Thursday, 26 April 2007

Meme: Sci-fi books

This meme was emailed to me by some friend or other.

“Below is a Science Fiction Book Club list most significant SF novels between 1953-2006. The meme part of this works like so: Bold the ones you have read, strike through the ones you read and hated, italicize those you started but never finished and put a star next to the ones you love.”
1. The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien (Read it, liked it, not up to the hype though.)
2. The Foundation Trilogy, Isaac Asimov (Again, good, but not up to the hype)
3. Dune, Frank Herbert * (Love it. Read the sequels also, all brilliant)
4. Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert A. Heinlein
5. A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula K. Le Guin*
6. Neuromancer, William Gibson
7. Childhood’s End, Arthur C. Clarke
8. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick
9. The Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley
10. Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
11. The Book of the New Sun, Gene Wolfe
12. A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr.
13. The Caves of Steel, Isaac Asimov
14. Children of the Atom, Wilmar Shiras
15. Cities in Flight, James Blish
16. The Colour of Magic, Terry Pratchett (Even with about thirty Discworld books to choose from, I still keep returning to this one)
17. Dangerous Visions, edited by Harlan Ellison
18. Deathbird Stories, Harlan Ellison
19. The Demolished Man, Alfred Bester
20. Dhalgren, Samuel R. Delany
21. Dragonflight, Anne McCaffrey
22. Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card* (Love it so much that I've just finished re-reading it. Vying for my favourite on this list)
23. The First Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, Stephen R. Donaldson (Not really bad, just bland as hell)
24. The Forever War, Joe Haldeman
25. Gateway, Frederik Pohl
26. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, J.K. Rowling (Really a case where the hype works against it. I came to it expecting a masterpiece and was horribly disappointed.)
27. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams*
28. I Am Legend, Richard Matheson
29. Interview with the Vampire, Anne Rice
30. The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin
31. Little, Big, John Crowley[?]
32. Lord of Light, Roger Zelazny
33. The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick
34. Mission of Gravity, Hal Clement
35. More Than Human, Theodore Sturgeon
36. The Rediscovery of Man, Cordwainer Smith
37. On the Beach, Nevil Shute
38. Rendezvous with Rama, Arthur C. Clarke
39. Ringworld, Larry Niven
40. Rogue Moon, Algis Budrys
41. The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien
42. Slaughterhouse-5, Kurt Vonnegut
43. Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson
44. Stand on Zanzibar, John Brunner
45. The Stars My Destination, Alfred Bester
46. Starship Troopers, Robert A. Heinlein* (In some ways similar to Ender's Game, but I do prefer the former)
47. Stormbringer, Michael Moorcock
48. The Sword of Shannara, Terry Brooks
49. Timescape, Gregory Benford
50. To Your Scattered Bodies Go, Philip Jose Farmer

To be honest, I was surprised at how few of them I had read. Still, Neuromancer I am starting in a minute, so I will be able to catch up a little.

Tuesday, 24 April 2007

Reflections on cherished manga

I recently re-read the entirety of Dragonball. That's right, all 42 volumes of it. I first read it not so long ago, maybe a couple of years ago, but it never ceases to amaze me just how different in tone the later volumes are to the earlier ones. Personally, I much prefer the humourous fantasy that so characterised the first part. As soon as it hits what the translations call DBZ it starts to go downhill. Don't get me wrong, I still love it, but it does start to take itself far too seriously.

I'm fairly certain that Toriyama wanted to quit writing it long before he actually did. Look at all the chances he gave himself to stop writing:
1. He could have finished with the end of the Piccolo Jr. Arc. Goku has become the most powerful on Earth. The demon Piccolo is still a threat, but we know that he can't really beat Goku, so all is well.
2. He could have finished at the end of the Frieza Arc. Goku has beaten Frieza, the most powerful being in the universe. Piccolo, having re-discovered his Namek heritage, is more or less a good-guy. Even Vegeta probably won't try anything too evil, so all is well.
3. He could have finished at the end of the Cell Arc. Goku is dead, and wishes to remain so. His story has come full circle. Rising to become the Earth's defender, and then passing on the torch. Gohan has assumed his duties as protector of the Earth. With Piccolo, Vegeta and Gohan protecting the Earth, all is well.

The absolute absurdity of the Buu Arc (Gohan goes to school! The entire population gets turned into chocolate! The fusion dance!) suggests very strongly a kind of 'I'm gettting tired of this, I want to end it and try something new' thought chain from Toriyama. Any of the aforementioned points would have been excellent ending points, and if I bet Toriyama would have been happy ending the series at any of them. So why didn't he? In a word, money. Dragonball was a cash cow for Shonen Jump, and they didn't want him to stop writing it.

Don't get me wrong, I love the Buu Arc. It's wackiness is remeniscent of the early volumes of the manga. I love all of the characters introduced in it: Videl, Goten, Trunks, Vegito (Yeah, yeah he's a fusion I know, but he's almost certainly the most powerful being in all of the Dragonverse including the awfulness that was GT. He's even the World's strongest coffee candy!). I love that the Earth is finally given the oppurtunity to save itself and almost turns it down.

However, I hate the idea that Toriyama might have burned himself out writing Dragonball. He is a very talented artist, and I first came across his work seeing the character designs for the legendary Chrono Trigger (Yeah, that was him).

Anyway, I guess the main point of this is that, even now, I still love Dragonball.

Saturday, 21 April 2007

ZOMG! Teh funnies

Check out this video here. For everyone who's ever been stuck on a video game that they just can't complete no matter how much they try.

Wednesday, 18 April 2007

Review-Final Fantasy XII

It's a month to the day since I last posted, mostly because I have been at home, where the internet is....sporadic at best. However, a few other things have been in the way of posting.

1. I have read pretty much every manga volume I own over again.
2. I have watched the entirety of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Yeah, all seven seasons. And yeah, I don't have a life, get over it.
3. I have been practicing my kendo a lot. My strikes are so much better now than they were a month ago.
4. I have done a lot of reading for university.

However, the thing that has taken up by far the biggest time, Final Fantasy XII, is what I want to talk about today. My initial suspicion was that I would call it a great game, but not as good as VII, and I think that's pretty much true.

First things first, the plot: Constant tension between the Archadian and Rozarrian Empires has led to annexation of many of the smaller kingdoms between them, including the Kingdom of Dalmasca, from where our hero, Vaan, hails. Two years before the start of the story, Dalmasca was invaded by Archades and put under military rule. The king was assassinated by the top general, Basch, and the princess Ashelia committed suicide. Thinking to get back at his oppressors, Vaan breaks into the palace on the night of a celebration welcoming the new consul from Archades in order to steal things. Here he meets not only the sky pirate Balthier and his companian, the Viera Fran, but also a member of the Dalmascan resistance calling herself Abelia.
This leads to a grand, epic quest, which I won't describe for fear of spoling the game for you.

The plot is, in my opinion, the weakest element of the game. It's fairly linear, and has few of the twists and turns that characterise other incarnations of the series. The bad guy is clear from the start, yet rarely shows up once the game has really got started. What this often leads to is the player having no clear sense of what they are doing or why they are doing it. It doesn't help that the characters, while fairly well fleshed out, have none of the style or memorability of characters from FFX or any of the others. The setting is also not as memorable as it could be. Spira from FFX was a vast, well-designed world with original and imaginative customs, religions, sports, groups. The world of FFXII, by contrast, seems shallow and underdeveloped. This is something that could easily have been rectified by making the game a couple of hours longer in order to showcase such things.

That's the extent of the bad, however, and even those problems really aren't as big as I have made the, seem. The thing that everyone knows about, the new battle system, really shines through as a positive. In my opinion, the best FF battle system so far is FFX's conditional turn-based one, but this one comes a very close second. They have stealthily hidden a turn-based battle system behind active-time feeling with a clever use of wait bars. This means that you watch the battle unfold in real time, while still being able to have turn-based control. The potential downside of this is that the player might feel overwhelmed by the whole thing, but that is mitigated by the clever gambit system, which allows you to set up what a character automatically does in any situation. For example, I could use gambits to make my white mage character cast Esuna on anyone with a status-ailment, then cast Curaga on any critically wounded party members, then cast cure on any party membe on less that 60% health, then cast protect on all characters, and then finally attack the monster with the lowest HP. All of this will be carried out automatically, and with a few second of adjusting, I can change the order in which they are done or remove some of them altogether. If you have an order for a character, outside of this system, they will always perform it first, so you never come into conflict with your characters.

The License board system is nothing special, it's basically the Sphere Grid from FFX but with a lot more freedom of movement, so you can make your characters what you want them to be. Wheras in FFX you characters all had defined roles (Yuna= White Mage, Lulu= Black Mage, Auron= Heavy hitter etc), in FFXII you can basically choose which character fulfills which role.

One thing that I think deserves a lot of praise is the Quickenings, which basically replace limit breaks. Each character can have three Quickenings which are hidden on the License Board. Each time they gain a quickening they get a Mist Charge. Different quickenings use different amounts of these charges (the 1st one a character gets costs one charge, the second costs two, the third costs three). When a character launches a quickening, other characters can follow up with their own quickenings, and you will sometimes get the option you gain mist charges anew, thus continuing the chain. Get a sufficiently long chain and it will result in a concurrence (a finishing attack which does massive damage to all enemies in range.) The better your mist chain (ie, the longer it is and the more high-level quickenings used), the better the concurrence you will get. However, your mist charges are linked to your mana, so the more you use, the less mana you will end up with.

Altogether, Final Fantasy XII is a great game, but sometimes marred by the desire to go for style over substance. The mechanics and graphics are great, but the story suffers as a result. Since Squaresoft merged with Enix to become Square-Enix, this has happened a lot (where do you think X-2 came from?), and it needs to be rectified. None of this stops XII from being a praise-worthy game, but it does have a slight could-do-better feel to it.

Score: 9/10, well worth it.