Friday, September 28, 2012

Anime review: Fullmetal Alchemist: The Sacred Star of Milos

A side-story to the Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood storyline, Fullmetal Alchemist: The Sacred Star of Milos follows Ed and Alphonse Elric as they investigate an escaped prisoner by the name of Melvin Voyager. As they search his cell in Central, the Elric brothers discover he had cut out an article from the newspaper regarding one Julia Crichton. Years ago, Julia’s parents – both very skilled alchemists - were murdered. Witnessing firsthand the alchemic prowess Voyager wields, Ed and Al pursue him toward Table City, an Amestrian fortification right on the border of the nation of Creta. As they near the city, the Elric brothers discover that a wolf chimera has snuck aboard the train, and the two engage him in combat. Meanwhile, a small organized force known as the Black Bats descend upon the train, and the ensuing chaos tears up the tracks leading to Table City. While Ed and Al manage to come away unscathed, they are separated with Ed in the city and Alphonse taken prisoner by Julia and the Black Bats at the bottom of the valley that separates Amestris and Creta.

Edward briefly makes contact with the chain of command in Table City, then proceeds to seek out his brother in the valley below. What he finds is a slum filled with Milosians – an entire nation of people who long ago became caught in the turmoil between Amestris and Creta and were in turn left to rot in what is essentially a giant landfill. Despite the negative feelings some of the Milosians harbor toward Ed due to his role as an Amestrian state alchemist, he feels sorry for their situation and asks for help in locating his brother. At the same time, Alphonse is conversing with Julia who explains how she came to live in this place when Melvin Voyager reveals himself to be Julia’s long-lost brother Ashley. After some debate, Ashley is convinced to aid Julia and the Black Bats in their search for the Sacred Star (the Milosian name for a Philosopher’s Stone), as they believe one exists somewhere within Table City.

Instead of retaining the same animation style used in Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, Sacred Star of Milos combines this style with a more free-sketch animation not unlike that which has been used in some of the Studio Ghibli films. Characters don’t look drastically different, but their definitions are altered slightly from the series. Also, action sequences tend to be more over-the-top with dynamic (and sometimes ridiculous) physics-bending and sudden pans in the camera angle. The budget for the film show through, as the entire hour and fifty minute experience looks a noticeable step up from the show’s animation quality.

While Ed and Al are still the main characters through which the story in Sacred Star of Milos is conveyed, the film does assume viewers are at least somewhat familiar with the storyline of Brotherhood. There is no mention of the Homunculus, and the only other major characters from the series that make an appearance are Winry, Mustang, and Hawkeye. The film briefly glosses over the fateful night when Ed and Al attempted to bring their mother back to life, and there is mention of the Gate of Truth. Beyond that, the film does little to bring newcomers up to speed, which is just as well, as the film’s events don’t leave a significant impact on the Fullmetal Alchemist story at large.

Julia and Ashley take center stage, and their development as characters is executed well enough. The Milosian people prove an interesting bunch, though their plan to reclaim the “holy land” is a bit obvious of a parallel with real-world conflict in the Middle East. Winry, Mustang, and Hawkeye play only small parts, while the Amestrian soldiers stationed in Table City are rather bland and one-dimensional, assuming they are granted any lines of dialogue at all.

The story sees a number of plot twists during the second half that keeps the story entertaining and suspenseful. Most of the moments where Ed and Al are questioning the roles of both Amestris and Creta in the unfortunate state of the Milosians are skimmed through in favor of providing more action sequences, and this is especially unfortunate in the case of one particular scene where the brothers trace a series of clues back to the area’s ancient past. The film’s tone is notably dark – on par with the final few episodes of the 2004 anime, as Ed and Al find the alchemy spoken of in Table City and revered by the Black Bats to be nearly as taboo as their own attempt at human transmutation. The ending brings out a convincing human element in some of the main cast, though the film’s major villains all fit the stereotypical “evil mastermind” role. Sacred Star of Milos is a fun film, and the fact that it does not hold too strong of ties to the series makes it easy to jump into. But the storytelling is nowhere near as strong as in either the 2004 series or Brotherhood.

My rating: 7.75 (out of 10)

Sunday, September 23, 2012

DS review: The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks

Set one hundred years after the events of Phantom Hourglass, The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks places a new Link and a new Princess Zelda in a new Hyrule, which has been founded somewhere beyond the Great Sea of Wind Waker. The country is large and prosperous, but harbors a dark secret - long ago, the demon king was sealed away by the Lokmos people. They used the Spirit Tracks as a series of locks, but the railways have since aged and faded. Not long after Link passes his train conductor's test, he goes to receive a formal title from Princess Zelda. But things go awry when Chancellor Cole reveals himself to be an agent of the demon king, and splits Zelda's soul from her body. Determined to stop Cole and his accomplice Byrne from using Zelda's body as a medium to revive the demon king, the ghostly soul of Zelda accompanies Link as they travel to the now-fragmented Tower of Spirits in order to seek guidance from the ancient Lokmos people.

Despite Link relying on a the relatively modern comforts of a train from travel around Hyrule's various regions, the game still feels very much the part of a Zelda title. There is a small element of freedom presented in travelling from one location to another, as different routes allow access to new areas on the overworld map or the chance to gamble fighting against enemies for better loot. The game relies on the stylus for nearly everything, from mapping a route for the train to simply making Link run about and slash enemies with his sword. Though not as important as past instruments like the Ocarina of Time or the Wind Waker, the Spirit Flute is required at a few key junctures and asks players to blow into the DS microphone.

The Hyrule of Spirit Tracks is divided into four distinct regions and one sub-region, each with a different elemental environment - forest, snow, ocean, fire, and sand respectively. As he visits each, Link will have to participate in at least one or two small quests prior to accessing the regional dungeon. While the first few quests are brief, they become longer as the game progresses. The dungeons, on the other hand, are all around the same size, though each requires a distinctly different approach. The first two require a more direct approach and are heavy on combat elements, whereas the Sand Temple requires Link to use a wand that manipulates the sand on the floor to raise him up to higher platforms or even roll pillars out of his path. The game does well to keep each new item interesting and practical.

The Sand Temple aside, the dungeons in Spirit Tracks feel severly lacking in inspiration. There are very few standout puzzles, and for the most part they simply feel boring to explore. Avoiding Wallmasters as you collect the boss key adds an extra bit of challenge. More time will be spent inside the Tower of Spirits, as each completed dungeon re-connects another portion of the fragmented tower. Link will have to climb higher and higher each time to collect a new tablet that will in turn unlock another region on the overworld map. In order to solve some of the tower's puzzles, Link will have to sneak up on Phantom knights and stun them in order to allow Princess Zelda's ghost to assume control of these suits of armor. This makes the experience dynamic and adding a bit more challenge as you manage two simultaneous approaches. Returning to the Tower of Spirits on such a regular basis proves a bit annoying after a while, but at the same time the puzzles therein are both more challenging and more carefully thought-out than what the dungeons provide.

The boss fights are among some of the best in any of the handheld Zelda releases. Gone is the "rule of three" approach for attacking, as some fights can last four or five rounds of slashing at a boss. Most boss fights require use of whichever item has recently been acquired within their respective dungeon, with some of the later encounters requiring used of multiple items in tandem with one another. Each boss design is wonderfully realized, carrying an imposing visage while also maintaining the cel-shaded graphical style of the Wind Waker trilogy.

The story of Spirit Tracks is both a return to the familiar as well as a welcome divergence from series traditions. The story at large follows a tried-and-true formula of a desperate race against time as Link tries his best to stop the demon king's resurrection. But the emtional range expressed by characters like Anjean and Byrne, as well as the backstory that unfolds regarding these characters, is fresh and welcome. Meanwhile, this incarnation of Princess Zelda proves one of the most energetic and entertaining in the series' history, as she begins her journey demanding that Link rescue her body but eventually building up bravery to fight alongside him, thus garnering a close friendship - something that is not so explicitly confirmed in other Legend of Zelda games.

The soundtrack is largely upbeat, though an atmosphere of mystery and fantastical adventure accompanies the tracks that play within the Tower of Spirits and the other dungeons. The cel-shaded graphics translate incredibly well to the DS, retaining the essence of both Wind Waker and Phantom Hourglass. Some textures are grainy and pixelated, however, which is likely due to the fact that Nintendo has crammed such a fully-realized overworld realm into a single cartridge. Still, it's a little rough on the eyes at times.

The main game aside, Spirit Tracks has only a handful of sidequests to offer. Link can track down wild rabbits and catch them for one of the game's more quirky individuals, or he can collect treasure items within dungeons to trade with a descendant of Phantom Hourglass' Captain Linebeck to upgrade the cars on his train. Compared to something as bold an undertaking as the Oracle games for the Gameboy Color, Spirit Tracks is much more straightforward. Though the handheld Zelda games are rarely as highly regarded as the series' console releases, Spirit Tracks is a decent entry. It may be lacking certain creativities from a design perspective, but it dares to take the character development someplace new.

My rating: 8.25 (out of 10)

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Top 5 worlds in Super Mario 64

I've played many Mario Bros. games over the years. One of the biggest releases for the 3DS, Super Mario 3D Land, ended up being one of my favorites in the entire series. But I still have a soft spot for Super Mario 64. Ever since I played it on my N64, I have regarded it as not only one of the best platforming games I've ever played, but also the single best Mario game to date. The game is host to a number of very different levels, each of which is beautifully inspired, rich, and colorful. Below is a list of my five very favorites - they are not listed in any particular order, but I do consider them superior to the rest (note: secret stages and Bowser roads are ineligible - I'm only taking full-fledged worlds into consideration).

Bob-omb Battlefield: Nintendo did a phenomenal job in preparing players for everything that lie ahead by first dropping them into this large open field. It isn't exactly teeming with enemies or environmental hazards, but jumping on goombas and avoiding the giant rolling balls allows players to familiarize themselves with the controls and game mechanics. Acquiring each star on this course requires a different approach, from racing up the mountain to collecting all the red coins to launching yourself out of a cannon - all in the interest of preparation.

Lethal Lava Land: This fire level is also heavy on puzzle elements, requiring players to collect red coins above a constantly shifting puzzle floor and maintain balance as they roll giant columns. And while the surface offers all this and a few mini-boss encounters, the inside of the volcano is far more expansive than the exterior would indicate. It's like an extra level attached to Lethal Lava Land just waiting to be scaled.

Big Boo's Haunt: Creepy gothic horror in an otherwise happy atmosphere, Big Boo's Haunt is a huge deviation from the other levels. The classic haunted mansion holds a number of puzzles within, and the stronger enemies that inhabit it somewhat discourage a direct approach. While most of the rooms branching off the main foyer are rather small, there is a lot packed into each one.

Wet Dry World: One of the larger levels in the game, Wet Dry World is divided into two major sections. The first area is what you see everytime you enter - a set of switches that gradually raise the water level to allow you access to the higher brick walls and floating plaforms in the sky. But off to the side is a chain-link fence that begs to be explored. One you've managed to get over it, you find there is a sunken city. Visiting this extra area is really only necessary for collecting one of the stars, but its design is so vastly different that the rest of Wet Dry World, and yet somehow so similar.

Hazy Maze Cave: Among the largest levels in Super Mario 64 is Hazy Maze Cave, a series of trials that will test your ability to adapt to the situation at hand. Some stars are easy enough to collect, requiring simple feats like a few wall jumps. Others require a bit more time and effort, like reaching Dorrie the sea monster or finding your way through a maze of toxic gas. Few of Hazy Maze Cave's missions present you with as substantial a challenge as those found in either Tick Tock Clock or Rainbow Ride, but do require some time and patience when compared to earlier levels in the game.

XBLA review: Jet Set Radio

Originally released for SEGA's Dreamcast back in 2000, Jet Set Radio bids adieu to the conventions of extreme sports games and places emphasis on tagging specific areas with graffiti. The game was a pioneer in its day for being one of the first major retail releases to use cel-shaded graphics, and gained a cult following due to its sense of style and gameplay. Now Jet Set Radio is back via digital distribution, and feels like a breath of fresh air to the Xbox Live Marketplace.

Jet Set Radio follows three teens, all members of the GG gang, in the fictional city of Tokyo-to as they mark their territory with graffiti and subsequently defend it from rival gangs and the police. When the GGs find a piece of a broken record dropped by one of their rival gangs, they find it is tied to a group known as the Golden Rhinos. As rogue DJ Professor K broadcasts across Tokyo-to's airwaves, the GGs recruit new members and dig deeper into the intentions of the Golden Rhinos.

Graphically, the game has aged much better than other games of the era, thanks in no small part to the aforementioned cel-shading. The lifelike motions of character models add a dash of attitude to the experience, and as a whole the HD re-release is one of the best looking of its kind. SEGA has done a wonderful and careful job of retaining the essence of Jet Set Radio, having brought back all but one of the classic tunes, which range from technopop to hip-hop to metal. Jet Set Radio is wildly experimental in its presentation, and this shows as much in the visuals and audio as it does in the actual gameplay.

Beneath the stylized appeal lie some dated game designs. Before you are allowed to acquire one of more than nine playable main characters, you must compete with them by either imitating the series of tricks they pull off or racing them to an objective. The latter often force you to play as the obvious underdog and find out which route you need to take via trial and error. Though brief, these challenges must be completed in order to progress through the story.

Compared to something like Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, Jet Set Radio runs at a slower pace, and tricks feel both less fluid and less exciting to pull off. However, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater is a game that is entirely concerned with chaining combos and pulling off tricks, whereas Jet Set Radio ranks these secondary to graffiti, mainly as a means to gain momentum. Most of Jet Set Radio's tricks rely on grinding, and this handles well enough, though the accuracy of a character landing on a rail can be finicky at times.

The main storyline is relatively short, lasting only a few hours. However, Jet Set Radio offers a substantial amount of replayability. Races, free skate, and free tag modes can be unlocked for each region of Tokyo-to. New graffiti designs can be collected, or you can design your own for use in-game. Xbox Live leaderboards allow you to keep track of friends' scores or the full Xbox Live community. Should you find you just can't get enough of the game's eclectic soundtrack, all of the tunes can be accessed from the garage. A documentary on the game's development and HD re-release is new to this version of the game, as are a handful of unlockable songs from sequel Jet Set Radio Future.

Jet Set Radio offers up a wide variety of characters to play as, each with his or her own strengths and weaknesses. Though there are really only four major areas to skate around in, they are divided up nicely to provide a decent amount of room to skate and tag in for each new mission. A few elements of the game's design highlight its imperfections, though this is mostly due to the fact that Jet Set Radio is more than a decade old. If you're looking for something fun, bold, and different, Jet Set Radio is all sorts of immersive style.

My rating: 7.5 (out of 10)

Sunday, September 16, 2012

DS review: Sonic Classic Collection

The Sonic Classic Collection combines the four main Genesis-era Sonic titles - Sonic the Hedgehog, Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Sonic the Hedgehog 3, and Sonic and Knuckles - onto one convenient cartridge for play on the go. All of the games are accessible from the outset, and despite the smaller screen size, still look decent. A new addition not found on the original Genesis releases of all the games is the ability to save the game to multiple files. The soundtrack comes through the DS speakers decent enough, and the controls are pretty solid in tandem with the aforementioned smaller screen size.

Recent handheld Sonic entries, such as Sonic Rush, have utilized both screens to fit more of each stage into a player's field of vision. Unfortunately, the Sonic Classic Collection does not use the bottom screen for any purpose. It's a tricky situation - on the one hand, they could have faced backlash from purist fans, but on the other hand, the view of each level is crunched into a relatively small space.

There really isn't much else to speak of with this collection. Some artwork of early 1990s Sonic and friends can be accessed from the main menu, but there is no work involved in unlocking it. The ability to play as Knuckles in both Sonic 2 and 3 is a nice addition, though. Simply put, the Sonic Classic Collection is a decent grouping of the four old school titles. There isn't anything truly outstanding about it, and it's much easier to appreciate the full experience that comes from playing the individual games on the Genesis, Wii Virtual Console, Xbox Live Arcade, or any of the other stand-alone releases the games have seen over the years.

My rating: 6.75 (out of 10)

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Anime review: Serial Experiments Lain

As with many of the anime that emerged in the mid to late 1990s, Serial Experiments Lain combines elements of grunge and industrial culture with experimental sci-fi subject matter. An existentialist work, the anime focuses on high school student Lain and her interactions with people in both the real world and a variation on the World Wide Web known as the Wired. The story opens up with Lain's friends informing her that one of their classmates committed suicide. When Lain gets home from school that day, she finds an email on her Navi computer from said classmate. As time passes, Lain finds herself confused and paranoid as strange men appear to be observing her from outside of her house and people claim to have seen Lain at a club when she is certain that she was home at the time. Determined to find out what exactly is going on around her, Lain convinces her father to buy her a new, top of the line Navi, which she then proceeds to hack, upgrade, and modify in the hopes of drawing some conclusions through the community within the Wired.

Serial Experiments Lain is an incredibly complex and multi-layered show, despite the fact that every episode remains centered around Lain. The early episodes continue to pile on questions, and the big, important answers don't begin to surface until past the halfway mark. The animation is phenomenal for a 1998 release, combining traditional hand-drawn backgrounds with digitally-colored character models. On a few occasions, the visuals change entirely to slowly-fading still shots (almost like a slideshow), and a few live-action scenes where real people and locations in Tokyo are layered over with a colorful, grainy filter. Much of the music leans more toward eerie ambience than actual instrumental composition, but when the guitar riffs begin humming along and the techno rhythms blare, they are in keeping with the grunge and industrial thematic. Similar to Neon Genesis Evangelion, Serial Experiments Lain conveys a significant amount of information as perceived by Lain, which brings into question just what is reality and what is fiction.

Lain does interact with a number of characters over the course of the series, nearly all of them within close proximity to her. The most fleshed out and important individuals include her best friend and model student Arisu, Lain's odd family, the aforementioned men who seem to be keeping tabs on her, and scientist Masami Eiri, whose intimate familiarity with the Wired does not come into play until late in the series but proves a major turning point in the plot nonetheless. Lain herself behaves differently when presented with different scenarios, and the Lain of the real world is very quiet and reserved in contrast to the confident, determined, and sometimes impatient Lain of the Wired. As Lain eventually comes to recognize these two personalities as separate, she is simultaneously faced with the possibility of there being even more Lains within the recesses of her psyche.

As with many sci-fi anime of the day, Serial Experiments Lain begs the question of where man ends and machine begins, though not in the sense that machines might be capable of the same things man is. Rather, the prospect of the Wired taking on an identity as a world parallel to reality is presented very early on. Lain uses her heavily modified Navi to scour the Wired for information on the cult group known as Knights, an experiment called Kids that was meant to unlock a greater potential of the human mind but resulted in tragedy, and articles pertaining to the death of Masami Eiri. The more time that Lain spends exploring the Wired, the less aware she seems to be of how much time is passing in the real world. Another key topic brought into play is that of how humans perceive a God-like figure and how this newfound medium of information exchange could alter such perceptions or even bring them to realization.

There are so many bold and groundbreaking anime series that emerged in the mid to late 1990s, Serial Experiments Lain being among them. It's a crazy mind trip from start to finish, though the finale episode admittedly leaves something to be desired. While the story is clearly set in an alternate version of a 1998 Earth, the Wired is both a believable and curiously entertaining parallel to the World Wide Web, with its focus being almost entirely on the exchange of information. There are rare instances where the show tries to draw parallels that are simply too far-fetched and irrelevant to what is going on in a given episode, such as an attempt to draw some very loose metaphors from the Roswell alien conspiracy. But as a whole, the show does a magnificent job of presenting a new spin on the sci-fi and existentialist genres by combining the two. It's difficult to mention everything the series is about without spoiling important plot points, and patience is key for a fulfilling viewing experience. Serial Experiments Lain is equal parts eerie, strange, and creative, but it is thoroughly thought-provoking, something that is frequently lacking from its contemporaries.

My rating: 9 (out of 10)

Friday, September 14, 2012

Wii U price and release date

Yesterday, the price point and release date for the Wii U were finalized. There will be two models debuting on November 18th - the white 8GB system will retail for $299.99, while the black 32GB mocel will retail for $349.99 and will also include a copy of Nintendo Land along with a few different controller stands and cradles. Nintendo has stated that all of the Virtual Console games from the Wii will be transferrable to the Wii U. Also, a new feature highlighted during the big announcement was that of Nintendo TVii, which is a free service that allows users to watch their favorite shows and movies through a variety of services including Hulu, Netflix, Tivo, and On-Demand streams such as ABC.com. Below is a reel of all the major releases that have been announced thus far, and most of these games will be released within the launch window period (between November 2012 to March of 2013).

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

DLC review: Fallout: New Vegas - Dead Money

After your Pip-Boy picks up a new radio signal, you are granted access to an abandoned bunker formerly used by the Brotherhood of Steel. Moments after entering, gas fills the bunker and you pass out only to awaken in the courtyard of the Sierra Madre, a first-class casino that never got a chance to see its glory days thanks to the nuclear war. You are instructed by Father Elijah to seek out three others who will participate in a heist with you, and he informs you that - thanks to the explosive collar around your neck - you have no choice but to cooperate. The first stretch of your mission has you rounding up your partners-in-crime - a split-personality super mutant named Dog, a mute human named Christine, and a former musical star Ghoul named Dean Domino. While Father Elijah comes across as a demanding prick, these three prove a colorful cast amidst the hopeless backdrop of the Sierra Madre.

From the moment you set foot inside the Sierra Madre Villa, you are denied use of anything and everything you might have gathered during your adventures in the Mojave. Your weapons, apparel, aid, and bottle caps have all been taken by Father Elijah. While the Sierra Madre Villa is a decent size, there isn't much of anything to explore. There is a hologram merchant who can sell you a few useful items, but you'll have to sell other things that you find in the area, since you have no caps on you. Certain areas are blocked off by toxic gas, though Dean Domino grants you a perk that allows you to walk through it unharmed. Far more frustrating are the numerous traps inside of seemingly every building and the speakers that set your collar on a timed countdown. Some speakers are easy to spot and can be destroyed, saving your life. Others cannot be destroyed at all and you must find a nearby computer terminal in order to shut off the speakers and save your brain from being splattered all over the walls. The DLC does not bother to differentiate between the two types of speakers, and thus it is up to you, the player, to be extra cautious anytime your collar begins to beep.

Dead Money introduces two new types of enemies, the first ones you encounter being the various rankings of Ghost People that inhabit the Sierra Madre Villa outside of the actual casino. The Ghost People place an interesting spin on traditional combat, as they are capable of jumping incredible distances as they dodge your attacks. They bear a creepy visage by wearing gas masks and hoods, and they will only fall unconscious when their health bar reaches zero. If you do not follow this up by hacking their limbs off, the Ghost People will rise back up and continue fighting. However, combat as a whole proves rather frustrating, as only a very small number of stimpacks can be found in the Sierra Madre. Access to food is also restricted, as the vast majority of it is accessible only through vending machines that require you to collect Sierra Madre chips. And as most of these chips are found in areas crawling with Ghost People, the result is zero-sum as you've fought long and hard to spend your chips and end up using all of your food to heal the wounds that you earned fighting to get those chips in the first place. To top things off, once you've completed the first leg of your trials in the Sierra Madre Villa, the game sends a horde of Ghost People to throw spears and gas bombs at you while your struggle to make your way back to the central fountain so that you can continue on to the casino portion. Hologram patrols await within, and they can strike you down with a just a few ranged hits. Combat is incredibly unforgiving, even if you are playing with a fully leveled-up character, and this entire approach seems poorly planned.

The casino portion is relatively short - less than an hour if you have decent stats in lock picking. You will interact with your three partners briefly, in scenarios that test your abilities to sneak and play defensively. As you explore the upper floors of the Sierra Madre and the vault beneath, the loudspeakers come back into play, though it is (once again) frequently unclear if the speakers in the immediate area can actually be destroyed or if you simply need to high-tail it to a nearby safe zone (usually a secluded corner or hallway between rooms). What should be a relatively short distance to travel ends up taking the most time out of anything in the casino, and frequent saves are recommended.

In the end, you don't earn as much in the way of special items or equipment as you do in the other Fallout: New Vegas DLC packs. Those weapons that are exclusive to the Sierra Madre prove mediocre when compared to the high end of what the Mojave can offer. The presentation of the Sierra Madre incorporates an atmosphere along the lines of action-horror, which is an interesting and welcome spin on the adventure-RPG formula already established. In many ways, Dead Money feels like more work than it's worth, and can be thoroughly frustrating in large chunks. It is not uncommon for the early DLC packs for a game to feel weaker than those that follow, but it seems counter-intuitive for Bethesda to have released the most challenging one first.

My rating: 6 (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, September 9, 2012

Anime review: Durarara!!

Mikado Ryugamine recently moved to Ikebukuro to attend school with his longtime friend Masaomi Kida. The two kept in contact with one another via a chat room during the years they were apart, and now that Mikado is living in the big city, Masaomi lets his fun-loving side off the chain as he gives his friend a prime tour of the area. He points out all the different people in Ikebukuro that Mikado should consider either befriending or staying as far away from as possible. When a girl named Anri Sonohara catches Mikado's eye, the two boys sport a friendly rivalry over her. Much of what is covered in the first episode seems relatively normal; akin to slice-of-life anime. But it quickly becomes apparent that there are greater forces at work in Ikebukuro - some human in origin, others not.

There are two major story arcs in Durarara!! and one minor one that comes into play during the last few episodes as a means to wrap everything up. The first arc is primarily centered around Celty, the headless rider, as she is viewed by nearly everyone in Ikebukuro as a sort of urban legend. Many have seen her for a brief moment as she speeds by on her motorcycle, but only a select few like Shizuo Heiwajima and her love interest Shinra know anything about her. While Celty is concerned first and foremost with recovering her lost head, her actions indirectly influence those around her. This formula allows the main trio of Mikado, Masaomi, and Anri to round out effectively, and also introduce the supporting cast including Russian sushi chef Simon, former Blue Squares gang members Kadota, Walker, Erika, and Saburo, as well as the complicated relationship shared between Mikado's classmate Seiji and Mika, a girl who is obsessed with him.

Whereas the first story arc sprinkles the fantasy elements throughout, it primarily presents a fictional look at life in Ikebukuro, with a gradual shift from the everyday school and work routine to the influx of gang activity. The second arc explores said gang activity more in-depth, and things eventually come to a head between the Dollars, the Yellow Scarves, and a third group tied to an elusive slasher. There is a much heavier emphasis on dark fantasy elements, and Celty becomes less of a plot device and more of a fully realized character as she wrestles with letting go of her past to lead a relatively normal, human life with Shinra. The pacing slows down, but for the benefit of storytelling. The pool of characters shrinks a bit, with most of the supporting cast taking a backseat to Mikado, Masaomi, Anri, and Celty.

Throughout the entire series, Izaya, an information broker, is shown playing a hodge-podge board game that combines Shogi, Checkers, and Chess onto a single board. Izaya never plays against anyone but himself, and the pieces are clearly meant to represent the major players and gangs in Ikebukuro. Izaya prides himself on his ability to manipulate people and relishes in the results of their interactions. Early on, it is implied that he is at the center of everything, but just what he hopes to accomplish is never fully explained. Near the halfway point of the series, the story seems to direct the focus toward one valuable interest, but as this point is reconciled shortly thereafter just what exactly Izaya gained from the whole scenario is not so much as even hinted at. Thankfully, the other characters see impressive development and stories that come full circle. While some are written out long before the final episode, there is a sense of satisfaction that comes with the closing of each of these individual subplots.

Durarara!! has some solid animation throughout. Environments tend to be heavily shaded, while character models are bright and colorful. Crowds in the background are usually rendered as grey silhouettes with black outlines, unless a large gathering is important to a scene. While this might seem a bit lazy on the part of the animators, it keeps the focus on the main events at hand. As a whole, the animation presents a nice balance of realistic and stylized views of Ikebukuro. The soundtrack is nicely varied, with some loud and jazzy tunes accompanying Shizuo's fights and quiet themes of suspense building the atmosphere of uncertainty about Izaya. A few of the songs are used a tad too frequently, and it would have been nice to hear some variations of songs like the slasher's theme.

Durarara!! does well to balance a number of different genres and as a result carries a unique air about it. There are so many characters at play, but each has their own important place in the big picture, and for the most part they are all quite likeable. Though the story is paced well and most plot points are resolved before the finale, there are a couple of major points left ambiguous, and it feels like the creative staff could have made one more episode to clear those off the record. Still, Durarara!! is a nice blend of real world issues and fantasy elements, and never loses its identity as a fun-filled series.

My rating: 8.25 (out of 10)

Friday, September 7, 2012

DLC review: Fallout: New Vegas - Lonesome Road

In Fallout: New Vegas, you were made aware of the fact that you were not the only courier in the Mojave - just the one carrying the all-important Platinum Chip. In the Lonesome Road DLC, you finally come face-to-face with another courier, though not in the manner you might expect. Beyond a pile of rubble in the Mojave lies passage to the Lonesome Road - a path that weaves into a long-abandoned area known as the Divide. Along the way, the protagonist courier will discover ruins of a city and the few Marked Men of the Legion sent to scour it. Walking among the ghosts of the Divide, the courier will rediscover his past and make one very important decision regarding the future.

The Lonesome Road lives up to its name from the moment you begin walking along it. Though you will have encounters with enemies like the Marked Men, wild Tunnelers and Deathclaws, the journey is entirely concerned with you and your fellow courier. You are not allowed to bring any companion characters along, as per Fallout DLC tradition, but you will meet up with another ED-E robot with his own small tale to tell. You can collect optional upgrades for him, making him a relatively useful ally in combat.

Unlike previous New Vegas DLC, keeping an eye on your radiation level is a key component to Lonesome Road. Not only is there a good chance that you might wander into areas with significant amounts of radiation, but your Pip-Boy's radiation detecting abilities will help you to locate small nuclear warheads that block your path. A laser detonator, which is given to you early in your trek across the Divide, allows you to blow up these warheads from a safe distance. You will encounter the vast majority of these warheads in order, due to the overall linear nature of this DLC. But there are a handful that lie off the main path and can grant access to areas teeming with vicious Tunnelers or stacked with medical supplies and ammunition.

As mentioned before, the one person in your company from start to finish is Ulysses, your fellow courier, who regularly converses with you through the ED-E robot. Ulysses' cryptic messages gradually reveal that you once visited the Divide, and that he has found something of great worth buried in the wreckage. Though most of the answers to what Ulysses is posing you with are not reconciled until the last half hour of the experience, the element of mystery is what makes the story so intriguing. Ulysses is by far one of the most entertaining, complex, and human characters in the world of New Vegas. The dusty atmosphere and solid storytelling realized within the confines of this desolate realm mesh surprisingly well with the linear direction of the Lonesome Road, and in the end makes for the strongest add-on to Fallout: New Vegas.

My rating: 8.75 (out of 10)*

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

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Anime review: Deadman Wonderland

His class slaughtered at the hands of a mysterious figure known as the Redman, Ganta Igarashi finds himself in front of a court, answering for a crime he did not commit. Despite his insistence that incriminating video evidence has been altered to frame him, Ganta is sentenced to serve time inside Deadman Wonderland, an experimental prison facility that provides both maximum security for its inmates and a source of revenue from visitors who only ever see the amusement park exterior. A stranger in a strange land, Ganta transitions from innocent student to battered and beaten newcomer at the bottom of the food chain before he unlocks his full potential as a Deadman and makes a name for himself as something of a hero to the other prisoners who wish to escape.

From the outset, Deadman Wonderland feels strikingly original. The combination of creepy amusement park and industrial cell blocks is handled surprisingly well. There are a number of crazies that Ganta encounters, with arguably the most important being the one he sees the least of - Tamaki, the apparent ringleader of Deadman Wonderland, who decorates the facility with giant stuffed animals and provides the inmates with candy that will extend their lives, provided they put on a good performance for patrons.

The first episode does what any good dark mystery should - presents a tense atmosphere of intrigue. We are introduced to Ganta and his plight, but for the most part the introductory episode poses the big picture questions, like who is the Redman and why is Ganta tied up in all of this? The second episode does a little bit to show off just how Deadman Wonderland operates, but in the most gruesome and unnecessarily bloody manner possible. As a whole, the show is bloody and violent. But more often than not, when characters die, there is a reason behind it. The gauntlet run presented in the second episode is neither here nor there, as the staggering body count does little more than to make Ganta more scared than he already was. Beyond that, the next couple of episodes take their time to adjust and redefine what the series is all about, but for the remaining episodes, the tone of Deadman Wonderland remains quite consistent.

Earning almost as much time in the spotlight as Ganta is his longtime friend Shiro, a quirky girl with seemingly uncanny luck when it comes to surviving the horrors of Deadman Wonderland. Shiro brings a much needed sense of hope and humor to the table, and while she is not always the brightest, she makes a fun parallel to Ganta's increasingly serious nature. Beyond that, there are only a handful of side characters of any real importance. Crow is another Deadman who Ganta goes toe-to-toe with in battle and ultimately befriends. While he does not appear as frequently as some of the other characters, Crow acts as an older brother/mentor to Ganta late in the series. Two other Deadmen, Nagi and Karako, enlist Ganta's aid in hopes of leading a mass exodus from the prison facility.

Not all of the side characters are as well developed, though. Mockingbird is a Deadman whose name precedes him, as seemingly everyone has heard of him but only a few know any concrete details about him. He is not introduced until after the halfway point, and while the air of mystery about him is perpetuated, it is entirely setup for a second season. Makina is in charge of security, and is one of the first people to introduce Ganta to the hardships of Deadman Wonderland. Her distrust in Tamaki leads her to dig into the prison's history but what she digs up is left ambiguous. As a countermeasure to the Deadmen's rebellion, Tamaki hires an undertaker monk named Azuma Genkaku, who is by far the most shallow character in the show. There is practically zero substance to him other than the fact that he thoroughly enjoys killing. The final episode attempts to explore his childhood and round him out some, but the scene is so out of place and unnecessary that it significantly distracts the flow of the finale.

Throughout, the series attempts to explore a host of characters and their individual subplots to shed light on how they are tied to Deadman Wonderland. One such is the relationship between Shiro and Deadman Wonderland's founder; another is Ganta's childhood. These present new and interesting information, and have so much potential to improve the larger story. Unfortunately, most of these subplots only go so far, yet the writers continue to open more doors. Many aspects of the series end up feeling only half-completed as a result.

Though Deadman Wonderland does kill off a number of extremely underdeveloped characters, the ones that stay alive are quite an enjoyable crew of misfits and rebels. The tragic circumstances that land Ganta inside of the prison draw out a very human tale, and his determination helps fuel both the action and the drama. As a whole, though, Deadman Wonderland is good from a conceptual stage - there is a sufficient amount of style and substance presented, but the writers seem at a loss as to what to do with it all.

My rating: 7.5 (out of 10)

Monday, September 3, 2012

"We've managed to avoid drowning!" - 25 Years of Metal Gear

Though Solid Snake officially debuted back in 1987 with the original Metal Gear game, his popularity did not gain major momentum until the release of Metal Gear Solid, which hit the Playstation in 1998. Since then, Solid Snake has become one of the most recognizable faces in gaming history. The series has also earned itself significant praise for the ways it changed the experience of gaming. While I have not played every single game in the Metal Gear franchise, the games I have experienced have all proved thoroughly enjoyable.

My first experiences with Metal Gear came in the form of the Metal Gear Solid Essentials Collection, which was released shortly before Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots as a means for newcomers to familiarize themselves with the series, or for veterans to revisit Snake's previous adventures. I knew very little about Metal Gear at that point in time, and I figured a thirty dollar price tag wasn't too bad a deal for three games - if I ended up disliking them, it would be easy enough for me to turn around and sell them. Thankfully, that was not what happened.

Metal Gear Solid is not a graphically pretty game. Even for the time of its release, it has some rather grainy textures and Snake's character model wears a bandana that covers his eyes instead of having a proper face. But what it lacks there it makes up for in some truly groundbreaking game mechanics and storytelling elements. The use of cigarette smoke to detect lasers, Psycho Mantis reading your memory card, and the placement of a codec number on the back of the physical game case are inclusions that are honestly quite simple in concept, but make the game so much more immersive and fun. Hell, the simple fact that Snake has to sneak around enemies instead of fighting them head-on is a welcome departure from the all-too-familiar run and gun routine of so many other action games.

Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty added a few new features that would have been helpful in the first game, such as the ability to enter a first-person view. I don't mean to knock the PS1 classic, but from a design perspective, MGS2 handles much more smoothly. Sons of Liberty certainly retained the masterful storytelling element, though it was handled in a different manner. Snake took on the role of a side character, with Raiden stepping into the spotlight. Like many other fans, I found Raiden to be quite annoying at first - not as nauseatingly so as his support/girlfriend Rose, but he was still whiny and immature. But patience yielded great results, as the final few hours of Sons of Liberty delivered a phenomenal ending that answered as many questions as it asked.

As far as I am concerned, though, the best of the bunch has to be Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. I have experienced few video games so perfect in their design. Snake Eater took everything that worked in MGS2 and improved upon while simultaneously adding in a host of new elements, each of which proves just as polished and helpful during Naked Snake's trek through the jungles of Russia. Only a handful of games have genuinely moved me so emotionally, and I'll be damned if Snake Eater does not have one the most beautiful and bittersweet conclusions ever written into a game. All of the MGS games rely heavily on cutscenes to deliver their stories, and though MGS4's may be the most Hollywood high-budget, I still feel that MGS3 does the best job of all the games in the series in weaving a story that trumps many a film and novel.

Though not as perfect a game as Snake Eater, Peace Walker did a solid job of continuing the story of Naked Snake as he builds his own personal and becomes involved in the late days of the Cold War. Hot Coldman isn't a particularly memorable villain when compared to the likes of the Cobra Unit, but the boss fights against the Chrysalis, Pupa, and so on are both challenging and varied. Peace Walker is a little more action-heavy than other MGS games and it is also shorter than the main numbered entries, but I felt it did a good job of bridging the gap between the era of Naked Snake and that of Solid Snake.

The series has such a wonderful cast of characters, from Psycho Mantis to Solidus and Otacon to Ocelot - I could list them all, but I think it's just easier for me to say that there are only a few select characters that I don't like. And as much as I enjoy exploring Hyrule and Zebes, the world of Metal Gear is also one of the best visions ever realized in gaming. It's a perfect blend of practical realism and dystopian science fiction. Though the storyline of the main games may have come to a conclusion, the upcoming Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance and Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes indicates that there is still plenty of story to be told in the Metal Gear universe. I look forward to whatever new directions Hideo Kojima takes the series in, because even when a Metal Gear game hits its lowest point, it is still a whole tier above most other video games.

Some of my favorite boss fights from the series include:

- Psycho Mantis in Metal Gear Solid
- Harrier Jet in Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty
- Metal Gear RAY in Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty
- The Fury in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater
- The Shagohod in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater
- The Boss in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater
- Chrysalis in Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker

Some of my favorite songs from the various soundtracks include:

- The Best is Yet to Come from MGS
- Main Theme from MGS2
- Yell Dead Cell from MGS2
- Father and Son from MGS2
- Snake Eater from MGS3
- Debriefing from MGS3
- Old Snake from MGS4

Some of my favorite characters include:

- Solid Snake
- Grey Fox
- Otacon
- Solidus
- Naked Snake/Big Boss
- Young Ocelot
- The Boss

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes debut trailer

A trailer for the newly announced Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes has debuted, and it looks absolutely gorgeous. The game runs on Kojima's FOX Engine, and features Naked Snake (aka Big Boss) in a post-Peace Walker era. There is still a great deal of mystery surrounding the plot at present, but considering how masteful the storytelling is throughout the entire series, I have high hopes for whatever direction Kojima decides to take it in.

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