Sunday, November 30, 2014

Anime review: Sword Art Online

WARNING: While I typically try my best to avoid spoilers of any kind in these reviews, Sword Art Online is split into two major story arcs that bear notably different styles and a number of important plot points from the former influence the latter. As such, there will be a spoiler-heavy section of this review, the beginning and ending of which will be indicated by bold text. The remainder of the review, however, will be spoiler-free.

One of the most popular anime to reach North American audiences in the past few years, I missed the entire wave of excitement surrounding Sword Art Online’s initial release. My interest in it was piqued a little more than a year after its zenith, when it was picked up as part of the new Toonami programming block. It proved an unusual though not uninteresting combination of classic medieval fantasy and near-future science fiction, with the majority of the story being told through the digital realm of the massively multiplayer online game that shares its name with the series.

Young Kazuto Kirigaya, one of the early beta testers for Sword Art Online, is as eager as the rest of the world to dive headfirst into this sprawling realm of might and magic – quite literally, in fact, as SAO is coupled with a helmet that allows Kazuto and every other player a fully-immersive experience. But Kazuto is also wary of the fact that some members of the online gaming community might not take kindly to his company were they aware of his early access rights. As such, Kazuto selects an avatar for himself, which he dubs ‘Kirito’, a moniker by which he will ultimately become more well-known than his real-world name. During his first few hours in SAO, Kirito familiarizes himself with the basics and the small tweaks that have been implemented since the beta, as well as makes a few new acquaintances. But the positivity and excitement glowing on the faces Kirito and everyone else in SAO is abruptly cut short as players begin panicking, realizing that their task menus do not display a ‘log out’ button. As it turns out, this was a design point put in place by the game’s creator, who informs everyone that they can only wake up once the ultimate endgame challenge of the hundred-floor dungeon and its boss have been conquered, and that any attempts to forcibly remove the helmets from the bodies of players in reality will result in their immediate deaths.

The style of this fictional MMORPG borrows heavily from Japanese heavyweights like Final Fantasy, as players are able to craft their own identity and utilize different skill sets. Protagonist Kirito’s ace-up-his-sleeve is the ability to dual-wield blades, while other players focus on healing, illusion magic, defensive tactics, and so forth. Different guilds are founded over time, some with more strict regulations are ruthless behavior in mind, and as time passes, it becomes abundantly clear that the NPC monsters that lie within each dungeon may not be the largest of threats players need concern themselves with. What really helps shape the atmosphere of the series as Kirito and company find themselves spending days into weeks into months within the game world, is the fact that the situation is so dire. There are real ramifications for dying in the game world, as it means death for a player’s physical body as well, and players tend to be either overly cautious, worrying about the smallest of scratches from foes, or bull-headed and unnecessarily gutsy, rushing headlong into insurmountable odds. Kirito, on the other hand, tries his best to team up with a handful of players and ensure they all make it to the next area of the game world, while still doing his best to keep his advantage over fellow players hush-hush.

While the pacing of this first half of the story may not be consistent, one of its points of brilliance is the manner in which it chooses to explore the many players and regions within the game world. During Kirito’s adventures, he visits crystalline tundra, expansive fields, winding dungeons full of traps, and a calm lakeside cottage, each of which has a very different set of tasks and plot progression associated with it – both with regards to advancing within SAO and through his personal relationships with friends. Kirito experiences frustration at the fact that he cannot save people from their dual deaths, but finds trust at the side of Asuna, an ace swordswoman who becomes his closest friend, confidant, and eventually his love.

Though she holds personal and professional responsibilities as one of the most skilled members of one of SAO’s elite guilds, Asuna has wit as quick as her reflexes with a blade. While Kirito has an advantage of knowledge of SAO’s programming, he works solo for many of the early episodes, turning to Asuna gradually more and more as he comes to appreciate what she has to offer in her understanding of player-to-player relations and the sort of in-game diplomacy that the guilds stand for. The more Asuna becomes an integral part of the story, the more interesting the plot becomes, and the more genuine and well-scripted both her and Kirito’s character progressions become.


What becomes of the second half of the story is truly disappointing, as Asuna, once a strong-willed, calculating, and admirable fighter more than capable of holding her own, is reduced to mere plot device in the follow-up game titled ‘Alfheim Online’. After Kirito and his peers escape the world of SAO, it is revealed that a select few hundred players, Asuna included, never woke up from the game, and that Sugou Nobuyuki, an esteemed employee of Asuna’s father, intends to use this turn of events to his advantage by vowing to marry Asuna and claiming a greater stake in her father’s company. This situation is only worsened by the reveal that Sugou is posing as the fairy king Oberon in ALO, and is the one responsible for holding Asuna prisoner within this digital realm.

The problem with pulling such a grand reveal so early on is that it leads the suspense and action to run dry very quickly. Sugou and his alter ego Oberon come across as nothing more than a childish jerk with control issues, and the subplot regarding his desire to research brain control methods but never with the intent to use them on Asuna does not serve any particular purpose other than to prove his lack of anything more than a selfish and depraved vision for his intentions with Asuna. While the SAO arc painted a very real threat within the game world, there is no such hurdle to overcome in ALO. The few skirmishes Kirito does have with grunts of guilds are simply included to provide some brief, action-heavy eye candy, while the new characters he meets feel sorely underdeveloped, save for Leafa and Recon, the avatar for Kazuto’s sister and her classmate respectively.

Even with these two new additions to the story, Recon sees very little screen time, and while it feels like perhaps the writers had a greater development cycle in mind for him, the purpose he ultimately serves is to support Leafa’s development as a Sylph, and – to a lesser extent – emotionally, as her friend. Whereas the SAO arc spent very little time in the realm of reality, this second leg of the story spends nearly as much time between Kazuto’s home and the fairy realm of ALO. Despite her insistence at how scared she was that Kazuto might never wake up from SAO, his younger sister Suguha seems perfectly comfortable – gleeful, even – about jumping right on into the next big online gaming craze that is ALO. While a little while has passed between the fallout of SAO and its fatal threats to players, it seems odd that none of these characters would be hesitant about running right back in.

Even stranger and frankly unsettling is the angle of sexual attraction that Suguha conveys toward her brother. While the series does explain the two are not technically related by blood, they still spent years growing up together, and this feels a highly inappropriate plotline for a series aimed at such a broad audience. It’s not a one-and-done mention, either – Suguha’s emotions are the entire reason she decides to aid Kazuto/Kirito in ALO and reality, even if she is not aware of their being the same individual. This, coupled with Sugou’s dominating personality, leads the series’ second half to feel the part of a half-baked imitation of the SAO arc, riddled with bizarre turns that feel as far from home as possible in a series like this.


The first half of Sword Art Online may not have been perfect – a little less time spent on certain subplots might have been nice, but on the whole, it did well to present a great degree of variety. Characters embodied different sets of values, environments were detailed and colorful, enemies bore designs both classic and imposing – all of which made for a decently entertaining first story arc. But reducing one of the best characters to mere trophy during the second half and kicking many of the others to the curb entirely proves a horrible decision. The newcomers to the second arc are, by and large, a wholly uninteresting and unconvincing lot, and the story a shallow mess that confuses its identity for entirely unclear reasons.

My rating: 5.75 (out of 10)

Friday, November 28, 2014

Pokémon: Omega Ruby journal - entry two

This 3DS remake is proving, in some ways, a notable improvement over its GBA precursor, and in others, a game that is made frustrating by outdated design elements. First, the good – the Pokénav is a major step forward in scouring tall grass along routes, looking for a certain Pokémon or even specific movesets. It makes wild encounters less of a gamble, and random wild encounters are far less frequent than any Pokémon game beforehand, which is all fine and dandy, considering that the experience share from X and Y makes its triumphant return and seriously boosts the rate at which all party members level up. Also, it appears that one of the sidequests/subplots surrounding a machine piece needed to aid electric gym leader Wattson has been removed entirely – a welcome removal, in my opinion, as it was clunky and was one of the first major moments of the pacing being thrown off in the original Ruby and Sapphire.

Now for the not-so-great – the 3DS retelling of these Pokémon adventures in the Hoenn region suffers from the same lack of direction that I encountered around the halfway point of my playthrough of the GBA Sapphire. This is especially disappointing as Omega Ruby had been going out of its way a bit to give players more clear indication of what their next step was supposed to be. Now that has apparently dropped off, right as I’m reaching the areas of Hoenn where paths begin to split and the environments become winding, lengthy, and generally confusing. IGN received some flack for their dislike of the large water regions in Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire, but I personally have no problem with the Hoenn seaways – at the very least, those are navigable, and rarely are any of the ocean segments of any Pokémon game too large to frequently lose your way. But man, maybe Team Aqua was on to something when they said they wanted to drown the continent, because Hoenn’s continental layout is not the best.

On the topic of my current team, I have put Squirtle away in the PC, favoring Corpish for the time being. Chimchar has since evolved into Monferno, Beldum into Metang, and I’ve added an Emolga to my team to better round it out. This new lineup has worked out pretty well so far, and I’ve only had to box any of them temporarily to progress north with the use of HMs (another aspect of Omega Ruby that feels archaic and saps from the fun factor a bit).

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Pokémon: Omega Ruby journal - entry one

My playthrough of Pokémon: Omega Ruby has been off to a slow start for a number of reasons, none of which really stem from the actual game itself. Part of my not jumping on this game immediately after I bought it was the result of my giving priority to the Wii U iteration of the new Super Smash Bros., part of it was due to my being rather busy with real-world going-ons last weekend, and part of it stemmed from the simple fact that the original GBA versions of Ruby and Sapphire were actually my personal least favorite entries in Game Freak’s long-running golden goose for Nintendo’s handhelds.

Before anyone starts berating me for the above statement, let me be clear that the fact that I am not so keen on the GBA Pokémon titles does not stem from their storylines, rather it's from the physical layout of the Hoenn region and associated technological restrictions of the era of their original release. I was a huge fan of the fact that Ruby and Sapphire offered up a nice variety of Pokémon players would actually want to use in early wild encounters, and there were some interesting dual-type combinations and naturally-learned movesets among them. Despite all this, my favorites in the series still prove the generation V entries Black and White, as well as the DS remakes Heart Gold and Soul Silver. I even found myself more fond of Platinum, restrictive hiccups, less interesting new Pokémon, and all that, than I did of Ruby and Sapphire.

With these reimaginings running on the same engine as X and Y, I have a great degree of faith that I will enjoy these 3DS counterparts significantly more, as last year’s introduction to the sixth generation of Pokémon came with an abundance of features that made the entire experience not only more accessible, but more enjoyable on the whole. As with my playthrough of Platinum, I’ve ported over a number of low-level Pokémon (courtesy of the Pokémon Bank) to help shape my party. The six Pokémon currently in my possession are by no means the core six I will ultimately use for my Elite Four encounter, though I’d like to think that at least half of them will stay by my side from start to finish.

As I’ve used each of the Hoenn starters in previous Pokémon playthroughs, I will not be utilizing any of them, despite how great each one is. I do, however, currently have two starters in my party that I have never actually used in a proper playthrough of a Pokémon game. Yes, believe it or not, I’ve actually never used Squirtle in a core Pokémon game, save for grinding in post-game content to raise one to a level fifty Blastoise as part of my desire to fill up the National Pokédex. My experience with Chimchar is similar, though at the moment, the fire monkey stands a better chance of remaining in my company longer, as it seems redundant to have two water types in the form of Squirtle and Corpish. Considering I like Corpish’s moveset at present and the typing of his evolved form more than the generation I water starter, that role may have already filled itself, though I won’t write Squirtle out just yet, as I’d like to see how Corpish fairs in the upcoming gyms and routes.

I’ve mentioned in the past how I am a huge fan of both ghost and steel type Pokémon, and while I’ve used nearly every ghost Pokémon in some capacity, Phantump and its evolved form Trevenant have done little more than sit in my PC Box since I first caught them last Fall. I’m rather curious to see how the grass/ghost combination works in the Hoenn region, though, as Pumpkaboo and Gourgeist proved a force to be reckoned with late in my Kalos region adventures. Beldum was one Pokémon I knew I wanted to use from the moment they announced Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire’s existence, and the fact that a shiny Beldum was made available for download from the moment the game hit store shelves was simply a bonus for me. Croagunk was an odball pick, as I'm not usually too hot on poison type Pokémon, but considering its usefulness against grass and fairy types as well as its secondary fighting type being useful against normal, dark, and steel, it offers up quite a lot of potential.

Anime review: Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn

The first full-blown U.C. Gundam series to be released in more than a decade, Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn is a bold undertaking for many reasons. Of course there is the fact that, aside from the MS IGLOO side stories, the Universal Century timeline had remained dormant since the mid 1990s, while alternate universe storylines took precedence, and rekindling viewers’ interest in the context-heavy legacy of the U.C. side of Gundam would require some finesse in plotting out events. Unicorn Gundam was subject to a significantly higher production value than most of its predecessors, building off the animation style of the Zeta Gundam film trilogy and effectively turning each episode of its seven-part release into a mini-movie. But what is perhaps most telling about the advances in the production and distribution of anime both in Japan and stateside is the fact that Unicorn Gundam saw simultaneous release in those two regions, with original Japanese voice work and an English dub accompanying the initial blu-ray releases.

In fact, that release structure would remain true even as Bandai of America shut its doors and handed the U.S. release of Unicorn Gundam over to Sunrise. While there are plenty of new faces in the fiction of Unicorn Gundam, there are more than a few familiar voices, with veteran voice actors returning to reprise their roles as some of the most iconic faces in Gundam history. Unicorn Gundam is a curious attempt at catering to both veterans of the franchise and newcomers alike, one that pays off in spades. While many other Gundam OVAs have been scripted with a singular story in mind, there was typically some degree of implication that viewers would already be familiarized with the major events of the One Year War from the original Mobile Suit Gundam, the major players in the Gryps conflict from Zeta, and so forth. Unicorn Gundam does refocus the story on the mysteries surrounding the newtypes, as presented through the eyes of young protagonist and hero of circumstance Banagher Links, as well as lead antagonist and revolutionary ideologist Full Frontal, a man shrouded in mystery, but who bears an uncanny resemblance to Char Aznable.

Unicorn Gundam begins with a flashback to the beginning of the Universal Century calendar system, as representatives from the Earth and her colonies gather to take part in a treaty signing and declaration of their vision for the future. However, things quickly go awry as a small group of insurgents tinker with the rotation of the space station where this event is being held, altering its rotation, and leading to the deaths of many of the VIPs and civilians on board. The focus then jumps back to present day to introduce the Vist Foundation, one family’s legacy to help influence the course of progress for spacenoids, though in a less violent or direct manner than the major players of the Principality of Zeon or even Axis had previously done. While the full motives of the Vist Foundation’s influence are not made clear from their first minutes on screen, it is apparent that their interests are more in the development and future potential of mobile suits and related technologies.

Meanwhile, Banagher Links jumpstart into the brewing conflict is not unlike the introduction Amuro Ray and Kamille Bidan received years before him, as Banagher finds his everyday routine of life on a colony thrown upside down with the arrival of the Sleeves, one of the last remaining Neo-Zeon organizations. Within the first two episodes, Banagher crosses paths with many important players in a tangled web, and each juncture will be explored in significant detail by tale’s end. Unicorn Gundam balances its characters in a way that few other Gundam series attempt – while Banagher, young VIP Audrey Burne, ace Sleeves pliot Marida Cruz, and resident anti-villain Full Frontal frequently take center stage, each of the hour-long episodes rounds out the involvement of the Londo Bell forces, the crew of the Nahel Argama, the high-ranking staff members of Anaheim Electronics, families long-since affected by the tragedies of the One Year War, and the scrapped-together remnants of Zeon lying in wait on Earth.

While offshoots and remnants of the Principality of Zeon have long been spotlighted in Gundam OVAs and side stories, few have proved as compelling an organization as the Sleeves. As Full Frontal directly addresses Banagher, he informs him of a greater vision he has in mind for spacenoids, and even goes so far as to reveal his face from behind his symbolic silver mask. Full Frontal understands that he has a legacy to live up to – the legacy of Char Anzable – and yet, the way he intends to go about reaching the ultimate end goal of Laplace’s Box and championing it to his cause puts things in a somewhat different perspective than what longtime fans might expect from the Red Comet. Full Frontal is a complex individual, one who constantly reveals more and more about his personal values, but always leaves his enemies (as well as viewers) wishing to know more. Full Frontal holds a great degree of respect and trust in his followers, which in turn leads to their having a greater degree of faith in their own plans and skill on the battlefield – they are strong-willed and determined, but rarely bull-headed or ruthless.

At its most basic of framework, Unicorn Gundam is about a race between Banagher Links and Full Frontal to reach Laplace’s Box and discover what the truth of its contents mean for the future of mankind; spacenoids and Earth-dwellers alike. But with so many parties keeping close watch on the events that unfold as they anxiously await how this endgame reveal might affect their lives and the conflict at hand, it’s hard to ignore just how masterfully crafted the story of each individual is. While many of the biggest reveals lay in the later episodes, it is hard not to find some degree of entertainment and empathy within nearly every major character. It’s a wonderful return to that special spark that made Mobile Suit Gundam a standout anime more than thirty years ago, while taking into account contemporary methods for handling both character and story progression. Unicorn Gundam offers plenty of cleverly-timed homages to older entries in the franchise, but at the same time, it weaves a story that is more than capable of standing on its own for those not familiar with the larger Gundam lore.

While there were some large gaps in the release time between individual episodes, the time and care put into each bend of a mobile suit’s limb, each beam round fired through the blackness of space, each tense expression on a pilot’s face during an escalating combat scenario proves well worth the wait times. Unicorn Gundam is, without question, the most visually polished entry in the long-running series. The soundtrack is similarly impeccable – percussion-heavy battle tunes harken back to the march-style music that frequently accompanied tense moments in the older series, while softer melodies offer a mesmerizing pairing to the dark glows of colony interiors and the crest of the Earth’s rotation as ships leave its orbit. A rare breed, indeed, Unicorn Gundam is not only a major step forward for the franchise that helped shape what mecha anime is today, but a modern masterpiece that simultaneously breaks from what many fans have come to expect of such a specialized genre while catering to series veterans via guest appearances and hinting at connections that might be.

My rating: 10 (out of 10)

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Anime review: Bayonetta: Bloody Fate

Adapting the first game in the Bayonetta saga to one hour-and-a-half anime film, Bayonetta: Bloody Fate does surprisingly well to cater to fans of Platinum Games’ signature sense of sleek style and over-the-top action. Bloody Fate maintains much of the wacky humor of the game, though its limited runtime does see a notable favoritism toward the ludicrous shoot-‘em-up fight sequences and battles against gargantuan angels. Obviously a large portion of the original Bayonetta experience had to be trimmed or cut out entirely to cater to the constraints of the anime, both in terms of its length and the change in entertainment medium, but Bloody Fate excels at keeping in focus the essence of what makes Bayonetta such a standout entry in the action gaming genre.

Much like in the video game, Bloody Fate performs a handful of brief jumps back from the present to the ancient end days of the Umbran witch clan. Viewers are quickly familiarized with Bayonetta’s lack of any real memory as to who she is, as well as given a crash-course on Luka’s vendetta stemming from his belief that Bayonetta’s awakening at the bottom of a lake was to blame for his father’s untimely death. Rodin is cool and collected as ever, though he serves more as plot device than fully realized character in this interpretation of Bayonetta’s journey of self-discovery. Enzo, on the other hand, is absent almost entirely, while precedence is given to both Jeanne and little Cereza, the former being a witch who shares some connections and powers to Bayonetta, while the latter is a young girl who clings to Bayonetta, claiming the witch is her ‘mummy’, much to the surprise and disbelief of the titular protagonist.

While the earliest of fights within a chapel sees Bayonetta perform insane acrobatics that defy the laws of physics thanks to her Umbran magic, things only grow in scale, silliness, and fun from there. Slender limbs swing out in fast-paced shootouts, while motorized vehicles ride up walls in hot pursuit of the witch that has everyone talking. Bayonetta is entertaining as ever, as she beams confidence but displays little mercy to her enemies. She revels in the fight, taunting angels and going out of her way to ensure they suffer at the hands of her most powerful demonic summons. The English cast of the video game returns to reprise each of their roles, which is a real treat, as they handle their respective performances masterfully – the Bayonetta experience just wouldn’t feel the same without Hellena Taylor at the helm.

In the same fashion as its video game counterpart, Bayonetta: Bloody Fate is unapologetic about what it wants to be and how it wants to go about crafting a tale of a witch out of her own time. Its action is bonkers, while its leading lady displays a brilliant culmination of character traits smart, sexy, and powerful. Despite its relatively short runtime, Bayonetta: Bloody Fate is a wonderful translation of the original action game that is considered by many to be a modern classic. This anime fires on all cylinders from start to finish, setting aside sufficient time to explain the important plot points and character connections, but never straying from the magical elements or raucous combat long enough to wane viewers' interest.

My rating: 9.25 (out of 10)

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Wii U review: Bayonetta 2

One of the most revered action titles of the last few years was Bayonetta, a combo-oriented game from the ex-Capcom employees at Platinum Games. With its emphasis on over-the-top demon summons, Witch Time dodge maneuvers, and an epic pseudo-religious mysticism persistent throughout, Bayonetta certainly left a strong impression with many die-hard fans of the genre. Fast-forward to 2014 and, in the most unlikely of pairings, Nintendo has partnered with Platinum to bring Bayonetta 2 to the Wii U as a console exclusive.

The first Bayonetta focused on the titular witch’s journey of self-discovery, and carried a generally darker aesthetic. This time around, Bayonetta has all of her memories intact, and as a result, has a personality that exudes confidence. Bayonetta enjoys using her magical abilities for the sake that she enjoys the position of power it puts her in over her enemies. She’s bold, unabashed, but not without a sense of right and wrong or the ability to convey compassion toward her friends and allies. Early in the sequel, Jeanne is dragged to Inferno, and as her best friend, Bayonetta is filled with determination to rescue her, even if it means facing the forces of Heaven and Hell alike. Pairing up with the young Loki, Bayonetta takes on something of a big sister role that is thoroughly entertaining – while she does not feel the need to play the part of mother hen to this magic-wielding youth, she often saves him from trouble, scolds him for referring to her as being older than she is, and teases him for his hot-headed behavior.

Visually, Bayonetta 2 is one of the best-looking games to come from the eight-generation consoles yet. While Platinum has frequently boasted impressive graphics and art styles with their games, Bayonetta 2 takes it one step further, with gorgeous lighting cascading off the water surrounding the city of Naotun and a dark haze setting the backdrop of the Musphelheim bonus challenge stages. The angels retain their white and gold color schemes, but have adopted distinct humanoid forms more befitting of their holy associations that the first game’s obsession with avian designs. The lesser demons of Hell, on the other hand, boast shiny metallic and stone textures, with more animalistic and alien features. Both carry weapons that can be picked up by Bayonetta for a one-time use in battle, and while typically offer a decent punch, they aren’t the sort of thing players ought to grow too attached to, as the primary weapons gathered throughout Bayonetta’s journey to Hell and back are the real important tools that will forge the witch’s path.

Ridiculous though they may be, there’s little else satisfying in such an unapologetic action game as skating around on chainsaw blades, break dancing while wildly firing pistols into the air, or hacking apart a circle of foes with the blades of a giant scythe. Bayonetta’s moveset can be expanded at Rodin’s bar, given that players have the necessary Halos. While Bayonetta 2 boasts a greater variety of offerings both offensively and defensively, players will have to do a fair amount of exploring and complete time-sensitive puzzles in order to boost both their magic and health gauges. The Musphelheim challenges are significantly less ludicrous than in the first game, though they are far from forgiving, and the same can be said of both the post-game Lost Chapters and gauntlet run-style multiplayer challenges. Bayonetta’s animal transformations are all made available early on, which lends the exploration angle to feel a more natural part of the whole package, and the environments incorporate some nicely hidden treasures in underwater areas or on outcroppings only accessible by taking flight as a crow.

Witch Time remains largely the same as in its predecessor, though enemy movements make it a bit easier to gauge just when you ought to dodge to initiate the limited slow-mo window to unleash an assault of attacks on foes. While this may sound as though the game is being too lenient with players, it’s quite the contrary – better camera angles and quicker response time from both Bayonetta’s attacks and dodges mean that the product as a whole controls even more smoothly than in the first outing, though the hits she does take from enemies will still whittle away decent chunks from her health bar. Torture attacks can still be used after charging up Bayonetta’s magic meter via successful combos, or can be used to fuel a number of successive powerful hits in the form of Umbran Climax, with will summon limited but notably heavier attacks from one of Bayonetta’s many demonic allies like Madama Butterfly or Malphas. The freedom to dispatch foes as you see fit makes the experience both more tactical and rewarding, as there are pros and cons to both options, and the ranking system for medals takes into account successive combos, the amount of damage sustained by Bayonetta, and the time taken to complete a phase.

Whereas some games would gradually prepare players for the most epic of boss fights, Bayonetta 2 throws you right into the thick of it, with insane clashes between goliath angel and demon summons, a surfing sequence up the side of a waterspout with the witch chasing down a higher angel, and an undersea magic missile shootout. Many of the gargantuan bosses are brought on by one mysterious Lumen Sage who is in pursuit of Loki, and who Bayonetta naturally clashes with on multiple occasions. As a successor to the handful of rival battles with Jeanne in the first game, the fights with the sage are lengthier and generally more interesting, as his spear staff forces him to rush the witch with fast slashes, while Bayonetta’s attacks are largely more ranged.

Many of the boss battle themes utilize choirs with dark and imposing voices to convey the sense of scale and urgency surrounding each of these encounters. Skirmishes with the common grunt enemies, on the other hand, are accompanied by jazzy pop numbers, with catchy vocals, the most noteworthy of the bunch being a new school take on “Moon River” and Bayonetta 2’s de facto theme song “Tomorrow is Mine”. Many of the game’s environments are decorated with Lumen and Umbran ruins, though bright blues, silvers, and golds prevail over the previous game’s darker color palettes.

Bayonetta 2 is a game that never really lets up on the gas, plowing full throttle toward the next explosive encounter. Even during the moments where you are allowed freedom of exploration, it never feels disjointed or sluggish, thanks in part to the optional enemy encounters and aforementioned Musphelheim challenges. But simply stopping for a moment to take in the majestic environments is worth a quick break in the action to admire the masterful attention to detail in the foreground and myriad of structures rendered in the background. These elements, while not necessary to make or break the experience, add just a bit more polish to the final product and chalk up a greater degree of respect and appreciation to the development team.

Throughout the main story, players will discover many journal entries penned by Luka. Some will be laid directly in Bayonetta’s path, practically impossible to miss, while others will be hidden in clever nooks and crannies like some of the treasures. Each entry offers details on Umbran magic, the history of the clans, the Eyes of the World, and so forth, adding an extra degree of depth to the culture and belief system of this fictional realm. As players trek through the main game, they will also unlock models of characters and enemies accessible in a viewing gallery. While Bayonetta 2 carries on from its predecessor with the ability to unlock extra costumes, the partnership between Nintendo and Platinum has a few extra treats to offer in the form of costumes that pay tribute to Princess Peach, Daisy, Fox McCloud, Samus, and Link. Each costume also adds slight twists to the otherwise familiar combat, such as Bowser’s fists and feet replacing those of Madama Butterfly, and the ability to roll around in Morphball mode.

Ingredients collected from the game’s many locales can be used to create lollipops that replenish health and magic, as well as grant Bayonetta temporary defensive and offensive boosts. But players who pay attention to the signals in combat and take the time to perfect their timing with dodges and counters will find they rarely need turn to these items. Bayonetta 2 is about as perfect an action game as anyone could ask for, with fluid design throughout, and a protagonist that is as much about flash and flair as she is about commanding every second she is on screen. The mysticism of Bayonetta’s world is akin to the lore of series like The Legend of Zelda, while the gameplay is a distinct upgrade from its Devil May Cry roots. Bayonetta 2 sets a new standard for action games, and is easily one of the best games currently available on eighth generation consoles.

My rating: 9.75 (out of 10)

Sunday, November 16, 2014

DLC review: Mario Kart 8 - The Legend of Zelda X Mario Kart 8

This first of two DLC packs for Mario Kart 8 is quite generous, boasting two new Grand Prix cups with four tracks each, four new vehicles, three new racers, and a few additional customization options for your rides. While Tanooki Suit Mario and Cat Suit Peach are quick re-skins of pre-existing characters, the real treat is Link, hero of Hyrule, this time donning his look from Skyward Sword. This more heavily stylized design blends well with the Mushroom Kingdom gang’s cartoony appearances and reacts well to the bright lighting and colorful backdrops of many of Mario Kart 8’s locales. Link and all the other racers can take to the track in the Tanooki Kart, the B-Dasher from Mario Kart DS, the Blue Falcon of F-Zero fame, or a horse-shaped bike known as the Master Cycle.

Of the two new cups, the Egg Cup is arguably the more exciting overall, with three brand new courses and one reimagined version of the Yoshi Circuit from Double Dash!! The three new courses include Dragon Driftway, a windy course with a heavy Chinese festival aesthetic, and two courses that pay homage to Excitebike and F-Zero respectively. The Excitebike Arena, while a relatively uncomplicated series of jumps, presents a looped course that is certainly more interesting than similarly-shaped tracks of yesteryear like Baby Park. Mute City, meanwhile, is the real treat, as it utilizes the anti-gravity sections more fully than most any other track in MK8 yet. The abundance of boost pads and tight, winding turns makes this feel the part of a real F-Zero course, not to be outdone by the shiny metallic textures than cover every structure in the background.

The Triforce cup offers retreads of Wario’s Gold Mine from Mario Kart Wii and yet another variant of Rainbow Road, this time from the SNES days. Wario’s Gold Mine was hardly ever one of the strongest showings in Mario Kart Wii, while Rainbow Road’s layout is incredibly simple, as is the case with nearly every SNES Mario Kart course. While it was interesting to see how vastly different the MK8 Rainbow Road was from its reimagined N64 counterpart, this course has now been overdone in MK8, despite how mesmerizing the sparkly colors and glossy texture of the track might be. Ice Ice Outpost, one of the Triforce Cup’s new courses, splits paths multiple times as players race up, around, and through an arctic facility. The real gem of this cup, however, is the Hyrule Circuit, a somewhat shorter course that zips through Hyrule Castle and its nearby town and field, replacing coins with Rupees and Piranha Plants with Deku Babas.

While the quality of the two cups may not be consistent, they do provide a nice variety of lengths in their courses and a different set of challenges in the layouts of each. At the end of the day, the standouts are really the new race tracks, and while I do imagine there will still be at least a couple of retro courses in the second DLC pack come Spring, I’m keeping my fingers crossed that Nintendo focuses their efforts primarily on providing more impressive new environments. Eight new tracks for less than $10 is a solid bargain on its own, but the fact that this pack includes the aforementioned characters and karts as well makes the whole package one sweet deal for anyone looking to extend their play experience with Mario Kart 8.

My rating: 8 (out of 10)*

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