Books

Sandman Overture – Neil Gaiman, J.H. Williams III, Dave Stewart

I’ve said already that I’ve been on a bit of a Neil Gaiman binge this year. The first thing I read by him was American Gods, which I read back in 2017 but more recently, as part of my book club, I’ve read through Norse Mythology and Neverwhere, both of which I’ve really enjoyed. Sandman Overture is my first Gaiman comic, and as a prequel to this work it seemed like an excellent place to start.

It’s also an excellent place to finish if you aren’t new to Sandman. The plot, or how I’ve interpreted it, is about the end and the beginning of creation, the universe and all thats in it both burns out and is created anew, and its not until the final issue that all the strands and characters ramblings begin to make sense.

I’ll state now that its not the easiest of graphic novels to read, possibly due to needing to know who some of the characters are beyond how they present here and some of the relationships between Morpheus and his “family”, although the feeling is that knowing these things would be beneficial in only understanding the reasons for the actions of those who Morpheus interacts with and how they feel about the central figure of the book. Another reason its difficult to read is that its creators have decided to play with the medium available to them, there are foldouts in a few places, completely blank pages and even a double spread where you have to turn the book through 180 degrees in order to follow what happens.

All of which can be a bit overwhelming, add in the sheer amount of artwork available on (almost) every page and the detail within those pages and you’d be forgiven for taking the book in in smaller chunks in order to appreciate the work that has gone into it fully. It really is an utterly beautiful piece of work, J.H. Williams III’s art and Dave Stewarts’ colours really pop off the page and the way in which each character has their own style of speech bubble, complete with unique coloured background/text. I realise none of this is unique to this particular piece of work or the creators here but the combination of all of the above makes Sandman Overture one of the most visually striking comic books I’ve ever read.

As a concept its definetly gotten me interested in exploring the character further so its yet another series I’ve now started that I feel compelled to complete (with two of Alan Moore’s works, Swamp Thing and Promethea, also being among that list) and I look forward to reading obtaining Sandman Vol.1 at some point in the future (although its not like I have a lack of books to read!)

Advertisements
Gaming

#ThrowBackThursday: Phantasy Star Online

I often use these #ThrowBackThursday posts to reminisce about some of my favourite games that I’ve played since I first picked up a controller, occasionally I’ll cover something old that I’ve been playing recently (usually if its something I’ve picked up cheap on PSP or its one of the Retro Game Club games, which I’ve not actually joined in with this month). So far though the only one that I’ve written about that had any long-term impact on me is Metal Gear Solid, but even that game didn’t have as much an impact on my life, for better or worse, than Sonic Team’s Phantasy Star Online.

Like many games of its era, I came to learn of Phantasy Star Online through a friend, most of the time it was Aaron and this time was no different. He was properly hyped about the Dreamcast prior to its release and would obsess over every image and article he could get his hands on. I remember him showing me screenshots of PSO in some magazine whilst on the bus one day, I don’t recall where we were going but I thought it looked pretty cool. There were two legged bear wolf things (I later learned these were called Booma’s), lightsabers, massive rifles and scantily dressed girls casting magic, what more could an adolescent boy want?

Now, obviously Aaron was first to get a copy, I think he must have used money he got for Christmas to get it. I didn’t have the cash initially, so I bought a VMU (the Dreamcasts answer to the Memory Card) and made a character at his, not knowing that it would be tied to that console/copy of the game and thus I wouldn’t be able to use it elsewhere, and it would take a couple of months doing my five hour a week supermarket job to be able to actually buy a Dreamcast and a copy of the game, at which point Aaron was miles ahead and already has made friends with a group online so wasn’t massively interested in running round with a level 1 character.

So once I had the console and game for myself I decided to start a different type of character. Gone was the purple haired, Disco Stu inspired HUmar (Hunter Male Human) I called Dibley, and in his place (until I had enough VMU’s to have too many characters) was a RAcast (Ranger Male Robot) titled Mumunk 2001, I designed it in such a way that the sliders were at their maximum.

I chipped away in the offline mode, a little afraid to go online, not because of other people, that bit excited me, but it took a while to wear my Mum down to allow me to take the Dreamcast online as at the time we’d have to pay for every minute I spent online. Plus I only had a 50hz TV in my bedroom and the game would ask you upon boot up what refresh rate required and if you went online you’d only be able to play on servers with players of the same. Anyway, she succumbed, I’d be allowed an hour every other night where I could go online using the “big telly” (the one in the living room, a big wide screen Panasonic with surround sound) once my Step Dad had gone to bed.

She was right to be apprehensive though, as I soon started to push my boundaries and ran up huge phone bills, often forcing us to be cut off and her scrambling round to pay the bill before my Step Dad notice and flipped his lid. You see, I’d made my own friends on the game by this point, most of them older or on the other side of the pond (as I was normally playing later at night than my local friends would have been), and wanted to spend as much time as them as possible. When I wasn’t on the Dreamcast with them, keyboard on lap and Feeder, Muse, System of a Down or Linkin Park playing over headphone, I’d be on forums with them discussing more about the game, among other things.

Eventually our tariff changed, I can’t remember if we changed suppliers or if the supplier changed how they handled the internet. I cant remember if we were on BT to begin with and then changed to NTL or if NTL changed things up, but eventually the internet would be free for an hour and then you’d be charged for any time you were still online after that, but there was a way around the restriction. If you disconnected before the hour was up you could immediately reconnected and go online for another hour and so on for as long as you could keep going. Soon enough I’d be using chat shortcuts to signal when I’d have to do this and as many of us were on the same provider we’d often all disconnect and reconnect then meet in our regular lobby for a chat, see who wanted to run what quest (rooms were limited to four players, whilst lobbies could hold many more) and then break off, sometimes communicating with the others individually via the games in-game mailing system.

Eventually the community became fragmented, SEGA released Version 2 of the game which had additional modes, equipment, and additional difficulty level with new bosses and a raised level cap (although it took as long to get to level 101 as it did to get from level 1 to 100), and again I was left behind. I could still communicate with my group of friends but some moved on to other things and some moved onto Version 2 whilst I was still on the original game and they, rightfully, wanted to explore the new content. I made other friends and it was here that I truly became addicted. I’d be up all night, the moment my Step Dad went to bed I’d turn the Dreamcast on and then I’d be on all night, most of the time not even actually playing the game, just chatting in the lobbies, before sneaking upstairs when I knew my Mum’s alarm was about to go off. I started missing college due to lack of sleep and before long was on anti-depressants.

Other problems arose, I started to really enjoy spending time with one particular person on there, and yes it was a girl. She asked if she could phone me one day, so I gave her my number and she called and we spoke for an hour or so, and she made me promise that I’d not tell the rest of our group, thing was I knew she’d done this with almost everyone, and most of them spoke about it via the private messaging system. I happened to mention it to the wrong guy, who seemed to take on a role as her protector, and after that I was ostracised from the group as she got them to close ranks (and none of them admitted to her they’d also told each other about her phone calls). That was bad enough, and I struggled with it for ages, trying to get her to talk to me, either one to one (I wanted her attention and I wanted to apologise for breaking her trust) or with others around it didn’t really matter, but I begun to give up, and chat with a different group, mostly people from an American forum I was also a member of. Occasionally I’d see people who I knew were part of her clique appear in the same lobby, run past my character and then warp to another lobby. This went on for a while, then she would appear, hang round in the lobby, try and chat to the people I was talking to then disappear. I’d tried to say hi the first few times but received no reply and gave up, it was all a bit weird.

As time went on, and even when I eventually got Version 2, I grew tired of doing this routine and moved onto chat rooms and MSN Messenger on the PC instead, which is where I met my partner who I’m still with nearly 17 years later. We have three children together and now I look back on those moments and laugh both at myself and the behaviour of those around me within the game. I played other versions as they were released, the Gamecube one in splitscreen with my partner and the XBox version via XBox Live with a few people I was on a different forum with. I’d played the PC demo SEGA released around the time of Version 2 coming out, although that was mostly to get screenshots and the like to cut up for fan wallpapers I’d then stick on Deviantart or fansites, and ultimately I had a blast at Blue Burst when that came out but was reluctant to buy into SEGA’s subscription model at the time but have since dipped in and out of private servers such as SCHTHACK or Ephinea over the years, often having to restart when the mood takes me to give it a go again as my character would have been wiped due to inactivity.

I even once went through the convoluted process to play PSO2 on PC when that came out in Japan, but there was no translation file then and my PC wasn’t upto snuff for it anyway so I soon stopped playing, but now SEGA and Microsoft have announced PSO2 is to be released on PC and XBox One outside of Japan for the first time and I was genuinely excited, unfortunately there’s nothing on the cards regarding a European release at this time. But when there is I’ll definitely be there!

bitparade, Gaming

bitparade: NAMCO Museum: 50th Anniversary Collection (PlayStation 2)

Ten years ago, MAME was in its infancy, “retro” gaming wasn’t that big a deal, and Namco released its first ever arcade compilation. Back then, the idea seemed a great one for the small community of retro gamers that were around, the chance to play all their Namco arcade favourites on one home system was an instant draw, and Namco released six volumes of their arcade collection packs.

Being given the chance to wander around the virtual arcades and check out all the promotional material felt like we were stepping into a time machine and going back to the 70’s and 80’s. But then, MAME took off and it was possible for people to get their hands on thousand of classic arcade games, all run off of their PC’s.

Obviously, this isn’t the most legit route of playing classic games, so, you’d think Namco would take the approach of offering something over what you can get on MAME, just to warrant the price of buying their latest arcade collection (which have all appeared on their older arcade compilations). Something like developer interviews, making of features, unreleased games thats sort of thing, but instead all Namco have delivered is a collection of their most loved Arcade titles on a DVD with no extra’s.

Its not as though the same games aren’t available elsewhere, legitly, for a fraction of the price. Regarding the collection, few need any kind of introduction, which is a good sign at least. In the ‘classics’ camp, you’ve got some all-time must-haves in the shape of Pac-Man, Ms Pac Man, Galaxian, Galaga and Dig Dug. On the periphery, there’s the likes of Mappy, Bosconian, Rally-X, Sky Kid and Xevious, and a couple of reasonable unlockables like Galaga 88 and Pacmania, while the less impressive Pole Position, Pole Position 2, Dragon Spirit and Rolling Thunder help make up the numbers. A poor 16 titles compared to last years Taito Legends which featured a huge 29 games.

The 16 games that feature make this the largest Namco collection available, but, in many cases, its the worst of the lot. Digital Eclipse who compiled the collection seem to have done a rush job of the compilation, with nothing evident that celebrates Namco’s 50th Anniversary in any particular way. You cant help but think along the lines of “Why not include at least one game from each of those 50 years?”

The standard of the emulation here is pretty strong, although some of the games are really showing their age and others dont control too well. Rally-X, Pole Position and Pole Position 2 dont lend themselves to the Dual Shock to very well, leaving the controls feeling extremely twitchy, and the shooters tend to feel extremely slow and sluggish, and hardly exciting. Although, Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man are as fun as ever and are easily the highlights of the pack, often resulting in the famous “one more go” syndrome.

Overall then, Namco Museum 50th Anniversary is an underwhelming disappointment of a retro collection. Theres no bonus features, no real celebration and the controls on some of the games are downright poor. This is one retro collection to avoid.

Gaming

Videogame Literary Classics 101: Shadow of the Colossus

This article was written as part of community collaboration that is the brainchild of of Angie over at Backlog Crusader, The idea is that the gaming blog community each submit a treatise that focuses on a chosen game, that we the writer of our respective blogs, believe would stand up as a Classic that students should/could study in a videogame equivalent of a student studying English Literature or attending Film School. For my submission I have chosen the Team ICO/Sony Computer Entertainment of Japan game Shadow of the Colossus, the second game from director Fumito Ueda was originally released in 2005 on Sony’s PlayStation 2 but has also been re-released on PlayStation 3 alongside ICO in a HD collection and also on PlayStation 4 via a HD Remaster by Bluepoint Games.


 

https___blogs-images.forbes.com_mitchwallace_files_2018_02_SHADOW-OF-THE-COLOSSUS_20180129090953-1200x675

Shadow of the Colossus is the story of Wander, a boy who is in love with a girl called Mono. As the game begins he is entering the Forbidden Lands on the back of his horse Agro, his love is lying prone across the horse, presumed dead. After working his way towards and across a huge bridge, he enters a building and descends down its spiralled entrance, entering a large room at its base he places Mono’s body upon an altar and pleads to the Gods to return life to her. His pleas are answered by a disembodied voice, Dormin, who instructs him to hunt and defeat the 16 Colossi that inhabit these lands, and only once he has achieved this task and paid the price, will life be returned to the girl he loves. With those instructions, Wander climbs back onto Agro and heads off in search of the first Colossus.

Immediately Wander, whom the player controls throughout Shadow of the Colossus, becomes the “hero” in what on the surface is a game that relies heavily on the “Damsel in Distress” trope. The task at hand feels like alot of videogames out there, hero has to save the girl, however, as we soon begin to learn, Shadow of the Colossus’ hero has to sacrifice alot in order for his wishes to be fulfilled.

So, as Wander leaves the alter, climbs aboard Agro and trots along, the player is greeted by an open, but rather barren world. There’s no mini-map, although there is a map in the options, it does very little to actually help the player until they discover landmarks for themselves, and the only way to learn where to go is to make Wander lift his sword to the sun and listen to the high pitched humming noise, moving the pointer that appears on screen and waiting for a change in pitch and for the controller to vibrate and give the player a vague idea of the direction they need to go in. There’s no hand holding here, its literally the player and the environment that Ueda and his team have provided. You’re left with no idea of how far to travel nor of the obstacles that lay in your path.

We’ve not even gotten to the first Colossi yet and its apparent that Ueda is playing with the idea of what an open world game could be. By this point in the PlayStation 2’s lifespan (which, I should add, is nearing its end, in fact the XBox 360 would be released a month later) and have seen three large inhabited environments in the form of Rockstars Grand Theft Auto games. We just have the player character, one building and off in the far distance is a cliff wall, that once reached, Wander has to disembark from Agro and climb to find the first Colossi.


38043101335_db8d53849b_o.0

The biggest criticism that gets aimed at Shadow of the Colossus is that its “just a series of boss fights” with little in between, and whilst its difficult to disagree with this simplification of the events the player is put through, its also ignoring that its the entire point. Each Colossi is, in effect, its own level, that tasks the player with using a different skill each time. The core concept is still to climb the Colossi and find its weak spot in order to take it down, but its the journey the player goes on from their first encounter with each of these enormous beasts to discovering just how they can mount them in the first place. The first Colossi doesn’t attack Wander, and there are a few that don’t attack until Wander does so first, as an introduction to the concept of the game this creature is essentially a level from a platform game, as you jump and grapple your way from leg to leg, up his back to the glowing point on his head. He’ll try to shake you off, at which point you’ll be desperately monitoring that grip meter, but thats pretty much the entirety of the battle. Other Colossi require you to launch Wander from Agro’s back, coax the beast into diving at you from the skies, use your bow and arrow to rupture sacks of gas on its body and so on. Overall, each one is a wonderful piece of design, both aesthetically and as an almost believable creature in themselves, and the player is encouraged to mourn their deaths rather than celebrate as you would do so in any other game. There’s no Final Fantasy style victory fanfare, the music as the creatures fall is somber, then black tentacle like things spread from them and are absorbed by Wander’s body, visibly corrupting him as his kill count gets closer to target set him by Dormin.

As you get further and further into Shadow of the Colossus the player begins to question the motive and actions of Dormin and Wander, as the latter becomes more visibly corrupted, each Colossul battle becomes all the more challenging, not just from a gameplay perspective but from a moral one too. Wander’s grief is what drives him in, his need to revive Mono conquers all and his sacrifice becomes more than just the beasts he is slaying.  At one point Agro sacrifices himself in order to help Wander reach the sixteenth and final colossus in what is an incredibly moving moment within the game. Ueda, through the games visuals, story and music, tries to build a feeling of grief for the creatures as the human character lays waste to all before him for his selfish goal, manipulated by an unknown force who has been quarantined inside of the Colossi. They need Wander in order to be freed from the seal that has been placed upon them. Wander is ultimately overcome by this corruption and Dormin takes over his body to fight off men who have arrived to try and prevent the ritual being completed but is again sealed away, leaving only a baby boy behind in Wanders wake, Mono is revived, Agro didn’t pay the ultimate sacrifice after all, and the pair take the horned baby to the Secret Garden atop the monument that housed the altar Mono had been layed upon.


shadow-of-the-colossus-screen-03-ps4-us-25jan18

Because of Ueda’s minimal approach to the games design and story telling, Shadow of the Colossus is one of those games thats absolutely always dragged into the “are videogames art? debate, which I suppose this article is another attempt at opening that debate. As far as videogames go, its definitely a standout piece of work. But does it work as a piece of Literary Art? Let’s take this definition from the School of Arts Singapore website

Literary Arts is the integrative discipline of ideation, literary appreciation and multi-modal creative writing.

My interpretation of the above is that Literary Art is using creative writing, of a variety of disciplines to portray a central idea. That the artist, or in this case director, has a core message to portray to the person experiencing their work that the construct of that work is then built around.

So, what is Shadow of the Colossus’ theme? For me, there are a variety at work here, from the breakdown of the events of the game above, we already know that Wander is driven by his love for Mono and grief at her dying. If it weren’t for those very human and often very selfish emotions, Dormin wouldn’t be able to manipulate Wander to commit the atrocities that Dormin being freed (albeit for a short period of time) and Wander to be corrupted. It also feels like there is a message there about Mans effect on nature, we are driven by our base desires and anything that stands in our way is chewed up and spat out. It’s very cliche, but for a medium that is still arguably in its infancy and for a game that is very nearly 15 years old, its a concept thats handled maturely by its creator. There’s no heavy handed dialogue, in fact there’s very little dialogue to speak of, instead Ueda and his team use the multimedia nature of videogames to tell their story and portray their ideas and encourage the player to actually feel, at the very least, some sympathy for the elegant towering creatures that they are tasked with destroying.

That the game doesn’t bog the player down with videogame trappings such as waypoints and side quests, and even keeps the on-screen information available to player very minimal enables the player to become genuinely enveloped within this world, instead key pieces of music are used very carefully. The lack of ambient music at times, leaves the player with the natural (so to speak) noises of that environment.

Personally, I’m inclined not to compare videogames to other pieces of art or literature, purely because they should stand on their own as a medium, and I think Shadow of the Colossus is an excellent example of what can be achieved by a videogame as whilst there are cut-scenes, they’re almost kept to a minimum, whilst there is a story Ueda doesn’t try to tell too much of it

“For me, it’s not important to tell the details of the story,” he answered. “In Japan, there is a poet expression called a haiku [where] you don’t explain some things in detail and let the receivers understand or use their imagination with what is presented.

“That lets the receivers make their own story from their imagination, and I think this is also a good style of expression for video games – at this moment. In the future, someone may discover there’s another way to do narrative and tell stories through gaming, but at this moment I think this is a great way to tell stories.” – Fumito Ueda

This strikes me as being the words of an artist who is truly comfortable with his chosen medium, and whilst its easy to argue that Shadow of the Colossus barren lands and lack of distractions are ultimately a symptom of the limitations of the PlayStation 2 hardware (which even struggles with what is in the game at times), its also hard to see how the experience could be improved by including anything more. The appearances of the Colossi remain with the player because of how they fit within the world. We join in with a hobby where every release has to give you more than the last game you bought, Ueda circumvented this, through necessity as much as anything else, by giving you enough. Further releases that have appeared since its original PlayStation 2 outing have seen the inclusion of Trophies and a special sword, all of which encourage the player to explore the landscape more, which I feel kind of misses the point a little. By this I mean that Shadow of the Colossus did away with those trappings, yes there were the lizards and apples that you could collect which improved Wanders health and stamina but they were a totally optional extra that weren’t tracked until the player had already completed the game, its an unnecessary distraction that offers the player very little fanfare. The goal isnt to collect a whole load of stuff, the goal is to reflect on what Shadow of the Colossus is trying to discuss and that is, in my opinion, why nearly twenty years later gamers should be giving Ueda’s masterpiece a proper go.

 


 

 

 

bitparade, Gaming

bitparade: Magna Carta: Tears of Blood (PlayStation 2)

With the Final Fantasy series taking a little bit of a break, well we’re not going to see FFXII on these shores till at least the end of the year, other companies have decided to try and grab the RPG torch to highlight games that would otherwise get ignored for Square Enix’s popular series. In the years between the release of FFX and the coming release of FFXII we’ve seen series’ like Shadow Hearts and Shin Megami Tensei released in an attempt to put their own unique style to the genre. That is exactly what Magna Carta is here to attempt, and for the most part it does just that, with a compelling story, fairly interesting characters and a unique, complicated, yet fun battle system

Magna Carta: Tears of Blood takes place in a world called Efferia, a land where two different races, humans and Yason, are locked into a bitter battle for control of their land. The two species are pretty much the same, aside from the Yason having strange looking ears and are more in touch with the nature around them. During the game you control Calintz, a hot headed, permanently sarcastic teenage lad, who is the captain of a mercenary group known as the Tears of Blood. The game throws you into the story just as the humans launch a massive attack on the Yason in an attempt to end the war once and for all. The attack is foiled, the Tears of Blood retreat, Calintz is attacked and knocked out and then meets a strange girl with an enormous set of breasts known as Reith.

Unsurprisingly the two form an awkward romance that remains through out the story while you try to figure out who Reith is, where her powers came from, and how she help bring peace to Efferia (she too received a knock to the head and cant remember a thing). The story is full of mysteries and unexplained coincidences, but there are a lot of political points during the game too. The game features a bizarre yet interesting and well developed cast of characters that you will grow to love.

As is normal with a lot of RPG’s everything starts a little slow, despite you being thrown into the action for the first hour or so of game play, but thankfully there’s plenty going on throughout the game to hold your interest until the final credits roll, interestingly, the story doesn’t back off at all, with it taking on stronger subjects such as death and betrayal while throwing plenty of twists in your direction to keep you permanently interested.

At times the game feels very linear and restrictive, there’s not a lot of opportunity to stray off the path the developer has weaved into the story, there are a few side quests, but for the most part you’ll be walking along a narrow path to each destination that the story wishes you to visit. This is the games main downfall, as it feels like your being directed through the game but an unseen hand rather than embarking on a epic quest to bring peace to a war torn land.

A lot of the quests are basic RPG fare. Quite a few of them require you to travel to a town to gather information, only for you tog et there and discover the information you need is actually in another town. As is normal in RPG’s on your journey you will run into plenty of monsters that you can fight to earn experience points and level up your team, and like with the Grandia games, the creatures you get to fight appear on the map, allowing you to either avoid them, sneak up on them or let them attack you first. The battles aren’t random, which is one complaint permanently thrown at the genre despite a few titles not featuring random battles, and the creatures are set out at specific points, so if you return to an area, chances are, the same creature will be at that point, this however makes it difficult to power level your squad to make the game easier later on.

What’s interesting about the battles though is that the game uses a mechanic similar to the judgement wheel in Shadow Hearts: Covenant. Your allowed a party of three characters in a battle, but you only control one character at a time, if you want to line up other moves, you need to switch characters manually. To attack an enemy, you simply have to run up to an enemy until a Trinity Circle appears, taking you into a rhythm action style piece of game play to execute a move. If you hit the correct button at the right time you’ll receive the obligatory “good” or “great” rating. Do this with all 3 buttons and you will be able to attack. Miss the timing of any of the buttons and you’ll miss your attack,, miss your turn and will be forced to have to wait for another round. Getting “Great” on all three button presses will increase your trinity drive gauge, which is basically like a limit break or overdrive that boosts your attack. Also by achieving Great on the Trinity Wheel you can perceive new attacks for your characters to use. Only the X and Circle buttons are used during this technique however, so the combo’s are never too complex, and after a few goes, its extremely easy to get the timing down perfect so you always receive a Great rating.

The leadership gauge allows you to have the advantage in battles, the gauge is constantly filling up during battle while you stand still, once it reaches a certain point you can attack. This gauge is affected by how many enemies are in the battle, their overall strength and how much the members of your party trust you. If your controlling a character that doesn’t trust you for example, you’ll need a lot of leadership points just for them to attack. Obviously, this can mean a lot in battle, so its important to keep an eye on the gauge and your relationships with the other characters, as this one particular mechanic can be the difference between victory and defeat in battle. If you play your cards right, you can often get two or three attacks for every one the enemy gets to perform. To gain the trust of your allies, you simply have to talk to them and say things that gain their trust and friendship, or give them gifts, although material possessions only raise their trust in you for a short while, its very much like one of those dating sims that are so popular in Japan.

The battle modes attacks revolve around something called chi, there are eight different types of elemental chi, which you can replenish by using talismans. Every battlefield you fight in has specific elemental properties that you really need to pay attention to, because if the area your in doesn’t have a specific type of chi, you wont be able to use certain attacks. there are multiple fighting styles with different chi associations, allowing you to switch between different styles depending on the levels of chi in the area your in. A lot there is a problem with the Chi system, and that is in the fact the icons used to represent each element aren’t very intuitive. It takes a while to memorize what each letter stands for.

During the whole time your in Efferia you’ll be treated to plenty of nice sights. At first glance, you could quite easily mistake this for a Final Fantasy title, as the visual style is very similar to that in Final Fantasy X. The lush vegetation and structures all share the same look, although there’s a bit of a quick change that suddenly happens when switching between new areas, as movement between different areas takes place on a map rather than in the world created for you. The characters are all highly detailed and the battle animations look great. What is fun to note is that a lot of the men have that feminine look that is apparent in a lot of Eastern RPGs while the women all look a bit like Porn stars. The only visual problem with the game is in its fixed camera angles, sometimes during battle you can’t even see your own characters.

Unfortunately, the sound in Magna Carta doesn’t live up to the standards set by the rest of the game, the voice overs are delivered without any feeling behind them, leaving the characters seeming a little wooden and lifeless. The games title song is awful, sounding like a B-Side from one of Celine Dion’s backup singers. The sound effects throughout the game don’t have the solid, polished execution that we’ve all come to expect from RPGs. The only thing going for the sound within the game is the music (not including the title theme) is fairly well done, there’s plenty of orchestral themes and choral chants thrown in to give the experience a little sound based depth.

If your looking for an RPG to fill the gap until the next Final Fantasy game comes out, the Magna Carta: Tears of Blood isn’t a bad choice, its probably not the best to go for, but thanks to some really nice visuals, a intriguing plot and some interesting characters, its easy to lose yourself to the game. The story is definitely the games strong point, although it would of been nice if Efferia had of been fleshed out a bit more.

Books

Tales from the Border – Andrew Sztehlo

Andrew Sztehlo’s “Tales from the Border” is unlike any comic I’ve ever read before. Admittedly that’s not saying a whole lot as my comic book knowledge isn’t the most in depth and its such a huge medium anyway that most of us have barely scratched the surface of whats out there. The book harkens back to an era where authors would write short or serialised stories for genre based publications like Science Fiction Quarterly or Tales from the Crypt. However whilst publications such as those would collect together works from different creators, “Tales from the Border” is predominantly the work of Sztehlo, although he does borrow here and there.

Sztehlo borrows from Emily Bronte and Oscar Wilde at times to put words to his monochrome illustrations, however its not the text that push the majority of these stories along but his monochrome work really drives home the tales he is trying to tell. The form of the book, which is larger than a standard comic book, and the often full page images make you study every single line and shadow, and every crack and wrinkle of his characters faces. There’s been an effort here not to tale the tales of people, but of the worlds that they live in, which Sztehlo acknowledges in his closing comments.

He’s also not afraid to bring in his own experiences, there’s a lovely tale of the love he shares with his father for Nick Cave and the Bad Seed’s and how his appreciation for Cave’s work has evolved over time alongside his understanding of the music and lyrics. Music plays a key part in this first issue of Tales from the Border, as not only are we treated to the above personalised story, but Sztehlo also lists the songs that helped him create this issue and not only does Nick Cave make an appearance there too but we also are introduced to legendary Blues performer Robert Johnson, firstly by the track “Love in Vain” appearing in said track list but also by the inclusion of a story from a moment in ?Johnson’s life that gives an insight into the particular song listed in the opening pages but also the mind of a man who has loved and lost and has to battle his inner demons, it certainly makes a chance from yet another retelling of Johnson visiting the crossroads to sell his soul to the devil and gives the man a little more humanity, albeit that of a tortured soul.

Whilst reading this issue of Tales from the Border I couldn’t help thinking that my reading environment wasn’t a suitable setting for these stories. Instead of a room lit by daylight, albeit a rather grey and wet day, slouched on my sofa with a mug of coffee to hand, the tales being told here somehow feel better suited to a high-backed chair in a dark room lit only by a roaring fire, the night time wind and rain battering the windows whilst the reader nurses a double whisky and I think that should tell you everything you need to know about Andrew Sztehlo’s “Tales from the Border”.

To see more of Andrew Sztehlo’s work you can find his blog at Tales from the Border and you can buy a copy of Tales from the Border #1 from his Etsy page.

Gaming

#ThrowBackThursday Panzer Dragoon Orta

Back when I first bought my original XBox, sometime in 2003, there were two games I wanted for it more than any others, the first was Jet Set Radio Future, the other was Panzer Dragoon Orta. I’d only ever played a tiny little bit of the original Panzer Dragoon on the Saturn (it may have even been Zwei) and I barely remember any of what I played, but the feeling of riding a dragon and shooting stuff out of the sky stayed with me, as did the games visual design, in particular that of the dragons which (apart from the wings and tail) don’t really look anything like what you or I would describe if asked what a dragon looked like.

The XBox was the second of that generations consoles that I owned, I got a Gamecube of my own a little later when everywhere was selling it off really cheap, and whilst most people bought the system for Halo, I was interested in SEGA’s output coming off the back of the Dreamcast bombing. With titles like the two already mentioned, plus SEGA GT and Crazy Taxi 3, Microsofts (then) humongous console felt like the perfect console for me. That it later got other key SEGA games was further proof of that.

Onto Panzer Dragoon Orta though, as mentioned, I’d had a very brief play of a previous title in the series and knew of the rarity of SEGA’s RPG entry into the series. I’d also played alot of Rez via the PS2 version (because the Dreamcast version was hard to get for someone who’d recently left a big city and moved to a medium sized town). All that magazines were saying how stunning it was visually, so after being payed one day, I left work out the back door and headed to the independent games shop that was on the road behind the shop I worked in at the time. Handed over my cash and walked out with a very heavy bag containing an XBox, Jet Set Radio Future and Panzer Dragoon Orta.

I played the latter through until completion and loved it at the time, but never really returned to it. That is until SEGA unveiled they were remastering the original Panzer Dragoon for Switch at this years E3. I checked the XBox One backwards compatability list, saw that Orta would work on my One S and got the ladders out to go search the loft and soon came down with my copy.

Straight away I’m genuinely blown away by just how good it looks, it was a looker at the time and I was expecting it to have aged a little in that time but it really has stood up to the test of time. Okay, its not of the quality of a AAA game released today but its still a stunning looking game. Which it doesn’t have any rights to be. Panzer Dragoon Orta was released between December 2002 and March 2003 depending upon where in the world you live. Thats roughly the same time frame as Devil May Cry 2 and The Getaway were released on PlayStation 2 which haven’t aged well at all, and whilst yes, I understand the XBox was more powerful than the PlayStation 2, there’s a certain level of fidelity, not to mention design choices, that really make Panzer Dragoon Orta really stand out.

It’s not worth much if it only looks good though, so thankfully Smilebit knocked it out of the park with the gameplay too. What we have here is an on-rails shooter, like Rez, Afterburner, Space Harrier and Lylat Wars. You follow a pre-determined route and move the player character, in this case the titular Orta riding a dragon who breaks her out of prison cell, around the screen, dodging parts of the environment and enemy fire whilst unleashing plasmoid hell on anything that gets in your way. You can move the camera through four different viewpoints (forwards, backwards and each side) much like in Rez and have a few different attacks available to you.

One thing is for certain, its not as easy as Rez. The two share alot of similarities, but Mizuguhi’s shooter is very definetly about the combined experience of the visuals and creation of music. Panzer Dragoon Orta is very old-skool in its styling, a near perfect evolution of some of those 80’s arcade games that have become synonymous with the SEGA name and thus its aged incredibly well as a game, the visuals just add to that.

bitparade, Gaming

bitparade: Madden 07 (PlayStation 2)

I’m not a follower of the NFL, I don’t really know anyone who is. I’ve never really understood the sport, to me its always been a bit of a “Rugby with padding” that so many British people stereotype it as. However, after playing Madden 07, my opinion has changed, I’m still not a fan but I now understand that its not a “Rugby with padding”, its more based on tactics than anything else. Player movements, feints, distractions and strength. It’s all about getting that one player in enough open space for him to receive the ball and run for the end zone, still, I dont understand why they call it football.

EA are “infamous” for releasing the “same title every year with only changes to the squad line-ups/rosters” while that may have been true in the past, in more recent releases, although still yearly and still featuring squad updates, they’ve tried adding new features to each of their sports titles, in the hope that something may work and the general gaming public wont shoe horn their latest release into the same old box.

I’m not aware of past Madden’s attempts to revolutionise itself, but I feel, this is definitely a game that will reward those who play it, especially those who dont even know what the sport is all about. I took on the Superstar mode and immediately the team I was rostered into were performing well, and my Superstar was getting some good recognition, and that was on the medium setting.

Some of the controls are a bit awkward, especially when defending, and half the time its actually easier to leave the defending to the computer AI while you get the hang of whats going on around you. Attacking is easier, something you’d expect from an American sport, with you basically taking control of spotting whos in the best position, pressing the relevant button to throw it to them and then running for your life as god knows how many men chase you down.

Not knowing much about the sport, I can’t really go in depth, but for someone whos only real interest in sports games is the odd game of Pro Evolution Soccer to get some enjoyment out of a game featuring a sport thats never interested him, I feel this has to be good..

Books, Gaming

OPM

No not the LA one-hit wonders who shat out Heaven is a Half-Pipe, I’m talking Official PlayStation Magazine UK. Back in the mid to late Nineties gamers were spoilt for choice when it came to magazines. Not only was it our only way of consistently getting news and reviews to feed our appetites for gaming, but the official magazine for Sony’s console came with a demo disc glued to the front/in its bag, something that home computer/PC gamers had been getting for years.

As a young teen with very little in the way of pocket money, (I’d get £1 a week from my Dad which I’d normally spend on sweets) I relied on my mum buying me magazines when I’d visit her and there were a few I’d pick up, C&VG was one, PlayStation World (PSW) was another (mostly as it was huge and they kept lists in the back pages of top ten games in different genres) and Official PlayStation Magazine, which was the priciest at a fiver, was the last. This was how I’d keep up with what games I knew I’d have to plead for when she took us into town once a month or I’d get for birthdays and Christmases.

They were always a great talking point with the small selection of friends I’ve regularly alluded to, but it was after reading this article that I decided to write about the magazine in more depth.

See, now I get that it was nothing more than an expensive advert for all things PlayStation and that scores were given to certain games that they didn’t always deserve. But back then? I wouldn’t even have considered it, it felt too grown up for that, that was something that I’d expect of trash like GamesMaster. which regardless of how much UK gamers had loved the TV show, the magazine by this point in time had become trash aimed at kids, and as a 13/14/15 year old I definitely wasn’t a kid! So PTSE lessons were mostly myself and my only gamer friend in my tutor group scanning through the magazine, checking out the screenshots and me making a mental note of what game I wanted to pick up next, I knew I’d have to wait a few months to get the absolute latest releases as I’d always pick them up second hand from GameStation, but that was fine. Lunch breaks were a mixture of football, usually one man knockout, which I’d normally be eliminated from within a few rounds so I’d sit by the goal (which in hindsight wasn’t the most sensible thing to do) and scan through the magazine some more, all the while waiting to for the end of the day when I could go round a friends house to play on their PlayStation or on the days I’d go to my Mums (every Tuesday and weekend) to play on the PlayStation I had there. It wasn’t until I was 15 I had one of my own at home!

I remember taking the Resident Evil 2 cover disc round to my older brothers place and us taking it in turns to get as far as we could within the demo’s time limit. Seeing the Licker for the first time was reminiscent to rounding the corner prior to seeing your first zombie in the original game. I’ve never really gotten on with the series as a whole, only ever finishing Resident Evil 4 (PS2 version) but both that zombie from Resident Evil and the Licker in the Resident Evil 2 demo have always stuck with me. I’ve already spoken of how obsessive I was of the Metal Gear Solid demo prior to playing the full game, but another demo I played to death was Tony Hawks Pro Skater 2.

Like the GamesIndustry.biz article talks about the Dave Mirra demo, the THPS2 demo was a major awakening for me. I could probably name three games that shaped my early footsteps when finding my own taste in music and they’d be Gran Turismo, Crazy Taxi and Tony Hawks Pro Skater 2. On the latter it was initially via a demo, but I played it so much I just had to have it as soon as possible. The demo featured the Marseille skate park and I think allowed you to play a Tony Hawk or Chad Muska, I always chose chad and absolutely rinsed that demo, often getting into pass the pad score attacks with a friends younger brother.

Tony Hawks 2 must have been one of the first games I bought with my own hard-earned money as it came out in September 2000 and I definitely remembering owning it before I dropped out of art college and then moving in with my Mum which was early 2001 I believe (as I re-enrolled into college on a different course but dropped out due to poor mental health later that same year) and like the demo before it, I played the full game to death, taking it back and forth between my Dads house when I was living there and my Mums when I was visiting her and to friends’ houses, always taking my memory card with me and challenging them to games of HORSE. It was one of the few games I could consistently beat most challengers at so I tried to make sure we always got a session in when playing multiplayer games.

Gaming

#ThrowBackThursday: Rally-X

When we were kids my family would go on holiday to Jersey in the Channel Islands every summer. Obviously I’ve got loads of memories of those times (pretty sure they’re all from between the ages of 6 and 10, well, apart from one of them), standing on the sea wall with my Uncles as a storm raged and waves were crashing right at our feet (not sure why they thought me being there was a good idea), seeing a copy of The Beast of Jersey and its cover terrifying me to the point that I wouldn’t go to bed until my Aunt went up (her room was next door to the one my Dad shared with my sister and I, there was a listening service available so my Dad could check in on us), some strong winds the made my sister and I look like we’d jumped out of an aeroplane in our shellsuits (this was the early nineties). There’s loads of others, but the one that’s relevant to this blog is the little side room in the hotel.

The reason we would go on this particular holiday was because my Aunt and Uncle were friends with the woman who owned the hotel, we called her Auntie Joyce but she wasn’t a real Aunt. Anyway, this friendship (plus my Aunt helping my Dad out with our plane tickets) meant we could go on holiday every year despite my Dad being a single parent (we went when my parents were together still but I only have on memory of that time, which I alluded to above, and that was when I fell on a climbing frame and cracked my head open, resulting in me visiting the hospital). So, this side room was, predominantly, a storage room for extra chairs. But it did have a cocktail cabinet of the NAMCO game Rally-X.

For those that don’t know, a cocktail cabinet is an arcade cab thats set into a table rather than you standing at it. You and another person sit on either side of the table and the controls are built into the side with the screen facing up. Rally-X was a kind of maze based racing game. In single player you had to avoid the AI cars that would pursue you as you raced around the maze to collect flags. In two player mode you would have to race your opponent to get the most flags. As we arrived at the hotel Auntie Joyce would give my sister and a big bag of 10p’s each. My sister would spend the week frittering hers away in the sweet shop across the road. I would basically pump them all back into the Rally-X machine, sometimes even paying for my sister to accompany me (aren’t I generous!?) with one of us either side of the cabinet and our Panda Pop’s sat on top.