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Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Kamen Rider Drive E35: Why Did The Besiege Incident Happen?

I am actually quite exhausted right now, but here are some new Let's Plays! Valkyria Chronicles [P20] Ninja Tank and Heroes of the Storm.

Kamen Rider Drive
Episode 35
Why Did The Besiege Incident Happen?

Given how heavy my workload was last week, what with several new releases and at least one series ending, Drive's hiatus served me quite well. That said, I am glad it's back: The last episode was, I thought, very strong, and I was interested to see how they would continue the Brain-Nira plotline into this episode.

In this week's episode, Brain and Nira accuse Shinnosuke and the Special Crimes Unit of being involved in a power struggle for the Roimyude leadership, prompting a manhunt. Meanwhile, Gou is confronted by Heart, seeking the return of the Professor Banno AI.

I have to say, the part of this episode that impressed me most was Brain and Nira's press conference. Not because it was particularly dramatic - in fact, I think that in general this entire episode was suffering from a critical lack of drama, with none of the characters really reacting believably (or at all) to their colleagues turning on them and the media framing them as terrorists - but because it made good use of minor plot points from previous episodes, essentially using the characters' focus episodes, which often put them in close proximity with Roimyudes, as evidence for their secret agenda.


More could have been made of that, I think. For instance, Brain brings up that Kyu was in cahoots with a Roimyude: But that Roimyude looked like him, so why not accuse Kyu of being a Roimyude, forcing him to flee rather than be taken to jail because the police will be out to kill him? Much is made of Gen having taken orders from a Roimyude host, but why not have Brain twist the truth to say that Gen's mentor is a Roimyude and was when he was mentoring Gen, thus framing him as someone whose entire career was predicated on being an inside man for a cabal of monsters? And so on.

I wouldn't call it wasted potential as such, because I recognise that there are time constraints at play here, but there were a lot of directions this storyline could go in, I think, that would be more interesting than what we got: A slightly hack-handed plan by Brain and Nira to shove Shinnosuke into a position where he looks like he's holding Nira hostage.

That said, I did like this episode. The plot was relatively well-paced, there were some nice character interactions between Honganji and Shinnosuke among others, and the action scenes were - well, to be honest, I could have done without the fight scenes between Thief!Nira and the Riders, but the ones with Brain, now having assumed his golden form, were all very fun and didn't last so long that they tried my patience any. 

You know, you could just talk to each other like normal people instead of from
down a hallway.

Nira makes a good villain, to be honest: His over-the-topness works in his favour, because it's clowning that masks a sinister nature. That was one of the best things about the previous episode - seeing him drop the clown act for a short while - and we get it again towards the end of this episode, when he threatens Shinnosuke with a gun. In a franchise where violence is so very often fantastical stuff, with flashing lights and explosions, it's always a bit jarring and disconcerting when that violence crosses very firmly out of the fantastical and into the realistic, and that works in this episode's favour.

That said, he's a villain without, I think, more than one more episode left in him. Brain I'm not sure about anymore - he could die next episode or stick around long enough to see Medic inevitably achieve her ultimate evolution, and I think it would work towards his character arc either way. One thing is for sure, though: He's essentially sealed his death, and narratively speaking, Medic is liable to play a part in it, whether it's by helping the heroes or by pulling the old 'villain escapes heroes but is wounded, only to encounter another villain who finishes them off' trick that Kamen Rider villains are so very fond of. 

Finding good pictures of Nira with his gun was surprisingly difficult.

So, while this wasn't one of my favourite episodes of this series, I am interested to see how this three-parter ends up: Next week's episode will seemingly see Shinnosuke struggle with whether to shoot Nira in the face, which I completely foresee as being the least interesting part of that episode, as we all know full well that he won't - it'd be a complete travesty if he did. But we'll probably see some kind of resolution on the Nira plot, and some kind of resolution on Brain's subplot, and I can't say I'm not looking forward to that. 

Monday, 29 June 2015

Knights of Sidonia: Battle for Planet Nine

Knights of Sidonia:
Battle for Planet Nine.

Ah, Knights of Sidonia. I was ambivalent about you last series, enjoying your premise and your surprisingly smooth and fast-paced mecha action in a genre which usually thrives off being ponderously slow, while also being unnerved by your sporadic bouts of laser-focus on ridiculous harem anime-oid romance subplots and your weirdly boneless animation.

As just about anyone who saw the end of the last series could have guessed, you returned this year for a second series, rather clunkily titled Battle for Planet Nine, which is odd given that the eponymous planet and the battle for it takes up less than a quarter of your twelve episodes.

Picking up a short while after the end of the first series, Battle for Planet Nine sees a Gauna-Human hybrid, Tsumugi, joining the Sidonia Defense Force. Faced with this being that seems human but also represents a transgressive fusion of humanity and the eldritch, unknowably alien, and omni-hostile Gauna, Tanikaze engages in the plot of a cut-price eroge game and obliviously stumbles into a love quadrilateral with - wait what?


Okay, don't get me wrong, there are giant mecha battles. We even get a very climactic battle on the aforementioned ninth planet that involves the return of mysterious and sinister antagonist Benisuzume, but it very much seems like the majority of the series - even just barely, even just a fifty-one/forty-nine split - is devoted to the ridiculous romantic antics of our gormless, doughy protagonist and three people well and truly out of his league, including one who is the size of a building and usually manifests as a gigantic white genital monster no, I am not joking. 

Bloody NSFW, probably.

Don't get me wrong, the first series had its share of ridiculous romance subplots as well, and I hated it there too - it felt exhausted, boring, and worst of all, like a shallow and somewhat creepy attempt to appeal to the socially-stunted-teenage-fanboy demographic, as Tanikaze garners the attentions of women (and one third gender person, who this series sees transform into a biological woman out of love for Tanikaze still not joking, guys) despite having all the personality of a soap spud - and this series has apparently decided that that was absolutely what people enjoyed about the first series, and in response has dialed it up to eleven.

Some of the blame for this, of course, must be laid at the feet of the manga, which apparently is even worse for this, but good god, you're doing an adaptation, you're allowed to change parts.

The romance subplot kind of overtakes everything else, leaving me with very little to talk about apart from my massive disdain for it. The animation is still oddly boneless, the music is still excellent, the voice acting is still highly variable. The action scenes are all very strong, and there are some truly standout sequences in the series: Tsumugi versus Benisuzume would be a contender for a 'best anime fights of 2015' list if I did one, which I might. 

Really. Cherry blossoms. Are you testing me, Satan.

But I found myself very bored by this series a lot of the time. As mentioned earlier, the actual battle of the title doesn't start until near the end of the series, and it starts so bizarrely without ceremony that I actually missed that that was what was going on at first. It cuts in about halfway through a very romance-focused episode, and is framed as being no big deal until the point where it starts going wrong, which is weird for a series literally named after it.

Even more baffling is that the series lets other plot points, like series regular Kunato having his personality overwritten by mad scientist Ochiai, fall by the wayside: After his initial possession, Kunato is very clearly still possessed by Ochiai, but nothing ever comes of it: He's relegated to a recurring character who shows up to make remarks on Tsumugi and occasionally be slightly ominous, but the fact that there is now an undeniably evil bio-engineer meandering around in one of the main cast's body never gets any resolution, or any development at all. It does the same to Kobayashi's murder of the Immortal Council, too - does this coup have any consequences? Not really.

I do like the helmet designs.

These might be plotlines that will see resolution in the third series, bar that there's no confirmation that there even will be a third series. In fact, this series ends on a montage of both series and a very final note, almost suggesting that this is the definite end for Knights of Sidonia. While there are enough sequel hooks that a third series wouldn't feel out of place, the final episode very definitely ends on a note of 'this is the end, guys, goodbye and fare you well', so certainly at the time that it was written, it was not confirmed that there would be any renewal.

I've railed against shows ending partway through their storylines before, and it's a particular problem for anime, but this actually isn't the worst example of that: Even with storylines left hanging, the demise of Benisuzume provides a decent capping-off point for the series, enough so that if this was the very end, I wouldn't be as annoyed as I am with, say, Accel World, which is easily the most egregious example of this.

Saturday, 27 June 2015

Editorial: Are Dragon Age's Old Gods the Forgotten Ones?

Editorial: Are Dragon Age's
Old Gods the Forgotten Ones?

If you're a dork who likes reading codex entry and pouring hours into looking over the history and mythology of entirely fictional worlds, Dragon Age is the perfect franchise for you. Layered with lore, the guiding principle of Dragon Age and its interweaved mythologies and histories is often that the gods of legend exist, but may well not have been gods - that the legends have truth behind them, but are in some fashion distorted.

(Except the Maker. There is startlingly little evidence in-universe that he existed, bar the Black City, purported to have once been his home of the Golden City, existing. We'll get to that in due time, however.) 

With Dragon Age: Inquisition it was revealed to us that the elven gods existed - although the jury's still out on if they're genuine gods, spirits, ancient elven nobles, or something else entirely. Late in the game, it is revealed that Mythal, the elven goddess of love and justice, is a real being, one who is vengeful at an unspecified but brutal betrayal, and who sought out the similarly betrayed Flemeth to act as her host. Later still, it is revealed that Fen'Harel, elven trickster and wolf god, is also a real figure - he is, in fact, your party member Solas.

Since then, there has been much pondering over whether there is any connection between the Old Gods (the great dragon gods worshipped by the Tevinter, who we know are very much real) and the elven gods. I propose that there is, but that the Old Gods and the elven gods are still two distinct groups.

Elven mythology tells of two groups of being - the Creators, the benevolent gods of the elven people, and the Forgotten Ones, creatures of deception and violence who exist to lead the virtuous astray. The two are both akin and in opposition, with Fen'Harel being both and neither - it's a set-up very similar to the Aesir and the Jotunn in Norse mythology, who are in essence the same kind of beings (enough so that several Jotunn become Aesir) but who are also diametrically opposed to each other, with Loki being both and neither.

Why do I think this? Well, for starters, we can say almost for certain that there is some connection, maybe even kinship, between the elven gods and the Old Gods: Flemeth (acting under the will of Mythal) goes to great effort to preserve the spirit of an Old God, despite the fact that doing so represents an enormous risk to her and the world - while the preserved spirit would be free of the Blight, Old Gods naturally draw the darkspawn to them, after all, and Flemeth risks another Blight by going to such efforts to keep an Old God alive. Solas, too, has thoughts on the Old Gods, responding with disdain and even outrage when he learns of the Grey Wardens' plan to kill the two remaining Old Gods while they still slumber - and he never really gives a clear answer why.

There is also every suggestion that the elven gods and the Old Gods are similar beings. 

For starters, they are both divine or semi-divine beings sealed away in some fashion - the elven gods are purportedly sealed in the Eternal City, which might well be one and the same with the Golden/Black City, while the Old Gods are sealed beneath the earth (according to legend, the Forgotten Ones are sealed in 'the Void', something which is otherwise never mentioned).

We know that the relics used to worship them and draw on their power were often similar - that the orbs used by the ancient elves (Corypheus has one, you'll recall) have a parallel in Tevinter in the form of the Somnoborium, meant to draw on the power of the Old Gods.

Solas remarks upon the elven gods visiting their worshippers in their dreams, something which we know the Old Gods did - enough so that the Tevinter worship of them revolves heavily around themes of sleeping and dreaming. 

We also know that the elven gods do, at least in modern times, have to assume a host: And we know that the same is true of the Old Gods - after all, according to the Tevinter, they aren't truly dragons, despite those being their physical form, but spirits who have clothed themselves in the bodies of dragons. Not to mention that Origins outright showed us the spirit of an Old God simply passing to a new body upon the death of its old one. 

The idea of turning into dragons shows up elsewhere, too, of course - it is one of Flemeth's abilities as Mythal's vessel. That's surely no coincidence.

In almost every fashion, the elven gods and the Old Gods seem to be identical. Why, then, do I think that the Old Gods are the Forgotten Ones, and not just the elven pantheon?

Well, to start with, the elven gods are also known as 'the Creators', and attributed with the creation of the world, something which the Old Gods are explicitly noted as not being able to do. Both the Chantry and their own Tevinter worshippers claim that creation was an impossible feat for the Old Gods, which would seem odd if they were part of a pantheon named for their creation of the world - but would make perfect sense for the pantheon that exists in opposition to those creators.

There's also the fact that the numbers are wrong. The Old Gods number seven. Including Fen'Harel, the elven gods number nine.

There is the fact that several elven gods walk the world still, whereas we have been given time and time again on various good authorities that all seven Old Gods were sealed beneath the earth.

Then there's the location of their sealing: The elven gods, the Creators, were purportedly sealed within the Eternal City - if that's the Golden City, then it's one place the Old Gods seem unable to go, instead having to send agents in their stead: The entire shebang with tempting seven Tevinter magisters to tear open the Veil and enter the Golden City (which, according to Corypheus, was already corrupted on arrival - editorial for another time) reeks of this being a task the Old Gods are unable to perform on their own. Even while sleeping, they cannot dream themselves into the place where the Creators are supposedly trapped.

Underground, meanwhile, makes much more sense as 'the Void'. To someone trapped deep beneath the earth, where no light can reach you, underground chambers may very well seem like a vast, empty void, after all.

If the Creators and the Forgotten Ones are enemies, though, why would Mythal be interested in saving Old Gods? Well, they're purportedly enemies. Mythology in Dragon Age is always a mass of half-truths corrupted by time. Either way, though, Mythal wants vengeance on somebody for a betrayal: We know that her betrayer wasn't Fen'Harel, we were told as much - in fact, we were told that even the betrayal that caused the elven gods and Forgotten Ones to be sealed away was not, as mythology states, his betrayal. It's unlikely to be the Old Gods. It doesn't seem to be the Dalish elves, who she still provides with blessings. 

What we also know is that Mythal's betrayal parallels Flemeth's to at least some degree - Flemeth, whose husband killed her lover and imprisoned her in a jealous rage. Could Mythal have been betrayed by Elgar'nan, then, her husband and the elvish god of vengeance? It would certainly fit with his character in mythology to lash out violently, and who then could Mythal turn to for allies in seeking justice against him, if not the Forgotten Ones? 

(Worth noting, also, is that Elgar'nan is associated with the sun. The only other god associated heavily with the sun in Thedas is the Maker, jealous and wrathful god of the Chantry, foe of the Old Gods, and as mentioned earlier, resident of the Golden City that might very well be the Eternal City of elven legend. Like Mythal and the Old Gods, the Maker is sometimes associated with dragons as well.)

It's just a theory, obviously, and until the next story DLC of Inquisition comes out, we're unlikely to get any clear information that will confirm or even give us hints as to what's going on. I'm personally greatly looking forward to that, though. I do love some theorising.

Gosh, this was a long post.

Friday, 26 June 2015

Dreamfall Chapters - Book 3: Realms.

Dreamfall Chapters
Book 3: Realms.

Gosh, this came out sooner than I expected. After a near five month wait between episodes one and two of this series, episode three appears, nigh-on unannounced, a little over three months later. That's a fairly drastically cut development cycle. I approve - as I approve in general of shorter development cycles, provided they don't result in a loss of quality.

Picking up a short while after the second episode, which saw Oldtown come under siege by the Azadi and Zoe get caught in a bombing, episode three sees our viewpoint characters in even direr straits than before. In Stark, Zoe finds herself in the middle of a draconian military dictatorship as the Syndicate takes over Propast - deciding that she has to dream her way into Arcadia once more, she is sent on the run when agents of the Syndicate attempt to kill her. Meanwhile, in Arcadia, Kian sets out to find the purpose of the Azadi pipes - a search that brings him into a confrontation with his mentor, Hami. Meanwhile (or, perhaps, very much not meanwhile), in the mysterious house, Saga accidentally opens a Shift into another world.

Well, first thing's first: Crow's back! Yay, Crow! It did occur to me during this episode that he might be intensely irritating to people who didn't play The Longest Journey and thus maybe don't have that emotional attachment to him, but I do have that emotional attachment to him, and he's one of the characters who Chapter has been very much teasing us with (I think he's been referenced or seen from afar in both of the previous episodes), so it was a joyous experience for me to have him show up and, even better, talk - with the same voice as Crowboy from Stark, I think, thus kind of confirming that Crow and Crowboy are in some fashion related - probably by way of Crowboy being inspired by dreams of Crow. Or something. How much Stark and Arcadia parallel each other has always been kind of confusing.

Also, we saw Arcadia in the day. It's been a while.

Of the characters we're being teased with, that leaves April (who you know is going to show up sooner or later - yes, I know she was stabbed and drowned and I think may have also been set on fire, but people have suffered worse and walked it off) and, of course, the Prophet, our main villain, oft mentioned but as-yet not seen at all in Chapters. If Saga's drawings and ominous descriptions thereof are anything to go by, it is even more likely now that Brian Westhouse is the Prophet.

It's safe to say that I really enjoyed this episode - like my Tales from the Borderlands review earlier this week, I feel like there's not a lot new I can really say, bar that unlike Tales, this episode was in many ways a turning point in the plot, setting things up for events to start getting very fraught very quickly in upcoming episodes.

It wasn't a slow episode, either - the second episode had problems with occasionally slowing to a crawl with fiddly, unwieldy 'match the maintenance tool to the vent' puzzles and suchlike. This is a much more streamlined episode, and the gameplay is starting to approach at least some kind of happy balance between the not-even-really-puzzles of the first episode and the not-really-difficult-but-awkward-puzzles of the second episode. I say 'some kind', because the gameplay is still entirely too easy, I think: In Dreamfall Chapters, for example, you can knock a man out by locating an opiate leaf and giving it to the sympathetic bartender to mix into his beer - but adventure games have always been predicated on puzzles within puzzles, and in The Longest Journey, for example, that puzzle would have had you  find the opiates, distract a goat away from the opiates so that you could pick them, and do several more puzzles procuring something to cover up the taste from a merchant, only to find out that the man will now only drink a rare wine that can only be found in the locked cellars of an entirely different tavern. And also there's a cockatrice in those cellars that you have to get past. 

That's the kind of gameplay I want. Adventure game gameplay has always been characterised by its absurdity, and its challenge has always been following the maddening thought processes of lunatics to try to find a solution to your puzzles. I don't want to just be able to pick up some opiates and drop them in some beer. It's not a puzzle if I don't need to stow a live corgi in my coat for three hours to solve it.

What a charming game of golf.

The puzzle that comes closest to what I'd like from Chapters, and which is also just comedic gold, is Zoe's reprogramming of a robot to get around a mob warehouse. Given three (later four) choices of personality - a stealthy ninja, a kung-fu master, a hauler, and an enthusiastic baseball fan, she has to use the right personality in the right context to get around the warehouse. It's an interesting set-up, and more could have been done with it. 

I realise, of course, that more convoluted puzzles would eat into development time, which for episodic games is somewhat at a premium. So here's what my suggestion would have been if this project was just starting out: Remove the choices mechanic. I realise that choice is all the rage in episodic gaming, but it isn't a requirement, and to be honest, in my old age I increasingly find it a bit tired. I am absolutely okay with a game not bothering to give me the illusion of choice, I really am.

Absolutely not ominous.

But I did adore this episode, and I'm looking forward to episode four - which should see Kian heading into the Azadi prison camps, Zoe meeting the resistance, and the Prophet's arrival in Marcuria, just in case anyone had forgotten that the Tower opening ceremony is imminent and the Prophet is coming for that. One does wonder what he'll think of Vamon and Sahya's plans to assassinate Hami and Utana. Something tells me that he won't be pleased.

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Hyrule Warriors.

Hyrule Warriors.

Let me say this to start: There should be Dynasty Warriors games for every franchise. I want to see Atlus and Tecmo Koei putting out Persona Warriors; or Tecmo Koei and Square-Enix putting out Final Fantasy Warriors; or Tecmo Koei and Nintendo putting out Mario Warriors. Or Tecmo Koei and Bandai doing a Kamen - oh, wait, wait, no, that's essentially what Battride Wars was. 

It's a very malleable formula that can be applied to pretty much any franchise, so I hardly see why not.

But today we're talking about Hyrule Warriors, a Dynasty Warriors type game set in the world of Legend of Zelda. Playing as any of sixteen characters, including Link, Zelda, Ganondorf, and one-game bug obsessive little girl Agitha, you are pitted against hordes of disposable enemies and tasked with capturing bases and defeating enemy commanders. Play in Free mode, or in the story-driven Legend mode, in which a time-and-space manipulating sorceress, Cia, attempts to steal the Triforce and take over Hyrule.

I'm not going to talk about the story too much, because nobody bought this game for the scintillating story, and Nintendo provided only the most perfunctory story-related marketing: Which is fitting, because it's only the most perfunctory story. The story exists solely to get you from one big battle to another, and occasionally to justify the odd things you're doing in battle (why is Ganondorf beating up monsters who would usually be his allies? Well, as a display of power!) and is swiftly shuffled off to a box of shame somewhere at the side when it isn't being used for that purpose.

In this game, Ganondorf has more hair than any other iteration of him.

So, you'll never find yourself invested in the story, and chances are you won't find yourself hugely invested in any of the new characters either - there are four: Lana, Cia, Volga and Wizzro, and while they're all neat characters, the story doesn't put in much (or really any) effort to having you like them. Lana and Cia both get brief stints at being the bearer of the Triforce of Power, though, so that's nice for them, one supposes.

But what pretty much anyone who bought this game bought it for was the gameplay, and that's top notch. It's marvelously relaxing to be able to stride through a battlefield effortlessly beating up hordes of weak and easy to kill monsters (it's also not the first time Legend of Zelda has done this - they had an entire late-game section of Skyward Sword devoted to the same principle), who will very often go flying in waves when you hit them. While there are sixteen playable characters, I found after playing them all that there were only really five I found enjoyable: Link, Zelda, Ganondorf, Volga, and Cia, all of whom have the defining trait of being fast with wide reaches. There were a few characters, like Sheik, Lana, Fi, and Darunia, that I found absolutely intolerable - usually because they had awkward, finicky attacks.

There's enough variety that any gamer will be able to find at least a few characters that they like, though, and the game doesn't often lock you into using a specific characters - there's one mission where you have to play Lana, and a few missions where you have to play Link or Ganondorf, but other than that, you'll always have the freedom to choose from at least two characters.

Lana, people have died. Thousands of people have died.

(And, if you feel like sixteen characters still lacks for variety, you can get any of the DLC that include new characters - one has Midna in her true form, wielding the twilight mirror; and one has Young Link and Tingle.)

Because you are essentially a godless war machine who no force on Hyrule can stop, tension and challenge often come from completing your objectives before the enemy has the chance to overrun your usually far less competent allies - because while these characters may be unstoppable in your hands, have them controlled by an AI and they suddenly become incapable of doing much of anything. 

(This is also true of enemy commanders, who despite being forces to be reckoned with when under your control, can all be defeated by locking onto them, running close, and repeatedly spamming the quick attack. Except Zelda, oddly: She's too fast for that strategy.)

It's actually impossible to hit downed enemies, so stop pointing your sword, Zelda.

It's a good way of adding challenge in a game which is so heavily built around your enemies not presenting a physical challenge to you. 

All in all, it's a very good video game, provided you go in expecting wacky hack-and-slash fun rather than a proper Legend of Zelda game. It is, after all, a Dynasty Warriors game, and one of the better ones at that. 

Also, I will never get tired of pointing out that when Ubisoft was declaring that women playable characters were simply impossible, Nintendo and Tecmo Koei were providing us with sixteen playable characters of which nine are women. 

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Tales from the Borderlands E3: Catch A Ride.

Tales from the Borderlands
Episode 3
Catch A Ride.

So, I've not exactly made any bones about how much I enjoy Tales from the Borderlands - I think it is far and away the best work Telltale Games has put out yet, and vastly superior to the work it's being released alongside, Game of Thrones. That's all still true - despite improvements in Telltale Games' Game of Thrones, I still hold that Tales from the Borderlands is the better, funner game.

I'm not as keen on its development schedule.

To go back to comparisons with Game of Thrones, that started in December of 2014 and has since had four episodes out, with a fifth due out very seen - probably next month. Tales from the Borderlands started in November, and has just released its third episode. That's actually a considerable difference, especially for a company that, prior to this, almost uniformly released its episodes every two months, and especially at a time when it's also facing competition in the episodic gaming genre from Life is Strange, which has had good quality episodes releasing on a consistent six-to-eight week schedule; and Dreamfall Chapters, which has made up for its longer development times by having, fittingly, longer episodes.

Tales from the Borderlands is oddly lagging behind, with sporadic releases that seem to follow no particular schedule, and that puts it in danger of losing fan interest, especially when its competitors - both within its own company and outside of it - are backed by a big IP, a big company, and a big name director with a devoted cult following respectively.

But onwards with the actual review.

Oh, hey guys.

Catch a Ride, the third episode of Tales from the Borderlands, sees the gang having just barely escaped from the Gortys Facility with the strange sphere inside - which reveals itself to be a sapient robot that, when completed, will lead them to a vault. Also on the tail of the vault, however, is Vallory, an old associate of Fiona and Sasha's mentor. As the group attempt to find Gortys' energy chassis, their search leads them to an old Atlas terraforming facility, where they find a mysterious elderly man, evil jellyfish, and two vault hunters.

While I enjoyed this episode, I profess that it is in many ways the weakest of the three, in large part because there's nothing I can really say about it that I haven't already said about previous episodes. I mean, that's fine, in a way: Those previous episodes were all very strong, and I didn't have many complaints about them, and this one is much the same. The humour is consistent and on-point, the action is wacky and fun, the episode is well-paced but, unfortunately, too short for the time it spent in development, weighing in at about one and a half hours.

I've said all those things about the second episode, and it still holds true. If anything, the biggest change in this episode is the introduction of new characters Gortys, Athena (who's not really new, but does get a much bigger role in this episode) and Vallory - Gortys and Athena as the sixth and seventh members of the team and Vallory as the new villain, a rocket launcher wielding deadpan elderly woman who is quick to replace the Vasquez-August double team.

Anyone else worried that Jack-possessed Rhys' eye turns yellow? You know, like it
is in the present day sections?

They're both fine, but they're not game changers. Gortys is adorable, and its childlike nature is a great source of humour; Vallory is a very sinister villain who easily one-ups the more comedic Vasquez (August is still around, so she doesn't so much one-up him as she does absorb him); and Athena is a great character who fits into the team dynamic really well and also (joyously) provides us with some nice LGBT representation, as a big part of her subplot is that she hasn't told her girlfriend that she's still a Vault Hunter.

We do also get the hint that the masked figure holding Rhys and Fiona hostage in the present-day sections is someone they know, which pretty much means it's Vaughn, Sasha, August, Loader Bot, or Gortys, with varying amounts of disguisery having to have happened in order to make that work. I'm interested to see where that goes. 

It's all good, but none of it feels new or fresh. If anything, it feels more like the devs had little to no idea what to do for their third episode and just used it as a bridge to get from their second episode to their fourth - the second episode being the big showdown with Vasquez and August, and the fourth episode seemingly taking the crew back to (or 'to for the very first time') Helios, Hyperion's  gigantic lunar base. We even get a little Fallout-oid preview for that.

Gortys is very sweet.

I am excited for episode four, even though I fully expect that there will be another long wait until we see it. I'm excited to see Rhys and Vaughn return to their old home, something which will almost certainly lead to big things in their storylines; I'm excited to see Fiona and Sasha having to see what life is like up there, and what they think about it. I think it'll be a positive experience all around.

But in general, I just wish I could be more impressed.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Orphan Black Series 3.

Orphan Black
Series 3.

As long term readers might recall, I actually did Orphan Black as an ongoing last year. It was my second ongoing - Game of Thrones was the first, because any fool and caddock can tell you that it is a legal requirement for all blogs to do weekly updates on Game of Thrones - and I hated doing it with a deep and fiery passion, despite enjoying the series itself.

Part of that was because I prefer marathoning it to watching it every week (and marathon it is what I did this time, watching the first nine episodes in one week and then the tenth when it aired) Orphan Black has a density of plot that often makes reviewing it episode by episode very difficult. I can respect that kind of dense, no-frills plotting, and it's always been one of Orphan Black's greatest strength - that it has a concision and understanding of form that ensures that there are no wasted minutes.

Picking up shortly after the end of the second series, the third series sees the Leda Sisters thrown into conflict with Castor, the military-created male line of clones. With both the Leda and Castor clones dying, and with Castor's masters having sinister intentions for the original genetic material, the two clone factions (along with Dyad and its corporate sponsors, Topside) end up in a race to find the Castor Original Genome. Meanwhile, several players begin to have suspicions that both Castor and Topside may be under the control of another organisation.

Is the moustache one called Seth? He might be called Seth.

Okay, so, I'm going to come out and say this right now: Castor was a mistake.

Much of Orphan Black's success is predicated on Tatiana Maslany's ability to convincingly portray a dozen different people and have them all seem distinct, different, and instantly recognisable through body language alone (in many respects, the show is what Dollhouse, Joss Whedon's sci-fi story about Eliza Dushku taking on different personalities, wanted to be - a very comprehensive showcase of a particular actor's abilities. The problem with that was that while Dushku wasn't lacking in acting ability, Whedon kept writing her as the same character over and over). Ari Millen, who plays the Castor clones, is not as talented as Maslany. Don't get me wrong, he's a good actor - but he's not good enough to make the Castor clones distinct from one another. They all act almost exactly the same, regardless of if they're good, evil, or slowly going mad. 

Luckily, they all have distinctive physical traits to set them apart: Rudy has a scar, Whatshisface has a porn star's moustache, and Mark has silly hair and no friends on account of being so boring that you could sleep through his scenes and not miss any entertainment.

Also, Cosima gets a new girlfriend who talks a lot about auras and things like that.

Lacking too was the sense of a dangerous balance: One of the things that made Dyad compelling as a villain is that while its motives were sinister, the sisters had no choice but to work with them somewhat, to try and find a balance between taking advantage of their resources while guarding themselves against the organisation's more sinister intentions. The result was a struggle between the two to gain leverage over each other, and you don't have that with Castor: They are unambiguously villainous and unreasonable, neither the sisters nor Dyad really need them, and the threat they represent is almost always a direct and physical one. It's a much less interesting dynamic.

(The series does try and spice them up a bit by putting resident whose-side-is-he-on-now character Paul with them, which would probably be more effective if Paul wasn't approximately as interesting as plywood.)

Did they practice their unimpressed poses beforehand, though.

And you could almost see the writers come to the same conclusion as the series progressed - increasingly as time goes on, they have less and less screentime, with even Castor clones du jour Rudy and Mark being given mere minutes of screentime by the final episode - minutes that result in one of them dying and the other one being shuffled out of the show never to be seen again. 

(Even Paul, who you might have thought could just switch sides again, perishes six or seven episodes in and is never mentioned again.)

The series ends on an alarming note, with Delphine seemingly killed (meaning Dyad will likely be taken over by slightly off-his-rocker executive Ferdinand, last seen flying off the handle and dumping a still living man into an acid bath), and the reveal that both Topside and Castor are under the control of the Neolutionists - you might remember that Leekie, former head of Dyad and prospective furry, was one of them - whose scientific advancements include horrifying mouth worms that may have mind control properties.

Which might end up being Orphan Black's shark-jumping moment. We'll see.

Monday, 22 June 2015

Owari no Seraph (First Course).

Owari no Seraph
(First Course).

Guess who's got two hands and gastoenteritis. That's right, statistically speaking a not insignificant number of people given how common a complaint it is. But also me, which is the important thing. Also, my mic stand broke, so this day is turning out swimmingly, and what can make it swimmier but a long look at Owari no Seraph, a very well-received anime that aired its first course this season.

I don't know why it's so well-received. We're - we're really not going to get a chance to explore that oddity in detail, because I wouldn't even know where to start with it.

Owari no Seraph is about Yu, a young boy who escapes a vampire city, losing his family in the progress. Now on the outside, he enlists in the human army with the intention of killing every vampire he comes across. Little does he know, however, that one of his adopted siblings, Mika, survived and was transformed into a vampire, and that the coming war between humans and vampires will put them on opposing sides.

I'll be honest, out of twelve episodes, you'll want to skip the first four. The first one is one of the most hack-handed attempts of emotional manipulation I've ever seen, the writing equivalent of ramming your head against a wall repeatedly while screaming 'BE SAD NOW' at the top of your lungs; and the three episodes after that are even worse.

"THIS CHARACTER HAS A SWORD BE EXCITED NOW." - Owari no Seraph's writers, probably.

They're not worse because of emotional manipulation, though, they're worse because they consist almost entirely of clumsily exposition. For those three episodes, characters can't walk two steps through the ridiculous and awkwardly justified high school setting (I'm not even sure why it's there, since the only high-school-anime hijinkery that takes place is some girl giving Yu a letter saying that she has a crush on him, and the entire setting is forgotten about before long) without suddenly turning and announcing "As you well know!" followed by reams and reams of expository monologues on anything from the characters' backstories to the army's policy on casual hook-ups. It's painful. I wouldn't wish those three episodes on my worst enemy, because every time you think something is going to happen, it always ends up just being even more talking.

It was so dull that I actually took to liveblogging it as a coping mechanism. I've never ever felt the need to do that before.

After that first third of the course, the show improves a little, but really only a little. For the life of it, it seems to not realise that absolutely nobody is watching to see Yu's development into someone who isn't a total tool, we're watching for vampire vs demon-wielding human battles, because it keeps skipping those. One episode has the cast sizing off against a small gang of vampires, only to then immediately skip to the aftermath so that we can see Yu bond with a child or something.

Guren is the only soldier with red highlights instead of green.
The brass saw their opportunity and they took it, evidently.

The final episode of the first course, used by many series as a climactic cliffhanger, instead focuses almost exclusively on Yu's friendships and Mika's angst, and while I do generally approve of character development and friendship antics in my anime, I also approve of concision (ie; maybe don't spend twelve minutes on your gang of friends having an adorable moment, to the exclusion of nigh on everything else), drama, and canny use of format (ie; maybe if you're going to leave your audience for a chunk of the year, leave them with something memorable). In many ways, the final episode served no purpose that hadn't already been served in the car scene earlier in the series.

Also, I literally fell asleep while watching it. I had to load it up and watch it for a second time later that day because I had drifted off to sleep for several hours. That's not exactly a glowing mark of recommendation there.

All of this - okay, some of this, some of this could have been forgiven if the central conflict, that of Yu and Mika being on opposite sides of a war, was actually interesting. But it isn't, really: The war doesn't really affect their dynamic at all - that, instead, is boiled down to what amounts to a terrible misunderstanding caused by terrible communication skills (a plot device I always love, naturally), rather than conflicting loyalties or conflicting agendas, which would have actually driven, you know, conflict. Instead, the conflict is around them, but they're separate from it.


Overall, I - can't recommend this. If you have some free time you desperately need to fill and you've already watched Kekkai Sensen, then maybe look up a few episodes and be ready with some alcohol. Or maybe just listen to the soundtrack, because Hiroyuki Sawano's work is always excellent, even if I am reaching the point where I'm just exhausted by hearing him in things. Other composers exist, guys. I know it might not seem that way, but they do.

Saturday, 20 June 2015

World War Blue.

World War Blue.

World War Blue, an anime by 5th Avenue adapted from the manga of the same name by Anastasia Shestakova, is blessed with the best premise ever conceived of by the minds of man. Set in the warring medieval kingdoms of Ninteldo and Segua, the series covers a war taking place in the aftermath of the fall of the great kingdom of Atarika. In this war, a young man, Gear, known as 'Blue Sonic' joins the Segua army in order to avenge the death of his friend. He is quickly sent on a mission to retrieve General Alex, a Segua soldier kidnapped by the enemy.

If you didn't figure it out from that summary, World War Blue is a retelling of the early 90s console war between Nintendo and Sega, that ended in Sega becoming a third party developer of video games while Nintendo became a massively profitable industry giant. That's a fantastic premise, with a tremendous amount of potential for interesting storylines and clever comedic twists.

The series itself is actually awful, though. It may, in fact, be the worst thing I've watched all year - and I watched Seventh Son of all things. 

Its crimes, in the main, are being barely a series at all, creepy as all get out, and unspeakably boring. We may as well run down those in order.

Really, that's what the two of you are wearing into battle.

Firstly, it's only three episodes long. Given what the series is like in terms of quality, that's actually a blessing, but the fact remains that this is not really a series so much as it is a failed pilot split into thirds, with a not inconsiderable amount of padding thrown in to fill it out. It is, in essence, an origin story for its protagonist, Gear, and as it is more setting up the premise than anything else, a lot of the characters advertised, like Mario-expy Marcus and Pikachu-girl Pirika, either show up for more seconds or never appear at all.

The series clearly ends with the expectation that one channel or another is going to leap on it and buy another twelve episodes, with the torturous final five minutes of the third episode being devoted to a montage of upcoming villains. But of course, no channel did, so we're left with the anime in its entirety being essentially a sneak peek.

Secondly, it - anime has a creepiness problem, okay? Let's just come out and say that right now, a lot of anime has skeevy sexualisation clumsily shoved into it, often only exacerbated by weird sexual politics and the relatively juvenile looking characters. It is one of the main reasons why I drop various anime, and one of the main reasons why it's so difficult going onto fan forums for it, which have a tendency to be crowded with fanboys who get very, very angry if the main character of any show doesn't have his pick of interested and available women.

A rant for another time.

Most of the animation doesn't look like this. It's much worse.

World War Blue has that problem magnified to about ten thousand. It is a constant, unending drum beat of creepy sexualisation - every scene that has female characters Opal or Ramses in is devoted to having them contort into weird, sexual positions; a running and frankly weird subplot is Opal learning to 'hold in' her energy shooting powers, with this represented by her moaning and trembling while she monologues about how she's so good at 'holding things in'; there are no less than seven references to Opal being sexually assaulted, including an attempted rape scene in the third episode, played for titillation and laughs.

(Ramses, incidentally, also gets two references made to other characters wanting to sexually assault her.)

It makes the entire show incredibly uncomfortable. It feels like every time you settle into a groove watching it, Ms. Shestakova herself leans over and screams 'OPAL'S GAGGIN' FOR IT, THE JEZEBEL' and you have to spend fifteen minutes herding her out of your house.

Usually I'd lead into the third problem by saying 'both these problems could be forgiven if it wasn't so dull', but no, no, neither of them could be forgiven even if it was the most interesting show ever. 


That's a moot point, though, because this is an absurdly boring anime. There is nothing here that will keep your attention once the novelty of the premise wears off - which it will about thirty seconds in. The animation is shoddy, characters are all shounen anime archetypes forcibly stripped of anything that makes those archetypes interesting, the music is bland, and the plot is meandering and cliche.

In the third episode, the writing appears to try and make a saving throw of sorts by having Gear be tasked with basically consuming the life force of General Alex, his father. It's a neat parallel to Sonic the Hedgehog replacing Alex Kidd as Sega's mascot, and if played right it could have presented an interesting moral choice for Gear.

Naturally, it wasn't played right, and instead it is repeatedly framed as not really a choice at all, with everyone, even Alex, saying that no, no, Gear should definitely just absorb his life force, there aren't any moral grey areas here at all. It's one of those very clumsy attempts to drum up the emotion of a difficult moral choice without morally compromising your protagonist, and those always fall completely flat. Gear seems to get over any reservations he had in about two minutes anyway.

All in all, a bafflingly terrible series, and a waste of a perfectly serviceable plotline. What a tremendous disappointment. 

Friday, 19 June 2015

Editorial: The Best and Worst 3 Final Fantasy Games.

Editorial: The Best and Worst
Three Final Fantasy Games.

Hello, everyone! I am actually still all in a tizzy over E3, which is why we have another editorial here. I thought about doing a five best (which would have almost certainly included Final Fantasy XIV) and then later a five worst (which would have almost certainly included Final Fantasy VII), but I elected, instead, to take this somewhat more concise approach.

As is usually the case in Final Fantasy editorials, I am counting Kingdom Hearts, I think that's just logical. I am not including All the Bravest, although rest assured that if I did it would be bloody topping this list, both because I've not played it and because I don't think it counts as a game, in the same way a child weeping in the corner doesn't count as a game no matter how many times you wave an Xbox controller at it.

... Don't know how well that analogy worked out. Eh. Let's roll on.

Winning Bronze with 3rd Best: Kingdom Hearts II. 

While I have some very strong views about the direction that the franchise has gone in, Kingdom Hearts II  remains, to me, the pinnacle of the series. It's not a perfect game, by any means, but it's a fun hack-and-slasher with some nice RPG elements (even if I wish there was a way of extending your Drive meters infinitely) and a storyline that, while a bit hackneyed and awfully paced in areas, is coherent and emotional and gets the job done. I respect getting the job done.

Kingdom Hearts II could have quite happily functioned as the end of that storyline - it wraps the entire storyline up quite elegantly - and I recently found myself wishing that it was. Birth by Sleep and Dream Drop Distance would be far less offensive if they weren't horrifyingly overcomplicating what was an already perfectly serviceable storyline, and the lengthy development cycle of Kingdom Hearts III would have been much less distasteful if it wasn't the long-awaited conclusion to a storyline that could have been wrapped up a decade ago.

Winning Wood with 3rd Worst: Kingdom Hearts - Birth by Sleep. 

Speaking of Kingdom Hearts, whoever thought that Birth by Sleep was a good idea - let's face it, it was Tetsuya Nomura - can go perish in the fires of Hell.

It's not the gameplay that is the problem. An adjusted form of Crisis Core's gameplay, the game plays slightly awkwardly but certainly not in any way that is an impediment to one's enjoyment. Nor, really, is it it the characters - Terra is a lot of fun, Aqua has rapidly become a fan favourite for good reason, and villains Vanitas and Xehanort.

There are two problems with it. Firstly, with three characters going through the same worlds you end up covering a lot of ground repeatedly. That's not great. But an even bigger problem, the problem that puts it on its list, is that it's a side game that massively overcomplicates the storyline of the main series. As my good friend Reecey pointed out in her own post on Kingdom Hearts III, if you were following straight on from the second game, as many people will, you will be utterly confused as to who the two figures playing chess are, and probably a lot more.

Don't put your important storyline details in side games, guys. And don't turn your plot into a tangled rat king of story.

Winning Silver with 2nd Best: Final Fantasy X.

Final Fantasy X was my first Final Fantasy game and my first JRPG, and I was entirely unsure as to what to expect from it - it wasn't a game I had bought, per se, it and Final Fantasy XII came with my used PS2, along with True Crime LA and a few more games that I don't well recall.

But it's a fan favourite and with good reason - Final Fantasy X is an archetypal Final Fantasy game in all the best ways, combining a deep and epic story with a techno-fantasy setting and a cast of interesting characters, with some strong turn-based gameplay to boot - in fact, it is, I think, the last of the main series games to have turn-based gameplay, which is terrible.

It's a fantastic entrance to the series, and it still holds up well today - it is a game that ages slowly, and I would recommend it to anyone.

Winning Bromine with 2nd Worst: Final Fantasy VIII.

Final Fantasy VIII stayed more or less off my radar until recently - I knew of it, and I even knew a chunk of details about the story (enough that I could reasonably discuss its story with people), but I had never played it, nor watched anyone else play it, which left me wholly unprepared for how unspeakably terrible it is when I actually did watch someone play it.

A game that has profited heavily in fan regard from the presence of beloved fan icon VII and underappreciated gem IX on the other, and profited even more from nostalgia, Final Fantasy VIII is a game that people praise as being great while apparently forgetting the horrendously clunky, often broken gameplay; the plot that borders on nonsensical at times; or the wooden, unlikable characters who often behave in bewildering ways.

Essentially, I'm saying that I don't like it. It did not live up to the expectations fandom had given me of it. 

Winning Gold with 1st Best: Final Fantasy XII.

Final Fantasy XII is the most under-appreciated gem in the series and I will fight anyone who disagrees. 

It's not a perfect game, by any means - the ability to pause and give your team commands while paused would have been very much appreciated - and its development cycle was a shambles, but it's one of the most unique games in the series, a political epic in a vast and mostly open world, with a plot that absolutely never gets boring and a cast of characters that are all deep, intriguing people with their own agendas.

Except Vaan. I don't know why he's even there.

It's a game that, like X, has aged very well, and will most likely continue to look and play as sharply as it ever did for years to come. Frankly, it deserved a sequel more than XIII. Speaking of which ...

Winning Highly Dangerous Uranium with 1st Worst: Final Fantasy XIII.

Every time I mention not liking this game, someone remarks that it was their favourite, which I suppose is understandable. Some people actually liked Assassin's Creed: Unity, after all, and I very nearly put that at the top of this list instead just on principle.

XIII could have been a good game - it has an interesting cast of characters, an intriguing setting, and the paradigm system has a lot of potential. What killed it was both the utterly incoherent, tortured story that never seemed to have any idea where it's going, and the gameplay.

Square's obsession with not having turn-based gameplay struck again in this game, as it sacrificed gamer involvement for, essentially, cinematic prettiness, having your gameplay contributions come entirely down to changing you party's paradigms. But in a good game, that would only be a part of the gameplay, in the same way that Bravely Default's gameplay doesn't consist solely of changing your party's classes.

Combine that with the game being extremely railroaded until nearly the end, bosses that will cast Doom on you if they think you're taking too long to kill them (I'M SORRY DID YOU HAVE SOMEWHERE TO BE?), and two unnecessary sequels, and this was an easy choice for the top of the list.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Kamen Rider Drive E34: Who Claimed The Life of Eisuke Tomari?

Kamen Rider Drive
Episode 34
Who Claimed The Life of Eisuke Tomari?

You know, I am fascinated by the process behind Kamen Rider production. We've seen before that series can often be malleable, changing to give fan favourites more prominence (such as Date in OOOs and Hayami in Fourze, both of whom were purportedly supposed to die at the close of their series' second acts, and both of whom went on to become regulars), to retool elements that aren't going over so well (see Hibiki and Blade), or even just to account for unexpected problems (such as the health problems of Hana's actress in Den-O). 

Sometimes those changes can work well, and sometimes they lead to what feels like incoherence, and I think the entire Eisuke Tomari plotline is the latter. Only introduced in Act III, with Shinnosuke's father barely being mentioned beforehand, it felt like a clumsy addition meant to up the personal stakes - something which doesn't really work, because Shinnosuke has never been the 'tragic backstory' kind of character. It would be like suddenly revealing halfway through Double that Shotaro's parents were actually the creators of the Gaia Memories or something.

Nevertheless, the show is pushing on with this storyline, as this week the Special Crimes Unit encounters the Thief Roimyude, a hybrid who has stolen evidence related to Eisuke's murder, and kidnapped a forensic scientist who had worked on the case. As they investigate, it becomes increasingly obvious to Shinnosuke and the gang that while Makage was involved in the murder, he was not the culprit. Meanwhile, Brain acts as Thief's ally, determined to get some use out of him.

Shinnosuke, why are you just rolling with this rivalry? Why aren't you as confused as I am?

As much as I hate this storyline, I did actually quite like this episode. It's not very well-paced, I'll say that - despite the relative simplicity of the storyline it feels like it's spread too thin, not least because so much time seems to be taken up with the comic relief forensic scientist, who really has two jokes: She eats things (which is ... funny? Because food is comedic? I don't know) and she wants to commit unspeakable sins upon Shinnosuke's body. 

When the episode gets into its stride though - during the confrontation between Honganji, Thief, Brain, Shinnosuke, and Kiriko - it's surprisingly good. There is a dramatic weight to the reveal that Thief, and thus Eisuke's murderer, is actually Nira, and it comes as a surprise because Nira's storyline seemed to be done and dusted. His was a fairly archetypal character arc: He was an incompetent, sneering villain, he came over to the good guys just in time for the climactic end of the third act, and in most Kamen Rider shows, that would be that. He'd either become a recurring character, or he'd never be seen again.

Here, that whole character arc is, essentially, a trick meant to cover for the fact that Nira is actually a surprisingly sinister and oddly competent villain, who was a willing and enthused ally of Makage rather than an unsuspecting dupe. I like that as a twist, and I think it plays with audience expectations of the medium in interesting ways.

Good god, Honganji has ears.

But it would be better if it was present from the start - if Nira had been a recurring character from the beginning of the series, instead of being introduced in the third act, then this reveal would not just be clever but also much more weighty, and the same is true for if this whole murder plotline had been woven in from the start of the series. Instead, they are both hasty and recent additions, and that diminishes from the impact of this episode. 

In many ways, though, this is a real return to form for Drive, even moreso than the last episode was. The action scenes are good, and though there are three of them, which I think is too much, they're all kept fairly short. Brain and Nira both make excellent villains, and on the good guys' side, it's always nice to see Honganji's quiet badass side. There are parallels to be drawn between him and Nira both masking their true natures behind exaggerated clowning, if one is so inclined. 

Brain, in Joker-style lighting.

I'm surprised, as well, that they had Brain achieve his shiny golden form so soon, and I wonder if that means he's going to be killed off in the next episode, or if this is going to lead to him ousting Medic or something like that. That'll be interesting to see, and while the show hasn't always handled him well, Brain is a great character. Either way, next episode we will almost certainly see an end to the whole Eisuke Tomari arc, and that'll be nice.

It's nice when things are nice.