Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Playing, Watching, etc.

This has been one of the more laidback summers in a while for me, so I've had some time to really start working through my backlog, particularly on PS3 and PC.

Spring 2016 was a pretty strong season for anime.  I only watched a handful of shows, but every show I did catch, I enjoyed quite a lot, and the general impression I've been getting from the community is that there were a lot of good (or at least engaging) series airing.

Flying Witch

Kind of the surprise hit of the season, Flying Witch is a real charmer.  One of those so-called "iyashikei", or "healing" shows, Flying Witch follows the daily life of Makoto, a teenage witch who is staying with her relatives in Aomori in order to experience new things and further her witch training.  Despite its magical premise, Flying Witch is a very grounded series.  Though many fantastical elements make their way into every episode (from screaming plants to flying whales), it still manages to across as being above all a show about a bunch of (mostly) normal people living and enjoying life.  To me, the most refreshing thing about Flying Witch was how realistically written the characters were.  Like any medium of fiction, anime is filled with character archetypes that you just get used to as you watch more and more shows.  These are characters that generally only make sense within their respective universes.  Not so with Flying Witch.  Every character in the show felt like a believable human being; even characters that aren't actually human.  This was very much in the writing, but also in the show's general aesthetic.  Characters look distinct while sporting realistic hairdos and outfits, and the environments and backgrounds are often rendered vividly.

Macross Delta

My history with Macross is pretty scattershot.  I jumped on the boat with Macross Frontier; I had little prior knowledge of the franchise, I just happened to see its OP on a blog one day and it was love at first sight.  Then I went back and watched Macross Zero and the Macross Plus OVAs.  At this point I don't remember much of Zero, but Plus was very enjoyable, and ultimately so was Frontier.  So I was naturally looking forward to watching Macross Delta, and so far it hasn't disappointed.  Like Frontier, Delta goes full-speed ahead on the musical aspect of the franchise, this time featuring a whole idol group that tours around the galaxy suppressing violent outbreaks with pop and circumstance.  I've always liked this grandiosity about Macross.  It's a franchise that ultimately comes across as a celebration of life and culture, and Delta is no different in this respect.  What is different though is the focus on inter-human (or I suppose humanoid) conflict.  The central issue in Delta revolves around the planet Windermere, home to a race of people who feel they were wronged by the UN Spacy in a previous war, and are now setting out to right that wrong by conquering the galaxy.  These guys fly variable fighters too, which means that Delta is 100% dogfighting.  Plus was naturally focused on dogfighting as well, but this is largely the first time we're getting a full TV series that's all about VF vs VF action, and it's very enjoyable.

PA Works is a studio that's had their highs and lows as far as I'm concerned, but with Kuromukuro I decided to give them another shot.  I love the way they draw female characters (they always have this adorable baby face), and the genre mix seemed right up my alley.  I'm glad I did, as the show has been very enjoyable so far.  Kuromukuro follows Yukina, a teenage girl with few aspirations in life, who finds herself mixed up in a conflict with aliens that somehow dates back hundreds of years ago.  To seal the deal, she has to pilot a mech alongside Kennosuke Tokisada Ouma (Ken for short), a samurai who's been in cryostasis for 450 years.  As you'd expect from the premise, it's a show that's very wacky at times.  It has its serious moments, but for the time being it's the characters that have kept the show entertaining for me while the plot finds its footing.  Yukina's a fairly normal, if timid girl; she's prone to nagging and pouting, and easily spooked, but caring and surprisingly passionate about science and astronomy.  Ken's antics as a feudal-era samurai suddenly living in a world of cars, TV and the Internet is very fun to watch.  And the show's many supporting characters are all rather colorful, too, rranging from a veteran soldier who is constantly talking shit to the councilor at Yukina's school who just wants to be taken seriously (but can't because she's too adorable).  Oh, the other thing that's nice is that the mecha battles, despite being full 3D CG, are actually pretty good.  They kinda have that Pacific Rim vibe, where the mechs have a palpable weight to them and the battles tend to result in a lot of destruction.

Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress
Koutetsujou no Kabaneri, or Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress is a post-apocalyptic show taking place a slightly steampunk version of Meiji Japan (it's actually called something different in the show, but it's obviously Japan) that has been overrun by zombie-like creatures known as "kabane" (corpse).  At least initially, the main factor differentiating a kabane from your run-of-the-mill zombie is that the only way to kill them is to shoot them in the heart; theoretically that shouldn't be difficult, as their heart is constantly glowing.  The trouble is that kabane hearts are encased in a thick layer of iron, which most weapons have difficulty piercing.  By the time the show begins, the remnants of civilization are living in a bunch of scattered settlements, called "stations" because they're connected by an extensive railroad network and protected by large metal walls to keep the kabane out.  Our main character, Ikoma, is a train engineer who is forced to board the "Iron Fortress" (a heavily fortified train) and flee his station along with other refugees when it is overrun by the kabane.

Kabaneri's main attractive qualities lie in its presentation.  It features a unique visual aesthetic that seems to be inspired by 80's anime.  This art style permeates every part of the show, from the characters to the animation.  It also has a nice OST by Sawano (though I still don't think it tops his work for Unicorn).  I had high hopes for Kabaneri going in, and while it did not disappoint it has been gradually leveling off over the past couple episodes, as we head towards a questionable finale.  Still, it's been a fun ride.

Video Games
Company of Heroes 2
I'm kinda always playing this game.  I think I have maybe 300 hours in it at this point?  They put out a big balance patch for it a few days ago, that I approve of for the most part.  The Universal Carrier's getting a bit more survivability, the Firefly's getting more versatility and a slight buff, and the Oberkommandos are being reworked again.  Not to mention the US gets a shiny new mortar team.

Ratchet and Clank Collection
In my attempt to get through my PS3 backlog, I've been playing through my Ratchet and Clank games.  I've already played most of them, but I haven't played Into the Nexus (which I own) and it's been a very long time since I've played the original trilogy and Tools of Destruction.  So I figured I'd do a bit of a franchise tour.  I'm on Going Commando now and it really is remarkable how much it builds on the first game.  There's more of everything, more activities, more guns, more upgrades, and probably more planets.  It's actually funnier, too.

The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel
I put about 6 hours into this game when it first came out last December and wasn't impressed by it.  The combat was boring, all of the characters were walking cliches (though not unlikeable), and the story felt like (and technically was) tedious busywork.  I put another few hours into it yesterday and finished Chapter 1.  I'm still not sold on it yet, but it's just barely engaging enough that I'll keep at it for the time being.

Tales of Graces f
Once upon a time, I resolved to platinum Tales of Xillia.  That still hasn't happened, not because it's an especially difficult trophy but because it's a time-consuming one.  And as much as I like Xillia's combat, even with Grade Shop bonuses it's just not enough to keep two playthroughs of that game interesting.  What's worse is that I'm so tired of Xillia's combat that I have no motivation to start Xillia 2, even though I'm aware that it improves on its predecessor's systems.  I saw a buddy of mine playing Tales of Graces f, which was enough to make me pop that in and resume my own NG+ playthrough.  Man, playing Graces is like slipping on a comfy pair of slippers.

Okami HD
Okami is a highly praised game that I've never played.  I bought Okami HD a long time ago for pretty cheap, and it's been sitting on my PS3 for a long time.  Decided I'd finally give it a shot.  I played it for about 2 hours and was pretty bored, but I'll give it another shot later.

Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin
The fervor around Dark Souls III motivated me to finally get around to playing Dark Souls II, which I had bought for my PC some time ago but never got around to playing.  I've played through Demons' Souls and Dark Souls, but after them my interest in the franchise cooled considerably.  I'm pretty far into Dark Souls II now, and I can say that I overall like it better than the previous two games in the franchise.  There are things that it does that I definitely don't like; I think Soul Memory had good intentions behind it but is overall a poorly executed mechanic, and while Dark Souls II has remarkably more bosses than any Souls game before it, the majority of them are less interesting than the ones in previous games.  I also think that the re-introduction of fast traveling allowed From to get lazy with the world design.  Where Dark Souls took place in a setting full of intertwining locales, the places you visit in II feel very disconnected, and there are more "dead end" areas than I feel like there were before.  But for every criticism I have of Dark Souls II (and there are more than I explained), there is something I found to be praiseworthy, and then some.  The weapon variety is much improved, summoning mechanics for both PvP and Co-op are expanded across the board, and I personally just really like Majula as a central hub, more so than Firelink or the Nexus.  Not to mention, the ability to respec your character is a really big deal.  I won't be playing Dark Souls III any time soon, but I'm glad I took the time to give II a shot.

Xenoblade Chronicles
Xenoblade Chronicles is a great game, but it's such a long one that I'm not 100% sure I'll ever be able to finish it.  I resumed a 35hr save a few days ago.  The plot and setting is memorable enough that I still have a general idea of what's going on and where I'm going, but I have to say, I'm not sure I'm interested in doing another couple dozen hours with this game's combat.  It's decent and suitably deep in terms of mechanics, but it just gets tiresome after a while.  I'm constantly switching characters because I can only stand to play a given character for an hour or so before I get bored.  The three-character party limit is rough too, because while you could feasibly blaze through mob battles without a healer, any sort of tough opponent will require you to have a support character like Sharla or Melia around.  That leaves only two slots for damage dealers, which can turn longer battles into a real slog.  I'm realizing more and more that no matter how fascinating a JRPG's plot may be, I just can't stick with it if the combat's not engaging.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Happy 2016!

Hello again!  It's been a while.  Hard to believe this blog has been around for over five years.  In that span of time, I've apparently written well over 100 posts.  When I first started this blog, it was out of an interest in writing, and practicing how to express my thoughts on the entertainment I consume.  I often look back over the writing I've done here and am mildly embarrassed by it, but it was a good experience.  I don't expect that I'll be reaching the output I used to have anytime soon, but I haven't closed this blog because I like having it around.

This would be a good time to write a "Top Ten of 2015" list for games, but 2015 was an incredibly busy year for me and as a result I don't even think I could cobble together a top five list, let alone top ten.  Instead, I'd like to look ahead at the stuff in 2016 that I'm personally interested in.  I don't have a PS4 yet, but I'm officially in the market for one, so I'll also be including games for that platform.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015


Helldivers was a long time coming.  Originally announced during Gamescom 2013, it was supposed to come out the following summer, but its developers were silent on the status of the game until the beginning of this year, in which it was suddenly announced that the game would be out in the beginning of March.  As someone who enjoyed Arrowhead’s previous game Magicka, I was very interested in Helldivers for a number of reasons, and once it came out I delved into it.  Let’s see if it holds up.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Let's Talk About Dogfight Mode

This is a nearly year-old post that's been sitting in drafts for a long time.  It seems fine so I figured I'd just put it out.

This past weekend I played through the majority of Ace Combat 6 for the first time.  It's really fun.  Speaking purely in terms of gameplay I think it might be my favorite entry in the franchise.  I've now played both HD Ace Combats (not counting Infinity, though I did also try that), which prompted some reflection.

Both AC6 and Assault Horizon bring something distinct and unique to the table.  With Assault Horizon, it's the Dogfight Mode.  I wanted to gather my thoughts on this controversial mechanic with a post.

I've been around the block regarding my feelings on this gimmick; at first I thought it was dumb, then I thought it was great.  Now, I just think it's okay.  Despite what I think a lot Ace Combat fans will tell you, DFM has both positives and negatives.  The best thing DFM does for the series is that it makes dogfights much more personal, and much more hands-on.  You're challenging another plane to a no-holds barred duel across the skies, and the very nature of DFM discourages others from interfering.  It also directly removes the infinite loops that dogfights could sometimes devolve into, as well as addressing the complaints of how impersonal and even boring it could feel to shoot at a target thousands of feet away.  The Bombing Run mechanic (a ground assault version of Dogfight Mode) also managed to make air-to-ground objectives engaging, where before they were generally tedious and boring.

The problem with DFM lies not with the mechanic itself in my opinion, but how Assault Horizon was built to accommodate it.  The game would break its own rules, bending over backwards to encourage you to use its new mechanic.  Take flares for example, which are introduced for the first time in AH.  Flares are a free get-out-of-jail card, allowing you to evade missiles in emergencies.  But you only have a handful of them, and they take very long time to reload (upwards of 45 seconds).  However, Assault Horizon features Flight Leaders, planes who achieve invincibility by being able to use flares constantly to evade missiles until you engage them in DFM.  While also functioning as an emergency escape mechanism for pilots being pursued, flares became a convenient way to force the player to use DFM.

At the most fundamental level, the flight controls became much floatier, which made lining up even the most basic shots a bigger task than it used to be.  The scale of the battles and number of enemies was reduced, and after AC6 we know that it's not an issue of hardware.  The answer then, must be DFM.  And it makes sense.  The thing to remember with this mechanic is that it inherently centers the gameplay around taking down targets one at a time.  This also probably explains the change to how multi-lockon missiles--such as the XMAA4s--work.  Whereas previously such weapons would lock onto multiple targets, one missile to a target, in Assault Horizon it's possible for multiple missile locks to overlap on an individual target, which means you could throw all four XMAA4s at a single plane.  Since you generally only need two missiles at most to down enemy planes this is a huge waste.  But in Assault Horizon, where you'd spend much of your time in the tunnel vision of DFM, this sort of change makes more sense.  If battles in Assault Horizon featured as many targets to shoot at as they do in Ace Combat 6, the game would become a slog; having to blow up that many planes one at a time in DFM would get repetitive.

So instead of simply scrapping it, can we fix DFM?  As I've already said, I don't think it's an inherently bad concept.  But is too much change required to make it work?  If we consider a game that otherwise plays like typical Ace Combat but features DFM, the 3DS game Assault Horizon Legacy draws the closest parallel.  That game suffered from enemies that would make impossible maneuvers to evade missiles, forcing you to rely on its Maneuvers mechanic (which would trigger a momentary cutscene as the game automatically positioned you perfectly to fire missiles at your adversary).  Perhaps a mechanic like DRM cannot coexist with traditional Ace Combat gameplay without hamstringing it.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Spring 2014 Anime: Soul Eater Not!

I must confess, I've never thought much of Soul Eater, one way or the other.  I watched the anime from beginning to end and though it had a killer soundtrack (including some of my favorite openings and endings in the medium) and I remember it fondly for some of its better moments, it's not a show I would rate as "great."  Color me surprised then, when I found myself looking forward to each new episode of Soul Eater Not!

Soul Eater Not! is aptly named.  A prequel and a side-story, it takes place in the Soul Eater universe and features Soul Eater characters (you'll see all three of the main meister trio make appearances along with their weapons, and others such as Professor Stein and Sid), but it is most certainly not just "more Soul Eater."  Aside from being visually different (a point of controversy for some, given the franchises generally more unique style), Not! approaches the setting and concept backing the original anime from a different angle: that of the NOT class.  You see, the original cast of Soul Eater was situated primarily in the EAT class, which is actually the minority of students at Death Academy; the talented elite, who actually go out on field missions and such.  Most of the student body is in the NOT class, which--being designed to welcome absolute novices--is much more academic and focuses on the book knowledge and theories behind being a Meister and Weapon.  And it is in the NOT class that we find our main character, Tsugumi Harudori.  Tsugumi was just an average middle school girl until she accidentally transformed a portion of her body into a weapon one day, revealing her status as a Meister Weapon.  She then transfers into Death Academy, with no idea what to expect or what is expected of her.

The world that witches and meisters and weapons live in is completely new to Tsugumi.  She doesn't know anything about Soul Resonance, or witch hunting.  At the beginning of the show she can't even fully transform. As a result you learn more about the universe and setting of Soul Eater in the first few episodes of Not! then you do in pretty much the entirety of Soul Eater.  It's a setting that's a bit more interesting than the previous anime made it seem.

Just like its main character, the anime proceeds at a modest pace, sampling one genre or another as it decides what kind of show it wants to be.  This isn't a bad thing, and whatever Soul Eater Not! tries, it remains entertaining  Most of the time it is relaxed and lighthearted, with some action here and there.  But it also takes dark turns, as friends are hurt and decisions must be made.

The cast is good, perhaps not great (aside from Tsugumi, who I'll get to in a bit).  Early on Tsugumi meets and befriends two potential meister partners, Meme and Anya.  Meme is a big-boobed dope who is so forgetful she couldn't even remember her own name as she attempted to introduce herself to Tsugumi.  Anya is a high-class gal who seems to be at Death Academy largely to "learn about commoners" and thus becomes instantly fascinated by Tsugumi.  Both are interested in becoming Tsugumi's meister partner, and thus occasionally compete for her attention.  But most of the time, the three are happy just being good friends and roommates.

Tsugumi is a fun character to watch.  She is in every way an ordinary girl.  She has crushes, she makes mistakes and she has a little dog named Pochi back at home that she loves dearly.  Before entering Death Academy, Tsugumi was going to a regular middle school, living a life free from the quirks and hazards present in the original series.  When she transfers to Death Academy, you get the feeling that she does so more out of obligation than aspiration, and as a result she has a lot of difficulty adjusting to the sort of stuff we as an audience might already be very familiar with.  Humorously, she nearly fails to even make it through the front door, as her confidence is worn thin by the seemingly endless staircase leading up to the academy's entrance.

An ordinary character learning to live in a world filled with extraordinary things isn't perhaps unique, but Soul Eater Not! executes it very well here.  Tsugumi's an endearing and likable character, with her easygoing attitude and friendly disposition.  She may not know the first thing about witches, souls or demon weapon combat, but whatever she attempts, she gives it her best shot, and I felt like rooting for her every time.

Soul Eater Not! does a lot of good for the Soul Eater universe, despite being largely unrelated to the main story.  Somehow, watching Not! has actually raised my opinion of the original series in retrospect.  Paced well, and featuring a competent cast and a great main character, Not! has continually been one of the most enjoyable shows of the season for me.