Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Location: Always the Urbanite

This article is a Destructoid Bloggers Request, found here.

I love living in the city - while many resent the crowded streets, the tall buildings and the subtle background notes of consumerism and pollution, it's what I grew up around, and I couldn't live any differently.

What's more, no two cities are the same - From London to Leeds to Bridgetown to Paris, they're all diverse and contain an essence you won't get somewhere else. It's something that's hardly ever reflected in video games. When designing an 'expansive, immersible world' many games seem to think on a scale way too large to be detailed. Games are enamoured with the overworld, travel times between important locations and large rolling landscapes filled with not-very-much. I don't doubt that this form of escapism works perfectly for those who tire of the modern urban environment, but I just can't get into a setting like that. You can keep your Skyrims and Shadows of the Colossi, thanks.

No, what I love in a video game setting is a smaller scale and a focus on the details. A city rendered so even if there aren't a huge number of places to go, where you can go is lovingly crafted. You can almost feel what it's like to live there. GTA and Saints Row series get the location, but not the intimacy. Many have noted that the city of Steelport in Saints Row: The Third is expansive, but same-y and lacking a pulse.

Games like the Yakuza series do it better. You really get the sense of daily city life, interspersed among your regular duty of cracking skulls. You get to know the seedy back alleys and the frighteningly expensive manors, along with the kinds of people who inhabit them. What's more, the decision in the first Yakuza game to have the city explorable over different periods in time give you an impression of how things change - both architecturally and socially. Wonderful!

You can imagine the hustle and bustle easily. Who wants to hit the Pachinko parlour?

But my favourite urban setting has to be The World Ends With You's take on Shibuya. Classified as the trendiest district in Tokyo, TWEWY takes that concept and goes all-out. Every aspect of the game world is given a solid coat of subculture, from the shopping districts to the sewers.

Each of the locations are stylised from real spots in Shibuya, with the names changed to protect the innocent. Fashion and music are major aspects of the local culture, so how could they not have HMV, Tower Records and department store 109 take pride of place?

That's 104 (TWEWY's take on 109) in the distance. The weird perspectives in the battle scenes are great for making the city look imposing and twisted when it needs to be.

But what is a city without its people? The main characters in TWEWY all have the ability to read the minds of nearby people - a smart move both mechanically and aesthetically. You're playing as people who can quite literally see the pulse of the city, and know what's on everyone's mind. They're not just faceless obstructions, they're also people with senses of style and matters on their mind. Even the shopkeepers you visit have their own personalities and remember you as you return. Everyone who's played TWEWY will have their own favourite shop and shopkeeper.

It still impresses me how the game mechanics are so closely tied with the setting and themes. This is a city where the clothes you wear are your battle armour. The monsters that you face are brought about through negative emotions. Your sense of creativity and what you wear says so much about you and how you handle the problems you face. It doesn't matter if you're into elegant Gothic, punk rock, or the imported and exotic, you get by in this Shibuya by being yourself; aggressively and unrepentantly.

Look at that confident smile. She's dressed to kill the bad vibes for sure.

Urban living is a mixture of loving getting lost in the crowd and embracing a culture that lets you be yourself; something you're not going to find in an open expanse, or an insular rural community. On the surface everything may look busy and anonymous, but there is character and depth to be found if you take the time to take in the culture built up under the feet of a million people; and I've yet to find a game that reflects that sentiment better than The World End With You.

Alcohol Infusions and You

It seems like a common trope for university freshmen to make 'Skittles Vodka'. Depending on how they go about the process, it results in some pleasantly colourful booze or a strange sludgy mess; but there's a solid idea there. If you have the patience for it, making infused alcohol is fun and easy - and a great thing to take to parties!

Photograph of an infusion of Parma Violet candy in Gin. Filter paper is used to remove the chalky leftover sediment.

You can do an alcohol infusion with almost any spirit and anything solid and edible - from boiled sweets to bacon. Yes, bacon.

You will need:
  • A large glass jar (preferably with a rubber-sealed lid that won't leak)
  • Smaller jars (For presentation, and if you're infusing something that will put detritus in the mixture)
  • A strainer (the finer the better)
  • Your spirit of choice (Strong alcohols work better)
  • Your infusion items of choice
The Fun Part
First, put all your alcohol and infusion items into a jar. Stir/shake it a little to make sure that your infusion items are coated in delicious booze, and store it in a dark place.

And for now, you're done! But there are a few maintenance things to bear in mind
  • If you're infusing sweets, then you have the easiest job. Agitate your mixture twice a day, and check the how the dissolving process is going. In about 3 days it should have fully dissolved. Some sweets (like Skittles) will leave pulp behind that you'll have to strain off before serving. The sugar in the sweets will thicken your booze, so bear that in mind if it's something already viscous, like amaretto.
  • If you're infusing soft fruit, then this will take a bit longer. If you're impatient you can pulp the fruit before you start, but then that's not so much 'infusing' as adding fruit juice. When agitating, make sure that any fruit that's floating at the top gets nicely coated. If you leave it too long, fruit sticking up out of the mixture will mould, and all will be lost.
  • If you're infusing harder fruit, citrus peel, or herbs, this will take the longest. However, the flavours of these are the most rewarding. Go for these if you're going to infuse over more than a month. The longer you leave things to infuse, the better the taste will be. If you're using something spicy (chilli vodka!) be sure to not let it get too strong, if you don't want to nuke your tastebuds.
  • If you're infusing meat, cook it first to get some of the grease out. Put the cooked meat and the grease into the jar. Store the infusion in a cool place (or in the freezer if you're impatient), and check on it regularly to remove the fat that rises to the surface, strain the remainder, and repeat. The taste will be really distinct, but fatty vodka has a... unique texture.
Serving Suggestions
My favourite variation so far has been Apple & Cinnamon Whiskey. It really helped me get through Christmas. There's no need to use super-expensive whiskey here, especially if it's your first attempt. Get a pack of cinnamon sticks (I used 5) and cut up 2 apples, large-ish chunks. While smaller pieces will increase the surface area and speed up infusion, there's no need to go overboard.

This infusion combination took about 2 weeks for the flavour of the apples to start coming through. The cinnamon left a lot of detritus when agitated, so be sure to strain it.
We can use the infused whiskey so make some truly badass Old Fashioneds.

You will need
  • A low glass
  • Brown sugar (2 sugar cubes worth is fine)
  • Angostura Bitters (You can get this from Tesco Online order pretty easily)
  • Citrus peel
  • Ice/Mineral Water
  • Your delicious whiskey infusion
Start off by dissolving the sugar in the bottom of the glass. Try to add just enough to dissolve the sugar, stirring regularly. It's a slow process, but enjoy it! Add at least 2 dashes of bitters (Not everyone's a fan of the taste, but I tend to add a lot), and your Whiskey. The Old Fashioned tastes best cold, but at the same time, drinking whiskey near-straight is not for everyone. If you're not used to the taste, go for a water-mix, adding more mineral water. Going for a water-mix and ice will dilute the whiskey too much.

When you're done making the infused whiskey, don't throw the infusion ingredients away! The infused apple tastes great when cooked with lamb and mint, and the cinnamon sticks do a great job of livening up a cup of coffee.

Monday, 20 February 2012

Dating Sims: Romance for those who don't know better

This article is hosted on The Yorker, found here.

Dating Simulators. It's a genre that's been around longer than you might think, surprisingly constrained to obscure Japanese titles, and even then, ones essentially indie developed and distributed for DOS. For the uninitiated, Dating Sims as a genre are twists on the Visual Novel genre, where your aim is to seduce one or more people; usually female, and usually to the ends of getting the (usually male) main character laid.

That's not to say that all games that deal with romance are Dating Sims, nor is it the same thing as dating in The Sims - it's all built around a core of player wish fulfilment, and with that in mind, the genre is something rather pathetic at best and downright creepy at worst.

Video games deal with a lot of wish-fulfilment - you don't get to fire shotguns, drift in sports cars or be a rock star in the day-to-day for most people, but fostering friends and relationships is something we all should be achieving without much prompting, however difficult and emotional that might be. Trying to condense the idea of a relationship to essentially a set of numbers or dialogue options is foolish. I want to say that it's so foolish that no one would take the sentiment of relationships being a quantifiable game to heart, but you can never overestimate the socially-awkward.

The most recent example of the Dating Sim would be Katawa Shoujo (Japanese for “Cripple Girls”); an indie project developed by team created through the image board and Internet Cesspool 4Chan; inspired by a lone piece of concept art depicting girls with various disabilities as anime stereotypes. Several years in the making, the final game was released recently. You play as Hisao, a boy with a severe heart condition, transferred to a high school for disabled students exclusively. The harem of girls you meet there have various emotional baggage often tied to your disabilities, and as a reward for picking a girl and helping her through her problems, you're rewarded with sex scenes.

Critically, the games have been derided as trash, with a cluster of vocal hangers-on who defend the writing as something of quality, in spite of the whole "solving women's problems with your penis" deal. It doesn't take much digging to see the problematic ideas behind Katawa Shoujo in particular, but alarmed me the most is the plot involving Hanako, a girl suffering from severe facial burns. As a result she is socially introverted, to the point of being written as immature. You, as a character celebrate her birthday with a friend by treating her like she's a child (though she's meant to be 18). That's both considered 'the right thing to do', and of course rewards you with a sex scene with her friend. Creepy.

Writing characters like these isn't difficult - and that's essentially what the problem is. Since the aim of Dating Sims is to make you care for the characters (because it's not going to be a convincing romance fantasy unless you personally fall for the cartoon babes), all it takes is a vulnerable personality (and a vulnerable physicality too in Katawa's case), enough mundane aspects to give a sense of conceivability, a pandering design and bam; instant emotional bait. It's not something solely confined to this genre, or even games as medium (I'm sure you can think of a romance film or 5 that do something similar), but it's rather stark in such a distilled form.

Oh, and if you think that Dating Sims are restricted to just Japan and creeps on the Internet, look no further than Bioware to set you straight. Bioware is a huge name in the Western RPG genre, but they have a consistent and annoying habit of inserting Dating Sim mechanics into their games; often at the behest of actual character development. The Dragon Age and Mass Effect series being the most recognisable examples, the player's relationships with his or her party members is inseparably tied to whether they've had sex or not. With Dragon Age 2, most party members are written as sexually attracted to the player (and only the player, mind) regardless of gender; something that could be argued as progressive, but personally rings rather hollow.

What worries me a little is that Dating Sims - either as a genre or a story-telling element - are becoming more common. It's the easiest and laziest way to write a character and try and eke some level of emotional involvement from a player. Video games have had a poor history of dealing with sexuality and relationships; and reducing those to fanservice 'rewards' is definitely not the right way to go about it. If games and visual novels are to be made about something like that - I'm holding out for a title that's more realistic:

Playing as a 20-something white male, unemployed and from a middle-class background, you meet many girls in your life, ready to be romanced. However, your only dialogue options are to stammer awkwardly, talk about your World of Warcraft character, or jump into an hour long diatribe about anime. The game is impossible to win.

Time Shenanigans! Final Fantasy XIII-2 Review

This review can also be found at The Yorker, here.

Note: I have discussed Final Fantasy XIII recently, found here. I'd suggest giving it a quick read; as much of what I have to say here, relates heavily to that game.

Okay, so to be frank, Japanese RPGs and the Final Fantasy series in particular have an incredibly specific target audience. For the most part, you know whether you're interested in a Final Fantasy title or not; but the sticking point here is that Final Fantasy XIII-2 is a spin-off sequel; and what's more, to a game that was rather unpopular with some vocal RPG fans.

In terms of plot, you'd do well imagining Doctor Who cast with anime stereotypes. Initially set 3 years after FFXIII's ending, you play as Serah, the sister of FFXIII's protagonist Lightning. Even though the day had been saved, it seems as though Lightning never came back home, even though Serah has memories of her doing so. Cue the introduction of Paradoxes, appearances of out-of-time phenomena that may well be the cause of Lightning not returning home. Serah teams up with plucky-young-hero-from-the-future Noel, and the rest of the game involves jumping around locations in ages both future and past, correcting whatever Paradoxes have shown up.

Square Enix saw the complaints that FFXIII had gotten, and actively publicised FFXIII-2 as for the people who disliked the previous game. Under most circumstances that would be a bold gesture - an admission to wholeheartedly diverting from the main series would cause fans of a series to panic in most circumstances; but when you bear in mind that FFXIII was a big subversion of RPG standards in multiple ways, what Square Enix is saying here is that they're going back to staple stylistic choices.

And that has certainly happened for Final Fantasy XIII-2; for the worse more than anything else.

The overt linearity of the original game has largely gone. The nature of the time-travel plot means there's a lot of hopping back and forth between different locations; though there's only a single plotline to follow. This becomes a problem in two big ways - if the plot isn't clear about where to go next, you're stuck with scouring every location you've been to for the next piece of plot; and the loading time for entering each area is abysmal.

Of course, with the linearity reduced, FFXIII-2 brings back one of the things I hate most about RPGs - grinding. For those who aren't familiar with the term, grinding refers to beating up the same monsters in an area for a long period, in order to gain extra money, items, or experience. This could take anywhere from minutes to days depending on the game (If you know someone who plays World of Warcraft, this is basically what they're doing).
Personally, excessive grinding in a game kills the experience. Whatever pacing is established is ruined once you deem it necessary to halt all progress and level up some more. What I absolutely loved about FFXIII was the complete abolishment of grinding. You were always in a state to take on the next boss and progress with the story. It kept things snappy and fresh, but FFXIII-2 slows you all the way down.

The side-ponytail is not a good look... ©Square Enix
In terms of plot and characters FFXIII was competent, but hardly pushing for the greatest video game story ever told. This gives FFXIII-2 room to compete but... that doesn't really manifest. Serah and Noel are only two playable characters in FFXIII-2(ignoring downloadable content), and neither of them are particularly compelling; or even really that endearing. To fill out the rest of your party you can recruit wild monsters that you defeat, a feature familiar to many. Though some of the monster designs are definitely filled with more personality than the main characters, they obviously don't deepen the storyline any.

Aesthetically, Final Fantasy XIII-2 is all-positive. The locations are stunning. The time-hopping plot lets you jump from sweeping plains to rain-soaked ruins to super high-tech cities, and they all look great. But what really stands out is the incredible music direction. For the majority of the Final Fantasy franchise, we've had the musical styling of Nobuo Uemasu; who, while having a lot of experience, a lot of his work got very similar. He's out of the picture in FFXIII-2 and I've never been happier. The tone shifts from ballad to electronica to jazz tointentionally cheesy metal without jarring. It's worth playing with a pair of headphones or a good speaker system to hear all the subtleties.

My grievance with FFXIII-2 is that the changes it has made from its prequel has turned it into a generic Japanese RPG. For me, that's a huge deal-breaker; but then again, there were a lot of fans who disliked FFXIII, and they'll surely love the traditional sensibilities and the less-serious storyline.

Final Fantasy XIII-2 is out now on Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. (360 version reviewed)

Desert Living: Bombay Beach Review

This review can be found at The Yorker, here.

Living in poverty is trying. So is living in a desert, and miles away from any major settlement. What was once advertised as a thriving tourist resort in the 50s is now a wasteland - and those who are left behind have to do their best to get by. Such is the premise of Bombay Beach.

Bombay Beach is shot as a documentary, except not quite. It has all the handy-cam shots and the interview voice-overs, and the cutaways to the landscape, but it's also peppered with odd sort-of musical scenes, and a lot of vague confusion.

The plot switches between three stories - the old and racist retiree Red, who's saving up enough to go to the nearby old folks' village and see long-lost acquaintances; CeeJay, a teenager working towards a sports scholarship, dealing with romance and prejudice along the way; and Benny, the youngest son of a neglectful family, plagued with behavioural problems and never really fitting in.

These tales are all set up for maximum heartstrings-pulling, but I could never find myself too invested. Then again, that may say more about my stony heart than the characterization of the cast. While Hollywood is full to the brim with tales of the upper-middle class and the wonderful lives they lead, Bombay is very refreshing in comparison. There are countless shots of destroyed and desiccated wildlife, giving some powerful if maybe too overt metaphors about the lives of our characters. It's countered by scenes of the Bombay Beach residents getting together for meals, work, and parties. Lots of parties.

Director Alma Har'el also works in music videos, and that's definitely reflected here. The music scenes are well-shot, paired with good music choices (though none of it in a genre I much care for), and while you would struggle to say that they helped the plot along at all, they meshed well with the sedate pacing of the rest of the film.

The film's ending is annoyingly abrupt. Of course, with the documentary style, it's clear that the lives of these people are ongoing, and aren't going to have an 'end' to an arc in the narrative sense over the course of the hour-and-a-quarter; they don't all fully resolve, which might prove frustrating for people who'll get really invested in these characters. Benny in particular is very interesting, and even without having my heart melt at the adorable childish antics of him and his friends - I wanted to see the fight against his bipolar disorder to see a happy conclusion. Or any conclusion at all.

Bombay Beach is an arthouse film through and through, which will delight those looking for a cinematic experience outside the Action/Horror/Romance trifecta - but it'll ring as vague and a little pretentious to others, and that sadly includes myself.

Have You Read... Norwegian Wood

University is difficult. Not just the academics, but the social side more than anything else. We are forced to sink-or-swim in a setting where we initially know no one, and rarely have old friendship groups to rely on. And yet at the same time, it's a blank slate - we are encouraged, if not outright told, that this is our best opportunity to 'be ourselves', whatever that means.

Some get through that just fine, and others are left feeling lost and aimless. Your life isn't going as smoothly as advertised, and you wonder if you're a little bit broken because of it. Norwegian Wood is for those people; not because it's some feel-good, Chicken Soup for the Soul pap; but because it asserts that although your life might be driving you a bit crazy - everyone else is also malfunctioning.

The story follows Toru Watanabe in his years at university. His pursuit for higher education is in a bid to leave behind painful memories of his best (and only) friend Kizuki's suicide. While he manages to extricate himself from complete dispair, Kizuki's girlfriend Naoko is less lucky. The death brings them both together and a connection is felt; but Naoko is still unstable, and admits herself into a sanatorium, deep in the woods of the countryside.

Trying to move on, Toru encounters Midori in one of his classes. She, like him, feels like an outsider; but her outgoing and fickle personality contrasts starkly to the quetly beautiful Naoko. Moving back and forth between university life and visits to the otherwordly calm of the sanatoruim, Toru acts as something of a catalyst in the lives of both Midori and Naoko, while everyone else impresses on him how he should look at life.

While I could just chalk it up to careful writing and confirmation bias, it's easy to find the points where one's university life reflects that of Toru's. The burning desire to get away from the grind of uni; the attempts to try and innundate yourself in the culture to try and fit in (even when that proves unsatisfying); the quest to find a balance between friendship and something more intimate. The aspects of Japanese culture and the 1960s setting distance things from modern Western affairs somewhat, but it's in no way an obstruction.

While Naoko is the only character who is somewhat defined by her illness and insecurities, there isn't a single named character who has the luxury of being comfortable with themselves; though they all handle it differently. None of these outlooks are inherently wrong (though some are morally dubious), and actually call for some honest thinking about. Is isolating yourself from the rest of the functioning world to repair oneself the best idea? Is a culture of one-night-stands actually so fulfilling? Are close friends appropriate emotional crutches?

While Norwegian Wood has a film adaptation, at time of writing I've not seen it. I've grown to be wary of novel adaptations, but if it retains the same thought-provoking yet subtle commentary of university life and the flaws of human nature, then it'll be on the right track.

Review: Dragon Quest Monsters Joker 2

This review was written for The Yorker and can be found here.

While Pokémon has the genre neatly cornered, it's not the only "Collect & Battle" experience out there. The ability to create and arrange your own specialised team for whuppin' ass is addictive to both kids (who have an affinity for harbouring obsessions) and adults (who have an affinity for acting like children).

Running quietly in the shadow of Pokémon is the Dragon Quest Monster series; a spin-off (somewhat obviously) of the Dragon Quest series, where the monsters that were once your sworn enemies can now be brought around to your side. What set the games apart from Pikachu and pals was the increased difficulty and how no matter what monster took your fancy, you could turn it into your ideal killing-machine. No arguments over which critter is better, just how cleverly you've raised them.

DQM Joker 2 is the 5th Dragon Quest Monsters title (and the 4th to see release in the UK), not that having played the other games is necessary to have you understand everything in this one. Its story is nothing special, it hits all the right notes; you are a preteen with ridiculously elaborate hair, and a burning passion for making wildlife of the world fight under your command. You stow away on an air ship in pursuit of this goal, but the ship is caught in a sudden roil, flinging the passengers and crew off into the wilderness, leaving you to pick up a lone monster in the hold, and set out to rescue everyone via sheer force.

Battles are usually 3 vs 3, with some exceptions that I'll come to in a moment. What was a gimmick in Pokémon Black and White has been the norm in this series, and has battles feel more like a classic RPG. Things are switched up by your team being A.I. controlled - most of your battles will be spent looking through the filter of what might happen when you choose the 'Fight' command, which causes you to think things through a lot more carefully.

What will take up most of your time is the Synthesis mechanic. The growth of a monster is limited, but by fusing two of your entourage together, you'll get a new monster with skills from both 'parents'. It can be hard to essentially get rid of your MVP, but coming out with something meaner and tougher (and at Level 1 so you have to raise them all over again) is very satisfying. The game won't needle you into doing this, but the process is so oddly compelling, you'll find yourself hanging back in previously-completed areas getting your Hell Hornet to level 18 so you can get that next set of skill points. It's the Skinner Box theory in beautiful motion.

Aesthetically, DQMJ2 is competent, but not stunning. For a game released at the end of the DS' lifespan, it's not using the system to its full potential. It uses the exact same graphical engine as Dragon Quest XI, released a few years back, which wasn't the most graphically stunning game either. It's consistent, but it feels lazy. That said, it's far more technically accomplished than the DS Pokémon titles, and it's satisfying to see your monsters actually run up and slap their target. The quality of the graphical style is dependent on how much you like Dragonball Z, a praise and a gripe of every Dragon Quest title to date.

What it does do well is environments and scale. Each area of the game, while rather implausible (savannah and frozen wastelands so close to each other? Sure.) feel wild and unwelcoming to puny humans. Being able to climb up to the higher areas and view the entire area is satisfying and lonely. Weather changes will bring out new monsters that like the climate, and every area has its own Giant Monster. These foes count as 3 participants in battle, and although they can be encountered from very early on, they're not to be tackled by newbies. The pursuit of getting strong enough to take one down after it has spent so long chasing you across the map is one of the best experiences the game has to offer. And when you work out how to obtain your own giant monsters, it gets even better.

Dragon Quest Monsters Joker 2 isn't going to grab the hearts of the nation - it has graphics of 2008 and gameplay sensibilities of 1998, but it'll sate the thirsts of those who are in between Pokémon experiences, and those who are still waiting for a widely-available RPG that they can put into their 3DS.

Have You Played: Final Fantasy XIII

This feature was written for The Yorker and can be found here.

While Square Enix could be reasonably blamed for having a hand in the endless torrent of Video Game Sequels, the gameplay of the Final Fantasy titles varies wildly - for better or for worse. FF13 is one such game that made some bold changes in how it played; and the fan backlash was pretty huge. That said; you can call me a supporter.

Setting aside the plot of the game for now, the main complaint was Final Fantasy XIII being linear. Now, linearity in a game is incredibly common. From Super Mario Bros. to Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 - a non-diverging progression from beginning to end is the standard, and often to no detriment whatsoever. Even other Final Fantasy titles are in no way free-roaming.

What makes FF13's linearity so salient is that it displays this decision with bold colours. A mini-map is present at all times, condensing the (incredibly stunning) environments into a 'Head from A to B' schematic. After every plot point you encounter, the path behind you often tends to be sealed off - not that you have a reason to backtrack. Even the tried and tested formula of having towns filled with exposition-townsfolk and item shops have been distilled - buying items and upgrades can be done at the frequent save points.

There's a beauty in that. In a games industry where many Japanese RPGs are oft-filled with busywork and errands - forcing the player to go back to previously beaten areas; and many Western RPGs are devoted to sandbox exploration and hollow moral choices; FF13 is devoted to giving you a well told story and a great battle system with none of the fat.

With the extraneous gaming abstractions cut out, FF13 is free to focus on it's narrative - the planet of Cocoon is co-inhabited by humans and gargantuan aliens called the Pulse Fal'Cie. While these aliens are responsible for keeping the ecosystem in check, they often treat humans as pets - ruining lives and entire settlements in the process. The story flicks between Lightning - an ex-soldier on a personal mission to rescue her sister from becoming tainted by the Fal'Cie - and other citizens and soldiers who get dragged along for the ride - none of them have the same perspective, and as they traverse Cocoon (sometimes to explore, often to escape) we learn more about their individual motivations and the nature of the world they live in. It's gripping.

The story is broken up by inevitable battles with both monsters and military; using a system that stands out as the most simplified, yet demanding battle system used in a Final Fantasy game. While every party member has a dedicated role - mêlée attacks, healing, casting magic, etc. - you can 'Paradigm Shift' at any time to switch roles as the situation demands. The skill is not in being able to select attacks (you can let the game carry out actual attacking automatically); but in planning ahead enough to turn the tide of battle on a clever Shift. It takes very little time for battles that rely entirely on a good Shifting strategy to emerge unscathed. If you do happen to succumb to failure, the game will happily let you reload to just before the battle so you can try again. Even in death, FF13 is streamlined to you making progress.

A lot of gamers actively enjoy burning hours on repeatedly killing the same monsters to be strong enough to progress; some players are willing to accept a looser story for the promise of more immersion, and FF13 just simply isn't for those people. It perfectly caters to what I look for when gaming; a strong and compelling story with a battle system that challenges me, and none of the annoying busywork.

A sequel, Final Fantasy XIII-2 will hit stores in February, and in its press releases, it promises to put back the towns and meandering that its predecessor removed. A far more accessible decision, but for me, FF13 was a successful experiment in bringing the JRPG to the current generation of games.

The Language of Hip-Hop: A Lot More Than 'Ass'

This article was done for the Phonograph, can be found here.

Okay, so we live in a world where Big Sean can release a song called “Ass”, where the lyrics consist mostly of just that word. Granted, if you’ve been paying attention to Top-40s hip-hop for the past couple of years you would have already experienced The Black Eyed Peas‘ “I’mma Be”, but that hasn’t saved me from the bemusement I feel regarding “Ass” being a song that actually exists.
For those who were on the opposing side of the Rock vs. Rap petty dichotomy during the 90s and early 2000s, the stupidity of “Ass” is something ‘expected’ for the world of Hip-Hop. At surface level (i.e. that awful club you and your friends go to, you know the one), Rap and Hip-Hop exclusively consist of self-aggrandizing and partying hard; designed to move your feet, but not move you.
Of course, that’s never been the whole story Hip-Hop as an initial concept was heavily focused in telling stories of day-to-day life and struggles; but very little of that sentiment seems to escape outside the bubble of long-established fans of the genre. It only takes a little digging to strike a vein of honest insight and clever topics packaged up in dope rhymes and sick beats.
Taking on the idea that a lot of old-school Hip-Hop had an aim to inform – it might not be too out there to think of some works as educational. And why not? Just because the information imparted is set to some 808s doesn’t mean that it’s not valid. I don’t see there being a University course entitled “Hip-Hop and Philosophical Theory” any time soon (though I would definitely take it if such a thing existed); but academic insight can become apparent in unlikely ways.
I’m presently doing a linguistics degree, my personal area of interest is Language and Identity. Consider for a moment, the concept of ‘Authenticity’. It’s where you (consciously or otherwise) affect your speech so something about you is more obvious to the people you’re speaking to. I for one, take pride in my Londoner accent. And upon listening to “Country Cousins” by Talib Kweli, he became a really good example for me to cite:
I walk and talk kinda fast and thought of as a New York kinda rhymer
But most New Yorkers got family in South and North Carolina
L.A. is ‘Little Alabama’
They walk and they talk with a country grammar
And you think everybody else sound country
So they started callin’ ‘em ‘Bamas
It’s not every day that you’d expect someone to spit lyrics about sociolinguistics, but more than that, it’s something interesting and relevant.
Lupe Fiasco definitely has a corner marked out for sending a message, his second album, The Cool, was all about how a careless pursuit of a gangsta lifestyle, the titular Cool, was nothing but destructive. Not that you would know that from listening to the single that made it to the radio, “Superstar” struggled to pull that kind of sentiment.
Even with his most recent album, Lasers, the public saw Lupe at his self-confessed low-point – “The Show Goes On” was not the kind of story he wanted to tell. Instead, the cleverest track was buried away as a Bonus track – “I’m Beamin’”:
You see I hood a lot, and yeah I nerd some
Hood’s where the heart is, nerd’s where the words from
Don’t represent either, because I merged them
While I can’t relate to a self-hype song about fat stacks of cash, I can definitely feel where Lupe’s coming from when he says he’s never stopped being a nerd, and how that’s never held him back in anything. It’s a message that a younger me really could have done with. Maybe not in the same way that Tupac’s “Keep Ya Head Up” and its messages about respecting women (why wasn’t any of that taken on board?); but still a sentiment worth hearing.
What’s more, I definitely need to give credit to indie hip-hop; running parallel to the grimy rap battle scene that was rendered as oh-so-glamorous in 8 Mile (ahem), are the artists heading for the socio-political angle. Since, deep-down rapping was never too distant from Beat Poetry, entirely powered by heartfelt social commentary. Take, for example, Akala, and his track “Find No Enemy”
But I don’t even believe my own prayers like you,
Chasing career going nowhere like you,
Lost in a fog of my own insecurities I hold myself up as a image of purity,
And I judge everybody else by the colour of their skin or the size of their wealth
But it’s not good for my health as the only one I ever really judge is my self
His flow goes everywhere, from social standings to self-reflection to what it means to be “urban”. He accepts and vocalises his flaws, and he really comes across as human and an equal. That it’s backed up with some deft lyricism and an arguably unusual choice of alternative rock instrumental style makes a track like this memorable; and the messages he imparts along with it.
The scope of socially-conscious and educated artists out there is vast, way more than I can reasonably describe here. So to give a starting point to those who want to find out more (and to hopefully appease the Hip-Hop fans whose favourite artists I’ve missed), give these a try:
Shad – Question Marks
Kenyan-born and living in Canada, Shad’s début album When This is Over is packed full of personal insight. “Question Marks” stands out as a favourite, a downtempo piece discussing the nature of God from a Christian perspective, and how the Bible is interpreted. It’s not necessarily an opinion I can agree with, but he makes a fair case.
Del tha Funkee Homosapien – Del’s Nightmare
Ever heard “Clint Eastwood” by the Gorillaz? Many people heard about Del that way, though he was also part of the rap group Heiroglyphics, and did a concept album as Deltron 3030 about cyberpunk cities (a must-listen for any Sci-Fi fan). His 1998 album,Future Development has “Del’s Nightmare” discussing 1850s slavery, and then making a sarcastic comparison to the music industry. Cheeky, but thought-provoking.
Khaled M -  Can’t Take Our Freedom
Previously interviewed on The PhonographKhaled M is a Libyan-born rapper, and an activist in Libyan politics, using his music to reach out to youths, and those who otherwise wouldn’t know the problems going on. His collaboration with Lowkey, “Can’t Take Our Freedom” is punchy and motivational, and made a significant contribution to the revolution.
Pete Philly & Perquisite – Hope
This duo from Amsterdam brought a lot of Jazz and Soul elements into their Hip-Hop beats; Perquisite is an accomplished cellist and regularly used entire string sets in his work. In the track “Hope” from the album Mindstate they team up with Talib Kweli to discuss that, although politics and businesses can be corrupt or greedy, the public still has the ability and the spirit to not just take things as given and work towards better.

Hip-Hop as a genre isn’t confined to being disposable party anthems, nor does it only exist as a soapbox for rappers. There are definitely days where I will put on Notorious B.I.G’s“One More Chance” and giggle like a schoolboy at how he has a 4-minute song entirely about his penis. But the more thought-provoking songs and artists out there could do with more time in the mainstream spotlight, so we can all have more social analysis, and less “Ass”.