Category: odds and ends

Medieval Monsters

I recently received the book Medieval Monsters, an art book collecting illustrations from various medieval manuscripts, by Damien Kempf and Maria L. Gilbert, as a gift, and it’s one of those books whose main flaw is that it’s not big enough. That is, I wish it were bigger both in the sense of having more content and just being physically larger. At just 6″ x 7.5″, this is the smallest art book I own. More typical  would be something like The First World War in Colour, which is 8.5″ x 11.5″. To be fair, most of these illustrations don’t have a lot of detail and so may not merit as much space as some other genres of art, but a larger size would also allow for more content. On a positive note, the paper and print quality is nice, so what is here looks good.

One other small complaint, at just under a hundred pages there’s not really space here for a full treatment of the art. Anyone looking for a full discussion of medieval art and manuscripts will need to look elsewhere. However, Kempf and Gilbert do accomplish just what they set out to do, and there’s just enough text to give some context to the pictures and to relate some always-interesting myths and anecdotes. Discussing a picture of St. Dominic, for example, the authors say:

The Spanish saint was known for h is intense devotion to Christ: he would spend sleepless nights praying and reading. According to a medieval legend, Dominic’s mother, when pregnant, dreamed of a dog carrying a torch in its mouth that would teach and enlighten the world. Dominic and the members of the monastic order he founded, the Dominicans, were called the ‘dogs of the Lord’ (Domini canes), and their mission was to fight against the evil temptations of the world.

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Mischief Making in Two Wonderful Dimensions

MMboxSo, this past week I got a request to review a video game. It’s a bit outside the “bibliophile’s journal” theme I’ve been doing, but since I have posted about a few games before I thought it would be a nice change of pace. Also, this guy suggested that I’d look like some kind of nerd if I only write about books all the time, and I certainly wouldn’t want that. Anyone interested solely in Serious Business can come back next week, when I’ll have a post on Klemens von Metternich, followed by more from William Shakespeare.

Before we get to the main subject, though, let’s go back to the mid-90’s. The PlayStation and Nintendo 64 were the coolest things around, because now, for the first time on home consoles, games were in three dee! The days of side-scrolling in a mere two dimensions were gone, and now we could walk around awkwardly in three dimensions. Let me say, I was in elementary school at the time and was the first kid in my class to get an N64, and my social standing among my peers has never been higher, before or since.

Looking back, those early 3D games have, for the most part, aged pretty badly. Even in cases where the designers got the controls right, which certainly could not be taken for granted, the graphics were hideous. Very blocky with few textures was the house style for those early N64 games. Frankly, Super NES games were far more aesthetically appealing.…

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Tactics Ogre: The Knight of Lodis

The short review of Tactics Ogre: The Knight of Lodis is that it’s Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together but smaller.

Not that it’s a small game by any means, especially for the Game Boy Advance. It’s shorter and has fewer classes and side-quests, but I easily got thirty hours of gameplay out of it, and could see myself replaying it in the future to see the other endings. The graphics and music are both appealing, and look pretty good for a portable game, and though the story and characters aren’t as good as the original game, they’re still enjoyable. The gameplay is very similar to the older Tactics Ogre as well, so fans of that game, or tactical RPG’s in general, should be able to pick it up quickly.

There are some things about the game that annoy me, though. In Let Us Cling Together, I mentioned that I much preferred the large armies in the sister series, Ogre Battle, as opposed to fielding only ten characters at a time for each mission. In Knight, the number of characters on the attack team is reduced further, to just eight at a time. This does force the player to think even more carefully about which characters and classes to use, but also reduces the number of strategies available, especially with the reduced number of classes in this game. As a result, though the game never felt monotonous, there’s less variety from one mission to another than there could be.

Another change for the worse is that in Knight, turns are taken a full team at a time. So, the player’s army moves first, and once every character has done something, the entire enemy team moves, and so on. In Together, turns were taken on a per-character basis, not per-team, beginning with the fastest characters. Furthermore, if the difference in characters’ speed stats was great enough, a very fast character might move twice before a really slow one. This added an extra layer of complexity to planning out a strategy, which is simplified here to no benefit that I can see.

A couple more minor things, the game is very stingy with certain types of equipment. Swords are plentiful, for example, but archers are significantly less useful here than in the original game because they’re using outdated bows for a good 1/3 of the later missions. Also, about halfway through there’s a mission where the player has to split his army. Now, you can recruit about as many characters as you want, but since you only field eight per mission the obvious strategy is to come up with a standard team of eight and only use those. So when you suddenly need to field two teams, you find yourself with eight strong characters and a bunch of bench-warmers.

One improvement over the original is that enemies no longer have a set level, but their strength is set in each mission relative to the player’s army. So, they’ll always be slightly stronger than player characters, which is good because the AI is noticeably dumber than before. Of course, the dumber AI also means that this game is a bit on the easy side; I only had to replay a few levels, and though you can’t just coast through, as long as you stick to a handful of winning strategies there are only a handful of missions that present much of a challenge.

Perhaps the best thing of all is that, because enemy strength is relative to the player’s, you don’t have to spend nearly as much time in the insufferable training mode.

So, overall, The Knight of Lodis is a worthwhile sequel, just not as good as the original. Play Let Us Cling Together first, but for fans of the franchise Knight will be worth your time.…

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Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together

Though I haven’t played video games with any regularity in several years, there are a few games that I still remember very fondly and even revisit once in a great while. A couple of my favourites are the two fantasy-themed Ogre Battle games, both the Super NES original and its Nintendo 64 sequel. For years, I’ve also owned the two Tactics Ogre spin-off games, but never really played either of them until now, and I’ve just finished the PlayStation port of Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together.

Tactics Ogre is a tactical RPG, similar to Final Fantasy Tactics, which followed it and shared the same director, Matsuno Yasumi. Though this style of gameplay became fairly popular after FFT, I never really cared much for it, which is why it took me this long to get more than a couple hours into TO. While I understand the appeal, these systems feel somewhat tedious to me, moving characters around individually rather than in groups (as in Ogre Battle) and controlling every little thing. Also, one thing I liked about the Ogre Battle games is that directing units of characters around a fairly large map made the game feel more epic in scale, like I was a general carrying out a full campaign involving dozens, even over a hundred (IIRC) soldiers. Moving only ten characters at a time on a small map in TO, though, doesn’t make me feel like a general on campaign, it makes me feel like I went to the local bar and after a few drinks too many some bros and I decided “This empire’s goin’ down.” Actually, that’s not too far off, since the game starts with the main character, his sister, and a friend deciding to ambush a company of foreign knights.
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Travails of a Language Autodidact

A couple months ago, I put my Japanese study on hiatus and bought a copy of French for Reading, by Carl Sandburg and Edison Tatham. I did so partly because four years of studying Japanese started beating me down. Though I’d made several strides with James Heisig’s book Remembering the Kanji, my progress with that slowed to a crawl. So, I decided to move to a textbook that could be completed relatively quickly, but still give me something to show for my efforts at the end.…

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Dropping the Kindle

I bought the Kindle 2 early last Spring, but despite using it heavily through the following Summer I’ve essentially abandoned the device, not having used it for a few months now.

Partly the reasons are just practical things that will likely be (and in some cases have been) alleviated in future versions. No colour, no support for Japanese text, spotty availability for books I want, lousy formatting for others, and a few other nuisances. To the Kindle’s credit, there is still a lot of material available, I do like the iPhone app, and I especially like how it handles annotations and dicionary lookup.

However… however… I still have to drop it. The Kindle simply does not engage the reader as well as a traditional physical book. Though certainly better than a computer monitor or iPhone, following a story or argument remains more difficult than with print. I can only speculate why, but suspect that the reason lies largely with print’s more tactile experience. I remember a professor of mine, while discussing interactive fiction, commenting that one also interacts with print books by turning pages. At the time that seemed a bit silly, but looking back I think there’s more than a grain of truth to that. Though small, turning pages, physically taking a pencil or highlighter to make notes, even that used book smell, engage the reader more than just hitting a key or scrolling a mouse wheel.

In any case, I also happen to love used bookstores. Just randomly browsing bookshelves is a lot of fun for me, and I like seeing the annotations, doodles, and whatnot from previous owners. The Kindle does highlight frequently noted passages, but that’s just an aggregation with no personality, something like getting information about a show or novel series or whatever from a Wikipedia article versus a fansite. The aggregation may have more data, but lacks personality. In textbooks especially, those signs of life reminded the student of those who’ve struggled in the academy before. The days of print as a dominant media may, in the long run, be numbered, but I can see myself holding out for a long time.…

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Nico Nico English Version

So, nico nico now has an English version of their website,  and they’re doing a live broadcast from SakuraCon. Having comments appear directly on a video seems like it’d be really damn annoying, but honestly I’m finding it a lot more fun than YouTube. That may just be novelty value, but somehow it feels more like you’re interacting with other commenters than having comments appear just below the video as on other sites. Of course, the comments are pretty much smartass central, but I’m not one to take anything on the internet seriously anyway.…

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Pokemon Twelve Years Later

The last Pokemon game I bought was Red back in 1998, which I played so thoroughly over the next year or so that the resulting burnout has lasted over ten years now. A few days ago, while at work, I felt a strong urge to play again. Who knows why? The next day, though, I bought a copy of the recently-released Pokemon: White Version (not Black, because I prefer to hang around Pokemon that look like me lulz). Anyway, I thought the impressions of a prodigal Pokemon fan may interest those who’ve kept up with the series, so I’ll share my thoughts so far.

First of all, the basic gameplay hasn’t changed at all, as far as I can tell (I just got the first badge about 1.5 hours in). You wander around, catch little critters, train them, and fight them against other little critters. It’s still a great premise, and I can certainly see why the franchise has continued to sell so well.

As for changes, White and Black are more politically correct than Red and Blue. For one thing, instead of Prof. Oak we have some woman professor, and instead of having to play as a boy you can choose between a girl and a boy who looks like a girl. Enough girls play Pokemon that having a girl avatar is probably a good move (though I’m guessing it’s one that’s a few generations old now). Also, there’s a lot more talk about the special relationship between humans and Pokemon and what it means to be a good trainer. I think Red/Blue touched on this, but it wasn’t a major theme. I guess it’s a decent way to teach younger players to take care of animals, but really I just want to catch monsters and fight them.

Which brings me to Team Plasma, our antagonists who want to liberate the world’s Pokemon. They seem shady and I hear they have some ulterior motive, but… I don’t know. I always liked the original games’ simplicity. Not that White/Black is a new Hamlet or anything, but Red/Blue seemed to focus more on just catching and training Pokemon. Your rival there was Gary, who was your rival because he was a jerk and… that was it really. No motive that I can remember. He just was a jerk. Oh, and I guess Team Rocket was there too doing, ah, whatever their big plan was. Conquer the world or something. I realise that after over a decade you need to mix up the story a bit, but there’s something to be said about the almost perfect simplicity of the originals, which really captured that childlike feeling of adventure better than almost any other game I know of. I’ll wait until I finish the games to decide whether the new Pokemon measures up.…

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A Look at Student Government

Today, I got a glimpse future leadership of the nation, and the view is not good.

The venue was a debate at my university among Student Government candidates for president and vice-president. These five yammerheads went on for about an hour, mostly about the importance of representing “the students.” What none of them seemed to grasp was that “the students” are not a homogenous mass, but a collection of individuals who have differing, perhaps even conflicting, opinions on what their “representatives” should do.

Actually, the vast majority of students probably don’t care about Student Government, since they don’t seem to accomplish much beyond the occasional idiotic expenditure; for example, the purchase of three “spirit rocks” for students to express school spirit (i.e., graffiti) for several thousand dollars.

One of the vice presidential candidates was especially honest when he stated that he may not have totally agreed with a particular bill he had recently voted for, but since surveys indicated “the students” approved of the bill, “the students'” opinion became his opinion.

Too bad more politicians don’t admit they’re cowards who just do what’s popular!…

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