Distant Worlds: Music from Final Fantasy

Image

I really enjoy music.

I’m no musician by any means. I played the flute for about a decade, so I can read sheet music and I performed in school concert band. Admittedly, my knowledge is limited, but I can still appreciate instrumental music. I also spend a lot of time listening to music. My commute to work is about 45 minutes three days a week, and an hour and a half two days a week. That’s a lot of idle time to fill with nothing but driving and sound. I have a 16 gig iPod, and while it isn’t full yet, it does harbor an impressive array of sound files. I’m sure I don’t rival many out there, but my music library has reached over 8,000 files and it is daunting when I don’t know what sort of music I’m in the mood to listen to.

Out of those 8,000 plus songs, a great portion of them are instrumental; mostly soundtracks to my favorite video games, television shows, and movies. I have plenty of Japanese composers whose names reappear on my playlists: Yasunori Mitsuda, Yoko Kanno, and Yoko Shimomura to name a few, yet none come close to trumping Nobuo Uematsu. The Final Fantasy games, and his accompanying compositions, fill me with happy nostalgia. As the games have been around for 25 years, and I discovered them while in junior high, I associate them with my tumultuous adolescence. Video games are still a great method of escapism for me, but you know how it is, everything is multiplied by twenty-fold when you’re an awkward teenager in a demanding world. Nowadays, when I listen to Nobuo’s music highlighting JRPGs at their finest I am brought back to lovable characters, immersive fantasy worlds, turn-based boss battles, and ending credit scores. When I saw online that the Distant Worlds: music from Final Fantasy orchestra was playing only an hour and a half away from my house, and that the man himself would be in attendance, I knew I absolutely had to go.
By the time I was ready to purchase the tickets, the VIP ones were sold out. They include meet-and-greets with Uematsu. At $150 a pop, they weren’t really in my budget, anyway. It’ll give me something to look forward to for next time. I had mezzanine seats in a sold-out theater. Sitting away from the stage did not detract at all from the experience. We had a perfect view of the stage, and the quality of the sound was just as crisp. Plus, the enormous interactive screen couldn’t be missed a mile away.

For those of you who are not familiar with the Distant Worlds tour, it is considered an interactive Final Fantasy experience. While the orchestra plays memorable songs from a variety of Final Fantasy soundtracks, slideshows and videos representing said games play on a gigantic screen behind them. All in all, I felt like I was in gamer heaven.

Given that my show was on December 8th, my ‘spend money on me’ bank was running low thanks to the holidays. I had to be more frugal at the merchandise counter than I wanted. I opted for a T-shirt because I don’t have any Final Fantasy related shirts right now and I always need clothes. I didn’t buy a program, so I am going by memory with the set list here. This is the list of songs, not in order, that I had the pleasure of witnessing live:

Final Fantasy I, II & III: Medley including the Final Fantasy Prelude and Overture
Final Fantasy IV: Theme of Love
Final Fantasy V: Dear Friends
Final Fantasy VI: Opera & Terra’s Theme
Final Fantasy VII: Opening-Bombing Mission, Aeris’ Theme, and One-Winged Angel
Final Fantasy VIII: The Man With a Machine Gun
Final Fantasy IX: Vamo Alla Flamenco, A Place I’ll Return To Someday & Melodies of Life medley
Final Fantasy X: To Zanarkand (orchestrated), Suteki Da Ne
Final Fantasy XI: Ronfaure
Final Fantasy XII: Kiss Me Goodbye
Final Fantasy XIII: Blinded By Light
Final Fantasy Series: Chocobo Medley

With a few glaring exceptions, I enjoy listening to most of Uematsu’s work. And while I don’t particularly dislike any of the songs they chose to play, I think a few of their selections are songs that definitely could have been replaced by more memorable tracks. I’m sure all Final Fantasy fans in attendance had their own ideal set list in mind while making the trek to the theater and waiting in line. I tried to keep my mind open, because there is a huge music library to select from, and they can only play so many songs during one show and their selections also depend on what is available to them. For example; they performed Dear Friends (the most underwhelming part of the show, in my opinion) and Vamo Alla Flamenco because there was a guitarist in attendance. Their guest vocalist for the ballads was Susan Calloway. I really liked her voice. In fact, I definitely liked her singing better than the artist who originally performed Suteki Da Ne (I think Riki’s voice is too high-pitched). The English translation wasn’t too awkward and I thought it was done well. My main gripe is song selection: I’m still dumbfounded they did not perform Eyes On Me with her, but did the boring ballad from Final Fantasy XII. Okay, I’ll admit my bias on this one because XII definitely ranks on the bottom of the favorite Final Fantasy meter for me, but still.

The operatic vocalists performed well, too. The Opera section of the concert was lengthy and fun. The audience burst into fits of laughter as multiple videos played on the screen, all in HD SNES graphics of sprites dancing. I’m sure we were all thinking the same thing: Man, those old-school graphics sure look ridiculous now, but they were the bee’s knees and new games just… don’t match up. Watching the evolution of gaming design and graphics on the enormous screen paired with timeless music tickled my nostalgic-gamer-self.

All in all, the guest performers were great and performed the music well. The lack of a choir was the biggest letdown. This cut out a lot of my potential favorites from being performed, like Liberi Fatali, Fithos Lusec Wecos Vinosec, Esper Battle (FFXII), to name a few. One-Winged Angel was an audience participation number. They fooled us by running the credits while performing the closing piece, Terra. Arnie Roth said it was their closing number, the orchestra and vocalists took their bows, and we were all ready to go. Then in his closing speech, he was like, “Well, in this sold-out venue I bet we could pull this off, so let’s practice. We’re going to put the lyrics up on the screen, but you only really need to know one word, right?” and the orchestra began playing. It was fun, but I still want to hear it performed by a choir. After browsing the program highlights beforehand I anticipated not getting to hear Liberi Fatali or One-Winged Angel performed properly. Something else to look forward to for next time. They must’ve known they needed to play One-Winged Angel if they didn’t want to face an angry mob after the show.

I would have liked to hear more upbeat songs thrown into the mix. Including One-Winged Angel, there were only three battle themes. I found that to be a bit of a pity, because boss and battle theme songs tend to be the most memorable. Blinded By Light was wonderful. Man With a Machine Gun, not so much, especially considering that there are so many other wonderful songs from Final Fantasy VIII they could have played. It was my first Final Fantasy experience and I am partial to it. But for every slight disappointment, I was doubly impressed. The orchestrated Final Fantasy X songs brought tears to my eyes, and the Final Fantasy VII opening playing with the game’s FMV was incredible.

I don’t want to give too much away in case you’re reading this and considering going. The solidarity and enjoyment saturating a room full of like-minded gamers, hopefully sprinkled with some outgoing cosplayers (we saw some Galbadian soldiers, Reno, Terra, Prishe and a moogle) adds to the experience. I had a really great time, and can’t wait to go to another. If you’re a Final Fantasy fanboy or fangirl, it’s more than worth the ticket price to be in the same room as Nobuo Uematsu and reliving your life one Final Fantasy game at a time.

Kingdom Hearts 3D (Dream Drop Distance)

Another day, another Kingdom Hearts game. Like most gamers who fell in love with the series when it first came out a decade ago, I’ve become annoyed and frustrated with the ridiculous amount of games released across multiple platforms. These are games that I have found the time and money to play: Kingdom Hearts, Kingdom Hearts 2, Chain of Memories (started it but absolutely hated the battle system and didn’t complete it), 358/2 Days, and now Dream Drop Distance. I played about an hour or so of Birth By Sleep. At the time I was like, “Uhh… three new characters I’m not already emotionally invested in and I have to play all three of their stories? No thanks.” Maybe, if I ever have the time, I will check it out. The battle system seemed fun, at least. In Kingdom Hearts games that’s pretty much all I can hope for. Because, really, who understands what is going on nowadays?

I will admit, they did wrap things up nicely for the (still?) highly anticipated finale. There are data files on all the previous installments. Read them at your own risk: smoke might be coming out of your ears by the time you’re done trying to wrap your head around the ridiculousness of it all. To me, the plot has morphed into a jumbled mess of hearts, heartless, nobodies, dreams, nightmares, and Xehanort’s multiple bodies. For those of you who don’t intend on playing the installments on the handheld consoles, but still look forward to Kingdom Hearts 3, here is the only useful information I managed to walk away from at the end of the game that sets the stage for the finale:

SPOILER: During the keyblade war (which took place many, many years ago), the Super Keyblade was broken into 20 pieces: seven of light and 13 of darkness. Xehanort, of course, wants it. And every single event in every single Kingdom Hearts game was apparently ALL his doing in preparation for the Keyblade Wars (the unlockable cut scene at the end of Kingdom Hearts 2 alluded to the war). Yeah, he’s got great foresight. Organization XIII was created for this very purpose. He wanted thirteen nobodies to fill with his heart, essentially making 13 of himself. 13 Xehanorts=13 wielders for the darkness Keyblades. And it looks like the seven light Keyblade wielders will be King Mickey, Sora, Riku, Aqua, Ventus, Terra, and… Axel! He’s no longer in the Organization, so he wishes to go by his real name, Lea. Oh, and Riku is a dream eater. He exists to protect Sora and, um, eat his nightmares? Yeah, weird. And they really glossed over it all too… Xehanort: “You’re a dream eater.” Riku: “Ya don’t say.” The end. Well, whatever. Riku is still the bomb.

And there you  have it. That’s really all I think I learned that should be of importance for the next game if they get around to it in the next few years. Onto the battle system.

I am starting to feel like the developers are purposely doing things to frustrate me. Convoluted plot lines aside, the whole “drop” system is pointless and only serves to make the player want to throw their expensive 3DS across the room. The premise for the game is that Sora and Riku are going into the “dreams of worlds” (or some other crap like that) to unlock keyholes. If they complete the trials, they become Keyblade Masters. The great part about this is getting to play as Sora and Riku through the game. The BAD part is how they decided to go about this. Instead of just making you swap characters in between world completion or certain plot points, there is a timed “Drop” gauge. Once it is depleted, your character falls asleep and you are plopped back into the action of the other one. I swear up and down that it purposely waited until I was in the middle of a boss fight or wandering around lost to swap toons on me. Which only serves to disorient the player. There are items called “drop-me-nots” that you can use in battle to extend the gauge to give yourself some more time. But with the way the battle system works, I wasn’t too keen on it.

Here’s how abilities and magic AND using items works in this game: a command deck. Yes, I almost had a heart attack when that popped up in the tutorial, but it isn’t a Chain of Memories deck. You choose what you want to equip and cycle through them during battle while they recharge or if there is a certain ability you want to use at the time. Items are included in this limited deck of yours, so you have to sacrifice an ability or magic spell you could be using to make room for consumables. I would much rather use every deck slot for super-powerful abilities. So, the only magic spell I ever used was a cure spell, and I never equipped items unless I had to. When my drop gauge started beeping and I didn’t want to switch characters, I hopped into the menu and equipped my drop-me-nots. You can’t do this during battles, so if you drop during a boss fight you have to start it over from the beginning when you switch back to that character.

Another mechanic called Flowmotion is introduced in this game, and it serves to make battles flashier. I liked having access to funky physical attacks if I was waiting for moves in my deck to recharge. Flowmotion incorporates the scenery during battles, and also helps you navigate the areas. I would literally spend entire battles just bouncing off walls and pole dancing to kill enemies. There is also Reality Shift. Reality Shift utilizes the bottom touch screen. When the lock-on cursor changes on enemies, you can choose to Reality Shift. This unlocks a sort of mini-game on the touch screen and you have to use the stylus to follow the prompts. Some of them were pretty neat, and they were all different depending on the world I was in. They could be fun, but by the time I received the prompt the enemy was almost dead and it was more time-efficient to just pummel them a couple more times. Reality Shift is scripted during boss fights as well.

The only other aspect of the battle system I feel I really need to touch on is the party system. Instead of fighting alongside Donald and Goofy, you get PETS instead! Yay! And you get to feed them and pet them! Woohoo! I’m not sure what Square-Enix’s thing with pets is lately. Like in Final Fantasy XIII-2, your pets join you in combat and level up alongside you. In Kingdom Hearts, you interact with them more, but the abilities they unlock go to Sora or Riku, which is a neat twist. I only had a handful of pets that I used… I couldn’t be bothered to farm mats or anything. It didn’t seem to have an enormous effect in my gameplay, anyway.

Speaking of Sora and Riku, Riku is by far the superior candidate. I liked his available move set better. He isn’t nearly as annoying as Sora, and he gets the epic final boss battles and saves the day, mostly. I definitely have to side with team Riku on this one… though it no longer seems like they are fighting over Kairi but entering their own love affair. Really, how much more can two characters stroke each other? “Sora’s the best!” “Oh, Riku’s so great.” They’ve obviously moved past trying to get into Kairi’s pants.

If you’re looking to dive back into various Disney worlds, swing around a keyblade, and play a decent 3DS title, definitely pick this game up. Don’t expect to see any Final Fantasy characters, they’ve jumped ship for some reason. The only Square characters present are from The World Ends With You. If you’re a diehard Kingdom Hearts fan, you’ll enjoy this title, but this definitely isn’t the game you buy a 3DS for.

Dead Island

“Thank God I found you, I was lost without you…”

Honest truth: Whenever I considered how to begin this blog post, that song by Mariah Carey always came to mind. Not because I think Mariah and the 98 Degrees men would do well during a zombie apocalypse, but because that’s how much I love this game. Srsly. A zombie apocalypse open world exploration action/RPG? Why hasn’t anybody thought of this before? Why haven’t I thought of this before? Genius, simply genius. Part of me is glad I waited so long to play Dead Island, because I have less time to wait for Dead Island: Riptide to be released.

There are four characters to choose from, each with their own specialty. Sam B, who is responsible for the ridiculous rap song in the intro, is a blunt weapons specialist. Purdy is a firearms specialist. Logan is a throwing redneck ninja. And Xian, who I finally decided on, is a blade specialist who happens to be Asian. And cross-eyed. I mean, glaringly cross-eyed. I don’t know how I missed it while choosing my zombie scourge, but in every cut scene during the game I noticed it. It is one of those, “I can’t look but I can’t look away” things. I think the part about her being a disappointment to her father has more to do with her physical appearance than her occupation. Oh, those strict Asian fathers…

Speaking of cultures and stereotypes, I will say this: I am easily fooled by the unauthentic accents in, say, the Assassin’s Creed series, but the conglomeration of accents in this game is laughable. There should be a mini-game where the player has to guess what country the NPC they’re talking to is supposedly from. When the “Russian” approached us with a quest, he said, “My name iz Nikolai…” and my friend and I burst into laughter. OF COURSE your name is Nikolai… Really. Are men in Russia named anything else? And the indigenous tribesman near the end who all speak perfect English? With Ope, their tribal leader, who challenges you to slay a couple dozen of his finest warriors with your modded-effing-machete while they just barrel straight towards you in perfect head-decapitating single file? Priceless. The game definitely has the survival B-movie feel to it all the way through. I couldn’t help but love it for the ridiculousness of those things… And the requests of post-apocalyptic NPCs.

I feel like I could write an entire blog post about the silly quests I was sent on. I don’t want to count how many times I was asked to go to the gas station. Ugh. But at least going for fetch-quests to get fuel makes sense. There were plenty of ‘go get me water or food or bandages or whatever’ repeatable quests, which, again, made perfect sense. And getting free money or experience for handing in crap that was clogging up my inventory was nice. But there are some characters where I could not help but wonder. There’s a man in the resort who needs help drinking himself to death. He takes lots and lots of alcohol bottles, despite the fact that there’s booze littering the bar surrounding him. And  Svetlana… Oh, Svetlana. She gives diamonds, worth $1,500, for champagne. Brand champagne. “Not that cheap shit!” She will remind you from time to time. My favorite thing she says goes something like, “I’m going to drink like it’s the fucking apocalypse!”

Like I said, priceless.

I really enjoyed playing as a blade specialist in this game for two main reasons:

1- Nothing is quite as rewarding as lopping off zombie limbs one after another. The gratuitous violence is poetry in motion. When an Infected comes barreling at you and you slice off its head in one fell swoop and the game rewards you with a slow motion view of the blood splattering everywhere, nothing else quite compares. I made the mistake of not investing any skill points in increased experience from severing limbs until the end of the game. By then, I wasn’t maxing out the potential because most enemies died in one or two hits from my souped up katana. Hopefully I can put it to use in a New Game Plus. 

2- The poison weapon modifications in this game rock. On a critical hit, it will make a zombie puke its guts out, at which point you can watch the zombie puke itself to death, hack away at it to speed up the process, or direct your attention to the rest of the zombie horde you’re most likely trying to kill. The first time I fought a Butcher zombie, I scored a critical hit and it puked its brains out. Really trivialized these encounters when I was lucky. I was also ‘lucky’ enough to get the final boss to puke itself to death. It was awesome. 

Really, if you like slaying zombies, open world/sandbox games, or action-RPGs, I can’t recommend this game enough. However, with that being said, this game does have some obvious flaws, and those are mostly glitches. I did not play this game until very recently, and even though it has already been patched, I still saw some annoying (but often hilarious) issues that I would’ve thought would be resolved by now. Nothing I encountered was as severe as, lets say, Elder Scrolls: Skyrim “The main quest is bugged and I can’t even finish the main questline!” (and yes, that did happen to me, and so far I’ve kept my word about not giving Bethesda any more of my money), or Silent Hill Downpour lagging like crazy and crashing my PS3 more than once. Again, a true story. No, these are little glitches that for the most part can be overlooked. Except if you spend a lot of time with a weapon and getting the mats to modify it, and you throw it at an enemy and it disappears. Pretty crappy deal. With that in mind, I’m not sure I’ll ever want to play as Logan. I’m too paranoid to take that risk. Zombies hit you from the other side of walls and gates, but you can hit them back. One time a silly undead somehow popped his head through prison bars, and I managed to kill him and sever his head on my side of the bars. That was charming. For me, the most annoying issue was the quest tracker wigging out. I found it a great step up from your typical quest trackers that give you an arrow, but sometimes it doesn’t account for obstacles that you need to go around. It wasn’t quite as sophisticated as the Dead Space one, but I really liked it when it worked. The problem for me was the quest tracker just disappearing. Eventually we seemed to connect it to adding a waypoint on the map. Whenever I did that, the white-dotted path I was following would disappear. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t spend more time than should be necessary toggling back and forth between my quest log and map trying to figure out which was activated and where the game wanted me to go. I also would’ve appreciated a little bit more of a tutorial regarding the map legend. Eventually I figured it out on my own, but not without some frustration at the beginning of the game. 

Which reminds me. Jumping backwards really helps to get yourself away from zombies when you aren’t playing as Sam B and aren’t pummeling them across the screen with blunt weapons. Killing Thugs was painful until that little trick was revealed to me. The game’s controls were easy enough to pick up and learn, and were mostly a lot of fun. For the first few levels, you don’t even really need a weapon. You can kick the zombies down and manually beat the snot out of them. The gratuitous headstomp I learned a little further in was the best way to save on weapon durability and satiate my murderous rampage. There are portions of the game where you are forced to fight punk-ass humans who are taking advantage of the situation. These sections are the game’s weakness. The AI isn’t sophisticated enough and the battle system isn’t really developed for this type of play style. Thankfully, the times you are forced to play like this are few and far between. But once you are done Act 1 you will always want to carry around a pistol or rifle just in case.

Once I finish the game I am working on now, I plan on going back to Dead Island. Not sure if I will mess around online, or just doing a new game plus. I have very high hopes for the sequel. If they touched up the bugs, quest tracking, and added a local co-op split screen mode, I would already nominate it for game of 2013. Elder Scrolls has already proved you can charge full price for a glitchy-ass game and still receive multiple game of the year awards, so maybe I shouldn’t get my hopes up. But that’s a topic for another blog post. 

Demos

While browsing the Playstation Network last night, I found a handful of demos I thought would be worth checking out. I selected Devil May Cry, Epic Mickey 2, Dragon’s Dogma, Rainbow Moon and I Am Alive. As of right now, the only two I have played were the first two I mentioned. The Devil May Cry reboot looks very promising. I must admit, I thoroughly enjoyed the revamped battle system and the great variety the demo displayed. Having recently (and by ‘recently’ I mean within the last year) replayed the original Devil May Cry trilogy, I can remember the many aches and pains of the battle system. Despite not playing as Dante for a large portion of the game, I did enjoy Devil May Cry 4 as well. With the PAINS–excucuiating pains– of the PS2 battle systems, I totally ate up the demos style and overall intuitive controls. Holding down one of two different trigger buttons to have access to another weapon type was pretty sweet. However… it did not take me long to notice there is no lock on system in the demo. Dante automatically targets the enemy ‘closest’ to him. 

Why? WHY is there no lock-on system? I can recall being frustrated in the previous entries very many times because the AI would target a monster that, in my mind, was NOT the ideal target for the situation. Is it really such a burden on programmers or designers or whoever is in charge of that crap to do? The Kingdom Hearts games seem to realize it’s a pretty important feature for an action game. I mean, come on. (Kingdom Hearts comes to mind because I am currently playing Dream Drop Distance… hopefully I will have it completed and will have an opinion piece done on it shortly)

The Epic Mickey demo is fun for what it is. At least, what I think it is supposed to be. I have to admit, as of this posting I have not played the first one, I have only read about it. I do not have Move, so I played the demo with just the controller. While messing around with the demo, I could see myself trying to play, getting frustrated with the Wii’s clunky motion sensors and wishing I could just play it with a good old normal controller. So I’m very glad I did. Not sure if it is a game series I would like to invest my time and money on, but that is getting to my original point for writing this post.

Whatever happened to disc demo content? Have there been any recently game releases with built-in playable demos? For the life of me, I cannot remember having a demo disc since the one that came with my copy of Soul Calibur 2 on the PS2. I remember a demo disc coming with Vagrant Story. Another PS era demo disc I used to play a lot contained Tomb Raider and Gex and Parappa the Rapper. Rappa? 

I’m sure video game companies are saving themselves tons of money with the digital download demos. However, since I can’t recall the last time I’ve seen physical demos, what about the people without internet access at home? I know they exist. Wouldn’t they like to preview a game before they drop $40-$60 on it? 

And in all honesty, I’m sick of waiting for my ancient PS3 to decide to download these demos. They’re so enormous and my WiFi is only so good. I started the downloads last night. After getting home and settled for the night I turned the PS3 back on and installed/played the Epic Mickey 2 trailer. Then I left the PS3 on to continue downloading, played some of my 3DS, decided to write this post, and as of right now Dragon’s Dogma demo is still only at 71% completion. Then I still have two other demos I want to play. Maybe by Sunday they will be ready. 

I will be royally pissed if these downloads I am waiting so long to play end up being steaming piles of dog doodoo.