11 January 2011

Golden Sun: Dark Dawn

I liked Golden Sun: Dark Dawn. I liked it a lot. I got this game for Christmas, and despite falling ill, still managed to put in a full work week beating it. Yes, I beat it in about a week, logging just over 38 hours of gameplay. I still have some post-game bonus material to tackle, though most of my gaming time has been devoted to Red Dead Redemption lately. Still, I suspect I'll be picking it up again shortly to do the bonus challenges.

At any rate, this game topped my list of Best Games of 2010, primarily for one very big reason: This game is everything I loved about the originals, but with better graphics.

More of the same
My favourite games on GBA as a kid had to be Golden Sun and Golden Sun: The Lost Age. That's not to say that there weren't other great games on GBA, but they were still superb entries. They were very fun RPGs, replete with plot-twists and puzzles, and it's all there again with Dark Dawn.

Although within the story, the world of Weyard has undergone radical changes in the 30 years since the end of Teh Lost Age, very little has changed gameplay-wise. Yes, small towns have become countries, landscapes have changed, a new race of beastman have emerged, and there's been the appearance of dangerous psynergy vortexes, but when you look at the gamplay mechanics? It's just more of the same. Which isn't a bad thing, mind you. I loved the originals, so it's good to be back there again.

Is it just me, or is it easier?
There is one thing that has changed, or at least feels different. It feels... easier. But maybe I'm just misremembering things. After all, I was 13 and 14 when I played the originals. I'm 22 now, nearing 23. Still, I couldn't help but shake the feeling that it was just... easier than those originals were.

Hey, look! It's Isaac!
Er, wait... I guess it's his son.
In the context of the story, you play as the children of the Warriors of Vale, who were the protagonists of the original series. Maybe that adds to it. After all, even though the Warriors of Vale were kids too in those first two games, they were doing it for the very first time. No one had mastered psynergy (i.e. magic in the Golden Sun universe) before. But now you're just following in your father's footsteps. It makes the characters feel more like kids than those original heroes were.

At any rate, I never really struggle much with this games puzzles. As it went on, there were a few where I had to try it a few more times to get it, but I was never left staring at my DS, scratching my head and saying, "I have no idea how I'm supposed to do this." If I tried a solution and it failed, I would see the correct solution shortly thereafter.

Still, the sheer complexity of the final dungeon was, at the very least, impressive. There is one par where you must line-up shadows to create an image, which is really cool to see come together (if easy to solve).

Using Djinn
In addition to the more involved puzzles that involve the use of psynergy outside of battle, something that already makes the Golden Sun series stand out from your generic RPGs, there is also the addictive combat system. In addition to your standard Attack/Magic/Item/etc menu-driven combat system, there is the option of using Djinn.

Djinn are cute little creatures that aid your party. When you equip or "set" Djinn to your characters, they provide statistical increases and can alter your available Psynergy, making you stronger in general. You can then unleash the Djinn to perform special attacks. For example, one might allow you to disregard an enemies Defence for that attack, or it might have a chance of poisoning the target. Other Djinn will heal the party's HP, PP (Psynergy Points), status ailments, or revive characters who have been knocked out. Once unleashed, the Djinn enter "Standby," and are ready to help you summon.

In order to use a summon, you must have a certain number of Djinn on Standby, after which point they will slowly re-equip onto their respective characters. The system provides for various levels of strategy. You don't want to unleash all your Djinn and have your stats drop, but they perform strong attacks and allow for you to use powerful summons.

Overall, combat was, again, pretty easy. That is, except for the final boss. He was way harder than the rest of the game ever suggested. The first time I fought him, I lost. It was the first time I lost a battle, and it reset me at the beginning of the dungeon with half my money. I don't know if this is normal or if it's for the final boss only, as the game did seem to go easy on you even with this daunting foe. See, all the random encounters in the area just before him were set up to help you grind and get ready for the fight. They gave you tons of EXP for relatively little work and also consistently dropped Waters of Life (Golden Sun's version of the Phoenix Down). I think just running back to where the final boss was netted me an extra two or three levels, easily. I also had a better strategy up my sleeve, and made short work of him the second time.

Okay, maybe not that short. It actually took a while, so I barely got through the final cut scene and was able to save before I had to rush off to work. I finished him off while hastily changing into my work clothes. This is how all the cool kids live.

The story of Golden Sun: Dark Dawn is about as complex as the originals, but this time, the plot-twists feel way more obvious. Maybe it's because I played the old ones and know their style. And there's a lot of similarities in the basic plot. Also, Dark Dawn ends with a lot of things left unresolved, and a significant cliffhanger. They are obviously intending a sequel. And I, for one, would welcome it with open arms.

07 January 2011

Once Upon a Time in the West

The Gatehouse Gazette's 16th issue was recently released, and it focused on the Weird West. Ever the fan of Westerns, I was hoping to provide a review of Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), but the time I had hoped to spend writing became engulfed by my recent spat with the stomach flu. The issue is still worth checking out, and marks a major change in the Gazette's style and appearance: the addition of colour!

At any rate, I did manage to get around to watching Once Upon a Time in the West and figured I'd provide my thoughts here while they're still relevant to what's going on over at the Gatehouse.

A question of motive
In a way, Once Upon a Time in the West story hinges a bit on mystery. The film begins with an intriguing scene: Three men hijack a train station and wait for a train to arrive. The sequence is long and drawn out, with each man dealing with his own pesky annoyances while they impatiently await the locomotive's arrival. Finally, the train comes, and brings with it a single man who is looking for a Frank. A rapid shoot-out breaks loose, and all four men fall, though the stranger managed to survive with only minor wounds.

Suddenly, we cut away to an entirely different scene, which ends with its own little mystery. The movie ultimately hinges on the question, "Why?" It doesn't take long to figure out who a lot of the characters are, but the question remains, "Why are they here? What's their reason for being involved in the story?" This is answered, slowly, for the main characters, ultimately climaxing with the nameless character, referred to by the bandit Cheyenne as "Harmonica." Everyone else has their stake in the town and it's events, but why this drifting stranger? What's his connection to Frank? Why did he come at all?

The final reveal, while perhaps not entirely surprising, is chillingly done nonetheless and gives the film a satisfying conclusion.

Clint Eastwood isn't the only man with no name
The film probably excels best in its characters, who remain interesting despite being fairly predictable for a Sergio Leone film. Think of the three Leone archetypes set up in, arguably, his best-known work: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966). The Good is a highly-skilled, nameless drifter. The Bad is a cold-hearted, ruthless murderer. The Ugly is a bandit who is a bit more comical and light-hearted than the rest, and which the audience is most likely to sympathize and identify with. Once Upon a Time in the West certainly follows this pattern:

"He not only plays.
He can shoot too." —Cheyenne
No name: Clint Eastwood isn't the only actor to play a highly-skilled, nameless drifter. After all, Toshiro Mifune arguably portrayed the prototype with this character Sanjuro from Akira Kurosawa's films Yojimbo (1961) and Sanjuro (1962). But even in Leone's cinema, Charles Bronson got his chance as the man with the harmonica. As can be expected, he's a mysterious one. For much of the film, we have little idea why he's even there, other than that he apparently came to settle something wit Frank. What, exactly, that is is not revealed until the film's final duel.

Murderer: Henry Fonda is cast against type as the villainous Frank, a hired gunman for the railroad tycoon Morton. His first appearance automatically sets up his cold-hearted nature as he massacres a defenceless family, and he provides the main conflict necessary to propel the other characters throughout the story.

The Bandit: A little less oafish and comical than Tuco in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Cheyenne is nonetheless still the most identifiable of the characters. We find out the most about his past. He also shows himself to be a rather decent human being despite his crimes. Much like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Cheyenne and Harmonica form a loose friendship and work together against the villain.

Jill McBain, naked in a bathtub
for no discernible reason other than to have
Jill McBain naked in a bathtub.
The Woman: Once Upon a Time in the West makes one significant addition to the cast that The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly lacked: a female main character. Played by Claudia Cardinale, Jill McBain is the widow of Brett McBain, who purchased a supposedly worthless piece of land, but did so with a definitive plan. This plan serves as a major piece of motivation throughout the film. However, I didn't really like Jill as a character. She felt out of place in the Western. I don't mean to imply that women should not have a place within the Western genre, but she felt a bit sexist. As if her main reason for existence was to heave her bosom with weighted breath and require protection from the big, strong men. She is an ex-prostitute, a point that seems to be brought more to sexualize her than to give her more dimension, though it certainly does allow for one of her few lines I actually enjoyed, in which she replies to Cheyenne's claim that she deserves a better life, saying, "The last man who told me that is buried out there."And, really, she only seems to have any use in the plot as a way of revealing more of Cheyenne's human side. On her own, she's pretty much useless, and the overt attempts at sexualizing her only served to make me like the film a little less. Maybe it's because she reminded me of just how masculine and at times chauvinist the Western genre can be, and Sergio Leone's films in particular, but perhaps that's a topic for another day.
Chilling, absolutely chilling
The primary reason I wanted to see this film was because of the soundtrack. I had heard its main theme, "Spiel mir das Lied vom Tod," and it's probably my favourite Western theme. Listen to it. Go on, listen to it.

And boy, do you hear that theme a lot, along with a handful of other songs. The music in this film was just great. It sent chills down my spine. It made the movie. I honestly don't think it would be the same without this soundtrack. And once is all plays through, and you come to that final confrontation between Harmonica and Frank, it all just hits. I loved the song long before I ever saw the movie, but after seeing that finale, I will never hear it the same again. That final sequence is fantastic, and the film is worth watching through just to get to that point. And yes, the ending is on YouTube, but it's not the same without the build up. If you like Leone at all, you should know that. Just think of those final duels. The tension as you wait, and wait, and wait. When is it going to happen? When are they going to shoot? Once Upon a Time in the West is sort of like that throughout the entire film. When are we finally going to get the resolution between Harmonica and Frank? And when it happens? It's chilling. Absolutely chilling.