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.
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