Thursday, December 30, 2010

2010 Year in Review: Anime

2011 is a mere day away, so I present my year in review of every anime series, OVA, and film I completed in 2010, as well as a brief summary of my thoughts on each and my ratings (out of a possible 10). There are some that I am still working on, and others where I have completed a season but not the entire series, and as such those series will not be included. Many of the series, OVAs, and films mentioned here already have reviews posted, so you can check those out at your leisure. For those that do not yet have reviews posted, expect them sometime early 2011.

- Ergo Proxy: A dystopian sci-fi series set in post-apocalyptic world, Ergo Proxy follows Re-L Mayer and Vincent Law in their search for the truth behind mysterious and incredibly powerful beings known as proxies. The animation quality is some of the best I've seen in any series, though the lighting effects can occasionally leave a scene darkened and difficult to see. Aside from two episodes that feel rather out-of-place, the story chugs along at a steady pace, blending action and plot to deliver a thoroughly entertaining and cleverly planned narrative. My rating: 9.0

- Mobile Suit Gundam: Char's Counterattack: The final chapter in the struggle between Char Aznable and Amuro Ray sees Earth and its colonies thrust into a desperate struggle once again, and the return of a number of familiar faces. In terms of animation and the accompanying soundtrack, these are superb for a 1988 release. The plot, while interesting, seems a bit rushed, even with the film clocking in at over two hours in length, and might have benefitted from being formatted into a short OVA series instead of a standalone film. My rating: 8.0

- Spice and Wolf (seasons one and two): A seies that opts to play out its tense moments with quick thinking and cleverly planned out trades and transactions as opposed to violence, Spice and Wolf is an odd formula that ends up as a far superior series than it seems to aim for. Lawrence and Holo make a hillarious duo and the situations they find temselves in time and time again are as entertaining as they are gripping and suspenseful. With a phenomenal soundtrack and some high-end animation quality, this unorthodox series is defenitely worth checking out, even if math and economics aren't your strong suit. My rating: 8.5

- Turn A Gundam: With some of the most creative (and admittedly some of the strangest) mobile suit designs of any Gundam series and a story that focuses less on military combat than its brethren, Turn A Gundam is the black sheep of the franchise. With a complex series of relations that tie the many characters together as well as a deep and often thought-provoking plot, the series brings plenty new to the familiar Gundam story. Top that off with a beautiful soundtrack and some serious attention to detail in the animation, and the end result is arguably the single best alternate universe Gundam series to date. My rating: 9.75

- Castle in the Sky: Between their encounters with pirates and the military, Pazu and Sheeta find themselves caught up in a race to find the lost city of Laputa, a castle that floats high above the clouds. Combining sci-fi and fantasy motifs, the series is as creative as it is enjoyable. There is plenty of action and humor to keep younger viewers entertained, and Castle in the Sky caters to older viewers with one of the stronger stories of Miyazaki's films. My rating: 8.75

- Samurai Champloo: Laying a hip-hop soundtrack over a beautifully artful and action-packed series, Samurai Champloo is one of the stronger TV-MA anime released to date. While there is plenty of flash and flair presented, Fuu, Mugen, and Jin play off one another through a very amusing dynamic and meet a number of eccentric and quirky characters during their search for the samurai who smells of sunflowers. While most viewers will probably seek out Samurai Champloo with the intent of finding a quick action fix, the story is surprisingly strong and the art style and music make the series all the more fluid in its execution. My rating: 8.25

- Blue Submarine No. 6: While quite a major achievement for its time, the hybrid of traditional animation and CGI shows its age. The story, while creative, comes across as a bit preachy at times, but there is plenty of action and a few surprises to keep viewers entertained along the way. My rating: 7.0

- Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust: With a title that includes the word 'bloodlust', this film isn't particularly over-the-top in regards to the blood and gore portrayed therein. The story, while a bit slow in the beginning, is thoroughly entertaining and brings some new twists to a familiar formula. Couple that with a cast of diverse and overall well-rounded characters and you've got an entertaining and original dark fantasy film. My rating: 8.0

- MS Igloo: The Hidden One Year War: The crew of the Zeon vessel Jotunheim is tasked with overseeing the testing of various experimental equipment and mobile suits during the later days of the One Year War. Engineer Oliver May provides viewers with the necessary information on each piece of equipment at the start of an episode, and is then shown interacting with his fellow crew members, wherein viewers are given a look at the varying personalities that make up the Zeon forces (explored less often in the Gundam metaseries than those of the EFSF). Fully rendered with CGI, the series looks better and better with each episode and gives and intersting look into the desperate measures taken behind the scenes during the One Year War. My rating: 8.75

- Gundam SEED: The first Gundam series to be fully rendered through digital animation, Gundam SEED provided a sort of hybrid between the alternate universe and Universal Century series. While the animation and soundtrack are both solid, the characters are almost entirely 'hit or miss', and the story feels like it is dragging on at times. My rating: 7.25

- The Girl Who Leapt Through Time: Mixing teen drama and sci-fi genres isn't something that's always easy or successful, but this modern take on a high school girl who explores the possibilities of time travel is executed nearly flawlessly. It's by far one of the prettiest looking anime films released to date, with an equally solid story fueled by a small cast of quirky and entertaining characters - the strongest of these being lead character Makoto. My rating: 9.0

- Sgt. Frog (season one): A hillarious romp through pop-culture references and the zany situations which Keroro and his A.R.M.P.I.T. platoon find themselves in time after time makes for one of the funniest anime I've seen to date. Aside from one relatively weak episode, I found myself laughing the entire way throuh the series, which, while geniunely funny, doesn't seem to force its humor too much on viewers. My rating: 9.5

- Dragonball Z: Fusion Reborn: One of the Dragonball Z films tied less directly to the main storyline of the series, Fusion Reborn follows Goku and Vegeta as they fight a powerful evil entity known as Janemba and attempt to restore the natural rhythm of Earth and the Other World as the barriers between these have been broken. The story is rather basic in its premise and tries to dish out as much action as possible in less than an hour. While the conclusion is a bit abrupt, the pacing overall is decent and a few nods to the original Dragonball along the way mix things up a bit from the standard formula of most DBZ films. My rating: 7.25

- Axis Powers: Hetalia (seasons one and two): One of the most creative interpretations of the events surrounding World War II, Hetalia portrays each nation as a single person and stereotypes them based on national traditions and culture. The main character is Italy, and as such the majority of the first season spends more time focused on the Axis Powers, but the Allies get their fair share of screen time in season two. Each episode clocks in at roughly seven minutes, so the series is relatively short, but at the same time geniunely hillarious. My rating: 9.0

- Full Metal Alchemist (season one): One of the most popular and critically acclaimed anime series of all time, Full Metal Alchemist follows brothers Edward and Alphonse Elric as they search for the Philospher's Stone in order to try and restore their bodies, which they forfeited most of during a failed attempt to resurrect their dead mother. During their journey, the brothers deal with the state military, Ishbalan refugees, and Homunculi (creatures of a human nature, but still distinctly inhuman). The animation is some of the best for its time, and the story is sure to keep viewers drawn in all the way up to the season finale. My rating: 9.75

- Howl's Moving Castle: A young woman named Sophie finds herself caught up in the conflict between magician Howl and his ties to the state and military. Like many of Miyazaki's works, the story includes a lot of fantasy elements and can easily be enjoyed by viewers of all ages. However, a few loose-ended story elements and a clunky conclusion drag this film down a bit more than most of Miyazaki's other works. My rating: 7.75

- Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles: Part sequel, part resurrection of the Robotech series, The Shadow Chronicles is an intracite conspiracy that invloves the humans who want to regain control of Earth from the Invid, and the ever-watchful Haydonites. The story is entertaining, though a bit predictable during latter scenes. The characters play off one another interstingly enough, and the animation quality is fairly impressive for a 2006 release. While overall the film is good, some cheesy elements make it fall short of being great. My rating: 7.75

- Mobile Suit Gundam Wing: As important a role as Gundam Wing played in introducing North American viewers to Bandai and Surise's wildly popular metaseries, the characters therein lack any apparent depth or believability. The animation is sub-par for 1996 and the soundtrack lacking creativity. It certainly had its place during the late 1990s, but in comparison to other series in the franchise, Gundam Wing hasn't aged particularly well. My rating: 6.75

- Dragonball Z: Bojack Unbound: In the midst of a major fighting tournament, Bojack and his minions - previously imprisoned by King Kai - arrive to try and spread chaos. Once again, the Z fighters are called into action to stop this threat. Unlike some of the other DBZ films, Bojack Unbound is quite closely tied to the events of the main series. Heavy on action, the film includes a fair amount of humor and doesn't try to take itself too seriously during lighter moments. My rating: 7.5

- Paprika: Following the theft of the DC Mini - a device capable of recording dreams and allowing others to enter a user's dream through simultaneous use - Paprika, alter ego to Dr. Chiba Atsuko, begins searching the dream realm for whoever stole the device and what they intend to with it. As the film progresses, the lines between reality and dreams begin to blur. With a creative soundtrack and a number of twists along the way, Paprika is one of the most brilliantly executed anime films released in years. My rating: 9.75

- 009-1: A sort of spiritual sequel to Cyborg 009, the plot and mood of 009-1 are darker and more mature, borrowing many inspirations from James Bond and other spy films/books of the 1960s and 1970s. More often than not, the characters of 009-1 fail to see their full potential achieved, as the story is almost exclusively focused on agent 009-1 (who, in turn, is very well-rounded by the series' finale). Each episode is a distinctly seperate narrative, though some attempts late in the series are made to tie subplots together with marginal success. All in all, the series is more about action with flash and flair than it is about a deep story, and it executes the former in a most dazzling manner. My rating: 7.5

- Azumanga Daioh: A slice-of-life comedy that follows a group of girls through their high school education, Azumanga Daioh caught me by surprise due to how genuinely funny it is without forcing too hard the delivery of said humor. The characters are all eccentric and quirky enough that they play off one another nicely, but hardly ever reach the point of being downright annoying. There isn't much that connects any of the episodes until late in the series, but that's not necessarily a bad thing as casual viewers can enjoy it just as much as more hardcore anime fans. My rating: 8.75

- Paranoia Agent: The first and only series helmed by Satoshi Kon, Paranoia Agent follows those affected (whether directly or indirectly) by a baseball-wielding assailant on rollerblades known as Lil' Slugger. As the series progresses, the question of who Lil' Slugger really is and what he is capable of becomes increasingly prominent. Part psychological thriller, part mystery series, Paranoia Agent proves once again the genius of Satoshi Kon through inventive plot twists, a colorful cast of characters, and narratives that viewers must piece together along the way. My rating: 9.5

- MS Igloo: Apocalypse 0079: Picking up shortly after The Hidden One Year War, Apocalypse 0079 shows how the Zeon forces became even more desperate and dependent on their experimental technology as the EFSF began dominating space battles. The characters are more believable this time around, and Monique Cadillac receives about as much screen time as Oliver May. With a phenomenal soundtrack that empasizes the series' desperate and tense mood, and CGI quality that surpasses its predecessor, Apocalypse 0079 is not only a fantastic Gundam OVA, but a great sci-fi OVA as well. My rating: 9.75

- Death Note: A constant battle of wits between high school student Light Yagami and master detective L serves as the premise for one of the most critically and popularly acclaimed anime series in years. With an interesting and believable cast of characters fueling the events that unfold, top-notch animation quality, and a powerful soundtrack, it's no wonder that the series recieved as much praise as it did. Even with some issues during the final third of the story, the pacing of Death Note is nearly perfect throughout. My rating: 8.5

- After War Gundam X: One of the stronger of the alternate universe series released in the late 1990s, Gundam X depicts a post-apocalyptic world in which scavengers known as 'vultures' roam the recovering wasteland of Earth. Garrod Ran serves as one of the youngest and most entertaining lead characters in any Gundam series, and the remainder of he cast is fleshed out via colorful and relatively believable characters. The animation is solid, but the series really shines through with arguably the best soundtrack from any series in the entire franchise. My rating: 8.5

- Mobile Suit Gundam F91: Originally planned to be a full series, then scaled down to a short OVA, and finally released as a two-hour movie, Gundam F91 works well as a bridge between the events of Char's Counterattack and Victory Gundam. The main characters a quite entertaining, though admitedly some of the secondary and tertiary characters come across as a bit flat. Despite its fast pacing, the story is quite solid and dishes out an excellent balance of action and plot while paying homage to older Gundam series. My rating: 8.25

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

FLCL: Complete Collection release date

It's been a while since my last post, and I apologize for the temporary hiatus. I hope to post more frequently after the first of the year. But, speaking of the new year, good news for fans of Gainax and Production IG's FLCL - the series has been picked up by Funimation, who will be releasing it as a complete collection on February 22, 2011 for the reasonable sum of $22.99 for DVD and $33.99 Blu-ray. The DVDs were previously available from Geneon, but have been out of print for over four years now. Ride on shooting star!

Trailer for the DVD/Blu-ray release:

Friday, November 26, 2010

Evangelion 2.22 US release date announced

This news is about a week old now, and I simply forgot to post and update on my blog concerning said news. It's official - Rebuild of Evangelion 2.22: You Can [Not] Advance will be released in the US on March 29, 2011. For those confused as to what the difference between the 2.0 and 2.22 versions of You Can [Not] Advance entail, 2.0 was the theatrical release while 2.22 is the DVD release. Japan never had a DVD release of 2.0, only one of 2.22, which is going to be the same situation when the DVD is released stateside in March. All of this information comes from Evageeks.org (a site which I would highly recommend to Evangelion fans).

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Turn A Gundam US release

It seems this was announced back in early July of this year, but apparently the news snuck past me. Bandai has announced a US release of Turn A Gundam, which is fantastic news as far as I'm concerned. Turn A Gundam is by far my favorite alternate universe Gundam series to date and I can't wait to have my very own copy of the DVD release. There has been no news as of yet on the English dub voice actors. I imagine that Bandai will release the series in two parts via their Anime Legends collections, as the case will also be with the upcoming 2011 release of Mobile Suit Gundam. Bandai has released series such as Zeta Gundam, Gundam SEED/SEED Destiny, and Gundam 00 on seperate discs containing approximately four to eight episodes at a time and then later going back to re-release the series in the Anime Legends collections, but I imagine that, with Turn A Gundam being a now 10+ year-old series that Bandai will release it in as few seperate collections for the sake of convenience for Gundam fans who have been waiting a long time for Turn A Gundam's US release. To be honest, I never expected Turn A Gundam to see a stateside release, but this gives me new hope that After War Gundam X and ZZ Gundam might someday also see US release.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Anime review: Death Note

Being one of the most popular anime series released in the past decade, Death Note was a series that had lingered in the back of my mind for quite some time. I debated on whether or not I really wanted to watch it all that much, presuming it to be aimed more so at goth and emo teens who watched Death Note as their only anime, and I expected minimal plot with a massive body count by the end of the show. Based on much of the promotional material, it's a shame that Death Note sells itself as such a shallow series because, in reality, it's quite deep and engaging. Initially, I intended to complete this review without including any major spoilers. However, due to the nature of Death Note and the events that unfold therein, I will keep the spoilers to a minimum for the majority of this review (though there will be a few minor spoilers throughout) while delving deep into major spoilers for one single section (which I will denote via a spoiler warning).

The introductory episode follows the same basic pattern of many other shows of its kind, providing the necessary basic information for viewers to understand the events in context but balancing this with enough suspense and intrigue to keep their attention. A few episodes thereafter, the series speeds forth with bullet train-like pacing, only to settle back to a normal solid pace within the following episode or so. There are only a handful of instances like this and the pacing of the series is relatively consistent overall.

Death Note is split into three major story arcs with the first arguably being the best. It is here that viewers are introduced to the primary characters of Light Yagami and L, as well as the secondary characters who will play important roles throughout the remainder of the series. Light is a high school student who ranks at the top of his class and is rather popular with the ladies, but has grown bored of the same routine. Ryuk, a Shinigami (God of death), has also grown bored with the lack of activity within his home realm and decides to drop a Death Note into the human world, which is subsequently picked up by Light. The specifics of the Death Note are explained to Light by Ryuk (what information is required to kill a person, how long before said person's death, how much control the user of a Death Note has over their victims, etc.) and Light proceeds to kill off criminals in the Tokyo area, in order to create a new world in which he believes he will be akin to a God. The public begins tying all of Light's similar yet secretive killings together and dubs him 'Kira'. A world-renowned investigator named L catches wind of 'Kira' and the killings and - after a short test aimed at 'Kira'/Light - deduces that the killer must be located somewhere within the Tokyo area, have a daily schedule similar to that of a high school or college student, and have some access to police information (as Light's father is the chief of police).

From there, things become a wildly entertaining game of wits between Light and L as each constantly tries to one-up the other. Light keeps killing criminals while changing his schedule of carrying out the killings, and even relies on Ryuk to keep him informed of anyone spying in on him. L, however, finds himself in a tight situation, as the police have a difficult time trusting his judgment when L will not appear in person nor reveal his true identity to them.

While the first story arc focuses primarily on Light and his ideals of a new world governed by an absolute justice, the second story arc is more so focused on L and the methods in which he attempts to solve the Kira case. L physically appears before Light, Misa, and the remaining members of the police force (though he is careful not to reveal his name) and asks Light to team up with him in order to take down Kira, whose identity has now shifted to a powerful corporation known as Yotsuba. With both Light and Misa's memories as Kira gone due to a certain series of events, L diverts his attention to Yotsuba, and he and Light work on deducing which member of Yotsuba is now Kira. While this second story arc is still entertaining and well-thought out, it is noticeably slower than the first story arc in terms of pacing. A large portion of this is due to how much background information is explored during this portion of the show, both in regards to Light and L as well as the Shinigami and the rules within the Death Note.

(WARNING! – Major spoilers follow)

Following L's death at the hands of the Shinigami Rem (who did so to extend Misa's life), the series jumps ahead roughly five years and explores a world in which Light plays both the role of Kira and L, continuing to lead the investigation while also killing off criminals. However, two students at an orphanage set up by Watari are contacted and informed of L's death, and a decision must be made to determine who will take over L's role. Following a confliction of interests, Mello storms off the property of the orphanage and Near (now dubbed 'N') takes on L's mantle. When the two finally contact 'Kira', they catch him in a tight predicament that threatens the safety of those closest to Light, as well as the entire 'Kira' control Light wields over Tokyo.

Though Light still runs a myriad of potential outcomes through his head before taking any action (as is his nature by this point), the final story arc is rather bland when compared to the previous two. Assuming viewers have been paying the slightest bit of attention up to the point of the third story arc, it won't be particularly difficult for them to predict the events that unfold. Light and the members of his task force remain largely the same, and Near serves as a fitting replacement for L, carrying similar mannerisms and deductive reasoning skills. The characters who are new to the story are either left almost entirely unexplored (N's SPK task force members and Mikami) or don't seem quite as believable as in the previous two segments (Takada and Mello) due to their relatively minor role in the grand scheme of things. However, my biggest complaint with the third and final portion of Death Note is its pacing. Things take seemingly forever to get going, even though Near and Mello have arrived on the scene to shake things up for Light's plans. Once the action does pick up, it snowballs, building at a consistent pace until the series finale. That's not to say that there isn't important information revealed to viewers during this time in the story, but it could have been balanced with action sequences as the formula prior to that point had done. The last two episodes, which could easily be viewed as a two-part finale, are very predictable presuming viewers have picked up on the storytelling patterns laid out by the series. But just because it is predictable doesn't mean the conclusion is at all bad - in fact, it's very much befitting of the story that is Death Note.

(Spoilers End)

In regards to the characters, everyone has his or her role that will play out before the conclusion of the series. While Light and L are the major focus of the story, Misa, the police force members, the members of Yotsuba, and the members of the SPK all play instrumental roles in either trying to aid or stop Kira. It’s only in the last story arc that some of the secondary and tertiary characters seem to have somewhat of a forced inclusion to the story. While some might find Misa to be a bit annoying, I found her bringing an interesting dynamic to the L vs. Light scenario, with her desire to help Kira and provide him with invaluable resources but at the same time presenting the potential to inadvertently foil Light’s plans. Everyone will have their own opinion on who is right and who is wrong in the series. Personally, I’m more a fan of L than I am of Light, due to his quirky mannerisms and consistent ability to surprise me as a viewer with how quickly he runs a number of possibilities through his head. However, despite the fact that he uses the Death Note to kill countless people, Light’s strong sense of Justice and incredibly clever nature makes it very difficult for me to dislike him. On the contrary, Light is an incredibly engaging character who offsets L perfectly.

The soundtrack is heavy on light electric and acoustic guitar sounds, as well as synthesizer and keyboard pieces. While the soundtrack has a very original sound to it and is very much fitting to the events of the series, many pieces begin to sound the same after a while and some more variation might have been in the best interest of composers Yoshihisa Hirano and Hideki Taniuchi. Every once in a while, however, things are mixed up with the inclusion of chime and organ-heavy pieces accompanied by a choir singing in Latin. The level of detail in the animation is to be greatly commended. However, the constant drab grey and black in both the background and foreground elements give the implication that the series is meant to be a much darker nature than it actually is as well as make things difficult to see at times. That's not to say that the story is one of happiness and sunshine, but the series as a whole is more about a carefully calculated power struggle between Light and L than it is about death and depression.

Both the Japanese and English voice actors do a phenomenal job overall, so which version viewers choose to watch will be completely up to personal preference. I was a bit skeptical when I heard that Brad Swaile, longtime voice of Amuro Ray in the dub of the Mobile Suit Gundam series, would be voicing Light. As it turns out, Swaile can play a dark genius in an absolutely spellbinding manner. Alessandro Juliani captures all of L's quirks and mannerisms spot-on, and Brian Drummond provides a fitting voice for the ever-entertaining Ryuk.

Despite my complaints with the third story arc dragging things down, the series as a whole is quite solid and provides a very original story with an engaging plot and some incredibly memorable characters. This is a series that is not for casual viewers, as they need to pay a lot of attention in order to follow the story or try and guess what will happen next. But that is one of the great things about Death Note – it will grab viewers’ attention and rarely let go as they are thrust into the conflict between Light Yagami and L. Death Note is not only one of the best mainstreamed anime in recent years, but one of the best mainstreamed anime of all time and is very much deserving of all the praise it has received over the years. It may fall shy of perfection, but it’s one series that every anime fan should give a look into.

My rating: 8.5 (out of 10)

Friday, October 29, 2010

Anime review: MS Igloo: Apocalypse 0079

Apocalypse 0079 picks up shortly after the conclusion of MS Igloo’s first chapter, The Hidden One Year War. The three episodes in this second half of the digitally animated OVA follow the crew of the Zeon ship Jotunheim as their experiments gradually move towards space and the battles that loom ahead as the One Year War draws towards its final days. While The Hidden One Year War focused largely on engineer Oliver May and recounted the various experiments from his personal point of view, Apocalypse 0079 balances the narrative more, giving Oliver, Lieutenant Commander Monique Cadillac, and Captain Martin Prochnow a major role. Other crew members aboard the Jotunheim who received little focus last time around are still given relatively minor roles, but are slightly more important in the grand scheme of the story.

Apocalypse 0079 ties in more directly with the events of the One Year War than The Hidden One Year War. From a high-velocity and heavily-equipped Z’Gok dropping from space in order to destroy Salamis and Magellan-class ships from leaving the EFSF in Jaburo, to the Jotunheim providing assistance at the battle of A Baoa Qu, things feel tightly meshed together. A few guest appearances along the way act as icing on the cake.

With The Hidden One Year War, the animation suffered marginally during the first two episodes. This time around a great attention to detail is taken into account and the animation remains consistent throughout. While there were a few cheesy moments thrown into The Hidden One Year War with deliberate comedic intent, these are almost completely removed from Apocalypse 0079 (with a few minor exceptions). Some may find this a bit upsetting, but it allows the story to stay more serious and focused. The soundtrack – which was almost nonexistent last time around – is sweeping and epic. Many of the pieces pay homage to the soundtrack of the original Mobile Suit Gundam with their overall sound, but at the same time the soundtrack stands out as a unique accompaniment to the OVA.

While the first episode of Apocalypse 0079 deals with an experiment isolated from those of the second and third episodes, it doesn’t feel too far removed and flows nicely with the overarching story. Viewers will feel a much greater connection with May and Cadillac than in the previous chapter of MS Igloo, and overall Apocalypse 0079 has a much more emotionally gripping story that is just as character-driven as that of The Hidden One Year War. With there being a mere three episodes, Bandai and Sunrise have packed as much material as possible into each and the end result is one of the best short OVAs - not just in the Gundam franchise, but of any anime ever made.

My rating: 9.75 (out of 10)

Friday, October 15, 2010

Anime update #4: "Is there a moon?"

I'm slowly but surely making my way through Mushi-Shi. I've been rather busy lately and overall the amount of anime I've been watching has dropped since school started back up for the Fall. However, I have started up on After War Gundam X, which - at least from my impressions thus far (being up to episode 13) - I find it to be one of the better alternate universe series. It has some major improvements over Gundam Wing, both in story and animation, but still holds some roots in the Universal Century mythos (which isn't a bad thing by any means).

As for Death Note, I'll get back to it when I feel like it. This final story arc is leaving a bad taste in my mouth and I feel the series should have ended shortly after the major plot twist at the end the second story arc. I understand that the creators wanted to milk the story for all it was worth (both in the anime and the manga), but this last bit being as subpar as it is really drags down the value of the series as a whole, in my opinion.

After the series mentioned above, I'm thinking of moving back to Full Metal Alchemist and Sgt. Frog (both of which I have yet to the second seasons). And from there... well, we'll see I suppose. I'm interested in viewing Eden of the East and there's a number of Gundam series, OVAs, and two films that I have not yet seen. As much as my viewing has slowed for the time being, I'm hoping it will pick back up the pace soon.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Summer Wars trailer and (approximate) release date announced

Funimation has released an English trailer for Summer Wars, which will see limited theatrical release December of 2010 and later released on DVD/Blu-ray in Spring of 2011. The film looks pretty promising (from what the trailer revealed, it somewhat reminds me of the Digimon movie, ironically enough). Here's to hoping it's as excellent as it looks and to hoping that Funimation releases an update on Rebuild of Evangelion 2.22 - You Can [Not] Advance in the near future as well.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Gundam announcements from NYCC

Bandai announced at New York Comic-Con that there will be a US release of the original Mobile Suit Gundam in their anime legends collection. Also announced was the release of the second episode of Unicorn Gundam this November. This time around, however, Bandai will be releasing both a Blu-ray and a DVD (the latter of which will include both the first and second episode of Unicorn Gundam). Bandai is also planning the US release and dub of the Gundam 00 movie Awakening of the Trailblazer, though a release date has yet to be announced.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Shogun 2 Total War update: assassinations

New gameplay footage from Shogun 2 Total War was released just a few days ago, highlighting the new assassination option. Check out the video below:

I have to say, the environments look phenomenal and the detail in each soldier's armor is impressive. You can see these in greater detail in the gameplay trailer:

Finally, for those who have not yet seen the original announcement trailer for Shogun2 Total War:

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Nintendo 3DS release date announced

It's official - the 3DS, Nintendo's upcoming handheld, will be released in Japan in February 2011, while Europe and the U.S. will see a release in March 2011. The Japanese release is currently priced at 25,000 Yen (approx. $299 USD), though there is no news yet on the European or U.S. price tags. Big releases being highlighted for the system include Kid Icarus: Uprising, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, Resident Evil: Revelations, Paper Mario, Star Fox 64 3D, and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. The system will also support a virtual console akin to that of the Wii, allowing gamers to download Gameboy and GBA titles.

A short video highlighting many of the 3DS titles to be released for the system (courtesy of GameSpot):

Monday, September 27, 2010

Xbox 360 review: Halo: Reach

Roughly three years after the conclusion of Master Chief's story in Halo 3, Bungie has released Halo: Reach, the final Halo title to be developed by the company. For those not familiar with the game, Halo: Reach is a prequel to the original Halo. Players are given control of Noble Six, a SPARTAN-III and the last surviving member of his team, as he is transferred to Noble Team to fight the Covenant in the final days before the planet Reach was glassed.

*[NOTE: In the images below, my Noble Six is wearing recon armor. The armor will differ depending on how you customize your Noble Six character.]

The campaign plays out much like a greatest hits with each mission feeling unique to Halo: Reach, but carrying a sense of familiarity. ‘Tip of the Spear’ is reminiscent of Halo 3’s ‘Tsavo Highway’ and ‘The Ark’, and the latter portion of ‘Long Night of Solace’ akin to the original Halo’s ‘The Truth and Reconciliation’. Even Halo 3: ODST gets a bit of a nod in the mission ‘Exodus’. Players are granted more freedom in how they go about completing certain missions, but at the same time the game requires them to be more strategic than in previous titles. The normal and easy difficulties provide a similar challenge as in Halo 3, though the Heroic and Legendary difficulties will truly challenge players without being unfair or downright aggravating.

The members of Noble Team each have a distinct personality, and the only one left the least fleshed out is Noble Six. This is likely because Bungie wanted to let players customize their experience and leave Noble Six’s personality up to interpretation. Still, he/she shows more emotion than Master Chief did in pretty much any of the other Halo games and it’s nice to see that Bungie mixed things up a bit. As for the rest of Noble team, Carter - the team’s leader – come across as simply following orders at first, but it becomes apparent later on in the story that he does care for the safety of his team members despite the fact that isn’t always the best at expressing this. Kat is perhaps the most valuable member of the team as specializes in hacking and data retrieval, and is more than capable of holding her own against covenant forces. Emile is cynical and seems to have the most difficult time getting along with others, though his skills in close-quarters combat prove invaluable. Jun is a bit of a chatterbox but one of the most entertaining characters in Halo: Reach, as he tends to keep a positive light on things while remaining focused on his mission. He is the team’s designated Sniper and can provide the team cover from a Falcon transport circling the area or from the ground. Jorge is built like a tank and is the only SPARTAN-II among the group, having seen years of service. He is well-versed in different languages and is by far the compassionate member of Noble Team.

Dr. Catherine Halsey, a pivotal character in the Halo novels, plays a significant role in the events that unfold throughout Halo: Reach. A number of guest appearances occur as well, tying the story into the core Halo storyline. There are a few things left unanswered to players, such as how the Covenant were able to discover Reach and land on the planet undetected. The novel The Fall of Reach could clear things like this up for players, but at the same time they shouldn’t have to look this sort of thing up to understand what’s going on in the game. That said, it’s relatively minor in the grand scheme of things. The story is genuinely gripping and emotional at many points, making it the best campaign in a Halo game, as well as one of the best in any FPS title.

The game’s graphics are stunning and it seems that Bungie went a slightly different route with the art style in Reach than they did in Halo 3. Halo 3’s characters were portrayed in a style that was semi-realistic but had a hint of cel-shading. In Halo: Reach, everything looks realistic, from the character models to the UNSC ships to the planets on Reach’s horizon. Marty O’Donnell and Michael Salavatori have released yet another fantastic soundtrack to accompany the gameplay, with variations on a number of familiar Halo themes.

Aside from the campaign mode, players are given quite a few reasons to stick with the game for some time to come, most notably the multiplayer, which the Halo franchise has largely been popularized by. New to Reach’s multiplayer is the inclusion of loadouts, which vary depending on gametype. These grant players use of two weapons upon spawning (one weapon in rare cases) as well as equipment (which are no longer scattered around the maps as they were in Halo 3). Players are still able to swap out weapons with those on any given map in-game, and can switch up their loadout prior to respawning. The new assassinations are entertaining but players might want to think about their surroundings before sneaking up and stabbing an enemy, as the animated assassination leaves them exposed for a brief few seconds. While there is little to complain about in terms of the variety of weapons at players’ disposal, I find it likely that Bungie will release an update in the near future to adjust the headshot accuracies, which (at present) seem to be based more on luck than skill once a player’s shields have been brought down.

The number of maps included on the disk is a bit of a disappointment, especially considering that nearly half of the maps are straightforward remakes from Halo 2. The ability to veto gametypes in the matchmaking pregame lobby returns, though this time around players are given the option to vote from three gametypes or choose ‘none of the above’ (upon the latter choice, the game will select three new gametypes that players must then choose from). The exp. System from Halo 3 - wherein players would earn single exp. Points per game won - has been exchanged for a progression system in which players earn more points based on performance, completing challenges, and earning commendations, but will still earn points simply for participating in a match. These points can then be exchanged to unlock armor permutations and Firefight voices.

Returning from Halo 3: ODST is Firefight mode, in which waves of enemies are sent at players. Players can tackle Firefight in three ways. Traditional Firefight is accessible through the main menu and allows players to take on the Covenant by themselves, allowing them to customize loadouts, difficulty level, the number of enemy waves players will be facing, and the enemy/player attributes. Firefight matchmaking puts four players in a game and requires them to take out the Covenant forces before a certain time limit runs out (generally ten minutes). Gametypes include traditional Firefight, Sniperfight, Rocketfight, and Generator Defense (in which players prevent Covenant forces from destroying a number of generators). Finally, Score Attack pits one player against waves of Covenant forces (much like non-matchmaking Firefight) and ranks the endgame score on a community leaderboard.

Forge mode is back from Halo 3 and has seen a major overhaul in user-friendly aspects. No longer is flipping pieces about a hassle, thanks to the inclusion of degree turns. Players can fine-tune the specific location of Forge pieces by zooming in, and can even set the object to ‘fixed’ or ‘phased’, leaving the object hanging in midair or allowing it to phase into another object respectively. Buildings can be changed in color for designation to the different teams. The majority of Forging will take place in Forge World, an enormous area built by Bungie with certain areas set up as the beginning environment of a map, but ultimately the final outcome is limited only by players’ imaginations.

Halo: Reach is the culmination of many of the best elements of previous titles in the series. Some could say the game returns to the roots of Halo, but that wouldn’t be entirely accurate as there are plenty of inclusions from Halo 2, Halo 3, and even Halo 3: ODST that make the gameplay so fluid. With past Halo titles, I felt that they were somewhat overrated and hyped too much. But Reach is the complete package, providing tons of playability, superb graphical and musical achievements, and one of the best FPS campaigns around. In short, Halo: Reach is a title that belongs in the library of any Xbox 360 owner.

My rating: 9.25 (out of 10)

Friday, September 24, 2010

Bioshock Infinite gameplay

Some early gameplay of Irrational Game's upcoming Bioshock Infinite has been released and I must say, it looks impressive. I'm surprised at how bright and sunny a city like Columbia can feel so eerie. A few new plasmid abilities are highlighted, as well as the ability to combine these with Elizabeth's powers. For ten minutes worth of footage, this clip sure covers a lot of ground.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Portal 2 Co-op update

Another brief update, with the new trailer for Portal 2 co-op attached. It seems that Valve is going to make the cooperatvie gameplay narrative-driven, though where all this plays into the overarching story of Portal remains to be seen. I'll keep things updated with new posts and information as I receive it, but for now just enjoy the trailer.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

DLC review: Bioshock 2 - Minerva's Den

The third and final bit of Bioshock 2 DLC has arrived and, as with the previous two releases, 2K has created a great experience full of everything that makes Bioshock 2 the unique game that it is. That said, Minerva’s Den didn’t feel as fleshed out of DLC as the Rapture Metro Pack or the Protector Trials and is, in my opinion, the weakest of the three.

Minerva’s Den opens up with an Alpha-series Big Daddy named Subject Sigma being denied entrance to Minerva’s Den, home of Rapture Central Computing, via a tunnel exploding. But as Sigma is a Big Daddy, moving about the ocean is quite simple and so he finds another entrance into the home of Rapture Central Computing, with the help and guidance of Brigid Tenenbaum and Charles Milton Porter. Porter, along with his colleague Reed Wahl, worked on The Thinker, a supercomputer that runs many of Rapture’s everyday needs. However, over time Wahl took control of The Thinker and subsequently all of Minerva’s Den, while Porter was banished from his own creation. Now Sigma must get control of The Thinker back out of Wahl’s grasp.

The single-player story that is Minerva’s Den plays out like a two to three-hour version of either Bioshock or Bioshock 2. The overall objective is ever-present, but players will have to traverse different sections of Minerva’s Den and complete various objectives before reaching Wahl and The Thinker. Along the way, players will find a handful of audio diaries, most of them pertaining exclusively to Porter and Wahl’s collaborative work, as well as the major weapons and plasmids found throughout the main game of Bioshock 2. While collecting each weapon doesn’t detract the narrative, it is a bit of an annoyance as players are only granted use of the drill and telekinesis plasmid at the start of Minerva’s Den and are then expected to take out some relatively challenging enemies (such as Spider and Brute Splicers) with this combination. Once players have tracked down more weapons and plasmids, however, the big challenge will be balancing weapon use and conserving ammo, as this isn’t nearly as plentiful in Minerva’s Den as in the rest of Rapture.

Two new additions to the Bioshock arsenal make their debut in Minerva’s Den. The Laser is a weapon carried by the newest Big Daddy model known as the Lancer. Once players have taken a Lancer down, they can loot his Laser for ammo cells, and can then fire the weapon with three ammo types – a standard laser beam, a thermal beam, and a charged ion blast. A new plasmid, Gravity Well, creates a small gravitational center which pulls objects and enemies towards itself for a brief time period. While it’s nice to see that 2K is as creative as ever, the Laser basically combines three ammo types from other weapons and attributes them to one convenient location that is ultimately a less powerful weapon. As entertaining as Gravity Well is to use on a handful of Splicers, it doesn’t prove particularly useful against the large numbers of enemies players face in gather sections, and is a plasmid better reserved for its primary inclusion – unlocking certain areas.

The design of Minerva’s Den is much darker and moody than many other areas of Rapture and often carries a feel much more akin to that of the original Bioshock than Bioshock 2. There are a number of areas that players can choose to travel to if they wish to explore more of Minerva’s Den, but these are not required by the main narrative. Some of these simply allow players to stock up on munitions and health packs, but others further explore the history of Minerva’s Den. Unfortunately, a few of the questions brought up by exploring these areas are never answered by the narrative’s conclusion.

Minerva’s Den is a nice addition to the overarching tale of Rapture, but is still very much self-contained. While players may find a few audio diaries by Andrew Ryan, the only character that makes an appearance both outside and inside Minerva’s Den is Tenenbaum, and the story of Sigma, Porter, and Wahl doesn’t extend past this DLC or play into the main events of Bioshock 2 in any way. While the story of Minerva’s Den doesn’t explain much of anything until (quite literally) the last fifteen minutes of the gameplay, the payoff is quite good and delivers a solid plot twist that keeps with Bioshock tradition. In the end, Minerva’s Den is easily the weakest of the three pieces of Bioshock 2 DLC, but is still a great addition to any fan’s collection.

My rating: 8 (out of 10)*

*(rating applies solely to downloadable content, not its inclusion with the content on the original game disc or other downloadable content)

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Bioshock 2 DLC update

Just a quick update this time, with a new trailer for the Bioshock 2 DLC "Minerva's Den". Never before have I been so creeped out by a computer.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Disney releases Studio Ghibli's Tales from Earthsea

Walt Disney Studios has been the sole disributor of the Studio Ghibli film series for many years now and have generally put forth good efforts in the English dubbing process. As Ponyo was Disney's 2009 Studio Ghibli release, they have decided to turn back the clock a bit and release Tales from the Earthsea, a film which debuted in Japan in 2006.

Though I honestly know very little about the plot, the film appears somewhat similar in tone to Princess Mononoke, carrying a more teen-oriented focus and taking place in environments reminiscent of old England where dragons and humans coexist. The film was not directed by Hayao Miyazaki but rather his son Goro Miyazaki. The English dub will include voice work from actors Timothy Dalton, Willem Dafoe, Cheech Marin, and Mariska Hargitay. If the past Studio Ghibli releases are any indication of what to expect from Tales of Earthsea, it's a pretty safe bet to assume the film will be fantastic. I'll be certain to post a review of the film once I view it.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Xbox 360/PS3 review: Final Fantasy XIII

As I watched the opening credits to Final Fantasy XIII, I found myself curious as to what all lay in store for me with this game. I had played Crystal Chronicles and Tactics titles in the past, but never before had I actually sat down to play one of the core titles in Square Enix's long-running RPG franchise. First some winged beasts wove their way through a valley, then an airship flew over a city hanging in the sky (at this point I had no proper name to give any of these). And then a gun barrel slowly peeled off to one side of the screen revealing the most detailed and life-like face I had ever seen in any video game. That single moment grabbed my attention like no other and my eyes remained glued to the television screen as I witnessed more highlighted images from Final Fantasy XIII unfold. As the final shots flew over the scenery of Gran Pulse, every single individual pebble visible and the river water clear and shimmering, I realized Square Enix had gone above and beyond any of their previous cutscene works and had hit the jackpot. But video games are not just about pretty graphics and, fingers crossed, I started up a new file on the disc.

Due to the length of the game, it's rather difficult to explain the story in detail without giving much away in terms of spoilers, but I'll try my best. The Fal'Cie are akin to demigods in the world of Final Fantasy XIII and every so often will select humans to carry out deeds on their behalf, often if their status as Fal'Cie prohibits them from directly intervening in matters. The people of the floating continent of Cocoon are constantly fed messages that L'Cie, humans branded by the Fal'Cie are dangerous and will threaten the stability of Cocoon. The Fal'Cie, however, are both praised and feared due to their immense power and hold on the world around them. When Lightning, Snow, Sazh, Hope, Vanille, and Fang are branded by a Fal'Cie, they must determine the focus the Fal'Cie has bestowed upon them. Should the L'Cie fail to complete their focus they are doomed to wander the world as a mindless beast known as a C'ieth, but should they complete their focus successfully the L'Cie will enter a crystal stasis for hundreds of years. Attempting to put their differences aside may not be easy, but it will be necessary if Lightning, Snow, Sazh, Hope, Vanille, and Fang are to fight their focus and seek out another fate.

The initial level players find themselves in at the start of Final Fantasy XIII is teeming with activity. Following Lightning's incursion onboard a train, the purge that was meant to be taking place as a way to hush up the relocation of a Fal'Cie explodes into sheer chaos. Players take control of one or two characters at a time, alternating between the then relative strangers that will soon become the main cast of Final Fantasy XIII. This introductory sequence, so to speak, is meant to familiarize players with the basics of the combat system and moving around the world. With so much occurring right off the start of the game, players might not take notice of the slight graphical decrease in detail from the cutscenes to the actual gameplay. This is a good thing, though, as the difference is very minor and the game still looks beautiful either way.

Final Fantasy XIII is one of the single most time-consuming games I have ever played, and as there are so many inter-weaving stories to be told over its duration, I will not be including any spoilers in this review. That said, just because the game is incredibly lengthy doesn't mean it is boring or tedious in any way. The story delivers a number of incredibly effective plot twists as the six main characters attempt to fight their destiny as L'Cie.

While some of the characters may take time for players to get used to, overall they are very entertaining. Lightning is the hardened soldier who is easily the most combat-capable of the group but has trust issues and isn't overly patient. The fiancee of Lightning's sister Serah, Snow is the no-worries macho hero who sees things as 'the good guys must always prevail', but still has some insecurities that are revealed later in the story. To me, Snow came across as more shallow than the other five lead characters and a tad annoying, but I wouldn't go so far to say that he is a downright terrible character. Sazh is the eldest of the six L'Cie and a constant source of cleverly-scripted ironic humor, and his struggle between keeping things lighthearted and his desire to take certain matters very seriously creates an interesting internal conflict. As the youngest member of the main cast, Hope does plenty of self-discovery and though he is quite timid from the start, he finds strength within himself as the story progresses. Filling a similar role as that of Sazh (though notably younger), Vanille constantly tries to avoid conflict among the L'Cie and keep everyone's spirits up. While she initially came across as incessantly annoying, Vanille was easily my favorite character by the game's conclusion, in large part due to how much deeper a role she plays in the game's events than is initially let on. Fang, a member of the same Pulse tribe as Vanille (though quite a few years older than the bright-spirited teen), plays the Pulse counterpart of Cocoon-born Lightning, in that she is a tried-and-true hunter and incredibly combat-capable, albeit in unorthodox styles.

While the handful of side characters are constantly recurring, they are quite well-rounded and each play a significant role in the game's plot. Yaag Rosch and Cid Raines provide important trials that the L'Cie must overcome, but challenge the L'Cie's way of thinking, presenting arguments neither those of the L'Cie, the citizens, or the Fal'Cie, finding their own beliefs for fighting. Jihl Nabat is one of the few minor characters with whom I was not particularly impressed, mostly due to her minimal involvement in the plot. Serah, Dajh, and the (occasionally obnoxious and JRPG-stereotypical) Nora group provide motivation for the L'Cie to press onward.

The combat system allows players to have three party members in play for the majority of the game's battles. There are six classes that can be assigned to the characters, though each character will only be able to access three preset classes until about twenty hours into the game, at which point each character has access to all six classes and players can level up attributes as they choose via the Crystarium. The commando class is the equivalent of a basic soldier, while the ravager is the equivalent of a mage. The medic and sentinel classes are defense-based, with the former focusing on physical health and the latter focusing on shielding/protecting part members. The syngerist role provides assistance to offense-based classes, causing chain gauges to refill more quickly and increasing the amount of damage weapons can inflict. The saboteur role (which I personally used the least of the six) focuses on taking down the defensive capabilites of an enemy and rendering said enemy more vulnerable to the attacks of the commando and ravager classes. The actual combat itself is very fluid, though a certain level of involvement is lost with the auto-battle system. Players can choose a series of attacks of their own accord, but auto-battle will almost always choose the strongest and most appropriate moves for the battle. Still, Final Fantasy XIII's combat system is leaps and bounds above that of many other RPGs and while it might be unorthodox, it certainly maintains the game's fast-paced action style. Switching back and forth between the various combinations is intuitive and simple, as players need only access the paradigm shift menu in the midst of battle to select the combination that best suits the situation at hand. The camera angle, surprisingly, presents little problem as it auto-corrects itself in the incredibly rare event that it should choose a less-than-desireable angle while rotating around the battlefield.

The enemies players find themselves facing down progress in a traditional style, giving players easy kills and subsequent crystogen point rewards early on, and increasing both the difficulty and variety of foes as players explore new areas. Some enemies reward players with bonus items that can be used to upgrade weapons and accessories. The boss fights become increasingly challenging, and while some are much harder to beat than others, not a single one is reliant on luck. Rather, the game requires players to use a trial-and-error process to figure out what paradigms/party members are best situated for each boss battle.

Every so often players will be required to face an Eidolon in battle, generally when the characters hit an emotional brick wall. Eidolons are mechanized beings brought forth from the L'Cie's focus and players must face them down in order to advance the plot. Unlike most battles, players are given a short time period to defeat the Eidolons and are not rewarded with crystogen points or items following a victory. Rather, players can summon the Eidolons to aid them in battle when necessary. However, on the rare ocassions that I actually called upon an Eidolon, I found them to be overall rather weak offensively and better fit for taking on grunt Psicom troops than dealing damage to bosses - strange, considering the epic intro the Eidolons receive any time they are summoned to battle. Thankfully half of the Eidolon battles are dealt with relatively early on in the game, while the other three make their appearances after the twenty-hour mark.

While the majority of the game's events take place on Cocoon, a large section of the game has players venture to the lowerworld of Gran Pulse. I won't spoil any specifics in regard to the story, but I will say that the environments of Gran Pulse are much more open and free. Players can choose to advance the main story or take a break and tackle the many side-missions scattered about Gran Pulse. While this does allow players to earn rewards and crystogen points through battling Pulse beasts and completing trials, this option is only granted to the player in one of the game's thirteen chapters. Granted, said chapter is the longest of the thirteen (regardless of whether players attempt to tackle the side-missions or not), but it would have been nice for Square Enix to have spread the side-missions across the entirety of the game as to make them seem like less of a chore in piling them all on at once.

The soundtrack fits the game's events like no other. The strings and woodwinds carry moving and flowing parts while accompanying the more soft moments in the story, while powerful sounds from the brass and percussion convey accompany various boss fights. There are a few select pieces that try to incorporate a more techno-inspired sound, and I found these to be a mixed bag with some, such as "Test of the L'Cie" working cohesively with the rest of the soundtrack, and others, such as "Snow's Theme" seeming a bit out of place. Each piece is brilliantly orchestrated, however, and my feeling that some pieces feel out of place is a personal nitpicking more than critique of quality of the soundtrack. Regardless, the soundtrack that accompanies Final Fantasy XIII is one of the best of any video game ever as far as I'm concerned.

With Final Fantasy XIII being my first impression of the core Final Fantasy games, I can honestly say that it was an utterly phenomenal experience. The game isn't perfect and suffers a bit from its attempts to experiment with the RPG formula, but the story is very intriguing, the characters varied and incredibly entertaining, the wide variety of environments presented through incredible attention to detail, and the gameplay of some of the highest caliber. Final Fantasy XIII is an RPG and a very long one at that, so those who have little patience will likely struggle to enjoy this title to its fullest extent. For those willing to put forth the time and effort in playing this wonderfully imaginative game from start to finish, I can guarantee it will be an RPG experience like no other.

My rating: 9.5 (out of 10)

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

PS2 review: Dragonball Z Budokai Tenkaichi 2

Dragonball Z Budokai Tenkaichi 2 is one of the best DBZ games released for the Playstation 2. However, while it is a decent enough fighting game, there are some issues with the controls and levels of play difficulty. Though load times are relatively short, the fact that each individual mission needs to load before players can commence it becomes annoying fairly quickly. Players are given the option to tackle each mission under three degrees of difficulty and are able to replay these at their leisure, so if a player decides that level one difficulty was too easy on a certain mission they can go back and replay it on the level two difficulty setting. However, this isn't likely to happen to many players, save perhaps for longtime fans of the Budokai series, as the three levels of difficulty are incredibly unbalanced. Level one comes off as far too easy, and after a short time with it even newcomers will feel that level one difficulty is a cakewalk. From there, one would expect level two to provide a decent challenge and level three to be for hardcore Budokai fans who have spent hours upon hours mastering the game's specifics. This is not the case, however, as level two will deliver a serious beating to anyone who attempts to take it on. Enemies on level two difficulty give players practically no time to dodge or block attacks, unleashing a most unforgiving barrage upon them. Even if players manage to hold up a block against the CPU, there's little guarantee that the CPU won't charge up its attack enough to break through the block and then render the player immobile long enough to continue the aforementioned assault. With that in mind, it's highly unlikely that many gamers will choose to even attempt level three, as the majority of level two missions have only a marginal success rate.

The fact that this is a fighting game means that players can expect to be using the same controls over and over again. However, there a number of variations on these basics that can be achieved by holding the joystick up, down, left, or right while performing an attack to get a slightly different punch, kick, or beam attack. Players can charge up their energy with the L2 button. When fully charged, their character will be able to unleash physical attacks without pause for a brief time frame, or unleash the energy in the form of a much stronger beam or rush attack. If a player is knocked around hard enough, they will be temporarily rendered immobile and must recover by repeatedly pressing the circle button. This isn't a bad recovery system, but the circle button is so out of the way in the basic control scheme that a rotating a joystick or pressing one of the trigger buttons would have been much more fluid and practical. While each character has the same basic set of attacks, there are some slight differences that make them distinctly different in their play style. For example, Piccolo can reach over twice the distance of most characters with his grab-and-toss attack, first form Cell can sap health from his foes while grabbing them, and Super Buu can release an energy wave around himself that also acts as a self-destruct giving players the option to gamble with Buu's remaining health in order to take down their opponent(s).

In regards to the characters included in Dragonball Z Budokai Tenkaichi 2, there are over 120 playable, and a handful that merely show up in the single player adventure mode for the sake of the story. The majority of these characters are from DBZ, though there are a number of guest inclusions from Dragonball and Dragonball GT. Initially, players are granted use of the original Z fighters, and while this allows for a decent balance of play styles, advancing through the single player mode will result in the unlocking of more greatly varied characters and play styles. While one might think this would ultimately litter the multiplayer character roster, the fact is that each different form of the various DBZ characters is considered to be a separate character, and said different forms can be accessed from a single push of a button while hovering over a character's picture icon. So while there are technically 120+ characters to choose from, players should keep in mind that Goku, Super Sayin Goku, SS2 Goku, and SS3 Goku count for four out of those 120+.

The main story mode is every DBZ fanboy's (and fangirl's) dream. Players can advance through every story from Dragonball Z, beginning with the Sayin Saga and ending with Goku's final showdown with Kid Buu. Most of the films and specials see inclusion, though Broly's inclusion is only that of his first film. While it is a riot to play through the Freiza Saga, Android Saga, and Cell Games, the films and some of the lesser story arcs get kicked to the curb and see the same battlefield reused time and time again. A prime example would be Bojack Unbound, wherein players fight a half-dozen matches against Bojack and Zangya on the same battlefield. However, a few of the film story arcs, including Super Android 13 and Cooler's Revenge only include a handful of matches and wrap up quickly enough that it doesn't seem nearly as mind-numbingly repetitious.

Aside from the main story mode, players can compete in tournaments to earn in-game money, advance through a series of battle to level up characters, and engage in duels against the CPU or a second player. The difficulty levels in these modes make a lot more sense in regards to balance than those in the single player mode, though sometimes the hardest difficulty in duel mode can be surprisingly easy. Players can use Z fusion to give their characters health and attack bonuses in the style of an RPG, and can visit the store to buy and sell various upgrades or items.

The art style hides many of the PS2's graphical limitations from the time of DBZ Budokai Tenkaichi 2's release by giving everything a cel-shaded look. Overall this both makes the game look better and maintains a similar feel to the anime. The soundtrack is completely original, and while it doesn't use any pieces from the show's original soundtrack, it's all very fitting to the game just the same. The majority of the voice actors from the Funimation English dub provide the voices of their respective characters in the game, so players can expect the same voice acting - which, in my opinion, is top-notch. However, players are able to switch to the Japanese voice actors if they desire.

Dragonball Z Budokai Tenkaichi 2 is easily one of the best Dragonball Z games as well as one of the more solid anime-based games released to date. A huge roster of playable characters, fluid game mechanics, and a variety of game types makes it a solid fighting game. Inclusions like the Z Fusion and level-up system make the game more player-driven and interactive. It isn't a perfect game and DBZ Budokai Tenkaichi 2's shortcomings stick out like a sore thumb amidst everything the game accomplishes well, but it's incredibly enjoyable and carries much of the anime's charm and excitement.

My rating: 7.75 (out of 10)

Friday, August 13, 2010

"The market is patient, and we must be too"

Following hot on the heels of the release of 2K's Protector Trials DLC, more Bioshock-related news has arrived in a very big way. In the Protector Trials, among the various other unlockables, is a concept art gallery for an area known as Minerva's Den. This area was not included in the original disc of Bioshock 2, and will be released as narrative-driven DLC. Players assume control of a never-before-seen Big Daddy who is helping Tennenbaum to take out some VIP in Rapture's central computing area. This new Big Daddy looks uncannily similar to the statues seen late in the events of Bioshock 2's main story. Whatever the inevitable outcome of this new DLC, it's nice to see that 2K is wrapping up some loose ends from Bioshock 2, particularly in regards to Tennebaum.

Even bigger news is the announcement by Irrational Games of the 2012 release of Bioshock Infinite, which puts players in control of a Pinkerton agent named Booker DeWitt in the year 1912. DeWitt has infiltrated Columbia, a floating city in the sky, in order to rescue a woman named Elizabeth. It appears supernatural abilites similar to the plasmids will play a major role in gameplay. While Columbia carries a much brighter art style than the decaying undersea city of Rapture, footage from the teaser trailer suggests things are not all fine and dandy in Columbia. Propoganda posters and American flags are everywhere and Booker DeWitt finds himself being tossed around frequently by a mechanized being (who is an obvious nod to the Big Daddies of Rapture). A lot of what has been presented thus far of Bioshock Infinite looks strikingly different than that of the previous two Bioshock titles, but also wildly intruiging, as (in my opinion) the Bioshock series is easily one of the best for this generation of consoles.

Teaser trailer for Bioshock Infinite:

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Anime Update #3: "I'll take a potato chip... AND EAT IT!!!"

The second intro theme to Death Note is beyond annoying. I really can't stand the sound of death metal or thrash metal in the first place, but this song embodies everything obnoxious about the genre. That aside, the series is shaping up to be pretty good. It's not as perfect as many people have expressed (at least, in my opinion) but it is easily one of the best mainstreamed anime in recent years. I'm about two-thirds of the way through the series and I will post a review of it once I've completed Death Note, but for the time being I'm going to take a little break from the series as I feel that I've been rushing through it more to finish it than actually taking time to savor the series.

Mush-Shi is shaping up to be fantastic and I'm only through the first seven episodes. I've been watching this series with large gaps between each episode and it's paying off through how much I genuinely enjoy the series' odd charms. The Pillow Pathway was an absolutely phenomenal episode, as were the first two episodes of the series. Even episodes I felt were notably weaker than the rest, such as Those Who Inhale the Dew, are much better than that of many other anime. Expect a review of this series sometime in early Fall, but no sooner than that as I really want to take my time and enjoy this series.

As for one of my longtime favorite franchises, It's been about a month since I finished watching Gundam Wing. I've watched three episodes of After War Gundam X and it's a very interesting spin on an old formula that I hope keeps the series going strong. I still haven't picked up from where I left off in Zeta Gundam and the reason for that is that I intend to pick up the DVDs in the Fall because of of much I loved what I saw of the series so far. I might pick back up on MS Igloo with Apocalypse 0079. I have considered a few times in picking up the DVD of Gundam F91, but if I do so it will be with the intent of starting Victory Gundam directly thereafter (and as I stated in a previous post, Victory Gundam will likely be one of the later Gundam series I watch). SEED Destiny is the only series I'm not looking much forward to, but I may choose to complete that by the end of this year as well, seeing as how I've already knocked three major Gundam series out of the way before July.

I'm definitely going to pick up season one of Axis Powers: Hetalia when it hits store shelves this September. I'm also considering picking up Eden of the East along with it, as that series comes out only a week or two later. I'm eager to pick up season two of Full Metal Alchemist, as season one was near perfect, but at the same time I don't want to rush through the series. When I do get around to picking season two up, however, it will likely be with Conqueror of Shamballa in the same purchase.

I started Macross Frontier a while back and never got very far in it. That's not to say that it wasn't entertaining, as it was very much so, but it kind of got put on the backburners (so to speak) in favor of Death Note, 009-1, and and Mushi-shi. As I've mentioned in the past, there are a number of older anime films and series I have yet to watch, such as Cowboy Bebop, Ghost in the Shell, and Akira. I feel like these are all a sort of "I'll get to them when I get to them" sort of a situation, as they all look good, but I'm in no real rush to complete them either.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

XBLA review: Hydro Thunder Hurricane

For those who played Hydro Thunder as either an arcade racer or console game on the Dreamcast and N64, a second entry has been released exclusively for the Xbox Live Arcade. New developer Vector has taken over for Midway and added a bit of their own spin on things while maintaining the overall feel of the original title. Hydro Thunder Hurricane will run players 1200 Microsoft Points to download the full game.

The mechanics of Hurricane are largely the same as those of its predecessor. The default control scheme places the throttle at the right trigger and the boost at the 'A' button, though the controls can be changed to various configurations via the options menu. There are three boats for each class of difficulty, and with three classes of difficulty (novice, pro, and expert) players are granted use of nine total boats, each with its own positive and negative attributes. Certain boats are aimed at players who wish for a more balanced ride, while others put greater emphasis on speed or handling while sacrificing other aspects. The slide effect that the water has on the boats may take a little time for players to get used to and the ocassional big wave can toss boats quite a distance, but these become very minor annoyances once players get the hang of the game.

There are a total of eight tracks to choose from, each with obvious inspirations from the original game. Each track looks phenomenal with a perfect balance of stylized elements and realism - the lighting effects in particular outshine those in many full disc games (no pun intended). Scattered along the track are boost canisters which - as their name implies - grant players a limited amount of boost. The more of these players collect, the longer their boost will last. Players can also use the boost to jump to higher areas of the courses in order to find shortcuts or snag some of the hidden packages hidden on each course. Also found on most courses are switches which, when activated, open secret passageways or ramps to areas otherwise unreachable by a boost jump alone.

Hydro Thunder Hurricane has an incredible amount of replay value. Aside from the standard races, players can take part in gauntlet runs and ring challenges on each individual course. The gauntlet runs are largely the same as the standard race, but test players for individual time instead of placement as they navigate the course, avoiding explosive barrels along the way. The ring challenges also test players on time as they navigate their boat through rings that become smaller with each increased level of difficulty. Missing a ring will add an extra one to three seconds to the player's overall time ranking. Championship challenges stack a number of races, gauntlet runs, and ring challenges in a row and tally up the player's overall ranking (and respective point reward) at the conclusion of the combined races/challenges. Online play is included and players can go head to head with other racers to compete for the top three spots and a subsequent reward in points added to their overall score. Local/splitscreen matches pit four racers against CPU racers in a fairly straightforward multiplayer take on the traditional race mode.

As mentioned earlier, players are awarded points for winning gold, silver, and bronze trophies in the game's various events. Racking up a certain amount of points will unlock different races, challenges, though not in the most straightforward manner. In this way, the game attempts to force players to mix things up a bit by unlocking gauntlet and ring challenges in between each new track. Players can either play through these to earn more points or stick with the traditional races, using the different boats to earn more in rewards. Online play will also merit gamers a nearly limitless amount of point rewards, presuming players can finish in first, second, or third place.

Hydro Thunder Hurricane doesn't change much from the formula laid down years ago by the original Hydro Thunder, but that works almost entirely to the game's advantage. The gameplay is smooth and solid but still poses a decent challenge to players. A variety of play styles were kept in mind with the varying strengths and weaknesses of each boat. Players who wish to go the extra mile and complete each challenge with gold trophies in each event and find all hidden packages to unlock new paint jobs for each boat will find themselves with a tall (though not impossible) order to fill, while more casual gamers will find this title easy enough to jump into and enjoy. I was initially concerned that the price tag might be too steep for the game, but ultimately 1200 Microsoft Points is perfect for Hydro Thunder Hurricane.

My rating: 9 (out of 10)

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

DLC review: Bioshock 2 Protector Trials

Following hot on the heels of Bioshock 2’s Rapture Metro Map Pack, 2K has released the Protector Trials, a series of single player challenges that require the player to protect a Little Sister from waves of splicers as she extracts ADAM from a corpse. There are six distinctly different levels to choose from, and each level has three challenges to complete, for a grand total of eighteen challenges. Here’s the catch: players are only granted use of a predetermined set of weapons, plasmids, and occasionally tonics to use on any given challenge. With a variety of different combinations the game allots the player, no two challenges will play out quite the same.

Each challenge is built off a preexisting area in the main single player game of Bioshock 2, though slightly retooled for the Protector Trials. None of the Protector Trial challenge areas will see as drastic a change as their multiplayer map counterparts, but elements of the environment are moved around for the sake of providing cover for both the player and the splicers, making trap placements more practical, and making vending machines and health stations more accessible. The Protector Trials maintain much of the main game’s eerie charm, as pieces from both original and licensed soundtrack start up over Rapture’s loudspeakers each time a trial is commenced.

While players are not granted any money at the start of a trial, they can rack up funds quickly by killing off enemies. Since looting bodies for ammo and money is no longer necessary, it makes the trials a lot more fast-paced and fluid. Also, the longer a Little Sister goes uninterrupted in removing ADAM from a corpse, the higher the ADAM reward a player receives.

As previously mentioned, there are three challenge styles for each area, designated by a number of stars for its degree of difficulty. These use the same layout, but change up the weapons and plasmids a player can use from the previous iteration of the same trial. For instance, the first trial on Atlantic Express Train Upkeep has players using the hack tool, machine gun, security command 2 plasmid, and handyman tonic, the second trial has players using the rivet gun, grenade launcher, spear gun, electro bolt plasmid, cyclone trap 2 plasmid, decoy 2 plasmid, and armored shell tonic, and the third trial has players using the drill, insect swarm plasmid, and armored shell, drill vampire, and drill power tonics. The types of ammo players are allowed to use is limited as well, with trap rivets and proximity mines in trial two. On occasion, a trial will make further restrictions on the player, such as denying them the ability to earn money to use at vending machines. However, these only come into play in the three star trials and there is always a tradeoff in these instances, such as a considerably larger EVE bar.

Technically the Protector Trials are tied into the overarching story of Bioshock as much as the multiplayer mode is. You play as another Alpha-series Big Daddy and are working along with Tenenbaum in order to extract as much ADAM from corpses around Rapture and slow the progress of Sofia Lamb’s Utopian project. In this way, the Protector Trials are essentially a side story to the main events of Bioshock 2. Aside from explaining where Tenenbaum disappeared to after her brief appearance at the start of the game, however, it’s kind of a weak attempt on 2K’s part to tie it into everything else. That said, this aspect has zero effect on gameplay, so it’s a very minor complaint at worst.

For 400 Microsoft points and $4.99 in the Playstation store, the Protector Trials is a fantastic deal, especially in comparison to what some other games charge solely for map packs or new weapons/characters. There is plenty of incentive for player to complete the challenges, as (aside from seven new achievements/trophies) players can unlock concept art galleries, Bioshock 2 trailers, and animatics for content that never made it into the final game. The Protector Trials are an interesting twist on the formula set forth by the gather sections of the main game and provide plenty of challenge for players, requiring them to be strategic in completing each trial.

My rating: 9 (out of 10)*

*(rating applies solely to downloadable content, not its inclusion with the content on the original game disc or other downloadable content)
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