Wednesday, November 13, 2019

JoJo's Bizarre Adventure

JoJo Part 1 Phantom Blood.jpg 

An anime following the Joestar family starting with the end of the nineteenth century, with the first of the eponymous characters, Jonathan Joestar, having a rivalry with the adopted Dio Brando, with vampires thrown into the mix. Has some good, if a little violent, fight scenes, and the localization is overall sloppy, given the lack of translation for the opening and closing credits, plenty of Japanese onomatopoeia, and the convention of characters shouting the names of their attacks.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Chorus Skating

Alan Dean Foster’s final Spellsinger story opens with Flagyr the badger and his friend Invez the serval hearing a musical phenomenon, which is visible. Meanwhile, human spellsinger Jon-Tom and his otter friend Mudge are fishing while their wives are away, with their efforts at housekeeping largely being a mess. One of the cleaning sprites, Fugwheez, stands out, with Jon-Tom, desperate for a new adventure, visiting the turtle wizard Clothahump, who tells them of the wizard holiday Crixxas and the mentioned visible music, to which the spellsinger and his lutrine companion give chase.

The two encounter things such as intelligent paperwork and toll-takers Phembloch the ratal and Tack the shrew, who receive a more fanciful gate to defend through spellsong. Jon-Tom and Mudge soon meet the mongoose Lieutenant Naike, who seeks his country’s missing princess, the travelers agreeing to help. The grizzly bear Manzai holds several princesses hostage, with the company rescuing them and continuing on their way in chase of the fleeing music. The company eventually find a swamp buggy from Earth that conveys them across Karrakas. At the fishing village of Mashupro, they hear of a plague killing music, and incidents cause them to flee.

Afterward, the wayfarers endure a storm on the new craft for which they trade, although almost immediately after they escape it, they encounter an intelligent whirlpool that takes kindly to jokes. On one of the many islands they visit, they find a band from Earth that briefly tags along, after which they meet the main villain, Hieronymus Hinckel, a battle with him concluding the novel. Overall, this is an enjoyable conclusion to the Spellsinger saga, although many readers won’t get the musical references, and as with its predecessors the eighth entry references technology that didn’t exist when Jon-Tom first entered the novels’ world.

Friday, November 8, 2019

Secret of Mana (PlayStation Vita)

The Angels Need Not Fear

Once upon a time, Nintendo was pondering a compact disc addition to its sixteen-bit Super Famicom / Nintendo Entertainment System for want of competition with rival consoles of its generation, the Sega Mega Drive / Genesis and to a (far) lesser extent, the PC Engine / TurboGrafx-16. They first attempted a contract with Sony, which became serious to the point of a prototype CD system having physical proof, but negotiations eventually fell through. The Big N had similar experience with Phillips, behind-the-scenes politics resulting in the maligned Hotel Mario and “Unholy Triforce” of Zelda CDi games.

Among the planned launch titles for Nintendo’s CD add-on was a sequel to the Squaresoft Game Boy action roleplaying game Seiken Densetsu: Final Fantasy Gaiden, renamed Final Fantasy Adventure in North America. The mentioned fallout forced Square to strip down the first Seiken sequel to fit a sixteen-bit cartridge. Regardless, most consider the resultant game, given the English name Secret of Mana, a classic, later given ports to tablets and the SNES Classic, not to mention an overhauled remake for the PlayStation 4, Vita, and PC. One would consider the upgraded rerelease and opportunity to restore the purged content, but does it do so?

In ancient times, an advanced civilization exploited the world’s ethereal energy source, mana, to construct the Mana Fortress, an avian warship. This angered the gods, who sent giant beasts to war with civilization in a conflict that ruptured the world, until a warrior used the Mana Sword to destroy the fortress. When the game opens, an empire seeks to unseal the world’s eight Mana Seeds to restore the Mana Fortress. A boy named Randi happens upon said sacred weapon, resulting in his banishment from his hometown and rendezvous with the maiden Primm and androgynous sprite Popoi, who aid him.

Combat follows the same general rule as in prior incarnations of the game, where Randi and his allies happen upon a number of weapons with which they can assault the enemy. Each has a gauge that quickly charges to one hundred percent, which when full allows them to execute a physical attack for standard damage, although these may miss depending upon their hit percentages. Players can attack before these gauges full charge, although doing so is a bad idea, as damage will be far less, miss rates greater, and battles consequentially drawn out.

Killing enemies grants experience that levels weapons, unlocking charge attacks that slow their movement during charging and allow them to execute far-reaching physical strikes. However, these tend not to be worthwhile, as they can still miss, and given that only three enemies can occupy the screen at a time, standard attacks, given the ability to push foes around without fear of damage and close them in to attack them all at once, suffice just as well. The player gains Weapon Orbs from defeating bosses and occasionally from treasure chests that allow Watts the blacksmith to empower their armaments, allowing for further weapon leveling and more powerful charge attacks.

Early on, Primm and Popoi receive elemental magic that consumes MP, its use acquiring them experience for occasional leveling and more powerful spells, their level cap dictated by how many Mana Seeds Randi has sealed with his sword. Primm specializes in support and healing magic, whilst Popoi specializes in attack spells, which can be incredibly useful if the player uses the Analyzer spell to reveal enemy weaknesses. Given that some enemies such as ghosts are only killable through attack magic, however, permanence in use of the Analyzer spell against specific foes would have been welcome.

Unlike contemporary three-dimensional action games, the remake retains the original version’s top-down perspective, negating the camera problems present in 3-D titles such as the Kingdom Hearts series. Even so, the rerelease inherits some problems present in the initial incarnation such as the occasional idiocy of the AI, with allies having poor pathfinding and occasionally snagging against walls and other objects, though in these cases the player can control them manually and bring them around. Regardless, leveling weapons and magic can be enjoyable, and the port has features that make it preferable to the original game such as autosaving between room and environment transitions.

Secret of Mana was the first game to utilize a ring menu system, with this interface being easily navigable, items and magic having descriptions, and so forth. Shopping also uses ring menus, the game luckily showing if prospective equipment increases or decreases stats. Within the menus, moreover, the player can bring up a world map that tells their current objective, although a mini-map during flight is oddly absent. Moreover, the remake, akin to many other Japanese RPGs, makes viewing playtime difficult, and the in-game clock is somewhat slow. All in all, control is perhaps the game’s weakest link.

Significant new content in the remake includes chats among Randi, Primm, and Popoi whenever the player pays to stay at inns, which give them some characterization absent from prior incarnations. The characters are generally likeable and have sufficient backstory, with some background for the game’s world revealed upon starting a new game and some implied at a temple adjacent to a town. Granted, Secret of Mana still follows the “evil empire” cliché, with a dash of amnesia for Popoi, and the translation, while more than functional, makes some odd choices such as referring to the sprite child as “they,” which mars a key endgame scene.

Further noteworthy is the addition of voice acting, virtually all storyline and non-player character text accompanied by voices, which generally fit the characters, although the dancing merchants sometimes have variants in their vocals, and while much of the voicework is hit-or-miss (with the somewhat odd battle dialogue not helping), players can change to the Japanese performances instead. Hiroki Kikuta’s soundtrack has also been remixed, for the most part sounding superb, although those who swear by the original version’s music might not care for some tunes; however, there is the option to switch to the Super NES incarnation’s 16-bit tracks, and the aurals are generally pleasing.

The visuals are fully three-dimensional, with superb art direction indicated by the scenes that play during the backstory narrative when starting a new game. The character models for the protagonists Randi, Primm, and Popoi very much resemble their art, although many will notice during voiced cutscenes that involve the 3-D sprites that lips don’t move in sync with dialogue at all. However, the top-down battle visuals definitely look nice, with good environments and colors, and enemy models, in spite of plentiful palette swaps, contain nice design. Although the remake could easily pass for a PlayStation 2 RPG, the room for improvement isn’t as great as some have suggested.

Finally, a straightforward playthrough can take from twelve to twenty-four hours (slightly uncertain given the game clock’s sluggishness), and while there are trophies that add a little lasting appeal, one can acquire them all in a single playthrough.

Overall, the Vita version of the Secret of Mana is for the most part a solid rerelease that hits the right notes regarding its game mechanics, autosaving, well-written plot, great remixed soundtrack, and pleasing visuals. It does have control issues and to a lesser extent the hit-or-miss English voicework, and those expecting significant new content might experience disappointment. To be fair, though, most of said material cut from the initial release found use in other Square RPGs like Trials of Mana and Chrono Trigger, and those who haven’t played the original may find it their cup of tea.

This review is based on a playthrough of a digital copy purchased by the reviewer, without the multiplayer features utilized.

The Good:
+General solid game mechanics.
+Autosaving can be godsend.
+Well-written plot.
+Excellent remastered soundtrack.
+Pretty graphics.

The Bad:
-Some control quibbles.
-Occasional awkward dialogue.
-English voicework can be hit-or-miss.
-Not much reason to play through again.
-Not enough new content to lure those who swear by original version.

The Bottom Line:
A good remake that doesn’t take many chances.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: PlayStation Vita
Game Mechanics: 7.0/10
Controls: 6.0/10
Story: 7.5/10
Localization: 7.0/10
Music/Sound: 9.0/10
Graphics: 7.5/10
Lasting Appeal: 6.5/10
Difficulty: Adjustable
Playing Time: 12-24 Hours

Overall: 7.5/10

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Son of Spellsinger

Son of Spellsinger.jpg

Alan Dean Foster’s penultimate Spellsinger story opens with Talea, married to spellsinger Jon-Tom, finding a demon in a breadbox, after which she deals with her son Buncan, given his flawed singing voice and intentions to follow his father’s footsteps. Buncan starts a rap band with the son and daughter of the otters Mudge and Weegee, Squill and Neena, who practice in the woods, inadvertently summon a whale from a larger body of water, and make it a point to find an artifact known as the Grand Veritable, joining the sloth Gragelouth on a journey to find the MacGuffin.

During their journey, Buncan and company encounter hostile hounds for whom they summon mates in heat using their spellsinging abilities, and spend some time in the rodent-populated town of Hygria, which has a special eye for hygiene, and they find themselves prisoners. Neena is ultimately asked to spend time with the mink Baron Koliac Krasvin, with her companions mounting a rescue with the help of the drunken rhinoceros Snaugenhutt. They then encounter the tribe Xi-Murogg, who fertilize their crops with the blood and bones of their enemies, and marsupials who warn of experimental Dark Monks.

The Grand Veritable turns out to be a lie-detecting device that causes chaos during the last few chapters until it is found by a group from Earth. Overall, this is another enjoyable entry in Foster’s Spellsinger franchise, with plenty of memorable animal characters and good action, with mature content that somewhat makes it Redwall for older audiences. There are occasional plot elements that are unclear such as the influence of rap music in the alternate world when the series commenced back in the early 1980s prior to the musical genre’s introduction, but it’s still a good read.

Monday, November 4, 2019

The Boys

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This Amazon Prime series follows the eponymous group of vigilantes who fight back against superheroes, recognized by the general public and monetized by the corporation Vought International, who abuse their power. Pretty enjoyable, and I would continue to watch this as new seasons come out.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Batman: Arkham Asylum

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One Flew Over the Batman’s Cave

While comics originated in 18th-century Japan, not until the twentieth century during the 1930s would they receive popularity in countries such as Great Britain and the United States, the latter exposed to iconic characters such as - superheroes Superman and Batman. Both would ultimately come under the banner of DC Comics, with the two receiving their share of financially-successful films. Videogames featuring them would come about, although licensed games tend to be hit-or-miss, Superman in particular receiving his share of gaming turkeys throughout various console generations.

Development of a contemporary game featuring the Dark Knight, Batman: Arkham Asylum, began at developer Rocksteady Studios in May 2007, the development team beginning at forty people but expanding to sixty by the project’s conclusion. Inspiration for the game design included the Batman-penned works of creators such as Neal Adams, Frank Miller, and Grant Morrison, with several variations during the design that led to the removal of some story elements and certain antagonists of the Caped Crusader. Eventually released in August 2009 on various consoles, the creation cycle mercifully paid off.

Arkham Asylum opens with Joker’s incarceration at the eponymous institution after assaulting Gotham City Hall, but Batman suspects his nemesis allowed his own capture, and tags along. Sure enough, Joker escapes and threatens to detonate bombs hidden around Gotham if anyone attempts to enter Arkham, and it’s up to the Dark Knight to save the day. Aside from the Batman/Joker rivalry prevalent in the comics and other DC Comics media, the narrative generally contains solid writing, some points being surrealistic and reminding newcomers to the comic mythos of Batman’s backstory, along with a databank detailing backstory for the various characters, and has some twists native to the game.

Fortunately, solid gameplay backs the experience, Batman able to string combos against inmates he encounters, with some of his gadgets aiding combat, and strategy necessary versus foes that, for instance, utilize firearms, which are one of the Caped Crusader’s major weaknesses throughout the game. He can further stun enemies with his cape, needed to damage adversaries that wield knives or tasers, and swoop down from high places to assault enemies. Bosses occasionally play part, requiring some sort of strategy to beat, and Batman acquires experience from fallen adversaries the player can use to upgrade things such as his life. The combat system is generally enjoyable, although some might find difficulties higher than Easy to be daunting, and the camera can be fickle at points.

Control is Arkham Asylum’s low point, with no mini-map during exploration that would be useful in showing Batman’s location and nearby foes, the former the player can only verify by opening the map interface, otherwise helpful. The menus, however, are easy to traverse, but in-game indication of playtime would have been welcome, alongside skippable cutscene text (though scenes themselves are skippable), a pause button during said story scenes, and so forth. However, exploration can be fun at times, when the player doesn’t get stuck, and there are some Metroidvania-esque elements such as Batman’s tools aiding exploration. Overall, the good and bad points of interaction generally balance out.

The game’s aural aspect has plenty going for it, such as superb voice performances spearheaded by Mark Hamill as the Joker, reprising his role from the animated series of the 1990s, and the other voices for characters such as Bruce Wayne/Batman and Harley Quinn with her New Yorker accent definitely leave positive impressions. The sound effects, as is expectant of a game of its time, are never out of place, and what little music there is fits well, even if it’s largely unmemorable, as seems the case with most Western videogames. Still the aurals are a definite boon.

The graphics look nice, as well, with Arkham Asylum potentially able to pass for an early PlayStation 4 game, with a dark, realistic style fitting for a franchise such as Batman. The environments and character models for comic luminaries and minor individuals have a nice attention to detail, with solid animation and effects, occasional dramatic slowdown during combat occurring that’s a nice twist. As with most three-dimensional visuals, however, there are occasional blurry and pixilated textures when seen close-up, alongside sporadic choppiness, but the game’s visual direction is otherwise solid.

Finally, the game has plenty of lasting appeal, given sidequests such as collecting the Riddler’s trophies, the PlayStation Network Achievements, challenge modes, an in-game tracker of percentage completion, and various other post-game content.

In the end, Batman: Arkham Asylum is one of the far better licensed videogames, given its positives such as the solid strategic gameplay, the surreal storyline that has some original narrative content whilst remaining faithful towards the comic mythos, the superb voice performances, the pretty visuals, and plentiful reason to come back for more. It does have issues, for certain, such as the potential hellishness of playing on a challenge setting higher than Easy (which has its share of tough portions nonetheless), the niggling problems with control, and the unmemorable music, but fans and non-fans alike will find plenty to celebrate.

The Good:
+Great strategic gameplay.
+Surreal storyline.
+Superb voice performances.
+Nice visuals.
+Plenty side content.

The Bad:
-Can be daunting on difficulties above Easy.
-Various control issues.
-Unmemorable soundtrack.

The Bottom Line:
One of the much better licensed videogames.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: PlayStation 3
Game Mechanics: 8.0/10
Controls: 5.0/10
Story: 9.5/10
Music/Sound: 7.5/10
Graphics: 8.0/10
Lasting Appeal: 10/10
Difficulty: Adjustable
Playing Time: 10+ Hours

Overall: 8.0/10

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

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The first Indiana Jones sequel actually occurs in the year prior to Raiders of the Lost Ark, opening in Shanghai in 1935, where Indy is in negotiations with a Chinese triad over ancient artifacts, such as the remains of an ancient Emperor. Chaos naturally breaks out, with Indy’s sidekick Short Round, in Vietnamese child actor Ke Huy Quan’s film debut, rescuing Dr. Jones and his flame Willie Scott and taking a plane westward. Abandoned by its pilots, however, the trio ultimately finds themselves in an Indian village, whose children have been taken hostage by a local cult, as have three ancient stones.

Indy agrees to help them, and is taken to a palace that serves rather unappetizing food, and finds a secret passage leading into the eponymous Temple of Doom, where Dr. Jones and Short Round briefly find themselves trapped in a death chamber, and Willie, having to overcome her fear of bugs (with John Williams’ music in this scene really making the mood more memorable), rescues them. The three find themselves captured by the cult, following which is a sequence of scenes that leads to their escape from the temple and rescue of the enslaved Indian children.

The film has aged well, but like Raiders, it showed issues with America’s film rating system, which at the time had no intermediary between the PG and R ratings, the former which it received despite its violent content such as the villainous shaman ripping a victim’s heart out, and negative portrayal of Indian culture. Had it not been a Spielberg film, I think it would have been rated R, and even the new PG-13 rating would’ve been too easy. It’s really sad America’s film raters somehow think saying the F-word is worse than violence and torture, and again, I think films should be judged based on their actual content, cohesion, and themes rather than their influence, positive or negative, and nostalgic feelings.

All in all, probably my least favorite of the franchise, but it’s still a good movie.