Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD journal - entry two

Perhaps my initial judgments toward Wind Waker HD were premature. Now that I’m getting deeper into the story, I’m finding there are plenty of little updates that go a long way. I am a tad surprised that there does not appear to be any use of the stylus for scribbling notes on the sea chart ala Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks (or at least, there is no such functionality that I have yet come across). However, including the little tidbits of information the fish-men provide Link with their respective island chartings is a convenient addition for anyone who is new to the Wind Waker experience, or who is taking on this adventure many years after they originally tackled it on the Gamecube. After all, many of these hints or pieces of advice pertain to quests later in the game, like the Ghost Ship, the items required to enter the Earth and Wind Temples, and the Triforce Charts.

I’ve recently acquired the Swift Sail, which is far and away my favorite new item in this updated Zelda adventure. Not only does it make travelling to nearby islands a super-speedy process, but it easily cuts the time spent filling in the sea chart in half. The Tingle Bottles have proven entertaining, and I applaud those who have utilized them for more practical uses like aiding younger players who are stuck at a certain point in the game. That said, I’ve also found some of the messages within these Tingle Bottles quite amusing, whether the author of the related posts meant for their work to be humorous or not.

While I still feel that this HD version is not the visual spectacle other HD updates in recent years have shown themselves to be, there is something to be said about the finer details of this Wii U update of Wind Waker. I’ve come across a number of textures that I never noticed in the original Gamecube version, such as the small Triforce shape inside the barrier beam emitters within the Tower of the Gods, and the shapes of the Hylian people praising the Master Sword within the chamber below Hyrule Castle. As I mentioned in my previous post, the single biggest visual improvement seems to have come in the form of the game’s lighting, and as I have recently witnessed, this is not simply from the sun or the torch fires – the pearls required to summon the Tower of the Gods from the watery abyss look absolutely gorgeous, as does the room wherein Link faces the dungeon’s boss Gohdan. Even the Beamos eyes look far less blurry than they did back in 2003.

Wind Waker HD may end up being one of my earliest reviews posted in 2015. I’ve spent the past couple of days dealing with some post-Christmas crud, and as much as I’ve enjoyed what I’ve played of Persona Q thus far, playing through Wind Waker is a much easier task, especially since it is a game that I’ve beaten at least five times over now. My expectations of Wind Waker HD ranking among the greatest of all the games I play in 2015 are basically zero, but the aforementioned improvements that I have recently discovered have certainly earned it a few extra points toward its (eventual) overall review rating.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Top 5 Anime of 2014

As in years past, I have compiled my end of the year selections for my five favorite anime that I viewed in 2014.  Not all of these anime were in fact released during 2014, though each was released and aired within the past couple of years, and a few of these saw a run that carried on through 2014.  As with my top ten video game selections of the year, my rankings for these five best-of-the-best anime bears little correlation to the ratings I gave to each in my full review posts - rather, they are the five anime that I enjoyed most, and the five which left some noteworthy impact on me as a viewer. 

#5) Knights of Sidonia: Offering a more gritty and dire take on the mecha genre than many of its bigger-name contemporaries, Knights of Sidonia knows how to get from point A to point B in a timely manner, while still exploring enough individual stories that branch out from the core plot.  The scientific advancements made since mankind took refuge among the stars are curious and compelling, if not mildly inconsistent, but the way in which these play off the otherwise outdated tech and cramped living conditions for what are, in all likelihood, the last remaining humans, does well to balance the thriller, drama, adventure, and classic science fiction components.  If only the basic motions of the main cast members’ character models looked half as good as the Garde Unit mechs did when battling the parasitic and ever-adaptive Gauna, this series might have ranked a bit higher on this list.

#4) From the New World: Often times, the whole ‘post-apocalyptic’ subgenre gets stuck in a routine of desolate worlds decorated with litter more than ruins.  How much a breath of fresh air, then, was From the New World, which depicted not only a prospering society, but one which had performed an odd return to ancient technologies and lifestyle.  The strict, often shady rules of this future-past culture incorporate dystopian themes, while the science of the world is largely centered around the esper humans reserving their powers for practical uses that will better the whole community.  From the New World is very smart in its scripting, even though the emphasis on certain plot points might not make their importance known until many episodes later.  Other contemporary science fiction and fantasy anime would do well to learn a thing or two from this series’ careful planning.

#3) Puella Magi Madoka Magica: I admit, I was quite skeptical going into this series.  A number of people had talked it up as being a real game-changer for the magical girl genre – a genre that I was not particularly fond of – but Madoka Magica is much more than that.  Its twelve episode run delivered just the right number of twists and turns to keep me hooked from start to finish, and was fueled by some of the most genuine and raw emotion I’ve encountered in an anime yet.  It’s a dark and depressing tale, but in a similar fashion to Evangelion, it is multi-layered in its themes, yet ever-mindful of tying the narrative threads together for an impactful endgame.  Sometimes the saddest stories deliver the best development for both plot and character, as evidenced by Puella Magi Madoka Magica.

#2) Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stardust Crusaders: While the first season adapted the first two parts of the Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure manga impeccably well, they were, to a certain degree, always serving to set up the most popular Jojo’s story arc, Stardust Crusaders.  It’s no surprise why Stardust Crusaders has been so well-received since its debut twenty-five years ago – the cast of Jotaro, old man Joseph, Avdol, Kakyoin, and Polnareff makes for quite a raucous crew.  Regardless of how dire the circumstances or rotten the foe, Jotaro and company always manage to turn the situation back to their favor, with plenty of intense action and hilarious shenanigans along the way.  The Stardust Crusaders arc masterfully handles just what a long-running action series should be about – having fun, balancing the action and comedy, and knowing how to properly pace the story for fans new and old.

#1) Mobile Suit Unicorn Gundam: Unicorn Gundam is both a return to form and a push forth into bold new territory for Bandai and Sunrise’s long-running franchise.  I’ve stated in the past that I find the Gundam OVAs are typically among the most high-quality offerings from the franchise, and Unicorn Gundam is unquestionably among the best Gundam projects of all-time.  It has a large cast to juggle, and yet it handles each individual appropriately, shaping them as pieces of a more complex puzzle over the course of its seven (approximately) hour-long episodes.  It’s a love letter to Gundam fans new and old – one that is certainly among the most easily accessible for new viewers who have little understanding of the chronology of the Universal Century, but one that is also chock-full of references and ties to previous Gundam works like Char’s CounterattackZZ, and the original Mobile Suit Gundam that kicked off this definitive mecha franchise way back in 1979.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

2014 Year in Review: Anime

As this year comes to a close, I am wrapping up my ‘year in review’ lists, including my top anime and video game picks for 2014. Below is a list of every anime in the order that I viewed them this year, complete with a brief summary of my full review and the final score I provided each. Keep an eye out for my picks of the top five anime of the year within the next day or so.

Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure (season one): While this first season is largely setting the stage for everything that is to come in the Stardust Crusaders arc of the second season, these first two portions of the long-running manga translate well to an anime format, despite how long overdue such an adaptation might be. The first arc, Phantom Blood, establishes Jonathon Joestar and his family’s legacy that will be shaped by the utilization of mystic arts like the ripple, as well as the feud that stems between himself and his nefarious rival since childhood, Dio Brando. Phantom Blood offers a more classic medieval fantasy aesthetic, while the second arc, Battle Tendency, explores the history of the stone mask that grants Dio his inhuman powers, as well as sets aside more time to properly explore the mighty Pillar Men and the goofball hero of the day that is Joseph Joestar. My rating: 8.25

Puella Magi Madoka Magica: Some consider this series to the magical girl genre what Neon Genesis Evangelion was to the mecha genre. That correlation is not far off, as Madoka Magica’s twelve episode run puts a dark spin on one of anime’s most popular genres. Five young girls are granted special powers after making a contract with a feline creature named Kyubey, but gradually discover that the pact requires so much more than they could have ever conceived. It’s a dreary and depressing tale, but one that does exceptionally well at getting from point A to point B and rounding out the main cast within its limited episode count. My rating: 8.75

MS IGLOO 2: The Gravity of the Battlefront: Following up the incredibly brief yet surprisingly well-done first duo of MS IGLOO miniseries, MS IGLOO 2 focuses its narrative on the Federation forces, highlighting three separate military officers on different combat fronts. MS IGLOO 2 opts to incorporate a silly subplot of ghosts and curses to tether these otherwise unrelated tales together, which in turn makes for a set of the most ridiculous and cringe-worthy presentations in the larger Gundam franchise. My rating: 4.75

From the New World: In a future where esper humans have rebuilt society into a nearly technological-absent return to the feudal era, young classmates are grouped together in order to hone their unique skills. The threat of fiends is mentioned to these children at a young age, but as they grow up and witness some of their peers simply vanish, they begin to dig deeper into the mysteries of what happened centuries before they reverted to this lifestyle. What begins as a fantasy-oriented take on a post-apocalyptic future past gradually reveals a complicated pattern of advancing mankind through militant and social struggles, and what dark secrets lie in the past may be the key to facing the dangers that hide in plain sight among these hyper-capable human beings. My rating: 8.75

Puella Magi Madoka Magica: Rebellion: Rebellion’s purpose is less of an expanded or reimagined ending for its series, and more of a quick cash-in on a still-popular name. The story suffers from awkward pacing and generally unlikable presentation of some previously well-established cast members. A new magical girl is also added to the story, but she is used for little more than a brief plot device, making her addition rather meaningless. The endgame is fits well with the tone of the series, but the process of reaching that finale is highly-predictable, less-than-inspired, and ultimately nothing-achieving. My rating: 5

Space Dandy: Following in the footsteps of Outlaw Star and Cowboy Bebop, Space Dandy sees the ragtag crew of Dandy, feline alien Meow, and robot QT journey the stars in search of strange new alien life forms to cash in with intergalactic registration. Along the way, they make frequent stops at Dandy’s favorite ‘breastaurant’, a parody of Hooters, aptly named Boobies. The series takes on some narrative inspirations from western works, as some episodes that end in dire situations or complete catastrophe are written off as being of no consequence by the time the next episode kicks in. Space Dandy is funky, psychedelic, wacky fun, and keeps the jokes popping from start to finish. My rating: 8

Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stardust Crusaders (season two): Stardust Crusaders has long been the most popular part of Hirohiko Araki’s epic manga run, Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure, and has finally received a proper full-length anime adaptation. Jotaro, old man Joseph, Avdol, Kakyoin, and Polnareff make for a lovable band of misfits as they encounter foes that are both devious and wacky during their quest to stop the vampire Dio. The spiritual counterparts known as Stands do battle on behalf of their users, and the improved budget allows for some thoroughly exciting fights with shifts to psychedelic color palettes and frequent two-part episodes that grant better development cycles for the broad cast of characters. My rating: 9.5

Persona 4: The Animation: An adaptation of the Persona 4 video game, this twenty-six episode series has quite a bit of fat to trim in order to focus on the core of the story in the allotted time frame. It emphasizes the main party of characters, which is a smart move, considering how integral they are to the overarching plot of mystery surrounding the Midnight Channel and the Inaba murders and disappearances. The anime has fun with some of the game’s optional sidequests, and even decides to expand upon the character of young Nanako by throwing a couple of brand new subplots into the mix. A few key story points suffer from clunky pacing, however, and feel as though they could have been handled better were they spread across two episodes. My rating: 7

Bayonetta: Bloody Fate: Packing all the flash and flair of the first Bayonetta game into one hour-and-a-half film, Bloody Fate is an adaptation done right. All the major plot points are hit on, granting the film sufficient time to mold Bayonetta, Jeanne, Rodin, Luka, and little Cereza, as well as pinpoint some of their individual quirks and curious traits. The English cast returns to reprise their roles, which is a real treat, considering how masterful a job they did in the game. The soundtrack is jazzy and kickin’, the action over-the-top and borderline-nonsensical, and the whole experience one wild and stylish ride. My rating: 9.25

Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn: Returning to many of the core themes that made Mobile Suit Gundam a standout anime more than thirty years ago, Unicorn Gundam pushes the saga on to new heights with contemporary storytelling methods, a wide variety of characters who see even time in the spotlight, and production values that blow the competition out of the water. Delivered in seven parts, Unicorn Gundam feels very much the part a collection of mini-movies that follow the story of Banagher Links as he further explores the mysteries of newtypes and the legacy left by legendary pilots who preceded him, while the Char Aznable look-alike Full Frontal has a grand vision in mind for the future of spacenoids and the remaining Zeon remnants. With so many factions involved in the search for an object known as Laplace’s Box and the wonderment of what lies inside, the conflict escalates and becomes an intense race to reach it and discover just what its contents mean for the future on humanity. My rating: 10

Sword Art Online: Combining classic fantasy motifs with a modern science fiction setting, Sword Art Online pays homage to contemporaries of the MMORPG video gaming genre through its art style and questlines. The first half of the series requires greater care and precision on the part of protagonists Kirito and Asuna, as death in the game world results in real-life fatality. These high stakes are a large part of what makes the story so intense and also is responsible for shaping the characters, while the progression for both plot and cast unfortunately takes a nosedive to boring territory during the second act. This latter half sees major characters reduced to mere plot devices, opting to push for a significantly less compelling story direction and some admittedly unsettling themes that feel very much out-of-place for a series aimed at such a broad and mainstream audience. My rating: 5.75

Knights of Sidonia: Hundreds of years after mankind left Earth to escape the parasitic and shape-shifting Gauna, a young ace pilot named Nagate Tanikaze quickly climbs the ranks from undercity-dweller to hero of the drifting world-ship Sidonia. The science and technology of this futuristic setting is sometimes strange, but more often than not it is practical given the immense populous and limited supplies within Sidonia. The gender androgynous Izana Shinatose, who befriends Nagate early on, receives ample time to develop as a character, as do many of the other pilots who fly out into battle in their Garde Unit mechs. The dire situation the humans face is constantly brought up through mentions of how long it has been since Sidonia last had contact with another human vessel, as well as the number of Garde Units that are destroyed in battle against the Gauna, showing just how short the life expectancies of these young men and women are. My rating: 8.25

Pokémon the Movie: White – Victini and Zekrom: As Ash and friends continue their journey across the Unova region, they stop in a mountain town where rumors of the legendary Victini have long been perpetuated thanks to the tale of a king who moved his people there with the psychic Pokémon’s aid. Upon discovering that Victini has in fact been hiding in plain sight, a young man named Damon decides to recreate the fabled king’s journey in an attempt to return to his desert homeland, unwittingly releasing the destructive stream known as the Dragon Force. While the film does make references to the lore of the Pokémon video games, the plot points of Victini and Zekrom are loosely connected at best, while the antagonist’s motives are never made clear and his strategy following quite close to that of the villain in the second theatrical Pokémon release. My rating: 5

Captain Harlock: A visual spectacle, this retelling of the original Harlock anime provides an updated and streamlined story that balances a gritty presentation with fun and fantastical action. It’s a film that does well to offer something to viewers both young and old, as the pacing is spot-on and keeps the story chugging along at a nice pace, without forgetting to stop and highlight interstellar landscapes. Each character receives sufficient development early in the film so as to make them feel the part of worthwhile investments later on, while one of the film’s minor faults stems from it trying to push for silly and over-the-top fights that would feel more at home in more fantasy-heavy works like the Dragon Ball franchise. My rating: 8.5

Anime review: Space Pirate Captain Harlock

A classic of a bygone era, before anime was so distinctly identified by wide-eyed faces or drawn-out power-up sequences, Space Pirate Captain Harlock’s more rounded character designs and heavy influence by western animators from the late seventies/early eighties stood among the first of their kind, then commonly referred to as ‘Japan-imation’. Fast-forward to 2013, and Captain Harlock’s latest outing is a film that revisits the roots of the character in a gloriously-rendered, if not frequently dark and gritty-looking, full CG adaptation. One of the great things about this new take on Captain Harlock is that it is easily accessible to newcomers like myself, who were born many years after Harlock’s original animated run, while still retaining the core cast and updating familiar plot points for the sake of streamlining the presentation.

Captain Harlock and his skull-decorated ship, the Arcadia – an appropriately pirate-themed vessel, matching the free-from-law lifestyle of those on board – are considered phantoms among those who have heard of them. They appear and disappear quickly, making short work of those they intend to plunder from, and though some have claimed to land hits on the Arcadia, it does not seem to make a difference, as the ship has some strange qualities of self-repair. When the Arcadia lands on a backwater world, a group of young men chase its smoky trail to its landing site, but only one – the steadfast Logan – makes the cut and is allowed to join the company of Harlock’s crew.

Logan is introduced to a few key crew members early on, including the lethal blonde beauty Kei, and the scruffy, often comical Yullian. Harlock, however, remains distant, an imposing figure always observing Logan, but rarely addressing him directly. This is perhaps for the better, as a brief while after he sets course for the stars in the company of Harlock’s loyal crew, it is revealed that Logan is actually a spy planted by the Gaia Sanction, a group determined to keep the Earth free from anyone setting foot on its surface, lest the bloody Homecoming War of a hundred years prior be repeated. Under the command of his wheelchair-bound brother Ezra, Logan is to inform them of the location and status of the Arcadia, as well as attempt an assassination of its infamous Captain Harlock.

Practically every facet of this film has been updated for today’s audiences. The pacing is spot-on, granting viewers enough time to become invested in the characters early on and subsequently find themselves immersed in the space-age fantasy tech. Harlock does a great job of pushing a ‘gritty reboot’ style that has seemingly become the norm for many properties in both the east and west hemispheres over the past decade. And yet, despite the greater degree of realism in character designs and the intimidating capabilities of the Arcadia, the film does not completely do away with the exciting fantasy thematic – rather, it embraces it just enough to cater to a broad audience. The concept of space pirates who fly the flag of skull and crossbones will no doubt entertain younger viewers, while the gravity of decisions made by the individual characters will satisfy the older crowd, and prevent this film from being simply a whimsical retread of the pioneering days of anime from which Harlock, Mobile Suit Gundam, and many other classics hail.

Admittedly, there are a couple of segments late in the film where certain characters seem to see their conflict as larger than life, and the manner in which these quarrels are dealt with might feel more at home in a film more heavily emphasizing fantastical and over-the-top fights. While these brief sequences are somewhat silly in the grand scheme of things, the tone of the film remains otherwise quite consistent throughout. This updated version of Captain Harlock is a masterful accomplishment in terms of its visuals, as a ludicrous amount of detail is worked into every environment, each character’s expressions are complex and eeriely human, and ship-to-ship combat a most fiery and bombastic spectacle to behold. Space Pirate Captain Harlock is what fun movie experiences ought to be all about – it may not be the most complicated story ever conveyed, but it knows when to pull the right punches, and has something to offer viewers both young and old.

My rating: 8.5 (out of 10)

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD journal - entry one

I received Wind Waker HD as a gift for purchasing Mario Kart 8 within its ‘early adopter’ window, and then subsequently set it aside for a rainy day. It’s not that I don’t like The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, far from it – it’s my fifth favorite Zelda title, only tailing slightly behind Majora’s Mask, Skyward Sword, the Oracle titles, and Ocarina of Time (numbers four to one, in that order). But I did last replay Wind Waker about two years ago, and felt I should wait a while before tackling this remastered edition at the risk of my experience feeling too much of a mundane retread. That said, I am not certain if this will be one of my earlier reviews on 2015, or if I will tackle it in spurts and give priority to The Wonderful 101 and Watch Dogs.

The great thing about Wind Waker, at least for the sake of this replay and upcoming review, is that it has a relatively quick main storyline. I am, however, very much interested in seeing what all of the reworked gameplay elements are and how different their offerings are from the original Gamecube version. As of right now, I’ve just purchased the sail on Windfall Island, and I have a few key points I wanted to hit on.

First off, the graphics and art style are not as big of an improvement as I had expected. Wind Waker’s cel-shaded direction has led it to be, from a visual perspective at least, the Zelda title that has simply aged the best. The gameplay is a different beast entirely, but when Wind Waker HD was first announced, I thought it an exceptionally odd pick for that very reason. With the Wii U’s significantly improved graphical capabilities over its predecessor consoles, Majora’s Mask, even Twilight Princess could have received major facelifts while finding new and fun things to do with the Gamepad. But Wind Waker HD only has a few notable trumps over its Gamecube counterpart that I have come across thus far – the lighting is superb, and some of the environment textures have been cleaned up.

It’s far from enough to make me feel like this is a whole new spin on an old classic. The cel-shaded character models look almost exactly the same as they did back in 2003, and the blocky/angular portions of environments look outdated. I know they might keep well with the cartoony style of the game, but with the updates Nintendo did perform on this Zelda title, they look a bit out of place, as well as more so dated than most of the game’s other visual components.

Secondly, the few new mechanics I have come across are merely optional control schemes for pre-existing items, or replacements for tech that was effectively impossible to replicate on the Wii U (such as the Tingle Bottle replacing the GBA-connected Tingle Tuner). The gamepad’s gyroscope can be used to aim the telescope, and I would assume the Pictobox as well, though I couldn’t say for certain, as I turned the gyroscope’s finicky sensitivity off after my first use of the telescope. The touch screen can be used to slide items to the X, Y, and R buttons, but it doesn’t really save any significant time over the typical button and joystick combo of the old Gamecube controller. I appreciate the game being a gift, as prior to receiving it, I did not have any intent of purchasing Wind Waker HD, but now that I have it, I’m finding the majority of the updates underwhelming. That said, there is still plenty of game left ahead of me, so perhaps the Great Ocean still has some surprises in store.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Top 10 Video Games of 2014 - Part Two

As in years past, I’ve compiled a list of the best games I played in 2014. While some might say 2014 was a slump year for gaming, I felt the case was quite the opposite – granted, some of the titles on this list were not released in this year, but a large chunk of the titles I played this year were released in a window between late 2013 through 2014. In each year prior to this one, I narrowed my ‘games of the year’ down to a select five. However, I felt that doing so this year would serve a great injustice to many of the titles I found to be simply exceptional this year. As such, this year’s list will consist of the ten best games I played in 2014, and will be split into two parts. Keep in mind that the order of these games on this list is not necessarily representative of the score I gave each of them in my reviews, rather a ranking based on which games were the most enjoyable and impressed me the most.

#5) Super Smash Bros. for 3DS and Wii U: As a pair, these two new Smash Bros. titles might just be my new favorites in Nintendo’s all-star fighting franchise. The Wii U version offers a wider variety of game modes, many of them fast-paced, and while the 3DS’ controls might hold a little less appeal in the longterm, the handheld version’s classic mode is more in line with that of previous Smash installments. The roster includes some curious characters, each of whom makes use of highly inventive movesets and feels right at home with the veteran characters. Coupling that with the intelligent repurposing of final smashes, these two latest titles offer up the most balanced fighting frenzy Smash Bros. has seen since its N64 debut.

#4) Bayonetta 2: One of the smoothest-playing action games I’ve ever had the pleasure of getting my hands on, Bayonetta 2 is equally impressive in its visual presentation. It’s easily one of the most graphically impressive games on the market right now, and the polar opposite designs of statuesque Angels and mechanical Demons provides a great variety of designs to coincide with their various attack and defense patterns. Bayonetta 2 is thoroughly unapologetic, in both its demanding combo system of close encounters and pinpoint-accuracy dodging, as well as its sense of flash and flair, which, much like its very vocal and very confident protagonist, it owns and flaunts in every possible angle.

#3) Skullgirls Encore: I’ve never been one to claim I’m particularly skilled at popular combo-heavy fighting games like Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat, but Skullgirls was something of a game-changer for me. It is designed with the hardcore fighting game crowd in mind, but somehow opens up to a wider audience with tutorials and combo chains that prove far more intuitive than heavyweights of the genre typically offer. While the default character roster may be smaller than in most fighting games, each character is designed with a very specific play style in mind, and with more DLC characters on the way, fights are bound to push forth more complex team strategies and fast-paced action as they are added to the lineup. The hand-drawn character models are absolutely gorgeous, and a further testament to the love of labor that the creative team behind Skullgirls has poured into this magnificent creation.

#2) Killer7: It’s no secret that I love the utterly bizarre creations of Suda51 and the team at Grasshopper Manufacture, and Killer7 is no exception. Polar opposite in themes and presentation to No More Heroes, Killer7 is a dark and serious tale, albeit an incredibly weird one, that weaves political intrigue, a terrorist organization that mutates its loyalists into walking time-bombs, the personas of multiple assassins given corporeal form, and heavily cel-shaded graphics into one effectively perfect gaming experience. Of all the aspects of Killer7 I found myself simply in awe of, it was the fact that – despite its unorthodox combination of on-rails progression, third-person action, first-person shooting, and character-specific puzzles – I was unable to find any noteworthy flaws in the design or mechanics of this game.

#1) Shovel Knight: Shovel Knight is a case of David holding his own with the Goliaths of the gaming industry, an indie title that shows as much love and polish, if not more, than most of its AAA-title competitors. It’s a love song to NES-era icons like Mega Man, Zelda, Castlevania, and Final Fantasy, and yet is able to craft its own identity that feels right at home in the company of Nintendo’s long-since-famous mascots. Shovel Knight is not a cakewalk of a game, by any means, but its smooth controls and wacky items prove a wonderful pairing to the game’s 8-bit aesthetic. Shovel Knight is great for its classic fantasy vibe, its comedic cast, and its addictive gameplay that is great for both brief sessions on the go, or a long haul of taking down the nefarious Order of No Quarter.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Top 10 Video Games of 2014 - Part One

As in years past, I’ve compiled a list of the best games I played in 2014. While some might say 2014 was a slump year for gaming, I felt the case was quite the opposite – granted, some of the titles on this list were not released in this year, but a large chunk of the titles I played this year were released in a window between late 2013 through 2014. In each year prior to this one, I narrowed my ‘games of the year’ down to a select five. However, I felt that doing so this year would serve a great injustice to many of the titles I found to be simply exceptional this year. As such, this year’s list will consist of the ten best games I played in 2014, and will be split into two parts. Keep in mind that the order of these games on this list is not necessarily representative of the score I gave each of them in my reviews, rather a ranking based on which games were the most enjoyable and impressed me the most.

#10) Persona 4: Mixing up many staples of the JRPG genre, Persona 4 offers very deep and rewarding quests both inside dungeons and Inaba’s small town locales like the market, high school, and riverbed. Persona 4 requires you to choose your path wisely, as the social links between characters which will grant you the ability to summon stronger Personas attributed with specific Arcana as well as pave the way to a greater understanding of your friends and party members, cannot all be completed in a single playthrough. There are plenty of ways to boost your stats, from sports and after-school activities, to visiting a local restaurant during one of their rainy day promotions, and each player will naturally prefer certain party members based on skill set and personalities. The game’s greatest flaw unfortunately arrives during the endgame stretch, wherein the story and gameplay become so streamlined and uninvolved on the part of the player, that it becomes a dry, monotonous routine of highlight segments, with no downtime to specialize or focus on specific characters or tasks in-between – perhaps this lull would have been less jarring if the game provided any implication that it was coming.

#9) Grand Theft Auto V: My first proper exploration of Rockstar’s long-running open-world series, GTA V provided me with hours of entertainment, whether it was Trevor’s off-the-wall psychotic antics, Michael’s spiral back into the criminal lifestyle, Franklin’s dreams of grandeur, or simply barreling through downtown Los Santos in a newly-acquired sportscar. The radio chatter and classic rock and hip-hop tunes give Los Santos and its surrounding areas as much in the way of specific flair and identity to the experience as conversations with NPCs and the crazy drug runs, heists, and assassination gigs do. These elements not only steer the direction of the gameplay, they shape the satirical cast of characters and story. While there is a ton to do in GTA V and its easy to get lost in side missions, races, or simply the adventure of exploring this fictional world, Rockstar has done a maginificent job in providing a solid balance of both quantity and quality in what is believed to be their biggest game yet.

#8) Kid Icarus: Uprising: The hybrid between on-rails flying/shooting sections and ground-based action/adventure segments comes across as a bit strange at first glance, but both portions of game design handle quite well, if not with some notable differences. Kid Icarus: Uprising is a game that offers plenty of freedom in selecting and upgrading weapons, and incorporates a smart risk/reward system through its higher difficulty settings. The aesthetic of Greek and Roman mythology is apparent from the outset, but the real charm comes from the humorous interaction between the characters and references to other retro Nintendo properties. Kid Icarus: Uprising could have been a quick and enjoyable experience had it capped out at its initial false ending, but the fact that its lifespan is extended nearly three-fold and it manages to incorporate so much variety into its level and enemy designs makes this 3DS exclusive a real treat – its biggest hindrance being the tax that the frenetic gameplay and somewhat unorthodox control scheme takes on your hands after playing a few stages in succession.

#7) Kirby: Triple Deluxe: Of all its design points, I never expected to be so thoroughly impressed with the manner in which Kirby’s latest outing utilized the 3DS’ internal gyroscope. Puzzles are more immersive as a result, while the 3D effect enchances the implementation of foreground and background items and foes immensely. The story of Kirby: Triple Deluxe is not terribly complicated, though I do wish it had been just a tad longer. Still, its visual presentation is superb, its soundtrack more experimental than what fans might expect of the series, and the final battle intense and challenging, albeit more in line with the tones and aesthetic of something like Final Fantasy.

#6) DmC: Devil May Cry: A bold reimagining for the Devil May Cry series, this new entry, handled by Ninja Theory, boasts what is easily the most fast and fluid combat in the series. Enemies sport varying grotesque statue designs, and the entire world drifts back and forth between a punk Eastern European metropolis and an ethereal realm where the forces of hell sport their true colors. This new, younger Dante spouts profanities left and right, along with cheesy insults, and the dialogue from his more calm brother Vergil as well as any given one of the demonic bosses is similarly cliché, but it is nonetheless entertaining and works well for a series that always opted for the spectacular and over-the-top.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

25 Days of Pokémon: Top 5 Endgame Events

Capping off my month’s worth of ‘top five’ lists focusing on the Pokémon series, this list covers five of my very favorite moments or chain of events from late in their respective games. Some are only accessible after completing the main game, while others are incorporated as part of the plot late in the core experience. Honorable mentions go to the Unova Battle Subway and the Delta Episode from the recently released Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire. This has been a fun and very different approach to my ’25 Days of Christmas’ special, and I’d certainly consider doing something similar in future years with some of my other favorite video game franchises, like Metal Gear, Metroid, or even some more Legend of Zelda (even though it is one of the most frequently represented series on this blog).

#5) Revisiting the Kanto gyms in Gold and Silver / Heart Gold and Soul Silver – The generation II titles and their DS remakes will always hold a special place for me, as the first proper Pokémon games that I played on the Gameboy Color, as well as the games that got me back into Pokémon just a few short years ago. While the Elite Four and battle against Lance was a properly climactic conclusion to the Johto storyline, discovering how much more lay beyond the borders in Kanto blew my mind as a kid. In reality, this retread of the Kanto region is a trimmed down, fast-paced romp compared to both its original Red/Blue incarnation, as well as the entirety of the Gold/Silver storyline, but it was still tons of fun to go up against the likes of Brock, Lt. Surge, Erica, Misty, and all the other classic gym leaders.

#4) The Distortion World in Platinum – As Cyrus sees his plan to summon the legendary Giratina revealed, the game transports you both to an alien realm, one that appropriately reflects Giratina’s representation of anti-matter. Waterfalls flow from one impossible floating cliff to another, stalks of unnatural plants appear and disappear, and the game requires you to adopt a mindset more common to a series like The Legend of Zelda to solve a few puzzles in order to progress to the final showdown with Giratina. This drastic jolt from intense end-of-the-world scenario to mystical realm of impossibility was one of the moments in Platinum that really made me appreciate the game’s bold and stranger direction than most of its predecessors, even if this approach had not panned out quite as effectively in earlier legs of my adventures through the Sinnoh region.

#3) The Pokémon World Tournament in Black 2 and White 2 – This tournament effectively served as a love letter to Pokémon fans. It allowed players to hone their skills and perfect their strategies while taking on gym leaders and league champions from all the previous regions in a bracket tournament, and even offered up the more highly-specialized tournaments demanding players only use Pokémon that fit a specific typing. Of the plethora of post-game offerings in the generation V sequels, the Pokémon World Tournament was the most intense, the most robust, and constantly offered plenty of opportunities for fun and learning with each successive battle.

#2) The League Champion Battle against Iris in Black 2 and White 2 – While Black and White’s league champion battle was interrupted due to the arrival of Team Plasma, the sequel games do it up properly as one of the most fitting endgame challenges, but also one of the most enjoyable battles in any Pokémon game to date. Iris is so bubbly and excited to see what you’ve made of yourself as a trainer after the remnants of Team Plasma disbanded, and it’s both a breath of fresh air following the darker implications of the main story, and a perfect endpoint for that same journey. This battle against Iris and her team of Pokémon had me on the edge of my seat for all of the right reasons.

#1) The Elite Four in Black and White – This team technically also accounts for the Elite Four present in Black 2 and White 2, but my first time challenging them was truly something special. The Elite Four have always served as the endgame gauntlet-style challenge in the Pokémon titles, forcing players to bring their very best team members and strategies, and carefully planning each move as they attempt to forge a path toward the league champion. And yet, some of these have proved too easy a feat, as was the case in X and Y as well as the recent Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire. Others still have had such a sudden leap in the scaling of the opponents Pokémon, as was the case in Platinum. The Elite Four of the Unova region present Pokémon that are at a level that is simply perfect for that endgame climax, offering up a high degree of challenge, but one that is certainly possible to overcome, given proper planning and flexibility in the heat of battle. The typings of the Pokémon in the possession of each member of the Elite Four still stands as my favorite combination, with Dark, Ghost, Psychic and Fighting taking the stage in wonderfully-rendered arenas that provide each of the four characters with their own unique arenas that reflect their personalities and provide players a brief look into who they are as individuals. Grimsley’s candleit lounge, Shauntal’s gloomy study, Marshall’s chain-link-surrounded fighting ring, and Caitlin’s lavish bedroom – Black and White breaks from the tradition of trekking down a single linear hallway, allowing you to tackle these in whichever order

Saturday, December 20, 2014

3DS review: Pokémon: Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire

Built upon the same engine used for last year’s revolutionary X and Y, the Pokémon series returns to the Hoenn region for a set of remakes, titled Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire. As a young trainer, you start off in Littleroot Town, meet your neighbor/childhood friend/rival, and are given one of three starter Pokémon by the local professor – the grass-type Treecko, water-type Mudkip, or fire-type Torchic. It’s typical fanfare for the series, though not unlike their original GBA releases, these remakes of Ruby and Sapphire do well to get the adventure going faster than other entries in the series – tutorials are covered quickly, and there is a decent variety of Pokémon available to catch in the wild early in the game that will still prove practical team members hours down the road.

Mega Evolutions were among the big new additions in X and Y, and plenty more have been added in Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire to better round out the different Pokémon types represented by this new tier of temporary evolution. It’s a decent compromise, given the fact that there are no new Pokémon represented in Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire, and that the vast majority of the Pokémon encountered throughout the Hoenn region are those that are native to it. The Player Search System, Super Training, and Pokémon-Amie all return, providing smooth online components for battle and trade, as well as the ability to easily boost your Pokémon’s skills and affection levels. The Pokenav, meanwhile, provides a new addition for seeking out wild Pokémon that will detail all the types of Pokémon in the area, what level the nearest one is at, and – in some cases – special moves they might not otherwise know. It’s a welcome addition that makes catching them all, or even just a few key Pokémon that you wish to use to round out your team’s typing representation, a much faster and less random process.

The story remains largely unchanged – depending on which version you are playing, the organizations of Team Aqua and Team Magma will seek to revive the legendary Kyogre to expand the seas, or the legendary Groudon to expand the land respectively. It was not the most compelling of plots during its original GBA release, and though some new expanded bits of dialogue have been added to more consistently integrate both these villainous teams and the player into the core story, it stands as one of the weakest narratives in the main Pokémon series. The same can be said for the Hoenn region as a whole – while some of the major cities have been given more of an aesthetic appeal with full-fledged 3D models of notable landmarks, the continent as a whole feels visually underwhelming, and its physical layout archaic. Far too often does the game require you have two or three HM moves to advance down a long stretch of path, which seems counter-intuitive, given that the experience share system from X and Y returns, intended to (more or less) evenly spread experience points between all party members. Unless you intend for your party to retain an HM-specialist Pokémon, this can lead to party member’s levels being skewed quite a bit as you swap them from your party to the PC.

Perhaps uneven party member levels is little more than a minor annoyance to some players, but the experience share will undoubtedly lead to an overly-powerful team past the halfway point of the game, even if you should choose to avoid a large number of trainers on the routes along the way. Late-game gym battles become laughably easy, and the Elite Four – while offering a marginally greater challenge than their counterparts in X and Y, are still easy to sweep with the use of only three or four of your party members. On the other hand, Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire do cut out some of the fetch-quest distraction points from the original GBA versions, which streamlines the experience, keeping the story on track better than in its original incarnation.

Another new feature present in these 3DS remakes is the post-game Delta Episode, which sees Steven Stone call upon you, the player character, to help collect meteorite shards in order to construct a device that will be used to deviate the path of a meteorite on a collision course with the Hoenn region. While this premise alone is dire enough, things become murky and complicated when a young woman named Zinnia intervenes, claiming that you must find another solution, as Steven’s scientific plan may result in dark repercussions for humans and Pokémon alike. The Delta Episode lasts a little over an hour, but during that brief window, it manages to deliver a story that is significantly more compelling that the approximately fifteen-hour run of the main story, introducing a character who is a fresh, if not incredibly quirky addition to the series. The Delta Episode also provides a rounding out of some of Hoenn’s regional lore, and expansions of the mysteries tying together some of the other Pokémon games.

As for the rest of the post-game content, it is typically of a hit-or-miss nature. As players near the Elite Four in the main story, they will be granted use of the Eon Flute, which can summon the legendary Latias or Latios to fly them above the continent and plop them down in any city, route, or major landmark they desire. It’s a visual treat that offers fast-travel in the same vein as using the Fly HM move, and even grants players access to otherwise-inaccessible locations off the beaten path to catch legendary Pokémon not native to Hoenn. The process of encountering and catching these legendaries ranges from a simple matter of walking up to a mystical portal and prompting a battle, to traveling to a certain location with certain other legendaries in your party, to hoping there is a randomly-appearing island on the map when you boot up your copy of the game. Personal hideouts dubbed 'secret bases' can be decorated with Pokémon dolls and furniture, or even set up as your own personal gym, though the novelty of this becomes quickly forgettable.

Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire were seemingly promoted largely with two crowds in mind – those who played the GBA versions of Ruby and Sapphire during their initial release, and those who appreciated the streamlined gameplay and inclusion of many new features presented by X and Y. Yet, for all the great elements of the original GBA titles that these remakes retain, they also seem compelled to hold on just as tightly to the outdated design elements and lackluster plot. It is similarly unfortunate that these titles incorporate even less in the way of updated features than last year’s 3DS debut of the series. Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire are not exceptionally lazy efforts, but they are confoundingly rooted in outdated ideas, and fail to embrace more of what has pushed Pokémon toward smoother gameplay and more intelligent scripting with the last few major releases.

My rating: 7 (out of 10)

Thursday, December 18, 2014

2014 Year in Review: Video Games

As this year comes to a close, I am wrapping up my ‘year in review’ lists, including my top anime and video game picks for 2014. Below is a list of every video game in the order that I played them this year, complete with a brief summary of my full review and the final score I provided each. Keep an eye out for my picks of the top ten video games of the year later this month, and please note that this list will be updated within the next week or so to account for my review of Pokémon: Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire.

Grand Theft Auto V – Blending action-packed heists with parodies of contemporary culture in a setting as true to the west coast as possible, GTA V never seems to stop dealing out entertainment, whether from its cleverly-scripted story of three crooks in over their heads, or simply driving freely across the massive expanse of forests, desert, and bustling city streets. There is so much to do and see, it’s truly baffling that the game runs so seamlessly, not only in its load times, but in the way it develops each character and shapes the grand plot. While many games of this genre sacrifice quality for quantity, GTA V still looks quite visually impressive for a late seventh generation console release, and the myriad of alternative, electronic, and classic rock tunes add some welcome flavor to the depiction of Los Santos. My rating: 9.25

Super Mario 3D World – The follow-up to the 3DS’ Super Mario 3D Land, this Wii U platformer sticks to the 2D/3D hybrid design, and features levels that are much shorter than most Mario games would offer. That said, the game looks gorgeous, and offers plenty of variety and replayability, with drop-in/drop-out multiplayer, secret areas abound, and an extra challenge from post-game bonus stages. The Cat Suit, while fun for a while, overshadows many of the other more interesting items, which could have been more consistently utilized. My rating: 8

DmC: Devil May Cry – A new vision of one of the biggest action gaming series out there, DmC sports a new punky, foul-mouthed Dante as he pairs with his more calm and collected brother Vergil to free the humans of the city of Limbo from the influence of the demon Mundus. Everything has been given a gritty, yet colorful look, with Dante smashing and hacking apart grotesque statue-like enemies in environments that draw heavy inspiration from modern eastern European urban areas. The dialogue is cheesy, no doubt, and the story over a bit more quickly than it could have been, but it is unquestionably the smoothest-playing entry in the Devil May Cry franchise, and plenty of fun to boot. My rating: 9.25

- Vergil’s Downfall: 6.75

The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds – Attempting to build upon the foundation laid by what is easily one of the most popular Zelda titles is a gutsy feat, and A Link Between Worlds displays how to go about delivering the bare minimum to fans of the series. Selling itself entirely on nostalgia, A Link Between Worlds rips almost everything in its overworld directly from the SNES classic, while showing a general lack of inspiration in the boss and dungeon layouts - these can be challenged in any order, but the tradeoff for such open-ended adventuring is that the difficulty factor peaks within the first two hours of gameplay. The story is bland, the characters generally uninteresting, and the whole package simply a lazy offering for what is one of the most renowned series in adventure gaming today. My rating: 6.5

Killer7 – A cel-shaded hybrid of multiple gaming genres, Killer7 conveys the bold and bizarre ideas that culminated from Suda51 and Shinji Mikami’s brains, albeit in a much different light than the action/comedy seen in Grasshopper Manufacture’s other modern masterpiece, No More Heroes. In a not-too-distant future, six assassins and one liaison take on corporeal form and carry out missions on behalf of their host, Garcian Smith, and elderly man who was once an ace assassin. With political intrigue, science fiction, and psychological horror all mixed into a singular product, Killer7 is a game like no other. Its on-rails control scheme and emphasis on solving puzzles while seeking out and dispatching invisible walking time bomb enemies may sound both a convoluted and repetitive process, but the unique abilities of each assassin continue to offer up new spins on familiar gameplay elements up until the very end. My rating: 10

Kirby: Triple Deluxe – While the 3D effects do well to explore new creativity in level design and the signature simplistic combat the series is known for, the real surprise in Kirby: Triple Deluxe is the degree to which the game utilizes the 3DS’ internal gyroscope, requiring players to tilt their systems back and forth to overcome puzzles within the varied environments. At its core, Triple Deluxe is a familiar path for longtime fans of the series, but the new power-ups and unexpected spins on boss encounters add an air of newness to this latest Kirby title, as well as a welcome (though not overly intense) challenge. Despite being a bit on the short side and hosting a story that is even more simplistic than that of many of its predecessors, Triple Deluxe is a wonderfully polished experience that emphasizes a ‘fun factor’ through every facet of its design. My rating: 9.25

Mario Kart 8 – Introducing zero-gravity segments to the Mario Kart series, number eight is quite a far cry from where it started back on the SNES, and yet, it could not play more smoothly. A few new items adjust the ‘rubber band’ balancing issues many players had with some of the recent installments, while the Grand Prix mode provides both fun and inventive new locales as well as flat-out gorgeous reimaginings of retro tracks. The one major drawback that Mario Kart 8 faces is that its battle mode has been relegated to the race tracks themselves, and lacks any proper battle arenas, effectively nullifying the enjoyment of that bonus game mode. My rating: 8

- The Legend of Zelda x Mario Kart 8: 8

LEGO Marvel Superheroes – A love letter to fans of Marvel’s comics and films, this LEGO version of Manhattan incorporates a ludicrous number of heroes and villains, from the iconic Iron Man, Wolverine, Thor, and Captain America, to less mainstream and sometimes oddball picks like Taskmaster, Black Bolt, Super Skrull, and M.O.D.O.K. There’s plenty of distractions in the form of races and combat challenges, both in New York City and on board the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier stationed overhead. It’s a fun story that does well to aim itself at younger players and older fans alike, and isn’t afraid to poke fun at itself, with members of the Avengers commenting on how silly some of their foes plans are. My rating: 8.25

Shovel Knight – A brilliant homage to NES icons like The Legend of Zelda, Mega Man, Castlevania, and Final Fantasy, Shovel Knight conveys charm in its 8-bit aesthetic while offering smooth platforming action controls more appropriate for a 2014 release. The crew at Yacht Club games has done a masterful job in balancing fun elements with a fair but challenging degree of trial-and-error routines. The quirky and colorful villains of the Order of No Quarter are a humorous and memorable lot, and though it may not be as long a quest as many major retail releases this year, Shovel Knight offers up plenty of variety and replayability via its StreetPass arena, wandering warriors, and bonus challenge stages. My rating: 8.75

The Wolf Among Us – Hot off the heels of their success with the first season of The Walking Dead video game, Telltale Games has opted to take on the more fantastical and magic-oriented realm of the Fables comics. As Sherriff Bigby Wolf, you must search for clues regarding the death of one of the Fables now living in Fabletown, New York. It quickly becomes apparent that there are larger motives at play, and that Bigby will have to pay attention to the finest of details if he is to bring the case to justice. Favoring clue hunting and quick-time prompted action sequences, The Wolf Among Us is as much an ‘interactive story’ as it predecessor, not controlling in a manner typical to most video games in this day and age. Still, its cel-shaded styling is distinct, its storytelling generally solid and engaging, and its characters all decently developed by the time the final chapter comes to a close. My rating: 7.5

Skullgirls Encore – Designed with fighting game fans in mind, Skullgirls is surprisingly accessible to those lacking an intimate history with genre mainstays like Mortal Kombat or Street Fighter. While the nearly-all-female cast conveys a curious charm with their designs all being inspired by monster movies and horror fiction, the most impressive feat Skullgirls pulls off – aside from its buttery-smooth gameplay – is the fact that every single character is animated by hand, a design choice unheard of in today’s industry. Though the roster may not be as large as other fighting games, each character is designed with specialized playstyles in mind that fit major staples of the genre while adding a little bit of a different flair to the mix. Story modes are rarely the highlight of any arcade style combo-fest, yet Skullgirls handles its world and characters in such a way that will leave players wanting more when the single player modes have been conquered – and with more DLC characters on the way, one can only be excited for what lies ahead. My rating: 9.25

Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes – A glorified demo of what is planned for the next proper numbered installment in the MGS series, Ground Zeroes has Snake running around a small camp in search of his former Peace Walker comrades Chico and Paz. The story is far too short and simple for player to care about, and lacks any real semblance to a proper Metal Gear tale. Likewise, the gameplay has been dulled across the board to grant mainstream gamers ease of access, which in turn effectively robs the entire experience of the Metal Gear spirit. My rating: 4.5

Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D – A port of the Wii’s recent resurrection of DK’s platforming adventures, this game is riddled with many worlds and stages to explore, each with secret areas and bonus collectibles. Aside from a few upgrades courtesy of Cranky Kong’s shop, the gameplay is rather straightforward, asking that players progress to the end of the stage while stomping and rolling on enemy wildlife that have been possessed by resident villain tiki masks. The emphasis on twitch-memorization movement drags down the fun factor in later worlds, however, as the game is effectively asking you to go through the motions in a very specific pattern as opposed to throwing any real learning curve at you or asking you to strategize with experience. My rating: 6.5

Sin and Punishment: Star Successor – Letting up on the difficulty factor from its predecessor, this Wii sequel offers greater creativity in both enemy and environment designs. More general science fiction, the cyberpunk aesthetic is still at play in Star Successor, though not as heavily as in the original Sin and Punishment. The story of Isa and Kachi running from the Nebulox forces is light, but this is a game that is more about fine-tuned arcade-style action gameplay than it is about a gripping story, and to that end, Star Successor does a fine job of continuing the cult-following legacy of Sin and Punishment. My rating: 8

Kid Icarus: Uprising – Part on-rails shooter, part action-adventure game, Kid Icarus: Uprising is a bold reimagining of a long-dormant Nintendo property that doesn’t take itself too seriously, poking fun not only at the previous Kid Icarus titles, but also Nintendo’s long history of iconic video game characters and creations. With Hades pulling the strings behind a grand bid at expanding his forces from the Underworld into the realm of the living, Palutena calls upon her most trusted Angel Pit to seek out ancient artifacts and take up the mantle of unlikely savior. Along the way, Pit will become sidetracked as he squares off with the Forces of Nature and beings from beyond the Earth, all of which bear beautiful, highly-detailed designs fitting of the classic Greek and Roman influences the series is known for. My rating: 9.25

Persona 4 – Designed in the vein of old-school JRPGs, but incorporating modern sensibilities to its design, gameplay, and story, Persona 4 follows a group of classmates/friends as they try to unravel the mysteries surrounding a series of murders and the television world of the Midnight Channel. The party members are, by and large, a genuinely entertaining lot, which is just as well, considering how much time will be spent in their company, both while scouring dungeons for experience points and treasure, and during your free time in town and at school as you forge stronger social links to increases their combat capabilities. The symbols of the arcana that you choose to pursue will influence the types of Personas you are able to fuse and summon, and taking on a local job or after-school activity will boost personal stats. The dungeons each hold an aesthetic unique to the characters they correlate to, though the endgame stretch streamlines everything into a suddenly straightforward and deflated experience compared to everything that preceded it. My rating: 8.75

Hyrule Warriors – A hack-and-slash spinoff in the vein of Dynasty Warriors, this is certainly one strange but not unwelcome combination of franchises. While the core mechanics are more in line with the DW combat system, the incorporation of classic items like the Bow, Bombs, Hookshot, and more give Hyrule Warriors a flavor just different enough to identify it as its own beast. The story may be light, but the game offer plenty of missions between its three core modes of gameplay, and a reasonable amount of depth in upgrading character stats and weapon bonuses. As a whole, it may not be as strong as most Zelda titles, but it does well to cater to longtime fans of the series, while refining many elements carried over from Dynasty Warriors. My rating: 8.25

Super Smash Bros. for 3DS – Overpowered characters from the series’ last outing on the Wii have been toned down in favor of greater balance across the board, while final smash moves have similarly been evened out for the better. Classic mode grants players freedom to select from one of three matches before each encounter, throwing metal, giant, and horde battles into the mix, and offering greater rewards at higher difficulty settings, while the time-sensitive gathering of stat boosts in Smash Run is, in stark comparison, a largely forgettable portion of the handheld Smash experience. 3D effects are used for little more than added depth perception, which is just as well, given the often chaotic nature of fights, and players who find it difficult to keep track of their fighter on screen can increases the thickness on the outline of their character model – the renders of which, along with the environments and collectible trophies, look exceptional on the small screen. My rating: 9.25

Bayonetta 2 – Pairing silky smooth gameplay with an unapologetic sense of flair that many other action games strive to achieve but few actually manage to do, Bayonetta 2 is not only one of the best showings in its genre, it is one of the best games of this eighth generation of consoles. With wacky humor, battles that constantly escalate in scale and ridiculousness, and a protagonist that commands with every backflip and shot from her pistols, Bayonetta 2 is not just an absolute visual treat, it’s a no-holds-barred wild ride from start to finish. The majestic soundtrack, bonus levels, and Nintendo easter eggs only add to this utterly delicious package. My rating: 9.75

Super Smash Bros. for Wii U – While Smash Bros. does well on the 3DS, it feels properly at home on the Wii U, with tight controls and the ability to enter (admittedly chaotic and fast-paced) 8-player bouts. There’s an abundance of modes represented in this new home console Smash Bros., and even more in the way of unlockables. While Classic mode does break from its traditional patterns a bit, the roster of playable fighters is top-notch, and easily the most diverse and balanced group the series has seen in years. The returning stages may not boast as strong of a showing as on the 3DS, but the new stages for this Wii U counterpart are a strong showing, by and large, and pair well with the move away from Brawl’s gimmicky gameplay and design elements. My rating: 9.25

Pokemon: Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire – While generation III did well during its original Gameboy Advance release to introduce plenty of new and interesting typing combos that proved both enjoyable and useful in the long run, this pair of 3DS remakes only adds so much to the formula. Some new features from the Pokenav aid in catching specific Pokémon in the wild, while the experience share system carried over from last year’s Pokémon X and Y lead your party members to reach much higher levels than necessary shortly after the halfway point of the journey through the now fully-3D Hoenn region. The bonus post-game Delta Episode content is easily among the highlights of the game, and makes up for many of missteps encountered during the core story of Team Magma and Team Aqua. A lack of new offerings, combined with the generally less-inspired layout of the Hoenn region when compared to its brethren in the franchise, lead Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire to be less impressive than what most fans have come to expect in the overall quality of Pokémon titles. My rating: 7

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Pokémon: Omega Ruby journal - entry five

Well, I did manage to more or less steamroll my way through the Elite Four – Trevenant and Infernape both swept a good chunk of the competition aside, while I really only had to swap out to Emolga in order to counter Glacia’s Wailrein. The Elite Four battles were not quite the cakewalk that their Kalos counterparts provided, but they weren’t much more of a challenge, truth be told. I even deliberately avoided many of the trainers along Victory Road in the hopes that it might balance the fights out a bit, but it seems this game was designed with players being significantly more powerful than necessary in mind.

It’s a bit of a shame, really, as I found the Pokémon typings spotlighted by each member of the Elite Four to be a fun and interesting combo. The champion battle against Steven Stone would have served as the highlight of the whole experience, were it not for the fact that beating him was similarly all too easy. For the sake of the narrative, however, I did appreciate Steven Stone’s constant involvement in major events, and the fact that he is something of a rival character who also acts as a source of inspiration to the protagonist – someone that most people seem to look up to. Thank goodness he wasn’t just dropped in for a brief cameo and then ignored entirely until his climactic battle (I am, of course, making a not-so-subtle reference to Diantha’s minimal role in X and Y). Regardless, above is my team that triumphed over the Elite Four, my ‘dream team’ for Omega Ruby.

I’ve only spent about fifteen minutes or so with the postgame Delta Episode, and have found its narrative to be considerably more compelling than the main game’s story and conflict with Team Magma. It’s comforting to know that at least some part of this remake might leave me somewhat impressed. The ability to soar around Hoenn on the back of Latios is certainly a visual treat, and is seemingly the only way to reach areas where warp holes containing legendary Pokémon await. I suppose it only makes sense to restrict access to these more powerful Pokémon until the main game is nearly over, though the premise of these mysterious holes simply spitting out Pokémon in front of you makes things, yet again, seem a bit easier than necessary. It shouldn’t be too much longer before I post my final review for Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire, though, depending on how long the Delta Episode content runs, I may yet post another journal entry beforehand.

25 Days of Pokémon - Top 5 Steel Pokémon

In keeping with the previous list, I thought it appropriate that I cover my five favorite Pokémon from my second-favorite typing, Steel. As with nearly every Pokémon detailed as part of this twenty-five days of Christmas special, these Pokémon are simply ones that I enjoyed using during my previous playthroughs, and ones that have served me well in both main storyline and postgame content. Their ordering is not necessarily a reflection of how well I think they would serve me in the competitive scene, as that’s not really my forte. Honorable mentions go to Lucario and Metagross, two Pokémon that - while both awesome in their own right - I prefer for their Fighting and Psychic moves, respectively.

#5) Scizor – Scyther seemed to be a fan-favorite when I was growing up and the Pokémon franchise was brand-spankin’-new. Imagine, then, just how excited young players became when they learned of Scizor, the Bug/Steel evolution of Scyther. Scizor’s dual-typing offers what is a decently useful buff, though it has a glaring weakness to Fire-type Pokémon, and doesn’t fare too well against Fighting-types either. However, the real appeal for my using Scizor during one of my Soul Silver replays lay in his widely varied moveset, which was key in taking down Grass, Psychic, Ghost, and fellow Bug Pokémon. He even fared quite well in the post-game tournaments of Black 2 once I transferred him over to the fifth generation games, and still proves quite useful for friendly competitive bouts in the sixth generation scene.

#4) Steelix – Another generation II evolution of a gen I Pokémon, Steelix is the bigger, badder, and generally cooler-looking evolution of Onix. It does what all good Steel Pokémon do in playing a defensive role, and then ups the ante with its secondary Ground typing. I relied quite heavily on Steelix during one of my replays of Soul Silver, and while Steelix performed wonderfully against the likes of Blaine and Lt. Surge, his crowning achievement was laying the smack-down on Red’s prized Pikachu while a snowstorm swelled atop Mt. Silver.

#3) Mawile – One of the more bizarre humanoid Pokémon designs, Mawile has two mouths - one on its proper, smaller face, and another gaping venus-flytrap mandible attached to the back of its skull. Depending on who you ask, people may describe Mawile as a cute and cuddly Pokémon, or one of the most lethal-looking things to come from the generation III titles. Either way, Mawile is a beast, both offensively and defensively. It can takes hits like a champ, and can learn Flamethrower, Brick Break, Shadow Ball, Ice Beam, Flash Cannon, Solar Beam, and more versatile moves to make it a wonderful jack-of-all-trades.

#2) Genesect – Once upon a time, Team Plasma decided to resurrect an ancient Bug Pokémon. They then decided that, in all his splendor, his physical form was not good enough, and so they decided to strap a giant cannon to his back. Genesect’s origin is probably the most perfect example of a terrible idea birthing something so awesomely dangerous since Team Rocket concocted Mewtwo in their own laboratories. The ability to give Genesect different drives that allow him to attack with Fire, Electric, Ice, and Water blasts respectively only adds to his diverse moveset, and his Bug/Steel dual-typing is certainly a welcome addition to the generally Psychic-heavy representation in the pantheon of legendary Pokémon.

#1) Aegislash – Perhaps some of you were curious as to how Aegislash, one of my all-time favorite Pokémon, was omitted from the top five Ghost-type Pokémon listing – after all, I only made mention of it and its pre-evolved forms in nearly every journal entry that accompanied my playthrough of Pokémon Y. The simple fact is that I was reserving it for this list, as trying to choose between Aegislash and Chandelure as my all-time favorite Ghost Pokémon would have been too close to call. From the moment I learned of Honedge’s dual Steel and Ghost typing, I knew I had to try my best to make it an integral part of my team, and boy did that decision pay off in spades. Aegislash’s moveset is incredibly versatile, his stats thoroughly impressive for both offensive and defensive, and his typing grants him unique additional defensive properties. Plus, his design – and those of his pre-evolutions – are so ridiculous, yet somehow intimidating, that it is awesomely perfect.

25 Days of Pokémon - Top 5 Ghost Pokémon

I’ve made mention in many of my previous Pokémon-related postings (especially my playthrough journals) that Ghost is my favorite Pokémon typing. It only makes sense, then, in my writing about some of my favorite elements of the franchise, that my five favorite Ghost Pokémon should be a topic of one of this month’s lists. While I do love a great number of Ghost Pokémon, I will adhere to my rule of five and five only, but will accordingly give honorable mention to the company of Golurk and Rotom.

#5) Sableye – While technically Ghost is its secondary typing and Dark its primary, I consider any Pokémon with a Ghost typing eligible for this list (and hey, it’s my list, so I can make the rules). Sableye was, surprisingly enough, one of my favorite Pokémon from my Sapphire playthrough. Its dual-typing gives it extra defense against both Dark and Ghost-type attacks, giving it no natural weaknesses save for the generation VI addition of Fairy-type attacks. Sableye can takes hits like a champ and dish out some decent attacks in return, despite what its tiny frame might let on.

#4) Drifblim – I didn’t think much of Drifblim prior to my catching one during my post-game adventures in the generation V titles, but what ultimately piqued my curiosity in this balloon Pokémon were the sinister implications described in the Pokedex entries for both it and its pre-evolved form, Drifloon. Drifloon’s Pokedex entry states that children who grab hold of them sometimes go missing, with other interpretations going so far as to say Drifloon takes children away to a land of the dead. Drifblim’s Ghost/Flying dual-typing and its ability to learn Thunderbolt led it to be a solid competitor in Unova’s Pokémon World Tournament matchups.

#3) Mismagius – Generation II introduced but one new Ghost Pokémon in the form of Misdreavus. While it was nice to see Game Freak add to the company of Gastly, Haunter, and Gengar, Misdreavus was not the most practical team member in those days, and did not receive a proper evolution until generation IV came around. Mismagius’s design is simple, yet effective, with its magician’s hat-shaped head and flowing robe-like body distinguishing it from other phantom Pokémon. Mismagius has a wide variety of typing pools it can draw its moves from, including the new Fairy moves in generation VI, making it a wonderfully useful Pokémon for taking down many a foe.

#2) Gourgeist – An unsung hero of the Ghost Pokémon, Gourgeist was my oddball pick in my playthrough of Y. I came across its pre-evolved form of Pumpkaboo late in the story, but when I learned of this Ghost/Grass Pokémon’s ability to learn Flame Charge, that secured its spot in my party. My Gourgeist was a Large size, and thus was able to both deal and take greater amounts of damage than his smaller kin, but was not nearly as slow as the Super Size variant. Taking to Super Training, I boosted Gourgeist’s speed, attack, and special attack, which – coupled with the speed increase earned from successive uses of Flame Charge – meant it could easily sweep many opposing Pokémon in a blitzkrieg offense.

#1) Chandelure – One of the first generation V designs I came across when I was getting back into the Pokémon franchise, Chandelure stood out to me as a wonderfully bizarre design – so much so, that I made it my mission to incorporate this Pokémon into my team as soon as I came across its pre-evolved form of Litwick. Chandelure is a perfect representation of what the Ghost Pokémon aesthetic is all about, as far as I’m concerned – the Victorian-style chandelier body combined with the purple flames and empty yellow eyes offers a creepy, yet somehow refined creature that fits right in with the limited company of its Ghost Pokémon kin. This lone Fire/Ghost dual typing offers many strong offensive options, and the abilities of Flame Body and Flash Fire can provide a unique edge over the competition in battle.
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