Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Top 5 Anime of 2013

#5 - IGPX: I’ve long been a huge fan of mecha, and as a result, I tend to be more highly critical of how these stories of giant robots pan out. I was pleasantly surpsied by IGPX, a show which I had missed out on during its original Toonami run, because of just how fresh a concept it was. The best description I can provide is that IGPX is much like F-Zero, but with robots and greater emphasis on the dynamic of the teammates and pit crew than the actual races. Which is not to say the combination of breakneck-speeds and exchanging of metal punches isn’t incredibly satisfying to watch unfold in a curiously graceful manner, but there is certainly something to be said for putting the spotlight on a crew of young pilots who have to learn to cooperate if they want to succeed.

#4 - Wolf Children: A heartwarming tale about a single mother attempting to provide her children with a secluded upbringing so that they can one day determine for themselves if they wish to live as humans or wolves, Wolf Children is the most emotionally human tale to be conveyed in the anime medium in a long while. The kids, Ame and Yuki, are simply adorable, and the movie is genuine in its timing of making viewers laugh, cheer, and tear up along with the characters. For a film that seems to want to sell itself largely on its fantasy elements, Wolf Children is, at its core, about family and the challenges a single mother faces in raising two young kids who just so happen to harness the ability to transform into wolves.

#3 - Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann: I appreciated Gurren Lagann for reasons similar to why I have come to love Gundam, Evangelion, and many other mecha works over the years, except that in the case of Gurren Lagann, it was because it made fun of all the staples that have defined giant robot action over the decades. Combining robots for no apparent reason other than it looks equal parts silly and cool? Check. Ridiculous monologues that don’t actually mean anything but somehow strike fear into the hearts of foes and instill courage and determination in the heroic main cast members? Check. Gunmen mechs that just keep getting larger to the point where galaxies become viable options for Frisbee-like weapons? Check. It’s a series that punches subtlety in the face, but it’s a heck of a lot of fun.

#2 - Steins;Gate: Too few works dealing with time travel and divergent realities steep themselves so deep in real-world scientific theory. The fact that Steins;Gate lays out its rules before it really gets running not only makes for a more intelligently-scripted show, but a more entertaining viewing experience as well. Knowing how the ripples across time and space can cause either subtle or drastic changes keeps you guessing until the very end, the diverse and very human characters are ones you care about and want to see succeed, despite how great the cost to some might be. Other time travel-related works, anime or otherwise, could learn a thing or two from Steins;Gate about how to balance the nerdy factual elements with humorous pop culture nods and self-referential humor.

#1 - Evangelion 3.0: You Can (Not) Redo: By the finale of Evangelion 2.0: You Can (Not) Advance, we had a pretty good idea that the story was headed into bold new territory. What I don’t think I was fully prepared for, however, was how dark and complex the narrative would become. The Rebuild of Evangelion films have done a phenomenal job thus far of consolidating one of the most deep and thought-provoking anime works of all time into hour-and-a-half/two-hour installments, but there is a lot at play in Evangelion 3.0, and the attention to detail as well as the sinister nature of some of the grander schemes in motion are on par with 1997’s End of Evangelion. It’s a perfect follow-up to the groundwork the previous two films laid out, and is an exciting marker as the beginning of the end of this masterful tetralogy of films.

Top 5 Video Games of 2013

#5 - Pokemon X and Y: The Pokemon franchise ventures forth into a bold new realm of full 3D character models, environments, and dynamic battle animations. At its core, this is the same Pokemon experience you’ve known for years, but the addition of a new Fairy type spices up the routine more than the highly-touted mega evolutions. The new Pokemon feel largely an extension of those introduced in Black and White, and that’s very much a good thing, as the typing combinations, movesets, and designs are wonderful. The post game is, unfortunately, almost nonexistent, and the fact that the game provides more than enough in the way of acquiring experience points means that X and Y will be easier than previous entries into Game Freak’s long-running series. Still, it’s a promising sign of things to come and prove a truly impressive feat for the hardware.

#4 - Metroid Fusion: Following hot on the heels of my playthrough of Super Metroid, Fusion was a game that, despite my high hopes for, I did not expect to come close to the quality of the SNES classic. I was pleasantly surprised to find that, while I still regarded Super Metroid as the best 2D entry in the series, that Fusion was a dang close runner-up, thanks in no small part to the extra push of the horror thematic and decent challenge factor. Fusion is certainly a more direct Metroid title, as story comes first and foremost and the exploration factor is downscaled from other entries in the series. But the experience is handled masterfully, and stands as one of the best Gameboy Advance titles I’ve had a chance to experience.

#3 - Mass Effect 2/Mass Effect 3: Building upon the foundation of the first Mass Effect, these two sequels run incredibly close in terms of quality due to the different approaches they take in executing both story and gameplay. Mass Effect 2’s emphasis on gunplay is generally less exciting or tactical than ME3’s more varied and highly specialized squad members, but ME2 does offer a longer, more open-ended adventure as Shepard and company are free to explore alien worlds and derelict vessels without the pressure of fighting back against the impending Reaper invasion of the Milky Way. At the end of the day, however, it is genuinely impressive to discover all the ways in which BioWare chose to tie the titles together, with cameos by allies past and echoes of Shepard’s many important decisions as a Spectre, an agent of Cerberus, and a soldier serving under the Alliance carrying through from beginning to end. It’s a genuinely emotional ride from start to finish, considering all the characters you will become invested in, and serves as one of the most important video game series of the seventh generation.

#2 - ZombiU: Sometime during the years that followed the success of Resident Evil 4, the definition of what ‘survival horror’ meant was lost to the oncoming march of the more highly-marketable, easier to replicate action-horror genre. ZombiU is survival horror in every sense of the word, and is both a phenomenal throwback to games of days gone by when resource management drew a fine line between in-game life or death, and a bold launch title for a whole new generation of consoles. It dares to be intense, terrifying, and just unforgiving enough, carrying a Metroid-tier difficulty to it. Every tiny detail, from dust particles gathering on your gamepad’s screen to the litter lining the London streets, as well as the bevy of unique environment assets, make this a must-play title for any fan of the genre, as it renews faith that survival horror can be done in a most phenomenal manner, under the right development team.

#1 - Killer is Dead: Possibly the single smoothest-playing action game I’ve ever had the pleasure of indulging in, Killer is Dead is a near total inversion of the pop culture references and zany humor of No More Heroes. And yet, I wouldn’t have it any other way. The classic Japanese symbolism, classical-meets-industrial soundtrack, and insanely gorgeous visuals perpetuate a one-of-a-kind atmosphere that is more serious and single-minded in its focus than other Suda51 titles, but also brings to the table one of the most memorable Suda51 villains. The boss battles are wonderfully varied and intense, Mondo’s abilities dynamic and interesting, and the bonus missions aplenty. The clumsy gigolo missions hold this title back from reaching perfection, but I’ll be damned if the final hours of this game didn’t constitute one of the most consistent and satisfying finales of any Suda game I’ve played yet, especially considering the number of big-name 2013 releases that fell apart somewhere during their second halves.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Xbox 360 review: Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance

Set four years after Guns of the Patriots, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance puts cyborg ninja Raiden back into the spotlight. In the years following Liquid Ocelot’s insurrection, Raiden has joined a small militarized group that offers private security to individuals in the name of maintaining peace. But when that peace is threatened to be upset by a rival cyborg mercenary group known as Desperado, Raiden finds he must tap into his old violent nature to stop their plans to initiate another military conflict. It’s a far more simplistic premise than any other Metal Gear story, and as a result, lacks much of the bizarre humor and crazy plot threads woven into every other entry in the franchise.

The game plays out as the purset of Japanese action games, with emphasis on purchasing attack upgrades, stat and health boosts, and mastering the various subweapons collected from the major bosses. There’s a certain cool factor in seeing how the MGS world has progressed in the years following Guns of the Patriots, as cyborg implants are the norm for anyone employed by military or police forces, and Gekkos and their various offshoot mechs are the more compact commonplace equivalent to the older large Metal Gears. That said, the scale of a Metal Gear Ray is impressive within the game’s combat engine, whether Raiden is dashing circles around its legs in order to expose the inner frame, or he’s bolting vertically down a building in order to deliver the final blow.

The big gimmick at play in Revengenace is that of the ‘cut what you will’ mechanic. After building his attack meter high enough, Raiden can initiate a slow-mo blade mode, wherein he can slice and dice foes to bits. This is most frequently used when an enemy Gekko, helicopter, or some other enemy has reached a critical state and they begin flashing blue. Raiden needs only to slice through them once or twice to deal the necessary damage to either finish said enemy off or progress to the next stage of a multi-tiered fight, but there’s a strange satisfaction that comes from having your way with slinging the katana every which way and seeing the tiniest of metal bits come crashing to the ground. Also, most enemies have a glowing blue core bit that Raiden can remove, indicated by a golden box when he enters blade mode. Removing this core bit will not only re-energize Raiden’s attack meter, it will also restore his health, which is a unique a cleverly-designed system.

Aside from his electrically-charged Katana, Raiden can also collect RPGs, guided missile launchers, and various grenades, the usefulness of any being almost entirely nonexistent. The stealth element that was a staple of previous entries in the Metal Gear franchise returns, as Raiden can creep up behind foes and slice them apart without alerting other enemies in the area. This can be performed on virtually any foe, from grunt soldiers to more heavily armored bruisers, making it a useful option if Raiden’s health is low. However, given the wide-open design of nearly every level in the game, it also adds an extra degree of challenge, as enemies have a greater range of vision. Truthfully, the stealth kills feel as if they were added in primarily to pay tribute to the stealth action series that spawned Revengeance, as it is generally just as easy (and usually more enjoyable) to send Raiden right into the thick of it and take out foes while running circles around them.

Only a few of the boss characters are introduced early on in Revengeance, meaning that the moment you set foot into the arena where you are set to fight Monsoon, Mistral, or one of a number of mechanized foes, the cutscene that precedes the actual fight is the most you are ever going to get with regards to understanding them as characters. Oddly enough, the monologue Moonsoon delivers and the exchange Raiden has with Mistral paints these two as infinitely more interesting and complex individuals than Sundowner or Jetsream Sam. Considering that the latter two are among the first characters Raiden meets in the game, one would hope that their development would be on par with the former, if not better. Instead, Sundowner comes across as a hillbilly obsessed with war for no other reason than it provides him a job, and Jetstream Sam is a cyborg ninja thrown into the mix for the sake of having a cyborg ninja rival to Raiden.

The story also becomes clouded and detracts entirely from its initial goal of tracking down the organization responsible for the death of African Prime Minister N’Mani, to Raiden’s wish to dismantle an organization responsible for creating child soldiers just like him (a factory for which he just happens to stumble across during his second mission), and eventually spirals into a shallow, boring retread of the ‘Jack the Ripper’ persona that was explored in Sons of Liberty. For a game that dishes up so much potential and cool-factor during its first half, it really drops the ball during the second. Boss fights transition from exciting and just the right degree of challenge to frustratingly boring and sometimes feeling downright broken. Level design turns to the same gimmicks used early on, resulting in these losing their luster the second time around.

A few of the late-game boss fights are incredibly poor in design, not because they dish up a heaping challenge, but because they are fundamentally and mechanically illogical. One boss fight in particular requires Raiden to simply whittle away his foe’s health bar, with no refill or healing properties on part of the bad guy to worry about. While there are health capsules scattered about the arena, stepping too far outside of an undefined radius will result in your foe suddenly rushing Raiden with pinpoint accuracy, while staying too close puts Raiden at risk for being hit with an apparently un-dodgeable near-one-hit-K.O. It’s pretty standard procedure that if your character is in the air above an enemy or one-hundred and eighty degrees behind them, any forward attack from said enemy should not hit your character. Apparently, Platinum Games did not receive that memo.

It’s truly unfortunate that Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance hits so many pitfalls and setbacks during its second act. For a game that spent many years in development and was so hellbent on pushing something wildly bold and different for the series, the first few hours are a phenomenal showing. It’s just that everything afterwards falls to pieces, leading those later hours to feel like an entirely different, half-assed version of MGR. The writing goes from being on par with a delightfully cheesy 80s/90s action flick to stupid and eye-rolling levels of bad. The gameplay similarly descends from an emphasis on fine-tuned and fast-paced action to a haphazard mess of explosions, lame retreads of enemy designs, and boss encounters that range from mildly poor to downright awful in their execution. At the very least, the game does provide a few cheap laughs by providing alternate costumes for Raiden like a poncho and sombrero combo.

My rating: 5.75 (out of 10)

DLC review: Mass Effect 3 - Citadel

Effectively a love letter to all Mass Effect fans, Citadel is filled to the brim with wit, self-parodies, and intense action. It runs a story that is exciting, yet does not take itself too seriously, as out of the blue Shepard finds himself/herself target number one of a mercenary organization. It’s not the best way for the Commander to start his/her shore leave, and longtime friends Garrus, Tali, and Liara make a point of stating how Shepard can’t go for more than a day without getting into some crazy scenario. The main story runs about an hour and a half or more, depending on the difficulty setting, and compared to many of the other Mass Effect DLC packs, it certainly dishes out a decent challenge factor.

Beyond that, there are plenty of distractions to indulge in. From the moment Shepard is ordered to take shore leave, he/she is granted access to Admiral Anderson’s large upscale apartment. Shepard is free to purchase new furniture and décor as he/she sees fit, and can eventually throw a party for however many or few old comrades he/she chooses. Unfortunately, the game automatically assigns James, Cortez, and Traynor to the party, the latter two of whom are infinitely easier to stomach than the resident meat-head of the crew. Still, it is thoroughly entertaining to listen to Tali’s slurred and drunken ramblings, Grunt’s bizarre reaction to alcohol leading him to believe he can stop bullets with his mind, and EDI’s confronting Traynor about a past comment she made about the robot’s voice being sexy.

There is also a whole new section of the Citadel open to explore, complete with minigames and short, character-specific situations like playing wingman to Garrus as he fumbles his way through a date, or starring alongside Javik in a half-baked Blasto the Hannar sequel. The Citadel DLC has plenty of funny moments, and a few key heartfelt ones, too. It’s the best Mass Effect 3 DLC by a longshot, and arguably ranks among the best DLC packs the entire series has had to offer. Perhaps best of all is the fact that it does not feel like a portion of the game that was cut out for the sake of making another quick buck off downloadable sales, yet the sum of its parts prove surprisingly cohesive with the rest of the Mass Effect 3 experience.

My rating: 9 (out of 10)*

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

DLC review: Mass Effect 3 - Leviathan

After witnessing the murder of a scientist on the Citadel, Shepard and company begin to follow a trail of clues that imply an indoctrination process similar to what the Reapers have proven capable of. Except, the entity the crew of the Normandy and their allies in the science field are trying to seek out is not a Reaper. Rather, it is a being known as Leviathan, one rumored to have killed a Reaper at some point in the past. Knowing the power this Leviathan might possess, Shepard enlists EDI to help locate it, a process which takes them back to scene of the initial crime, to a derelict research station, and eventually to a watery world riddled with shipwrecks.

Leviathan is straight-forward in its design. It cuts right to the chase, with Shepard’s search for Leviathan playing out in a similar manner as his/her visit to Eden Prime in the first game. There are artifacts that hold sway over those who have come into contact with them, and Leviathan is shown to be capable of channeling messages through these individuals. There is plenty of variety in the game design, from gathering clues around a small research lab, to unlocking a series of doors aboard the space station, and the typical combat against Reaper minions. All of it will be strikingly familiar to anyone who has played more than a few hours of Mass Effect 3, and it does feel like the Leviathan DLC’s pacing is a bit fast for the grand scale it intends to deliver its story on.

The writing is handled well enough, and the eventual one-on-one encounter Shepard has with Leviathan is intense and very cool in its design. The ultimate payoff, however, does not echo as strongly as other events in the Mass Effect universe. Recruiting Javik in the From Ashes DLC obviously had a lasting impact on which teammates you had at your disposal and subsequently provided a unique perspective on the Reaper conflict. But the finale of the Leviathan DLC is a quick one-off scene that simply wraps itself up without the effects leaving meaningful ripples across the galaxy.

My rating: 7 (out of 10)*

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

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Wii U review: Pikmin 3

After one console generation of absence, the Pikmin series returns with its third entry. Following closely in the footsteps of its two predecessors, Pikmin 3’s gameplay mechanics, squad management, and adventurous alien designs are all alive and well, with a few tweaks here and there to help define this as something separate from the other Pikmin games. This time around, players will be in control of three captains, all of whom hail from the planet Koppai, and distant world suffering from starvation. After exhausting their supply of search probes, the people of Koppai have learned that planet PNF-404, the same planet visited by Olimar and Louie, is host to many large fruits that are rich in a vitamin essential to the people of Koppai’s diet.

Much like in the original Pikmin, the crew’s landing on planet PNF-404 is not particularly smooth. While their ship the S.S. Drake is still intact, the crew must locate an item known as the Cosmic Drive Key in order to make the lightspeed jump home once their work is completed. With the three captains separated, they must rely on the Pikmin who curiosly stumble across them, as well as the notes they find left by Captain Olimar detailing the various creatures of the planet and abilities of the Pikmin.

The first Pikmin has long been considered a more challenging entry than Pikmin 2, due to the thirty day time limit. Pikmin 3 sees a return of a greater challenge factor in the form of the juice collected from fruits. Some fruits, like oranges and watermelons, are large and can fill more than one bottle, beefing up the stock the crew has. Smaller fruits like grapes require multiple picks to fill just one bottle. The effort put into retrieving fruit and the amount of juice rewarded plays out as a bit of a gamble, though boss fights reward some of the largest fruits in game. At the end of each day, the crew will consume a single bottle of juice, so there is a constant need to have juice stocked aboard the Drake. That said, the more juice that is stocked, the more freedom in exploration the game allots you.

Also of notable challenge are the boss encounters, which are impressive not only in scope, but also the specific strategies required to fell beasts like the centipede-lobster hybrid Armored Mawdad or behemoth living plant known as the Quaggled Mireclops. These are some of the toughest boss fights the series has ever delivered, and learning the patterns early on is the key to success. Fights from the latter half of the game can take up the better portion of a day if you enter the arena ill-prepared. As for the rest of the mutant creatures native to PNF-404, there are plenty of familiar foes, from classic Bulborbs to Fiery Blowhogs and Swooping Snitchbugs. The newer enemies are fewer in number, but fit in with the others better than the likes of mechanical and elemental variants encountered in Pikmin 2. The spider-like Arachnodes spin webs that Winged Pikmin can get caught in, the aquatic Sputtlefish expunges ink lethal to Blue Pikmin, and the Bearded Amprat carries an electric charge that will zap any Pikmin type except for Yellow ones.

With regards to the Pikmin themselves, the three primary colors remain almost entirely unaltered – Red are resistant to fire and are the most aggressive of fighters, Blue can breathe underwater, and Yellow are capable of being tossed higher into the air as well as allow electricity to pass through their body without being harmed. The new Rock Pikmin are effectively stand-ins for the Purple Pikmin introduced in Pikmin 2. They are the bruisers, as their heavy rock bodies can both stun enemies and shatter crystal barriers. They are also immune to being trampled by any foe, and will simply be reburied if they take a heavy beating. However, they are still susceptible to fire, water, electricity, and being swallowed up by Bulborbs. The pink Winged Pikmin are arguably more useful and interesting, and act as the big game-changer for Pikmin 3. Winged Pikmin are not particularly strong fighters due to their small frames, but they can fly over water and carry items back to the ship or Onion without having to worry about most ground-based enemies or obstacles. Whereas every other type of Pikmin would need a continuous path in order to ferry their finds back to the landing site, Winged Pikmin can hoist fallen foes or seed pellets into the air and take the shortest path possible, over a river or what have you.

Friendly A.I. has been improved, as any Pikmin trailing behind the captains will squeeze together in as tight a line as possible, and are generally quite smart about ducking around corners or inclines. Every once in a while you will discover a lone Pikmin has gotten itself stuck somewhere, but thanks to the use of the gamepad as a mini-map, pausing the action and pinpointing their location is a cinch. Even more convenient is the ability to split up your troops between the three captains, and then instruct them to automatically head to three different locations. This saves a great deal of time in completing puzzles and retrieving Pikmin from the ship/Onion once their most recent task has been completed. When building bridges, Pikmin will return to the location where they procured the construction pieces, meaning that you will never have to travel too far in order to round them back up.

Visually, Pikmin 3 is an incredible feat. As the three captains and their loyal Pikmin are miniscule against the backdrop of a wild and untamed world, there is a need for plenty of detail in the plantlife, weather, and environment as a whole, all of which Nintendo delivers on (and then some). The puzzles range from quick to decipher to a few real head-scratchers. Puzzles late in the game add a degree of intensity, due to impending foes and multiple environmental hazards. The soundtrack performs a number of throwbacks to the previous titles, while adding its own subtle flavor. The sounds heard are steadily balanced between soft music and ambience of the wildlife, crunching of snow, flowing creeks, and so on.

The different sections of the world the three captains and their Pikmin troops will explore are not significantly larger than those found in the previous two entries, but Pikmin 3 does well to manage space with open areas to square off against larger foes and intelligent camera angles when tackling some of the game’s more thought-provoking puzzles. Occasionally, the camera will shift to a cinematic angle, going just a small step further to immerse players in this wondrous and bizarre alien world.

Mission mode is similar to Pikmin 2’s multiplayer mode, albeit trimmed down to a single, time-sensitive scenario. The series of floors in the Pikmin 2 caves have been swapped out in favor of a single area with a limited number of Pikmin at your disposal. About half of the challenges focus on gathering treasure, the rest emphasize battles against enemies and spawning new Pikmin. There is also a time-trial boss mode, where you can face off once more against the game’s major bosses. Each new boss time-trial challenge is unlocked once that respective boss is defeated in the main game, so there is no need to wait until the post-game to attempt a better time or higher retention of your Pikmin troops. Mission mode is also the only portion of Pikmin 3 where you have any access to the White or Purple Pikmin from the second game, though they only add so much, as nearly all puzzles and enemies are designed with the other five Pikmin types in mind. Another multiplayer mode, named Battle Bingo, pits players against each other in a race to gather specific fruit and make a straight line vertical, diagonal, or horizontal across a board in order to win – the design of which is fast-paced, simple, and fun.

Pikmin 3 misses the mark of perfection by a slight margin, due in large part to the fact that its successes are primarily a result of everything its predecessors got right the first two times around. Still, it’s a great follow-up, and a title that every Wii U owner should have in their library. The combination of adventure and squad-based strategy elements culminate in a beautiful, albeit strange experience that is truly one-of-a-kind. It may have been a long time coming, but the wait for Pikmin 3 was well worth it.

My rating: 9 (out of 10)

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Pokémon Sapphire journal - entry three

Though I have accepted the fact that Team Aqua and Team Magma’s aspirations will probably never live up to the nefarious deeds of other villains in the series, I definitely like the way their story has paced itself thus far. The race to stop Team Aqua at the top of Mt. Chimney added a bit of tension to an atmosphere that has been otherwise laid-back and focused primarily on a sense of exploration/adventure. In regards to that last aspect, Sapphire reminds me a lot of my original playthrough of Gold on the Gameboy Color. The distance between towns in Hoenn may not be as great as those in Johto, but the routes are all well-designed and the realm a great realization of what the GBA hardware was capable of.

Generally speaking, I tend to lean toward Pokémon that have a three-stage evolutionary line, or at the very least, a two-stage evolutionary line. Unless I’m adding a legendary Pokémon to my team, it’s very rare that I will keep a non-evolving Pokémon in my party. With Sapphire, however, I currently have two Pokémon in my party that do no evolve – Torkoal and Sableye. Torkoal has proven to be incredibly useful as my defensive ‘tank’ party member, while Sableye not having any natural weaknesses and resisting the moves that any other Ghost-type Pokémon would makes it a highly-dependable team member for getting me out of rough spots. As I’ve stated many times in past journal entries and other Pokémon-related posts, Ghost Pokémon are among my very favorites. That said, I’ve never cared much for Banette, and Dusclops is just sort of ‘okay’ in my opinion. Sableye might be super creepy and weird, but he’s got a lot going for him at the moment – assuming he will learn some better Ghost and Dark moves from leveling up, I’ll probably take him with me all the way to the Elite Four.

As far as the rest of my team is concerned, I’m quite pleased with their current levels and movesets. Both Loudred and Pelliper serve distinctly different counters to a wide range of Pokémon typings (and moves, thanks to their respective abilities), and as a result, I effectively have two ‘jack-of-all-trades’ Pokémon at my side. Breloom and Torkoal are geared toward specializing in moves reflective of their typings, and while they have their obvious weaknesses, are both solid in terms of offense and have served me well through these recent legs of the game. I may change the lineup a bit sometime down the road, but I still have a sixth spot open, and while I have typings in mind, I don’t have a specific Pokémon that I feel I absolutely want. Bagon and Beldum would certainly be nice, but I recognize that it will be a while before I encounter either of these Pokémon in the wild.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

How does your beam katana swing?: gender identity and sexuality in No More Heroes - part three: A Tale of Two Assassins

This is the third entry in a series of short articles I will be posting that explores the gender roles and sexuality of various characters within the NMH titles. As mentioned in the first mini-article, some of what I will be covering deals with information that is explicitly stated within one game or the other, while other portions are pulled from my own personal speculations and fan theories. Fair warning: as the No More Heroes titles both bear 'M' ratings, there may be adult language and/or content referenced in these articles, as well as spoiler content for anyone who has not yet completed the games.

A Tale of Two Assassins

Of all the ladies in Desperate Struggle, I received the most masculine vibes from Alice Twilight. At first glance, it might seem that Suda 51 intended to give this character much sex appeal, as her cleavage is displayed between a bikini top and sleeves without a proper shirt to attach themselves to, as well as pink shorts beneath ass-less chaps. But at the same time, her hair (though a vibrant shade of pink) is jagged – it may not be unkempt, but it’s certainly not the straightest, cleanest cut either. What stands out the most about her outfit, though, is the Doctor Octopus-style backpack that sports a half-dozen metal arms, each with an individual beam katana at the end. It’s metallic, cold, mechanical – presumably a parallel to Alice herself. When Travis finally reaches the second ranking fight in Desperate Struggle, Alice comments on how she wishes he hadn’t come at a time when she was so close to striking down Jasper Batt Jr.’s reign over Santa Destroy, before clarifying that she has no intention of going easy on Mr. Touchdown as she unfolds the arms of her backpack and the fight commences.

Prior to the start of the actual fight, Alice is seen tossing photographs into a fire she has been burning in an oil drum. These pictures include one of her with a man and a child, implying she was once married and had at least one kid. What became of them is not clear. Perhaps more intriguing, however, is the fact that she holds in her hands two pictures of the by-then-deceased assassin Margaret Moonlight. One of these pictures displays Margaret alone in front of house, arm extended toward the front door, with the implication being that Alice could be the one snapping the photograph. The other is of Alice and Margaret together, standing close to one another and smiling. The camera is focused close on both their faces, meaning it’s quite likely that one of the girls is holding the camera as they lean in together for the shot.

Some fans have theorized that the two are relatives. After all, they bear the last names ‘Twilight’ and ‘Moonlight’ respectively, which could open the possibility that they are cousins, step sisters, etc. (though they appear quite close in age, effectively ruling out any chance that Margaret could be Alice’s daughter). But it’s the photo of the house that is most perplexing. It wouldn’t be so unusual if Margaret was a child in the picture, but she’s a grown adult, and it seems unusual that she would be excitedly showing off a house at her age, especially when we have no indication that anyone else is at the house at the time the picture was taken. Were there other individuals displayed, I might be inclined to believe Margaret was visiting family, but there is no such indication here. In fact, I quite buy into another theory – one that paints Margaret and Alice as lovers. If Alice’s husband died at some point in the past, it would provide her with a solid motive to seek revenge on the individuals responsible (assuming it was a murder scenario, similar to Bishop’s death). If her child was kidnapped (or also killed, if we want to tread a more morbid path) by Jasper Batt’s thugs, it would make sense that she would devote herself wholly to the idea of dismantling the UAA and Jasper Batt’s crime syndicate in the same fashion as Travis did.

If Alice and Margaret were in fact romantically involved with one another, I don’t think it was in a traditional manner. While I did state that I consider Alice to carry more masculine traits than most of the other female characters in the No More Heroes titles, that doesn’t necessarily paint her as a ‘male figure’ in this hypothetical relationship. Similarly, Margaret’s frilly lolita gown and starkly contrasting makeup are not necessarily indicative of her filling a feminine role. Both characters are shown to be highly capable on their own, and utilize significantly different tactics that ultimately have a similar effect – they both have ranged and close-quarters attacks, as well as solid means of defense to counter Travis’ typical beam katana strikes. Whether Margaret had any tales of love and loss prior to entering the UAA rankings or not, it’s quite possible that these two women happened to be quite the forces to be reckoned with on their own, developed a mutual respect and admiration for each other, and continued to strive for the top of the rankings.

The fact that Alice is burning the photos as Travis arrives indicates that she already knew of Margaret’s death and anticipated Travis’ arrival. She is not crying or even sullen when Travis walks up behind her, but it could be that she is in fact grieving in her own way. Burning the photos and putting the faces of those she once knew and loved may be easier for Alice than dwelling on them and trying to understand the ‘why’ of the matter. It makes even more sense if Margaret was one to follow in the steps of Alice’s former husband and child – this idea that there’s no sense in pouting over what she can’t change, so she might as well do her best to proceed with her plans to strike down Jasper Batt Jr. After all, one of the first things she says to Travis before they begin their duel is, “How unfortunate – right when I am about to reach the top, you have to find me. I was hoping we’d fight after I became number one.” She then goes on to state that she will not make Travis’ victory easy, as her “role as the second rank requires that much.” The exchange then continues as thus:

Alice: “I’ve seen a lot in my journey up the ranks – an endless cycle of violence now broadcast as a spectator sport. Why, Travis? Why do so many assassins join if we are all going to end up killing each other in the end?”
Travis: “Does it really matter why?”
Alice: “To me, it does. It matters more than anything. We’ve all become trapped, don’t you see? Addicted to the violence – to a life in the shadows. Once we join the ranks, we can never get out.”
Travis: “Don’t be stupid. If you get tired of the battles, just fucking quit!”
Alice: “But that’s why we all want to fight you – to learn your secret. Don’t you get it?”
Travis: “Get what?”
Alice: “You are the crownless king, the one who got out. You reached the top, then walked away.”
Travis: “Well I’m back now, aren’t I?”
Alice: “With you, it is different. You are the No More Hero! Show me your passion! Release me from this cycle! Free us all in a crimson sea!”

Moments before Alice’s death, she makes a request of Travis – to never forget that there was once an assassin named Alice. This is a wish that he promises to make good on, and has only been requested by one other assassin in the past – Holly Summers. Whereas with Holly it was out of a combination of Travis’ being attracted to Ms. Summers and his respect for her skill level, with Alice it seems out of both respect for her battling skill and admiration for her having vowed to carry out the same ideals as Travis himself had. Also, Alice states that the battle she and Travis shared was “everything she had hoped for,” which, (in keeping with my theory) would indicate that she can rest easy knowing that Travis has both the strength and conviction necessary to finish the job of destroying the UAA. Alice came so close to facing Jasper Batt and besting him in battle, but following her death, it is now Travis who must carry out that final task alone. Clearly, Alice’s death is not something sits easy with Travis, as he lets out a roar after slicing her in half – a clean cut that I think is no coincidence, but rather representative of her life before and after the UAA.

DLC review: Killer is Dead - Smooth Operator pack

Included with each collector’s edition/launch day copy of Killer is Dead, the Smooth Operator pack provides players with another full-fledged mission to take on, as well as an extra gigolo mission and alternate costumes for both Vivienne and Mika. The costumes are purely for aesthetic purposes and hold no bearing on the outcome of the new mission or any others. The gigolo mission with vampire Betty is a bit more challenging than previous interactions with Koharu or Natlia, but is ultimately just as shallow in design. The real substance of the Smooth Operator pack comes from the extra mission, dubbed ‘Episode 51’, wherein Mondo travels to an old castle to seek revenge on a Wire-vampire hybrid at Betty’s request.

As with many of the main game combat missions, Episode 51 opens with a series of moving pictures as opposed to a full-blown cinematic sequence, which details how Betty, despite being a vampire, was bested by another vampire who infused his body with Wire material. After this quick backstory segment, the game shifts back to its usual hyper cel-shaded standard. While this DLC pack still basically looks as good as anything in the main game, the fact that Mondo is sent to explore an ancient castle nestled within a dark forest gives it a very distinct aesthetic that is both fresh and familiar when compared to the Area 51-inspired base where Mondo fought Giant Head or David’s lavish mansion on the moon.

The setting also proves the most challenging to see in, at times, with Mondo needing to scour the dungeon for torches to light his way. Even the most brightly-lit portions of the castle still look dim in contrast to other levels, which certainly aids in perpetuating a classic monster movie vibe, but simultaneously leads to Mondo bumping into walls as well as the occatsional retracing of steps. Typical gameplay is broken up with the inclusion of a manned turret section and notable integration of both Mika and Bryan into the narrative. Aside from a brief appearance from Mondo’s unicorn friend, Episode 51 has practically no ties to the main storyline of Killer is Dead, and as a result, can be played at nearly any time once it has been installed.

Episode 51 offers a decent challenge factor while providing significant rewards in the forms of money and ore, and can prove a rather enjoyable means to boost stats and abilities. The time it will take to complete this DLC mission is pretty typical of the earliest up to the mid-game missions – not nearly as lengthy as Mondo’s storming Hamada Yama’s hideout, but comparable to his first visit to David’s mansion. With all the attention to detail and overall production quality of Episode 51, it certainly feels like a mission that was originally intended to be released as part of the full game.

My rating: 7 (out of 10)*

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

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Xbox 360 review: Killer is Dead

A government agent who operates as a sword-for-hire to various clients, Mondo Zappa is a man largely shrouded in mystery from the outset of Killer is Dead. From the earliest missions, it is made clear that he is the successor to his bureau’s former top man, but it isn’t long before the story pans out to make way for the larger picture. After a few missions that allow players to become accommodated with the control scheme and highly-fluid, smooth-as-hell gameplay style of Killer is Dead, Mondo makes a visit to the moon where he briefly clashes with a man named David. David apparently usurped command of the dark side of the moon from a woman named Moon River, and though he bests Mondo during their first meeting, he remains present throughout the remainder of the game, influencing the beasts and machines Mondo will square off against in locations like technologically marvelous skyscrapers, steam train cars, and even within Mondo’s own dreams.

Killer is Dead’s artistic style is heavily influenced by a previous Suda51 hit, Killer7. Killer is Dead is hyper cel-shaded to the point where people and objects obscured by shadows appear as completely black with little more than a vague outline defining them, allowing Mondo’s red eyes or David’s golden robes to glow and clash distinctly. Killer is Dead may run on the Unreal Engine, but its graphical direction prevents the technology from looking as obviously aged as it did in Lollipop Chainsaw. In fact, Killer is Dead is both one of the most visually loaded and visually impressive titles of 2013.

The story is more single-minded in its focus than other Grasshopper Manufacture titles. While Mondo and his allies will take on all manner of assassination gigs across the globe, David’s influence remains a constant pillar that reminds players of their ultimate endgame goal. The pacing during the game’s first half is a tad slow, but it never feels sluggish. Rather, it allots time to emphasize the themes and symbolism in Killer is Dead, which include a great number of traditional Japanese folklore elements, the moon, the Earth, and the sun as astral energies, the reliance people have on blood, and the contrast of technology and humanity, to name but a few. As with No More Heroes and Black Knight Sword, there is a decent amount of information relevant to the overarching story that is not explicitly stated, but can still be pieced together with hints dropped by NPCs and symbols associated with some of the characters. It takes around ten hours to reach the finale on a normal difficulty setting, and the payoff is incredible.

In truth, Mondo Zappa is practically a complete inversion of NMH’s Travis Touchdown. Both characters break the fourth wall from time to time, though Mondo is significantly less talkative and carries himself with a professional demeanor. While Travis bumbled through all of his romantic pursuits, Mondo has multiple women swooning over him, and can win their affection in gigolo missions where he presents them with presents in order to fill up an affection meter. These sections, though optional, must be completed at least a couple of times in order to acquire the freeze shooter and drill subweapons. The affection meter will increase more rapidly if Mondo ogles the bodies of these ladies instead of their faces, but if they catch Mondo’s vision straying south, their own meter - which gauges how impressed they are with the suave assassin - will dwindle. These gigolo missions are incredibly simple in design, and while they are not terribly challenging, they feel clunky, as if they were stapled on to the experience late in development. Suda51 games are known for frequently incorporating a high degree of sexuality in character designs as well as their interactions, but the gigolo missions are flat out lazy – there’s no meaningful end result, other than receiving the basic subweapon, and certainly no reason to return to the gigolo missions later on, as the freeze shooter and drill can be upgraded with ore at any time from the pause screen just like Mondo’s healing factor, katana attacks, guard break, and so on.

Whereas both No More Heroes titles played largely as action games with adventure elements worked into the overworld of Santa Destroy and portions of the combat-heavy levels, Killer is Dead plays as pure an action experience as Devil May Cry or Bayonetta. Mondo can chain combos by slashing his katana, performing a guard break with his mechanical arm, or simply keep the meter active by firing his cannon attachment at foes. The more damage Mondo inflicts on enemies, the more blood he is rewarded, which can be used as cannon ammunition, ‘adrenaline rush’ insta-kills on weak or heavily wounded Wires, and even to replenish his health. Finishing off enemies after the combo meter has exceeded thirty consecutive hits will result in a brief freeze-frame for each enemy slain, offering players free choice of one of four rewards – those being blood, ore (used to upgrade Mondo’s stats and weapon capabilities), wire synapses (which restore Mondo’s physical health), or health gems (which increase his health bar).

Speaking of upgrades, Killer is Dead does well to prevent the game from becoming too easy too quickly. The cheapest upgrades push some basic improvements to Mondo’s offensive capabilities, while the one that require the most ore will allow him to automatically heal at a gradual pace over time or remove the limiter on his katana, allowing combo chains to be achieved more easily. Rarely do these upgrades improve his overall strength or defensive capabilities, however. To improve Mondo’s health or blood meters, one must gather the relevant replenishing items within each level, rewarding players who do a little bit of exploring.

The game’s dodge mechanic is forgiving to just the right degree – if an enemy lunges toward Mondo, there should be ample time for players to press the right button and then counter said foe, and any mistakes after the first hour’s learning curve are on the player exclusively. The game does well to keep the camera at an angle that will provide an ideal view of the action and other nearby foes, though it is quick and easy enough to adjust while in the heat of battle. Also, the more combos Mondo has chained together, the faster he will move and attack, and the game accounts for this wild and loose progression by having him automatically block enemy fire or simply not taking damage that would upset the combo chain once it has gone upwards of fifty or so.

The variety in level design is flat-out brilliant. Though some levels may be completed more quickly than others, all of the main game missions feel as though they have seen plenty of time and care from the development team. Little additions like a piano staircase that has a different note associated with each individual step and added puzzle elements that open secret rooms go a long way in rounding out the experience. Outside of the main game, players can revisit portions of previously completed levels in order to try their hand at various challenges, some of which put Mondo in the sidecar of Vivienne’s motorcycle or behind a turret, while others simply ask that he slay a certain number of enemies within a set time limit. The most difficult challenge missions come from Scarlett, a nurse who can be found hidden within each of the main game missions. Tracking her down time and time again will unlock more challenges, and the criteria Scarlett lays out for Mondo certainly yield the biggest monetary rewards.

Travis Willingham, Johnny Yong Bosch, Tara Platt, and others lend their talents to the cast, and while Patrick Seitz’s soft-spoken and professional demeanor are performed very well, Liam O’Brien steals the show in every scene where villain David appears. Akira Yamaoka (of Silent Hill fame) adds a highly-creative blend of industrial, classical, and techno tunes to the mix. While Mondo and David are wonderfully inventive characters that beautifully contrast each other, the supporting characters are largely hit-or-miss with regards to their complexity and importance to the plot. Vivienne Squall does little more than remind everyone in the bureau that they need to be paid a hefty sum for each job, Mika’s annoying and childlike behavior gets old incredibly fast, while cyborg boss Brian provides some comic relief. The villains, though given notably less screen time than Mondo’s allies, are by and large quite memorable, both with regards to the visual representations and their attitudes/personalities.

Suda51 fans looking for a more goofy, bizarre romp in the vein of No More Heroes or Lollipop Chainsaw may find themselves a bit disappointed. Killer is Dead is no doubt a strange game, and very much a one-of-a-kind action experience, though it pushes a more serious story that is, at times, as dark in tone as the excessively-saturated cel-shaded shadows. It might not be a particularly long game, and it definitely has some oddities and pitfalls outside of the core gameplay. But for those looking to experience a curious culmination of Japanese folklore, cosmic mythos, and the smoothest gameplay Grasshopper Manufacture has delivered yet, Killer is Dead is an excellent choice.

My rating: 9 (out of 10)

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

How does your beam katana swing?: gender identity and sexuality in No More Heroes - part two: Disaster Blaster Techniques

This is the second entry in a series of short articles I will be posting that explores the gender roles and sexuality of various characters within the NMH titles. As mentioned in the first mini-article, some of what I will be covering deals with information that is explicitly stated within one game or the other, while other portions are pulled from my own personal speculations and fan theories. Fair warning: as the No More Heroes titles both bear 'M' ratings, there may be adult language and/or content referenced in these articles, as well as spoiler content for anyone who has not yet completed the games.

Disaster Blaster Techniques

No More Heroes is not exactly the most open or obvious game when it comes to the concept of gay and lesbian characters, but it doesn’t exactly shy away from it either (here's looking at you and your extra colorful workout duds, Ryan). Magician Harvey Moiseiwitsch Volodarskii refers to Travis as a ‘nasty boy’ during their battle, which does bring some male to male sexual tension into the mix, if only slightly. Aside from the flash and flair of his blue on black outfit, shiny mask, and bright batons/swords, the dialogue he directs at Travis is the only indication we get that he might be sexually inclined to males (whether that makes him gay or bisexual). Or it could simply be that Suda51 thought it would be a nice change of pace to include a male character who was a little more flamboyant than the rest.

Letz Shake is a curious case, as he’s one of a few assassins to appear in both games. From little we do see of Letz Shake as a human, we can gather the following – he’s very knowledgeable in the technical aspects of Dr. Shake, he seems to enjoy the prospect of fighting Travis (implying that he might be sadistic), and he’s one of the least masculine-looking characters between the two games. Though Travis and Henry might not be particularly muscular, the former wears his hair slicked, dons a red tiger-striped leather jacket, and wields a beam katana that doubles as a representation of his phallus. The latter is decked out in suave and classy duds that include a grey vest and pants, a necktie, leather gloves, a spade belt buckle, and sometimes a long trenchcoat. Whereas Travis’ outfit represents a wild, daring, and somewhat goofy male, Henry’s is serious and sophisticated.

Letz Shake has a sort of 80’s rocker look going on, and while he does have a leather jacket lined with metal studs, it only covers part of his chest. He doesn’t wear anything underneath, and his lanky frame is decorated with diamond tattoos on both his pecs (or lack thereof) and along his waistline leading up to his belly button. He has a band on either wrist, one being decorated with spiked studs and the other a plain burgundy color. The loincloth addition hanging down around his pants is purple, as is the leopard print bandana that obscures his mouth. His strikingly tall mohawk is both turquoise and red, with sideburns that hang very low, almost like very thin twin ponytails, but in the front. There’s a lot of color to Letz Shakes’s getup, but the combination of purple on black and studded jacket on such a skinny frame practically cancels out any immediate gender specifications to him. For being such a visually loaded character design, Letz Shake simultaneously boils down a very neutral individual.

Dr. Shake, on the other hand, bears an undeniably phallic form that offsets both the neutrality of Letz Shake’s appearance and the blank canvas desert road where the two are set to fight Travis. While Dr. Shake is effectively a giant tan cylinder, the pink brain beneath a rounded glass dome as well as the rumbling charge sequence prior to what would have – had Henry not intervened – been the emission of a seismic blast are the factors that really identify it as representative of the male genitalia. Granted, Dr. Shake was not set to aim any projectiles directly toward Travis (so far as we know), but the blast radius metaphor is suggestive enough.

In Desperate Struggle, Letz Shake makes a surprising return as Dr. Letz Shake, his remains having apparently been gathered and infused into a seismic emitter similar to that of Dr. Shake. However, the original Dr. Shake’s form was more subtle (a term which no one – myself included – would ever think to associate with the phallic references within the No More Heroes games). Dr. Letz Shake’s body may bear a gunmetal color and sport four small ‘legs’, but the thin middle expanding at the top in a mushroom shape is unmistakably penile. Take into account the fact that the brain ‘tip’ has a clearly visible fold in the middle and constantly wiggles about, and you have what is arguably the most in-your-face representation of the phallus between either game. In all likelihood, this new body was likely carried over as something of an homage to Dr. Shake, and the fact that it relies on a similar, albeit faster charge sequence indicates that it was probably created with the same sort of technology. Still, a giant metal robo-cock leads Dr. Letz Shake to come across to both Travis and the player in a strikingly different manner than the punk rocker human body he once inhabited.

Monday, November 11, 2013

How does your beam katana swing?: gender identity and sexuality in No More Heroes - part one: Shinobu and the 'Other M syndrome'

I love Suda51 games – more than most, in fact, No More Heroes being chief among them. I’ve played both titles multiple times through, and find they still hold much of the strange charm that emanates from the melding of toilet humor, pop culture references, and emphasis on artistic drive as they did the day I first popped these discs into my Wii. But playing these games over a few times has led me to look for all sorts of little easter eggs and hints at connections between characters and plot points. My college senior thesis explored The Legend of Zelda franchise as a modern, interactive take on classic medieval fantasy literature, and ultimately I decided I wanted to do something similar with No More Heroes.

What follows is the first of a series of short articles I will be posting that explore the gender roles and sexuality of various characters within the NMH titles. Some of what I will be covering deals with information that is explicitly stated within one game or the other, while other portions are pulled from my own personal speculations and fan theories. To that end, I hope these articles will retain a decent balance of feminist literary critical theory and Freudian literary critical theory with the more free-form speculative elements. I don’t consider this to be my most scholarly work in terms of its formatting, but I do hope it will spark some conversation and perhaps inspire others to explore games like No More Heroes in an in-depth manner.

For the sake of keeping these articles in focus, I won’t be covering any of the Bizarre Jelly girls, as I consider that to be more of a commentary on Japanese entertainment and otaku subculture than I do about the presentation of women in the fictional realm of Santa Destroy. The individuals I ultimately intend to cover within this series include: Holly Summers, Alice Twilight, Jeane, Sylvia, Shinobu, Letz Shake, and Harvey Moiseiwitsch Volodarskii. Depending on how much I diverge from my original game plan in certain portions of these mini-articles, however, I may expand this project to accommodate other NMH characters as well. Fair warning: as the No More Heroes titles both bear 'M' ratings, there may be adult language and/or content referenced in these articles, as well as spoiler content for anyone who has not yet completed the games.

Shinobu and the 'Other M syndrome'

Shinobu’s transition from the first game to the second suffers from a seemingly backwards progression. Here is a character that was once strong and independent that has now pulled a 180 and plays two very conflicting roles. In No More Heroes, Shinobu was perhaps one of the strongest opponents Travis ever faced. She was introduced in a very dark fashion, as Travis has to wait to battle her until she’s finished killing a handful of her classmates in cold blood, so it’s pretty clear from the get-go that’s she’s not meant to be a hero or heroine in any traditional sense of those words. But she did have conviction – the entire fight with Travis was centered around her belief that Travis was responsible for her father’s death, an act for which she sought revenge. Upon victory, Travis spares her life, only cutting of her hand and leaving her without closure, though he does confirm that he knew Master Jacobs and respected him but was not responsible for the man’s untimely demise. Despite that, she still comes to Travis’ aid during the final fight against Jeane, returning the favor and saving the protagonist’s life.

Fast-forward two years later to the events of Desperate Struggle. A few hours in, Shinobu makes her return as Travis’ apprentice and Sylvia’s sword-for-hire. While she certainly seems to have honed her skills in the years between, having bested combatants in Asia and becoming a fast, agile, and lethal assassin, Shinobu clings to Travis and tries to put the moves on him. She never refer to him by name, only by the title of ‘master’, going so far to say that she will do whatever her master wants.

At the same time, Shinobu now dons a black dress with a flowing scarf that prominently displays her cleavage. NMH2 even applied some jiggle physics to her character model – nothing to the extreme of Dead or Alive Beach Volleyball, but even so, Shinobu wore a school uniform in the previous game with a sweater tied around her waist. It wasn’t revealing, it wasn’t tight against her body – it was surprisingly non-sexualized for a trope that is so easy to turn to as sex symbolism in anime-inspired works. To top it off, Shinobu’s save screen in NMH2 was that of her taking a shower – sure, the toilet paper still covered her hindquarters as it did Travis’ junk, but it left far less to the imagination as she was otherwise completely naked while Travis simply dropped his trousers.

That’s not to say that other ladies in the No More Heroes universe haven’t been similarly scantily-clad – Jeane wears a tight, short-cut MMA outfit, Holly Summers wears a bikini with a vest strapped with grenades (though her fight does take place on a beach, so it’s not exactly outlandish for the setting), and Sylvia dons little more than a trench coat, a prominently displayed lacy black bra, booty shorts, and stilettos while it is snowing in Santa Destroy. Meanwhile, Dr. Naomi apparently received some noticeable breast work between games one and two, and Alice Twilight, despite not being treated to the same jiggle physics and in-your-face camera shots as many of the games’ other females, is still decked out in an odd combination of a bikini top, long sleeves (sans the actual shirt), and short shorts beneath ass-less chaps. Though Bad Girl and Margaret Moonlight both wear far less revealing outfits, their clothing serves fetishism quite blatantly (even if there are a few fetishes sort of hodge-podged together).

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Anime update: Why can't I hold all this anime/who pooped the bed?

With a little less than two months until the end of 2013, I realize that there are quite a few anime series that I will likely not be able to finish until January or February. This stems primarily from the fact that I was juggling a few series at a time for a while, but have neglected to view my regular Toonami programming for nearly two months now – a result of my simply being too busy as of late and simply not wanting to wait for Bleach, Naruto, and One Piece to wrap up before the shows I actually care about start airing. I sometimes make a bad habit of claiming that I will give priority to one anime or another, and then shift to another one instead. At this point, all I can say for certain is that I will have a review posted for MS IGLOO 2: The Gravity of the Battlefront soon – hopefully next week. I’ve already viewed the first two episodes, which leaves only one more, though I can say that my feelings toward it are not as positive as my feelings toward its two MS IGLOO predecessors.

As far as the longer-running, arguably more exciting anime I’ve been watching is concerned, I’ve passed the halfway marker on Soul Eater, IGPX season two, From the New World, and Victory Gundam. I’m also near the halfway point with both Sword Art Online and Lupin the Third: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine. While I would love to finish all of these series before the end of the year, I doubt that will actually come to pass. Really, it’s just a matter of which ones I decide to power through over the next month and a half. If I had to wager, I would guess Sword Art Online and From the New World will be finished first, due to the fact that SAO is relatively short and I’m a decent number of episodes into From the New World. I’d also like to finish Victory Gundam before the start of 2014, but I can’t make any promises there, considering that it is the second longest of the remaining series behind Soul Eater.

I have even less of a game plan in mind with regards to what I plan to watch after the start of the new year. There isn’t much in the way of new anime that I’m hearing about that has me particularly excited, and after the psychotic behavior the Attack on Titan die-hards exhibited this year, you can be certain that any new ‘big name’ or 'new and exciting' recommendations I get, I will take to with the highest degree of skepticism. I really wanted to enjoy Kill la Kill, and was hoping it would share much of the quirky charms displayed by Gurren Lagann and FLCL, but Studio Trigger apparently thought that having a strong, individualistic female protagonist wasn’t worth doing if they couldn’t hyper-sexualize her for no good reason. Go figure. To top that off, Kill la Kill wants to be as much a sports anime as anything else within its incredibly confused identity, and it led me to be the most disappointed I’ve been with any of this year’s ‘big-name’ releases. Mind you, I think Attack on Titan is flat-out terrible due to its highly cliché nature, lack of character or plot development, and blatant plagiarism of Zeta Gundam’s early episodes, but I never went into Attack on Titan with particularly high expectations. There’s a big difference from going into an anime and thinking ‘eh, this doesn’t look too special’ and walking away from it thinking ‘wow, that was terrible’, and going into one thinking ‘this looks like it could be really great’ and then walking away thinking ‘man, that was a massive disappointment’. I honestly hope that we have at least a few solid releases in 2014, because 2013 was frankly a terrible, lopsided year for anime.

Anime review: Wolf Children

Setting classic fantasy elements in a modern day, technologically advanced world can be a tricky feat to successfully pull off. There’s always the risk of the two failing to mesh well, and sometimes the true vision of a story gets lost between the emphasis of cool magical factors and a modern day setting for the sake of simply having a modern day setting. Wolf Children manages to avoid these pitfalls by defining its identity as a film within the first few minutes – yes, the story does follow two children who inherited the ability to switch between wolf and human bodies thanks to their late father being one of the last remaining wolf people in the world, but the core of the story revolves around the mother and the challenges she faces as a single mother raising two children, both of whom just so happen to be able to transform into furred beasts.

The film specifically denotes young Ame and Yuki as wolf children instead of werewolves, because they do not carry on the typical behaviors exhibited by werewolves in European literature (or any other vision of werewolves, truthfully). Whether Ame and Yuki held the ability to transform into wolves or not, they would still be as adorable as ever, with Yuki being the more rambunctious and mischievous older sibling, and Ame being the quiet and shy one. Their mother, Hana, must deal not only with typical challenges brought on by raising two young children, but also must keep secret the fact that her children are part wolf.

Early in the film, when Ame and Yuki are still toddlers, Hana finds the big city life presents too many risks for her children being exposed as part wolf. Ame and Yuki’s lack of understanding as to why they cannot howl at night or chew on the leg of the table leads neighbors and the apartment landlord to believe that Hana is going against the apartment’s code and secretly keeping pets there. A few outings to the park see Yuki bark at passing dogs and nearly expose herself and her brother. Because of these extra everyday hurdles Hana faces, she asks her children if they would like to relocate to the countryside until the day they are old enough to decide for themselves whether they wish to live their lives as humans or wolves.

Though he dies before the Wolf Children really gets going, Hana’s husband is still present in spirit throughout the film. Hana shows a lot of personal strength and determination to rebuild an old run-down house, to plant vegetable in less-than-ideal soil so she can provide for her children, as well as in the way that she handles disciplining and expressing how much she cares for Ame and Yuki. That said, Hana is still human, and the brief dream sequences where she asks her late husband if she is doing the right thing for her family keep her grounded as a character. Similarly, Ame finds he does not enjoy interacting with people as much as he does visiting the local nature center, and attempts to understand an old wolf who lives there in captivity as a parallel to his father, whom Ame knows little about, as he was still a baby when his father died.

The film does jump ahead at certain junctures to show how Ame and Yuki adapt to this bold new world – both with their freedom to adventure through fields and forests as wolves and the social pressures to make friends in school. Environments as strikingly different as a school gymnasium, a stream cutting through snow-laden woods, and the farm hills near Hana’s new house are all beautifully realized, as is the gentle soundtrack which reprises the film’s main theme song a few times over with slightly different presentations. But despite how many weeks, months, or years the film might skip over to reach its next important life lesson or learning experience for Ame, Yuki, and Hana, the pacing feels spot-on throughout.

Wolf Children is truly a gorgeous film from start to finish, and a genuinely emotional adventure to top it off. Yuki’s obsession with snakes and frogs grosses out her classmates in a hilarious manner, while the scrapes and bruises that Ame gets when he is young and unprepared for the expanse of the wilderness lead him to feel sad and both Hana and the viewer to channel paternal instincts toward him. In terms of its quality as a standalone fantasy film, Wolf Children earns its place among the greats like The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and the works of Studio Ghibli, despite Wolf Children focusing more on the earthly challenges of single parenthood, and Ame and Yuki attempting to both understand the big open world and find their places in it.

My rating: 9.25 (out of 10)

Friday, November 8, 2013

3DS review: Resident Evil: The Mercenaries 3D

One of the earliest big-name releases for the 3DS, Resident Evil: The Mercenaries 3D was effectively a means for Capcom to tide Resident Evil fans over until the release of the more bold and highly-anticipated Resident Evil: Revelations. The Mercenaries 3D has a very similar control scheme to its 3DS sister title, but plays quite differently. The major stages from the mercenaries bonus game modes of both Resident Evil 4 and 5 have been compiled in The Mercenaries 3D. The first handful of missions act as tutorials, asking for players to perform simple tasks like running past a dozen or so markers before the time runs out, or killing ten to fifteen enemies. As each mission is cleared, the parameters become a little more complex. While it is good of Capcom to throw these tutorial bits into the mix for those who may have missed out on the modern RE titles, it is also mildly annoying that there is no option to skip them, and seasoned veterans of the arcade-y mercenaries gameplay style may find the first twenty-five minutes boring and tedious.

That said, once the full mercenaries mode is made available, it proves quite enjoyable. The Mercenaries 3D lacks any sort of story mode, so anyone interested in this title should keep in mind that this a purchase that should be made entirely on how much he/she enjoyed the mercenaries mode from Resident Evil 4 and 5. Stages like the African caves and medieval castle remain largely unchanged, though a few of the larger ones have seen small portions cut from them. The limited spawn counter issue from Resident Evil 4 seems to have been rectified, as enemies will continue to descend onto the battlefield as long as you keep shooting them up. Overall, the game looks quite good – the textures are certainly not as impressive as on the home console releases, or even as impressive as in Revelations, but for as early a 3DS release as The Mercenaries 3D was, it’s none too shabby.

There are eight characters to select from, and while only a couple are available from the outset, the rest will be unlocked through a natural process of completing each ‘chapter’ worth of stages (each chapter usually consisting of approximately a dozen missions or so). There is also an in-game achievement list, and meeting certain criteria like beating a mission while using only one weapon or chaining a set number of combo kills will net rewards like abilities and alternative costumes for the eight characters. The costumes provide little more than an aesthetic alteration, which is a bit disappointing, since Resident Evil 5 saw different loadouts ascribed to each new costume. The aforementioned abilities can be added to a character’s loadout to grant them slight boosts to their healing, critical hit ratio, mobility, and so on, and can come in handy when tackling some of the more grueling late game missions.

The Mercenaries 3D supports both single player action and cooperative via online or local means. The standard loadouts of Chris, Jill, Claire, Hunk, Barry, Rebecca, Wesker, and Krauser are nicely varied, and though some characters share the same weapons like the grenade launcher, the play style from one character to another is prevented from becoming too similar by providing them different types of ammunition and distinctly different physical stats. Rebecca is more about speed and offense, Krauser is something of a one-trick pony focused on accuracy and critical hits, Chris and Jill act as the two comfortable balanced defaults, etc. There may not be a lot of content to Resident Evil: The Mercenaries 3D, but then again, it isn’t trying to deliver a full-fledged RE experience like Revelations or any of the numbered entries in the series. The Mercenaries 3D is meant to satiate a hunger for pure, unbridled arcade-y gameplay, and it handles surprisingly well on a handheld, touch screen implementation for herb healing and all.

My rating: 7 (out of 10)

Pokémon Sapphire journal - entry two

I’m already noticing a decent challenge factor from Sapphire, and I think this is brought on by two fronts. First off, the game limits the types of Pokémon you have access to early on. There are plenty of different Pokémon you can catch, all of them newcomers to generation III, and as a result, I give this angle much higher marks than the approach that Platinum took in throwing a bunch of old and boring Pokémon at you during its first few hours. Between my Sableye, Shroomish, Wingull, and Whismur, I feel like I have a decently rounded-out team for only being four hours into the game. I also caught two electric types - Plusle and Electrike – though I am currently unsure as to which I want to add to my party. Neither would prove highly beneficial at the moment, as the next gym is run by electric Pokémon expert Wattson.

And as much as I enjoy having a nice variety of Pokémon typings in my party, I have yet to encounter any Rock or Fire Pokémon in the wild (either one of which would make for a solid counter to the slew of Electric types I am set to take on). I know the Electric gym won’t be flat out impossible to trump with my current party, but I expect it will be rather challenging, especially if the first rival battle with May was any indicator of the overall difficulty factor of Pokémon Sapphire. Having just come off my playthrough of Pokémon Y, Sapphire certainly boasts a big difference in terms of its degree of difficulty.

I appreciate the fact that routes have thus far been relatively short, but also rather fully packed with trainers, items, berries, and fresh types of wild Pokémon. I feel like I’m getting a solid return on my battling/training without having to rely too heavily on potions (which is doubly nice, seeing as the reward money you earn from battles in Sapphire is seemingly minimal in comparison to other entries in the series). Distractions including package deliveries and a couple encounters with Team Aqua have been brief, and did well to avoid upsetting the pacing of Sapphire’s main focus. It is a little strange that Sapphire just sort of dumps Team Aqua into the story without much of an introduction, but oh well – I never expected the machinations of a villainous team hell-bent on the expansion of the sea to live up to the caliber of deviousness conveyed by Team Galactic or Team Plasma.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Pokémon Sapphire journal - entry one

I’ve finally scored a copy of Pokémon Sapphire, thus marking the start of my exploration of the third generation of Game Freak’s iconic RPG series. While Emerald was my preferred Hoenn title, I found that locating a legitimate copy of any of the generation III titles online was something of an annoying endeavor, and luckily one of the vendors at Youmacon had copies of both Ruby and Sapphire for reasonable prices. Ultimately, the version exclusives for Sapphire won the day, and as of right now I’ve clocked approximately one hour in.

The pacing for this journal will likely be slower than the journals I kept for Pokémon Y and Platinum earlier this year, simply because there are other video games that I am ranking as higher priorities than Sapphire. Also, I’ve played a ton of JRPGs this year, and while they are plenty of fun and offer a generally extensive amount of content, I feel like a break from the genre is in order. I still intend to post my review for Sapphire before the end of 2013, and in all likelihood, it will be posted before the end of November. But expect reviews of Resident Evil: The Mercenaries 3D, Killer is Dead, and possibly even Pikmin 3 to be posted before then.

My starter was Treecko, though in truth, my starter Pokémon is largely irrelevant to this particular playthrough. I’ve already used all three Hoenn starters between my Platinum playthrough and Soul Silver replays. There are other Grass type Pokémon that I have my eyes on that I ultimately intend to use in lieu of Treecko, including Shroomish and Lotad. Unlike my past few Pokémon playthroughs, I do not have a core team of six ironed out from the get-go, though I certainly have ideas in mind, and plan to stick to my pattern of not reusing Pokémon from previous playthroughs (thus why Treecko will ultimately be boxed).

Obviously a single hour worth of gameplay hasn’t revealed to me much about the nature of Sapphire, but I am impressed with what little I’ve seen thus far. The game world looks surprisingly more visually impressive than I expected, and the fact that the introductory sequence was breezed through in a matter of minutes was a welcome manner of kicking things off. I guess I thought that the running shoes were a generation IV item, but those too proved a convenient bonus right from the start. As of now, my team is made up of the aforementioned starter, Poochyena, and Taillow, but I know there are Shroomish looming in the grass nearby, and a Grass/Fighting dual type evolution (Breloom) sounds like a cool addition to my roster.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

3DS review: Pokémon X and Y

The first core titles in the long running series to be rendered in full 3D, Pokémon X and Y had high expectations riding on them. The story starts off very typical, with your protagonist meeting his four neighborhood friends, being instructed to seek out Professor Sycamore, and saying your goodbyes to your mom as you all set off on an adventure across the Kalos region. The main focus of Pokémon X and Y (plot-wise) is split between two storylines – helping Professor Sycamore’s research by learning about Mega Evolutions, a temporary fourth stage of evolution that certain Pokémon are capable of, and Team Flare, the resident villain team. Pokémon X and Y are something of a return to the themes of the original Pokémon games, as Team Flare’s shenanigans are relatively simple at first. Their story does not develop as consistently or as well as previous Pokémon villain teams, though the ultimate payoff does make for a surprising, intense twist.

Taking a note from Black and White, X and Y set you up against two rivals, though you will face off against one many more times than the other, denoting your neighbor Selena or Calem (depending on which gender you select for your protagonist) as the main rival. In fact, you’ll have almost as many battles with your main rival as you will have scripted encounters with your other hometown companions. New boutiques allow players to buy clothing items including hats, jackets, pants, skirts, shoes, socks, and bags, the availability of which changes each day.

As for the Mega Evolutions, they don’t really alter the routine typing matchups of Pokémon battles in any significant way. Players can only use a single Mega Evolution per battle, regardless of how many Pokémon in their party are capable of Mega Evolving, so as to account for balancing issues, but there isn’t any ‘give-and-take’ mechanic at play. Mega Evolutions will make your Pokémon more powerful, but they still retain the same weaknesses to super-effective attacks. As far as the aesthetics for these Mega Evolutions are concerned, about half of them - including Mega Lucario, Mega Charizard, Mega Garchomp, and Mega Mawile – are subtle updates to the standard final stage evolutions. The other half – including Mega Heracross, Mega Manectric, and Mega Aggron – are bloated, obtuse, or otherwise generally unappealing.

Pokémon X and Y do not introduce nearly as many new Pokémon as Black and White did. There are still version-exclusives and three new legendaries, and some of the evolution methods for these new Pokémon incorporate the 3DS hardware in clever ways. Plenty of older Pokémon make a return and can be caught in the wild, though the Pokémon new to generation six incorporate fun and interesting dual-typings, stats, and movesets. Combined with their aesthetic appearances, these lead the generation six newcomers to feel very much like an extension of the generation five Pokémon.

X and Y actually perform a lot of throwbacks to past entries in the series. While you are granted one of three new starters, Professor Sycamore also provides you with your choice of a Kanto starter. Berry planting, the dowsing machine, and a postgame Safari Zone all make returns, with the latter increasing the different types of Pokémon you can catch based on the number of friends registered on your 3DS. The Battle Subway has been dropped in favor of a more fast-paced variant set within Lumiose City’s restaurants, while the postgame Battle Maison is the closest players will get to a Battle Frontier or the Pokémon World Tournament. Aside from these more competitive extras, there isn’t much to the postgame in X and Y – in fact, it feels almost nonexistent in contrast to the expansive amount of bonus content in Black 2 and White 2.

And when it all boils down, the adventures you have in X and Y will be over sooner than you might hope. It will take a little over twenty hours to complete the main game. Though the new experience share item, which shares experience points with every Pokémon in your party, will cut out the need for grinding entirely, you will likely find your party members are at levels much higher than necessary by the time you face off against the Elite Four. The gym battles are plenty of fun, and the gym layouts both are highly creative and wonderfully realized.

A few select areas will have you riding on the back of Rhydon and Mamoswine in order to reach plot-sensitive locations, though the controls for these sections are grid-based, and the alternating ‘cinematic’ camera angles lead these portions to feel a tad clunky in their execution, however short-lived they might be. Compared to Johto, Unova, and basically every other country that players visited in previous games, Kalos feels notably smaller. The caves are by far the most expansive and unique areas, though the various routes do incorporate some nice weather elements and landmark structures that pop visually, allowing them to stand out and thus making everything much more easily navigable.

The graphical presentation is really one of the greatest strengths of these 3DS Pokémon titles. The slight cel-shading to the Pokémon models is almost as great as the dynamic and expressive stances they take in battle. The 3D functionality is only really used in battle or when you are exploring caves. Seeing your Pokémon battle in full 3D with the added depth perception is nice touch, and though the overworld being restricted to exclusively 2D is a little disappointing, there’s often so much going on with the character models and cityscapes that it seems like Game Freak and Nintendo may have designed things this way so as to avoid giving players a visual overload. Meanwhile, the soundtrack is largely upbeat and exciting, incorporating plenty of rock vibes into its various battle themes.

Pokémon Amie is a component that seeks to help ‘deepen the connection between you and your Pokémon’, as Nintendo puts it. However, this influences a new ‘affection’ meter, separate from the ‘friendship’ rating introduced way back in generation II. Whereas friendship is still utilized in order to evolve certain Pokémon like Eevee into Umbreon and Espeon, affection is primarily used to improve your Pokémons’ performance in battle. Feeding your Pokémon little treats called Poké Puffs, playing games with them, and simply petting them will raise their affection rating, which in turn can improve their chances of landing critical hits, and withstanding or even outright dodging powerful attacks. It’s a nifty little inclusion that provides some real long-term rewards. EV training, a process of boosting the individual stats of a Pokémon, previously required players to turn to spreadsheets and do a hefty amount of decoding of the games’ inner workings. Nintendo has since transformed this process into a simple and fun minigame known as Super Training, wherein individual Pokémon fire soccer balls at inflatable targets, and are rewarded with both points and punching bags to further boost their own points or to share with another Pokémon.

Online components have been greatly expanded, with the ability to engage in trades and battles at any time via the touch screen. Wonder Trade is an option that will set up a random trade with anyone in the world, while the passerby list will gradually scroll through a list of many people currently playing Pokémon X or Y. You can propose trades and battles with both people on your friends list and those on the passerby list. Every element of online play boots up quickly, and performs just as well as offline play.

Double battles, triple battles, and rotation battles all make their returns from past games, while sky battles are added into the mix, limiting your options to Pokémon capable of flight. In the event that you have few capable airborne Pokémon in your party, you are allowed the choice to turn down any sky battles. Occasionally, walking around in the tall grass will land you a horde encounter, where five lower level Pokémon will attack your single Pokémon at once. The new Fairy type Pokémon feel right at home with the previously established typings, and do more than act as a simple counter to Dragon, Dark, and Fighting type Pokémon – they provide greater incentive for players to experiment with Poison and Steel type Pokémon, both of which are super effective against Fairy types.

There’s a lot of new content at play in X and Y, but when you get past the shiny new visuals, you’ll find it’s very much the same Pokémon you’ve known for years – and that’s a good thing. Jumping into Pokémon battles and figuring out typing matchups is highly intuitive, and overall the games do their best to blend the beautiful exterior with a core that relies largely on playing to the nostalgia of Pokémon fans who may have followed the series all the way through, or those may not have played a single entry since Red and Blue were released. Either way, X and Y are a lot of fun, even without much in the way of postgame adventures.

My rating: 8 (out of 10)
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