Friday, January 21, 2011

Final Fantasy XIII-2 announced

Gamespot (as well as a number of other similar websites, I imagine) announced earlier this week that Square Enix's Final Fantasy XIII would be receiving a direct sequel, titled Final Fantasy XIII-2. Only so many details have been released thus far, but it is clear that Lightning will be returning as a lead protagonist. The game has been slated for a Winter 2011 release. Surprisingly enough, a trailer has already been released (in English, no less), which I have posted below. It's only a short teaser, but I can personally say that I'm quite looking forward to FFXIII-2's release.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Anime review: Mobile Suit Gundam SEED Destiny

Based on a large amount of negative feedback I’d seen from other members of the Gundam community/fanbase, I decided not to save SEED Destiny for one of the last series I watched with my ‘Project Gundam’ (my attempt to view every Gundam series, OVA, and film ever released). I was afraid that if I were to do so, it might leave a poor aftertaste, and I’d prefer to reach the end of the aforementioned journey on a high note. I was very surprised, however, to find that I not only enjoyed SEED Destiny much more than SEED, but found it to be among the stronger of the alternate universe series.

Unlike with SEED, where things seemed to keep running around for the better part of the series’ first half, SEED Destiny knows where it’s going and how it’s going to get there right off the bat. Though the first few episodes may seem a bit slow going in comparison to SEED’s explosive debut, the pacing throughout SEED Destiny is nearly flawless. There’s an added level of complexity thrown in due to the inner-working politics of the series. Things aren’t as much of a cut and dry “good vs. evil” scenario as in SEED, as the true force driving the war and the intentions of ZAFT chairman Durandal are kept under wraps to be slowly revealed as the series progresses. Each faction is explored in great detail, offering glimpses into the motives and methods of each, something that SEED only managed to scratch the surface of.

The characters are a combination of new and old, and this makes for an interesting dynamic in terms of how each individual views both the previous and current conflicts. Plenty of familiar faces return, including major players such as Athrun, Kira, Lacus and Cagalli, as well as some characters including Murrue Ramius and Andrew Waltfeld, whose roles are somewhat more important this time around (even if they don’t receive much more screen time). The new lead character is Shinn Asuka, the highly-capable coordinator pilot of Zaft’s Impulse Gundam (and later, the Destiny Gundam). Shinn and Athrun carry the majority of the story, with Kira and the crew of the Archangel popping up as need be during the second half of the series. As someone who personally very much disliked Kira in SEED, I was quite happy to find that his role was scaled down in SEED Destiny, even though his personality remained the same.

The conflict is still largely focused of Zaft vs. Earth Alliance, though this time around there is an added level of intrigue with the crew of the Archangel observing from afar and trying to deduce the complexities of the war’s underlying politics. While Lord Djibril is played off as a power-hungry leader pulling the strings for the Earth Forces, ZAFT Chairman Durandal is a far more difficult individual to read. I won’t spoil anything for those who not yet seen SEED Destiny in its entirety, but his charisma/influence and knowledge of the conflict as a whole led me to find him to be one of the most entertaining characters in any Gundam series.

Some of the cheesy elements that dragged down SEED return in SEED Destiny, though the vast majority of these – oddly enough – don’t start popping up until about the last ten episodes. A large part of this has to do with how the majority of the series is told from Athrun and Shinn’s perspectives. It’s true that Kira plays a very important role in the story, but the less time viewers have to sit through Kira preaching about how no one should be fighting and then subsequently blasting everything in sight with beam spams and double standards, the better, as Shinn and Athrun present a far more practical and realistic outlook on the Earth-ZAFT conflict. That’s one of the things that ties SEED Destiny more closely to its UC counterpart Zeta Gundam than SEED was to the original Mobile Suit Gundam – a classic combination of sci-fi action and flair with a grounding in certain realistic situations and relatively believable characters.

The vast majority of the series’ episodes involve one or more flashbacks to prior events. Early on, these are more than necessary, as they provide a good balance of backstory with the tense atmosphere and heavy combat. However, as the story progresses, these flashbacks become increasingly unnecessary and a tad annoying. It’s almost as if Bandai and Sunrise lacked faith in their viewers’ short-term memory. Certain elements of the story that are meant to be played out as somewhat of a mystery – in particular, Neo Roanoke’s true identity and Rey Za Burrel’s role in things – aren’t terribly difficult to solve, especially if viewers are familiar with Gundam SEED.

I am not a fan of recap episodes, and though SEED Destiny has four in total, only one of these provides a cut-and-dry retelling of the entire series in one fell swoop. The other three present interesting perspectives via narration by Shinn Asuka, Gilbert Durandal, and Meer Campbell respectively. Each of these includes some new footage not yet seen until that point and the former of the two (Shinn’s and Durandal’s) further tie SEED and SEED Destiny’s events together in cleverly-executed ways.

Much like the finale of SEED, SEED Destiny lacks any sort of epilogue. That’s not to say that the series leaves any loose ends unexplored, but the series’ conclusion does feel rather abrupt and awkward. Bandai and Sunrise did go ahead and release SEED Destiny Final Plus, which – to my understanding – includes new footage of both the original events of the latter episodes of SEED Destiny, as well as some post-conclusion footage, but it wouldn’t have been that difficult for them to have included this in the original series, especially if they had cut out some of the many unnecessary flashbacks.

There aren’t any drastic improvements in the animation since SEED, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing as mobile suits are nicely detailed and characters and backgrounds lush and colorful. There do seem to be some minor improvements in regards the lighting/shading effects, however. The soundtrack follows a similar style to that of SEED, with a number of pieces constantly reprising over the course of the series. That said, SEED Destiny does have a completely new orchestrated soundtrack that fits the series’ events well.

The Japanese voice actors are largely the same as they were in SEED, so viewers can expect their performances to be pretty solid overall. As for the English voice actors, improvements have been all across the board, with the only exceptions to this being Chantal Strand as Lacus and Matt Hill as Kira, both of whom seem to put forth rather lethargic and poorly-forced efforts, and Samuel Vincent as Athrun, who provided excellent work in SEED and keeps the standard just as high in SEED Destiny. Matthew Erickson does a nice job as angst-ridden Shinn Asuka, though at times he seems to under-dramatize a situation, while Ted Cole as Gilbert Durandal, Maryke Hendrikse as Lunamaria Hawke, and Venus Terzo as Talia Gladys all fit their characters with near perfection.

In short, SEED Destiny is a significant improvement over its predecessor. The story feels far more fleshed out and the characters both more varied and of greater depth. The conflicts of SEED Destiny are presented from a handful of unique and interesting viewpoints, and the quality of the animation and soundtrack are both quite good. If viewers were not particularly pleased with SEED, they might consider giving a look into SEED Destiny.

My rating: 8.25 (out of 10)

Friday, January 7, 2011

Funimation trailer for Rebuild of Evangelion 2.22: You Can [Not] Advance

Funimation released a trailer for Rebuild of Evangelion 2.22: You Can [Not] Advance on Hulu a few weeks ago, which is attached below. The English voice actors have also been confirmed, with Tiffany Grant reprising her role as Asuka, Trina Nishimura playing Mari, and J. Michael Tatum playing Kaji.

Funimation to re-release Sgt. Frog

Funimation recently announced their plans to re-release season one of Sgt. Frog as a single box set. This box set will include 26 episodes, whereas the original releases of season one, part one and season one part two included 13 episodes a piece. MSRP for the new season one box set is $49.98, though Amazon currently has it priced at $36.99. The box set will be released on February 15, 2011.

Trailer for the re-release (if you've seen the trailer for the original releases, it's the same trailer):

Monday, January 3, 2011

Anime review: After War Gundam X

A sort of alternate outcome to the colony drop of Operation British from the original Mobile Suit Gundam, the events of the Seventh Space War in After War Gundam X leave the planet in a state of chaos after the spacenoids drop countless colonies onto Earth. Though the Gundams tried desperately to protect the Earth, they could only accomplish so much and those few humans who survived were doomed to wander as scavengers (or 'vultures' as they are consistently referred to) as society and government bodies attempt to rebuild. Garrod Ran, a young but resourceful boy, comes across the Gundam X while protecting a newtype girl named Tiffa Addil and ultimately joins Captain Jamil and crew aboard the Frieden. Throughout the course of the show, the Frieden has a number of encounters with other vulture groups, the new Federation military, and the mysterious Frost brothers who pilot the Virsago and Ashtaron Gundams.

Unlike many of the alternate universe series, Gundam X deals very closely with the idea of newtypes. Along the lines of their Universal Century counterparts, newtypes in Gundam X are much more capable in combat than the average mobile suit pilot, but are relatively few and far between in the grand scheme of things. Also akin to the UC timeline is the fact that newtypes and their origins are often associated with space, and in Gundam X this is a large part of the basis of the conflict between the Earth and Colony forces. While lead character Garrod Ran is not a newtype, his closest friend/love interest Tiffa Addil is a highly regarded newtype among both friends and foes of the crew of the Frieden.

The characters are a very interesting bunch with enough variety to cater to plenty of different viewers' tastes. There are certain episodes centered almost entirely around some of the secondary characters, either as a backstory or a subplot, and these make the story more fluid while exploring the lives of said characters beyond their roles as mobile suit pilots. While Garrod Ran may be one of the youngest lead characters in a Gundam series, he is by far one of the most entertaining, from his skills in battle to his attempts to impress Tiffa. Garrod also changes a fair amount over the course of the series, maturing as apilot but never losing his comedic charm. The other two Gundam pilots working aboard the Frieden are Roybea and Witz, pilots of the Leopard Gundam and Gundam Airmaster respectively. Roybea is a womanizer who plays the part of a traditional romantic to make women swoon, but is still more than capable as the pilot of such a heavy weapons-based Gundam. Witz is piloting for the sake of his family, who - since the death of his father - seems to have hit hard times financially. While Tonya may come across as a bit shallow of a character, the remainder of the Frieden's crew members are rounded out enough to fit their respective roles convincingly.

I found the antagonistic Frost brothers to be an annoyance after a while, however, as they constantly talk about some grand plan they have in store for Garrod and all other Gundam pilots, but don't ever really do anything significant to the plot. For the most part, the Frost brothers appear with Gundam Virsago and Gundam Ashtaron when it's convenient with the plot. They aren't up to par with other Gundam villains, as the Frost brothers are nowhere near as clever as someone like Zeta Gundam's Paptimus Scirocco, nor as evil as someone like Gundam SEED's Rau le Cruset. It's not that Olba and Shaiga are difficult characters to read by any means, it's just that they aren't particularly interesting.

Overall the series' pacing is quite good, though at one point late in the series things slow down briefly as Garrod travels to space. During this time, the action slows down and some time is taken to further explore the events of the Seventh Space War and the current state of tension between the Earth and the Colonies. The information presented here is important given the context of the last few episodes and is conveyed in a relatively interesting manner, but the series certainly feels like it has hit the brakes at this point as there is little to no action to balance with said exposition, and the series probably would have benefitted had this information been sprinkled throughout previous episodes.

The animation is a drastic improvement over the stiff motions and lack of detail in Gundam Wing and aligns itself much more closely with that of Turn A Gundam. Coincidentally, the soundtrack of Gundam X is reminiscent of both Turn A Gundam - with its sweeping emotional pieces - and G Gundam - with its upbeat and intense brass and percussion style. Though obviously an alternate universe series based on the exaggerated mobile suit designs/capabilities, many of the ships and tech pay homage to the universal century. Unlike Wing and SEED, battle scenes are never directly repeated and the strategies used by the crew of the Frieden and the Gundam pilots are nicely varied. A large part of this is due to how many different forces Garrod, Jamil, and co. find themselves facing, as well as the variety of environments they travel through, but the variation throughout works wonders for the series, as it makes the "recovering wasteland" that is Earth a far more interesting place to look at.

An interesting spin on an old classic, Gundam X is easily one of the stronger alternate universe series in Sunrise and Bandai's long-running franchise. With a phenomenal soundtrack and colorful animation layered over a strong story packed with a myriad of entertaining characters, there's bound to be something that will cater to every Gundam fan's preferences. Even anime fans who aren't quite as keen on mecha series may find Gundam X to their liking. It's not as drastically nontraditional as Turn A Gundam, but Gundam X does a nice job of breaking apart from the crowd without being too different or losing its identity as a Gundam series.

My rating: 8.5 (out of 10)

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Top 5 Anime of 2010

Along with my "year in review" post for all the anime I viewed during 2010, I've decided to make a post regarding the five best anime among those. For this list, I more or less discarded the ratings I gave each anime (as not all of them are among the series/films I rated the highest), and instead based this list more on my own personal experience with the anime - how much I enjoyed it, how thought-provoking/suspensful it was, how creative the story was, how well the art style and soundtrack fit the series, etc. (Note: series that I did not complete in their entirety this year - i.e. Full Metal Alchemist, Sgt. Frog, etc. - are not eligible for this list, despite the fact that I may have expected I would be finished with some of these series by the end of 2010.)

#5 - Turn A Gundam: Despite it being nontraditional Gundam in more ways than one, Turn A Gundam is, in my opinion, the single best alternate universe Gundam series released to date. The characters make the show what it is in the style of how 08th MS Team played out, and that said, the story is both genuinely entertaining and a bit more thought-provoking than with most mecha series. The soundtrack and art style do wonders for the series in subtle ways.

#4 - Samurai Champloo: I've only recently gotten into hip-hop music, but I'm certainly more partial to the old-school style than recent artists of the genre. Nujabes, Force of Nature, Tsutchie, and Fat Jon carry more of an old-school hip-hop sound in the soundtrack to Samurai Champloo, but add plenty of their own stylings to make it unique and cohesive with the series' story and art style. Fuu, Mugen, and Jin play off each other brilliantly and the colorful host of characters they meet during their journey only fuels the humor further. Equal parts action and comedy, Samurai Champloo is one of the most creative blends the anime industry has seen in years and kept me deeply entertained the entire way through.

#3 - Paranoia Agent: Lil' Slugger's actions start a slew of rumors that ulimately sets the stage for one of the most gripping and (admittedly) disturbing series I've ever had the pleasure of viewing. It's the sort of disturbing that you as a viewer are unsettled by, but don't want to stop watching due to how captivating the plot and characters are. A number of cleverly-scripted plot twists along the way coupled with the constantly changing perspective of narration was icing on the cake for me while watching this psychological thriller-mystery hybrid.

#2 - Ergo Proxy: A dystopian sci-fi series that slowly but surely reveals more and more to viewers about the many mysteries and subplots therein, Ergo Proxy paces itself brilliant, adding some epic action sequences when necessary. The proxies add an intersting dynamic to an otherwise familiar dystopian story formula, but the characters are where the series really shines through. The ideas conveyed within Ergo Proxy are fairly complex and as such not every potential viewer will be able to wrap their head around things (some may also lack the patience necessary to follow some less action-heavy episodes), but for those who choose to tackle this series, beautifully drab art style and all, it's a deeply thought-provoking and very well-scripted series.

#1 - Paprika: The concept of dreams is something that has fascinated and perplexed man for ages, but rarely does a story about dreams that is so original and perfectly-executed come along. While there are relatively few characters throughout, each of them plays an important role in the intricacies of the DC Mini's theft, its recovery, and the merging of reality and dreams. There's an interesting dynamic between Paprika and Dr. Chiba Atsuko that has been attempted many times in movies but rarely pulled off with as much creativity or success as this character's outward self and her repressed emotions. The soundtrack, while beautifully scored, is mildly creepy at times, which is only befitting of this mystery within the mind.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

2010 Year in Review: Video Games

In my opinion, 2010 started out as a strong year for hardcore gamers, but fizzled out during the second half of the year with a number of predictable/monotonous mainstream releases. There were, however, a number of titles announced this past year that are slated for 2011 release that I am very much looking forward to playing. Each of the games mentioned in brief here are titles that I both played for the first time and reviewed earlier this year, so you can check out the more full and in-depth reviews at you leisure.

Bioshock 2: The first title was a hard act to follow, but despite my anxiousness for the release of 2K's sequel, it succeeded tremendously in carrying on the story of Rapture and further exploring the city and ideals of Andrew Ryan. Narrating the events through the eyes of Subject Delta, one of the first Big Daddies, the storytelling feels much more fluid even if the plot itself feels slightly less original than in the original Bioshock. A few tweaks here and there to the game mechanics might not have seemed necessary at first glance, but the gameplay benefits greatly from these. Throw in an online multiplayer mode that is as enjoyable as it is strategic and you've got a phenomenal sequel to what is quite possibly the best title released for this generation's consoles. My rating: 9.5

- Protector Trials: 9.0
- Minerva's Den: 8.0

No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle: Working out some kinks in the game mechanics from the first installment, Suda 51 has returned Travis Touchdown to the heat of battle. This time around, Travis isn't in it to win Sylvia - he's climbing the ranks of world-renowned assassins to seek revenge. There's a ton of blood, but it comes across as surprisingly cohesive with the overall art stlye of the game, and the soundtrack is fantastic to boot. Despite a few bumps along the way, Desperate Struggle is a blast to play and one of the best action-adventure titles for the Wii. My rating: 9.25

Dynasty Warriors Gundam: A hack-and-slash fest with Bandai's popular mecha series skinned over everything, this title is surprisingly enjoyable though not particularly deep. The gameplay is incredibly repetitive, but each pilot/Gundam has their own unique attacks, strengths, and weaknesses. The original story is creative, though a bit cheesy, while the classic battles reenacted from various series do a better job of wrapping players up in the experience. Dynasty Warriors Gundam isn't by any means fantastic, but it's one of the better Gundam games released in recent years. My rating: 7.25

Hydro Thunder Hurricane: Not much has changed in the overall feel of Hydro Thunder since the original was released years ago, and that's great news for veteran fans and newcomers alike. The game's controls are intuitive and players can advance through higher difficulty levels. The biggest selling point in terms of replay value, however, are the number of various gameplay modes available, including gauntlets, ring challenges, championship races, and online multiplayer. My rating: 9.0

Dragonball Z Budokai Tenkaichi 2: While the gameplay is fluid and responsive, the cutscenes in the story mode were cooked up in a quick and lazy manner. The difficulties in the story mode are incredibly unbalance, but nearly perfectly balanced in the duel and tournament modes. As with most fighting games, each character is granted his/her basic set of attacks, but there is enough variation throughout to keep things interesting. My rating: 7.75

Final Fantasy XIII: Easily the single best looking game I've ever seen, FFXIII manages to stack its gameplay and story high as well. The characters are an interesting group thrown together by circumstance, and while each player will have his/her favorite, every one of the characters (of both major and minor roles) plays an important part in the grand scheme of things. The paradigm shift system works flawlessly, though some character roles will be more important earlier in the game, and others more important later on. The game is incredibly long, but if players are patient and put the time into it, I think they'll find FFXIII to be a thoroughly enjoyable gaming experience. My rating: 9.5

Halo: Reach: Bungie's swan song to their most famous series is most full a package out of any of the Halo titles, and easily one of the best FPS games for this generation of consoles. Aside from a decent length campaign that pays homage in each level to it predecessors, gamers are given the online multiplayer that has made Halo so popular over the years, a more complete version of the firefight mode introduced in ODST, and nearly limitless options for creating maps in forge mode. The graphics are phenomenal, the soundtrack epic, and the voice acting top-notch. The level of customization in terms of the in-game SPARTANs and the various thumbstick/button layouts will cater to just about any player's personal preference. My rating: 9.25
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