#throwbackthursday, Final Fantasy, Final Fantasy IX, Gaming

#ThrowbackThursday Final Fantasy IX playthrough part 22

Previously, Zidane entered a Tetra Master tournament and Eiko there might be something terrible happening back in Alexandria.

Sure enough, Eiko’s Moogle friend was absolutely right. Kuja has re-appeared and he plans to use the distraction of Garnets ascension to the throne to unleash Bahamut on the kingdom. The great dragon appears from the skies and immediately attacks. Steiner and Beatrix have gathered the Alexandrian forces and it’s up to Garnet to give the Knights of Pluto their orders.

images (1)

Blutzen & Kuhel are told to gather information, Weimar and Haugen are to protect to the townspeople, contacting Lindblum to ask for aid is down to Briereicht and Laudo whilst Dojebon Mullenkedheim are to prepare the cannons. Beatrix then gifts Garnet with a pair of Angel Earrings as reward for her ability to command. As the General and Steiner leave her she says aloud that she wishes her mother was there to help her. A light flashes before her and she suddenly collapses.

Steiner and Beatrix charge through the streets, taking on any foes that get in their way. Despite being wounded Steiner vows to keep fighting, for Garnet, for Alexandria and for Beatrix. He tries to tell her his feelings, but before he can finish his sentence she tells him to save it for later as they will fight to see another day.

images (3)

Back in the castle, Dagger awakens to the sound of music. It sounds like it’s coming from the upper floors and whilst looking for it she eventually finds her way to an external balcony with stone soldiers blocking her way from retreating, though Dagger doesn’t recognise this part of the castle. After she swears not to re3ly on others any more and to server her kingdom we cut to Zidane and the others aboard the Hilda Garde 2.

The ship is struggling and Zidane is worried that it could crash at any moment, Cid thinks it should hold out long enough for them to reach Alexandria. Vivi begins to feel airsick and heads inside to lie down, though as he does so he notices Eiko’s pendant spark, then there’s an explosion that knocks everyone off of their feet. Eiko thinks she head Dagger voice and wonders if the light coming from her pendant is the “Holy Judgement”.

images (2)

She jumps from the bow of the ship and the light from her pendant pulls her towards Dagger who is on the battlements of the castle, her pendant is also glowing. When the two join, she tells Eiko that she heard the young summoners voice too. Eiko tells her that it’s the “Light of Destiny” which appears from the four stones of the Crystalling, they glow when a holy eidolon is calling for its summoner. The two then pray together and through their combined effort Alexander is summoned to protect the kingdom from Bahamut.

Seeing this from the town square Kuja summons his ship, the Invincible, and seems to be planning to capture Alexander.

However, seemingly onboard the Invincible is an unknown man, he is displeased with Kuja, saying he’s gone too far and that he’s been granted too much freedom to do what he wanted on Gaia, though now he will no longer tolerate his actions and plans to show Kujha (and Zidane) just who they are meddling with.

Advertisement
bitparade, Gaming

bitparade: Persona 4: Dancing All Night (Vita)

We’ve waited a while for this. Okay, so since its original PlayStation 2 release back in 2009 (for Europe) we’ve received a re-release (P4 Golden on Vita), 2 fighting games and the Persona 3/Persona 4 dungeon crawler crossover Persona Q, but this one, Persona 4: Dancing All Night, has always felt like its a little further away from release than we’d like. Well, not any more as its out now, but does it live up to that wait?

Well, um, kinda. Persona 4 fans will get a kick out of seeing their favourite characters again, but unfortunately it still feels like a bit of a let down and this is down to a handful of reasons. But first we’ll start off with how the game plays. If you didn’t already know, Dancing All Night has removed almost all signs of its JRPG roots, instead the focus here is placed squarely on Shoji Meguro’s excellent soundtrack, its probably the praise the soundtrack received that led to the games development and after nigh on 90 hours with Persona 4 Golden I can hardly blame them. The jist here is that another shadow realm has opened up, and something within is once again playing upon peoples insecurities, however fighting doesn’t doesn’t do any harm in this realm, dubbed the Midnight Stage by the cast, instead we take a jump into Rise’s world and the cast have to dance their way to uncover the mystery put before the reformed Investigation Team.

This is all played out in a similar manner to the Story mode that accompanied both Arena games, and it can feel a little text heavy, with characters often repeating what’s been happening a number of times before the action moves on and you’re thrown into the actual gameplay. Said gameplay revolves hitting the directional and face buttons in time with the music, matching the required input at exactly the right time to get a variety of ratings dependent upon accuracy. There are also icons that require you to flick one of the Vita’s analogue sticks, these aren’t essential but do increase your combo and allow you to launch Fever mode, which all adds up to increasing your score at the end of the round. None of the tracks are particularly difficult on the games Normal difficulty setting, even for someone with very little rhythm such as myself, although they cam get punishingly difficult when played in the games solo mode when you increase that difficulty.

Unfortunately, the game doesn’t really do Meguro’s excellent soundtrack justice, a lot of them are remixes of the tracks you know and love from Persona 4 but they just don’t really seem to translate well to this kind of game. The lack of visual input does little to help matters either, the performances of Yosuke, Teddy, Rise and co aren’t affected by how well you’re doing, so aside from a small UI element at the top of the screen, theres very little to indicate when your performance is going down the toilet other than seeing the �Miss� text pop up whenever you miss an input.

It’s nice and all seeing the gang back together, as a fan of the series that was enough for me to get something from the game, its one of those casts of characters that are just enjoyable to spend time with, and the writing for their relationships is almost as good as it ever was (although the overall level of writing, much like with the Arena games, isn’t at as high a standard as it has been with the RPG releases, in fact Teddy, once again, suffers most here), its just unfortunate that Persona 4: Dancing All Night feels exactly like the fan service product that I hoped it wouldn’t be.

#throwbackthursday, Final Fantasy, Final Fantasy IX, Gaming

#ThrowbackThursday – Final Fantasy IX playthrough part 21

When we picked things up last week there was a lot of moodiness in the camp, Zidane was failing at trying to hide his feelings about Garnet from the rest of the party whilst Eiko was upset that Zidane’s feelings were so strong, Garnet herself seemed to be suppressing her feelings too. But as my update closed, Doctor Tot had shown an interest in Eiko’s past, whilst Zidane wanted to head to Treno to enter the card tournament that was taking place.

In Treno Eiko enlists Vivi to show her around as it’s her first time visiting the city, Freya and Amarant also go off to do their own things, and Doctor Tot reminds Zidane that today is the last day that he can register for the card tournament.

Whilst they look around, Eiko attempts to fill Vivi in on the relationship between Zidane and Garnet, she labels them as stupid for not realising that they both like each other, though she seems to mostly blame Zidane for this, suggesting that he tries to act cool all the time, which then leads to him and Garnet arguing. She then runs off to look at the hall that the card tournament will be taking place inside and Vivi bumps into somebody from the airship he rode into Alexandria at the very start of the game. The man prompts him to go home and see his family, Vivi tells him his Grandpa has gone but decides to go anyway.

Before entering the card tournament Zidane leaves Treno to visit the nearby village of Dali, I manage to obtain the Mayors Key by searching his house, being cautious not to wake the boy on the couch. Once I have the key I head out to the Chocobo pen and discover 30,000 Gil and some Burman Coffee. Unfortunately, after checking my Key Items, I only seem to have two of the three coffee’s that the old man at the observation tower wanted me to collect.

Zidane heads back to Treno and visits Queen Stella to hand in the Stellazzio’s that I have thus far. Scorpio nets me 1000 Gil, Libra a Phoenix Pinion, Virgo 2000 Gil, Gemini a Blood Sword and Aries 5000 Gil.

It’s only after doing these things that I head to the card hall, I speak to the card seller in order to register, they tell me I have to win two games before I can face the champion. After a bit of prodding, he tells Zidane that the champion is a “cutie in a sailors uniform”. I don’t really remember much of this part of the game from my previous playthrough nearly twenty years ago so I’m wondering if this is some kind of set up, particularly as up until now Zidane has seen himself as a bit of a ladies man. As soon as I enter the card hall my first game begins against Attic Man Waker, which I win 6-4 and get a Nymph card, which I already have in my collection but was the best of the options available to choose from.

A couple of ATE’s play out after the first round. In the first Vivi makes his way home through the Ice Cavern, he hasn’t been home in a long time. In the second Freya bumps into Amarant outside the auction house, the two discuss Kuja. There have been rumours that he has been seen here (which we already know to be true). Amarant reveals he’s met Zidane once before, though he doesn’t think Zidane remembers.

Amarant was once a security guard at the mansion that sits alongside the auction house, he spent most days looking for someone to have a fight with, didn’t care who, he just wanted a fight. Anyway, one day, Zidane had gotten into the mansion and stolen something and during his escape had run into Amarant. The other guards hadn’t seen what the thief looked like and Zidane managed to frame Amarant for the deed before getting away.

Back at the card hall, Zidane’s second opponent is ready and is called Cardona Bishop. Again, I win first time, 7-3, and claim his Carrion Worm card, which is a new addition to my deck.

More ATE allow us to spend time with Quina, who’s wandering around Treno in search of food, as ever. They’re most put off that they need Gil in order to eat. S/he looks at the water beneath the bridge they’re standing on and wonders if there are any fish down below then just jumps in.

Next, we see Eiko visit Doctor Tot in his observation town. She begins to tell him about Mandan Sari, she tells him that the rest of the people there are all gone and that she’s been living with the Moogles since. She asks why everyone wants to know about her horn and the eidolons. He tells her that he’s a researcher and he’s just curious. She remembers that he was once Daggers teacher and asks him to teach her to be a “graceful princess”. She reveals to him that she exchanged crystals with Dagger, though she calls them her “mark of the princess”.

Doctor Tot tells her about the Crystalling, he says that he was once one crystal but was divided, one piece remained in Alexandria, whilst the rest we sent to Cleyra, Lindblum and Madain Sari with the summoner tribe. He soon becomes lost in thought, wondering what happened 500 years ago that warranted the crystal being broken up, when he comes around Eiko rushes off, she thinks Mog is in trouble.

Time for the final round in the card tournament. As Zidane enters the hall, Regent Cid approaches the card seller to register, he’s accompanying the champion, or so that’s what the organisers are to believe (they think he’s the champions pet as he’s still an oglop).

I pull out my best cards, which in honesty aren’t all that great, the coin tolls state I go first. I hate going first and always feel more confident when on the offence. We draw the match so must go again.

Second time around, the champion goes first, but I win this one 7-3 like I did in the second round, the champion had used all Oglop cards, so that’s another new card type for my deck. Zidane’s also rewarded with a Rebirth Ring.

After the game, the champion introduces herself as Erin, she’s actually an airship pilot from Lindblum. It seems that she and Cid were in Treno for more than just the card tournament, they’d also been testing their new airship, the Hilda Garde 2, which doesn’t require Mist to fly. Cid says its a little slow, but they made it to Treno, he felt he must test it as he had a feeling that trouble was just around the corner.

Eiko soon interrupts the conversation though, she’s clearly in distressed, a Moogle from Treno has told her that something bad is happening in Alexandria.

Books, Close Encounters Book Club

We3 – Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely

This month’s Books WITH Pictures pick was We3 by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely through Vertigo. It’s a book I’ll honestly admit I’ve never even heard of so my expectations going in were all over the place, especially as I flicked through it on the bus home before I sat down to read through it properly.

First off, its not a very long book and there’s not a lot of text to absorb, instead Morrison provides the script to allow Quitely’s art to tell the story. A picture tells a thousand words and all that. That tale is one of three animals, a dog, a cat and a rabbit, that have been given cybernetic suits of armour that turn them into military weapons. After a senator visits the research facility that holds them and reveals to the staff there that the future for creatures is to have them decommissioned, one of the scientists (who happens to have closer bonds to animals than she does humans) engineers their escape and what follows is an ultra-violent version of Homeward Bound.

I mean there is dialogue, the humans obviously talk and the three animals have some very basic speech thanks to implants (the dog, referred to as 1, uses behaviour based commands that you and I would use to interact with him if he were our pet, so he responds to things like “good dog” and “home”), and its this sparse use of dialogue that really drives home the emotional aspect of the book, especially when 2 (the cat) asks “?HOME IS?” and 1 responds “HOME? IS RUN NO MORE”. This is driven home by the use of the original 3 issue run using Lost Pet posters as each of the three covers, all of which are replicated at the proper interval here, giving the 3 companions they’re true names whilst giving weight to the senators command that future projects will need to use animals specially bred for such purpose, so not only is “Bandit” (1, the dog) looking for a home, he already had one, as did  “Tinker” (2, the cat) and “Pirate” (3, the rabbit).

It’s not just the art itself that tells the story, throughout they use panels intelligently, this is most notable, in my opinion, in two particular sequences. The first is a 4 page series of panels where, rather than use the standard 9-panel format, the duo cram 12 panels onto each page, showing a variety of CCTV images that reveal the means of “Weapon 3″‘s escape. In another moment Tinker is on the offensive (and when that cat begins an attack there’s definitely only ever going to be one outcome, it’s one bad kitty) and the panels skew and contort giving the impression of a flicker book. There are other moments throughout that really play with the medium in this way and gives the action the kinetic energy that I’ve not often seen in western comics but certainly know from Manga (especially Shonen Manga). This point also applies to the level of gore on show, which at times reaches similar levels to that of Akira.

We3, as a whole, is something I’ve had to really think on, I’ve actually now read it twice and will probably read it again as I think the work that Quitely has put into the action element of the book is more likely to stand out as I return to it again and again and it’s for that reason I think I’d say I enjoyed it. The story itself is, I think, fairly easy to get to grips with and as I’ve mentioned, its hardly dialogue-heavy, but its definitely worth a go.

 

bitparade, Gaming

bitparade: Dungeon Travellers 2: The Royal Library and the Monster Seal (Vita)

It’s becoming a bit of a habit to discuss the visual appearance of many of the games that we cover on Vita, in fact it often feels like that despite its portable nature the Vita isn’t a system you’d want to be seen in public with. Which is a huge shame, its a disappointment that developers fill their games with fan service in order to appeal to the lowest common denominator (both in their home nation and here) just so they can share a few units. It’s led to many enjoyable titles looking rather homogenised with every game featuring the same cookie cutter characters, and unfortunately Dungeon Travellers 2: The Royal Library and the Monster Seal is no different. Its full of female characters that fit all of the stereotypes that have become apparent in Japanese RPG’s and anime over the past decade or so, and with you playing the only male character it soon becomes apparent where the games focus will go as its attempts to build relationships between the characters.

With all of that out of the way, and that is indeed this games, and many others available on this system, weakest point, lets head on to the game itself. Again, its hard to ignore that we have another first person dungeon crawler on our hands here, which whilst an enjoyable genre in its own right, has also become over-saturated on the handheld systems.

Where Dungeon Travellers 2 differs from other games of its ilk is that it doesn’t appear to want to punish you with a solid wall that comes completely out of the blue, it eases the player in with dungeons that gradually become larger with slightly more difficult enemies and whilst it still challenges you and you may feel like stepping back to grind a lower dungeon for a while, it never really makes you feel completely out of your depth. Although it does take an absolute age to explain any and all of its different options and setups. The most interesting of which kind of encourages you to grind. Whenever you battle your party will effectively absorb the creatures you have defeated, once you have absorbed enough of one type of monster you will then be able to create a Seal Book for one member of your party to equip, these Seal Books will either offer a stats boost or some buffing element. They can also have a negative effect on party members too which you can use to your advantage if you understand how.

The battle system takes place over two rows, encouraging you to place weaker characters at the back and change formation depending upon the need for ranged characters, it all feels a little more inclusiv e and on the fly than other titles in the genre. Magic attacks often have to be charged, thus balancing out just how strong they are, they can also be interupted if the charging character is attacked before they can cast their spell, encouraging you to close ranks and defend that party member. Its for this reason that Dungeon Travelers 2 feels really well balanced as enemies dont tend to be extremely difficult just on a stats level if you build and use your party effectively, something thats been sorely missing from a lot of RPG’s for some time now.

In conslusion then, Dungeon Travelers 2: The Royal Library and the Monster Seal suffers from many of the tropes that have really heavily infected the genre over the past few years, its unfair to punish this one title because of that, but by the same token it manages to re-introduce an enjoyable battle system and further entries into the genre ought to take heed of what it does do right. Its just a huge shame that its rather heavily weighed down in over-explanation, lengthy (and unamusing) dialogue and fan service.

Final Fantasy, Gaming

The Ceremony of Eternal Bonding

A couple of weeks ago, I happened upon the Twitch streamer AmiPlays, it was literally a link to her stream that had appeared on my Twitter time line. I’m not one for watching streams usually, I’ve given the whole thing a go myself but, well, I’m just not very good at talking. Anyway, like I said, I’m not one for watching streams, but Ami seemed to have a decent size number of followers and her regular community seemed welcoming and friendly, they also all happen to play Final Fantasy XIV, I joined her Discord server shortly afterwards and found the same sense of community there too.

Shortly after joining, one of the channels moderators, Simpika asked if anyone wanted to be invited to her Ceremony of Eternal Bonding that was to take place on 10th January 2020. I asked if they minded if I came along and they were happy to oblige despite me being a newcomer to the group.

For those that don’t know, Eternal Bonding is Final Fantasy XIV’s answer to getting married. For a fee, two players can unite their characters, they have a ceremony they can invite their friends to and also receive special commemorative items.

 

This particular wedding was between Sim Pika and K’linh Tia, both of the Free Company Rainbows & Sunshine on Moogle server. It was to take place at 9pm on 10.1.2020 at the Sanctum of the Twelve in the East Shroud.

Whilst awaiting the couple’s arrival and the beginning of the ceremony the guests all gathered outside the Sanctum of the Twelve, all showing off the gear, glamours and hairstyles we’d picked out for the occassion. I’d cut my characters hair into a very short style and paired it with a purple Best Man’s Jacket and black Ishgardian Thigh Boots. Many of us showed off our various mounts and there was much messing about when a large number of us summoned our Fat Chocobo mounts, including attempting to race them and getting them to hop at the same time.

Once the alotted time had arrived, we spoke to Etoinelle, whom allowed us into the venue itself.

Once everyone had rushed around choosing their seats (with Ami conducting things via her stream to try and get the guests seated dependent upon whom they were invited by, though I think tradition was broken by having the bride’s guests on the right side and the grooms on the left), the ceremony begun, lead by a Moogle who read out the ceremonial texts. As the ceremony progressed we were treated to a number of cut-scenes featuring the couple, including exchanging rings, before they both sprouted wings and took to the air to embrace and kiss each other. Even not knowing either party and being a new member of the community it was a really nice service.

Once the ceremony inside the church had finished we were again treated to a cut-scene of the couple, mounted on a white Chocobo, and once that had finished, we free to do what we wanted, most of us tried to chase the couple around the grounds of the Sanctum of the Twelve for a while before deciding, via chatting in Ami’s stream, that the best way to celebrate would be to teleport to Costa Del Sol for a spot of skinny dipping in the sea.

#throwbackthursday, Final Fantasy, Final Fantasy IX, Gaming

#ThrowbackThursday Final Fantasy IX playthrough part 20

I took a week off last week, I just didn’t get much opportunity to actually play and didn’t want to just upload a couple of hundred words. So, two weeks ago, we were in Alexandria, awaiting Princess Garnet’s coronation, though none of the gang had spoken to her since she had arrived back home, well other than those that were also in her employ such as Doctor Tot, Steiner and Beatrix. The others had decided they should go and visit her though, and that’s where we left things.

Zidane, Vivi, Amarant and Freya all arrive at the Castle docks and explore the grounds. We use the Neptune statue to go to the harbour, though there’s currently nothing to see, the Alexandrian soldier on guard there tells Zidane that the Ruby Rose can’t fly now due to there being no Mist. Everything else on the castle grounds is locked down. Before we enter the castle itself, we come across Steiner manhandling Eiko, he threatens to throw her into the dungeons, but Zidane intervenes. Steiner hasn’t met Eiko before, nor has Freya, and whilst Eiko is introducing herself to the dragon knight Steiner loses his rag. He’s definitely not pleased to see them all, well, apart from Vivi that is, who explains why they’re all at the castle. Steiner agrees to arrange a meeting, purely because it was at Vivi’s request.

Steiner tells the group to wait at the foot of the stairs and trots off to tell Garnet they are there. She stands on the balcony above them, thanking them for her visit, everyone compliments her on how she looks, and everything is conducted very formally, although Zidane never speaks. After a very brief amount of time, Steiner tells her that she must go. Eiko rushes up the stairs, asking if its the last time they’ll see each other. Garnet claims it won’t be, she says she won’t be able to journey around the world with them anymore, but she’ll never forget the time she did. Garnet then trades two of her jewels for two of Eiko’s before bidding her goodbye.

Vivi and Freya demand to know why Zidane didn’t say anything. He says he had a whole speech prepared but he just couldn’t say anything, he wanted to say “Good luck Dagger! I’ll be watching you from afar”. But he says it would have just been a lie because that’s not how he feels at all.

This upsets Eiko, because she now realises that Zidane is besotted with Garnet. She wishes that she never wrote her letter, not knowing it never reached Zidane and has instead been mistaken for a letter from Steiner to Beatrix. So, whilst sat at the dock and expecting Zidane’s arrival, she decides to hide before he does to save her embarrassment. Whilst hiding, she hears someone coming, its not Zidane though, its actually Marcus and Blank. The latter has also gotten hold of the letter and thinks it’s for him, Marcus has just tagged along for the LOLs, but when they hear someone coming, they also hide.

This time it’s Steiner, who is merely patrolling the grounds. He now finds the letter on the floor, as Blank had dropped, and when he reads it he convinces himself that someone must have dropped it knowing that he would pick it up. Beatrix arrives next, he thinks its from her (and as we already know, she’s previously read the letter and thinks its from him). Eiko, Marcus and Blank are all listening in, but before anything can happen Baku appears and lets off a huge sneeze.

At the bar, Freya, Amarant and Vivi are all wondering where Zidane has gone. Vivi decides to go search for him, but before he can leave Eiko bursts in and the two bump into each other. She’s in a bad move as she thinks Zidane stood her up and tells Vivi to keep out of her way. Tot then enters the bar, he’s searching for Eiko. He wants to talk to her about Madain Sari. She agrees to tell him about her home but only if she can go to his home, though that’s all the way in Treno. She thinks visiting Treno is a great idea as she “enjoys sight-seeing”. Zidane finally shows his face and says that he’s planning on going to Treno anyway, there’s a card tournament on that he wants to enter and head to the Gargant station to make their way there.

bitparade, Gaming

bitparade: Sebastien Loeb Rally Evo (PlayStation 4)

I’ve not paid attention to the world of Rally driving for a fair old while, actually not since Richard Burns sadly passed away have I actually followed it, thats probably more to do with its television rights issues than anything else. Still, the class has always made for excellent videogames of varying approaches, from the infamous SEGA Rally through to Codemasters more recent efforts and many more besides. Also, despite not following the discipline for a long while, I’m still aware of a few of its personalities, highest of which is definitely Sebastien Loeb, so it comes as no surprise that he’s got this particular game attached to his name.

First off, Sebastien Loeb Rally Evo isn’t particularly light on content, racers will find they have over 300km of track available to them over 8 different rally locations plus 5 Rallycross tracks plus the most famous Time Trial event of them all, the Pikes Peak Hill Climb. Theres also around 50 cars from various power categories and era’s at your disposal, all of which have their own handling attributes. It’s a decent specification list for a racing game thats only really focused on one discipline, there’s also a couple of different game modes, including a career mode that has you working your way up to becoming the number 1 driver in the world as the titular Loeb’s prot�g� and a mode that both introduces you to Sebastien’s own career and challenges you with taking on the same events he partook in to get to where he has, minus a few elements that don’t fit in with the games discipline such as his involvement with the LeMans 24 Hours or World Touring Car Championship.

Whilst content is important, its nothing if a racing game is a pain in the arse to play. This is where things get muddy as Rally Evo’s handling model is incredibly off putting at first, its incredibly twitchy and feels far too responsive when at speed, it also feels far too easy to clip a bit of scenery and roll the car causing you to lose an incredible amount of time. Fortunately this can be undone by the games inclusion of a rewind mode, for which you get 6 tokens per race. Back to the games handling model, yet its twitchy, incredibly so initially, but I found the best approach was to use the bumper camera and make lots and lots of tiny constant adjustments on the steering, acceleration and even the braking, it feels much like you’d imagine from any in-car footage you’d find on YouTube. It takes some getting used to too, but once you do, the feeling of speed is exhilarating, and in actual fact the way in which the cars are so twitchy and the environments deadly reminds me of the original V-Rally and how challenging that was to handle back in the day but again, how rewarding it was as a speed freak once it all began to click.

Even once you’ve gotten used to the handling model, Rally Evo is still a challenge, obviously different cars with different set ups will require different approaches to this technique, this mostly comes down to the games various stages with different terrain also providing you with a challenge. Its much more difficult to throw the car around hairpin bends sideways, for example, on tarmac than in almost any other driving game that I recall playing, whilst the twitchiness is exaggerated further by the snow covered events. Getting the start right is also key in some of these events as you can find yourself spinning up the tyres for too long at the start if you apply too many revs.

Sebastien Loeb Rally Evo isn’t a must-have racing game, its certainly not either platforms strongest driving experience either, but it is rather enjoyable and really gets the adrenaline pumping as you throw your car around desert courses, kicking up sand behind you and launching all four wheels off a bump in the road before trying desperately to slow down for a 2 Right Hairpin Turn.

Movies

“It is what it is” – The Irishman

This week I finally got around to watching Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman”, I’d be putting it off until after the school holidays had ended, purely because at three and a half hours long it wasn’t a film I’d want to watch once they’d gone to bed and I’m certainly not going to watch it whilst they were around.

For this Scorsese has dragged his old pal Robert De Niro back into the fold after spending the past decade or so working with Leonardo Di Caprio, he’s also got Al Pacino in there, Harvey Keitel and has managed to persuade Joe Pesci out of retirement, its no surprise then that this is a gangster movie that uses every single trope that you’d expect.

For his latest Mafia tale, Scorsese has taken a book entitled “I heard you paint houses” by Charles Brandt, telling the tale of truck driver turned Mob hitman Frank Sheeran and his relationships within the mafia but also with those who deal with them, especially labour union leader Frank Hoffa. The Irishman (and the book it’s based on) uses real people and real events, though it uses the theories and allegations aimed at Sheeran in the years since Hoffa’s death (his body has never been found).

We’re told the story in a rather reflective manner. Our first introduction to De Niro’s Sheeran and Pesci’s Russel Bufalino is when they’re much older, they’re driving to a wedding that is also acting as a peace treaty with Al Pacino’s Hoffa. As they make their journey we’re taking back to key events that eventually build-up to the relationship between the labour unionist and his “friends” in the mafia souring, though I don’t really want to say any more than I already have done on the plot.

It’s a lovingly created piece of art, every single scene is given time to breathe, the characters are well fleshed out and it feels very, very intimate at times. Performances are mostly high, De Niro is the best we’ve seen him for a long time and Pacino is allowed to chew up every scene he’s in and be a crazy, unhinged tour de force. Though really, this is what these two actors have spent their careers doing, it’s still great to see them perform at this level as we’ve had quite a few years of them being in rather below par movies. Keitel knocks it out of the park when he’s on-screen too, though he’s not in this quite as much as you’d expect. Stephen Graham, as antagonist Tony Pro is also very, very good. However, it’s Joe Pesci that absolutely steals the show.

Now, that’s not really much of a surprise. I’ve always felt he’s been the lesser appreciated of these actors, he got very easily typecast as the fast-talking, bad-tempered, foul-mouthed bloke with the little guy complex. He does this to great effect in Goodfella’s, My Cousin Vinny and Home Alone, probably his three most famous roles (especially that first one), though nobody came out of the god-awful Lethal Weapon 3 and 4 particularly rosie.

Here, though, he’s different. Here he literally steals every single scene he’s in, even opposite the excellent Pacino. I’ll admit though, I was waiting for him to blow up, start flipping tables, spitting obscenities in peoples faces, but it never came, and I’m really glad it didn’t. Instead, Scorsese seems to play with that typecast, the viewer is waiting for it to happen but he keeps Pesci on a short leash, giving him just enough spit and venom behind his tinted glasses for him to be really menacing. Every word he utters is either a disguised instruction, left for the recipient (and viewer) to interpret themselves, or is on the very cusp of telling whomever that he is not to be fucked with, that he’s the one in control here, and its totally believable.

This is Pesci’s movie.

The subtlety applied to Pesci’s character doesn’t stop there though, the script is littered with this stuff, no one says exactly what it is they’re after. There’s the idea or implication that they know they’re all being watched or that the authorities are trying to infiltrate their ranks, so any discussion, be it crime-related or otherwise, is disguised. Whoever may be listening in may know what they mean, but if any recordings of those conversations made it into court, then well, it could be anything. It is what it is as Russ tells Frank to tell Hoffa.

That’s not to say that its always that way. There’s one interaction, maybe halfway through the film? Hoffa and Pacino have gone to LA to meet with Graham’s Tony Pro, Hoffa and Pro had been in prison at the same time and had gotten into a fight over the latter’s union pension. Anyway, plot details again, Tony Pro (or The Little Guy as they all call him behind his back) is 15 minutes late, Hoffa doesn’t like people being late and wants an apology from Tony, Tony wants an apology for their fight in prison. Frank is looking on, trying not to laugh at the ridiculousness of things but also trying to find a way to calm things down, and well, it is what it is, its quite a funny scene (funny how?), it was played really straight, but it genuinely felt like everyone involved knew the interaction was funny and kept on with the ridiculousness of it, especially De Niro trying to be the sensible guy “12 and a half” indeed!

It’s not perfect though is it? It’s not Scorsese’s best work either, though I don’t think its faults are especially down to him. Due to the age of the cast and the way we keep switching through time as we are told this story, Scorsese opted to use de-ageing technology. I’ve read he didn’t want to use the same method as Marvel use, where they stick balls to the actor’s faces for computers to track. Instead, ILM had to come back with a different tech, which they did and it was used here. Thing is, they all still look really old throughout and the only way I could genuinely tell what time period we were supposed to be in (and thus at what stage of the characters lives) is by using a combination of their wardrobes (though they’re nearly always in suits), the set dressing and the cars they’re using.

De Niro, who the film focuses on the most (and is the titular Irishman), is the biggest issue here, even ignoring the de-ageing tech on his face, he just cannot convincingly perform like a man that is around 30-40 years younger than he actually is, he moves like a man in his 70’s and this is the most obvious in one particular scene where he beats up a shopkeeper. It doesn’t stop the film being enjoyable, and I respect Scorsese’s decision to stick with this cast of actors rather than split things and have a young Frank, Russ etc played by younger actors then the periods where the characters are much older have them be played by Pesci, De Niro and co. Especially as if he had taken that route, we wouldn’t have had this performance from Pesci and if you only watch this film for that, then you’re in for an amazing treat.

People will be put off by that run-time though, but you have to remember, big-budget Hollywood blockbusters like Avengers Endgame have a run time that’s fairly similar, and in all honesty I find that film to be exhausting as it doesn’t let itself breath let alone the audience. The Irishman is totally different, it wants you to be a part of this world, it wants you to be one of the lower-ranked guys looking on as the big guys play their poker game. It reminds me of the scenes in The Soprano’s where Tony, Paulie and Silvio would say around outside a cafe, bitching about everybody else, gossiping and plotting, which is no bad thing, it might have been provoked by me having a pizza whilst watching it (only a Domino’s, I should have bought a frozen Goodfella’s!).

I genuinely enjoyed the experience of sitting down and spending so much time with these characters, it’s rare that I make it through something this length without falling asleep, but I managed it with this so make of that what you will, though I also got to the end wishing we had got a one-off series of ten one hour episodes so we could have had more time with not only Joe Pesci but also the likes of Tony Pro.

Books, Close Encounters Book Club

A Storm of Swords 2: Blood and Gold – George R R Martin

Somehow, over a busy and stressful Christmas period, I managed to read the second part of George R R Martin’s A Storm of Swords. I came away from the first part feeling deflated, I liked the “ending” with all the stuff surrounding Bran and Jon, though the two didn’t meet, Jon seemed to feel something was going on. However, the book as a whole certainly did feel like it was building up to something more, however I fully admit reading these two books as the single volume they were originally released as would have been far too daunting for me.

This is the book where everybody dies, or it feels like that anyway, we lose Joffrey, Robb (and pretty much his entire army), Catelyn, Shae and Tywin. By the end of the book we only have Stannis and Danaerys left who have been vocal about their claim to the Iron Throne, Tommen is to be crowned as King but now theres no Hand to take control of things whilst he matures.

One of my favourite moments in this book is the passage that takes us from Jaime trying to redeem himself to his brother Tyrion, though his revelation surrounding the truth of Tyrion’s marriage to Tysha, where we find out that Tyrion’s relationship was genuine and that Jaime had been forced by his father to make Tyrion believe she was a whore. Jaime was obviously hoping that his confession would heal some of Tyrion’s pain and hopefully heal and bitterness between the two of them, though there has always been some warmness in their relationship, this particular event has always been an (understandable) sticking point for Tyrion. It doesn’t have the required effect though, in fact its the total opposite, which again, I find perfectly understandable when Jaime had defied his father by joining the Kingsguard in order to try and (secretly) be with Cersei, Tyrion, having kind of kept his siblings secret, evidently feels betrayed. I’ve always enjoyed the fact that Tywin is killed whilst trying to deal with a rather stubborn bowel movement. The guy was so up himself that his shit was packed in there too.

I’ve said in previous A Song of Ice and Fire posts that I’m not much of a fan of Sansa, I think I began to warm to her in the first half of A Storm of Swords, but I do think we see so much more growth here. She’s still a typical princess, but she’s also beginning to become far less trustful than those around her, and with good reason. There’s a genuine sense of caution in her dealings with Ser Dontos during her escape from Kings Landing, particularly prior to her having to climb down the cliff face. But she’s also wary of Littlefinger, there’s no obvious signs, but I always felt she seemed uncomfortable when in his company. You could argue she’s silly in trusting Lysa, but despite not knowing her aunt, she’s always been raised to believe that bloodties matter, and she isn’t really aware quite how mad her mothers sister has become.

There are two things I want to address before I finish up. The handling of Jon becoming Commander of the Night Watch was well handled but fairly predictable, I’d say it was predictable even if you hadn’t watched the show. However, we definetly get to see the reason why so many people look up to him and why the old guard fear him so much when he’s handled control of the Wall during the battle with the Wildlings. Every single man commits to his instructions, but not only does he apply sound commands that work, he seems to have a natural flair for looking after his men, allowing them to make wagers that keep morale up but keeping himself seperate enough that there cant be any sense of betrayal (and that part in particular reminds me of the Bastogne episode of Band of Brothers). He also acknowledges when certain men, and indeed himself, need to step away from the action for a while.

Lastly, onto the Epilogue, I had to Google this after reading, its the first time that I’m certainly aware of that something that happened in these books wasn’t translated to the screen. I understand there’s fan theories around whether Catelyn does indeed come back in the TV show, but its only rumour and speculation and I’m not getting into that. Do I like the idea? Why not, if they can bring Gregor Clegayne back (in the show, thats not happened in the books yet) as a giant zombie, then Thoros bringing Catelyn back and the repercussions for the Frey’s from that is definetly something I’m looking forward to.

In a way, its a shame that there’s going to be a months break between this book and the next one in the series, I genuinely really enjoyed this one, I’d say it was my favourite so far and I’m itching to see where it goes next (especially as alot of what happened in the show is foggy in my mind). I’m also happy for the break and reading whatever is nominated next as I don’t want to burn myself out on them when there’s still a few (three?) books to go.