Monday, April 25, 2011

Amagami SS

Been a while since I talked about an anime.  Possibly because I don’t watch quite as much as I used to a couple years ago.   Anyway, this time I’m here to talk about Amagami SS.  It’s a romance anime that’s doesn’t stray from the typical in its content, but still manages to feel fresh through its presentation.
Our protagonist is Tachibana Junichi, a high school junior.  After being stood up for a date on Christmas Eve, Junichi’s been hesitant to try again with another girl, for fear of being hurt.  It’s gotten to the point where Christmas time has become a source of depression for him, and he often ducks out of the annual Founder’s Festival, a big event hosted by his school.

Junichi's a pretty ordinary guy.
Two years later, Junichi has finally decided to give the dating game another shot.  With the self-imposed challenge of getting a date for Christmas Eve, Junichi sets out to get with one of six girls.  However, instead of a single overarching story, the anime remarkably takes the visual novel route, dividing the twenty five episodes up into six arcs (plus one bonus arc at the end), one to represent a “route” for each girl.  After Junichi manages to land a date with a girl on the 4th episode of her arc, the story begins anew, and progresses from a different angle, with a different girl.  This brings me to the first reason why I enjoyed this series quite a bit.  It’s very easy to take in.  Even though, in total it’s a mid-range series in terms of length, each arc is self-contained, meaning you can watch four episodes and then stop.  
Though developing a typical high school romance over the course of a mere four episodes is no small task, the show makes a solid effort, and most of the arcs come to a satisfying conclusion.
The series has two openings, and seven endings; one for each girl, sung by the voice actress for the heroine of the current arc.  The six available heroines are as follows (in the order their arcs go)..

Haruka Morishima
 Possibly one of, if not my favorite characters in the series.  Haruka is a senior, probably viewed as the prettiest girl in the school.  She’s won the Miss Santa contest for a couple years in a row now, and is overall a very popular girl.  Stereotypical on paper, right?  But you don’t need to know Haruka for long to know that she’s an oddball.  Her interests, antics, and general behavior can’t be described as anything but random and amusing.
Haruka's no slouch in the pretty department
She lords over dogs with surprising skill, and can often be caught peeking in on the girls swim club, not unlike your typical male pervert.  She also whips out gratuitous English with phrases with “WOW”, and “Okie Dokie” regularly.  Haruka is also extremely aggressive with her screentime, even when it’s not her arc; often randomly popping in to say something incredibly silly, or prey on Junichi’s younger sister for being too cute.  The only one able to keep her actions in check is her friend Hibiki, who is usually the one to foil Haruka’s peeking sessions, being the captain of the swim team.
Do want.
 Junichi actually has to confess to her twice (she rejects him the first time) before she starts to see him as more than an acquaintance to do weird things with.  Haruka’s arc is probably one that suffers the most from being limited to only four episodes.  After all, she goes from being “that unreachable popular girl” to being hopelessly in love with him, in a little less than the span of the average feature film.  Haruka’s ED is my 4th favorite.  It’s kind of all over the place, in more ways than one, but it’s very upbeat.  Overall, however, her arc is my second favorite in the series.

Kaoru Tanimachi
 Next we have Kaoru Tanimachi.  Kaoru, Junichi, and Umehara (Junichi’s friend and “partner in crime”, if you will) have been buds for a few years now.  Their friendship is actually pretty infectious, filled with teasing, headlocks, and, in the case of Junichi and Umehara, porn magazines.  Kaoru herself is an independent, fairly strong young woman.  A lot of her actions would even suggest she might even be a tomboy, but I don’t think I’d go quite that far.  After all, you’re not allowed to be a tomboy with hair as stylish as Kaoru’s.
Kaoru's a big tease.
For the most part, Kaoru’s arc is a “friend turned lover” sort of deal.  Her arc is hurt a little by how typical it is on paper, but I thought it was delivered well enough for this to be overlooked.  And it helps that Kaoru is one foxy lady.  Kaoru’s ED is my 2nd favorite among all the heroines.  Its melancholy tone is instantly touching, and the theme fits in perfectly with her arc’s theme of evaluation; both of herself and her relationship with Junichi.  Her arc ranks as my 4th  favorite overall.

 Sae Nakata

Sae Nakata fills in the role of both the adorable moeblob and the shy underclassman.  She’s a freshman at Junichi’s highschool, and a friend of Miya, his sister.  As Miya puts it, Sae is “big where it counts”.  Despite being a head shorter, she’s got a bust to rival Haruka.  She develops a crush on Junichi when he helps her get lunch.  

I think you can guess what's going on..
Being the shy girl that she is, Sae normally finds it near impossible to navigate the lunch crowds to get decent pickings.  She has a soft spot for childish things like tokusatsu shows (things like Power Rangers and their Japanese equivalent, Kamen Rider), and cute things in general; she takes a liking to Junichi’s squishy pink coin purse, for example. 
The resident cutie
Sae manages to get into Junichi’s life when, mesmerized by the cute uniforms worn by waitresses in Kaoru’s restaurant, she resolves to try and get a job there.  She’s far too scared to attempt on her own though, so Junichi volunteers to “train” her, to help prepare for the nuances of waitressing.  It’s during this time that her simple crush turns into full on love.  Sae’s arc is easily my least favorite.  Her shyness makes for a lot of awkward moments and unnecessary blushing, something that feels out of place in a story of such short length.  Still, she manages to mature past these typical shortcomings eventually, and the arc comes to a truly cute (if a bit random) conclusion.  Her ED is also my least favorite.  It’s okay, I guess...but the other girls’ ones are much better in comparison.

Ai Nanasaki
 Ai is a freshman like Sae (and in fact, the two acquaintances).  Showing some hostility to Junichi initially for his perverse tendencies, she exhibits some characteristics of a Type A tsundere.  Though quick to perceive his less desirable traits, Ai warms up to Junichi soon enough as she learns more about his various nuances and quirks.  
This is mostly what made her arc enjoyable.  Ai doesn’t even particularly like Junichi at first (as a person, and certainly not as a potential romantic option), but she becomes interested him slowly but surely as she gets to know him better.  It’s not like many other fictional romance stories, where the girl is either already in love with the guy whether she knows it or not, or just magically falls in love with him through one or two significant occurrences.
Don't make that face, Ai.
There’s actual, genuine development to the story between Ai and Junichi, from start to finish, with both sides.  I guess what I’m saying is that Ai’s arc feels the most realistic.  It’s a close decision whether I like Kaoru or Ai better, both in terms of their stories and end songs.  But Ai just barely edges out victory in both areas, singing the best ED in the series in my opinion, and having the 3rd best arc.

 Rihoko Sakurai
"Wait!  It's not as bad as it looks."
Rihoko’s character design (and indeed, that of much of the rest of the cast) already gets kudos for not being unbelievably sexy, like how so many female anime characters are displayed.  However, Rihoko is just plain adorable; sometimes more so than Nakata.  Rihoko loves food, and as a result, is a bit on the chubby side (but not fat, mind you).  She’s also a huge ditz, prone to tripping, oversleeping, and forgetfulness.  She’s a sophomore; one year younger than Junichi.  But she’s known him longer than any of the other girls, fulfilling the role of the childhood friend.  The premise of Rihoko’s story is similar to Kaoru’s: the friend who becomes the lover.  But it’s of a distinctly different flavor.  The most concrete reason behind this is kind of a spoiler, but to say that Rihoko and Kaoru are very different people requiring very different romantic routes should suffice.  Also, while Kaoru and Junichi are purely friends initially, Rihoko has a faint but definite crush on Junichi, and has for some time.
[Insert witty caption here]
Rihoko is a part of the Tea Club, which is currently only composed of herself, and two seniors.  She’s not especially good at making tea, so it’s pretty obvious that she likely only joined for the snacks.  But at the same time she does genuinely care about the club, which will be disbanded if she remains as the only member next year, after the seniors graduate.  To this end, much of her arc is spent with her trying to get Junichi to join the club, which will serve the dual purpose of being able to spend more time with him and saving the club.  The ending to Rihoko’s arc is tragically bittersweet when you think about it; in retrospect hers feels almost more like a story of friendship than romance.  Her ending theme is my 3rd favorite of the bunch, being pretty dang catchy.
Tsukasa Ayatsuji
 I’m gonna go ahead and say it:  Tsukasa’s arc is easily my favorite of the entire bunch, and it’s incredibly fitting that they would save it for last.  You see her plenty often throughout the series, as she’s both the Class Rep and the volunteer organizer for the Founder’s Festival (which is a significant element of the plot).  She portrays the stereotype of that uber-smart, really pro-active student that’s the first to raise their hand in class, and stays after school to do all sorts of extracurricular stuff.  Ayatsuji is respected, and is rarely seen without a smile on her face.
It’s important to note, however, that she’s not without issues.  Being essentially in a league of her own, other students seem to distance themselves from her.  She’s also seen as a stick in the mud by some.  Those are all trivial, however, compared to what we see of her doing her arc, which is easily the most plot-heavy in the series.  What you’ll have seen of Ayatsuji up until the end of the first episode of her story is entirely her “nice” side.  But she has another side, too; one that she suppresses with the utmost care.  And one that completely blindsided me.  
I admit that I wasn’t actually expecting much from her arc, because I couldn’t help but wonder how it could possibly be interesting to watch Junichi somehow wrangle a do-gooder like her.  Well apparently the writers agreed, so in went this curveball.  I probably shouldn’t have even said this much, but then I wouldn’t have much to talk about.  Tsukasa’s is one of three arcs that gets a “true” epilogue, the other two being Haruka and Sae (though the latter’s is questionable).  Really, hers has the most fleshed out story and ending of them all, quite a feat once again considering the four episode limit.
Merry Christmas!
Tsukusa’s arc is followed by one final single episode arc, labeled the “truth” arc.  This will feel familiar to anyone who’s played their share of VNs, or just stories with multiple endings.  Often, the creators put in one ending among them all that is actually the canon one; what really happened.  Same deal here.  Until the final episode, I was content to treat each route as an individual plot taking place in a parallel universe.  The Truth arc, however, strings all the previous arcs together as mere “what-if” scenarios.  I’m not sure how I felt about this, but the nice thing about Amagami SS is that I can simply pretend the Truth arc does not exist. 
Though the content kept me watching, what actually drew me to Amagami SS was the visual style.  Presented in HD, the show looks absolutely terrific.  Through countless battles with my internet connection, I was able to procure both a few episodes in 720p, and one in 1080p.  It was a feast for the eyes.  More eye-catching, however, is the character design.  All of the characters in Amagami SS manage to look very unique from each other, without straying from the realistic.  Bodies are drawn proportionally, and the wide variety of hair styles is actually a little inspiring.  Nothing about the visual design in Amagami SS says “colorful” or “extravagant”, something that can’t be said of so many other anime series.  In short, the show strikes a perfect balance between the reserved and the flashy, resulting in a subtle yet tasteful art style that is nothing short of refreshing. 
It's ticklin' time.

Once more, the reason why I truly enjoyed Amagami SS lied in its presentation.  The unique plot format and polished visuals both helped a lot to boost the overall quality of an otherwise conventional romance title.  Amagami SS is a Grade A example of an ordinary design made extraordinary through the sheer power of good execution.

PS:  Now I remember why I don't do as many anime posts!  Because Blogger's image formatting options are broken at worst, and restrictive at best.  Really, the formatting in general is busted, but it's a lot easier to deal with when the article is just text.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

LittleBigPlanet 2

Though it wasn’t an immediate commercial success like some other blockbuster titles have been, LittleBigPlanet remains one of the most important games this generation, at least to the Playstation community. Why? Because for one thing, it was one of the games that served to truly round out Sony’s 1st party title lineup, giving them a positive image of variety. It also served as the spearhead for their “Play.Create.Share” movement, that encouraged the development of games where players could create much of the content for themselves, and share it with others across a broad, self-sustained community.

Now Media Molecule is back with LittleBigPlanet 2. This game is kind of interesting because it doesn’t initially come off as being justifiable as a full-on sequel. The graphics have been slightly but noticeably tweaked, but I don’t think the game really looks or runs significantly better. Which isn’t a bad thing, because the first game looked and ran perfectly fine, and even two years later, LittleBigPlanet 2 actually looks pretty good. When you first jump into the game, everything is very familiar. The controls haven’t changed, and Sackboy still handles virtually identical to how he did in his first outing. Upon first starting the game, you’ll run through an introductory level that serves as the opening credits, narrated once more by that charming Stephen Fry. You drop into your pod, and the replica PS3 controller is sitting there awaiting your input.

Even your good ol’ Popit is back, which gives you access to a multitude of things (more so in Create Mode) with the press of the button, including stickers, costumes, and the “reset” button, all returning from the first game, and all working in precisely the same way as before. Stickers can be used pretty much anytime and anywhere to decorate areas, but can also be used to activate switches. The reset button allows you to self-destruct, respawning at the last activated checkpoint. Costumes let you dress your Sackboy up however you please. Any costume pieces you unlocked in LittleBigPlanet will carry over to this sequel, and you’ll be able to collect even more pieces throughout LBP2’s campaign. Costumes still don’t affect gameplay in the slightest; as much as I sometimes wish they did.

In short, you will have no trouble picking up the controller again. Everything works pretty much exactly the same as it did previously, in terms of core gameplay mechanics. I really can’t stress this enough. What has changed, instead, is the sheer scope of the game. No longer are levels limited to run and jump platforming. The new tools and gadgets introduced allow for an infinitely wider range of gameplay. The Grappling Hook, for example, does exactly what you’d think it does, allowing Sackboy to grab materials from afar and swing from them. The Grabinator gives Sackboy the Herculean strength necessary to lift the various objects you might encounter in a level, and throw them. Bounce Pads are like futuristic trampolines, shooting you upward when you step on them. Four player multiplayer is back, as is the ability to play with any combination of local and online players. Add to this the fact that all of the gadgets have “friendly fire” enabled (i.e. being able to grab and toss each other with the Grabinator), and you have a recipe for mayhem. Before, I thought it was great fun to slap a fellow comrade off a cliff (which you can still do, mind you). Now we’re tossing each other into death traps with the Grabinator, forming multi-person trapezes with the Grappling Hook, and shooting giant cupcakes at each other with the Creatinator, among so many other things. In short, LBP2’s multiplayer is still composed of the same absolute hilarity that made its predecessor so much fun to play with others. In many ways, the addition of these new gimmicks have made the game even funner, whether you’re playing by yourself or with others.

What really earns LittleBigPlanet 2’s sequel certificate however, is the vastly expanded Create mode. You’ll get a taste of its potential as you play through the story. A bunch of new tools have been introduced, both major and minor. Some of biggest additions include the Controlinator, Sackbots, and the Creatinator. The Controlinator is essentially a cockpit for Sackboy. It can be used to map various functions to buttons on the PS3 controller. Before, when you got into a car, for example you might have to put in a grabbable material like a sponge, with a grab sensor plugged into the wheels. You would make the car move by grabbing the sponge. Now, you can assign those functions to buttons the controller, with (for example) the left stick accelerating the car in either direction, and the X button activating the nitro boost you almost certainly installed in the back. Basically, the Controlinator completely streamlines the use of vehicles, and allows the creation of more complex ones. For those of you who know a bit about Create mode, the Creatinator is basically an Emitter strapped to a player’s head; think about that for a moment. It’s acquired in the same way other powerups are, such as the Jetpack and Grappling Hook, and can function similarly to the Paintinator. Except instead of shooting paint, it can shoot anything. Fire, plasma, velociraptors, kitchen sinks, you name it.

Now, Sackbots are a whole different ballgame. They’re NPCs that can be programmed and customized to a pretty impressive extent. You can give them skins to make them look just like Sackboy, for example, and then proceed to dress them up in costumes just like you would for yourself. This means you can essentially have a variety of actual organic characters in levels, not just material creations with patched on eyeballs and mouths, and swiveling limbs. Sackbots can be programmed to do a number of things, including follow players and/or preset tags, use Controlinators and other powerups, and activate switches. If the basic options aren’t enough, you can also take control yourself to record an action. This can be done as many times as you please, with each action being recorded as a “Behavior” on the Sackbot’s logic board.

I could go on and on and on about the Create mode. I could excitedly explain the significance of Logic Boards and Microchips. I could mention the added ability to create cutscenes (complete with new cameras and effects), and link levels together to essentially create games. I could talk about the new music sequencer which lets you create songs from scratch, or the multitude of new world tweakers, like water and the anti-gravity tool. I could list the various other new tools added, like the various mover and rotator badges, or the destroyer tool. I could even touch on some new Share features, most notably, which is a website devoted entirely to discovering new community levels. But then this review would never end.

So, instead I’m going to close off this review by highly recommending that you buy LittleBigPlanet 2, and tinker with this veritable horde of new toys for yourself. Or with some friends. Because I can confidently say that this game is meant to be experienced, not read about. On the back of LittleBigPlanet’s box there’s a motto: “Fun Shall Overcome”. LittleBigPlanet 2 lives up to that motto so well it’s a little ridiculous. Because that’s what the game offers in spades. Pure, unadulterated fun. And for that, a 10/10.