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Month: June 2020

Review: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

My first reaction upon hearing that the Hunger Games was about to have a prequel, was confusion. As a moderate fan of the series, I welcomed another journey into the world of Panem, of course. But the 10th Hunger Games specifically? When there are so many potentially cooler moments in the past we could visit? Who asked for this?

Well, it turns out we all did. We just didn’t know it.

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes takes us 64 years into the past. The war between the Capitol and the 13 Districts has only been over for a decade, and reconstruction is slow. Parts of the once shining city are still in ruins. Its once celebrated noble families cling to the glory of old names, even when their riches are gone. And if it is even worse in the Districts, young Capitol Academy student Coriolanus Snow doesn’t care. Having lost both his parents in the war, he now lives in their once resplendent penthouse with his equally orphaned cousin Tigris and their “Grandma’am”, who is slowly going senile.

His one chance of a future lies in a scholarship to attend University after graduation. But to earn that, he must first prove himself in the first batch of Mentors in the Hunger Games. If he could lead his assigned Tribute to victory, his path forward is guaranteed. Except, he gets assigned the flamboyant performer Lucy Gray Baird from District 12. And all his carefully laid plans blow up.

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes could have easily been a very problematic book. President Snow is an unapologetic villain in the original trilogy. There was a risk that this prequel could have been a sappy attempt at sympathy. But Suzanne Collins elegantly makes us care for “Coryo”, while sowing the seeds of what he would become from the very beginning. He is earnest, but vain. Kind, but calculated. Friendly to the less fortunate, but secretly feeling superior to them. In a way, he is a victim of his class, surroundings, and history. But he also makes all his choices. At no point do we feel that he is too good to become the horrifying mastermind of 64 years later. But we also understand what path took him there, and we can understand him enough to like him.

This masterful balancing act transforms The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. Instead of a pointless prequel, it becomes a fascinating portrait of a historic figure, and the world that created it. But Collins also delivers an exciting story to go along with it. The Capitol is a far cry from its future splendor, and so are the Hunger Games. As Gamemakers experiment with new ideas to turn a bunch of starved kids killing each other inside a ruined coliseum into a national entertainment, we see the nuggets that will flower into the diabolical contest of the original trilogy. As expected, Coriolanus plays a huge part in this evolution, sometimes unwittingly, but often deliberately.

Lucy Gray Baird plays an important part both in the story, and in Coryo’s development. A talented singer from a group of traveling musicians, she is a cunning performer, and the reader is never 100% certain of her motives. Collins plays any possible connections to the original trilogy close to the chest, but suffice to say Lucy is the one who composes “The Hanging Tree”. Make of that what you will.

All in all, I enjoyed The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes quite a bit more than I expected. It fleshes out the past, and one of the world’s most important characters in an honest, complex, and exciting way. It is also perfectly self-contained, while welcoming the possibility of sequels. But whether Collins decides to continue the tale of Coriolanus Snow, or chooses to jump to a different point in time, I am excited for what comes next.

Destiny Needs Some Conclusions

I love the world of Destiny. I have been part of it since the midnight release of the first game back in 2014. And I have stuck with the series through its highs and lows, even when so many others left. This post however will not be about the serious issues the franchise is dealing with in maintaining player interest. Rather, I want to talk about lore.

The grimdark, post-apocalyptic solar system of Destiny is one of the most complex and original universes I have ever encountered. And I don’t just mean video games here. Thanks to phenomenal talents like Seth Dickinson, Jon Goff, and many other writers, the stories of humanity and the numerous threats that arrived to claim the wreckage of its collapse, have grown alive in the 6 years since the game’s release.

Problem is, so far the glorious wealth of Destiny lore does not include too many endings. And to an extent, this makes sense. For all its dwindling popularity, this is a regularly updated MMO game. Ending its story means cutting its life short. But this only applies on a macro level. Throughout its lifetime, this franchise has generated a ton of subplots, many of which incredibly compelling, but not necessarily vital to the main conflict. And yet, with each new season, these separate stories either get more complicated, or completely ignored.

What is Uldren’s part in all of this? Where is Savathun? Has Emperor Calus’ daughter usurped the Cabal? What about the Shadows of Yor? The Vex that aren’t slaves to the Darkness? The three major factions vying for control of the devastated Fallen Houses? What war is the Exo Stranger fighting? Is Queen Mara Sov ever coming back to the Dreaming City? What is even happening in the Dreaming City, now that the time-loop curse seems to be indefinitely part of it? Will we find out more about the Deepstone Crypt?

I can go on, and on, and on. And I am fully aware that most of these questions aren’t even something the player community of Destiny at large is aware of. But I want to explain why the amount of open storylines bothers me.

Long-running franchises cannot focus on everything at once. This not only requires unrealistically large technical capabilities, but it would also hurt the storytelling itself. A good story needs a throughline. Sure, in Destiny 2: Forsaken we dealt with Prince Uldren’s betrayal, and the Scorn, and the death of Cayde-6. We dealt with the Taken, and the Ahamkara, and the Awoken, and the Hive. BUT, we did it in a thematically coherent way. All of these storylines converged in one strong and unified narrative, giving us the most brilliant expansion since The Taken King.

But the story of Cayde-6 and our vengeance for his murder was completed. The reveal and hunt for the Taken Ahamkara Riven was finished. And yes, all of those have had lasting repercussions to the world’s lore, but the very completion of these strong arcs allowed us to have patience. The repercussions would be dealt with, in time. They were parked.

Similar argument can be made of many other threads of the Destiny tapestry, such as The Nine and the Black Armory, for example. We don’t know everything about these stories, they aren’t necessarily finished. But they have reached a plateau. A point where we feel enough satisfaction, that we can move on to another part of the universe.

But too many of the current storylines keep being teased, hinted at, mentioned in lore tabs. They have immediate questions attached, unresolved tensions. Except, they never get pulled to the forefront. In 2018 Uldren awoke as a Guardian with no memory of his previous life and crimes. That was two years ago, both in real world, and in-game. In that time, we have read some minor lore about how miserable and ostracized he is. But none of it answers the burning questions about his fate. By rule of the Vanguard Dare, Uldren (or however he calls himself now) should be the new Hunter Vanguard. Instead, he is nowhere, and unlikely to be a focus of any particular story coming in the near future.

And as the pyramid ships are now halfway into Sol, I wonder if Destiny’s future won’t be cut short. The Darkness is the ultimate enemy after all. They single-handedly destroyed humanity’s Golden Age. And an entire fleet of them is now within our system, ready to deliver a second Collapse.

So, I have to ask myself, how much of the beloved stories I have lived and breathed for over half a decade will even find conclusion? Or at least a plateau point where I can feel a measure of contentment over abandoning them in the short term? And will there be enough long term for Bungie to fully end at least some of them?

Destiny has what it takes to be a historic example of gaming (and overall) storytelling. But however long its planned life-span is, it needs to start concluding things. Because, if recent dragon- and lightsaber-based franchises have taught us anything, it is that a story, for all its brilliant moments, is only ever as good as its ending.

Review: Final Fantasy VII Remake

Boundless, terrifying freedom…

Final Fantasy VII is one of the greatest J-RPGs of all time. It popularized the franchise outside of Japan, and single-handedly turned PSOne into a global phenomenon. It gave birth to three spin-off games, two feature-length movies, and a ton of other tie-in media. It is the quintessential gaming classic. And now, nearly a quarter century after its release, we finally get a remake.

…Sort of.

Before I say anything further, I need to specify something that isn’t immediately apparent from the marketing. This game does not cover the entirety of the story. The roughly 35 hours of the main campaign only adapt the first 8 of the original game – the Midgar arc.

Final Fantasy VII Remake takes place in the city of Midgar. The corporation Shinra is mining Mako — the life force of the planet — to use as a power source, threatening all life. Only a small group of eco-terrorists, known as Avalanche, are willing to defend their world. The story begins with mercenary-for-hire Cloud Strife and a small group of freedom fighters, as they try to blow up a Mako reactor. This will start a chain of events that will change the entire world.

If you’ve played the original, you know how much bigger the story becomes. It includes ancient secrets, genetic experimentation, and extraterrestrial threats. As well as some of the greatest moments of tragedy and heroism in the history of gaming.


From the very beginning, Final Fantasy VII Remake gives indication that something isn’t quite right. Minor events happen differently from the original. And not long after, Cloud encounters a group of mysterious shades (think Dimentors made of dust). They sometimes attack our heroes, and sometimes help them. Always in key points where the story diverges from its predecessor. Little by little we realize that this game has the potential to take its characters in a completely new direction.

The rest, as they say, is spoilers.

The gameplay is standard for a modern J-RPG. The Active Time Battle system is tried and true, though occasionally there is too much going on for the player to feel fully in control. Luckily, those moments are rare, and the variety of skills and magic makes combat exciting and fun. You can have a maximum of three characters, only directly controlling one at any given time. The other two will follow commands, but without those they only use their basic attacks, and block. Like, they will block a lot.

That last part was a bit of a disappointment. Considering that this game took half a decade to make, I would have expected a bit more intelligence from your party. What’s more, Final Fantasy has had phenomenal algorithms of behavior since literally two generations ago. Even the Gambit system from Final Fantasy XII (PS2) would have made of this game an absolute delight. However, the overall difficulty level is pretty low (even on ‘hard’, where you cannot use items, and don’t regain MP until chapter breaks). The command menu slows time to a crawl, and its navigation is intuitive enough, so telling everyone what to do is not a chore. But it still feels a bit lazy.

Visually, Final Fantasy VII Remake is absolutely gorgeous. Action and magic animations are fluid and colorful, without being too chaotic. The monster design is traditional Final Fantasy fare, but it is still wonderful to see old favorites get a glow-up.

While the art style might remind some people of Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, a direct comparison shows that the new game has a slightly more cartoon-ish approach to character depiction (back in 2005, the movie’s goal was to create hyper-realistic people in contrast with the original). The transition between cut-scenes and gameplay is seamless, and the city of Midgar is absolutely breathtaking. From the dystopian techno-complexes of Shinra, to the slums beneath the city’s giant metal plate, this world is bright and full of life. And for those of us who recall these sights in their 1997 glory, the nostalgia is real.

Final Fantasy VII Remake is a fairly streamlined, almost entirely linear experience. Although there are some secrets to find, nothing is truly missable. Completing the game gives players a chapter select option, retaining all progress. If you want to go for the Platinum trophy, it will take 55-75 hours, depending on pacing.

Overall, Final Fantasy VII Remake is a medium, but satisfying challenge, relying more on skill than grind. Understanding gear and ability customization makes a huge difference, which I always appreciate in a game. It is a beautiful return to a beloved world, telling a story that holds infinite promise. And although it ends before giving you most of the answers, there is still a sense of completion. I admit, I have certain (very plot-based, very spoilerific) fears regarding the future of this new franchise. But if its first installment is any indication, that future is going to be bright.