Thursday, July 28, 2011

Xbox 360 review: Batman: Arkham Asylum

The story of Arkham Asylum begins with Batman having captured the Joker once again. After arriving back at Arkham, Batman informs the guards that he is suspicious of the whole scenario, since Joker didn't put up much of a fight. Not long after, it is revealed that Harley Quinn has infiltrated Arkham under the guise of a newly-employed nurse, and she releases the asylum's many inmates while the Joker runs off. Though Batman is quick to take out the weaker thugs he first encounters, he realizes he will have his work cut out for him rounding up the more powerful, iconic villains, as well as getting to the bottom of Joker's plans.

The layout of the game is a combination of linear scripted events and the free-roam environments of the Asylum grounds and buildings. While the transition to different areas can seem a bit choppy at times, serving to the convenience of squeezing in most of the major villains from the Batman universe, the story prevents this from weighing the experience down and things keep chugging along smoothly enough. The more wide-open expanses of the island, as well as many of the corridors of each building, are host to a number of collectibles and Riddler challenges, which can unlock character bios and trophies.

Batman's close-quarters combat is fairly simplistic in design, utilizing three buttons to attack, counter, and stun, and allowing combo moves to automatically play out after these are chained together without Batman taking too many hits. Batman can also knock out thugs who are temporarily stunned, though this will leave him vulnerable for a few seconds to other nearby inmates. Glide kicks, silent takedowns (where Batman sneaks up behind one thug without alerting others), and inverted takedowns (where Batman hangs from a Gargoyle mounted on the wall and strings up a thug and leaves him hanging) are available for segments that require a more stealthy approach. There's also a small arsenal of gadgets at Batman's disposal, including the batarang, batclaw, explosive gel, grappling hook, zipline launcher, and code sequencer, each of which is used fairly often and complement the more action-heavy sequences quite nicely.

While Batman encounters a slew of big name villains, he doesn't encounter all of them in traditional boss fights. Some, such as Bane, are tackled in a more straightforward boss fight, while Scarecrow challenges Batman to some Metal Gear-style sneaking in a nightmare realm (courtesy of his fear gas), and Killer Croc jumps out sporadically as Batman scours Arkham's sewers in search of a plant to counteract Joker's chemicals. The final boss fight is, admittedly, a bit disappointing when compared to all of the fantastic encounters Batman has prior to the game's conclusion. The voice acting is top-notch all around, though Mark Hamill really steals the show as The Joker. The dialogue is very well-scripted, and can be genuinely hilarious at times. With regards to immersing players in the experience, this combination works wonderfully, as every one of the villains is a great reflection of how they appear in the comics. And though not every one of Batman's foes receives a starring role in the game, a few easter eggs give nods to the likes of Mr. Freeze, Calendar Man, and Clayface.

The art style has some obvious influences from its comic book roots, as well as from the 1990s cartoon. Character models are pretty evenly divided between those two source materials, while the setting and story both aim for dark and eerie. There is some stylization with the game's graphical direction, though it's not host to any vibtantly cel-shaded characters like those present in Marvel vs. Capcom 3. Arkham Asylum is a very colorful game, however, with nicely detailed environments. A few textures here and there leave something to be desired, but overall the game does a great job of maintaining its roots while building its own identity as a narrative in the Batman universe.

The game does hit a few snags along the way. This is most notable in a handful of scripted events that require players to perform a certain task or attack, without giving them a good grasp on what it is they are supposed to do. This will ultimately lead players through a trial-and-error process, which lasts longer than it needs to.

On the flipside, there are times where game goes out of its way to stun players with some of its mechanics. The Riddler challenges, though simple enough in concept, provide some fun sleuthing while testing player's knowledge of Batman and co. Segments where Scarecrow's gas affects Batman distort the camera angle and - on one most notable occasion - throws the game on its head to mess with both the Dark Knight and the player.

The game will last around twelve hours for a single playthrough. Upon completing the main storyline, players can still solve the Riddler challenges, though they will need to start the story mode over again if they wish to revisit any of the boss fights. Challenge mode will allow players to take on the Joker's thugs in various areas around Arkham, and are divided into two styles of play. Combat challenges pit Batman against hordes of thugs that increase in both numbers and difficulty as waves progress. Predator challenges, on the other hand, require Batman to take out armed thugs without being detected. While these challenges provide a snapshot of the game as a whole, the entertainment factor only lasts so long.

Batman: Arkham Asylum is a rare gem among licensed games. It has its deepest roots in the comic book storyline, but doesn't hesitate to explore familiar characters in new ways. The gameplay is solid, the boss segments brilliantly planned, and the game is - simply put - a ton of fun to play. It might not be a perfect game, but with everything that Arkham Asylum has done right, it's a fantastic start to a new franchise.

My rating: 8.75 (out of 10)

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Capcom announces Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3

Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom has been announced as a re-release of Marvel vs. Capcom 3, though this new version will include twelve new characters and eight new stages. Capcom officially announced Strider, Firebrand, Hawkeye, and Ghost Rider, but a leak stated that the remainder of the cast will be Phoenix Wright, Vergil, Nemesis, Frank West, Iron Fist, Dr. Strange, Rocket Racoon, and Nova (which Capcom has now confirmed). A few other tweaks have been made to the game, including a balancing of character abilities, and a spectator mode so players waiting in the lobby have something to look at other than the time remaining in the current match. The MSRP will be $39.99, which isn't all that bad a deal for gamers who didn't purchase MvC3 upon its initial release. No word yet if the new characters or stages will be made available as DLC for those who already own MvC3 (but here's hoping).

Monday, July 18, 2011

G4's Marvel anime lineup

While I haven't watched much on G4 lately, their lineup of Marvel anime series might just give me reason to start viewing more often. The shows begin airing July 29th at 11pm, and I know for sure I'll be watching the Iron Man series, despite some mixed feedback I've heard from others who have already watched it. I've always enjoyed the X-Men comics, so I'll give that series a watch, and will give Wolverine a try. Personally, I've never been huge on Blade, but who knows, maybe it will grab my attention enough to merit a regular viewing schedule as well. It's been a long time since there's been a steady lineup of anime that I've wanted to watch on a regular basis, but a combination of two of my favorite entertainment mediums - Marvel comics and anime - looks promising.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

N64 review: The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask

I played Majora's Mask way back when it was first released for the Nintendo 64, though I never owned a copy and instead played it on a friend's console. I became familiar with the story and setting, but I never tackled the dungeons in the proper order. Then, about a year ago, I found a Majora's Mask cartridge at a local game store, and figured that my appreciation for Zelda would be incomplete without having played all of the games in the series (there are currently still four other Zelda titles I have yet to finish, but that's a story for another day).

If I could sum up Majora's Mask in a few words, they would have to be 'surprisingly dark' and 'rather bizarre'. Following the conclusion of Ocarina of Time, Link takes off to find his fairy friend Navi. While travelling through a forest, Link's horse Epona is stolen by Skull Kid. Link gives chase, but is cursed by Skull Kid to bear the form of a Deku Scrub. Eventually making his way to Clock Town, Link discovers he is now in a land known as Termina, a sort of alternate-dimension take on Hyrule. Link finds that the Happy Mask salesman has also fallen victim to Skull Kid's antics, as a very powerful mask - Majora's Mask - was stolen from him. He promises to help Link return to his original state, so long as Link can retrieve his Ocarina from Skull Kid and see to the safe return of Majora's Mask.

The world of Termina is set up in a wheel-and-spokes layout, with Clock Town situated at the center and each subsequent region and temple branching off in a different direction (North, East, South, and West). This provides a convenient starting point each time players save the game. Clock Town is also where players will spend time tackling the majority of the sidequests, and plays host to some of the minigames. Each of the temples must be tackled in a specific order, though players are free to explore the separate regions of Termina at their leisure, assuming they have the necessary items to gain access. Players can also activate owl statues that serve a dual purpose. They can be used to save the game - though players must quit playing in order to do so - or they can be used as warp points for fast travel.

The most notable difference from other Zelda titles is the three day cycle/time limit. Players have only 72 hours in game time (which translates to about twenty minutes per day in real time) to complete the necessary tasks of collecting items, masks, and tackling dungeons. More often than not, players can complete the tasks preceding a temple, return to dawn of the first day, and then continue on to complete the temple itself. Afterwards, they can return to dawn of the first day again, repeating the cycle for each subsequent area and temple. Because of this, players will need to determine their plan of attack before they trek through Termina's various locales. For those who would prefer more time to complete things - say, events prior to a temple, the temple itself, and a side quest or two thereafter - the Inverted Song of Time can prove an invaluable asset. On the flipside, players will have to set aside more time to complete all this, and may prove a drawback for more casual gamers.

While designed with many of the basic gameplay elements introduced in Ocarina of Time, Majora's Mask does well to set itself apart from its predecessor. The intuitive item management system is retained, though the use of transformation masks offers a small variety of combat and travel abilities on top of those already offered through Link's arsenal. Players will have to find new bombs and arrows each time they play the Song of Time, but can be deposit Rupees into Clock Town's bank without running the risk of losing any of Link's hard-earned cash. While Majora's Mask has relatively few temples when compared to other installments in the franchise, the pre-temple and post-temple events add on more than enough to flesh out the experience. The game also presents a solid number of mini-boss fights - in some cases, two or three in a single temple, while the five major boss fights are overall more challenging than those present in Ocarina of Time.

This game will be a real treat for completionists, with far more sidequests than in Ocarina of Time - some of which will prove very challenging, while others are simply time-consuming. Those who choose to pursue the sidequests will encounter many familiar faces - Termina's counterparts of Hyrule's citizens. Most of these characters feel more fleshed out than in the previous title, even if their involvement is still rather minor in the grand scheme of things.

When it all boils down to it, there are far fewer major characters in Majora's Mask - Link and Skull Kid are the primary protagonist and antagonist respectively. But with no one filling the shoes of Zelda, Shiek, or the Sages this time around, the only other character with a major stake in the mask is the Happy Mask Salesman. For those who played through Ocarina of Time and met all of the various minor characters, this should feel like the obvious next step in developing them. For those jumping into Majora's Mask without having played Ocarina of Time, this likely won't resonate in a particularly strong manner.

The graphics aren't a huge step up from Ocarina of Time, though some of the textures and minor environmental details are improved upon. Most of the different areas of Termina stand out as being more colorful than the locales in Hyrule were. The soundtrack presents plenty of variety in style, but does an excellent job of maintaining the eerie, almost haunting, mood of the game. As stated above, most of the characters in Termina are intended to be some alternate universe counterpart to the cast of Ocarina of Time, and this is primarily due to the reuse of character models. That said, the new characters that are introduced in Majora's Mask - and there are quite a few of them - are welcome additions to the Zelda universe.

It's a dark game, no doubt. Some might even go far as to call it 'a bit twisted'. But there's no denying how artistically driven Majora's Mask is. It has some of the best storytelling in the series. Though it may not be as wildly revolutionary as its prequel, it's a brilliant follow-up to Ocarina of Time, which - in all honesty - is a very hard act to follow. It's also one of the most challenging Zelda titles to date, and while I would usually encourage players to figure things out on their own, a guide will probably come in handy for your first playthrough.

My rating: 10 (out of 10)

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

DLC review: Resident Evil 5 - Lost in Nightmares

Lost in Nightmares allows players to experience firsthand the events that led to Jill Valentine going MIA. Jill and Chris Redfield are sent to investigate the estate of Ozwell E. Spencer, former president of the Umbrella Corporation. For the sake of better explaining the DLC, I am going to assume anyone playing Lost in Nightmares has already completed Resident Evil 5. If not, fair warning: some spoilers lay in store.

As some of the flashback cutscenes in Resident Evil 5 indicated, Jill and Chris encountered Wesker at the Spencer estate immediately before Jill's disappearance. So players will already know the ending of the Lost in Nightmares story before going into it. It might seem a bit odd of Capcom to build DLC around this, but the final product is actually quite well-polished and provides an interesting look into the transitions that take place from the early games to the more recent installments. Notes lying around the estate provide insight from both Spencer and his butler, exploring their plans for Umbrella's research and concerns about Wesker.

The gameplay uses the same basic mechanics of Resident Evil 5, though the setting aims more for the spooky nature of the original Resident Evil. The Spencer estate is host to a number of puzzles and traps that players must overcome - or in some cases use to their advantage. The shooter mechanics remain intact, though there isn't a lot of ammunition lying around and the few enemies players do encounter are able to take quite a beating before they go down. The final boss fight is a triumphant payoff, though some may find it to be a bit lengthy.

The moody lighting and stormy weather outside the estate emphasize the more classic horror theme of Lost in Nightmares. Guardians can be seen slinking off in to dimly lit areas of the estate's lower levels. A piano can be heard, but when Chris and Jill go to investigate, there is no longer any sound, nor anyone playing it. Aside from these thematic elements, though, there are a number of carefully-planned adrenaline rush scares. Enemies will come crashing through walls, while the acquisition of certain items will trigger a trap that players must rescue either themselves or their partner from.

Lost in Nightmares will take a little under an hour and a half to complete, depending on the difficulty setting and how long players spend searching for treasure and key items. The only drawback to this is that the DLC does not offer a save feature. It's a very well-written piece of the larger Resident Evil universe, even though it doesn't throw any major twists at players. For those who wants to extend their Resident Evil 5 experience, or for anyone who enjoyed the Resident Evil games of yesteryear and wants a quick fix, Lost in Nightmares is a worthwhile investment.

My rating: 10 (out of 10)*

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

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Xbox 360 review: Resident Evil 5

With his former partner Jill Valentine missing in action (and presumed dead), Chris Redfield heads to an area in Africa known as Kijuju to investigate bio-organic weapons smuggling as part of his assignment with the BSAA (Bioterrorism Security Assessment Alliance). Once there, he meets his new partner, Sheva Alomar, and things quickly go south for the two as hordes of plagas-infected locals begin attacking them. Making their way deeper into Kijuju, Chris and Sheva make capturing B.O.W. smuggler Ricardo Irving their primary objective, as evidence of Tricell Laboratories' involvement with the plagas breakout begins to reveal itself.

The story of Resident Evil 5 is well executed, following a progression of events that feels very natural. While most of the early missions lay the groundwork for what is to come later on, things are kept interesting through the other BSAA groups that assist Chris and Sheva. And that's one thing that really stands out about Resident Evil 5 when compared to just about every other game in the franchise - you aren't alone for the majority of the game (at least, with regards to the story and cutscenes). Even with zombies running rampant throughout African cities, the chatter from allies and occasional assist from a friendly helicopter help make the events in Kijuju seem that much more feasible. The game as a whole does a good job of closing the book on the main Resident Evil story that started back in 1996, while still leaving enough doors open for future games.

Much like the story, the gameplay is more heavy on action than survival-horror. The core of the gameplay is rooted in third-person shooter mechanics, but a lot of the time the game will require players to complete puzzles while being chased by enemies and at the same time allotting them only so much ammunition. Some areas throw in vehicular action, which is a nice break from facing down hordes of enemies on foot. It also presents an interesting exploration into how Plagas differs from the T-virus.

The game's biggest problem, however, stems from an inconvenient item management system. In Resident Evil 4, the game would pause each time players needed to switch up ammo or heal themselves, which worked wonderfully. But as the development of Resident Evil 5 placed heavy emphasis on cooperative play, this element was not carried over. Players can still change up weapons and heal themselves in the midst of a mission, but must do so while enemies are still swarming around them. Also, each character is only allotted nine slots, and while a shotgun may take up one single slot, so does an herb. When playing solo, players can use Sheva as a support character if they so choose, stocking her up on herbs and lighter weaponry. Another aspect that lessens the frustration of this item management system is the fact that Sheva does a decent job in helping fight off enemies.

Resident Evil 5 isn't a particularly scary game, at least when compared to its predecessors. Some of this is due to the fact that the setting is in the wide open plains of Africa, and that much of the early missions take place in broad daylight. But it is also largely due to the new control and gameplay styles adopted in Resident Evil 4 (and carried over to Resident Evil 5). For those who have played the fourth title, expect that many of the enemies will have some counterpart in Resident Evil 5. Majini are essentially Ganados, while the Ndesu is a slight variation on the El Gigante. Even the Uroboros Test Subject - the first boss encountered in the game - bears some similarities to the Regenerators. That said, new enemies such as Lickers and the mutated bat-like Popokarimu are thrown in the mix and require players to use a trial-and-error system in combat.

While the Majini are the most basic recurring enemies encountered in Resident Evil 5, there are a number of variations on them. Players must adopt slightly varying strategies in order to dispatch them, whereas Resident Evil 4 simply skinned them over with new appearances for each level. Most of the boss fights are both fun and challenging, presenting a variety of enemies and strategies for taking them down. These are often the most tense portions of the game as well, so players will need to be attentive and stay on their toes as much as possible. And while many of the boss fights certainly play out on an epic scale, those who have played Resident Evil 4 will recognize that they have fought each of the major bosses before - if, perhaps, with some minor differences.

Mercenaries mode makes its return, with little change - which is perfect, considering how well it handled in Resident Evil 4. There are still only four characters to choose from, though each has at least two different loadouts and costumes to choose from. The different levels players can choose from range are all larger than those from Resident Evil 4 - some only a bit larger, while others offer a significantly larger playing field. Some are more open, while others are comprised of narrow halls and multi-leveled platforms, so each will require a different strategic approach.

A wide variety of environments are presented throughout the game, ranging from narrow city streets, to underground temple ruins, to swampland, and even the deck of a cargo freighter. The graphical style aims for a fairly realistic depiction of Africa, but the lighting effects add an extra level of oomph to make the game that much more visually appealing. The soundtrack plays to both the dark and gloomy parts of the game, as well as the tense epic battle sequences, presenting a nice contrast in style but still retaining a consistent identity. Though it may not be as scary as its predecessors, Resident Evil 5 presents a fitting conclusion to the story of Chris and Wesker.

My rating: 9.0 (out of 10)

Anime review: Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt

Panty & Stocking is a comedy that is no-holds barred. It doesn't shy away from vulgar and offensive humor; rather it embraces it, relying on it as a heavy fuel for each episode. It's downright rotten in a lot of cases, but can - at the same time - be absolutely hilarious to those not so easily offended. With only thirteen episodes, the series has only so much time to nail down its formula, and though it does its fair share of experimenting, the final product is a nice balance of comedy and action.

The story begins by explaining that Panty and Stocking are two angels who have fallen out of Heaven's graces and must defeat ghosts on Earth to earn enough coins to return. And that's honestly all that needs to be said for any given episode. It certainly helps to watch the introductory episode first, but there's not a whole lot of consistency between episodes, so watching them out of order won't make a huge difference (save for the very last few). Panty is obsessed with sex, while Stocking loves sweets, and their being angels is more of a title than a reflection of their actual behavior. They frequently swear, kill ghosts, and take out their anger on their pet Chuck.

Most episodes follow a two-part format, with each containing a separate and unrelated narrative. There are only a couple of exceptions, once when the demon sisters Scanty and Kneesocks are introduced, and a second time when three smaller stories are thrown into the mix. The first half of the series follows a pattern of the angels fighting one ghost after another, while the second half opts for a greater emphasis on the characters, pitting the angel sisters against the demon sisters time and time again, and even exploring the sibling rivalry Panty and Stocking have.

With regards to the angels, their differing personalities play off each other quite nicely. As mentioned above, this can sometimes lead to them butting heads, but often it leads to cooperation like Stocking helping Panty in combat by offering up a strategy she hadn't previously thought of (or vice-versa). Personally I found Panty to be the more enjoyable of the two lead characters throughout the series. However, I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that more is revealed about her early on due to how outspoken of an individual she is, whereas Stocking tends to remained more reserved, save for when in the company of Panty and Garterbelt. As for the rest of the major characters, they are all rather one-dimensional, but because there are so few of them, it works to the story's advantage. Scanty and Kneesocks will always put their full faith in whatever latest scheme they've cooked up, while Garterbelt will yell at the angels to get their act together, and Brief will provide many a chuckle through his awkward and unfortunate timing (despite his purest intentions and role as the voice of reason).

Some of the early episodes suffer from the fact that the series can't seem to decide if it wants to be more ironic and full of pop culture references in the style of FLCL (another Gainax work), or if it wants to aim for something more akin to the early seasons of South Park, aiming for crass and offensive. Thankfully, most of this identity crisis is dealt with by the time episode five rolls around, and from there the series does its best to find a balance between those two comedic stylings. Some of the jokes, such as the Transformers parody, are meant for a specific crowd, and those who are not as familiar with the material being parodied probably won't find it to be even half as funny as those who do.

The last two episodes are much more action-heavy than most, and while they are also very story-driven, they don't sacrifice the comedic value. It's a fitting string of events to end on as the series reaches its climax; that is, until the very end of the final episode. I won't spoil what specifically happens, but I will say that Gainax attempts to throw a curveball in the last minute of the show that is neither logical nor amusing. If Panty & Stocking were a more serious anime that aimed to mess with viewers' heads in the vein of Evangelion, such a twist would have been acceptable. But what's really the most frustrating about it is the fact that there is little consistency throughout the entirety of the series that would point to such events happening, especially considering how well the characters involved know each other by the time the story comes to a close. It doesn't completely ruin the final episodes, but it does leave an ugly mark on an otherwise perfect stream of events. If Gainax has no plans to make a second season, it was a really low blow to the viewers. If they do have plans to continue the story, however, their first move should be fixing this error.

The animation style is unique for an anime, and though Gainax has been known to produce some very visually appealing visuals, as was the case with Gurren Lagann, Panty & Stocking's artistic direction is more along the lines of American animated series like Dexter's Laboratory or The Powerpuff Girls. There are, however, a handful of scenes drawn in a more current anime style, most notably when the angels or demons power up their weapons for battle. The defeat of each ghost is shown with an intentionally cheesy live-action prop explosion. The soundtrack is comprised of a number of original compositions by various artists, and maintains a club techno feel throughout which is not only very catchy but also incredibly befitting of the series.

Funimation has announced plans to release the series stateside in 2012, and they will have work cut out for them in dubbing Panty & Stocking. On many occasions, what makes Panty and Stocking's lines or even banter with Scanty and Kneesocks so humorous in the way in which the voice actors pronounce them. Key words are exaggerated (and in some cases become catchphrases for characters), while many English words stick out because of their lack of a Japanese equivalent. There is some Engrish here and there, but for the most part the pronunciations seem deliberate, as a way to set the series' characters apart from the crowd.

Though it has a bumpy start, Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt does well to identify itself as a blend of pop culture references and dirty humor in the end. It's not as brilliantly scripted as some of Gainax's other works, though this is one of the few straightforward comedy series they've done. So with that in mind, the fact that this series realizes and embraces its offensive humor puts it above others in the same subgenre. At thirteen episodes, the series feels neither too long nor too short. It has its shortcomings, but the cast is really what makes Panty & Stocking so enjoyable. And if Gainax plans to make a second season, it will probably flow much more smoothly and consistently, as they can hopefully gather from the first season which elements work and which ones don't.

My rating: 7.25 (out of 10)
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