Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Wii Virtual Console review: Sin and Punishment

An arcade style scrolling shooter in the vein of Star Fox 64, Sin and Punishment is overflowing with 1990s Japanese style. The first level is set in a mega city where a small band of rebels strike out against the excessive numbers of soldiers that police the sector on foot, from VTOLs, and even with the aid of mechanized animals. Achi, Saki, and Airan are the game’s three main characters, the latter two being playable. Their character models move forward automatically, while you, the player, can move them side to side and aim the cursor to change the angle of fire from their guns. When it comes to close-quarters encounters, Saki and Airan can swing a beam blade out to deal a quick strike to a foe or to deflect an object at a moving target.

The theme of a small ragtag group seeking to undo a greater force that looms ever-present with superior numbers and firepower is consistent throughout, though topics like what it means to be a pureblood human vs. a human-ruffian hybrid and the potential to become a higher being also come into play – threads common to other video game and anime works from the late 1990s and early 2000s. The city is but the start of something much greater – the lead characters will infiltrate enemy ships, square off against giant mutant creatures, and fly about on mobile platforms as they attempt to neutralize an entire fleet of ships (and that’s just during the second mission).

Sin and Punishment is a title that was released very late in the N64’s life cycle, but even so it’s thoroughly impressive just how good this game looks and plays. Character models are highly detailed, and look five times better than the angular forms of the inhabitants of Ocarina of Time’s Hyrule or the pixelated versions of the Goldeneye Bond villains. While Sin and Punishment was a Japanese exclusive prior to the Virtual Console re-release, it incorporates English voice acting. Though perhaps not the greatest example of character voice acting on the N64, it is impressive how well the actors match their characters and how well the dialogue fits the era. The soundtrack is largely that of a classic synth-rock sound that perfectly complements the artistic direction of the game.

Similarly, the game controls incredibly smoothly, whether you are using the Wii Classic Controller or one from the Gamecube. Whereas Star Fox 64 had a (more or less) fixed camera centered behind the Arwing in the middle of the screen, Sin and Punishment’s frame sits at the ground level with the playable characters, tilting up, left, and right at scripted points within each mission to provide a better range of vision. The environments are even more highly-detailed than the characters, with excellent lighting effects and brightly displayed health and weapon icons placed at strategic points.

Sin and Punishment effectively drops you into the thick of battle without much in the way of a tutorial, though the controls can be referenced from the main menu prior to starting a new playthrough. Otherwise, the first few waves of enemies you face are relatively easy prey, granting you a few minutes to get used to the arcade shooter style of gameplay. Sin and Punishment is only a couple of hours long and does grant you a set number of retry attempts, but do not be fooled – this is a genuinely challenging game that rewards a trial-and-error approach. Its over-the-top action is cheesy in the most endearing way, while the presentation on the whole is top-notch.

My rating: 9 (out of 10)

DS review: Pokémon Platinum

Set in the Sinnoh region, Pokémon Platinum is the compilation title for the Generation IV Pokémon titles and effectively follows the same story and series of events, albeit with a few expansions and alterations. The game begins with a very typical introduction to your character and neighbor/rival crossing paths with the Sinnoh region’s esteemed Professor Rowan, a mustached gentleman who grants you free choice of your starter Pokémon. From there, you make your way toward the first major towns via the numbered routes that connect them, but not before encountering a mysterious blue-haired man at a nearby lake who seems to have some interest in the legendary Pokémon rumored to reside there.

Pokémon Platinum deals with the same themes as its predecessors Diamond and Pearl. While Professor Rowan asks you to learn more about the connections between humans and Pokémon as well as the evolutionary process some Pokémon undergo, the local villainous group Team Galactic is concerned primarily with the Sinnoh region’s legendary Pokémon Palkia and Dialga, Pokémon rumored to have been instrumental in the creation of the region and perhaps even the rest of the world. While it is made strikingly obvious early on how dim-witted most of the Team Galactic followers are, the executive officers are much more collected individuals, and their intentions could result in the rewriting of both time and space – a far more serious implication than the thievery of Team Rocket.

The Pokémon new to generation IV are a strange bunch whose typings are not exactly evenly distributed. There are quite a few new evolutions given to Pokémon from the previous four generations, and while Lickilicky, Magmortar, and Rhyperior may be able to utilize broader movesets than their pre-evolutions, their rather bloated and uninspired appearances beg the question as to why Game Freak felt the need to add another stage to these evolutionary lines. Meanwhile, early Sinnoh-local Pokémon like Shinx (an electric type), Starly (normal/flying), and Bidoof (a normal type that acts as this generation’s Rattata or Sentret) can easily be caught to round out your party to a decent degree, but access to further fourth generation Pokémon is severely limited until late in the main game. The majority of your time spent in the wild, exploring caves, and surfing on the three major lakes in the Sinnoh region will result in encounter after encounter with Geodudes, Machops, Psyducks, as well as a few other overly-familiar faces. Even an egg that is gifted to you during the first half of the game hatches into a Togepi, an event all too familiar to anyone who played the generation II titles or their DS remakes that followed a couple of years after the release of Pokémon Platinum.

Graphically, the game looks superb. 3D models mesh well with the 2D character sprites, while the Pokémon display a decent range of actions as they make their debut in a battle. A few of the older Pokémon are displayed in strange poses, but on the whole the battle segments look very good. The gyms follow a formula of ‘something old, something new’, as the first couple are helmed by leaders that favor Ground and Grass types, while later gyms allow Ghost, Steel, and Ice type Pokémon have their moment in the spotlight. While the three starter Pokémon do stick to the tried and true typings of Grass, Water, and Fire for their early evolutions, their final dual-typings are a breath of fresh air to the series, as they adopt Grass/Ground, Water/Steel, and Fire/Fighting respectively. That said, the moves that these starter Pokémon learn over the course of the game are not exactly in perfect balance with one another, and exploring every inch of the Sinnoh region’s various routes and locales would greatly benefit your team’s versatility and strategies.

Routes have been compressed, packing a comparable number of trainers and seemingly greater quality/quantity of items into smaller spaces. Generally speaking, this makes the trek between points of interest far less monotonous or time-consuming, though a few routes suffer from lackluster design and layout as a result. Cities, on the other hand, are all brilliantly realized, with interesting themes guiding their aesthetic approaches. Oreburgh City is home to both the Ground type gym and a mining industry, while Hearthome City is large and entertainment-oriented, with the Ghost type gym taking on a sort of funhouse setup. The gyms incorporate interesting puzzle mechanics, such as sliding punching bags along rails to knock obstructions out of a pathway and raising the water level to connect floating bridge segments.

While the story crescendos in the most grandiose fashion, the postgame is lacking when compared to many other entries in the series. Attempting to catch both Palkia and Dialga is exciting in its own right, The Battle Frontier from Pokémon Emerald makes a return, and there is always the option to import Pokémon from any of the five GBA releases via the Pal Park. But Platinum seems to focus more on incorporating the extra content that is non-essential to the main game as side quests and distractions, which leads to very mixed results. The Underground area can be tackled with friends to dig for fossils and mess around with harmless traps, though it has a tendency to drain the battery charge on your DS faster than normal gameplay. Meanwhile, a park wherein you can walk around with one of your Pokémon outside of its Pokéball serves no discernible purpose outside of gathering a few odd items. A visit to the purportedly haunted Old Chateau and the ability to team up with an NPC trainer on Iron Island make up some of the game’s more memorable and cleverly crafted sidequests.

Commanding your Pokémon to carry out attacks, healing them up with potions or berries, and even swapping party members are all incredibly quick and easy actions, thanks to the incorporation of the touch screen as your command list. However, the rest of the game sees minimal use of the touch screen, relying heavily on the buttons and D-pad for navigating menus, engaging in Wi-Fi trades, and shuffling your teammates. It results in the overall gameplay carrying out at a rate that is a little bit slower than 2010's Heart Gold and Soul Silver remakes, and the DS’ touch control fame feeling very much underutilized and underappreciated. When not engaged in battle, the bottom screen is used to display one of many Pokétch apps. These can include (but are not limited to) a miniaturized version of the health display for your team members, a map of the region with blinking markers for keeping track of roaming legendary Pokémon, a dowsing machine used for uncovering hidden treasures, as well as the notably less exciting calculator and memo pad. Because Pokémon Platinum is built into the original smaller grey DS cartridges, it cannot hold as much information as the larger black cartridges used by every Pokémon game that followed, leading to some lengthy save times.

There are a few strange alterations to long-standing Pokémon traditions, like riding the bike. Instead of it being used as a faster means of traveling between 'Point A' and 'Point B', it is now actually required to ascend certain muddy slopes and continue on to the next town. The bike can run in two gear settings which players can easily alter at the push of the B button, but the faster setting is needed to even scale the aforementioned mud slopes, so it’s a wonder that Game Freak even bothered with the slower and supposedly ‘more easily controlled’ gear setting. Similarly, the process of gathering berries introduced in Gold and Silver returns, as does the process of planting them introduced in Ruby and Sapphire, with the latter portion of the optional scavenging routine being less welcome. Purchasing mulch and combining it with ideal berries to grow more trees and ultimately use the fruits of your labor (no pun intended) for poffins that can help boost your Pokémon’s personality traits comes across as a convoluted, lethargic, and generally boring process that really only benefits the individuals interested in tackling the game’s Pokémon beauty pageant. Trees will eventually grow back on their own after a day or two, and the same berries you’ve known since generation II can still immediately be put to use as healing objects.

The challenge factor for the main game is decent at the start, but seems to taper off before the halfway point. The game seems to discourage the importing of Pokémon from outside games early on, as Pokémon that exceed level 10 before the first two gyms have been completed will frequently disobey you (your Sinnoh starter Pokémon excluded). But the lack of interesting new Pokémon available as well as the lack of particularly interesting old ones makes the first few hours just a tad frustrating for just about anyone, regardless of their team’s make up. Once that second gym badge is acquired and the hurdle overcome, however, Pokémon Platinum becomes a surprisingly easy game to burn through, lasting approximately twenty hours. The only significant required challenge comes from the Elite Four, as each member sees a notable gap in the staggering of the numbered levels of their respective Pokémon.

There is a second egg Pokémon that you are given during the game’s second half that hatches into a Riolu, who can ultimately evolve into Lucario and become a highly valuable asset to your team as well as a solid counter to the Elite Four. The problem is that Riolu is not acquired until late in the game, long after most of your team members would be at level thirty or higher, and it would have been a more rewarding and interesting experience had the game granted you use of Riolu early on in place of Togepi. Over the course of Pokémon Platinum’s main game, you will need to use all but about two HM moves, with no fewer than four being necessary for navigating Victory Road. This will limit the movesets of your core party Pokémon to a considerable degree, or alternatively result in your needing to revisit Victory Road to grind for more experience in the event that you braved the cavern with a Bidoof or some comparable HM pack mule in tow – either option only compounds the issues presented by a limited array of new Pokémon.

Pokémon Platinum looks and sounds fantastic, with exceptionally crafted locales and one of the best soundtracks in the series. The battle system is an impressive modernization of the classic turn-based routine introduced in the original Gameboy titles. The intelligent, fun gym layouts as well as the late game puzzle mechanics of the Distortion World are incredibly fresh and welcome additions to the franchise. But for all these boosts to the quality of Pokémon Platinum’s presentation, the lack of useful or interesting wild Pokémon available prior to the postgame really drags the overall experience down. If Game Freak is going to bother making a new Pokémon game, they should at least provide you the option of running with all-new Pokémon instead of actively shoving the old and all-too familiar in your face.

My rating: 8 (out of 10)

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Impressions of The Wonderful 101 demo

Less than a half-hour ago, I finished playing the demo for The Wonderful 101, Platinum Game’s first big exclusive title for the Wii U. While I’ve been really excited at the prospect of Platinum Games developing exclusive titles for Nintendo’s new system, The Wonderful 101 was a title I was very much on the fence about purchasing. It certainly looked interesting, but as a sort of odd combination of Pikmin-style squad command and top-down arcade play, I was concerned as to how the gameplay mechanics would ultimately be implemented. Now that I’ve finished the demo, I can honestly say that I’m no closer to making a decision on whether or not to purchase the full retail release.

To begin with the positive elements of The Wonderful 101, the game looks gorgeous. There’s a ton of detail put into school signs, billboards, business names, while houses and cars see a decent degree of variation. The chrome on your team’s friendly robot companion shines brilliantly, and the colors of the various hero characters as well as their weaponry pop against the backdrop of the city. The soundtrack is very much a throwback to action-packed Saturday morning cartoons and old anime works – equal parts cheesy and endearing.

The story portion of the demo only grants you full access to three main characters, though you can round up more temporary members like citizens and police officers to increase your team’s offensive and defensive strength. Wonderize Red is the character the demo will push you to use most frequently, as his giant fist is effectively the ‘vanilla’ basic weapon that doubles as a means to open doors and boxes. Wonderize Green is best used against slow enemies, as his firearms can deal a decent rate of damage from a safe distance. Wonderize Blue is the character I had the most fun with, as his wide and fast swings of his sword are most befitting an action game and prove very useful in taking out large groups of small foes that seek to surround your team.

Where the demo really fumbles is in its block mechanic. Holding the left trigger button collects your team together in the shape of a giant dessert gelatin, which can be used to deflect cannon fire and stun foes who might attempt to rush you with a heavy punch. The problem is that the block move only holds for about two seconds, meaning that putting it up too late will result in an enemy stomping through your ranks and scattering your teammates, and putting the gelatin shield up too late will result in the same outcome. While the other weapons rely on the power of batteries collected throughout each mission, the gelatin does not, and there is seemingly no way to extend the span of time it will hold for (at least in the demo – I would hope that the full game would allow for upgrades to abilities).

The enemy designs all seem to follow a similar school of design, which is good in the sense that they appear to have the same alien and robotic origins, but a bit of a downside in the sense that they all bear white, grey, and black bodies, with varying degrees of colored patterns or tubing. There are a few puzzle elements worked in, though nothing to the complexity of a Zelda title. Turning a series of wheels the right number of rotations so that the numbers their respective meters display is a brief but simple distraction, befitting of a game that is meant to appeal to both younger gamers and older veterans of the action genre.

And when it boils down to it, everything presented in the demo, from the story portion to the challenge mode, feels like an action game in the purest sense. Sure, you have many small characters under your command, but keeping track of all of them is a cinch. In the event that your team is scattered by attacking enemies, small yellow stars will appear over their heads to indicate that they are dizzy. When at full strength, the lead character will always be the one the camera follows, a glowing circle designating them as the current squad commander. Losing health is not much of a concern unless your team becomes scattered, and while I never came close to encountering a ‘game over’ screen during my playthrough of the demo’s two modes, I did find some of the more powerful enemies had a tendency to pile on one attack after another, leading my team to become scattered not seconds after I had regrouped them. It was incredibly frustrating at times, considering I was trying to follow the demo’s instructions and defend myself, but often there simply wasn’t enough time between one attack to the next for me regroup, shift my attention to the enemies, and time my block.

I really want the Wii U to succeed as a console, and as it currently stands, it certainly has a leg-up on the competition. Based on what I’ve seen of the PS4 and Xbox One promos, I still feel like the Wii U is the best console option for me (hence the reason that I purchased it and have zero intention of buying either of the other two eighth-generation home consoles). I also think Platinum has a lot of potential to be to the Wii U what Rare was to the N64, and I’d love to support more exclusive titles for the console (ZombiU was a grand slam, I felt). But I think that I really need to experience more of The Wonderful 101 hands-on, because the demo was actually a bit different than what I expected. That said, I do recognize that the demo presents but a snippet of what the full game has to offer, and for that reason I’d like to do some more digging into this before I make a final call on whether or not I want to add The Wonderful 101 to my video game library.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Bayonetta: Bloody Fate anime announced

While Bayonetta 2 may be one of the most highly-anticipated games for the Wii U in 2014, fans of Platinum Game's breakout title may be pleased to hear that an anime film tie-in is in the works too. Bayonetta: Bloody Fate is set to release in Japanese theaters on November 23rd. No word on when the story is set to take place in the series' chronology, but considering Bayonetta still has her long hair in the film, it would seem likely that Bloody Fate is either a prequel to the first game or meant to help bridge the gap between the two video game releases.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Pokémon Platinum journal - entry six

It took me three full runs through the Elite Four and a little over a half an hour grinding in Victory Road to gather enough experience points to best Cynthia’s team of Pokémon. While I found the combination of different types she brought to the fight kept me on my toes, her Togekiss led me to be the most annoyed, as most of my Pokémon that stood the best chance of taking her Togekiss down had weak defense while most of the others simply had a natural weakness to Flying type moves. The resulting choice for her Togekiss to spam a single attack over and over got old rather fast, despite the fact that I had more than one Pokémon whose speed stat or moveset allowed them to move first.

The Elite Four proved very different than previous incarnations. While the typings commanded by the Elite Four members were curious, the gauntlet run setup as a whole felt lackluster when compared to that of Soul Silver or the generation V titles. Really, the only notable challenge came from Cynthia, and I don’t feel that my having chosen a different Sinnoh starter would have made much of a difference in this scenario.

While I did stick with the core team I set out to use for Platinum up through my first attempt at defeating the Elite Four, I came to realize that Chimecho was acting largely as a support member to my team. While this was fine for the gyms and trainer battles that had led up to that point, Chimecho’s lack of versatility and moves that only allowed for so much in the way of offensive power led me to swap him out in favor of another Psychic type. While I briefly considered Bronzong, I knew my team already had a significant weakness to Fire Pokémon, and opted instead to seek out the three Lake Guardians. As soon as I realized Mesprit was determined to wander Sinnoh in the hopes that I might chase him, I gave up on that venture, focusing instead on Uxie and Azelf. Uxie’s higher defense stats, while impressive, ultimately led me to select Azelf and his higher attack stats. I wanted a Pokémon that could learn a couple of strong Psychic moves, but that could also be useful in countering other types not as well accounted for by the rest of my party. Azelf hit the opponent Pokémon hard and fast, and that was just the edge I needed.

So here it is – my Pokémon Platinum ‘dream team’, consisting of Empoleon, Blaziken, Venusaur, Aerodactyl, Froslass, and Azelf. I’m glad I stuck with these six core typings from start to finish, even if I did swap one team member out at the eleventh hour. As I am posting this, I have already captured Giratina, Dialga, and Palkia (to surprisingly little resistance and small number of catch attempts with the latter two). I have yet to explore the majority of the postgame content, so my review will be a little ways off yet. But do know that this is likely the final journal entry for my Pokémon Platinum playthrough, and that my next journal series will focus on the sixth generation Pokémon games (though I am currently still unsure as to which title I want to purchase between Pokémon X and Pokémon Y).

Kill la Kill trailer

Debuting in Japan later this month, Kill la Kill is an anime from Studio Trigger. Trigger is comprised of former Gainax employees, which explains why the animation style of Kill la Kill bears such a striking resemblance to that of Gurren Lagann. While the premise of Kill la Kill appears to be one girl's determination to face off against the school and its staff (as shown in the trailer), it also seems to be something of a spiritual successor to both FLCL and Gurren Lagann, blending some of the themes present in both of those shows like a strong lead female protagonist, the goal of taking down a force much larger than oneself, as well as exaggerated weapons and character designs and, of course, a glowing drill or two. Gainax is easily one of my all-time favorite anime studios, and I'll certainly be keeping an eye on the up-and-comers over at Trigger as they prepare to release this very interesting and exciting looking anime.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Pokémon Platinum journal - entry five

The climax of the Team Galactic storyline was spectacular. It’s cool to see the villain team actually come so close to seeing their plans realized, and it’s even more amusing to me that Cyrus recognized how inept his followers were but couldn’t give two hoots. In the end, the work of Team Galactic served Cyrus and Cyrus alone, as he wanted to rewrite space and time to fit his own desires. Unfortunately for him, despite using Uxie, Mesprit, and Azelf to call upon Palkia and Dialga, Giratina intervened, sucking him, the protagonist character, and Sinnoh Champion Cynthia into the Distortion World. From there, it was up to the protagonist to confront Giratina and ultimately close the rift that the legendary Pokémon opened in order to prevent reality from being swallowed up by the chaos and inverse reality of the Distortion World. Due to his cold, unmoving nature (even when he’s been bested by a young trainer several times), his vision stays clear – he even believes that the protagonist will ultimately champion the cause he set out to bring about. Because of all that, Cyrus is easily one of my favorite lead villains in the Pokémon series.

The Sunnyshore City gym had a decent layout with some mildly amusing puzzle mechanics at play, though nothing extraordinary. In truth, Volkner’s gym was relatively easy to crank through – I didn’t sweep his team with just one Pokémon, and I certainly found it a bit more challenging than the Dragon type gym in Black/White or Black 2/White 2. As the final gym though, it wasn’t all that difficult. What I have found more so frustrating, however, are the final Elite Four battle with Lucian and the champion battle with Cynthia. This is due less to the teams of Pokémon each individual uses, but more on how much of a gap there is in the levels of each team commanded by the members of the Elite Four. Throughout the rest of my Pokémon Platinum playthrough, I found that I was a few levels ahead of where I probably needed to be, and while I would see one of my team members faint from time to time or run out of PP for an ideal move before I hit the next town’s Pokémon Center, I always felt that I was in a good position to defeat my opponents. Seeing the sudden jump in the levels of opposing Pokémon, I can only imagine how frustrating it must have been for anyone who played through the game blind or used solely Sinnoh-native Pokémon.

The game’s constant demand that I use HMs does not help the situation. I found this element frustrating in Soul Silver, as I had to use multiple HMs to travel from Johto to Kanto. But at least I didn’t need to have the entirety of my core team with me at the time – as soon as I reached the other side, I could then use fly to quickly travel back and forth, changing my team members out at the Pokémon Center. Over the course of Platinum, you are required to use no fewer than six separate HMs just to progress through the story, and while you can catch a Machop or a Bidoof to shoulder this burden on, you still have to use four separate HMs to make your way through Victory Road. It’s an annoying, poorly thought-out requirement, as it means you either have to accommodate for one subpar Pokémon with a wholly boring and ineffective moveset, or divvy these HM moves up among six stronger and more practical Pokémon, robbing each of at least one more practical or effective move. I didn’t spend a lot of time grinding as I played through Platinum because I never felt the need to, but I guess I am going to need to devote a few hours to that process now.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Pokémon Platinum journal - entry four

Good on Pokémon Platinum for keeping some characters outside of the traditional core circle relevant later in the main game. The brief mention by Byron that Roark is in fact his son and Maylene’s meeting back up with you as you both push through the blizzard toward Snowpoint City actually go a long way in making me more invested in the people living in Sinnoh. Even more appreciated is the game’s devotion to the Team Galactic plotline. It takes a while for the mystery surrounding them to reach a boiling point, but when it does is it impressive. I don’t think any of the other Pokémon games gave their local bad guy team so notable a leg-up with more than a few hours to go before the finale. While I had my complaints about the pacing during the game’s earlier stretches, it’s been pretty great ever since.

As for the challenge factor from the gyms, they largely depend on which starter you chose. As I previously mentioned, I imported both Venusaur and Blaziken from Soul Silver, but if you were running solely with Pokémon caught in Platinum, you might find certain gyms significantly more challenging and/or frustrating. For example, Candice’s Ice types would be a pushover for anyone using Infernape, but could be a real pain for anyone using Empoleon or Torterra. Byron’s Steel types are weak to Fighting Pokémon as well as Fire, so Infernape is by default the best choice there as well, though both his Steelix and Bastiodon have dual typings that could be easily countered with the other two starters. All this traces back to Platinum's lack of support for newer generation Pokémon early on. True, the wild Pokémon you encounter after the fourth or fifth gym amp up the variety and are at higher levels, but there's still the factor of grinding for experience points at play. The game does, however, allow you to go ahead and scour Iron Island for extra items and experience points, and this is one of the game's best designed sub-areas.

The generation IV Pokémon are shining through more noticeably now, while some of the generation II and III Pokémon have decided to lay claim to the abundance of wild encounters previously filled by generation I regulars. I did go out of my way to catch a Snowver, and though I have no real intention of using him during this particular playthrough, I don’t have many Ice type Pokémon well-suited for the Black 2 Pokémon World Tournament. Snowver’s Ice and Grass dual-typing may prove useful there in the long run. I also caught two Snorunts – one male and one female. The male will similarly be transported to Black 2 and evolved into Glalie, while the female has filled the final slot on my Platinum team as Froslass. I love Ghost type Pokémon, and the dual typing with Ice is an interesting, exciting combination.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Pokémon Platinum journal - entry three

If I had to associate a Pokémon name with this most recent leg of Pokémon Platinum, It would be Serperior (*ba-dum-tiss*, bad Pokémon pun).

Really though, the game seems to have pulled itself out of the slump of uninteresting wild battles and bland environment designs. Sea routes filled with swimming trainers, ancient remnants of Sinnoh’s past, and misty mountain bridges make for far more interesting and eye catching areas – the latter introduces the fog environment factor which, while admittedly an interesting concept, diminishes both player and opponent Pokémon accuracy so significantly that it’s largely a stare down, with only every third or fourth attack landing on its target. Even option side areas like the Old Chateau and Fuego Ironworks make for brief but well-crafted distractions.

Wild encounters have now broadened to accommodate Floatzels, Bronzors, Shellos and more. While Platinum still seems to push Pokémon from previous generations more than I think is healthy for its success as a product, I am very glad to see newer Pokémon becoming more frequent and overshadowing Geodudes and Machops (with any luck, hopefully those generation I Pokémon will disappear from wild encounters completely as I make my way toward Canalave City). The layouts of both Maylene and Crasher Wake’s gyms were the best yet, while the trainers within used a nice variety of Pokémon (even if some of those Pokémon used movesets that loosely fell into the category they were intended to match).

The Sinnoh region is notably smaller than Johto or Unova, and it tries to mask this (to mixed results) by having players loop around its various regions in odd patterns. While Johto was more or less a straight progression from one gym to another (the only major exception being the backtracking to sort out Team Rocket’s takeover of Goldenrod City’s radio station), Platinum utilizes a Metroid-esque routine of allowing players access to sub-areas of locales previously visited once they have acquired the necessary HMs or badges. While most of these sub-areas (the likes of which include the aforementioned Old Chateau and Fuego Ironworks), the process of visiting, revisiting, and revisiting areas yet again can result in finding yourself lost and confused, depending on how far you’ve traveled from where the game intends for you to head next.

I’ve actually decided to go ahead and catch as many generation IV Pokémon as I can while I’m travelling around Sinnoh, as well as the odd generation I, II, and III Pokémon I have otherwise been barred access to. I never really set out to catch them all when I sought to revisit the franchise via Soul Silver and White, but seeing as how I have more than 460 Pokémon recorded on my national Pokédex in Black 2, It wouldn’t actually require that much extra effort to complete what I can. I do recognize, however, that Arceus is more or less out of the question unless I can gain him through a trade or Nintendo performs some other distribution event in the future.

I really love the personalities of the characters in Platinum. While the rival character is a little too ecstatic and hyper for my liking, at least he isn’t a snobby brat. Meanwhile, Cynthia and the gym leaders share an interesting dynamic with nicely varied attitudes and physical appearances that add quite a spark of inspiration to the otherwise typical trainer character models. From the standpoint of Platinum’s graphics, sound design, and overall artistic presentation, the game is a real winner for me. It’s unfortunate that the game mechanics don’t all stack up equally, but the game is definitely now on a consistent upward climb. Aside from tackling this upcoming Steel gym, my next most important goal is catching my final team member Snorunt and evolving it into Froslass.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Xbox 360 review: Dead Rising 2

Set five years after the original game, Dead Rising 2 takes place in Fortune City, an American west casino town that effectively behaves as a baby brother to Las Vegas. Chuck Greene, former motocross champ, has found himself participating in Terror is Reality, a stadium game show based around the premise of having four competitors slaughter hordes of zombies for cash prizes. Not long after Chuck’s run, the otherwise safely-contained zombies break loose and quickly spread out from the arena into the rest of Fortune City. Fearing for the safety of his daughter Katey, Chuck heads off to find her and, once reunited with her, makes his way to a safehouse with a handful of other survivors. While the group should be able to rest easy knowing that rescue will arrive in three days and that the shelter is secure, Chuck has to provide Katey with a constant supply of Zombrex, as she was bitten once before but never turned into one of the undead. To compound the situation, Chuck learns that someone has framed him for setting the zombies loose, and so in order to earn the trust of the other safehouse survivors and clear his name, he must venture out into Fortune City to figure out just who is trying to blame him for the outbreak and why.

Dead Rising 2 utilizes the same basic engine as the first game, offering up a third-person perspective for the bulk of Chuck’s running, fighting, crafting weapons, and changing outfits. With firearms, flamethrowers and the like, the camera can zoom in temporarily to allow Chuck more precise aim, which comes in most handy when engaging survivors who have mentally gone off the deep end in some of the game’s boss fights. These ‘boss’ characters are little more than a typical survivor model with a potentially larger health bar and, occasionally, some special tactic or another. In the case of a schedule-obsessed postman, his attack patterns involve both a shotgun and some time bombs that he hurls at Chuck. With a guy dressed as children’s store mascot Slappy, it’s a combination of speedy roller skates and flamethrowers, making an up-close-and-personal approach less than ideal. While these psychopaths are all aesthetically unique, their personalities are effectively the same – the zombies hit, they were shell-shocked, and thus took their roles way too seriously; so seriously that they would rather kill Chuck than give up their routine, no matter how trivial or misguided it might be post-outbreak.

It is immediately apparent how much better Dead Rising 2 plays than its predecessor. Zombies are not as prone to grabbing onto Chuck or his allies and devouring their health, while practical weapons like a spiked baseball bat or sledgehammer will keep the infected at bay long enough for Chuck to complete his first few introductory tasks. The save system sees the biggest improvement by far, allowing players to save their game at any bathroom stall at any point, regardless of what weapons they have on hand, how many survivors are travelling with them, etc. Collecting Zombrex for Katey can be handled through a few different means – Chuck can save up money to buy it from pawn shops located around Fortune City, or he can take on certain missions that will detail Zombrex as a reward before he commits himself to aiding a survivor who is willing to help Chuck out in turn. Making sure Chuck has Zombrex on hand once per day is not so much a challenge due to any explicit difficulty factor, but instead requires planning and strategy on part of the player, as they must find time to divert their attention to finding the Zombrex as well as administering it to Katey at a specific time each day.

As far as the weapons at Chuck’s disposal are concerned, there are typical blunt objects like the aforementioned bat and hammer, elusive firearms including pistols and shotguns, and well as heavy hitters with a more limited range of use like flowerpots, signs, and giant teddy bears. Mowing down crowds of infected with putt-putt speed golf carts or more literally with a lawnmower provides a good chuckle from time to time, but the real winners are also the most rewarding with regards to boosting Chuck’s experience points – those weapons being all the special combo ones. The most fun and admittedly funny moments come from Chuck’s use of the Paddlesaw (two chainsaws attached to opposite ends of a kayak paddle), Electric Rake (a leaf rake with a car battery strapped to it, emitting a jolt from the metal teeth), Rocket Launcher (a series of metal pipes that fire bottle rockets out in gatling gun fashion), and the Knife Gloves (boxing gloves with knives protruding from the knuckles). A few other combo weapons are one-time uses and are intended to quickly clear a large area, and can thus prove useful when escorting large groups. Meanwhile, the construction helmet with beer bottles strapped to either side – aptly title the ‘Beer Hat’ – allows Chuck to refill his health bar on the go, and can be extremely helpful during the game’s handful of boss fights, some of which are sprung on players without much warning. However, it’s best not to rely too heavily on alcohol in order to refill Chuck’s health bar, as too much booze and no food will make him throw up.

Gaining experience points will merit Chuck new levels, which in turn grant him bonuses like more slots in his inventory and a larger health bar. Experience points are earned at a very gradual pace when killing zombies, while escorting survivors will net Chuck large bonuses. While the main story is consistent regardless of how many times you replay Dead Rising 2, you are granted complete freedom with regards to which psychopaths you decide to fight and which survivors you opt to bring back to the safehouse. Saving certain characters will open the door to further missions, as well as trivial distractions like a game of poker.

Online multiplayer sees four players compete to earn the highest score in the Terror is Reality game show that Chuck competes in during the single-player game’s intro sequence. The main event of this multiplayer mode is Slicecycles, wherein players hack up hordes of infected via chainsaws attached to motocross bikes, while the rest of the games include the likes of a target shooting range, strapping dynamite helmets to zombies and hitting a button to make them explode, a tag-like match with players running inside of giant hamster balls, and so on. In essence, these feel like some bloody, M-rated equivalents of Mario Party games, though they certainly lack the spirit and fun-factor of Nintendo’s board game video game. The Terror is Reality minigames are no doubt inspired, and arguably one of the most creative multiplayer modes to grace any zombie game, but the entire mode feels like a brief afterthought tacked onto the end of the main star, the single-player story mode.

Sure, most of the characters Chuck encounters during his days in Fortune City are more caricatures than fully realized characters, but that’s part of Dead Rising’s charm. What Resident Evil is intended to be to serious and dark zombie games, Dead Rising is to a 70s and 80s B-movie presentation. It’s not a game that is meant to be taken too seriously – in fact, Dead Rising and its sequel do more than their fair share of poking fun at tropes within the zombie subgenre of films and video games. While it is unfortunate that Katey and Chuck’s relationship falls to the wayside and isn’t explored in any real meaningful way like it was in Case Zero, Dead Rising 2 is more about gameplay than storytelling. Know that while Chuck will spend most of his time hacking, slashing, blowing up, and setting fire to a sea of undead, you - the player - will have a riot in controlling him to do so.

My rating: 8.25 (out of 10)

Pokémon Platinum journal - entry two

I’ve finally gotten past the hurdle of Pokémon below level thirty not obeying me, as I’ve now beaten three gyms. While Gardenia’s gym battle was rather typical of a second gym as well as a Grass type gym, Fantina’s Ghost type gym was easily my favorite thus far. The puzzle element and notably higher number of trainers within made the pattern less predictable, while the specific Pokémon owned by Fantina had nicely varied movesets.

The routes between towns, however, are becoming notably less impressive, with pathways that zig and zag for no real reason, and only slight variation in an otherwise straightforward (if not cramped) pathway. I don’t care much for Platinum’s insistence on adding extra complexity to previously simple things, either. The bike is no longer just a means for faster transportation, but must be used to speed over certain hills in order to progress, while there is a whole system in place for laying down mulch for replanting trees and, in turn, picking more berries. The bike hills could have easily been replaced with the small bushes that need to be cut by a Pokémon, as you get both that HM and the bicycle around the same time. Meanwhile, the berry tree planting process seems counter-intuitive for a game aimed largely at young gamers.

I’m similarly none too impressed with severely limited number of wild Pokémon I’ve encountered by this point. The Team Galactic storyline is making some headway, the people of the Sinnoh region have noticed their presence, and the gym leaders have all presented distinct styles and personalities. But I’ve seen more Geodudes, Machops, and Bidoofs than I care to count, with Starlys and Shinxes being the next most common. I went ahead and caught a single Clefairy shortly before facing Gardenia, simply because of the fact that I had never caught one during any of my previous Pokémon adventures. It may be true that I plan to stick to my core team of six, predetermined Pokémon, but a little more variety in the wild encounters would be nice. The Togepi that Cynthia gave me only compounded my frustrations with this – I had no interest in using Togepi any of the four times I trekked through Johto in Gold/Soul Silver, and that certainly hasn’t changed now.

I’ve only dabbled in the extra content a little bit, and neither the Amity Square distractions nor the Underground bonus area impressed me much. The Underground might have been more immediately exciting had I picked up Platinum during its heyday, but the act of needing to track down another player who owns Diamond, Pearl, or Platinum in order to catch one of the more elusive and interesting Pokémon, Spiritomb, seems like a ton of unnecessary hassle. Why not make it so that players could just interact thirty-odd times with another player in any of the generation IV games via the Pokémon Center’s Union Room? As for Amity Square, all I got out of it were a few halfway-decent items to add to my backpack. I’m seriously hoping that this is the low point of the game, and that things will go up from here, because while Platinum started off strong enough, it reached a seriously obnoxious pattern of repetition and ill-conceived hindrances not long after the first gym.

Future Pokémon Gyms wishlist

I really enjoy the way that the Elite Four of the various Pokémon games switch up with each new generation. While the generation V dynamic of Fighting, Psychic, Dark, and Ghost is easily my favorite in the series, the games that preceded Black and White did a similarly good job of keeping players on their toes. The gyms, however, tend to stick to a balance of new and old. Generally speaking, there are four that follow the original types introduced in Red and Blue, with the rest either following suit or adopting some of the typings from generation II onward. Below is a list of the eight gym typings I think would make for an interesting combination – if not in the upcoming X and Y, then perhaps in a future Pokémon title. (Please note: these gyms are not listed in any particular order, unless specified otherwise.)

Flying – While Normal type gyms have often been encountered early on, a Flying type gym would present a similar moderate degree of challenge without any of the Pokémon under the gym leader’s ownership feeling too overly powerful for the first real hurdle of the game. The only starter at risk would be the grass starter, but assuming players could catch an Electric or Rock type within the first route or so, this would be easy enough to balance.

Steel – Heavy on defense, the Steel battles are some of the longest lasting. This is due not only to the fact that Steel types are only particularly weak to Fire and Fighting Pokémon, but the fact that Steel types, by and large, are dual types. Skarmory is Steel/Flying, Steelix is Steel/Ground, and both Metagross and Bronzong are Steel/Psychic. The presentation of non-Steel moves would be sure to keep players on their feet.

Fairy – The newest type to the world of Pokémon, Fairy types exist primarily to knock Dragon types from their long-standing status as being among the best Pokémon of all. Having the Fairy gym placed late in the game would serve that purpose well, and similarly reward players who used less ‘mainstream’ Pokémon which Fairy types are weak to.

Dark – The only typing to never have a gym assigned to it, Dark Pokémon are quite plentiful. Obvious choices for use by the respective gym leader might be Umbreon, Aobsol, or Mightyena, as they are all pure Dark types. However, similar to the Steel type scenario I mentioned above, there are plenty of dual types that fit into the category of Dark Pokémon that would make for a more dynamic and challenging battle, like Houndoom’s Dark/Fire, Weavile’s Dark/Ice, Bisharp’s Dark/Steel, Sableye’s Dark/Ghost, and Hydreigon’s Dark/Dragon.

Ghost – Ghost Pokemon are among my favorites, and the gym battles with Morty and Fantina among the most intense for their respective generations. With Honedge already revealed as a Ghost type for generation VI, I think it is safe to assume this will not be the only Ghost type Pokémon encountered in X and Y. Again, in the pattern of Steel and Dark, Ghost type Pokémon like Mismagius, Dusknoir, and Cofagrigus are decent picks on their own, but arguably more interesting would be combinations like Drifblim’s Ghost/Flying, Chandelure’s Ghost/Fire, and perhaps even Rotom’s Electric/Ghost.

Bug – Previous Bug type gyms have followed a typical formula of everyone therein owning two easy-to-beat Pokémon, while the gym leader has two similar Pokémon, the only real challenge coming from their third and final Bug Pokémon. There’s a lot to pick from in the Bug category, with Heracross, Ninjask, Crustle, Escavalier, and Galvantula having dual typings of Fighting, Flying, Rock, Steel, and Electric respectively.

Ground – As the gym battle with Clay in the generation five titles made apparent, there are a lot of dual types that fall under the banner of Ground Pokémon. These include the most obvious Ground/Rock combo displayed by Rhyperior and its pre-evolutions, as well as less immediately exploitable combos like Gliscor’s Ground/Flying, Flygon’s Ground/Dragon, and Claydol’s Ground/Psychic, as well as a slew of strong, adaptable Pokémon who share Ground as their secondary typing (i.e. – Seismitoad, Mammoswine, Camerupt, and Nidoking).

Fighting – As with most of the other types on this list, the Fighting category has a fair number of dual types like Croagunk and Breloom who share the typing as secondary to their respective Poison and Grass primary typings. But the best picks for a Fighting type gym leader are, in my mind, those that are either pure Fighting types, like Machamp, Hitmonlee, Hitmonchan, Hitmontop, Hariyama, Mienshao, etc. Heck, even Medicham and Lucario would make fine additions, as their primary typings are both Fighting.

The Elite Four – You may be asking yourself, “where are the more common typings?” Well, that would be the twist at the end of the game. While most Pokémon games pit you against gyms designed to test the mettle of your starters early on, I think it might prove interesting to save Fire, Grass, Water, and Electric for the endgame – a complete inversion of what players have come to expect from the series. As for the League Champion, I think it would be best if he/she took a jack-of-all-trades approach, much like Blue did in the Kanto region. It would force players to carefully strategize, while also presenting an intense and overall exciting final battle.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Anime review: Pokémon: Giratina and the Sky Warrior

Focusing on two of the legendary Pokémon from the Diamond, Pearl, and Platinum era, Giratina and the Sky Warrior opens with a Shaymin inadvertently pulled into the struggle between Dialga and Giratina. As Giratina drags Dialga into his own domain, known as the Reverse World, in an attempt to imprison Dialga there, Shaymin is tossed about until it can retain its focus long enough to force open a hole between the Reverse World and the real world. Once that hole is opened, Dialga seizes the opportunity to escape, and Shaymin is flung out with it. With Giratina left trapped in his own realm, Dialga flies off to safety, unaware that Shaymin was ever present or even that the tiny Pokémon is now struggling to stay afloat as a strong current whisks it downstream toward a small town.

As it just so happens, Ash, Brock, and Dawn are having breakfast in that town when Shaymin stumbles across them, alone and confused as it is now far-removed from its home. Thanks to its apparent telepathic abilities, Shaymin can communicate with Ash, Brock, and Dawn, and informs them that it needs to make its way home so that it can take part in a ceremony where all the Shaymin visit a flower field, change form, and fly off. It quickly becomes known to the group that a man named Zero intends to take Shaymin for himself in order to free Giratina from its home/prison in the Reverse World. Ash and company manage to escape Zero’s army of Magnemites, Magnetons, and lone Magnezone, and begin their trek deep into the mountains via train and boat to reunite Shaymin with its friends.

Upon first meeting the trio of protagonists, Shaymin is identified as the gratitude Pokémon, which is ironic considering this particular Shaymin is self-centered and pushy. Ash immediately butts heads with the Pokémon, while it constantly turns to Dawn for comfort. Brock is, by and large, left out of the most exciting parts of this adventure, as the multiple times that Ash and Dawn travel to the Reverse World, he is left behind. The movie actually goes out of its way to make fun of established trends in the Pokémon anime with sequences like this, and it’s a welcome break from the cliché conventions of the show, though the plot development as a whole does not stray too far from a predictable pacing.

Within the Reverse World resides a researcher named Newton, who has spent years learning the ins and outs of the Reverse World as well as Girantina’s behavioral patterns. Thus, the moment that Ash and Dawn first find themselves stuck in an unfamiliar realm, they are not without aid. Team Rocket also gets dragged into the Reverse World, but their presence in the film is entirely unnecessary. As for the Reverse World itself, it appears as a mildly chaotic culminating of space and time – uninhabited buildings meet roof-to-roof, ice pillars lie a fair distance out of reach, gravity distortions are abundant, and clouds of toxic purple gas gently glide to and fro. It’s a happy middle ground that presents the theme of space, time, and antimatter as aesthetically interesting without having to explain a deeper science that would soar over the heads of the young viewers this film is primarily aimed at.

Solo villain Zero follows effectively the same tactic that Lawrence did in Pokémon the Movie 2000, piloting a gaudy and gigantic steel fortress through the clouds, with a strange laser net capture device attached to it. Zero’s goal is not fully explained until late in the film, but it is clear from the outset that he is concerned first and foremost with Giratina, despite his early attempt to snag Shaymin from Ash, Dawn, and Brock. Zero wears a jumpsuit that echoes the standard Team Plasma outfit, but it bears a few decorations that pay homage to the legendary Pokémon he is so determined to track down.

Giratina and the Sky Warrior breaks some of the conventions established by previous Pokémon movies and the long-running anime series. It takes time to poke fun at itself, it has direct ties to the previous movie The Rise of Darkrai, and even sports a decent plot twist/cameo within the last twenty minutes or so. However, it does follow most of the other established patterns quite closely. Team Rocket’s shenanigans serve as nothing more than shallow comic relief, Zero does his fair share of spouting forth vague and cliché threats during the second half, and the resolution for all the trouble Ash and friends find themselves in can be seen coming from a mile away. The soundtrack is nothing to get excited about, though the combination of digitally animated character models with 3D environments blends well, for the most part. With all that in mind, every single Pokémon movie is written primarily for children, and to that end, Giratina and the Sky Warrior does a pretty good job of carrying a consistent tempo and presenting a fun adventure to a brand new dimension, even if the hopping back and forth between the real world and the Reverse World gets a bit out of hand by the finale.

My rating: 7 (out of 10)

Monday, September 9, 2013

Pokémon Platinum journal - entry one

As I mentioned in yesterday’s ‘Top 5 Legendary Pokémon’ post, Pokémon Platinum was the next title I intended to tackle. As luck would have it, the copy I ordered last week arrived a few days ahead of schedule. I spent a decent chunk of this afternoon starting up my game file and importing the majority of my team members from Soul Silver. Much like in my playthrough of Black 2, I plan to use a core team of six Pokémon, only rotating members out for the sake of traversing areas that require use of an HM to proceed. Aside from replaying Soul Silver with Hoenn starters and my brief adventures with Gale of Darkness, my time spent using Pokémon from generations III and IV has been relatively limited. As a result, my intended team members for the majority of Platinum version are as follows: Piplup, Torchic, Bulbasaur, Chingling, Aerodactyl, and Snorunt. Aerodactyl is in place to round out an otherwise notable weakness to Fire types, while Bulbasaur and Turtwig are the only two Grass starters I have never personally used in a core Pokémon game - and to be honest, I flat out dislike the way Turtwig and his evolutions look, despite his Grass/Ground typing being mildly interesting. I don’t really have anything against Chimchar, but I’ve always found Torchic and his evolutionary line far more interesting. As for Snorunt, I anticipate she will be the last member to join my team, as I ultimately intend to evolve her into Froslass.

This Platinum playthrough should, in theory, be equal parts familiar and new experiences. While I’m familiar with the generation IV engine via Soul Silver, the Sinnoh region and many of its native Pokémon are foreign to me. Also, the team members I have chosen to work with are types that have long served me well, while their dual typings and movesets are a bit different from what I have used in the past. I specifically chose Platinum over Diamond or Pearl for the reason that it is, to my understanding, a more complete package than its predecessors. From what I hear, there are more areas to explore, and the battles with gym leaders and Team Galactic executives are not only more challenging, but also present a greater degree of variety.

While I can say the game plays very similar to Soul Silver from the outset, Platinum does not appear to utilize the touch screen as frequently or as intelligently as in Soul Silver. The various towns see typical layouts, though the aesthetics of wind farms and coal mines are pleasing to look at. Extra little additions here and there like specks of snow lingering on pine trees and fields of flowers go a long way in making the Sinnoh region interesting to explore. From a graphical standpoint, Platinum is already proving that it looks as good if not better than Soul Silver. The soundtrack is equally impressive, and if it continues on the hot streak of interesting and memorable tunes it has dealt out thus far, could rank among my favorite soundtracks of the franchise.

Where Platinum sees its biggest falter early on, I think, is in its severe limitation of the usefulness of imported Pokémon. Whereas most Pokémon games will give you a slap on the wrist for boosting Pokémon over level ten prior to the first gym by making it so that there is a chance they may not listen to your commands, Platinum sets this benchmark even higher. You must beat the first two gyms before any imported Pokémon will obey you without question, and even then, if they are over level thirty, there is no guarantee that they will perform the specific attacks that you request. It may seem like a slight hurdle early on, and I admit, it is largely aimed at players like myself who intend to import all but one of their core team members, but it doesn’t make it any less obnoxious, especially when the second gym is filled with Grass types – something my Torchic-turned-Combusken should have no problem sweeping through, were it not for the fact that he only seems to want to listen to me every third attack or so.

My frustrations with that aside, I appreciate the fact that the intro segment is quick. The tradition of an NPC showing you how to catch a wild Pokémon and explaining the big adventure that awaits is all said and done in a matter of fifteen minutes, as opposed to the nearly forty-five it took in Soul Silver. Among the many things I hope they implement in X and Y would be the option to skip the tutorial section. There are enough people who have been playing Pokémon since the days of Red and Blue who do not need their hands held today, much less two generations ago.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Top 5 Legendary Pokémon

As I mentioned in my journal postings for Pokémon Soul Silver, that was the first core title in the franchise that I had played since the original release of Generation II on the Gameboy Color. Since then, my obsession with the Pokémon games has only grown. I’ve made it my goal to play at least one game from every generation, and Platinum is the next one I intend to tackle as a sort of bridge until the release of X and Y (I’m still not certain as to whether I want to pick up X or Y at this point). Among my most memorable moments in the games have been the intense battles with legendary Pokémon, as well as subsequent attempts to catch them. In order to prevent this list from becoming lopsided toward one generation or another, I will be selecting a single legendary Pokémon from each of the current five generations of games, labeling it as my favorite of Generation I, II, III, IV, and V repectively.

Generation I (Red, Blue, and Yellow)Mewtwo: There were only a few legendaries available in the first Pokémon games, due primarily to the limited roster of 151 slots. While Zapdos, Articuno, and Moltres were all cool in their own right, Mewtwo was my favorite of the bunch. I’ve always had a soft spot for Psychic type Pokémon, but my appreciation for Mewtwo was not immediate upon my first seeing him in any of the games. Rather, it developed over several years as I witnessed his origin in the first Pokémon movie, as well as the side games that the whole concept of Mewtwo being among the smartest and most capable of Pokémon eventually culminated in me genuinely liking it – not just as a potential team member within the games, but as a character within the anime. He may not be my favorite legendary of all time, but there is something unique about Mewtwo’s presentation that practically sets him in his own category, distinct from all other legendary Pokémon.

Generation II (Gold, Silver, and Crystal)Raikou: My love for Raikou originates from his being the underdog (no pun intended) of Johto’s legendary trio. As a kid, everyone I knew was a fan of either Entei or Suicune – Entei because it was a beastly looking fire-type, and Suicune because it was an elegant looking water-type as well as the version mascot for Crystal. Hardly anyone I knew cared much to bother tracking down Raikou, but he was the one I sought out first and foremost. I really enjoy using Raikou in battle, as his defense is significantly better than most electric types like Magneton or Ampharos. At the same time, Raikou does not feel terribly overpowered – rather, his effectiveness in battle seems to fall somewhere between other legendaries and the rest of the Pokémon of the Johto region.

Generation III (Ruby, Sapphire, and Emerald)Deoxys: My reaction toward the Generation III legendaries was a bit mixed from the outset, admittedly. I found the Regi trio to be decently interesting from a conceptual standpoint, but the routine of three legendary Pokémon who were very aesthetically similar had largely worn off its charm by the time Ruby and Sapphire came around. Groudon, Kyogre, and Rayquaza weren’t bad by any means, but to this day I have never considered any of them particularly outstanding. Deoxys, on the other hand, was a fresh new idea – a single Pokémon that had four different forms. Granted, you couldn’t have Deoxys changing between Normal, Attack, Defense, and Speed on the fly, but that was more or less the point – it granted players some freedom in planning their strategies while also holding them accountable for setting Deoxys to one of the four aforementioned states.

Generation IV (Diamond, Pearl, and Platinum)Giratina: Ghost Pokémon have become something of my specialty over the past year or so, and I really wish Game Freak would add another Ghost-type to the current pool of legendaries. That said, Giratina is possibly the single most intimidating legendary Pokémon based on looks alone, and has a very curious dual-typing: Ghost and Dragon. Holding dominion over antimatter, Giratina is certainly a force to be reckoned with.

Generation V (Black, White, Black 2, and White 2)Genesect: This one was a really close call with Zekrom, who I used for the majority of the White version post-game. However, Genesect was one of my core team members during my playthrough of Black 2. A dual Bug and Steel type, Genesect has a little extra defense and a highly adaptable moveset. Each time I play a Pokémon game, I try to have at least one jack-of-all-trades member on my team, and (alongside Lucario) Genesect performed that role masterfully in Black 2.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Anime review: Kick Heart

Kick Heart creates a vivid, memorable, and admittedly strange scenario whereby the titular protagonist deals with life in the ring as a masked luchador, life outside the ring helping to support an orphanage, and his own personal desires (sexual, romantic, or otherwise). As it turns out, Kick Heart is not the best wrestler in town, but keeps entering the ring in hopes that Lady S, a significantly more skilled female wrestler who he is head-over-heels for, will reciprocate his feelings. As is made obvious within the first couple of minutes, Kick Heart will bear whatever abuse he has to in order to get this woman to pay attention to him or simply be near her. He deals with her physical punches and kicks, while also taking a decent helping of emotional abuse from his tag-team partner who outright abandons him and the audience who has little patience for an underdog such as Kick Heart.

Outside of the ring, Kick Heart feels an apparent responsibility in helping support an orphanage. While he may spend his earnings on sex dolls to help cope with his lack of progress with Lady S, he also purchases luchador figures for the orphan children and converses with the elder staff members. Also working at the orphanage is a young woman who catches Kick Heart’s eye, but he manages to embarrass himself in front of her as well by clogging the toilet and nearly revealing his personal 'adult' purchases.

Kick Heart’s artistic presentation is very removed from any traditional anime styling. Its psychedelic bright colors and ridiculous action routines add to the zany character and environment designs, a large portion of which are seemingly influenced more by American animation than Japanese. There is minimal dialogue, as the show prefers to show just what is going on in every scene than have characters explain events as they unfold. Running less than fifteen minutes, Kick Heart is a single episode that focuses primarily on Kick Heart as a character – who he is, what is all about, and the ends he will go to in order to achieve both what he wants and what he believes is good for the orphans. That said, despite its main character attempting to remain secretive about his dual life, Kick Heart is a show that is unashamed of its focus on a couple poop jokes and plenty of sexual humor.

My rating: 7.5 (out of 10)

Anime review: Steins;Gate

When it comes to the topics of time travel, parallel realities, and diverging timelines, most mediums of entertainment turn to one of two formulas to convey their fictional tales – the more free-form and adventure-oriented angle seen in the likes of Dr. Who and Back to the Future, or a nitty-gritty technical presentation that comes across more as a manual and survivor’s guide to the realm of theoretical science than anything else. Steins;Gate manages to balance these two, offering up a cast of incredibly likeable characters, who play off each other in charming, comedic ways due to their individual quirks. However, Steins;Gate is deeply rooted in real-world theory, and while the ramifications of tampering with the time-space continuum may not be immediately obvious to the members of the Future Gadget Laboratory, the later episodes tread into dark, serious territory.

When we first meet the members of the Future Gadget Laboratory, they are a ragtag group of friends who spend most of their days cobbling together odds and ends to create gadgets for curious, single-minded applications, as well as conversing about their own particular interests. Self-proclaimed mad scientist Okabe Rinatarou (aka Hououin Kyouma) is as obsessed with his theories of altering the multiverse as he is with a made-up scenario wherein a secret group know only as ‘The Organization’ seeks to overthrow his every plan – be it an attempt to send a message back in time or a simple visit to the grocery store. Itaru “Daru” Hashida is the most skilled with computer hacking, and this specific skill set comes to be of great use later on. His obsession with gal games, however, simply earns him eye rolls from the rest of the gang. Mayuri Shiina is a longtime friend of Okabe, spends most of her days preparing cosplays for local conventions, and acts as the social and emotional tether to the group, as she is always wearing a smile and seeks to comfort anyone if they’re feeling frustrated or sad.

While these three characters are the first to be introduced, it is but a couple episodes into the series that the fourth crucial member of the Future Gadget Laboratory is introduced – Kurisu Makise, prodigal student visiting from America, and well-versed in the theory and science associated with time travel. It is when Kurisu and Okabe meet and decide to team up that the ball really gets rolling with Steins;Gate. As the two work to cobble together devices and equations, they stumble upon an accidental discovery – the microwave within Okabe’s apartment emits waves in such a manner that, when coupled with the signal from a cell phone, is capable of sending small bits of information back in time. Thus the team decides to test their findings via the most practical means possible – sending a text message (dubbed ‘D-mail’) back in time to see if it will alter the present. However, Okabe quickly discovers that he has been sent neither forward nor backward in time, but rather sideways, hopping onto another timeline that diverges from the original one he started on. The more Okabe allows individuals to send D-mails to versions of themselves or friends/relatives hours, weeks, or even years in the past, the more he realizes how simple altercations to the way people interact with their surroundings can greatly alter the present he experiences.

It isn’t too long before Okabe realizes that the more he and his compatriots tamper with the rules of one reality or another, the further he gets from the original timeline from whence he came. Thus, the Divergence Meter comes into play, courtesy of a friend and ally who informs Okabe that there is a way to set things straight – back to the way they were. The closer the Divergence Meter reads to 1.0, the closer Okabe is to his original timeline. He will have to manipulate certain events and even his friends in order to influence the Divergence Meter in the manner he wishes. Compounding this issue is the fact that CERN, a very secretive scientific organization, may have caught wind of Okabe’s activites after he and Daru first hacked into their databases. In this, Okabe finds there may be some truth to his self-concocted scenarios about members of an elite, all-seeing organization seeking to undo his progress.

Steins;Gate may not have seen quite as large a fan following as the likes of Sword Art Online, Death Note, or other mainstream anime in recent years, but it does present a rare case where critical and popular reception of the anime are practically even. It’s a series that combines geeky humor and intelligent writing to craft a science fiction story that avoids being too dense that it alienates many a viewer while similarly preventing its craft from being oversimplified. Admittedly, there are points throughout where the show believes it is being more clever than it truly is or seems to think it might be planting a false trail or decent cliffhanger when it is glaringly obvious what the next step for Okabe and company is. That said, each episode will leave you wanting more – to know how the members of the Future Gadget Lab intend to carry out their next daunting task, the ultimate ramifications of Okabe’s tampering with time and space, and how the casts’ curious dynamic will pan out.

There are many forces at work in this story, even if some are not obvious from the outset or even hinted at until near the halfway point. Some play out in a much more rewarding manner than others, while a couple are simply there for shock value. Similarly, some of the forces/individuals who would seek to foil the plans of the Future Gadget Lab members (whether on a grand scale or through small upsets) are not rounded out as well as others by the end of the series – ironically, one such character is introduced early on and doesn’t seem to break out of their odd, excessively nervous shell. That’s not to say that said character comes across as one-dimensional, but there are other characters whose development cycle proves more complete and rewarding in a notably shorter time frame.

Attention to detail – both on part of the creative staff and the fictional characters that comprise the series – is one of the show’s greatest strengths. There are items, locations, and characters whose influence over the process of jumping timelines/worldliness are made obvious from the outset, while there are others who are mentioned in brief early on, only to come back with resounding force during later episodes. The show’s animation is top-notch, and utilizes interesting perspectives to help flesh out the handful of environments that will be visited and revisited in different times and places. The pacing may not exactly be consistent throughout, but it is handled with the utmost care – the final leg slows down significantly to amp up the tension, take a long hard look at how all the characters have changed over the course of the series, and to prepare you, the viewer, for the final implications and resolution all the timeline-hopping will bring.

My rating: 9.25 (out of 10)
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