Category Archives: review

“This is my home. This is the place I call home.”

Before we start, a few things about Final Fantasy for the uninitiated. It’s a Japanese Role-Playing-Game series created by Squaresoft (now Square Enix, which is pretty much the JRPG company), and it is pretty much the classic JRPG series (at least in the US). There are 14 main games, all unconnected, and about fifty billion sequels, spinoffs, etc. Most gamers (including me) started their foray into fantasy RPGs with a Final Fantasy game. And no, at the rate they’re going, there will probably never be a Final Final Fantasy.

Final Fantasy IX

Synopsis: Zidane Tribal is a member of Tantalus, a traveling theater troupe-cum-band of thieves, who have been hired to kidnap Crown Princess Garnet of Alexandria under the cover of performing a popular play. But when Garnet herself asks Tantalus to kidnap her, the chain of events that follows finds Zidane separated from his companions and drawn into the conflict looming between the four great nations of the Mist Continent. As Zidane and Garnet flee from the power-hungry Queen Brahne, they begin to uncover a plot that goes far beyond the threat of war, and could in fact lead to the destruction of the world…

Review: Let’s get one thing out of the way first.

In this blog, video games are to be treated with the exact same respect as any other form of media. I’m not talking about a shoot-em-up or a text adventure– games on a blog like this are going to have substance.

Everyone okay with that? Good. Now let’s move one.

So… you know how I mentioned that medieval/European steampunk/magitech-y style was my favorite fantasy setting?

Yeah, that all started with this game. I was about eleven when I first played it, so I was already way into both fantasy and video games, but this style was new to me. I had already played the groundbreaking Final Fantasy VII and thus  had all my expectations for what a game should be like pretty much blown out of the water, but the visuals in FFIX just clicked with me.

I mean, yes, the game is eleven years old, so of course it’s going to look dated now, but I maintain that it’s one of the best-looking games for the original Playstation. And really, there’s a whole lot of beautiful and detailed worldbuilding going on, and you know how much I love worldbuilding. The one thing that always bugged me a little about the game’s appearance were the appearance of the people, as the combination of realistic graphics and an exaggerated comic style felt a bit off. However, I always get used to it after playing for a little while, and it doesn’t hurt the game’s tone at all. (People who dismiss FFIX as a “kiddy game” because of the art style? Go away.)

The main cast. Of course they look silly, it’s a JRPG.

The music is some of Nobuo Uematsu’s best work– and considering he’s one of the most famous video game composers of all time, that’s saying something. However, it’s more like the entire soundtrack overall is good, rather than there being a few really standout tunes (not that I don’t have my favorites, of course). There is no voice acting at all, since this is an old game, but thankfully the localization team did a great job with the massive amounts of dialogue typical for a JRPG. In fact, this is one of the best English scripts of its time. (I have heard great things about Vagrant Story, another Square game, but I’ll have to see it to believe it.)

Now, since this is a video game, I do have to talk about gameplay a bit. This is classic JRPG stuff– explore the world, battle monsters, dungeon-crawl, and advance the ridiculously long and complicated story. FFIX deliberately hearkens back to the more traditional gameplay of the old Super Nintendo Final Fantasies, while keeping the gaming interface fresh and modern (for 2000… but really, it still isn’t that hard to get into now). It’s well-paced, well-balanced, and intuitive. People new to Final Fantasy and wondering where to start should at least take a look. This isn’t a game review blog, so I’ll leave it at that and not go into specifics.
 
While Final Fantasy IX is, at least initially, much more lighthearted than previous games in the series, this does not make it a kiddy game filed with sunshine and rainbows, as some people dismissed it. And it’s a shame, because this is the Final Fantasy most people seem to forget about because of that. It is still a very idealistic game, but its storyline is complex, emotionally mature, and at times achingly bittersweet. I didn’t get the finer points of the storyline and themes until I replayed it years later– kind of like The Last Unicorn, except that this was never meant for kids.
 
One thing I love about the story is how enjoyable all the characters are, and how much more character-driven the story is. The way they interact is just wonderful, and it’s great to have a friendly, happy-go-lucky main hero like Zidane after three previous brooding, conflicted, and tormented main FF characters. Unfortunately, most of the character developement moves to focus on Zidane, Garnet and Vivi after the first half or so of the game. The other party members are just as excellent, but underused. Not that I don’t love those three and how they develop, of course. Zidane is in fact my favorite FF hero– while he may be the youngest, he is certainly one of the most emotionally mature. And Garnet–surprise!– is my favorite FF princess. She does a great job at pulling herself out of various damsel-in-distress pitfalls. The romance that eventually develops between them is slow-paced, natural, and never overtakes the main plot (I’m looking at you, Final Fantasy VIII!)
 
Am I forgetting any– oh right, Kuja.
 
 
When your game’s main villain is a hammy, femmy guy wearing a metal thong, it is a very difficult task indeed to make him not only interesting, but legitimately threatening. Kudos, Square.
 
Does FFIX have problems? Of course. I think its main one is that it stays too close to the Final Fantasy formula while FFVII and VIII did great jobs with shaking it up. As I said before, a lot of the party members are just not developed enough. It has pacing issues in its last third or so, but that’s common with most JRPGS. Overall, it holds a special place in my very favorites as a beautiful, enjoyable, well-made and inspirational work of fantasy.
 
Since this game is so old, it’s very difficult to find an original copy, but if you have means to access the Playstation Network, it is available to download. Get it if possible; it’s well worth the $10.
 
I was going to draw a picture for you all, but my computer is being fixed at the moment, so I’ll leave you with images from some of my favorite scenes in the game.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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“Was it all just a dream? Or maybe a vision?”

The Vision of Escaflowne

Synopsis: Hitomi Kanzaki is an ordinary high school girl with a knack for reading tarot cards, but her life is changed forever when a vision of a knight battling a dragon becomes reality, and she is transported to the magical world of Gaea. There she meets the young prince Van Fanel, who is attempting to unite the countries of Gaea against the mighty Zaibach empire. Swept into the conflict, Hitomi finds that her tarot readings are beginning to come true, and that she may have the power to change the fate of the entire planet– for good or for ill. But first, she must discover the secret behind Van’s origins and those of his legendary mech, Escaflowne.

Review: Escaflowne is one of the most shining examples of positively derivative fantasy I have ever come across, which is why I wanted to review it immediately after decrying bad works of derivative fantasy last week.

It embarrasses me to say this, but for a long time I actually avoided Escaflowne because I was under the mistaken impression  that it was just a standard shonen mecha (that is, giant robot anime for teenage boys) series. When I finally heard that it was a shojo fantasy/romance, I became extremely confused, but decided to watch it anyway because hey, fantasy. It turned out to be… a shonen/mecha/shojo/romance/adventure/high fantasy. And somehow, it works.

Look, capes and swords! That makes them fantasy!

Let’s get right down to the technicals, since those and the presentation are pretty much everything that makes Escaflowne work. This show is just beautiful. The art and animation are gorgeous and richly detailed. I love how though the setting is mostly medieval European/steampunk style (my favorite fantasy setting!), it also has some distinct Asian elements that make it interesting and unique.  The character designs are shojotastic, which basically means that the girls are cute and the guys are gorgeous, but it’s not enough to distract people or turn them away. It’s all very, very pretty– exactly what you’d expect from a high fantasy.

The soundtrack is… perfect. Not that I’d expect anything less from the legendary Yoko Kanno, but it’s pretty much exactly what you’d expect an epic high fantasy soundtrack to sound like. For voice acting, I’m going to say to avoid the English dub on this one. There isn’t anything really wrong with it, but the English episodes I saw were just so bland and lifeless, especially when compared to the fantastic Japanese cast.

Okay, so the audio and visuals are both ridiculously good, but what about the rest of the presentation– narrative, plotting, and pacing?

…Yeah, those are ridiculously good too. The first episode starts out slow, as what looks like a standard shojo high school romance begins to unfold… suddenly, DRAGON IN THE MIDDLE OF THE TRACK FIELD.

I know the CGI's dated, but these dragon designs get a free pass from me because that is so cool.

After that the plot kicks into high gear and never once looks back. This tight, intricate, and super-fast pacing is what really makes Escaflowne stand out. Every single episode, every single scene, is unskippable, packing in huge amounts of story and character development. Events that would normally take one or two episodes in another anime take half an episode in Escaflowne, and somehow still manage to keep all of their impact. This is why both the shonen and shojo elements work so well– exciting action scenes and giant robots doing cool stuff are balanced by character progression and a giant love… uh… dodecahedron… consisting of most of the main cast. Normally this sort of thing would be incredibly confusing, but Escaflowne deftly juggles its multiple plotlines with masterful exposition.

Before you start to worry that this show is too good to be true, however, let’s move on to the actual content.

Scroll up and reread the synopsis I wrote. Done? Okay, now can anyone point out anything in there that was even remotely original? (And if you answer with ‘the giant robot’ you obviously haven’t watched enough anime.) No? I thought not.

Escaflowne moves along like it’s checking off from a guide to anime and fantasy cliches. The archetypes here are as old as dirt, and while characters do develop as I said before, their arcs are entirely predictable. They’re not bad characters, and I enjoyed them a lot, but they’re enjoyable, well-developed stereotypes, from “ordinary high school girl” Hitomi, “hotblooded young warrior prince” Van, “ladies’ man with daddy issues” Allen, and even “honorable villain henchman with good intentions” Folken.

Also, why is Hitomi still wearing her school uniform in magical fantasyland? Why does that happen all the time in anime?

The story, while intricate and developed as well, is also one big cliche. If you’ve played any sort of fantasy video game from Japan from the past twenty years, you know what’s going to happen. And I… have played a lot of those. On the other hand, I keep playing them for a reason, so I was still able to have a lot of fun watching Escaflowne.

No, my main problem with Escaflowne was the ending– well, the last two episodes in general, but the ending especially. The pacing had just been so perfect throughout, and then it was like someone realized “Oops, guys, we need to finish up here”. As a result, the last two episodes feel rushed and inconsistent compared with the rest, and some major characters are sort of glossed over to get to the final battle. The ending isn’t really bad, but… what happened left me frustrated, and not in a good way. It definitely knocks Escaflowne down a peg on my favorite anime list, and that’s a shame for such an amazing series.

There is also an Escaflowne movie (called, amazingly enough, Escaflowne: The Movie), released several years after the series, that I have not yet seen. I’ll see if I can find it and make a follow-up post on it sometime before the end of the semester. It’s apparently an alternate retelling of the series, instead of a continuation.

If you want an epic, traditional high fantasy series played straight, I absolutely recommend Escaflowne.  If the English dub were any better, I’d say it would be a perfect introduction to anime, especially for fantasy lovers. It’s a classic that’s got something for everyone, and while it sacrifices originality for technical perfection, it shows why those old cliches still exist.

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Next time: I tackle the Harry Potter series. Help me.

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“Those who accept their fate find happiness; those who defy it, glory.”

Warning: the following TV show contains ballet, romance, magic, fluffy girly cuteness,  and obnoxiously huge anime eyes. Take a look at these two trailers to see if you can tolerate the content. If you still love Disney movies and/or have been interested in that weird pony thing that’s been going around the internet, you should be fine.

Princess Tutu

Synopsis: Once upon a time, there was a duck who fell in love with a prince. The prince, Mytho, was empty inside, for he had sacrificed his heart to seal away an evil raven. When the duck wished that she could help return the prince’s heart to him, an old man appeared and gave the duck a magic pendant that could turn her into a girl. The girl, named Duck, now searches for the missing shards of the prince’s heart in a town that merges fairy tales and reality. Coming close to a heart shard transforms her into the beautiful and graceful Princess Tutu, who wins over her opponents through her magical dance. However, complications arise– who is this other princess, Rue, who is vying for Mytho’s affection? And why does Mytho’s guardian, Fakir, not want his heart to be returned?

Review: One thing I love about fantasy is how it can so easily transcend the limits of its genre. It gives the opportunity for the story to be played out in new and fascinating ways, and questions the nature of fiction and reality. 

So why am I bringing this up in a kid’s show about a magical girl ballerina fairytale princess?

You may have found the above synopsis somewhat confusing. That’s because Princess Tutu is a fairytale– inspired by Grimm’s Fairy Tales, good old Walt Disney, and quite a bit of classical balletmost obviously and importantly Swan Lake. It’s also a metafictional fairytale, which means all of the characters know they’re in a story and try to fit their roles to the best of their ability. Or should they defy the limitations of their fictional world and just be themselves?

…Right, let’s back up a little bit here.  Moving to the technical side, Tutu manages to take a fairly small budget and really make something out of it. The character designs are extremely shojo and stylized, but pretty and clean. Backgrounds are detailed and varied, and the use of color to set the mood is fantastic. The action/dancing scenes aren’t perfectly animated, but are gorgeously choreographed and look amazing, making that a forgivable offense. Unlike most magical girl shows, there isn’t a huge amount of stock footage, and Princess Tutu’s transformation sequence is only a few seconds long, when its predecessors could have transformations lasting more than a minute.

That's the prince on the left. He isn't a girl. Really.

Tutu uses famous classical and ballet tunes, making its soundtrack one of the show’s best features.  This is the perfect venue to expose people to classical music– I’m currently listening to “Waltz of the Flowers” from The Nutcracker on repeat. As for voice acting, I have not seen the original Japanese version,  but can safely say that the English voice cast is just fantastic. The standout performance belongs to Luci Christian as Duck/Tutu, who makes Duck endearing without being obnoxious, and gives Tutu a heartfelt, serene grace.

Back to the actual content… Okay, I’ll admit that I was reluctant at first to start watching this. And, well… you can sort of see why. I mean, I like shojo, but… Princess Tutu. Princess. Tutu. I have my limits.

But, well, it looked cute and harmless and I’d been told by quite a few people to watch it, even those not normally into magical girl shows. The first half is pretty standard monster-of-the-week, finding the prince’s lost heart shards/dodging romantic complications, etc., but I kept watching because I felt like I’d touched on something special. Something was building beneath the surface. The story, set in motion, began to slowly grind forward once again.

And then…

Princess Tutu is not quite a deconstruction of fairy tales and the magical girl genre– it’s too gentle for that. However, it does take a good long look at the nature of archetypal roles, and of the power of story and words. Fate vs. free will is a strong recurring theme throughout. Who is Princess Tutu, exactly? Is she truly the one fated to be by the Prince’s side forever? Or in the end, is she only just a duck?

Tutu is not afraid to get into darker, more complex (still suitable for children, but more PG-rated) themes and scenarios in its second half, and proves to be a worthy successor to all those Disney movies that terrified us as kids. It’s also exceedingly well-written, with some fantastic characters. I loved the main cast (Duck, Mytho, Fakir and Rue), their stories, and their struggles with the roles assigned to them. The supporting cast and even the one-shot characters are interesting and enjoyable as well.

My main problem with Tutu is that the buildup is just too long– 12 out of 26 episodes– and it could easily make someone lose interest before the good stuff starts happening. Otherwise, can you tell already that I love this show? Because I love this show. I would happily write out 1000 more words praising it if that meant more people would watch it. I love how people spent so much effort to create a beautiful, intelligent, well-written story for children, that just about anyone can watch. I love a good fantasy that delights in its genre and pushes its limitations.

Princess Tutu is an exquisite show, and I normally reserve that adjective for things currently in museums. It’s not perfect– no shows are– but it’s still one of my favorite anime series, and something I would recommend to anyone.

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Convinced? Want to watch Princess Tutu? Well, you can watch it legally on Youtube (here, you may need a Youtube account) (looks like they took it off) and Hulu (here) in English, free of charge. It’s only 26 episodes, so what are you waiting for?

Next time I try to talk about fantasy science, using Tales of the Abyss as the main example. Why? Because I like it. Also because it makes no sense.

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Filed under animation, anime, fantasy talk, Princess Tutu, review

“She is the only unicorn to ever know regret– and love.”

The Last Unicorn

Based on the novel by Peter S. Beagle

Synopsis: In an everlasting green wood lives the very last unicorn in all the world. Upon finding out that she is indeed the last, the unicorn sets out on a quest to find the rest of her kind, for she is certain that they cannot all be gone. Her journey brings her into contact with humans, where she learns of the best and worst of humankind. Eventually her travels bring her into the domain of the legendary Red Bull, and she undergoes a transformation that will change her perception of the world forever.

Review: I’m never quite sure what to say about The Last Unicorn. Since this is a review, people are expecting me to say whether it’s good or bad, and if I would recommend it, but this is going to be a bit more complicated.

I’m very picky about visual presentation and aesthetic quality in visual media, and The Last Unicorn… well.  The art sort of bounces back and forth from delicately detailed to, uh, bad, though some of it is just that I don’t like the way the human characters are drawn. The animation is good… for 1982. Okay, maybe the rotoscoping makes it look like all the characters are on stimulants, and the unicorn looks like she might snap in half from a stiff breeze.

This is not the most vacant-eyed stare in the movie, but I couldn't find a better picture.

The music is very… eighties.  To the point that I knew it was dated even when I was little. I’ve seen people praise the voice acting, but there are only two performances I was ever interested in, and I’ll get to those later. The pacing of the movie can be very jarring, with some bizarre tonal shifts along the way– the fault of the people trying to take a book not for kids and turn it into what they believe is a children’s movie.

And that is one of the main problems with The Last Unicorn. To put it very simply, the original novel is not meant for children. I only chose to review the movie and not the book simply because it’s been years since I read the book and I just rewatched the movie this August. I think the movie gets things right– a lot of things– but it’s flawed because it just can’t replicate the source material in the mature way it deserves.

Ah, there we go.

And now for the things it gets right. There is a lot going on under the jerky animation and plot that I didn’t notice as a kid but caught right away as an adult. Unicorns are my favorite fantasy creatures, and one of the reasons for that is that there are so many ways to use and interpret them. They are traditionally innocent, aloof, and magical, and this unicorn is no different, but the way she is presented and how she develops certainly is. It’s very easy to interpret the unicorn’s journey as being allegorical.  (Of what, I won’t say if you haven’t seen the movie already.) The fact that this managed to stay in the movie says some good things about it. I also love that the movie kept the book’s original ending, which was not of the conventionally happy sort, as its impact would certainly have been lessened if the ending had been changed.

But The Last Unicorn’s greatest asset is its sheer emotional power.

I could sense the undercurrent of unrestrained feeling even when I was a child– there is a raw, haunting quality to the unicorn’s journey, and a bleakness that I don’t normally see in kids’ movies. I’m not talking A Game of Thrones bleak– it’s nowhere near that bad– but despite the datedness of its presentation I always find myself taking the story very seriously. This is aided by the two vocal performances that I mentioned before. The first is Mia Farrow as the unicorn, who somehow manages to stand on the line between raggedly plaintive and laughably melodramatic without crossing it  (well, most of the time). The result is a voice that seems strange for a gentle and innocent unicorn, but fits more with her true personality. The second is Christopher Lee as the bitter, tortured King Haggard, a character who is much more complex than he initially appears. I don’t think I have to elaborate on that one much. Anything voiced by Saruman is automatically awesome.

The Last Unicorn brought me to tears when I first saw it, and still does to this day. Not because it’s depressing (though its tone is often bittersweet) but because I could relate to the emotions, the joy and the sadness, that the unicorn experiences as she begins to understand humanity.

Final verdict– You’ll either connect with The Last Unicorn emotionally or you won’t. If you don’t, the rest of the movie is such a mess that it really isn’t worth watching. If you do, you will love it in spite of all that. But whether you do or you don’t, check out the original book as a fantastic example of a fantasy novel.

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Next Time: I gush about some of the finest television ever produced for children. And if you thought I couldn’t get any girlier than unicorns, you’re wrong.

You'd better get used to the flowers.

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“Winter is Coming.”

Terms for today’s post have been added to the dictionary. Be sure to check it every week!

A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin (A Song of Ice and Fire: Book One)

Synopsis: Westeros is a land where seasons last for years, not months, and a long winter approaches. Many years after Eddard Stark and his friend Robert Baratheon overthrew the Mad King Aerys and brought peace to the Seven Kingdoms, Eddard is content to remain the Lord of Winterfell, living in the quiet north with his wife and children. When Robert, now King, calls Eddard to his side to become his advisor, Eddard reluctantly complies, sensing trouble approaching, while his wife Catelyn receives a message that could plunge the kingdoms into war. Meanwhile, Aerys’ heir Viserys and his sister Daenarys plot to reclaim his lost throne. And in the forests beyond the great Wall surrounding the kingdoms, supernatural beings known as the Others are beginning to move…

Review: Ah, the fantasy doorstopper. You know, those gigantic hardcover books that can be used as weapons of deadly assault? With the fifty thousand pages and eleventy billion characters and places and other little details that you have to pretty much memorize if you want to get through the book with a minimum of confusion? Part 135346 of a series?

Yeah.

I’m a fast and voracious reader, so giant books that take a while to get through usually fill me with glee. I was actually sort of reluctant to get started on this series (more on that later) but I was pleased by its unique structure, which features an ensemble cast and a ton of viewpoint characters. The appendix in the back of the book is pretty much required, but Martin also forgoes true chapters and just switches viewpoint characters every five-to-ten pages, splitting the book into manageable chunks and showing all the different sides to a situation instead of simply mentioning something once and then forgetting about it.

Martin’s prose is fluid and natural, a welcome change from all those books trying to sound old-fashioned but just coming off as pretentious. His descriptions are rich and vivid, with fantastic word choice that properly hits the targeted emotion. This, combined with the short sections which you can easily catch your breath at, sent me speeding through the book, reading through a three-hour car ride, not wanting to put it down at night.

There is a ton of complex political intrigue and other complications that drive the plot forward, making this a book you need to turn your full attention on. At the same time, there is a lot of humanity and emotion that can be downright painful to read. I can’t talk too much about the plot (since I’m not actually done the book  yet) and I don’t really want too, since this blog is for getting people interested, not for recapping the story. However, I would like to talk a bit about the worldbuilding Martin has done and how it sets the tone he is going for.

A Game of Thrones is true dark fantasy. This is more difficult to find than it seems. ‘Edgy’ versions of just about everything under the sun have been popping up for years, but just taking a classic fairy tale and adding a lot of sex and violence does not a dark fantasy make.

Case in point.

In fantasy, the type of world you create sets the tone for your story. Everything you include or leave out has an impact. The brutal violence, illicit and disturbing sexual relationships, and, yes, the crippled children and slaughtered puppies that this book contains is not there simply to make it more ‘edgy’. It is setting the tone of the book, and defining the world the characters live in.

See, Westeros is a medieval, magicless world– medieval with all the screwed-up values and horrible living conditions, magicless and thus defenseless against the Others, or any other supernatural beings that may appear. Also, if you’re not white male nobility, your life is basically screwed. This is a bleak, gray world.

I can think of one other true dark fantasy off the top of my head. It’s a show called Berserk, and– surprise!– it’s also set in a medieval, magicless, bleak world with supernatural beings humans are defenseless against. So why this type of setting? It’s a way of showing that essentially, no one is safe. The ‘good guys’ might not come out on top… and do we even want them to? Even if the Starks ‘win’, what’s going to change? Their lives will still suck. Tragedy will come (it came in Berserk, and I see winter approaching for Westeros). And this is only the first book of a series, so there’s plenty of opportunity for things to get even worse.

Yeah, so if you couldn’t already tell, I like my fantasy to be just a teensy bit more idealistic. I’m not talking constant friendship speeches, I just don’t like this pervasive feeling of despair. I’ll finish the book, I’ll probably even start on the rest of the series, and I have nothing bad to say about the writing or plot. Dark fantasy is just not my thing, and this will never be on a list of my top favorites.

Do I recommend A Game of Thrones? Yes, but take note of the extremely mature content contained within. And if you don’t feel like reading 800+ pages, check out the TV series, which I have heard nothing but good things about. But if it’s all right by you, I’m going back to my JRPGs.

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