Annual Wandsworth festival boosted thanks to Arts Council funds

This news piece can also be found at the South West Londoner, here.

Arts Council England will provide £40,000 to fund Wandsworth Arts Festival, helping to claim back run-down public areas by the river.

The event will run from May 3 – 19, with the official launch taking place on the opening day.
This year, over 40 events are set to feature including a new event called the Festival Fringe – a volunteer organised collection of community-based events as a testing ground for new work.
The festival will close on a large-scale outdoor event called The Shimmy. Lasting all day and free to attend, the public are invited to walk along the riverside between Putney Wharf and Wandsworth Park, filled with art installations, performances and spoken word recitals.

Councillor Jonathan Cook, Wandsworth’s culture spokesman said that the ‘generous’ funding would help the festival to be even better than before.

“For the past two years, the arts festival has given residents and visitors from all over London the chance to discover the enormous wealth of culture and creativity Wandsworth has to offer,” he said.
Details on the acts and events will be released by the Arts Team from April.

To find out more about the festival, event information can be found at, on Facebook as ‘WandsworthArtsTeam’ and on Twitter @wandsworth_arts.

Imagine This: A Medium Divided

This article can also be found on One Hit Pixel, here.

I want you to imagine something for a moment. Picture a film industry where each film company had their own brand of DVD player, that would only play discs produced under their own publishing label. To be able to watch, say, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World or The Dark Knight Rises at home, you would have to purchase separate Universal and Warner Bros. brand players.

This, of course, sounds abjectly ridiculous. Yet it’s more or less how the games console industry operates. To the consumer it’s an annoyance – to experience more of the medium, you’re expected to pay a lot of money in extra hardware. However, Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony absolutely crave brand loyalty; it’s what brings in the largest revenue. To ensure that customers pick their hardware over competitors, these guys will try all sorts of tactics.

Means for the Market Share

Nintendo is very committed to selling hardware designed exclusively for gaming, and little else. This gives them a lot of creative freedom with hardware designs that can’t be easily transplanted to other hardware (we’re used to it now, but the design of the DS was really out there back in 2004). Of all possible tactics to fight for exclusivity, I don’t mind this one. A prompt for developers to design games of worth with new and interesting hardware encourages interesting results. They also have an illustrious history of iconic franchises on their side, requiring very little maintenance. The Pokémon franchise alone will have me putting money into their wallets for a long time to come.

Sony invests a whole lot of money in developers producing exclusive content just for their hardware. The occasional big titles that they have all to themselves are quite the customer draw. Because of Sony’s long and established  connection with the Japanese game development scene, a lot of titles developed in the country end up being Sony exclusives. But in terms of hardware functions, there’s nothing, currently, that requires it to be exclusive to one kind of hardware. If those new IPs don’t gain traction with the consumers, all is lost.

These days, Microsoft is generally blasé about software exclusivity; realising that in terms of hardware, the Xbox 360 wasn’t really outstanding from the PS3, and definitely not from the ever-improving standards of the PC. Instead the draw is unique utility options, like the Kinect and Xbox SmartGlass technology – both of which can be considered underwhelming to date. I can respect the movement away from focusing on exclusives, but the push towards more peripheral hardware doesn’t help make gaming more affordable or accessible.

It’s The Same, But Different

So bearing in mind the present standards for how our three console giants handle themselves, how will this impact the new generation of consoles? We already have the Wii U following Nintendo’s Modus Operandi to the letter, but it’s the approach of the new Sony and Microsoft machines that have people speculating. Though honestly, it’s hard to think that their business practices will significantly change.

Sony, while they remain stony silent about the technical specs on their new games console (which everyone is calling the Playstation 4 for convenience’s sake) until February 20, we do know that many of Sony’s game development studios are also suspiciously quiet. What this most likely means is a line-up of Sony’s exclusive IPs – Uncharted, God of War, Killzone, LittleBigPlanet, Gran Turismo and some new from MotorStorm developers Evolution Studios all potentially in the pipeline. Studios are already making playful references to new titles on the horizon. It would be nice to take the presence of characters in Playstation All Stars as hints for releases, but I sadly doubt that game’s marketing ploys extend beyond DmC and Metal Gear Rising.

As for Microsoft, a little bit more of the Xbox 360 successor’s (referred to as the Xbox 720 in a few circles but we’re just calling in the next Xbox for now) technical specs available. There are a lot of words regarding the types of processors that may be used, but I struggle to find that especially interesting. That the use of a Kinect might be mandatory falls in line with Microsoft’s focus on peripherals, at the least. What raised my eyebrows was a mention of a patent by Microsoft being filed regarding ’3D projection’ back in September 2012, turning the entire room into a game screen – which was then demoed as IllumiRoom last month. It feels ridiculous, but that step towards virtual reality is a tantalising prospect for a new direction of game development, moreso than graphical fidelity.

For both of these, there’s a personal concern of backwards compatibility. Neither the PS3 or the 360 made much of playing old works; but allowing previous software to be played will let the companies wring the last few dollars out of the previous generation, and allow the consumers to keep their collection without having two consoles hooked up.

The Coming of the Uber Console?

If you’ll allow me one more thought experiment, could you actually imagine an industry where there’s only a single brand of household console? From a development perspective, it would be a godsend. While at present it’s generally desirable to have a game released on multiple platforms, it requires a lot of work for developers to create such ports, generally due to differences in hardware specifications, but sometimes it’s just a matter of politics.

As such, development for a single platform allows maximum running optimisation. An industry with only the one home console would seriously cut down on development times, since development tools like physics or particle effect engines would be useful to everyone.

In a way you could say that the Ouya is trying to be this Uber Console, as the barrier to entry for developing it is intentionally very low. But it will never have the kind of major software development support our resident Big Three do – nor does it help that, on Android, there’s already a fractured install base. There would have to be a near collapse of the games industry as we know it before such a unified movement could be feasible…

So who wants to cause an industry collapse with me?

Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance (3DS)

This review can also be found at The Yorker, here.

As I’ve said in the past, the Kingdom Hearts games are a slave to their narrative. Regardless of your opinions on whether the plot of the series is any good or not (It’s not very good); there are now 7 games all part of the same story – of which Dream Drop Distance is the latest in terms of both release and chronologically. To properly appreciate a new game in the series, it almost requires a working knowledge of the previous entries. And that’s a bad thing.

©Square Enix

KH3D tries to mitigate this with in-game reference material and flashbacks to the game’s past events – but to the newcomer, the convoluted path that leads plucky anime teens Sora and Riku to an all-important quest that involves ‘diving into the dreams of sleeping worlds’ is confusing, and ultimately feels irrelevant. It’s almost as if Square Enix want you to ignore the overarching plot altogether, which may really be for the best.

See, it’s not the narrative that has made the Kingdom Hearts series so enjoyable, it’s all about spectacle and satisfaction. The spectacle of exploring bright and detailed worlds, and the satisfaction of weighty and involved combat.

In regards to the spectacle, Square Enix definitely took the time to use the 3DS’ graphical abilities as effectively as possible. The 3D is strategically used to be more noticeable in cutscenes than gameplay, so while battles do benefit from the depth-of-field, they won’t strain your eyes.

The series staple of exploring multiple Disney franchises is of course present, and although they all have shared design aspects to get everything looking cohesive, they’re also incredibly distinct through set-pieces and colour use. The clean, geometric and faintly pulsing landscape of the Tron Legacy world caught my interest in ways entirely other to the soft golds, rich purples and towering buildings of the Hunchback of Notre Damme world.

In regards to gameplay satisfaction, every sequel to Kingdom Hearts series has improved on the base mechanics of the original in some way. To those who have played Re:coded on the DS or Birth by Sleep on the PSP, you’ll already be at home with the basic setup, but KH3D adds three new (notably huge) features: Parkour, Pokémon, and Narcolepsy.

The opening stage quickly introduces parkour – or ‘Flowmotion’ as the game insists on calling it. This allows you to slide along rails, swing around poles and spring yourself off walls, all of which gives you incredible freedom of movement and new context-sensitive attacks. The wall-springs work out to be rather imbalanced in the long run, as you quickly find you can use it to scale walls of any height, and you can accidentally trigger it if you try to dodge roll too close to a wall.

Instead of classic Disney characters assisting you as party members, you can summon friendly versions of the enemy ‘Dream Eater’ monsters you battle throughout the game. The Dream Eater system is very robust. Every monster has its own abilities and AI patterns; they unlock special abilities for you via simple ‘skill trees’; and there are even Nintendogs-style minigames for the cuteness factor. The part of me that never grew out of loving Pokémon adores this addition, but it’s a shame that because of this system, I can never fight alongside the main characters of each world.

To keep with the theme of ‘sleep and dreams’ beyond just the plot and the game title, sleep even affects the player characters. The protagonists Sora and Riku are playable in tandem – both exploring the sleeping worlds, but in separate realisations. However, they (for vaguely explained reasons) cannot be awake at the same time. As you play as one character, you’ll see a ‘Drop Meter’ that acts as a timer until they spontaneously fall unconscious, and he counterpart takes over. This can happen literally any time outside of menus and cutscenes. Bosses suddenly become a lot more harrowing when it’s against a time limit.

Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance makes some undeniable design faux-pas. The ability to scale any surface trivialises platforming. Raising Dream Eaters eventually becomes more time consuming than the main combat. The idea of using theming as a limit on you feels just… wrong. And yet, that it keeps the gameplay of the series solidly intact, and still dares to try new ideas and push things even further. And I’ve gotta give it props for that.

Don’t be a stranger – gaming with new housemates

This article can also be found at the Yorker, here.

Dealing with new housemates is difficult. They probably won’t clean, they’re going to keep you up all hours with music you hate, and lord help you if you let them borrow anything of yours. But unless you can bank on getting your daily dose of human interaction elsewhere, you’ll probably want to get to know your housemates better.

And what better means than with video games? (Well, there are lots of better means, but I digress.)
It’s very easy to default to FIFA, Call of Duty or similar when thinking about multiplayer household gaming, but those options are a rather limiting – not everyone has a taste for football or first person shooters, so here are a few suggestions to add strings to your friend-making bow.

Mario Kart – Multiple Nintendo Systems

An obvious suggestion, but a good one. Available on any and every Nintendo console post-SNES, you’ll struggle to not find it in one form or another. The quality between games is variable (Mario Kart DS is the best one), but in the context of just playing with friends, it matters little. As a bonus, it’s incredibly easy to turn it into a drinking game! Personally I like this rule set (should work with all incarnations, works best with Mario Kart: Double Dash!! and onwards):

  • Start a multiplayer race, with 4 tracks picked at random.
  • While racing, any time you are hit with a Red Shell or better, take a drink.
  • At the end of the race, the person who came first (out of the players, computer racers don’t count) does not take a drink, 2nd and 3rd place drink once, and 4th place drinks twice.
  • Repeat for all races in the set. At the final standings, 2nd and 3rd place drink twice, 4th place finishes their drink.
  • Drink responsibly. If you end up throwing up I have lost all respect for you.

Marvel Vs. Capcom 3 – PS3 & 360 (Or just fighting games in general)

Fighting games work out to be perfect group entertainment (since it’s interesting to watch as well as play), but player skill can be a problem. Two good players competing is dramatic, and two beginner players competing is a great laugh, but if a skilled player is pitted against someone new, the inevitable curbstomping is satisfying to no one (unless the skilled player is a sore winner). MvC3 is a good bet for its easily recognised cast, bright, frantic aesthetics, and a ‘simple mode’ control scheme for those who aren’t confident in their fireball-throwing ability. If it’s a game with a large cast, select characters by theme (and take suggestions from those watching to be inclusive!) Some suggestions:

  • Pick a character who went alone to the high school prom.
  • Pick a character who has less than £50 in their savings.
  • Pick a character who has a low tolerance for alcohol.

Kirby’s Adventure Wii

Yep. The cutest video game mascot to ever exist is entirely made for Co-Op play, and Kirby’s Adventure Wii is the most recent and splendidly made addition to the series. While not a difficult game, it’s built around being played by 4 people of any skill level – so anyone can have a blast. And if you’re so inclined – enough means to be an evil dick to the other players (not recommended for friend-making). Plus, Kirby is both super cute and super violent in equal measures, so everyone has something to love!

Borderlands & Borderlands 2 – PS3, 360 & PC

If you absolutely must play a game where you ventilate everyone you encounter, Borderlands is enough of an accessible and unusual choice where you can rope in those who would be less likely to play a shooter. Taking on concepts of stats and skills from RPGs, you can work your way across the wasteland with a good weapon, even if your aiming isn’t up to snuff. The sequel (released September 21st, just in time for the start of the University year) even has a ‘Best Friends Forever’ mode that offers skills and special abilities to aid those who are new or terrible at the genre. Personally, that’s a godsend.

Free-To-Play Online Games

Okay, hear me out. In situations down the line where you don’t have the space at your place to host a gathering, your schedules don’t often sync with your friends, or you just don’t feel like getting dressed; online gaming is a great way to unwind and still connect with your friends. You need not play a game so demanding of your time and money like World of Warcraft (not that it needs saying); there are plenty of easy to download and play free titles to play in a weekend or a week of free time. The gaming service Steam has a range of free-to-play games (my personal favourite being Spiral Knights), but there’s always some cheerful, freshly translated Korean title to try out; and if you can co-ordinate a few friends to join you on your safari, you’re bound to have some memorable experiences. MMO Grinder does in-depth reviews on free-to-play games if you need detailed info.

Tales of the Abyss (3DS)

This review can also be found at The Yorker.

Namco Bandai are notoriously bad at releasing their titles in Europe. Localisations can be a lengthy and expensive process, but often many EU releases of all but the biggest titles are just the US release reworked to run on PAL systems. Yet inexplicably, when it comes to titles that could remotely be considered ‘niche’ – Japanese RPGs especially – a European release seems rarely on the cards.

The best example of this for Namco Bandai would be the original release of Tales of the Abyss on the PS2, back in 2006. It got a release in the US, and widely positive reviews, but Europe never saw it. 6 years later, they’ve decided to re-release it on the 3DS under their own publishing, and this release was apparently worthy of seeing our shores. But even though that the official release date was back in November 2011, very few copies were printed. it’s only in the last 3 months that enough copies are printed that it’s reasonable to obtain a copy.

So, a little context on the series itself. The Tales Of games have been around since the SNES, all of them solidly made Action RPGs, set in vaguely-but-not-significantly related worlds.

Tales of the Abyss is specifically set in the land of Aulderant, where magic and monsters reign supreme, two major kingdoms are in conflict, there is the threat of an all out war on the horizon and– okay, none of the setting is particularly engaging; all that needs to be known is that Fantasy Politics are a major theme.

You play as Luke fon Fabre, son of the Duke of Lanvaldear. You are also a selfish, spoiled, and arrogant manchild. Due to your political importance you have not left the castle for the last 8 years; so a co-incidental accident that teleports you far from your estate is your first true breath of fresh air.

Likewise, the character role is refreshing. With the majority of Japanese RPG releases being rather derivative in terms of setting and character design; a protagonist so carefully designed to make the player loathe him is an interesting change from the norm. Fortunately, while he’s a big focus for the main plot, you’re not required to play as him in battle.

Battles strongly remind me of old arcade beat-em-ups, there’s an emphasis on setting up combos with your team mates, dodging the bigger telegraphed attacks, and knowing the limited abilities of your character inside out. And since Tales of the Abyss is an RPG, if that all sounds like too much work for you, you can get enough levels to steamroller anything in your path.

Aesthetically, Tales of the Abyss is quite pretty. The models are clean and colourful, the voice acting is well performed (but with English-only voice acting, if that matters to you at all), and the music is composed by JRPG music veteran Motoi Sakuraba. Where the problems lie is in whether you have played any of the recent Tales Of titles before. While they all tell their own stories, they are all mechanically extremely similar, and aesthetically identical, right down to the music.

Whether this is a problem for you as a player largely depends on how you like to consume your media. If you’re looking for a unique experience, Tales of the Abyss definitely does not provide that. If you own another Tales Of game, you own this one. However, it’s still a lengthy and robust RPG for your 3DS, and if you can get a hold of a copy, it’ll breathe at least 60 hours more life into your handheld.

Perusing Pinterest, and what it can do for you

This article can also be found at The Yorker, here.

I don’t use Tumblr. I’m very old-school when it comes to blogging, and Tumblr’s image-heavy focus doesn’t gel well with me and my walls of prose. Hell, it took me long enough to get into Twitter; it felt like blogging for the lazy… until I learned that journalists use it all the time, and I was being a Luddite.

On the other hand, I use RSS Feeds daily. For the uninitiated, RSS is a system that collates and lists updates of a website, so you can browse a list of headlines and summaries. It’s a really useful system if you follow a lot of sites and blogs at once (that can’t just be me, right?); and Google Reader is one of the best RSS Aggregators out there. Interestingly enough, it has a social networking feature – you can follow other people who use Google Reader, and see the items and RSS feeds they recommend. Get enough friends with similar interests together, and everyone ends up well-informed.

Why do I bring these two services up? Because one of the newest social networking sites, Pinterest, functions essentially as a fusion of the two. To describe it simply; if there is a webpage you find interesting, Pinterest will let you select a key image from it, and attach it to a ‘Board’, categorised by interest (Design, Food and Drink, Women’s Apparel, etc.). It’s has the visual aesthetics of Tumblr, but when used properly there’s also a practical archive of information-sharing, à la Google Reader.

For example, say you have a quirky interest in obscure facts about animals. All it takes is a visit to the Pets or the Science & Nature categories, Repin a few images, follow a member or two who consistently provide interesting content, and upload your own Internet discoveries. Each category’s page updates with new Pins and Repins; and it’s satisfying to be told that original content you’ve linked has been Liked and Repinned by others.

In terms of usability there are a few problems (small but irritating things like the search function not having a category filter), but Pinterest does have a rather glaring issue in regards to its Terms of Service. To take a couple of quotes from the Legal & Copyright section of the site:

“By making available any Member Content through the Site, Application or Services, you hereby grant to Cold Brew Labs a worldwide, irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, transferable, royalty-free license, with the right to sublicense, to use, copy, adapt, modify, distribute, license, sell…”
“You acknowledge and agree that you are solely responsible for all Member Content that you make available through the Site, [and] …you are the sole and exclusive owner of all Member Content that you make available through the Site…”

Essentially these rules let Pinterest do things like sell information about your interests and website-visiting habits to advertisement services and the like. This is nothing new, Facebook and similar social networking sites have done this for years. What this phrasing also allows is for users to be the ones held responsible, if Pinterest should ever get into a lawsuit over it hosting or selling any content we upload that isn’t our own (which is likely to be all of it!).

The owner of Pinterest has acknowledged concerns about this wording, and it may well change in future. As it stands now, it’s very much unlikely to have lawyers breathing down your neck if you Pin a jacket from H&M, but it’s always a good idea to know what your rights are.
If you’re interested in using Pinterest, here are a few handy hints to get the most out of the experience:

Original Content is King!
Repinning the findings of other members to flesh out your Boards is an easy way to get started, but no one likes a leech. By pinning items you find yourself, the site grows. You’ll also help fill in some of the blanks that the existing community doesn’t always provide. The Food and Drink section has next to no cocktail pins, and that is just unacceptable.

Always check the Sources!
At the top right of every pinned image, there’s a link to where the image was taken from. This is so a picture of delicious brownies actually links to the recipe site it came from. If the link is to say, a Google image search, or a defunct/broken link, that’s no good. If you just want to upload pretty pictures, Tumblr still exists.

Be Mindful of Your Image
Being a website still in beta, and one that relies heavily on user interaction, there aren’t a lot of privacy options. The things you Pin and Repin are open for everyone to see. This shouldn’t normally be an issue, and you would think that being careful about your online persona goes without saying, but that notion falls apart with a little scrutiny.

And for what it’s worth, you can see my Boards here.

Update 25/03/12 (Nathan Blades): Pinterest has just changed its terms of service – it no longer states that it can sell items posted, along with additional measures to make it easier to report problematic content, such as items promoting self-harm. The changes will come into effect on the 6th April. You can read the new terms and conditions here.

Time Shenanigans! Final Fantasy XIII-2 Review

This review can also be found at The Yorker, here.

Note: I have discussed Final Fantasy XIII recently, found here. I’d suggest giving it a quick read; as much of what I have to say here, relates heavily to that game.

Okay, so to be frank, Japanese RPGs and the Final Fantasy series in particular have an incredibly specific target audience. For the most part, you know whether you’re interested in a Final Fantasy title or not; but the sticking point here is that Final Fantasy XIII-2 is a spin-off sequel; and what’s more, to a game that was rather unpopular with some vocal RPG fans.

In terms of plot, you’d do well imagining Doctor Who cast with anime stereotypes. Initially set 3 years after FFXIII‘s ending, you play as Serah, the sister of FFXIII‘s protagonist Lightning. Even though the day had been saved, it seems as though Lightning never came back home, even though Serah has memories of her doing so. Cue the introduction of Paradoxes, appearances of out-of-time phenomena that may well be the cause of Lightning not returning home. Serah teams up with plucky-young-hero-from-the-future Noel, and the rest of the game involves jumping around locations in ages both future and past, correcting whatever Paradoxes have shown up.
Square Enix saw the complaints that FFXIII had gotten, and actively publicised FFXIII-2 as for the people who disliked the previous game. Under most circumstances that would be a bold gesture – an admission to wholeheartedly diverting from the main series would cause fans of a series to panic in most circumstances; but when you bear in mind that FFXIII was a big subversion of RPG standards in multiple ways, what Square Enix is saying here is that they’re going back to staple stylistic choices.

And that has certainly happened for Final Fantasy XIII-2; for the worse more than anything else.

The overt linearity of the original game has largely gone. The nature of the time-travel plot means there’s a lot of hopping back and forth between different locations; though there’s only a single plotline to follow. This becomes a problem in two big ways – if the plot isn’t clear about where to go next, you’re stuck with scouring every location you’ve been to for the next piece of plot; and the loading time for entering each area is abysmal.
Of course, with the linearity reduced, FFXIII-2 brings back one of the things I hate most about RPGs – grinding. For those who aren’t familiar with the term, grinding refers to beating up the same monsters in an area for a long period, in order to gain extra money, items, or experience. This could take anywhere from minutes to days depending on the game (If you know someone who plays World of Warcraft, this is basically what they’re doing).
Personally, excessive grinding in a game kills the experience. Whatever pacing is established is ruined once you deem it necessary to halt all progress and level up some more. What I absolutely loved about FFXIII was the complete abolishment of grinding. You were always in a state to take on the next boss and progress with the story. It kept things snappy and fresh, but FFXIII-2 slows you all the way down.
The side-ponytail is not a good look… ©Square Enix
In terms of plot and characters FFXIII was competent, but hardly pushing for the greatest video game story ever told. This gives FFXIII-2 room to compete but… that doesn’t really manifest. Serah and Noel are only two playable characters in FFXIII-2(ignoring downloadable content), and neither of them are particularly compelling; or even really that endearing. To fill out the rest of your party you can recruit wild monsters that you defeat, a feature familiar to many. Though some of the monster designs are definitely filled with more personality than the main characters, they obviously don’t deepen the storyline any.
Aesthetically, Final Fantasy XIII-2 is all-positive. The locations are stunning. The time-hopping plot lets you jump from sweeping plains to rain-soaked ruins to super high-tech cities, and they all look great. But what really stands out is the incredible music direction. For the majority of the Final Fantasy franchise, we’ve had the musical styling of Nobuo Uemasu; who, while having a lot of experience, a lot of his work got very similar. He’s out of the picture in FFXIII-2 and I’ve never been happier. The tone shifts from ballad to electronica to jazz tointentionally cheesy metal without jarring. It’s worth playing with a pair of headphones or a good speaker system to hear all the subtleties.

My grievance with FFXIII-2 is that the changes it has made from its prequel has turned it into a generic Japanese RPG. For me, that’s a huge deal-breaker; but then again, there were a lot of fans who disliked FFXIII, and they’ll surely love the traditional sensibilities and the less-serious storyline.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 is out now on Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. (360 version reviewed)

Review: Dragon Quest Monsters Joker 2

This review was written for The Yorker and can be found here.

While Pokémon has the genre neatly cornered, it’s not the only “Collect & Battle” experience out there. The ability to create and arrange your own specialised team for whuppin’ ass is addictive to both kids (who have an affinity for harbouring obsessions) and adults (who have an affinity for acting like children).

Running quietly in the shadow of Pokémon is the Dragon Quest Monster series; a spin-off (somewhat obviously) of the Dragon Quest series, where the monsters that were once your sworn enemies can now be brought around to your side. What set the games apart from Pikachu and pals was the increased difficulty and how no matter what monster took your fancy, you could turn it into your ideal killing-machine. No arguments over which critter is better, just how cleverly you’ve raised them.
DQM Joker 2 is the 5th Dragon Quest Monsters title (and the 4th to see release in the UK), not that having played the other games is necessary to have you understand everything in this one. Its story is nothing special, it hits all the right notes; you are a preteen with ridiculously elaborate hair, and a burning passion for making wildlife of the world fight under your command. You stow away on an air ship in pursuit of this goal, but the ship is caught in a sudden roil, flinging the passengers and crew off into the wilderness, leaving you to pick up a lone monster in the hold, and set out to rescue everyone via sheer force.

Battles are usually 3 vs 3, with some exceptions that I’ll come to in a moment. What was a gimmick in Pokémon Black and White has been the norm in this series, and has battles feel more like a classic RPG. Things are switched up by your team being A.I. controlled – most of your battles will be spent looking through the filter of what might happen when you choose the ‘Fight’ command, which causes you to think things through a lot more carefully.
What will take up most of your time is the Synthesis mechanic. The growth of a monster is limited, but by fusing two of your entourage together, you’ll get a new monster with skills from both ‘parents’. It can be hard to essentially get rid of your MVP, but coming out with something meaner and tougher (and at Level 1 so you have to raise them all over again) is very satisfying. The game won’t needle you into doing this, but the process is so oddly compelling, you’ll find yourself hanging back in previously-completed areas getting your Hell Hornet to level 18 so you can get that next set of skill points. It’s the Skinner Box theory in beautiful motion.
Aesthetically, DQMJ2 is competent, but not stunning. For a game released at the end of the DS’ lifespan, it’s not using the system to its full potential. It uses the exact same graphical engine as Dragon Quest XI, released a few years back, which wasn’t the most graphically stunning game either. It’s consistent, but it feels lazy. That said, it’s far more technically accomplished than the DS Pokémon titles, and it’s satisfying to see your monsters actually run up and slap their target. The quality of the graphical style is dependent on how much you like Dragonball Z, a praise and a gripe of every Dragon Quest title to date.
What it does do well is environments and scale. Each area of the game, while rather implausible (savannah and frozen wastelands so close to each other? Sure.) feel wild and unwelcoming to puny humans. Being able to climb up to the higher areas and view the entire area is satisfying and lonely. Weather changes will bring out new monsters that like the climate, and every area has its own Giant Monster. These foes count as 3 participants in battle, and although they can be encountered from very early on, they’re not to be tackled by newbies. The pursuit of getting strong enough to take one down after it has spent so long chasing you across the map is one of the best experiences the game has to offer. And when you work out how to obtain your own giant monsters, it gets even better.

Dragon Quest Monsters Joker 2 isn’t going to grab the hearts of the nation – it has graphics of 2008 and gameplay sensibilities of 1998, but it’ll sate the thirsts of those who are in between Pokémon experiences, and those who are still waiting for a widely-available RPG that they can put into their 3DS.

Have You Played: Final Fantasy XIII

This feature was written for The Yorker and can be found here.

While Square Enix could be reasonably blamed for having a hand in the endless torrent of Video Game Sequels, the gameplay of the Final Fantasy titles varies wildly – for better or for worse. FF13 is one such game that made some bold changes in how it played; and the fan backlash was pretty huge. That said; you can call me a supporter.

Setting aside the plot of the game for now, the main complaint was Final Fantasy XIII being linear. Now, linearity in a game is incredibly common. From Super Mario Bros. to Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 – a non-diverging progression from beginning to end is the standard, and often to no detriment whatsoever. Even other Final Fantasy titles are in no way free-roaming.

What makes FF13‘s linearity so salient is that it displays this decision with bold colours. A mini-map is present at all times, condensing the (incredibly stunning) environments into a ‘Head from A to B’ schematic. After every plot point you encounter, the path behind you often tends to be sealed off – not that you have a reason to backtrack. Even the tried and tested formula of having towns filled with exposition-townsfolk and item shops have been distilled – buying items and upgrades can be done at the frequent save points.
There’s a beauty in that. In a games industry where many Japanese RPGs are oft-filled with busywork and errands – forcing the player to go back to previously beaten areas; and many Western RPGs are devoted to sandbox exploration and hollow moral choices; FF13 is devoted to giving you a well told story and a great battle system with none of the fat.
With the extraneous gaming abstractions cut out, FF13 is free to focus on it’s narrative – the planet of Cocoon is co-inhabited by humans and gargantuan aliens called the Pulse Fal’Cie. While these aliens are responsible for keeping the ecosystem in check, they often treat humans as pets – ruining lives and entire settlements in the process. The story flicks between Lightning – an ex-soldier on a personal mission to rescue her sister from becoming tainted by the Fal’Cie – and other citizens and soldiers who get dragged along for the ride – none of them have the same perspective, and as they traverse Cocoon (sometimes to explore, often to escape) we learn more about their individual motivations and the nature of the world they live in. It’s gripping.
The story is broken up by inevitable battles with both monsters and military; using a system that stands out as the most simplified, yet demanding battle system used in a Final Fantasy game. While every party member has a dedicated role – mêlée attacks, healing, casting magic, etc. – you can ‘Paradigm Shift’ at any time to switch roles as the situation demands. The skill is not in being able to select attacks (you can let the game carry out actual attacking automatically); but in planning ahead enough to turn the tide of battle on a clever Shift. It takes very little time for battles that rely entirely on a good Shifting strategy to emerge unscathed. If you do happen to succumb to failure, the game will happily let you reload to just before the battle so you can try again. Even in death, FF13 is streamlined to you making progress.
A lot of gamers actively enjoy burning hours on repeatedly killing the same monsters to be strong enough to progress; some players are willing to accept a looser story for the promise of more immersion, and FF13 just simply isn’t for those people. It perfectly caters to what I look for when gaming; a strong and compelling story with a battle system that challenges me, and none of the annoying busywork.

A sequel, Final Fantasy XIII-2 will hit stores in February, and in its press releases, it promises to put back the towns and meandering that its predecessor removed. A far more accessible decision, but for me, FF13 was a successful experiment in bringing the JRPG to the current generation of games.

Culinary Lifestyle: Bubble Tea

I’m (partially) quoted in an article on The Yorker. My full entry is below.

I suppose what I dig about bubble tea is the uniqueness of it. To us, it’s a weird and new thing, but it’s like the cultural equivalent of getting a frappuchino. I first tried bubble tea at a place called the Candy Café, a tiny upstairs restaurant in London’s Chinatown (I know that sounds incredibly hipster, but it’s true, I swear). What stood out was the huge range of flavours they had (mostly fruit juices), with your choice of green or black tea as a base.

While some of the combinations are incredibly sweet (a chocolate milk tea will taste as saccharine as you’d expect), Cooling off in the summer with a lemon & green tea combo was refreshing, and arguably healthier than a large coke. A few of my friends I recommended the drink to were weirded out by the tapioca balls, but they have a neutral taste, so it doesn’t spoil the flavour of the drink, and the chewiness reminds me of bubble gum or marshmallows.

While I wouldn’t be craving one during the winter (and the unusual ethnicity of it would probably put off York locals); I definitely wouldn’t mind having one around once summer rolls around.