Review: Xenogears

This review has been a long time coming. Xenogears is considered by many to be one of the greatest RPGs of all time. Despite this, it is a game that I never had the chance to sit down with until now. I was a big fan of the Xenoblade Chronicles on the Wii when it came out a few years back. So I was really excited to see what the earliest game in the “Xeno” franchise was all about. I started this title at the the first of the year and I expected to be done with it sometime around late March. But, boy was I wrong about that. I was anticipating this game to contain somewhere between forty to sixty hours of playtime (like most other RPGs of the era). Instead, I ended up spending a little over one hundred hours on this monster! Which is really mind-blowing considering the last half of the game was rushed for release and large portions of content were cut from the title. (More on this later).

So what is Xenogears exactly? Xenogears is the brainchild of Japanese game developer Tetsuya Takahashi, an employee of Squaresoft. It was originally pitched as a contender for the Final Fantasy series. When rejected, it ended up becoming something else entirely. Much time was spent on the lore and storyline for this game. The story of Xenogears was originally intended to be the fifth out of six chapters in what would be part of a vast story-arc. The idea was to tell the complete tale through various media; manga, anime, and of course, games. This grand vision never materialized, however. As such, Xenogears has remained the only chapter of this story to be told. Japanese fans were eventually treated to a special artbook called Xenogears Perfect Works. This book contained several pages outlining all six chapters of the intended original saga. While it is certainly a shame that fans may never see an official Xenogears anime, or read the untold tales in the pages of a comic book, the game itself does contain several anime-style cutscenes that provide a taste of what might have been.

The story of Xenogears focuses on the character of Fei Fong Wong. A young amnesiac who was brought to a remote village as a child by a mysterious man. Fei has grown up living a simple life, completely unaware of his origins. One day, Fei’s village becomes caught in the crossfire between two warring nations. During the attack, Fei climbs into a Gear, (one of the giant robots used in the war) in attempt to defend his village. Mysteriously, he finds that he has the innate ability to pilot the machine. But in the end, his actions in the Gear result in further damage to village. Disgraced and banished from his home, Fei and his mentor Citan leave the village together. From there, they encounter one of the soldiers involved in the attack, a woman named Elly. Before long, Fei learns that the attack on his village was no coincidence… He was the real target. This revelation prompts him to seek out the answers to his mysterious origins. Over the span of the game’s storyline, not only will Fei learn about his true nature, but will find himself as a major player in a war for the very fate of mankind. The secrets of human origin, as well as the true nature of divinity all play a part in this fantastic tale.

To say the storyline for Xenogears is epic would be an understatement. While many JRPGs often blur the lines between fantasy and sci-fi, this game took things to the next level. The lore of this game perfectly integrates high technology and religious mythology in a way that had not yet been explored in gaming. To make things even more interesting, it borrows a number of themes and terms found in Judaeo-Christian theology, giving the lore behind the game a familiar tone. In fact, this served as a strong point of controversy at the time the game was released. Personally, I found the plot to be very deep and philosophical. I was delighted by thought put into it.

When it comes to gameplay, Xenogears will be familiar territory for longtime RPG fans. It plays like most classic SNES-era RPGs, with an overhead view and menu-driven system. Unlike many of those classic games, it is also rendered in 2.5-D, meaning that even though it’s presented from the bird’s-eye-view, the camera can be rotated 360-degrees to allow viewing at all angles. This took me a little getting used to at first, and it’s important to remember, as sometimes chests and important environmental objects may not be visible until the camera is rotated. Occasionally, I found this to be quite an annoyance. My only other major gripe with the game comes in the form of UI delay when bringing up the menu and especially with save file management. This title seems to suffer from some annoying lag.

When it comes to combat, Xenogears builds from the classic Active Time Battle structure that most RPG players are already familiar with. But it actually manages to evolve that model in a meaningful way. Like with most games of this type, players can elect to execute a melee attack, select skills/magic, or  use an item. There’s also options to defend or attempt to flee battle. If a player uses a physical attack, they can then chose between a light, medium or strong attack. The more powerful the attack, the less accurate the attack will be. If successfully landed, the player earns an Action Point. Action Points can then be spent on special moves called “Death Blows”, players can also bank up their Action Points to chain various Death Blows together for even more damage.

Aside from hand-to-hand combat, players will often do battle while piloting Gears (mechs). Gear combat is very similar to standard combat, but instead of attack points a Gear’s “Attack Level” increases as they continue to damage an enemy. Higher Attack Levels mean stronger Death Blows, etc.

All in all, I found the battle system to be very well done. It was just different enough from what had been seen thus far to require a little getting used to. Other RPGs of the era tried tinkering with the standard ATB combat formula and failed. Xenogears is one of the few that was able to succeed.

Combat aside, the game plays very much like any other JRPG. There’s open world exploration, dungeons, boss fights, etc. The game is separated into two discs, with the majority of the gameplay being found on Disc 1. By the time I reached the second disc, I was already about seventy hours into the game. The contents of the second disc are vastly different from that of the first. At this point, the game shifts from standard RPG-play, to being more narrative driven. Instead of actually playing through storyline at this point, the game provides you with a summary of events accompanied by still pictures and cutscenes. This ongoing narrative is broken up occasionally with prompts to save and short dungeons. There’s a number of successive boss fights tossed in the mix as well. It certainly has an unusual feel when compared with the first half of the game.

It has since become known that the pacing of the second disc occurred due to time constraints put on the development team.  In order to meet the release date deadline, they were forced to cut hours of playable content from the game itself. This led to them having to stitch what had been developed together with bits of exposition and pre-rendered cutscenes. This is certainly a shame, as I can only imagine just how epic in scale this game might have been if it were released according to plan. But honestly, having all of this extra content would have probably doubled the length of what was already a long game. So, I’m in no way saying players should feel ripped off. There’s still tons of content in this title. But the patchwork that is the second disc does end up making the game feel rushed and disjointed to an extent.

Flaws and all, Xenogears is an amazing game. It certainly earned its status as one of the greatest RPGs of all time. That being said, the game is not perfect. Camera issues and UI lag are present, and don’t get me started on the awkwardness of the second half. All that aside, it still shines. This is without a doubt a must play for fans of the JRPG genre. If any game deserves a modern remake, Xenogears should certainly be a contender.

Difficulty: Medium –  As far as RPGs go, Xenogears is standard fare when it comes to difficulty. Most random encounters and boss fights are balanced pretty well. Any player who hasn’t simply rushed their way through the game should encounter only a moderate challenge. Players who are willing to take their time to grind and/or do sidequests should have no issue.  Many of the bosses often have mechanics that can be exploited either through action or by equipping characters/Gears with certain items.

Story: This is where the game shines. The depth and richness of the storyline is unrivaled even to this day. In fact, when considering how unfinished the game feels at times, it is almost a shame that a tale of this scope was told via game that feels so incomplete at times. It is a story that certainly deserved better. Deep, dark, and powerful.

Originality: By 1998 the formula for JRPGs had been well established. Xenogears manages to keep things fresh by providing a unique setting, re-envisioned combat, and a bold storyline. Every time the game started to feel like something I had seen before I was quickly proven wrong. Amazing work by Squaresoft.

Soundtrack: This is probably the second best part of the game. The soundtrack and score are nothing short of breathtaking. My only complaint is that there wasn’t more. For a game as long as Xenogears, the soundtrack seems to be somewhat lacking in content. Lots of music in the game is reused in places where a new theme seems appropriate. Again, perhaps it was due to budgeting or time constraints, but I feel like the soundtrack should be more diverse. That is a bit of a shame. But when judging the soundtrack we were given, it is hard to find a single thing to dislike.

Fun: This is a game that took me by surprise. At this point in my gaming career, I really thought I had seen everything there was to see when it comes to RPGs. Xenogears proved to me that a good developer can always manage to surprise you. I had a blast with this game. I went in knowing nothing at all about the game itself, and what a ride it was.

Graphics: At time of its release, Xenogears looked as good as a game could. It featured 16-bit style sprites, but in a semi-3D environment.  Today, the game does show its age. But it is still a pleasure to view.

Playcontrol: To claim Xenogears is flawless would be difficult. If any part of the game needs improvement it would be the play control. Laggy UI and quirky camera controls are a major issue at times. On top of that, several parts of the game actually include platforming puzzles – for example, climbing a building or a mountain. This requires players to run and jump from spot to spot. One wrong move and you have to start over. It can be extremely frustrating at times. Especially since the game doesn’t feel like it was designed with this type of play in mind. This, combined with a dicey camera makes for some rage-worthy moments.

Downloadable Content: No.

Mature Content: YES. Minor language, blasphemous themes.

Value:  Xenogears is available digitally on the Playstation Network for $9.99. At this price the game is a no-brainer. Used physical copes can range anywhere from $20-$100 on ebay depending on the quality. If you’re a collector, I’d be comfortable paying up to $50.00 for a game like this. It is worth every penny.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 4 – Even with some obvious flaws, Xenogears manages to take a top rating. It has been a while since I had such a good experience with an older game. Just when I thought I had seen everything, Xenogears popped up to remind me that there’s always something new to discover. Despite being twenty years old, the bold direction of this game still manages to hold up and feel new. If you’re a fan of JRPGs, this is a must-play.

Available on: PSN

 

Nerd Fuel: Tim Horton’s – Original Blend

It has been a few months since I made a Nerd Fuel post. To be honest, my post frequency on the site has been down considerably since the start of the year. I’ve been spending every last free minute grinding away at Xenogears. (A behemoth of a game.) I finally completed the title today (a review will be coming shortly), and I don’t think it would have been possible without the help of my good friend caffeine. As always, my quest for the perfect cup of joe continues. This time, I found myself back in the “donut shop” with a box of Tim Horton’s Original Blend.

So far on this site I’ve reviewed a number of “Donut-Shop”-style coffee. But Tim Horton’s is one variety that has eluded me until now. Some people swear by it. But for those American readers who, like me, live in the southern part of the country – the name Tim Horton’s may not ring any bells. It is not a brand that has a foothold in this part of country. But up north and especially in Canada, it is a household name. Tim Horton’s is a popular restaurant/bakery and, as you might have guessed, they are also famous for their coffee. I’ve personally never been to a Tim Horton’s so when this box arrived in the mail I was very eager to see if it lived up to the hype.

I went in expecting a pretty mild, run-of-the-mill flavor. That is exactly what I got. In both aroma and in taste, there was absolutely nothing spectacular about this cup. It is very mild and smooth and like most “donut shop” offerings, it is designed to please nearly everyone. It is enjoyable, but not particularly compelling. When compared against other coffees of the same type, I feel like it beats Dunkin Donut on richness. But it doesn’t hold a candle to Krispy Kreme or The Coffee People’s “Donut Shop”. That being said, I can easily imagine it to be the favorite of many coffee-drinkers. With this type of brew, a lot of it boils down to region. If you grew up on the stuff, you’re likely to favor it over a competitor. But in reality, if we are being honest with ourselves, they are all pretty much the same (save for some minor nuances).  For me personally, “Donut Shop” is still the reigning champion in the category.

Score: 3 out of 4

Would Purchase again?: Maybe. It’s not bad. It should be acceptable to nearly anyone, but there are some better options out there.

Star Wars: From A Certain Point of View – Various Authors

It has been a while since I posted a review of a Star Wars novel. In truth, I think I suffered from a bit of Star Wars burnout leading up to the release of The Last Jedi. I indulged on so many different books and other Star Wars media at the time, that once the movie was released I found myself needing a break. Now, a few months later, we are on the heels of Solo: A Star Wars Story, so I’m getting back into my groove. This time, I’m taking a moment to talk about a rather interesting entry in the new Star Wars canon; From a Certain Point of View.

This book is a collection of short stories that actually tell the tale of A New Hope, but from the viewpoint of various characters. (Hence the name of the collection).

As expected with any short story collection, some of the tales included in the volume are better than others.  It starts off strong with a story told from the perspective of Captain Antilles. This story does a wonderful job of bridging the gap between Rogue One and  A New Hope and serves as a perfect launching point for the book. But it is then followed by a slightly dull, but still interesting, tale about the Stormtrooper who stunned Princess Leia.

This ebb and flow continues for the first half of the novel. But then everything comes to a grinding halt when we reach the “cantina scene” from the movie. At this point, we are dished out what (felt to me) like too many random short  stories about the various  aliens found in the Mos Eisley Cantina. This portion of the book actually reminded me a lot of the old Expanded Universe novel Tales from the Mos Eisley Cantina. In fact, several of the stories here offer retcons to some of the tales told in that old collection.

The last half of the novel is where things really pick up. There are some really insightful stories about Obi  Wan, Yoda, and even an interesting poem about Emperor Palpatine. It all makes for a very eclectic, if not refreshing book.

All in all, I found this collection to be a mixed bag. Some of the stories are very well done and interesting. Others almost read like satire and feel like throwaway content. Without sounding too controversial, I was also slightly irritated to see more of what seemed like “political shoehorning” in this collection. One story in particular reveals a homosexual relationship between a Stormtrooper and an Imperial officer… Ok. But, why is that important? I feel like if given some context or an important plot point this would make more sense. But to me, it just felt like it was tacked-on for the sake of having something LGBT friendly in the book. But, whatever – Inclusion, I guess.

Despite some minor flaws, I found this book to an overall worth addition to the new Star Wars canon. I enjoyed the “point-of-view” aspect to it, and I hope see more novels follow the same format.

Story: Mixed. Some of the short stories collected here are masterfully done. Others, not so much.

Recommended:  For all Star Wars fans.

 

 

 

Ready Player One – Ernest Cline

Nerd Culture is a stock that is currently rising. Everywhere you turn people are embracing retro nostalgia and pop-culture icons of yesteryear. Video games are mainstream. Dungeons & Dragons is mainstream. Horror, Sci-Fi, Fantasy – all genres that were once coveted only by the nerdiest among us are now celebrated en-masse. For proof of this, one needs to look no further then the smash box-office hit Ready Player One. This film is nothing more than a huge amalgamation of video games and retro pop-culture.

Of course, the film is based on a book of the same name. I first read this book about six months ago at the suggestion of my oldest son. At first, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had never heard of the novel. But upon taking up his suggestion, I was pleasantly surprised by what I found.

Let me say up front, that having both read the book and having viewed the film, they are very different. The film follows the basic plot of the novel, but strays off on its own path. While similar, the book and the film are two completely different experiences. I like the film just fine, but the book seems the have a charm that feels a bit more personal. It just works a bit better in my opinion. If I had to guess, I imagine that many of the differences had to do with licensing issues. It’s easier to get certain things in print that it is to get them on the big screen.

In a nutshell, the story of Ready Player One takes place about two decades in the future. War, pollution, and political unrest have turned the world into a pretty unpleasant place. To escape reality, a majority of the population retreat to a V.R. world called “The O.A.S.I.S”. This virtual world offers both entertainment and even job opportunities. When the founder of the O.A.S.I.S. dies, it is revealed that he has hidden a secret Easter Egg in his program. Whoever can find it will inherit his fortune and control of the O.A.S.I.S program. Of course, people go nuts looking for clues in hopes of winning the contest. Hunters begin studying every aspect of the creator’s life and interests in hopes of uncovering some clue that will lead them to the prize. This results in a resurgence of popularity in late 70’s and 80’s pop culture. However, five years after his death no one has come close. The biggest competitor still looking for the egg is the corporation that currently manages the O.A.S.I.S. Their hope is gain complete control of the virtual world so that they can monetize it. Eventually, one young man manages to uncover a clue that leads him on the path to claiming the egg. But the closer he gets to winning the more danger he finds himself in.

It is said that Richard Garriot, creator of the Ultima video games series (who’s book I recently reviewed here), partially served as the inspiration for James Halliday (the creator of The O.A.S.I.S). But honestly, I also suspect that D&D founder Gary Gygax was just as big of a muse. In fact, the book makes several mentions of Dungeon & Dragons. Naturally, this resulted in more than a few smiles from me as I thumbed through the novel.

If you’re like me and you tend to get hung up reading only specific authors or books from various fantasy series, it’s important to switch things up from time to time. Ready Player One is a great change of pace. As a child of the 80’s this book is a great nostalgic trip. I recommend reading it before going to see the film. This one is recommended.

Story: Entertaining and over-the-top. The writing style can be a bit iffy at times, but the book itself is largely enjoyable. The more versed you are in pop-culture the more you will get out of this one.

Recommended:  This book is a must-read for nerds and pop-culture fanatics. Retro grognards like me will find a lot to enjoy. That being said, the book has found a solid audience with mainstream readers as well.

R.I.P. Art Bell

It was a late fall night in 1997. I was driving home from my drummer’s house after an all-night rehearsal. The tape deck in my car was on the fritz and none of the FM stations were playing anything of value. I was groggy and the rhythmic passing of the dotted lines on the highway were lulling me closer and closer to the danger zone. Out of desperation for something to keep me awake I switched the radio dial to AM and began to spin through the stations. That was when I discovered him.

A baritone voice boomed through the speakers, “Wildcard line, you are on the air!”

What followed was some of the most interesting  radio I had ever experienced. A caller claiming to be a government employee working at Area 51 had called the talk show. His voice was panicked and only grew more distressed as he continued to speak. He was issuing a warning to the listeners. The host, Art Bell, remained calm and patient and attempted to ease the caller. That’s when the feed was cut. The show went silent. After several long minutes a commercial aired, it was followed by the voice of Art Bell. He explained that a loss of signal caused his broadcast to go off the air temporarily. (As it was later revealed, the entire radio network that hosts the show lost their satellite signal). It was riveting. Was it a hoax? Was the caller a simple joker who just happened to be followed by a consequential network outage? Or was it something more nefarious… a government conspiracy? Over the years, this odd string of events has today become a bit of an urban legend. But needless to say, it kept me awake and alert for the rest of drive home.

From that moment forward, I was an Art Bell fan. His shows Coast to Coast AM and Dreamland were almost required listening at my home. If was up after midnight, Art Bell and his paranormal talk show was on my radio. Art was my companion for many late night gaming sessions, believe me.

As the years went by I stood by Art and his many retirements, jumps to other networks, and eventually the founding of his own online streaming service. Sure, I’ve rolled my eyes at some of the personal dramas surrounding his later years. But, there has never been anyone like him on the air.

From the subject matter, to his iconic voice. Everything about Art Bell made him perfect for overnight radio.

This morning I woke up to news about his passing.  The ride is over, but his fans will never forget it.

Manga: Dragon Ball

It has been a rather busy month so I haven’t had time to make a post until now. What have I been doing? Well, when I haven’t been drilling my way through Xenogears (a really really REALLY long game), I’ve been jumping between RIFT and FFXIV. Also, last week my family went on a Spring Break vacation. During that downtime I managed to get a little reading in. So, as promised I’m here today with my first ever manga discussion: Dragon Ball.

Last month I talked a little bit about my experiences with manga. I was introduced to it during my stay in Japan, but I never really took the time to sit down and enjoy the format until many years later. The first ever manga series that hooked me was Chobits. (I’ll talk about Chobits in greater detail in the near future). When I was done with it, I found myself clamoring for more. Unsure what to read next, I thought back to my days in Japan. Back in those days, the only English-speaking channel was operated by the US military. More often than not, it offered little in the way of kid’s entertainment. So, my friends and I would often flip our televisions over to the local Japanese stations and check out whatever it was they were watching. At that time, Dragon Ball Z was all the rage. Yes, I can claim to have watched Dragon Ball during its initial run – IN JAPAN! (How many weaboo points does that get me?) Now, neither I or my friends really had any idea what was going on, but it was cool to watch nonetheless. With this in mind, I chose Dragon Ball as the next manga series to dive into.

At that time, I read maybe the first five or six volumes of Dragon Ball before monetary constraints put an end to my Manga purchases. But, I enjoyed every second. Recently, I acquired the entire collection. So what is Dragon Ball? Well, it initially starts out as a childish retelling of the ancient Chinese fable Journey to the West. But it doesn’t take long for the story to go off the rails and develop into its own thing.  One recurring theme in the story are the “Dragon Balls” themselves. The Dragon Balls are seven magical stones. Whoever can collect all seven of them is able to summon a mystical dragon who can grant any wish. The story begins when a young girl named Bulma encounters a strange orphan boy while she searches for the Dragon Balls. The boy, Goku, is in possession of one of the balls. The earliest stories in the Dragon Ball series focus on the adventures of Goku and Bulma as the search the world for the missing balls. During this time, Goku encounters an old kung fu master, The Turtle Hermit, and abandons his search to become a disciple. At this point, the focus of the story shifts to Goku and his mastery of the martial arts. (Astute readers of this site will undoubtedly recognize that I have adopted The Turtle Hermit referenced above as my avatar on this blog.)

Admittedly, the actually plot line is pretty darn weak, especially in the later volumes. But, that doesn’t detract from the fun. If anything, the shallow story and innocence of the lead character is part of what makes this story so entertaining.

The original series runs for sixteen volumes. After that, the title switches to “Dragon Ball Z“. In Japan, there’s no distinction between Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z in print, that’s strictly a branding that is used here in the west.

Dragon Ball starts out rather childish, but ramps up in maturity level pretty quickly. By the end of the sixteen-volume series, the target audience seems to shift from children to teenagers. That being said, there’s actually a noticeable amount of mature content in the book from the very beginning. This may seem a little strange considering the books are marketed to children, but keep in mind that Japanese culture doesn’t tend to be nearly as conservative about some things.

All in all, Dragon Ball is an addictive enjoyable manga series. I look forward to continuing my way through Dragon Ball Z and finally seeing what all those old cartoons were about.

 

My Tech Picks (Spring 2018)

Wow! It’s been a whole year since I did a Tech Picks post! As always, there’s been a few changes but a lot has also stayed the same. If you’re curious about the technology I use on a daily basis, here’s the breakdown:

Computer Platform:  Windows PC – As expected, Windows is still my platform of choice. As much as I miss my old iMac, Apple desktops are just not viable for gamers at this time. Windows remains a solid and stable option, but they continue to baffle me with off-the-wall decisions and wishy-washy business choices. I’ve been both a PC and a Mac owner, and I can tell you without hesitation, the only thing keeping me on the PC platform is upgrade-ability and the level of customization that a PC provides.

OS: Windows 10 ( 64 bit Version 1803) – Just in time for this post, Microsoft has signed off on the latest version of Windows 10. This version, officially known as “Windows 10 Spring Creator’s Update” is very similar to previous version. One of the biggest changes is the introduction of the new “timeline” task switcher, which is very similar to the “continuity” feature Apple offers in OS X. There’s a few UI and cosmetic improvements that some users will notice, but most of the big changes in this release are under-the-hood. While the official release is not until 4/10/2018, build 1733.1 has been signed-off internally by Microsoft as the “gold” release. It is available through the insider channel now, and should be rolled out to most users in the coming weeks.

Hardware: If you’re a frequent reader to this site, you’ll know that I recently built a whole new rig from the ground up. Despite the huge Meltdown/Spectre ordeal, I’ve remained in the Intel camp. My new box is as follows:

CPU: Intel i7 8700k @ 3.7ghz (4.7 turbo)

Mainboard: ASUS Prime Z370-A

Physical RAM:  16gb

Graphics: Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060 (6GB)

Sound: SoundBlaster Z

Storage:  Main:  Western Digital Blue NAND SSD 500GB     Secondary:  Two Seagate 2TB Hybrids “Firecuda”

Media:  External DVD RW &  USB Memory Card reader

Power: 750 watt PSU

Monitor: ViewSonic VX2457-MHD 24″ (2ms 1080p FreeSync Gaming Monitor)

Mobile: Android  – Google Pixel XL 2 (Android Oreo 8.1) – Since my last post I have upgraded from the original Google Pixel to the Pixel 2 XL . Overall, I’m very pleased with the phone, but truthfully, if I could do it again I’d probably have chosen the regular Pixel 2. This phone is just a TAD too big for my taste and the I feel like the screen on the Pixel 2 is a bit better. But, I was able to jump on a deal and I managed to get a couple hundred bucks off on a new phone, so I took the plunge.

Tablet: Microsoft Surface – No change here. My personal needs for a tablet are very limited. I mainly only use a tablet for reading comic books and doing some light searching while in the living room. For my purposes, the original Windows RT surface is perfect.

e-Reader: Kindle Paperwhite – No change.  The Kindle Paperwhite is an elegant and universal option that serves my needs perfectly. Yes, there are newer Kindle options available. But the Paperwhite remains my go to device.

Virtual Digital Assistant: Google – I make full use of the Google Assistant that is available on my Pixel.  This is true both in speech and with the Google Assistant chat bot. I use my phone for 100% of these needs. MS has made some headway with Cortana on this newest release of Windows and even the version of Cortana available on Android has seen some considerable improvements. But at this time, I can find no reason to switch from Google Assistant to Cortana or any other AI.

Web Browser: Chrome– While Microsoft continues to improve Edge with each new version of Windows, it still lags behind almost every other browser available. The newest version of Firefox offers some compelling features, but Chrome continues to be my browser of choice.

Search: Google – Google remains my go-to for searches. I’m not a fan of some recent changes made to Google Images, but I still tend to get the best results from Google compared to other engines.

Email and Calendar: Google/Gmail – Widely supported and extremely efficient. Google works for me and I have no qualm with Advertising ID sharing or any other aspects of Google’s business model.

Office Suite: Microsoft Office 2016 – Nothing beats it. As far a desktop application suite, Microsoft office is the best.

Cloud Storage: OneDrive and Google Drive – As a Windows and Office user, I’ve found OneDrive to be a very convenient online storage solution. It integrates well into both Windows and Office 2016. OneDrive works great with Android and other platforms as well. These days, I use OneDrive mainly for PC Back ups, and I use Google Drive for photos and general storage. But, both are within arm’s reach at any time.

PC Gaming Services: Steam – No change. For PC games, I’m pretty much a Steam only guy. I have recently been making more and more purchases on GoG.com due to their vast catalog of retro games. But nine out of ten purchases are still done on Steam.

Music Management:  MusicBee – No change here either. I have a large digital music library, all tagged and sorted. To manage such a huge collection, I need the help of software. MusicBee is my music manager for the desktop. It integrates with my phone and makes it easy to transfer files to Google Play Music on my device.  For streaming, I use Google Play Music, Sirius XM and IHeartRadio. I still keep and maintain a local MP3 collection, but I enjoy the vast stream-able library that Google Play Music offers – I turn to the other services for live media.

Wearables: Fitbit Blaze–  I’ve recently upgraded from my old Fitbit Charge HR to a Fitbit Blaze. I like the functionality of guided exercise routines and the ability to receive text message notifications. I do predict at some point I’ll have to look into something else. I’m feeling the call the Smart Watch… We’ll see how long I can resist.

Home Gaming Consoles:  Currently at our house we own the following: Nintendo SwitchWii U, PlayStation 3 (First Gen), PlayStation 4, Xbox 360  (and there’s a spare Wii in the closet).

Mobile Gaming: Both my children and I have a Nintendo 3DS. I also have an old PSP.

Everquest

As many readers of this site will know, I’m a huge fan of fantasy role playing games. Both traditional pen and paper games and video games. When it comes to video game RPGs, my first taste of the genre came in the form of Wizardry, an old school PC game. From there, I moved on to Ultima and eventually to Final Fantasy. For many years, these three franchises continued to flourish and I would hop from one game to the other. Eventually, the Wizardry series fizzled into obscurity and the makers of Ultima had turned their attention to Online gaming. My initial experience with Ultima Online was not that promising, so for me, Ultima was now dead in the water. I enjoyed Final Fantasy, but I knew deep down in my soul that I wanted a gaming experience that captured that classic medieval Dungeons & Dragons genre of fantasy that I had originally found with Wizardry. Just when I thought all hope was lost, some friends of mine introduced me to a game called Everquest.

It was early 2000 and Everquest was the hottest online game in existence. It was not the first true MMO, that honor probably goes to Ultima Online  (or some would argue, Tibia). But, it was the first true 3D massive multiplayer online roleplaying game. I had several friends who had been raving about the game since it was initially announced. Then, upon its release in 1999, several of the them took whole weeks off of work just to dive in and play this new game. At that time in my life, gaming had been downgraded to a casual way to pass time. It was not a full time hobby of mine. So, for almost a year I avoided the Everquest craze. Then finally, a friend of mine showed up on my doorstep with a copy of Everquest: The Ruins of Kunark. The box contained both the original game as well as the new Ruins of Kunark Expansion. I was given the game as a gift on the condition that I would play with him and his friends for one month.

At first, I was completely enchanted with the game. The graphics reminded me of some of the later titles in the Wizardry series, only better. The music was delightful and awe-inspiring. The game even had an atmosphere that matched exactly what I was looking for. My only initial complaint was with the complexity of the user interface. I had spent a little time with Ultima Online, so the vast array of menus and options were not new to me, but Everquest had more windows and widgets than anything I had encountered thus far.

I remember enjoying my first few days in the land of Norrath. I was captivated by it. The world was large and full of mystery. Absent was the hand-holding that is often found in modern games. You were thrown right into a living, breathing world that was populated with other players. Your only guide was an instruction manual included in the box (which offered little more than basic instructions). To REALLY learn how to play, you had to rely on other people. In fact, it didn’t take long understand that it was actually the interactions with other players that really kept you hooked. Sadly, in my case, that’s also what led me to abandon the game after only a month in.

My friends played on a PvP server. As a result, you could be challenged by other players whenever you’d venture far enough into the world. It seemed that every time I’d step outside of the confines of my starting area, I would be bum-rushed by a hostile player. It got so bad that I eventually lost interest in playing. By the time my initial thirty days was over, I uninstalled the game and swore off of MMOs. My experiences with PvP in both Ultima Online and Everquest had sealed the deal as far as I was concerned. In fact, I wouldn’t touch another MMO until the release of Final Fantasy XI, three years later.

I tasted just enough Everquest in its early days to learn what it was and how it worked. I could see the charm that enrapt so many players, but I had become so frustrated with being ganked that I became disgusted. In truth, had I been playing on a non-PvP server, it is very possible that the game would have hooked me. If that had happened, I very well may have played it for years to come. Today, Everquest is nineteen years old. It’s still online and has a jaw-dropping twenty four expansions under its belt. The base game is now Free-to-Play with an optional subscription model. For me, the thought of getting back into a game when I’ve missed so much of its history was largely unthinkable.

Recently, I started participating in a special “progression” version of another MMO, RIFT. I found myself enjoying this “fresh start” version of RIFT so much, that I decided to take a look and see what other MMOs were currently offering something similar. To my surprise, I found that Everquest has just launched a new Progression server of their own. So as you might guess… I decided to go ahead and dip in a toe just to see how things felt.

Next thing I knew, I found myself back in the world of Norrath. Of course, I spent so little time there originally and it had been so long since I last played that I remembered nothing. I was completely lost. But, for the most part, this “vanilla” version of the game was just like I remembered. Yes, the graphics were a little more detailed and the the UI was a tad more modernized, but this version of the game is very much like I remembered. The biggest exception has to be with HP and MP regeneration. I seem to remember having to rest and heal HP between encounters originally. But now, they recover automatically.

Being a “progression server”, new content and expansions are added to the game every twelve weeks. At the end of the cycle, the content in the game will match what everyone else is playing on the live servers. After spending a week in this time-locked version of the game, I decided to take a peek at what the current version of the game is like. Needless to say, the modern version of Everquest is very different.

In the live version of the game, there’s enhanced graphics, a better tutorial, and a slew of additional races and classes to play. The Planes of Power expansion makes it easy for players to travel across the world in an instant, whereas the original version of the game makes traveling difficult and time consuming. The live version of the game also features an in-game store that allows players to buy items, gear, etc. (Something I generally disagree with unless these purchases are restricted to vanity items only).

I enjoy retro games. So for me, the fun in this little walk down memory lane has more to do with the look-and-feel of the game than with the content. It’s simply too late for me to become emotionally invested in a title as vast as Everquest at this point. I don’t see myself continuing to pay $15 a month or investing the time to reach the end of this progression server experience. But, I’ll enjoy it for a while. I simply owed it to myself to take another look back at a game that served as the inspiration for Final Fantasy XI, arguably my favorite game of all time.

If you’re a fan of any modern MMO, be it World of Warcraft, RIFT, Final Fantasy XIV, etc – all of these games owe a debt to Everquest. This is the game that made them all possible. These days, EQ is almost unrecognizable from what it once was. Add-ons and changes have taken a lot out of what once made the original game magical for so many. But, perhaps it is still worth a look for those fantasy online gamers who want to explore their roots.

RIFT Prime: Launch

RIFT Prime is here! As previously mentioned on this site, Trion Worlds has launched a vanilla/progression server for their Free-to-Play MMO RIFT. Having played the original game at launch, I decided to check out this experimental server to see if I could recapture the magic that I felt during the game’s release. I’ve now spent a whole week on the Vigil server and I’m here to share my initial thoughts.

First, let’s talk a bit about what exactly RIFT Prime is. RIFT Prime is a special “progression” version of RIFT. This version of the game is restricted to a single server. Unlike the main game, which is Free-to-Play, Prime requires a subscription. (Just like the original version of RIFT did). For the most part, the content in Prime will mirror that of the vanilla version of RIFT. However, some quality of life improvements from the current game will carry over. The RIFT Prime server is expected to last for approximately a year before characters created there are transitioned to the main game. As time goes on, content from RIFT’s version updates and expansions will be added, but at an accelerated rate. The idea is, to allow players to start fresh and be fully caught up with the live version of RIFT by the end of the Prime server’s lifespan. It is currently unclear if Trion will enable the special World Event content that followed RIFT’s original patches and version updates on the Prime server. We shall see.

It’s been quite a while since I’ve played RIFT. I noticed right away that the game is now downloaded through Trion’s GLYPH launcher. Downloading GLYPH and installing the game proved to be no trouble whatsoever. However, as expected there was a considerable queue to actually log into the game on day one. Thankfully, this tapered off after the first few days.

Being back in RIFT and seeing it just like I remember was a bit of a surreal experience.  With the exception of some UI changes and being automatically placed in a “starter guild”, almost everything was just like it was the first time around. Sadly, one notable exception to this is the maturity level of the public chat channel. Trolling and outright trash-talking are unfortunately all too common in MMO games. But they tend to not be as bad when content is stuck behind a pay wall. I was shocked at the number of obvious trolls and the immaturity level of the public chat once I emerged from the starting area. It was just as bad as anything you’d find on a free-to-play game.

Social complaints aside, my biggest gripe thus far with the game has been the handling of previous purchases. For the sake of this progression server, Trion Worlds has locked existing players out from their previous account-wide purchases. Meaning, if you have any RIFT Store or Collectors Edition mounts, pets, costumes, etc on your account – they are not accessible in RIFT Prime. I don’t have a problem with this move, in itself. But, what Trion has done is made many some of the old CE mounts and pets available for sale on RIFT Prime store. Now, if the idea behind this is simply to allow new players starting in Prime a way to add these vanity items to their collection, that’s fine with me. But, if it is being done as a way to tempt existing players to spend real money on loot that they’ve actually already bought… that’s a problem. Already I’ve talked to several players who already own the Ancient Tartagon mount on their main account and are planning on shelling out real money to buy the same mount again. Why?

The problem is compounded by the fact that Trion has not been very transparent about what exactly is going to happen when RIFT Prime ends. At that time, when our Prime characters are moved over to RIFT Live, will our old account-wide purchases than be unlocked? If so, it’s a bit of a non-issue. But still, why not be clear about this up front?

The one good thing about this Prime version of RIFT is that there is no Pay-to-Win items available in the store. Everything for sale on the Prime Store is either vanity or account related. This is a move that I approve of. I sank enough money into RIFT back in the day before it went Free-to-Play that I don’t really plan on spending a lot, if any, in the Prime store. So far, the only purchase I’ve made was the Progenitor Pack. This optional purchase grants you a total of sixty days subscription time, a special mount, vanity cloak, title, and portrait frame. If you plan on paying the subscription for a few months, this pack pays for itself.

As far the game itself goes, I’ve actually had a blast playing through all of the early content and quests. RIFT is a faction-based MMO. This means that all players are split into one of two factions. These two teams compete against each other for control of the gameworld. In the Live version of RIFT, I always played as a Defiant. So, for this outing I decided to go with the Guardian faction. There’s just something about the aesthetics of the Guardian starting areas that I enjoy. They have a more “fantasy” feel to them and they are lovely to look at.

The first few days of RIFT Prime saw a slew of activity in these areas. Rifts were being taken down in record time, as were zone events and elite monsters. It felt very nostalgic to see so many players actually “playing the game” in these locations. Flash forward to a week later, and the population has already evened out a bit. But, there’s still more than enough players around to get things done.

Due to time constraints and having to multi-task between various games, it took me a little over a week to reach the Guardian capital. This city serves as the central hub for pretty much the rest of the game. I’m unsure at what pace Trion plans on adding new content to Prime. But I’ll be sure to provide updates at the “progression” continues.

 

 

 

RIFT Prime

Several years ago, I made a two-part post on this site regarding my experience with various MMOs. ( You can read them using the following links:  Rise of MMOs part 1 & Rise of the MMOs part 2 ). In these articles I elaborated a bit on some of the multiplayer online games I’ve tinkered with over the years. One of the games I touched on in that post was RIFT. RIFT was a game that I got to experience from day one. I played it well into its second expansion. RIFT was released during the time between the original version of Final Fantasy XIV and A Realm Reborn. During this lull, I found myself in search of a new MMO, RIFT was the obvious choice.

At release, RIFT borrowed very heavily from World of Warcraft in terms of design and playstyle. But it presented a world all it’s own. One of the more unique features of RIFT are…. rifts. Rifts are essentially random portal/events that pop up in the open world. Some rifts are more frequent than others and the appearance of a rare one would often result in players stopping what they were doing to come participate.

I have fond memories of very first point release for the game. There was a server-wide special event that occurred as the evil goddess descended to do battle against players. It was exciting, yet very flawed. The servers had a hard time keeping up with the load and as result, many players found themselves unable to participate in the event. This resulted in many people missing out on one-of-a-kind achievements and titles. The community was livid. The mismanagement of the event saw the first mass exodus of RIFT players.

One of my fondest memories of the game was participating in the first ever Extra Life event. This was a special marathon session where gamers would accept pledges for charity and play RIFT for twenty four hours straight. We played alongside with the game developers and even earned special titles and rewards.  Good times.

The early days of RIFT were lots of fun. As time went by, things started to settle down and as happens with most new MMOs, players began to migrate elsewhere. Trion Worlds, the developers of RIFT, tried to keep things interesting by releasing free content and new paid expansions. But after a while, RIFT’s population took a major hit. Eventually, the game moved to a Free-to-Play model. It was during that time that I finally said my farewell.

These days, RIFT thrives as a F2P game, but it is barely recognizable to old players like me. Even if I wanted to try to get back into it, I’d be completely lost. That’s why the rumors that Trion was going to introduce a classic version of the game caught my attention. It wasn’t long before I realized that the rumors were actually true, RIFT Prime was happening!

This version of RIFT launched on 3/7/2018. Like the original, it will only be available by subscription and will start out with the vanilla version of the game (but, with many of the modern quality of life enhancements). It’s going to be handled in a progression format, but at an accelerated rate. You’ll be able to relive all of the content patches from day one, up to the modern version of the game. Eventually, the RIFT Prime experiment will end, and you’ll be able to import your character to the regular version of the game.

I find this entire concept very appealing and I’ve decided to participate. It has been many years since I last set foot in the world of Telara. Tonight, I’ll be taking my first step back in. As a result, I’ll be posting my progress on this site.

UPDATES

March 2018 – Launch

May 2018 – Update