Sunday, February 27, 2011

Anime review: Azumanga Daioh

Assuming a comedic anime is done well enough to both keep my attention and evoke some genuine laughter from me, I'm all for it. With regards to slice-of-life anime, however, I've relatively minimal experience with this genre, and the few that I have seen were a hit-or-miss scenario. Azumanga Daioh, a twenty-six episode series based off the manga of the same name, is a hybrid of these two genres and is one anime that really took me by surprise as to how funny and well-written it is.

The events within Azumanga Daioh are nothing out of the ordinary, but the manner in which the characters dramatize normal occurrences is what drives the series. Viewers are introduced early on to Osaka, Chiyo, Yomi, Tomo, and Sakaki, and these five - along with Kagura, who is introduced later on - serve as the main cast of characters which the series is centered around. Osaka and Chiyo act as the oddballs of the group. Osaka is a transfer student who is as absent-minded as one can be, and Chiyo is the youngest of the group, having achieved outstanding academic marks to be placed in a higher class than her peers. Because of this, early episodes focus on introducing Osaka and Chiyo more so than introducing the other leads, and this works fairly well. The only character I feel is left out and suffers somewhat in terms of development is Yomi, as her story is left largely unexplored until the last quarter or so of the anime. Due to this postponing of Yomi's story, her role comes across as somewhat similar to that of a parent to the younger characters, as she is generally calm and respectful towards Chiyo but reprimands Tomo's time and time again. Tomo herself is, in many ways, Yomi's polar opposite. She sees everything as a competition is loud-mouthed and often annoys people with the hopes of simply coaxing a reaction out of them. Sakaki is quietest of the group and has a very mellow personality. Her intentions are always pure and she has a curious affinity for cats.

As important as the rest of the main characters, Kagura is introduced a bit later on after viewers have more or less gotten a feel for who the other five leads are and how they play off one another. She is initially introduced as a rival to Sakaki, but she is quickly melded into the main cast and seems to fit well overall. Admittedly, she is easily the most underdeveloped of the main characters, and a large part of that is due to the fact that she doesn't stand out as much as Osaka or Tomo.

As for the rest of the cast, viewers see very few members of the other classmates. They are there, but are rarely given names or even many lines. In some ways, this removes the realism from the scenario of six girls experiencing high school, but it does more good than harm as it allows each episode to remain focused. In fact, such a move may have been in the best interests of the series, as the only classmate that fits the role of a recurring secondary character is Kaorin, a secret admirer of Sakaki who tries to make herself a member of the group during the first half of the series. However, she only provides few chuckles here and there, and is ultimately phased out of the story when she is placed in another class during the girls' final year of schooling.

Three teachers fill the remaining secondary character roles, and are much more successful in this endeavor. The girls' English and homeroom teacher Yukari is a rather casual individual, though she does carry on a sort of friendly rivalry with physical education teacher Minamo. Yukari can sometimes take the rivalry a bit too seriously and act more childish than any given one of her students, but she is most entertaining when interacting with Minamo. And finally there is Kimura, the only male teacher seen throughout the series. He is awkward with pedophilactical tendencies, singing "Happy birthday" to himself terribly off-key and blatantly stating how he likes the bloomers that the girls wear during physical education class.

The story doesn't really tie together much until the last few episodes of the series, and to be honest watching the episodes out of order won't drastically change any given viewer's perception of it. This isn't a bad thing by any means, as it allows for both casual and hardcore anime fans to enjoy it equally. Each episode does a fine job of standing up on its own and nothing is detracted from this lack of direct connection between episodes. The soundtrack is fairly simplistic, using a number of quick and recurring pieces, which seem to fit the series' overall light and quirky mood. The art style is similar, opting for colorful simplicity over extravagant detail, and - for a series that follows a group of quirky girls through their high school education - it only seems fitting. Azumanga Daioh is as hilarious as it is relaxed as a series, and while each viewer will have his or her own preference among the colorful cast, there's someone to amuse just about everyone.

My rating: 8.75 (out of 10)

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Xbox 360 review: Marvel vs. Capcom 3: Fate of Two Worlds

Fighting games have generally catered to two audiences: those who take the time to learn all the moves and those who prefer button-mashing guesswork. Marvel vs. Capcom 3: Fate of Two Worlds takes this into account and offers two modes of control. The first, called ‘normal’, is the standard style in which players must activate various moves and combos by chaining the buttons and directions (pretty standard to any fighter). The second is called ‘easy’ mode and assigns a number of key moves to the buttons, taking away some of the difficulty in mastering the combos but also restricting the number of attacks at a player’s disposal. In player vs. player matches, the use of these two control types work quite fluidly with one another.

There are plenty of characters to choose from, both old-school favorites including Ryu and Iron Man and newcomers including Chris Redfield and Deadpool (and yes, the latter does break the fourth wall time and time again). All of the playable characters are balanced in a near-perfect manner, and their various strengths/weaknesses will cater to just about any play style. Progressing through the game unlocks four new characters, though there are no specific requirements regarding who you comprise your team of or what difficulty you play on that determine who is unlocked and when.

The gallery, on the other hand, is host to character models and bios, original artwork created specifically for Marvel vs. Capcom 3, intro/promo clips, the various pieces in the game’s soundtrack, and a theater mode which allows players to go back and watch the endings to each character’s story ending in arcade mode. Some of these are unlocked from the moment players first fire up the disc, but many require players to play through the arcade mode a number of times. Additionally, players can customize their icon picture and catchphrase as they unlock these through the various modes of gameplay.

Arcade mode, the main single-player experience within Marvel vs. Capcom 3, challenges players to fight through six rounds against CPU teams before facing down the final boss character Galactus. Players can customize the arcade experience through five difficulty settings, time limits, and the amount of damage dealt. The CPU teams are randomized each time, and no character will show up more than once on the opposing team in any given playthrough. The boss battle against Galactus is the only portion of the game that is particularly unforgiving to those playing on simple mode, as it is rather difficult and requires players to be more tactical than in the majority of arcade mode.

A two-player versus mode has been included for those playing with multiple controllers on the same console, though the only ‘quick match’ style of gameplay against a CPU comes in the form of training mode. In training mode, the health bar of the enemy team constantly recharges, and (as its name implies) is intended more for players to hone their skills than to actually go toe-to-toe with the CPU. Mission mode is more or less a glorified series of tutorials that teaches players various attacks and combos. Multiplayer carries over to Xbox Live, and plays surprisingly smoothly. Occasionally there will be brief moments of lag, but nothing that will hinder the fast-paced gameplay or make players overly aggravated. In both forms of multiplayer, players can set aside three rosters of characters for quick-load if they so choose.

The game utilizes a combination of current-gen graphical standards with a comic book-inspired cel-shading layered overtop. All in all, this presents a very clean and appealing art style. The level design is pretty standard throughout – players can’t interact much with the environment around them, though each level keeps things interesting through active objects in the background. Admittedly, there are only a handful of multiplayer levels included on the disc and a few more would have been very welcome. The same can be said about the roster of characters, especially considering that DLC characters have already been announced.

There is a lot of character dialogue recorded and each of the voice actors fits their respective role near perfectly, which is impressive considering not all of the characters are voiced by the same actors as in their games of origin and others (more so on Marvel’s side) have not been given voice actors previously. An overarching story is tied into everything, and while mildly amusing at times, don’t expect anything too phenomenal from this aspect.

Marvel vs. Capcom 3: Fate of Two Worlds is classic arcade style beat-‘em-up at its finest. There is plenty of replay value to be found among the various modes of gameplay, and the character roster is a perfect balance of new and old. That said, the game does seem a tad overpriced at $59.99, especially considering the additional costs of the upcoming DLC packs. If you’re a big fan of fighting games, be sure to check this title out, and if you’re still on the fence about it you might want to consider waiting until the price drops a bit before forking out the cash.

My rating: 8 (out of 10)

Friday, February 25, 2011

BlazBlue Continuum Shift II for 3DS and PSP

Arc Systems and Aksys' arcade-style fighting series BlazBlue will see a handheld release on both the 3DS and PSP on March 31st, 2011 (I imagine that is the Japanese street date, not North American). I've played some of BlazBlue Calamity Trigger on the PS3 and can honestly say that, while the console version is a lot of fun, a handheld release makes a lot of sense, given the nature of the games. If/when a North American release date is announced, I'll be sure to look into picking up BlazBlue Continuum Shift II. The trailer is below and highlights four of the new characters.

Nintendo 3DS North American launch titles

The list of North American releases for the 3DS on launch day has been finalized. Though Ocarina of Time, Snake Eater, Starfox, and Kid Icarus will not see release until later on (with Ocarina confirmed for a 2011 release), the list of launch day titles includes:

- PilotWings Resort
- Steel Diver
- Super Street Fighter IV 3D Edition
- Nintendogs + Cats
- Ridge Racer 3D
- Samurai Warriors: Chronicles
- The Sims 3
- Pro Evolution Soccer 2011 3D
- Super Monkey Ball 3D
- Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars
- Rayman 3D
- Asphalt 3D
- Lego Star Wars III: The Clone Wars

- Bust-a-Move Universe
- Madden NFL 11
- Combat of Giants: Dinosaurs 3D

(Special thanks to nintendo3dsblog for the info!)

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim gameplay trailer

The first gameplay footage of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim has been released (and admittedly much earlier than I expected). It's interesting to see the variety of environments Bethesda has been working on, though I wish they had shown a bit more of the game's story - so far all we really know is that the events of Oblivion were merely prologue to Skyrim. However, a gameplay trailer this early could mean that Bethesda will be revealing more information soon.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Anime review: Full Metal Alchemist (season two)

(WARNING: There may be some spoilers if you have not seen season one)

Season two picks up directly after the conclusion of season one. The Elric brothers, now aware of what is truly required to make a Philosopher's Stone, head out with Winry in hopes of finding some alternative solution to regaining Al's body. This will ultimately lead them to cross paths once more with Izumi Curtis, the brothers' teacher from their early days of learning alchemy. Izumi was given a brief cameo in season one, but until this point the only impression viewers have of her is the harsh and unforgiving persona the Elric brothers imply her to be. This ends up as only partially true, as Izumi is thoroughly strict and will only agree to train her students if they wholly devote themselves and remain focused, but she is revealed to have a sad past and knows how to treat the Elric brothers with compassion when needed. While viewers are given a look into Ed and Al's time training under Izumi, this serves a purpose that is less focused on providing backstory and more focused on clueing viewers into the direction that the show will take over the course of the second season, primarily dealing with strengthening their relationship as brothers.

Season one only managed to scratch the surface of the story of the Homunculi, revealing a few of them and showing off their respective powers. Season two explores all seven of the Homunculi in great detail - how they originated, how they influence the brothers' journey, and what their ultimate goals are. I won't spoil the roles that each Homunculi plays in the story, though some of them do complicate things for the Elric brothers and other characters in ways other than just physical confrontations. My personal favorite Homunculus was Greed, who is both clever and immensely powerful. He relies on assistance from the chimeras he rescued from Laboratory 5 but also has a high level of respect for them, treating them as more or less his equal as opposed to science experiments. As his name implies, Greed wants what he doesn't have and is a rebel among the Homunculi, disagreeing with their plan and carrying out his own mission.

Gluttony is largely the same throughout the entirety of the series, though Lust does change her outlook on her standing as a Homunculi during the latter half of the season. Envy, who appeared only briefly in both the very early and very late episodes of season one, does make a handful of appearances of the course of season two, but his role in the overarching story is left almost entirely unexplored until the final episodes. While I was admittedly a bit disappointed that Envy's story was put on the backburner, given his role in things, it makes perfect sense to reserve it for such a late point in the series. Wrath, one of the Homunculi new to season two, plays an integral role in influencing the Elric brothers and others because of his origin, as do Sloth and Pride. The identities of those latter two are kept under wraps for quite some time with good reason.

Aside from the threats each Homunculus presents, the Elric brothers must also deal with certain members of the state military who have intentions of hindering their progress. Solf Kimblee, the Crimson Alchemist, was introduced at the end of season one and has escaped from the Laboratory 5 complex. While his true intentions remain shrouded for a good portion of the first half of season two, it is clear that Kimblee doesn't exactly follow a by-the-books style like many of the state alchemists. In a more powerful position is Lieutenant Colonel Frank Archer, a calm and collected individual who is more concerned with impressing Fuhrer Bradley than he is about the safety of his men or civilians caught up in in the states' military interventions.

In my review of season one, I made a minor complaint about Scar being seemingly phased out of the story only to be dragged back in episode twenty-four, "Bonding Memories". While I still feel the choice to carry out part of Scar's story in that manner came across as somewhat awkward, his involvement is season two flows quite smoothly. Scar gives viewers a more in-depth look at Ishbalan society, as well as a very satisfying explanation for his relation to both the Elric brothers and the Homunculi. While often a rather difficult character to read, there were times where I found myself cheering Scar on, in spite of his previous attempts to kill Ed and countless other state Alchemists.

Admittedly, there were three episodes in season two that I felt were not as cohesive as the rest in regards to how they factored into the overarching story. "Reunion of the Fallen" tells the story of a village where the people have contracted a disease that slowly turns their bodies to stone. This is by far the single weakest and forgettable episode in the entire series. That isn't to say that it is performed poorly, but it is more filler than substance. The only payoff this episode manages are the first steps in exploring a side of Lust that viewers have not previously seen. "Her Reason" - the first episode of the second season - flows somewhat better with the themes and story of Full Metal Alchemist as a whole, though it is largely focused on Winry's relationship with the Elric brothers, more specifically with Ed. The events in this episode are somewhat split down the middle. One one hand, it does a good job of reinforcing the characters and their long history together, and begins to bring Winry forth as a more important character than in season one. On the other hand, much of the episode is spent running in circles as Winry wants Ed to be more grateful for all the help she's provided him with over the years, and the new characters introduced in the episode are some of the very few throughout the series to never be heard from after their initial debut. Finally, "The Flame Alchemist, The Bachelor Lieutenant, and the Mystery of Warehouse 13" is a less-than-serious take on the current state of affairs in Colonel Mustang's unit. There are a few short subplots woven into the episode and while it doesn't manage to accomplish much in the grand scheme of things (aside, perhaps, from further fleshing out the characters of Havoc, Fuery, Breda, and Falman), overall the episode meshes well with the rest of season two, and is the source of a few good laughs among an otherwise darker-themed season than the first.

The animation is just as good as in the first season, with perhaps some minor tweaks/improvements sprinkled throughout. Some of the backgrounds are given more detail and lighting/shading effects seem to be a bit more dramatic in season two (though this could be due to the different locales visited in season two). The soundtrack utilizes many of the same pieces used in season one, though some new pieces are introduced along with variations on the aforementioned familiar tunes.

Full Metal Alchemist has one of - if not the single best - English dubs of all time. Vic Mignona and Aaron Dismuke steal the show as Ed and Al respectively, but Travis Willingham as Colonel Roy Mustang and Chris Sabat as Major Alex Louis Armstrong go above and beyond in their roles as secondary characters. Every one of the Homunculi is matched with a fantastic voice actor, each of whom emphasizes the traits that give the Homunculus their namesake in a manner that is entertaining but not overbearing.

Full Metal Alchemist has quickly climbed the ranks to become one of my favorite anime of all time. With a wildly entertaining cast of characters, fantastic animation, and a captivating soundtrack, it's an experience every anime fan should give a try. Even though the story diverges from the plot of the manga, Studio Bones did a phenomenal job of carrying a story that captivates viewers' imagination. The finale is about as satisfying and near-perfect as they come, avoiding the cliche while proving just how strong of a bond the Elric brothers share.

My rating (for season two): 9.5 (out of 10)

My rating for the series as a whole: 10 (out of 10)

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Anime review: Mobile Suit Gundam F91

Taking place thirty years after the conclusion of Char's Counterattack, Mobile Suit Gundam F91 centers around Seabook Arno and Cecily Fairchild, two friends living aboard the space colony Frontier IV, as they are caught up in the conflict between the EFSF and the Crossbone Vanguard. Early on in the film, viewers are shown that the two share romantic interests in each other, but it is implied that currently they are just friends. A short while after the Crossbone Vanguard attacks Frontier IV, Seabook and Cecily become seperated, and it becomes clear that Cecily is not entirely certain of who she is, as members of the Crossbone Vanguard claim she is an heir to the Ronah family, the most prominent figures in the Crossbone Vanguard. Escaping the colony with a group of his friends, Seabook eventually takes refuge aboard the Federation ship Space Ark, and discovers that his mother had been devloping the newest Gundam, the F91. Determined to rescue Cecily, Seabook agrees to aid the Federation and takes up the responsibility of being the F91's pilot.

There is a lot crammed into the two-hour film, a result of the plan to originally release F91 as a series. Things do seem to fly by at a bit of a fast pace, but it isn't to the point where the characters and events are simply glossed over. The film's events flow in sequence quite smoothly and refrain from being particularly choppy in a sort of cut-and-paste manner (which easily could have been the case, considering the project's history). The story's conclusion surprised me a bit, as I thought things might simply end in the fashion of Gundam SEED, but instead it is paced out just enough to provide a fitting wrap-up without overstaying its welcome.

Though there are relatively few major characters that the story of F91 is centered around, this works to the film's advantage as viewers are able to connect with them more so than if Bandai and Sunrise had chosen to spend an equal amount of time developing every character in F91. While viewers aren't given as much time to familiarize themselves with the likes of Zabine and Iron Mask, they still come across as rather well-rounded, even if they don't match the level of infamy of other Gundam villians (or anti-heroes in the case of Zabine) such as Char Aznable or Paptimus Scirocco . The secondary characters are developed well enough to come across as believable, though they certainly won't stand out as the greatest supporting cast in the entire Gundam metaseries. The strongest of these are Seabook's sister Reese and mother Monica, the latter of whom doesn't actually appear until rather late in the film, and the two play important roles in influencing Seabook's actions. Seabook's friends from Frontier IV, however, are left largely underdeveloped. A few of them do aid indirectly in the fight against the Crossbone Vanguard, and if nothing else, they provide a glimpse into the effect the conflict has on civilians.

While I would accuse few Gundam series/films of having a poor dub, Gundam F91's really stands out for how well the English voice actors portray their characters. Their emotions come across as genuine, whether in the heat of battle or fearful of loss. There really are not any significant improvements over the quality of the animation in Char's Counterattack, but F91 still looks well done for a 1991 release. The soundtrack is classic UC Gundam, and - in a similar fashion to Char's Counterattack - balances tense battle themes with light flowing pieces.

When it all boils down to it though, Mobile Suit Gundam F91 is classic Gundam. It doesn't try and throw in too much flash and flair like some of the Alternate Universe series, and it manages to balance the political aspects and character development in a near-perfect manner. The film's pacing is a bit fast and perhaps Bandai and Sunrise could have improved certain portions of the story had they allotted more time to F91, but if you are a fan of Gundam's Universal Century storylines, this is a film worth checking out.

My rating: 8.25 (out of 10)
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