Distant Worlds: Music From Final Fantasy

December 7th was the date for Steve-O and I to attend our second annual Distant Worlds Concert in Montreal! If you’re a fan of Final Fantasy games and/or Nobuo Uematsu and have somehow never heard of Distant Worlds, it is a traveling orchestra conducted by Arnie Roth that performs music from 25 years of Final Fantasy music!

There were ups and downs to this concert compared to last year. It was in the same venue which is a great building with good acoustics. It is centered right in Montreal so driving sucks. Might need to take the metro next time. The seating is crowded, as these places tend to be, and I always get stuck sitting next to a smelly. Or a Bronie… Last year it was an obsessive Bronie who apparently felt the need to save his favorite MLP pics to his smartphone and look them over while suffering from MLP withdrawals.

Last year we were treated to a lot of ballads, thanks to the very talented Susan Calloway’s guest appearance. While I was grateful to hear her renditions of Suteki Da Ne and whatever-that-slow-song-from-FFXII is, I felt the set list didn’t have enough variety. And by variety I mean battle themes! There were a lot of love themes and ballads last year. Thankfully, this year they enlisted a choir and performed a lot of different battle themes and such.

I know you’re dying to know the set list, so here it is from memory, not in order of performance. Sorry, I didn’t see any programs and it has taken me over a week to get around to writing this post! If I forget a song its probably because it is from one of the online games. Because, well, they’re MMOs, and I don’t play those right now. To be fair, the songs were pretty cool though.

Final Fantasy Series- Main Theme: Not much to say about this song. It is melodic and pretty. Good mood-setter.

Final Fantasy VIII- Liberi Fatali: Then they didn’t waste anytime turning things up a notch with this song. One of my all-time favorites. The choir did Liberi Fatali justice.

Final Fantasy IV- Battle With the Four Fiends: I was incredible excited when Distant Worlds announced this title would be played. I thoroughly enjoyed this one, too.

Final Fantasy X- Hymn of the Fayth/To Zanarkand: This was a medley. The choir opened with a stunning cover of Hymn of the Fayth (First time performed in North America), then transitioned into an orchestrated version of “To Zanarkand,” which was performed last year. Still brought tears to my eyes.

Final Fantasy VII- JENOVA: Steve-O and I weren’t crazy about this song. They took some liberties with the arrangement. Not for the better, I felt. There were some almost jazzy bits thrown in that had me scratching my head. It almost felt like the strings were dragging behind the percussion and they weren’t in sync. Not good.

Final Fantasy XIII Lightning Returns- Undying Light: This was another North American premier. It’s supposedly a “new song” from the game Lightning Returns, set to release next year, but in actuality it’s a rehashing of FFXIII songs. Still, good songs and good performances on this one.

Final Fantasy XII- Dalmascan Estersands: This song is permanently drilled into my skull thanks to all the farming I spent in that zone of the game. I thought I’d hate listening to it again without having to. But it translated well to a live orchestra and it was a highlight of the evening. Keep in mind Final Fantasy XII is probably my least favorite of the main series.

Final Fantasy VI- Maria & Draco Opera: Celebration version! Last year they performed this song. But this time around there was a narrator and a choir. It made a world of difference. Very enjoyable experience. Sadly, it was the only FFVI song performed that evening.

Final Fantasy VIII- Don’t Be Afraid: Another one of my favorite battle themes, performed wonderfully. I was very satisfied they chose two great songs from one of my favorite FF games and soundtracks. I’m hoping against hope someday they’ll add Maybe I’m A Lion or The Extreme or Premonition to their roster.

Final Fantasy VII- Opening Bombing Mission: A bit of a yawn moment for me, since they performed this song last year. The video changed a lot from last time so I had something new to look at, at least. Parts of this song sounded like they dragged, like during JENOVA.

Final Fantasy IX- You’re Not Alone: Yay! I’ve always liked this song. The orchestrated version was performed well. I wish they’d do more songs from FFIX. While not my favorite Final Fantasy game, I did like a lot of the music. Secretly glad they didn’t do Vammo alla’Flamenco again. Heard it last year and I feel like I could go the rest of my life without hearing this song again.

Final Fantasy V- Main Theme: While Battle on the Big Bridge is the only memorable song on this soundtrack for me besides the final boss song (those are usually a given) I really liked this performance. An orchestra really brings out what the compressed catridge version of this song could not.

Final Fantasy VIII- Fisherman’s Horizon: I’ve always thought this was a strange choice for Distant Worlds to perform. The only memorable thing about Fisherman’s Horizon for me was playing a lot of Triple Triad. The choir joined in on this song, too, creating a nice, peaceful song midway through the evening.

Final Fantasy Victory Theme: We all know this little number and have probably had it as a ringtone on our cell phones at one point or another.

Final Fantasy Chocobo Medley: Always the most endearing and “Awww”-inspiring moment of the night. 8-bit chocobos and chocobos who live in afros coming together to make us smile and chuckle. I would never complain if this number was performed every year for the next 20 years and I attended every concert.

Final Fantasy XI: Some song. March for Vana’Diel or something like that? Sorry, I haven’t played the game and therefore don’t listen to the soundtrack… For what it’s worth, I liked the song!

Final Fantasy XIV- Crystal Warriors: Or something like that. Again, I liked the song. The footage was kind of boring. I guess MMO video footage can only be so entertaining. I like the character designs.

Final Fantasy Series Battle Theme: This was a highlight for Steve-O and I. The title is a bit misleading. Arnie Roth, the composer, introduced this and said it was a medley of the top three battle themes that were voted by fans as their favorites, not including the songs they’ve already been performing for years. The winners were Battle on the Big Bridge (Steve-O’s favorite), Seymour Battle (My favorite), and Those Who Fight Further; a song I’m sure all of us FF fans love. It was a great medley. Epic, even. I hope they do full-length versions of each of these songs later on.

Final Fantasy VII- One Winged Angel: Last but not least, the song everyone was expecting to hear. Waaaay better than the karaoke version we had in Montreal last year. My only complaint isn’t with the performance of this staple in the FF series, but the video footage. For being Sephiroth’s memorable song, there wasn’t a lot of him in the video footage. I was hoping for clips from the unedited version of Advent Children. We got a lot of his stupid relics, but not so much of Sephiroth.

Overall, the concert was more than worth the ticket prices and the travel and the city driving to see. Arnie Roth, the composer, is always a treat. The song selection was more satisfying for me than last year. Nobuo Uematsu wasn’t present this time, but it isn’t like I have the money for VIP tickets anyway. There weren’t as many cosplayers this time around. We saw a White Mage and a beautiful young woman dressed in Celes’ opera dress. She definitely couldn’t fit in the auditorium seats wearing that.

Distant Worlds is gaining momentum and is traveling around the world. If you love Final Fantasy games and their music, you need to find a performance near you.

 

Focus T25 Review

Focus-T25

Get. It. Done.

Since doing Insanity, I’ve been following Shaun T on Facebook and remained active on teambeachbody.com as well as in real life. Once I saw an ad for Focus T25 I read into the program and knew I had to purchase it upon release. For those of you who haven’t yet heard of this amazing new home workout program, it features Shaun T, the face of the popular Insanity and Hip Hop Abs programs. But unlike his other programs, Focus T25’s main goal is to be accessible to those of us with an unfortunate lack of free time in our schedule. As much as I loved Insanity, month 2 became a struggle for me because the time demand increased significantly. I figured Focus T25’s schedule which boasts a 5 days/week 25 minutes/day schedule would be a godsend for me.

Was it truly a godsend?

I’m going to be a bit more honest than T25’s advertisements. It isn’t exactly 25 minutes 5 days per week. On the fifth day it is recommended to do the double on the calendar. If you opt out of doing a double, you can do the workout on your sixth day of course, but then you’re forfeiting your rest day. The seventh day of the week is the optional stretch. Trust me when I say you’ll actually want to do the stretch routine. Especially in the beginning. It is a great way to gear up for the next week and your muscles will thank you for it. Oh, and the 25 minutes of working out don’t include the cooldown, which will run 2-3 minutes.

The nutrition guide follows the 5 theme, instructing you to eat five times a day and supplying recipes with only five ingredients (excluding things like water, salt and pepper) which supposedly only take 5 minutes to prepare. This is also a farce, unless you already have pre-measured/weighted ingredients hanging around. The guide also opens with five easy questions that will determine how many calories per week you need to eat. Yes, for you fitness gurus out there this is grossly oversimplified. For people just beginning their journey to a healthier lifestyle, I think it is perfect. Simple and easy. The information out there telling us what/when/how to eat is confusing and scary and makes most people run back to their potato chips. If you follow the nutrition guide, you will lose weight. If you’ve been at the fitness game for a while and already know how to calculate your BMR and track your macros, then by all means do what you’re already doing as long as you account for the calorie burn with shorter 25 minute workouts. You’ll lose weight and get fitter either way.

Focus T25’s calendar is as follows: 5 weeks of Alpha, 5 weeks of Beta, and 4 weeks of Gamma if you purchase it separately. Alpha’s focus is the foundation. Beta focuses mainly on your core, while Gamma is all about strength. Like other Shaun T programs, there is a big focus on cardio. Less so in Gamma, where you’re lifting dumbbells, but trust me when I say Speed 3.0 more than makes up for the lack of cardio you’ll be doing on other days. My T25 package came with a resistance band. After attempting the first workout with a resistance band instead of dumbbells, I vowed never again. I don’t have much experience using bands, so walking sideways while doing squats and trying to keep the band beneath my feet was distracting.

My main gripe with the way Focus T25 was sold is pretty similar to my take on release-day DLC and disc-based DLC; it is a sleezy, corporate scheme to milk more money from people. After doing the entire program, I firmly believe that you must do Gamma to completely round out the program and finish with the results they’re advertising. To sell it separately is nothing short of a money-grab and made me a bit disappointed with Team Beachbody.

The big question when it comes to T25 I’ve seen online is, “How does it compare to Insanity?” Well. When I did my first week of Alpha, I was definitely in love with T25. To me, it felt like Insanity without the filler. I mean, Insanity has 10 minute warm-ups, followed by a stretch, then your workout, then another stretch. T25 doesn’t waste any time, which is why Shaun T pushes you to NOT take any breaks. If you need to take it down a notch, our old friend Tania is modifying. And that’s another thing; Insanity did not have Tania, or anyone, modifying. I was new to fitness, had never even done a heisman before, so I didn’t know you could modify most of the moves. Having a permanent modifier (like Hip Hop Abs) definitely  makes the program less intimidating and helps you stay in the game when you have an injury or just need to slow your heart rate down.

And really, why spend 60-90 minutes working out in a day when you can spend half an hour and still get results? I guess if you actually like working out (I am not one of those freaks, unfortunately)… or need an excuse to eat more. And you can always double up your T25 workouts if you feel the NEED to exercise an hour a day. But if that’s the case you might as well stick to Insanity.

I realize I have to provide my readers with proof that I could lose weight doing T25 after doing Insanity. I am begrudgingly providing you with my embarrassing before and after pictures. Only because I feel it is important to prove that a full-time working parent of a toddler can achieve results if they are dedicated. Nutrition is the big component here, people. You won’t get the results you want if you don’t follow the nutrition guide. Newsflash: Eating a Big Mac and fries at McDonalds will cancel out the calories you burned during your workout. I know, I tried it with Insanity. I hardly lost any weight or inches (though my resting heart rate, endurance, and other non-visible things improved!). So I’m going by the assumption that you’re considering doing T25 because you want to wear smaller clothes. I lost 15 pounds and multiple inches, even with imperfect nutrition. I can only imagine how much better my results would have been if I had a flawless diet. Alas, my willpower is not always as strong as it could be.

I’ll stop procrastinating. Here are my pics!

FocusT25BeforeandAfter1

FocusT25BeforeandAfter2

FocusT25BeforeandAfter3

I gotta say, I’m loving the severe reduction of my post-baby muffin top!

And there you have it! I STRONGLY recommend Focus T25 to busy working parents like myself. It is accessible, Shaun T is encouraging, and with the workouts being only 25 minutes, it was hard for me NOT to find the time to make them up if I had a bad night and couldn’t muster the energy to wake up at 5:30 to get it done.

Donkey Kong Country Returns

Donkeykongcountryreturns

Ride, Diddy, Ride!

I released this game from the “Games collecting dust I have yet to complete” vault. I played through a lot of it with my brother, but playing video games with an autistic person who is obsessed with grabbing every collectible and killing every enemy with no sense of self-preservation is nerve-wracking.  I gave up at world 7 and didn’t look back for a long time.

Donkey Kong Country Returns is like the Mario and Kirby games on the Wii; you have the option to play co-op if you’d like. And by option, I mean proceed at your own risk. Remember trying to play New Super Mario Bros. Wii (Or whatever the hell it was called) with four players? The chaos, the betrayal, the ruining of friendships? DKCR felt almost as chaotic at times with only two of us playing. Some of the features really made me shake my head, wondering if the developers even tried playing it co-op.

DKCR doesn’t give the player any similar “bubbling” option like in NSMB. Instead of being able to save yourself from certain death as long as the other person playing is progressing and doesn’t happen to “bubble” at the same time you do, DKCR will teleport the off-screen character to (usually) whoever is further along. This was a life-saver sometimes. You see a counter on the side of the screen where the lagging-behind character is hiding before they get automatically teleported to their partner. Unfortunately, the game has no qualms against transporting the off-screen character next to a gorilla leaping over a bottomless pit. Insta-death. Good thing “Game Over” doesn’t mean too much in these games anymore. Same goes for barrels; USUALLY you’ll automatically get transported into the barrel your partner is patiently waiting in to advance. But the opposite seemed to be true of optional barrels. Diddy, who has more maneuvering skills, would be hanging out in a barrel and I’d hope the game would bring me to him, but the opposite happened a few times which was frustrating.

While I’m on the topic, I’m gonna vent about how Donkey Kong totally got shafted in this game. I made the mistake of choosing to play as the game’s namesake and passed off Diddy Kong to Steve-O. Biiiiig mistake on my part! Donkey Kong completely sucks. Diddy gets a hovering ability which makes acquiring all of those hard-to-collect-without-dying KONG letters and puzzle pieces a bit more manageable. Even traversing some of the crazy stages as Donkey made me want to pull my hair out. Or, you know, purposely die and just let Diddy Kong finish the stage without me holding him back.

A lot of my other frustrations align with typical Wii game complaints.  The levels are too hectic at times for two players and/or the funky Wii controls aren’t responsive enough for their demands. Some levels or collectibles demand performing a roll-jump which requires running, shaking the controller, then jumping. Good luck with that. Nine times out of ten your monkey won’t jump when you press the button. Or when you’re only shaking the controller to pound the ground he’ll do a roll instead and plummet to an inconvenient death.

Again, thankfully death doesn’t mean too much anymore. With banana coins you collect from levels you can purchase an obscene amount of lives from Cranky at his shack. We had so many banana coins we didn’t know what to do with them besides frivolously spend them on fifty lives at a time. I’m not ashamed to say we had no trouble blowing through that many lives, either. When playing co-op, TWO lives are taken from you every time you die. Which means every time you don’t press the Jump button with the right amount of pressure you lose two lives during those stupid one-hit-kill mine cart riding levels. I hate those types of levels by the way… pressing a button with the incorrect amount of pressure shouldn’t result in losing two lives.

Aside from riding mine carts and rockets amongst ridiculous obstacles, I liked a lot of the level designs. I’d be happier if they didn’t require more accurate responses than my Wii remotes can give. But, like the Mario and Kirby Wii games, they show a lot of creativity. There isn’t a lot of gray area; I found them a lot of fun or extremely frustrating. The music is reminiscent of past DK games. The premise for the whole game is a bit silly, but isn’t that usually the case?

The boss fights at the end of each world are hit or miss too. They’re either enjoyable or you die about 100 times before finally progressing. So, yes, this game is difficult, but like a lot of games this generation, it is difficult for the wrong reasons.

Oh, and the new final boss is stupid.

Contrast

She reminds me of Coraline.

Contrast is one of the free games being offered for Playstation 4 buyers and Playstation Network members. Between this and Resogun, the only games I’ve played on my PS4 so far are indie games. Contrast was a very short and not complicated game, so I’m going to go with the short and sweet approach.

The setting, character designs, and music are perfect for the atmosphere. The developers certainly hit the mark there.  Unfortunately everything else misses.

Contrast is a puzzle/platformer game. You control Dawn, the main character’s “imaginary friend.” Didi, as pictured above, is the true main character. The playable character does not speak and is pretty much an instrument for Didi. You’ll be transitioning in and out of the shadows to move barriers for Didi or try fixing her dad’s crappy plans which always seem to backfire. The  goal over the course of the game is to get Didi’s parents back together.

There isn’t much to the game besides figuring out puzzles and watching scenes. Like many story-oriented games, there isn’t much to speak of in terms of item collecting. And there is no battle system, as you never fight or kill anything. Basically you have a small amount of wandering available to you in the streets and on rooftops. You’ll stumble upon some luminieres,  collectable items in the game. At certain points you  must collect some to further progress the story.  There are also pictures and notes spread around which offer some insight as to what is going on behind the scenes.

Everything else Dawn does involves shifting between shadows, or “dimensions” to solve puzzles. And I gotta say, the puzzles weren’t all that complicated because even I could solve them without frustration or using the internet to cheat (nothing like my experience with Legend of Zelda games!) The game won’t take you very long to beat. In fact, the only reason the final act took me more than 15 minutes was because the game glitched out on me. THREE TIMES. Three times I had to restart, and there were no auto-save points so I had to do the entire chapter over again. Glitchy crap seems to be a curse we are stuck with as gamers for the next forever.

There are hints to an over-arching concept behind Didi’s imagination, but the suggestive ending doesn’t quite give a hard enough punch. My one-word feedback for this game is: rushed. The game feels rushed. Meaning it doesn’t live up to its potential. If you’re like me and enjoy playing games with rich settings, music and are story-driven (and free!) download it.