Category Archives: Personal and Opinion

Most posts fit in here. Things where I write from the heart about all manner of subjects. As is the norm on personal websites these days, I remind you once again that everything I say here is my own opinion and doesn’t reflect the opinion of my employers — past, present or future.

1896: Mastering War

Ahead of the release of Final Fantasy XIV’s expansion Heavensward, I’ve been levelling some of the other classes that I either haven’t touched or had only levelled a little bit. Today I reached level 50 on my fourth battle class: Warrior. (My previous 50s were Black Mage, White Mage and Paladin, in that order; I now play Paladin more than anything.)

Warrior is one of the two tank jobs in the game — i.e. their job is to maintain the attention of enemies and get punched in the face so the rest of the party doesn’t get punched in the face. Having gained a lot of experience with how Paladin does things, I have to admit I was somewhat skeptical about how different Warrior could possibly be. After all, their reason for existing is the same, and it’s not like damage-dealing classes where you can make a distinction between ranged and melee characters; a tank is, by its very nature, a melee class.

I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how different it feels, though. This is down to several factors, both mechanical and aesthetic.

On the mechanics front, Warrior initially appears to be a more complex class to play. Whereas Paladin only really has two main “combos” of abilities to worry about — one for single-target threat generation, one for maintaining your stock of MP so you can keep aggro on larger groups — Warrior has several more, each of which has its own function. There’s a basic aggro-generating combo that is the backbone of your single-target tanking, but there are also two combos that branch off the damage-increasing “Maim” skill, one of which reduces the enemy’s damage output, another of which reduces their resistance to a particular kind of damage while increasing the healing you receive. Alongside this, fighting as a Warrior in your tank stance builds up stacks of “Wrath” which, when they reach five, can be expended for one of several special abilities.

So, to put things simply, there are more buttons to press as Warrior — or, more accurately, more different combinations of buttons to press according to the situation. Paladin is mostly about managing your defensive abilities to mitigate as much damage as possible; there’s still an element of this with Warrior, but it’s a much more aggressive, active class with self-heals and attacks that inflict various status effects.

Aesthetically is the other big different. Although most classes in Final Fantasy XIV work off a 2.5 second global cooldown (i.e. 2.5 seconds has to elapse before you can use another ability) and consequently play at the same “pace”, Warrior and Paladin feel worlds apart due to their animations and sound effects. Paladin’s sounds are higher in pitch, the animations more fluid; Warrior’s animations look more cumbersome and make lower-pitched, heavy-sounding impacts. The reason for this big difference is the difference in weapons, of course — Paladins use a one-handed sword and shield, while warriors use axes as big as themselves — but it’s surprising quite how pronounced the contrast is between the two classes, even though the basic “pace” of how they play is very similar.

Having got Warrior to 50, I’m not sure if I’ll do much more with it, but I’m glad I’ve experimented with it and now have the flexibility to use it in endgame content when I want to. Overall I prefer the faster-feeling fluidity of Paladin, plus I know that class a lot better and thus feel more confident using it in difficult fights, but I’m not going to rule out a bit more axeplay in the future!

What’s next? Probably Bard, which I’ve already got to level 40; while a ranged DPS like my Black Mage, Bard plays very differently owing to the fact you don’t have to stand still to use abilities and don’t have as much of a set skill rotation as Black Mage does. After that it’s on to the classes I haven’t used much or at all before: Monk, Dragoon, Ninja and Arcanist (which becomes both Scholar and Summoner).

1895: More Noire

Been playing some more Hyperdevotion Noire today, so I make no apologies for spending another post talking about it.

I am enjoying it a whole lot so far, and although I’m still relatively early on in the game, the interesting mission and map design is starting to shine through as the game adds more and more map gimmicks and mechanics to take into account while playing.

Of the last few missions, I’ve played, for example, one saw my party of four (Noire, Neptune, Vert and Blanc) fighting against the emphatically-not-Chun-Li-oh-wait-she-clearly-is “road pugilist” Lee-Fi. She was on the far side of a large arena whose walls were electrified, which means that knockback attacks had a use beyond simply getting enemies away from you. Some of the floor was electrified, too, necessitating careful route planning and an understanding of the game’s “orientation” system, whereby the direction a character is facing when they start moving (you can change it freely) determines the initial direction they move if the target space is not in a straight line from their current position.

This was followed up by a fight against the emphatically-not-Solid-Snake-with-tits-oh-wait-she-clearly-is superspy Lid, whose battlefield was riddled with booby-traps, necessitating, again, careful navigation while fending off her supporting units. Two strips of the battlefield are also covered by large, heavy damage-dealing cannons, too, though once you notice that they can only fire in a straight line immediately in front of them it’s easy enough to avoid them.

This was then followed by a battle against the Agarest-inspired character Resta, who was on the other side of a huge chasm, the only means of traversing which was a rickety railway carriage that could only hold three of your four party members at once. Resta also has an absolutely devastating super-move which obliterated my party in a single turn by dropping giant explosive bunches of bananas on their heads, so after my second “Game Over” of the game (the first being not paying attention to the cannons in Lid’s stage) I realised that it was essential to take her down in a single turn and not get distracted by her supporting units, since the mission objective was simply to defeat her, not everything on the map.

Thus far the game has put up a reasonably stiff challenge. The first couple of missions are deceptively simple, but beginning with the Lee-Fi fight, things have been getting noticeably more difficult — and a little more gradually than most Neptunia games, which are somewhat notorious for inconsistent difficulty spikes throughout most of the experience, then becoming ridiculously easy once you pass a particular level threshold. The difficulty hasn’t been insurmountable, though, and the new mechanics have been introduced gradually enough that I haven’t felt as overwhelmed as I have done in similar games like Advance Wars and Fire Emblem, where I often can’t work out why my strategy failed when it inevitably does. Here, failure seems to generally be the result of not paying enough attention — and given that you can examine all the units on both sides of the battle before you start fighting, there’s really no excuse for the mistakes I have made up until this point; I’ve certainly learned to carefully survey the battlefield before charging in now!

I’ve always quite liked tactics games and even finished Final Fantasy Tactics way back in the day, but Hyperdevotion Noire is the first one I feel like I’m understanding a little better. It’s designed well, plays well, looks great and features probably my favourite cast of characters in gaming. What’s not to like?

1894: Goddess Black Heart

Finally got around to firing up the rather grandiosely titled Hyperdevotion Noire: Goddess Black Heart today, and I’m pleased to report that thus far it appears to be excellent.

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For the unfamiliar, Hyperdevotion Noire is another installment in my perennial favourite game series Hyperdimension Neptunia, or more accurately, it’s one of several “spinoff” games that have broken free of the main continuity… not that Neptunia has ever been a series particularly concerned with internal continuity. In other words, it stands by itself as its own self-contained story, though naturally you’ll probably get more out of it if you’re already familiar with the characters and concepts involved.

Unlike most of the Neptunia games, Hyperdevotion Noire puts, oddly enough, PlayStation personification Noire in the leading role. Unfolding in a separate, parallel setting to the main Neptunia games (the land of “Gamarket” instead of “Gamindustri”), Hyperdevotion Noire opens with Noire dominating much of the world with her superior military might, army of generals (each of whom represents a well-known game series, such as the Metal Gear-inspired girl named “Lid” seen in the screenshot below) and overwhelming support from the people. Unfortunately, her position as top dog isn’t to last; after being tricked into releasing the power of her “Shares” — the source of a Goddess’ power in the Neptunia universe — monsters run amok in her city, people disappear and her once-trusted generals start fighting among themselves. It’s up to Noire — along with the rest of the Neptunia gang, who show up pretty near the beginning of the whole affair — to sort out the mess she had a part in creating, find out who the mysterious woman “Eno” who set these events in motion is (hint: she looks uncannily like recurring series villain Arfoire) and ultimately unite Gamarket.

It’s up to you, meanwhile, to take care of Noire and help her out as she goes about her business. Yes, like fellow spinoff Hyperdimension Neptunia: Producing Perfection, Hyperdevotion Noire puts the player in the game as a first-person protagonist rather than simply telling the story of the main cast. Recruited as Noire’s secretary shortly after meeting her, you’re tasked with managing the party, strategising in battle, renovating and decorating Noire’s headquarters and helping her make appropriate policy decisions as the citizens of Lastation come to her with requests.

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The meat of the game comes in the battle sequences. Rather than being a dungeon-crawling, item-gathering/crafting RPG as the mainline Neptunia installments are, Hyperdevotion Noire is a strategy RPG, developed by Sting (of Gungnir, Knights in the Nightmare and Yggdra Union fame). Mainline Neptunia games have always had a slight element of tactics to their battle sequences thanks to positional bonuses, cleaving attacks and formation skills, but battles in those games are generally pretty short; punctuation to dungeon crawling. In Hyperdevotion Noire, a single battle represents a complete encounter and provides you with specific objectives: sometimes you’ll simply have to defeat all enemies; sometimes you’ll have to defeat a specific enemy; sometimes you’ll have to complete objectives before a specific number of turns pass.

The game does a good job of introducing concepts to you gradually, and there’s a bunch of interesting systems at play. Core to the game is the “Lily Boost” system, whereby characters can power up their relationship values with other characters, earn “Lily Points” and reduce the cost of their special moves by triggering their skills when adjacent to other characters, which causes the supporting characters to give the acting character an adorable little peck on the cheek. Chu! Although cheeky and flirtatious, the system adds an interesting dynamic to battles: you have to think very carefully about both turn order and formation when setting up attacks, especially when you’re dealing with enemies who can hit several tiles at once. It’s no good getting all set up for a four-way snog if an enemy with a massive cleave is just going to kill all of you at once when it comes to their turn, after all.

That’s not all to think about, though. Battle maps include treasure chests in awkward-to-reach locations, which you’ll need to acquire before completing your objectives if you want the goodies therein. A Final Fantasy X-style “Overkill” bonus rewards you with rare drops if you defeat an enemy with far more damage than you need to. Maps have variable elevation and environmental hazards — both of which can be conveniently bypassed if you switch the goddess characters into their flying “HDD” forms, but in order to do this you’ll need to build up the Lily Points gauge first, and then it only lasts for three turns, so you need to make the most of it. Setting a specific character as the “leader” of the squad confers special bonuses (and, sometimes, penalties) on the group as a whole. Characters each have their own array of “challenges” to complete, each of which rewards them with significant stat bonuses.

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There is a hell of a lot of game here. This is nothing new for a Neptunia game — I’ve easily spent over 100 hours on the last few installments in an attempt to get the Platinum trophies and hidden goodies — but considering this is a “spinoff” game and not technically part of the main series, it’s impressive. I’m only a short way in to the overall plot so far, but I’m already enjoying both the narrative and gameplay sides; it’s shaping up to be a fine installment in a favourite series, and all the more noteworthy for doing something a little bit different.

1893: Sweet Vanilla Salt

I started watching Toradora! after finishing Golden Time because it’s an earlier work by the latter’s writer, and as my posts from a short while back will attest, I enjoyed the latter very much indeed.

I knew nothing about Toradora! going in save for the fact that it was well-regarded by quite a few people (the exception being Andie’s sister, who thought it was “tripe”, but conceded that she was not the target audience) and it had even been a “jumping-on” point to anime for a lot of people. So I was confident it would at least be an entertaining watch if nothing else.

Toradora! tells the story of the relationship between the “Dragon” and the “Tiger”, better known as protagonist Ryuji and leading lady Taiga. Neither of these are typical leads according to slice-of-life/romance anime tropes: Ryuji is (at least initially) feared by his classmates for his sour-faced, intimidating appearance — a genetic inheritance from his father, whom it seems is no longer around thanks to seemingly being involved in some questionable activities — while Taiga is… well, she’s very short, and not at all happy about it, particularly as the combination of her height, slight figure and somewhat petulant tendencies tend to make her come across as considerably younger than she actually is.

Ryuji and Taiga are brought together by their attraction to each other’s friends; Ryuji likes Taiga’s friend Kushieda who, as a spunky, loud genki girl is the polar opposite of Taiga in terms of personality, while Taiga likes Ryuji’s friend Kitamura. Ryuji discovers Taiga is living a somewhat lonely existence in the apartment building next to his house: she’s living all alone in an apartment too big for her, and clearly doesn’t know how to take care of herself. Ryuji, having had to be the “man of the house” for some time thanks to his departed father and his dirty stop-out of a mother, takes it upon himself to look after her, cooking her meals and helping her out with all sorts of domestic chores.

Unfortunately, this, of course, leads to misunderstandings when people see them together, and this in turn makes their pursuit of their prospective paramours somewhat more challenging. I have little doubt that the two of them will end up with one another by the end of the series — though I will be pleasantly surprised if the show goes another route — because they complement one another nicely. Taiga doesn’t show any fear towards Ryuji and sees him for who he is; at the same time, Ryuji manages to bring out a side of Taiga she doesn’t show many people: an honest, frank and vulnerable side. It’s a rocky relationship, to be sure, but it has the makings of an entertaining watch indeed.

As I said above, I’m only four episodes in so far, but I’m enjoying it a lot. It’s sharply written, with some genuinely funny moments, and the cast of characters all have their own little surprises that defy the initial impressions they might make. I’m intrigued to see where it goes and how the relationships depicted in the show develop over time, and can already appreciate why this is such a well-regarded series.

1892: Shrunken

Slimming World meeting tonight, and I’d lost another 2.5lbs this week. That means for the last 9 weeks I’ve consistently been losing weight, and I’ve now lost a little over 2 stone in total.

To say I’m pleased is an understatement. I still have a long way to go, of course, and I intend to keep doing what I’m doing as it seems to be working, but it’s been heartening to see the lifestyle changes I’ve made since joining the programme having a noticeable and positive effect.

There’s a few major changes to what I was doing before that have taken some adjusting to, but which are now fairly comfortably part of my usual routine. Firstly, I’ve cut right back on dairy; I used to drink a lot of milk which, of course, has its own health benefits, but which is also calorific and packed with fat. I’ve never been a mega-fan of cheese — I like it well enough, but I can happily live without it — so that’s been fairly straightforward to cut out, too. Instead, using the Slimming World “Healthy Extra” system, I limit myself to one latte in the morning (with 250ml milk measured) or 30g of cheese in a meal. I can spend some “Syns” to have both in a single day — I did tonight, in fact — but I’m now pretty much in the habit of keeping my dairy intake controlled.

Secondly is keeping an eye on what I drink, as this is probably where a lot of calories have snuck up on me in the past. I like to drink cold drinks, particularly cans, so I’ve switched exclusively to diet or “Zero” drinks instead of the Fat Cokes I used to enjoy. I’m still not a huge fan of Diet Coke, but other diet versions of popular drinks have proven surprisingly palatable. I actually think I prefer Diet Pepsi to regular Pepsi and Pepsi Max now, and Fanta/Sprite/Lilt/Dr Pepper/Irn Bru Zero are all pretty much indistinguishable from the “real thing”, and those are all drinks I like, so the fridge is kept well-stocked with those for when I want a cold drink, and it’s squashes or water at other times.

Thirdly is the aforementioned “syns”, keeping an eye on what other things I’m eating over the course of the day. The nice thing about Slimming World is that a lot of food is “free” (i.e. you can have as much as you like — and this includes stuff like pasta, rice and lean meat) but you also have the flexibility to use these “syns” to slip some extra stuff in there, too. (The “syn” part is from “synergy”, not “sin”; they’re supposed to complement the “free” foods and fill in the gaps for a balanced diet with things like sugar, fat and whatnot — the things that can easily get out of control, but which are still necessary for a decent diet.) Checking syn values of various foods has been eye-opening, and also helps me to make better choices when things are on offer. This doesn’t mean I can’t treat myself — indeed, when I went over to Boston for PAX, I pretty much took a few days completely off from the programme as it simply wasn’t practical to follow when I didn’t have full control over what I’d be eating — but it does mean that I can think more carefully about what I’m eating and drinking.

So it’s going well so far. I’m sure the weight loss will slow down or even stagnate at some point, but it’s encouraging that I’ve managed to lose so much so (relatively) quickly. A few people have commented that they can see the difference, and for once, I think I can, too. I’m still not happy with my body — I have a lot of weight to lose — but I’m happier with it than I was nine weeks ago, and hopefully that pattern will continue. Whether I’ll make it into the realm of the normal-sized people I don’t know — genetically, the odds are stacked somewhat against me — but I can but continue trying.

1891: Fragile Dreams

I fancied playing something a bit… different tonight, so I went to my shelves, bulging with backlog bounty, and looked at a few possible titles to give a go to. I didn’t feel like starting a traditional RPG just yet, so quite a few things were out, but my eye eventually stopped on a Wii title I knew nothing about but owned a copy of: Namco Bandai’s Fragile Dreams.

You may wonder why I own a copy of a game I know nothing about. Well, it was from a while back, when UK retail chain Game was in a bunch of trouble and looked like it might be folding; they were selling off a ton of their stock at ridiculously low prices, so I took the opportunity to grab lots of things that looked even a little bit interesting with a mind to eventually playing them at some point in the future. Fragile Dreams was one of them.

So how is it? Well, pretty damn cool so far. I’m not entirely sure what I was expecting, but I don’t think it was a feels-heavy action-RPG survival horror adventure game featuring the same “your Wii Remote is a torch” mechanic that worked so well in Silent Hill Shattered Memories. There’s actually a touch of Silent Hill in the game’s atmosphere, though in the case of Fragile Dreams it’s not so much about psychological horror as an ever-present sense of loneliness and abandonment.

At the outset of the game, the old man whom protagonist Seto has been living with dies, leaving him all alone in what appears to be a post-apocalyptic landscape. We don’t know anything about what has happened to humanity as the game begins, but little bits and pieces are revealed as you make your way through the game, both through elements of the environment that can be examined and “memory items” that allow you to hear the final thoughts of the world’s former inhabitants when you take a rest to restore your HP and save.

Seto isn’t completely alone in the world, despite initial appearances. Very early on, he encounters a silver-haired girl and proceeds to spend the next few hours (and, I’m guessing, going by my experiences so far, most of the game) chasing after her in an attempt to find out who she might be. Along the way he encounters some sort of sentient computerised backpack with mild self-esteem issues called PF, a not-quite-human person called Crow, a dead little girl with a penchant for cheating at hide-and-seek… and I don’t doubt there will be more strange and wonderful characters to encounter before the story has reached its conclusion.

It’s been a really interesting ride so far. The combat kind of sucks, but it’s a relatively minor part of the game, and the “survival horror” elements of having limited inventory space and weapons that have finite usage before they break add a bit of tension to the experience. It’s not been particularly scary so far, despite the presence of ghosts and whatnot, but it has been thought-provoking and emotional, even just four or so hours in. The emphasis appears to be more on the general atmosphere and feelings of loneliness than on outright trying to scare and disturb the player, and I’m fine with that.

There’s a lot of subtle charm to the game, too. Seto is just a kid forced to find his own way in the world well before he would have normally had to, and while he handles his task with a certain degree of maturity that you might not expect from someone whose voice hasn’t broken yet, his childlike qualities come through in game elements such as the automap which, rather than being a bland, clinical but clear affair, is presented as childish scribblings, complete with notes and doodles about scary and awesome things you’ve come across in your travels. Likewise, the baffling inclusion of lots of cats around the game world who can be tempted to come and play with you through the use of a cat toy makes for a welcome break from hitting ghosts with improvised weaponry, or trying to track down that one key you really need right now.

There’s clearly a lot about Fragile Dreams I don’t yet understand. But I’m very glad I chose to take a chance on it and see what it was all about; it’s shaping up to be a fascinating, deeply memorable experience. I hope it manages to keep this up until the end.

1890: Nael deus Defeated

A group of friends and I (including Andie) reached a milestone in our Final Fantasy XIV careers this evening: we defeated Turn 4 of the Second Coil of Bahamut, also known as “Turn 9″ owing to it being the ninth in the series of thirteen high-level raid encounters that make up Final Fantasy XIV’s endgame.

FFXIV’s endgame raid is split into three main parts. The Binding Coil of Bahamut (which consists of Turns 1 to 5) is mostly — mostly – trivial in terms of difficulty these days owing to the fact that the average gear level of a level 50 character who plays a reasonable amount each week now exceeds the level these encounters were designed for by a considerable margin. As time has gone on, The Binding Coil of Bahamut has also been “nerfed” in terms of mechanics — i.e. made easier — and parties challenging it are now given a substantial buff to their HP, damage dealt and healing when they walk in, though those looking for a bit more of a challenge can optionally turn this buff off.

The Binding Coil of Bahamut reaches its conclusion with Turn 5, a notoriously difficult fight that sees a party of eight taking on Twintania, a very angry dragon. Turn 5 remains a challenge for many groups to this day not because Twintania is particularly difficult to kill in terms of her HP and damage — the aforementioned gear issue here makes the encounter much easier than it once was — but because everyone in the group needs to have a solid understanding of most of the fight’s mechanics in order to succeed. Again, the power creep has meant it’s easier to recover from critical errors, but if you don’t know how to deal with her notorious Divebomb attack, for example, you’re going to die and quite possibly take the rest of the group with you.

The Binding Coil of Bahamut is followed up by the Second Coil of Bahamut, which consists of Turns 6 to 9. These are significantly more challenging, even with the “Echo” buff to player HP, damage and healing. Mechanics are more unforgiving — though again, a number have been nerfed over time — and they’re still not exactly the sort of encounters you can pick up and expect to coast your way through without knowing anything about them. Groups need to work together and be able to communicate effectively in order to pass through these challenges, and it all comes to a head with Turn 9.

Turn 9 remains notorious as one of the hardest fights in the game, even with the Final Coil of Bahamut subsequently being added after it. It proves to be a considerable roadblock to many groups, and indeed our party has been working on beating it for many weeks now.

The reason why it’s such a challenge — even more so than Turn 5 — is because of its extreme complexity. In this one fight, which takes in the region of 10 minutes to complete, there are roughly as many mechanics as you’d see in at least four separate boss encounters earlier in the game. There is a lot to learn, and it feels like an insurmountable challenge the first time you jump in, but as our group have proven tonight, taking it a step at a time and practicing together whenever we get the opportunity allows you to eventually reach success.

And my God what a wonderful feeling it was as that HP bar dropped to 0% tonight. We’d had several close calls earlier in the evening — first a 9%, then a 10%, then a 6% — but there was no guarantee that we were going to beat it. But beat it we did, and many celebrations were had; now we have until June to make it through the Final Coil of Bahamut before the expansion pack Heavensward comes along and gives us an entire new raid set in Alexander to take on.

I’m looking forward to the challenge. The feeling of jubilation at finally defeating this notoriously difficult boss this evening is unlike pretty much anything I’ve ever experienced in any other game — and at least part of that comes from the game’s multiplayer element. It wasn’t just my victory, it was our victory. We worked together, we practiced, we communicated, and eventually we prevailed. And it felt great.

We poked our head into the first turn of Final Coil this evening, but didn’t get anywhere, as expected. That’s an adventure for another day! In the meantime, here’s our clear video: