New Year, New Reviews, Same Old EWE

Hello once again, feeble naked apes.  I hope you all will forgive the absence of a #FrozenFoodFriday this past week.  Despite the short week due to the holidays, my workload was higher than normal and I was far too tired to do much else.  And since I’ve been making efforts not to siphon off the lifeforce of every pitiful human I encounter, I’ve been a little less lively than I normally would be.

I sincerely hope that you all had an enjoyable New Year’s Eve.  Me, you ask?  Oh, I was surrounded by everyone that enjoys me for who I am – in other words, I spent the evening alone watching anime and gaming, and texting back and forth with Malevolent Moogle.  I did attempt to enjoy the evening with another, but was literally told that doing absolutely nothing at all was preferable to doing anything with me.  Which, I suppose, should come as no surprise.  But on the plus side, I can come to you with not just one, but two new reviews for you – both an anime and a classic game.

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MAGI: Labyrinth of Magic

First up, we’ve got the treat I discovered while browsing Netflix in an effort to drown out both my obnoxious neighbors as well as the fact that I was sitting home alone.  Well, in fairness, whisky helped drown out the latter of those as well.  Plenty, plenty of whisky.  But on to the show – in this case, that show being Magi – The Labyrinth of Magic.

Magi follows the adventures of young magical boy Aladdin and his friend Alibaba, along with their ever-growing collection of friends (and enemies, and frienemies, etc).  As a shonen fantasy anime, all the action bases are covered – plenty of action scenes, swords and sorcery, the works.  But what I loved most about this show is that, unlike a lot of shonen anime, there is a decent sense of political intrigue, grey morality, and ambiguous characterization.  Not everyone is a clear-cut hero or villain – although there are clearly some of those as well.

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This is Sinbad – betcha never pictured him with purple hair before, huh?

While this show was a pleasant surprise – I hadn’t experienced any of the original manga prior to stumbling on the anime – I can’t say that everything about it was perfect.  Aladdin, the main character, goes well beyond being “good” and is just a bit too pure and naive for my taste.  That being said, he is the exception to the rule in that regard – most of the characters are well-rounded enough to be interesting, and all undergo character development as the story progresses.  I highly recommend this first season to anyone that is a fan of fantasy anime.  The second season, entitled Magi – Kingdom of Magic, is also available on Netflix, and I will bring you my thoughts on that in the near future.

But wait – there’s more!  You see, while I drowned my misery in whisky and anime, I decided to go for a hat trick and drown it in classic gaming as well.  And if you are a fan of classic JRPG mechanics, high adventure, tongue in cheek humor, and moments that tug at your heartstrings, they don’t come much better than the recently released on Steam Final Fantasy IX.

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Make no mistake – that mage in the corner is FAR kinder than EWE.

Released in 2000 for the original PlayStation, and shortly after the launch of the PS2, FF IX was an intentional departure by Square from the increasingly modern, sci-fi trappings of FF VII and FF VIII.  Knowing it would be one of the last titles released for the PS1 generation, it was essentially developed as a love letter and callback to the high fantasy settings and more classic fundamental mechanics that defined the series’ early entries.

FF IX follows a disparate band of characters, including the innocent, almost child-like Black Mage Vivi, the cocky, confident thief Zidane, the determined, headstrong Princess Garnet, the blustering, single-minded knight Steiner, and several of their friends.  What begins as a simple, innocent kidnapping scheme by Zidane and his band of thieves (yeah, this was from a time when a kidnapping of a young woman was apparently something heroes could do) quickly spirals into a globe-trotting expedition to save the entire world from total annihilation.

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If you could see what he sees under that hood, you’d say the same thing.

The plot setup and characters may seem to be cliche, but this is entirely by design.  See, nothing becomes a cliche unless it is used often, and it is only used often if it at some point is done so well that others seek to emulate it.  With FF IX, Square shows themselves to be masters of the RPG genre, taking a plot, setting, and cast that won’t surprise most anyone who has played a game or read a book, and making them endearing and memorable on the sheer force of their quality.  Although the crew is of course trying to save the world, they each have personal motivations for their journey as well.  Vivi is trying to learn about himself, his origins, and his humanity; Garnet wants to understand why her kingdom has come to threaten the rest of the world; Steiner wants to fulfill his duty to protect his princess; and Zidane…well, mostly just wants to score with Garnet for the majority of the game.  Honestly, Zidane just does right by people because it’s inherent in who he is – he does it because he feels like it.  He isn’t interested in a reward or the like, though he will take it if offered.  It’s only toward the end of the game that Zidane gains a more personal motivation in defeating the villains, but boy, is it one hell of a motivation.

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Oh yeah, my family makes a cameo torching a village or two. Hi guys!

Gameplay wise, this is one of the finest iterations of the classic ATB battle system that Square ever devised.  Combat is turn-based, with each character and enemy having a regenerating action bar that refills at varying rates based on the character’s speed.  Skills and abilities are learned from the various pieces of gear equipped by the characters, and then are set using a limited pool of gems for each character.  As characters level up, they earn more gems, allowing them to equip more skills and abilities.  In addition, each character has a predetermined character class, which imparts its own unique skills and abilities.  For example, Zidane is a thief, and as such has the classic ability to steal items from his enemies in battle.  Finally, the classic FF Limit Break system is back in the form of Trance.  Every time a character takes damage, the trance meter fills a bit, and when full, the character, uh, turns pink.  Not sure the significance of that – but it also gives them access to a new set of character-specific super moves that can cause massive damage and turn the tide of battle.

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White Mage, Summoner, Princess. I wanted to marry her when I was younger.

Being a Final Fantasy game, there are of course also a number of time-consuming minigames.  Chocobo treasure hunting can be an interesting diversion, and lead to some valuable treasure.  The Mognet mail system is a game-spanning sidequest with not much in the way of payoff, but thankfully it’s not that significant to complete.  Finally, the Tetra Master card game is another addition in the more recent tradition of deep card games in FF games, but falls a bit short of the high bar set by Triple Triad in its immediate predecessor.

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Are there airships? Oh yeah…there are airships.

While this game could have just crammed as many airships and Cids and summons as it could into it and still have been fairly well regarded, FF IX is the rare intentional nostalgia trip that actually lives up to, if not exceeds the standard set by the games it is invoking.  The story, graphics, music, characters, battle system – everything has aged tremendously well.  It’s port to the PC has upgraded the visuals slightly and added a few quality of life improvements, such as the ability to max out all abilities and damage, and turn off random encounters, for those that may wish to blow through the game.  But to truly experience this game as it should be, don’t use those.  Play through this game at least once as it was intended to be played.  Grind abilities because you only have one piece of gear with a great ability on it and you want to teach it to several characters.  Hunt down monsters for Quina to eat so it can learn their abilities.  Explore the world map until you accidentally run into a dragon that you have no chance of killing at your current level.  It’s the sense of the unknown, and of adventuring through it, that the most successful stories invoke – and Square well and truly invoked it here.  FF IX is the pure definition of a classic – not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but very, very good, and polished to a warm glow, and immune from the passing of time.  If you are a fan of Final Fantasy, or JRPGs at all, you owe it to yourself to experience this game.

And so the first entry in 2017 draws to a close.  Normally, this is the part where I mock the human race, or observe one of the many reasons why I should destroy it.  But as it is a new year, I suppose I should take a stab at being a new, friendlier EWE…BWAHAHAHAHA!  I’m sorry, I just couldn’t get all the way through it with a straight face.  What did you think I’d do, make some kind of bullshit resolution to dial back on my nihilism?  What the fuck is wrong with you?  Did you miss the part earlier when I said that I offered to share time with a human and was told that LITERALLY SITTING AT HOME DOING NOTHING was preferable?  Yeah, there will definitely be no shortage of village-burning in 2017.  (Editor’s Note: Don’t be disingenuous – you’d have torched those villages either way).  Ok, well…yeah, I probably would have.  But I’m going to enjoy it that much more now! – EWE

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