Sunday, March 13, 2016

Comic Book review: Deadpool vs. X-Force

A prequel of sorts to the original meeting of Deadpool and Cable in the mid-1990s, Deadpool vs. X-Force is a bizarre romp through American history, as the X-Force members seek to course-correct all of the problems Deadpool has left in his wake. Deadpool appears to be working for some mysterious benefactor, and has been assigned particular targets, as per his mercenary title. But he doesn’t seem to mind increasing the body count exponentially, shooting up and cutting down any confused soldier from the American Revolutionary or Civil Wars that gets in his way. Armed with an absurdly large arsenal including modern firearms and futuristic laser weaponry, Deadpool has a clear advantage in practically every scenario.

That is, until the X-Force begin pursuing him through time. And while they too have a host of future-tech and incredible powers at their disposal, their lack of familiarity with Deadpool at this point means that their approach is more cautious, with Cable ordering them to flank around Deadpool’s hiding spot in a manor and adopt a tactical strategy. However, the soldiers caught in the middle of this scuffle are nothing shy of confused and terrified, and so they end up firing upon Cable and the other members of X-Force, adding another layer of chaos to the entire ordeal.

The story moves along at a rather brisk pace, and as a result, the humor is sprinkled in at appropriate junctures or breaks in the action. Readers seeking a constant spout of jokes may not find this release as satisfying. But Deadpool vs. X-Force does well to balance the two portrayals of Deadpool most commonly witnessed in his comics – wacky, self-referential, lovable idiot, and borderline-psychotic murderer who gets a rise out of his bloody line of work. The majority of the jokes that are delivered in this collection are at the expense of Cable, his audience (with Deadpool refusing to offer any recaps on events, and suggesting that readers read the previous issues), and his creators (asking if perhaps they could paint black ‘X’s on the eyes of anyone he’s already killed, to make it easier for him to keep track of who is left standing).

Given its nature as a prequel, Deadpool vs. X-Force does not have much wiggle room with regards to its ending. It’s a conclusion that many will see coming, and despite it not being a wondrous finale, it’s acceptable. It would have been nice to see the other X-Force members be more active participants in this collection – Cannonball and Boom Boom take to the fight for a few key moments, while Warpath has a couple panels worth of fighting, and Domino seems to just be along for the ride. Perhaps my feelings toward Deadpool vs. X-Force would have been more positive had the series run another issue or two in length – it could have helped draw out the pacing a bit, and even added another backdrop or two for Deadpool and Cable to bring their duel to. Still, it’s a decent Deadpool story – certainly not the best outing the merc with the mouth has had, but far from the worst.

My rating: 7 (out of 10)

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Comic Book review: Spider-Man: Anti-Venom

While all-American Flash Thompson was running black ops missions for the U.S. government as the new ‘Agent Venom’, former host of the Venom symbiote Eddie Brock renounced his past life and sought to cleanse hurting individuals of their diseases and addictions. Under the new alias of Anti-Venom, Eddie Brock remains slightly unhinged, seeming to perceive himself and the Anti-Venom as two halves of a whole being. Despite his terrifying and alien visage or his lack of subtlety, Brock hopes to provide aid to those in need, especially when it comes to one young woman named Jenna.

Brock helps to get Jenna clean early on, but then enlists her help in tracking down the local dealers who led her to become a junkie, in the hopes that it will prevent others from heading down the same dangerous path. And while Brock does manage to find some small-time local dealers, he also discovers that the trail leads all the way to another country, where a well-connected drug lord lives. Brock ends up crossing paths with Frank Castle, aka The Punisher, who would similarly like to take down this cartel, but isn’t exactly the most trusting of Brock, being all-to-familiar with his past actions as the former Venom.

In the chaos that erupts between Anti-Venom fighting drug dealers, The Punisher fighting the same thugs, and the two antiheroes fighting one another, young Jenna is taken hostage and transported directly to the head drug lord’s well-guarded estate. Anti-Venom and The Punisher stop their fighting in order to track down this larger target – or at least, Anti-Venom does, as The Punisher still attempts to blast Brock away on a couple of occasions. Anti-Venom is shocked at these attempts on his life by Frank Castle, even frustrated, but he refrains from physically lashing out in anger, which presents some comical back-and-forth interactions between the two.

The pairing of Anti-Venom and The Punisher proves to easily be the highlight of this short-lived series. While Jenna is a central focus throughout, early issues make it seem as though something larger may come of her placing trust in Anti-Venom. Unfortunately, she proves less of a full-fledged character and more of a convenient plot device during the later issues. The pacing is rather slow early on as well, and the thugs lower on the chain prove to be pushovers in the presence of Anti-Venom. Even the final foe is an over-confident fool in the presence of Anti-Venom and The Punisher, which removes any real tension from the conflict, save for the well-being of the antiheroes in the midst of bombastic firefights.

My rating: 6 (out of 10)

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Anime review: Berserk: The Golden Age Arc

A retelling of the 1990s anime, Berserk: The Golden Age Arc consolidates those events into three films to convey the most well-known narrative involving Guts, Griffith, and Casca. It’s the most obvious jumping off-point for newcomers to the Berserk story, and would seem an appropriate first step in setting the stage for everything else within the Berserk storyline, though, until very recently, no plans to adapt the remaining volumes of the manga were apparent. As is sometimes the case with condensing series into a set of films, the pacing is not the same across the board, which might not be a major point of discussion, were it not for the fact that this element significantly impacts the quality of each of the three entries in the Golden Age Arc.

The first film does a solid job of setting the stage and introducing all of the key players. The supporting cast is shown to be a plucky bunch, with a couple of them being young and naïve, and one in particular being a bit more greedy and self-serving, but they all display a great deal of respect towards Griffith, leader of the Band of the Hawk. Due to his legacy having already been established before the first film even begins, Griffith come across as the most well-rounded and interesting character for this first of three chapters. Guts, meanwhile is given just enough development as a strong-willed warrior lacking any real direction in his life to allow viewers to latch on to him as the trilogy’s main hero, though most of his meaningful maturation will follow in the later films. Casca, meanwhile, first appears as something of a snotty spoiled brat, who, like her comrades, is also highly devoted to her comrades, but seems to bear a grudge against Guts from their earliest meeting.

A medieval setting is established, as well as how the Band of the Hawk are effectively mercenaries for hire, though tales of their victories have spread far and wide, and many of the trilogy’s villains recognize their record of success. There are mythical fantasy elements at play in Berserk, though these are not met in full force until the final film in the series. When Guts encounters one such beast at the end of the first film, it provides not only a test of his strength, but also offers an omen of events to come. This is the first in a series of key events, where the darkest of settings and most intimidating of encounters offer Guts greater insight into the nature of the world around him.

The first film does a solid job of putting all of the pieces in their rightful places, and though it does feel like it wanders from the straight and narrow on a couple of occasions, its pacing is overall appropriate – a far cry from the second film, whose bookends offer the only substantial moments of development for Guts, Casca, and Griffith. Mind you, when these events do come to pass, they are of great importance to the larger tale being woven between these three films. But the hour-long battle they sandwich is neither visually exciting, nor of significant importance to the narrative. The second film does well to take a step back from Griffith a bit, in order to better establish Guts’ ideals and ambitions, as well as prove that there is much more to Casca than meets the eye. This second entry ends on a high note for both of these characters, while still allowing them both plenty of development in the third and final entry, but the absurd span of empty fight scenes not only makes it a dull watch, it also leads the third film to feel rushed.

The Golden Age Arc is my first proper viewing of Berserk, though I’ve been familiar with Griffith’s endgame for many years. For those not aware of how the Golden Age Arc concludes, I will warn that some spoilers regarding the film’s most infamous of moments lie ahead.

The final film dives into some very dark territory, and sees Guts and Griffith part ways as anything but comrades and friends. For many years, I was under the impression that Griffith’s actions in the third film resulted from some tragic fall from glory, that he lost sight of who he was as a leader and hero to so many. Instead, it is a simple matter of him becoming upset over Guts trying to choose his own path in life, and Griffith not having complete influence over his actions that leads him to perform some horrendous atrocities. The climax for a character who proved so compelling during the previous two films ends up being an unsatisfying reveal of pathetic motivations.

And therein lies what is perhaps the greatest downfall of the Golden Age Arc – character motivations on the whole are either incredibly poor, unclear, or wholly nonexistent. Casca is the one major exception to this, offering the most human and believable reasons for joining the Band of the Hawk, for allying with Griffith, and for ultimately turning to Guts as her ally and lover. Guts, meanwhile, sees establishment as the main hero of the Berserk saga by the time the third film comes to its conclusion, but nothing beyond that is achieved. This trilogy feels like the first act of something larger, which may be fine for anyone wishing to carry on with the manga thereafter. There are elements of greatness at play in the Golden Age Arc, but the second and third films constantly deny these to become part of a more cohesive experience. The Golden Age Arc lacks any noteworthy resolution, and leaves viewers with an unsatisfying set of hanging plot threads.

Fans of the 1990s anime might not be so greatly bothered by these shortcomings. Guts, Griffith, Casca, and the remaining members of the Band of the Hawk are rendered with strong animation, while environments look equal parts gorgeous and haunting. Cel-shaded 3D models of knights in armor look a tad clunky and dated, but are generally not present outside of battle scenes, so they do not distract from the remaining visual appeal too greatly. If this trilogy is in fact the jumping off point for someone looking to continue indulging in Berserk by reading the manga, they may find decent value here – the films offer a handful of teases of characters and events that play important roles later on. But as a standalone trilogy, they feel like odd shoehorns. The fact that Guts does not fully come into his own as lead protagonist by the trilogy’s conclusion further sours the experience.

My rating: 6 (out of 10)


SUPERHOT is the most innovative shooters I’ve played in years. It relies on a couple of key gimmicks that bolster its success and fun factor, the most obvious being that time slows to a near-standstill each time that you, the player character, stop moving. Enemies freeze mid-jog, thrown objects hang in midair, and bullets push forward at a snail’s pace as you observe your surroundings and prepare your next move. You can attack foes with your fists, throw objects to disarm them and steal their katanas, pistols, shotguns, and rifles, and even make use of a new ability introduced late in the game to really mix up the formula in interesting and creative ways.

The story mode is not particularly long – it will last most players around two hours. There is a narrative thread woven in that, while not too greatly in-depth, reaches a satisfying conclusion within that limited time frame, and does very well to match SUPERHOT’s aesthetic nods to works like The Matrix, Killer7, and a dozen other action films/games. The white backdrops of office cubicles, a narrow alley, bar, mansion staircase, and parking garage all require different approaches, and forcing players to plan out their plans of attack as well as adjust on the fly is refreshing in an era when most shooters would opt for the simple ‘run-and-gun’ formula.

That isn’t to say that SUPERHOT is devoid of any flaws – there are a couple of stages where enemies are so tightly packed that the slightest movement of your character can cause you to end up in their line of fire, resulting in a retry of that stage. And the aforementioned gameplay mechanic that is introduced late in the experience (the nature of which I will not spoil, given how much it turns familiar strategies on their heads), does not see as widespread of use as it probably deserves. Still, predicting enemy movements is fun, gauging the distance between yourself and a red polygonal foe intuitive, and for a first outing, SUPERHOT is fun, responsive, and visually engaging game with its minimalist digital style.

For anyone turned off at the notion of a two hour story mode, fret not – there is plenty more to be explored in SUPERHOT’s additional game modes. Endless mode sends waves of increasingly well-armed foes your way, and asks you to take down as many of them as possible before they overwhelm you. There are variants of this mode that act as a time attack, or simply ask you to execute twenty kills in a row. Challenge mode, meanwhile, requires you to revisit the stages of the story with a specific weapon, like a katana, in hand, and asks that you kill all the foes with only that type of weapon.

Some of SUPERHOT’s stages will be easy to breeze through, others may require you a half-dozen attempts or more, as an unfortunate sidestep from behind a pillar could place you on the receiving end of a buckshot spray. But calculating enemy moves and besting them is a really satisfying feeling, especially when you get to view the real-time playback of your Hollywood bad-assery. There is a strange charm to overcoming a stage, leaving polygon thugs in a heap of shattered red gems, and hearing the repeating words: “SUPER. HOT. SUPER. HOT.”

My rating: 9.25 (out of 10)
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