Checkpoint: Japan & South Korea Vacation Edition

I’ve just returned from a two week vacation in Japan and South Korea. We made our way through Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, and Seoul. It was a great trip with the girlfriend (now fiancee). We saw lots of great sights, ate lots of great food, and caught glimpses of what life is like in those great nations and cities. 

We took plenty of photos and videos but those we’ll likely remain on Facebook for now. In its stead, here are some thoughts in text form.

Tokyo

We landed in Tokyo first and experienced the best of modern Japan. I loved how exceptional the service was. Everyone was so polite, helpful, and patient with us English speakers. Getting around the city was initially confusing but careful reading of the English signage coupled with Google Maps, we made our way through Tokyo’s excellent subway system. 

We loved how clean the city was and how safe we felt. We visited Shinjuku, Shibuya, Akihabara, Toyosu Fish Market, Senso-ji temple, Sumida Aquarian, and the Tokyo Skytree. All of those spots were wonderful.

Shinkansen

We made our way to Kyoto via the JR Shinkansen which was an exceptional way to travel. The reputation of timeliness of these amazing high speed trains was known but we just didn’t appreciate how timely everything in Tokyo was which resulted in us waiting around for over an hour. We didn’t have confidence in Tokyo’s public transit and our ability to navigate so we gave ourselves a lot of unnecessary buffer time. 

So we people watched and explored Tokyo station a bit before eventually zooming away to Kyoto. We got to Kyoto in 2 hours or so. The distance between Tokyo and Kyoto is roughly the same as Ottawa and Toronto and it takes nearly double that time via car. Going by VIA Rail is even longer. I miss Tokyo’s transit but I will miss Japan’s Shinkansen more. I would gladly spend $150 to just zip into Toronto in 2.5 hours in comfort. 

Kyoto 

We spent approximately $100 – $120 per night accommodations in each city. As a result, we got to see how far our money took us in each city. The Comfort Inn in Tokyo was older but alright. Kyoto’s was like a mini modern day guesthouse full of some neat gadgets. I was particularly impressed with the LED lighting with adjustable temperature function. There was no complimentary breakfast here so we were forced to fend ourselves. It turns out, breakfast in Kyoto is a bit tricky. We eventually found a few solid spots near our hotel but our options were limited if we weren’t feeling coffee shops or western styled breakfast spots in subway stations.

Our time in Kyoto was spent seeking out more traditional Japan. We caught glimpses of two geisha in Gion, spent time with the monkeys in Arashiyama, and visited some picturesque temples. We also tried some kobe beef which was exceptionally rich and tasty. 

Osaka

A short 12 minute Shinkansen ride brought us to our final Japanese city, Osaka. Osaka was a bit of a shocker to me because it broke the mould in cleanliness in Japan. Osaka wasn’t filthy like other like Montreal or Toronto but it reminded me of downtown Ottawa. It was the first time I noticed a lot of trash and cigarette butts on the ground in Japan. A bit of research online suggested that Osaka is more laid back compared to Tokyo and I can see it. Still, that bit of uncleanliness didn’t dampen our food adventures in this great city. We spent more time out at night in Osaka, trying to soak in the lights and glamour of Dotombori. 

Our tatami style Osaka accommodations saw us spend some time sleeping on the floor. It wasn’t terrible but it certainly wasn’t preferable for more than a few days. 

Kansai and Incheon Airports

I don’t enjoy being rushed and as a result, Canadian airports like YVR and YOW irk me a bit with their security processes. Kansai and Incheon Airports on the other hand allow me to take my time to unpack my stuff into bins and still manage to process people at a brisk pace. They’re also friendly and professional without the hint of disdain for their jobs. They’re both also very modern airports with the sensible niceties to go with it — I felt I did more walking in YOW than in the other two considerably larger airports. 

Seoul

A short Peach airline flight later, we made it to Incheon and then eventually Seoul. Incheon was over an hour away from our hotel in Seoul but thankfully there were solid bus shuttle options. We were dropped off right at the doorstep which was very convenient. Our accommodations in Seoul were also the best of the trip. It wasn’t the newest but it was the most spacious, comfortable, and luxurious. Accommodation wise, our money easily went the furthest here.

Our money also went rather far in the food department as well, portions weren’t small in Japan but we both felt many places heaped it on in Seoul. This was especially true with kimchi and soups. 

Seoul was also the most tricky of the places to navigate in the rain. A combination of questionable surface materials and slightly worn out shoes resulted in perilous treks in the rain. Thankfully it was just one day. 

My fiancee loved the fashion and cosmetic offerings in Seoul. She gorged herself in so much of it without making a huge dent in the wallet. The options and competition available Myeong-dong were staggering. 

Traffic & Bikes

There were a lot of takeaways from my trip to Japan and Seoul. One of the more prominent ones were the relationship between traffic and bikes. Japan was a nation of smaller vehicles with plenty of bike traffic on sidewalks and on the streets. Bikes were maneuvering between pedestrians and cars without issue. People from all walks of life were riding their bikes in Tokyo. Businessmen, mothers with children in child seats, and older folks were all riding. And these bike riders didn’t even wear helmets and we did not witness a single spill or accident. 

Despite the density of people and cars, patience and courtesy seems to have allowed bikes, cars, and people to coexist in relative harmony.

Common Trust

Many folks leave the bikes unlocked. Many store shops leave expensive items out in front with nothing but a camera in sight and sometimes not even that. The level of trust both Japanese and Koreans have of their countrymen and tourists is commendable and refreshing. Razors are being locked here in North American grocery stores while I’m seeing SKII Essence bottles being left out in front unattended.

Clean Chaos

Even at its most chaotic, the traffic jams and throngs of people funnelling through subway stations and busy streets, I felt safe and not at all annoyed by it all. The worst of it was in Seoul where the car horn was used liberally but even then I didn’t witness any outbursts of discontent like I would have in North America.

Will Return

This was my first big trip overseas and it was wonderful. I would love to go back to both nations and soak in more of what they have to offer. My expectations of Japan were set by the Yakuza and Persona games and they were largely accurate. I didn’t know what to expect of Seoul but it largely resembled a mix of North America and Japan. I don’t know when we’ll make it back there but I miss it already — there’s just so much you cannot find here. 

LTTP: Rise of the Tomb Raider [X1]

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With the release of Shadow of the Tomb Raider, I thought it was about time to finally play Rise of the Tomb Raider. I didn’t like the second installment of this prequel trilogy as much as I thought I would. It played well, it was still able to hang with the best of them on the presentation front but I didn’t find Lara likable this time around

Rise of the Tomb Raider continued Lara Croft’s evolution into the Tomb Raider. In her 2013 adventure, Lara was depicted as an archaeologist thrown into traumatic situation. She was a bit hapless at first but by the end, she was taking out mercenaries like Nathan Drake. In Rise of the Tomb Raider, Lara Croft was a bit of an obsessed and selfish jerk who deliberately put her friend and others in danger in order to obtain the “Divine Source”. She even convinced herself that she was doing the right thing if she liberated the Divine Source and relieved the natives from the burden of defending it. Lara ultimately did the right thing but not before doing everything in her power to become very unlikable in my books.

The gameplay loop didn’t change much from what I recall of the last game. There were comparatively cinematic firefights, chases, and climbs broken up by larger open spaces for Lara to explore. These open spaces featured the hunting, gathering, crafting, and fetch quests that one would expect. Some fit the context of story well, while others required a long suspension of disbelief. Tombs were also unearthed in these spaces but this time they were a bit more elaborate and challenging compared to those of the last game.

Thankfully, Rise of the Tomb Raider was not as gruesome as its predecessor. Lara was still brutal with her executions but her deaths weren’t so wince inducing. It was unnecessary in their pursuit of grittiness. She still has a violent rage to her but at least, it matched her gruffer demeanor, this time around.

I played this game on the Xbox One X courtesy of Xbox Game Pass. The game looked very impressive with solid performance  early on but as soon as I stepped foot into the Geothermal Valley, the framerate suffered. I played it on the Digital Foundry recommended “Enriched 4K” mode and I was none too pleased by that experience. I would have preferred if they focused on getting the framerate to lock at 30 FPS. Rise of the Tomb Raider was supposed to be one of the Xbox One X showcase games and watching the game struggle was disappointing.

I continued to compare Rise of the Tomb Raider to the Uncharted series – I cannot help it. I played Uncharted 4 and Uncharted: The Lost Legacy before tackling Rise of the Tomb Raider so my expectations were inflated. I found Lara’s facial animation odd and distracting during dialog exchanges during (what was supposed to be) dramatic sequences.

One of the sillier aspects of these Tomb Raider games were the rewards. Lara found modern weapon parts deep in caves and knowledge to improve her survivability in texts at the end of tombs. I understand the desire to loop gameplay rewards into collectibles but at least try to make some sense of it. I also found the idea of her slaying half a dozen bears, wolves, and other wildlife to improve her equipment to be extreme. I felt they were stretching the survival angle thin in this game; it didn’t feel necessary once she met up with others.

Lara Croft was at her best doing what she was known to do and that was raiding tombs, solving puzzles, and occasionally fending off mercenaries and vicious animals. When she was interacting with other humans or skinning animals for their furs? I wish it was better realized.

Verdict:
It was okay

Ratings Guide

Checkpoint: Autumn Chill 2018 Edition

October is here again but I’m not quite ready for that crisp autumn morning just yet.

I haven’t been keeping up with these check-in posts because I’ve just been spending more time playing video games with the girlfriend. With a blink of an eye, we’re experiencing our second October together and it’s been good fun.

October also means the arrival of new video games. These are the pre-orders that will be making their way to me:

  • Forza Horizon 4
  • Super Mario Party
  • Pokemon Let’s Go! Eevee
  • Super Smash Bros. Ultimate

Forza Horizon 4 will be available to me via Xbox Game Pass. It’ll be my first Forza Horizon game and the first racing game in quite some time. I’m looking forward to giving it an honest go on the Xbox One X.

Super Mario Party will be my first Mario Party game ever. After seeing the shenanigans, the Giant Bomb guys endure, I look forward to checking one out with friends and family.

I think I would have cancelled Pokemon Let’s Go! Eevee if I didn’t get back into Pokemon Go. I own a copy of Pokemon Sun and have yet to put double digit hours in to that so the idea of getting another Pokemon title would have been ridiculous to me 3 months ago. But alas, lots of friends at work got back into it so I reupped.

I don’t know why I am getting Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. I own Melee, Brawl, and the Wii U’s release but I don’t think I put nearly enough time into any of them to justify their price tags. And I got Melee as part of a GameCube bundle that I bought of a high school friend.

Those are the games that are coming but I still have games that need to played like Spider-man and Crypt of the Necrodancer: Switch Edition.

What I’ve been playing? Rise of the Tomb Raider for Xbox One X which has some terrible performance hiccups and equally wince inducing moments by Lara. I’ve also been playing a lot of Overwatch (on PC and PS4), and too much of the FIFA 19 demo.

That’s about it for now.

Since it’s October, I’m thinking about returning to Until Dawn to see how many of the delinquents survive. We started it in October of last year but fell off it. Maybe this year, we’ll see it through.

LTTP: Life is Strange: Before the Storm (PS4)

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Life is Strange was a captivating game. I genuinely enjoyed the tale and dark twists weaved by Dontnod Entertainment. I expected Square Enix and company to forge a sequel but when I heard a prequel by Deck Nine — a different studio — was on its way, I was very skeptical. Life is Strange: Before the Storm fleshed out the lives and events Life is Strange cast members prior to Max’s return to Arcadia Bay. It gave insight into Chloe Price and how she evolved and it gave Rachel Amber a voice. But were these good additions to the Life is Strange story thus far? I’m not certain. 

I found Before the Storm to be a surprisingly excellent self contained story of teenagers dealing with the real world. The influence of peers and parents were explored through the stories of Nathan Prescott and Drew North. They showed how familial pressures lead people down the wrong path or negatively warp their personalities. Some influences were direct while others were unfortunate circumstances.

Showing the origins of Chloe and Rachel’s relationship was fascinating and cute but it just raised more questions. Before the Storm spanned the nascent stages of their relationship but it didn’t address how Rachel and Frank Bowers got involved. The bonus episode, “Farewell”, explored the fateful day when Max left Arcadia Bay for Seattle but it didn’t share why she didn’t stay in touch. Situations and story threads left dangling like this highlighted more opportunities for Square Enix to introduce another sequel in-between but I think that would be a mistake. Some questions are better left unanswered.

Three full length episodes (about 3 hours each) and a one hour bonus episode was just enough time to explore the Max-less life of Chloe Price. Max’s time rewinding mechanic was replaced with a forced and unnatural feeling argument system where Chloe and I can start shit talking people to get our way. I think the only instance where it felt natural was within the tutorial.

For the most part, Before the Storm served to shore up my feelings and impressions of the characters from the original game. I felt a bit more sympathy here and there but as a whole, my feelings were largely unchanged. Max and her faceless parents, though? They altered my opinions of them quite a bit. Max failed to keep her promise to stay in touch and eventually gave up altogether. And considering the circumstances that preceded her departure from Arcadia Bay and how close Max and Chloe were, I was shocked that Max and her family didn’t even visit. They spent so much time together and to just disconnect like that was odd to me. Needless to say, I wasn’t surprised by Chloe’s sense of betrayal by her friend.

One of the most impressive aspects of Before the Storm was how seamless the switch from Unreal Engine 3.0 to Unity was. If that Unity logo didn’t make itself known, I wouldn’t have noticed that they were running on a completely different engine. I wasn’t too keen on the game’s performance on the default “resolution” mode but it ran quite well with the “performance” option. I didn’t fathom 30 FPS would be a problem in an adventure game like this but I was wincing during those camera pans.

I went into Life is Strange: Before the Storm filled with skepticism and left just the same. Was it necessary to delve this deep back into Chloe and Rachel’s lives? I did enjoy their rendition of the Tempest but did I need to see someone remark on that wine stain in the Price living room again? I was glad to see Nathan Prescott before he walked down his dark path but what happened to Samantha? For better and worse, answers and questions ping ponged themselves throughout. While its relevancy and necessity can be debated, its quality was undeniable to me. Deck Nine’s contribution to Life is Strange was solid.

Verdict:
I liked it

Ratings Guide

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