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Glen Cook - Chronicles of the Black Company
With any genre in any medium, there are traits that define the genre. Action movies involve fight scenes and chases. Role playing video games involve leveling a character or characters. Science fiction is set in the future and involves technology that we don't have today. In addition to the defining traits, though, there are also conventions that inevitably come to define the genre. In action movies, the main characters is likable, and he gets the girl. In role playing video games, combat is turn based. In science fiction, space ships travel faster than the speed of light. Whenever conventions develop, though, someone decides to throw them aside, and often with great effect. Antiheroes in action movies, real-time combat in RPGs, and space travel that leaves its passengers far younger than those they left behind. Sometimes the genre changes in reaction to a work that reassesses it. Other times, it doesn't.

I'm not sure how much of an impact Glen Cook has made in the fantasy genre by subverting a rather enormous quantity of its norms, but whatever it is, it's not enough. Fantasy is, I imagine, defined by a level of technology that predates guns and electricity, by magic, by mythical creatures. But the genre has come to be about the epic struggle between good and evil. It has somehow come to revolve around young, unlikely heroes thrown out of peaceful lives and into conflict. It has come to involve handsome men falling in love with beautiful women, and vice versa. It has as much to do with the world in which the story takes place as it does the story itself. It is full of flowery names that are punctuated by apostrophes and dashes, with a generous helping of odd consonants jammed together uncomfortably.

Some of those things I enjoy. Some I tolerate. Some I detest. None of them, however, are really necessary in a fantasy novel. In Chronicles of the Black Company, Glen Cook tosses them all aside. He actively flaunts several. And by and large, it is to great effect.

The Chronicles of the Black Company are told from the first person perspective of Croaker, a physician and annalist working with the Black Company, a band of mercenaries. No, not mercenaries with a heart of gold, who only work for the cause of justice. Mercenaries. They fight for pay. It's not a philosophical thing; it's their job. Croaker makes it clear that some of their members do some pretty heinous things. The character himself makes a point not to whitewash, and notes that he often glances over some of the darker aspects of his profession. He muses often about the lack of black and white, about the reality of us and them; that there are good people under each banner, and bad ones, too. But the characters in the book are not without ethics and morals. There are lines which they will not cross, and some acts that they will not simply turn a blind eye to. The effect of it all is that the Black Company feels real. It feels like a group of paid soldiers who kill for a living and who have become used to some of the ugliness that entails, but who are still human at the heart of it.

Glen Cook's writing here is sparse and direct. Characters are introduced without a mention of their physical characteristics. After three books and eight hundred pages, I have virtually no idea what Croaker looks like. I don't know what color his hair or eyes are, how tall he stands, the kind of clothes he wears, or the color of his skin. Only truly remarkable characteristics get pointed out, and only a few times in the whole of the books. Characters are their names and their actions. And their names and their actions are unique and memorable: One-Eye. Goblin. Elmo. The Captain. Raven. The names are simple and emblematic in part because recruits in the Black Company are usually given new names on entering, often because they're running from a past they want to forget, and part because in the world of the Black Company, knowing someone's true name is a form of power.

That same paucity of detail extends to world building, as well. Cities are simply named - Beryl, Oar, Charm - and only described in the simplest terms. There are no essays on the histories, culture, food, or architecture of the lands Croaker passes through. The world is there, and it's a dark, gritty one, without being oppressively so. Cook does not dwell on the details of the evils of war, as Terry Goodkind and George R. R. Martin have a tendency to do. For certain, this is no Robert Jordan or Goodkind or Martin. The writing is taut, without a word wasted, with the focus all on the plot, the characters, their actions, and the action.

Magic, too, is a force in the world - and a very powerful one - but it's a vague one, not truly understood by Croaker, since he's not a magic user himself. I could tell you all about the inner workings of the magic of The Wheel of Time, and of The Sword of Truth, but all I know about magic in the Black Company is what Croaker knows. I know what it can do, but I'm not sure where the limits are, or how things work. And that's fine. It's sort of beside the point.

The characters are not typical of fantasy, either. Croaker, as previously mentioned, is a decent guy, but he's also a mercenary. He's not a prophesied hero or a young rebel. By the end of the Chronicles of the Black Company, which collects the first three books of the series into one large tome that forms a complete story arc, he's actually rather old. There's not a traditional, sweeping fantasy romance present, either. The world is not a place without love, but there's not exactly a grand romance between two beautiful young heroes pulling the reader through the pages.

Chronicles of the Black Company is really fantasy boiled down to its essential elements, with many of its norms twisted around. All that the books aren't leaves far more room for what they are. It's a story that moves quickly, with a focus on action and dialog and plot. The first person aspect makes it immediate, compelling, and at times urgent. It's witty, sarcastic, and direct. It takes the sweeping, chess-board feel of modern fantasy and pulls it back to an intimate, direct, personal level.

I liked it from the first page, but I don't think I really grew to love it until the third book of Chronicles of the Black Company. By that point I had really come to love virtually all of the characters, particularly ones I had not been so sure about at first, and I honestly had no idea what would happen to them. I didn't know who would die - but I knew that some most certainly would - and I didn't know who would win, and I didn't even know how the relationships between some characters would pan out. But I wanted to know all of it, right away, and when I finally put down the book, way, way late at night, after hours and hours of continuous reading, I was more than satisfied with how things ended. I wanted more, though, too, and thankfully, Glen Cook wrote more than three books about the Black Company.


 
Dark Souls
Demon's Souls was perhaps the most out-of-nowhere one-of-the-greatest-games-ever of all time. If that makes sense. Even in retrospect, looking at From Software's previous titles, the absolute brilliance of Demon's Souls doesn't quite compute. They had a few games you may have heard of, but none of them were really that memorable or awesome. The King's Field games were apparently the spiritual predecessors to Demon's Souls, but you're a rare person if you've played them, and from what I gather, there really isn't an easily traceable line from the quality of those games to the perfection of Demon's Souls. But regardless of how difficult it was to see coming, Demon's Souls is one of the best video games ever made, surely the best of its generation, and probably the best of a span greater than one generation, too. It's in my top five ever, and I'm certainly not the only one who would put it there. It's an amazing game that pushes boundaries that people didn't even know existed, and moves in directions no one else thought were there.

All of that is a grand way to say that Demon's Souls (henceforth DeSo) made Dark Souls (DaSo) one of my most anticipated games ever. Its release was my version of a religion holiday, complete with the clouds parting as a single ray of sunshine illuminates the game while a fanfare of trumpets swells and all of that. It was a pretty big deal for me - and many others. And all of that is a grand way to say that evaluating DaSo can be pretty difficult. It inevitably involves comparing it to its predecessor, DeSo, even as I attempt to evaluate it on its own merits. There's a lot that I can (and will) say about DaSo, but I guess the root of it is pretty simple:

I love Dark Souls.
I hate Dark Souls.
I love Dark Souls.
I hate Dark Souls.
I love Dark Souls.
I hate Dark Souls.

It's like an abusive spouse that I keep coming back to. It's so beautiful and so amazing and treats me like no other games do and it's so oh wholly shit I fucking want to murder it I want to take it out of the PlayStation and just break the disc over my knee and I'm done playing it I'm never going to play it but I'll give it one more try because it's so awesome and so incredible and I guess I don't hate it that much after all and...

The love and the hate both come from identical and disparate sources. It's easier to start with the things that cause both love and hate, because they are the trademarks of the series.

First of all, DaSo, like DeSo, is a very, very, very fucking hard game. The kind that you will not find anywhere else. Truly. It's somewhat old school in that it demands perfection from you, and in that it can suddenly go from being absolutely goddamn fuck-this-game impossible to being trivially easy once you get the patterns down and finally figure out how to cope with this or that enemy. And it can and will go right back to being absolutely goddamn ridiculously hard once you stop taking something that has become easy seriously. The game will punish you if you're not careful, thoughtful, and cautious. It all but mandates patience, study, and calculated response.

One of the major aspects of DeSo that made the difficulty tolerable was that it was fair. Crushingly fair, even. If you rolled backwards to avoid an enemy and fell off an edge, it was because you stopped paying attention to the existence of that edge. If you got pinched by two enemies and attacked from behind, it's probably because you ran ahead too fast, screwed up your positioning, or didn't take the enemy seriously enough. The game was basically without bugs, and weapons and enemies reacted as you would expect them to. In the close quarters of a claustrophobic hall, an enormous sword that you have to swing from side to side isn't worth much, but a stabbing spear is. Everything made sense, and everything was fair. If you died, it was your fault.

In DaSo, that's true... for the most part. It becomes less true the longer the game goes on.

First of all, the game has an easily reproducible bug that bites me in the ass on a regular basis and frequently causes my death. Walk around an enemy in a circle with your shield up, by holding L1. Wait for the enemy to strike and miss, and then lower your shield by releasing L1 and swing your weapon by hitting R1. If you hit R1 at just about the time you release L1, nothing will happen. That, in and of itself, is an enormous frustration, but it won't get you killed - it'll just prevent you from getting in a strike that you should have. What will get you killed, however, is pressing L1 to bring your shield back up when an enemy is about to attack you. Instead of bringing your shield back up to save your life from an incoming blow, pressing L1 will trigger the attack that R1 never triggered. This is maddening.

It took me perhaps sixty hours to realize it, too, but this bug extends to other events, as well, such as using healing items. For the first umpteen hours that I played, I would curse the game for not drinking a potion when I told it to drink a goddamn potion, leading to plenty deaths. Eventually, I realized that the same thing was happening - I was trying to drink a potion just after dropping my shield, and thus it ended up never happening. This is not consistent behavior - you can queue up abilities while getting hit, and you can use them while your shield is up (which will drop your shield). But if you trigger the action just as your shield is dropping, you'll end up doing nothing.

I've run into a few other weird bugs that killed me, too, but they've been rare enough that they don't cause me the frustration that the one above does. That said, it is annoying when you're deep in a difficult area, loaded with souls, and you just finished killing an enormous demon on a tiny ledge far above a pit of lava, and, as you stand there, solidly on ground, he falls over at your feet, disappears, and then you are suddenly well off the ledge and falling to your death.

More annoying than one-time deaths to bugs like that, though, are some of the approaches that the game takes to generating difficulty. They remind me far more of the modern day Ninja Gaiden games, which I always felt were guilty of using cheap tactics to ratchet up difficulty. Making every enemy take twenty hits to die while at the same time making them capable of killing you in one hit makes the game harder, but it is the cheapest, laziest, easiest way to make it more difficult, and it does not make it more fun. Toward the end of the game, DaSo becomes guilty of this, too.

Witness the four-legged skeletons deep in the Tomb of the Giants. One of their attacks, should they randomly choose to use it, will deplete even the most well-equipped warrior of all their stamina, which means that there's no way to block their attacks. That, in turn, means that if you're not supremely well equipped, or even if you are and you don't have all your stamina when they start attacking, you will unavoidably get savaged, and most likely for enough damage to kill you, or come very close.

Witness perhaps the single worst part of a game, where you run up a narrow ramp to a narrow ledge with two archers shooting arrows at you the whole time. If you even so much as block one of the arrows, the knock back will knock you off of the ledge and to your instant death.

Witness the wolverine rat things in the forest, with a roll attack that will do significant damage to you, and that is, mysteriously, unblockable. Everything else in the game that I have met thus far is blockable. This appears to be a normal physical attack. Why can't I block it?

It's actually very similar to the attacks of the skeleton wheels, which roll into you, and are blockable. What's wonderful about those guys, though, is that their attacks, like those of the four-legged skeletons, will hit you again and again and again, chipping away your stamina until it's gone, unless (again) you're extremely well equipped and have plenty of stamina to spare. If they make it through your shield, they will hit you again and again until you die. That's annoying enough, but it's even more annoying when the game throws you into a valley full of them, which means that one hit - often coming from behind you, where your shield will do you no good - will stagger you, dropping your shield, leading to instant death. It's also annoying when the game throws you into a series of tight corridors filled with them, preventing you from rolling to dodge them.

It's also annoying when enemies - even bosses like Giant Ornstein, have unblockable (practically) instant-kill moves. And it's annoying when victory over bosses such as Great Wolf Sif seem to be dependent almost entirely on the luck that you have with the AI. I fought him many times. When I lost to him, he typically chose to jump around constantly and charge me again and again. The time that I beat him (and to a lesser extent, the times that I did well), he chose to stand around while I stood beneath him, raking at his stomach with my battle axe.

Most of the time DaSo is just as fair as DeSo, but too often, it feels like your death or triumph is left up to luck. It only takes one unfair encounter in an hour to ruin that hour's worth of play, and those unfair encounters seem to mount as the game rolls on. In DaSo, the creators quite obviously tried to make the game more difficult than DeSo. They succeeded, but unfortunately, I feel like they had to resort to cheap tactics like nigh-unavoidable instant-kill hits to do so. In this regard, I think that DaSo takes a bit step back relative to DeSo.


The other core component of DeSo, and DaSo, is the game's startlingly creative, asymmetrical approach to multiplayer. In most games, multiplayer is a separate mode that is entirely symmetrical. There's League of Legends, in which the map is quite really a map that can be cut down the middle to form a mirror image. There's all the various FPS games, in which deathmatch means that each team gets a nearly identical half of a map and identical weapons, and for each the goal is to kill the other. Granted, the genre has taken a big step forward in that regard in the last several years, but even with differing objectives, things still remain highly symmetrical.

In the Souls games, however, multiplayer is an integral, always-on part of the game, even though it's ostensibly a single player game. The tremendous difficulty of DaSo, like DeSo, is blunted by a number of non-traditional multiplayer features. You can view in-game hints from other players, voted on by other players. You can see short replays of the last ten seconds of an unfortunate player's life, potentially warning you of ambushes ahead. If you're stuck on a boss fight, you can summon other players to help you out. They have to be in their "dead" or "hollow" state, and you have to be in your human form, and there is no direct text or voice communication allowed between you, but they can and will help you beat bosses. If they do, they get souls, they get humanity, and, if they're in the right covenant (think guild), they get a reward, too. There are more atmospheric multiplayer touches, as well - like seeing ghostly images of players currently alive and in your area wandering by you, or seeing the statues of other players killed by being turned into stone via a curse.

But that's all fine. That's well. That's good. That's awesome. Granted, summoning players on a boss can make the fight utterly anticlimactic, but that's something you learn and react to accordingly. I usually don't call for help, unless I'm sick of the fight and want it to be done. You have no real complaints from me there.

Where I do have complaints is in the PVP aspects of the game, and particularly, with relation to the aforementioned covenants. All of it sounds so very, very, very cool on paper. I was shitting fish as I read about the many aspects and goals of various covenants. I was excited and awed. I was amazed that From Software had taken things in a direction no one else had even considered previously. When I actually got into the multiplayer in question, though, I found it to be one huge, colossal grief fest.

For example, let's take the Darkmoon Covenant. The point of the covenant is to seek out the guilty - those that have broken their covenant or have invaded other players and been indicted by them. Since you are a spirit of vengeance, the player gets no warning when they are invaded, and if you kill enough players for the Darkmoon, you get rewards. You also receive a ring, which will allow the covenant to summon you to invade someone in their home turf.

Sounds awesome, right? It does to me, anyway. I am the embodiment of vengeance! I will be rewarded for destroying the guilty!

Here's how it actually works out.

First of all, the home territory of this guild is Anor Londo, which happens to be home to a very hard boss fight. How do you take down a very hard boss? You get help from other players. How do you get help from other players? You turn human. What happens when you turn human? You open yourself to invasion from other players.

Do you see the problem here?

I was frustrated with the Anor Londo boss fight to the point of quitting the game. I decided to go human and make the two minute run from the safety of the bonfire to the boss fight, where I would summon help and hopefully win the fight. Virtually every time I attempted to do so, I was invaded by other players and killed, which means that I go from being slaughtered for hours on end by bosses to being slaughtered instantly by other players. In addition, turning human to get help takes humanity, which is rather precious and somewhat rare. The apparent solution to my frustration with the difficulty of the game was a more frustrating, more difficult problem. Which is to say, there is no solution.

To make matters even more hilarious, when I finally did open up the Darkmoon covenant for myself, I, too, put on the ring to invade other players because I, too, wanted those rewards. I became part of the problem that I hated so much. Well, in theory, anyway.

The way it went for me was something like this: I put on the ring, I wait awhile, I get summoned. I appear in Anor Londo, and as my character does his stand up animation that segues into my control of him, I notice that I am surrounded on all sides by three hostile players. They kill me inside of one second - literally - and I am returned to my world, dead. I probably spent twenty seconds loading into their world and loading out of it, and I spent two seconds playing watching my character be killed.

I keep the ring on, hoping that I will be summoned to another world, and I am, except it's the exact same fucking bullshit. Then I get summoned again, and it's back to the first guy's world again, where I die. Again. And after five or six of these instances, I take the fucking ring off and never use it again because it's fucking bullshit. People just stand around and farm summoned invaders, which goes so far beyond the reverse of the intent of the covenant that it's hard to describe it.

No matter which side of the PVP equation I am on - invader, invaded - I feel like I'm being griefed. It's a frustrating, unfair mess regardless of your position. There are more covenants, and they all have more or less the same flaws. They even accent a few other ones.

Earlier on in the game, I was part of the Forest Hunters covenant, which works in a fashion similar to the Darkmoon. Put on a ring, and when unfriendly players come into the covenant's home territory, you can get summoned to fight. I eventually racked up enough kills to get my rewards, but what I found there - in addition to the issues mentioned above - is that the people camping the forest for PVP kills were also likely to practice a very particular sort of power leveling. You only get summoned into the worlds of people within 10% of your level, but you can spend souls on gear, upgrades, and spells, in addition to leveling up. I'd often be pitted against people with similar stats to mine, but who were twice as far through the game, with armor and spells many times better than what I had, making them effectively twice my level or more.

So the amount of "fair" fights I get into (since the game is asymmetrical, and invaders have the advantage of having monsters on their team, and hosts have the advantage of using healing potions and calling other players for help, there's no such thing as truly balanced and fair, but you know what I mean) works out to roughly ten percent of the fights that I have. Even in those, though, things aren't really fair.

DeSo had some notoriously bad net code. I backstabbed people without doing any damage to them. I got hit by attacks that didn't happen. I rubber-banded around the stage, going ten steps forward, appearing backward, going ten steps forward, appearing backward. DaSo is improved, for certain, but it remains largely the same. I have been backstabbed by people I am facing. I have been hit as if my shield was down while my shield was up. Once I was backstabbed by someone in front of me that I was hitting, while I was hitting them, and it did no damage. The relative reliability of the game's mechanics go out the window when you get online. It makes me think I shouldn't even bother trying to get better at PVPing, seeing as how it's unreliable at best. Better to just luck out, get the ten kills I need to get another rank in my covenant, and then move on.

There was a certain purity to PVP in DeSo, too, that is sorely lacking in DaSo. I DeSo, being human was a relatively rare and precious thing - while dead, you had between 50% and 75% of your maximum life, along with all the other benefits like summoning other players. Being invaded really ramped up your tension, because you did not want to die while human. Even more importantly, though, invading was a big fucking deal. Invading and losing would mean losing a full level, which at best meant a long stretch of farming to get it back, and at worst meant that you lost the point of dexterity necessary to use that cool new sword. The rewards were nice - you stole their human form and their souls - but it was much about PVP as anything. You didn't do it if you weren't into the PVP. And if you invaded, you made sure you got the kill, no matter how long you had to take. You'd lure the player back into a choke point surrounded with enemies. You'd wait in that one great ambush spot. Too much was at risk to just charge in and take your chances.

In DaSo, by contrast, if you die while invaded, you lose humanity, which is annoying, as it is somewhat precious, but it can be farmed off of a variety of creatures, bought from a number of vendors, and found all over. Far, far more importantly, however, in DaSo, if you invade and you lose, you lose... nothing. Nothing. Nothing.

Can you see a problem here?

For the host, there is plenty to lose. There is relatively little to gain. For the invader, there is everything to gain, and there is nothing to lose. Why not go balls out? Why not invade non-stop? There's at least one covenant that requires ten PVP kills (you can farm an enemy for the kill tokens, but it will take ages). You have all the reason to invade, and no reason not to. The game is, unwittingly or otherwise, designed to be a grief fest. And it is. It is as badly exploited and unfun a PVP system as I have ever played in any game, anywhere, ever. I have missed lots and lots of content because I have no interest in being human because it means being invaded nonstop.

If you're human in an effort to get help on a boss, expect to be invaded constantly. If you're invading to get kills for a covenant, expect to be farmed by ridiculously out-of-your-league players. If you have a balanced, fair, interesting, tense PVP fight that doesn't end with your obliteration in two seconds, treasure the experience; it will not happen again soon.


There are other bizarre steps back, too, simple but inexplicable. In DeSo you could see that it would take 34,587 souls to level up. In DaSo, you cannot, meaning you have to guess how many souls you need to collect before leveling. How does that make any sense whatsoever? Every single person I know that has played the game has remarked on the very first occasion of being able to level up. Every goddamn one.

There are also some strategy guide or pure-dumb-luck only events, which may not be that much of a step backward from DeSo, truth be told. The convoluted actions you are required to perform - and not perform - at very specific points in very specific ways make me wonder if any human could have ever done them properly without the help of insider knowledge or a walkthrough. This is hardly unique to the Souls games (Final Fantasy, I am looking at you), but it still sucks.

And then, for the rest of the game, there are steps back for every step forward. Every positive brings with it a negative.

For example, the scope of the game is absolutely, mind-blowingly unrivaled by anything else I have ever seen, heard of, or played. Absolutely. Unrivaled. Immense. Epic. Incredible. The size and scope of the environments in the game is just unbelievable. Unbelievable. I cannot reiterate those words enough. There are plenty places in the game - Ash Lake, Anor Londo, Kiln of the First Flame - that make you just stop and stare. The graphics are incredible, the framing is incredible, the concept is incredible, the atmosphere is incredible, the scope is incredible.

But the framerate! Oh, the framerate! It is fucking amazing to look down from my ledge on a huge, arching bridge that is hundreds of feet above a shadowed, swampy pass between two walls. A pass that is hundreds of yards wide, between two walls that must be half a mile tall. It is amazing because of the scope, but it is more amazing because I can see the spiderweb shambling of rotted wooden planks and ladders that are built against one wall, leading all the way down it, into the swamp, and then up the wall on the other side. It's fucking amazing. Amazing. But the three frames per second that my Playstation 3 is getting is not amazing. It is not amazing at all.

And then there's the size of the game. I'm not sure how long DeSo took to make, but I am sure they spent as much time hammering out the engine as they did hammering out the content. DaSo, however, is basically 90% the same engine, which means that the development crew could devote the two years of development to making content, content, content. And they did. DeSo was a reasonably sized game, with probably fifteen to thirty hours worth of content on your first play through, more if you're a completionist. I am at the end of DaSo - but doing completionist-type things before I finish it - and it has taken me some ninety hours to get there. Ninety. That is immense. The world is probably five times the size of that in DeSo.

There's ten times as much armor, as many rings, as many weapons, as many spells. There's a whole new spell type - pyromancy. There are far, far, far more zones, with far more unique flavors. There are covenants. There are optional areas. There are bosses all over the place. There are secrets. There are vendors. The game is just goddamn massive.

But it almost feels too big to me. DeSo left me begging for more when it ended. I was praying for downloadable content. I am not quite done with DaSo, but I am pretty much burnt out on it. I think when I finally finish the game, I will feel relieved. I don't know that there's anything I would cut from the game, but I feel like there's almost an exhausting amount to do.

And there's the whole one huge, seamless world aspect of the game, too. DeSo had you entering five separate, distinct levels from the Nexus, your home base, your safe haven. That was where you went to level, to store items, to buy things. In DaSo, the world is one huge, enormous, seamless entity. There are absolutely no load times while traveling, which is pretty fucking impressive, and there is between little and no direction on where to go. Bonfires, scattered throughout the world, make up your mini havens. Given the proper upgrades, when you're at them, you can repair, store items, level up, and more. They're where you'll respawn when you die. They're where you restock on healing items.

Part of me misses the Nexus, the ebb and flow between killing monsters, acquiring gear, and gaining souls, and then going back to your safe house to spend those souls, level up, store items, and talk to NPCs. There is something approaching the Nexus in DaSo - another hub for NPCs - but it will not be your lone base camp. It has been broken up and scattered throughout the world. Ultimately, I do think I prefer DaSo's bonfires, but they are different, for sure.

One thing that they do allow for is an overhaul of the healing items, which is a great step forward for DaSo. In DeSo, you farmed certain mobs for healing herbs. Any time farming is an integral part of being able to progress (and healing items are necessary, which means farming was), you have a problem. In DaSo, you refill your healing flasks whenever you visit a bonfire, and if you want to spend the humanity, you can up the number of flasks you'll get each time you visit that bonfire. It's a nice system, and one that I have no complaints with.


There is plenty to love about the game, really. The level design is amazing. The graphics are incredible. The animations are incredibly lifelike. Attention to detail and little touches that make the game abound. The music - while limited - is perfect. The sound effects are excellent. The atmosphere is great. The voice acting is wonderful. What little dialog there is is perfectly crafted. The amount of technical brilliance on display in the game is nothing short of astounding, really. It feels like From Software is on a completely different level than every other game out there. Almost like they're cheating, or something. They flawlessly pull off things that other games don't even begin to attempt. The scope of their vision is daunting. DaSo is just so flat out amazing in so goddamn many regards that it boggles the mind.

In the end, there is nothing out there even remotely like Dark Souls - except for Demon's Souls. That makes it both the obvious and the only point of comparison, and it also makes it extremely hard to judge Dark Souls unto itself. I love it. I hate it. I love it. It's amazing how easily I can switch from just hating the game and wanting to snap it over my knee to wanting to prostrate myself before its brilliance - simply by writing about different parts of the game. Playing it is like an exercise in experiencing the ups and downs of a bipolar relationship. It's so incredible, but it's so frustrating. The only thing I can really say is that it absolutely requires playing. Games like this stand alone.


 
Death Cab For Cutie - Codes and Keys
Images/Music/dcfc-codesandkeys.jpg

In my experience, the quality of most bands' releases tend to take one of four trajectories:

1) They flat line out, and always suck
2) They flat line out, and are always good
3) They start inspired, releasing a few great albums, and then lose their inspiration and devolve into crap
4) They start out rough and not so great, figure out their craft, and then release excellent material

If you had asked me back in college when I first heard about Death Cab For Cutie (after the release of The Photo Album, to be precise), I would have told you that they were number 1. Three albums, and nothing really worth listening to? Not a band worth investigating. Their material wasn't bad, per se, but it wasn't worth the effort required to obtain a CD or download mp3s. If you had asked me about four years back, when I discovered (or rediscovered) them, I would have told you that they were number 4. Yeah, those first three albums weren't great, but holy shit, Transatlanticism is fucking fantastic, and Plans is one for the ages. For the ages. And were you to ask me now, after the release of Narrow Stairs, and very recently, of Codes and Keys, I'd tell you that they're moving into the lesser seen territory of number 5, which is either the band that sucks, peaks, and then sucks again, or perhaps the band that is just spotty as all hell.

The first four songs on Codes and Keys are all decidedly mediocre. None of them offend my musical sensibilities, but none of them make me want to listen to them again. The first sign of any creative life from the band comes in You Are a Tourist, the album's one stand out, crank-the-volume song. The driving, low bass and simple but forceful drum beat are the heart of the song, while the catchy guitar riff and shimmering arpeggios that are played over top of it are the ornamentation that take it from good to awesome. Everything in the piece is exactly where it should be, every guitar part is perfect. I compulsively reach for the volume knob when You Are a Tourist comes on. It is a song that breeds hope and confidence.

And then Unobstructed Views follows it, and it is like the slow deflating of a balloon. It's not a bad song. It's north of mediocre, even. It's different for Death Cab, like much of this album. There's less guitar, more keyboards and synth, less catchy guitar riffing, more ambient noise on this album. But this is no Kid A or The Age of Adz. It's not a reinvention, and it's not particularly good, either. It doesn't fall totally flat, but neither does it truly succeed, as those two albums did. The obvious and inevitable comparison is that, eight years later, Death Cab For Cutie has finally start taking heavy influence from its most famous side project, The Postal Service.

This isn't exactly the bubbling electronica-pop of The Postal Service, but it's significantly closer than anything else Death Cab has put out previously. It's probably a middle ground between Give Up and Plans, really. Unobstructed Views is completely without guitar, and in fact completely electronic save the piano. Monday Morning has guitars, but keeps them low in the mix. It's one of the better songs on the album, and one of only three that really stand out to me. Underneath the Sycamore is the other of those songs, and is my favorite behind You Are a Tourist, and sounds the most like the Death Cab For Cutie of Transatlanticism and Plans of anything on Codes and Keys.

The rest of the album's second half isn't bad, I suppose. St. Peter's Cathedral could have come from The Postal Service's next album, Portable Television's piano gets tiresome, and Stay Young, Go Dancing is pretty enjoyable. The album is something of an analogy for Death Cab's career thus far. It's spotty. It's unpredictable - and not in the sense that they're doing surprising, amazing things, but rather that they're sometimes doing that and sometimes making mediocre, uninspired music. Parts of Codes and Keys are great, but most of it's not. Parts of Death Cab's discography are great, but most of it's not.

I would have never expected Plans after listening to The Photo album. For something that great to follow something that middle of the road is quite a surprise. I didn't expect an album as middling as Narrow Stairs after the brilliance of Plans. After Codes and Keys, I have no idea what to expect. Is Death Cab just in a slump, or have they blown their collective loads on the back-to-back brilliance of Transatlanticism and Plans? Have success and happiness left them without inspiration? Given their unsteady arc thus far, I won't even hazard a guess. I feel like Death Cab For Cutie has gone back to their first three albums, except this time they have way more money and thus way higher production values behind them. I hope that Codes and Keys is a low point rather than another point on a gradual slope.


 
Okkervil River - I Am Very Far
Images/Music/okkervilriver-iamveryfar.jpg

When I first listened to Okkervil River, I didn't think all that much of them. I listened to The Stage Names several times, and while it certainly wasn't bad, and a few songs seemed pretty okay, it didn't really click for me. I couldn't get into it. I forgot about them, and then months later, I picked up the album again, and for whatever reason, something had changed. The Stage Names was great this time around. I saw them live, I bought their entire discography, and I loved it all. Some albums I had to warm to a little bit, but it all seemed like my kind of music even on first blush. The Stand Ins came out and it was fantastic. Okkervil River was my band. They were one of my favorite active rock acts. I loved them.

Just recently, Okkervil River put out their sixth proper widely released album, I Am Very Far, and I feel like I am back to the start of paragraph one. I listen to I Am Very Far and think to myself, "this isn't bad - some of it is even pretty good, I guess." But none of it really clicks. None of it really hits me like their other material does. The Valley, the album's opener, is pretty rocking, I imagine, with its aggressive, stomping rhythm and percussion, and its neat and highly selective use of instruments outside of the traditional rock realm. The Rise, the album's closer, seems to touch some strong emotional material while also holding to an odd time signature, the intentionally-slightly-off vocals subtly drawing attention to that fact. Everything in between those two, well, suffice to say that I can't really remember what any of them sound like.

Somehow I feel like I'm making a conscious effort to like I Am Very Far. I have listened to it again and again and again, hoping it will grow on me. I'm not even sure what, precisely, is different about this album, about Okkervil River now. Will Sheff still pens literary and emotional and insightful lyrics. The band still explores the seam between folk and indie rock. The instrumentation is still expansive, the style of the songs still varied. I think that, if anything, the band sounds thicker on this album. I've read that they double tracked most of the instruments. Perhaps that has something to do with it? Or maybe it's the fact that this is their first non-concept album in eight years? Has that affected their sound? Maye the recording process was different, or the production and mixing?

Okkervil River definitely sounds different - somehow - on I Am Very Far, and I am also definitely not as fond of it at this point as I am of any of their previous works. Try as I might, I just can't get into it. Some kind of connection is not being made. Maybe I need a few more listens, or maybe seeing them live in a week will spark some kind of crucial light. In the meantime, I guess I'm forced to admit that while it's okay, I just don't like the album that much.


 
Explosions in the Sky - Live 4/11/11
Despite being more or less my favorite band ever, it has been quite some time since I saw Explosions in the Sky headline a show. It's not for lack of want or trying, either; the last time they headlined anywhere near my location was in October of '04. I guess they come around like they put out albums - not all that frequently. Six and a half years is a lot of time for a band that hasn't quite been around twelve, and a lot can change over that sort of time. A lot has for EitS, I think, though there are enough variables at work that it's kind of hard to pin down what's responsible for what.

First, let me speak of the venues, because I think they're a crucial component. I'm going to discount the time that I saw them open for Smashing Pumpkins, because it was obviously an odd show where virtually no one cared about them. When I saw them the first time, they played the Wexner Center for the Arts, a very nice art hall on the Ohio State University campus. I think they had some very, very limited kind of bar there, perhaps just wine, and I believe that all drinks were to be kept outside of the performance hall. It had two levels and held about five hundred people. Everyone that was there was, without a doubt, there to see EitS. They were dead silent during the songs, only applauding at the end, and the mix was perfect. When they ended the song on a climax-to-silence finish of The Only Moment We Were Alone, you could have heard a hipster drop his thick-framed black glasses.

This time around, they played the Outland Live, a bar in an odd area just outside of downtown Columbus. It was one of the more perplexing venues I've ever been to, perhaps the first I've ever been to that seemed to specialize in serving up the finest in industrial goth scenery. With pool tables. Do goths do billiards? I'm not really that familiar with the whole goth culture, but I have never seen anything that indicates to me that goths are into billiards. Overwrought iron wall fixtures and concrete sculptures, sure. A giant fake marijuana plant, well, I guess. Spray painted mannequin torsos probably fit. Beer? Okay. Coffins? Definitely. Altar / shrine bearing an over-sized picture of someone who I can only imagine recently passed away? Perfectly appropriate. Billiards, though? Hmm...

In any case, the venue was actually very nice, as bars go. High ceilings, outdoor areas, air flow, spacious, etc. The stage was in a very large industrial-style garage. Only one level, and I would be shocked if it even held twice as many people as the Wexner. Why not play somewhere bigger? Somewhere that wouldn't sell out in a day? There was also a bar and a half inside the stage area, on top of the bar in the adjoining area. I mention this because I think it might be very relevant.

Six and a half years is a lot of time. I have no doubt that EitS's music has reached new audiences in that time. Allow me to put on my best snob voice: I do not think that is necessarily a good thing, at least from the perspective of a concert goer such as myself. I wish them all the success in the world, and I hope their music reaches and touches millions, but goddammit, I wish the people seeing them live cared as much about their music as I do.

Different types of music require different types of audience behavior. You do not talk at a classical concert. You also don't really talk at a jazz show. A circle pit is entirely appropriate at a punk or ska show, and moshing is thoroughly acceptable at a hardcore metal show. You don't mosh at a jam band show, but you can dance like a fucking hippie on LSD, because there's a good chance that you are. But you don't do that at a post-rock show, unless you want to seem kind of dumb. In my opinion, the other thing you don't do at a post-rock show is talk. Post-rock is akin to classical. It has huge dynamics. Parts are very quiet. Parts are very loud. It switches between the two rapidly. Also, the songs are long and multi-segmented, and quiet often follows loud, so you also do not applaud before the song is over at a post-rock show because you might drown out parts of the song.

As you can probably guess, all of the above occurred at the Explosions show at the Outland Live. They started off with Memorial, and the beginning was very quiet. Very quiet. People did not stop talking. They barely quieted down. It was actually difficult to hear the music over the crowd. People screamed and cheered after climaxes, crushing the quiet parts of the songs that followed. People talked during slow parts throughout the show, providing a marked distraction. Some fucking idiot screamed "that's fucking brutal!" or some other stupid shit during quiet parts following loud parts. The entire audience could hear him. Easily. There were two women in front of me who talked constantly, whether the music was loud or quiet. They only looked at the stage on occasion, and only paused their chatter to whip out the cell phone and post on Facebook. After about thirty minutes, one of them took a picture of the stage, and then they left.

I know full well that I sound like a bitter, jaded elitist, most likely because I am, but what is the fucking point? If you want to talk, why pay $25 a ticket, shout over the music, fuck up the experience for others, post on Facebook, take a picture as evidence you were there since you likely don't know or remember a single song that was played, and then leave a third of the way into the show? It was a sold out show, and two actual fans probably would have loved to have had those tickets. Is this the new concert experience? God, I (almost) hate to be some kind of fucking Luddite purist about this shit, but put the fucking phone away. Stop taking ten shitty pictures a minute with the flash on, stop posting to fucking Facebook, and stop texting your friends telling them about how you're at a fucking show. Are you really even at the fucking show? Really? Why not put the fucking distractions away and actually experience the show?


So, shitty audience aside, the show itself was great. Explosions played about as awesome a set as I could hope for. There were two songs from each of the old albums, and three from the new, yet-to-be-released one. Roughly in order, the set list was Memorial, Yasmin the Light, The Only Moment We Were Alone, The Birth and Death of the Day, Catastrophe and the Cure, and Greet Death, with three new songs scattered in the middle. With the exception of the opener and the closer, Explosions had a fifth man on stage playing bass, leaving all three string-players in the band proper to play the guitar. They really throw themselves into their songs, which makes a pretty enormous difference, even if it's only visual. Their music is powerful on the stereo, but hearing it and seeing it played live brings a certain intensity that you just can't get at home.

The new songs were all pretty excellent, I thought, and were all markedly different while still remaining true to what makes Explosions Explosions. One had sampled vocals, another had a sample drum loop, and the third had a long segment - perhaps half of the song - that, well, grooved. As in, if an LSD-addled hippie were to start dancing to it, it would not seem horribly out of place or forced. I'm pretty excited to hear the new album, as it has been a number of years since the last, and I'm interested in getting my hands on this new material, hearing it a few times, digesting it. I like what I've heard thus far.

The more shows of all sorts I go to, the more I seem to realize that ones in which all aspects - audience, mix, set list, performance - turn out wonderfully are rare indeed. It's obvious in retrospect, but for some reason, I don't know that I've always realized that. As much as I wish I could have traded the audience for another one more respectful of the music, the other three aspects, all of the ones directly under Explosion's control, were pretty fucking awesome. They put on an excellent live performance, and they're a required attendance if they come within a hundred miles.


 
Star Ocean: The Last Hope
Star Ocean: The Last Hope is Square Enix's last entry in the long running but seldom utilized Star Ocean franchise. The series started back on the SNES in '96, and has seen one game per console generation since, for a total of four, not including the portables and remakes. I'm only familiar with the last two, but the first ones, and the second specifically, were cult classics among the JRPG crowd. It goes without saying that much has changed about the series over that much time, but the staples - semi-futuristic, semi-fantasy setting, item creation, and real time combat - have remained the same.

One of the more perplexing staples, however, is the plot setup. As far as I can tell, it is effectively the same in every game of the series: the young crew of a spaceship from a futuristic society ends up crashing that spaceship on a pre-industrial era planet and is, for some bizarre reason, forced to resort to using swords and sorcery to combat evil. From that startlingly self-plagiarizing and thus unoriginal introduction comes the gratuitously trite plot of the game(s) as a whole, a phrase so tired when it comes to JRPGs that I can only think of a few that I've ever played that don't have it: a ragtag band of adventurers thrown together by fate must defeat an ancient and mysterious evil bent on destroying the universe for absolutely no good reason whatsoever. An entirely distinct, interesting, and unique plot, assuming you've never played a single JRPG in your entire life.

There's also a plot twist in the game that is practically advertised with flashing neon signs, a twist that is so fucking obvious that I am not sure it's actually a plot twist. The only thing making me think that it is is that the characters all express surprise when it is finally revealed. Really, though, they give it away before they even finish setting it up. Practically before they start. I'm not sure if the writing is clumsy or bad or some other brand of incompentent.

Star Ocean: The Last Hope is, of course, an RPG, which means that there will be a great deal of focus on the characters and plot, even if they suck so horribly that you're tempted to skip every cutscene - an option that they are either kind or self aware enough to give you. We have already established that the plot sucks, so let me assure you that the characters also suck. We follow the standard Square Enix / JRPG formula, as such:

Protagonist - Must be of a slim, athletic build, in his teens, with blond hair that is longer than a few inches but not longer than his shoulder, and prone to bouts of self-flaggelating seriousness. In this case, Edge. See also: Tidus, Cloud, Zidane, Squall (so he had brown hair, big deal), the urchin from FFXII whose name I don't remember, that guy from Dark Cloud 2, the dude from Disgaea 2, and other heroes I don't care to remember right now.

Female Love Interest - Must be of a similarly slim, athletic build, about the same age as the protagonist, and remarkably like him in ways. Should have B-cup breasts, which are big enough to be there but not so big that they're overtly sexy or intimidating or anything like that. Should be earnest, supportive, approachable, not intimidating, not assertive, and otherwise non-threatening. Again: non-threatening in all ways. In this case, Reimi. See also: Aeris, Rinoa, Dagger, Yuna, that chick from Dark Cloud 2, and probably some other chicks.

Sexy Female Non-Love Interest - Must be hot and voluptuous, and in possession of D-cup or greater breasts. Interest in the protagonist can range from non-existent all the way up to in-love-with, but it must be clear that she's never a real threat to the protagonist. In this case, Myuria. See also: Tifa, Lulu, and maybe some others.

The Bruiser - A big guy who is legendarily tough and all but invincible to the bad guys - until he joins your party, at which point he's shockingly lackluster. Here we have Bacchus and Arumat, but in the past we've had Barret, Steiner, Auron, and so on.

The Goofball / Lame Comedic Relief - These run the gamut in terms of design, but they're always big fucking wacky characters. In SO:TLH, we get three! Meracle, Sarah, and that horribly annoying fucking chick who helps you make items. See also: Cait-Sith, Yuffie, that horrible airhead from FF8, and I'm just going to stop thinking of these now because the very memory of most of them pisses me off.

Any holes that are left in the cast can be filled in with the occasional color character required to drive the plot forward, like Faize or (heavy sigh) Lymle, who is a fucking six year old that you cart off to fucking war with you, because it's always a good idea to bring a fucking six year old along with you when you're doing battle for the fate of the universe and watching one race genocide another and all of that. There's also the hysterically one-dimensional director, who lacks any semblance of subtlety, nuance, or realism while disregarding a force that will destroy the universe in favor of eating steak and worrying about his upcoming election campaign. The characters that aren't drawn along the dotted lines are basically just dots, with all of the lack of depth that that implies.

Rounding out the trio of plot and characters, the dialogue is also laughably bad. There's an inherent Japanese-ness to it that makes me hesitate ever so slightly, makes me wonder if perhaps something was lost in translation, or if there's a certain cultural element that simply doesn't transfer across the Pacific. But fuck making up excuses for the game - the dialogue is bad. Horrible. I mean, forget the item creation woman and the eardrum-searing horror that she inflicts on you periodically throughout the duration of the game. That's too easy a target. The main plot set pieces are driven by stilted, unbelievable, oft-idiotic conversation.

Much like Grandia 2's magic word was "heart," for SO:TLH, the magic word is "friend." By simply uttering it, you can change everything about a situation. Say, perhaps, that you are in a military base that is in the process of being destroyed - wait, actually, let's back up. Let's say that some insane woman - who still has command of a military base despite clearly being out of her fucking gourd - has decided to blow up the entire fucking world for reasons completely incomprehensible. And let's say that with a few unspectacular words, her dying husband can change her from crazed maniac to loving mother and wife. And then let's say that you're about to escape this base with the (presumably) lone member of an unknown race whose only friend in the world has just been killed. And let's say she's suicidal. Let's say she just wants to stay there and end it all. Do you know what you, a person who has just met her and barely knows her, can do to switch it all around? To turn her from depressed and suicidal to hopeful and glowing and happy?

You can tell her she's your friend.

That's it! In the seconds following you speaking that word, her eyes will widen, her face will light up, and she will echo it with a whisper. She will regain the will to live - no, not just regain it, but will be absolutely ecstatic about life, ready to live it to the fullest. She will no longer be bothered by the death of what was once her only friend - after all, she has a half dozen new ones! Even if she doesn't know your names yet.

This trick is not limited to aliens that have tails and ears. It will also work on mission-focused warrior-scientists made of steel. It will work on voluptuous vixens out to avenge the death of their husbands. It will work on tough-as-nails warriors with a death wish (even if they don't admit it as readily).

It is, really, some of the stupidest bullshit I've ever seen in JRPG dialogue. Time and time again, a character decides to give up, end it all, sacrifice him or herself for the good of the group, and time and time again the main character says, "but you're our friend!" And then suddenly everything is okay, the emotional issues disappear, the situation that mandated that this character sacrifice their life so that everyone else can escape safely kind of fades away, and everything is wonderful.

But it's not just that the plot is trite, that the characters are stale, and that the dialogue is completely unhinged from anything resembling reality - it's also that there's so fucking much of it. I got home from work one Friday afternoon, had about an hour to burn, and decided I'd unwind by playing some Star Ocean. I turned the game on, went through a door, a cutscene started, and an hour later, after pulling myself out of the slumber I had fallen into, I picked the controller back up, saved my game, and turned off the system. Given the quality of the game versus the quality of the cinema, the ratio of game to cinema is way off.


But hey! I'm not playing SO:TLH for the plot and characters, I'm playing it for the gameplay. And SO:TLH is, by and large, a top of the line, AAA title. The graphics are very nice - though sometimes the areas are so cluttered that it's easy to lose track of enemies. The audio is entirely suitable. The interface, while also a bit busy for my tastes, is generally well put together.

This is a tri-Ace game, so the combat is real time, and it is a fair bit of fun. It's active, it's involved, and there's a fair bit of skill to it. You can customize your characters' skill setups, and there's a lot of strategy involved in that. You can switch who you control on the fly, you can setup the AI for the people you don't control, and you can issue commands to override the AI if you need to. The item creation system is unique and a lot of fun, and there are quests and missions that help fill out the world. There's a mini-game in the form of bunny racing (don't ask), and there's a coliseum where you can battle your way through the ranks. The core of the game itself is really quite solid, in remarkable contrast to the plot half of things.

I have two other complaints on the game side of things, though. The first is that combat gets harder as the game goes on - which isn't all bad. But in addition to the enemies taking more skill and planning to defeat, they also have more health, all of which totals out to battles taking far more time. On top of that, combat becomes far, far more common, particularly in the last dungeon in the plot proper. Status ailments become extremely frequent also, which means stopping between fights to heal up. Virtually any dungeon in the game is a little longer than it should be, but the last one is particularly enormous. All of this adds up to the end of the game becoming an absolutely grueling slog that lasts far longer than it should.

And further compounding that is the fact that SO:TLH not only uses the antiquated save points system, which probably should have died a generation ago, but it also seems to have no concept of the player having anything to do other than play video games. Many times I have sat down with the intent to play for forty-five minutes, only to find myself unable to find a save point for over an hour and a half. On one occasion I went an hour without seeing a save point, and then died, losing an entire session's worth of progress. This is not the 80s. That is not acceptable anymore. I have other things to do with my life. Games do not dictate my life, my life dictates games. The lost session was very early on, otherwise I likely would have quit playing. The last dungeon is long enough and has few enough save points that I nearly quit there, too.


I want to say that I've gotten a good deal of enjoyment out of Star Ocean: The Last Hope, but looking over my own words on it, it seems a somewhat disingenuous thing to say. I have spent plenty of time enjoying it, but I've also spent plenty of time suffering through cutscenes that I probably should have skipped, and I've spent plenty of time playing that I wanted to be spending doing something else. I guess the best I can say is that the combat and item creation are a lot of fun, and the game definitely has high production values. The worst I can say, though, is that the plot, characters, and dialogue that dominate probably a third of your "play" time are out-and-out terrible, and the save points are few and far enough between that if you can't put aside an hour to two hours a time to play, you might find yourself quitting before you've beat the game.


 
Grandia Xtreme - The Worst That JRPGs Have to Offer
I have some fond memories of Grandia II and III, though they are mixed in with how terrible and "heart"-centric the writing was. But I play JRPGs for the gameplay more than for the writing, so that doesn't bother me overmuch. Grandia Xtreme, however, forces me to wonder if those memories of fun are even vaguely accurate, because Grandia Xtreme is one terrible game. I dumped GX about halfway through, roughly at the twenty-five hour mark, which is probably twenty hours longer than I should have played it. I suppose the name should have been the tip off. Has anything with "Xtreme" bolted onto it ever been worth anyone's time? The only thing "Xtreme" about GX is how offensively low budget it is. Or how bad the writing is. Or the level design. Or its disregard for anything else in the player's life save video games. Actually, there are a lot of "Xtreme" things about the game, and none of them are good.

Let's start with perhaps the most egregious - the game's disregard for the player having anything that could resemble a life outside of video games. When I booted the game up for the first time, I selected the option to start a new game, and then was sent through the obligatory fifteen minutes of boring, non-interactive background introducing me to my annoying, childish, unsympathetic shithole of a protagonist. After the game had firmly established that I would feel no empathy for the main character and thus likely be entirely emotionally un-invested for the duration of the game, I was finally allowed to play. I wandered into the first dungeon, figuring I'd spend forty-five minutes on it and then go get some dinner. It was over two hours before I was greeted with my first save point. Two solid hours of uninterrupted play is what the game expects from you at virtually any given time. If you sit down to play GX, you need to clear your schedule for the evening. There is no option that lets you escape a dungeon, there are barely any save points, and, in fact, in the last dungeon I was in, you are incapable of going out the way you enter.

It does not help that each dungeon is a grueling experience in grinding your way through a bland, generic environment filled with bland, generic monsters. Every dungeon is a set of bare, unadorned corridors, each identical to the last. You're lucky to get a rock or bush as decoration. If that weren't lazy enough, you essentially run each of the five or six dungeons in the game three times. You repeat repetitious dungeons. It is a remarkably boring experience. And, again, if that, too, weren't enough, the last dungeon I was in was of the incredibly boring random-generated sort. The real kick in the nuts, though, was that all the loot I ever got out of that dungeon was limited to healing herbs, of which I already had the maximum amount. Excitement ahoy!

The characters are terrible and flat, and the plot is the same boring shit that's been regurgitated so many times that it reeks of creator apathy: a rag tag band of adventurers thrown together by fate must defeat a mysterious ancient evil bent on destroying the world for no good reason what so ever. Shockingly, the plot is just as lazy as the rest of game.

To be fair, combat is kind of fun for awhile, as is the magic creation system. But they quickly grow dull along with everything else in the game. Ironically, for a game labeled as "Xtreme", tedium is the defining factor of Grandia Xtreme. The game feels acutely as if it's trying to take ten hours of content and turn it into sixty. Everything is plain, stripped down, uninteresting, and recycled. Not even the first few hours of it are worth playing.


 
Godspeed You! Black Emperor - Live 3/24/11
Godspeed You Black Emperor!, as they were known at the time, before the exclamation point got bold and migrated west, was my introduction to post-rock, now perhaps my favorite of musical genres. I remember hearing whispers about them on the internet, and eventually got onto Limewire or a program like it - something I haven't done in years and years - and downloaded some of their songs. The first one that I really grabbed onto was Moya!, still one of my favorites, and the song I use to introduce people to them. This was back in 2003, roughly, about a month after they rolled through town on their last tour before a seven year hiatus. It's tough to remain actively interested in a band whose entire discography you've had for five years, so my interest in them faded over the course of those five years, and nostalgia started to do its thing, turning them into an amazing, breathtaking band. I regarded them as giants of post-rock - because they are - and writers of tremendous music - because they are.

What nostalgia helped me forget, though, was that they are a band who seem to have a belief at their core that tedium and suffering are required for the monumental payoff of the crescendo. The climaxes are magnificent, to be sure, but the whole experience is rather tainted by the fact that you have to bear so much just to get to them. Such was the nature of the entire trip to see them, really.

I typically draw the line at two hours of travel for a concert, but I figured hey, this is fucking Godspeed, one of the biggest gaping holes in my list of acts-seen, a supposedly incredible live show, and a band that might never tour again for all I know. I made the four and a half hour trip to see them, though I ended up sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic for over an hour, making the commute six hours of tedium each way. I finally made it to the venue - a very nice place, actually - and stood outside in the cold for many a minute waiting to get in. Then I stood in line to buy a T-shirt for about as long. Then I stood in the absolutely packed, shoulder-touching-shoulder venue, waiting for the opening act to come on.

When he finally did, I stood and endured his pointless, ridiculous guitar meandering for roughly forty minutes. Don't get me wrong - he seemed like a nice and sincere man - but it almost embarrassing to watch him get really, really into a guitar solo that I swear to shit was nothing more than him hitting random notes out of key, out of time signature, and out of any semblance of coherence. I mean, hey, I listen to noise music, but I could find nothing of worth in the haphazard notes he was banging out with equally random and ineffective effects. His songs bounced from traditional pieces with fairly standard finger picking and chords to just plain bad songs that further devolved into atonal, uninspired flailing. Someone standing near me cracked a joke about him having smoked seven bowls, and I felt gratified in realizing that I was not the only one who thought that heavy intoxication was the only way anyone could be at all impressed by his music.

So after I endured that, I stood around and waited for the roadies to set up. And then twenty minutes later, the stage went dark, and the low bass drone of a single note came over the PA. I did not time the drone, unfortunately, but I swear to fuck I stood there, feeling more and more oppressed by the droning E (or whatever the fuck it was), as it went on for one minute, two minutes, five, ten, fifteen. No shit, one note for fifteen minutes. I would bet on it. After that, the band slowly filtered onto the stage in the darkness, and then tuned up and joined in on the drone, banging out the same single note for probably another fifteen minutes. I cannot quite begin to tell you how dead and flat my enthusiasm was when they finally began on the first chords of Moya!. The only thing I really felt was fucking relief that they wouldn't be subjecting me to another fifteen minutes of audio torture. At least not until Moya! was over.

The song was pretty awesome, that is for sure. I counted some eight members on stage, down from (I believe) the original / core nine members. They had three guitarists, two bass players (one occasionally on upright), one drummer, one percussionist, and one violinist. When they decide to go at it as a band, they produce just as incredible a wall of sound as that lineup might suggest. During the climaxes, they were enormous. Huge. Grand. It helps, too, that the mix was absolutely perfect. Every instrument was audible, every one of them fit into place. They sounded fantastic.

The problem, once again, is that they feel you have to suffer for those moments of payoff. A ripping chunk of song was followed almost inevitably by the violinist pounding out the same four notes with heavy distortion for five minutes, or by the guitar players making noise with feedback. And, again, I like noise, and I like ambient, and I am okay with sparse music. I am not so interested in the kind of un-atmospheric, uninteresting sound that they spent so much time on stage plodding through.

There is also the matter of their pretension, a characteristic as distinctly GY!BE as their huge lineup and instrumental songs. I now own a T-shirt that is filled with words that are incomprehensible but vaguely anti-government. I don't even know what one of the guitarists looks like, as he sat with his back to the stage the entire time. I only know what Efrim looks like because I've seen him at Silver Mt. Zion shows. Efrim, a guy who, at those shows, is as down to earth and approachable as any front man I've seen, was barely noticeable on stage. There was no lighting, there was no interaction with the audience, they just got up there, played, and left. I have no doubt that this is exactly what they wanted, and I was not at all surprised, but, well, I guess it's just hard to take over two hours of pretentious, dead serious music. Explosions and Mono don't play nearly that long, and Silver Mt. Zion breaks it up. GY!BE, not so much.

The length of the set was the other thing I must complain about. Strange as it seems coming from a guy who drove a combined eleven hours to see them play, I wish they had cut their set shorter. Their set was roughly two hours and fifteen minutes, including the drone at the beginning, and I was hoping for each song to be their last starting at about the hour and thirty minute mark. Of course, they could have played longer than two hours and fifteen minutes for all I know, as I left the theater as soon as the drummer stood up, waved to the audience, and left the stage. I can think of two times that I've left before the musicians I came to see. Godspeed makes it three. And I was not alone in doing so; at first the show was positively cannot-move packed. By an hour and a half, I had significantly more space. When I left the masses near the stage to go sit down on the outskirts, I realized the place was a lot thinner than it had been, and people were exiting with fair frequency. Two hours and change is just a long fucking time to bear the serious, oppressive nature of GY!BE.

The nature of my relationship with GY!BE makes it tough to evaluate the show, objectively or even subjectively. I don't know what I was expecting - something mind blowing, I suppose - but I didn't get it. They sounded great when they decided to, but spent a great deal of time plodding through tedious noise. It was a good show, and they are powerful live, but they are also boring. If you want to see them, you probably should, but you shouldn't consider it mandatory. I'm glad I went, but I wouldn't drive five hours each way again. I wouldn't drive two. In fact, I'm not sure I would drive fifteen minutes.


 
From Software Has Not Always Been Golden
Demon's Souls is my favorite game of the last five or six years, my favorite of this console generation, and one of my favorites of all time. It is brilliant. Brilliant enough that, as I've waited for the sequel, I've considered tracking down copies of its spiritual predecessors, the King's Field series. The price on them is high, so on needing a new game to play, I browsed my existing collection of unplayed games for one to try, and in doing so, happened upon a From Software game that I already owned: Eternal Ring. It's a first person, medieval-European, dark action-RPG, as I understand the King's Field series is, and as, with a swap of first person to third, Demon's Souls is. Why not give it a go, even if it is a bit long in the tooth?

It's easy to wonder, when a game as good Demon's Souls comes seemingly out of nowhere, why you've never heard of the company that made it before. Eternal Ring provides an easy answer to that question for From Software: you've probably never heard of From Software prior to Demon's Souls because the games they made before it were absolute shit. Actually, to be fair, and upon a trip to Wikipedia to check out their release history, they have a fair few games I've heard of, but the only one I remember playing, Lost Kingdoms, was crap. And Eternal Ring, to be certain, is absolute, absolute shit.

Let's get past the easy, obvious targets: the game is a bit old, dating back to 2000, making it a very early release for an old system. Despite this being a first person game, the analog sticks do not work, completely throwing off every instinct that I have with regards to controls. The graphics are not very good, nor are the animations, and the environments are as barren as a highway in the dessert. The music is of the sort that makes you want to reach for the mute button, or perhaps simply stab someone - preferably the composer. The soundtrack is naught but poorly written music coming out of a poor quality midi soundbank, and is looped after about four bars. Seriously, speaking technically and just in terms of listening experience, I have never heard music this bad in the post-SNES era.

The audio and visual presentations of the game have not aged well, to say the least. There are two aspects that have between little and nothing to do with age, however, that utterly kill the game. Dead-on-arrival kind of stuff that sent the game back to the case on the shelf within four hours of play time, which is minuscule for an RPG.

When I arrived on the island the game takes place on, I was given a letter and instructed to take it to some guy. It was in my inventory; I could use it, and I tried, but nothing happened. Upon making it through the intro dungeon, I found myself in a settlement. I walked up to the vice-captain of the place, and after some trial and error, figured out how to talk to him. As a note, in the world of Eternal Ring, focusing on the face is generally not the best way to start a conversation. People just plain old won't respond to you. Maybe it's a cultural thing? Perhaps they discourage eye contact? I don't know. The belt buckle or perhaps chest is a much better target; only on looking low enough on a person's body that I couldn't see their face anymore would they converse with me when I hit the "interact" button. This held true for the one and only female in the place - that is, she would only talk to me if I eschewed looking at her face to stare at her chest - which makes the world of Eternal Ring some kind of bizarro place where it's permanently opposite-day.

In any case, I talked to the vice-captain, and he took the letter from me. Remember that. I talked to him, he took the letter. He asked for my sword, for some incomprehensible fucking reason, and for some even more incomprehensible reason, I gave it to him, and then to better the irrational idiocy of even that, he gave me a letter to give to the quartermaster so that he would give me an even shittier weapon than the one the vice-captain just took from me. Sweet. At that point I walked to the quartermaster - though I didn't know it was him - and talked to him. He mentioned nothing about giving me gear. He did not take my letter. I talked to everyone in town, and found myself without a weapon and with nothing to do. I wandered into a dungeon and died. Then I read an FAQ.

It turns out that - despite the fact that, on talking to the vice-captain, he took the letter for him from me - I had to stand in front of the quartermaster, open my inventory, and then use the letter. That is completely fucking stupid, both from the standpoint of being horribly unnecessary and user unfriendly, and from the standpoint of being completely fucking inconsistent. Also, it is not a good sign when I am consulting an FAQ in the first thirty minutes, nor when I'm consulting the FAQ to figure out how to get any weapon whatsoever so that I can actually play the fucking game.

This issue struck again later when I finished the second little intro dungeon, the first real mission. I left the place in good shape and went back to town. I wandered about it for ages, not knowing where to go. The game kind of sort of pointed me toward a blue door that appeared to be locked. So I assume, as when I tried to use it, I got a text box that said "Blue door". Awesome. Sometime later, I checked my inventory again, and found that I had a blue key. I do not ever, ever recall getting it. I think I know where I did, because only one thing of consequence - a mini-boss fight - happened between me checking my inventory on returning the town and me checking it later and finding the key. They never gave me any indication that I had picked up the key. And furthermore, to open a door with it, I actually have to stand in front of the door, open my inventory, pick the key, and pick use. Sweet. That is Dragon Warrior type shit. That is Nintendo Entertainment System shit. That is 1980s shit. That is shit.

That's a pretty big kick in the nuts for the game's chances of surviving in the PlayStation for longer than it takes me to laugh uproariously. The killer, though, is the game's stupid difficulty. I mean, hey, it's one thing to pick the left fork in a road and find a room full of enemies who kill you on looking at you. It is another, however, to have your save game fucked into an unsalvageable state.

After the little intro section, there is, as far as I can tell, absolutely no way to recover all of your health and magic. None. You can use consumables to heal, sure, but if you run out, you're out. You're fucked. There is no one to buy them from, there is no one to heal you, there is no salvation. None. If you go to a save point poisoned and with half health and no magic, you load your game to find yourself poisoned and with half health and no magic. Which is, roughly, what happened to me.

I fought some stupid flying creatures who poisoned me with ease while I stared up at them. I had, on luck, acquired two poison-curing items to that point in the game. I used one, and for some incomprehensible reason, nothing happened. I used the second, and my poison was cured. Then I took several more steps and found another such creature, and was poisoned again. Poison in Eternal Ring is not a slightly painful thing that goes away after awhile. It drains your life on roughly a point-per-second basis, meaning that at my 100 life total, I had about a minute and a half to live. I had no antidotes, and I had no way of acquiring antidotes. I am pretty certain that there was literally nothing I could do to save my game. All I could do was watch as I died. Which I did. I sat and watched my life disappear, and when it hit 0, the screen went white and I was thrown back to the title screen without even the courtesy of a "Game Over".

It was at that point that I took Eternal Ring out of the PS3 and put it back on the shelf.


 
The Decemberists - The King is Dead
Images/Music/thedecemberists-thekingisdead.jpg

It seems like it has been forever since The Decemberists put out an album I thought was any good - and is has been five years - but in actuality they only put out one album I didn't like, The Hazards of Love. Though I'm always a proponent of bands changing and evolving, and though I'm certainly not someone who hates prog rock, as my love for Dream Theater and Pink Floyd will attest, I felt like The Decemberist's foray into that genre with the aforementioned The Hazards of Love was less than stellar. It's not that prog isn't good, it's that The Decemberists aren't very good at prog, and they are good at indie pop. Sure, some of the more proggy sections of The Crane Wife were pretty alright, but with regards to a full-fledged, real-deal go at the genre, well, I probably listened to The Hazards of Love less than a dozen times within a month of its release, and haven't touched it since.

So it's nice to have The Decemberists that I know and love back after what feels like a long hiatus, even if it wasn't that long. The King is Dead is something of a return to the earlier days, days before The Crane Wife, even. Only one song - This is Why We Fight - clocks in over five minutes, and it's only five and a half. Over half the album is in the three minute range. There aren't any story arcs or three-act narratives. This is the concise, literary indie pop for which The Decemberists are known. And I think that The King is Dead is far, far better for it.

The album is consistently good throughout, with, for better or worse, only a few moments that truly poke their heads above the rest. Don't Carry It All is a good opener and would make for a quality single. Between the harmonica and kick-kick-snare drum beat, I am reminded of a slightly faster-paced take on Tom Petty's You Don't Know How It Feels, but perhaps that's just me. The quickly finger-picked electric guitar of This Is Why We Fight probably ranks among my favorite musical aspects of the album, and All Arise! provides something notably new for the band, with a dive into Americana. And though I feel like I've heard The Decemberists play June Hymn at least twice before with a different name and lyrics, I still love the song, and largely because of - go figure - the lyrics.

In the end, The King is Dead is a change in direction for The Decemberists without actually breaking much, if any, new ground. As a recovery from the progressive tendencies - which doesn't seem nearly strong enough a word - of The Hazards of Love, I'm entirely happy with it. I am also entirely happy with it as a Decemberists album. I don't foresee it being on many best-of-the-year lists, but I certainly enjoy listening to it.


 
Recent additions

Ni no Kuni - Worst. Demo. Ever.
2/19/2013

Tales of Graces - Why Must JRPGs Have Such Dumb Writing?
12/18/2012

Xenoblade Chronicles - Why Must JRPGs Have Such Dumb Writing?
12/18/2012

The Mistake That is Inferno and the Auction House
6/13/2012

Diablo 3 - Improvements, Changes, and Problems
5/29/2012

Glen Cook - Chronicles of the Black Company
4/25/2012

Dark Souls
11/1/2011

Death Cab For Cutie - Codes and Keys
6/20/2011

Okkervil River - I Am Very Far
6/4/2011

Explosions in the Sky - Live 4/11/11
4/19/2011