Mega Man X4 – Playstation, Sega Saturn (PS2 and Game Cube as part of Mega Man X Collection)

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Let’s add “fire-bot and ice-bot” in same lineup to the list of things Sigma probably should stop doing.

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Why, praytell, would a robot need shapely breasts? Unless that’s a special place to store her double-D cell batteries, I’d say the real drama behind the X series is the use of sexbots, hereafter known as “sexploids.”

I haven’t reviewed many Mega Man games, even though I talk about them I’m bringing up an old flame to make the games I do play frequently jealous. Truth is, they’re wonderful, but a little difficult to write about. For the purposes of a humor blog, the games are comic gold. Dr. Wiley, one of the most brilliant minds of all time, has a distinct recipe for his schemes—build a team of eight robots, each with a rock-paper-scissors Achilles heel that will rip each other open like a pinata in a batting cage—and he refuses to deviate from that plan for fear of breaking his streak of inevitable failure. A hundred years later, the ultimate reploid Sigma shows a sense of learning from history rivaled only by the United States Congress, and launches his wars against X using the exact same tactics. Still, writing these blog entries entirely with the copy-paste keyboard shortcut feels a bit like cheating, hence the reason I’ve avoided most Mega Man games.

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No, no. It’s totally reasonable that you want to build a ten-meter tall robot with giant hulk hands out of solid gold. Aren’t the practical applications obvious? Oh, wait! Let’s make him fly!

Mega Man X4 tackles the familiar formula with the free thought, creativity, and the deviance of an 80-year-old woman attending mass on a Tuesday morning. The game opens with a cut scene introducing Repliforce, an organized militia of Reploids designed to hunt Mavericks. Perhaps if you live in a world where reploids tend to turn maverick and become threats to humanity, it might not be wise to let them unionize. In the first stage, Sigma hijacks some Repliforce soldiers, pulls a false flag attack on the Sky Lagoon. Again, I have to question the wisdom of the people who welded a handful of battleships together and suspended them over an inhabited city like an anvil over Wile E. Coyote’s head, but perhaps in the future, Congress has passed some sort of MacGuffin Act to move plots along expediently. The Repliforce Colonel shows up in the wake of the attack and decides that rather than disarm and sort out the confusion with reason, diplomacy and grace, he’ll spit out some NRA “cold dead hands” vitriol, thus dooming the entire Repliforce to be branded as Mavericks. Even so, the General decides to peacefully take his army off-planet to found his own colony where they may live in peace, stressing that such an act is neither about rebellion nor insurrection against the humans. So naturally, the maverick hunters do the only logical thing and hunt them down to wreak bloody, bloody justice on their rusting corpses.

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X gets this weapon after beating Grady in the Overlook Hotel.

That is, for those of you keeping score, more story than in the entirety of the classic Mega Man series, and also a wonderful justification for never having attempted anything more in-depth than “mad scientist steals robots, programs for evil, hides in castle.” Fortunately, it doesn’t have to have a strong story; it has to be a good game. And Capcom sticks to its Mega Busters on this one, with the tried-and-true formula of an octet of rampaging robots running weaponry hardware that is 100% compatible with X’s systems. You’d think they’d learn and switch from Mac to Linux. It might run a little more successfully, cost less, and at the very least force X to program his own drivers. I suppose they could switch to Windows, but X would have to read the EULA before each boss fight, and they’d only get one or two good shots on him before crashing and needing a hard reboot.

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Zero got this technique after defeating my garage roof in February.

X4 adds its own unique touch on the formula, though. Rather than having Zero make cameo appearances as a playable character, the player can choose to play through the whole game as either X or Zero. X does his normal routine, blasting his way through an army of small robots who, I don’t think we’ve ever established, may or may not be sentient, and also searching for the upgrade capsules that Dr. Light spread around the planet like his own Gap chain. Zero, however, functions differently. Rather than gaining mobility through capsules and weapons from enemies, each maverick defeated augments either abilities slightly through the use of special moves. It’s amazing how such a minor change can make it feel like X4 is essentially two games, with the same bosses requiring different weaknesses to beat, some becoming easier and others harder, and level order requiring new strategies and opening new possibilities. In this, X4 introduces a brilliant new feature to the series that cracks the series formula wide open, adding layers of depth to the old formula heading into the future! So naturally, Capcom never did this again.

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Dying reploids look an awful lot like a spyrograph design.

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Lord of the Rings: The Third Age – PS2, Game Cube, XBox

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Batting cleanup for Gandalf, who really needs to employ the “double tap” philosophy. No use being stingy with ammo when fell beasts roam the land.

Movie licensed games are like hot dogs; absolutely fucking disgusting and probably lethal if you have more than two or three per year, but somehow they still sell enough that the industry thrives like cockroaches. And yes, in spite of my declared hatred toward them, a quick glance through the menu to the right reveals that I do, occasionally, indulge in these games myself (notably unlike hot dogs). So clearly, you can swallow gold dust and shit out something sparkly enough to catch my attention, but I’ve stepped in enough piles by now that it takes an exceptionally shiny dump to get me past the smell. Clearly I’m writing about a Lord of the Rings licensed game today, so something must have gotten me to stifle my gag reflex. Whatever could have inspired that, you ask? Turning the game into an RPG. But much like a Tide Pod, it turns out that swallowing a tasty-looking package might leave you with horrible, life-threatening internal chemical burns.

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My bet? Gandalf Plows past Balrog, but loses to M. Bison in the first two rounds.

So if the thought of liquefying your organs hasn’t dissuaded you from playing Lord of the Rings: The Third Age, let me explain the story, which as best I can describe, is the J.R.R. Tolkien equivalent to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Except with out the witty dialogue. Or compelling storyline. Or philosophical overtones. In fact, it’s less like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and more like you’re playing as Gandalf’s cleanup crew. The action opens just after the Council of Elrond names the members of the Fellowship of the Ring—not in the same place, of course. God forbid you have any outcome on the plot. After Gandalf gets a commitment out of the Fellowship and puts a ring on them, he immediately starts two-timing the party for Berethor, errant knight of Gondor, contacting him psychically, telling him to follow the Fellowship so the wizard might meet him on the side. And while he entrusts Frodo with no more than a single quest—save Middle Earth and the world of men from magical enslavement by destroying the final vestige of the Lieutenant of the evil god Morgoth—Berethor gets countless tasks such as “kill three wargs,” “find a dwarf,” “rescue five elves from Uruks.” Clearly, we know who the important party is here. Especially when Gandalf faces the balrog, the foe beyond the abilities of any of the indispensable fellowship, he beckons Berethor and company to stand beside him in slaying—and getting slain by—the ancient evil.

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Berethor breaks up his neighbor’s cave troll drum circle, complaining of the noise, but we all know it’s just him being racist.

At the very least, Berethor and his lower-case-f fellowship are like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in that they’re completely expendable and inconsequential to the main story. But Berethor doesn’t even seem to have a story of his own. The game forgoes traditional character conflict and development in exchange for Gandalf filling Berethor’s head with bad student films cut from the original film and dubbed with his own Tolkien-esque voice overs. Dude, even Michael Bay shows more generic diversity than you. If you’re going to do 108 short films, why not throw in a cut from Star Wars or Pulp Fiction or something? Or better yet, explain why the hell we care about the characters we’re playing as. If Frodo manages to get to Mt. Doom without his help, is there some reason to focus on Berethor? Was he pulling strings behind the scene? Did he struggle to find his purpose in a world torn by inter-species war? Did he adventure with the Eagles to the edge of Middle Earth to keep Voldemort from teaming up with Palpatine and George W Bush in order to invade the Shire while the hobbits were away? Nope. In fact, he seems to change tasks, warping from place to place like Doctor Who in Middle Earth.

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I’m not sure this is what they mean by “bow legged.”

It turns out there’s a reason the story sucks more than a battle between a hoover and truck stop whore, as EA Games did not hold the legal rights to use anything from Tolkien’s books that were not explicitly part of the films. And since fans’ idea of “enforcing the canon” means they feel that any deviation from the story means they get to shoot you with a canon, this story was received about as well as a gay nephew coming out at an Alabama Thanksgiving dinner. But hey, lousy stories can easily be overcome by good gameplay, right? Spoiler alert: not in this case.

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Discount Aragorn talks to second-rate Boromir, while shoddy immitation Arwen looks on.

For a company so worried about copyright infringement that they’d crap out a story like this, it’s surprising that they lifted the battle system so blatantly from Final Fantasy X that it’s a wonder they didn’t name the characters Yunalas, Kimharimir, Gimlulu and Wakkagorn. On the surface, I’m fine with that. Final Fantasy X was an awesome game and the combat was part of the reason for that. But while battles in FFX were fast-paced and zippy, Third Age animations are reminiscent of yoga instructors on Ambien. Characters are sluggish, skill points are awarded like birthday money from your grandma who hasn’t adjusted for inflation since 1953, and attacks connect with the striking accuracy of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra keeping time using an incoming Morse code signal.

LoTR - MoreLembasAnd…that’s it. That’s all there is to the game. There are no towns. No NPCs to talk to. No shops to buy items or equipment. I’d say there are no safe zones at all, but the game has a method for random encounters that feels like you can’t bribe enemies to attack you if you waved a raw, juicy shank of man flesh under their noses. So the game gives you a series of disjointed locales with the occasional story battle that takes place in a pool of clam chowder. The lack of shops means treasure chests inundate you with basic healing items, but since leveling up and saving both restore full HP and AP, you end up with a backpack full of lembas bread in full fungal bloom. There’s also a crafting system wherein you can make items—but only in battle. Personally, I’d like to tell my dwarf that facing down a hoard of murderous Uruk-hai may not be the best time to knead your dough and wait for the loaf to rise, but the game tells me I have to bake 125 loaves of lembas bread in order to gain the eloquently named “elf medicine,” then I’m just going to have to take out Saruman’s hoards with delicious bread smells. I haven’t been this bored since role-playing as the merchant in Dragon Quest IV. But maybe that’s it…maybe The Third Age wants you to role-play as a baker. God knows that’s exactly why I’ve always wanted to live in Middle Earth.

Okami – PS2, Wii, PS4

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Sweet Jesus’ dildo, do you know how exhausting it is to write about every damn game I play? Here’s my latest: Okami. The story of how the great Shinto goddess, Amaterasu, transcends to the corporeal plane to cleanse the evil plaguing us, and chooses a form that immediately gets scolded for dragging her butt across the carpet. Okay, okay. I get that Okami is a pun that both means “great god” and “wolf” in Japanese, and I also get that I’m coming at the game from the perspective of someone who is so much a cat person that you might expect my closet to be lined with white linen hoods with whiskers and double peaks for ears, but still, in a game renowned for it’s beautiful art style, why would Capcom so prominently animate Amaterasu’s sphincter? I guess the trail of flowers that bloom in her wake sprout up less as a result of her divinity and more from the constant spray of Miracle Grow, warning you to watch where you step as you traverse the fields of Nippon.

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The first step to solving your drinking problem is for all eight of your heads to admit they have a drinking problem.

The game opens in the most engaging way possible; a 30-minute long epic showdown between the great hero, Nagi, his lupine astral companion, Shiranui, and their arch-nemesis, the octocephaline serpent, Orochi. It’s such an exciting scene that my only real complaint with it is that instead of thrusting the player into a high-stakes tutorial level, they decide to narrate it with still-images in the style of traditional Japanese sumi-e and text that crawls slow enough that even Dick and Jane would get bored, read something else to pass the time, and learn how to discuss the finer points of Herman Melville by the time the cut scene ends. In all fairness, though, by the end of the game the last thing I wanted was yet one more identical boss fight with Orochi. Okami knows it has excellent boss fights and forces you to replay them over and over, much in the same way that the pretty girl who knows she’s pretty will constantly throw you into picking a fight with the manager of the restaurant; in both cases, they know if you leave, you’re not likely to get something quite as attractive on the rebound.

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Yeah, it’s a beautiful game, but it KNOWS it’s beautiful. Just look at that dog sitting there, watching it.

At the very least, Okami can pacify some of the hardcore jackassery that associates video games with violence. Amaterasu doesn’t level up by fighting monsters. Instead, she earns experience by feeding animals, doing favors for people, and bringing dead things back to life. Pretty much the only thing fighting monsters is good for is looting their corpses for spare change, and since money in Okami is as useful as the brown chunks of ice you kick off your tire wells in the winter, enemies are little more than minor obstacles to dodge as you rocket through the world map. Combat is relatively simple—no matter your level of experience or the amount of skills you purchased, half the time all you have to do is waggle the Wii-mote until carpal tunnel sets in and the battle is as good as won. Most of the weapons and items I collected along the way went unused, and are now probably just gathering dust in the sun goddess’s basement, along with a dozen boxes of ammo from Silent Hill, a small habitat of jinjos from Banjo Kazooie, and an old Triforce that I lost the instruction book for and can’t figure out how it works.

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Amaterasu teams up with Japanese Popeye

Funny though that I should bring up Zelda, as the game feels very much like a unique take on Nintendo’s tired old formula. Instead of Hyrule, it’s set in a fairy-tale version of Japan. Instead of a Peter Pan cosplayer, it stars a dog that moves forward via the power of foliage flatulence, and instead of collecting a small hardware store full of junk, you carry a magical paintbrush and work on becoming the Van Gough of cell-shaded canines. Before I continue, you may have noted that I played the Wii port of the game, not the original PS2 version. Makes sense, right? A game with a painting mechanic should let you take full control of those natural brush strokes, only possible through the Wii’s motion control. Now let’s just take this game that requires precision technique and put it on a system that emulates the feel of being an epileptic toddler in a 7.2 earthquake.

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Just your average sun goddess dog flying around on a sword to fight an evil nine-tailed fox. God, I don’t know what they smoke in Japan but I want some.

The celestial brush techniques take the place of Zelda’s items, and had the potential to make the game great, but as it turns out, most of the thirteen techniques you learn are some form of draw-a-circle-around-a-thing or connect-the-thing-to-the-thing. It’s a bit of a letdown to realize you’re going to be granted lightning power, to hope that you’ll get to draw a zig-zag to rain down the wrath of Raijen upon your unsuspecting demon foes, only to realize that all you do is find a source of electricity, then draw a line to what needs to be powered like some sort of divine Shinto electrician. The fact that this is exactly the same as your water power (divine Shinto plumbing) your earth power (Shinto gardening) and your fire power (apparently Amaterasu moonlights in arson), kind of gives the impression that you’re less of a holy being and more of a hardcore DIY-er on a fixer-upper spree through feudal Japan.

After a while I did figure out a few tricks for brush techniques (draw spirals to activate the wind, rather than loops, and the Z-button helps drawing straight lines, albeit with the practiced grace of a seasoned drunk driver), and the game actually became pretty fun. Boss fights used techniques well, and didn’t hold you to repeating a technique ad nauseum once you’d figured out the trick, even if it did somehow ask you to repeat entire boss fights as though Amaterasu was a transfer student whose transcripts got lost in the mail and had to repeat entire grades on a technicality. The final boss, I though, was exceptionally brilliant, in that it asked me to utilize every single technique I picked up throughout the game, while still giving me a few options to feel like I was fighting creatively. Granted, this doesn’t mean I want to get to the end of a Zelda game and have Gannon checking off my report card to make sure I can bludgeon him just right with my boomerang, fishing pole, and spinner, and to make sure I’m not blowing any flat notes on my spirit flute.

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Dog.

I enjoyed Okami. Maybe not to the point where I think it deserves to be polished by critics until its steaming dog droppings sparkle like a pearl, but it was pretty good. The game did suffer from pacing, most notably the text speed which said “I have a five-year-old reading level” even while the sexual overtones said “I have a seventeen-year-old’s hormonal lust” to the point where the comically cartoonish women said “I’d jack off to a mannequin I found in the dumpster behind the Gap if one were available.” However, the more people I meet, the more I suspect Okami may have finally nailed the U.S.A. as a target audience.

Kuon – PS2

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Hey! Eyes up here, mister!

Any connoisseur of horror might get the impression that the Japanese have as much variety a a nun’s sex life. It seems like everything coming out of Japan involves young girls, hair flipped forward, emaciated and wet like a St. Bernard that just jumped into the bathtub. This is the genre that gives us the Ring, the Grudge, and Silent Hill. Does nothing scare these people save for thought’s of Cousin It’s prepubescent daughter? As it turns out, yes. There’s a sub-genre of Japanese horror called Kwaidan, which as best I can describe is two parts fairy tale, two parts urban legend, and one part Weird Al Yankovic album. Roughly translating to “strange story,” kwaidan deals with the tough subjects that the faint of heart don’t have the guts to tackle, like flying heads that detach from their bodies, monsters who have re-purposed their anuses as eye sockets, and in the case of Kuon, evil incarnations of mulberry trees who use silkworms to practice human sacrifices.

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Forget Cousin It’s daughter. I’ve always had a huge crush on Cthulu’s little sister.

Kuon’s main storyline follows two characters. First, Utsuki is the disappointment child of Doman, a priest so cheerful and approachable that he looks on altar boy rape as being too kind-hearted. Doman gives Utsuki one job: take care of her sister Kureha, who hasn’t been feeling well on account of having died and begun to decompose. But Kureha runs off and, as luck would have it, darts straight into a haunted house like a bomb-sniffing dog navigating a field of land mines to get to a plate of snausages. Meanwhile, Doman sends the second character, Sukuya, into the manor with a team of paranormal investigators, most of whom meet the end we all hope for any time we see a team of paranormal investigators. Sukuya, however, keeps her wits about her and begins to piece together that Doman has taken a page from Albert Wesker’s playbook and sent them in as an unwitting buffet. Both Utsuki and Sukuya periodically run into the Japanese Shining Twins, inexplicably following the commands of these creepy little girls whose hands say, “Go investigate that room,” but whose eyes say, “We’re going to strip the flesh from your bones like a piranha with a tape worm.”

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Jinkies!

Kuon is neither a long game nor a difficult one. However, since each characters’ phase can be played in either order, they feel the need to run me through the tutorial twice. Sukuya’s tutorial was even delivered by one of the other investigators, a 13-year-old Buddhist monk who sounds like he studied in a remote mountaintop temple just outside of Houston. This boy has all the grace and poise we would expect from Feudal Japanese clergy, right down to his comment, “Can’t you just stick it in any old way?” when it comes to solving a puzzle. I presume. But the repetition doesn’t stop at the tutorial. The first have of both scenarios require the player to open the same locked doors, solve the same puzzles, and fight the same monsters. It’s as if taking priority over unique and thrilling game play, Kuon really wanted you to learn something, so it’s like an episode of Dora the Explorer. But with human sacrifice. (“House…underground…ritual chamber. House…underground…ritual chamber!”)

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Gakis be pimpin’

But that isn’t to say it’s a bad game. It does follow the pages of the survival horror playbook rather well, right up to scattering those pages halfway across the bloody country for you to find and assemble. Instead of zombies, you fight gaki. Instead of guns and bullets, you get cards that cast magic spells. And instead of keys you…wipe bloody rags on doors you want to open? I gotta be honest—that seems a little unsanitary. Not a lot of survival horror games culminate in an epic battle against hepatitis. It makes it all the worse by the seals on the doors being named after planets. I’m sorry, but nobody wants to carry around a bloody rag from Uranus, especially considering no one had yet discovered the planet during the story’s era, so the seal has to be either a butt joke or a reference to sailor scouts (none of which had been discovered yet either).

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Just casually wandering through the aftermath of a lynching.

Unfortunately, for all that Kuon gets right about the genre, it also suffers from the same tropes as every other survival horror game. “Oh no! There’s a corpse blocking my path? If only I could lift my feet up higher than ten centimeters! Between this and the paper screen in the other hallway, how will I ever progress?” Or even, “A silk web stretches across the tunnel? If only I had a tool to get rid of it, but all I have is a magic dagger and a collection of magical fireballs! I guess I have to go back and search!” It almost feels like the developers got lazy and skimped on certain key details. Characters don’t move their mouths to talk, but they still hear each other just fine, apparently communicating like animals in a Garfield strip. That and the inexplicable repetition of certain events but not others pulled me out of the story a bit. They obviously wanted some sort of Resident Evil 2 scenario mash-up, but pulled it off like a sixth grader giving a report on a book he hasn’t read, so he just copies the plot of another book and hope his teacher won’t notice.

The game certainly isn’t winning any awards, except maybe “rarest” and “most overpriced” PS2 game, but it’s worth playing. It’s short enough that the repetition isn’t tedious, the atmosphere perfectly captures the feeling of a kwaidan tale, and the story is unique and eerie. I’ll even give the game bonus points for voicing Doman with the same actor who played Mojo Jojo. I guess that makes you the Feudal Japanese Power Puff Girls.

Evil Dead: Fistful of Boomstick – PS2, XBox

FFB1I have quit my job at the Red Cross, tired of explaining to aging, overweight women with creaky knees that no one will have the courtesy to try to die on a table so they don’t have to attempt CPR on the floor. Naturally, I won’t rest until my resume makes me look like a hard-core Looney Toon character, so I went and signed up something far more psychotic: substitute teaching. Today’s adventure: first grade. And by “adventure,” I mean I’m going to take a break from grotesque, high-strung demon-spawn that will devour your soul to talk about something relaxing: Evil Dead. And before you ask, let me point out that sometimes the only thing that held your substitute teachers back from a nice, therapeutic dismembering was that chainsaws are forbidden on school grounds. Likely, I’ll wager, for just that very reason.

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To Do: Clear street of deadites so Doc and Marty can travel back to 1955 and prevent Old Biff from giving the Necronomicon to himself, thus preventing Evil 1985 from ever happening.

The Evil Dead films tell the story of Ash, who from an ill-fated camping trip with his college friends, must constantly fight back legions of demons who possess the corpses of those around him. And much like its subject material, it comes back to life every time the filmmakers try to kill it, each time just a little campier, a little more bloated, a little more disgusting and unrecognizable than the time before. After people stopped funding the films, there’s been talk of an Evil Dead 4, with director Sam Raimi telling fans they’ll just have to satisfy themselves with the three films. And two video games. And the musical. And the Ash vs the Evil Dead tv series. And let’s not forget 2007’s My Name is Bruce. So despite the fact that there’s never going to be an Evil Dead 4, there’s no shortage of cocky, swaggering, gore-themed, dad-joke one-liners recorded by Bruce Campbell himself. And to prove it, you can hear one every time you hit the triangle button in Fistful of Boomstick.

2003’s Fistful of Boomstick pretty much set up Ash’s backstory, which has become more consistent and dependable as giant perky tits in Game of Thrones. Everyone perceives him a schizophrenic, alcoholic loser, until someone unleashes the evil dead and he rescues the world, earning everyone’s gratitude just shy of actually treating him like he’s not an alcoholic loser. In this instance, a reporter interviews a colleague of the late professor Knowby, and plays a recording of an incantation over live TV. This immediately fills Dearborn, Michigan with hoards of evil demons who possess everyone in their path, thus paving the way for the 2016 election outcome. Ash immediately sets upon his quest to slaughter his way through the deadites with nothing but a chainsaw, shotgun, and the complete wares of a combined gun shop and hardware store strapped to his back.

FFB2Evil Dead has always been rather loose with the bounds of the horror genre. So too has it treated survival horror like the woman willing to take him home ten minutes after the bar closes down. Fistful of Boomstick technically bears the telltale features of survival horror, in that it limits the number of saves, controls the amount of ammunition and healing items, becomes progressively darker as though the player is suffering a minor stroke, and scatters a small junkyard around the game while demanding you clean it up. However, as with the PS One game, Hail to the King, the game feels remiss if it doesn’t hurl enemies at you with the frightening urgency of your grandma trying to stuff every last serving of tater tot casserole down your throat lest she think you waste away and starve like a Somalian orphan. Ammunition is only rare compared to the monsters, but the plethora of melee weapons negates that effect (Ash with a sword. Enough said) Save tokens likewise have the scarcity of AOL disks in the late 90s.

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Coincidentally, this is also Sean Hannity’s to-do list.

In fact, the one survival horror target they hit more accurately than Bill Cosby playing beer pong with a handful of roofies is the black-on-black color palette. The game opens on a dark and murky Dearborn, and gets progressively darker, what I refer to as the “untreated diabetes” aesthetic. Praising complete and utter lack of any visual cues as a horror game staple always felt like praising rusty barbed wire and 10W-40 as a dietary staple. It doesn’t surprise me in the least that this trend led to a game like Perception,, and it surprises me even less that players

Hidden in each level are permanent power-ups. Some raise Ash’s maximum mana, enabling the player to cast spells more often. Others increase his maximum health, enabling the player to stare longingly at one more permanently empty blip on the life gauge. It isn’t just the unbridled manliness, easy access to firearms, and the denizens of hell-spawn risen in legions that make Dearborn a Republican paradise. There’s also a dearth of healthcare, thus ensuring that if you want to refill your life, you have to work harder than a Mexican laborer for those elusive health drops and just hope that the work itself doesn’t eviscerate your bowels and swallow your soul in the meantime. Fuck that. I play video games to escape real life. This is worse than playing as the merchant in Dragon Quest.

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That poor car can’t even get a break in a video game.

On that line, the game seems just a little too hard, and sadly, not in a way that the developers likely intended. Imagine, if you will, two high school history teachers. The first teacher runs a challenging class because he expects you to understand the past, but also the cause and effect of various historical events. That teacher, let’s say, is Final Fantasy Tactics; difficult, but rewarding when you figure it out. The second teacher is also difficult because after giving you an assignment, he jets off to the local titty bar leaving nothing but a Magic 8-Ball for you to check your answers. That teacher is difficult because his priorities are more in line with machismo than balancing the class properly. But hey, repetition is the key to education, right? Thanks to several conveniently placed unskippable cut scenes, you’ll never have any doubt about the plot in those moments right before a difficult boss fight! Now if you’ll excuse me, the school day is almost over and I have a stack of singles burning a hole in my pocket.

Final Fantasy XII – Costume Analysis

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Curiosity has done to my free time what it did to the cat, that sadistic, felicidal bastard. After my last round of Final Fantasy XII, playing for the first time the International edition, I began to do what billions of people worldwide do on a daily basis—fantasize about the jobs I didn’t pick, wondering if they were any better than the career paths I had forced upon my characters like a militant tiger mom. Should any of you take interest in my research, leave a comment and we can discuss the best team choices. However, playing through the game twice in close succession has made me notice a few things more closely—namely, how little other work I get done around the house when playing 200 hours worth of one game. But also that the characters in this highly literary political drama on war and the nature of power possess sensibilities straight out of a Monty Python sketch.

See, the entire game takes place in a typical fantasy world. There are castles, remote villages, people who carry swords and bows while fighting monsters. You sneak through dungeons and traverse through temples and shrines. I can only assume, as I always have, that the typical trappings of a medieval world apply: the dysentery, the dirty water, the lack of indoor plumbing that makes the city river waft like a shit-scented candle, not to mention the complete absence of video games. When the typical medical practices involve treating combat wounds with a potion, you have to expect that plague and pestilence make more frequent door-to-door visits than the post office. Personally, as much as I love the fantasy genre, I don’t know if I want to live in a world where acupuncture and reflexology are considered cutting-edge medicine.

But as a player, I just sort of take that for granted. That’s how they things are. At least until I infiltrate the Archadian Empire and see the myriad horrors the land of the enemy has in store: well-maintained cities, tall buildings, and citizens so comfortable in their own physical securities that they spend vast amounts of leisure time chasing after luxuries, or trying to gain social status by being nice to people (Which, as an American, outrages me! The only proper way to raise one’s social status is by demeaning others, either through gossip or racial demoniztion!) Archadia has fucking flying cars! Do you know how long I’ve been waiting for those in real life? (I suppose, though, this is fantasy…) Archadia has strong government funding for the sciences, and an Emperor who truly values the advice of the senate. We don’t even have that in the U.S. anymore.

I get that the idea behind fantasy is that progress is a myth, and that technology shrivels our souls like fruit at the back of the refrigerator, but Ashe, you live in the desert, and there’s a diseased esper living in your water supply. You may just want to take one for the team here and fill out the Archadian membership paperwork. It’s got great benefits.

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Yet another problem I can no longer ignore is the costuming. The characters were designed either by an artist with a vendetta against cosplayers or a fashion designer who was fired for thinking that decorative pockets were too functional. Take stripper boy here. Vaan’s design comes from Square thinking Disney’s Aladdin just wasn’t white enough, and then trying to cross him with Chip ‘n Dale…wait, no sorry…I meant Chippendale. But it’s one thing to take a whiny orphan who compulsively wipes his nose with his finger and stick him in a pose like he should be sitting on top of a Ferrari during June. It’s another thing to dress him in steel-plated greaves and Crocs, the style for the warrior who wants to inspire fear in the hearts of his enemies, but still wants to give them a good laugh. After all, combat is a pretty dismal thing. Why not lighten the mood by showing up with big rubber shoes or at least a tacky tie. However, we can’t credit him with being too concerned about his own safety, as that vest of his couldn’t protect him from sunburn, much less the fangs of a vicious monster. I can only assume that the bands of fabric constantly draped over his shoulders are naught but spare laces, should those that strap his pants and cummerbund together ever snap.

Penelo.pngMoving down the line, we have Penelo, sporting what appears to be a rubber onesie with built in panties—on the outside, in true superhero fashion. Naturally, everyone in the desert wears dark, form-fitting bodysuits because heat stroke is pretty much the only entertainment they have. Her suit is of the high-waisted variety, as it buckles around her collar bone. That might explain the fabric stretching down to her garters. As Mitch Hedberg famously said, “My belt holds my pants up, but the belt loops hold the belt up, so who’s the real hero?” However, it seems she may not need the extra support in light of the sea horses she murdered hollowed out to use as knee socks like an adolescent female Buffalo Bill.

While Vaan’s look in Revenant Wings has changed only enough that he no longer looks like a lumbering eight-year-old with inexplicably well-toned abs, Penelo has shed the body suit for something a little more easy access. Swinging to the opposite extreme from skin-tight body suit that shows more camel toe than an Arabian veterinarian pedicurist (yeah, even I think that one’s a bit of a stretch), she now has wrapped the curtain from a theatre around her legs in vague imitation of parachute pants, however leaving well enough revealed around the waist to earn her a free day from school for grievous dress code violation. Much like the bracers in her original design, her pants seem suspended upon her body with no visible means of support, leading me to the conclusion that if they haven’t been surgically attached to her skin, then every time the camera pans away she has to hike them back up like a disobedient tube top.

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Fran.pngOf all the characters in the game, Fran is likely the most ready for action, as evident by her countless straps, high heels, and corset that if fully tightened would make her look like a botched attempt at a balloon rabbit. Sadly, I think only Balthier might see the kind of action she’s dressed for. I especially love the loin cloth, draping down with all the opaqueness of a freshly Windexed camera lens. That garment is what even lingerie looks at and calls, “skank,” under their breath.

Basch.pngBasch is one of my favorites. The stoic knight, honorable even in disgrace, who speaks with poise and propriety, looks as though he literally ripped his shirt off of the drum major of a marching band. Together with his hair, which looks like he stepped out into a Minnesota winter after a long shower, Basch appears as though he ended up in Final Fantasy XII after getting lost on his way to a Billy Idol concert. While traditionally, knights would ride into tournaments wearing the favor of their courtly loves (like a girlfriend who won’t take her clothes off), this hero seems to be wearing his lady’s entire slip, belted tight around his waist lest it fall to the ground and reveal his knightly nethers. And yet, what’s more, he appears to be wearing his grandma’s favor as well, in the form of a miniature patchwork quilt tucked ever so carefully beside his heart—unless, of course, I am mistaken and he is actually a member of the Ivalice Rubik’s Cube Guild.

Ashe_Alt_RenderAs I breeze by Balthier, who doesn’t merit a picture on account of wearing very little of any note save for an unwound spool of embroidery thread wrapped around him like a shirt, I’ll slide on in to Ashe, an action no doubt made easier by the pink napkin she’s trying to pass off as hot pants. Because, honestly, could we ever take a stern, iron-willed warrior hellbent on power and revenge seriously if we couldn’t also imagine her as a demure sex-kitten ready to fulfill our every desire? Personally, while penetration is definitely on her mind, more likely you’ll wind up impaled upon her blade rather than the other way around, but I guess that’s why they call it final fantasy. Still, the princess here looks as though she assembled her clothing from scraps she salvaged from the floor of the costume shop. Case-in-point: her top appears to be little more than a bikini with a veil and tuxedo tails. Perfect for lounging on the beach with a 120-piece orchestra at your beck-and-call. But one can’t blame a girl rendered completely from computer graphics for being beautiful (despite the fact we can blame the artists for giving her legs so long it looks like she mugged a giraffe for its prosthesis). A real girl might have to worry about her weight and the problems associated with wearing a spare tire around the gut. Ashe, on the other hand, appears to be wearing a literal spare tire around her gut, presumably one she found shredded on the side of the road. That’ll keep you cool in the hot, Dalmascan desert!

And before we close, let’s give a shout out to the judges, who spend about as much time in the court room as Dr. Dre spent in medical school. One can forgive them for that, though, since who would expect anyone to find the courtroom wearing more metal over their eyes than a Jeep Grand Cherokee? I shouldn’t jest too much, though, as Judge Drace looks rather proud of his Armored Admiral Ackbar cosplay. Much more pleased with himself than Bergan, who seems rather upset that he got stuck with the bin where you store the toilet brush as a helmet. Still, he looks more pleased than Zargabaath, who might have longer spikes than Gabranth, but assured the photographer just before the shoot that, “This has never happened before.” I wouldn’t worry too much, were I in his place. His long, flaccid helmet spikes would likely ground him like a lightning rod should the weather take a turn for the worse. Perhaps the fear of storms could explain why Ghis shunned the fashion of his peers in favor of strapping a rug around his waist.

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Final Fantasy XII – International Zodiac Job System – PS2

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Cactoid dance!

It’s times like this that I have an entire novel to revise and just enough free time to glance at my work schedule that I think, “You know what I should do now? Play a 100+ hour game and then write about it. So I played Final Fantasy XII instead of doing anything useful or productive. I haven’t quite made it to the end, yet, but before you point out that judging something before you try it is only useful when hiring prostitutes and getting out of jury duty, I have played the game before. As such, I know that my characters are currently strong enough that if any of them have so much as an exceptionally strong bowel movement, the final boss will drop dead from the shock wave.

The point of playing through the game, though is to try the International Zodiac Job System, which is “international” in the same way that Dr. Pepper is medically qualified to treat your diabetes. Noting problems with the original release, such as the fact that each character can learn every skill in the game and still have enough skill points left over that they’d have to bury them in a hole somewhere in the desert just to be rid of them, the game underwent a few revisions. Then, presumably seeing how George Lucas went from God of Nerds to Discount Pauly Shore for doing just that, they hid their new Zodiac Job System from the rest of the world with an irony that would make a climate change denier’s head spin. Naming a Japan-exclusive release International is like naming a girl “Brandie Delight” and then shipping her off to a convent three states away from the nearest strip club.

Since Final Fantasy acts like the bastard love child of Star Wars and the Lord of the Rings, the story opens with the age-old “Empire-bad-kingdom-good scenario.” The Archadian Empire has been conquering the kingdoms like a 5-year-old diving into a pile of Christmas presents, and murdered the king of Dalmasca in a plot to seize power forcefully by interrupting a treaty signing that would give them that power peacefully, and then framing a Dalmascan captain by using his Archadian twin brother to do the actual killing. Then they blow the whole place up with the fantasy equivalent of a hydrogen bomb. Princess Ashe, who was announced dead but then got better, now leads a small resistance movement against the Empire who is now camped out in Dalmasca like the creepy college roommate who won’t ever leave the house.

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Final Fantasy’s bad-ass, revenge-seeking bride. I made her a samurai so she could kick Uma Thurman’s ass.

The story runs with a fascinating concept—a twist on the man-who-would-be-king archetype wherein the Empire freely offers Ashe her throne in exchange for her full cooperation. But it reads as though writers’ prescriptions of Adderall ran out the morning they started work. Early on, the game cycles through three potential protagonists, one supporting character who constantly calls himself the leading man, and a trusty hero who bravely faces the tutorial level only die as soon as he’s learned everything. Once the story finally settles on Ashe, a steep difficulty curve demands the story be broken up for more or less mandatory side-questing. But now that I’ve played through the game for the fourth or fifth time, I can appreciate Ashe’s dilemma, whether or not she’ll let herself be manipulated by the Empire or the Gods; serve her own Trumpish Id, throw a tantrum, and nuke the entire Empire because she’s mad; or throw out all ideas of revenge like a copy of Moby Dick, essentially un-invent the atomic bomb, and rescue her kingdom from the token villain who had to murder his own father (who was on his way out the door anyway) just so we’d know he was supposed to be evil.

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“And also, no wedding cakes for the gays!”

The combat system deviates from Final Fantasy’s traditional turn-based battles and instead plays like an introduction to computer programming course. After twenty years of publishing RPGs, someone at Square must have pointed out, “You know, all anyone ever does is use the basic attack.” So they finally programmed an AI that would pretty much just keep attacking unless you told it to stop. Each character has a programmable list of actions and conditions called gambits. From top to bottom, the game runs down each list of conditions until it finds one it can meet, then the character performs that specific action. This is a brilliant way to reshape the way we think about battle, save time inputting menu commands (not to mention there are no more random encounters), and to ensure that at some point you will cure an enemy, burn through all your MP by casting your highest spells on monsters with 10 HP, and beating the tar out of your allies until you learn exactly how to set up your gambits properly.

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Ashe and Co gang up on a defenseless tomato-monster.

This leads to the first glorious difference between the American release and the International version—the gambits are smarter. Somewhat. I always liked to set my characters to resurrect anyone who died, thus insuring the number one priority in battle was to prevent rigor mortis. However, with the necessity of setting everyone with the same gambit came the inevitable result that everyone else would immediately drop what they were doing and chuck every feather within eyesight at the fresh corpse as if someone had just declared a sorority slumber party pillow fight. Now I can equip the same gambits on everyone and my characters won’t set upon each other like medical zombies every time one of them stubs their toe. Not all gambits are smart, though. I found that I don’t need to set “Character Status: Blind – Esuna,” “Character Status: Petrify – Esuna” and “Character Status: Parkinson’s Syndrome – Esuna,” as “Any Ally – Esuna” will simply wait until the spell is needed before casting it. However, if I set a gambit for “Any Foe – Steal,” I’ll end up picking the enemy’s pocket, steal their pocket, take the rest of their clothes and a few layers of skin and my character will still try to pick through their bones trying to find one more potion.

The selling point for the international version, however, is as the title might suggest, the Zodiac Jobs System. All skills in the game, as well as the ability to equip weapons and armor, come from a license board, much like FFX’s sphere grid, except more rectangular and a little more free-flowing. However, it was rather small, and after building up license points for the first 30% of the game, after which, license points would just stack up uselessly–like Arby’s coupons, but without the impending threat of dysentery. By that point, each your characters have as much diversity as a box of Peeps, each one possessing both a trove of knowledge that would make Stephen Hawking obsolete and the physical prowess to win gold medals in the Olympic decathalon. When a fifteen-year-old girl can smash skulls with a war hammer and cause as much damage as the 30-year-old seasoned war veteran, the game tends to lose the element of strategy. All six characters equip an entire iron ore freighter, cast all the buffs on themselves, and simultaneously pulverize the monsters as though they were auditioning to be machinery at the Ocean Spray factory.

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This one’s shaped like a bow and arrow. Obviously, this is the Insurance Adjuster job class.

The Zodiac Jobs System fixes that by introducing a complex bureaucracy to the game, delaying some licenses until much of the game has passed and denying many licenses altogether based on eligibility requirements. Unlike real bureaucracy, though, this surprisingly makes the game easier. Originally, any time a character developed a mild cough, the entire party would forget completely about the enemies to cure it, thus allowing the monsters free reign to beat them down, causing yet more memory loss. Now, it’s likely that at least one character will lack restorative powers altogether and continue to stab enemies if for no other reason than to fend off sheer boredom. I also noticed that mixing and matching different characters tended to produce different battle strategies, so beating a particularly difficult boss only required a small change to my starting lineup rather than half a week of punching bats in a mine.

Espers are…well, espers are still pretty fucking useless. The original release of the game gave you summoned monsters that died so quickly after summoning that they may as well have developed a DVT on the flight to the battlefield. Calling an esper never served as anything but a momentary diversion for people who feel the “menu” button takes all the challenge out of pausing a game. In IZJS, espers still enter the battlefield with all the vim and vigor of an asthmatic guinea pig, but now you get to control them in their few seconds of life on this plane of existence. Basically, that amounts to permission to pull off their major attack once, realizing it doesn’t have the strength to dent your car, and barely missing the opportunity to say goodbye to your esper, who takes off for the ICU as soon as he’s done.

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Looks almost dead, right? Guess again. See those dots below the health bar? Those are extra health bars. Or as I like to think of them, 1% of your total play time.

At the risk of running too long, the game is worth playing. More so than the original. In fact, not only do I feel like forever discarding the original release like last year’s iPhone, but I’m tempted to play through it a second time to use the six jobs I couldn’t use this time. Fortunately, that’s not out of the realm of possibility. Despite the fact that writing a weekly blog often rushes me through games, they’ve introduced what I call yakkety sax mode, which doubles the speed of traveling and battling. I managed to shave over thirty hours off the game. Round two, here I come!