Monday, June 26, 2017

Reading the Witcher Books Before Playing Witcher 3

Ever since the Witcher 3's game release (May 19, 2015), I have been debating whether I should play the game or not: the major deterrent is that quite a few players of the game noted the clunky melee combat. I tried to play the Elder Scrolls Series (Oblivion and Skyrim), and while realizing the critical and commercial acclaim, the melee elements were so unsatisfying that I couldn't continue with the games. 

Often times, a game's story is such that even if the gameplay elements are not quite satisfying, I end up enjoying the game nevertheless.  Therefore, I felt that I may enjoy playing the Witcher 3 if I appreciate the story more; the plot and character development eclipsing the awkward gameplay mechanics. Upon researching, gamers have almost unanimously agreed that reading all the novels in the series of which this game is based on will make you appreciate the game considerably more, though not necessary. I thought it made sense to read the novels and if I really love the series, then playing the Witcher 3 is a no-brainer. Further, I want to support CD Project Red as they are incredibly generous to their fans.


I started with the first of the two short-story collections, The Last Wish, on the Kindle eBook device. It was recommended by gamers to read the first two short-story collections, and then the next 5 novels.

I was impressed by how the game closely adheres to this book, from what I've read about the video game. The very beginning of course introduces us to our hero, Geralt of Rivia, and describes what a Witcher is and does. The fact that Witchers make their livelihood by successfully completing paid missions, lend this novel very well to the open world genre due to the genre's sidequest structure.

The other thing the game developers did that was truthful to the novel is how Geralt's in-game movement matches the novel's description. Often, I would read complaints about how he pirouettes more than he attacks in combat gameplay, and in fact, in the novel, the author constantly describes Geralt pirouetting to dodge attacks.

The author also discusses how Geralt uses potions to "buff" himself before a fight, such as granting him night vision and other alchemy, which is also a significant gameplay element.

A little further in the novel, it is clear that Geralt is "over-sexed" and irresistible to women which is also consistent with the game.

I very much enjoyed the first two short stories, as the description of how Geralt comes upon the missions, the mission description, and his use of tools and techniques were new and hence interesting. The issue is that after these missions, it becomes repetitive. I don't expect The Last Wish to be as unique and varied as Edith Wharton's collection of short stories, but it gets old after awhile, using the mission, complete the mission story arc.  Additionally, there are quite long passages describing Geralt battling the various monsters which become tiresome after reading the umpteenth pirouette. Action in novels can never be as gripping as they are in movies, television and videogames. Finally, the relational dynamics between the characters are not quite compelling.

As a result, I could only read up to 51% of the novel (the Kindle gives you markers) before I gave up. I wonder if I'm overly critical of The Last Wish, since the last books I have read were Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks (with the ever demanding N.C., Esq. lurking around) and Haruki Murakami's 1Q84. Although, I could be reading other more interesting and compelling books than The Last Wish, and I still want to get around re-reading Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain.

I recommend that you borrow the book from the library before committing to a purchase, or even more conveniently, read the fan-translations. I've read comments that they are quite close to the official translation, some arguing that they're even better. If you're able to finish it and you truly enjoy it, then it makes sense to read the remaining novels. 

However, if you are like me, I would recommend reading synopsis of these novels.

Even so, I might give The Last Wish another go at it, especially as readers mention that the novels get better, and really helped them to significantly appreciate the game.

-Alice




Thursday, June 15, 2017

Titanic: The Titan of Movies

GUEST WRITER, N.C., Esq.


I was very skeptical regarding the glowing reviews of Titanic (1997) which led to a breathtaking and improbable sweep of the Oscars, winning 11 out of 14 categories, which had me choke on my chocolate martini at that time. I am also very particular of how I spend my time, so I didn't watch the movie until September 2012, with the release of the new 3D version.

Since I'm very interested in the technology of 3D, I reluctantly pencilled this into my very demanding schedule. Looking back in my Moleskine calendar, it was September 15, 2012, a day I will never forget. After the movie, I came out thinking that Titanic was robbed, and should have won the last 3 Oscar categories. How can Kate Winslet NOT win Best Actress, the luminary Gloria Stuart should have clearly won Best Supporting Actress, and I'm truly appalled that this film did not pick up Best Makeup. I was also angered that Titanic did not do as commercially well as the overblown Gone With the Wind, making only 2.5 billion dollars (adjusted for inflation, 2014). Does this demonstrate that only critics (who universally lauded the film) have good taste compared to the General Public and the Awards Committees? I would dare say so.


Braque, Man with a Guitar, 1911
The movie evokes Greek Mythology at its most traumatic and tragic. I felt that this movie is the modern day Cassandra. The Titanic ended up sinking in real-life (as analogous to Cassandra's predictions), but during the movie, I felt that there is no way that this ship can sink. The movie really honed in that idea to the point where I questioned reality. Indeed, the Cubist portrayal of the verticality of the ship before sinking was so improbable, that the opposite conclusion was felt: yes, historians MUST have made up the fact that it truly sunk for good back in April 1912.

Again, I was struck regarding the invocation of Cubism, as I wonder, do ALL masterpieces have cubist elements, from Breath of the Wild (easily argued as the best video game of all time) to now Titanic? In fact, Braque's Man with a Guitar was composed one year earlier to the sinking, foreshadowing this worst of tragedies. I feel that evocation of Cubism is a major theme in masterpieces.

I literally gasped (along with all the audience members in the packed theater) when, near the end, the film's rendition of the Titanic went vertical, and then sunk. I was shocked when reality struck me, with the revelation that the Titanic really occurred, unfortunately. Not since the Greek dramatist, Aeschylus, has a work of art encapsulated human misfortune so poignantly.

The roles of Jack and Rose were masterfully portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, and they sizzled on screen. I took heed of the warning of the movie theater, that in case of a fire, do NOT run, but walk to the emergency exit, so steamy was their chemistry. If I can bottle that level of chemistry, this would be an aphrodisiac that actually works. I'm not one to swoon over actors, but, yes, I was quite jealous that I (instead of the amazingly lucky Ms. Winslet) was NOT the one being painted by the handsome (quite an understatement) DiCaprio. I checked my blood pressure and glucose readings during film as I swooned and fainted multiple times. So perhaps, in a Schadenfraude way, I took some small comfort that Winslet did not win Best Actress. However, at the same time, should not the Awards Committee be more objective and award what is due to Ms. Winslet? I feel this demonstrates that Awards, symbolizing crash commercialism, should not be used to judge Art anymore.

Billy Zane's dastardly depiction of the villain, Caledon Hockley, was quite subtle. I thought that he was Rose's clear choice (though I had some inkling that he was not a good man), and surprised at the twist, when it was revealed near the end of the film, that Jack was in fact Rose's one true love (?!??). Usually, in these triangular situations, the woman's love interests feature one extremely noble gentleman, and the other, a true rogue, so it's quite clear who the woman would chose. Not so in Titanic. The movie's eschewing this predictable trope is another demonstration of its brilliance. I have never seen such nuance since Mann's Buddenbrooks. In the future, Zane, such an under-appreciated actor, deserves more leading roles.

This film made me a better woman: after the viewing, I made a resolution to be more open-minded and not so quick to judge if I haven't experienced the work. I think when a film can change your perspective and how you view things, that's a mark of a masterpiece. Titanic deserves its accolades and more, truly a Titan amongst Titans.

-N.C., Esq.




Thursday, June 8, 2017

Appreciating Dark Souls 3: Tips and Review

As a Dark Souls junkie, I was counting down the days until the release of Dark Souls 3, especially as it was directed by Hidetaka Miyazaki, the genius behind Demon's Souls and Dark Souls 1. I know that Dark Souls 2 was heavily criticized by fans of the series, but I loved the game almost as much as I did Dark Souls.  Some of 2's elements were better than the original's, and the entire game had consistently good level design, unlike the hated Demon Ruins and Lost Izalith of Dark Souls. I thought that since, unlike the second game, this was directed by Miyazaki and, with the success of this series, From Software will have even more resources to make a grander game, I was excited by the potential for Dark Souls 3 to eclipse both previous games.

Coming into the game thus with too-great expectations, I played without any guides, to fully immerse myself in the experience, and came away from it a bit disappointed, so didn't go back to collect items as I have done in previous Souls games. In my disappointment, I felt that it was trying to reprise the level design of Dark Souls and the atmosphere of Demon's Souls but didn't quite succeed with either. This might be unfair as I have never played games that had better level design than Dark Souls nor better atmosphere than Demon's Souls.

I felt it a pastiche of the past Souls games. Irithyll Dungeon is like Demon's Souls' Tower of Latria, but not as atmospheric and with simpler level design. The city of Anor Londo is almost exactly like Dark Souls' Anor Londo, but it didn't feature the rather complex interior of the castle, from the bonfire at the entrance to the infamous Ornstein and Smough boss-battle. Even though I found a certain development heartbreaking and devastating, the passage was nevertheless more linear than I would have liked. To avoid spoilers I won't mention what I saw that was so sad, but if you've played Dark Souls, you'll know what I'm talking about once you reach that point.
The infamous Ornstein and Smough

I'd say the game had too many enemies, and overpowered ones, all grouped together, thus making the game difficult for difficulty's sake, instead of being fair. In quite a few areas, I ran from enemies, missing the exploration, which is one of my favorite elements of gameplay. That was disappointing.

Despite that, I purchased the expansion, since the two previous Dark Souls games' DLCs are even better than the main games. However, when the last DLC (The Ringed City) came out this year, I didn't go back to Dark Souls 3, especially as 2017 has been the year of amazing games and  Dark Souls 3 struck me as "meh".

However, with the rumor of Bloodborne 2 possibly being announced at the E3 2017 conference (June 13-15), I got so excited, with renewed interest in the SoulsBorne series,  and decided to revisit. Further, it would give me a chance to experience the additional content of Ashes of Ariandel and The Ringed City, so that my purchase wouldn't go to waste, and reducing backlog is always its own reward.

My goals for this second playthrough are: to defeat all enemies so I can explore (to see if I was correct about the unfair difficulty), maintain realistic expectations, and get the platinum trophy. I used DieNoob's superb 100% item walkthrough, and the Xbox Achievements which I copied and pasted into a checklist form. You can either check off the boxes if you're familiar with Google Docs, or print it.

Thus armed and prepared, I started the game. I was struck by the clarity of the graphics, since recently I had played Nioh, so muddy I had to squint and crane my neck, and Breath of the Wild, which had even worse graphics, inducing headache and eyestrain. I appreciated being able to sit back and play Dark Souls 3 without it encouraging physical ailments. After a few seconds, I wondered how I'd missed the sharpness of the imagery in first playthrough. I never cared for graphics before, as even the retro games I played weren't so taxing. But with the current generation of games, I can see why some gamers obsess about graphics, and I'm coming around to their view.

The melee and ranged combat has the same tight, addictive and visceral feel as its successors'. I'd say, in this respect, the SoulsBorne series is best in class. I had fun playing with the Weapon Art of the Uchigatana, which has a parry moveset. The parry and riposte, as well as backstabs, along with the visceral sounds of all the attacks, are just as satisfying as ever. The Weapon Arts are a new feature and make combat even more fun. Each weapon class has its unique technique, adding to the diversity of combat choices.

I also appreciated more the diverse settings of the game and the variety of enemies; I kept thinking how polished the game is, and how each area is so well-crafted, in detail and design. I took this for granted first time through.

The snowy Irithyll of the Boreal Valley
An especially beautiful area to showcase is Irithyll of the Boreal Valley. In addition to the gorgeous landscape, the buildings have intricate architectural details. Even more so than Dark Souls, all the areas of this game are impeccably designed, as opposed to the aforementioned Demon Ruins and Lost Izalith areas. I feel that if this were the first Souls game I played, I would've been blown away by the game's beauty (terrible beauty in some areas), splendor, polish and carefully crafted level design. But because I played the other games, I blithely expected these.

Since I was using DieNoob's walkthrough, I missed a lot of intricacies, so I couldn't really appreciate this ingenious level design on my first blind playthrough. I was taken aback when I completely missed a major covenant, The Blades of the Dark Moon. This is equivalent to not knowing that a field goal in American football scores three points, the covenant is that well-known in the Souls community.

An example of the spectacular design is in the area that leads to Yhorm the Giant. Irithyll Dungeon leads to the Profaned Capital, which also leads back to the Dungeon's entry bonfire in a convoluted, clever manner. You find keys to open shortcuts, and end up going to very diverse areas ranging from: inside/outside the dungeon, rolling through a toxic swamp, climbing up and down a large building structure that includes towers and rooftops, jumping through a window, and riding elevators, all of which lead you back to the entry bonfire!

As for enemy placement, one of my initial gripes, there are a lot of them grouped together. However, if you aggravate one enemy at a time and take cover, it's easy to thin the crowd, albeit it takes time and patience to take the necessary care. A bow is a must, and doesn't require a lot of stat requirements. As I do my usual twist on "jack of all trades, master of everything," I aim for getting at least 40's in all the major stats, and so I used the Pharis Bow as it has the longest range. It takes Dexterity 18; however, if you're aiming for a Dexterity build, I recommend the Pharis Bow as it will aggro an enemy at an even further, safer distance.  But the short and long bows will suffice if you don't want to invest in Dexterity.

To kill all enemies to allow for exploration, I needed to use strategy, another welcome surprise. For instance, in the major square of Irithyll, there are so many tall, overpowered mages and other enemies clustered around them. The first time, I made a suicide run, grabbing items along the way. With this playthrough, I found that in going to the side and taking cover, I was able to bring down one enemy at a time, whereas heading straight on, they all attack you at the same time. I shot arrows until the enemy approached and then melee'd to death. Sometimes, they don't even approach you, and you can kill them with arrows. Interestingly, only the enemy you shoot at will approach you, the others ignoring and not wanting to help their "buddy". This first tip worked for all overpowered mobs throughout the game. I didn't realize that since this was not the case in the prior Souls games.

Elder Ghru
Getting arguably the best bow in the game brings up another complaint I had in my first playthrough: the overpowered enemies. In order to get the Pharis Bow, one faces a species of ridiculously strong demons in the Farron Swamp: the Elder Ghru. Each one feels like a mini-boss and there are, first, three clumped together, and there are four or five gathered in another area of the swamp. You also have to contend with being poisoned in the Farron. 

Two of the three drop either the Pharis Bow or the Pharis Hat. The latter can add range to any bow, which of course helps even more with sniping. The problem is that they respawn if you die, so you have to start all over again. I can beat one successfully, but three times in a row (or two if you know which ones drop the Pharis items) is not doable at my skill level, unless I spend hours on this alone.

This is where the save/copy/download method is crucial, a second major tip. For the Ghru, shoot an arrow to aggro. To make it easier (though it's not necessary), use one of the resins to buff your weapon: I found the gold pine bundle/resin useful. Upon each defeat of the Ghrus, save and copy. Download if you die so you can continue with the next Ghru. This would save not only time, but resources as they are limited at this point in the game. 
Orbeck of Vinheim: A Demanding Guy

The third tip is to get the Slumbering Dragoncrest ring that silences your footsteps. You do so by having Intelligence level 10, necessary so as to talk with Orbeck of Vinheim, the sorcerer. He is first located before the Crystal Sage boss fight, then moves to Firelink Shrine after you agree to get scrolls for him. After buying his spells Aural Decoy, Farron Flashsword, Pestilent Mercury and Spook, he gives you the ring. This would make sneaking up to and teasing out enemies one at a time even easier, though it's also not essential. Although you don't get the visceral crunch of footsteps, the ring gives an interesting feel of floating when wearing it, which is equally nice.

Other significant elements of Dark Souls 3 are the questlines, and they add to the world and lore of the game. I found the Siegward questline a great example of the usual fetch-quest-and-kill-monsters, done in a creative and subtle way. Another questline doesn't have any of the usual sidequest mechanics, and adds a fascinating, albeit grotesque, story through the cutscenes involved. This quest also adds to the lore of one of the major concepts, linking the fire to it, and spells this out in a clearer way than do the prior Souls games, which is very welcome. 

As for replayability, I'm not sure how good the PvP and co-op is in Dark Souls 3, since I haven't used these features. Like Dark Souls 2, the NG+ cycles not only increase in difficulty, but you obtain more powerful rings. So, for the Ring of Favour and Protection, in NG+, you can find the Ring of Favour and Protection +1, all the way up to the +3 ring, so there is significant replay value here.

Recap of tips, and appreciating Dark Souls 3
I would use the checklist as it's satisfying to get the Achievement/Trophy and it helps you to complete interesting questlines, which are extremely easy to miss. With my first blind walkthrough, I don't think I completed any of the questlines successfully. In fact, some players have missed questlines even when using guides.

Read the objectives before each area so you know how to answer questions from various characters, and to make sure you don't miss an event or item. Then go through the area on your own, keeping the objectives in mind, to enjoy the exploration and surprises. Note that the checklist doesn't have major spoilers, but I wouldn't use the checklist if you want to avoid the names of bosses, characters and items.

After completing each area, I would then use DieNoob's walkthrough to make sure you obtained all items, which will give you an edge, as well as appreciation for the incredible level design.

In difficult areas, use the bow and arrow method to tease out each enemy, and save/copy technique. To make stealth even easier, obtain the Slumbering Dragoncrest ring from Orbeck.

Rating of Game
As I came to the game expecting it would blow Dark Souls 1 and 2 away, I can see why I was disappointed my first time around. If I never experienced those two games, I would have been enthralled by and addicted to Dark Souls 3: I can see myself immediately buying and playing all the SoulsBorne games after finishing, wanting more. 

During my second playthrough, with my expectations in check, I was able to see the polish of Dark Souls 3. Given that polish, intricate level design, addictive combat mechanics with the new Weapon Art mechanic, variety of enemies, unique bosses, and interesting questlines, I rate the game an A+, a masterpiece.


-Alice

The How of Happiness Review

NOTE: I've decided to make this post my permanent featured post, as one of the most important things is happiness. Lyubomirsky'...