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Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Guest Editorial: Dahl, Rowling, and the Difference between the Literal and Serious.

Dahl, Rowling, and the Difference
between the Literal and Serious.

Guest post by Reecey.

One of the recurring trends I see in the Harry Potter fandom is that people treat the early books as though they’re meant to be taken just as seriously as the later ones.

This has a few unpleasant side effects in terms of how certain characters are viewed by fandom, but what the hell’s going on with Severus Snape is better suited to an editorial spot of its own.

Suffice to say for the moment, his behaviour is largely attributable to the topic of today’s post, because in those early books he’s akin to a Miss Trunchbull or Miss Hardbroom. A severe character who is cruel but never taken to task for their behaviour.

Miss Trunchbull, in particular, is possibly the most extreme example of this archetype.

She has an iron maiden with broken glass inside called the Chokey that she puts children (especially little girls) inside as punishment.

In the real world, a woman like this would never be allowed to be in charge of children yet she’s the headmistress of a school in the world of Matilda.

Another extreme, and Dahl penned example, would be Spiker and Sponge. These two are the awful aunts that James (of the giant peach fame) was sent to live with after his parents died in a freak escaped rhinoceros accident.

(Incidentally, his full name is ‘James Henry Trotter’. Do you people not see?! Do you not have eyes?)


They beat him, made him do chores and he had to sleep in the attic.

While more extreme than the behaviour of the Dursleys in Harry Potter, you can see the clear similarities.

This may very well be why the admission that what the Dursleys did to Harry was child abuse came so late, and why social services never did anything about it (although the not great actions of teachers and the fact that the Dursleys are middle class probably have a lot to do with it).

The ridiculous attitudes of the Dursleys and their frankly insane behaviour, is a very Dahl-ish construct. It’s an extreme situation to drive in the protagonist’s background. Just like the endless cabbage in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is there to go ‘loooook, he’s pooor!’, the whole ‘cupboard under the stairs’ thing is to go ‘hummmble beginnnings and awwwwwfuuuuuul famillllly, loooook how spoooiled Dudley iiiiiis’.

Hell, Dudley’s like some fat British version of Veruca Salt.

Not as rich and not as American, and ergo not with quite so much of a stupid name,
although 'Dudley Dursley' is pushing it a bit.

By the way, consider this: Harry has dead parents and is sent to live with his awful aunt, just like James and just like Miss Honey.

The question remains, how awful was Roald Dahl’s aunt?

So, with these comparisons drawn, to the meat of the issue.

Characters like Miss Trunchbull, Spiker and Sponge, Miss Hardbroom, the Dursleys and Severus Snape aren’t really intended to be taken seriously.

For the latter two, not for the earlier books at least.

Now, this doesn’t mean not taken literally.

You aren’t supposed to take the cupboard under the stairs or the Choky as some kind of hyperbolic metaphor for what the characters are actually doing. But you aren’t supposed to write tumblr posts about how they’re terrible, terrible people. These actions are there to illustrate the archetype, you’re not really supposed to take it as seriously as you would someone in, say, Crime and Punishment.

This is such a problem in Harry Potter because characters that you are intended to take seriously get introduced later on, like Professor Umbridge. She’s archetypal, yes, but she’s also very much representative of the conservative (big and small ‘c’) notion of physically punishing children and crushing dissent.

The idea isn’t to make a point excessive for impact, the idea here is to reflect a personality that appears in real life but in a setting that allows it to do as it pleases.

With Snape and the Dursleys, a lot of their very worst behaviour occurs earlier on in the series, but they’re judged on those actions in the same way that characters whose worst behaviours appear in the later books, like Umbridge and James Potter.

Snape: Basically just Miss Hardbroom with a rooster and bad hair.

The tone of these books changed over the course of them being written, which is no bad thing. J.K. Rowling was a fairly new writer when she started and improved as she went along, finding that a more serious and darker tone better suited the story than the Dahl-apeing style that she’d started with.

The problem comes when readers refuse to admit this and treat the mashup of the Worst Witch and the works of Roald Dahl that the first few books really were and insist on reading them all as though they’re the Deathly Hallows. Which isn’t fair to the characters, isn’t fair to the story and isn’t fair to Rowling.

As Harry matured, so did the narrative, and it behooves us as the readers to recognise that. Just as it behooves us to be sensible enough not to take everything in a book one hundred percent seriously or expect a teenage boy whose life is under threat and has to worry about saving the world to pay attention to the sexual orientations and gender identities of everyone around him.

Seriously, he has better things to do.

Monday, 30 March 2015

Aldnoah.Zero (Second Course)

(Second Course).

(Contains spoilers.)

I'd really enjoyed the first course of Aldnoah.Zero, even though it was an imperfect product, so I was very much looking forward to the second course which, with an entire season of anime in between, felt a long time coming.

Picking up over a year after the first course finale, which saw both main character Inaho and Martian princess Asseylum shot, the second course finds former tutor and punching bag Slaine as a knight to Count Saazbaum, using Asseylum's sister Lemrina as a puppet ruler while keeping Asseylum herself in a medical stasis. Meanwhile, on Earth, Inaho returns to battle after a long recovery, sporting a robotic eye that doubles as a powerful analytical engine.

There was a lot I liked about the second course, but it got off to a rough start and finish, and for that reason I think it's important to talk about how ridiculous that set-up is. Firstly, if you have two characters shot in the head and you've left their fates a mystery, I am granting you one 'but they actually recovered' token before I call bull. Either you can keep Asseylum or Inaho alive after that, but not both - because if you keep both alive, then you've instantly killed any tension. You've very aptly demonstrated that you won't kill off any of your cast, and, sure enough, when characters were talking about how they'll definitely all survive the final battle, my thoughts in response were 'Yes, you probably will.'

The best designed robot in the show.

(And yes, they all did.)

The other big problem with the start of the second course is Princess Lemrina. As a character, I do actually like her, but she's introduced out of nowhere and treated like she's always been there, and the addition of her character reeks of a certain laziness, that the plot required a puppet princess to work, but wanted to avoid having it be Asseylum (whether that be to avoid having her to do anything 'bad' or because they'd already put her in a medical stasis tank thingy and didn't want to let that plot point drop). Lemrina ends up being a character who, while quite interesting, lacks any sort of agency, and who the plot practically forgets about towards the end.

Would it not have been a more interesting route to have it be Asseylum filling Lemrina's role? Being shot in the head is known to not only cause memory loss but also to alter people's personalities, and having the series pick up with an Asseylum who acts bizarrely out of character and pushes for an invasion of Earth, because she's still suffering the effects of a bullet to the head, would grant several boons. Firstly, it'd be more shocking for an audience; secondly, it'd keep an already massive cast down; and thirdly, it'd make Slaine's motivation of 'I want to do this for Asseylum' ring true, whereas as the series stands it seems like an absurd excuse. 

Pictured: Princess Should-Not-Be-Appearing-In-This-Anime. That's, er,
that's a very clumsy Monty Python reference in case, um, in case you
didn't know.

For the most part, though, I did enjoy the rest of the course. It had some very strong mecha battles, with quite a few of them getting away from the annoying 'only Inaho can do anything' trope, and even had a battle between Martian Kataphrakts. It also gave us more of a look at the Martians and their politicking, and those Game of Vers sections were some of the most interesting in the show, providing advancement of the plot while the Terrans were mostly taking part in clearly defined episodic plots.

It also did a good job of raising the stakes. While the first course allowed the stakes to drop a little as Inaho defeats Martian after Martian with very little difficulty, this second course has the Martians actually using some strategy, such as attacking when vulnerable and working in groups and footsoldiers. More, I think, could have been made of the Stygis squadrons.

The animation is sharp and colourful, the soundtrack by Hiroyuki Sawano is excellent, and the series is just generally very good technically.

Mecha duel.

Problems did start to raise their heads again with the finale, though. The course had set up several plot threads that needed to be resolved - Inaho's analytical engine slowly taking over his brain; Asseylum becoming Empress of Vers; Lemrina's everything - and for the most part it doesn't follow through on them. Inaho's analytical engine eye is simply removed off screen, making all the foreshadowing of it causing problems and potentially killing him lead absolutely nowhere; Asseylum's announcement of becoming empress is followed by her doing pretty much nothing; and Lemrina is put on a ship and then never seen again, as the show seems to more or less forget about her.

That's poor writing. In the case of Inaho's eye in particular, that's pretty terrible writing. You've spent an entire course telling us something terrible has happened to him, and then it literally never happens, writers.

Aldnoah.Zero hasn't had any second series confirmed, and given that it's relatively self-contained, it probably won't be getting one. While it has some pretty glaring flaws, it was a fun romp, and I would definitely recommend it to people. 

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Garo: Honoo no Kokuin (Second Course).

Garo: Honoo no Kokuin
(Second Course).

People who read my review of the first course might remember I wasn't gigantically impressed with it. It was very pretty, to be sure, but it felt a bit empty, a bit aimless and meandering, and just generally like it could have done better with what it had. The Garo franchise is a fantastic property to be able to work with, and I felt - and continue to feel - like the first course had wasted that. 

Garo: Honoo no Kokuin picks up for its second course shortly after the great battle that devastated Valiante. Leon, now longer Garo, slowly recovers from his injuries and trauma with the family of a young farmgirl, Lara. Meanwhile, in Valiante, Alfonso wears himself thin trying to be a prince by day and Garo by night, while German (Herman? Helman?) romances a local innkeeper, Ximena.

This editorial mostly has pictures from the final episode, because every scene
of that episode is gorgeous.

It's a good set-up, but in many ways, it needed longer - and actually, more episodes might have made the first course better too, allowing it to insert more plot episodes while retaining the episodic format that Garo series are known for (and that often work to their detriments, if we're being entirely honest). As it is, there's just not enough space for everything this course wants to do, and it often has to clumsily prioritise: It wants its 'lulz some engineers are building a power suit' episode (which was a lot of fun, as the show keeps teasing you with the inevitable power-armour-horror, only to have it never appear), it wants its romance subplot between German and Ximena, it wants its Ema focus episode. It wants a decent amount of time with Leon out of the action, learning to farm and suchlike - and that's fair enough, because that's a major part of his character arc, and cheapening it by having it done and dusted and him back as Garo by the second episode. 

It wants a lot, and although it manages it better than the first course did, it still doesn't manage it very well. Once Alfonso stops being Garo, he may as well not be there, even though he's still a Makai Knight and still has the Gaia armour - as in the first course, he barely transforms into Gaia, making one wonder why he has that ability in the first place. While German and Ximena's romance subplot is definitely present, we never really see any development on it, and its culmination seems to be them conceiving a child, after which the story promptly kicks that subplot away somewhere you can't see it. While Ema has her focus episode, it feels like too little when she's a major character and her tragic past has been heavily foreshadowed already. 

See? This is absurdly pretty.

That said, the story does feel more focused this time around, and towards the latter half of the course we get a decent run of episodes that are entirely plot related. Still with Alfonso having nearly nothing to do (I like the kid, but his role towards the end of this course was mostly to stand around looking alarmed at things) but I'll take what I can get. It would have worked a little better with a villain slightly more intimidating or engaging than Mendoza, who you could probably replace with any grand vizier type and not notice the difference, but he does establish some villain cred by killing a major character.

Once again, the animation is beautiful. In untransformed scenes it's undeniably simple, with minimal shading and shadows - but it's expressive, doesn't suffer from same-face syndrome, and while I didn't like it at first, it's grown on me over time, much like a fungus. In transformed scenes it's hyper-detailed, fluid, colourful and sharp, and the transformed scenes in Honoo no Kokuin remain some of the best animation I've seen. The voice acting is good, the soundtrack is great (I'm listening to it right now, even) - on every technical level, Honoo no Kokuin excels. 

Garo Zoro Fusion form. Which is also gorgeous.

Overall, I liked this series, and while there's definite room for improvement, so I'm looking forward to the second series, which has been confirmed: At the moment, the Garo franchise is going from strength to strength, with four films in the works (one for Honoo no Kokuin, two for Makai no Hana, and one for Yami wo Terasu Mono) and a second series of Honoo no Kokuin confirmed to be scheduled for later this year. I'm looking forward to all of those, some more than others (I don't feel a burning need to see more of Raiga from Makai no Hana, let's put it that way).

Friday, 27 March 2015

Editorial: Top 5 Best Designed Keyblades.

Editorial: Top 5 Best Designed Keyblades.

Here's an editorial that I've kind of wanted to do for a while.

The keyblades in Kingdom Hearts are some of the goofiest and yet maybe the best designed weapons in video games: The simple base design of a skeleton key with a keychain gives designers a lot of leeway to work with while still having maintaining a common element between all of them (which is the reason why Fenrir, the one keyblade that deviates from that common element, will not be appearing on this list).

While with some lists I can easily struggle to find five to put on it, for this list I struggled to trim my list down to just five, and was sorely tempted to make it six. Tradition won out however, even if I did cheat a little by having one of the entries on the list be a draw.

Runners up include Zero/One, True Light's Flight, Circle of Life and Destiny's Embrace.

5. Hidden Dragon.

Themed after Mushu from Mulan, this is one of the simpler and more effective keyblades of the bunch, especially amongst the congrats-you-completed-a-world keyblades, which have a strong tendency towards being massively overdesigned in an effort to stuff everything about that world into a single key.

This is one of the earliest keyblades you'll get in the game, but if you're like me, you may use it consistently almost until the end just because it's so nice to look at. The shape is pleasing, the colours work well, and it's just a very nice concept to design a keyblade around.

The fact that it has a very useful passive ability attached also helps.

4. Crown of Guilt.


The keyblades of 358/2 Days are very often forgotten about - it wasn't as widely played as the other Kingdom Hearts games, and given that many of the keyblades were recolours of each other and all of them were only visible as tiny, low detail sprites, they may not have made as much impression on players as they could have.

I do like Crown of Guilt, though. It doesn't resemble any other keyblade around, with its sharp pink-and-black petals and its use of both hard angles and rounded curves. It looks graceful. It looks like the kind of keyblade that I would love to see rendered larger and in more detail, maybe being wielded by a villain.

3. Ends of the Earth and Rainfell.

I couldn't choose between them. 

Being Terra's last keyblade and Aqua's first keyblade respectively, I feel that both of these are interesting designs that reflect their users well. Ends of the Earth is big and powerful looking, while Rainfell is simple and elegant, utilising sharp angles and negative space - it's a shame that in-game it is eventually replaced by the much less interesting Stormfall.

Neither of them are as complicated as a lot of keyblades are - indeed, they are both very simple designs, because they aren't trying to stuff a million different elements and ideas in - but nor are they as boringly simple as the likes of the Kingdom Key and the Master Defender, and that balance makes them stand out.

2. No Name.

I should probably clarify that I'm talking about the version of No Name that Young Xehanort wields, although the version that Aqua, Terra and Ventus can use is also very nice.

This is one of those slightly overdesigned ones, although it's nowhere near as bad as some, and it starts to look a little silly if you look at it too closely, with bat wings and evil eyes and Xehanort's goat symbol adorning what was already a slightly overwrought clock/laser blade keyblade.

I still really like it, though, and that's largely because it's just cool. The laser blade, although ridiculous, is cool; the big clock on the end is ridiculous but cool; even the solemn looking goats head atop it is cool. This is a really neat keyblade, guys. I like it.

1. Dual Disc.

This is another keyblade that would probably be more appreciated if it didn't come from a game that compels you to view it only in tiny blurred thing format. 

I will say this, though: Dual Disc's design is pretty unique. There aren't any other keyblades that utilise that odd symmetry, where the handle and guard potrude to one end just as much as the key, and while that alone wouldn't be enough to put it on this list, especially in top place, it definitely does when added to the smooth lines, sharp colours, and glowing parts. 

Like Hidden Dragon, this was a keyblade I got early and used consistently until the end of the game, largely because with its glowing blue sections it made for a very pretty sight, and that pleased me.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Editorial: Gamers, Censorship, and the Invisible Lobster Claw of the Free Market.

Editorial: Gamers, Censorship
and the Invisible Lobster Claw of the Free Market.

Here are two memes that seem to pop up whenever someone dares to mention how poorly video games treat - or even acknowledge the existence of - women, LGBT people, or anyone who isn't white: Let the Free Market decide! and You want to censor games! 

They're two quite odd memes, actually (and we can chalk that up in large part due to the fact that they're evasive ways of saying Don't talk about this issue you're making me uncomfortable, but let's pretend for a spell that that's not the case), since they seem to be predicated on the idea that people complaining somehow constitutes interference from a political body.

But it doesn't. Let me address the first meme first: Let the Free Market decide! Well, yes. I am, because I'm part of that Free Market. I am a consumer, who spends money on these products, and by complaining I'm making my grievances with that product known - both to myself and to others, who can then make a more informed decision on whether they, as individuals acting within a Free Market system, want to purchase the product, not purchase it, or themselves make their grievances known.

It's not new. The idea of customers expressing their dissatisfaction with a product or a range of products did not pop into existence with gamers saying that maybe they'd like a little bit of variety in their games, nor did the idea that a company might then listen to them and adjust their future products to accommodate them - both because it enhances their reputation as a company, and because it shores up their sales, giving them an edge over the competition, both because those customers who complained are now less likely to be stolen away by another company who does listen to their complaints, and because those same customers will now tell people 'Hey, Company A actually listened to what we wanted.'

Note that at no point in this model of consumer-company relations is the company being forced to do anything. A company can choose not to take their consumers' views into account at all. No higher power is compelling them to do otherwise.

Let's take Mass Effect 3 as an example of this. After its release, fans across the globe complained, loudly, that the ending was unsatisfactory to them (for some reason, even though the GamerGate sorts seem to hate some complaints, complaints like this one seem to be considered fine, which I'm sure has absolutely nothing to do with GamerGaters just hating any mention of misogyny), and Bioware eventually responded by changing the ending. Not just altering their future releases, actually altering a finished product. 

They didn't have to. God knows, despite widespread dissatisfaction with it, Mass Effect 3 was not wanting for sales (which is another reason this meme doesn't make sense: It is possible for a product to be unsatisfactory to many people but still to sell well). Bioware wasn't doing this for money - if anything, putting together three altered endings and then making them available for download sliced into the massive profits they were enjoying. They were doing it because they recognised a desire amongst their consumers for this, and because responding to that desire was beneficial to them. The Free Market spoke, a company responded, and at no point was a boycott or 'voting with your wallet' ever a possibility, because a healthy Free Market has other tools available to them than just refusing to throw money at something.

Let's talk about the second meme, then: You just want to censor games! Well, no, that's not true, is it. When Bioware altered Mass Effect 3 - or, for that matter, when they included LGBT relationships for both genders in it, after fan demand - that wasn't censorship. No power had intervened to make cuts, to remove content, to stifle creativity. Nobody was compelled to do anything, in fact, and that's the core of censorship: Being forced.

One could argue quite easily that, say, threatening to kill women in the industry because they said things you didn't agree with is censorship, though. You are, after all, attempting to leverage the threat of violence to deny them their freedom of speech. 

Potentially, one could also say that censorship is publishers telling developers that they can't have a female main character in their game, or that she can't kiss a man, as happened to Remember Me developers Dontnod Entertainment. A more powerful entity is attempting to leverage its power to make a smaller entity remove content and alter their creative vision. Certainly, it's indicative of a problem in the industry, that a publisher would be so anxious about teenage boys - who do not compose a majority of the market, let's not kid ourselves here - that they would refuse to even consider something that might make that demographic uneasy.

And the thing is, these arguments - apart from showing a demonstrably false conception of what the Free Market and censorship are - also seem to presume that that market, teenage boys, are the majority of the market. They are not. According to the Guardian, 52% of gamers are women, outnumbering males altogether, let alone teenage boys. Of the remaining 48%, it's reasonable to assume that far from all of those are teenagers, and that an even smaller portion of that chunk of the market would be totally unwilling to play as a woman in a video game.

It's an easy mistake to make, to be sure, because Triple A gaming companies obsessively market their games towards that particular group, to the extent that anybody might think that that's their core market. It's not, it's their aspirational market. It's the market they desire. Crucially, it's the market that Call of Duty has, and as CoD's own dev pointed out, CoD players are often barely gamers: They don't buy video games, they buy that video game, loyally, with every new release, along with every DLC, regardless of cost or frequency. The teenage boy market is aggressively loyal to a brand and very deep-pocketed, and that's largely why they are so forcefully marketed to.

It's not a good marketing strategy, not when you've got a market already there, waiting for you to cater to them, and loudly telling you exactly what it is that they want. Some companies have already realised. Most indie developers certainly have. 

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Telltale Games' Game of Thrones Episode 3: The Sword In The Dark.

Telltale Games' Game of Thrones
Episode 3: The Sword In The Dark.

Well, this is a surprising turn-out. With a release schedule of roughly every two months, we could have expected to see the third episode in Telltale Games' perhaps most highly anticipated series in the first week of April. Instead, it was released yesterday, much to my surprise (although probably not the surprise of people paying attention to the release dates of these episodes).

The third episode of Telltale Games' Game of Thrones sees Rodrik and his council at Ironrath come under the thumb of Gryff Whitehill, the angry and domineering son of the Forresters' greatest enemy. Meanwhile, at King's Landing, Mira attempts to cover up her murder of the guard Damien, while balancing her loyalties to Tyrion, who has promised her a contract with the crown, and Margaery, who is preparing for her nuptuals to Joffrey. In Essos, Asher encounters a dragon, and arrives at the camp of Daenerys Targaryen to seek a mercenary army. Meanwhile, at the Wall, Gared comes face to face with his family's murderer, as he prepares to join Jon Snow on a mission beyond the wall.


This is the episode that really hammers in that this is, essentially, fanfiction. Definitely better fanfiction - despite my reservations after the first episode, I have started to warm a little towards this game - but fanfiction nonetheless, with Telltale Games' original characters increasingly shoehorned into deep and meaningful relationships with canonical characters. And it's hilarious. I'd love to be offended by it, being offended always makes for an interesting review, but it's totally harmless and actually quite fun to watch - there's something that just tickles me about Gared staring longingly into Jon Snow's eyes and whispering 'I know I can trust you, Jon'; or Mira becoming the ragdoll that Tyrion and Margaery are tugging on. It's good fun, and clearly not meant to be taken too seriously, and I like that.

That having been said, this episode, while better than the first episode, can't match up to the second. It feels shorter and, much more importantly, it feels like less happens: Asher gets almost no movement on his plot (in a manner almost reminiscent of how plot arcs in the television series sometimes end up slowing to a crawl for an episode or three), with his short sections mostly being devoted to getting from Point A to Point B; meanwhile, Rodrik, Mira and Gared all have plot developments, but they feel slow, sluggish, like you could have packed in twice as many plot turns into the time allotted. 

Mira's sections of the story probably stand out as the best in this episode, with her choices more than anyone else's feeling like they have some real weight to them. Perhaps not coincidentally, she's also the one with the strongest link to canon: The events of the Purple Wedding happen (off screen) in this episode, impacting Mira heavily, and while that could have felt clumsily set up (the game series has been telegraphing that the Purple Wedding is coming, after all, while painstakingly tangling Mira up in the schemes of all the major power players involved), it actually all feels rather smooth and natural.

Asher's sections, meanwhile, have a Daenerys cameo.

Gared's sections of the story, meanwhile, stand out as the worst, and that's due to a few things: Jon's presence seems forced; the plot of 'oh no my family's murderer is at the Wall too now' is contrived; the entire storyline seems weirdly like it's retreading ground already covered even though I'm fairly sure it isn't; and Gared as a character is dull, dull, unspeakably dull. 

I don't enjoy Gared's sections. I don't feel like they're going anywhere, and the story's attempts to have dramatic moments where Gared has to decide between killing or sparing someone fall flat. 

Part of that is that I had no emotional stock placed in the deaths of Gared's family (being that they were characters I'd never met before), and given that Gared seems perfectly cheery about the whole thing until this episode, neither did he. A lot of that, though, is that I know what Telltale Games are like, and I can tell a meaningless choice that won't actually affect the plot when I see one.

Also, the snow is dreary and I do not like it.

Finally, the prize for 'didn't even make an impression, good or bad' goes to Asher's sections of the story, which are barely there and could barely be called story, so much as functional connective tissue. That's fine, a story needs connective tissue, I suppose, just don't expect it me to particularly care no matter how many dragons you throw into it.

Episode four's release date hasn't been announced yet, but on balance we can probably expect it at the start of June, or if we're lucky, the end of May. I profess, I am looking forward to it: Despite its hideous graphics and its utter impenetrability to anyone not familiar with either the books or the television series, it is at least clearly being made with enthusiasm, and I can appreciate that enough that the game is starting to grow on me. A little. Maybe.

On another interesting note, Game of Thrones series five will be airing come April, and will be forming my second ongoing (the first being Kamen Rider Drive) for the time that it airs, so I'm looking forward to that. 

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Life is Strange E2: Out of Time.

Life is Strange
Episode 2: Out of Time.

(Spoilers below.)

I feel pretty safe in saying that this is long-awaited. The wait between installations of episodic games always feels very long (two months is a considerable length), but I'm not sure anyone was in danger of losing interest in Life is Strange: Its unique concept and style alone has, in a way, guaranteed its success. We're also likely to get other episodes a little bit quicker, as the developers have committed themselves to a roughly six-week turnaround, and that this episode took a little bit longer is more down to delays than aught else.

Life is Strange's second episode picks up the day after its first one. Following the unexpected snowfall in Arcadia Bay, Max is thrust back into the various bizarre goings on at her school: Her friend Kate has been drugged by Nathan Prescott, resulting in a humiliating viral video; and Chloe, now aware of Max's powers, is eager to test them out. Meanwhile, the mystery of Rachel's disappearance thickens, as Max meets a sinister fisherman, surmises that there's a link between Kate and Rachel, and starts to believe that Chloe's step-father may know more than he's letting on.

There have been some noticeable improvements since the first episode. For starters, the characters don't all talk like they just stepped off tumblr: While the writers have clearly tried to keep the same basic tone and style of dialogue, they've toned it down significantly. The same is true of Max's pretentiousness: She's still pretentious, sure, it'd be a little odd if she wasn't, but we no longer have every other line be guff about how she's an old soul and not like everyone else. It makes her a shade less colourful, but also a lot less grating. Our cast is expanded as well, introducing a community-minded Chemistry teacher, an eerie fisherman, Chloe's mother, and a lovely homeless lady who has dirt on everybody, and they all seem like excellent, fascinating additions to the cast.

That looks uncomfortable.

Unfortunately, this game feels a lot less striking and dramatic than the first episode. The first episode felt like it had a consistent momentum, whereas this second episode often feels aimless, as if it's dedicated to giving you a slice of life rather than driving the plot. There are certainly some plot relevant events: An encounter with a drug dealer in a junkyard, Kate's turmoil and eventual suicide (or attempted suicide), and the strain of Max's powers starting to get to her, but they seem few and far between compared to the first episode, and some sequences - like the diner sequence - feel functionally pointless, more like padding than actual plot development.

That's a problem for a couple of reasons. The first is that with five episodes, there's a very limited amount of space with which to tell a story. Five episodes isn't a lot, and you either need to pack in a lot of plotting if you want to make the most of it, or you need to have a story that focuses less on plot and more on atmosphere, as is the case with Telltale Games' The Walking Dead.. The second is that Life is Strange is clearly trying to emulate a certain type of television series, and one of the features is that is high density of plot: The plot isn't just there, it dominates everything, and its presence is relentless and constant. That was true of the first episode, but episode two seems to let up a bit on that.

Also uncomfortable looking.

I will definitely say this, though: More than probably any other episodic game, the ending of this episode hammers in the idea of your actions have consequences. The game developers clearly had a specific ending in mind when they wrote it, as one of the options seems rather ramshackle in how it was written, but in spite of that the ending is striking, and the fact that there are multiple ways that it can turn out is a crucial part of it being so dramatic. An event that you absolutely can't stop is less effective than an event which you can, or which you have some form of influence over, and video games are pretty much the only entertainment medium that can take advantage of that. For it to have the full impact in this case, the developers would have had to do a little bit more to make the good ending seem like an intended, viable conclusion, but it's still nice to see.

Are these Victoria's hanger-ons? I'm not certain.

The eclipse at the ending also seemed a little off. The snow was a dramatic moment, tying into the idea of strange weather coming to the town, something already hammered in by the visions of a tornado. The eclipse seems like the odd omen out here.

Next episode seems to be going full survival horror on us, with Max and Chloe trapped in the school with a mysterious person (David? Nathan?) chasing them down. I'm really interested to see that, and I think it'll be a great switch-up after this rather slow-paced episode.

Monday, 23 March 2015

Kamen Rider Drive E23: Who Can Stop The Mischievous Smile?

It should be noted that since next week's Drive is the Spring Break Special, a forty-something minute crossover with Ninninger that will be replacing both shows that week, there won't be a Drive review up next week.

That's not because I hate specials - I absolutely do, but that isn't a factor in my decision here - but because it's not really part of the series, being more of a film-promoting side story. Also, this is the longest ongoing series of reviews I have ever done (its closest competitor comes in at only thirteen episodes) and I could use the break.

Kamen Rider Drive
Episode 23
Who Can Stop The Mischievous Smile?

Oh, golly, where to even start with this episode. Well, firstly, I apologise for the general tone of frustrated exhaustion in this review. It's due to a lot of things: Real life, a sore throat, and most importantly, being very frustrated and exhausted with Kamen Rider Drive. 

Well, here's the bingo as it stood last week:

I feel it's important to say that, despite everything that's going to follow this statement, all the complaining and suchlike, I actually didn't hate this episode. It was there, it was more or less fine, I got twenty minutes of entertainment out of it. I wasn't wishing the next episode could be here already at the end, nor was I cursing the fact that I had spent a third of an hour watching it when I could have spent that time rhythmically hammering nails into my delicate and dolorous fleshy parts.

I enjoyed it. It was sufficient for purpose.

Now that that's out of the way: Why is the villain this week so toothless?

This sulky teenage boy is more intimidating than the actual monster this week.
The monster who blows things up.

This episode kind of continues the theme from last week of surgically pulling any kind of dramatic potential out of its villains, in which we have a bomber Roimyude, who in the cold open of the episode blows up a piece of modern art in the most lacklustre fashion possible. He doesn't manage to ever really harm anybody, he doesn't really do any kind of concrete damage to anyone or anything, and so I'm not certain why I'm meant to care that he exists. Don't get me wrong, I don't want the Roimyudes to be constantly killing people. I think having them murdering people constantly  would both cheapen what should be a dramatic moment for the protagonists, and show a startling lack of creativity. But I do want them to be consistently presented as genuine threats.

The show can do this. Paint, while he didn't impress me much, did at least seem like he was a genuine danger, if not to the life of his victims then definitely to their freedom and emotional wellbeing. Voice was genuinely sinister, but until the very end he never showed anything approaching a desire or willingness to do bodily harm to his victims at all. Volt's plan had nothing to do with murder, except as a byproduct, but he was one of the most effective villains that I think the show had.

Yet, in this instance, our Roimyude of the week feels utterly unthreatening, and the same is starting to be true of our main villain group. 

This is terrible CGI, I love it.

Speaking of toothless, we should talk about Kiriko's meagre plotline in this episode. She's now taking care of Chase, in secret, in the Sinister Villain Hospital that sometimes shows up in Kamen Rider. The preview made it look like she would consider killing Chase, and while I profess that didn't much interest me, because I'm sick of anything involving Chase, it would at least show some internal conflict. Instead, there's no kind of conflict there, Kiriko is using Mad Doctor to shoot him with healing electricity. It's ridiculous: Kiriko is purportedly at the centre of this plotline, except not only does she never show any kind of self-doubt or conflicted feelings over any of this (that honour is given to Shinnosuke), but she also never argues her corner (again, given to Shinnosuke). It's a waste of her character, and it doesn't help an already struggling subplot.

On another note, though, this episode did make me like Type Formula. I didn't really feel anything in particular about it before, but I quite enjoyed the high speed chasing down of missiles, and the pit crew shift cars are a neat idea. I'm still not keen on the trailer cannon, but I can perfectly happily live with it. More of the forms being used for something other than out-and-out fighting appeals to me, as does more of the tension being ramped up with things that aren't necessarily 'this monster is really strong.'

(This was also a very fanservice-y episode, featuring no less than two shirtless riders and two scenes of Gou working out. Which is - fine. It's there. All told, I was a bit 'meh' at it, but I can appreciate the thought and effort Toei put into it.)

Although Shinnosuke is clearly not getting enough protein in his diet.

All in all, a satisfactory but far from brilliant episode. I have to admit, Drive is starting to exhaust me. I like Shinnosuke and Kiriko, I like Heart and Brain, but gosh, the entire Chase storyline is wearing me down with how dull it is, and gosh, is Gou starting to grate on me again after a string of episodes where I actually quite liked him. Those two factors wouldn't be so bad, but they're everywhere, all the time, constantly. There is no escape from them. 

Let's look at the updated bingo:

As mentioned before, there's a crossover special next week. That will probably be very enjoyable, I'm looking forward to watching it, and then the show will be returning the week after that, with an episode that as of right now is a total unknown for us, as we have no preview for it. 

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Buddy Complex.

Buddy Complex.

I ended up watching this more as a whim. Someone had made a comparison between it, Kakumeiki Valvrave, and Aldnoah.Zero, and I felt somewhat compelled to look it up and at least give it a try. 

After an incident where his classmate, Hina, rescues him from an assassin, Aoba Watase, a high school student and basketball student, is thrown seventy years into the future, into the middle of a war between the Republic of Zogilia and the Free Pact Alliance. He quickly ends up joining the Alliance as the pilot of a Valiancer, a giant robot that can link its pilot's mind to another, with Aoba's partner being Dio, a remote and gruff fellow pilot. But events are complicated even more when Hina, who doesn't remember Aoba at all, appears on the battlefield - as a pilot for Zogilia.

It got off to quite a strong start when I was watching it. Dio, Aoba and Hina are anime cliches, but if I automatically hated every anime that jumped into the cliche pool I would hate nearly every anime, and they are at least fun cliches. The animation isn't amazing but it is very smooth, and the action scenes are pretty fun to watch - the slowness and ploddiness of giant mechas is pretty much done away with entirely in favour of them always fighting in mid-air, swooping about in kind of strange melee gunfights that draw their inspiration from planes and birds as much as they do from giant mecha shows. After a thousand shows where half the battles consist of stomping across the giant, empty, grassy-or-desert-take-your-pick battlefields, it was nice to see some actual speed and pacing out of mecha battles.

Incidentally, the two characters on the left are constantly showing up on the
'see you next week' splash cards. They will not see you next week. They are not
characters in this show. They are characters from a mobile game. They will see
you next week only if you buy their mobile game. 

Where it kind of started to wear thin was that the show took its first three episodes and then apparently copy and pasted their scripts several times over, making minor alterations as the plot required, while stalwartly refusing to ever actually advance the plot. 

'We are flying somewhere,' the captain would say gravely, at the start of the episode. 'But we may be attacked.' Either Aoba would be angsty about Hina with Dio irritatedly telling him not to be for a while, or Dio would be angsty about his family with Aoba trying to prod him into cheerfulness for a while, until eventually the captain's foreboding prophecy would come through and the enemy would attack. By 'the enemy', I mean the same squad of Zogilians every time. I think you're meant to see them as kind of a deuteragonist squad, but they're never given enough screen time or development for you to form any kind of attachment to them. Aoba and Dio would get into their mechs, perform a Coupling, and face off against any of the three strategies the Zogilians seemed to use: Mines, waiting out their time limit, or surrounding them. Invariably, Aoba and Dio would overcome this challenge with the power of love, invariably this would cause the leader of the rest of the mechs to yell something about how they'll join the battle too, and the Zogilians would be defeated for at least, and indeed at most, an episode.

The plot became so staid and repeated that several times while watching I actually ended up starting on, say, the first half of episode eight, and then accidentally ending up on the second half of episode nine, and the two seemed to fit together well enough that I did not initially notice this. 

"Since you've lost your giant robots, here are two functionally identical ones.
In the very next episode."

Even when the show tried to change things up - for example, having Aoba and Hina spend an episode trapped in a storm - it still seemed to find a way to work in most of the parts of its formula, just with 'battle' replaced with 'search and rescue operation.' 

But the show is clearly meant to be about character than plot - indeed, I would argue that it is meant to be about romance, both between Dio and Aoba (come on, guys, 'coupling' is the word Japanese people use for 'shipping', they are practically weaponising the power of being an OTP; the title of the show basically works out as Japanese slang for 'sexual fixation on a friend') and between Aoba and Hina, and on that count, it actually also fails miserably. Dio and Aoba have plenty of time to develop their relationship but never do - we're informed by the end that they've become fast friends, but god knows I would not be able to tell you how that happened, as their behaviour to each other is identical from start to finish. Hina and Aoba barely interact over the course of the series, and Hina's change of heart not only feels very much out of the blue, it feels like it comes too late to actually make the events of the first episode - where she very much gives the impression that she knows Aoba well and that they've been working together for some time - make any sense. 

Hey, Dio.

I put some effort into enjoying this show, and it just didn't really work out. If the intention of the show was to recreate the experience of time travel for its audience, then by god it experience, as I spent most of the show's run feeling like I was repeating chunks of my life. 

Friday, 20 March 2015

Bayonetta 2.

Bayonetta 2.

Originally, I was going to do a review for the first Bayonetta today, but the stars have aligned in such a way that I can bring you a review for its sequel instead, and leave off doing the original for now. Because that's how we do things at this blog. Backwards at steady intervals.

Picking up an undisclosed amount of time after Bayonetta, Bayonetta 2 sees Bayonetta journeying to the holy mountain of Fimbulventr (and the city at its base, which resembles nothing so much as Venice), seeking to find a gate to Inferno and rescue her friend Jeanne, whose soul has been taken by a demon. She soon encounters a young boy with mysterious powers, along with a masked Lumen Sage intent on killing him. It quickly becomes obvious that there is something more sinister at play than just Jeanne's kidnapping.

In terms of gameplay, this game is more or less the same as Bayonetta, although it plays a lot smoother. You can attach weapons to your hands and feet, and attack with each using different buttons, and by using well-timed dodges you can enter a slowed time state for a few seconds. There's also a power-up mode that just generally makes you faster and your strikes more potent. Once again, the game is heavy on the QTEs, with Bayonetta finishing most boss battles by summoning a demon to gnosh on her foes, requiring you to mash buttons to build up megatons, gigatons, or infinitons of damage. 

Oh good, they got rid of the hair-hat thing.

It's very smooth gameplay, easy to pick up and quite enjoyable, but there's also not much variation there, so towards the middle of the game you can find yourself growing a little weary of it. The last third of the game tries to mix things up a little, giving you a vehicle section (where you ride on a demon unicorn), a smash-things-in-a-giant-robot section, and a rail shooter section, all of which are pleasantly over-the-top and, unlike some equivalent sections in the first game (it too had a vehicle section and a rail shooter section), aren't so long that they outstay their welcome.

Arguably, the game could have used a section or two where you play as a different character to mix up the action a bit (they have a very short section where you play as card-wielding mysterious boy Loki, but it consists entirely of running in one direction), especially as you can play as different characters in the Tag Climax multiplayer mode. A section in the storyline where you play as the Masked Lumen for a while would not have gone amiss, and would have mixed up the gameplay nicely.

Alternately, I would accept playing as Jeanne, Rosa, Rodin or Loki.

As far as storyline goes, it's - there. The Bayonetta games are much like the Devil May Cry games in their storylines are really just vehicles to get you from one spectacle to another, and I'm fine with that. These games have always been very up front about what they are - over-the-top action games - and never pretended they were great bastions of storytelling. 

The story is coherent, though, which is more than can be said for some games. No plot threads are forgotten, and there's some decent character development for several members of the cast. Bayonetta's hyper-sexualisation has been toned down a bit: She's still an extremely sexual person, and that's a big part of her character - I could do an entire editorial on Mari Shimazaki's intentions when designing Bayonetta, both as a reaction to the very passive, almost childlike (but always sexually available) female characters that are popular in many Japanese video games, and as a power fantasy - but it's no longer as uncomfortably constant and gratuitous as it was in the first game. Gone too is the - hobby horse attack, which took the sexualisation into incredibly unpleasant territory by having female monsters (in fact, female monsters designed to look like Bayonetta) be blindfolded and then ripped from crotch to crown, as if that were even remotely acceptable in a game that purports (with the truest intentions, I think) to be a female power fantasy.

So, those are some changes made, and for the better, I think. 

Also, there's a plant woman, so that's neat.

In the end, Bayonetta 2 is what it has always made clear it is: An over-the-top action adventure game, and Hideki Kamiya's successor to his previous over-the-top action franchise, Devil May Cry, now in the hands of people taking that in a new but interesting direction. And that's fine - Kamiya knows his over-the-top action games, he's refined it into an art form by now, and Bayonetta 2 doesn't disappoint on that front at all.

No sequel has yet been announced, but with good sales figures it's difficult to imagine that a Bayonetta 3 won't be showing up some time soon. Maybe Kamiya will pull the same trick he did with Devil May Cry 3 and give us a younger Bayonetta. Maybe this time she'll be fighting Cthulhu. Maybe she'll have rocket launchers attached to her legs, and we'll get a second playable character in the form of a ten foot tall robot. Maybe all of the above. Who can really say.