Saturday, April 18, 2020

Final Fantasy VII Remake Made Me Have Thoughts and Now You Get to Read Them

Holy shit why did I stay up all night writing this?


We gotta do this.

If you've been following my reviews for a while: yeah obviously this isn't what I normally do.  But I'm very prone to dropping references to random things I enjoy in my writing like Achewood, Futurama, and, of course, Final Fantasy.  So really, this was kind of inevitable, of course I spent the last few days playing Remake, what the fuck else did you seriously expect me to do?  Sleep with my wife?  HA!  It's like you don't even know me.

If Google decided to send you here for some reason and you have no idea what a BastardHead is: uhhh, hi?  I usually talk about death metal here, and I'm notably late on getting my hot takes out the door, so congratulations if you stumbled here purely because you wanted to read about Final Fantasy.  Stick around and learn about why Sabaton sucks.

I don't review videogames because my essay style doesn't really work for it.  Games are a visual medium and I'm only good at writing.  You don't want my ugly mug on camera (and there's no reason for me to enter that sphere anyway because Jim Sterling already has a direct link to my brain), and I can't be fucked to go grabbing dozens of screenshots for visual aids.  But dammit, I need to just vent this pressure somehow, so here we are.

I'm not going to bother going into the history of the series, the impact of the original game, or the development of the remake here, because I'm assuming you either already know or don't care.  What's important to note is that I, like many millennials staring down an age that begins with a three or four, really started off with FFVII.  The game was a revelation for me when I played it at age nine or whatever.  So yeah, it has a special place in my heart, warts and all (and trust me the original has so many warts that it resembles tree bark), so I unsurprisingly went into Remake with a lot of trepidation.  The series has been consistently disappointing for my entire adult life and beyond, Squeenix has spent two solid decades making a mockery of a property I used to love, so the prospect of them taking another look at my entry point into the series was something that made me really uneasy.  Not because I'm afraid of them changing it, believe it or not I was most excited for what new directions they could take the story, but because their track record since XII has been hot fuckin' trash.  XII had a great story with god awful gameplay, XIII had the exact opposite problem, XIV is apparently amazing but I don't play MMOs so I'll just defer to those who actually know it, and XV is kind of accidentally brilliant but it was still released in a clearly unfinished state after nearly a decade in development, most of the spinoffs and mobile games and direct sequels and movies and yadda yadda yadda have been varying shades of stupid or insulting, et cetera ad nauseam.  FF has been circling the drain for eons, but I'm thoroughly Stockholm Syndrome'd at this point and I still feel the need to give every new entry a shot for some reason.

This isn't my usual style but it's the only way I can think to make this flow in any way approaching coherent.  Let's break this down into semi-random sections.

I: The Good Place

I'll start off with the good stuff, because despite my unending pessimism and hatred of Tetsuya Nomura, I actually spent about 32 out of 35 hours loving this game to shreds.  They... didn't fuck it up!  That's an incredibly low bar to clear, but it's pretty significant for Modern Squeenix.  The characters were faithful to their original incarnations, and if they were different at all they were somehow better.

The series has done its absolute damnedest to turn Cloud into Squall ever since the original, so seeing a modern interpretation of the character where he's still a bit of a smartass kid that is obviously trying way too hard to put up a cool facade instead of simply being a brooding mope was amazing.  It's easy to forget since Aerith has been The Virgin Fuckin' Mary in every property she's appeared in since the original, but back in 1997 she was fun and flirty and all the wacky ideas were hers.  Yeah she understood she had immense power and responsibility but she still laughed the whole way as she made Cloud crossdress to sneak into Corneo's mansion and demanded the party visit the Gold Saucer (the Chuck E. Cheese to Wall Market's Las-Vegas-in-Colombia).  She was a girl that was raised in the slums and she actually acted like it.  Cloud and Aerith absolutely got it the worst in the extended canon, from Advent Children onwards finding themselves Flanderized into oblivion, so to see their original characterizations return was a massive breath of fresh air, paradoxically.  And hell, they strayed pretty far away from Barret's OG form and made him even better.  Instead of just being Angry Black Man, he acted more like Prompto from XV than anybody else, constantly cracking jokes and clearly having the most fun of anybody in the party and having the highest concentration of genuinely funny lines.  Not to mention I got the sense that he was a genuinely good dad to Marlene, something that was important but kinda glossed over in the original game.  He was very well humanized in this way, but beyond that they did keep his anarcho-environmentalist rage fully intact whenever shit got real.  The minute he was in mission mode or face to face with Shinra, he was very much the intimidating eco-terrorist that people feared he was.  Every single character knocked it out of the park, from Hojo's bizarre too-wide face to Scotch and Kotch absolutely killing it as the JR and Jerry "The King" Lawler for the colosseum, I had an absolute blast seeing every old friend and adversary in addition to all of the new ones.

The gameplay itself was no slouch either.  The actual design was closer to XIII than anything else, which you'd think should spell doom since I'm kinda vocal about XIII and its sequels being the canon nadir of the series (the abominable mobile spinoffs like All the Bravest and Mobius don't count for the purposes of this argument), but in all honesty the real reason XIII sucked so much was because the characters were uniformly unlikable and the story was an incoherent mess.  The actual combat was great, and Remake follows it pretty closely with a few minor QoL improvements.  I do yearn for the return of turn based combat in FF (series like Persona and Dragon Quest show that it's still viable) but this hybrid action/ATB system worked pretty well.  The ability to free run and attack willy nilly while waiting for the ATB gauge to charge in order to unleash spells and abilities works surprisingly well, balancing high flying slashy action with tactical strategery wonderfully.  The only real flaw in this system is that your AI partners are dumb as fucking rocks and won't use any abilities unless you tell them to, otherwise they stand around with their fingers in their noses while taking weak potshots every half century.  During more intense battles this kinda turns it back into a turn based system by necessity, which you'd think I'd love considering what I said a few sentences ago, but since the action is so fast paced it winds up slogging it down a lot.  This desperately needed something like the Gambit system from XII, or at the very least AI that wasn't piloted by drooling troglodytes.

Sure, there were hiccups along the way (it was kinda easy to tell who was a professional voice actor and who was a youtuber, for example), but overall it was great, and I couldn't wait to tell all of my friends how wrong I was to be skeptical of the game, because god dammit, Remake was incredible.

And then the rest of this post happened.

Addendum: The Disclaimer to Preemptively Quell Naysayers

Before we get too far into it, I want to give a quick disclaimer.  I haven't spent too much time online interacting with the various FF communities I engage with, but the few forays into the shitpit that I've braved have seen two very distinct camps form.  The people who hated it and accuse everybody who loved it of being dumbass children/sheep who are impressed by shiny things and will rapturously lick any old turd that Squeenix pushes out, and the people who loved it and accuse everybody who hated it of being jaded old fuddy duddies who expected a straight port with updated visuals and are thus mad about the story changing on principle because change scares boomers.  You'd figure I fall on the former side (and to an extent I do), but I actually think both of these accusations are in bad faith.  There are a lot of things to love, and I've seen passionate defenses by (otherwise) smart people for the shittiest games in the series like VIII and XIII so it's not a stretch to think people just really loved the good things about this and were excited for a change in the old story.  I also think it's disingenuous to accuse non-fans of simply expecting something different and being upset that it wasn't what they thought it was going to be, because as you'll see, a lot of people don't necessarily have beef with that on principle, it's just that the changes they made were pants-on-head stupid and insulting.  This is not an enlightened centrist "both sides are bad" take, because there is a clear correct answer here, I just want to make it perfectly clear that I wanted the story to drastically change, because I am a fan of the original and if I wanted that story, I'd just play the original.  I don't like straight ports with gussied up visuals and gameplay for the same reason I'd rather hear Anaal Nathrakh's cover of "Powerslave" than All that Remains's cover of "Believe in Nothing".  We already have the original.  If you're gonna revisit it, fuckin' do something new with it and put your own spin on it instead of just coloring inside the lines.  The problem isn't that they colored outside the lines, the problem is that they replaced the paint with urine.

II: Sweet Nothings

I know I should build up to the biggest problem, but very little of my complaints are going to make sense unless I tackle these fucking things first.  The introduction of the Whispers is beyond a shadow of a doubt the absolute worst fucking part of this thing. 

Remake largely follows the plot of the original game pretty closely, but there is one hugely notable diversion with the inclusion of the Dementors from Harry Potter.  For some reason, these flying grim reaper things appear from time to time and cause havoc until they decide to just up and leave.  They first appear when you meet Aerith on the streets, and show up a few more times as the story progresses, including an attack on Sector 7 and as a protective diversion when escaping the church after your first encounter with Reno.  At first it's kinda fun to hypothesize about what their goal is, but after the second or third time they appear, it becomes glaringly obvious what they're doing.

They attack when you meet Aerith because she and Cloud chat for much longer than in OG VII and she was about to be noticed by the swarm of Shinra guards.  They attack Sector 7 after Barret decides not to take Cloud on the second bombing mission to Sector 5 (a huge departure from OG VII) and only leave when they injure Jessie, forcing Barret to take Cloud along after all.  One of the goons with Reno is apparently bloodlusted and ignores the order not to fire on Aerith, so the Dementors show up to deflect the bullets and guide you out of the church.  They stall you on the way to the pillar because you're ahead of schedule in relation to the original game and possibly could've prevented Reno from dropping the plate.  It quickly becomes apparent what their purpose is.

They're here to keep the plot from deviating too much from the original.

This was my first inkling that shit was going to get bad, and this inkling festered and grew until it ultimately burst in the final "dungeon", Shinra HQ.  You see, these things aren't characters or villains or even mysterious true neutrals who you can never be sure if they're helping you or not.  They're plot devices.  That's it.  They're transparent crutches to keep the plot going in the direction the writers need it to go, and this is unfathomably lazy.  It felt like the writers wanted to try a whole bunch of new stuff, but couldn't risk deviating too far, so they kept toying with new ideas and scenarios before just throwing in the Plot Correctors to veto their own ideas and keep things as familiar as possible.  The fact that these things knew the plot was deviating from the original signaled that the game itself was aware that this was a story that had been told once before, and that meant that eventually, this had nowhere to go but in the direction of alternate timelines and multiverses, two trademarks of Nomura (who for some utterly unfathomable reason is still allowed to have ideas) and two massive pet peeves of mine.  This is Chekov's Gun right here, they wouldn't be introduced unless their ultimate purpose was to fail.  This turned the whole game into a ticking time bomb, just waiting for the other shoe to drop.  At some point these things had to allow the original plot to change, otherwise they would've just kept the original plot.

You learn from Red XIII late in the game that these things are called Whispers, and yes, they're arbiters of fate who keep things on track.  Red is the one who tells you this because when you first meet him he's basically feral until Aerith boops his forehead and turns him back into the sophisticated creature we recognize him as.  This boop apparently had knowledge transference powers because he explains that he learned what Whispers were when he was booped.  Why he had to gain this knowledge in this way just for him to explain it to the party minutes later is anybody's guess.  Aerith knows what the Whispers are, she was in the room during the explanation, and she made no effort to stop him.  It would've actually been easier and less stupid for Red to already be his usual self when you meet him and for Aerith to give the explanation, but I guess we needed to explain why she suddenly has this power to show people flashes of the future since she inexplicably did the same thing to Marlene earlier, because in addition to knowing what Whispers are, she's also fully aware of the plot of the original game.

Any subtlety is thrown out at this point, which makes sense on one hand because we're rapidly approaching the climax and shit needs to get as real as possible to feel satisfying, but on the other hand it retroactively renders the previous 30ish hours pointless because why the hell did we do any of it?  We, as players, had no fucking say.  This is a big reason I hate plots about "destiny", because it sucks all of the tension out of the story.  It'd be one thing if the story was built around defying a prophecy (stop typing your comment, I'll get back to this point) but up to this point, it wasn't.  There is a physical manifestation of destiny all around you, intervening at like ten different critical moments, all to keep the plot on the proper rails.  You are powerless to stop them, the antagonists are powerless to stop them, suddenly you have absolutely no feeling of agency as you realize that everything you did was predetermined by some omnipresent force tipping the scales in the proper favor over and over again.

New players won't understand what these things are doing and they won't care once it's explained because they have no knowledge of the original story.  Old players will be confused as to the purpose of this because we know that we win in the original timeline.  Yeah the party endures a ton of hardship and millions upon millions of people die, but ultimately, Gaia is saved.  Yeah Aerith dies, Sephiroth summons Meteor, but at the end of the day you kill him, you kill JENOVA, you successfully summon Holy and prevent Gaia's destruction and Sephiroth's ultimate reign of godhood.  If you completely ignore the post-release spinoffs like Advent Children and whatnot, it is admittedly left ambiguous whether or not humanity survived, since the only glimpse of the world you get after Meteor's defeat is 500 years in the future of an abandoned Midgar overgrown with greenery, but frankly who fucking cares?  Aerith's death is a huge turning point and makes the struggle to save the day all the more urgent because up to that point it had been established that she was humanity's only hope and now you're in a race against a doomed future.  This new story is very obviously leading to a big dramatic scene where you either prevent her death or resurrect her just in the nick of time, so where is that tension now knowing that the whole point of the rest of this remake series is to subvert the original timeline and prevent the bad shit from happening?  The only real options here are to either do that (which is stupid because now we know the entire point is to Fan Fiction Swordfight our way to a Happier Ending) or for all the bad shit to happen anyway (which implies that destiny is unchanging and therefore makes the entire conceit of the Whispers and the climax of Remake pointless).

And getting back to the parenthetical aside from earlier, Remake ultimately climaxes with the revelation that the new story ultimately is about subverting destiny, which is done in the most hamfisted and idiotic way possible.  Y'see, once Red explains everything in the last few paragraphs, the party just kinda shrugs and unquestioningly accepts all of this new wacky paranormal escalation like it's nothing, which is probably because you, the player, are familiar with the original story so you're supposed to be on board with this since you can corroborate that the Whispers are keeping things the way you remember them, so the characters in the game understand it just as well as your Dorito-munching ass does.  Shit happens, you escape Shinra HQ with the highway chase (which is absolutely fucking rad, by the way, I'll still give credit where it's due), you reach the end of the highway after defeating Motor Ball, just as you do in the original, but the difference this time is that HQ is engulfed by a bazillion swarming Whispers (in a shot that would be breathtaking if it wasn't so obviously inspired by the Exploding Landmarks sequence of Independence Day) and Sephiroth is posted up at the end of the road like he's Cell or some shit.  He basically says "nyah nyah I'm gonna manipulate you into fucking the timeline to death by trying to kill me" before walking into a wall of squirming Whispers.  Cloud instantly says "duuuuuh we should try to kill him and fuck the timeline to death, that surely isn't going to play directly into his hands even though several characters have explicitly pointed out that villains openly spell out their plans when they think they've already won."  Aerith turns around an inexplicably gives the "Tears in the rain" speech from Blade Runner before everybody moronically decides to do exactly what Sephiroth wants them to do.  In doing so, they step into a portal to the Fuck Off Dimension and kill the Big Whisper, effectively killing all of the Plot Correctors, thus giving all future installments in the Remake series a blank check to take the story in any direction they want to go.

There's a lot more about the ending that sucks and I'll explain it in a bit, but I needed to go over all of this in the section specifically about the Whispers because there's a very important detail I gleaned from them.  They are meant to represent the old fans who desperately didn't want the story to change, and that's why they're so fucking insulting.  The developers clearly had a ton of new ideas they wanted to play with, but instead of just fucking doing them, they introduced a plot device specifically meant to represent old fans like me whose entire purpose is to be frustrating for stifling their own creativity before revealing that the ultimate win in the game is to kill them all.  What originally felt like a love letter to old fans like me was ultimately revealed to be a giant middle finger directed squarely at me.  You remember that scene in the failed Devil May Cry reboot where a mop falls on New Dante's head, emulating his shaggy white hair from the original series, before he scoffs and says "Not in a million years!" before throwing it offscreen?  That's what the last two hours of Remake felt like.  The game pointed at me and said "The things you like are stupid and you're stupid for liking them, thanks for the money, losers."  I don't feel deceived because this was more of a reboot than a remake, remember that I wanted things to deviate from the original (heavily at that), but I still feel insulted that the game felt it was necessary to center the entire plot around how much of a nuisance I am before telling me to fuck off because things will finally be better once I'm gone.

III: A Case of the Final Fantasy IVs

Death was a common element in most Final Fantasy titles.  Especially in the early days, it was somewhat common for party members or otherwise plot-important Good Guys to permanently bite the dust in varyingly tragic and shocking ways.  Galuf, Tellah, Leo, Teta, basically everybody in FFII, it happened plenty.  The most notable is of all of these is Aerith since she was centered as the main love interest and the only person who could prevent the destruction of Gaia in OG VII, so her becoming a kebab halfway through the game was a massive shock to a lot of people (especially those (like me) who played VII before any of the others), but surprisingly she's not the one I want to talk about right now.  Right now, let's talk about Tellah.  Because off the top of my head FFIV featured a pretty stacked body count, including Rydia, Edward, Cid, Yang, Palom, Porom, and Tellah.  What makes IV unique enough for me to name an imaginary ailment after it is that, notably, Tellah is the only one who actually stays dead.  For some reason, IV had a really hard time keeping characters dead, even if they never contributed to the plot again.  Palom and Porom are petrified until the epilogue.  Cid jumps out of an airship and suicide bombs himself in order to cause a cave-in before being found later recovering in a bed.  Edward gets killed in front of you before... also popping up hours later recovering in a bed.  Rydia is presumed dead until she pops out of a portal aged ten years older (to the delight of horny people the world over) in the second act.  Yang inexplicably locks himself in a collapsing tower despite being perfectly capable of escaping, and I can't remember how he resurfaces because I got so angry when I learned he survived that I accidentally wiped my own memory.  IV is full of shitty fakeouts like this, and the only reason I was certain that Tellah gave up the ghost for real is because the game made a big fuckin' show of it when he sacrificed himself where the characters all took turns giving three hour eulogies over his corpse.

Remake does this exact same thing but worse.  There should have been a lot of people who died during the plate drop sequence, and I'm not saying that just because they died in the original.  By the game's own logic there should've been mass casualties that just never materialize.  Every named character you meet in Sector 7 makes it out alive.  Marle, Wymer, Chadley (though in fairness he was following you around the whole time so it's reasonable he wasn't there at the time), Wedge, basically everybody manages to escape.  Funny how the Whispers didn't step in to prevent the evacuation this time, since it's basically the only new twist in the original plot that stuck with no pressure.  Wedge doesn't die at the base of the pillar this time.  Aerith quickly nurses him back to health before they sprint to the slums and warn everybody to escape, which most people manage to do without issue.  We even watch as Wedge escapes before returning to grab his cats and getting squished by a billion tons of rubble.  But hey, don't worry!  You go back to the ruins of Sector 7 and find him inexplicably lying on the ground in an underground labratory, unconscious but alive.  He even recovers enough to show up in the Shinra HQ to lend his assistance!  It's at this point the Whispers apparently realized they let one slip through the cracks and proceed to "kill" him.  "Kill" is in "quotes" because his "death" consisted of a fade to black and a glass shattering noise.  I don't buy for one fucking second that he's still dead.  Especially because, in the co-most insulting non-death in the story, fucking Biggs winds up surviving.  How?!  We fucking heard his death rattle as he bled out like fifteen stories up on the pillar!  And then some fucking how, we see him in the epilogue pulling a Yang and recovering in a fucking bed somewhere.  How the hell did he not get flattened?  Are we supposed to believe that he sprang back to life the minute we turned our backs and ran for the exit?  Did somebody follow you up the pillar and haul his ass off to a hospital?  There is no logical reason he should've survived beyond some bullshit rabbit-pull with the climax altering the timeline in ways we didn't see or some shit.  At this point I won't be surprised when Jessie inevitably shows up in the next installment since apparently getting squashed by a city isn't enough to kill anybody anymore.

That stupid epilogue even deigns it reasonable to save Zack of all fucking people.  This is pure fanfiction.  It's patently absurd because Zack's death is sort of the impetus for Cloud's entire journey beginning in the first place.  Beyond the events at Nibelheim and his resulting experimentation after miraculously defeating Sephiroth in battle, Zack was Cloud's mentor and owner of the original Buster Sword.  His heroic last stand against a horde of Shinra soldiers is the only reason Cloud escaped from Shinra alive before the events of the game, and by assuming his identity (more or less) and wielding his Buster Sword he wanders into Midgar, reconnects with Tifa, and thanks to his trauma-muddled memory, passes off Zack's military history as his own and becomes the mercenary hired by Avalanche in the first place.  Remake starts off with him possessing the Buster Sword and a history in SOLDIER, something we absolutely know is bogus just like the original game because the Whispers show up to silence Hojo right before he spills the beans about Cloud's failure to join SOLDIER thirty hours early.  And yet, after killing the Big Whisper, you see a vision of Zack's last stand from Crisis Core and him emerging victorious, wielding his own sword and carrying an unconscious Cloud towards Midgar.  A hazy version of the two walk past the party at the very end, confirming that an alternate parallel timeline is going to be taking place as the story goes on because (and imagine I'm singing this to the tune of "Fuck You, Aurora" by Alkaline Trio) Fuck You Nomuuuuraaaa.

Zack's interdimensional sorta-survival isn't even next to Biggs as the co-most insulting non-death.  No, that belongs to, of all people, Barret.  This ties in with Section II up there and Section V below, because this is simply the most pointless fakeout anybody could've possibly come up with at this point in the game.  You see, after confronting President Shinra (because you do this time) at the top of HQ, Sephiroth shows up to skewer the president and Barret.  This is purely done to shock new players, because this happens after the Whispers are explained to you, and it's already pretty clear that even Sephiroth can't subvert their will.  If you played the original, you already know the Whispers are just going to resurrect him in a few seconds because he isn't supposed to die here, which is exactly what happens.  If you're a new player, you might be shocked for a little bit, but since he's almost immediately brought back to life, it becomes established that there are precisely zero stakes right now because there are no consequences.  Both the intervention and the destruction of the Whispers somehow results in everybody surviving.  The stakes at this point are zero, who cares!  While the Whispers are alive, everybody lives, and when they die, everybody who died before gets to survive their destined deaths!

Again, this is clearly telegraphing that Aerith is going to avoid her fate from the original, which is also stupid because it's such an important moment because it forces a ton of growth in Cloud and raises the stakes in a very tangible way.  Like I said before, there is no way to do this correctly now.  The game has written itself into a corner.  Either Aerith doesn't die now, which is very possible since the plot can do whatever it wants to do now and the party has no reason to go to the Forbidden City and try to summon Holy, which means a big reason the original worked so well is going to be wholly abandoned and I frankly have next to no faith in Nomura to make something else work in its stead, or she's going to die anyway.  If she dies anyway and stays dead, it'll assuredly be because of some bullshit Gotcha Moment that shows the Whispers were useless anyway and the current trend of vapidly "subverting expectations" without any narrative purpose beyond shocking viewers a la Game of Thrones is alive and well.  If she dies and doesn't stay dead, it'll just perpetuate the idea that death is a mere inconvenience that anybody can survive if they're important enough to the story.  No matter which of these three paths they take, it's going to suck.

IV: Global Imperialism is Not a Real Threat, Only Anime Gods Are

One of the things I hated about the extended FFVII universe is how desperately hard Squeenix had been working to portray Shinra as merely misguided in the original conflict.  In Advent Children specifically, Rufus is seen trying to atone for what he did in unleashing Sephiroth on the world, and the underlying message is "Yeah the oil company that willingly sucked the planet dry and ruled the world with a private army isn't the real problem here, it's actually only Mr. Mommy Issues."  I do realize this is just my interpretation, and admittedly it's very alluring for an American leftist to take down said evil oil company as they ruin the world in pursuit of endless profit, but I've always seen it as a cowardly rebuke of an actually poignant criticism.  Shinra is a pure personification of ruthless capitalisitc avarice.  They only allowed Sephiroth to become a threat in the first place because they were looking for a new place to exploit for profit, literally everything that happens in the FFVII canon is the fault of Shinra.  Them getting their comeuppance via Avalanche's guerilla warfare and the planet itself nuking their headquarters with seventy story planet-borne kaiju and Sephiroth's ultimate summoning of Meteor (which, I remind you, was entirely their fault in the first place) is wonderful schadenfreude.  It wasn't The Point necessarily, but it was an element of the original that I grew to appreciate a lot as I grew older.

Remake directly rebukes this interpretation.  More than once, Aerith looks directly into the camera and states "Shinra is not the problem, you can deal with them later, there's a real existential threat in the background that you need to defeat instead," which is just so in line with Squeenix's business model nowadays of becoming more and more predatory with their money-squeezing bullshit.  Of course they can't spend a gajillion dollars creating a story where the moral is in direct opposition to their real world practices, but I did appreciate that the original story had a relatively realistic reason for its environmentalist message.  Now?  Fuggit, the big evil capitalist empire is only truly evil because bad people are in charge, the real threat is a trans-dimensional bishonen with a six foot sword.  Don't worry, by the end of this new saga, Rufus will surely survive and change his ways, or Reeve will somehow take over instead since he's the only decent person in the company and the fantasy of meritocracy and the Justice Machine always spitting out good things eventually is just imaginary enough for this fantasy world.  Yes, it's an escapist fantasy story, not a Rage Against the Machine album, I get that, but it's a message I find repulsive.

In the original, there are indeed pushbacks on Avalanche's terrorism tactics.  The reactor bombings in the opening few hours are decried by many people as destructive and counterintuitive, many people die as a direct result of your guerilla warfare.  Jessie mentions that the bombs are far more destructive than she anticipated and she feels awful for all the extra destruction she caused, and other characters point this out as well.  Regardless of where you stand on the issue of direct action and eco-terrorism, there is a real, nuanced critique of the vigilante methods you undertake in the overture, but it's still portrayed that Shinra are the real bad guys.  You can say they only do their most heinous acts in retaliation, but you can point back to any number of Shinra's atrocities to justify Avalanche as well.  It's a circle of destruction, and it's bleak.  It's makes you question whether you're doing the right thing and the ends justify the means, or if Avalanche is misguided and dangerous.  The plate drop is blamed on Avalanche of course, but that whole sequence is mostly to show how much of a threat Shinra truly is.  They're uber-powerful ghouls with immense wealth and influence, so they false flag a terrorist event and blame the heroes.  This, to me, shows how truly depraved the company is and only fuels the fire within Barret and the rest of the crew to take them down for the greater good.

This time?  Nope!  Those tough questions aren't even asked because it's clear from the opening minutes that Avalanche is not only an unequivocal good that is always false flagged into being pariahs, but they're not even as extreme as they were in the original.  They somehow manage to fuck it up in both directions here.  On the one hand, it's shown right away that the reactor bombings were only powerful enough to disable the reactors, not completely obliterate them and the surrounding residential areas.  The party speculates that they went to far but there's no reason for us to feel guilty along with them because it's explicitly shown that the first bomb was basically a cherry bomb that blows up an operations panel and it only really went full kablooey because Heidegger triggered the robots inside to go haywire and cause all of the real destruction.  The following scene with Cloud wandering through the ruins of Sector 1, littered with collapsing residential buildings, dead bodies and wailing children could've been powerful on a level of the White Phosphorus scene in Spec Ops: The Line.  The game certainly wants it to be, because Avalanche surveys the damage with horror and guilt before Barret does his best to assure us that it's for the greater good.  But... why should we feel guilty?  We didn't do this, Shinra did.  They just showed us.  They give lip service to Avalanche's extremity with Jessie's misplaced guilt and the existence of a larger Avalanche organization that Barret's crew was kicked out of for being "too extreme", but it rings entirely hollow because from minute zero they don't take one single innocent life.  Everybody they harm is Shinra.  All of the innocent deaths are blood on Shinra's hands.  Even if the characters don't know that, the player does.

And on the other hand, even then they still find a way to scold Avalanche for this phony extremism in the first place.  Despite the fact that they cause zero environmental damage, despite the fact that not one innocent bystander gets caught up in their schemes, despite the fact that the only things they do are destroy the property of a flagrantly evil private army and kill the goons sent in to protect said capital, you are still battered over the head constantly with how you're a bad person for doing it because ultimately Shinra as a company isn't so bad, just the guys in charge are.  They add in an entire new sequence where you accompany Jessie back to the upper plate so you can raid a warehouse and get weaker explosives because the explosion you absolutely did not cause was too big (and again, credit where it's due, the sequence where you break into her house and rob it is so fucking brilliant and well done that I refuse to believe it was Nomura's idea).  When you confront President Shinra, Barret demands that he go on television and own up for the false flags and clear Avalanche's name so they can be known as the force for good that they are, and this game has the utter fucking stones to have him rebuke this with what amounts to "but you have iphones tho" before tacking on Darth Helmet's "evil is best because good is dumb" speech from Spaceballs.  And Barret doesn't push back.  That's the "scathing" critique of Avalanche this time, what amounts to "nuh uh, we may be hurting the planet but life is better in the short term" and the environmentalist avatar is rendered a stuttering wreck instead of rightly pointing out that he's a clay-hearted ghoul who cleans his teeth on the bones of the destitute and has zero moral compass beyond whatever points to the biggest profit.  Nope, Shinra itself is more or less value neutral, and resisting in any way is wrongheaded because it's still your fault even if they murder thousands of people because of some horseshit "look what you made me do" justification and the only real problem is that the wrong guy is in charge.

I realize this complaint is very dependent on my own personal politics and your mileage may vary, but from my perspective, this is fucking disgusting and insulting, and shame on anybody who thinks Shinra has a point in this exchange.  He doesn't.

V:  Shemphiroth and the Neck-Snapping Drag Race Towards Horseshit

I haven't really talked about Sephiroth all that much up to this point.  Partly because he barely played a role in the Midgar section in OG VII so there isn't much to compare him to, and partly because of everything I said in Section IV.  My interpretation is that the true threat has always been Shinra and Sephiroth was the necessary Majin Buu that Cloud had to go Super Saiyan to defeat in order to conquer his own demons, complete his arc, and ultimately save the world.  But he has a much larger role this time, and to the surprise of nobody, Nomura managed to utterly neuter everything cool about him in the original.  Again, to preface my complaints, I don't care that his reveal and motivations are different necessarily, I care that they suck.

In the original game, the best part about Sephiroth wasn't his long black coat or big sword or any of the things that edgy emo kids (like a 12 year old BH) liked.  No, what made him such an effective villain was the slow reveal of his power.  In OG VII, Sephiroth doesn't even get namedropped the first time until the very end of the Shinra HQ, which is the very end of Midgar. You go like six hours without the Big Bad ever being mentioned, and then when he does you're drip-fed little nuggets of his strength for nearly the next half of the game. You storm the HQ, meet Hojo, see JENOVA imprisoned in that embryo-cell-thing, get caught, and then when all hope seems lost, you wake up the next day to find the entire floor of the building drenched in blood, dead guards all over the place, JENOVA missing and her containment pod destroyed, and you go upstairs to find President Shinra, up to this point the man implied to be the main villain, dead at his desk with a six foot sword in his back. The two characters who know who Sephiroth is instantly recognize it as his handiwork and make it very clear that you need to get the fuck outta dodge before he realizes he left you alive. Then you escape Midgar, go to Kalm, and get a lengthy flashback from Cloud about his mission to Nibelheim with Sephiroth. In a stroke of genius, they let Sephiroth be playable during this sequence, so you get to see firsthand, using the very same battle system you've been using all along, to see how wildly outmatched you're going to be whenever you have to confront him. He's equipped with a full loadout of mastered materia, he's one-shotting monsters magnitudes more powerful than what you've faced so far, you don't stand a fucking chance and the game make that extensively clear. (small diversion, but it was also genius to show that he's only level 50 during this sequence, thus showing you that if you work hard and level up as best you can, you can be as strong as he was and may even stand a chance at besting him when the time comes). Then after you witness his power and he murders everybody you know and reduces your childhood hometown to a smattering of ashes, you're back in the present and need to carry on. Your next task is to cross the marshes, which is home to the Midgar Zolom, a massive serpent that, unless you know what you're doing ahead of time and have a very specific setup, you stand no chance of defeating in battle. In fact the game won't even progress until you do the sidequest at the Chocobo Farm to find a way to bypass it. And then when you spend an hour getting your ass whipped, retreating, doing a sidequest to get a chocobo to outrun it, you finally cross the marshes to find... that very same Midgar Zolom dead as a doornail and impaled on a fuckin' tree. The characters are stunned, nearly speechless, and your only choice is to soak in that this huge serpent that again, you have probably already fought in-game and got destroyed by, was a mere pest to Sephiroth. And some day soon, you're gonna have to kill him instead. The guy who singlehandedly murdered an entire town and burned it to the ground, killed the main figurehead of an oil company that has a private army so powerful that it literally owns the entire planet without breaking a sweat, and took care of this ten story cobra with the ease of stepping on a worm. That is who you're up against.

Now, of course, they couldn't do this again.  They stretched what was initially a five or six hour sequence to the length of a full game, they couldn't go the whole way without introducing the main antagonist until the last few minutes, and they were explicitly not going to get far enough into the story for the Midgar Zolom sequence.  I understand that, I don't begrudge them for changing the buildup to not hit these exact same beats.

The problem is that they replaced that buildup with an immediate 0-100 escalation that utterly kneecaps every possible way they could raise the stakes in the future.

Instead, Sephiroth makes his first appearance roughly 30 minutes into the game.  Okay, whatever, like I said they had to introduce him early, this is a change that is both necessary and possibly good.  Hell at the beginning it actually is pretty decent.  It sets up right at the start that Sephiroth is some mysterious figure from Cloud's past that has the power to make him hallucinate, and this is a power that could be absolutely devastating.  Think of how rad that would be if one of the changes made was that you could never really be sure if what you were doing was real or not?  That's an actual tension that could've paid off spectacularly if utilized properly.  Instead it just... never really happens again.  Bishie Bad Guy shows up to taunt our hero and then fucks off with no lasting consequence.  The Whispers then do their stupid job and make sure the plot stays more or less the same as the original game until you get to Shinra HQ.  So they blow their wad showing Sephiroth super early, and then do basically nothing with him until he's supposed to show up anyway.

Then, and I'm sure you're noticing a pattern here, they manage to screw him up in contradictory ways.  The game makes very clear that Sephiroth is the real threat, but for a long stretch of time he not only does nothing with the power we know he has, but he also proceeds to show that he has no power to oppose the Whispers in the first place.  For all his posturing, he still sticks to the original plot very closely, and the only time he really tries to defy the Whispers is when he "kills" Barret, only for his act of shocking cruelty to be immediately reversed.  He unleashes JENOVA super early, in the president's office this time (another huge change the Whispers didn't seem to mind since it resulted in an impressive looking boss fight apparently) and then fucks off to go wait for you at the end of the highway, where you are to have your final showdown.  Keep in mind he still has no power to change destiny.  Even though he, like Aerith, is aware of the original timeline and is actively working to change it so that he can come out victorious, he still can't do anything about it.  The Whispers were dumb and insulting but they still held all the cards.  There's no reason to fear Sephiroth because you know you're going to win.  His master plan here is to make you kill the Whispers so his destiny can be changed, which you just gladly do because the party turns into a pack of drooling dipshits when the story calls for it.  Remember, he didn't kill the Whispers, you did.  Suddenly Sephiroth is in control and a tangible threat again, and he did it in the most unclever way possible.

And now you have to fight him, because you can't end FFVII without a Sephiroth fight, that's just too obvious of a fanservice moment to pass up.  But it's not just a fight, it's the most aggressively animu fight in the history of Final Fantasy.  It consists of him launching planet destroying mega attacks, teleporting all over the place, growing one black angel wing because of course he does, even throwing a fucking building at Cloud, which he ripostes by jumping a mile into the air and chopping it in half like it was nothing.  He goes from an ineffectual nuisance who can't best his fate to fail from the most ungodly powerful being in existence, and even then Cloud has seemingly no problem countering all of this shit.  This is such an awkward transition that it audibly clunks.  This instant escalation is pure whiplash, and the fact that the party still more or less handily crushes him is laughable.  And after all of that shit, after curbstomping God despite his ability to literally unmake existence, the battle still ends with Cloud getting his sword knocked out of his hand, completely at Sephiroth's mercy, before Sephiroth just says "tee hee I'm gonna let you live because we can't sell any more games if it ends right now, and bee tee dub my new plan is to completely end the concepts of time and creation themselves" which by the way was Caius's motivation in XIII-2 and it's exactly as stupid now as it was then.  And then he just... flies away and leaves you to go find him.  Because again, they can't sell any more games otherwise.  They already took it to the most absurd conclusion they could, we've already seen completely ridiculous shows of power from both Cloud and Sephiroth, where the fuck can you go from here?  I'm sure they'll think of something, and I'm sure it'll suck, there's no reason to assume it won't since it turns out the reason the game was so good at first is because they stuck to the original story and once they finally broke from away from it they turned it into the most bullshit fanfiction imaginable.  I didn't think it was possible to truly ruin Sephiroth since he was already a pretty overrated villain who was mostly notable for two huge acts of cruelty and having a cool sword, so you'd think there'd be nowhere to go but up, but nope, they found a way.  Fuck You Nomuuuraaaaa.

VI: You Should've Just Let Me Write It Dammit

So the game has a pretty canyonesque gap in quality between the climax and the rest of it.  There are problems in the main body, for sure (I didn't even touch on how terrible the Honeybee Inn segment was, and while I'm glad they eliminated the Gay Panic shit of Mukki threatening to gangbang Cloud, the fact that they replaced it was a half hour song and dance sequence rivaling the similar moments in X-2 on a level of tone-breaking-awfulness was an astoundingly bad idea (though not surprising if you're privy to the fact that one of the reasons Nomura was removed as director for XV was because he had watched Les Miserable and started insisting it become a musical (Fuck You Nomuuuuraaaaa))), but overall it was enjoyable, and I wouldn't even not recommend this to people despite the prevoious 8500 words bitching about it, because even though the destination was awful, I did enjoy the journey, and maybe somebody else will have more fun with it than I did.  But the question remains, "If you think it sucks so bad, how would you have done it, smartypants?"

I'm glad you asked, Hypothetical Strawman.

  • Get rid of the fucking Whispers.  The entirety of Section II up there should spell out why they were such a bad idea.  If you wanted to keep things mostly the same, just keep them mostly the same.  If you wanted to do something different, just do something different.  This shitty half-measure that spits in the mouth of old fans was a bewilderingly bad idea.  It would've been pretty easy to put Cloud in all of the places he needed to be while still diverging from the original plot a large amount.  Instead of Whispers intervening to bring him on the Sector 5 Bombing Run, just have Barret tell him no.  Have Cloud go do something else with his time.  Maybe Tifa gives him an errand before she leaves, or he decides to just leave and start exploring, or he takes a mercenary job, anything.  Then make it so he learns that the first bombing was a false flag somehow, maybe he comes across some proof incidentally, maybe Roche spills the beans during their fight on the plate, maybe any number of things happens, but he somehow learns and decides he cares enough about Tifa as a friend and goes to the reactor himself to warn them.  Make it so Sephiroth simply has a different plan from the outset without the added idiocy of him being aware of multiple timelines.  
  • If you wanted Zack to live, add some moral ambiguity to Cloud's character by showing Zack alive somewhere desperately searching for him, since he clearly stole his sword and left him for dead.  You could turn it into a redemption plot for Cloud.  Or maybe it was a mistake and Zack simply managed to survive after Cloud left him.  Or make it so he said "I'm going to Midgar, gotta see if I can find my old girlfriend" and have him show up as a foil for Cloud in the implied romance.  There are a ton of things you could've done here that didn't introduce his alternate fanfic bullshit.
  • Keep the dead characters dead.  There is no way around this, you can not bring Biggs back like that and expect anybody to care about a potential future death.
  • For fuck's sake don't try to make us reject Barret and Avalanche's eco-terrorism without giving us good reason.  It's amazing that they managed to both prove that they're 100% correct while still scolding us for sympathizing.  Have Barret retaliate when Shinra calls him out, or eliminate the false flag storyline and make it so yeah, Barret really is vainglorious and destructive.  Make it so his friends are dead and it's actually a realistic consequence of him killing innocent people, because as it stands, he doesn't kill one single innocent person and this entire confrontation is phony and infuriating.  None of the heroes are flawed at this point, and if they have nothing to overcome beyond some physical feat of strength like chopping Sephiroth harder than he chops them, there's no interesting drama.

  • Don't make Sephiroth a reality-destroying god-thing at the end of act one holy shit this is so obvious.  If you absolutely had to have a showdown with him this early, you had no choice but to skip the buildup of his power, so just make it a difficult but equal duel until he gets the best of Cloud and escapes to begin his nefarious plan.  Hell you can keep the shitty One Winged Angel dubstep remix if you want, I don't care, just don't make him warp reality and throw buildings at you, I can't believe I need to explain this.
  • If you insist on keeping the Whispers in the game, make it so Sephiroth is more powerful than them.  I know my last bit of advice was to make him less powerful but this isn't because I'm impossible to please, it's because you managed to fuck it up in contradictory ways.  Make it so Sephiroth doesn't attempt to alter the timeline until it's advantageous for him to do so (so after he gets control of JENOVA, which he was destined to do anyway) and then have him kill the Big Whisper.  That right there would establish him as somebody powerful enough to destroy fate itself and instill a real fear in you for the same reason his killing of the Midgar Zolom did in OG VII.  You witness something that seemed unbeatable, and then you saw him beat it.  Still skip the fight at the end, because dude no, but do it this way instead so you don't escalate things to a completely absurd peak when we're presumably only halfway through the story at best.

  • Stop letting Tetsuya Nomura have a creative role.  He is so bad at this.  It's utterly confounding how his only skill of drawing a fuckload of belts has somehow allowed him to fail upward to such a point that the flagship franchise of an entire genre has been utterly buttfucked into incoherent stupidity based on his dribbling lunacy.

VII: tl;dr 

Remake is a great game with a few flaws that are so bewilderingly huge that they retroactively sour what could've easily been an A- experience down to a solid D.  There's a part of me that's interested in seeing what they do next, because the chances of them following the original story beats are nil now, but my pattern recognition tells me it's going to be a solidly fun game to play with a story so bafflingly bad that it's going to give me an aneurysm.

Also jesus christ this is 9550 words in one sitting so fuck you I'm not editing this shit.  Suck my taint if you find a typo.

Spoilers, by the way.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

10 YEAR REUNION: Arsis - We Are the Nightmare


Arsis frustrates the fuck out of me.  On one hand they released one of the hands down greatest albums in both tech death and melodeath simultaneously.  A Celebration of Guilt bridged the gap between The Black Dahlia Murder and Necrophagist, and along the way it managed to craft some of the most enduring tracks in the genre.  "The Face of My Innocence" alone justifies the band's existence all the way to the present day.  They could've released that song as a single before replicating every Six Feet Under album in full and I'd still give them a shot whenever a new album came out.  On the other hand, that's really the only time they managed to nail it.  A Diamond for Disease is a great EP but it's basically the same idea as the debut, and it feels like it's coasting on that album's momentum.  United in Regret was the point when the band began to stumble, with muddy production and a few bad ideas clogging up an otherwise good album.  And in 2008 we met We Are the Nightmare, which signaled the moment they lost their balance completely and started tumbling down a mountainside. 

The main problems with this album are both totally out of left field and completely logical.  The previous album saw the beautiful cohesion of the band, despite their frantic technical ability, start to come apart at the seams.  They held on for about half of the album, but there were more than a handful of moments where every instrument broke away from the meat of the song and orbited the emotional core while constantly colliding with each other.  We Are the Nightmare is an album full to the brim with these moments.  "Shattering the Spell" is a great example of this phenomenon, because nearly every second of that track sounds like four different guys trying to play four different solos at the same time, and instead of being chaotic in the good way, it's chaotic in the same way a room filled with four years olds on a collective sugar rush is.  Comparing this particular song to Brain Drill is barely an exaggeration.  I love flashy performances and I try to shy away from claiming that a band is doing a genre incorrectly, because it's presumptuous and stupid to assume that the band wants in their hearts to be Entombed but has so far failed to do so, but generally bands understand that you don't treat the drums like a lead instrument for the same reason you don't build a NASCAR with rear-axle steering.  I should've seen this coming at the time because the band was definitely trending in the direction of total tech-metal overload, but it's still shocking because the precise reason Arsis was so good in the first place was specifically because they never did that.

The drumming is a huge problem here, and I think a lot of the blame can be laid at Darren Cesca's feet for this.  Arsis has always been the brainchild of James Malone, but Mike Van Dyne was the secret genius behind the figurehead, and his spastic yet subdued drumming was a big reason why the songs where as catchy and memorable as they were during his tenure.  I don't think it's a coincidence that as soon as the dude from Pillory took over, that backbone was snapped like Johnny Knox and suddenly the band's trademark infectiousness flew straight the fuck out the window.  It's also worth noting that this was a weird era in metal criticism when nobody seemed to understand what drum triggers were and assumed it just meant the drums were programmed, and honestly I can't blame them for not knowing the distinction on this album since the performance is so robotically nonsensical and the triggers they used were so fucking unnatural sounding.  Let's be real, death metal drums are rarely truly dynamic but here they are just constantly rattling around in the foreground louder than everything else by a sizable magnitude.  Cesca treats his performance like a forty minute drum fill and it winds up being super distracting and aggravating. 

We Are the Nightmare sports precisely three catchy choruses, which sounds like an odd complaint for a tech death album, but imagine a world where Dying Fetus pumps out an album with only three brain-squeezing slam-mosh riffs.  This is what Arsis does, it's very much their thing.  It's the entire reason that brilliant debut stuck with me as much as it did.  Nobody else can craft songs where the riffs and solos are being played at the same time by the same guy and still have catchy sing-song choruses that are impossible to resist rasping along with.  Tracks like "The Cold Resistance" and "The Sadistic Motives Behind Bereavement Letters" have vocal lines lifted straight out of a fucking Green Day record while still ripping faces off with molten fury.  That simply doesn't happen here apart from the title track, "Servants to the Night", and "Failure's Conquest".  The rest of the album is emblematic of everything the anti-tech death crowd claimed tech death was at the time.

It can be easy to forget since 2008 was twelve years ago now, but at the time tech death was really bundled with deathcore as the Bubba Ray and D-Von heel tag team of metal's Moral Panic Du Jour.  Tech death in particular was seen by a lot of genre purists as a total bastardization of what made death metal so good in the first place because it completely erased the base riffing style of the parent genre and replaced everything with endless "wanking".  Arsis, for a time, transcended that criticism because they were so cohesive and well put together, but We Are the Nightmare signaled them giving up on that and just joining the Deeds of Fleshes of the world by focusing on hyperfast technicality for the entire runtime.  This isn't necessarily a bad thing, because that era of tech death is great on its own merits and it's silly to compare it to Atheist or whatever for the same reason it's dumb to compare Hatebreed to Bad Brains, but it was a notable shift away from something unique and towards something trendy.  Moments like the chorus of "Servants to the Night" are shining beacons of classic Arsis in a sea of nonsensical instrumental masturbation.  It isn't bad because it's different, it's bad because it's really plain, which is something you could never accuse Arsis of being regardless of whether you liked them or not.

I'm contractually obligated to comment on the lyrics since I've made such a big stink about the hopeless Nice Guyisms that peppered Malone's lyrics on their previous work, but I honestly don't know how true it is this time.  I'm thoroughly Brain Poisoned at this point so I can definitely make a case for how We Are the Nightmare continues the band's legacy of being the biggest Musical Madonna/Whore Complex in metal, but if that's true then it's at least more draped in metaphor than before.  There are at least a couple of references to "three words" that either bind people or drive them to madness, which seems obvious enough since "three words" reference "I love you" in every instance of fiction ever written.  Constant references to "silence" and people gladly watching somebody ruin their life can easily be interpreted as the narrator being bitter about his crush moving on with somebody else while everybody seems happy about it and only he notices the guy is a jerk, but I dunno.  The endless callbacks to "shame" and "denial" and "sins" that happen "at night" are, if nothing else, a hell of a lot better than his whining about "your indifference" and a "wound" he desperately wants to "be inside", but if he's still on his friendzone bullshit I'll at least give him an A for effort in trying to obfuscate it this time.  He only really drops the ball on "Progressive Entrapment" which is about as subtle as a kick in the taint but hey, he's trying.

I feel like it's no longer a hot take to call We Are the Nightmare the low point in Arsis's career.  The muscianship is absolutely dazzling but at the end of the day, this one has the least amount of truly memorable songs, which is something at which the band was always stellar.  The title track and "Servants to the Night" are great songs and I'll still go to bat for them, but they're the only worthwhile tracks among eight other chaotic blasts of meaningless spazzery.  When they're on their game, Arsis can be one of the absolute best bands in their little niche, but when they're off, well, they release bland blasty sweepy nonsense like this.  We know they can do better than this, and Malone's incredible strength of writing hooks is more or less squandered this time.


Friday, April 10, 2020

10 YEAR REUNION: Children of Bodom - Are You Dead Yet?


I've touched on it before, but I just want to reiterate something I like to call "Roy's Law", which states "The quality of any given Bodom album is inversely proportional to how violent the Grim Reaper on the cover is acting."  On the great albums (the first three, Halo of Blood) he stands beckoning or remorseful, a mysterious figure symbolizing the inevitable end that awaits us all.  On the awful albums (Blooddrunk, Relentless Reckless Forever) he's violently murdering somebody.  Bodom was never a particularly deep band, they are famous for Alexi making up half the lyrics on the spot in the studio and he drops more f-bombs per minute than a shitty Rob Zombie flick after all, but there's a certain meta-poetry in the fact that how stupid and brainless their mascot is acting at any given time tends to mirror how stupid and brainless the music contained inside will be.  The only real hitch in this theory is their fifth album, Are You Dead Yet?  This one features Roy menacingly glaring at you from behind some screen, clearly inspired by The Ring, so like... does this one count as mid-murder?  Is this merely ominous?

The music contained wherein this time tends to confirm both interpretations, and unsurprisingly this album winds up being something of a mess.  Hate Crew Deathroll was, at the time, clearly a transition album, moving from the hyperactive "Nightwish with yowling" style they pioneered into a style more outwardly heavy and rooted in actual melodeath, so Are You Dead Yet? was, initially at least, seen as the logical endpoint of what they were aiming towards in 2003.  In a post Blooddrunk world, however, this is more clearly a second phase to the transition, retaining some of the high flying acrobatics of the classic era while further pushing their sound into the realm of downtuned chug riffs and bare-knuckled brutality.  This style wasn't Bodom's strength necessarily, but tracks like "Sixpounder" fucking ruled so logically there's no reason they wouldn't be good at this as well.  And honestly?  For about thirteen minutes they absolutely do showcase some serious talent in more simplified songs.

The opening trio of "Living Dead Beat", "Are You Dead Yet?", and "If You Want Peace... Prepare for War" are every bit as good as the heavier songs on the previous album and even could have made it a near flawless album if they had replaced the few weaker tracks.  Laiho and Wirman's trademark dueling solos are a tad less head-spinningly insane this time around, but their ear for hooks is as sharp as ever, with the title track and "If You Want Peace..." sporting two of the catchiest choruses the band will ever write.  And while riffs were never the band's strength (always instead shining via the aforementioned hooks, solos, and memorable melodies), I am to this day stunned that they managed to rip out a riff as fucking perfect as the pre-verse riff in "Living Dead Beat" after the intro.  Total fucking shame that it only shows up for a few bars here and there. 

It's the following two thirds of the album that shit the bed so mightily that it managed to sour those three belters and give this album the reputation as the first bad Bodom album.  "Punch Me I Bleed" is the token slow song that shows up on every fucking record because they're desperate to recreate the success of "Angels Don't Kill", and apart from the monolithic verse riff (that I realize now sounds an awful lot like Cannibal Corpse's "Scourge of Iron" seven years early) it's just as plodding and lame as its predecessor.  "In Your Face" also stands out as the song with the most wasted potential, since the initial feeling is one akin to that of "Sixpounder" with a shot of adrenaline, and the music itself borders on great from time to time, but... just holy shit this is the lyrical nadir.  Alexi was never a good lyricist, but they also never really mattered or took center stage.  Hell some of their best tracks include gems like "Well I'm an asshole and I really always will be" and "Kill, kill, kill, go fuck another one" so it's not like this is a new problem.  But "OH MY GOOOOD HERE'S A FIIIIGHT" and a repeated refrain of "I DON'T GIVE A FLYING FUCK MOTHERFUCKER" is just somehow so much stupider than anything he's barfed out before.  The rest of the album just flounders as the drunken Finns suddenly forgot how to write a song and everything just kinda flops around with lame chugs, weak leads, and no clear direction.  "Trashed, Lost and Strungout" is the lone good song in the back half, sounding like another lost Hate Crew jawn, but after four spectacular bed-wetters in a row it's a task bordering on herculean to get excited about it.

I have a theory on why the album falls apart so quickly after the first few tracks, though I admit it's purely speculation.  I feel like those three great songs were among the first written, and after a while Alexi realized that this new simplified direction is way the fuck easier to write than the complex pyrotechnics showcased on classics like "Kissing the Shadows" so he just stopped trying so hard.  The songs feel like they came together on their own and I suspect they probably did, because the level of effort involved is abysmal here.  Tracks 4 thru 9 sound like a stream of consciousness first drafts that were all in desperate need of tweaking and rewrites.  Like come on, "We're Not Gonna Fall" sounds like a filler track that plays during the character select screen in Dynasty Warriors.  There is no way "Next in Line" is the best he could do.  I know he was absolutely losing his grip on the first half of "high functioning alcoholic" at the time and it shows.  Even Janne Wirman's keyboard work takes a back seat for the majority of the album, which is a fucking crime considering how he was always the co-headliner in the band and arguably the most talented member to begin with.  He doesn't play background atmosphere, that's not what he does, he's a front and center melody carrier and solo wizard.  Putting him in the background to do twinkling bullshit is like signing Wayne Gretzky and making him play goalie.  They make his reduced role work on the title track and precisely nowhere else.

Are You Dead Yet? is a house of cards that scatters the minute a stiff breeze blows its way.  I wish with all of my heart that they could've kept up the level of quality showcased on the opening triad, because it's definitely different for them, but it's still excellent.  Let it never be said that I hate change on principle.  My main concern is whether or not the changes are good, and at first they absolutely are.  This album really signaled the beginning of the end for a band that was once completely unique, more or less inventing an entire microgenre wholesale while reigning at the top of the pack on a macro scale.  They would have a few minor rebounds here and there in the 2010s, but at the end of the day, Hate Crew Deathroll was a tantalizing peek at what Bodom could do if they streamlined their songwriting a bit, while Are You Dead Yet? is the depressing reality of what happens when they decide to go whole hog and stop giving a shit.


Thursday, April 9, 2020

Testament - Titans of Creation

Final Fatassy

Bear with me, I need to compare something to Final Fantasy again.  I know, I know, it's kinda my thing.  Blame the fact that Vivi was the closest thing I had to a real friend growing up.

Once upon a time, Final Fantasy became the videogame institution that it became because the series used to pump out excellence at an alarming rate.  Over the years, Squeenix has completely lost the ability to tell a great story (once their greatest strength).  The games were and still are absolutely fucking gorgeous, with every release pushing the hardware of its home console to the limit, with slick presentation and heartbreakingly beautiful cinematics.  But the actual heart, the stories they tell, the white hot burning core of the entire role playing genre, has been utter fucking trash for decades, and despite how different they all are they somehow manage to have similar problems.  Very often, the stories devolve into incoherent multiverse nonsense (also very prevalent in Kingdom Hearts, because some Brain Genius decided Tetsuya Nomura's only skill of drawing tiny torsos and a fuckload of belts would somehow translate to a creative role and for some utterly unfathomable fucking reason they keep letting him direct shit) with annoying characters and nearly identical villains.  There are elements that succeed here and there by what I can only assume is divine flukery, but the overall trajectory has been safely rehashing the same ideas that barely worked the first time for years now.

That's what modern Testament is to me.  There is absolutely no denying that their presentation is on point.  Ever since their resurgence on Nuclear Blast with The Formation of Damnation in 2008, each album has been graced with a stunning piece of Eliran Kantor artwork, the production on every album has had instantly recognizable combo of sheen and punch that Andy Sneap always delivers, Chuck Billy's gruff, howling holler remains one of the most iconic voices in thrash metal, I maintain that to this day they are still worth catching live because their energy is unreal at their currently advanced age, and the lineup is basically the stuff of dreams nowadays since Alex Skolnick returned and the rhythm section has been stocked with the twin Jeff Garcias of the metal world in Steve DiGiorgio and Gene Hoglan (the two best journeymen support players in the whole damn macrogenre).

And yet, when the fuck is the last time Testament wrote a truly phenomenal song?  When is the last time they delivered a riff that truly blew your socks off?  When is the last time they crafted something as instantly catchy as "Souls of Black" or "Over the Wall"?  Hell I actually like The Formation of Damnation but there's no denying that nothing on there holds a candle to what they pumped out on The New Order.  Every single album in the Nuclear Blast era has had unbelievably slick presentation but no matter what new thing they try, they completely fail to deliver on the most important component, genuinely great riffs and songs.  Titans of Creation only follows this pattern, with another breathtaking Kantor piece, another pristine Sneap knobjob, another great Billy performance, and another way-too-long album with precisely zero great riffs.  Who the fuck heard "Symptoms" or "The Healers" and decided they absolutely needed to be included?

The soul-deflating hour long runtime is an unsurprising problem, since albums dragging on for too long is a common complaint of mine, but it really hurts here because so little of interest happens despite the consistently high tempo.  Hoglan's drumming seems to have lost all creativity, never once showing off his famous speed or lightning fast fills, instead falling into a comfortable metronomic performance that could have been (and probably was) recorded in his sleep, and DiGiorgio's famous fretless bass wizardry is a completely misused waste of talent on par with Jeff Loomis joining Arch Enemy.  Peterson and Skolnick's guitar mastery is relegated to stock thrash riffs pulled out of a dusty trunk and their once phenomenal leadwork sounds like nothing but meaningless noise.  Testament's classic era was never as extreme as their contemporaries but they still stood out on the strength of excellent songwriting and a knack for maddeningly good hooks, but they seemed to have lost this ability somewhere around six or seven songs into 2008.  The only truly catchy song this time around is "Dream Deceiver", and the intensity is at least worthwhile on "Night of the Witch" and "Curse of Osiris", but those are three minor successes on an otherwise uninteresting album at the tail end of a career that has been unimpressive for years now.

I know it's kind of a meaningless critique to just call something uninteresting since it's hard to put mediocrity into words, but that's really the main problem here.  Titans of Creation is less than the sum of its parts by a pretty wide margin.  The few moments when Peterson gets to inject his love of the more extreme fringes of metal are pretty solid ("Curse of Osiris" is far and away the best track on the album for this exact reason), but meandering riff salads like "WWIII", "Code of Hammurabi", and "City of Angels" make up the lion's share of the album and I can't recommend listening to it in good faith.  Like, it's cool that the band's vocals have diversified so much in recent years (Peterson's more extreme snarl is showcased well in "Night of the Witch") but they don't amount to anything meaningful when surrounded by more pedestrian riffs than a musical crosswalk.  This is a step up from the insulting lameness of Brotherhood of the Snake but not by much.  Titans of Creation is another safe and mediocre entry into Testament's late-career resurgence, and just like the hamfisted comparison from the intro, even the new ideas are wrong in the same way as the old ideas and the actual heart of the band has been diminished to a shriveled lump of barely-beating nothing.

There's really no place to put this, but I have to give a round of applause to "Catacombs" for being so clearly intended as an instrumental intro track but somehow winding up lost in the caboose as the last song on the album.


Monday, April 6, 2020

Serpent Column - Endless Detainment

Wars Waged in My Privates lol gottem

Look man I'm just gonna make this a short one.  I'm not reinvigorated by the Covid like most of you are, I'm alternating between pointlessly going to work anyway and spending a week at home being fidgety and annoyed at my housemates for simply existing.  I thought I was gonna review during this downtime to help keep myself sane, but it turns out I hate doing that too but dammit I'm gonna try FUCK

Serpent Column has been something of an underground sensation over the past few years, with Ornuthi Thalassa coming out of nowhere in 2017 to destroy listeners with the main dude whose name I can neither spell nor be bothered to look up's signature brand of spiraling black/death intensity.  Since that debut their profile has only grown, with last year's Mirror in Darkness managing to rank in the Top 30 across all genres on RYM, and the subject of this review, Endless Detainment, currently sitting at the pole position in the EP category for this year.

Each release has gotten more and more chaotic, and the current result of that ever-unfurling sonic degloving is an album so twisted that it eats nails and shits corkscrews.  There isn't even really a thematic thruline I can use within the context of this review to help it make sense, because around every new turn in the music is a new ghoul, a new trap door, a new falling rock.  Everything is a trap and it's a confusing and violent nightmare.  Take a look at "Arachnain", likely the best example of this album's utter distaste for the safe and familiar.  It starts off with the closest thing to a "normal" riff you're going to find across the entire twentyish minutes of Endless Detainment, with a quick trill and a few chugs, you can't help but feel like this is an illusion.  Nothing up to this point has been so simple and groovy.  After the whirlwind of broken glass that was "Violence Aesthete", there's no way Mr. Column even has the impulse control necessary to stick to something catchy.  And he doesn't, because before you know it, that simple riff is accompanied by bass and percussion that feel juuuuust a bit wrong, and by the time you can likely comprehend what the interplay between al the instruments is supposed to be well surprise now you're careening down Willy Wonka's Boat Ride to Hell.

A lot of people around the 'net (as the kids say) have been citing a huge uptick in influence from mathcore, particularly Dillinger Escape Plan.  I'm unprofessional as fuck and only have a surface level knowledge of what mathcore even is, so I'm just going to parrot that citation and hope it's correct.  I can understand it from what little knowledge I have though, as "Pantheoclasm" sounds dangerously close to what genre purists accused Deathspell Omega of being when Circumspice first dropped.  That influence is definitely there, and the first handful of songs in a row all exemplify that sort of dutch-angled firing-squad of riffage, "Manure in Pearls" specifically being the one that crushes my brain the hardest.

I've forgotten how to review and I'm going to abuse my reputation to post this rambling bullshit anyway.  The point of all this is that Serpent Column is extremely good, and if you look outside of MA you can tell that it's really catching on elsewhere.  Hopefully someday the largest and most historically important website for metal culture catches up, because this fucking rules.