Video Game Review: Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions

In early 1998 my brother and I had a debate over which video game earned the championship belt between two heavyweight contenders – the RPG Final Fantasy VII and the strategy RPG Final Fantasy Tactics. In the years between then and now, history has decided for us. The Final Fantasy VII universe has accumulated spin-off titles, an anime feature film, and it is being remade as another big budget production. Meanwhile, Final Fantasy Tactics remains relegated to the past, for the most part. I tried playing one of the Game Boy Advance spin-offs, but it paled in comparison to the original.

I haven’t played every Final Fantasy game. Seriously, who has the time? But I’ve played enough to feel secure in saying Tactics has to be one of the best Final Fantasy games, and overall it’s one of the best video games released during the original Playstation era. Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions is more of a re-release than a remake, but its improved translation fixes one of the main flaws of the original game. The battle system is still a bit overcomplicated for me to fully account for every detail (for example, characters’ zodiac signs affect attack damage), but in this case I’d rather the game be more complex rather than less.

The Tactics story itself is quite dense and hard to follow. The sense I had playing it the very first time was, “Man this is epic and cool but I don’t remember who that guy is and I don’t know who is betraying who.” Following the story is still challenging, but I liken it to reading a novel that expects you to pay attention and use a highlighter if you need to help yourself. The main character Ramza is a naïve highborn child who sheds the scales from his eyes as he grows, and his friend Delita is one of the most intriguing characters Final Fantasy has ever produced. He grows much faster than Ramza, playing the political game and using people so that he’s never used as a pawn again. Whereas many Final Fantasy games focus mainly on fantasy adventure, politics factor heavily into Tactics. The marriage of fantasy and politics sounds like a winning combination, doesn’t it? It’s no wonder Game of Thrones caught on like wildfire.

All this writing and I haven’t yet mentioned the combat. Unlike many RPGs, a button masher this is not. Units are moved across a map like chess pieces, placed strategically to inflict higher damage while avoiding attacks from opposing units. It’s addicting gameplay, and matches can extend to half an hour or more. Watching your black mage inflict a death blow just before a ninja is about to strike her down is one of the many small victories experienced on the Tactics battlefield. And thanks to the excellent job system, that same black mage can be transformed into a time mage, a monk, a geomancer, or whatever else you like for the next match. One of the only gripes I have with The War of the Lions is it includes special jobs that require absurd amounts of experience to attain.

I love Final Fantasy Tactics, and The War of the Lions is the best way to experience it. Anyone who enjoys RPGs, epic stories (seriously, I love the church vs. state vs. demons story so much), strategy games, board games, and anything awesome needs to play it. There’s no excuse either, because you can now play it on your phone like I did. Also, Delita is a character who deserves to be mentioned alongside heavy hitters like Cloud Strife. If that’s not enough of a selling point, Cloud also sneaks his way into Tactics as a playable character. There truly is no reason not to play this game.

If you’d like to know more about the game, or if you have already played Final Fantasy Tactics and want to take a trip down memory lane, here’s a great retrospective review by Resonant Arc.

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Michigan Bound

I began my career in wildland fire on the Mendocino National Forest way back in May of 2016. At the time I didn’t know anything about fighting fire, and I was unfamiliar with poison oak, God’s devil plant. Working in California, overall, has been a damn pleasure. I’ve learned skills I never would have acquired on my own, met some good people, and worked harder than I have at any other job (not every day, but the tough days were always the most rewarding). The MNF also gave me the opportunity to detail on a helicopter in Twin Falls, ID, which turned out to be my favorite fire season thus far.

Now it’s time to drive east to begin a new job at the Huron-Manistee National Forest. I’m excited to check out a new region, even if it means I’m going to miss the California mountains I love. I’m also going to be much closer to my future wife, which is something I’m extremely thankful for. Cheers to new beginnings in the state of Michigan.

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Movie Review: Everybody Wants Some!!

I’m convinced that not nearly enough people have watched Everybody Wants Some!! Maybe it didn’t get much attention because it’s not a direct sequel to Dazed and Confused – it’s a spiritual successor – but it stands right alongside Linklater’s high school haze cloud of nostalgia.

Whereas Dazed and Confused threw together every social group to see them mix and mingle, Everybody Wants Some!! is focused on college baseball players in Texas as they galivant around town the weekend before classes officially begin. Freshman pitcher Jake leads us into athlete dorm life, but he’s a main character similar to Randall “Pink” Floyd. He’s a decent guy, but his buddies are all more interesting. There’s Jay, the antagonistic pitcher who believes he’s bound for the big show. McReynolds is captivating as the natural athlete who’s overly competitive, a natural leader, and a complete asshole when he chooses to be. And we can’t forget Finnegan who fills in the Mathew McConaughey role of resident ladies’ man who combines laid back confidence with intellectual repartee.

Most of the movie is spent watching the guys bond, argue, debate, compete, and chase women. I hesitate to call this a sports movie, but the one practice we get to watch is a definite highlight. Anyone who played baseball in high school or college will recognize the power struggles and silly fun of practicing without supervision. Everybody Wants Some!! is a good, rewatchable movie, but watching it makes me wish it were expanded to a TV series. It could make a perfect transition from big screen to small.

One minor complaint is the romance subplot between Jake and Beverly is a bit of a drag at the tail end of the movie. Not to say it’s bad, but the movie is at its best when it’s an expanded cast party. Everybody Wants Some!! works as a college movie, sports flick, nostalgia trip, early 80’s mixtape, and bong rip. C’mon, it’s Linklater. Of course weed is involved. Now go watch it.

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Best Eps: The League – “The Kluneberg”

In this feature I take a look at one episode that marks a high point in a television series. It’s not necessarily the absolute best a series has to offer (that’s always debatable), but it’s an episode that remains lodged in memory long after I first watched it.

An improvised comedy about a fantasy football league might not sound too enticing on paper, but the first couple seasons of The League are very entertaining. And when used sparingly, Rafi (Jason Mantzoukas) is absurdly hilarious and the show’s funniest character. Combine a coked up Rafi with Andre’s terrible taste in overpriced art and you have a recipe for disaster in “The Kluneberg.”

Rafi is convinced he’s best friends with the guys of the league, despite the fact he is clearly despised by them. The guys think the best way to get rid of Rafi is to break up the league itself by way of a fake fight between Pete and Andre. The fake fight turns too real for Andre (and Rafi tries to turn the fight more real by tossing a butter knife into the mix), and the only way for Pete to bring Andre back into the fold is by saying he loves Andre’s shitty Kluneberg painting. It’s always fun to see a delusional Andre think he’s bonding with one of his buddies.

“The Kluneberg” features surprising character moments that are as funny as they are unexpected. Ruxin reveals he’s not allowed to defecate at home due to strict house rules. Andre pushes his homemade hummus on his guests during an intervention and almost gets into another fight because of it. Jenny is unable to seduce sex addict Russell, who would rather fantasize about artichoke alien breasts. Andre struggles to blow out a candle while attempting to appear sinister. Well, that last one isn’t unexpected given Andre’s innumerable failures.

But this episode is all about the twist ending with all storylines converging in an unholy union. Drunk Rafi scratch and sniffs coke off of Taco’s toilet seat (yeah), which leads to him destroying the $25,000 Kluneberg in an excitable rage. The guys follow Rafi downstairs only to find Russell the sex addict’s car shaking. Thinking his wife is getting serviced by Russell, Kevin throws open the door, and the guys are witness to Rafi getting rammed from behind by the sex addict. It’s not a pleasant sight for the guys, but it’s funny as hell for the viewer. Rafi isn’t lying when he says, “Some things you can’t unsee, bro.”

Other Best Eps candidates: “Ghost Monkey,” “Kegel the Elf,” “Thanksgiving”

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The Challenge Hall of Fame: Rachel Robinson

To succeed on The Challenge a competitor must be smart, strong, politically savvy, or at the very least, lucky. Most competitors are average talents, and an unfortunate few perform poorly enough to earn a dubious honor (enter the Hall of Shame). But these competitors, the Hall of Fame class, have conquered The Challenge in one form or another, and they all share the most important quality: they know how to win.

I’m somewhat surprised by Rachel Robinson’s Challenge resume, because on paper her dominance isn’t well documented. She has a 1-2 elimination record (counting a three-way “face-off” on The Island), and she found herself voted off early in both Battle of the Sexes seasons. Most competitors had an easier time winning on earlier seasons that featured teams. Rachel, meanwhile, seemed to be waiting for an opportunity to go solo and win it all herself.

Before moving onto her best season, Rachel became infamous for her relationship with Veronica Portilla, her best buddy and threesome partner. The two formed a strong bond, so it’s no surprise they won The Gauntlet together and made it to The Inferno II final. I wouldn’t say Rachel ever had the best political skills, but befriending someone like Veronica – a friend you can trust wholeheartedly – is a somewhat rare feat on The Challenge.

Forget about that Gauntlet win though. Rachel earns her place in the Hall of Fame based on The Duel II alone. Landon Lueck’s performance on The Duel II is often referenced, but people seem to forget Rachel’s superiority during the same season. Rachel and Mark “The Godfather” Long earned first or second place in almost all of the daily challenges, and no one dared to call Rachel out to battle in an elimination. Unlike other competitors who were carried by their male partners, Rachel was arguably a stronger partner than The Godfather. Not only did she win first place amongst her female competition during the final challenge, she beat every male competitor. No one expected that to happen.

Rachel didn’t come close to the final on her last season, Battle of the Exes, but with a partner like Aneesa Ferreira, you can’t expect too much. It’s unfortunate that Rachel didn’t compete in another solo season, because I would have liked to see her in a physical elimination against a top tier competitor like Laurel Stucky or Evelyn Smith. Even after seven seasons we didn’t get enough footage of Rachel showing us exactly why phrases like “send the girls home early ‘cause they’ll hold us back in the final” are complete bullshit.

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Key Character: Jack Wilson

We all have favorite fictional characters. They can be inspirational, sagacious, heroic… or they can be relentless villains who are just so damn charismatic. In this feature I celebrate fictional characters who make their worlds much fuller.

Shane is a classic of western cinema. Its titular hero is a quiet and highly skilled gunfighter who finds a new home with the Starrett family. But this article isn’t about Shane. It’s about his dark reflection, the sinister Jack Wilson of Cheyenne.

Wilson isn’t the main antagonist of the film. Rather, he’s a hired gun recruited by the powerful cattleman Rufus Ryker. In some ways Wilson and Shane are quite similar. They’re both highly trained, stoic, and they carry dangerous reputations. But Shane has heart and a desire to become a better man. Wilson is an unscrupulous mercenary working for a tyrant.

Before Wilson’s introduction halfway through the film, Shane’s dialogue foreshadows the villain’s appearance. Shane mentions men who carry two guns (like Wilson), saying, “Some like two guns. But one’s all you need if you can use it.” Shane goes on to say, “A gun is as good or as bad as the man using it.” Wilson is the bad to Shane’s good, the two guns to Shane’s one.

Wilson shows his true nature when he confronts Frank “Stonewall” Torrey and goads him into drawing his weapon. After absorbing insults, Torrey calls Wilson a “lowdown, lying Yankee.” Wilson smiles and challenges Torrey by asking him to “prove it” (a great bit of line reading from actor Jack Palance). All the while Wilson wears a sinister smile. And he continues smiling as he guns Torrey down in the mud.

We never learn much about Wilson. Like Shane, we know little to nothing of his history. He doesn’t even spend much time onscreen. And in this case, less is more. All we know is he is what Shane could have been. Or worse, he’s what Shane used to be. And by outdrawing Wilson and shooting him dead, Shane reaffirms himself as a killer who may not deserve the home he thought he’d found.

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