Wednesday, June 28, 2017

2017-06-28 Summer Games Done Quick 2017

It’s that time of the year again. Summer Games Done Quick 2017 (or #SGDQ2017) starts this weekend on Sunday, July 2nd.
For the uninitiated, Games Done Quick is a biannual conference where people from all over the world come together and play video games quickly in order to raise money for charity. It started back in 2010, and has become a massive undertaking since the early days. Across every event, the conference has raised over $10 million. Awesome Games Done Quick 2017 raised over $2 million alone.
To a lot of people, watching speed runs is nerdy and pointless. “Why watch them play when you can just play the game yourself,” is something I’ve heard more times than I can count. My rebuttal is typically, “why watch sports when you can go outside and play them yourself?” I won’t go so far as to praise video games with the same sort of athleticism as sports, but people who are particularly good at video games are impressive to watch. These guys do stuff that I could never manage, and that’s pretty incredible. They are genuinely the best of the best, often having the best times in the world for certain games and modes.
I realize that not everyone enjoys video games. That’s fine, but don’t knock this conference just because it isn’t your cup of tea. These people are raising money for good causes, and rally behind a common purpose. Whether the donation money is going toward Doctors Without Borders, the Prevent Cancer foundation, or any other charity, it’s helping people do good things for humanity. That’s pretty admirable.
Personally, I’m excited about the EarthBound run at the very end of SGDQ2017. I specifically finished EarthBound recently in order to be able to watch that run without spoiling the story. Beyond that run, I’m excited to see several returning runners. SpikeVegeta is just a super entertaining guy. I hate that Bawkbasoup and Bonesaw577 won’t be there, but here’s hoping they’ll be back for AGDQ2018.

If you’re even remotely curious about Games Done Quick, check out the schedule. Even if you can’t catch the stream live, the recordings are uploaded to YouTube afterward. This is a genuinely entertaining event, and these guys are capable of some very impressive feats.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Review: The Legend of Dragoon

The Legend of Dragoon is a Japanese Role Playing Game released on the PlayStation in 1999. Intended as a competitor for Final Fantasy, did the creators achieve their goal? Does The Legend of Dragoon hold up over time? Let’s break it down and see.

Story - 8/10

From a story perspective, The Legend of Dragoon is undeniably a JRPG. This isn’t an insult or compliment, as much as it is simply an observation. A band of unlikely heroes must save the world from a grandiose threat to all of humanity. It’s a trope that has been done time and time again with basically any RPG that comes out of Japan. Some games do this really well, others just flop. Fortunately, TLoD fits into the former category.
The tale is fantastically entertaining. There are ups and downs, with twists galore near the end of the game. Some of the twists are a little half-baked and seem forced, but they do come as complete surprises. The idea that “some friends become enemies, some enemies become friends” is taken to an extreme, but it works so well for the game. Every major character in the game is both round and dynamic, and each is distinctly memorable. There are instances of romance in the game, but it offers depth to the story, and it isn’t overdone. I genuinely felt personally connected with the characters. Their hurt was my hurt; their joy was my joy.
Endiness, the continent on which The Legend of Dragoon takes place, is an area of tremendous variety. There are kingdoms and there are slums. There are coastal villages, and there are landlocked mountain ranges. The balance between overworld navigation and individual area exploration gives the appears of a vast world, even though there really aren’t a ton of different areas.
Aside from a few deviations near the end of the game, most of the objectives in The Legend of Dragoon are related to the central quest line. With a small amount of grinding, it took me roughly 85 hours to beat the main story, and probably 5 hours beyond that to reach and fight the optional super boss. I probably could’ve finished the game in 60-70 hours with a more direct approach and no grinding. That time frame is roughly average length for the entire RPG genre in my experience.
While I enjoyed the story of the game, The Legend of Dragoon is not a title with any sort of replay value. There are few to no player choices in the game, so one play through is really all you need to fully experience the game. I could maybe see playing it again after quite a few years just for nostalgia’s sake, but this isn’t a game I would play again in immediate succession.

General Gameplay - 6/10

Navigation in The Legend of Dragoon is mostly standard. On the positive side, the developers did a fantastic job of making a moderate amount of explorable area seems massive. On the negative side, overworld navigation can be cumbersome. The whole of Endiness is divided into different regions, which roughly correspond to the physical discs of the game. Each of these regions has a number of cities and locations that are divided by set routes and paths that the player cannot deviate from. Getting to specific areas require the player to remember where it was, and to trek possibly across the entire map to return. In the very late game, there is a mode of quick travel that opens up, but it only allows a specific set of major destinations. Minor areas require some extra effort.
Inventory management is painful, and perhaps one of the worst aspects of The Legend of Dragoon. Key items are fortunately in their own menu, and had no limit as far as I could find. Weapons. Armor, and accessories are in a collection of up to 255 items, though I don’t recall ever having anywhere near that many. Usable items have a strict limit of 32 slots, and no items stack. This made inventory management absolutely terrible. These items include anything that restores HP or MP, as well as any combat items. Players are behooved to hold onto repeat items, of which there are 10. If you get all of them, there goes a third of your inventory space. If you come across a chest or get an enemy drop with a full inventory, what do you do? Do you get rid of an item you have, or do you leave the chest or drop behind? I swear, I encountered this decision more times than I can count, and it became so annoying.
The collectible item in The Legend of Dragoon, Stardust, gives a good balance of difficulty and reward. No Stardust is missable, though some can be a bit of a pain to revisit. There are only 50, and they are evenly dispersed throughout the entire game. They do encourage a bit of button mashing, as Stardust can be anywhere and give no visual or auditory clues of their presence. I do wish there were some way to recall which Stardust you did or didn’t pick up, but alas, there is not. It would also be nice to have some way to find Stardust besides sheer luck, but I suppose that’s what guides are for. Players receive gifts for every 10 Stardust they retrieve, with the lot of them unlocking the optional boss.
Enemy encounters occur regularly based on movement, with an arrow above Dart’s head that indicates how close the player is to an encounter. This is nice in that it allows very precise grinding, and you know when to expect an encounter, but I feel like the encounter period is ridiculously short. When you’re just trying to get through an area and navigate teleport puzzles or whatever else, it’s easy to forget where you came from and where you’re headed with all the encounters.

Combat - 5/10

Battles in The Legend of Dragoon are such a double-edged sword. For its favor, the combat is extremely interesting, a great mix of active and static elements. Turns are based completely on the speed stat of each combatant, and players have as much time as they want to make decisions between turns. When attacking, players must perform “Additions” which are timing-based combos. Successful Additions gradually improve the damage and SP gains from each attack, and gaining Dragoon levels increase the number of Additions available to a character. Higher level Additions typically do more damage and yield more SP, but they also require more hits and are thus more difficult to successfully pull off. It’s a very fine balance of your ability as a player, with the risk and reward mechanism of the Additions. Timing for the Addition hits can be unreasonably tight sometimes, but not necessarily unfair. If you can anticipate it, you can usually complete them with reliable consistency. Of any turn-based RPG I have played, this game easily has the most interesting battle mechanics.
Beyond the Addition system, the Dragoon transformation is also a very neat facet of battles. Characters must build up Dragoon turns by accumulating SP in normal mode. To add another level of complexity, many Additions have more or less damage or SP. An Addition with higher damage may yield much less SP, giving that character less time in Dragoon form. Alternatively, some Additions may do less damage, but give the character a ton of SP and allow for more turns in Dragoon form. Even within Dragoon form, characters are not universally more powerful. Dragoon form gives players boosted attack and defense stats, but also limits battle options to Dragoon attacks and Magic. While in Dragoon form, characters cannot use items, or attempt to flee from battle. This adds another tactical level to when Dragoon form may be more or less beneficial to the battle.
As much praise as I can give the mechanics, I have equal hatred for the speed of battles. Everything about battles in The Legend of Dragoon is painfully slow. When an encounter triggers, the transition from the overworld to the battle screen is slow. Once the battle has started, the actual menu navigation is slow to start and stop. When you select an ability, or the enemy begins an attack, the animation is slow. Want to use a magic attack? Get ready for the same annoyingly long animation every single time you use it. While the animations for magic attacks are cool to watch the first few times, they take forever to finish. A much better system would be to allow players to toggle between long and short animations, a la Final Fantasy X with aeon summons and overdrives. If animations and loading times were drastically reduced, my opinion of combat in The Legend of Dragoon would be universally positive. The ridiculous battle times, however, are just more than I can tolerate.

Difficulty - 6/10

The difficulty of The Legend of Dragoon is almost perfect. Death is punished by returning to the most recent save point, but saves are typically close enough that you don’t lose an insane amount of progress by dying. Standard mobs vary from cake easy to mildly difficult, with enough variety to keep things interesting. Bosses typically take more effort than normal enemies, but there is almost always a save point immediately before any boss, and I never took more than 2 or 3 attempts to kill any of them. As I mentioned previously, the timing for Additions can be a bit tighter than I would like, but nothing you can’t master with practice.

Graphics - 8/10

While The Legend of Dragoon is certainly a dated game, the graphics were fantastic for when it came out. Character and enemy models look reasonably smooth, the environments and backgrounds look spectacular. I’ve read somewhere that graphics and artwork are the vast majority of the data on the discs. It came out nearly 2 decades ago, so of course it’s going to show some age. Compared to other games released in that era, though, it really does look great.

Music - 6/10

The music in The Legend of Dragoon is alright, but it isn’t something I would frequently choose to listen to outside of playing the game. A few of the tracks, mostly the combat music, are pretty good. I keep the sound on while playing, rather than muting it and listening to something else. All in all, the music fits with the game and perhaps even adds to the experience, but doesn’t really stand on its own otherwise.

My Take

The Good

The story is great, the combat is interesting, and the graphics really were fantastic for the era.

The Bad

The combat is so painfully slow.

The Ugly

Inventory management plays a bigger role in the game’s difficulty than it has any right to.

Overall - 7/10

The Legend of Dragoon is a solid JRPG, and holds its own against the classics of the PlayStation generation. Despite some minor drawbacks, it continues to be a great game with an original story, that anyone should be able to enjoy.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

2017-06-14 Father's Day

Father’s Day, as a complement to Mother’s Day, has always been a vastly different holiday.
For one, and I’ve mentioned it plenty of times before, my own father has been gone for a decade. I have other male relatives in similar positions, uncles, a grandfather, even other men who have acted as almost surrogate fathers to me, but my own biological father hasn’t been in the picture for years. That sort of absence puts a different sort of spin on the holiday. I don’t want to downplay the roles that any other guys have had in my life, I appreciate them tremendously. Still, it just isn’t quite the same.
Beyond that, I myself have been a father for now 4 years. I could never be a mother (obviously), so Father’s Day is more personal to me. Not that I’d want to latch onto it as celebrating me, I feel like that’s entirely too narcissistic. But I feel like it serves to make me evaluate myself, and whether I’m being the best father that I can be for my kids. I’m not perfect, no parent is, but I genuinely want to do right by my children. Father’s Day is a day where I can ask myself, am I really doing everything that I can to be a good father? What can I do better, where can I improve? Obviously, this isn’t something you should limit to a single day of the year, but it is a day where I am more pointedly reminded to.
Even though I mention my own biological father, I do have great respect for step-fathers and adoptive fathers that take care of their kids. You didn’t have to raise your kids, you chose to. That’s something worth noting. Being a father is no small task, so to take that responsibility on speaks highly of someone’s character.

This Father’s Day, be cognizant of the fathers in your life. We’re not perfect, but most of us are doing what we can to look out for our kids. For the first time fathers, congratulations and enjoy the ride. You’re going to make mistakes, but be sure to learn from them.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

OnePlus One to Moto G Plus (5th Generation)

For the past 2 years, I’ve used a OnePlus One. That changed on Tuesday, May 30th, when I got the Moto G Plus (5th generation).
I got my OnePlus One (abbreviated OPO) on May 12, 2015. I got it because my wife’s Nexus 4 was dying, so she got my Moto G (2nd generation) and I got an upgrade. After shopping around a good bit, the OPO seemed like the best balance of price and performance for me.

Broken OnePlus One

Even after 2 years, I was and am still pleased with the purchase. The OPO remains to be a solid device. Honestly, I wouldn’t even be upgrading if it weren’t for the damage from general wear and tear on the phone. It’s extremely responsive and powerful, I’ve just dropped it so much and had the kids do so much harm to it that it’s falling apart. As much as I hated to pay for a new phone when I still had a working phone, it was getting more and more to the point that “working” was a stretch.

Screen Damage

The biggest issue is that the capacitor in the touch screen is damaged. Probably 6 months ago, I dropped the phone and the impact caused the capacitor to stop responding along the bottom half inch or so of the phone. This included the hardware buttons below the bottom of the screen. Fortunately, I could change the screen rotation settings to allow me to turn the phone 180 degrees upside down, and turn on software keys. This meant that I could still use the home, back, and multitask buttons, I just had to turn the phone upside down to do so.
One problem with turning the phone upside down is that not all apps allow full rotation. For some apps, I had to drop down the notification shade and load the battery settings or something else before I could rotate the screen. This usually wasn’t a tremendous hassle, but it did get very annoying over time. Not only that, but it made some apps completely useless. The T-Mobile Tuesday app only allows customers to claim rewards by pressing a button at the bottom of the screen. Guess what I can’t do.
Soon after the bottom of the screen stopped working, a smaller band along the middle stopped working. This wouldn’t have been a huge deal, except that it contained many of the options that pop-up menus use. Want to continue from where you left off in the SNES emulator? Oh, did you press restart? No. No, I did not. For some menus, I could spam press on or around the option I wanted and eventually get it to work. Menus with multiple options vertically were basically impossible, though.
In addition to buttons within the dead band, it interrupted scrolling. I had to scroll in either the bottom half or top half of the screen. If I scrolled across the band, it would often be interpreted as a press. Scrolling through my music queue, I would randomly press songs. Reading through my Facebook feed, I would accidentally like or share posts.

Mobile Data

Occasionally, my mobile data would cut out. The display would indicate how many bars I had, I assume for calls or SMS, but I would have no internet connectivity. Sometimes, this would be preceded by a prompt for which SIM card to use (but I only have one). Other times, it would happen without prior indication.
No matter how it happened, I wouldn’t get mobile data back before restarting the phone. Turning the mobile antenna off and on didn’t ever seem to work, and even restarting the device didn’t always work. A few times, I had to restart probably 5 or more times before I finally got data access again.
Many times when my mobile data would die, the power button wouldn’t bring up the power menu. The phone would just restart immediately. This seemed to roughly coincide with whether I got mobile data back after a restart, but I never tested it for certain.

Other Problems

With me listening to so much music, I frequently used my 3.5 mm auxiliary port. Eventually, the port got something stuck inside, so I couldn’t connect anything. Fortunately, I had already gotten some bluetooth headphones for work, and I could use my Zune whenever I needed to use standard headphones. Still, it was annoying that I couldn’t use such a prolific port.
Sometimes, the phone would stop receiving notifications. I could still manually access apps and see messages or whatever, but they wouldn’t be on the lock screen or my notification bar. Eventually, I would get a “System UI has stopped” error, and then I would get a flood of notifications. This seemed to happen when I would press the multitask button, but I never figured out what actually caused the notifications to stop.
Any of these problems wouldn’t be a huge deal individually. Collectively, though, they made for an absolutely abysmal experience. I didn’t want to upgrade when I could get done what I needed to do, but the process was not a smooth one. Even the simplest task was a struggle with everything broken on the phone. It became increasingly obvious that I needed a new device.

OnePlus 3T

For several months, I had my heart set on the OnePlus 3T. It was a sequel to the device I was already using, on an OS that I really liked, for a reasonable price. I originally wanted the OnePlus 3, especially for a flat $400, but it was immediately discontinued when the 3T was released. At $440, the 3T was a little steep, but honestly worth it for the specs.
While the OnePlus 3T is objectively worth $440, that doesn’t mean I want to pay that much for a phone. There are no carrier subsidies or payment plans from OnePlus, you have to pony up the cash immediately. After taxes, accessories, and all that jazz, I would probably be paying close to $500 for the phone. Half a grand is better than many other flagship devices, yes, but that’s a ton of money to come up with on the spot.
Eventually, OnePlus started teasing announcements about a sequel device. As time went on, the OnePlus 5 became less of an idea and more of a reality. While this is great for people who plan on getting cutting edge devices, I saw it as a possibility that OnePlus would drop the price on the 3T to clear out stock. It happened with previous devices despite being sold on thin margins, so why would the 3T be any different? The 3 and 3T shared a body design, so it makes sense that they could use a lot of the same components and not have to clear out stock for the 3 before launching the 3T.
Certain that OnePlus will drop the price of the 3T when the 5 comes out or shortly before, I continue using my janky OnePlus One. There’s no need to get a middle step upgrade before getting the actual device I want. If they drop the price to $400 or less, I’m sold. Great phone for an even better price.
Several phone deals came and went during my wait. There were great prices on a wide variety of phones that were all pretty good. The Nextbit Robin got a price cut, which was something I kept an eye on before. A coworker offered to sell me his used Moto Z Play, which has the neat Moto Mods ecosystem. The Moto G5 Plus launched, but I had a bad experience with the 2nd edition Moto G so I wasn’t necessarily interested in it. Still, I stayed vigilant. I would get a OnePlus 3T when they dropped the price.

Not the OnePlus 3T

On the evening of May 25th, OnePlus announced that they would be discontinuing the 3T. When I saw the post on their Facebook page, I hoped that the announcement would have some information about a price drop. Sadly, there was no price reduction intended. Production of the 3T would come to a full stop, with sales of the OnePlus 5 beginning in the near future.
I was frustrated and let down. The OnePlus 3T was the phone for me, but I just couldn’t see paying $440 for it. I was so sure that they would reduce the price, but this was basically confirmation that they would not. While I could go ahead and buy one of the last 3T devices at full price, I really didn’t want to. With so many cheaper devices available, paying that much for a phone seems unnecessary.
What to do now? I had put all of my eggs in a basket that was quickly falling apart. It was generally accepted that the OnePlus 5 would be more expensive than the 3T, possibly as high as $650. If I wasn’t going to pay $440 for the 3T, I definitely wouldn’t be paying any more than that for the 5.
I started doing some research on other budget Android phones. Mr. Mobile and MKBHD are both reliable video sources, among a number of text-based sources. The Huawei Honor 8, ZTE Axon 7, and Alcatel Idol 4 S were considered some of the best budget devices available at the moment. They each had their flaws, but were honestly quite good for the price. However, the recurring device that every source seemed to mention was the Moto G5 Plus.

Maybe the Moto G5 Plus

As much as everyone seemed to recommend the Moto G5 Plus, I didn’t want to give it a chance. Sure, the Moto G line has traditionally been really cheap, and arguably better than other devices in that price range. But the Moto G2 I had was just garbage. It was laggy, didn’t always work quite right, and I just wasn’t interested in getting the same thing over again. It had been quite a few years since I had my G2, but I doubted much had changed.
Still, every reviewer kept mentioning it as probably the best budget option. MKBHD described the Moto G5 Plus as, “Motorola not really cutting down from higher end flagships, but more building up as high as they can for a certain price.” Maybe it could be different than my previous experience. With the higher end version having 4GB of RAM, that’s actually more than the 3GB of RAM in my OnePlus One.
I originally considered the lower end version, since $230 is easier to pay than $300. However, there was an Amazon Prime option to get the higher end version for only $240 with lockscreen ads. I have an Amazon Fire Tablet with ads, and they really don’t bother me. If I can save $60 for something I can easily ignore, why not? Worst case scenario, I don’t like them and I can pay to have Amazon remove the ads. Ultimately, I wouldn’t be out any more than buying the ad-less version originally. You can’t root the Amazon version, but my rooting days are behind me. The Motorola ROM is apparently pretty close to stock, so I wouldn’t have any desire to root anyway.
Neither version of the Moto G5 Plus has NFC, but that isn’t a huge deal for me. I sometimes use tap and pay, but probably not more often than once every few months. If I have my phone on me, I probably have my wallet on me as well. Also, the 5.2” screen is a little smaller than the 5.5” of my OnePlus One. I would’ve liked to have felt the Moto G5 Plus in hand to see it for myself, but surely 0.3” wouldn’t be that big of a deal.

Moto G5 Plus

Maybe the Moto G5 Plus wouldn’t be so bad. I did some research, found a cheap case and screen protector. With the whole kit and caboodle, I could get the phone and accessories for $267.64 shipped. Compared to the $440 of the OnePlus 3T for just the phone, that’s a steal. At that price, I could almost get two of the Moto G5 Plus for the price of a single OnePlus 3T.
Finally, I decided to pull the trigger on the purchase. I don’t have Amazon Prime, but I know several people who do. I got a friend to place the order for me, and paid him for it via Google Wallet. He ordered the phone on Friday, May 26. The package would have shipped on Monday, May 29 had it not been Memorial Day and work being closed for the day. Instead, I got it on Tuesday, May 30.

I’m cautiously optimistic. As much as I originally wanted nothing to do with the Moto G line after the G2, maybe Motorola has stepped their game up. With so many positive opinions from reviewers, the Moto G5 Plus can’t be terrible. I’ll eventually put together a proper review of the Moto G5 Plus, but I’m hoping that I really enjoy it.