Goes to the Movies

Trash Culture Goes to the Movies: Puppet Master vs. Demonic Toys (2004)

pmvsdtcoverHonestly, when I read that Charles Band himself declared that Puppet Master vs. Demonic Toys isn’t canon I assumed he was just being peevish. After all, this installment was just licensed out from Full Moon and produced and released by the Sci-Fi Channel (yes, pre-Syfy, although even then they were making movies, well, like this one!). Charles Band does have an “executive producer” credit, but as most people with even a passing familiarity of showbiz might tell you, executive producers often have even more of a purely symbolic role than the Queen of England (see also Clive Barker with Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth and Tim Burton with Batman Forever).

Anyway, a good reason why Charles Band exiled this film from canon is that it manages to irreconcilably contradict Puppet Master and Demonic Toys continuity. I know I talk a lot about continuity when discussing Puppet Master, but the series’ lack of fidelity to its own overarching story really is fascinating in some deep, profound way. Seeing this movie, which manages to make itself completely incompatible with what little consistent background this series has kept up, is like seeing someone insist on paying for free samples in a grocery store. What makes it even weirder is that this movie was written by C. Courtney Joyner, who does come from Full Moon’s stable of writers and directors and previously wrote for Puppet Master III and the framing story for Puppet Master: The Legacy. I actually tried to dig around to see a reason for why the film’s script is so out of sync, but, apart from finding out that the film had been in Development Purgatory for something like a decade or so, no dice. It’s a mystery for the ages! Or at least until someone not as lazy as me or with actual contacts asks Joyner or Charles Band about it.pmvsdt2Adding to the weirdness is that the puppets just don’t look the way they’re supposed to look. The rest aren’t quite as off as Jester here, but, well, it’s just enough that it feels like you’re watching a knockoff of the franchise, like Marionette Lord or something. It gets even more off when the puppets get turned into cyborgs. Seriously.

Enough about this being faux-Puppet Master; how does this movie set up the clash of the ages? Andre Toulon has a nephew, Robert, who is played by Corey Feldman sporting gloriously unconvincing grayed hair and a bizarre, unnecessary gravely voice that tops Christian Bale’s Batman voice in every possible way. Whether this was the director’s idea or Feldman’s adds to the enigma that is this film. Robert once worked for the toy-selling mega-corporation Sharpe Toys, but now runs a humble doll-repair shop with his daughter Alexandra (Danielle Keaton). Unfortunately, the CEO of Sharpe Toys, Erica Sharpe (Vanessa Angel, of Weird Science: The TV Series…fame?), hasn’t completely washed her hands of her ex-employee. As she spies on him via a ladybug toy, he and Alexandra use their special “Toulon blood” and information from Andre Toulon’s notes to create a formula that revives Blade, Six-Shooter, Pinhead, and Jester, who were found in a Paris auction and weren’t already in the Toulons’ possession, even though Robert describes the puppets as beings who “protected the Toulon family for generations, like guardian angels” (tell that to Andre Toulon!). If they were so important, why did they get separated from the Toulon clan? Or why does it sound like the Toulons got the puppets back by chance? Who the hell knows?

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Erica wants the secret to the Toulon puppets, naturally, but she has a supernatural secret of her own. Her father had sold his soul to the arch-demon Bael to create toys that actually live, resulting in the three Demonic Toys (needless to say, this too has nothing to do with the plot of any of the three Demonic Toys movies). Like any good businessperson, Erica wants to build on the terms of the original deal. She’ll enact a ritual, fueled by the blood of countless virgin receptionists and topped off with Toulon blood, on the dawn of Christmas day that will demonically empower millions of toys modeled after the Demonic Toys sold across the world and bring about the deaths of millions of very disappointed children, all in exchange for her being granted world domination. (It’s also implied that Erica wants to create her own puppet praetorian guard from Andre Toulon’s formula because she’s afraid Bael or the Demonic Toys will try to double-cross her, but the whole thing gets dropped in the film’s third act).

Took notes? No? That’s okay. This movie’s strangely convoluted set-up gets the broad stroke treatment anyway. You’ll just be left wondering why they completely ignored the backstories of both series for the sake of stuffing in brand new details, like that the Toulons got their puppets and the magic blood from a sixteenth century ancestor, Jean-Paul, who also made a deal with Bael but cheated him, which is why Bael wants revenge by wiping out the Toulon bloodline!  *phew*

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Oh my God, in that screenshot Robert Toulon looks at least a little like Mama from Mama’s Family, doesn’t he?

Anyway, the Toulons get an ally, Sgt. Russell (Silvia Suvadová), who investigates a fire caused in an early attempt by Erica’s thugs to steal the puppets and Toulon’s formula. Naturally she’s skeptical when she has to bust Robert Toulon, who while covertly investigating Sharpe’s warehouse interrupts a public relations event while fleeting from the Demonic Toys’ leader (or at least the only one who can talk), Baby Oopsie Daisy, setting up my favorite exchange of the movie:

Have you ever been committed to a mental health facility?
Yes. No. Once, but they released me immediately.


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However, Sgt. Russell changes her mind when she has a run-in with the Demonic Toys at Robert Toulon’s repair shop, brought about by the God of Plot Convenience. Unfortunately, while she’s knocked out by Baby Oopsie Daisy, Erica’s goons storm the (unseen) Toulon grandmother’s spacious mansion where Robert and Alexandra are hiding out and were getting ready themselves to assault Sharpe headquarters with the repaired and cyborg-ized puppets. (“They’re cooler than ever!”, Alexandra Toulon declares unconvincingly). Hilariously, Robert is taking a pre-adventure pee break when Alexandra is captured. Thankfully, Robert has his pants up when he’s soon taken.

It seems like everything’s in place for Erica Sharpe to pull a total Halloween III: Season of the Witch, but she doesn’t take into account three things. 1) Erica being alive and fully recovered from her run-in with the Demonic Toys (this sets up another of my favorite moments; when Sgt. Russell barges in, Erica glares at Baby Oopsie Daisy, who just exclaims, “She looked dead to me!”). 2) The fact that the puppets managed to escape from the steel box they were locked into because Robert Toulon outfitted Six-Shooter with lasers, but, to be fair, I wouldn’t have expected that either. Maybe the mysterious and invisible Grandma Toulon is a higher-up at SPECTRE. 3) Her right-hand man, Julian (Nikolai Sotirov), who had been uncomfortable with the whole “child genocide” scheme, goes to set Robert free…while bringing with him Jack Attack as if he wants to kill Robert…but either way Jack kills Julian with his banshee scream. Alright, Robert and the puppets just escape and Julian gets killed, okay?

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In the secret Satanic altar that rests in the hidden basements of the central headquarters of all huge international corporations, the puppets dispatch the Demonic Toys with disappointing ease, although not before Baby Oopsie Daisy gets to let loose a couple of one-liners, and Blade spoils Erica’s machine-assisted sacrifice of Alexandra. For “reneging” on their deal, Bael takes Erica with him to Hell. Thus ends one of the greatest Christmas movies ever.

So as you might expect from a Sci-Fi Original that tries to adapt a b-movie franchise, this movie’s got issues. The script shows signs, like so many films with a years-long development history, of being messily pieced together from earlier drafts and concepts, which might explain, among other things, why it’s so oddly disconnected from its own parent franchises and why Corey Feldman plays Robert Toulon like he can be anywhere from his late thirties to his sixties. The puppet action actually isn’t quite as bad as we’ve seen from the last couple of Puppet Master installments, but it’s still far, far from being a highlight of the movie, and veterans of low-budget b-movies will probably not be surprised that the puppets versus Demonic Toys portion of Puppet Master vs. Demonic Toys is pretty brief.

But to be honest…I rather like it. Corey Feldman’s portrayal of Robert Toulon is as endearing as it is inexplicable. While the subject of some pretty lame fart jokes, Baby Oopsie Daisy is…well, I shouldn’t need to explain the appeal of a serial killer baby doll that talks and cusses like a gangland thug. All things considered, though, it’s Vanessa Angel who steals the show as Erica Sharpe. The scene where she leads a teenage receptionist to her violent death with sociopathic yet childlike glee is almost worth the price of admission alone, and throughout she brings life into a character who is otherwise your standard sexy b-movie villainess.

All that said, it’s still no Dollman vs. Demonic Toys. 

Alright, next time it’s back to the canonical series with two more to go!  Sutek protect me.

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Goes to the Movies

Trash Culture Goes to the Movies – Puppet Master: The Legacy (2003)

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So you know how sitcoms from the ’80s and ’90s would sometimes have one or two clipshow episodes, and no one ever liked those episodes even when they bothered to have a few scenes of new material? Well, movie franchises that have gone straight-to-video have the movie equivalent of those too! That’s exactly what Puppet Master: The Legacy is, with a whopping eight minutes of original footage.

At least those eight minutes end with a cliffhanger. But this also happens to be the last film in the series, chronologically, so there you go. I did my homework and couldn’t find out if, like the similarly flashback-heavy Phantasm IV: Oblivion, the film was made to raise money and get investor interest in a “real” sequel. If so, it clearly didn’t work, or at least not in helping get the sequel that was originally intended.

Plus if you thought the filmmakers would take this opportunity to patch the many, many holes in the franchise’s continuity, well…forget it, Jake, it’s Full Moon.

The quickie plot involves a hitwoman named Maclain, who has been sent to piece together Toulon’s secret formula. She confronts and threatens a man, Peter, at the Badoga Bay Inn, the very same Peter who befriended Toulon in Germany as a boy. Peter claims that he knows nothing about Toulon’s formula, even though he is surrounded by the puppets and has apparently set up a fully functioning lab in the hotel’s basement. Apparently noting these little discrepancies, she shoots Peter in the knee, although it seems you can recover from that because he’s standing on both legs without any difficulty just a couple of scenes later.  Nonetheless cowed, Peter plays a tape recording.  Of Toulon.  Who has been dead for at least several years. And who narrates everything including the events of and 6, except it seems that part of it is also narrated by Rick. So did Rick and Decapitron get together and just relay everything? And the recording even goes all the way back to Toulon talking to the puppets in Retro Puppet Master, but when did that happen?!

Oh God, it’s only eight minutes of story and already there’s at least twenty different ways it doesn’t make any sense!

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Anyway, Toulon’s recording begins by narrating the events of Retro Puppet Master. Maclain channels my own feelings about that particular installment by blurting out, “I don’t care about this drivel!” Then we move on to III, which I think contributes the longest flashback in what might be an acknowledgment that it’s still the best film of the franchise.

When Maclain disses Toulon, Peter claims that Toulon only ever unleashed his puppets against people who deserved to die. Maclain naturally responds by narrating some of the events of and II (although Toulon, still being pretty dead, wasn’t behind the events of – in fact, Neil Gallagher isn’t even brought up, much less why the puppets were following his whims – but there I go, expecting a movie that’s all about Puppet Master continuity to be…well, about Puppet Master continuity).

We do find out that Maclain unceremoniously pumped Rick from and full of lead just before this movie’s events. I would feel bad, but since he apparently sold the puppets off (how else did they end up in Curse?) after they saved his life and apparently saved the world from Sutekh, he had it coming. Oh, right, and for some reason Toulon knows about and narrates everything that went down in Curse too.   puppetmasterlegacy3

Maybe Blade wrote – well, carved – it all down after the puppets found their way back to the Badoga Bay Inn – somehow.

Okay, we already got a question about continuity (or lack thereof) every second this goes on, so let’s wrap things up. The puppets finally get around to attacking Maclain, allowing Peter to get the drop on her and shoot her. While dying (or dozing off into a nap, it’s hard to tell), Maclain tells Peter her employers’ real motive for wanting Toulon’s formula wasn’t for creating new puppets or achieving immortality, but for learning how to stop their own immortality. Her bosses themselves are “immortals” who are in “agony” because they were trapped in wooden bodies using Toulon’s formula. Of course, given how easily Toulon went down in II, you’d think ending their own lives would be as easy as falling out a third story window; it’s not like wooden puppet bodies regenerate after all.

But there I go again. Instead let me say one nice thing. This actually is an interesting twist and instead raises the good kind of questions. Are her bosses some people made unwillingly immortal by Toulon’s formula that we haven’t seen yet, perhaps as a result of Nazi experiments based on the information gotten from Toulon’s research during III? Or is it Neil, Camille, or Robert? Or all of them as kind of a Puppet Master Injustice Society? Or could it even be the Retro Puppets, whose final fate was significantly never revealed? Whoever it is, she, he, or they surprise Peter in the basement, and the closing shot is Peter firing Maclain’s gun at them. Who could be the mastermind, ruthless enough to send a hardened assassin after anyone between them and Toulon’s secrets, and so filled with hatred and despair they’re willing to do anything just to achieve death? Find out…in the sequel that never happened! (I do dimly recall reading years back that the person who ambushes Peter at the end was intended to be Neil Gallagher, but even with the power of the Google oracle I couldn’t verify that one way or the other).

What more can be said about what is, essentially, a movie that’s technically less than ten minutes long? Nothing, really. It’s a shame they passed up the opportunity to try to add some depth to the series’ happenings, beyond just saying that, by the way, the protagonist of two of the series’ films was brutally murdered off-screen. Still, to be fair, kind of, it’s hard to get upset when the filmmakers have never shown much if any consideration for the series being a coherent whole, so…there you go, Puppet Master: The Legacy, I guess you did good after all.

Next time, it’s the officially non-canon black sheep installment of the franchise!

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Video Games

Final Fantasy Retrospective 14: A Very Shiny, Expensive Black Sheep

When is a Final Fantasy game not a Final Fantasy game?  When it doesn’t even for a second include any version of this classic theme.  

Once upon a time, VIII was the undisputed black sheep of the series.  Now XIII, even though it does have its dedicated and zealous fans, has usurped its place.  Even if you are one of the game’s defenders, it’s not difficult to see why.  First and foremost, there’s the infamous “Corridor.”  Throughout most of the game, you will run down The Corridor with no opportunities to deviate from it.  Sure, there are a few nooks and side paths where you can find “hidden” treasure, but there’s only a relative few and they’re so obvious that they must have been hidden by the laziest Dungeon Master ever.  It’s basically all the restrictions on player exploration from and cranked up even further up to 11 (or 13, I should say). Second and interrelated, this is the first game in the series where there are no cities or towns.  There are spots where you can talk to NPCs, but it’s purely fluff with no clues toward what the player needs to do or toward any side quests.  Reportedly this was a deliberate aesthetic choice to give the player a realistic impression that the characters of the game spend the entire plot as fugitives, but I have seen rumors reported that it had less to do with daring creative choices and more to do with deadline restrictions.  Whatever the truth (and it is apparently true that at one point in development the game was supposed to include towns), the lack of towns does concrete the impression that so much of the game is just Cut Scene Fight Fight Fight Cut Scene Boss Repeat.

Now I keep using synonyms for almost because there is a point in the game where you suddenly, like the person dragged out of Plato’s proverbial cave, end up in a wide open space with various environments from deep ravines to gorgeous ruins of modern cities that you’re free to explore and where you can find side quests, hidden items, and new areas to open up.  But it only comes more than halfway through the game and eventually, once you decide to resume the main plot, it’s back to The Corridor.  Honestly it feels more like the game is sadistically teasing you with what XIII might have been instead of rewarding the player.  This is especially because there are so many areas in the game most players would just yearn to explore, including  large sci-fi cities, a high-tech amusement park (unlike in the famous Gold Saucer from VII, you don’t even get any mini-games to play!), and a digital Internet world, but, no, you have to stick forever and always to The Corridor.  Needless to say, after the excellent freedom the world of XII gives the player there just aren’t any words to explain what a disappointment this is.  It manages to feel even more restrictive than the old Final Fantasy games where you have to follow the plot and there are only two or three side areas.

The one part of the game that usually gets as much flack as The Corridor is the plot, but honestly that was my favorite part of the game.  The main setting is the floating, self-contained land of Cocoon, a technological paradise where every luxury and need is provided by god-like beings called the fal’Cie.  The only dark spot in the existence of the inhabitants of Cocoon is that they live in fear of the continent below, Gran Pulse, which is reportedly infested by hordes of monsters and savage people under the control of other fal’Cie who only want to destroy Cocoon.    However, there has been no contact between Cocoon and Gran Pulse in the centuries since a cataclysmic war between the two lands, but that hasn’t stopped the theocratic government of Cocoon from maintaining a powerful military just on the chance that a citizen of Cocoon is “infected” by a fal’Cie from Gran Pulse.  How do the fal’Cie infect people?  They can give someone a Focus, which turns that person into a l’Cie and bestows them with tremendous magical and physical abilities, but there’s no doubt it’s more of a curse than a blessing.  See, a l’Cie only learns their Focus through a vague vision, and if despite that they fulfill it their “reward” is to be frozen in crystal, to be “unthawed” if the fal’Cie needs them again.  If they fail?  Then they’re doomed to become essentially a zombie.  So when a young woman named Serah inadvertently brings together her sister, a soldier nicknamed Lightning; her fiancee Snow; a pilot named Sazh; and two adolescents, Vanelle and Hope, they are horrified when Serah suddenly turns to crystal and they are all given a Focus by a Pulse fal’Cie, especially because their vision implies that their destiny is to bring catastrophe to Cocoon.  Barely escaping a ruthless “Purge” carried out by the military against the entire local populace to guarantee no one who had any contact with the enemy fal’Cie survives, Lightning and the others have to resist the mysterious manipulations of Cocoon’s leader Galenth Dysley, who almost seems to want them to run loose, and determine if their Focus is to save Cocoon or annihilate it.

Really, as much as I prefer it when Final Fantasy drifts away from futurist angles, I thought the plot was an interesting deconstruction of traditional fantasy and “soft” sci-fi tropes, specifically the idea of a Chosen One guided by benevolent divine forces toward a heroic destiny.  It reminded me, in a good way, of how VII twisted and reinvented established JRPG concepts.  Yet there is a valid reason why the story gets criticized, because of how poorly it’s presented.  As you can tell, the plot is thick with technical terms, very few of which are actually explained through exposition.  You’ll actually pray for bad exposition once you realize that, in order to not only keep up with the plot and understand the game’s world but even to have characters’ motivations explained from cut scenes, you have to read these long info recaps after every cut scene.  Granted the info screens from XII were long and detailed too, but the difference is that at least 99 percent of those were just details that added to the backstory and the game world, not details that were necessary to understand characterization and plot.  Not only is it just a very clumsy way to handle worldbuilding, but it just grabs you and throws you out of the game every ten minutes, if you’re one of the few people who cares enough about the story that you have to make sure you don’t miss any pertinent detail.

On top of this, XIII’s world revives a couple of the sins committed by the makers of VIII.  Now I’ll be the first to argue that Lightning is hands down the best protagonist the series has presented in a long time, and her character development throughout the game is actually handled quite well and with some subtlety (although some people, myself not included, might think she comes off as too much of a hardass at the start).  The rest of the game’s characters, however, are just pale imitations compared to some of the rich, diverse parties we’ve gotten in the past.  Snow is a naive would-be hero whose one and only shtick wears thin just thirty minutes in.  Sazh does get a few of the game’s most poignant moments but outside those he amounts to little more than the “I’m getting too old for this shit” action movie cliche (well, that and an excuse to “cutify” things by showing the baby chocobo that lives inside his afro;  you read that right).  Hope gets a major sub-plot about hating Snow for failing to save his mother’s life, but despite all the build-up that fizzles out.  Now the one bright spot is the relationship between Vanelle and a woman who later joins your party, Fang.  It’s fairly heavily implied that they are lovers, and without delving into spoilers, they get one of the more redeeming moments from the story.  Overall, despite some admittedly big exceptions, the characters aren’t all that memorable, and their character development seems to come in spite of the padding-stuffed plot rather than because.  Plus, like the sterile ultra-modern world of VIII, most of what we see of Cocoon is sleek and beautifully rendered but it just isn’t all that “fantastic” and distinctive from our own world.  Maybe there’s more to it than that, but Square-Enix knows we don’t get to see it!

At least the gameplay isn’t as complex as VIII, but it too has its problems.  Like a cross between the Gambit system from XII and the class system from other games, you don’t exactly directly control all the members of your party and instead you assign them “preprogrammed” AI characteristics.  Here they’re called Paradigms, where you can give party members roles like healing (Medic), defensive (Sentinel), using black magic (Ravager), etc.  Although the game does encourage – and more or less requires you – to experiment with combining different Paradigms and setting up the right combinations for different battle situations, it really doesn’t offer as much room for strategy as the Gambit or class systems.  The Sentinel paradigm is practically useless except arguably in some of the most difficult bonus boss fights, and, while XIII is generally agreed to be one of the most difficult games in the main series, more than a few boss fights seem to just boil down to being fast enough to switch timely between Paradigms heavy on healing to ones heavy on offense.  And exactly like X, the system for building experience and learning new spells and skills only gives the illusion of  being able to experiment with characters’ development.  The game does let any member of your party develop any Paradigm the player chooses after a certain point, but the experience points required are so excessive it doesn’t really mean anything unless the player intends to pursue the most difficult bonus boss fights after finishing with the main plot.

Now for all that I can’t say I hated this installment.  As you might expect from Square-Enix, it’s eye-poppingly gorgeous, with an above average soundtrack (despite the crippling loss of the series’ defining theme).  It’s just, especially after the underrated XII, XIII seemed to take the potential of new video game technology for RPG storytelling a few steps in completely the wrong direction.   And you could tell the Powers That Be knew their experiment had failed, since quite a bit of the direct sequel XIII-2 directly addressed fan complaints about XIII, by including actual towns and tweaking the gameplay, but we’ll get to that when we finally wrap up this retrospective.

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Video Games

Final Fantasy Retrospective 13: Big Country

Wait, you’re thinking, what about XI?  Well, three things:

1)  I never played it, so that alone defeats the point of including it in a retrospective.

2)  I dislike MMORPGs strongly enough I probably never will play it.

3)  I loathe  the idea that MMORPGs can be passed off as regular installments in a main series, no matter how hard Square-Enix pushes it, so even if I did play them I’d probably ignore it just for the sake of making a point.

So, let’s skip ahead to the next real installment in the series, shall we?

Like IX, XII is one of the Final Fantasies that fell through the cracks, in no small part because Square-Enix in all of their wisdom was already hyping XIII.  Again, like with IX, this is really a shame, because XII is easily the strongest installment the series has seen after the days of the original Playstation.   It also improves on the series in ways that, unfortunately, don’t seem like they’re going to stick, which is really a shame because I am honestly convinced that XII offers one of the better blueprints out there on how to upgrade console RPGs for an era when video games seem to be on the brink of becoming as complex as possible.  I do also think XII is flawed, in ways that are difficult to ignore even if you admire the game’s strengths, but not enough to truly undermine the game’s story and its reforms to the series and the genre as a whole.

The first thing that’s remarkable about XII is just how…authentic the world it takes place in feels. Its setting is Ivalice, a world already established in Final Fantasy Tactics and Vagrant Story.  There the small desert kingdoms of Dalmasca and Nabradia have served as buffer states between the empires of Archadia and Rozarria, until the son of Archadia’s Emperor, Vayne Solidor, prepares for an all-or-nothing war against Rozarria by instigating the violent annexation of both Nabradia and Dalmasca.  A mysterious catastrophe of supernatural origin completely wipes out the former and leaves behind a haunted wasteland, while the latter is turned into an imperial province despite widespread resistance from the population.  Under the alias of “Ashe,” the young rightful queen of Dalmasca falls in with two youths orphaned by the invasion of Dalmasca, a pair of sky pirates, and a disgraced Dalmascan knight.  With their help, she seeks out the legendary Sun-cryst, a source of magical power once used many centuries ago by Ashe’s ancestor, the Dynast-king, to create a continent-spanning empire.  Unknown to her, however, both she and Vayne Solidor are pawns in a sprawling game played by god-like beings who have orchestrated events in Ivalice since the dawn of history…

As you can hopefully tell from my summary, Final Fantasy XII has a story with an ambitious historical scope.  True, the standard high-fantasy elements of magic and monsters and airships are all there, but honestly they’re incidental to the story.  The Final Fantasy series has never been known for aspiring toward geopolitical complexity, so for its story alone XII is a welcome change.  And the game simply loves to offer the player details about Ivalice’s history and legends.  It’s also a change of pace that, instead of a globe-spanning struggle to save the world, your quest encompasses only a small region of a much wider world and at its heart involves a small country’s struggle for independence and survival.  Even the game’s cities, which are vast and populated by far more NPCs than just ones that give your party valuable information, feel more tangible.

While it took me a while to warm up to it and even it was no substitute for the option of controlling all your party members directly, I did end up appreciating the game’s Gambit system almost as much.  Gambits are specific “instructions” that one can equip your party members with that dictate their actions in battle (for instance, one Gambit is to use a healing spell or item if a party member’s health dips below 25%).  It adds a whole new dimension of strategy to battles and offers a clean solution to the problem of how to stay true to the genre’s roots while offering new and more kinetic approaches to battle systems than just imputing commands on a static screen.  There were still some kinks – among them that summoned monsters, even the allegedly powerful ones that can be recruited in the game’s most difficult side quests, are never that useful – but overall it was a successful experiment.  Also the fact that battles don’t take place in a separate “mode” is also a simple but daring break from RPG orthodoxy that pays off, so much so that it’s actually shocking that it wasn’t implemented in XIII (but we’ll get to that, I promise you).

But perhaps what I loved most about the gameplay here is the mission system.  You have the option to take on a series of side quests as basically a monster hunter, which leads you to whole regions of the game that you wouldn’t otherwise explore if you just stick to the main story.  The side quests are challenging without feeling impossible, they open up even more information about Ivalice’s rich history and folklore, and they offer the player a great way to raise experience and cash without having to mindlessly grind for hours.  Such a side quest system is one of those things that sounds inherently great but it can be done very badly (see Dragon Quest IX), but Final Fantasy XII makes the side quests diverse and interesting enough that it adds to the experience without feeling like just busy work the programmers saddled the player with to fill time (again, see Dragon Quest IX).

Now before I gush too much, I have to admit there were flaws that, while not ruining the game for me, did aggravate me greatly and really keeps the game from reaching the same levels of quality as IX, much less the series’ “Golden Age.”  As much as I love the story, I have to ask the same question so many fans asked:  why the hell is Vaan the main protagonist?  It makes even less sense than Tidus;  at least he fulfilled an important narrative function as the outsider who has to learn about the new world he’s found himself in, and it turns out – albeit late in the game – he is part of the backstory.  Vaan is just an orphan whose brother died in the invasion of his home country;  really you could excise him from the game completely and nothing is lost.  In fact, Vaan wasn’t originally supposed to be the protagonist, but he was made so relatively late in the development process for – of course – idiotic marketing reasons.  It doesn’t completely derail the story, but you will keep asking yourself why the tragic knight famed for treason against his monarch, or the queen who lost her throne and her beloved fiancee to an invading empire and finds herself almost consumed with the desire for revenge, or the charismatic, swashbuckling sky pirate aren’t the protagonist instead.

Then there’s one massive issue with the gameplay, one that will haunt you throughout the entire game, especially if you’re a completist.  Many times the treasure chests randomly spawn their contents.  So it’s possible that the treasure chest that just offers up a Potion or something even more useless actually has a valuable piece of equipment, but there’s only a 1/20 or even a 1/50 chance that you’ll get it.  Sure, there are items you can equip that increase your chances of getting something valuable, but who the hell thought this was a good idea in the first place?  And that’s not even the half of it.  There are two ways to get the game’s most powerful weapon, the Zodiac Spear.  First, you have to not pick up certain treasures located in certain locations and not be equipped with the items that make it more likely to find better loot in the chests once you reach the Spear’s chest, which is in an optional location you can’t reach until about halfway through the game.  Or, alternatively, you can find it in a chest late in the game…except that there’s only a 0.1 percent chance you can get the weapon from the chest.  It’s impossible that they designed this on purpose unless they just assumed players will go through the game with a guide in their lap, or it’s some sick torture of completists.

Baffling and frustratingly unnecessary missteps aside, I can’t help but admire the game’s attention to detail and the ways it tried to breathe new life in the console RPG formula without completely tossing away the basics.  Fans of the series will learn just how valuable this is, as the next series of the installment, the much anticipated Final Fantasy XIII, will reveal what can go wrong when you do try to again reinvent the wheel.

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Comics, Yes This Really Happened

Yes, This Really Happened: Chaos! Comics Did A 9/11 Tribute Comic

My dear readers, I have failed you.

When I first (literally) stumbled across the fact that Chaos! Comics did a 9/11 tribute comic, I was thrilled, like a conquistador who accidentally discovered El Dorado.  But my initial excitement did not account for the fact that, well, riffing on a 9/11 tribute comic would be…difficult.  And that’s despite the fact that the cover itself pushes the laws of female human anatomy to the limits.

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Don’t get me wrong; it is amazing that this exists, although maybe not for the reasons you might assume.  Perhaps the first thing that will strike comics fans is that it’s actually written by Brian Augustyn of The Flash fame, who did a lot of work for Chaos! Comics in its last years.  The second thing is that this isn’t Chaos! in its wild, gory glory.  This is well after the flagship characters of Lady Death and Chastity have been toned down and made less…well, sociopath-y.  Lady Death isn’t even at this moment in continuity her normal white-skinned, ruling-Hell self, but was at the time a sword-wielding vigilante on the streets of New York (it’s…a long story, naturally).

Still, it’s not enough to riff on, despite my initial excitement.  Really, no matter who publishes it, 9/11 tributes – or tributes to any recent tragedy – are snark-proof.

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Its snark-immunity does not just derive from the fact that I’m an American and this is about the 9/11 attacks, although I have to admit that’s part of it.  No, it’s also that there really isn’t much to say, because frankly it takes conscious effort to botch these things.  Things like this are propaganda in the not-that-bad, pre-Goebbels sense, and as such there’s a definite, fairly simple way of doing them.  That’s not to say that they’re easy to write, per se, just that there’s a formula that’s carved in stone, and even more so than what you might expect in some genre fiction.  Start with some everyday characters right at the center of the tragedy, stir in some moral observations but do not under any circumstances make any references to politics, and show the main protagonists pitching in to help survivors without bringing in the baggage of their own personal stories, and voila, you have a tribute to a contemporary tragedy.

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Just as it’s very hard to screw up such a tribute, it’s also extremely difficult to make these types of stories great.  This is mostly for the same basic reason.  Genuinely the only way to make a 9/11 tribute really memorable for good or bad reasons is to break with the formula and bring in something that has the potential to offend a lot of people.  That’s not what Chaos! Comics’ Unity does, in spite of its publisher’s reputation.

I guess if you just automatically object to having characters like Bad Kitty running around the site of a national tragedy, you might find it offensive, but honestly is it really worse than having Spider-Man or Green Lantern at the site of 9/11?  Especially because here Bad Kitty, as well as Lady Death and Chastity, are portrayed as heroically as they are?  We exist in a pop culture-saturated world, and if you think there’s something wrong about having comic book superheroes meditate on the collapse of the twin towers, well, the argument was made and lost decades ago the second Donald Duck showed Americans what working for the Nazis was like.

Honestly, if you can get past the fact that both Chastity and Lady Death show up to 9/11 in respectable catsuits, the whole affair is (perhaps disappointingly) tasteful and even fairly well done in some respects.  Sure, like with most straightforward propaganda there’s plenty of cheese to be had, like Lady Death assuring the reader that the terrorists are in Hell while the victims are all in paradise, as well as this…

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…but there are a couple of nice touches as well.  The “ordinary person” character, an eastern European immigrant who wants to try to find her husband who was in one of the Towers for a job interview, isn’t overshadowed by the chestier heroines.  Also there’s a scene where a Sikh taxi driver tries to offer his help and ends up being attacked (and rescued by Lady Death, of course). Yes, it’s pretty – to quote TV Tropes – “anvilicious”, but it is an important point to make, especially considering the real life attacks on Sikhs and Muslims following the attacks. All in all, the comic really isn’t that bad for what it is, and on the whole isn’t much worse (or really better) than the Marvel and DC tributes.

For me at least, to get at the whole reason this comic is so noteworthy and strange is you’d have to know a little about Chaos!’s history.  See, in 1999 Chaos! rebooted its own continuity through a story called “Armageddon”, although essentially most of the characters retained their own personal histories and memories.  The reboot coincided with Lady Death becoming more of a traditional (if still hard-edged) heroine, so we get a Lady Death who empathizes with the lives lost and even holds up an American flag while giving an inspirational monologue.

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Although the world has been rebooted, she is for all intents and purposes the same character who turned a child abuse victim into an undead serial killer, Evil Ernie, and sent him on a mission to wipe out the entire human race.  In one Evil Ernie story, back way before the “gentler and softer” Chaos! Comics, this is what happens to New York:

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That’s just before we learn that for half a year Evil Ernie has been single-handedly killing everyone in Manhattan who survived the satellite he sent crashing into the city.  Oh, and he’s the protagonist of his series.  Old school Chaos! did not screw around.  And, of course, Lady Death is all but directly responsible.  That’s why I was more than a little amused to see this comic, although I guess it would have been much worse if we’d seen Ernie and his zombie friends rescue 9/11 survivors.

Still, if you’re a scholar of Chaos! Comics like I am, it’s the weirdness of Doctor Doom and Magneto rescuing 9/11 survivors in Marvel’s own 9/11 tribute, but times at least 7,500.

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Video Games

Final Fantasy Retrospective: The Girly Show

At last, we come to the first direct sequel in the franchise’s history (well, unless you count the obscure anime Final Fantasy: Legend of the Crystals…), Final Fantasy X-2 or, as I like to call it, Fanservice: The RPG.

Taking place two years after the events of X, we find that Yuna and Rikku have teamed up with an ex-soldier named Paine to become “Sphere Hunters,” treasure hunters who specialize in finding spheres, which store the memories of  people from the past and even have the potential of granting users those people’s training and skills.  Yuna’s drastic change in occupation is motivated by her quest to find “him,” despite his disappearance at the end of X, but her mission becomes much more than personal when Yuna, Rikku, and Paine are caught up in an escalating conflict that may lead to a civil war, and stumble across information about an ancient tragedy that might very well have repercussions that will cause the total destruction of Spira.

X-2 is, in one word, bizarre.  It’s a complete tonal shift from X, opening with a now infamous cutscene showing Yuna performing in a fancy JPop concert:

While there are mature and even dark elements that surface, although usually late in the game, for the most part X-2 is a light-hearted adventure story with almost none of the pathos that defined X – or, really, the entire series as far back as II.  It isn’t just because the game has a team of three women as protagonists that the game has an obvious Charlie’s Angels motif.  Even the game’s (apparent) antagonist, a rival sphere hunter, Leblanc, is treated more like an excuse for constant comic relief rather than an actual threat.

The weirdness seeps even into the structure of the game itself.  Unusually for a J-RPG, much less for a Final Fantasy installment, the game is more or less a wideopen sandbox.  In complete contradiction to series tradition, you start the game with an airship, although in one of the game’s “minor” yet more noticeable flaws flying it is represented by just selecting a destination on a static screen.  You have a set number of missions you can go on, and accomplishing certain ones will open up further missions.  Depending on your point of view, this is either a refreshingly open-ended RPG experience or it means a J-RPG where most of the game is made out of sidequests and mini-games.  There is a plot to the game, and it does turn out to have depth especially once the forgotten tragedy underlying the game’s story comes to light, but it doesn’t really become all that evident until after quite a bit of padding.  So even though the game’s story does hit some right notes, it still comes across as unusually shallow for a franchise famous for pioneering storytelling in console RPGs.

This is almost tragic, mostly for two reasons.  First off, X-2 is not only one of only (now) three games in the series to have a female protagonist, but the only one where all the playable protagonists are female.  Now for some this element might be watered out, if not negated totally, by just how stuffed full of blatant fanservice this game is;  not just with the skimpy clothing of the female leads (especially Rikku who, let’s remember, is supposed to be sixteen at the oldest!), but scenes like the three heroines having a water fight in a hot spring while wearing bikinis and a mini-game where you basically massage a woman into what’s implied to be an orgasm.  Plus there’s the more subtle fact that Yuna’s entire initial motivation in this game isn’t self-sacrifice like in X, but to try and find the guy she loves.  I’m not saying that this in of itself should be considered offensive – in fact, you could see it as a nice gender-reversal of the age-old “Save the princess” storyline – but it is a disappointing contrast to Yuna’s complex and tragic motivations in X – or, indeed, the treatment of the franchise’s first female protagonist in VI, Terra, who didn’t even have a male love interest.

Second, X-2 does have fantastic gameplay;  I’d even say it has some of the best in the whole series. Instead of the sphere grid system from X, the game simply revives the traditional leveling system.  The job system from is once again brought back and used in a way that’s simple to learn but opens up a pretty complex potential for strategy.  It’s also the first time in a long time we’ve seen it possible to customize the abilities of the playable characters so much,a refreshing change.  It’s just a shame that it’s not in service to a much deeper – and better – story.

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Video Games

Final Fantasy Retrospective 11: Final Fantasy Goes to the Beach

Console RPGs may be a genre in decline, at least in the United States (although perhaps in Japan as well, if Square-Enix keeps trying to force MMORPGs on the Japanese public, but that’s another story), but at least localization problems are not that much of an issue anymore.  Companies are actually far more willing to put effort into translations and English voiceovers, so it’s rather jarring that Final Fantasy X is notorious for its bad localization even among casual gamers, especially for the job done by the English voice actors, and especially for actress Hedy Burress’ bizarre decision to make her dialogue sync up with Yuna’s lip movements.  How bad was the English dubbing?  This one reviewer thinks it’s the main reason why in Japan is even more popular than VII, while in the US the game is well-liked but still falls far behind VII.  On my part, I wasn’t angry or bored the one time I played X, but unlike most of the other installments in the series it’s not an experience I’d want to go through again.  I do agree that the dubbing is a factor, enough that I might finally give the game another try when the HD remake hits America, but I have other issues with the game.  We’ll get to that;  first, let’s talk about the positive.

Most notably, the game has a simple but great premise, albeit one that’s fat with ham-fisted metaphors.  Every generation, the land of Spira is devastated by an entity called Sin.  Impervious to conventional weapons and magical attacks, Sin can only be defeated if a summoner goes on pilgrimage with selected guardians to learn how to summon special monsters called the Eidolons and then face Sin in a battle where the summoner willingly sacrifices themselves.  Sin will be reborn, but at least Spira will be spared from death and destruction for many years.  Yuna, the daughter of the last summoner to undergo the rites, is beginning to set out to literally follow in her father’s footsteps with her guardians, but before they depart they enlist Tidus, a young player of Spira’s favorite sport blitzball.  This wouldn’t be unusual, except that Tidus insists that he comes from the city of Zanarkand, which was destroyed a thousand years ago.

Next is the basic gameplay.  Each character has one of the traditional Final Fantasy roles (fighter, black mage, etc.), but now you can switch characters mid-battle, which seems like an obvious innovation but it does add a new strategic element to fights.  Also, even though the world-building is a bit too much generic fantasy/soft sci-fi for my tastes, it does have a unique oceanic feel to it, which was inspired by Japan’s Okinawa region.  It does go a bit too far, since the tropical environment is more often than not used as an excuse for making women appear anywhere on the spectrum from fanservicey to super-fanservicey…

Being the crotchety old-school fan, I’d rather see a return to a world like that of VI, which mashes up different technology levels and cultures in interesting ways.  Yet does have a gorgeous and interesting world, which at the very least is preferable to the bland, unfantastic world of VIII.

As for my complaints, I won’t talk about the sub-par voice dubbing or how obnoxious blitzball is to play or how godawfully (it’s a word!) annoying Tidus is, because those complaints have been reiterated on the Internet at least 3,072,597,012 times, give or take.  I will, however, talk about one thing related to Tidus:  there’s really no reason for him to be the protagonist.  From a storytelling perspective, it only makes sense from the argument that Tidus provides an outsider’s perspective on Spira, but honestly a much more natural protagonist is Yuna or, if not her, the mysterious warrior with a tragic past, Auron.  I admit that Tidus turns out to be even more relevant to the plot once the mystery behind his backstory unfolds, but still, it’s hard not to play this game and wonder why the player is mostly stuck with Tidus at all.  Sadly, this won’t be the first and last game to suffer from a severe case of protagonist confusion.

My other big issue is with the game’s method for leveling your party members.  The sphere grid system looks pretty and it appears like it really lets you shape your characters’ abilities, but the key word there is appears.  True, it is possible to expand your characters into other roles, but only if you massively overgrind to an extent that would daunt even your typical parental basementdweller.  All it succeeds in doing is wasting the player’s time doing what could already be carried out through a more traditional leveling up system.  Sure, VIII‘s junctioning system was absurdly convoluted, but at least it was different and did allow and encourage experimentation.   only offers something artificially different, without doing something that’s truly novel functionally.  Finally, there’s just the fact that, while there are sub-quests, it never really feels like you have access to this wider world.  Of course, we would find out later that it could get even worse in this regard, but that’s for later…

But, no, I wouldn’t say is a low point in the franchise.  It’s graphically stunning and not just because of the usual Square flash, but because it does have a visually engaging world (too bad you’re forced to go through a straight path through much of it…).   And while marred by bad dubbing and Tidus usurping the role of main protagonist, there is a genuinely moving story about the corruption of institutions that we allow to define our lives and beliefs and the struggle to break with archaic yet self-perpetuating  traditions.  Here’s hoping that when the remake comes out some more of the game’s real qualities will become evident to the English-speaking world.

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