A creativity blog - including reviews, photographs and discussion on a variety of things; such as dragons and other things almost but not quite completely entirely unlike tea.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Asiria update #11

Finished with page seven last weekend and met my goal of six pages for 2014. Yay! On the next page, of which I've already stitched a hundred stitches or so, the dragon's wings begin to take shape.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff

During a holiday I picked up a book called Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff in a Maltese bookstore, which had quite a nice collection of fantasy and science fiction novels. The front page of the book depicted an Asian-looking girl and when I turned to the back cover for the blurb, there was an author's recommendation by Patrick Rothfuss (whose book The Name of the Wind I also got at the same store), stating that the novel is a steampunk novel set in imaginary Japan. This depiction was convincing enough for me and I bought not only Stormdancer, but its following book, Kinslayer, on the spot as well.

Having now read more than half of the Stormdancer, I can honestly recommend it to everyone who likes a) steampunk, b) Japan, c) female protagonists, d) mythology, e) political pondering and f) a good story. For the novel has all of these and more.

I don't know exactly why I like steampunk. I suppose the philosophy of machines being helpful but not intelligent, steam-powered but not all-mighty is a compelling juxtaposition for man's struggle in the world, where both they and their machines can be anything and everything, but usually not without a cost. The setting in Stormdancer is similar - there are trains, airships, warfare, weapons and metallic suits, all powered with the energy of Chi, distilled from poisonous lotus flowers that scourge the earth they are grown on and make it uninhabitable for everything else. Therefore, naturally, the lotus growers must move to new areas in order to maintain and expand the production, which leads to an eventual environmental catastrophe visible to anyone reading the book from a modern person's point of view. Indeed, the environment issue is even visible for the people of the novel's world, but as the class system and shogun-run empire depend so heavily on their fuel, there are but a few who dare to resist its spreading.

Japan is not as a country so strongly present, for the world in which the novel is set is completely imaginary. However, a lot of the vocabulary, customs and habits of the people are directly linkable to their Japanese counterparts and the general atmosphere of the novel brings to mind the expansionist politicies of Japan from that period of its history. Why Japan is something I instictively like is again another question I cannot quite answer - I suppose its mostly due to the facts of me having immersed myself with the popular culture and history of Japan and idealizing the country as something far removed, but not so very distinct, from my own. Anyone acquinted with Japan will surely find this book a pleasure to read.

I don't usually mind one way or the other which gender the main character in a story happens to be, so long as they're intelligent, independent and stubborn. Yukiko, who leads the way in Stormdancer, is something of an idealist, a daughter born in a priviledged family who has seen both sides of the life in her homeland of Shima. To be born into the right family can make your life, as easily as it can break it. Compassionate, lonely and determined, Yukiko sometimes comes off nai'ive, but when faced with some of the decisions and problems brought about by the rulers of the country, being a little nai'ive is the least of her worries.

The mythology of Shima/Japan is one of the central points of the novel, as the protagonist group is charged with hunting down a griffin, or a storm tiger, for the shogun's stables. The religion of the world is made clear in the inter-character discussions and once the story gets going, the fabled storm tiger is not the only myth that comes into being. The novel also explores the fine line between history and religion through the human mind, by asking whether one instance that turns out to be true makes it the same for all the rest of them.

The political atmosphere of the novel is set up from the beginning. On the top there is shogun, who is served by the samurai - there are also the Lotusmen who control the chi, and who are on the other end of the see-saw with the shogun on who it really is who controls the country. The ordinary people are not visible as such, but are alluded to in the characters' dialogue and the reader can surmise are not much removed from the foreign slaves working on the Lotus fields. The main characters of the novel all belong to the upper crust, but naturally understand the plight of their countrymen - a somewhat cliché which one can expect from the heroes and heroines of a story. It might have been more interesting to have more characters who are virtually blind for the social dilemma of the country, rather than have them rub it in with the reader as much as they do. But as fictional characters go, the ones in Stormdancer are not too appalling to follow.

Of the story, I will not say much - something must be discovered for oneself, after all. But it is enticing, at least to me, even if it seems at a first glance to be another journey of growth and realization. There are, however, some ideas and settings that are clearly either steampunk or Japan at heart and those make this one different than most of the ones I've laid my eyes on before.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

The Magical Mystery Tour with Ni No Kuni

Level 5's Ni No Kuni was one of those no-brainers when considering whether to buy it or not. A game that is equipped with Studio Ghibli animations, japanese vocals and a jrpg system sums up as a definite yes in my books. I bought it at some point when it was on sale in PS Network and left it to simmer until I finished some other games I wanted to play first. I started it after I finished with the Tales series, as I often like to have at least one jrpg that I play regularly. (Currently, I actually have four*, but who's counting?) I haven't quite finished the story yet, but I'm nearing the final boss every hour.

The story of Ni No Kuni takes part in two worlds - a "real" world and a magical one.  Our "real" world is represented by a town called Motorville, where our main character Oliver lives and from where he sets on his journey across Ni no kuni (the second world); a land of magic, fairies and wonders. The story progresses relatively straight forwardly  through the towns, deserts and snowy plains of Ni no kuni, and every once in a while Oliver is required to return to Motorville, in order to solve a problem in Ni no kuni. This is because the worlds are linked so that each person living in the first world has a soul mate in the other - and problems affecting the one person will have an effect also on the other.

After a while you gain control of a ship, which allows you to travel across the seas of Ni no kuni, giving you some opportunities to explore the map - and a little further from this, you befriend a dragon, which allows even more movement across the word. Also, the general running around is slightly lessened by a Travel spell, which you gain at some point, which allows you to teleport into any place you've visited earlier. I felt that most of these came available relatively early on in the game. Maybe I'm accustomed to first playing the game by running through the tube and then getting the chance to explore in post-game or in time-before-the-final-boss. It is nice to be able to balance the game between the main quest and the numerous side quests with all the travel options you have. It should also be mentioned, that in some cases it is not possible to advance the main story if you don't use the dragon, for instance, to get to the place you need to go next - so it is not always possible for you to just run forward.

You get altogether three members to your party. Oliver is joined on his quest by Esther and Swaine, who both have the same ability as Oliver to control familiars to use in battle. Each character can use either their own abilities or the abilities of three different familiars in battle - so basically you have the option of fighting with twelve different characters. In reality you only control one character and his familiars and the others are on autopilot. There's also Drippy, your friendly neighbourhood Lord High Lord of the Fairies, who helps a little during battles, too, every now and again.

Your familiars and characters both gain xp and levels at the same pace, although only those three familiars you've picked for your characters gain the xp. There are many more available, of course. The familiars and characters can both also be equipped with different sort of things to enchance their stats and/or abilities and it depends on the character or familiar what sort of things it is possible to equip for them. Moreover, you can feed your familiars candy to raise their stats.

The battles are in real time, meaning that once you've chosen who you're controlling, all of the friendly and enemy actions happen according to who is the fastest to declare them. Some skills are accompanied by animations and so prevent enemies or friendlies acting at the same time and all friendly actions apart from attack function have a cooldown time before you can use them again. It is also possible to change the familiar or character you are playing with during battle. Notable is, that only the three main characters can use items - the familiars are only restricted to those tricks they've learned and which have been picked into their trick slots by the player. The amount of tricks are familiar knows increases over time as they learn them through gaining xp as does the amount of trick slots they have available.

Apart from the battles, the game also has other sorts content. At some point in the game it becomes possible to practise alchemy - namely, use items to create other items. You can also do sidequests and earn rewards and stamps from those completed - the stamp cards can be exchanged to nifty rewards when enough - as well as take on bounty hunts to battle some of the more exotic monsters of Ni no kuni. Many of the sidequests deal with people having had their hearts broken and missing pieces from it, which then requires you to find a piece like it from someone else and giving it to the person in need. This is all accomplished through the spells Take and Give Heart and a locket which glows whenever an extra sliver of heart is nearby and stores them for later use.

In addition to the actual what-to-do content, the game is also very pretty, has nice music and good voice acting and is propelled along by a good story, which does manage to surprise you a few times at least, too. All in all, the gameplay gets a little repetitive sometimes, so to counter getting bored it might be a good idea to play something else for a change every now and again. The game mechanics are not too difficult to learn and not easily forgotten, so even a long break didn't break the rhythm, at least in my case. And although the main characters are children (apart from one), the game can be an entertaining experience for adults, too, as you travel around with Oliver and friends. Some of things would be, after all, far too scary, weird, or magical for adults to handle on their own. Having a child to guide on his journey, on the other hand, gives us both the excuse and the reason to explore the magic of Ni no kuni for ourselves.

* In addition to Ni No Kuni, my unfinished jrpgs include FFX on PS3 and Persona 3 and Valkyria Profile 2: Silmeria on my PS2

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Asiria update #10

Oh right, I finished page six two weeks ago, and I've started on page seven on the next row. The arches and the window are starting to come out of the general mess of the stitches. Bad light, bad photo, but progress nonetheless.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Packomaniac strikes back! with Legends of Andor

About a year ago I bought myself a new co-operative fantasy boardgame, called Legends of Andor, to have games I'd be able to play by myself due to moving approximately 200km away from most of my friends. This Fantasy Flight Games boardgame by Michael Menzel turned out to be a packomaniac's dream in that it contains several different sorts of figurines, tokens, cards and dice, as well as a huge amount of sealable plastic bags for all tokens. On the other hand the game box is either a dream or a nightmare too, as it doesn't have any sort of interior designed to fit the game pieces snuggly, but is only a roomy box, which makes the packing process a bit messy, but very easy to do.

The purpose of the game is to take control of 1-4 heroes of Andor, who have been sought out by the Prince and together play through different sorts of "save the kingdom" -type scenarios. Each of the scenarios is depicted in a series of Legend-cards (hence the name Legends of Andor) where the goal of the game and the victory conditions are lined out.

Players each control one of the heroes, but they work together towards the goal outlined in the cards and against the obstacles presented by the monsters and the board. Having only played the first couple scenarios myself, I will here outline the way the game is played, without spoiling too much of the rest of the game's content.

Each player controls one of the four heroes available; a warrior, a dwarf, a mage and an archer. Each of the boards depicts the character's stats, strength and willpower, their special ability and the slots for money and equipment they can carry. Tokens are used to mark each of the respective stats or gear the characters obtain. Strength is used in battles to add to the value you roll on your dice (each hero has a set amount of dice) and the number of dice one can roll depends on the amount of willpower the character has. Each hero begins play with one point of strength and seven points of willpower.

The character boards are two-sided, with a female and male side. There is no difference between the genders though, apart from the visual one. There also exist cardboard figurines for both genders respectively.

The monsters and the heroes have their own tokens that are moved on the board. Whenever a monster is killed, it is added into the pool, which adjances the time marker on the event board - so, the more monsters you kill, the faster you need to play in order to attain the goals of the scenario. The heroes move through adjacent areas, spending a hour of the day each time they move and another hour if they fight monsters. Each hero has seven hours to use for their daily actions, plus additional three hours they can pay for with with their willpower. When the day ends (all heroes declare end of day), the events and the remaining monsters on the board are advanced, and the scenario may move to its next stages, depending on the position of the time marker at the edge of the board.

Monsters are battled with the use of the dice, where both the hero and the monster throw their respective dice pools and the difference is the damage caused to the losing side. The heroes can also work together the dispose the monsters, which is a very reasonable tactic early on in the game when their stats are still low.

The game also utilized different sorts of cards, which contain events for advancing or possibly hindering the party's progress. In the first couple of events the cards chosen are fixed, but will nevertheless bring some variation to the actions taking place on the gameboard.

The tokens in the game include coins, equipment, potions and event markers, to name a few. In the packomaniac sense, the gaming box is supplied with several tough re-sealable plastic bags, which makes storing the tokens easy.

The game board is also two-sided, and some of the legends occur on the day and some on the underground side of the board. The heroes' day counter is found on the top of both maps and the green alphabet marks the overall legens time, where you advance the marker once a day, or per every monster killed. Each legend states on which letters the story advances and the changes take place immediately once the new day begins.

Also, there's this cool dragon-figurine.

So far, the game has been very simple and fast to learn and it has posed some challenges as well in the earlier scenarios. As the game is for from two to four players, there are some differences implemented for games with different amount of players to keep the difficulty level reasonable. So far, I have not lost a single game and everyone I've introduced to the game have taken to it very quickly, co-operating spendidly to achieve the goals of the game. As the Basic rules are explained in a detailed manner in the first scenarios, it is very simple to continue playing the next scenarios with the help of the Legends cards alone. Even though the game was a bit of a blind-buy for me, I've not regretted it at all.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Imaginary feelings

So I went back reading my blog from last year, and around these times I had published a fiction post just for the fun of it. Reading through it again I thought that this Autumn character sounds like fun, and then I was suddenly inspired to write another short glimpse into her life. Maybe this will become a series, who knows.

- So you're saying THAT woman, who's currently in my bathtub, is some sort of Imperial assassin?
- It's true, Colleen. You better believe me.
- Is a bit hard, Jackson, with her looking like that.
- She's been held captive for ages, Colleen, so she's bound to be a bit banged up. Don't worry, she'll be right as rain in no time, just you wait and see.
- Uh-huh. I'll put the kettle on then, shall I?
- Yeah, that'd be great.

She could hear them clearly to the bathroom, if you can call it that. It was more like a niche in a wall, surrounded by paper-thin plaster walls, a gas lamp on the roof and the tub the sole artifacts within. The tub wasn't even big enough to stretch one's legs straight. But still, the warm water was a luxury, the smell of soap a heaven and the murmur of voices from the other rooms a bliss itself.

Seven years in a hole in a ground is a long time, Autumn thought, resting her head back at the edge of the tub. The scabs in her body were itching, but for now she was resisting the urge to scratch them till blood flowed. Her tattoos were faint, almost colourless now, and they hadn't moved in a long time.

She tried to remember the last time she had had a warm bath like this, but the memories eluded her, and her mind only conjured up images of the man she'd rather forget. It seemed not even seven years of misery were enough for her to replace the pain of rejection.

She grabbed her matted hair and soaked the tangled mess under the bathwater, then started scrubbing it cleaner with a sparsely toothed comb. Lots of hair fell out, some of it in big clumps. The water was dyed dirt coloured, with floating hair and earthy matter. There was even moss growing in some of the bigger hair clumps that she tore from her head with violent pulls.

Not that he would love me better now, seeing me in a messy state like this, she thought. Her body was lean, the joints black and aching, her breasts and bottom sagging after having lost almost all of the body fat she had ever possessed in her body. She had yet to take a look in the mirror, but she could feel her scapped lips and scars crossing over her face itching with the soapy water. Even some of her muscles had started to be eaten away as her body took to desperate measures to survive.

Finished with her hair, Autumn stood up in the tiny bath and attacked her skin next. The scars and scabs opened and bled as she rubbed herself up and down and removed the dirt from her skin along with its upper surface. Her nails needed cutting, but for that she had no better instrument than her teeth, and she was yet reluctant to use them for that purpose, as they felt loose in her gums. A part of her wished that he could see her now; a part of her wished to show him what she'd become in these years; while at the same time, another part of her wished only to be closed in his arms, to throw herself at his feet and kiss them.

Rising from the tub, she finally took a look of herself in the broken mirror on the wall. Her nose was red and running from her scrubbing it - she was still quite sure there were things inside - her scalp was showing in some places and the hair was still too long in others, her eyes were surrounded in black and blue and looking into her mouth, there was blood in the gums. The whip slashes on her face were also bleeding, since she had ripped open the scabs and her lips were swollen and colourless.

Looking at herself, Autumn could but agree with Colleen.

Everyone rose when she exited the bathroom. They'd been drinking tea in the only other room that comprised this girl Colleen's apartment. The window showed a scened of brick wall on the other side, closely built blocks of flats offering no other comfort to their denizens apart from a roof on their heads and walls to bar the windy cold. Looking at them, looking at her, Autumn sighed.

- I will need some other clothes. And something to cut my hair and nails with. Her previous clothes were in a bundle on the bathroom floor, but even had she wanted to put them back on, they were too rotten and full of holes to cover or warm anything much. The man, Jackson, jumped at her words, but the girl just shrugged and went to explore her closets. The boy was quiet and returned back to his mug of tea. Jackson hurriedly found a fresh cup and pouring some of the steamy liquid in it, offered it up to Autumn. She accepted it with thanks and drank deep, not minding the jolts of pain that went through her mouth and throat with the spicy drink. Not likely to keep anything solid down in a while, she thought, and then Colleen returned with green overalls, a red shirt and a blade and scissors.

- The scissors aren't too sharp, but knife's good enough, if it works for you, she said offering the items to her.

- Thank you, Autumn said and retreated back into the bathroom, leaving her unfinished tea in Colleen's hands. She changed into the clothes, which hung on her despite being clearly Colleen's size. Her ankles showed a bit and her shoulders had it a bit tight, but otherwise they were much better than the prison wear. The scissors proved too dull to work with, as expected, so she shortened her nails in the fingers and toes carefully with the blade, then gathered her hair in her hand and sawed a good armspan of length away, so that it fell only slightly below her shoulders anymore. Smoothing it over with the comb she decided that it would d have to do. She could always tie it up or something, once it dried.

She returned to the people in the other room, who this time didn't get up but just sat nervously around the table, looking at her.

- You wanna eat something? Jackson asked, casting fearful looks around him as if worried something would jump at him anytime. - I can go and get something, if you like.

- I don't think I can eat much anything yet. It's been too long with no food, Autumn said, finished her tea from the cup on the table. - I don't suppose, she then said to Colleen, pausing. - You've got any rice?

- Yeah, it's about the only foodstuffs we get from the city nowadays. Some half a kilo left still. Shall I put some cooking?

- Please.

They were mostly silent while the rice cooked and when Autumn struggled to eat it. She managed half a bowl before giving up, worried that her stomach would turn if she tried any more. Setting the bowl down on the floor, where she had taken to sitting, even though Jackson had tried to offer his chair to her and remained standing akwardly even after she refused, leaving the third chair unoccupied, Autumn looked around her in the tiny flat. Rain started to patter against the window glass and turned quickly to rivers snaking their way down and panes. Colleen rose at the first sound and installed her water distillers to the outside wall, which started to drip drink water into the containers. Autumn still didn't speak, and neither did the boy or Jackson. Finishing her task, Colleen returned to her stool.

- So, what's your plan? she then asked Autumn.

- I don't know, she anwered.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

New cross stitch charts!

Due to one of my favourite artists withdrawing from HAED, I had to hurry up and buy some of her lovely charts before it becomes impossible. Nene Thomas' Lord of Snow and Dark Skies.

Musing on music

Since it's too dark to take decent photos at the moment, my packomaniac series has to wait for continuation till the next sunny morning, which might be anytime between now and the spring. In the meanwhile, I still want to write something, and as a friend of mine once requested me to write something about the kind of music I listen to, I thought I'd give it a shot. Be warned though, that I have absolutely no idea of how to write about music, as I've never done so before. With that in mind, let's have some thoughts on music.

For the most part, the most important things for me in any particular piece of music are the lyrics and the melody. (Yeah, this is beginning well, right?) Talking about lyrics, I cannot bring myself to listen to songs which I deem to have stupid, silly, unmeaningful or otherwise unlistenable lyrics. The lyrics need to have a point of some sort, they need to be witty or otherwise intelligent, or have a beautiful message or something such in order for me to like a song. Sadly, this means that most of the English pop music is not in my favour, as most of them tend to concentrate on getting the beat running and give from little to no thought to the lyrics. In terms of Finnish pop music, there is scant little of it, with a few good pieces here and there, but there are no Finnish pop singers or bands that I follow regularly. What this means to me, who am a child of the pop music generation, is that I've turned to music from different countries to quench my thirst of decent pop music - even if I can't understand the words, I can still think the songs danceable, beautiful or otherwise listenable.

As for the melody part, for me it is often important to be able to discern a melody of some sort in the song. With this I mean that I like certain definiteness in the songs, not just steady beat from finish to end. Piano is one of my favourite instruments, so it's easy to get me to like a song by adding some piano tunes in the beginning, end or generally into the middle of the song too. While I'm not musical myself, I appreciate the talent of others enormously and I like being able to pick out different instruments within the song. Apart from piano, drums are also in my favour, which has probably affected to the fact that rock music is also one of my chief loves.

When I was younger, all my favourite songs were pop ballads - the kind of dreary lamentations of one lost love or the other. An example, here. Nowadays I've also started to appreciate songs of a faster tempo, such as is often the case with the Irish traditional music, or Japanese/Korean pop music. (Also very good for dancing, both of them are.)*

I started listening to Japanese music quite early on, around my late teens, I suppose. I had some penfriends in Japan who introduced some bands to me, and I remember sitting for hours in front of the computer waiting for the then slow internet connection at my home to buffer the songs so I could listen to them over and over. I loved musicians and bands like w-inds., Koda Kumi and Yuna Ito, and listened to mainly those songs from them that had been made into music videos. Eye candy in those videos were part of the charm of the songs for me, naturally.

I had a brief respite from the Asian music when I lived with a person with a huge instrumental music collection - as I have always considered myself rather limited in my music knowledge, I spend the best part of three years listening mainly to cd's from this collection, and learned to appreciate game and film soundtracks, Vangelis, Hanz Zimmer and many others I cannot bring myself to remember at the moment.

I returned shortly to the world of Finnish pop/rock music after this, listening to mainly titles such as Zen Café, Apulanta, Nightwish and other random titles offered by the Finnish radio stations. My own cd collection at the time was very small (it still is, in fact) so radio often came to the rescue (if you can call it that) when I wished to listen to something out of the ordinary.

After this, I returned to listening to Asian music again, adding Korean groups such as Brown Eyed Girls, KARA, BoA and IU to my list of listening. This was aided by the fact that around those times I scored myself a full-time job, which meant heightened possibilities in the form of buying cd's online and being able to listen to them at length at home.

Currently my favourite songs are cheery, poppy, melodic songs with nice rhythm and (for me) unintelligible lyrics that do not destroy my enjoyment of the song by their ridiculousness. (I once listened to this English song, where the general message was that mistakes should be forgiven because everyone makes mistakes sometimes. Song logic at its finest, that is.)

*Of course. I listen to many other kinds of music, too, but for the purposes of this post I shall only recount the music styles I mainly listen to.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Tales of Xillia

Continuing on from my last blog post a bit similarly that I continued on in my gaming life, next up it's Tales of Xillia. I actually bought Xillia before Graces f, but didn't get around to playing it in a long time (mostly due to Final Fantasy XIII and XIII-2, I think) so I had ample time to purchase Graces f and start with it before I even remembered I had Xillia too in my shelf. Looking back at it now, I'm glad I played the games in this order, since I probably would have been bored with Graces f after having grown accustomed to Xillia's battle system. This way, I managed to get completely flabbergasted by the fighting in Xillia after the logic I managed to find in Graces f...

Anyway, to get to the root of the matter. In Xillia, it is possible to choose between two main characters, Jude and Milla. Jude is a medical student in the capital city of Rashugal, a militant nation constantly squabbling over something or the other with the second nation in the world of Rieze Maxia. Milla is a spirit-made-flesh, a dashing young woman claiming to be the Lord of Spirits, who has taken a human form in order to get a better understanding of the relations between spirits and humans. I chose to play with Jude as my main character, probably because I had just finished Graces f and wanted to see how the male character differs from Asbel, whom you cannot not choose. And the conclusion is, not so much.

While Asbel is motivated by growing stronger to be able to protect everyone, Jude is motivated by his desire to help everyone he ever meets. He is a nai'ive, good-natured medical student who accidentally comes in contact with the Lord of Spirits, finds her in trouble, and decides to tag along, simplistically put. If looked at in a more detailed way, the initial contact with Jude and Milla happens through common goal - both want to get into a sealed laboratory, though both have their own reasons for doing so. Presented a way in with the help of Milla's powers, Jude can do nothing but follow, even if he has no idea who this strange woman is or whatever awaits him inside the lab. Long story short, things don't progress as well as they should, with Milla rendered nigh powerless, Jude proclaimed an enemy of state and a money-lusting mercenary aiding their escape,  Jude latches on to the next best thing and decides to start helping Milla on her mission. Milla, on the other hand, is very strong-willed and charismatic person, and although her desire to understand humans is the main source of humour throughout the game, she is the one who pulls everyone around them forward.

The story has the pair and their companions run around the length of Rieze Maxia, only to return back where they started from and some more. The good part of the game is that it allows you to instantly travel to locations you've already visited already in the beginning, so it shortens the amount of running when you need to go back to the same places. In comparison to Graces f, the running around is somewhat more pleasant in Xillia, as almost every single stretch of road or dungeon is organized into three map-changes or less, so it is possible to get forward quickly enough. The scenery is nice enough and varies a lot, although for some reason I would have wanted there to be more of it - don't understand why, as I was at times bored with just moving from one place to another and then onward again - there didn't seem always to be a point to some of the places you had to go to, especially in the beginning.

Similarly as in Graces f, the plot thickens at some point and you're once again required to save the world or two. Interestingly, Xillia doesn't have an actual main bad guy, as the attention from one evil dude changes immediately to the next evil-ish dude and at the same time it becomes clear that the first evil dude maybe wasn't so evil after all, or something like that. And in the end, the main fight is between people with differing opinions on how things should be handled, really.

In terms of fighting, the battle system in Xillia differs a lot from Graces f. First of all, it is possible for you to play as any character, just like before, and change it in a similar manner as in Graces f. You again have four characters on the field, but you can also change the characters on the field and in the reserve during the battle, unlike in Graces f. One of the most important differences is the character linking, which means that you can link two characters with each other, enabling the other to use their special trick on enemies and allowing you to perform powerful duo-attacks, based on the types of artes you both know. You have normal attacks, arte attacks and skills that are selected with skill points in the menu and are thus equipped all the time. In the beginning you can choose only eight artes to use in the battle, but soon enough it becomes possible to choose twice the amount, making it a matter of headache to remember which button combination yield which arte. 

The battle movement is similar to Graces f, the only difference is that there is also the possibility of free run, which breaks the linearity of movement a little. And after progressing a little in the game, you also acquire a powerful special attack, which adds a little serenity to the otherwise a tad confusing battle scene. Having now finished both games I can say that I like the battle system in Xillia better, although it was very confusing and seemed illogical in the beginning - but it is nice to be able to use the other members of the party a bit more comprehensively and at least you also need to use different artes at times, if you want to make the duo-attacks happen.

Apart from that, there are also differences in character development. While in Graces f you had the titles you got to learn skills from, in Xillia you have a point development system, where you can buy advancements and learn skills and artes whenever you complete a rectangle. For me, this is a bit like going backwards from FFX-2 to FFX - while I liked both games enormously, I still liked the character development in the second game better. Also, in Xillia you can no longer cook, the sidequests are not conveniently found at inns but are scattered around the world, which sometimes makes reporting back a pain, if you've managed to forget exactly where the quest giver was standing at the time you took on the mission... On the other hand, you can develop the shops to have more items in them and can find all of the items in all of the shops around the worlds (!) which is convenient.

To sum it all up, both Tales series games I've played so far were a good gaming experience for me. Maybe they weren't as great as I remember the best games having been (FFX and FFX-2, P3) but they weren't as boring either as some of those I've trundled through (I actually still haven't finished Rogue Galaxy... talk about running around pointlessly), but entertaining nonetheless. Maybe a little depth for the plot, more story-wise development for characters and variation to the general running around, and the games could have earned a little higher mark in my eyes. But nevertheless, I do think I might get some more games of the same series later on. Now though, my next rpg project is Ni no Kuni: the Wrath of the White Witch, so I won't probably need new games in a while.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Tales of Graces f

Lately, my gaming life has been controlled by the two Tales of -series rpgs, Graces f and Xillia. I played Graces f earlier this year and as I liked the gameplay and story, not forgetting the characters and the humorous post-battle banter, I decided to start playing its sister game Xillia right off the bat. While I've not yet completed the main story of Xillia due to some elusive sidequest content, I thought to write down some of my feelings regarding the similarity and differences of the two games as representatives of the same series. First off, though, here's my take on Tales of Graces f.

Graces f focuses around the life of Asbel, on the path of gaining enough strength to protect everyone he holds dear and to overcome his failures, and his closest friends. The game begins in the childhood of the central characters, which paves the way for their lives to-be. Life-changing decisions, new friends and hardships endured together fuse the five main characters together in a way that bonds them for life, despite their later differences. The group is later joined by two more characters, giving the player altogether seven party members and a choice of controlling one of them in battle. The seven characters are never all in the party at the same time, however, with one character especially being a short-lived joy in the post-battle animations. 

The story evolves quickly from childhood to youth, as Asbel runs away from home to join the order of Knights in the capital. The central third of the game is devoted to repairing broken relationships of the childhood and for each of the characters, for finding their respective goals in life. And then the story takes a turn from being a narrative of growth and teenage angst to uniting all and everything against a common enemy aiming to destroy the world and everyone in it. So, no surprises there. Generally speaking, the plot is not all that surprising for anyone familiar with jrpgs, even though a few things always manage to creep up on you. If I'd have to say anything negative about this game, it's just that. And maybe Cheria, of whom I didn't like too much. A little more depth goes a long way in character design.

As mentioned earlier, I'm a fan of Graces f's gameplay, as well as the story. You develop the characters through choosing Titles for them - some of these you gain as you progress in the story and some as you complete certain goals either in the sub-events or in battle. Each Title has five different skills which require points, gained from battle, to unlock. The skills range from battle skills (or artes) to characteristics boosts and even after acquiring all of them it is possible for you to master the Title by assigning more points to it. As I'm not too familiar with the game mechanics, I'm not sure if the mastery of a Title gives you any special bonuses, but hey, at least you get a golden star! 

In battle, you can select from an array of A- and B-artes to use, and later in the game, each character also acquires unique and powerful single-attacks, with animations to boot. In battle you are at the mercy of action points, which replenish after a short wait after they've all been used, so it is not possible to just barrage your enemies to the ground. You need to learn the best of defending, side- and back-stepping and the rather linear movement on the field of battle, too, to overcome your enemies. The player gets to control one of the characters, with three more on the field controlled by the A.I.. It's possible to assign certain strategies for these other characters from the menus, and it is also possible to change the controlled character anytime. For me, that usually happened by accident, since I prefered using Asbel all the time. At times I tried my hand with Sophie and Pascal, deemed them weird, and returned back to the company of our red-haired hero.

Apart from fighting enemies, the game also offers other content such as cooking, discussions between characters over various topics, sidequests obtainable at inns, landmark hunting and general running around the world. I like the graphics of the game, too, and I imagine the colourful scenery makes the game enjoyable for all ages. 

Friday, 12 September 2014

Friday, 11 July 2014

Asiria update #8

Finished with page four and started page five a week ago. Loads of dark colours on page four, so nice to get some change in the palette toward the end. Had to start immediately with page five, as the bottom of the first column has some new colours in it that may or may not be part of the dragon's wings...

Monday, 24 March 2014

Asiria update #7

Finished page three this evening! Joy and happiness! I'm actually a week ahead my self-inflicted schedule, as I was a bit confused about which week it was and thought I was behind, so I ended up stitching a huge amount yesterday... Oh well, at least now I can contribute more time for setting in the red guiding lines for page four.

Also, I'd like to add that taking photos in a bad light late in the evening is a pain. And for those of us interested in numbers, after page 3/48 I'm currently at 98x234 stitches, altogether 22'932 stitches, which is about 7% of the whole work done.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Return of the packomaniac: Alchemist

Alchemist by Carlo A. Rossi is the very first board game I bought for myself after finding the board game players at the university. Previously I only owned two board games: chess (which actually came in a box of four traditional games, of which only chess and checkers have ever been played, I think) and Around the World in 80 Days, which I have played only a few times since buying it sometime in the beginning of the 21st century. That was mostly due to having no one to play board games with at the time - might have thought about that before buying it and used the money on a console game or something - and partly to the fact that the game itself wasn't too interesting even when I finally got to play it. Alchemist then again was a genius purchase on my part, if I do say so myself. I got it on a reasonable discount, which was probably the only reason I was even buying games at that time. The choice of buying this game over all the rest available in the local friendly neighbourhood gaming store was based solely on the beautiful picture the box sports on its front, as seen in the photograph below:

As tokenomania goes, Alchemist does not have much of contents to speak of: there's the board (which is pretty), the rules booklet, the ingredients cubes in five different colours and their respective cardboard cards, the black Oracle bag used for the random selection of ingredients during the game, five cardboard screens, then some additional wooden tokens for the players to keep track of themselves and their scores on the board, as well as small cardboard pieces with mystical numbers on them, signifying scores. Packing the game is a real breeze, as there's plenty of extra room in the box.

The premise of the game is that of a contest between 2-5 schools of alchemy. Each school has send one of their students (i.e. the players) to take part in the contest. Each school has their own special ingredient, so in the beginning of the game, each player receives an ingredient card, which signifies their school's special ingredient. The players' job is to brew potions and accrue points, using the available ingredients, all the while trying to secretly promote the use of the ingredient depicted in their own card - at the end of the game players receive bonus points if their ingredient has been used a lot during the game. In a five player game, for instance, the player whose ingredient has been used the most gains 12 extra points, the next one three less, and so on, so these final points can decide the winner if the scores stay even enough during play.

The five ingredients are depicted by coloured cubes: orange is for troll eyes, grey for crow feet, yellow for spiders, blue for mushrooms and green for dragon's blood. With fewer players, all the five ingredients are still used, but a set amount of them are removed from play, so the game doesn't drag on for too long. The cubes present a few problems: counting them is a pain, and you need to count them even if all of them are used, as a set amount is put into a visible reserve near the edge of the board and the remainder (if none are removed) is put into the Oracle bag for a random selection reserve. Another problem is with the colours orange and yellow, which are always confusing everyone. Also, I myself like to sort out the cubes at the end of a game, so that a new game can be begun efficiently - and that always takes some time, even if all players are the kind who actually stay to help you to put the game away after the game. The cardboard screens are also somewhat flimsy and prone to fall over and reveal all of your secrets, while being quite small and prone to reveal all of your secrets, anyway.

The board, as has been mentioned before, is really pretty and by far the best thing about this whole game. It has a scoring track encircling it, along with some nice artistic touches around the edges (pun intended). The actual game is played in the ten cauldrons depicted in the middle. 

First of all, each cauldron has three squares above them: two of these depict the ingredients a player gains when she brews a potion in this cauldron - in this case one grey and one blue. These ingredients are also one that may NOT be used in this particular cauldron to brew a potion, so one can only use up to three different colours per cauldron. The empty square between the ingredient pictures is for the score of the potion; when a player brews a potion she is also required to choose a score for it from one to ten and place the score on the empty square. The rule of the thumb is that you choose a high score for a difficult potion and a low score for an easy potion, but in reality there are no real restrictions. 

Into the cauldron go the ingredients, for which there are five spots - a player may use one or all of them, whichever they prefer. In the rules there is a rule which forbids one from using more than two of the same ingredient, but successful games have been played where this rule has been completely ignored without ruining the mechanics of the game. Into the round space the player needs to put one of her round, coloured tokens, which are also used to track the scores on the edge of the board. The colour of the token signifies for the rest of the game who has made this particular potion.

When a potion or a few have been brewed, the real game begins. As mentioned, there are only ten cauldrons on the board, and once each of them has been filled, they cannot be altered for the rest of the game. The game then proceeds into the copy-paste mode, where each player must needs copy a potion made by a rival (you may not copy your own potions), receiving the reward ingredients and the scores from them as if having created them by themselves, but each time they need to set the ingredients they use for the potion aside, paying one ingredient of their own choice to the original brewer of the potions as tax. So the beauty of this game is, that if you create the highest scoring potion, you can only score that amount of points once, whereas the other players can score them multiple times during the game; if you make an easy potion people are more likely to copy it, hence gaining you tax ingredients a plenty; or you can influence the use of your school's ingredient by the type of potions you brew for the others to copy. As the points range only from one to ten each round, most often the players stay quite close to each other on the score track, but a few successful high-scoring potions can put you in a respectable lead too.

Each player picks out their starting ingredients randomly, so sometimes one may end up with pretty useless colours; or if one keeps copying high-cost potions but receiving no tax, one may run out of ingredients altogether. That's why you can also pick ingredients behind  your screen during the game: you can pick one ingredient from the visible reserves (so that everyone sees what you're getting) or you may take two random ingredients from the Oracle bag, so long as there are ingredients still left in the bag. Taxing gives you one ingredient per copied potion, and you always receive the two reward ingredients from brewing or copying a potion, too, so if all goes well, you might not need to use turns to pick ingredients at all.

All in all, I'm very fond of this game and I play it still quite often, despite it being among the oldest games I own. It is simple to teach to new players, people grasp the idea behind it quickly, yet there is challenge even for familiar players, as there are many things one should (or could) take into account during play. The amount of players is 2-5, of which four or five is best, I think. The game doesn't last for too long either, especially if people don't plan their strategy overly much, but concentrate on playing the game. I myself like to plan ahead a couple turns, maybe, if I can. But even the best plans can be overturned by some surprise tax returns, so there's always room for improvisation too.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Asiria update #6

Oh right, I finished a page. Yay!  15'386 stitches done out of 328'950, about 4,7 percent of the whole work done. :) I'm going to take a short break in stitching now, though I did put some of the red guidelines in place for the third page today.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Feeling resolute!

New Year's Resolutions! I don't usually make any, or haven't in the recent years at least. Except maybe for the kind of "be a better person this year" or something such, which I remember at least until the first two weeks of January...

Well, this year, I thought I'd make a more concrete resolutions and record them to this blog too, so that I won't forget all about them. Or even if I do, I can sometime check back to see whatever it was that I up and promised all that time ago... Oh well, here goes:

1. Finish a book every two months. That would make six books for the entire year, and I'll also accept the promise kept, if I manage to read any six books in the span of 2014.

I'm currently reading A Dance With Dragons, which is about halfway through. I've been reading it for the better part of last year, or not-reading-it, as would be more accurate. Towards the end of the year I got some reading spark going again, and I've read a couple hundred pages more since November, which is about the same amount I was able to read in the beginning of 2013. I want to finally finish that book and move on to Ian C. Esslemont's Blood and Bone, which has been sitting in my bookshelf for approximately the same amount of time as I've been not-reading the newest Martin... Those will be the first two books for 2014.

2. Finish a game every two months. That also makes six games for the year and shouldn't be too difficult, as I have several shorter games and a couple that are nearly finished already. The same rules as for the first resolution.

I currently have Valkyria Profiles 2: Silmeria and Persona 3 unfinished on my PS2; Final Fantasy XIII-2, Lego Marvel Superheroes and Ico on PS3; Draw Slasher and Gravity Rush on PsVita and Syberia, Exit Fate and Still Life 2 on my laptop - that's already a lot of games and I have tons more which I haven't even started yet. And a couple I haven't even bought yet, but probably will soon, so the availability of games won't be a problem with this particular resolution.

3. Finish a cross stitch chart page every two months. Same as above, nearing the finish of a page right now, so basically only need to stitch five pages in the coming year to keep this one. I only need to stitch four more pages to get to the next row too, so that's one motivator right there.

4. Start learning Japanese. I've had the books for beginner's Japanese for some months already, but I just haven't managed to open them at all yet. I suppose if they were concrete books and not pdfs I'd remember them more often... Oh well. This one is easy, since it doesn't really define any goals, just that I need to start it. I've been learning a little Japanese earlier, so I can basically introduce myself and ask what is that, or something resembling that at least already. I'd like to start learning the writing too. And travel to Japan someday. Not sure if it'll be this year, but hey, that would at least motivate to keep this promise, right?

I thought about making a resolution about tv-series I'm watching too, but I think maybe these four are already enough. I'm currently watching two anime series; D-Gray Man and Last Exile; previous seasons from Burn Notice and Doctor Who, and I should also get up to date with Castle, which I haven't watched in a long time. And there are others too I'd like to watch, if I only had the time for everything I'd like to do. At least I can watch some of the series at the same time as I cross stitch, but for instance the anime is impossible to watch like that, as I need to concentrate on reading the subtitles to understand anything... Now, if I only learned enough Japanese to understand what they're saying...

Oh, and I forgot completely about my geocaching goals for this year! Last year my goal was to bring the number of my total finds to one hundred and I ended up exceeding it by 25 more. This year I plan to round the figure up to two hundred, which is actually a bit less than my total finds last year. I like to keep my goals small for geocaching though, because it's much nicer to reach and exceed them, than not. I don't know if I'd count this among my resolutions though, but just thought to add it here. :)