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.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Spring 2014 Anime: Akuma no Riddle

So, Akuma no Riddle.  Where to begin?  To be honest, this is probably the weakest show of the lot for me.  And yet I keep watching it.  

At its core, Akuma no Riddle is a somewhat derivative mixup of stories like Battle Royale and Hitman: Absolution.  It revolves around the "Black Class," a special class at a special school consisting entirely of girls.  One of these girls is Haru Ichinose, a cutie who's optimistic to a fault and determined to graduate.  Unfortunately, what Haru doesn't realize is that every other girl in her class has enrolled for the express purpose of murdering her.  They're all assassins you see, all contracted to kill Haru.  But this contract is special; almost like a game.  There are three rules: 

1) Do not involve anyone outside the Black Class (including their homeroom teacher, who at least appears to be a dope)
2) Give Haru written notice of your intent to kill her before attempting to do so
3) Kill her within 48 hours of her receiving your notice, or you must immediately drop out and leave.

The prize awaiting the girl who manages to kill Haru is--as you might expect with tournament-style shows like these--anything you can imagine.  However, one girl has for whatever reason decided to go against the flow, and protect Haru instead of kill her.  The show follows Haru and her newfound protector Tokaku Azuma as they fend off the other assassins and somehow manage to have a somewhat normal high school life.

Akuma no Riddle is a strange show, to be honest.  It makes no real effort to expand on its setting or overarching plot, which leaves you with just the moment to moment action to go by.  The cast is also largely nothing special, with most of the characters fulfilling basic conventional character archetypes (and some not fulfilling these archetypes particularly well) and barely functioning beyond their tendency to attack Haru one at a time, once per week in a typical 'monster of the week' format.  Haru herself is strangely endearing with her tireless optimism and friendly disposition, even towards her classmates who she is very aware are all going to try to kill her in cold blood at some point or another.  But the only mildly interesting character in the show other than Haru so far is Nio, a mysterious and somewhat amusing girl who watches over the proceedings as a sort of referee rather than actively participating herself.

But what's most strange is the tone of the show.  I can put aside the fact that it has basically organized a contract assassination into a cruel game, but the show's overall tone is inexplicable.  Before long everyone except the teacher is aware of what's going on, and they're all generally amicable to each other and act like they don't all have a lot to lose by failing.  Haru obviously has her life on the line, but every girl is fighting for a chance at something better, whether it's just basic survival or ultimate happiness.  Though most of the characters try to seclude Haru before attempting to slay her, some don't mind going for the kill right in front of the other classmates.  Even stranger is that the classmates generally just watch in mild amusement as this occurs.

Even more strange is Haru herself, who seems to be totally at peace with the fact that she is very clearly on the chopping block.  Perhaps in spite of this, she continually places more trust in her classmates than any sane person in her situation ought to.  When invited to meet one of the girls in a secluded location late at night, she happily agrees.  Despite how foolish she acts and how sunny her disposition generally is, Haru doesn't give the impression of being a total dope.  This isn't her first rodeo, and underneath that bubbly personality we see a girl who's fought all her life just to stay alive, and is at this point inexplicably confident in her ability to get through this ordeal just as she has before.

If not for Haru, I likely would have dropped Akuma no Riddle.  But as cliched as this may sound, I want to see how her struggle plays out.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Spring 2014 Anime: Black Bullet

Black Bullet is a strangely inconsistent show.  Sometimes it feels surprisingly competent and heartfelt, but most of the time it suffers from technical issues and a reliance on cliches.  In the world of Black Bullet, humanity has been ravaged by a race of monsters spawned from the disease known as Gastrea.  The Gastrea disease is extremely contagious; monsters can easily infect humans with it, and any human infected soon turns into a monster.  Humanity only has two real defenses against the Gastrea: a mysterious black metal known as Varanium, and little girls known as Cursed Children.

Varanium has the effect of repelling monsters (they seem disgusted by it), so humans have taken refuge in large cities protected by a ring of gigantic varanium monoliths.  Weapons and ammo made out of varanium are also the only things capable of reliably killing Gastrea monsters; they quickly regenerate from wounds sustained from conventional weaponry.

Meanwhile, to combat the Gastrea more directly, humanity has reverse-engineered the virus, allowing them to administer it in small doses to infant girls.  This has the effect of granting these 'Cursed Children' many of the same abilities as Gastrea; namely, extremely potent regenerative abilities, and superhuman strength and agility, along with a special ability unique to them.  Both to provide guardianship for these children and to keep them under control, each Cursed Child is paired up with a Civil Officer--a trained police officer of sorts who specializes in Anti-Gastrea combat.  Black Bullet primarily follows Civil Officer Rentarou Satomi and his Cursed Child partner Enju as they do their part to end the Gastrea threat.

Black Bullet's premise isn't particularly unique or compelling; this certainly isn't the first show where adorable little girls are arbitrarily forced to fight evil, nor is it the first featuring humanity under siege by horrific monsters.  And so far Black Bullet has never really managed to rise above the cliches and typical anime tropes that it surrounds itself with.  Seemingly every female character--Cursed Child or not--in the show seems to have a thing for Rentarou, and two of them in particular are of course direct rivals for his affection.  Most notably, Black Bullet suffers from strange pacing issues.  Just a couple of episodes in, we get a high-stakes, large scale battle that most shows would save for the finale.  You would think that simply means that this show is willing to ramp things up at a faster pace than others (a la Kill la Kill), but then the next episode it's business as usual; barely anything has changed.  Even shounen shows don't have this kind of fluctuation.

However, little moments and aspects here and there save the show from total mediocrity.  Though perhaps not the most experienced at his job, Rentarou's not a dope; if there's something that he thinks needs to be done, he'll rise to the task.  All of the Cursed Children are as adorable as you'd think, even with glowing red eyes and their propensity for killing.There's a certain charm to watching Rentarou hand-feed one of them midway through the show while classy jazz music plays in the background, especially when you consider how generally bleak the world of Black Bullet is supposed to be.

And bleak it can certainly be.  More than once now, Rentarou's had to personally execute Cursed Children who did nothing wrong; the circumstances simply didn't favor them.  Buried under the show's lighthearted moments and conventional premise we see a protagonist who's life is actually kind of shitty, and a story that has a lot of heart at times.  Rentarou's relationship with Enju is sincere, and the threat of them being torn apart actually got to me.
Further, there's an something interesting to be said about the discriminatory undercurrent present in Black Bullet.  Despite being the first and only active line of defense against the Gastrea, Cursed Children are ostracized by society because of their connection to the virus (think Claymore, but with little girls instead of grown women).  This sounds nonsensical, but it's not an unreasonable stance to have when you consider that many of these people have lost everything to the virus and the monsters that have originated from it.  Now there are little girls walking around on the street that are technically infected with it; if a Cursed Child is unable to suppress the virus, they turn into a monster (just like any other infected human), which can quickly cause an epidemic if it isn't contained.  Not to mention that until they receive training and are paired with an officer, most Cursed Children tend to be emotionless and lacking in any real personality.  Black Bullet presents a society that hates Cursed Children for reasons that are not their fault, but is forced to rely on them anyway.

Ultimately, I think a solid recommendation for Black Bullet is a hard sell.  It's not a particularly remarkable show on its own unless you're looking for a decent loli showcase, and based on its pacing it doesn't seem to be a great adaptation either.  But little things here and there keep it enjoyable for me, and I look forward to watching it each week.