Saturday, 21 January 2017

Final Fantasy XV - Square Enix

Final Fantasy XV - Square Enix

Finally! With Final Fantasy XV we now have a reason to hit that share button on the PS4 controller that’s, until now, gone underused. It’s all down to Prompto, one of your three companions on this road trip adventure and an amateur photographer. Throughout the game he takes photographs that can be viewed at camp and shared online. The results vary from cool battle poses and goofy selfies, to questionable blurs, but they’re never less than hilarious – the bad ones especially.

It’s as much a marketing trick as anything else, making the game more visible across social media, but it’s just one of many great ideas in Final Fantasy XV. Yet for every stroke of genius, there’s an equally poor decision that results in a frustrating experience.

Final Fantasy XV - Square Enix
Expect plenty of goofy pictures

Let’s start with the good: the world itself. It’s a fantasy realm grounded in modern reality that cleverly finds real world parallels for predictable RPG tropes. Every adventure is, after all, a road trip, but here it’s taken literally as Prince Noctis and his pals drive around, swap banter, and rest at camps and hotels to level up their skills and eat specially prepared meals to enhance their abilities. Diners are a haven of information, battles take place in real time, and magic has to be sourced from specific procurement points. It’s a departure from the series that lacks some fantastical imagination, and it’s also somewhat imperfect, with flat textures, pop-in and technical bugs evidence of the game’s long development from previous consoles. It makes up for it, though, in its grandeur, character design and cinematic scenes.

It’s a beautiful open world that you’ll want to explore, especially to uncover its myriad dungeons. Hidden in the depths of the world are these self-contained labyrinths that host some wonderful design, tense boss battles, and new hidden weapons. They truly make you feel like an explorer and make this adventure worth investing in.

Final Fantasy XV - Square Enix
The world is stunning

As a whole, it’s soundtracked by a score that may not be the best in the series, but certainly has its moments. Cruising around in your car listening to old Final Fantasy soundtracks on the stereo is a retro thrill, but elsewhere there’s glorious flute melodies to mark the sunrise, gentle piano in the menus (where you’ll be spending plenty of time), and rousing, sweeping orchestration to accompany the majestic summons (more on that later).

Best of all is the relationship between Prince Noctis and his three companions, clearly a focus of the game from its comic opening that sees their car broken down, to the closing credits paired with a cover of “Stand By Me” by Florence + The Machine. Whilst their chatter can get repetitive and there’s little individual development, the bond between them is well written and believable. Noctis himself regresses into typical moodiness at times, but his friends are there to pick him up – often literally when it comes to gameplay. That said, it’s at the expense of the periphery characters: the shallow villain, the abomination that is Cindy the “sexy” mechanic (not to mention the general lack of female characters), and the overall plot itself.

Oh the plot. It’s here that Final Fantasy XV stumbles most critically. What’s most frustrating is that there’s the skeleton of a fantastic story, a coming-of-age tale about friendship, kingship, responsibility and sacrifice. Yet the gaping plot holes are unforgivable; it’s like a theatre play where half the story occurs off-stage. Partly this is down to the open world, a decision that seems to fit more with the vogue for open world games than it does to implement a satisfying narrative. For that, linearity is required – something that does occur in the game’s later stages, but they’re missing the expected emotional weight due to earlier plot holes. The game crucially lacks dramatic impetus or urgency, so quests are uncovered and completed with little explanation of motivations or character development. That’s not what you expect from the usually dense lore of most Final Fantasy games.

Final Fantasy XV - Square Enix
Battles are spectacular, if too easy

More so, there’s disconnect between gameplay and story, again owing to the open world. Noctis is a prince on a journey to save the world. So why is he stuck doing menial tasks like picking vegetables, collecting dog tags and finding food for a cat? Why, if he’s suspected to be dead, does nobody stop and question him? There’s an inescapable tension between storytelling and gameplay that ultimately undermines the reality the game works so hard to establish.

Lastly, there’s a distinct absence of challenge. The multiple side quests may distract from the story, but anyone who completes them will end up so overpowered that the main story quests can be breezed through. Get used to the rhythms of the battle system and there’s fun to be had, but it’s all too easy to beat enemies by simply holding down the attack button with little strategy. And if you’re close to dying, the summon command pops up whereby grand beings can be summoned to battle and most likely destroy your enemies in one hit – even bosses. Their power is pleasingly undeniable, but the game isn’t transparent about the circumstances under which they can be summoned. As such, they’re rarely seen beyond a fail-safe as opposed to being part of the player’s strategy – a disappointment when they’re so spectacular to behold. 

Final Fantasy XV - Square Enix
I think this is a frog? Thanks Prompto.

The summons are just one of many elements of both story and gameplay that are undercooked. The ascension board, for instance, allows characters to learn new techniques, but with so many high power skills requiring an unfeasible amount of ability points to unlock, they become pointless in the context of the main game (the game opens up post-finale). Items are rarely needed beyond a few healing potions. And the magic system has creative potential, but the game does a poor job of explaining it – it’s feasible to progress through the whole game using weapons alone.

Despite all these faults, the game has charm enough to warrant play and becomes strangely addictive. Perhaps it’s to cruise around this beautiful world with your buddies listening to retro tunes. Perhaps it’s to check off the lengthy list of quests. Or maybe it’s to see what crazy pictures Prompto comes out with next. Final Fantasy XV is a curious experimentation for Square Enix that’s uneven in its execution but enjoyable nonetheless.

Monday, 16 January 2017

La La Land - Damien Chazelle

La La Land - Damien Chazelle

After the hypnotic Whiplash and its dynamic, percussive exploration of jazz and musicianship, there's no better director than Damien Chazelle to helm this new kind of movie musical.

La La Land, like his previous film, is an ode to jazz. It's there in the intimate jazz clubs that form the backdrop to many scenes, it's there in the passion of Ryan Gosling's Seb - a jazz pianist who idolises the greats and dreams of similar success - and it's there in the rhythmic camerawork that mirrors the textures of everyday life. Above all it's in Justin Hurwitz's glorious score, which uses jazz to reflect the film's multitude themes: the bustle of city living, the giddy fluttering rush of new love, and the slow melancholy of romance.

As an ode to movie musicals, the film revels in the transporting power of music. Each song is a dreamlike sequence, light of touch, bright of colour and wonderfully surreal. The film is a playful reminiscence on classical Hollywood, with all the glamour and enchantment that brings, and filled with references bold and subtle. It all comes together in a climactic dream ballet montage that encapsulates the awesome power of music, film, romance and - above all - nostalgia. It's here that Chazelle revels in filmmaking with some brilliant direction.

Equally, however, the film is a criticism of those old movies and works instead as an ode to modern relationships. Despite its surreal music and soft cinematography, this is a harshly realistic take on romance through the lens of a musical. Emma Stone's struggling actress Mia is a thoroughly modern woman, Stone giving a typically quirky, goofy and sarcastic performance. Gosling's Seb is an old-fashioned dreamer. Neither are particularly good singers (the wispy Stone nor the flatly crooning Gosling, whose piano miming needs work) but that only adds to the film's everyday realism. Regardless, both actors are immensely likeable with believable chemistry, but their romance doesn't always run smoothly. Ironically enough, love isn't like the movies.

La La Land, then, is a sometimes awkward collision of old and new - just like its protagonists. Mia worries her one woman play is too nostalgic; Seb is a traditionalist who joins a band diluting jazz with futuristic synths. They tug in opposite directions, yet they pull together magnetically. In the twenty-first century, though, you can't have it all. Personal dreams don't allow for romance. Romance isn't always a dream.

That's a jarring but welcome message for a movie musical, though its heartbreaking realism is beautifully scripted and acted. La La Land is a clever, pensive and bittersweet film that's reflective and thought-provoking, but more likely to capture the mind than the heart.


Watch: La La Land is out now.

Friday, 13 January 2017

The Kite Runner @ Wyndham's Theatre

The Kite Runner @ Wyndham's Theatre

It was Alexander The Great who first observed the importance of Afghanistan as a link between East and West. Ever since, the country has seen political and religious turmoil, strife and war, not least between the varying indigenous ethnicities of the Pashtun, Tajiks and Hazaras.

That's not to say there haven't been times of truce. In 1919 the British and Indian empires recognised the country's independence and in the year's following under the rule of Zahir Shah there was relative peace. It's in the early 1970s that the plot of The Kite Runner begins, just as unrest stirred up once again.

Based on Khaled Hosseini's novel of the same name, this theatrical adaptation from Matthew Spangler shows the beautiful good, the horrifying bad and the strikingly ugly sides of Afghan culture. Its focus is the life of Amir (Ben Turner), a boy from a well-off family who fails to live up to the expectations of his father Baba (Emilio Doorgasingh), but finds friendship in his Hazara servant Hassan (Andrei Costin). As a multi-million selling book, the plot will be familiar to many. It's as powerful, touching and poignant here, delivering an extraordinary tale of friendship, fatherhood, cultural divides and guilt.

The success of the play falls on the shoulders of Turner's Amir, who impressively remains on-stage at all times as narrator. It's an exceptional, captivating performance, drawing us into the story with the mannerisms of a child and slowly morphing into an adult wracked with shame from the traumatic events he witnesses as a boy. He's supported by Costin's Hassan: innocent, endearing and tragically loyal.

As an adaptation, however, this production feels lacklustre. As Turner narrates, the story unfolds literally as a series of chronological events. There's real depth in the plot and potential for rich theatricality, but Spangler remains stoically tied to the novel's first person narrative and adds little beyond an audiobook delivery. Narration - scene - narration - scene: it's a pedestrian structure that never quite manages to bring the book alive off the page.

Further, it bears the hallmarks of a touring production: the set is simple and subtle, lighting is minimal, and the small cast awkwardly double up on roles (with one questionable depiction of a Vietnamese woman standing out in an otherwise BAME cast). It all serves the story efficiently, but lacks the magic theatre can provide.

Yet with such a heartfelt and emotive story at the core of this production, it's impossible to dislike. And with its message that humanity knows no boundaries of country, religion or culture, it couldn't have come at a better time. It may not prove the power of theatre, but its story remains deeply moving.


Watch: The Kite Runner runs at the Wyndham's Theatre until March 11th.

The Kite Runner @ Wyndham's Theatre

The Kite Runner @ Wyndham's Theatre
Photos: Robert Workman

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Ed Sheeran - Shape Of You / Castle On The Hill

Ed Sheeran - Divide

Ed Sheeran has now fully divided his music in this, the first major comeback of 2017.

He’s always had two differing styles: the acoustic, slushy balladeer and the hip-hop courting loop pedaller. In this return, we have not one but two singles that make that split explicit.

Everyone will have a favourite. For me, it’s the dancehall-infused Shape Of You that brings Sheeran’s style into more modern tastes with its infectious syncopations, even if the idea of a Sheeran sex-jam may seem distinctly unappealing to some. The counter single, Castle On The Hill, sees Sheeran turning to the stadiums he’s so eager to fill on tour, though the jangling guitars and mawkish lyrics veer dangerously close to U2 territory.

Yet this divided approach seems to have only solidified his fanbase. Where a double single release may have been a risk by splitting streaming numbers as opposed to focusing on a sole track, he’s instead simply launched to the top of every chart with both hits. Shape Of You is slightly outperforming Castle On The Hill, but to have two singles on a par with one another dominating global charts whilst breaking almost every streaming record going is a phenomenal achievement (he’s receiving an unprecedented 7m daily streams worldwide). It’s a marketing strategy that’s paying off, building up huge anticipation for the forthcoming album and with two solid tracks to boot.

I wonder what the inevitable ‘Subtract’ will bring in a couple of years time…