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.

Spring 2014 Anime: Nanana's Buried Treasure

Nanana's Buried Treasure follows a young man named Yama Juugo.  Having decided to leave home and be independent, Juugo enrolls in a school located on an island.  He's pleasantly surprised to find an apartment on-campus that's fairly comfortable and charging a rent that's within his means, until he discovers too late that there's already someone living in it: Nanana, a ghost bound to that apartment.  Unable to pass on, she spends her time playing videogames and feasting on pudding.  Her presence is--to say the least--perplexing at best and quite an inconvenience at worst for Juugo, but as the two get to know each other, Nanana talks to Juugo about her past life.  Before she was murdered, Nanana was an adventurer; over the course of her life she raided tombs, explored ruins, and built up quite a hoard of treasure.  This collection, known as the "Nanana Collection", is now hidden and scattered all over the island, protected by traps and puzzles of Nanana's own design.

Now at this point, you'd assume that Nanana's Buried Treasure is basically Indiana Jones: The Anime, following Juugo and a motley crew of fellow adventurers as they hunt down Nanana's Collection.  Well, it is.  But only sometimes.  Let me get this out of the way: Nanana's Buried Treasure is a great show.  It has a very strong cast; Juugo, though inconsistently characterized at times, is a solid and capable MC.  Nanana's a fun and quirky character who always turns around before consuming an entire cup of pudding in a single gulp, with a sound effect that could have been ripped right out of an early 90s videogame.  Daruku is completely useless but might be the most flawless trap I've ever seen.  The best of the bunch however, is self-proclaimed Master Detective Ikkyu Tensai, who usually steals every scene with a wild combination of character traits, from brilliant intellect to her penchant for roleplaying.  Putting aside everything else good or bad, this show is worth watching just for Tensai.

The show also has an interesting backdrop and plenty of compelling plot hooks going for it.  In fact, I would say that it has too many plot hooks going on.  If there's one problem I have with Nanana's Buried Treasure, it's that it bites off far more than it can chew.  What could have easily been an enjoyable, well-paced and fleshed out story about a group of fun characters hunting down the Nanana Collection has inflated into a show with more going on than it has time to address in the 11 episodes ostensibly allotted to it.  We don't know who murdered Nanana.  Juugo has a past he's running from.  There are characters who are connected to him in ways the show has yet to properly explain.  And in the shadows of the plot sits a possible antagonist who has yet to show himself.  And that's putting aside any character development that has yet to be carried out.  We're more than halfway through the season and this show is still introducing new plot strings.

To reiterate, Nanana's Buried Treasure is a great show so far.  It's paced well, it has a great cast and truth be told, it's not like all these plot strings aren't interesting.  It's just that without a continuation, we're headed towards a non-ending filled with loose ends and undeveloped characters.  I'm not criticizing the show; I'm worried about it.

Spring 2014 Anime: Captain Earth

I don't usually watch ongoings.  In fact, before this year the last time I kept up with an ongoing anime was probably Gundam 00 back in 2007.  A few months ago however, a series of events led me to end up giving Buddy Complex a shot.  I was glad I did, so starting with Spring 2014 I decided to look into some other weekly anime.  Most are now about 6-7 episodes in, which is the halfway mark for a single-season show.  Here's what I checked out.

Captain Earth
Earth is being threatened by a race of aliens who are stranded near Saturn and want to drain humanity of all its libido so they can fuel their spaceship.  Standing in their way is main character Daichi, who unwittingly finds himself in the pilot seat of the Earth Engine Impactor, a humongous space robot built to fend off alien attackers.  He's joined by his longtime friend Teppei, a cute girl named Hana with a mysterious past, and the Logical Magical Girl Akari.

Captain Earth comes from the same dudes that made Star Driver, and it shows. The above description may have sounded like some kind of silly mecha comedy in the vein of Nadeisco or Vandread, but the writers play it completely straight.  Just like Star Driver--which you'll recall was a show that managed to have its MC go by the title "Galactic Pretty Boy" and avoid ever acknowledging how absurd that is--Captain Earth is actually fairly grounded despite how frivolous it seems on the surface.  Even though they have their fun times, these kids realize the gravity of the situation, and as of this writing Daichi has come quite close to being killed every time he's deployed in the Earth Engine.

Again, just like Star Driver, Captain Earth is in a strange juxtapositon where on a moment to moment basis it's enjoyable and easy to follow, but on the whole it uses such an incredible amount of jargon (even for a mecha show) that its overall plot can feel impenetrable at times.  Get this: the aliens are known as Planetary Gears, and infiltrate Earth using genetically engineered bodies called Designer Children.  As Designer Children, the Planetary Gears take on their true form (known as Kiltgangs) using a cockpit machine called a Machine Goodfellows.  Both the Earth Engine Impactor (which Daichi commands using his Livlaster) and these Kiltgang are powered by Orgone Energy, which is connected to libido.  As long as the Planetary Gear's Ego Blocks aren't destroyed, they can essentially live forever.

Did you get all that?

Technically, this is a problem; Captain Earth is stuck way too far up its own butt.  But to be honest, I don't really mind.  Because at the end of the day, Captain Earth is still an enjoyable and entertaining show if you just roll with it.  The cast shows a lot of potential; Hana is one of the more endearing characters of the season, Akari's constant attempts to steal the show are fun to watch, and Daichi can be surprisingly unpredictable at times, in a good way.  The assembly sequence for the Earth Engine is super exciting, and the animators seem to know it, as it is present in in the opening and is always shown without fail when Daichi deploys.  If you've seen Star Driver, this is nothing new; Tauburn's dazzling entrance should be etched into your mind.

Overall, this is a recommendable show.  Its pacing is a bit slow at times--which hurts this series in particular because there are so many unknown terms and concepts thrown at you from the outset--but that allows for strong character moments.  And with 26 episodes planned, they've got time to spare.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Spring 2014 Anime: One Week Friends

When I read the premise for One Week Friends, I was kind of excited.  I anticipated a dramatic story about tragedy.  So far however, One Week Friends has generally been neither dramatic nor tragic, which was disappointing at first but also pleasantly surprising.

One Week Friends largely revolves around two main characters; Yuuki Hase and Kaori Fujimiya, both high school students.  Hase is a somewhat socially inept (but not any more than you'd expect anyone his age to be) but kind young man who notices that one of his classmates, Fujimiya, is always alone and seems to have no friends whatsoever.  Steeling himself, he confronts her and asks her if they can be friends (in a manner normally reserved for romantic confessions, I might add).  She refuses.

Hase isn't so easily dissuaded however, and after some persistence he manages to convince Fujimiya to stop distancing herself from him.  After further interaction, she slowly reveals that the reason she avoids relationships with others is to prevent hurting their feelings.  You see, Fujimiya has a mental condition that limits her ability to remember her friends to a single week.  Each Monday she wakes up with no recollection whatsoever of anyone that she has befriended in the past week.  Naturally, this has made it quite difficult for her to maintain friendships, and so she has long since stopped trying, and for the benefit of others tries to avoid getting too close to anyone.

However, Hase isn't ready to give up.  He wants to help Fujimiya and prevent her from feeling lonely, even if that means suffering the pain of being forgotten by her every week.  One Week Friends follows his efforts to cure Fujimiya's condition while also gradually reintroducing her to the concepts and activities that come with friendship and social interaction.

Truly, this is the setup for a gutwrenchingly sad and depressing show (a la Ef), but One Week Friends is neither.  Instead, it takes a refreshingly optimistic approach that is both lighthearted and realistic.  It can be serious, but is never depressing and rarely sad.  Further, the cast--though small--is quite strong.  Hase can be infuriatingly clingy and foolish at times, but his heart is generally in the right place.  And he has his friend Shougo to keep him in line.  The straight man to Hase's idealistic tendencies, Shougo is a straight shooter who will never bullshit you, even if that means telling you something you don't want to hear.

So far, my only problem with One Week Friends has been the nature of Fujimiya's illness.  It's an oddly specific condition that only targets friends; acquaintances, family members and anyone else she knows are unaffected.  The problem here is that friendship is an inherently nebulous concept.  At what point are you close enough to Fujimiya to be a candidate for her to forget you?  How do romantic relationships factor in?  Questions like these plagued me throughout the show, and though it has begun to expand on the origin of this condition, it's hard for me to shake the feeling the writers are exploiting its vagueness.

One Week Friends is an uncomplicated show with a lot of heart and boundless optimism that even extends to its colorful visuals and simple art style.  I'm still disappointed that someone isn't crying their heart out every other episode, but I'm also very interested to see where it goes instead.

Friday, April 25, 2014

FTL's amazing difficulty spike

FTL’s not shy about throwing curveballs at you. I’ve jumped into a sector only to immediately have my sensors disabled and a warning that intruders have boarded the ship. I’ve had my weapons arbitrarily disabled. I’ve succumbed to unstoppable internal fires. But usually, the challenge is surmountable. The Rebel Flagship is another story, however.

The Flagship represents what is perhaps inarguably the sharpest, most dramatic difficulty spike in the game. And depending largely on how fortunate or unfortunate you are throughout the game, it’s a final obstacle that you may find simply insurmountable that round. No other ship that you’ll have fought previously even comes close to the Rebel Flagship in deadliness. You might have fought ships with hacking systems; you might fought ships with triple or even quadruple shields; you might have even fought a ship packing a powerful Glaive Beam and/or cloaking systems. But you haven’t fought a ship that has all of these things and then just about everything else.

The Flagship is a monster. It has quadruple shields. It has a triple missile launcher. It has cloaking, and hacking, and a crew teleporter. It might have mind control. It has a Glaive Beam. And that’s just its first stage. Did I mention you have to beat it three times in a row? And on the second and third rounds it has new tricks up its sleeve, like a Zoltan super shield.

Many ship configurations that might have worked quite well for you throughout the game are stopped dead by the Flagship. Going in without a defense drone or two? Have fun with those rockets! Big on the laser and beam one-two punch? Good luck dealing with shields and cloaking! Gonna roll in with a boarding party? The ship has an AI that takes over once the crew is all dead; oh, and it just hacked your Crew Teleporter.

Now, I’m not trying to sit here and write a complaint post. Just as there are builds that hopeless against the Flagship, there are others that will get you through without it even managing to scratch the paint on your ship. A Flak Cannon will rip through its shields, leaving it vulnerable to anything you want to dish out. The Osprey’s Artillery Beam will, just like in any other situation, create a losing battle for the Flagship, as long as you can hold out and keep it online.

I just find it remarkable just how vast the gap between the Flagship and just about any other challenge or enemy you’ll face in the game is. Flagship is such a significant looming threat that once you become familiar with its typical weaponry and dangers, the entirety of FTL becomes a race to properly equip yourself for this final encounter. You find yourself tossing away weapons or systems that would be great under most circumstances purely because they’re not ideal for fighting the flagship. Suddenly that 4th shield upgrade doesn’t seem like a sound investment compared to the protection that a basic defense drone or a better engine might add.

I don’t play a bunch of MMOS or RTSs where this sort of thing is probably more common, but I can’t remember the last time a game forced me to build so specifically around the endgame. Enemies aren’t challenges or obstacles anymore; they’re opportunities.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Another anime post

I have been playing some stuff, but nothing that I feel needs a writeup.  Except maybe Muramasa.

Hawken; Got back into this recently, perhaps as a result of playing Titanfall.  I’m pretty bad at it, but I think part of the reason why is because I’m still not sure which mech is right for me.  I’ve been using the Brawler a lot, which has a comparatively high amount of armor, but is also pretty slow.  I get out-maneuvered a lot in it.  They’ve added a co-op horde mode sine I last played, which is kind of fun but also kind of boring.  It’s not the sort of game I would write a review for.

Final Fantasy IV; I enjoyed FF4 when I first played it on DS many years ago, and always wanted to get back to it.  With a Vita in hand, I was finally able to with FF4 Complete.  I’m enjoying my time with it, but I’m not far enough in to write anything meaningful about it.  The random encounters can be a bit much, though.

Guild Wars 2; I really anticipated Guild Wars 2 when it first came out, but soon dropped out of it like I do with most MMOs.  Realistically speaking, I will probably drop out of GW2 again at some point or another, but I do feel like I’m finally starting to get some footing in the world.  I did learn firsthand that World vs World can be a real downer if you don’t have buddies to play it with.  I also have a small inkling that as far as MMOs go GW2’s endgame is lacking.  But considering I don’t have a single character at level 80 yet that’s not something that need concern me.

Muramasa; I’m surprised by how much I’ve been enjoying this game.  I didn’t really know what to expect going in, except it would maybe play like Dragon’s Crown or Odin Sphere.  It kinda does, but I actually think Muramasa plays better than both of those games.  It’s faster and more responsive, and every battle feels like a dance with death on Chaos.  My only issue is that I think it can be kind of…repetitive?  It’s structured like a Metroid game, but doesn’t really have the same robustness.  Woah, maybe I’m onto something for a review.

Super Metroid; I’ve been really curious about Super Metroid after playing the Prime games.  I had never played it before, but people speak of it like Kirby Super Star and A Link to the Past in the sense that it came from a time when Nintendo was at the top of their game.  It’s a really cool game, and especially for the era it was made in it’s surprisingly robust.  The amount of upgrades and stuff you can do and get in Super Metroid makes all of the Prime games combined seem trite in comparison.  My only problem is that the game is absurdly obtuse at times.  You often run into instances where there are blocks in the environment that can be destroyed (revealing the path forward or a powerup), but there’s no discernible way to know that because the textures on a destructible block are no different from the textures on a regular block, and even more than in the Prime games, what weapons can destroy what things is completely arbitrary and can only be discovered through experimentation.  I can’t imagine what it would be like to play this game as a kid with no guide.  Also the grapple beam is kinda not done well, but that’s a nitpick.

Ace Combat: Assault Horizon Legacy; This is fun and mostly feels like a straight up classic Ace Combat game in the vein of the PS2 trilogy.  Probably because it IS a classic AC game, being a loose remake of AC2.  It’s even better in some ways; you can choose whether or not to have a wingman, and you can upgrade and customize your planes’ performance.  There are some design quirks that did rub off on it from Assault Horizon, though.  Maybe I’ll leave that for a full post.

Titanfall; What can I say?  It’s the first FPS I’ve really been able to get into since Unreal Tournament 3.  I’m having a great time with it.  It also hosts some of the most fun I’ve had playing CTF in a good while.

These days I spend about as much time playing anime as I do playing videogames.  But while I’m okay writing and scoring games, I don't generally feel up to the task of reviewing anime.  So I just chat about it instead.

Recently, I finally put a cap on Minami-ke.  With four seasons totaling around 50 cumulative episodes, it’s been a pretty long road, especially for what is essentially a simple slice of life show.  It’s a good show that’s clearly had its ups and downs over the years.  Tadaima, the show’s fourth season, managed to put all that to rest and come out as the best the show has to offer.  Minami-ke doesn’t have enough of a plot thread for me to recommend starting all the way from the beginning and working your way up to Tadaima like I did, but having done so I felt like I had come a long way with these characters.  Though each episode is mostly self-contained, characters’ relationships and interactions slowly develop and morph over time, and by the end the cast felt like some kind of huge family (except for Housaka, who manages to miss the beat every single time).

I also watched A Certain Scientific Railgun S, which kind of dampened my interest in the franchise.  I’ve never really had much patience for the world of Index.  I think it’s a huge mess that’s not really worth my time.  I enjoyed the first season of Railgun not only because it did an excellent job separating itself from Index and its trifles, but because it featured a better and more entertaining cast of protagonists.  Uiharu and Saten are neither here nor there, but Kuroko is worth several Indexes and I would take Mikoto over Touma any day of the week.  Railgun S messed with the previous season’s winning formula by doing away with a lot of the central character interaction in favor of a long and drawn out arc that intersects directly with Index.  This hurt the show in a number of ways.  Most importantly it brought it closer to Index, which damaged Railgun’s own sense of identity, but it also revealed to me that Mikoto’s simply not a good enough character to carry the show on her own.  It makes a decent comeback toward the end once the Sisters arc concludes, but by then it felt like the damage had already been done.

On a whim, I decided to give Buddy Complex a shot.  I don’t generally watch ongoings, because I prefer to watch shows at my own pace, but I burned through Majestic Prince (which by the way is perhaps the most fun I’ve had watching anime in a long time) so quickly that needed a quick alternative.  Buddy Complex starts a bit slow, but I’m surprised by how engaging I find it.  It doesn’t feel like anything particularly fresh, but it’s fun to watch and the cast is generally good.  The only issue is that I feel like the show is paced like they have 20+ episodes to burn, when I was under the impression it was only going to be 12-13.  However, this being a mecha show from Sunrise it’s not only possible but perhaps likely that it will get a second season, and in truth at this point the show’s ultimate length seems to be up in the air.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Tales of Xillia

Tales of Xillia takes place in a world where humans are able to perform magic by subconsciously interacting with, or channeling spirits.   Some are better suited to it than others, however, which leads to the development of technology known as ‘spyrix’ that allows even people without channeling talent to perform magic.  The difference here however is that this technology kills spirits instead of simply channeling them.  Enter Milla Maxwell; otherwise known as Maxwell, the Lord of Spirits (series veterans might recognize that name).  Investigating spyrix, Milla takes on a human form and travels to the city of Fennmont, where humans are said to be developing a massive magic weapon that uses spyrix on a large scale.  It’s here that she encounters Jude Mathis, a young medical student.  Milla fails to destroy the weapon however, and both her and Jude are ousted from Fennmont.  Her resolve is unshaken however, and with Jude accompanying her, the two begin their quest to stop the spread of spyrix technology, encountering a host of companions along the way.

Xillia is interesting in that it features two different characters sharing the protagonist role: Jude and Milla.  When you first start the game, you’re asked to choose between the two.  This might give you the impression that you’re in for two entirely different stories depending on who you choose, but don’t be misled; for the most part, Xillia only has one story to tell.   The choice is less about picking a story and more about picking a perspective. Because Jude and Milla begin their stories at different points, it does dictate how you’ll spend the first couple of hours, but throughout most of the game Jude and Milla are in the party together, and thus their ‘stories’ progress in parallel.  In a way this makes the choice of who to choose feel superficial, but there are points when the two are separated, and there’s just enough content such as this exclusive to each character to make it worth playing through the game a second time if you’re invested in the world of Xillia. And if nothing else, it’s an interesting design choice.

I usually look forward to meeting party members when I play a Tales game, but for the most part the core cast of Xillia didn’t stick out for me.  Jude is, for the most part your average Tales protagonist, though I’ll give him credit for being just a bit more intelligent and levelheaded than many of his predecessors.  Jude’s biggest problem however is one you might have guessed at while reading the premise of the game; he doesn’t have a good reason to be on this journey.  He latches onto Milla initially out of some naïve crush, but for the first two thirds of the game if you were to ask him why he was there, he wouldn’t be able to give you a good answer.

Most of the others fill general character archetypes for me.   Leia is Jude’s energetic and upbeat childhood friend.   Rowen is an old, retired war strategist who is wise but can also be a bit perverted at times.  Milla is a woman on a mission, and thus tends to come off as all business, but she has a playful side and can be surprisingly narcissistic, particularly about her hair.  Alvin is just a bad character, for reasons I shouldn’t spoil.

On the plus side, I did grow to like Elize quite a bit.  A young girl with a tragic past, Elize is shy and well mannered, but that’s in sharp contrast to Teepo, her talking, floating doll.  Whereas Elize is polite and even withdrawn at times, Teepo is brash, talkative, and completely tactless.  The two are an inseparable pair, which makes for a fun and often-hilarious dynamic.

Though I wasn’t impressed by Xillia’s party members for the most part, the supporting cast is surprisingly strong.  Eventually Jude and Milla find themselves clashing with a man known as Gaius.  Though he is essentially the antagonist of the game, Gaius is not a bad person, much less evil.  A king trying to unite a world threatening to destroy itself, his goals are noble, and at times you might even find yourself wondering why you’re fighting him when you could be working alongside him.  Jude certainly does.  Gaius’s chief underlings, known as the Chimeriad, are also an interesting bunch. From Jiao--a big man with a good heart--to Agria—a young girl who’s seen more of the world’s terrors than anyone her age ought to have—they’re even more diverse and generally better written characters than the core cast is.  You’ll meet others as well, such as Driselle and Gilland, who the writers seem to have given almost as much devotion as the protagonists.

Progression in Xillia is handled by a large web called the lilium orb.  Akin to Final Fantasy X’s Sphere Grid or even Final Fantasy XIII’s Crystarium, you unlock stat gains, perks and new artes on the lilium orb using points gained by leveling up.  The open-ended nature of the lilium orb does give you a good sense of freedom, but each character’s lilium orb is tailored in such a way as to encourage the prioritization of certain stats over others.  For those that don’t want to be bothered at all, you can set the lilium orb to automatically develop itself as you level up.

Xillia’s themes of duality extend to its combat.  The game’s battle system--known as the “Dual Raid Liner Motion Battle System”—integrates the CC system used in Tales of Graces (and Eternia) into the more traditional TP system that the series typically uses.  What this means is that each character has a certain number of ‘AC’ (Assault Counter for those that care) to spend on attacks.  This is in addition to TP, or mana that fuels their special attacks, known as artes. Every attack, whether it’s a simple physical attack or an end-game arte, costs one AC to use.  Once you’re out of AC, you have to wait a second or two for the counter to reset before you can start another combo.  What’s interesting however is that for the first time to my knowledge, physical attacks are now completely interchangeable within a combo with artes.

In previous Tales games that used TP systems, the basic idea when attacking was to soften up foes with basic physical attacks, before finishing with an arte that consumed TP.  Fighting efficiently, the sequence was always physical attacks followed by artes.  That doesn’t have to be the case with Xillia. Here you can use physical attacks and artes in whatever order you please.  Artes are still limited by TP, but now you can start a combo with them, or pepper them throughout your combo, rather than simply waiting until the end.  And because AC fully recharges instantly after a moment of inactivity, you never have to stay out of the action for long.  Xillia adopts specific mechanics of both the CC system and TP system.   Physical attacks restore TP, allowing you to do more artes.  Hitting weaknesses and playing well nets you a temporary boost to AC, allowing you to carry out longer combos.  It’s a beautiful fusion, where the two systems meet and feed into each other in a smart and natural manner.   And the result is you have a combat system that is, in at least some ways, more flexible than ever before.

Xillia also introduces the Link System, which allows two characters to link up and fight as partners in the heat of battle.  Linking with characters has a variety of benefits.  Characters linked with you will generally stay close to you, and will either cover your back (especially useful for casters) or join you in combos.  They’ll also give you a friendly wake up slap if you find yourself stunned.  In addition to the general benefits, each character has a unique link perk. Rowen, for example will automatically guard you against magic.   Leia will steal items from enemies that you knock down.

Most importantly however, linking gives access to Link Artes.  Every character pair has a set of artes that, when used together, allow them to combine their abilities.   Leia and Elize can combine Cure and Nurse—two powerful healing artes—to use Revitalize, which bathes the entire arena, curing every party member of any ailments and healing them to maximum health.  Jude and Milla can team up to use Ruination Fangs, an aerial combo where the two attack in fierce tandem.

The Link System isn’t without its drawbacks, however. Most notably, the number of link artes that can be performed is drastically skewed towards Jude and Milla, who share more Link Artes by far than any other character pair in the game.  This is especially noticeable when most pairs that don’t include Jude or Milla only have three Link Artes, whereas Jude and Milla share nearly a dozen.

Further, the Link System simply doesn’t work in multiplayer.  The AI will always control link partners, so linking to someone controlled by another player will actually force the AI to take control away from them so they can follow their routine as a link partner.  This means that you outright can’t use the Link System with four players, and with 2-3 you’d be stepping on each other’s toes.

Overall, Xillia’s combat system feels smartly designed and fun to play around with.  More than ever before I find myself experimenting with every character because each one of them is fun to play as in their own right.  Milla is perhaps the coolest implementation of the traditional ‘magic swordsman’ (a la Zelos/Kratos or Richard) I’ve yet seen in the franchise.  She has a number of offensive spells, but she can convert them into melee attacks to use in tandem with her other artes.  By carefully timing his dodges, Jude is able to sidestep enemy attacks and move behind them to deliver fast combos that hit hard (think of it as being similar in concept to Star Ocean 4’s Blindside system).  Rowen is the party’s black mage, but he’s able to modify his artes after casting them, making each spell a tiny minigame.  Elize uses powerful crowd-control spells in addition to being the party’s main healer, but can defend herself at close range using Teepo to chomp on enemies, squash them and blast them away.  And there have been smaller, subtler improvements as well, like the way the characters control on the 3D plane relative to the camera angle, or the ability to swap characters out mid-battle, like in Star Ocean. The weakness system is also improved from Graces.

For all Xillia does right in the combat department, the game is held back by inconsistency. I already mentioned how you can see this is in the number of Link Artes (or lack thereof) available to some pairs, but you can also see it in the environments, and even in how the characters play. There are some areas in Xillia that are genuinely beautiful, such as Fennmont. But there are plenty of others that are bland and completely uninteresting.  It’s also easy to see that characters like Alvin and Leia didn’t get nearly as much attention as the others, with Alvin’s link ability being rendered obsolete by the existence of artes such as Beast, and Leia’s combat ability simply not being followed through on, to say nothing of how she’s completely outclassed by Milla as a fighter and by Elize as a healer.

The game is also simply not paced well, both in terms of story and gameplay.  The plot meanders for about two thirds of the game before suddenly kicking into high gear and stuffing most of its grand twists and developments into the back third.   The combat’s basic mechanics are interesting, but not to enough of an extent to keep you engaged until you unlock your second lilium orb—where you’ll find high-tier artes and abilities that really make the combat shine, as well as mystic artes—which doesn’t occur for quite some time.

There is clear evidence that Tales of Xillia was rushed out the gate.   It is inconsistent at times, poorly paced, and could have done with a bit more time in the oven.  But in truth, the fact that Xillia is not without its significant faults is about par for the course for a Tales game.  But generally, Xillia gets it right where it really counts, while making many positive contributions to the core series formula.  I play Tales games for the combat and the characters, and in my mind, Xillia gets above average marks in both these areas; even if the characters I ended up caring about weren’t the ones I was expecting.