a post-apocalyptic film about the decay of human society into glutenous orbs obsessed with the Internet, then a movie about an old man overcoming the loss of his beloved wife and fighting his psychopathic childhood hero, and then a film about toys facing the inevitability of their own demise and traveling down to TOY HELL, and somehow managed to make all three of these films massively entertaining for the whole family and some of the greatest movies ever made.  Then came "Cars 2"...

"Monsters University" is not going to be another pyrotechnics display of groundbreaking children's writing, and before you decide its a terrible soulless easy sequel to feed the mighty Mickey Mouse's endless greed for ticket sales, you need to make peace with the fact that Pixar today just wants to make fun movies.  I can't imagine the pressure that would come just trying to top "WALL-E", let alone two Best Picture nominees.  If you had made movies that triumphant, wouldn't you rather go back to simpler fun kinds of movies rather than pushing ahead and succumbing to inevitable hubris?  "Toy Story 3" was pretty grim, obviously if you're a company specializing in children's entertainment, you probably don't want to go much further than that.  So why not just make a movie based on college film cliches featuring some beloved characters from a previous production?  Does every movie need to shatter the Earth?

So now that I've excused this movie's existence, I guess I can actually appreciate it for what it is:  not a bad movie.  Actually, "Monsters University" is pretty much a lot of fun, and despite being a sequel, it still has some elements of classic Pixar boldness within it.  Its more than the story of how the two main heroes of "Monsters, Inc." met, though that is the primary focus of the film, its also a compelling story about ambition, dreams, that really does not take any easy paths.  "Monsters University" despite its trappings of following elements from "Animal House" and "Revenge of the Nerds" is actually a film with some very hard truths for its audience.  But luckily, it never becomes bleak or depressing, its still a very fun movie with some great humorous moments, I have to give this one a solid recommendation.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

E3 2013 Reaction

Generally this year's E3 was shockingly cool, full of an entire dozen of great-looking games, many of which I'd play in the future.  But first, let me start out negatively, just to get this out of the way:  the Xbox One is the biggest scam in video game history.  I'm not going to go into very great detail, because if you have even a passing interest in the releases of E3, you already know about the Xbox One and how big of a rip-off it is.  I reserved judgment officially on this console until I heard more, until Microsoft explained what had to be misunderstandings, but no, they really have gone full asshole.  The Xbox One represents the very worst of video gaming's future - its so bad it can't even count*.  I'm impressed, actually, by how willing Microsoft has become to be turn completely irredeemably, mustache-twirlingly evil.  DRM, forced Internet connection, you can't resell your games, you can't even lend your games out, you can't breaks the rules on Xbox Live without possibly getting banned and Microsoft bricking your system, and you can't play the system at all if you live in most of Asia, Africa, or South America.  Do not buy the Xbox One.  Do not buy a single game for it.  If you purchase a Microsoft gaming console in the next couple of years, you are part of the problem.  I will blame you personally for the coming gaming apocalypse.

Okay, now that the unpleasantness is behind us, let us move on.   Luckily there are two other next-gen gaming consoles out there, the PlayStation 4 and the Nintendo WiiU.  So you don't even need Xbox, its part of the past already.  They've willingly chosen to make themselves entirely irrelevant forever more, and even the suicide of the one the biggest console manufacturers in the business will not dampen the generally good news coming out of E3 this year.

As a first note, stunningly, Square Enix brought their game this year, and brought it hard.  Yeah, they still carried in "Lightning Returns" and those HD remakes, whatever, but they also had new games.  Exciting stuff.  The "Final Fantasy XV" almost makes up for how long of a wait we've had to suffer for "Versus XIII"**.  The actual game might prove to only be mediocre, but this is still a great moment to be a Final Fantasy fan, and nothing can take that away.  Then, as if one miracle were not enough, there was an announcement of "Kingdom Hearts III".  I guess the universe doesn't hate me after all.  Those two alone would have made this a great week to be a gamer, but I have many more titles to speak of.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Man of Steel

Yeah, I'm using an image from "Superman 64".  Guess how good this movie is?

Let's be upfront right now:  "Man of Steel" is not the movie that will make Superman cool.  In fact, "Man of Steel" is something of a disaster.  If the goal was to make Superman even more bland and forgettable in a over-complicated mess of a film without characters or mood or development, then I guess they flew right through all of Lex Luthor's rings.  I think the idea here that Zack Snyder and Master Christopher Nolan had was to boil Superman down to just his pure archetypal core removing the goofy campy elements and slapstick, to create nothing but a grand heroic ubermench.  And in the end, they boiled out all the flavor.  Then they kept on going, until the meat of the characters limply slid off, leaving nothing but dead stinking bones in the pot.

I kept waiting for "Man of Steel" to get awesome.  I had really high expectations for this one, and it wasn't until ten minutes after I left the theater that I realized how utterly awful this movie was.  The trailers offered what seemed like a perfect perspective on the Superman character:  mixing classic Americana with pure godlike special effects.  The casting looked fantastic, offering what appeared to be a character study of Superman himself, how he mixed together his disparate elements of old-timey Wheat-fed American farmer upbringings and his ultimate superpowers from Krypton.  Instead it was about nothing.  Ultimately this whole movie is really about setting up a terrible hour-long CG fight scene that never ends.  All the characters are flat and expendable, they exist as shades of cliches, and really its not about Superman or Krypton or archetypes.  Its about long Michael Bay-style endless fight scenes.

The problem here is that "Man of Steel" gets so close to being that perfect Superman movie that the trailers suggested.  Its almost there.  If only the structure of the movie was actually concerned with the characters, if only Superman seemed to have any kind of personality, if only the ending wasn't trying to create the most ridiculous doomsday scenario to give all the CG artists something to do.  There have been good Superman movies, there have been bad Superman movies*.  But aside from obscure porn-parodies, this has to be the worst one I've ever seen.  Sorry, pretty graphics don't save a film from lacking a soul.

Monday, June 10, 2013


Nomura came.  He saw.  He conquered.

That is all.

(A longer and more detailed E3 reaction is coming when the conference ends later this week.)

The Future of Final Fantasy - Speculation

Its been a rough few years to be a Final Fantasy fan.  The entire JRPG genre itself is not exactly flourishing, and leading that decline headfirst has been Square Enix's flagship RPG franchise.  Between the delays, vaporware, Japan-only titles, and the absolutely horrid quality of the games SE has actually managed to release, its clear that we have lived through the lowest point in this series' entire history.  I think the worst moment for me was the PlayStation 4 conference, where SE sent out two of its highest executives without anything at all to show, letting them present a year-old tech demo.  The expression on their was not unlike the desperate determination of a tenth grader trying to BS his way through a book report on "Long Day's Journey Into Night" despite not having read a page.  "Yeah, we got nothing, please be excited for E3."  For somebody who has lived through year after year of just wanting a single decent Final Fantasy game, or if nothing else, just "Versus XIII", it was the greatest insult that they had nothing to show.  They couldn't even rope together the vaguest of trailers.  They had empty pockets and false smiles.

But now E3 is here, and tomorrow morning Square Enix will present their "Future of Final Fantasy" outline.  Essentially this will be the largest announcement of Final Fantasy's future ever since E3 2006 when the ill-fated Fabula Novus Crystallis Final Fantasy XIII project was announced.  Already we know of "Lightning Returns", and that's perfectly fine you freakish Lightning Saga* fans but definitely not the spark this series needs to restart its fire, several remakes, and a rebuild of "Final Fantasy XIV", which actually looks amazing.  That leaves only the next-gen business.  Its unknown how many titles this announcement will declare, or just what they will be.  But its basically guaranteed at this point that "Versus XIII" will be part of the show, as director Tetsuya Nomura has come to America to show-off something, and he's already cryptically said "I'm pretty sure everybody already knows what's coming".  For months now Nomura has been giving vague remarks to the press about how he wants to show off "Versus XIII", but the upper-management won't let him.  What does that mean?  What has been going on behind the Skunkworks of Square Enix?

E3 right now is already at full burn, with Microsoft having already blasted forward their entire production presentation, and as I write this EA is announcing their various corporate abominations.  The new "Metal Gear Solid V" trailer looks fantastic and is reminding me that I really need to play "Revengeance" one of these days.  But its the Square Enix conference that I'm aching for.  After so many years of disappointment - seven long years since the last great Final Fantasy game was released - SE has to have finally gotten their act together, right?  Am I allowed to dream?  Yeah, it will probably just be "Versus XIII" announced as "Final Fantasy XV", but will there be more?  There are so few times to be excited as a Final Fantasy fan anymore, could this actually pay off?

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

After Earth

I went to see "After Earth" today out of gleeful, sadist anticipation of a new great awful film.  The critics are savaging this particular film, because they smell blood on this one.  Its a new film made by M. Night Shyamalan, based off a personal project conceived by Will Smith where he could create a vehicle for which his son, Jaden, could become a movie star.  So we have the legendary director of such awful films as "The Happening" and "The Last Airbender", mixed with a probably ill-conceived father son project created out of what is seen as the heights of hubris.  Based off that, I figured I'd be seeing another movie where characters run from wind, talk about hot dogs, and confusingly juggle a million plotpoints at once.  But instead, "After Earth" turned out to be... actually not bad.

Now before we begin, "After Earth" is a deeply flawed film that is harmed by a series of very poor decisions.  The plot is fairly stupid, in fact, even nonsensical, but luckily all its really there for is to set up a SciFi future survival in the wilderness tale.  And that's what you have to set yourself up for, you kinda gotta ignore the crap about the backstory (which doesn't make a lick of sense), or how the evil aliens sense fear, or whatever.  Basically its a son overcoming adversity to save his father and escape from Earth, which is now crawling with mutant animals.  That's it.  And that does make for compelling cinema, at as far as I'm concerned.  M. Night Shyamalan chooses simply bizarre directorial choices, such as a fantastically weird and inconsistent space accent that everybody is speaking.  He also still cannot seem to be able to direct people, allowing Will Smith to create the most wooden performance of his entire career, and probably ruining poor Jaden Smith's acting career forever.

Honestly, I'm disappointed I enjoyed this movie at all, since I was expecting a new "Battlefield Earth" or something.  Rather, I was actually finding myself enjoying this film.  I mean, its nothing great, but its rather better than some other cheap SciFi films that have come out this year.  The main duo are fairly flat, the plot is silly, but I was pretty impressed by a relatively simple survival story, combined with a troubled father-son relationship which ultimately drives the film and the characters.  Even if you can accuse Will Smith of the worst of foolishness by trying to give his son a Blockbuster role, I don't really think he was trying to do any harm here.  He just wanted to make a movie with his son, is that so bad?  There's nothing so terribly wrong with "After Earth" that makes it worthy of its status as a laughingstock.  I'd even recommend it as a rental.