Movie Review: Kingsglaive – Final Fantasy XV

Kingsglaive – Final Fantasy XV is directed by Takeshi Nozue and stars Aaron PaulLena Headey and Sean Bean (in the English release) among others. It serves as a companion to the upcoming Final Fantasy XV video game, helping set the scene and introducing some of the politics that will undoubtedly play a greater role in the game. The movie follows the story of King Regis Lucis and the Kingsglaive, an elite group of soldiers who fight exclusively for Regis using both magic and technology. In the film, the empire of Niflheim has conquered much of the known world and are now beginning to encroach upon the free Kingdom of Lucis. Lucis’ capital city, Insomnia, has managed to resist conquest till now thanks to the the power of a magic crystal, which has domed the city with an magical shield, protecting it thus-far from all invasive attempts. However, outside the city, the Kingsglaive fight to protect the surrounding regions of Insomnia from Niflheim but are routinely pushed back due to the sheer size of the Nif forces. Knowing that so long as the crystal remains in Insomnia it will be impossible to take the city by force, the Emperor of Niflheim sends his chancellor to negotiate terms of peace. The terms require King Regis to forfeit all lands in Lucis beyond Insomnia to the Emperor and in return the Emperor will allow Insomnia to exist as a sovereign state, untouched by the Empire. Of course, things aren’t as simple as that.

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This is one of those films that has gained itself a very polarized set of opinions among its audience, mostly pitting professional critics against moviegoers. It currently holds an aggregate of 7% on Rotten Tomatoes while simultaneously maintaining 7.4/10 on IMDb and 4.6/5 on iTunes. By the former metric this would seem to be one of the worst movies ever made. Unfortunately the rating system on Rotten Tomatoes is not perfect, it only tells you whether a critic liked or disliked a particular film (they don’t tell you how much a critic liked/disliked a film). I must confess that I fall more in line with the fans than I do with the critics. There are several things wrong with Kingsglaive but ultimately I can’t deny the fun I had watching this film. Let me see if I can elaborate on why that is.

Let’s start with the negatives. Kingsglaive doesn’t have much going for it in terms of originality. Aside from some world-building aspects unique to the Final Fantasy franchise Kingsglaive is largely a bag of cliches and contrivances. Sony is not making much of an effort to hide the fact that Kingsgalive is really meant to be a giant marketing campaign for the upcoming Final Fantasy XV. As such, those who do not possess even an inkling of the lore or world-building will, understandably, be left in the dark. This has always been the problem with Final Fantasy films, all the way from Spirits Within. They are made with the primary intention to please the fans first, then the critics. As a result, those uninitiated with FF lore will often find the burden of understanding too cumbersome. When a good science fiction film introduces a new world to us it does so in such a way as to ease the viewer into its world-building. It begins with the familiar and then layers one thing on top of another. Final Fantasy films, however, take for granted the fact that most of its viewers are fans of the series or will have at-east played the games. Those who haven’t, however, will be left scratching their heads about what ‘magitek’ is or why the crystals have such power.

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Kingsglaive provides us with a brief, tenuous explanation delivered via a voice-over at the beginning of the film, setting the stage for what is to come. But it’s so rushed, we are given a barrage of recounts about various events without being told anything about the motivations behind these events. Why is Niflheim conquering all the nations (besides simply doing what empires do)? Why is Prince Noctis in a wheel-chair? What is this Tenebrae? Why is it under attack? These were just some of the questions that buzzed around in my mind during the beginning of the film. But they don’t stop there. Not much context is given for much of what happens in the movie. Things just happen and we are asked to just accept it and continue admiring the pretty visuals. If you haven’t been keeping up with Final Fantasy XV, then that is all you can do. Often times it feels like a series of well-produced cut-scenes being strung together for two hours, somehow you feel you are missing the greater picture. The problem with such a poorly explained premise is that it becomes effortlessly easy for the filmmakers to shoehorn in plot conveniences. Without giving too much away, the ending is literally a Deus ex machina.

So with a messy plot, it would fall upon the characters to carry the weight of the film. Unfortunately, much of the characters are uninteresting. The main protagonist, Nyx Ulric, is your typical action hero, he has a dark past (only hinted, never explored, mind you), he’s good with magic and weapons and he’s rough around the edges (perpetual stubble-beard included). He’s Jason Statham’s character from The Transporter, he’s Leon Kennedy from Resident Evil 4, he’s Bruce Willis from Surrogate. My point is he’s a mix of typical action hero stereotypes with nothing defining to help set him apart. If I am to concede something to his credit I appreciate the filmmakers not turning Nyx into an overly serious, angst-ridden bloke. The other characters also come across as wasted potential. King Regis is noble to a fault, Nyx’s close friend, Libertus, is the overly emotional one, Luche, the practical one.

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Speaking of wasted potential, the female characters in the movie are basically afterthoughts. At the start we are introduced to a competent magic user named Crowe. She seems interesting until the movie summarily kills her off not 20 minutes in. The only other female character is Princess Lunafreya. Where do I even begin? All through the movie Lunafreya is tossed from one party to the other like a rag-doll. The only thing she seems to do is attract more trouble. She does try to help Nyx and the others but constantly keeps failing, requiring either Nyx or one of the other characters to come to her rescue. Even at the end of the film, when you think she’s about to do something substantial, when you begin to think that all the messing around was leading up to something, she is quickly ushered away from the scene of conflict like a celebrity when their fans get too unruly. Speaking of the end, don’t expect to have your questions answered when the movie concludes. You are supposed to have questions, this is because the film is clearly set up to bait fans into wanting to buy the game come November.

However, that’s not to say Kingsglaive is all bad. To call Kingsglaive a pretty movie would be a massive understatement, this is a gorgeous film with beautifully rendered set-pieces, a unique art style and some impressive, awe-inspiring fight sequences. Being a film made entirely using CG you don’t have problems such as lack of shot continuity and bad lighting. As a result, you get a film with a great deal of visual consistency. There will be moments where you will forget that you are watching a CG animation. The level of detail on the characters are also worth mentioning, with faces and hair models that look utterly convincing. The voice acting too is mostly well done. Sean Bean and Aaron Paul give fantastic performances as King Regis and Nyx respectively. Lena Headey also delivers a great performance as Princess Lunafreya. The voice work of the supporting cast are often hit-or-miss, however, with some being good, like that of Libertus, and other being mediocre or overcompensating, like the Chancellor of Niflheim. The musical score was also great, in my opinion, even though it’s mostly a typical action movie soundtrack, without any stand-out track to speak of, it serves its purpose well. The action scenes are very impressive, especially during the climactic face-off between Nyx and the imposing General Glauca.

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The plot makes this movie seem like the kind I’d abandon half-way though, but I kept watching, intrigued (and even engrossed, dare I say) solely because of three things, the visuals, the voice acting and the action. Having played Final Fantasy VI and Tactics Advanced, not all of the references and lore was lost on me, which I’m sure helped improve the experience (though I was sorely disappointed with the complete and utter lack of Chocobos). If you are a long-time fan of Final Fantasy or you know enough about the lore and how things work you will find this film enjoyable, there are numerous hidden easter-eggs and nods to prior Final Fantasy games (including one particular sequence that’ll take FFVI fans way back). However, if you are completely new to the franchise and are watching this hoping it’ll be its own, self-contained, self-explanatory story, you will be left confused and disappointed. I personally had fun watching this film despite the numerous problems mentioned. For fans, this is something worth viewing, helping add some backstory to Final Fantasy XV, but for others this is nothing more than an overblown marketing campaign and as such not worth much more.

My Score: 3/5

 

Game Review: INSIDE

It has been roughly six years since Playdead studios released their much lauded 2D platforming masterpiece, Limbo. Since then we have received scant details about their upcoming project other than a few screenshots and concept images. To say the least, the hype was real. Limbo is often called one of the best platformers ever made due to its minimalist interface, haunting visuals, enjoyable and sensible puzzles as well as for its strange and mysterious story. It swept away awards and has earned itself a place among some of the highest artistic achievements in the industry. So, did six years allow Playdead to create a game that could at-least stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Limbo?

Inside is a 3D side-scrolling puzzle platformer in which you play as an unnamed boy in a red shirt. You must traverse and dark and decrepit world in order to get somewhere or do something. You are never entirely sure what it is you are supposed to do or where you are supposed to end up, but the increasingly strange and bizarre world has a way of goading the player forward in hope of answers. Along the way you are presented with various environmental, physics-based puzzles which must be overcome for further progress. The controls are the exact same as with Limbo, you can move left, right, jump and also grab and drag/pull objects. The game is built using the Unity engine and sports a minimalist art direction, characters are faceless, models – simplistic but the animations and environment design are some of the best I’ve seen in any side-scroller. Despite the simplicity, the attention to detail is impeccable. Objects in the environment react to force and pressure in a believable way, physics feel realistic and satisfying. Similarly, the boy you control moves and reacts to forces in a natural and accurate way, this is compounded with auditory responses to each and every action the boy does. Run fast and the boy will begin panting, jump and he’ll grunt in effort, come close to enemies and he’ll begin breathing heavily. All this adds up to give the character a sense of weight, you will feel each and everything the boy feels.

Like Limbo, Inside is a game of trial-and-error, the various environments you traverse are all hostile with some kind of danger lurking around every corner. You will die and die often but death never feels frustrating. Like Limbo and the Souls series, death in Inside is treated as a tool for learning. When you die, it is always your fault and each death is a subtle hint from the game telling you to try something else. The puzzles themselves are not too difficult thanks to some expertly placed environmental clues, such as a light shining down on a particular area or a particular object being painted red against the otherwise monochrome grey. These clues are paramount in enabling you to progress as the game has absolutely no HUD whatsoever, no health-bar, no arrow pointing you in the right direction. What results is an immensely satisfying sense of discovery and immersion. A kind of rare intimacy between the player and the world. When you solve puzzles it feels like you did so using your own intuition and not because some in-game objective-marker told you what to do.

With barely a single line of dialogue and almost no written clues to what’s going on, the player is entirely left to his or her devices to infer what is happening through the various hints gleaned from the environment. This would seem frustrating given most games but Inside’s environmental design is simply phenomenal. You are compelled to keep moving, to keep exploring ever inch of this bleak world. Even things as trivial as details in the far background end up becoming clues about what could possibly have happened to the world. In fact, curiosity is this game’s main motivator, there are no coins to collect, no enemies to kill, no flashy power-ups to be had, yet the need to know and understand compels you in a way that few games can. It’s the same sort of enticement From Software capitalised upon with their Souls games, where unravelling the twisted mysteries of the world itself becomes a motivator for you to carry on. This is aided by a minimalist soundtrack that only rarely rears its head, but when it does it manifests though ominous synth-infused flavors, making some of the tenser sections truly exhilarating.

Since so much of the enjoyment in this game hinges upon the sheer act of experiencing, it would be an absolute sin to divulge any specifics about Inside’s world. However, what can be said is that the atmosphere of Inside never lets up. In the 3 or so hours it will take you to complete the game you will be taken from one bizarre area to another, with each successive stage making the preceding one look tame. You press on to see just how much more bizarre it can all get and it rarely disappoints. There are absolutely no loading screens whatsoever, save for the one at the very beginning when you start the game. This means you can play the entirety of the game in a single sitting without anything interfering with the sense of immersion. Even upon death you re-spawn immediately.

The atmosphere conjured by Inside is something reminiscent of the works of George Orwell or Franz Kafka with a bit of Thomas Ligotti or China Mieville thrown in. It is an overwhelmingly oppressive and intensely macabre setting. Very early on we are given the hint that this is a world that has come unhinged at-last, forgetting the very definition of sanity. As you progress though the game the madness only increases with deft determination, as each progressive stage becomes more and more uncanny, bizarre and absurd. The overall pallet consists mostly of moody and sombre tones with the colour grey taking up-most prominence. The banality of it all serves to make the sudden outbursts of violence upon death all the more shocking. The boy may be ripped apart by rabid dogs, torn apart by supersonic blasts, crushed, tasered, shot-at, drowned etc. Despite the overall lack of explicit violence throughout, Playdead chose not to pull any punches when violence did have to be shown.

The ending will leave almost everyone scratching their heads the first time around. Like Limbo, Playdead opted to tell a story that was open to interpretation. But I felt that in some cases it was almost too open. I would dare say that I enjoyed the ending of Limbo more since, despite being almost equally cryptic, it brought about a sense of closure that I failed to find here.

Despite this though, this is one case of “It’s about the journey, not the destination.” In the three hours it’ll take you to complete the game you’ll progress though some truly twisted locations, chance upon some truly disturbing secrets and think over some big questions. It’s easily one of the eeriest and most unsettling settings I’ve ever witnessed in a game. I wouldn’t go so far as to say Inside is a horror game, because at no point does it try to be one, but it exemplifies the best kind of horror so well. The kind that leaves you mulling about what you witnessed, trying to rationalise and make sense of it. The kind that lingers with you long after. Playing Inside takes only minimal effort and a reasonable amount of common sense for the puzzles. It is, in my opinion, totally worth the trip. If you are in the mood for something different, definitely give this rare gem of a game a try.

My Score: 4/5

Anime Review: Rurouni Kenshin: Trust & Betrayal

I’d usually start a review with some form of a formal introduction, perhaps providing you with some background information about what it is that I’m going to review or how I came across it and whatnot. It’s a form of scene-setting, a preparation of the stage before the play, a building of tension before the release. But this time, I feel like introductions can wait because this is something I must admit upfront. Trust and Betrayal is easily the best OVA I have ever seen and one of the greatest animes ever created in my opinion.

What was supposed to be the prequel/introductory chapter to the series more commonly known as just Rurouni Kenshin (also known as Wandering Samurai in some western releasesturned out to be something of a different breed entirely. In fact, if Wandering Samurai was your first exposure to the Rurouni Kenshin franchise you could be forgiven for thinking Trust and Betrayal was Rurouni Kenshin in name only. The style, tone and presentation of Trust and Betrayal are so far-flung from Wandering Samurai that many fans of the latter actually resent Trust and Betrayal for how different it is. However, if you’re like me, then you would have approached Trust and Betrayal with absolutely no prior knowledge about the Kenshin franchise, aside from the common insight that it involves a red-headed samurai. This is, as far as I’m concerned, the best way to approach it.

When approached without pretence or bias Trust and Betrayal unfolds as an epic of love, politics, betrayal and blood. Set in feudal Japan during the Edo Period, the story follows the origins of Himura Kenshin, born unto peasant parents as ‘Shinta’. Cholera is swift in stealing his parents from him at only the age of seven and soon after the young Shinta finds himself sold into slavery. In slavery, he is looked after by three slave women who take it upon themselves to care and look out for the boy. One day, when moving from one town to the next, the slaver’s caravan is beset upon by highwaymen who butcher and slaughter much of the slaves. Shinta nearly meets his fate if not for the intervention of a passing swordsman who manages to dispatch the bandits with ease. He is Hiko Seijūrō, a tall, imposing master swordsman, who takes the young Shinta under his wing and teaches him the art of sword-fighting. He gives Shinta the name ‘Kenshin’, a name he found more fitting and one that Shinta would identify with thenceforth.

Under the tutelage of Seijūrō, Kenshin becomes a swordsman of unmatched skill, mastering a technique of fighting which enables him to dispatch multiple assailants with clinical ease. However, Kenshin becomes increasingly convinced that his skills are of no use when trained in isolation and so decides to abandon his training and sets out on a journey to help the poor and innocent. This leads him to joining a brewing rebellion against the ruling Tokugawa shogunate. This is where the story begins in earnest, following an adult Kenshin as he is draw into a world of political intrigues and bloody assassinations. On one such mission he encounters the beautiful Yukishiro Tomoe, with whom he falls in love with, unaware that she is the fiance of the man he had just murdered. Thus begins a complex and fatalistic relationship between the two, one of trust and betrayal. I won’t go too much into the details but I will say the nuances of this relationship are handled with a maturity that is simply nonexistent in the majority of animes.

Speaking of maturity, the entire feature exhibits a sense of discipline when it comes to its execution. Despite being only 4 episodes long, the OVA never feels rushed, on the contrary, the majority of the anime is quiet and methodical. A good deal of it deals with the tense relationship between Kenshin and Tomoe. There isn’t an abundance of action sequences here but there is a sense of unease and tension captured in each frame. This is juxtaposed with watercolour backgrounds of striking beauty, showcasing the rural and urban of a Japan that nears the end of the Edo period. But what action does exist is rendered beautifully with smooth, flowing animations. Fight sequences are incredibly violent and bloody, with bodies being literally cut to pieces or torn in half. However, the violence never feels gratuitous, the actual gore is kept to a minimum and the fountains of blood that erupt from each of Kenshin’s foes serve to remind the viewers of who Kenshin is. It masterfully contrasts the two sides of his character, one of a lost soul trying to do the right thing for the self-atonement of his sins and the other of the ruthless, merciless assassin that he was trained to become.

It would have been easy for Studio Deen to cast Kenshin in the central light and allow him to be the most interesting character, but that is not the case here. The character of Tomoe is equally interesting. She has her own reasons and motives for which she allows herself to be with Kenshin. In fact, the entirety of the plot revolves around her character, with her presence adding significant depth to both the political complexity at play and to Kenshin’s own character. It is the uneasy romance between these two that becomes the feature’s greatest master-stroke and it is handled with pitch-perfect execution. Kenshin, having witnessed so much horror and brutality (and having visited much brutality upon others) is withdrawn, reserved and largely untrusting of most people. Tomoe, mysterious and reserved herself, is one of the few people capable of seeing the human side of Kenshin, yet she desires as much to kill him for what he did as she does to love him. Kenshin’s love for Tomoe manifests in the only way Kenshin has ever been able to express affection, by being a protector to Tomoe, yet Tomoe is intensely curious of what lies beneath the hard shell of Kenshin’s exterior.

It becomes obvious that Tomoe is the key to unlocking Kenshin’s guard, the one person that can disarm him completely and yet Kenshin himself is fiercely protective of Tomoe, letting no harm visit her regardless of what she may have done. All this comes to a head to create a romantic tragedy of the highest order, told with a level of meticulous care that exemplifies the dedication Studio Deen (whose track-record has been sketchy to say the least) poured into this project. This is further accentuated by the terrific soundtrack composed by Taku Iwasaki, which provides the orchestral bombast needed to back an action sequence while also controlling itself into being methodically delicate in the quieter, more intimate scenes. The animation and production quality are top-notch, the backdrops could be framed as whole paintings and the characters themselves are drawn well. The action scenes themselves possess a kind of grace in spite of how bloody they can be.

The Japanese voice-work is also incredibly well done. This being an anime with plenty of quiet moments and softly spoken lines, the Japanese team did a fantastic job of delivering the right emotions at the right times in the right quantities. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the English dub, where you can practically feel the disinterest of the voice actors pouring out of each line. I would usually recommend watching anime in whatever language you prefer but for this I must implore you to watch the Japanese version for two major reasons. One, the story takes place in feudal Japan and nothing can be quite as immersion-breaking as hearing an American accent and two, as mentioned before, the English dub is atrocious. As I watched the subbed version, I’ll be rating this anime based on that version alone.

I could dock this anime points if I wanted to, I’m sure I could find something to complain about, but I’m not going to because an anime like this is an absolute rarity. When a work of art excels in so many way, when it exceeds what it sets out to do, I believe it deserves full credit. I can understand how fans of the original series would be put off by how overly serious the tone of the OVA can be, but if you haven’t seen the original show and would like to glimpse into the world of Rurouni Kenshin, or if you just want to watch a samurai flick that would make Kurosawa nod in approval, you absolutely owe it to yourself to watch this OVA. I feel that if the original anime series were done in the same style as Trust and Betrayal it would easily be one of the greatest anime shows ever made. But as it stands Trust and Betrayal is a masterpiece of animation, an absolute must-watch.

My Score: 5/5