Sunday, May 22, 2016

Comic Book review: Tokyo Ghost, Volume One: The Atomic Garden

Despite cover art that might evoke thoughts of Akira and Mad Max, Tokyo Ghost falls nearer to the themes explored in Ghost in the Shell, with a presentation that teeters towards Tank Girl and Robocop. It is an extremist vision of a future controlled by one corporation, a world run into the ground with pollution and technological addictions. At the center of this story are Debbie, one of the few citizens of mega-city Los Angeles who has remained clean, and her boyfriend, constable Led Dent, a tech junkie who is known as feared as the most effective of enforcers in L.A.

Led Dent frequently tracks down those who have tried to cheat his employer out of money, or those who seek to upset the twisted dystopian order of the city. And Led carries out many of his jobs with extreme prejudice, destroying mechanical and organic obstacles alike. Debbie, meanwhile, does not think so highly of L.A., nor does she care much for Led’s employer, but she sees the jobs as a necessary evil, a means of escape from this world drowning in its own addictions and misery. While Led’s hulking form and beast of a motorbike play into much of the series visual ‘pop’, Debbie’s bright pink and purple color scheme denotes her livelihood, her hopes for a better tomorrow, and the fact that – even in such a rotten city – her soul is still filled with love for Led.

The series explains that, many years prior, Led Dent was a kid named Teddy. Debbie and Teddy fell in love, but as the world went to hell in a hand basket around them, Teddy felt weak, unable to protect Debbie, or himself, for that matter. Teddy subjected himself to a number of implants in order to become the gargantuan and fearsome Led Dent, but in doing so, sacrificed his soul and much of his free will. Seeing Led constantly jacked in to a series of radio and television feeds as he carries out his missions, Debbie is determined to get him clean, to bring back the boy she fell in love with, by escaping to Japan, rumored to be the last country on the planet devoid of technology.

The environments in Tokyo Ghost display and absurd attention to detail. Many signs and company names can be picked out from any single one of Tokyo Ghost’s cityscape panoramas, while the lush greenery, tranquil waterfalls, and feudal buildings of Japan present a stark contrast. It is a series that rides on the wilder side, with the gore and sex often being gratuitous to further drive home the notion that this future is controlled by selfish individuals whose concerns are not with the common folk. For those who grew up during the boom of cyberpunk anime and films, Tokyo Ghost may be worth a look. This first volume ends on a note that may leave readers a tad puzzled, even caught off guard. With that in mind, I feel it is worth stating that this is but the first act of Tokyo Ghost, and there is plentiful opportunity for the story to be elaborated upon in later volumes.

My rating: 8 (out of 10)

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Anime review: Mobile Suit Gundam Thunderbolt

In similar vein to Gundam OVAs 0080: War in the Pocket and 08th MS Team, Mobile Suit Gundam Thunderbolt presents a small scaled conflict that is but a sample of a widespread war. It spends ample time detailing the life and struggles facing both Federation and Zeon soldiers, with the former hoping that a prototype Gundam and one hotshot, self-absorbed pilot will grant them victory over a ravaged sector of space marked by the debris of abandoned space colonies. The main Zeon forces, meanwhile, stand out from the pack as being almost exclusively amputees, with their main pilot out to prove his worth in beating back the Federation forces, while also looking out for his friends and comrades-in-arms.

Gundam Thunderbolt is a very short watch. Four episodes clock in at less than twenty-five minutes a piece. But the series does not lack polish – following in the footsteps of Unicorn and The Origin, the digital animation nears movie quality, with a decidedly darker atmosphere to many environments, further playing up the desperate measures taken during the One Year War. This visual style is strikingly appropriate, given that Thunderbolt explores the motivations of the two lead pilots in great detail, as well as explores the horrible atrocities both factions carried out in hopes of securing their victory over what is essentially a mole hill compared to the ‘mountains’ of Zeon strongholds like Solomon and A Baoa Qu. If there was ever any doubt that both the Federation and the Zeons could be responsible for some morally questionable, unsettling tactics, you need look no further than Gundam Thunderbolt.

And that’s a large part of what makes Thunderbolt such a worthwhile watch; it packs a hard punch, with mature themes and few real ‘heroes’ in the mix. It also boasts an incredibly catchy, upbeat soundtrack that samples jazz, funk, and love ballads, all of which presents an eerie, yet wonderful contrast to the narrative themes at play. If nothing else, Thunderbolt is worth giving a shot for its Cowboy Bebop-flavored tunes, and worth sticking around for the escalation of power and subsequent devolution of humanity.

My rating: 8 (out of 10)

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Comic Book review: Deadpool vs. X-Force

A prequel of sorts to the original meeting of Deadpool and Cable in the mid-1990s, Deadpool vs. X-Force is a bizarre romp through American history, as the X-Force members seek to course-correct all of the problems Deadpool has left in his wake. Deadpool appears to be working for some mysterious benefactor, and has been assigned particular targets, as per his mercenary title. But he doesn’t seem to mind increasing the body count exponentially, shooting up and cutting down any confused soldier from the American Revolutionary or Civil Wars that gets in his way. Armed with an absurdly large arsenal including modern firearms and futuristic laser weaponry, Deadpool has a clear advantage in practically every scenario.

That is, until the X-Force begin pursuing him through time. And while they too have a host of future-tech and incredible powers at their disposal, their lack of familiarity with Deadpool at this point means that their approach is more cautious, with Cable ordering them to flank around Deadpool’s hiding spot in a manor and adopt a tactical strategy. However, the soldiers caught in the middle of this scuffle are nothing shy of confused and terrified, and so they end up firing upon Cable and the other members of X-Force, adding another layer of chaos to the entire ordeal.

The story moves along at a rather brisk pace, and as a result, the humor is sprinkled in at appropriate junctures or breaks in the action. Readers seeking a constant spout of jokes may not find this release as satisfying. But Deadpool vs. X-Force does well to balance the two portrayals of Deadpool most commonly witnessed in his comics – wacky, self-referential, lovable idiot, and borderline-psychotic murderer who gets a rise out of his bloody line of work. The majority of the jokes that are delivered in this collection are at the expense of Cable, his audience (with Deadpool refusing to offer any recaps on events, and suggesting that readers read the previous issues), and his creators (asking if perhaps they could paint black ‘X’s on the eyes of anyone he’s already killed, to make it easier for him to keep track of who is left standing).

Given its nature as a prequel, Deadpool vs. X-Force does not have much wiggle room with regards to its ending. It’s a conclusion that many will see coming, and despite it not being a wondrous finale, it’s acceptable. It would have been nice to see the other X-Force members be more active participants in this collection – Cannonball and Boom Boom take to the fight for a few key moments, while Warpath has a couple panels worth of fighting, and Domino seems to just be along for the ride. Perhaps my feelings toward Deadpool vs. X-Force would have been more positive had the series run another issue or two in length – it could have helped draw out the pacing a bit, and even added another backdrop or two for Deadpool and Cable to bring their duel to. Still, it’s a decent Deadpool story – certainly not the best outing the merc with the mouth has had, but far from the worst.

My rating: 7 (out of 10)

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Comic Book review: Spider-Man: Anti-Venom

While all-American Flash Thompson was running black ops missions for the U.S. government as the new ‘Agent Venom’, former host of the Venom symbiote Eddie Brock renounced his past life and sought to cleanse hurting individuals of their diseases and addictions. Under the new alias of Anti-Venom, Eddie Brock remains slightly unhinged, seeming to perceive himself and the Anti-Venom as two halves of a whole being. Despite his terrifying and alien visage or his lack of subtlety, Brock hopes to provide aid to those in need, especially when it comes to one young woman named Jenna.

Brock helps to get Jenna clean early on, but then enlists her help in tracking down the local dealers who led her to become a junkie, in the hopes that it will prevent others from heading down the same dangerous path. And while Brock does manage to find some small-time local dealers, he also discovers that the trail leads all the way to another country, where a well-connected drug lord lives. Brock ends up crossing paths with Frank Castle, aka The Punisher, who would similarly like to take down this cartel, but isn’t exactly the most trusting of Brock, being all-to-familiar with his past actions as the former Venom.

In the chaos that erupts between Anti-Venom fighting drug dealers, The Punisher fighting the same thugs, and the two antiheroes fighting one another, young Jenna is taken hostage and transported directly to the head drug lord’s well-guarded estate. Anti-Venom and The Punisher stop their fighting in order to track down this larger target – or at least, Anti-Venom does, as The Punisher still attempts to blast Brock away on a couple of occasions. Anti-Venom is shocked at these attempts on his life by Frank Castle, even frustrated, but he refrains from physically lashing out in anger, which presents some comical back-and-forth interactions between the two.

The pairing of Anti-Venom and The Punisher proves to easily be the highlight of this short-lived series. While Jenna is a central focus throughout, early issues make it seem as though something larger may come of her placing trust in Anti-Venom. Unfortunately, she proves less of a full-fledged character and more of a convenient plot device during the later issues. The pacing is rather slow early on as well, and the thugs lower on the chain prove to be pushovers in the presence of Anti-Venom. Even the final foe is an over-confident fool in the presence of Anti-Venom and The Punisher, which removes any real tension from the conflict, save for the well-being of the antiheroes in the midst of bombastic firefights.

My rating: 6 (out of 10)

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Anime review: Berserk: The Golden Age Arc

A retelling of the 1990s anime, Berserk: The Golden Age Arc consolidates those events into three films to convey the most well-known narrative involving Guts, Griffith, and Casca. It’s the most obvious jumping off-point for newcomers to the Berserk story, and would seem an appropriate first step in setting the stage for everything else within the Berserk storyline, though, until very recently, no plans to adapt the remaining volumes of the manga were apparent. As is sometimes the case with condensing series into a set of films, the pacing is not the same across the board, which might not be a major point of discussion, were it not for the fact that this element significantly impacts the quality of each of the three entries in the Golden Age Arc.

The first film does a solid job of setting the stage and introducing all of the key players. The supporting cast is shown to be a plucky bunch, with a couple of them being young and na├»ve, and one in particular being a bit more greedy and self-serving, but they all display a great deal of respect towards Griffith, leader of the Band of the Hawk. Due to his legacy having already been established before the first film even begins, Griffith come across as the most well-rounded and interesting character for this first of three chapters. Guts, meanwhile is given just enough development as a strong-willed warrior lacking any real direction in his life to allow viewers to latch on to him as the trilogy’s main hero, though most of his meaningful maturation will follow in the later films. Casca, meanwhile, first appears as something of a snotty spoiled brat, who, like her comrades, is also highly devoted to her comrades, but seems to bear a grudge against Guts from their earliest meeting.

A medieval setting is established, as well as how the Band of the Hawk are effectively mercenaries for hire, though tales of their victories have spread far and wide, and many of the trilogy’s villains recognize their record of success. There are mythical fantasy elements at play in Berserk, though these are not met in full force until the final film in the series. When Guts encounters one such beast at the end of the first film, it provides not only a test of his strength, but also offers an omen of events to come. This is the first in a series of key events, where the darkest of settings and most intimidating of encounters offer Guts greater insight into the nature of the world around him.

The first film does a solid job of putting all of the pieces in their rightful places, and though it does feel like it wanders from the straight and narrow on a couple of occasions, its pacing is overall appropriate – a far cry from the second film, whose bookends offer the only substantial moments of development for Guts, Casca, and Griffith. Mind you, when these events do come to pass, they are of great importance to the larger tale being woven between these three films. But the hour-long battle they sandwich is neither visually exciting, nor of significant importance to the narrative. The second film does well to take a step back from Griffith a bit, in order to better establish Guts’ ideals and ambitions, as well as prove that there is much more to Casca than meets the eye. This second entry ends on a high note for both of these characters, while still allowing them both plenty of development in the third and final entry, but the absurd span of empty fight scenes not only makes it a dull watch, it also leads the third film to feel rushed.

The Golden Age Arc is my first proper viewing of Berserk, though I’ve been familiar with Griffith’s endgame for many years. For those not aware of how the Golden Age Arc concludes, I will warn that some spoilers regarding the film’s most infamous of moments lie ahead.

The final film dives into some very dark territory, and sees Guts and Griffith part ways as anything but comrades and friends. For many years, I was under the impression that Griffith’s actions in the third film resulted from some tragic fall from glory, that he lost sight of who he was as a leader and hero to so many. Instead, it is a simple matter of him becoming upset over Guts trying to choose his own path in life, and Griffith not having complete influence over his actions that leads him to perform some horrendous atrocities. The climax for a character who proved so compelling during the previous two films ends up being an unsatisfying reveal of pathetic motivations.

And therein lies what is perhaps the greatest downfall of the Golden Age Arc – character motivations on the whole are either incredibly poor, unclear, or wholly nonexistent. Casca is the one major exception to this, offering the most human and believable reasons for joining the Band of the Hawk, for allying with Griffith, and for ultimately turning to Guts as her ally and lover. Guts, meanwhile, sees establishment as the main hero of the Berserk saga by the time the third film comes to its conclusion, but nothing beyond that is achieved. This trilogy feels like the first act of something larger, which may be fine for anyone wishing to carry on with the manga thereafter. There are elements of greatness at play in the Golden Age Arc, but the second and third films constantly deny these to become part of a more cohesive experience. The Golden Age Arc lacks any noteworthy resolution, and leaves viewers with an unsatisfying set of hanging plot threads.

Fans of the 1990s anime might not be so greatly bothered by these shortcomings. Guts, Griffith, Casca, and the remaining members of the Band of the Hawk are rendered with strong animation, while environments look equal parts gorgeous and haunting. Cel-shaded 3D models of knights in armor look a tad clunky and dated, but are generally not present outside of battle scenes, so they do not distract from the remaining visual appeal too greatly. If this trilogy is in fact the jumping off point for someone looking to continue indulging in Berserk by reading the manga, they may find decent value here – the films offer a handful of teases of characters and events that play important roles later on. But as a standalone trilogy, they feel like odd shoehorns. The fact that Guts does not fully come into his own as lead protagonist by the trilogy’s conclusion further sours the experience.

My rating: 6 (out of 10)


SUPERHOT is the most innovative shooters I’ve played in years. It relies on a couple of key gimmicks that bolster its success and fun factor, the most obvious being that time slows to a near-standstill each time that you, the player character, stop moving. Enemies freeze mid-jog, thrown objects hang in midair, and bullets push forward at a snail’s pace as you observe your surroundings and prepare your next move. You can attack foes with your fists, throw objects to disarm them and steal their katanas, pistols, shotguns, and rifles, and even make use of a new ability introduced late in the game to really mix up the formula in interesting and creative ways.

The story mode is not particularly long – it will last most players around two hours. There is a narrative thread woven in that, while not too greatly in-depth, reaches a satisfying conclusion within that limited time frame, and does very well to match SUPERHOT’s aesthetic nods to works like The Matrix, Killer7, and a dozen other action films/games. The white backdrops of office cubicles, a narrow alley, bar, mansion staircase, and parking garage all require different approaches, and forcing players to plan out their plans of attack as well as adjust on the fly is refreshing in an era when most shooters would opt for the simple ‘run-and-gun’ formula.

That isn’t to say that SUPERHOT is devoid of any flaws – there are a couple of stages where enemies are so tightly packed that the slightest movement of your character can cause you to end up in their line of fire, resulting in a retry of that stage. And the aforementioned gameplay mechanic that is introduced late in the experience (the nature of which I will not spoil, given how much it turns familiar strategies on their heads), does not see as widespread of use as it probably deserves. Still, predicting enemy movements is fun, gauging the distance between yourself and a red polygonal foe intuitive, and for a first outing, SUPERHOT is fun, responsive, and visually engaging game with its minimalist digital style.

For anyone turned off at the notion of a two hour story mode, fret not – there is plenty more to be explored in SUPERHOT’s additional game modes. Endless mode sends waves of increasingly well-armed foes your way, and asks you to take down as many of them as possible before they overwhelm you. There are variants of this mode that act as a time attack, or simply ask you to execute twenty kills in a row. Challenge mode, meanwhile, requires you to revisit the stages of the story with a specific weapon, like a katana, in hand, and asks that you kill all the foes with only that type of weapon.

Some of SUPERHOT’s stages will be easy to breeze through, others may require you a half-dozen attempts or more, as an unfortunate sidestep from behind a pillar could place you on the receiving end of a buckshot spray. But calculating enemy moves and besting them is a really satisfying feeling, especially when you get to view the real-time playback of your Hollywood bad-assery. There is a strange charm to overcoming a stage, leaving polygon thugs in a heap of shattered red gems, and hearing the repeating words: “SUPER. HOT. SUPER. HOT.”

My rating: 9.25 (out of 10)

Saturday, February 6, 2016

PC review: Lethal League

Lethal League is neither a particularly complicated nor expansive game. But it is a game that knows what it’s all about, and strives to offer an energetic and fun party format that pits players against one another in intense, high-stakes racquetball matches. Drawing its rule set from arcade fighting games and utilizing an experimental technopop soundtrack that would make Jet Set Radio fans proud, Lethal League is truly a one-of-a-kind experience.

The rules are straightforward – players try to smack a ball around a two-dimensional space in order to K.O. one another and be the last man standing. The ball is able to bounce off the walls, floor, and ceiling, and successive hits to the ball will increase its speed, which can reach an absurd velocity. It’s a risk-reward system – jumping in the ball’s path to smack it back at your opponent gives you a chance to knock them out of the ring, but at the cost of placing yourself in the ball’s path of destruction. Multiple hits from a single player will reward them a power move, which varies from character to character, but includes a bounce, the ability to stop the ball and relaunch it at a new trajectory, and even pass through the walls to strike from behind.

Each of the half-dozen playable characters boasts a different degree of mobility, speed, and agility, making the selection process prior to a match more complicated than simple aesthetic appeal. On that note, the characters bear cel-shaded designs with comic book sensibilities, while stages are largely urban, all of which matches well with the aforementioned soundtrack direction. Menus are simple but clean, and character animations on the whole look smooth. Hit detection is about as perfect as anyone could hope for in a game that falls into a such a grey area between genres.

While the default mode pits all four players against one another, there is an option for team-based matches. Lethal League even includes an alternate game mode that requires players to aim for targets instead of one another, though this mode is admittedly less enjoyable than the default scoring system on account of the tense risk aspect being almost wholly removed. A single player mode progresses in strikingly similar fashion to the Classic Mode of the Super Smash Bros. series, while online play is presented for players who do not have opponents readily available to play nearby. Lethal League may not be a very big game, but it knows what it’s aiming for, and – for the most part – hits high notes.

My rating: 8 (out of 10)
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