mark cerqueira well-rounded nerd

This is Not a Drill - Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is Coming Sooner Than We Expected!

For every recent Nintendo Direct I would proclaim that it was finally time for both a remaster of Xenoblade Chronicles X and Xenoblade Chronicles 3 to be announced. On February 9th I finally (somewhat) stopped being wrong and we got an announcement trailer for Xenoblade Chronicles 3 with a release window of September 2022!

Today - and this is not a joke - we received another trailer which announced a firm release date of July 29th! I am floored. The amazing release date moving up news aside the meat of the trailer itself has me even more hyped to get my hands on what I hope is another strong entry in the Xenoblade series. The Interlink system which allows two characters to fuse into a robot-being looks awesome. One of the big baddies - Mr. “It’s a Wild Ride, This Passage of Fate” - has me hungry to learn dig into the story. There is also a brief peek of a mech vs. mech fight which has me hoping this new entry leans more in the mech-heavy direction of Xenoblade Chronicles X.

I cannot wait for July 29th! If you haven’t checked out the Xenoblade Chronicles series yet, grab a Nintendo Switch and you’ll be able to play Xenoblade Chronicles 1, 2, and soon 3 on it! It is a fantastic JRPG series and has been pulling new players into the genre given its rising popularity and approachability. While I am beyond excited for this new game I still cling to hope that Monolith Soft will make the Nintendo Switch the one true home for the Xenoblade series and port Xenoblade Chronicles X to it; it’s an amazing open-world game that was only released on the Wii U and would reach so many more people if it was on the Switch.

Onwards to July!

Pokémon Legends: Arceus - They Finally Did It!

Twenty-six years after the release of Pokémon Red, Blue, and Green on the Game Boy we have finally gotten received a noteworthy evolution to the mainline series: Pokémon Legends: Arceus. After rehashing the same formula generation after generation, they finally did it! Shifting to an open world game stressing exploration over the usual linear structure present in previous entries Arceus is the breath of fresh air I was looking for in the Pokémon series.

Some Pokémon, like Arcanine, get a Hisuian glow up.

I loved a lot of things this game did. Beyond enjoying the open world, like many folks do these days, one of my favorite things about this entry was it had a smaller set of Pokémon to collect and allowed you to complete your Pokédex without having to buy another version of the game or trade. The National Pokédex is great especially for “gotta catch ‘em all” masochists but I am not interested in collecting all 900+ Pokémon when I pick up a new game. By scaling down to 238 total Pokémon it made catching them all actually feasible for filthy casuals like myself.

It's not a gargantuan task to complete the Pokédex in this game!

While there is a reduced number of Pokémon to catch collecting Pokémon not only involves catching them but completing specific tasks to increase the research level for each Pokédex entry. These typically look like catch Shinx 1, 2, 4, 10, 15 times; defeat Shinx 1, 2, 4, 10, 15 times; and see Shinx use Bit 1, 3, 6, 12, 25 times. Each of these tasks you complete increases your research level by one; some tasks are special and increase your research level by two. A Pokédex entry is considered completed when you reach research level 10 so for most Pokémon you don’t need to complete every single research task, just a portion of them. This mechanic encourages you to not just build up your squad of six Pokémon and plow through the game with them, but rather to use every Pokémon in your party.

This 1v3 fight is very fair. /s

That said, there are things this game could have done to make it more enjoyable:

  • For a game that strongly encourages catching multiple versions of each Pokémon managing your Pokémon at the pasture is a terrible experience. There is a rudimentary search functionality but no automatic way to sort Pokémon which would make managing everything you catch so much easier.
  • In some trainer battles and frequently when battling in space-time distortions it is common to battle multiple Pokémon at a time. The problem here is you can only send out one Pokémon at a time even though previous games allowed sending out multiple Pokémon. Even if none of your opponents hard counter you, when you’re getting smacked by four opponents it means you’ll leave these battles with a majority of your party fainted or low on health.
  • The ergonomics of completing research tasks could be improved. For example when viewing a wild Pokémon there is a shortcut that quickly pulls up the research card for that specific Pokémon. There is no equivalent in battles where I am interested in understanding what moves I need to use to complete research tasks. Ultimately I had to use a notepad to keep track of Pokémon in my party and what moves I need to use to complete tasks.
  • While this game is open world it’s not truly open world. You have a village hub town and when you try to leave it you pick one of the five open and expansive areas and then are dropped into it. The real painpoint here is you cannot move between these five areas without first going back to the village. It would have been nice to be able to fast travel between areas without forcing a visit back to the village. Additionally most areas have only two fast travel points; it would’ve been nice to have the ability to add or have more.

This looks like an unfair fight but you do get to use one Pokémon!

Overall, Arceus is absolutely worth checking out for anyone who is a fan of Pokémon or open world JRPG games. I really enjoyed the nearly 80 hours I put into this game and that’s not even including the content (Eternal Battle Reverie, Massive Mass Outbreaks) that was just released this week. If Game Freak can keep iterating and improving on this formula I’m very much looking forward to playing Pokémon games again!

Manager Reads - The Phoenix Project

Manager Reads returns after a year-long plus hiatus with The Phoenix Project: A Novel about IT, DevOps, and Helping Your Business Win by Gene Kim, Kevin Behr and George Spafford.

Who recommended the book? Twitch’s Leadership Book Club selected this book in a recent poll to decide the next book we cover. It beat out Dare to Lead (a great book I reviewed in 2019) and Crucial Conversations.

Judge the book by its cover, font, page quality? The Phoenix Project’s cover has a strong retro video game style. Strong because it features some yellow blocks that Super Mario could headbutt into oblivion and a pit of lava at the center of tower of servers that reminded me of Bowser’s Castle. After reading the book you can easily identify most of the pixel art characters on the cover which is a nice touch. I’m into video games so I like this cover but it doesn’t really fit in at all with the story: Parts Unlimited sells car parts and I don’t think anyone in the story would say the stuff they’re doing is a game.

The video game creativity ends once you crack the book open. Everything here is standard and drab; even chapter headers, where some books take liberties to bring some flare, are plain and boring. The pages are thin - you can see text on the opposite side if there is blank area on the page you are looking at - but fortunately lines I highlighted for my notes did not bleed through to the other side.

Since we’re overanalyzing anyways, if you’re slightly intimated by the size of this book note that 18% of the book is the first few chapters of another book, The DevOps Handbook. This upsell is even cheesier because at the end of The Phoenix Project the protagonist, Bill, is told to write this exact book by the irrevent know-it-all mentor, Erikk. The cross-sell game here is overwhelming.

Thoughts on the book and the big take-aways? The Phoenix Project takes us through the journey of turning around an underperforming company Parts Unlimited. It takes a while but we eventually learn the Three Ways that delivers success:

  1. Create fast flow so work moves quickly through the entire system.
  2. Shorten and amplify feedback loops so quality can continue to improve at the source and avoid rework.
  3. Create a culture of continual experimentation and learning to reinforce the value of taking risks, learning from failure, and the need for repetition and practice to create mastery.

The crux of The Phoenix Project’s problem: it’s a long narrative to just cover these three nuggets of wisdom. While this is an easier read compared to information dense, non-narrative leadership books the pay-off just isn’t there. The narrative generally sounds like something you’d expect in the real world but is marred with unbelievable characters like Erikk (the mentor) who is extremely annoying. He goes out of his way to get everyone’s name wrong which makes tying the bad behaviors he’s discussing back to the person difficult, and will give hints about these nuggets of wisdom and then will actually just run away. Who does that?

Favorite quote from the book? “WIP is the silent killer.”

Elevator pitch for suggesting (or not suggesting) the book? If you enjoyed books like Leadership and Self-Deception or The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, The Phoenix Project will be up your alley. If you’re looking to maximize knowledge bang for your buck, look elsewhere.

Notes in Evernote? Notes for these narrative-heavy books are weird but check out my notes on 🐘.

Most of the world’s wisdom is written down in its best books. Manager Reads is a series covering books on management and leadership, focusing on books that can improve your own leadership with the wisdom of others. Enjoyed this post and want to see more? Check out more at Manager Reads.

Taking Tales to the Next Level with Tales of Arise

The Tales series has reliably produced solid JRPGs for a long time now. From the first entry I played, Symphonia (2004), to the list-topper Vesperia (2008), and more recent entries like Berseria (2016) there’s a lot to be excited about if you’re a JRPG fan and a new Tales game is announced. It won’t be the game you’re most excited about for the year but it’ll be a solid romp nonetheless. After blasting through Tales of Arise to 100% completion in two weeks because it was so good, I’m rethinking how excited I should be for future Tales games because Arise was a fantastic game through and through.

The Supreme Altar Boost Strike

Combat is fast! From start to finish most battles with trash mobs took between 30 and 60 seconds. This speed was achieved in large part with the Boost Strike mechanic that required breaking enemies by stringing together consecutive hits. Once an enemy is broken two characters would team up and deal a massive amount of damage. I’m not sure how damage works here but it seems like there was some AOE element to this strike because oftentimes battles would end right then even if there were multiple enemies. Boost Strikes were also fast only taking about 5 seconds each. The screenshot above is my favorite one. They look awesome and I was playing Arise on the weakest option (PS4) of the three platforms (PS4, PS5, PC) it’s available on. Following a battle most JRPGs show the rewards (e.g. experience, skill points, gold) you get on a victory screen but Arise just dumps you right back into the overworld and shows the rewards there. It’s the first time I’ve seen this and makes the traditional victory screen look like a waste of time although there were many times I leveled up and did not know it happened.

Looks somewhat like FFX's Sphere Grid but not quite

Growth and equipment mechanics are generally good too. Battles give you Skill Points (SP) which can be allocated on a Sphere Grid type structure to unlock new artes and permanent buffs (e.g. increase AG pool so you can use more artes in one go). The grid grows as you acquire more titles by either completing story events, bonding with party members, or cooking certain foods. Each panel has five thing to unlock and once you unlock them all your character gets a hefty stat boost like Attack +20. It works but there are so many things to unlock I stopped reading after a while and just marveled at the new things my party could do in battle afterwards. The equipment system is generally good. You equip a weapon, armor, and one accessory. You get weapons through a simple crafting system: find the materials and pay some gold and you’re good to go. Armor is found in chests or purchased at stores. The accessory system was a bit much though. You can find ores around the world and then use them to craft accessories. You can then use extra ore to level up your accessory and then you can have one accessory eat another accessory to take one of its abilities. I just made some accessories early game, leveled them up to max, and then never looked at the accessory crafting system again.

Elde Menancia

The world is beautiful and the story keeps you playing. Having the first arc on Dahna broken up into five regions each with a dominant type of astral energy makes the world varied and interesting. For example, you begin your journey in Calaglia where almost everything is on fire. Each region has its own problem that needs solving as well as a distinctive look to along with it. The story starts out strong - each region you visit has its own flavor of problems caused by the centuries-long oppression of Dahna by Rena. The second half of the game has a lot of questions to answer and it does come through in the end but a lot of this feels rushed as you get a lot of answers via a conversation with a new character introduced late in the game. It works but the pacing felt off and you are given so much new information it’s a bit hard to make sense of it all in the few huge servings you’re given. While the pacing at the end could use some tweaking unlike most Tales games that sometimes seem to drag on, Arise felt just right in terms of length.

NEWS! Go buy DLC please!

The DLC for this game follows the trend but treads new, unpleasant waters. There is plenty of DLC to purchase for Arise and much of it is stuff you can find for other JRPGs: costumes for your characters, packs of items to bootstrap your party, level up boosts, and new quests to take on. My thoughts on fast grinding have evolved since I first touched on them in 2013 but as a parent the option to level up more quickly is much more appealing now; time is limited these days so having something to help cut down on the grinding is helpful. For what it’s worth, Arise does allow you to set the difficulty to Very Easy which makes everything a cakewalk without grinding and without spending money. Arise treads new waters by advertising DLC on its title screen and when your party sets up camp. The latter feels particularly invasive and pretty annoying given I found no way to turn them off without disconnecting my PS4 from the Internet.

Tales of Star Ocean?

Overall, Arise is a fantastic game. It’s approachable enough I’d even recommend it as a good entry JRPG for those who want to check out the genre without going full JRPG. For what I would like to see next for Tales: even though the recently revealed Star Ocean The Divine Force looks like a step in the right direction, the Star Ocean series has not seen a high since the Second Story which was released in 1998! Seeing our party in Arise ride a starship to reach Rena got me hankering for a Tales game that does justice to the vision Star Ocean set out to reach but has failed to in its more recent entries. This would be a departure from the standard, more terrestrial, Tales formula but could open up exciting new stories to tell!

How Long Can the 2008 Mac Pro Go?

My journey to combat the planned obsolescence of my 2008 Mac Pro might have finally hit a wall. But before we cover the bad news let’s talk good news!

Up until recently my boot drive was a Crucial M4 connected over SATA. Occasionally my computer would slow down and hang for several seconds at a time. SSDs are fast but they have gotten faster since 2013 when the M4 debuted. I figured a 2013 SSD must be the slowest thing in my computer so I picked up a Samsung 870 EVO. According to UserBenchmark I should expect a 77% performance increase going from the M4 to the 870 EVO! To ensure I was not losing any of those gains over SATA I picked up an OWC Acelsior S which plugs into a PCE slot and can provide double the bandwidth compared to SATA. So did it work?

Crucial M4 / SATA (left) vs. 870 EVO / PCE (right)

I think it worked! Write speeds are 8x faster and read speeds are 1.7x faster. It may be the placebo effect but I haven’t noticed any slow downs or hangs since this upgrade. Installation of the Acelsior S was also very simple: it actually was plug-and-play.

Now the bad news. I was previously able to install High Sierra using the macOS patchers dosdude1 created and things have been working swimmingly well given I’m running High Sierra on “unsupported” hardware. Turns out the 2008 Mac Pro can also install Mojave and even Catalina! I installed Catalina but then ran into the wall: Nvidia has not released macOS drivers for any version after High Sierra and my setup sports a GTX 970. There is a workaround available that force installs the drivers on unsupported macOS versions but I ran into a lot of visual glitches on my setup. Some internet sleuthing later I found out that this workaround does not support hardware acceleration so these glitches are expected. This wall isn’t unsurmountable but it would involve buying a weaker graphics card (e.g. GTX 680 or ATI Radeon 4890) and flashing it so it works natively with macOS but at this point I’d be so off the beaten path I’m not sure Catalina would work well. You win, Tim Apple.

So long as the software I use on this machine continues to support High Sierra I’ll be able to squeeze some more years out of it. It’s impressive 13+ years later this machine works really well but the end is nigh.

Thoughts on Bravely Default II

As new year activities at work have settled down and my son is getting slightly better at sleeping through the night I found some time to play some more video games. Bravely Default II (BD2) came out in late February and I’ve been eyeing this one for a while. My experience with past Bravely Default games isn’t perfect but it does have an oldschool JRPG charm that appeals to logic-defying nostalgia. I enjoyed the first entry on the 3DS although the repetitive latter half of the game certainly marred the experience. I played the sequel, End Layer, and put it down because it felt too repetitive: visit new town, beat up folks wearing fancy clothes and take their Asterisk, solve problem, go to new town, rinse and repeat. So how does BD2 stack up?

A grindfest

The Good: Like previous entries the job system in BD2 is fun and carries the game. Getting new jobs (by obtaining crystals called Asterisks) is exciting and leveling them up to unlock all the abilities takes the grind out of grinding. Similar to End Layer the game does feel formulaic and the dungeons are very repetitive without many distinguishing characteristics from one to another. The boss battles are hard, even if you grind a bunch in each area, and oftentimes require changing up your job setup to capitalize on a boss’ weakness. This can be a pain if you have not invested in the job classes du jour but this is a JRPG so some grinding isn’t unexpected. With strong abilities like the Freelancer’s Body Slam it’s easy to dispatch trash mobs but bosses require a more well-thought out plan that doesn’t rely on you winning in a single turn. The story is just okay: it’s largely rote and uninspiring for the most part. At the end they start tacking on romance and explore the concept of personal sacrifice for the broader good. The towns you will visit during your journey are absolutely gorgeous, unique, and a highlight of the game. After skipping composing End Layer, Revo returns to compose the BD2 soundtrack and as expected the music is also great.

Towns are beautiful

The Bad: That said BD2 feels unpolished. Loading times for the skit-based Party Chats were uncomfortably high. As a console gamer my entire life I’m usually impervious to FPS and FPS drops but noticed this game struggled at times to keep up even though the chibi-style graphics and pre-rendered towns should not stress the Switch’s relative paltry hardware. Then there are complete misses like having every quest being numbered (e.g. Quest 001, Quest 002) but having no way to see which quests you completed or to easily see which areas have quests you have not started. I ended up using the Switch’s screenshot feature to capture every quest I completed and then reviewed that to ensure I didn’t miss any. #Completionist When changing jobs there is no easy way to see in the list of available jobs which jobs were mastered, requiring scrolling through the entire list to find which jobs still need to grinding. It seems like BD2 also wanted to do music transitions from pre-boss music to boss music a la Octopath Traveler (e.g. transition at 0:58 for Tressa’s theme and 0:47 for Olberic’s theme) but it just wasn’t executed well.

My screenshots folder is filled with these 😢

Sidebar on the Demo: The demo for BD2 also felt like a huge waste of time. I am a huge fan of demos that let you play the beginning of the game and carry over your save file to the full game. This gives you an opportunity to check out the game and bootstrap your playthrough if you purchase the full game. Dragon Quest XI (DQ11) did this and I loved it. The demo for BD2 lets you play for up to 5 hours but skips the Prologue and throws you into Chapter 1. Any progress you make in this demo can’t be carried over to the full game. Compared to the 10+ hours I put into the DQ11 demo I only played the BD2 demo for 30 minutes as I don’t have time to waste these days!

The story can get pretty heavy

While BD2 feels like a complete JRPG package and was enjoyable to play it certainly lacks polish across the board which is disappointing given it mars an otherwise great game. That said, of the three Bravely Default games this one easily stands above the rest. If you are a fan of JRPGs this one is easy to recommend but just be aware there are some papercuts here.

Manager Reads - Unapologetically Ambitious

Kicking off a new year of Manager Reads we are covering Unapologetically Ambitious: Take Risks, Break Barriers, and Create Success on Your Own Terms by Shellye Archambeau.

Who recommended the book? Twitch’s Leadership Book Club selected this book as our first book of 2021. We are not machines but the relevance score on this one was high given Archambeau is one of Silicon Valley’s first African American CEOs we felt this book provided great synergy with ongoing Black History Month programming and the upcoming Women’s History Month.

Judge the book by its cover, font, page quality? It’s likely unrelated but Archambeau is on the board of directors for Verizon and this cover with strong reds, whites, and blacks feels like a Verizon-branded product. The star of the show on this cover is the word unapologetically that fades in from the top gradually and appears four times before taking its place in the title; I see no reason why unapologetically is repeated four times beyond there being some space that needed filling. The cover also features a quote from Sheryl Sandberg who unapologetically does not pay her interns. 😏 Inside its covers the paper is thick and a gentle off-white color to be easier on the eyes. The leading is a point too high and the right margin a tad too large for my tastes but that’s just me.

Thoughts on the book and the big take-aways? Unapologetically Ambitious is a blend of an autobiography and a treatise on how to achieve your goals. Archambeau describes herself as an ambitious individual who set a goal of becoming CEO by forty and then making choices - unapologetically - to get her there. While many of the choices Archambeau made could be seen as sacrifices, she stresses that these were choices, not sacrifices. In the same vein she wrote about her disdain for work-life balance; instead she opted to wrap the complexities of managing a career, family, friendships, self-care as work-life integration.

Archambeau touches on advice you’ll find in other books and how it helped her achieve her goal such as finding a mentor, the importance of networking, identifying currents in business and hitching a ride on those, and taking risks when you find your current opportunity well is drying up. The book contains much more guidance wrapped up in Archambeau’s personal backstory. Overall, it was a very engaging and informative read. Her framework for choices not sacrifices is something I already feel myself grappling with as I manage my own career ambitions and my growing and shifting responsibilities as a dad.

Favorite quote from the book? “Success is about preparing for opportunities to appear, so you are ready to take advantage of them when they do.”

Elevator pitch for suggesting (or not suggesting) the book? This is an easy one: read it! Unapologetically Ambitious is a page-turner chock full of actionable guidance to achieve your goals and ideas worth ruminating on.

Notes in Evernote? Check out my notes on 🐘.

Most of the world’s wisdom is written down in its best books. Manager Reads is a series covering books on management and leadership, focusing on books that can improve your own leadership with the wisdom of others. Enjoyed this post and want to see more? Check out more at Manager Reads.

The End of Saga - Trails of Cold Steel 4

Trails of Cold Steel 4 (TOCS4) is more than just the fourth game and closing act of the Cold Steel tetralogy. It is the 9th game in the Trails series and caps off the stories that started in the first three Cold Steel games, the three games from Trails in the Sky, and the two games from Trails from Zero. The world building Nihon Falcom pulled off in all these games shines in this entry as stories and characters from all three series come together to close out the grand Erebonia arc covered in Cold Steel.

So many characters!

The thing I wanted most from TOCS4 was closure. The first three entries opened so many threads and after investing nearly 200 hours in the Cold Steel series I was ready to wrap this thing up. In my review of Cold Steel 3 I touch on how it took two whole games for us to finally understand what the central conflict - the Phantasmal Blaze Plan - is and how that game ends on a immorally massive cliffhanger. Fortunately, TOCS4 delivers on my wishes and wraps up the Erebonia arc relatively cleanly. Why relatively? Because the Trails series is not over! The big bads, Ouroborous, have been working on the Orpheus Final Plan over these nine games and there is still at least one known sub-plan left: the Eternal Recurrence Plan.

It's not over!

So I did get some closure but there’s still some more juice to squeeze out of the Trails lemon. The most painful part now is waiting for localization as it has taken the North American publisher of the Trails series about 2-3 years to localize these titles. And they still haven’t even localized all of the nine games I mentioned previously; the two Trails from Zero games I mentioned above were released in 2010 and 2011 in Japan but will only come stateside in 2022 and 2023! While the epilogue to Cold Steel (Trails into Reverie) came out in Japan in 2020 we will have to wait until 2023 to get this game in English. Kuro no Kiseki which opens the next arc of the Trails series in Calvard (the country Erebonia went to war with in Cold Steel) came out in September 2021 in Japan but there is no word yet of if and when this game will be available globally. For games available on PC like Reverie there are fan-translations out there and programs to make those translations more accessible but I’m not really interested in the work involved in getting that going.

The Rean Harem continues to shine in this entry.

Closure aside, TOCS4 is a fantastic ending to a fantastic series. Playing without the series staple, Rean, for the first arc of the game felt weird but TOCS3 did such a great job bootstrapping the new Class VII that it made the eventual rescue of Rean that much more satisfying. The battle system is fun as always but Brave Orders were balanced in this entry to make them less broken and enemies were also given this capability which puts debuffs on your party. Trash mobs were rarely ever a challenge and bosses presented more of a challenge with some adding unique conditions to get extra points. The arc following Rean’s rescue is a bit of a drag as you revisit many times previously visited locations to rebuild Rean’s Harem but overall the game had me hooked from start to finish. Most epically in the true final battle (it’s a JRPG, of course there are multiple endings) you get to assemble three separate teams of 8 people each from a total roster of 39!

Step aside Marvel - this is the greatest crossover event!

It’s certainly a big time investment but I cannot recommend the Cold Steel series enough. I will lose some JRPG nerd points here but I didn’t actually play the Sky or Zero series but did watch awesome story summaries by the YouTuber LadyVirgilia following completing the Cold Steel series. There was a lot of background and context I missed during my playthrough of Cold Steel that I picked up doing so. The Sky and Zero series are very well regarded so if you’re looking to play them in the right order go Sky, Zero, Cold Steel. Anyhow, glad I now have a small break from Trails games with some sense of closure but 2023 will be here before we know it!