Eternal Legacy

At some point I’ll get through all of these photos from China. This is a statue in Tiananmen Square, dedicated to the People’s Army, if memory serves. While there’s a number of folks who will insist that there’s no point taking photographs in the harsh mid-day sun this was taken in when there’s perfectly good light coming, maybe, in the golden hours, that’s pretty rubbish advice if you’re not going to get an opportunity to go back wherever you are in a hurry. It’ll be a while until I’m back in China, and if I have to go under my own dollar, perhaps I never will. This was taken with the sun directly behind the statue in an attempt to do something interesting with the hand dealt to me, with limited success as you can judge from the above.

Readers of a certain age and predisposition may remember the infancy of videogaming in the home, with unsuspecting “serious computers” such as the ZX Spectrum and Commodore VIC-20 being abused into displaying some primitive ancestors of the modern gaming multimedia extravaganzas we take for granted on our Xboxes and Playstations. While Atari might have been a little more strict about intellectual property rights, given that they owned a good chunk of the good arcade games at the time, other formats were the rip-off equivalent of the Wild West.

Cue a massive number of barely, if at all, disguised versions of Pac-man and Space Invaders and the like, often of wildly varying quality. A simpler, more innocent time, where people shared and shared alike, or at least when game companies didn’t have legal teams larger than their development teams.

I’m apparently not the only one nostalgic about this era, or reckless enough to base a company’s release schedule entirely around quite blatant idea theft. Gameloft have been making games for mobile phones for as long as they’ve been capable of running the rudimentary Java-based games that seemed fabulous at the time, and as barbarous as Speccy games in retrospect. The release of the iPhone, however, seems to have turned them into full time rip-off merchants.

You’d have to be incredibly charitable or completely dishonest not to feel that there’s a massive degree of similarity between N.O.V.A and HALO, or the Modern Combat and COD: Modern Warfare games, or Starfront and Starcraft, or as we’re interested in here, between Eternal Legacy and Final Fantasy. In particular, Eternal Legacy draws on the graphical styles of Final Fantasy VIII and the plot of Final Fantasy VII, so I suppose if you’re being astonishingly generous that counts as innovation.

I’d get a little more shirty about Gameloft’s outright clonery were it not for the generally high quality of all of these cover versions. While N.O.V.A and Modern Combat are shadows of their inspirations on the massively more powerful consoles, they’re still very competent, fluid games and arguably as close as anyone’s come to making great FPS’s on the Apple iThingys. Eternal Legacy in some respects one ups the others mentioned, by being a better game than the Final Fantasies it apes.

Of course, this is coming from someone with a very low tolerance for Final Fantasy games, so factor that in your calculations of whatever that’s worth. Astrian, a spiky haired fellow carrying a ridiculously oversized sword in no was resembling FF8’s Squall and his buddy, in no way reminiscent of Zell, are rebels attempting to steal an oppressive government’s shiny crystal trinkets, Varsh Stones, the source of power in this world, which is the first hint that you’re playing a game heavily indebted plotwise to FF7. In fact, I’m going to stop pointing out character similarities to FF8 and plot similarities to FF8, as otherwise we’ll be here all day. Please just assume that any character you play is a barely disguised version of someone from FF8 and most of the plot’s a homage, shall we say, to FF7.

Mechanically, the game also shares elements with the FF series, although by extension it shares elements with pretty much every RPG with turn based combat. There’s the usual combinations of physical attacks, element based attack magic, stat altering buff/debuffs and assorted healing items and spells, which different characters will use to differing levels of effect depending on their abilities. There’s also a rough analogue of Limit Breaks, and a stat/effect boosting system thankfully far less tedious than FF8’s Junctioning, as Varsh Fragments found throughout the game can be attached to the weapons and armour you use, granting either access to spells that could not normally be utilised by the character, extra defence or attack, and so forth.

So far, so familiar, and the overworld sections aren’t going to blow your mind with their originality either. It’s the usual RPG deal of wandering around a town talking to people, either getting a quest or receiving information that involves heading somewhere else and fighting your way their through a variety of whacky enemies and beast that seem to have no particular storyline reason to be getting up in your grill. At least, thankfully, there’s no random encounters, as the enemies are clearly seen wandering around and thus can occasionally be avoided completely, and you can perhaps sneak up on them. Why this isn’t the way all RPGs deal with this is beyond me. I can almost accept it as a limitation on earlier machines, but there’s no excuse for it in the modern age.

So, there’s a brownie point for it, but there’s a number of less successful decisions made in the game. The combat and customisation systems are far simpler than in the games it apes, which to my mind is entirely appropriate and laudable for a game designed to be played on the move. As the iDevice format is more conductive to playing for short bursts as a time filler rather than full-on gaming sessions, shortening the normally interminable 40 hour RPG grind to a more compact 8 or 9 hours fits quite well.

Fits well for me, at least. Given that JRPGs these days seem to make their hay based entirely on how ludicrously complex and padded they are, what’s fine for me may not be so good for the intended core audience. The plot’s suffered a little under the baton of time compression, taking a few sharp right turns that could leave you flatfooted if you were hoping to actually care about the storyline or characters. It also presents a novel twist on the ‘early doors unwinnable battle with eventual boss’ trope, as you face off against the game’s main antagonist, kill him with ease, and are immediately taken to a cutscene showing you on prone, defeated and at said antagonist’s mercy. Somehow. Buh?

There’s a few mechanical annoyances that should really have been fixed remaining in the version available as I write. When you equip a new weapon, the Varsh fragments do not automatically transfer over to the new weapon from the old, which means another fiddly trip to the menu system. That I can deal with, but the menu system in combat is a complete pain in the ass when trying to navigate the lengthy item menu. Or at least, it’s lengthy by the end of the game which is about the only time you’ll ever need to use healing items.

You see, the main problem I have with Eternal Legacy is that it presents no challenge whatsoever to anyone with the slightest experience of these sorts of games. I had wondered if there was some sort of bug in the game, as my characters were very quickly levelling up to silly degrees. Turns out that’s a function of the shorter game length, but between the stats boost gained and the free healing gained from levelling up there’s practically no danger of dying, at least until the game pulls one of it’s somewhat frequent dick moves, splitting the party and leaving you without anyone that has a healing spell. At which point we’re often relying on healing items, and the cumbersome menu for selecting them that can take so long to get at that you might be in danger of dying more through menu inefficiency than through lack of tactical nous.

It’s not game-cripplingly unusable, and to be fair I struggle to see how else the menus can be organised. However, even this problem stems from the core problem – a lack of challenge. The menu becomes unwieldy because the game is massively generous with dispatched enemies dropping healing potions. Apart from this meaning you’ve no excuse no to go into each battle in top shape, it also leaves you with a ridiculous number of items in your inventory, making finding particular things more difficult. By the time the game ended, I had something like four hundred spare healing thingys. I could sell most of them to a trader, but in the absence of a “sell all” button that meant tapping ‘sell’ something like four hundred times, and, well, screw that noise. It’s not as if I needed the money for anything, as the few items that the merchants sell were easily affordable from the money dropped during the normal course of the game.

Disappointingly, for a relatively short RPG there’s still a bit of arbitrary gameplay padding as you return to previous locations for pretty poorly laid out reasons. Thankfully, it’s pretty rare, and there’s no need to spend hours in one locations grinding out either level gains or draw spells, mechanics from FF8 that still give me nightmares to this day.

Okay, perhaps it’s a little slapdash in places, and I’m not sure if it’s going to completely satisfy the JRPG / Final Fantasy loving crowd that it’s aimed at. But it’s a reasonable mobile facsimile of familiar concepts, and it certainly kept me coming back to it for those eight to nine-ish hours with only relatively minor complaints. Look at it this way – if you had told the younger version of myself playing that there Pacman rip-off on the Speccy all those years ago that they could play something of this quality and scope on a mobile phone, he’d have been blown away, at least once you had further explained the concept of a mobile phone to him. I am very old, remember.

And all this for a price less, in absolute terms, less than the budget game releases of the day, even before you take inflation into account? Lunacy. However, we’re not judging Eternal Legacy in comparison with Chuckie Egg, we’re judging it amongst its App Store compadres. There are a few more polished RPGs that I’ve seen, but most are either opting for a SNES-y, cartoony, Zelda-y look, or have more in common with the Western, Oblivion-style RPGs. Nothing wrong with either approach, but it’s left a gap in the market for something a little more modern and JRPG-influenced to exist, and Eternal Legacy is a very credible game to fill that gap.

It’s currently £2.99 in the App Store, a trivial amount of cash for such a game on any console, but thanks to the unusual metrics of the system it’s in a more expensive tier than most games. It’s certainly worth that much, but perhaps you may want to wait (as I did) for one of Gameloft’s frequent sales to knock that down a little before taking the plunge. At fifty nine pence, it’s damn near as good value for money for a game as I’ve ever had. There’s also a free demo version, should the prospect of parting with less than the price of a mediocre cup of coffee concern you greatly.



From Russia With Love

It's the Great Wall of China. It's pretty good.

This is some Wall thing they’ve got in China. It’s pretty great.

It’s also quite breathtakingly cold up there at this time of year, with a wind that scythes directly through you as though you were a collection of insubstantial mists, rather than a well swaddled organisation of meat and bones. It’s worth the discomfort for the views, and at if you look on the positive side it made for a substantially less sweaty pseudo-mountaineering session that doing it in the middle of Beijing’s thirty-odd degree summers, as it was the last time I was up there.

I’m rather falling behind on this Bond project, and so early into it too. Let’s attempt to arrest that slide by looking at the second cinematic Bondular outing, From Russia With Love.

This time round we are introduced to the concept of Bond’s reputation preceding him to the extent that he can hardly be called a secret agent, as MI6 get word of a Red Communist clerk offering to defect from those evil Russians to the Brits, bringing along a top secret decoding doohickey on the condition that she’s met by Mr. James Bond, Esq., whom she has taken a bit of a shine to.

Realising that life is very rarely that simple, Jimmy suspects a trap, but having no pressing luncheon appointments that day presses ahead with it anyway. Naturally, he is correct, the Russian lass being a unwitting pawn in a game designed by the international criminal mastermind Phil Spector to play Britain and Russia against each other to warm up the previously rather boring Cold War in Istanbul.

Terence Young returns on directorial duties, and he claims that of the Bond films he directed, this is his favourite. He could make a pretty solid case for it being the best Bond film period, but seeing as he isn’t typing this, I suppose I’ll have to fill in. I don’t have the exact quote to hand, but Young says something along the lines of the screenplays and Connery’s performance are adding in the one thing that isn’t in Fleming’s novels that went on to define the film series – charm.

From Russia With Love is where the charm offensive begins in earnest. While Connery’s Bond in Dr. No isn’t exactly a complete cold blooded psychopathic killer, he shows certainly shows moments of steely dispassion. These vanish in From Russia With Love, making it more like the Bond we’ve come to know and love.

That may not necessarily be a good thing. Sure, Bond is now a far more likable protagonist. However it seems as part of the trade off he’s also lost any sort of sense that things are not going to work out exactly in his favour at all points, even while in the middle of a murderous melee that requires the SPECTRE agent to save Bond’s life. This is the start of the end of Bond’s dramatic credibility. It seemed that Dr. No’s Bond might fail. Savour that sensation, as there’s going to be almost none of it over the remainder of the series.

At least in this film, there’s some trade off in as much as even if Bond wanders around with a God Mode cheat code enabled, he may well inadvertently trigger a full on international crisis with his flagrant disregard for Russian embassy territorial sovereignty.  For a globe-trotting superspy, the Great Game doesn’t seem to be high on Bond’s list of priorities. He goes on to tackle a number of one-off SPECTRE backed madmen, but there’s very little political manoeuvring to speak of.

I suppose that’s the difference between Bond and The Ipcress File. It also means the From Russia With Love presents another degree of differentiation from the formula that would go on to be so successful and ultimately repetitive for the series.

As a franchise, Bond isn’t big on supporting characters sharing the limelight. There’s the Bond girls, sure, but until relatively recently those on the side of the Right and Just were more of the damsel-in-distress type than the kickers-of-ass and takers-of-names. The closest we’ve got to a co-hero is the CIA’s Felix Leiter, who’s more often than not a combination of sounding board and phone line to the inevitably fashionably late Marine Corps.

As such, it’s both a delight and shame that Pedro Armendariz’ Istanbul section chief Kerim Bay is reasonably heavily featured and killed over the course of the piece, respectively. Almost as magnetic a personality as Bond himself, I’d far rather have watched a spin-off series starring him than the once mooted, now spiked Jinx franchise expansion starring Halle Berry.

I can’t go quite so far as to agree with Young. While this is still a tremendously enjoyable film, from where we sit there’s more of interest in Dr. No and from a purely dramatic standpoint there’s more danger to get your teeth into. From Russia With Love veers a little too heavily into intrigue, while at the same time being  too over-the-top to be believable. Of course, it’s positively understated compared to later Bond outings, but at this embryonic stage of proceedings it’s still judged against other spy films rather than the now sizable reservoir of Bond movies.

That aside, there’s little else wrong with From Russia With Love, which provides a more enjoyable and arguably far less dated, Soviet bogeyman aside, watch than most of the Brosnan-era Bonds. If, by some unbelievable set of circumstances you have avoided exposure to this film thus far in your life, I recommend that you give it a chance. It should impress you.

The Hunt For Red October

Balls

It’s coming up for Chinese New Year in Beijing, which rather means everything looks like Christmas in Blighty. Vive la différence.

So, what’s a lad to do on a cold Beijing evening? A night on the tiles in a nightclub? A couple of shandies in the hotel bar and an early night? Well, I considered these before going with the obvious option. Watching The Hunt For Red October.

I can immediately think of anything particularly wise to say about the film, so I’ll limit myself to saying that it’s held up pretty well, still capturing a decent amount of intrigue and tension, and that it’s really wierd to see Young(ish) Alec Baldwin, dramatic actor, having grown so used to Old(ish) Alec Baldwin, the self parody from 30 Rock.

Oh, and there’s also the single best look of surprised, affronted, disbelieving shock ever commited to celluloid in here, after Sean “obviously I’m Russian, you can tell by my accent” Connery kills off the submarine’s political officer.

International House of Tetris

I’m surely not the only one that thinks that skyscraper over younder was styled after two L-shaped tetris blocks?

I walked over to it to see what it was called, or who’s mainly occupying it, but I couldn’t immediately find any evidence of English language signage  so I promptly gave up. I am so very tired. Anyway, I prefer my internalised version, where it is the Asian headquaters of the IHOP.

Unrelatedly, either my clothing has suddenly got cheaper or there’s something up with the carpeting in this hotel. I’m afflicted with a continual build-up of static electricity. Anytime I go near anything remotely metallic I’m firing tiny bolts of lightning out of my fingers like some sort of gimped Emperor Palpatine. It’s super-freaky.

This Must Be The Place

I think what I like most about China is the rampant enthusiasm, and the will to build things without anyone stopping to say, “Hang on, isn’t this a bit mental?”

I mean, look at this place. Well, first off it’s called The Place, which smacks either of extreme egotism or a failure of imagination. Given the rest of the buildings, I assume it’s the former.

It’s perhaps five years old as I write this, so obviously at that time the prevailing design trend was mid 18th century neoclassicalism. Fine. Okay. Let’s build it!

Hang on just a moment. There needs to be the other defining element of neoclassical architecture – a hundred metre covered walkway up the middle of it, where the roof is made of massive T.V’s!

In retrospect, I’m only surprised they didn’t use the other kind of TV.

Gate of Heaven’s Pacification

Tiananmen Gate

It seems my bold plan to get in sync with local time has had mixed success. I managed to prop my eyes open untill around half ten or so, aided by the loud noises and utter lack of soul in the film, and I use the term loosely, Terminator: Salvation, which has certainly not got batter with age. Still, I knew what I was letting myself in for there, so no complaints about that.

However, a combination of a tiring trip over here and having to tool around packing up eBay sales until 3AM on Thursday night left me with quite the sleep deficit. Which, apparently, demanded that I sleep until 2PM local time. I wonder how this will play out going forward, but I at least took some steps to tire mysely out and work off some of the Dubai airport Cinnabon with a sixish mile roundtrip walk to Tiananmen. I didn’t particularly intend to go there, I just headed out of the hotel, turned right and started walking. Which, as it turns out, goes straight to Tiananmen. There wasn’t enough time to do the touristy thing, but hopefully I can carve out sometime for that later.

There’s a set of weighing scales in my hotel room that claim that I am 113 kg. Thankfully it also claims that the thin air resting above it also weighs 113kg before I step on to it. From this, I can deduce either that while in China, I have mass but no weight, or that the scales are broken. As there appears to be both gravity and atmosphere, I must sadly rule out the first option, and then order cheesecake from room service.

Curving Lines

roof support structures

There must have been a memo sent out to airport terminal designers. Big sweeping curved roofing is very much the order of the day. The above is the from Dubai Airport’s relatively new Terminal 3. It’s almost indistinguishable from the new terminal at Beijing, built I suppose in the main to handle the Olympics traffic. Right angles are so last century.

I have no idea what time, or really what day it is. However, I must make an effort to get on-board with local daylight patterns, which means somehow forcing myself not to fall asleep at the keyboard for another few hours. Thankfully I have HBO on the hotel telly to distract me, currently showing Double Impact. What’s better than having Jean-Claude Van Damme in a film? Having him in twice. Genius. Of a sort.