Category Archives: Misc. Reviews

Follow the Leader (iOS 7 Initial Thoughts)

Whenever a company develops the next greatest idea, it becomes the goal of every related company to tweak that idea for their own game. Mozilla/Firefox started the trend of tabbed browsing for every other web browser to follow. Facebook head Mark Zuckerberg likes Twitter so Facebook eventually changed to be more like Twitter. And so on.

iOS7: Now with shiny new colors!

iOS7: Now with shiny new colors!

I mentioned before in my initial thoughts on Windows 8 that, much to my annoyance, their user interface became an odd hybrid of Apple’s App store and the old Windows 3.0 Program Manager. My initial impression upon making the leap to iOS 7 was that Apple returned the favor to Windows by essentially adopting their color scheme. The earthy tones of previous iOS’ have been replaced by the same bright colorful icons you’ll find on Windows 8 or a Windows phone.

The camera app received a major upgrade as well. A new “square” picture option and additional filters appear tailor made for Instagram lovers. I still can’t get great photo-quality on my iPad, yet my trusty iPhone continues taking crisp pictures under the new iOS order. My other apps appear to be working ok so far; however, be prepared to download a lot of new app updates after the transition. Apple is seriously pushing developers to make their apps iOS 7 compliant.

I could go on about the many new features, including a convenient control panel and smooth transitions between unlocking the phone and app transitions. Yet it feels strange saying that Apple is the one doing the following with this major new upgrade. Usually Apple is the one doing the innovating. Yet for all of the major changes in iOS 7 my initial impression leaves me with nothing that sets the new innovation bar for everyone else to follow. There’s still a lot of ground for the shiny new system to cover though, so time will tell if that changes.

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Final Fantasy Tactics: War of the Lions – iPad Version Review

Final Fantasy Tactics: War of the Lions

Ask any old-school lover of strategy RPGs to list their favorite games, and Square Enix’s Final Fantasy Tactics will likely make an appearance. The classic tale of political intrigue, combined with a deep battle system resulted in a game that stands the test of time. After a PSP re-release with added features and a longer name (Final Fantasy Tactics: War of the Lions) back in 2007, Final Fantasy Tactics moved to another portable system – the iPad tablet.

Of course, the big question many people have is: how effective was the transition to touch screen? Overall the game transitions very well to the iPad. Although there are a few minor flaws, the Final Fantasy Tactics gamers have grown to love is on the portable tablet in all its glory.

For those not familiar with the game, Final Fantasy Tactics tells the story of Ramza Beoluve, the unsung hero of the War of the Lions. The war is a large-scale clash between Duke Goltanna, the Black Lion, in the east, and Duke Larg, the Red Lion, in the west. These two forces clash with the objective of controlling the land of Ivalice. European history buffs may see a thinly-veiled retelling of “The War of the Roses” beginning to emerge. Allusions to the historical conflict appear throughout the game as Ramza embarks on his quest to not only end the fighting, but also unearth the unknown forces pulling the strings of both Dukes, and the supernatural “Illuminati Demons”  they summon.

As for gameplay, the best part of this turn-based strategy game lies in its deep customization for the units you control. With the ability to change characters between almost two-dozen “job classes” with an equal mix of physical and magical-based abilities, players can develop their own unique strategy for conquering battles. With abilities that can be mixed and matched as the player sees fit, you could have any number of strange, yet powerful combinations. One unit could be a knight who can also cast magic to attack enemies from a distance. Alternatively an archer can alternate between raining down arrows on the enemy and healing wounded allies.

For those familiar with the game, it should be noted that this version is an almost direct port of the Playstation Portable (PSP) version. The new CGI cut-scenes with voice acting, script translation (no more sloppy translations like “I’m rescuing Agrias, geronimo!”), events, and battles all appear in this version. Unfortunately the robust multiplayer and rendezvous modes from the PSP version did not make the transition.

War of the Lions Cutscene

Important cut-scenes are rendered in beautiful CGI.

Despite the missing features, the iPad fixes the crippling slowdown that plagued the PSP version. Although a few select skills carry some minor delay, the game moves at a very crisp pace compared to its PSP counterpart. To accomplish this, the game code was tweaked to increase the game speed. Although this can result in occasional goofiness in certain skills (notably once lengthy summons appearing and disappearing in a flash) and cutscenes (people moving at lightning speed), the game play is not affected overall.

As for the touch-screen itself, it is functional. The controls take a little getting used to, and fortunately the tutorial has been greatly modified to demonstrate how to play the game with the new touch-based control scheme. It is a very good idea to play through the entire tutorial and practice with the touch screen before beginning the actual game, even for veterans familiar with the gameplay mechanics on an older version of the game.

In order to help navigate the chaotic battlefields, a zoom button and two different directional schemes can be toggled at will. The first directional scheme allows you to move the battlefield to a fixed point, while the second one allows you to rotate that fixed point. Both angles will be used to maintain an accurate view of the fighting. As for accuracy, the touch screen will generally pick up selections 95% of the time; when selecting squares on the battlefield, use a bird’s eye view as much as possible for best results. Selection can sometimes be a problem when dealing with characters in confined areas or with two elevation points (like an archway or staircase) though adjustable in-game battle options help selection issues here, and the tutorial recommends a few.

In addition to the occasional touch screen hiccup, the text and command boxes occasionally appear glitched. Commands are still functional, just nigh impossible to see within the jumbled mess. Fortunately if this ever happens, you can always save and quit, exit the app, and then reload your save. There are also rare moments where the game locks-up mid-battle when casting a spell – ironically time magic appears to be the most frequent offender. Fortunately the game has an excellent autosave feature, and even if the game boots you back to the title-screen, you are given an option to resume from right before the game locked up. The action that locked the game up will work upon trying again. Hopefully Square Enix will fix this in a future patch. Incidentally, you can also exit out of the app mid-battle and resume right where you left off thanks to this quicksave feature. The game even includes a helpful battery icon in the upper right that lets you know if the iPad battery is running low.

War of the Lions Gameplay

A battery icon on the upper right helpfully reminds you to charge the iPad after extended sessions.

All that said – is the game worth getting? If you’ve never played the original Final Fantasy Tactics and are looking for a good strategy game, this classic is highly recommended. If you’ve played and enjoyed the original Final Fantasy Tactics but not the PSP version, there is enough new content to make another playthrough well worth it. PSP owners and those who have played War of the Lions on the PSP should stick to that version.

At $19 (as of this writing) War of the Lions is one of the more expensive iPad apps out there. Yet considering what you are paying for (a fully functional PSP game) both old and new school strategy fans deserve to give this classic a shot.

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Brookstone iPad 2 Bluetooth Keyboard Case Review

Technology gurus suggest that tablets like the iPad2 will eventually replace laptops in the ever-shrinking world of portable computing. While the iPad2’s precise touch screen may antiquate the bulky laptop for casual computing, touch screen keyboards are not designed for long periods of typing. The Brookstone iPad 2 Bluetooth Keyboard Case not only solves the physical keyboard problem, it pulls double duty as a protective hard leather cover.

Simplicity is the key component; just slide your iPad2 into the book-like case, insert the latch to keep your tablet locked in place, and unfold the keyboard onto any surface – the device works equally well on a desk or lap. Bluetooth connectivity eliminates the need for physical connection; just follow the easy one-time installation procedure and you will quickly be typing like a laptop. With 40 hours of battery life on a single charge, you’ll soon forget the touch screen keyboard ever existed.

Although the keyboard features all standard laptop keys, squeezing the keyboard into the compact case results in a noticeably smaller typing surface. Although the keys function perfectly, their small shape may cause problems for large, non-dexterous hands.

At $99 the keyboard case includes both the quality manufacturing and hefty price tag common with Brookstone gadgets. However, if you are serious about using the iPad2 for typing, the keyboard case, combined with a writing app, will keep your laptop gathering dust when it comes to casual computing and note taking. Rest in peace, laptop.

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Epica’s Design Your Universe – Quantum Physics Clash with Metal

How often do you hear the words “symphonic metal band” and “quantum physics” in the same sentence? According to guitarist and lead screamer Mark Jensen, Epica’s musical goal in Design Your Universe is to bring this unlikely combination together in an attempt to show that every person is connected on a “subatomic level.” Ok, add “subatomic level” to the list of big phrases as well. Although their overall message sounds rather bombastic, the album manages to deliver the unique blend of dynamic choir and high-intensity sounds that Epica fans have grown to love.

For the unacquainted, Epica’s music straddles the lines of several different musical styles. As a symphonic metal band, the death grunts and indistinguishable shouts are more subdued than pure heavy metal. The high-intensity metallic sounds flirt with both progressive rock and show tunes, helmed by female lead singer Simone Simons. The result is best described as metal for people who don’t like metal. Those who like their music loud and fast-paced yet get scared away by death grunts and insane shouting.

Speaking of shouting, a constant nitpick by the metal outsiders who like Epica is the death grunts provided by Jensen. Although present in several tracks, the grunts never take central focus, and those critics must once again ask themselves: can any other band possibly hope to integrate such diverse styles as opera and metal as well as Epica? Consider the shouting level higher than the grunt-subdued album Cosign to Oblivion yet less than the grunt-heavy Divine Conspiracy.

In an attempt to further distance Epica from being pigeonholed into a single musical style, Design Your Universe includes lengthy rock & roll guitar solos, a first for the band. However a newcomer would not think this new. The solos blend in well so well with Epica’s music; one would think the rockin’ riffs have been a part of their melting pot of musical medley all along.

Despite her recent medical problems, Simone Simons’ voice continues to handle the pop and operatic vocals well, with several powerful songs like the back to back “Resign to Surrender” and “Unleashed” joining forces with slower tunes like “Tides of Time” and “White Waters.” Simons again proves capable of handling any tempo thrown at her.

As for the “human connection” theme, the connections Jensen promises are buried within the deep lyrics if one wishes to go searching for them. However it is far too easy to get lost in the fast music and harmonious sounds of Simon’s voice. The repeat listener will be highly rewarded with finding new meaning behind each song with each successive listen.

Sometimes the human connection angle becomes a moral statement instead. Is “Martyr of the Free Word” supposed to be about bringing people together through speech, or general support for the idea of free speech itself? Who cares? It’s far more entertaining to get lost in the sound of Simone Simon’s angelic voice, accompanied by a majestic choir.

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Five Guys Restaurant Deserves its Boasts

Upon first examining the interior of Five Guys Burgers and Fries (commonly referred to as Five Guys), you will quickly see a number of awards and acknowledgements wallpapering the white and red interior tones. A first-time customer might well consider Five Guys to be one of the most arrogant restaurants in existence with newspaper articles and award titles abound displaying such merits as “Burger of the Year” and “Juiciest Burger Ever!” After trying one of their burgers, you will likely agree.

The menu for Five Guys is deceptively simple. The main feature of a burger, fries and drink (Coca Cola® products) are supported by hot dogs and, for the vegetarians, grilled cheese and veggie sandwiches. Yet, despite the menu’s simplicity, first-time customers will require a few minutes to plan out their selection. That is because of the wide variety of toppings available to complement your juicy burger. Although cheese and bacon cost extra, the rest of the 12 traditional burger toppings and 3 sauces including favorites like lettuce, pickles, and A1 Sauce are free, and the chefs will generously load them onto your medium-cooked burger. With no limit to the number and variety of toppings you can select, even the pickiest of foodies receive a burger that meets their exact specifications. Although it takes several minutes for your burger to be ready, perfection cannot be rushed. Hamburgers are made fresh on the grill after you place your order, and complimentary peanuts and free drink refills are available while you wait.

A word of caution when placing your order: Five Guys believes in the phrase “bigger is better.” Their ‘little burger’ is actually a tasty robust burger with a patty bigger than your standard fast food fare. With the ‘regular burger’ consisting of a double burger with two patties, be sure to bring your appetite with you. This philosophy also applies to their fries. They come in two sizes, regular and large, or to be more precise, extra large and ludicrous respectively. As a point of reference, the drinking cup that the crisp fries come in will be overflowing in the brown bag containing your meal. It is not unusual to, after taking out and eating the fries in the cup, refill the cup back to full with the fries still remaining in the bag, and refill it again halfway. And this is the “regular” order of fries. A small-sized fry option would be convenient, as the “regular” portion alone comfortably feeds two people.

Five Guys is not a clean and proper dining experience. The burgers are big and messy; keep napkins on hand if you add sauce to your burger, for the cooks do not hesitate to pour it on. These burgers and fries are for diners who are not afraid to get their hands greasy.

With an order of a regular burger, fries and drink totaling $10 and pocket change, the price is a bit higher than the average fast food meal. However, if you like your burgers big and bold then grab your appetite and drop in. After enjoying the “burger of the year” you will never look at a $1 value burger the same way again.

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This is what happens after I work on papers all day and need a break. 🙂 I suppose I could do something else productive, like say update my blog or actually accumulate a halfway decent score, but oh-look I’m doing that now! (The blog post that is)

I’ve enjoyed playing pinball since I was tall enough to actually stand over the machine and reach the flippers. Something about breaking the high score present on the machine, realizing that this score is impossible to beat without years of training, and then settling to beat my own score has always been a favorite pastime of mine.

That and multiball. Oh yes, MULTIBALL. Because let’s face it, nothing in life is more exciting than hitting the flippers over and over again and watching 3 pinballs zoom around the machine accumulating tons of points while the pinball machine goes crazy. A fascinating display of lights and sounds that only lasts for a few seconds before the balls all fall out of play because you hit the flippers over and over again instead of actually concentrating on hitting them properly.

But I’m not here to discuss pinball strategy. Just to pass along a few fun pinball games for the bored or nostalgic fans out there.

3d Space Cadet Pinball

If you own a windows computer from within the last 15 years or so, then you are familiar with this game. If not, click on your games window and go play it now. It’s waiting for you. Patiently. Space Cadet is a pretty simple pinball game with somewhat erratic physics, but there is no better way to get through a boring class or paper then refueling and accepting target practice training.

Pinball Hall of Fame: The Williams Collection

A fun little trip in the wayback machine, the Williams Collection brings back several tables from Williams Electronics during the pinball loving 80’s. That said, these tables contain fairly simple designs without all of that fancy video screen stuff you see in modern day tables. The game does faithfully recreate all of the rather silly sound effects which is nice though. It should be noted that these tables are quite tough (especially the one pictured above, Black Knight) as you have to remember that this was made in a time when pinball machines, like all good arcade devices, existed for the soul purpose of draining every last quarter in your worldly possession.

However, as simple as the machines may appear, most of them have the ability to trigger multiball, so naturally it’s OK in my book. Also if you play the Wii version, you can activate tilt very easily by shaking the wiimote. Now you can actually pretend you are ripping the pinball machine to pieces when the pinball goes straight down between the flippers!

Zen Pinball (PS3)

This is not a philosophical look into skill shots. Rather Zen Pinball is a pretty cheap and fun downloadable title (11$ for 4 tables with additional downloadable tables just a few dollars each) for the PS3 that my parents picked up. I noticed this while I was taking a study break and suddenly 2 hours passed before I realized what happened.

While I generally dismiss downloadable games as cheap thrills, this one I’m willing to mark in the exception category. Each of the initial tables + one that was purchased (Excalibur) are extremely well-designed and contain realistic physics. Unlike Williams these tables are also not out to screw you. Seriously, some of the ball saves (the pity feature that brings your ball back into play one time if you lose it right after deployment) will last upwards of 20 seconds after launching if you’re not playing well. They also contain lots of fun video effects that closely resemble modern day machines. If you want to relive the fun days of modern day pinball I highly recommend picking this one up.

Anyway, writing about pinball time is over. Now it is back to work time. Then multiball time. 🙂

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Code Lyoko – Animated Show Review

Here we are, going far, to save all that we love;
If we give, all we’ve got, we will make it through.
Here we are, like a star, shining bright on your world;
Today, make Evil go away!
-Cody Lyoko

For some completely random reason I started thinking about Code Lyoko, an old cartoon show from about 5 years ago that I used to watch. Why I suddenly started reminiscing about a show that I haven’t thought about in years is beyond me, but I remembered thinking how awesome the premise of the show was…and how sloppy it was in execution.

To actually explain the concept of the show is far too great a task to explain in a simple blog post. Long story short, a group of friends that attend a boarding school enter a virtual world known as Lyoko where they assist a female AI in thwarting evil AI Xana’s attempts to hack into special towers in Lyoko which in turn allow Xana to do malicious things in the real world.

The story isn’t really the important thing here though. What’s unique about Code Lyoko is that it employs two different animation styles. Scenes in the real world take place in traditional animation, whereas scenes in the digital world of Lyoko take place in CGI. When the group travels into Lyoko to stop the latest Xana plot, it looks and feels like a video game. In a way it sort of is, as the kids gain uber weapons, ninja skills, and have “hit points” that get depleted when Xana’s virtual monsters hurt them. Run out of hit points, and you are ejected from the digital world for the remainder of the episode.

As this show aired during the latter years of my video-game junkie phase, I naturally fell in love with the show. At the same time however parts of the show were just plain infuriating. For one thing, the show pretty much had no continuity through the first half of its four season run. It followed a standard formula of “Oh look, Xana’s causing random trouble, let’s stop him just in the nick of time!” that is standard in most kids action shows. Oh and there’s the usual middle-school drama that takes place between the main characters and other inhabitants of the boarding school. To be fair the plot picks up (and how!) in seasons three and four, but the early days were pretty shaky.

The plot isn’t really my main concern with the show however. Naturally I’m far more interested in discussing the video game elements of Lyoko. The problem is, the characters and their digital ninja forms just plain sucked at combat. Now I’m willing to understand the need to be cautious (after all, this wasn’t just a video game, haha) but even the most basic of Xana’s underlings would cause the characters to stop drop and whine before pulling off some random (and lucky) maneuver that would magically kill them all.

Mind you the characters did have a good reason to be cautious. This is because in Lyoko everyone has the constitution of a box of Kleenex. Seriously, if you get so much as grazed by a laser in this world, then you lose like 50% of your hit points. Every time someone got hit with a laser or bludgeoned with some object it was always “careful! another hit like that and you’re a goner!” I know ninja character archetypes aren’t the most durable people in the world, but you should seriously be able to withstand more punishment than these guys are dying over.

Speaking of dying, this series also suffers a bit of Disneyitis. Everytime Xana causes trouble in the real world, it usually involves some kind of crazy destruction for ye olde boarding school. No matter how badly the place gets destroyed though, it doesn’t matter. When Xana’s attack is stopped in Lyoko, the female AI I mentioned earlier performs a magic time warp that reverts the real world back to the point time before Xana screwed everything up. Everyone but the main characters forget that they were 5 seconds away from dying or what have you, and life goes on…until the next attack that is. Here’s the really strange thing though: no one dies during the attacks, which can sometimes get quite serious. Reason being is that a time-warp cannot bring back the dead. Despite the fact that a magic time warp occurs and fixes all boo-boos and property damage, if someone dies, they’re still dead, despite the fact that time warped back and the death never actually happened. Illogical? Yes. Loophole probably invented because it was a kids show? Most likely. Oh well. C’est la vie.

So yeah, as much as I liked the whole video game virtual reality components, it’s filled with loopholes. Even still, it has cool video game virtual reality components that kept me coming back for more like a crazy drug. See the dilemma I was having? It was like the original pokemon anime all over again.

One thing I never knew about the show until after I watched it was that it actually had a cool theme song. This was mainly because Cartoon Network didn’t air it for I presume time reasons. Although the English version was kinda subpar (I did like the refrain though, which is what I quoted at the beginning of the article) the French version was actually quite awesome. Oh yeah, I should probably mention that this show was developed (and takes place) in France. No Japanese import here! Maybe it’s because everything sounds cooler in French, but the French version of the theme song has earned a place on my IPod once again.

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