Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Xbox 360 review: Devil May Cry 4

My first introductions to Dante came from Marvel vs. Capcom 3 and the Devil May Cry anime series. Devil May Cry 4 is the first game in the series that I have played, and I apologize in advance for not having much familiarity with the gameplay of the previous titles. I have, however, glossed over the major events of the first three games, so my knowledge of the Devil May Cry story isn’t entirely limited.

The game begins with Nero, a young warrior who is something of a hero among the people of Fortuna. A member of the Order of the Sword, Nero is not as by-the-books as his adoptive brother Credo, utilizing a combination of sword and gun combat along with his demonic right arm. The intro sequence shows Nero fighting a small group of scarecrow enemies, but aside from these minor threats it seems his life in Fortuna is relatively peaceful one. That is, until a man in red appears and interrupts a sermon, killing Sanctus, the leader of the Order of the Sword. While civilians flee, Nero faces down this man in red (whose identity as Dante is anything but a mystery to players), but ultimately is unable to beat him.

Walking out into the streets of Fortuna, Nero discovers they have become overrun with enemies, and proceeds to cut through them until he eventually comes across a Hell Gate just a short distance outside of Fortuna, and faces down its fiery guardian demon, Berial. From there, Nero proceeds to Fortuna Castle, and – after some time snooping around – discovers that some of the members of the Order of the Sword have intentions of using various forms of demonic experimentation that Nero does not agree with. Realizing that the Order’s actions could spell doom for the citizens of Fortuna and those beyond its borders, Nero lets go of his attachment to the Order to try and stop them.

A hack-and-slash action game that shows obvious roots in classic arcade gameplay, Devil May Cry 4 has a rather sophisticated combat system. Players can purchase new combos for their three attack types as they progress and – used in the proper combinations – these will quickly net players higher combos, and subsequently higher rankings on each level.

While there are two difficulties unlocked from the outset – one for newcomers to the series and the other for veterans of the Devil May Cry titles – players are not able to swap back and forth at their leisure. This means that if a player reaches the midway point of the game on the easiest difficulty and then decides they want more of a challenge, they will not be able to immediately access that mission in the next highest difficulty setting. Instead, they will be required to replay all the missions leading up to that point on the higher difficulty setting. It can be a bit annoying for players who may not be all that well-acquainted with the genre and take their time in mastering combos. But for gamers who like a challenge and plan on sticking with this title for some time to come, this element certainly adds a lot of replay value.

Players should expect the main game to take less than ten hours to complete on any given difficulty. Different requirements concerning specific missions and difficulty settings allow players to access a variety of unlockables, ranging from an art gallery to a timeline of the events of the other Devil May Cry games. Four more modes of difficulty after the default ‘Human’ and ‘Devil Hunter’ modes are unlocked in sequential order.

Devil May Cry 4 breaks the mold of the previous three titles in that Dante does not take the lead role until about two-thirds of the way through the story’s events. Dante is invested in the Order and the events that eventually come to unfold in Fortuna, but these are kept under wraps for good reason and the decision to deliver the game’s narrative through two different lead characters not only keeps thing interesting but also helps to pace everything out. That said, when players do finally get to play as Dante they can expect to do a lot of backtracking through areas already visited as Nero. The change in control style and abilities does bring some much-needed variety to the game, but by the time it is introduced players will likely be so accustomed to Nero’s control scheme that it may feel awkward for the first hour or so as they adjust to Dante.

Dante’s relaxed and somewhat sarcastic nature throughout the entirety of the game is a welcome break from similar stories that try and take themselves too seriously. The creators of Devil May Cry 4 obviously know how outlandish their game can be at times and are willing to poke some fun at it, but not so much that they risk losing their audience. Nero’s story has a considerably more serious tone to it than Dante's, and his relationship with Kyrie comes across as both forced and awkward. At the same time, it isn’t of major concern save for a few key points later on in the game, so it doesn’t detract the game’s atmosphere much.

While there are a number of cheesy one-liners throughout, Devil May Cry 4 also delivers some genuinely funny moments – more so from Dante than Nero. On top of that, the game should be very much commended for its cutscenes, as they deliver some wonderfully executed action segments. There is both a nice variety and degree of challenge in each of the game’s boss fights. True, some of Dante’s fights are rather straightforward revisits to the ones Nero took on earlier, but the climactic faceoff against Sanctus’ Savior – despite it looking like a Raxephon wannabe – is nothing shy of epic.

Graphically, the game is a bit of a mixed bag. Character models are incredibly detailed and realistic, and their motions seem natural and lifelike. While enemy designs are somewhat limited, they too are very nicely detailed. The environments, however, suffer at times from grainy textures and blocky objects. Load times are practically nonexistent in the Xbox 360 version. The soundtrack is a combination of metal and opera sounds, which complements the game’s art direction very well. That said, some pieces are used over and over again, and the battle themes in particular can become annoying after a while.

With regards to the game’s art style, it is an appealing mix of the exaggerated and eye-catching with realistic sensibilities. The first Devil May Cry title was born out of one of the earliest concepts for Resident Evil 4, and because of this the series share similarities in graphical stylings. Some level designs will bring about a sense of déjà vu for fans of the Resident Evil series. But whereas Resident Evil’s story tries to remain within a more realistic world setting, Devil May Cry aims for a no-holds barred thrill ride – even if that means becoming a tad ridiculous along the way.

My rating: 8.25 (out of 10)

Thursday, April 21, 2011

In Progress: Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood, ep. 4-8

Episode 4 - An Alchemist's Anguish

As the Elric brothers visit the home of Shou Tucker in search of more information on bioalchemy, we get a glimpse into some of Ed's issues with his father. Ed recalls how his father spent a lot of his time concerned with his research and doesn't want Tucker's daughter Nena to feel the same loneliness he felt as a child. So between their research sessions, the Elric brothers spend time playing with Nena and her dog Alexander. The eventual outcome of this episode is still as tragic and dark as before, though the quicker pacing doesn't take away from the impact of its delivery, which is very welcome in terms of the storytelling.

Episode 5 - Rain of Sorrows

Similar to episode four, this is a rather straightforward retelling of the events surrounding Scar's first intervention. The Elric brothers do all they can to try and face him, but eventually realize they are no match for Scar. Their attempt to escape ending in Al's body being crippled and Ed's arm being destroyed, Ed bargains with Scar not to hurt Al if he is only seeking to kill state alchemists. Just in time to save the Elrics, Mustang, Hawkeye, and Armstrong show up and eventually Scar retreats. Hughes adds a quick dash of humor at the end while the Elrics realize that they are both physically and emotionally falling apart. As a whole, the episode is quite fast paced and flows quite naturally from where the previous episode left off.

Episode 6 - Road of Hope

Major Armstrong accompanies the boys on their return to Resembool, as Ed's lack of an arm renders him incapable of using alchemy. At one of the train stations along the way, Armstrong catches glimpse of Dr. Tim Marcoh, an alchemist who went missing after the war in Ishbal. The Elrics and Armstrong track down Marcoh in hopes that he might be able to shed some light on the Philosopher's Stone, but Marcoh refuses. Just as the Elrics and Armstrong are about to board the next train and continue on their way, however, Marcoh delivers Ed a list of texts he can look up when he returns to Central - all of which contain Marcoh's notes on the Philosopher's Stone.

The events that take place in Resembool are as comedic as they are heartwarming. Despite the fact that I'm still not terribly keen on the fast pacing of Brotherhood, this episode provided a welcome break from the heavier content in the previous two episodes. That said, there was still some emotional value in Ed's visit to his mother's grave and Pinako recounting the events of Ed's determination to become a state alchemist. My only big complaint about this episode is that Winry was only shown a few times, and most of this was while she was working on Ed's new automail limbs. Being only six episodes in, however, there will be plenty more opportunities for her to shine through, though it may be a while before the Elrics make a return visit to Resembool.

Episode 7 - Hidden Truths

The Elric brothers enlist the help of Sheska to rewrite Dr. Marcoh's notes. Since their return to Central, the Elric brothers are no longer under the supervision of Major Armstrong, but instead Ross and Brosh. While Hughes does show up to provide a few laughs and present Sheska with a new job in the process, Ross and Brosh don't really bring anything noteworthy to the table. This isn't terribly surprising, since they never played too important of roles in the 2003 series. But their lack of genuine surprise at the Elric brothers announcing their dark findings in Dr. Marcoh's notes makes the entire scenario seem considerably less dramatic. The episode as a whole seems confused as to whether it wants to focus on the darker, more serious aspects or the lighthearted comedy. This is one episode that could have benefitted from splitting its story into two parts.

Episode 8 - The Fifth Laboratory

The revelations at Laboratory 5 were among my favorite moments in the 2003 anime, so I came into this episode thriiled to revisit them. The battles between Ed and Number 48, and Al and Barry the Chopper were just as cleverly devised and executed as before. The tense atmosphere surrounding Ed's struggle to deal with complications in his automail arm as well as his vow not to kill kept things interesting on the inside of Lab 5. Meanwhile, Barry and Al find themselves at a stalemate in terms of physical prowess, so Barry decides to play head games with Al on the legitimacy of his existence.

Ultimately, however, the dark and mysterious nature that Lab 5 held in the 2003 series was hardly carried over to Brotherhood. Ed finds the transmutation room almost immediately after entering, and none of Tucker's research nor Greed's prison chamber are shown. Obviously Tucker can't be continuing his research (due his death at the hands of Scar) and it can be assumed that Greed is elsewhere in this version of the FMA story, but as a whole Lab 5 felt quite lackluster. There was no drama in Ed grappling with the prospect of using the prisoners to create a Philosopher's Stone, and the Homunculi showed up merely to stop Ed and demolish the laboratory. While not as frustrating as the previous episode, this one was a tad disappointing, and I feel that the faster pacing of Brotherhood will be something that I will have issues with the entire way through.

Funimation to release season three of Sgt. Frog

The third season of Sgt. Frog will release stateside on June 28. This announcement comes not long after Funimation announced re-releases for the first two seasons of the show. The cover art follows Funimation's trend of giving a single member of the platoon the central focus, and will this time feature Tamama. The first box set for season three will include episodes 52-65.

Capcom announces Mega Man Legends 3: Prototype Version

Capcom announced today that Mega Man Legends 3: Prototype Version will be one of the first titles 3DS owners can download from the Nintendo eShop. Capcom is asking people who play Prototype Version to leave them feedback and ideas, with the prospect of fans getting their ideas and name put in the final release of Mega Man Legends 3. No official release date has been announced yet.

EDIT: As of July 18, Mega Man Legends 3, along with the Prototype Version, has been cancelled. Capcom stated that the project 'did not meet necessary criteria' and the decision was made that the game would not go into production.

Monday, April 18, 2011

In progress: Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood, ep. 1-3

I've decided to start up a new series of postings to provide my thoughts on episodes of anime series as I'm in the process of watching them. I'm going to start off with Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood, as I've reached the halfway point or latter in many of the other series that I'm currently viewing (or have put on temporary hold). Part of this decision stems from my love for Full Metal Alchemist, and I'm very interested to see what differences come out of this newer retelling - not only in terms of content (which is a given), but also with regards to the storytelling and character development. Another major part of my decision to begin these new postings is so they might help me better recall the ups and downs of the series when I go about writing my final review. I hope to implement this on other series in the future. As for the 'In progress' title, it will be temporary until I can conjure up a more creative name.

Let me begin by saying that I am not entirely unfamiliar with Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood. I've watched the 2003 FMA series all the way through, as well as Conqueror of Shamballa, and I absolutely loved that story - so much in fact, that over the course of a few months it climbed to the top of my favorite anime of all time, as well as becoming one of my favorite television series of all time. While I have yet to read any of the manga series, I have caught a handful of episodes of Brotherhood on Adult Swim. Though I am quite familiar with the majority of the characters, there are a few new faces I've yet to learn more about. The episodes that I have seen were never back-to-back in terms of the episode chronology, and so, while I understand the general direction the series takes as a whole, many of its subplots are still unfamiliar territory to me. With all of that in mind, these 'In Progess' postings will not apply ratings to any given episodes, but rather provide my thoughts on them.

Episode 1 - Full Metal Alchemist

The first episode is far more action-packed that that of the introductory episode of the 2003 series. The fateful attempt at human transmutation is not covered in detail, only briefly referenced. Instead, the focus is put on refamiliarizing viewers with the major characters as the state military is trying to stop one Isaac McDougal, a veteran of the Ishbalan war who also goes by the title of the Freezing Alchemist. McDougal's goal is apparently to freeze over military command and susequently kill Fuhrer King Bradley, who he blames blames for committing crimes and atrocities against humanity.

The Elric brothers take point in trying to stop McDougal, all while he attempts to persuade them to help his cause. Ed retorts that he doesn't care what McDougal wants, but he will stop him from causing damage to Central. Colonel Roy Mustang and Lieutenant Riza Hawkeye show up to try and stop McDougal in their own way, but Mustang's gloves are doused in water, and Riza comically presents him with a case full of spare sets of gloves. One of my personal favorite characters in the Full Metal Alchemist story, Major Alex Louis Armstrong makes a return in the only way he knows possible - incredibly graceful but completely lacking subtelty.

The first episode is nothing shy of a love letter to every Full Metal Alchemist fan. The balance of action and comedy is great. And while there is plenty of fun included, the episode also succeeds in kicking off some of the mysteries that surround the Brotherhood story. There is one point that foreshadows perhaps a bit too much and doesn't do much to mask the eventual direction of one character's story. That said, from what I have seen thus far from Brotherhood (the random handful of Adult Swim episodes included) is that, to a certain degree, the series expects viewers to be familiar with either the 2003 series or the manga.

Episode 2 - The First Day

A revisiting of the Elric brother's attempt to bring their mother back from the grave, episode two certainly covers the precursor events quickly. The actual transmutation attempt ends slightly differently than in the 2003 series, with Ed standing before the gate and meeting an entity that calls itself Truth. Truth feeds Ed a vast amount of information, but cuts him off before too long, prompting Ed to plead for more time so that he might be able to learn how to successfully bring a human back to life. Truth returns Ed to the shed, however, and he bonds Al's soul to the suit of armor.

While the 2003 series spent a lot of time focused on Ed's desperation to save his brother and the loss they felt when their mother died, Brotherhood instead chooses to focus primarily on the sense of defeat Ed felt after the whole ordeal, and - after his first meeting with Mustang - the burning desire he had to pick himself back up and find a means of restoring Al and his own body back to normal. This retelling was equally emotional, just not in the same manner. That isn't to say, however, that other aspects of the failed human transmutation can't be revisited further down the road.

Episode 3 - City of Heresy

A revisiting of the events in Liore, Ed and Al confront Father Cornello with hopes that he might be in possession of a Philosopher's Stone. In the same fashion as before, Cornello throws everything he has at the Elric brothers - a chimera, a sholder-mounted gatling gun, his own loyal minions - all while trying to convince Rose that they are evil individuals who seek to destroy what he has created for the people of Liore with his miracles. Ed manages to avoid capture this time around, instead opting to trick Cornello into admitting to his deceit over the microphone in his office. It certainly wasn't as impressive of a display of Ed's talents, and felt a bit lackluster. Cornello then turns into a much larger version of himself, one arm infused with pieces of machinery, and Ed takes him down quite quickly with the aid of his alchemy.

Ultimately, the outcome of Ed and Al's intervention in Liore is the same as it was in the 2003 series. Skipping over some of the less important parts seems only natural, though some of the changes made the overall effect less serious and the goofy cartoonish presentation of Cornello's loss made me want to see the Homunculi more as each moment passed. Ultimately Lust and Gluttony showed up at the very end, their only apparent purpose to be that of dropping Father's name.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

DLC review: Fallout 3 - Operation: Anchorage

Upon receiving a new radio signal, the Lone Wanderer journeys in search of the source, eventually discovering a group of the Brotherhood of Steel outcasts. It seems they have a virtual simulator that reenacts the battle of Anchorage, Alaska, where United States soldiers made their stand against invading communist Chinese forces. They are unable to properly interact with the device, however, and require the help of the Lone Wanderer and his/her Pip-Boy 3000.

When players first begin their trek through the snow-covered cliffs of Anchorage, they will not be given the freedom to use any of the weapons or items they’ve gathered from their exploration of the Capital Wasteland. Instead, they will be limited to whatever weapons they can find in Anchorage, or those that they receive from their allies. The environment can often mask an enemy’s location, so early on players must learn to be more perceptive and careful. With that in mind, new classes of enemies will be encountered periodically, so players will have to change up their tactics on a few occasions. Operation: Anchorage’s gameplay is more akin to the straightforward mechanics of an FPS than the RPG players have come to be so familiar with, and it takes time to get used to the changes.

While Operation: Anchorage is only meant to last players a couple of hours at most, it can take longer due to a lack of direction. Often the game will inform you of what the next mission objective is, but not give you much direction as to where it lies. As the Pip-Boy 3000 is of no use in Anchorage, players cannot access their map and are at the mercy of a trial-and error method of searching the area for their mission objective. This really only becomes a major nuisance during the second half of the mission, when things are less linear.

Ammo and health stations are glow a bright red, which, in the context of the mission taking place within a virtual reality simulator, makes perfect sense. In terms of gameplay, however, it feels like Bethesda is holding the player’s hand the entire way through. If they had only highlighted these in red upon the player first encountering these as a sort of tutorial to the differences between The Capital Wasteland and Anchorage, it would have made for a more intense battle experience.

There are a handful of characters players will meet during their time in Anchorage, but compared to the larger figures in the Capital Wasteland, most of the characters in Anchorage are forgettable. There is a bit of Fallout charm thrown in with their insistence that they are real people and not virtual images. Overall, Operation: Anchorage carries a much more serious tone than the main game of Fallout 3. While it is interesting to see first-hand the battle of Anchorage – something that is mentioned a number of times throughout the main story – the gameplay comes across as a bare-bones take on the formula of Fallout 3 and the story isn’t particularly engaging.

My rating: 6.5 (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, April 16, 2011

Gaming update #1: "I think we can put our differences behind us, for science... you monster"

As I've already posted four gaming updates on this blog since I began my reviews, I figured some readers might be interested in what video games I'm playing or am planning to pick up in the near future. This posting is intended to provide a long-term outlook on future reviews.

Just this afternoon I went ahead and picked up a copy of Shogun 2 Total War. It's currently loading on to my PC as we speak, so a review for it will still be a while off. I am, however, almost finished with the main game of Devil May Cry 4, and a review of that should be posted within the next few weeks (depending on how much time I have to set aside to exploring new game modes and unlockables).

I am planning on picking up Portal 2, though not immediately after this coming Tuesday's release date. I may wait until later in the Summer when the price tag has come down because, as much as I loved the first Portal title, I don't want to spend $60 on the sequel only to find out that the single player game is only a few hours longer than that of its predecessor. Final Fantasy IV and Final Fantasy X are the next two titles in the main Final Fantasy series that I want to tackle (on the DS and PS2 respectively). Also, depending on my income this Summer, a 3DS may lie in my near future, so there is the potential review of Ocarina of Time 3D to consider.

Outside of the titles listed above, I'm sure there will be a number of other video game and anime reviews that I'll be posting over the Summer months. There may be some impulse purchases/rentals (much like Devil May Cry 4 was) - the games listed above are simply the major titles that I want to the most play this Summer.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Anime review: Full Metal Alchemist: Conqueror of Shamballa

Conqueror of Shamballa takes place two years after the conclusion of the 2003 anime series and follows Ed and Al, who have been separated in two different worlds for that duration. Ed sacrificed himself to bring his brother's body back, and in doing so was transported to our world, a place of science as opposed to the alchemy with which Ed is so familiar. Alphonse, on the other hand, was brought back as his ten year-old self, with no memories of the four years he spent with Ed searching for the Philosopher's Stone. Al is determined to bring his brother back from the other side of the gate and has devoted himself entirely to studying alchemy in hopes of one day fulfilling that dream.

The film opens with a flashback to Ed and Al's time together before they were separated, and brings a bit of nostalgia to the film, which - considering the film was released roughly a year after the series concluded - might also help as a refresher of some of the key points of Full Metal Alchemist's story. Whether intentional or not, this also provides a quick crash course for those who might be otherwise unfamiliar with Full Metal Alchemist, and while it can't exactly encompass everything that the series covered, it does convey much of the series' signature charm.

Early on, viewers are shown just how skilled in his Alchemy Alphonse has become. On the other side of the gate, Edward is living with a young and aspiring rocket scientist named Alphons Heiderich. While Edward seems to have made a decent transition to life without alchemy, he does grow frustrated at the fact that Alphons doesn't believe his stories of his home to be anything more than fantasy. As Hoenheim has taken off somewhere, Edward has little to go off on in regards to any attempts to get back through the gate. That is, until he encounters a man who bears a striking resemblance to Fuhrer King Bradley, which eventually leads Edward to get caught up in a conspiracy involving the Thule Society and their dream of reaching another world known to them as Shamballa.

Surprisingly enough, the melding of real people and events from post-World War I Germany into the story of Conqueror of Shamballa doesn't come across as forced or hokey, due in no small part to how indirectly yet closely involved with the political unrest Ed and Alfons Heiderich are. A number of secondary and tertiary characters including Fritz Lang and Hughes play important roles in conveying the political atmosphere and social structure and manage to carry these across quite convincingly. As for main characters, Eckhart is really the only major player who is directly involved with Germany's politics, with Ed only taking up the role of sheltering Noah.

A number of side characters from the original series return and for the most part they play larger roles than I expected. Armstrong and Mustang, along with Havoc and Breda, play key roles not only in regards to their military duties, but also in aiding Al with his goal. Of the state military members, Hawkeye has one of the smallest roles, and although Rose does make an appearance fairly early on in the film, she doesn't play much of an important role in the events of Conqueror of Shamballa. Sheska and Winry, on the other hand, provide some comic relief, the latter lending her talents to aid the Elric brothers and even to adjust Wrath's auto-mail.

The film's pacing is fantastic and despite the fact that a lot is actually covered within the hour and forty-five minute run time, at no point does anything feel rushed. One minor complaint I have with the way the film plays out is that the finale provides a relatively brief epilogue. That said, the final episode of the series set aside nearly half of its twenty-three minute run time for an epilogue, so it isn't terribly surprising or unfitting that the film would spend less time focusing on this.

While I would never accuse the finale of the series as being poor (quite the opposite - I found it to be phenomenal), there were certain subplots left unresolved therein. Most of these loose ends are tied up by the conclusion of Conqueror of Shamballa, and for those few that are not, the film does provide some satisfying elaboration on said situations. Without spoiling anything, I will say that the Homunculi are dealt with in a very logical and overall satisfying manner, and that the characters of Wrath and Envy - both of whom I was overall rather indifferent towards until the final few episodes of the series - played out in a manner that was very interesting and entertaining, while providing some shock value (all without being overdramatized).

The soundtrack plays homage to the 2003 series by bringing back many of the major themes played throughout the series. It also includes a number of new orchestrated pieces that diverge from the stylings of those heard in the series, but remain close enough that they still carry much of the mood of Full Metal Alchemist. The soundtrack manages to fit the film brilliantly, due in no small part to the fact that these two musical styles play off each other much in the same way that the two worlds on either side of the gate relate to one another. In this way, the motif of the film is only made stronger. The art direction Conqueror of Shamballa takes is not particularly different than the anime series, though the animation quality has improved significantly. Shading and lighting effects are much more dramatic and smaller details - such as the layout of the sunken city and the inner-workings of Ed's prosthetic arm - are much more defined. The only point where the animation suffered was during a few scenes involving the suits of armor that Eckhart sends to Ed and Al's home world. During these scenes, the suits of armor are computer-animated, and though they are layered over with some slight cel-shading and probably looked good during their 2005 theatrical debut, they haven't aged as well as the rest of the animation throughout the film.

Considering the buildup she is given early on as a member of the Thule Society, Eckhart is ultimately given only a brief few minutes of action scenes. That is not to say that she is completely forgettable as the film's lead villain, but she doesn't manage to live up to the cleverness of Dante or the capabilities of the Homunculi.

As with the anime series, the English dub voice actor provide stellar performances. While Vic Mignona and Aaron Dismuke steal the spotlight as Ed and Al, the rest of the returning cast does as strong a job as ever in portraying their respective characters. Some returning voice actors were faced with the prospect of portraying a very different take on their character - as is the case with Christian Luci as Wrath - or taking on a different persona entirely - as Ed Blaylock does with his shift from Fuhrer King Bradley to the mellow yet ambitious filmmaker Fritz Lang. In both scenarios, the voice actors deserve major props in taking to these changes so naturally. As for newcomers, John Gremillion fits right in with his brief appearance as Huskisson, while Kelly Manison provides a decent portrayal of Eckhart. That isn't to say that the latter is weak in her performance, but compared to most everyone else she doesn't quite peak at the same level of excellence. This could, however, be more so a result of her character's nature, and to be fair, Manison does a wonderful job of transitioning back and forth between her English and German-spoken lines.

Aside from a few very minor hitches, Conqueror of Shamballa is a more than satisfying conclusion to the storyline of the 2003 anime series. While the film carries a darker mood - similar to the later episodes of the series - there is still some humor sprinkled throughout and the film maintains the signature charm of Full Metal Alchemist, yet the film can be truly emotionally gripping when it matters most. The animation is great, the soundtrack a fantastic combination of sounds new and old, and the stories of the two worlds running simultaneously flows in a near-perfect manner. As the equivalent of End of Evangelion to Neon Genesis Evangelion, I feel few viewers will consider Conqueror of Shamballa nearly as controversial in its role as a secondary ending to the epic tale of the Elric brothers.

My rating: 9.25 (out of 10)

Monday, April 11, 2011

Anime review: Summer Wars

Having been well aware of the fact that some of the creative staff behind Summer Wars previously worked on Digimon: The Movie (Digimon: Bokura no War Game), I was comforted to find that the similarities between the two end with the basic premise of a problem within the digital frontier having a direct impact on the outside world. As Summer Wars opens, viewers are given a crash course on Kenji's daily life. He runs maintenance checks on the digital world of Oz with his friend Takashi, and is also a genius at math. Kenji's social skills, however, are not the greatest and he is initially hesitant to help Natsuki with a "problem" she has.

Eventually agreeing to help Natsuki, Kenji is not informed of the fact that she wants him to play the part of her boyfriend until the two arrive at Natsuki's Grandmother's 90th birthday celebration. Kenji wants nothing to do with this, but Natsuki assures him that they can put an end to masquerade after a few days. Kenji agrees, and eventually meets everyone in Natsuki's extended family, most of whom (despite a few notable exceptions) give Kenji a warm welcome to the family. The more time Kenji spends with Natsuki, the more comfortable he feels with the whole scenario.

That night, Kenji's Oz avatar sends him a message via his phone that lists a long series of numbers. Being the math whiz that he is, Kenji decides to solve it, only to find out that it was the security code to Oz and that his avatar has been taken over by an artificial intelligence program known as Love Machine. After some pleading to Natsuki's family of his innocence, Kenji enlists the help of her cousin Kazuma, who is one of the highest ranked competitors in Oz's games. With some additional assistance from the other family members, the two of them spearhead an attempt to take down Love Machine before it can bring its influence from Oz to the real world.

Natsuki's extended family members are nicely varied, if not a bit flat and stereotyped. The creators can't really be blamed for this though, since cramming such a large cast into a two hour film only allows for a certain amount of flexibility with their development. Some play larger roles than others and certainly come across as more entertaining because of this. Every viewer will likely find at least one family member with whom they relate well. While each family member has his or her distinct character model, keeping track of which character comes from which generation can be a bit tricky - not that this is of the utmost importance for each individual.

The film certainly has its predictable points, but the way in which Kenji and Natsuki's family go about their goal of stopping Love Machine are both clever and creative. While the family members have some obvious communication issues, a number of mishaps that stem from this keep the story rolling right along. Any time that the story slows down it is for the sake of elaboration on a character's story or to address more emotionally moving situations. Viewers can be assured that there are practically zero dull moments throughout the film.

There is a bit of a strange shift around the film's halfway point, as the primary focus moves from Kenji to Natsuki's cousin Kazuma. For the sake of the story overall, this is good, as it gives viewers a more in-depth look at how Oz operates and just how devoted some of its users are. But it does take away from the developing relationship between Kenji and Natsuki, and ultimately Kenji's development as a character seems to fall a little bit short of how it could have been explored. Kazuma, on the other hand, becomes a much more rounded out character because of this. There is a good chance that the minor issues with this could have been avoided if the film had been slightly longer.

There is a baseball game that makes recurring appearances over the duration of the film, acting as a parallel to the situation in Oz. It comes across as quite hokey and forced, and seems a rather dull way to try and mirror the severity of the damage Love Machine is causing. All in all, the baseball game seems a rather unnecessary inclusion, and the feudal history of Natsuki's family that is brought up at a few points throughout the film would have probably served as a stronger parallel.

Mad House never ceases to amaze me with their phenomenal animation. Summer Wars is vividly colorful and its digital animations very eye-catching. The mainframe of Oz is admittedly a bit dull with its large white structures, but the separate divisions of the program are incredibly detailed, each having its own distinct style. The soundtrack follows two distinct styles. Catchy techno beats accompany scenes within Oz, while more flowing orchestral pieces playing during the real world scenes. Of the latter, some are more moving and mellow, while others are more akin to fast-paced marches.

While not as heavily character-driven as something like The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Summer Wars is a very well-scripted and entertaining film. There's certain to be some aspect throughout that viewers of all ages can appreciate. The film's pacing is nearly perfect, and while certain story points could have benefitted from minor expansions, overall the final product does as strong a job in delivering its narrative as it does in capturing viewers' sense of imagination.

My rating: 8.5 (out of 10)

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Anime review: Eden of the East

The opening scene of the Eden of the East involves a young man waking up stark naked in Washington D.C., near the White House. He has no idea how he got here, why he is naked, or what his name even is. His only hopes for answering these questions lie in the very high-tech phone he is carrying and a young girl who he helps out of a pinch with the police. After reaching his apartment, he discovers a stash of firearms and a collection of passports to different countries, each with a different name on it. As it turns out, the young girl, who reveals her name to be Saki Morimi, was only in the U.S. for a graduation trip with some friends. After the strange turn of events, the man assumes the title of Akira Takizawa, a name listed on one of his many passports, and decides to accompany Saki Morimi on her return flight home.

Once in Japan, things become even stranger for Takizawa. It seems a number of missiles struck Japan in the recent past, though no one was killed in the process and the event became known as "Careless Monday". Takizawa does not recall this, even though Morimi insists it was covered in the news all over the world. A large number of NEETS (young men who remain cooped up in their apartments/houses all day, every day) went missing without a trace around the same time as "Careless Monday" occurred. Furthermore, Takizawa discovers a woman named Juiz can be contacted through his high-tech phone, and can make basically anything Takizawa wants happen within his allotted ten billion Yen. Juiz informs Takizawa that he is one of twelve individuals privy to this money with the hope that they might be able to save Japan. The identities of the other eleven individuals - known as Selecao - are kept secret from Takizawa unless he should choose to seek them out in person, but what they choose to spend their ten billion yen on is transmitted to the other Selecao immediately after their purchase, allowing them to keep tabs on and counteract one another should they choose to do so.

Takizawa is a very eccentric lead character, despite the fact that he doesn't remember much about himself. He and Morimi play off each other as a thoroughly amusing odd couple, the latter having been dragged into helping Takizawa by complete coincidence. As the series progresses, the two work together and alone depending on the severity and danger of the situation at hand. Even while apart, the two manage to provide each other will significant aid. Morimi utilizes the brainpower of her school friends and the computer program Eden, and Takizawa uses his quick wit and connections through Juiz to uncover new information regarding the other Selecao and Mr. Outside, the apparent host of the 'game' which all the Selecao are playing.

The series increases in complexity with each episode, and subsequently its characters and interweaving stories become more deep and engaging. Each episode strives to answer as many questions as possible during its twenty-three minute run time, but in doing so asks just as many. Not every question will be formally answered by the series' conclusion, but those that matter most to the characters are. Each of the mysteries surrounding Takizawa, Careless Monday, and the Selecao are dealt with in a style that is relatively consistent as opposed to seeking out cheap answers for the sake of convenient storytelling.

The biggest hit against Eden of the East is its conclusion. While the events therein are as entertaining as they are befitting of the series, the story has only just reached its highest point by the time episode eleven rolls around. The concluding events of this final episode are covered so quickly that the finale is less than satisfying. That said, there are two films that pick up where the series left off, but even so, the staff could have greatly benefitted from pacing the last stretch of the series out a bit.

Eden of the East looks stunning, which should come as little surprise, considering it is a work from Production I.G. The lighting plays very effectively with the atmosphere of the series as a whole and the moods of different scenes. The soundtrack is very light and upbeat but manages to capture tense moments in the series effectively as well. All in all, it's a fitting soundtrack, though it does sound generic at times.

Eden of the East presents a bit of a different take on the espionage anime, narrating primarily from two distinctly different viewpoints. A small but varied cast of characters carry the eleven episodes along, and - aside from a few hitches at the end - the series has rather strong pacing throughout. There is as much suspense to be found, as there is humor, and - to an extent - a sense of wonder hangs about the series. It isn't a particularly dark or violent game of spy vs. spy, but for anyone who likes a good modern tale of mystery and intrigue, Eden of the East might just be your cup of tea.

My rating: 8.5 (out of 10)

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Xbox 360 review: Fallout 3

I'm not particularly familiar with the other entries into the Fallout series, but I am familiar with Bethesda's work on the Elder Scrolls series. In Elder Scrolls, players were allowed to choose their race and class, and then follow a series of quests relevant to the main story as well as a number of other optional side quests, and the basic formula is carried over to Fallout 3. The major differences, though, are the amount of freedoms in play style granted in Fallout 3, as well as the genuine development of the Lone Wanderer, the game's main character. For an American style RPG, Fallout 3 is surprisingly involved and the story quite engaging.

The Lone Wanderer (as he/she will later come to be known) is the character players assume control of, and begin the game by customizing their looks and attributes. While no two Lone Wanderers will look quite the same, their intended outcome in the story will carry only slight variation. Growing up in Vault 101, the Lone Wanderer is constantly told that life outside the vault is impossible. When the character's father escapes the Vault, the overseer's daughter suspects that her father may not have been entirely honest with Vault 101's inhabitants and aids the Lone Wanderer in his escape. What lies outside in the remains of Washington D.C. is a struggle for power, and players will encounter the many people caught up in it as they travel through makeshift towns and across the Capital Wasteland in search of their father for answers on why Vault 101 was isolated and - more importantly - why he left so suddenly. With all of that in mind, this is still an American style RPG, and the characters that players encounter will be more fleshed out and interesting than the Lone Wanderer, regardless of what path players choose to take from beginning to end.

Interacting with as many individuals as possible is the best way for players to open up new side quests. Some side quests will require players to interact with characters in a positive or negative tone, which can affect the Lone Wanderer's karma. Ultimately these side quests can earn players small rewards, such as new armor and weaponry, or more valuable rewards, such as the ability to enlist the aid of a partner in combat.

Players are given some freedom in how they wish to take to combat. The option of real-time traditional gun-wielding requires players to aim manually, but (assuming they can hit the broad side of a barn) will almost guarantee a direct hit on an enemy AI. VATS mode freezes the game temporarily and allows players to target specific body parts of enemies. While in this mode, players can see the chance they have of hitting said body part from their current range and the damage already dealt to the body part. This mode has a limited numbers of subsequent uses, and players must wait for it to recharge before using it on the next enemy. VATS mode also generally deals less damage to an enemy, unless a certain body part has reached critical state. This keeps players from becoming too reliant on the system, though when facing down hordes of mutated wildlife in the Capital Wasteland - many of which come charging at players full speed - the usage limit can be a minor annoyance.
Even if players choose not to utilize this system frequently for combat, it can still be a helpful tool for scoping out enemies before they spot you.

Combat is not the only way that players are able to earn experience points. Conversations with the Capital Wasteland's populous and completion of side quests can net players experience points, as can picking locks and hacking terminals. Upon leveling up, players are allowed to choose whichever skills and attributes they wish to improve, as well as a perk they can add to their repertoire. If a player started out with one primary character type in mind but decided later on that they wanted to change their character to better fit a different role, it's no problem. That said, as with any RPG, leveling up takes time and players cannot simply switch their character's strengths and weaknesses back and forth at a moment's notice.

There are some minor inconsistencies in the difficulty setting of Fallout 3. For the most part, the game seems a little too easy on the 'normal' setting, as missions are quite straightforward and players will find they have ample supplies. A few scenarios may require a trial-and-error process from players, but there are almost always loopholes to be found when facing down small groups of enemies. However, on a handful of occasions while travelling the Capital Wasteland from one mission point to the next, players will come across enemies that are either too strong or in too great of numbers to allow them to advance. Players can either temporarily dumb down the difficulty setting and deal with the issue immediately, or they can scour the Capital Wasteland in search of side quests in order to level up. This drastic shift in difficulty is only present a handful of times during the main game, but it stands out enough to cause a bit of an annoyance. In some instances, players will receive aid from the Brotherhood of Steel or partner characters in the Capital Wasteland. In these situations, players can more or less allow the AI to do most of the heavy combat if they so choose, though it will be at the cost of gaining fewer experience points.

Graphically, the game is quite impressive. As much of a decaying city as Washington D.C. has become, colorful advertisements reminiscent of the 1950s plastered over a drab post-apocalyptic world carry a great deal of aesthetic appeal. The attention to detail is impressive - any building that players can enter and explore does not look recycled from any earlier area, and subway tunnels are comprised of varying layouts. Even the rubble and random junk lying around Washington D.C. is varied from one location to the next. The soundtrack is a mixture of licensed and original pieces; the former complimenting the more colorful and amusing elements of the Fallout world, and the latter conveying the epic scale and dire circumstances of the situation at hand.

Despite an overall play style that seems to aim more for a shooter-based RPG experience, there is plenty of variety to be found in Fallout 3. While there are some minor inconsistencies in the main game, the side quests generally allows players more freedom and range from relatively simple to rather demanding, and the rewards tend to reflect this. While the main game's story is very well-executed, it ends all too quickly and Bethesda could have devoted some more time to this aspect. Still, there's rarely a dull moment throughout and RPG fans will find plenty of replay value in scouring every nook and cranny of the vast Capital Wasteland.

My rating: 8.5 (out of 10)

Monday, April 4, 2011

Navarre Sells Funimation

Navarre, the parent company of Funimation up for years, has officially sold the long-time North American anime distributor for the sum of $24 million. Funimation was reportedly purchased by Gen Fukunaga (Funimation's CEO) and a number of other investors. In all honesty, this doesn't mean much of a change in the way Funimation operates - there may be some minor tweaks here and there, but overall I would expect them to continue dubbing and distributing anime in North America the same way they've been doing it for so many years. It's interesting to see the sale actually carried through, though, since word of a potential sale has been circulating the internet for a few months now (with Funimation themselves even coming forth to their consumers/fanbase about it).
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