Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Final Fantasy X HD Remaster

Final Fantasy X HD Remaster

I think I might hate Final Fantasy X. And that's strange because it really is a very good game, perhaps even the last truly great game in the series (XII went a little too off piste for me).

Playing the game again in its HD remastered form only highlights its strengths and weaknesses, even if nostalgia has coloured the view. The world itself is as stunning as you remember, despite some blurry PS2 textures and disappointingly grainy CGI cutscenes. I first played the game during a summer holiday back in 2003, but all the sun I needed was in the tropical paradise of Spira. After the adult, more apocalyptic tones of the previous games in the series, Final Fantasy X offers a vibrant, colourful world: from the intricately detailed patterns on clothing and walls, to sprawling vistas of jungles, beaches and glittering forests. Even today, it's still a worthy spectacle.

Final Fantasy X HD Remaster
The game's music, from series composer Nobuo Uematsu, is one of his best scores and it's here presented in rearranged form. The game's opening really exemplifies the contrasts in his magnificent music: the haunting chorale of the opening cutscene followed by a cinematic with screaming rock guitars. And along the journey, there are breezy piano melodies, military marches, church hymns, and futuristic synths, but it's the way that themes are developed and interwoven that really impresses.

The story, though, is Final Fantasy X's best asset. It incorporates many of the traditions of the series - fantastical summons, familiar characters and beasts, and a magic vs technology theme - but it's plot is a biting criticism of religion as the group of heroes journey to battle Sin and save a world that's caught in a spiral of death. Yet while that sounds melancholic, the bright visuals and cast of chirpy characters provide welcome contrast. Their idiosyncratic design matches their memorable personalities and lead protagonist Tidus, while initially annoying, honourably overcomes his daddy issues over the course of the game, making up for a love story that's underwhelming.

Final Fantasy X HD Remaster
In battle, the characters' unique abilities ensure combat is perpetually satisfying. Where other games in the series are more complex, the transparency of Final Fantasy X's battle system is thoroughly enjoyable: swapping characters in and out to make use of their varied techniques and improving their statistics on a vast board of power ups. Throw in some flashy overdrive moves and the series' coolest summons and there's spectacle to match the simple strategy.

So why the hate? Sadly Final Fantasy X is lumbered with absolutely infuriating side quests. Gaining access to the best weapons and most powerful summons requires playing through extra content that reveals a gaping wound of flaws. There's chocobo racing and butterfly catching that both demand absolute precision while wrestling with shoddy controls and a confusing camera. There's Blitzball, a broken and easily abused mini-game that proves how no sport benefits from menus. And then there are the super bosses, which sharply spike the difficulty and require hours upon hours of tedious grinding to overcome.

Final Fantasy X HD Remaster
Of course, fans of the series have come to expect this content and it is technically optional. But when the main quest is surprisingly short (for RPG standards) and its battles, though fun, very rarely demand much in the way of skill, you'll be longing for further challenging content. These side quests are such a slog to get through, however, they turn a fun game into a chore, souring an otherwise excellent experience.

And yet, I can't seem to stop playing. That's testament to the lively personalities of Tidus and co. and a battle system that's comprehensive and intuitive. Plus, there's always the sequel to play through...


Sunday, 19 November 2017

New Music Friday 17/11

Well this is an absolute turd of a week for new singles, but there's a handful of tracks worth a listen...


Björk - Blissing Me

 Björk - Blissing Me

At first listen, this new track from forthcoming album 'Utopia', lacks impact. But really, it's a balm to the hyped up rhythmic pop otherwise released this week. Delicate harps cascade in a shower of light, hypnotising, warm and blissful. Björk sings of finding love, of "two music nerds obsessing". Is this her falling in love with her collaborator, or just finding mutual respect? Either way, it's clear she's moved on from the heartbreak of her last album and that's a joy to hear.



Stefflon Don & Skepta - Ding-A-Ling

Stefflon Don & Skepta - Ding-A-Ling

This is your new feminist rap anthem. The hook is a child singing "I want you to play with my ding-a-ling" meant to belittle the men sending the rapper dick pics, her feisty verses proving she can more than take on the boys. "Someone best tell him who the fuck I am," she spits. She's Stefflon Don. Don't forget it.



Maggie Lindemann - Obsessed

Maggie Lindemann - Obsessed

Maggie Lindemann's previous single Pretty Girl was a surprise hit, especially with its Cheat Codes remix. Obsessed isn't exactly a revolution, but its Clean Bandit-esque production is slick, sounds relevant, and ensures this is a fun little pop track. It might just outdo her last.



Francis Novotny - Broken Arrow

 Francis Novotny - Broken Arrow

Growing up in Gothenburg, Novotny moved to Paris for its house scene. But his music is a kaleidscope of influences, Broken Arrow starkly based around a sinuous string melody and off-kilter beats, deftly mixing up the production with vocal harmonies and modern touches. It's impressively weird.



L Devine - Like You Like That

L Devine - Like You Like That

The first track from her newly released 'Growing Pains' EP, Like You Like That is a breezy, whimsical electro-pop track with production from Copenhagen's Siba. It's youthful and fun, with a emotive, relatable edge - a fine introduction to the rest of the EP.



Steve Aoki x Lauren Jauregui - All Night

Steve Aoiki feat. Lauren Jauregui - All Night

Steve Aoki is one of the highest paid DJs in the world and has collaborated with a tonne of artists on various singles. And yet, his most recognisable recent hit was on Just Hold On with Louis Tomlinson (incidentally, the best thing Tomlinson has been near). Here he's featuring the vocals of Fifth Harmony's Lauren Jauregui, this also being one of the best things she's been involved in. It's slower than the usual dance music, allowing for more polished sensuality. Which rubbish artist will he choose to raise up next?



Diplo feat. MØ - Get It Right

Diplo feat. MØ - Get It Right

This is hardly the first time these two have collaborated (who could possibly forget Lean On) but let's hope it's not their last. Both artists are better than this: it lacks a truly memorable hook and the chorus drop is generic to the extreme. They need another chance to get it right.



Luis Fonsi feat. Demi Lovato - Échame La Culpa

 Luis Fonsi feat. Demi Lovato - Échame La Culpa

Luis Fonsi has literally released the same song again and thrown in some vocals from Demi Lovato. Latin music is better than this.



Justice League - Zack Snyder

Justice League - Zack Snyder

"What's your super power?"
"I'm rich."

Ben Affleck's Batman really is the Trump of superheroes, buying his way to power without talent. He's incapable of compassion. He's incapable of leadership. He's incapable of winning fights alone. He's just the worst. This is all to make him seem human - after all, he doesn't have a super power and his rival (Superman, Henry Cavill) is an alien from outer space. But he's just pathetic.

Really, it's Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) who's the true leader of the Justice League. She possesses everything Batman doesn't - charm, power and personality - and in the process carries the other heroes and the whole film on her back. For a female character to be in this position in what is usually such a macho heavy genre is progressive, but it's undermined by the amount of low angle ass shots that are wholly unnecessary.

That's the least of your troubles in this hodgepodge of a film. With Superman dead after the events of Batman vs Superman, the world is in disarray without its key symbol of hope and justice. It needs a leader. Instead it has Batman, desperately seeking the assistance of four other heroes in the face of an unknown enemy.

That would be Steppenwolf, a shoddy CGI character voiced by Ciarán Hinds who's little more than an excuse for the Justice League to assemble, Avengers style. It's a film about the power of unity, of teamwork over solo effort. It's ironic, then, that the film is so inconsistent in its tone.

Torn between the grand operatic melodrama of its director Zack Snyder and the comic quips of writer Joss Whedon (of Marvel fame), Justice League is pulled in two opposing directions that cancel each other out. The busy camerawork and poor special effects lack grandeur, but worst of all the film is crippled by terrible scriptwriting that will have you groaning until your throat is hoarse.

The narrative leaves little room for character development, meaning each member of the league is little more than an elevator pitch. Wonder Woman at least we've already got to know in Patty Jenkins' brilliant film earlier this year. But Aquaman (Jason Momoa) is part gruff viking, part glam rock superstar in spandex who does little more than drink and woop throughout; Cyborg (Ray Fisher) has a potentially interesting daddy issue that's poorly explained and falls flat; and The Flash (Ezra Miller) is a poor man's Quicksilver from X-Men, who's forced to spout some of the most cringeworthy lines of all.

The film does have its moments - just enough to keep you entertained between shoving popcorn in you face. And in Wonder Woman, we have the true superhero of our time. But if there's any justice, D.C. will give up on this particular league (or recast Batman at least).

2/5

Watch: Justice League is out now.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Poison @ The Orange Tree Theatre

Poison @ The Orange Tree Theatre

Poison is a play that simmers with tension, where anger, bitterness and regret bubble away beneath the surface. When these emotions eventually do overflow, it's as cathartic as it is catastrophic.

Written by Dutch playwright Lot Vekemans, the play is here presented in English with a translation from Rina Vergano first performed in New York last year. It sees a divorced couple (coldly referred to in the script as just "he" and "she") reuniting in a cemetery where their child son is buried - a toxin has seeped into the ground, meaning the graves must be dug up and moved elsewhere.

Yet just as this is eventually unveiled to be a ruse, the cemetery itself is a metaphor for their failed marriage. Grief over their child's death has poisoned their relationship, seeped its way into the foundations and ripped them apart. When they meet in the cemetery a decade after the father (Zubin Varla) walked out on the mother (Claire Price) on New Year's Eve, their lives have drastically diverged and the damage to their relationship is irreversible.

Price's mother is initially cheery, but it's all a mask for a woman who wallows in depression and grief. Its addictive nature consumes her and she remains lost in the past, unable to progress in life. Varla's father is shadowy and intense, but has found peace with the tragic events and moved on to a new wife and prospective child. Over the course of the 80 minute run, their emotions shift like a kaleidoscope as they prowl around one another on the stage, poking and prodding one another with emotional knives to breaking point.

It makes for grim and uncomfortable viewing, yet this bleak play is ultimately hopeful. Vekemans takes a philosophical stance on grief and does offer a brighter future for both characters - even if its denouement remains open-ended.

Simon Daw's simple production only heightens the cold chill between the characters. The actors' delivery is at times stilted, perhaps the consequence of a translation that doesn't always feel natural. But they soon settle into a rhythm and offer emotionally charged, captivating performances. Ultimately, the pregnant pauses and frosty silences between their lines prove utterly compelling.

4/5

Watch: Poison runs at the Orange Tree Theatre until 2nd December.

Poison @ The Orange Tree Theatre

Poison @ The Orange Tree Theatre
Photos: The Other Richard


Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Taylor Swift - Reputation

Taylor Swift - Reputation

There's a sense this album has been a long time coming. From celebrity relationships to narrative exclusions, Taylor Swift has been poked and prodded by the media throughout her career. It's this that's shaped (her) 'Reputation': an album of pent up rage, of reclaiming every bad word against her, of setting the record straight. As the fierce opening track questions, "are you ready for it?"

As per usual, the context of the album has been more of a focus than the music. But this time around it's Swift's own doing, on her own terms. Her refusal to engage in media interviews and promotion is both to distance herself from their scrutiny and to ensure that the album alone is her voice unfiltered.

'Reputation', is a pop album about identity, about fame, about relationships suffering under the public eye. It's about Swift looking inwards for inspiration. Yet rather than coming off as stiff and uptight, there's an underlying knowing cheekiness that ensures she retains some self-deprecating humanity.

That's perhaps best summed up in End Game, featuring Future and Ed Sheeran. Her desire for an "end game" in love is threatened by the fact her "reputation precedes [her]", but she dryly notes "I swear I don't love the drama, it loves me". Even the two collaborators seem to reflect her songwriting past and an electronic future tinged with hip-hop - vocoders, trap beats and sombre synths proliferate throughout the album.

Lead single Look What You Made Me Do is certainly a biting declaration of intent. Together with its snarling semi-rapped follow up ...Ready For It? they set up pre-conceived ideas for 'Reputation' that, ironically enough, Swift undermines. Really, the album is as multi-faceted as Swift's own image, both musically and lyrically.

On Something Bad she revels in a darker image over industrial beats as if taunting us, but elsewhere there are moments where the bombast crumbles into vulnerability. "My reputation's never been worse," she laments on Delicate as she tentatively opens up to a prospective lover, while on Dress she admits "I don't want you like a best friend, only bought this dress so you could take if off" with a sense of hushed, sensual intimacy.

Mostly, the album balances hard and soft under the helm of producer Max Martin, with the polished sounds of Carly Rae Jepsen and Tegan & Sara providing plenty of inspiration. The bubbling Gorgeous may be a twee ode to the guy with the "indie record that's much cooler than mine", but it sees Swift in giddy, girlish mode that's a welcome contrast to the remainder of the album. The Style-esque Getaway Car could easily have been a cast-off from '1989', while Dancing With Our Hands Tied moves into euphoric dance-pop, its bittersweet mood and yearning melodies suggesting a touch of Robyn. The most obvious influence, though, is the dry, gritty tone and speech-like melodies of Lorde, here matched with the clever songwriting we've come to expect from Swift.

Initial shock and context aside, 'Reputation' is essentially a slick, modern update of her new pop sound that's crammed with potential singles. Yet context is unavoidable here and by the end, Swift emerges with her reputation intact. More than that, she's reasserted herself as the reigning princess of pop - no matter what you might think of her.

4/5

Gizzle's Choice:
* ...Ready For It?
* End Game
* Dancing With Our Hands Tied

Listen: 'Reputation' is out now.


Monday, 13 November 2017

Sam Smith - The Thrill Of It All

Sam Smith - The Thrill Of It All

Some of the greatest songs ever written by the greatest artists in history are about heartache. It's a human emotion we can all relate to.

Sam Smith seems desperate to join that pantheon of great artists. So desperate that he's written two albums worth of break-up songs, forever playing the victim and crumbling under the weight of LGBT acceptance. By the end of the cloying 'The Thrill Of It All', you'll feel exhausted from wading through all the gloopy over-emoting and wish he'd just grow a backbone.

The album opens with Too Good At Goodbyes, in which he bemoans his unluckiness in love like a lost puppy dog. What follows is mostly a series of pathetic ballads, his vocal alternating from a whispy falsetto to a whiny tenor like a deflating balloon. "Come on baby, do you worst," he sings in the chorus of Say It First, all clingy and hopelessly negative. On Midnight Train he apes Radiohead's Creep as he asks "am I a monster?" for breaking up with a lover, his tone self-centred rather than apologetic ("I can't stop crying, I hate that I've caused you pain"). Perhaps worst of all is the title track, in which he blames his failing relationships on his fame. So much for the relatable everyman.

When One Last Song and Baby, You Make Me Crazy come along you'll be thankful for the upbeat tempo, despite the generic soul production. But listen carefully to the lyrics and it's no different - "you say that you're leaving, but I don't think I can let go / When you put the phone down I begin to cry" begins the latter song. No amount of horns and percussion can mask the heartbreak - it's perpetual.

Perhaps what exemplifies Smith's desperation for universal acceptance most of all is his refusal to add gender pronouns to songs, despite positioning himself as a gay popstar. In an interview with Zane Lowe, he revealed that only four of the songs were based on personal experience. It's as if he's trying to distance his songwriting from himself, from his homosexuality. In the words of RuPaul: "if you can't love yourself, how the hell are you gonna love somebody else?"

For that reason, HIM is the real standout track, probably the only one worthy of attention. Whether based on experience or not, it's a song that specifically references a male lover. However its opening is addressed to "Holy Father", the chorus of "it is him I love" blurring the line between religion and sexuality, reflecting the conflicting emotions of the song's character. That's clever. That's personal. That's giving a real reason for heartbreak beyond victimhood.

And yet the album continues down its dark and dreary path. He's aiming for mournful and cinematic and grandiose sweeping emotion. Instead, it's pure tedium.

1/5

Gizzle's Choice:
* HIM

Listen: 'The Thrill Of It All' is out now.





Friday, 10 November 2017

New Music Friday 10/11

Everyone's too concerned with Taylor Swift's reputation to release anything major this week, but here are the tracks to listen to...


Sigrid - Strangers

Sigrid - Strangers

Strangers may not quite have the same bite as Don't Kill My Vibe, but with its driving bass, euphoric chorus and memorable hooks it's a brilliant pop song. Of all the amazing artists that have emerged from Norway this year, Sigrid is perhaps the finest.



Bastille - World Gone Mad

Bastille - World Gone Mad

Known for his synthy pop and inventive remixes, Bastille's Dan Smith has here written a much more classic pop song for the new Will Smith film Bright with heavy political leanings and an apocalyptic video. "When it feels like the world's gone mad," he sings in the chorus, "no there's nothing you can do about it." That's a pretty depressing thought, but the pre-chorus of "You don't want to fuck with us, British to the last" at least shows some fight. Preach.



Somewhere Else - Uh Huh


In a move away from the typically euphoric or funky house music we've become accustomed to, Uh Huh is a stark dance track of gritty beats, of desperate lyrics, of sweat dripping down walls, of pulses racing in sexual tension. "I don't care if we get along, as long as we can get it on," goes the chorus before its hypnotic "uh huh" hook that soon becomes dry, animalistic, aggressive. This is a thrill.



Empire Of The Sun - On Our Way Home

Empire Of The Sun - On Our Way Home

Australia's Empire Of The Sun have never quite lived up to their brilliant breakthrough track Walking On A Dream. On Our Way Home is another bubbling electro-pop track, but it's so sleek and polished it's easy to get lost in.



Pnau - In My Head

 Pnau - In My Head

The same could be said for this track from another Australian band, Pnau, who incidentally share a member with Empire Of The Sun (vocalist Nick Littlemore). Those guys down under are in the height of summer and this glittering production captures it wonderfully.



Taio Cruz feat. French Montana - Row The Body

 Taio Cruz feat. French Montana - Row The Body

Taio Cruz hasn't really had a smash hit since 2010's Dynamite and it's unlikely Row The Body will follow suit. With its dancehall meets R&B vibe and sexual lyrics, it's fun but sounds like every other track currently in the charts.



Jason Derulo feat. French Montana - Tip Toe

 Jason Derulo feat. French Montana - Tip Toe

The same could be said for this track from Jason Derulo, which incidentally also features French Montana. It's no Swalla.



Dannii Minogue - Galaxy

 Dannii Minogue - Galaxy

Dannii might be the lesser Minogue but she's had some great tracks in her career to rival Kylie. Galaxy is not one of them.




Fog Everywhere @ Camden People's Theatre

Fog Everywhere @ Camden People's Theatre

In response to the new T-charge introduced in central London and the fact the UK government is being taken to court for not complying with clean air standards, the Camden People's Theatre decided to ask young people how they felt about air pollution. Fog Everywhere, in collaboration with King's College Lung Biology Group and local students, is the result.

This is an experimental piece of theatre, as much about a love for London culture as it is specifically air pollution. It consists of multiple short vignettes, each one a new thought or idea on the subject meant to challenge the audience - from spoken word, to comedy, to songs and more. It's an inventive piece devised and performed by some inspirational young people who are mostly thoughtful, concerned and politically astute.

What at first is a number of disparate ideas in seemingly disconnected scenes eventually comes together as ideas recur and overlap. It results in some clever and striking imagery, the cast hauntingly enveloped in twisting swirls of dry ice. The culmination is a rap battle between those for and against tighter controls on air cleanliness - here are a group of young people delivering a political statement in a medium that's relevant to them, raw and honest. That's what makes youth theatre such a thrill to watch.

4/5

Watch: Fog Everywhere runs at the Camden People's Theatre until 11th November.


Thursday, 9 November 2017

Am I Dead Yet? @ The Soho Theatre

Am I Dead Yet? @ The Soho Theatre


It’s always a bit disconcerting when you’re asked existential questions before a show even begins…



But Am I Dead Yet? is a show all about existential questions. Namely: what exactly does it mean to be dead? Turns out, it’s not binary. Death is actually a process, a process that can be reversed.

We’ve got science to thank for that, be it through advanced technology or simple CPR. The show is performed by Jon Spooner and Chris Thorpe and has been developed in collaboration with Dr Andy Lockey, Honorary Secretary of the Resuscitation Council UK and a man who’s passionate about preventing premature death. There’s even a bit in the middle where a paramedic gives us a demonstration on CPR.

But is this meant to be educational or entertaining? In actuality, it manages to be a bit of both. One minute we’re learning how to resuscitate someone, the next we’re laughing at dry and sarcastic songs from Spooner and Thorpe. The majority of the show consists of stories and anecdotes from the two performers, stories from the past, present and future meant to highlight our changing relationship with death. A story from the past gruesomely details the parts of a man’s body collected by two policemen after a suicide in front of a moving train; from the future we have thought-provoking science-fiction; and most touchingly of all a story of a small child brought back from the dead after she falls into an icy pool.

The two men are great storytellers with jolly banter between them, despite the uncomfortable subject matter that may have you squirming in your seat. This might be a show about death, but it’s performed with surprising warmth. That said, at an hour long there’s only so much that can be done here: its theatrical collage of songs and stories aspires to be more than simply education, yet its dramatic impact is limited. Instead, Am I Dead Yet? is a thinkpiece on death that’s just enlightening enough to get your mind racing – even if your pulse isn’t.

3/5

Watch: Am I Dead Yet? runs at the Soho Theatre until 18th November.

Am I Dead Yet? @ The Soho Theatre
Photo: Richard Davenport

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

The Retreat @ The Park Theatre

The Retreat @ The Park Theatre


There's undoubtedly a fashion for mindfulness at the moment. And a bit of meditation each day can help to bring some inner peace. But a Buddhist retreat might be a bit too extreme for most people.

Except that's what the protagonist of The Retreat does, the first play from BAFTA award-winning screenwriter Sam Bain (Peep Show, Fresh Meat) and directed by none other than Kathy Burke. Luke (Samuel Anderson) is an ex-investment banker who, overcome with the stress of London life, turns to Buddhism for salvation when away at a festival, but whether he's truly inspired by Buddha's teachings or Tara (Yasmine Akram) the attractive Irish girl he meets there is another question entirely.

Luke's brother Tony (Adam Deacon), meanwhile, is his polar opposite. He works for Deliveroo, is obsessed with sex, and the only high he's after comes from white powder rather than spiritual enlightenment. Yet he arrives at the Buddhist centre somewhere in Scotland to interrupt Luke's "retreat" under the pretence of inviting him home for a funeral. In reality, he just wants his brother back.

Anderson and Deacon play Luke and Tony as a couple of boisterous teens. And really, they're both lost boys - in many ways the play is about a crisis of masculinity. But this is Luke's story, stuck between his old life of drinking, drugs and sleeping with prostitutes, and a new life of positive karma as a Buddhist monk - a push-pull between Tony and Tara. Which is the right path? Is there even a right path?

The Retreat poses many questions through its biting criticism of religion, parenthood, and the purpose of life. And there's plenty of ambiguity, the characters drawn in shades of grey where nobody has the answers. Yet Bain's script is ultimately bleak and cynical, without delving far enough into its themes. It's mainly just scepticism as surface level laughs, showing plenty of wit but lacking depth. The Retreat is about many things...but also nothing at all.

Nevertheless the cast gel well together to deliver some fun comedy, even if Deacon's character is given all the best punchlines. Akram's Tara is perhaps most interesting, a sort of smug know-it-all holier-than-thou type but with a subtle manipulative streak. Even with some pacy performances and Burke at the helm, though, it all feels a bit inert and one note - at least a few levels away from theatrical nirvana.

3/5

Watch: The Retreat runs at the Park Theatre until December 2nd.

The Retreat @ The Park Theatre

The Retreat @ The Park Theatre

Photos: Craig Sugden