Wednesday, August 16, 2017

2017-08-16 Solar Eclipse

In case you haven’t heard, there’s going to be a solar eclipse next week.
Considering how rarely they happen, it is a bit of a big deal. Solar eclipses are far from frequent, and being within a few miles of the path of totality is obviously even more rare. It’s something I want to take advantage of, since it won’t happen again for a long time, and next time would require actual travel plans.


Eclipse glasses have been selling like hotcakes everywhere, and most places seem to be completely sold out. Optometrist offices are giving them out to patients only. Any stores with free displays have been out for at least a week at this point. People are going mad on social media trying to figure out other options.
My mother asked me 2 weeks ago to grab her a pair from a local apparel store that was advertising free glasses. We were tied up for a few days, so I put it off until some time last week. We went by the store, but the sign on the front door indicated that they were out of stock. Well, that’s unfortunate, but I’m sure other places in Spartanburg have some.
On Friday, I decided to spend my lunch break finding some of these glasses. I started driving toward the closest Walmart, and began calling places that might have some. Local libraries were saving them for their viewing parties during the eclipse. Chain stores for glasses and lenses were sold out, but directed me to local optometrists. These local optometrists had some, but were only giving them out to current patients. When I got to Walmart, they were out of stock, as were all of the other Walmart stores that I called.
Finally, some kind soul at one of the various places I called informed me that Croft State Park had some for sale. I called, expecting to be told that they were fresh out. Fortunately, they still had plenty and were selling them for $2 each. Despite the fact that Croft was about a 15 minute drive from my current location, and there was no way I’d get back to work within my hour lunch break, I stormed off to my car and flew out of the Walmart parking lot.
As I drove out toward Croft, clouds rolled in and it started to rain. The deeper I got into the state park, the harder the rain poured. I’ve never been to Croft before, so I didn’t really know where I was going, or even if the map point that I was navigating to was the same place that would have the glasses for sale. Eventually, the trees opened up and I came upon an intersection with a small log cabin on one corner. This was also the place that my phone was taking me to, so surely I could at least get more information inside.
On the way through the forest, it occurred to me that our plan to get glasses at the viewing party with The Children’s Museum was not guaranteed. The event was open to anyone with a TCM membership (as far as I knew), so feasibly thousands of people could show up. Who’s to say that TCM had purchased enough glasses to go around? Who’s to say we couldn’t show up too late, and be left with no way to safely view the eclipse. Instead of just buying 2 pair of glasses for my mother and one of her coworkers, I’d buy at least 4 more for my immediate family.
When I got inside, there were 2 ladies chatting. One asked what I needed, and I mentioned that I spoke with someone a few minutes ago about eclipse glasses. Coincidentally, one of the ladies was the same one that I talked to on the phone before. And lo and behold, they still had eclipse glasses. I asked the lady if she had at least 10 I could buy, and they did. With that many, I had enough for my mother, my own crew, and 4 more just in case someone else needed a few.

Viewing Party

As for where to watch, we’ve decided to go to The Children’s Museum. We already have memberships, so entry is free. Not only that, but they’re supposedly giving out glasses to everyone who comes. Again, I’ve bought enough for my family, but those are a backup option. Nobody is going to know that we have those until I try to get the ones that TCM should be giving out for free.
My employer has announced that they’ll be doing a viewing party outside for the few minutes of the eclipse, but there are a few problems with that. One, I work in Spartanburg, which is outside the path of totality. With an event this rare, do you really think I’m going to accept a sub-par experience when I could go a little ways southwest and get the full show? Of course not.
Several other places have announced that they’ll be hosting viewing parties, but I figured TCM is our best bet with kids. It is both educational, and in a prime location to see the spectacle. I’m not looking forward to traffic in the area, since it has been estimated to be about the same as 3 Clemson football games letting out at the same time. I hate traffic, and trying to find a place to park, but I’ll put up with it for something like this.

Hopefully, this time next week, we will have seen the solar eclipse and not have any damaged retinas. I might try to snap a few pictures and videos, but I’ll mostly leave that to the professionals. There will undoubtedly be people with better cameras, more skill, and better views, creating better photos and videos of this event than mine. YouTube it in a few weeks and I guarantee you’ll find some impressive footage.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Review: Final Fantasy XV

Final Fantasy XV is an action RPG released on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One in 2016. The most recent game in the Final Fantasy series, it has also been one of the most commercially successful Final Fantasy games. Due to a number of different circumstances, FFXV was in development for a decade, an eternity for game development time frames. Does the latest Final Fantasy game stand up that well against the rest of the series, or do the massive sales just reflect fan hype for the long-awaited release?

Story - 7/10

The story of FFXV was surprisingly good, given how cookie cutter the stories of the JRPG genre tend to be. Most could be summed up as, “an unlikely group of individuals band together to save the world.” In contrast, FFXV is filled with nuance, and more poignant interactions between characters. As much as the game starts off with a sort of “hanging out with my bros” feeling, it genuinely builds to something more significant and touching.
Every character in the main cast of FFXV has a depth and individuality that I haven’t seen in a game in a long time. Even without the tie-in content of the anime and other media, the characters seem so real and relatable. They have personality, they have quirks, they have skeletons in their closets. Some of the setbacks that the party experiences seem so much more devastating when they feel like people you actually know. Through the course of the story, every character experiences an absurd amount of growth and evolution. Watching this change, while following the party along their journey, is just such a joy.
As much as the playable area of FFXV feels small, I do like that it seems convincing. Instead of having a suspiciously linear sequence of towns and areas, Lucis is mostly open. There is a region of Lucis that is blocked off until a certain point in the story, but otherwise, it is primarily an open world that players can explore at their leisure. There are larger cities, smaller towns, and all the sorts of areas that one would expect in a real place. It just makes sense. The world of Eos isn’t my favorite Final Fantasy locale, but I did enjoy exploring it.
Length of FFXV is extremely variable, depending on how much players gravitate toward the main quest line. If you do only the core story, you could probably beat the game in 20 hours or so. I did a balanced mix of story and side quests, and finished the game in about 50 hours. Upon finishing the main quest, players can go back to complete other side quests, work on collectibles. Overall, you could probably sink somewhere in the ballpark of 80 to 100 hours for everything. I wouldn’t say this gives FFXV much replayability, but you can spend a lot of time doing non-story content.
The reason that I dock pretty much every point that I did from a perfect 10 on story is the existence of “Final Fantasy XV Universe.” This is a collection of extra tie-in material to explain more about the story of FFXV. In my opinion, any game should be able to stand alone and fully tell its story. Sure, you can add DLC to extended stories, or extra content, but the core game should be able to stand alone. While FFXV *can* stand alone, there is a huge amount of story content that is just entirely bypassed. If you want the full story, you have to play the demo, watch the movie, watch the anime, play the arcade game, and play the mobile game. For me, that is absolutely inexcusable. I understand that it allows Square Enix to recycle content from the decade-long development process that would otherwise be wasted, but I don’t want to play and watch so much other stuff just to get the full story for a single video game. I watched the anime, but I’m not wasting my time on all of the other media. I got from the story what the game gave me, and that’s all I’m bothering with.

General Gameplay - 7/10

Navigation in FFXV is pretty interesting. For most of the game, you use the Regalia as your primary mode of transportation. Players can either drive it themselves with Noctis in the driver’s seat, or pick a location on the map and have Ignis automatically navigate to it. Considering how long the load times are for the game, this usually ends up being faster than quick traveling. Something that isn’t offered by many games, especially those with such beautiful scenery, it’s nice to just sit back and look around as Iggy takes you to your destination.
Menus are mostly straightforward. The map is nice, in that you can scroll around manually, or step through a list of destinations. Items are sortable, and the “tactical” menu in combat can be stacked in whatever order you want. The Ascension grid is where you can spend AP to unlock sequential nodes of power ups. One menu that I didn’t really enjoy was the equipment screen. It isn’t very clear what you have equipped versus what you have selected for individual equipment types. Even when you understand that, I couldn’t find an easy way to determine stat changes for weapons and accessories without unequipping and then re-equipping them. Nothing terrible, but it does get annoying with as much as you might need to change equipment.
Inventory management isn’t much of an issue, since I didn’t encounter any limit on number of unique items, or how many items can be in a stack. While I never bought as many items as I could to try to max anything out, I consistently had enough items for use in combat without hitting a cap on them.
There aren’t many collectibles in the game, but there are several “Royal Arms” that can be obtained for extra benefits. Some are rather easy to obtain, others are pretty difficult. All in all, I think those have a good balance of difficulty and reward. The only unfortunate thing is that there are only 13 of them, so players who want more collectibles might be disappointed.
While variety may seem to be unnecessary, Square Enix decided to throw a stealth level in near the very end of the game. Early adopters hated the chapter, as it added entirely new game mechanics that made absolutely no sense. As such, Square Enix later changed the chapter to make it less cumbersome and offer an alternative route, but the decision to include it at all makes absolutely no sense.

Combat - 7/10

I make it no secret that I hate action RPG combat. For me, turn-based is the best way to experience an RPG. I’ll play action RPGs here and there, but most of them are just alright in my mind. Fortunately, the combat of FFXV was done really well in my mind. It isn’t quite button mash-y, but you also don’t have to be super precise and skillful with your inputs. Different weapon types have different mobility options, and there is an interesting dynamic between what you prefer to use as a player, and what individual enemies are weak to.
In addition to weapon resistance and immunity, most enemies also have weakness and resistance to elemental attacks. Elemancy in FFXV consists of combining elemental essence with items, and storing them in flasks. A flask can only have up to 3 casts of a particular spell, and each flask takes up one of your 4 maximum weapon slots. This means you can only have a single non-elemancy weapon equipped, if you have each of the 3 elements equipped. Changing equipment can be done on the fly, but it can also be really annoying to have to do it frequently to match.
Once you get the Ultima Weapon, you can mostly ignore the rest of the weapons and elements. For better or for worse, the damage of Ultima pretty much outweighs any sort of weaknesses and resistances otherwise. I probably spent the last quarter of the game with only Ultima equipped and had no issues that made me want to equip anything else. It’s broken, but that also means I don’t have to bother with swapping and type matching for every single enemy encounter.

Difficulty - 5/10

Unlike most previous Final Fantasy games, FFXV actually has difficulty levels. Easy mode makes Noctis effectively invincible, while normal mode does allow the party to die. The main benefit to playing on a difficulty higher than easy is a late-game trophy that requires the player to beat a certain boss without easy mode.
Otherwise, I think FFXV has a good difficulty level. Some criticize it for being too easy, but it isn’t so easy that hardcore players should be disappointed. I think it simply makes the game more approachable for new players. The game is, after all, “a Final Fantasy for Fans and First-Timers.” Most of the core content can be finished without much hassle, but the non-story content can be deceptively hard. It all depends on how much of the game you want to complete.

Graphics - 10/10

Despite my criticisms of the game, I will note that it is gorgeous. The environments are luscious and colorful. Enemies are varied and well-animated. As I mentioned before, it’s nice to just let Ignis drive and watch the water and the rolling hills of the Lucis region. I’m not one to typically care much about graphics, but FFXV is one of the best looking games I’ve ever played.

Music - 9/10

The music of FFXV is honestly fantastic. The original music for the game is great, but they also added in-game items that unlock music from previous Final Fantasy games to be played in the Regalia. FFVII is a favorite of most players, and you can live up that nostalgia by having the music played while driving around. If you like some of the more forgotten games of the series like FFIX, you can pick those tracks up as well. In addition the the score of FFXV and previous games that were included, there is also a cover of “Stand by Me,” performed by Florence + The Machine. I don’t even like that band, but their cover is simply amazing.

My Take

The Good

I wanted to hate the game for being an action RPG, but it ended up being nowhere near as bad as I anticipated. Fortunately, the story and characters make up for it by a huge margin.

The Bad

No single video game should take 10 years to develop.

The Ugly

I maintain my position that tie-in content is absolutely awful, and should never be used in lieu of fully telling a story within a game.

Overall - 7/10

While I originally had low hopes for FFXV, I was pleasantly surprised when I finally played it. The story is great, besides the terrible decision to spread it out across multiple titles. The combat, despite it being an action RPG, really isn’t bad. The difficulty makes it approachable for long-time veterans of the series, as well as those who have never touched a Final Fantasy game. Graphics are music are absolutely incredible, and easily add to the appeal of the game. It definitely isn’t my favorite Final Fantasy game, but it was certainly an enjoyable play.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Review: Ratchet & Clank (2016)

Ratchet & Clank released in 2016 is a PS4 “reimagining” of the original “Ratchet & Clank released on PS2 in 2002. Serving as “the game, based on the movie, based on the game,” is Ratchet & Clank (2016) a solid addition to the series, or a shameless ploy to milk more money from the series in the wake of the movie?

Story - 9/10

The story of Ratchet & Clank works surprisingly well, with how it is framed as a recollection from the present. I wasn’t a huge fan of one significant deviation from the story of the original (something I won’t spoil for those who haven’t played it), but the story does stand on its own very well. Recurring characters of the series stay true to their personalities, while still managing to seem fresh and interesting. Long time fans will appreciate cameos and nods, but new players aren’t bombarded with jokes that they don’t understand. The balance of old and new is near perfect.
As the series has progressed, Insomniac Games has done a remarkable job of giving depth and detail to characters. Ratchet and Clank have become individually more interesting, and their relationship more nuanced. The other characters that they encounter have a palpable reality. Even if the game doesn’t give an explicit background for every character that the player encounters, it genuinely feels like they belong. Every important character experiences a sort of growth as the game progresses. Both intrinsically within the character, and externally via what the player learns about them, there is a great amount of change in characters across the course of the game.
One of the most vivid features of every game in the Ratchet & Clank series is the setting, and the reimagined 2016 release is no different. Every world has a story, and each planet exists in a sort of cohesive net of interconnectivity. These aren’t individual places, cut off from everywhere else. The entire galaxy is a living ecosystem, and each planet is firmly a part of the galaxy, despite having their own distinctive environments. Even outside the playable area, these cities and places seem full and complete.
The length of the game is one of the best in the series. While some Ratchet games have tended to be too short, and others have felt too lengthy, the 2016 title just feel right. Each planet has enough material to let you fully explore, but not so much that you get bored of a place before moving to the next location.
Replay value is spectacular is always great in Ratchet & Clank games, the 2016 version included. With challenge mode, there is a risk reward factor where enemies are more powerful, but sequential kills without getting hit give a multiplier to the bolts you earn. Couple that with the beefed up versions of weapons that you can unlock and purchase, there is genuinely a compelling reason to play the game through another time or two in order to obtain and upgrade everything.

General Gameplay - 9/10

With a number of different vehicles and transportation methods, gameplay in Ratchet & Clank is extremely varied. As Ratchet, there are platforming segments to jump around on, grind rails to slide through levels, jetpacks to fly freely, and a number of Clank mobility tools. In addition to what Ratchet and Clank can accomplish on their own, there are hoverboard races and ship segments that have their own mechanics. Having so many different styles of gameplay makes the game continuously interesting.
Like other games in the series, there are numerous collectibles and bonus content in Ratchet & Clank. There are gold bolts scattered across the game, that reward the player with unlockable skins for Ratchet. Skill points have been excluded from this game, replaced with PSN trophies. Such an exclusion is unfortunate, but expected, given that trophies and skill points were basically redundant forms of the same mechanic.
Controls in this Ratchet & Clank are extremely tight. Where previous games in the series have relied heavily on aiming assist for the shooting mechanics, the lock strafe mode of Ratchet & Clank (2016) works particularly well. It’s nice to still have a pretty liberal amount of aiming assist, since the game is far from most first person or over-the-shoulder shooters of today.
As for the currency, the balance of bolts to the cost of items is one of the best I’ve seen in the series. Weapons aren’t prohibitively expensive, but they also aren’t handed out like candy. You can prioritize which ones to buy first, but you’ll easily make enough bolts to buy all weapons without an excessive amount of grinding.

Combat - 9/10

The combat of Ratchet & Clank is all about big guns and big explosions. Fortunately, the weapon selection is really good, and every gun is reasonably useful. Unlike previous games that had a few great weapons and a bunch of mostly useless weapons, none of the weapons in the 2016 game are notably bad. Some are obviously better than others, but none of them are specifically annoying or worthless.
One thing that has been improved drastically in Ratchet & Clank (2016) is the ability to combo weapons and items. In previous games, there wasn’t much overlap between the effects of weapons. At most, you could throw some turrets and then switch to another weapon. With items like the Groovitron and Proton Drum, you can combine the effects of weapons for a more useful combination. The whole, in this case, is greater than the sum of the parts.
Amidst all of the things that Ratchet & Clank (2016) did well, ammo drops are painfully rare in boss fights. Through most of the game, there are enough ammo crates to keep a reasonable amount of firepower. Even if you burn through ammo at a faster pace than what the game gives you, you can buy more at vendors. In a boss fight, however, you’re stuck with what you have and what you pick up in the arena. As you improve weapons, this becomes less of a problem, and challenge mode basically removes it completely if you’ve been upgrade your weapons sufficiently. The first few fights in the game, however, can be pretty tight on ammo.

Difficulty - 4/10

Unlike previous games in the series, Ratchet & Clank offers multiple difficulty levels besides the step up for challenge mode. Every game in the series has been traditionally pretty easy, but it’s nice to see them offer more of a challenge for veterans of the series.
The game is still pretty lenient. Dying puts you back to the previous checkpoint, and there are numerous checkpoints in every level. There are no lives, so you can die as much as you want without a more severe penalty. Some segments can be tough in the later game, but the presence of so many checkpoints means they aren’t terribly inconvenient. Don’t go into the game looking for something genuinely difficult. It began as a game made more for younger teens, so forgive it for being easier than, say, Dark Souls.

Graphics - 10/10

The visuals of Ratchet & Clank are absolutely beautiful. Planets are lush, and rich, and just spectacular. Instead of limiting what players can see the only the playable area, Insomniac Games went the other direction and pretty much created an entire world that players can only reach part of. The backgrounds are full of activity, with buildings and landscapes, and often actual moving points. Everything looks crisp and clean, and somehow manages to avoid lag. The entire series is probably one of the environmentally complete that I’ve ever played, and the 2016 title stays true to that vision.

Music - 7/10

Ratchet & Clank (2016) is one of the few games in the series without music by David Bergeaud. Regretfully, this change in composers is noticeable. The music still isn’t bad, but it is nowhere near as atmospheric and fitting as Bergeaud’s music for previous games. As it is, the music in this game is good, but not great. Certainly nothing that will stand out to a player outside of playing the game.

My Take

The Good

All around solid game, from gameplay to story and everything in between.

The Bad

There were some big story changes from the original, which makes it less of a true retelling.

The Ugly

Ratchet & Clank as a series has a definite formula, and the 2016 title thoroughly sticks to this formula without adding anything new.

Overall - 9/10

I’ll admit, I’m a sucker for some Ratchet & Clank games. Exploring vibrant, beautiful worlds and blowing things up has always been a blast, and they have a formula that works time and time again. Remasters and re-releases can be cop-out ways to milk money from a series, but this is different. It’s a neat way for original fans to look back on the beginnings and see how far the series has come. Simultaneously, it’s a good entry point for new fans to get a taste of the series and learn some background, without actually playing through some of the more cumbersome early games. Insomniac Games didn’t take any risky steps to push the series into new territory, but they did make a great game with the same style as previous titles in the series. I can’t say with certainty that Ratchet & Clank (2016) is my favorite in the series, but it is absolutely a great game and I think anybody would have a good time with it.