Sunday, March 30, 2014

Anime review: MS Igloo 2: The Gravity of the Battlefront

Intended to be a follow-up to the original MS Igloo stories, MS Igloo 2: The Gravity of the Battlefront (or the more simply stated, The Gravity Front, depending on your interpretation) opts to focus on the everyman within the Federation soldiers on Earth. This leads to a distinctly different storytelling method than the original MS Igloo’s focus on experimental technologies that the Zeon forces dabbled in over the course of the One Year War. In fact, MS Igloo 2 seems to teeter back and forth between weaving a tale of individuals wrapped up in ragtag units ala 08th Ms Team and adopting a sort of military journal format.

Each episode focuses on a different protagonist, but the routine is the same – there is always a character who has some bad reputation for carrying death in their wake, and by the end of each episode, there will be plenty of death and destruction. The problem with this approach is that by the end of the first episode, you already know how the other two will play out. The beginning, middle, and end of these stories are practically identical, despite the fact that they zoom in on pilots of different Federation vehicles.

The greatest offense MS Igloo 2 commits, however, is that it incorporates a literal ghost, a female phantom who is the physical manifestation and/or cause of all these characters’ bad luck. In the end, you more or less come to forget about what battles the characters were involved in because the heavy reliance on this hokey horror element is so out-of-place within the Gundam franchise. Sure, Sanders was rumored to be cursed in episodes of 08th MS Team, but that resulted in a presentation that was purely his own stress and self-doubt. There was never a spook following him around, and that is because spirits and specters don’t work well at all within the mecha genre, let alone one with such longstanding traditions as Gundam.

If there is one Gundam series that feels the result of a blatantly half-assed effort, it is MS Igloo 2. There is barely any reason to care about the characters or story, and the ‘creative elements' are just plain stupid. The quality of the CGI may be notably higher than the previous entries in the MS Igloo OVA series, and the motions of both humans and mobile suits are more fluid and lifelike. You can polish a turd all you want, but it doesn’t make it any less of a turd.

My rating: 4.75 (out of 10)

Monday, March 24, 2014

Anime review: Puella Magi Madoka Magica

Prior to my viewing of Puella Magi Madoka Magica, I had heard it described as offering to the magical girl genre what Neon Genesis Evangelion offered to mecha anime. I went in almost completely blind, knowing only a few bits of what was to come along with the plot of the show. At twelve episodes, Madoka does surprisingly well with its pacing, and covers all the necessary information within its allotted runtime. It also maintains an air of intrigue about it by consistently layering the complexity of what it means to become a magical girl. In the end, this anime does remind me of Neon Genesis Evangelion to a degree – the two deal with notably different themes, but both tackle genres that viewers have become some familiar with, so comfortable with the classic character themes and plot points therein, and opts to turn all of that on its head.

The initial premise of the first episode is quite consistent with most magical girl anime. The opening is impactful and provides a small taste of what is to come, but the routine of Madoka and her good friend Sayaka going to school, talking to their friends, and predicting when their teacher’s latest romantic breakup will be is exceptionally normal. It is the point when Madoka and Sayaka meet the new transfer student, Homura, that the story is truly set in motion. Madoka is warned in private by Homura that she should not abandon her friends, her family, the comfortable mundane life she currently has. While Homura does not come right out and say it during their first encounter, it soon becomes apparent that she wants to prevent Madoka from becoming a magical girl at any cost, despite the attempts of a cat-like creature named Kyubey to sway Madoka and Sayaka to making a contract with him. While Homura’s story is the last of the main characters to be fully realized, it is abundantly clear early on in the series that she is privy to information the rest of the characters are not.

There are five major magical girls who, alongside Kyubey, make up the main cast. Madoka is the central figure, and it is through her eyes that we, the viewers, are seeing the events that unfold. She believes herself very normal, very unexciting, and this sense of being exceptionally unexceptional is what leads her to question her own motives and character traits multiple times over the course of the series. Sayaka is more of a go-getter, and as Madoka’s close friend, she constant tries to perform helpful deeds to friends and loved ones. She is possibly more innocent than Madoka even, and her good nature goes at odds with Kyoko, an aggressive and somewhat selfish magical girl who is introduced around the halfway point of the series. Mami sees the least development of the lot, but is the means through which Madoka and Sayaka are directly exposed to the realm of magical girls and accompanies them on their first few witch hunts. Homura, being an enigma until late in the story, is largely an accessory to the other magical girls, intervening in their work and offering key information when necessary.

The animation throughout is incredible, and the show appears to have a higher production quality than most anime in this day and age. One of the real standout elements of this series comes in the form of the witch labyrinths the girls must traverse. These twisted fairy-tale-esque areas appear out of ripples in perceived reality, and each is represented as a collage of magazine photos pasted together. The jerky motions of the witches’ minions and the obscure yet highly creative designs of the witches themselves creates a series of unsettling environments that I simply couldn’t help but look forward to the next iteration of, due to the unique overarching motif each labyrinth exhibits. The soundtrack is decidedly melancholy on the whole, opting for a number of softer string instruments and piano parts, while the tense mood of battle themes do well to complement the dangerous and crazy environments where the witches are encountered, many of which appear as something of a classical European culture fever dream.

In truth, Madoka reminds me a lot of the Watchmen graphic novel, in the sense that it provides a more brutally honest and in-depth look at what ramifications taking up the mantle of being a magical would have on an individual – not only the tradeoffs and sacrifices they must make to gain such immense mystical powers, but also the psychological and emotional trauma they will experience as a result of becoming gradually more detached from friends, family, and society as a whole. For some magical girls, these personal challenges will weigh more heavily than others. When a candidate makes a contract with Kyubey, they are granted one wish. Some magical girls use this single wish on themselves, others grant a miracle to someone they know, but rarely do the girls understand the full gravity of what their new role in the world means. There are also certain side-effects to their powers based on what they used their wish on. Sayaka, for example, has the ability to heal faster than usual because her wish was used on healing someone else’s wounds.

While the other four see processes of character progression that prove consistently interesting and feel intelligently scripted from start to finish, Madoka’s suffers from a lack of believability at a few points. Some of her reactions to the hardships she and her friends must face fail to come across as genuine, though her development and role in the grand scheme of this story is handled far better in the late episodes. There is also a lack of cohesion between the magic themes, which are present from the first episode to the last, and the science fiction elements, which, while present from an early point, do not take on as large a role until after the halfway point. There are a few bits of information that are revealed that are intended to be hugely important to the overall plot, but come across as clunky and half-baked. There are a few ways that they could have incorporated these points into the magic routine and they would have worked just fine, but for some odd reason the show tries to push these late in the game, and with everything else that is going on in building toward the endgame, it doesn’t play out in as smooth a manner as I think the writers had hoped.

Madoka does not opt for the Neon Genesis Evangelion route of starting the show off as deceptively normal in tone, then eventually heading down a dark, dismal path. The serious, sometimes sinister nature of fighting witches is made quite clear from the outset, though it isn’t until the third episode concludes that the real danger these magical girls place themselves in on a regular basis is made strikingly apparent. There are some very heavy themes at play here, including suicide and the loss of one’s own identity or reason to be. While it may not display gore or utilize any real vulgar language, the story of Madoka Magica is not for the faint of heart, and I pity anyone who may have gone into viewing this series thinking that the happy-go-lucky intro sequence was an accurate depiction of what the series was all about.

My rating: 8.75 (out of 10)

Anime update: Make a contract with me and become magical girls!

So I really meant to finish watching that final episode of MS Igloo 2 last Fall… and then I simply forgot. I’ll do my best to get around to it soon, and then I’ll probably prioritize Victory Gundam and From the New World as my next anime to see to conclusion. Sword Art Online will likely be finished later this year, but I’m not in any real rush to start the second story arc. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a decent enough anime, just not one that kept me as deeply invested as some of my other recent viewings.

Speaking of which, 2014 has kicked off to a couple of pleasant surprises with regards to my anime viewing experiences. The first season of the 2012 adaptation of Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure was a riot, and easily the most fun I’ve had watching a more pure action anime in quite some time. Meanwhile, on the complete opposite end of the spectrum in terms of its atmosphere, Madoka Magica is proving it can hold its own among other similar series that turned genre standards on their heads (like Neon Genesis Evangelion and Serial Experiments Lain) while also retaining a unique identity. There was hardly anything that I knew about Madoka Magica going into it, and this largely-blind viewing has led my impressions of it to be overwhelmingly positive. Seriously, I’ve cranked through nine episodes in less than three days (normally, I take my time to let an anime sink in, but I can’t seem to put this one down). While I doubt Madoka Magica will end up ranking among my all-time favorite anime series, it is currently poised to rank among my top five anime of 2014.

That said, there’s a whole nine months left in the year, and a lot could change between now and then. Still, it’s nice that I started the year off with two pretty big bangs on the anime front, and the second season of Jojo’s, Stardust Crusaders, looks just as appetizing as the first. I’ll probably also follow up Madoka with the third film, as I’d prefer to watch the sequel/capping-off film while the series is still fresh in my mind. There’s a few other series and films out there that I wouldn’t mind giving a shot – I have yet to view the Steins;Gate movie, and I have not yet popped my copy of Tekkon Kinkreet into my DVD player (despite the fact that it’s been sitting on my shelf for about a year now).

I’d be damned surprised is Unicorn Gundam doesn’t end up as my number one pick for favorite anime of 2014, but it would be interesting to see the typical genres and series that make that list be ousted by some newcomers. It doesn’t hurt to mix things up and keep it fresh once in a while, you know?

Friday, March 21, 2014

3DS review: The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds

Departing from the more 3D-oriented DS Zelda titles, A Link Between Worlds opts to travel back to the era of top-down 2D adventure games. Link and the rest of Hyrule may be rendered with full 3D models, and there is certainly a greater degree of freedom in how the Hylian hero can go about exploring the realm, but there is no mistaking the nods to the Super Nintendo classic that this 3DS game is meant to act as both sequel and spiritual successor to. Set many years after the conclusion of A Link to the Past, this latest Zelda title features a new Link, a new princess Zelda, but a very familiar premise of the sages being captured by resident villain Yuga. As the sages are all trapped in paintings, it is up to Link to traverse the multiple dungeons of Lorule, effectively an inverse version of Hyrule and this new iteration’s spin on the Dark World from ALttP.

One of the big gimmicks with A Link Between Worlds that leads it to stand out from the other entries in Nintendo’s long-running series is the fact that the core dungeons can be tackled in any order players see fit. This is because all of the major items are acquired from a merchant named Ravio, who will initially allow Link to rent the likes of the boomerang, hookshot, ice rod, and so on. All these items are found in this singular location, but upon Link fainting, they will be retrieved by Ravio and will need to be rented again with Rupees – that is, of course, unless you opt to fork over some major cash and buy these items so that they are permanently in Link’s possession. Thankfully, most dungeons hold a wealth of Rupees, so there is something to be said about taking on a more adventurous attitude with each plunge into the dangerous depths.

That is, if the dungeons were particularly difficult. The tradeoff for allowing players to go about the dungeons in whichever order they prefer is that the difficulty factor plateaus incredibly early in the game. The layouts of some dungeons are rather single-minded and less interesting throughout, such as one that sees Link embark on what is effectively one big escort mission through a trap-riddled fortress. Another, which has Link sliding around ice platforms, certainly has more variety in terms of its puzzles and combat offerings, but is so slow-paced and forces a routine of repetition that leads it to become uninteresting after a short while. A few of the dungeons do stand out as decently-solid entries in the greater offerings of the franchise, however, such as a lava-filled turtle island and a shadowy palace housing puzzles that play off the level of light illuminating each room.

Each dungeon emphasizes one of Ravio’s items heavily, and on the whole, use of each item is quite consistent. It is never the case that the hookshot or bombs suddenly overshadow the boomerang or fire rod, though some of the more practical items will see more widespread use in the overworld’s sidequests. And on the topic of sidequests, there certainly are a large number of them – nearly as many as in Majora’s Mask, a Zelda title which was almost entirely dependent on sidequests for its own formula of game design. It’s quite surprising just how much time can be spent playing minigames in hopes of boosting your Rupee count or rescuing the octopus-like baby Maiamai in order to power up Link’s arsenal. Alongside the creative and moderately-challenging boss encounters, the sidequests prove one of the highest points of A Link Between Worlds.

There are a number of incorporations from other Zelda games exhibited in A Link Between Worlds that go a long way – some for the better, others not so much. Much like in Majora’s Mask and Skyward Sword, bird statues are used to save the game. Link can also utilize these as fast-travel locations, courtesy of a local witch and her flying broomstick. Often, Link will be greeted with a message from these bird statues that inform him as to how long he’s been at his adventures, and that you, the player, ought to consider taking a break. These messages cannot be skipped or sped up, and the frequency of them proves infinitely more obnoxious than the warnings or bits of advice provided by any of Link’s companions in previous iterations of The Legend of Zelda. As the game is a direct sequel to A Link to the Past, this 3DS title relies on the SNES classic for practically all of its successes. The overworld is nearly identical, the soundtrack borrows heavily from the stylings of ALttP, and the art style is nearly identical, despite its featuring 3D models instead of 16-bit sprites. For anyone hoping Nintendo would birth something magical and revolutionary out of this latest Zelda title, it is unfortunately A Link to the Past part two in the most literal sense.

When compared to many of its successors, A Link to the Past may not have boasted as in-depth or as complex a story. But it certainly exuded a darker atmosphere and more grueling challenge factor than most of its contemporaries Alongside Ocarina of Time, it acted as both a means to redefine the series and solidify its place as one of the greats in the genre of adventure gaming. The story of A Link Between Worlds, by comparison, feels lazy and uninspired. The simple premise of Link needing to rescue the sages from the grasp of one very simplistic and one-dimensional villain worked fine for Four Swords Adventures because that was a multiplayer entry focused more on gameplay and level design than any semblance of a gripping plot. Here, it’s not only an insult to the idea of having a proper follow-up to ALttP, but also a major step backwards for the handheld Zelda titles. There are no shocking moments, no surprises, no clever twists along the way. Sure, Link’s Awakening might not have been a perfect creation, but it was certainly original, and any of its shortcomings were far more excusable, given the limited staff members. I never expected A Link Between Worlds to stand up to the legacy of the Oracle games or The Minish Cap, but its formula lends even Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks to appear a quality that is leaps and bounds better by comparison.

Going into A Link Between Worlds, my greatest concern was that the ability to transform Link into a painting and have him shuffle about the walls would either make the experience too easy, or break the gameplay altogether. In fact, limiting the time span Link has to use this newfound ability via a magic meter is a brilliant move, and there are some neat ways that Link latches onto surfaces, slips through cracks in walls, and rides platforms to new heights. The aforementioned magic meter is also used to limit the number of uses Link has for any of the other items in his arsenal. As it gradually refills, there is no need to collect more bombs or even keep count of them. Yet, for every major aspect such as this that A Link to the Past gets right and could have easily incorporated more heavily into the gameplay, there are three or four other factors that are backwards in design or just plain poor in execution. I will admit, I did not have the highest of hopes for A Link Between Worlds prior to its release, but I expected more out of it – or at least, more elements that weren’t so lazy and boring.

My rating: 6.5 (out of 10)

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Anime review: Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure (season one)

Adapted from the long-running manga of the same name, the 2012 anime version of Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure is effectively the first season of something much larger. Two protagonists are covered in-depth, as are their respective allies and enemies. Clocking in at twenty-six episodes, these first two chapters do well to tie into one another and set the stage for everything that is to come, while simultaneously bringing their individual stories full circle and providing a satisfying conclusion.

The first chapter is set in the late 1800s, and focuses on Jonathan Joestar, son of a rich father who has raised the boy on his own since the passing of his wife. The relatively mellow and predictable life Jonathan leads is upset with the arrival of Dio Brando, son of a man who Jonathan’s father mistakenly believes saved his life – in truth, Dio’s father Dario Brando was attempting to rob Jonathan’s parents on the night Jonathan’s mother died. Dio soon becomes the golden child in the eyes of Jonathan’s father, but Dio’s ultimate goal is to take over every role Jonathan ever had within the Joestar family and household, and eventually claim the family’s inheritance.

Though it takes Jojo many years to find a way to expose Dio to his father, and lost connections with some of his friends along the way, eventually Dio’s plot to kill Jonathan’s father by slowly poisoning him is revealed and he is kicked out of the household. Prompted to find a cure for his father, Jonathan heads into the city, where he is met by a street gang member named Robert Edward O. Speedwagon. After a brief exchange, Speedwagon and Jonathan make their way back to the Joestar mansion to save Jonathan’s father and finally remove Dio from their company. But things quickly go awry when Dio dons a stone mask that had long been housed within the Joestar mansion. Painting the mask with blood, Dio is transformed into a vampire, his only weaknesses the light of the sun and the mysterious technique known as the ripple. And while all this may seem like a lot of content to explain for a review, I assure you that all of the aforementioned events occur within the first few episodes, and serve to set the stage for the primary conflict of this first chapter: Jonathan Joestar’s fighting spirit and ripple technique vs. Dio Brando’s desire to grow beyond humanity and unleash an army of the undead upon the world.

While the names of the primary protagonist and antagonist of chapter one might not have been as strikingly obvious, Speedwagon and the vast majority of the characters that follow bear names that are direct references to classic rock groups and songs. These include somewhat subtle nods to Led Zeppelin via Will A. Zeppeli, to the more blatant (and arguably more silly) as seen in the duo of monks named Dire and Straits who studied the mystic arts of ripple fighting under their master Tompeti (pronounced ‘Tom Petty’). And that’s the main gimmick of Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure. The series does deal quite a bit with variants of the ripple fighting technique, and to that end it falls somewhere between Dragon Ball Z and Yu Yu Hakusho in the fighting action genre – certainly not the most subtle of series, and definitely more than a little ridiculous, but every character has his or her limitations, and the fights are never drawn out to an excessive degree.

The art style is one of the series’ best points of its overall presentation. Psychedelic color patterns force Jojo and company’s outfits to stand out prominently against darker and highly detailed backgrounds, while dynamic angles give the action a more desperate and intense feel. Occasionally, a still-frame close-up or the inclusion of animated sound effect kanji text will pay homage to the manga source material – a curious touch that further sets this series’ style apart from its contemporaries. The original soundtrack composed for the series does well to perpetuate a sense of adventure, with themes that accompany the major battles striking powerful chords at just the right moments. A few tunes also incorporate samplings from classic rock tunes, such as ‘Owner of a Lonely Heart’ by Yes, further lending the series’ presentation factor to stand out from the crowd.

Chapter two of the series has a much higher episode count that the first, though a number of the characters return as supporting cast members. Set in 1938, this story follows Joseph Joestar, grandson of Jonathan Joestar, and explores the origins of the Stone Masks like the one Dio used to transform himself into a vampire. As it turns out, there are many more of these masks attached to stone pillars with humanoid beings frozen within, as if they are in a sort of stasis. The first of these Pillar Men is discovered by Speedwagon, who is now in charge of a research foundation, but the findings and Speedwagon himself are ultimately seized by a small group of Nazi scientists who are seeking occult and powerful objects around the world to fuel Germany’s pre-WWII dreams of grandeur. Realizing that Speedwagon’s disappearance must mean something has gone wrong with his expedition, young Joseph Joestar heads to Mexico to find him, arriving by motorcycle just in time to witness the Pillar Man awaken from his two-thousand year slumber. While this Pillar Man is initially slow to react, he is shown to be highly adaptable to his surroundings, and capable of learning at an incredible rate. He is able to absorb individuals into his body to repair it, but the ripple technique handed down through the Joestar line is capable of dealing him damage. After this Pillar Man, dubbed Santana, effectively destroys the entirety of the Nazi facility, Joseph manages to defeat him with the light of the sun, but not before learning that there are more Pillar Men like him that the Nazis have uncovered in Europe.

From there, Joeseph travels to Italy to meet with Caesar Zeppeli, grandson of Will A. Zeppeli, and Caesar’s mentor Lisa Lisa. After the three more powerful Pillar Men awaken, Caesar and Joseph attempt to stop them from escaping the excavation site where they were uncovered, but only manage to deal slight damage to the weakest of the three, known as Wham. Intrigued by the strength of these ripple users, as well as the fact that there are any surviving descendants of the ripple users he and his masters/comrades ACDC and Cars attempted to wipe out during the pinnacle of their existence two-thousand years prior, Wham spares the two and encourages them to challenge him again in one month’s time, when their ripple techniques have been better honed and amplified. To ensure Joseph does not fail to show up, Wham and ACDC place rings around his neck vein and heart, informing him that he will have to take the antidote from jewelry on their bodies once he has successfully defeated them.

Similar to the first chapter, the fight against Santana and the awakening of his three superiors is tackled within the first few episodes of this second act. The ultimate goal of these Pillar Men is the Red Stone of Aja, an artifact which will supposedly allow them to master their weakness to sunlight. Still, despite their ties to the stone masks that turned Dio into a vampire, ACDC, Cars, and Wham are all shown to be significantly more powerful than Jonathan Joestar’s adversary ever was. Each of the Pillar Men has his own distinct technique – Wham can spin his arms rapidly and create a violent sandstorm, ACDC can spout a lava-like liquid from tiny tubes that extend from within his body, and Cars has retractable blades inside either arm. Of the three, however, Wham is easily the most well-rounded and respectable antagonist, as his warrior’s pride is what keeps him grounded and offers Joseph a real fighting chance against Cars and ACDC’s greedy desires to obtain the Red Stone of Aja. ACDC and Cars are a bit more one-dimensional as villains, and ultimately come across as being about as well-developed as supporting cast member Stroheim, a Nazi officer who Jojo meets in Mexico and who only appears in a handful of episodes of this second act. It’s a rather strange move, all things considered – it makes sense that Stroheim’s limited inclusion would lead him to come across as more caricature than fully-developed character, but for Cars and ACDC to be so lackluster in the presence of Wham is more than just a little bit disappointing. Even Dio, whose story arc is shorter than that of the Pillar Men, is a more complex and interesting villain.

The Joestars and their allies, however, are, for the most part, quite the likeable and interesting bunch. Jonathan Joestar plays the part of a more chivalrous hero, in stark contrast to Dio’s greed and delusions of grandeur. Speedwagon, while not the bravest soul, sometimes provides tactical advice to his friends, and his foundation is key during the second chapter. Above all else, though, Speedwagon and ripple master Will A. Zeppeli are unwaveringly loyal to Jonathan and his cause of stopping Dio’s conquest. Joseph, on the other hand, is more of an everyman – he is cocky, he ogles pretty women, and he has no qualms about starting an alley fight with a pair of crooked cops. His imperfect human habits are what lend this Joestar to being a more relatable and (ironically) more likeable protagonist. His habit of pulling strategies out of thin air never cease to impress, in large part because of how quick-witted and wacky they tend to be, and his bravery in putting himself in danger’s way to protect his friends is equal parts admirable and crazy.

While both plotlines are handled well, it certainly feels as if chapter one was more or less a means of setting the stage for Joseph Joestar’s story. And that’s probably the best way to go about delivering this story, considering how many characters and plot points carry on to chapter two. Nothing in this first season of Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure feels the slightest bit rushed, which is impressive, considering it follows the story of one family over multiple generations. Some of the characters are a bit less spectacular in presentation than others, however, and that is arguably the greatest misstep of the first season of this series, which is such a character-driven story. Still, this adaptation is a heck of a lot of fun, and the finale does well to tease what is to come in season two with a couple post-credits easter eggs.

My rating: 8.25 (out of 10)

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Xbox 360 review: DmC: Devil May Cry

Swapping out medieval castles and old European townscapes in favor of a more contemporary urban punk Eastern European setting, DmC: Devil May Cry does as much to build upon the standards set by previous Devil May Cry games as it does to reimagine and reinvent one of the most popular action game series out there. While the initial debut trailer of DmC was met with harsh criticism over the presentation of protagonist Dante, veteran fans of the series ought to give this title a second look, as it is far and away the smoothest-playing title in the series. Ninja Theory has decided to cut much of the fat from the upgrade system, and while there are still plenty of new combos and abilities that can be unlocked, they are simultaneously more practical and less complicated than in previous Devil May Cry games. Earning these upgrades is by no means a cake walk – you’re still going to have to put forth the effort into chaining combos in order to gain more points and a better overall score on each mission. But the game does loosen up a bit on the long-standing tradition of pushing for multiple playthroughs by making it so that you can earn enough points on a single run of the normal ‘Devil Hunter’ difficulty setting to fulfill a well-rounded and decently powerful arsenal. That said, a second or third playthrough on any of the seven difficulty settings is required in order to gather all the hidden collectibles.

The secondary weapons have also be retooled for the sake of practicality, but are still visually pleasing and a blast to use. The scythe Osiris and throwing star Aquila stand in as Angel weapons, dealing lower damage, but doing well to stall enemies or keep them at a distance. The gauntlets Eryx and axe Arbiter are slower Demon weapons that deal significant damage, but also leave Dante more open to enemy attacks, as he cannot recover as quickly after striking in order to perform a dodge. These weapons have variable ranges, and can all be incorporated into sky attacks in order to further chain combos. Dante can maintain his chain via his trademark pistols Ebony and Ivory, but as with previous DMC games, these effectively only serve that lone purpose. Meanwhile, two new guns, Revenant and Kablooey, deal notably greater damage with a more frequent reload rate, as a shotgun and sticky bomb launcher, respectively. Dante can also use chains to latch onto foes, whether they are airborne or groundside, and either pull himself toward them or drag them close to him to strike. To top this all off, Dante still has his signature sword Rebellion, which is the default main weapon, still plenty effective at dealing medium levels of damage to foes at a moderate rate.

DmC does well to incorporate many themes from the older Devil May Cry games into this new vision of the game world. At the outset, Dante believes himself a loner who has he unfortunate habit of drawing the attention of Demons and being sucked into Limbo, a plane of existence unseen by the public, but one that nonetheless influences their day-to-day life. It is not long before Dante meets Kat, a young witch who informs him that she knows of Limbo and that her boss, a man representing an organization known as ‘The Order’ wishes to meet with him. The problem is that it is difficult for Dante to lay low for long, and has his fair share of run-ins with demons before Kat is finally able to introduce Dante to the head of The Order, Vergil. Vergil helps Dante to restore his memories, and Dante comes to the realization that they are brothers, both Nephilim, the sons of an Angel mother and Demon father. Dante also remembers that Mundus, the demon who now reigns over the city where they now live, killed his mother and imprisoned his father, and has been hunting Dante ever since. However, the brothers hold one major advantage over Mundus: the demon does not know of the second Nephilim, Vergil, and thus the two hatch a plan with the help of Kat to strike at Mundus’ resources – his propaganda, his poisonous drinks, all that he holds most precious and important – in order to anger him and draw him away from the demon gate, his source of power, long enough that it might be shut.

While DmC boasts but a handful of boss fights, each is moderately intelligent in its design, providing Dante with a different challenge to tackle. They are nowhere near a rounded-out or in-depth as the likes of boss encounters from more adventure-driven games like The Legend of Zelda or even other contemporary action titles like No More Heroes. Still, the majority of DmC’s boss encounters handle about as smoothly as the rest of the experience, and are more a test of Dante’s endurance and adaptability to new threats than anything else. Occasionally, Dante will encounter weapon-specific enemies, which can only be fought with Angel or Demon weapons respectively. This adds an extra degree of tension to combat, if only for brief periods.

Challenge stages make their return, and are divided into different levels of difficulty that correspond to the color locks that bar access until matching keys are discovered. These stages include combat scenarios that limit the damage Dante can deal with certain weapons, and races against the clock to reach the end of a series of platforms. These race-style levels are decidedly more adventure-oriented in their design, and appear a number of times during the main game (sans the time limit) when Dante travels to a dream-like setting to unlock more of his memories. The variation in level design in DmC is one of the game’s greatest strengths, and while you spend the majority of your time in the warped version of reality known as Limbo, the game does pull a few clever punches generally reserved for game series boasting more complicated plots such as Metal Gear Solid or Bioshock.

DmC is surprisingly smart with regards to its scripting. Considering how abrasive and cocky Dante initially comes across as, it’s impressive to see his character progress into an anti-hero players can actually get behind, and to have some genuinely funny bits of humor sprinkled throughout. Much of this is due to the way that the voice actors portray their respective characters, a delivery which comes across as being very natural across the board for Dante, Vergil, Kat, etc. The soundtrack, comprised primarily by tracks written by Combichrist and Noisia, retains some of the metal thrash sounds of older Devil May Cry titles, while adding some electronica into the mix. Yes, there is some dubstep worked in, and while it comes across as a bit silly in the moment, it never steers the atmosphere of the game too far from its roots.

My rating: 9.25 (out of 10)

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Wii U review: Super Mario 3D World

Effectively successor to Super Mario 3D Land, the latest 3D Mario title, Super Mario 3D World, clings to the 2D-3D hybrid presentation introduced on the 3DS and brings it into a full-HD realm brimming with bright colors, creative level designs, and four-person co-operative multiplayer. The premise is very basic – more bare-bones than most Mario titles, in fact. Bowser has kidnapped all the fairies of the Spritzee Kingdom and it is up to Mario, Luigi, Toad, and Princess Peach to rescue them and restore order to this new land. The gimmick of being able to play as Peach is effectively the main reason for this premise, and while it is certainly nice to see the Mushroom Kingdom’s own royalty be utilized as something more than a plot device for once, Super Mario 3D World is a title that is memorable more for its gameplay than its plot.

Because it combines elements of the 2D platformer Mario titles and 3D free-roam adventure platformer titles, 3D World’s individual levels are generally rather short. That said, there are quite a few of them to explore, and though the challenge factor lacks the consistent degree of increase seen in 3D Land, it’s a far more rewarding and entertaining experience than the offerings of Super Mario Galaxy. There’s also a decent degree of freedom with regards to which stages you tackle in which order in any given world. Often, two stages will be made accessible at once, as well as some of the side stages and minigames, while the end-world boss castle will require a certain number of coins to access. The Spritzee Kingdom utilizes green stars instead of the classic gold stars, and while these green stars are more plentiful, boss stages generally require more of them in order to be accessed, which thankfully restricts the game from becoming too much of a cakewalk.

There are a few new power-ups that join the ranks of classics like the Fire Flower and Boomerang. Arguably the most under-utilized of the bunch is the Cherry, which splits a character into two duplicate copies, which jump and run at the same time. Certain puzzles require a set number of individuals to complete, and if you are playing Super Mario 3D World solo, this can be a convenient means to nab those few odd green stars you may have missed during your first playthrough of a stage. That said, only so many stages see the inclusion of the Cherry, a handful being at the start of the game, and the majority of them in the post-game bonus levels.

Used primarily in the gauntlet-style boss stages, a cannon that is worn on a character’s head fires a steady stream of cannonballs at foes. This can prove convenient for taking out inbound Bullet Bills, accessing a few hidden rooms with collectible stamps inside, or simply making the time-sensitive aspect of completing these stages a bit less stressful. The most highly-advertised new ability is the Cat Suit, which allows Mario and company the ability to dash toward foes and scale walls to reach otherwise-unobtainable items. The Cat Suit, while certainly a unique and bizarre addition to the Mario series, is used in excess, and the novelty of it wears thin about halfway through the game.

Boss fights are enjoyable and nicely varied, requiring different strategies such as gaining a higher vantage point in order to deal damage on a giant snake or splitting a blob-like jester into small jelly bits, which must then be taken out individually. The fights against Boom Boom and Pom Pom are almost identical to their battles in 3D Land, which is disappointing, considering how basic they were than and still are now, but the fights against them are far less frequent. Every once in a while, players will come across a stage designed specifically for an explorer Toad. These stages are set up as one large cube that players can rotate in order to gain a better view as they attempt to collect multiple green stars in one go. The catch is that this adventurous Toad cannot jump and thus players must rely on careful timing to avoid enemies and environmental traps. Similarly, Mario and gang can attempt a fast-paced series of challenges that will reward them with a significant bounty of green stars, provided they complete each of these combat and puzzle-focused challenges within a very strict time limit.

The presentation of Super Mario 3D World is superb. Colors are incredibly bright, textures look wonderful, and even the most basic of enemies appear highly animated. There are easter eggs and secrets abound, as well some rather brilliant twists on classic formulas with regards to the level design. The soundtrack, while perhaps lacking as many outright memorable tunes as Super Mario 64 or many of the older entries in the franchise, is nonetheless jazzy, upbeat, and a joy to listen to. This is a Mario game that does well to follow in the footsteps of its 3DS predecessor – impressive, considering that 3D World lacks the entire ‘3D depth perception’ gimmick provided by Nintendo’s current handheld. It may not be the greatest 3D Mario title out there, but it’s still an overall well-designed and thoroughly polished game, offering up plenty of replayability via its bonus stages and loads of fun thanks to the inclusion of co-operative multiplayer.

My rating: 8 (out of 10)

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Xbox 360 review: Grand Theft Auto V

(While I’ve dabbled in a little bit of the gameplay of previous Grand Theft Auto titles, GTA V is the first title I have experienced in proper. As I am no longer subscribed to an Xbox Live Gold account, this review only accounts for the single-player mode, as I have not personally experienced the multiplayer angle.)

The game world of Los Santos is absolutely massive – one of, if not the single largest, video game worlds I’ve ever explored. According to Rockstar, Los Santos and the surrounding beach and wilderness environments add up to being bigger than the sum of the maps from Red Dead Redemption, Grand Theft Auto IV, and San Andreas combined – an impressive feat, especially considering the variable nature of an open-world game such as GTA V. And that is one of GTA V’s greatest strengths – the story is kept ever-interesting, due to its unpredictable nature and cleverly-scripted plot points. Each time you think you’ve picked up on the trail of where the narrative is headed, the game throws you a curveball, insisting you focus your efforts elsewhere for a while, or requiring you to change protagonists in order to progress. But this is never done with too much of an emphasis on furthering the story – each of the three lead characters has plenty of side missions to indulge in at any given time, including jet ski races, parachute jumps, assassination gigs, purchasing properties to earn more revenue, robbing gas stations on a whim, or aiding any of the randomly-generated citizen robberies. And that doesn’t even account for the freedom to trick out your car, get a tattoo, buy new duds, sit on your couch and watch a television program, engage in a tennis match, visit the strip club, or any of the many other ‘do-whatever-your-heart-so-desires’ activities available at practically any given point in the game.

GTA V’s gameplay mechanics are notably more impressive as a sum than as individual elements. Gunplay on foot works well enough, with one trigger used to raise the firearm, and the other used to shoot. There is a wide variety of guns to choose from as well, including more practical shotguns, pistols, and automatic rifles, as well as heavy-duty grenade launchers and the ever-amusing minigun. Grenades, sticky detonation bombs, and gas canisters round out your arsenal options, while donning body armor and bulletproofing your vehicle may prove quite valuable for your getaway methods at the conclusion of a heist. Driving any of Los Santos’ motorcycles, sports cars, buses, airplanes, blimps, helicopters, speedboats, ATVs, golf carts, etc. controls smooth as butter, though firing from these rides takes some getting used to. Effectively, the moment you hold down a trigger, you begin spraying bullets at whatever target is nearby. The reticule is a little small for my liking, and even after you’ve spent a few hours familiarizing yourself with the ins and outs of GTA V, the driving and shooting segments never feel as well rounded out as most anything else in the game.

Key to the main single-player story are the heists that Michael, Trevor, and Franklin will take part in. There are only a handful of these to accomplish, but each involves a multi-step plan to bring it all together. The trio will be required to gather up the necessary equipment and getaway vehicle prior to the gig, as well as select their approach. Each heist has two possible approaches, which can result in vastly different challenges for players – not so much in the overall difficulty factor, but in the number of foes Michael, Trevor, and Franklin will be pitted against, the distance they have to outrun cops, and the time spent rounding up the necessary goods. The heists are where the stats earned by each of three playable characters prove most important. If one character is better at driving, it makes the most sense to put them on getaway duty. Similarly, the character most capable with firearms should take on the role of providing cover fire.

These heists also require a few extra hands that vary depending on the task at hand. Need to block a police pursuit from a distance? Hire a hacker to switch up the traffic lights. Need a bit more muscle to push through a blockade? Hire a guy who knows how to handle firearms. The catch with each of these roles is that, depending on the approach you choose, certain extra crew members may only see minimal inclusion on the job. It’s often best to pick your battles intelligently – a guy who is good with firearms probably won’t be of much use in a ‘fast and silent’ heist, but a solid getaway driver is key if the approach anticipates a quick reaction from local police. There are always multiple crew members to choose from for a heist, and their own skills will improve with repeated use. That said, the better at their job a hacker or getaway driver is, the more he/she will generally require in a pay cut.

The game may not be the most absolute gorgeous title to be released so late in this console generation, but GTA V looks damn impressive for its scope, nonetheless. As everything in the game is installed prior to your picking up the controller and having your run of this digital city-turned-playground, there is never any need to worry about the draw distance of objects within the environment, the load or save times, or overloading the reactions of the game’s A.I. by forcing too many explosions on the freeway at any given time. That said, Rockstar seems to have amped up the fervor with which cops will pursue you, and more reckless decisions like an attempt to storm the Fort Zancudo military base will likely result in a number of trial-and-error runs, as the patrols therein will attempt to stop you with extreme prejudice. Rockstar has done a phenomenal job in recreating iconic Los Angeles locations with their own signature spins – the attention to detail throughout the game world is utterly superb.

Further solidifying the parody of Los Angeles are the radio stations and denizens of Los Santos. The various stations offer up a wide variety of genres and songs to listen to at your leisure, while the DJs will occasionally interrupt for a brief moment or two to deliver some quip about the sorry state of washed up actors and plastic-injected celebrities in town, or deliver an advertisement for the Los Santos equivalent of Fifty Shades of Grey. The dialogue between the locals as well as appearances by obvious parodies of Mark Zuckerberg, Ryan Seacrest, and more, make for as entertaining a story as they do as poignant exploration of which icons American pop culture has gravitated towards (for better or worse) during the past five years. The soundtrack is incredibly diverse, with stations catering toward 80s and 90s rap, more recent alternative and electronic tunes, classic rock, country squalls, pop across the decades, and many more. Meanwhile, the original soundtrack composed for this game is a sort of melting pot of funk, R&B, and rock, all in instrumental format that varies between dark and mellow tunes perfect for your time spent cruising the streets of Los Santos, and upbeat and intense tracks more well-suited to gunfights or heists.

Such emphasis on what all comprises the image of the American west coast is a large part of what makes the three distinctly different protagonists interact so successfully with one another. Trevor is quick to point out that Michael’s lifestyle is a pathetic shadow of his former glory days, while Michael retorts that Trevor’s ‘live free and die hard’ lifestyle signifies that he is living too much of his time in the past, and that sooner or later, he’s going to prove too much for Michael or anyone else to handle. Franklin, meanwhile, being the youngest member of the trio, has some of his own experiences from his days hustling the street for his former employer Simeon to bring to the table, but largely draws his inspirations and strategies from Michael. Together, they make a lively cast of very flawed, very human characters, and though each player is likely to have his or her favorite from these three amigos, there is rarely a dull moment, regardless of who you are playing as.

And really, when it all boils down, this is a very character-driven story. The plot is solid in and of itself, focusing on contemporary concerns of reality in a fictional setting. The whole premise of Michael finding himself wrapped up in the affairs of the F.I.B. (a fictional version of the F.B.I.) takes center stage. Trevor’s anarchist/opportunist lifestyle and Franklin’s hopes of moving up and out of the small-town gang lifestyle always tether back to Michael’s story, even after you’ve spent hours performing cartel runs in the desert or dealing with rival gang members in the rougher neighborhoods of Los Santos. It’s curious to see a game that builds so much upon what we as gamers have come to expect of an open-world experience arrive so late in a console generation. With new systems arriving from Sony and Microsoft, and Nintendo’s Wii U already on the market for a year, it would have been easy for other developers to create a sequel off existing framework without changing much beyond the story and setting. But Rockstar has opted to pull all their best punches here, culminating in a game that is the purest form of entertainment and is a modern masterpiece for its genre.

My rating: 9.25 (out of 10)
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...