So I’ve finished Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle

I expected a game that gave Mario a gun to be less bland. XCOM: Mushroom Kingdom this isn’t. Nintendo characters, but without Nintendo-levels of polish.

All that pithily said, I still enjoyed it. Especially when I started thinking about it more like a small-screen puzzle game than a big-screen campaign.

It went on about two levels longer than it ought to have done. And I was never given an incentive to use the different characters. And I swear it ate through my Switch’s battery faster than Zelda (and Zelda had a lot more to do each frame, I would think).

But it was fun. Bouncing and drop-kicking and taking pipes really adds to a feeling of mobility. The choice to not measure movement range in path length but in radius made things much more predictable. And the puzzles (once I saw them that way) were engaging and interesting to pull apart.

I could’ve used a “whoops, wrong button” one-step undo. And I’m still not sure which of the shoulder buttons is L and which is ZL (and this game uses them more than the d-pad buttons).

But overall, not a waste of the, say, 15 hours I put into it.

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So I’ve Finished Final Fantasy XV

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(Spoilers may lie within for a game that’s a year old.)

For a game that obviously had a lot of time (10 years!), effort, and money dumped into it… it feels unfortunately uneven.

The story, though standard Final Fantasy fare, is told poorly enough that characters react emotionally to situations that haven’t been earned, the player is forced to have her character make decisions without knowledge that her character has, and injects a person from the tie-in movie in a prominent part of the endgame without having ever, in the plot or the story, meeting the player character.

I like a good mystery. I like plots that surface only about a tenth of a world’s lore. I’m happy to think about questions posed by the narrative, and intrigued by the choices made by writers and directors about what pieces to include and which to omit.

This isn’t that. I mean it is, in places. I don’t need and didn’t receive a cutscene and backing barks about how Ifrit was the one who wrought the Starscourge. That’s a fine piece of information to put in an in-game codex or tie-in novel or whatever.

At the very least you must give the player time with secondary characters before fridging them if you want an emotional response. I didn’t know who Jared was before you killed him. The only reason I knew he was important was because the main characters became mopey-faced when they heard of his off-screen demise. And for the relationship in the game’s own logo I only have the characters’ words to go by to determine how much Noctis and Luna loved each other despite never being in the same place for ten years. But boy howdy was her death rendered beautifully and with excellent scoring.

If it were just the story that was uneven, I’d still be upset. But this unevenness extends throughout the title.

Barks during the fishing minigame are timed to the wrong events; only half of the casual conversations have lip-syncing; you can only have one “Kill <some monster(s)> and get <some reward(s)>” quest active at once; the control schemes for Chocobo riding, car driving, and walking all have different buttons for jump; the map doesn’t zoom in far enough to discriminate icons in town; the fog of war on dungeon maps only shows on the full map not the minimap…

I work in software. I know how bugs creep into release. But the only reason I can think of to explain three different jump buttons and unmarkable maps with different sort orders on quest lists is that Squenix ignores their interaction designers.

Story and mechanics aren’t the whole of it either: Final Fantasy XV’s representation of healthy male relationships is above anything I can remember from any Final Fantasy title. They even cry together, our roadtrip boys… if you wait midway through the credits for it. Yet relationships with women are tropish, boring, and underwritten. Despite the backlash Square Enix received after Episode Duscae (the first of the playable demos) they declined to design Cindy some mechanics coveralls or exclude superfluous car washing scenes. Iris is a schoolgirl stereotype the game cannot decide whether I’m attracted to, embarrassed by, or protective of. Luna is a damsel no matter how much we’re told her actions drive the plot. Aranea is a spinny death machine that battles in heels and bared midriff (though she almost has a character arc)…

You might think in reading this that I didn’t have fun playing FFXV and didn’t enjoy the game. I did, really… It’s beautiful, the four main characters have acceptable chemistry, story actions have story consequences, the battle system is fast and reasonably fun, the minigames are diverting, they finally learned how to communicate enemy scale, and did I mention it’s beautiful?

But when Dragon Age: Inquisition can, two years and one console generation earlier, “Open World” better that a mainline Final Fantasy… I just wonder what went wrong.

The Hands of Orlac

Amusing anecdote: my wife and I were just settling down to dinner and looking forward to a relaxing evening when lo and behold, the babysitter was at the door. Wait, what? Oh right!

We were going out to spend two hours listening to the symphony try to creep us out of our wits through a 91-year-old, two-hour-long film. Plus intermission.

The Hands of Orlac is a 1924 (silent, black and white) Austrian suspense film. For the first concert of the Intersections Series, the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony commissioned and performed a new score for this film by Canadian composer Scott Good.

A modern composer? With a featured soprano? Not atonal caterwauling! Again!

I need not have concerned myself. The soprano (when not signing rather uninspired sections of sacred Latin (kyrie eleison, gloria, agnus dei, that sort of thing)) was breathing in a most sinister fashion, singing into off-putting reverb loops, and emitting odd vocalizations that added quite palpably to the tension on screen.

I could gush for ages over the other featured performer, pianist Gregory Oh. Orlac in the film is a concert pianist, so the scoring made sure to draw the obvious parallels to the pianos on stage. Oh prepared a piano to sound like nothing on this planet, detuning whole registers of it and placing sticks and bottles and other detritus inside to provide sound effects and atmosphere. On the second piano, a topless concert grand, he used… I’m not even sure what to scratch and scrape the strings to make me wonder what else talented musicians could do if they just messed around with their instruments.

Competing with these performers quite ably despite its age was the film itself. I took all of about two film courses in University, but could still recognize some of the truly amazing stuff the crew did. Photographing a searchlight and using it as a wipe to the next scene? Brilliant. Blurring part of the frame to highlight a particular object? Excellent. Using vignetting to show a character’s point-of-view? Wonderful. Film had barely existed, and this is what Austria could produce?

And the title role’s actor was wonderful. Coupled with the score, his “These hands. These damned hands” scene sent shivers down my spine. I only wish they had then immediately cut to the intermission instead of after the following two scenes.

There were other missteps. Some of the score was overwrought and didn’t follow the scene transitions closely enough. The aforementioned Latin was meh. And the film was clearly a product of its time with the leading lady overacting into the camera so hard (to overcome the lack of sound and sophistication) that the audience couldn’t help but laugh despite the tension the film was trying to build.

Regardless, it was truly a singular experience. I can’t wait for the next performance which… whut? Features a punk-rock throat singer?

Is that even a thing?