Sunday, July 20, 2014

Anime review: Space Dandy

In the vein of Cowboy Bebop and Outlaw Star, Space Dandy is the most recent anime to see a small crew scour the stars for the purposes of both work and adventure, though this series places emphasis on wacky comedic scenarios more so than its predecessors. Within the first episode, viewers are familiarized with Dandy’s line of work (an alien hunter seeking out new and rare species to cash in at registration), his crew mates (the cat-like alien Meow and vacuum cleaner/multipurpose robot QT), and the general nature of the show. As Dandy and Meow head planetside to search for unusual creatures, they find themselves swept up in the chaotic food chain of the world, and ultimately are pronounced dead by the time the credits roll. But when episode two begins, Dandy and Meow are back at it, as if nothing had gone awry in the first episode.

Such is the nature of Space Dandy – characters turn into zombies, spend weeks chasing down sentient life forms that have the ability to alter a person’s memories, and even find themselves transported to an alternate dimension via a wormhole within one ramen noodle restaurant. In between their misadventures, Dandy, Meow, and QT frequently pay visits to Honey and the other servers at the Boobies restaurant chain, an interstellar parody of Hooters. Space Dandy plays out more like a western animated work than a typical anime, due to the fact that viewers could theoretically jump into the series with any given episode and still be able to grasp the story just as well as if they had started with the premiere.

While Dandy and crew are scouring the stars, the mad scientist gorilla Dr. Gel is ever-vigilant in his pursuit of the titular hero, albeit for unknown reasons. Gel oversees the completion of one invention or superweapon after another, and – as it is revealed during the second half of this first season – does so for the sake of military purposes, as two factions have been at odds with each other for an unspecified amount of time. Much to the disappointment of Gel’s superior, a flaming skeleton with the most underwhelming name of Admiral Perry, Dandy, Meow, QT, and the aliens they cross paths with often inadvertently cause the destruction of these inventions.

Space Dandy’s comedic stylings provide a well-balanced blend of zany scenarios, pop culture references, dimwitted plans, a bit of crude, and a few instances of characters breaking the fourth wall. Yes, there are exciting action segments, an intense race across the galaxy, and even a few philosophical questions presented (most of which fly right over Dandy’s head), but the series never strays too far from its comedic core. That said, there are a few episodes that opt for slower pacing in order to better flesh out an alien culture, and these episodes typically prove a bit less fun to watch than the rest.

The animation styles vary slightly from one episode to another, namely when Dandy and gang are traveling to stranger locations in space and time, though the majority of the series is handled with animation that is pretty typical of contemporary anime. Dandy’s hairdo may be a bit exaggerated, but aside from that, the most standout elements of this anime’s presentation factor come from its bright and psychedelic color palettes, as well as its upbeat and jazzy soundtrack. Space Dandy proves a quick and easy watch, though it does well to craft an identity of its own while still paying small tributes to its sources of inspiration.

My rating: 8 (out of 10)

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Xbox 360 review: Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes

To tide fans over until the proper release of the fifth numbered entry in the Metal Gear Solid series, Konami released Ground Zeroes in both physical and digital formats. Intended as a teaser for all that is to come in the open-world Phantom Pain, Ground Zeroes runs on the Fox Engine, and even on the now-last generation Xbox 360, the graphics are damn impressive. The rainstorm that shrouds Big Boss’ mission excels at highlighting raindrops streaming down textures and assets like tarps flapping in the wind in highly realistic fashion. While Kiefer Sutherland’s takeover as the voice of Snake does reveal a noticeable difference to what fans have come to know and love from the efforts of veteran David Hayter, the experience is not a massive upset to the familiar, as Snake/Big Boss does very little talking for the duration of Ground Zeroes.

In short, Ground Zeroes does not feel the part of a Metal Gear game in gameplay or spirit. The heads-up display, while simplified, is highly unspecific and does little to give players any real indication of where enemy troops are or how many of them are patrolling an area. This is something that would not be terribly difficult to keep track of, given the tiny size of the map the main mission takes place on, were it not for the fact that there are so many structures of varying heights and widths. This results not only in enemies being difficult to keep track of, but also a degree of uncertainty with how well-hidden Snake is. And the slow-down sequences when Snake is given a few brief seconds to respond to his being spotted do virtually nothing but incite panic in the player, as Snake is most frequently spotted from a distance, and firing upon foes will alert anyone nearby, putting the whole area on alert status.

Because the main story requires no more than two hours to complete, it lacks any time necessary to develop Snake, Chico, or Paz, much less give players a reason to care about the supposed ‘high-risk mission’ or the brief appearance of Skull Face, whose voice actor provides deadpan efforts that imply he has as little interest in the character as most anyone else who will play through this glorified demo. The weird and goofy factors that make a Metal Gear experience so endearing and one-of-a-kind are gone – Ground Zeroes is gritty and serious, building off the Snake Eater and Peace Walker formulas, but lacking almost any creative end. While the finale does sufficiently set the stage for The Phantom Pain, there is only one moment at the end that will prove particularly exciting, or give fans of previous Metal Gear installments any real sense of fulfillment.

There are bonus missions to take on, and collectible cassette tapes and XOF badges littered around the environment that extend the lifespan of Ground Zeroes, if only as a thinly-veiled fetch-quest. The dialogue on the cassette tapes themselves reveal far more about any of the characters than the in-game actions do, and are overall better-scripted than the couple of action-heavy cutscenes. If Ground Zeroes is a genuine taste of Phantom Pain, I for one am extremely wary, due to just how bare an experience this is, and how much it appears to be adjusted for mainstream audiences.

My rating: 4.5 (out of 10)

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

XBLA review: Skullgirls Encore

Fighting games have never been my specialty, which is a bit of a shame, considering how cool I find many of the character designs in series like Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat. It’s simply been the case that, much as enjoy watching others play fighting games, I’ve never been particularly skilled at the genre, save for a few oddball exceptions like Street Fighter III: Third Strike and the Smash Bros. series (the latter of which I hardly consider to be a traditional fighting game). Skullgirls was brought to my attention a couple of years back when the gang over at Two Best Friends Play talked it up as one of the most bold undertakings from a small studio – a fighting game developed for those who love fighting games, but with artwork that was entirely hand-drawn.

Skullgirls Encore fits the bill of a fighting game designed for the most hardcore fans of the genre, with character motions that are arguably some of the most fluid in its class, and a high degree of mobility for nearly all eleven of its playable fighters. While that number may not seem a particularly impressive representation for a fighting game roster, it provides the most balanced roster I’ve personally come across in the genre. Each character has varying range and offensive power in their attacks, but they also have effective means of countering each of their fellow fighters.

For example, Big Band, one of the latest additions thanks to the extra Indiegogo funding, is a massive half-man, half-band wearing a trenchcoat. He takes up an insane amount of space on the screen, and is, by default, a large target. He’s not particularly fast, but can take hits like a champ and can deal out some decent damage via hits from the trombone slides, cymbals, and timpani drums concealed beneath his coat. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Frankenstein-esque cat girl Ms. Fortune lands rapid-fire claw strikes from both the ground and air, and can launch her head from her shoulders as a projectile. She ranks among the most fast and agile of all the playable fighters, but is appropriately not the most durable.

Stages such as a dimly-lit research lab, a calm neighborhood street, and an eerie chapel will be revisited a number of times over the course of each character’s story mode. And while none of the stories last particularly long, each of the cast members is provided ample time to develop into someone interesting and given a reasonable motive for either seeking out the Skull Heart for their own ends or attempting to destroy it. As they all converge toward this one key artifact, the characters of the Skullgirls universe will cross paths with mobsters, mad scientists, and – most importantly – one another. The endgame is surprisingly deep for such a game, however, and with three more playable characters on the way, there are no doubt many more surprises in store for this one-of-kind world.

In truth, the art style does wonders for Skullgirls. It not only sets the game apart from the competition, it reinforces a degree of dedication to shaping the overall quality of the game rarely seen from studios these days. While larger studios map their launch plans around paid DLC release schedules, Skullgirls has opted to offer these first two new fighters free of charge, and they feel like they have had just as much time in playtesting as all the rest – in short, they feel like they were designed as part of the core cast from the outset, despite the fact that this was obviously not the case. The bright cartoony visages of Cerebella, Squigly, and Valentine are a breath of fresh air in the modern era of video gaming, and the soundtrack being heavy on America jazz influences doesn’t hurt either.

Skullgirls is a game that is equal parts form and function, and it excels at both. It is one of the most polished fighting games I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing, while also proving easy to access for those not long-since devoted to the genre, thanks to its intuitive control scheme and intelligently laid-out tutorial mode. The degrees of difficulty maintain a very natural progression, while the classic horror film-inspired characters squaring off in art deco environments proves an utterly bizarre but entirely welcome hybrid. Skullgirls Encore plays fast, plays smooth, and does surprisingly well in outshining giants of its field in more ways than one.

My rating: 9.25 (out of 10)

Sunday, July 13, 2014

XBLA review: The Wolf Among Us

Following up on their success with The Walking Dead video game, Telltale has chosen to tackle another comic book property in the form of a precursor to Fables. Titled The Wolf Among Us, the game is built upon the same engine used for The Walking Dead, and thus requires players make time-sensitive decisions and responses that will alter the way the citizens of Fabletown react to them. The story is centered on Bigby Wolf, sheriff to the magical folk now living in hiding among the commoners (or ‘mundies’, as they are referred to in-game) of New York. What begins as a visit to the Woodsman’s apartment to break up a domestic disturbance quickly leads to something much larger – murder, hired thugs, and magical artifacts simultaneously detract and aid Bigby’s mission to seek out the truth behind what is really going on in the shadows of Fabletown.

The true nature of the story is, intelligently, left somewhat ambiguous until the final two episodes. While the ultimate payoff is not the most shocking or creative spin on a detective tale, the journey there is certainly worth the trouble. What makes The Wolf Among Us so noticeably different from The Walking Dead is that it is, first and foremost, a detective story, and as such, Bigby will spend most of his time digging through desk drawers and basements for evidence, as well as gathering clues from Fables like Ichabod Crane, Beauty, and her lover Beast. However, there is plenty of action to be found, and when Bigby find himself in a scuffle with a drunk and belligerent Woodsman or chasing Tweedledee and Tweedledum through back alleys, acute attention to button prompts may provide Bigby with a means to more quickly gain the upper hand on a situation.

The art style is similarly cel-shaded as The Walking Dead, with pale color palettes filling in the background, and thick outlines around most characters and objects. Yet, it isn’t overbearing. Rather, the art style is perhaps even better suited for the likes of mythical beasts in a contemporary urban setting than small groups of survivors attempting to outlast the undead. The soundtrack is less extravagant, opting for soft, eerie chords during investigative sequences, and saving the boisterous action themes for – well – the aforementioned fights and chases.

If there is one noteworthy downside to the presentation factor, it is that the individual episodes have a tendency to lag at odd points, sometimes messing up your ability to quickly react to button prompts – a tad strange, considering it is a single-player experience released in episodic format. One would hope that these occurrences would become less frequent/nonexistent in later chapters, but alas, they remain a small blemish even in episode five. A pity, considering how much these hiccups distract the immersion otherwise perpetuated by the strong balance of fantasy lore and modern jargon in the writing and voice acting.

As a whole, the series is paced very well, with each episode clocking in at roughly an hour-and-a-half. Sure, the introductory episode serves primarily to set the stage for all that is to come, but it too has its fair share of intrigue and intense standoffs. Admittedly, the finale, while technically about the same length as the other episodes, feels as if it is cut a bit short, and another half-hour could have easily been added on to better cushion the endgame as well as provide greater closure for a couple of characters. Still, the series does well to close its final chapter on a note that both seals the current story and opens up enough possibilities for future seasons.

My rating 7.5 (out of 10)

Sunday, July 6, 2014

3DS eShop review: Shovel Knight

While early looks at Shovel Knight led fans to draw correlations to the Mega Man franchise due to the title’s 8-bit charm and emphasis on fighting through enemy-infested stages in order to reach wacky stylized boss battles, the final product proves much more than an homage to the blue bomber. At the most basic level, Shovel Knight is Yacht Club Games paying tribute to NES-era titles and franchises that have largely shifted to 3D planes since. But inspirations drawn from Mega Man, The Legend of Zelda, the original Final Fantasy, Castlevania, and more are what allows this light-hearted fantasy platformer to work so well while simultaneously crafting an identity all its own.

The story is that of Shovel Knight, long-since separated from his old partner Shield Knight, questing forth to challenge the evil Enchantress and her Order of No Quarter, comprised of eight key members, each of whom has a unique sprite design and battle tactic specific to their stage. Mole Knight digs into the walls and floor of his stage, springing forth to attack Shovel Knight with quick strikes. Specter Knight flings his rotating scythe around his arena of combat, Treasure Knight shoots his anchor cannon in an underwater environment, and so on.

While a few of these boss encounters add environmental challenges to the mix, the matter of which fight will prove the toughest is largely a matter of what items players have on-hand. Within each major stage lies a new weapon or tool to be added to Shovel Knight’s arsenal, though these are often hidden in rooms that are a little ways off the beaten path. So while the only immediate reward for besting one of the bosses is progression to the next area of the overworld, should you miss any one of these items during your initial run through a stage, a gentleman named Chester who resides in the first town Shovel Knight visits will be willing to part with the Dust Knuckles, Flare Wand, Propeller Dagger, Throwing Anchor, and so on for a decent sum of treasure.

Collectible music sheets can be sold to a bard in the same town, and then can be heard any time from then on. Upgrades can be purchased to boost both Shovel Knight’s health and magic meters, and a few shovel attacks can be added to his skill set as well. Around the midway point of the game, a handful of alternate armor sets will become available, each with its own unique properties, such as less treasure dropped upon dying, an emphasis on conserving magic in exchange for less damage protection, etc. This grants players a greater degree of freedom with how they wish to tackle the late-game challenges, as well as a higher degree of involvement and carefulness in decision-making going forward.

Food items such as turkey and apples can be used to restore Shovel Knight’s health within a stage, but as these become less frequent in later stages, the two chalices available for purchase may prove more desirable additions to the inventory. The chalices are effectively the same as the bottles in The Legend of Zelda games – Shovel Knight need only purchase the chalices for a reasonable sum, then visit the Trouple King (a trout-apple hybrid creature who resides in a forest pond not far from the earliest stages) to fill the containers with one of three different healing/defense-oriented concoctions. Should Shovel Knight lose all his health in a stage, fall off a cliff, or run into spiked flooring, the game will simply place the hero back at the last checkpoint and take away a small sum of treasure. This lost treasure can be retrieved, though depending on where in the stage Shovel Knight last perished, this may prove more of a gamble than some may feel is worth the trouble.

Shovel Knight is not an easy game, per se, and it heavily emphasizes a trial-and-error routine. However, its responsiveness is quite fine-tuned, and the game deals out success and failure in a fair manner. Only at a few junctures do the hurdles feel significantly more so challenging, and even then, most can be more easily overcome with the proper equipment at one’s disposal. Beyond the core routine of tackling major stages and facing down the Order of No Quarter, Shovel Knight can take on extra challenges that emphasize treasure retrieval or square off against player-recorded ghosts in the Streetpass arena. A few wandering individuals, such as The Baz and Reize, offer extra battles that are fast-paced and intense, and may need to be overcome in order to reach the next portion of the overworld map.

The order that events need to be tackled in Shovel Knight is only so concrete - while the main stages cannot be tackled in whatever fashion players see fit ala Mega Man, there is a certain degree of freedom that becomes greater the further along players progress. The soundtrack does well to evoke a classic fantasy adventure sound with peppy and upbeat tunes that harken back to the 8-bit era as much as the brightly-colored pixelated graphics do. Shovel Knight is a rare breed – a game that knows its roots and takes plenty of inspiration from them, without identifying too closely with one or another. The game also does well to pace itself, keeping things interesting by offering up plenty of new challenges with each stage, but never extending itself to unnecessary lengths.

My rating: 8.75 (out of 10)
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