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.