Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Top 5 Anime of 2013

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

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

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

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

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

Top 5 Video Games of 2013

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Xbox 360 review: Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My rating: 5.75 (out of 10)

DLC review: Mass Effect 3 - Citadel

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

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

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

My rating: 9 (out of 10)*

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

DLC review: Mass Effect 3 - Leviathan

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

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

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

My rating: 7 (out of 10)*

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

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Wii U review: Pikmin 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My rating: 9 (out of 10)
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