Anime Review: One Piece

one-piece

(Source: http://orig14.deviantart.net/243b/f/2010/214/8/4/vector_logo___one_piece_by_h2o_fr.png)

“Whether I’m sprayed with alcohol, doused with food, hell even if I’m spit on, most of the time I’ll just laugh it off and forget about it. But if you hurt a friend of mine, you’ll pay for it, regardless of your reasons.” – “Red Haired” Shanks

When people talk about anime, there are certain ones that spring to mind. Some people talk about the “Big 3,” but I think of it more as the Big 5. This basically refers to the most popular of the epic series’. While some anime like Detective Conan and Baki the Grappler are plenty long, these are the five that everyone talks about the most: Dragon Ball, Fairy Tail, Bleach, Naruto, and, what we’ll be discussing today, One Piece.

I always found it strange that these popular Anime got so much negativity; they wouldn’t be so large if they weren’t popular, and I can’t imagine an anime getting so popular without being at least somewhat good. On the other hand, people tend to judge popular things more harshly, either because they think it’s too popular, it isn’t worth the hype, or because it’s too long. However, I believe that anything should be judged on its content, not based off of random word-of-mouth.

I must add a few disclaimers: while I’ll talk a little about the manga, this is primarily about the anime of One Piece. While I did read a great deal of the manga, it has been quite a while since I did so, and I’m not as familiar with it. Secondly, this is over the Funimation English Dub. As I’ve said before I had nothing against the subs, but I just prefer to watch it this way. Lastly, this isn’t a review of the whole series. Obviously One Piece is still running (the most recent episode was 756 and the manga currently has 82 volumes, being nearly 20 years old), and the English Dub currently only covers up to episode 491 (which means it hasn’t even reached the time skip, though it is very, very close). With those asterisks in mind, let’s jump right in to One Piece, the “Romance Dawn.”

For a brief summary, I’ll turn it over to, shockingly, the 4Kids opening.

“There once was a man named Gold Rogers who was King of the Pirates. He had wealth, fame, and power beyond your wildest dreams. Before they hung him from the gallows, these were the final words he said: ‘My fortune is yours for the taking, but you’ll have to find it first. I left everything I own… in One Piece.’ Ever since, pirates from all over the world set sail for the Grand Line searching for One Piece, the treasure that would make their dreams come true.”

(Most people give the 4Kids dub a lot of crap and while I agree it screwed a lot up, I though this intro was really well done. Except for the fact that Roger was not executed by hanging. Cough.)

One Piece, as those of you familiar with anime will know, follows Monkey D. Luffy, a 17 year old boy with a straw hat who sets off to sea in search of the greatest treasure in the world: The One Piece. As mentioned above, the treasure is what was left by from the former King of the Pirates and is the goal for every pirate in what is currently being called the “Golden Era of Piracy.” Luffy is far from a normal boy, however, having eaten a Devil Fruit that turned his body into rubber at the cost of his ability to swim. But One Piece lies at the end of The Grand Line, the most dangerous sea on the planet, and Luffy can’t do it alone. He searches for a worthy ship and crew before he sets sail, and along the way he’ll recruit a bounty hunter, a thief, a liar, a lusty chef, and more to create his ideal crew.

I’ll just jump straight into why I love this anime. The characters make it. Everyone who watches Fairy Tail can tell you that the arcs themselves are hit or miss and frequently cover the same ground, and what you’re really there for are the characters and the writing. That’s pretty much spot on for One Piece as well. Every one of the Straw Hat Pirates is unique and offers something to the crew, not just in their skillset, but their personalities. Certain characters clash, others are super close friends, and all hide secrets in their past. Learning about each character is its own joy, and as they move forward, they’re always evolving. These aren’t the flat characters you’ll see in some shows who just stubbornly stick to one methodology throughout, these are people who grow, learn, and stick by each other, and it breathes fresh life into each new adventure. At the point I’ve watched through, the full main crew has already been assembled, but I won’t spoil who eventually joins the crew… that should be a surprise.

Speaking of spoilers, I should mention that a main problem I have with the anime at least is that it’s constantly spoiling things. Since I read the manga before, none of this was new to me, but I noticed that certain episode titles flat out spoiled certain story elements such as who was going to join the crew, or a plot twist that was coming up. Whoever was naming these episodes needed to learn to be subtle. There was even one of the openings for the show that also spoiled the newest crew member one, which I was also mad about (especially since that one was my favorite!).

But that does transition into the fact that this show has excellent openings, closings, and music. It’s of course mostly J-Pop-ey stuff that a lot of people don’t care for, but I like it. For the first five themes Funimation had its voice actors sing the songs, but eventually they gave up and just used the original Japanese version. I like those versions as well, but I wish Funimation could have kept going with their versions, if only so we could have those alternate versions, and Vic Mignogna does such a wonderful job of singing that I wish I could have heard him do just a few more songs.

Voice acting is on point, and I especially found it fun to spot famous Funimation voice actors in this dub, since it’s so huge that they have to use just about everyone. Zoro is played by the legendary Christopher Sabat, who is also known for playing Piccolo, Vegeta, Kuwabara, and Elfman, Usopp is portrayed by Sonny Strait (which totally sounds like a name that Stan Lee would come up with, now that I think about it), who also played Krillin, and one of my favorites, Chris Rager, who played Arlong in One Piece and is also well known for playing Hercule Satan and Mr. Torgue. All of the actors do a wonderful job as Funimation usually does. It really makes me question the sub purists who always say that the dubs sound terrible. Sure, dubs will sound weird if you’ve watched dozens or hundreds of episodes of different people doing characters, but that just makes them different, not bad.

The animation is colorful and beautiful. The animators clearly knew what they were doing, and they know how to create a fun, pirate adventure. The sea is clear and beautiful, each setting in the world is unique in its own way, the characters are cleverly (and even bizarrely) designed, and the fights are brutal and action-packed.  That being said, I do notice the quality of animation will randomly drop at certain points, which does make some sense. Animating by hand is very time consuming and impossible for a small group to do on its own, so some animation is contracted out to other artists and animators who will do it more quickly, but less efficiently. A really well known example of this took place in one of the early episodes of Dragon Ball Super, where the animation at one point was so bad that just about everyone noticed and there was a huge uproar about it. I’m not too upset about it here, though; it’s pretty high quality for most of the anime.

I made the comparison to Fairy Tail before where Fairy Tail was better because of the characters and the story itself was sort of hit-or-miss, but I honestly think that One Piece is much, much stronger on the story end. Because the setting is constantly changing, it lends each adventure to be fresh, new, and exciting, whereas something like Fairy Tail can stagnate a bit. My personal favorite arc is about 300 episodes in and is the “Water 7/Enies Lobby” arc. It’s really a brilliantly written, genuinely emotional, and action packed arc that really has everything (Let me clarify something quickly though because I’ve had people misinterpret this point: while I love the arc that is 300 episodes in, it does NOT mean that you have to wait 300 episodes for it to get good. One Piece is plenty good right from the start). Certain other arcs like Alabaster can drag a bit (ironic, since the Water 7/Enies Lobby arc is more than double the length of Alabaster), but even at its weakest, One Piece can still bring a smile to my face… usually.

Now, before I discuss this, let me point out that the following point is a problem with just about every single “Epic” anime. Fairy Tail (Geez, you’d almost think I was writing this review about Fairy Tail instead of One Piece…) tends to be the least bad about it, but now we have to talk about filler. Compared to something like Naruto (which ended with 83 STRAIGHT episodes of filler and no that is not an exaggeration) or Bleach (which was comprised of 45% filler, according to animefillerlist.com), One Piece’s 13% doesn’t seem so bad, though that’s still over a hundred episodes of filler total. The filler episodes themselves are hit or miss. The ones that go deeper into each Straw Hat as a character do pretty well, and the ones that are random adventures tend to sputter and die because they have nothing to do with the overall plot or the story of each of the brilliant characters. In fact, that amazing arc that I mentioned liking last paragraph? I liked it a lot better in the manga because in the anime, it stops in the middle of the climax for no, not 5 episodes of filler, but five RECAP episodes in a row, which was a complete slap in the face to me. After that, I just skipped all of the filler episodes happily.

So was One Piece worth the hype? I certainly think so. At the very least I don’t think it deserves the hate that it gets. It’s a fun adventure fills with interesting characters and pulse-pounding action definitely give it a shot if you have a chance, and join everyone on the Grand Line as they search for the legendary One Piece.

And yet, after all of that, I’m left in a conflicting state for my final verdict. I really like One Piece so it gets a positive score for sure, but does it get that 5? Does it push beyond? Yes and no. While yes I would ordinarily give One Piece the 5, with the slap in the face filler and strange changes to the story that make it clunkier (especially when the manga is a literal instruction manual for how to correctly make the anime!), I don’t think I could got the full 5/5. The manga for sure gets that, but…

I give One Piece a 4 out of 5.

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Video Game Review from the Vault: Shadow of the Colossus

(Posted to my Facebook page on September 4, 2015)

 

I don’t get to go back and play old games as often as I’d like due to limitations to how many game consoles I have, the availability of the game, and other stuff. Still, I recently got a PS2 with a handful of games and thought I’d check out one of the grand daddies. A game supposed to be one of the best games ever made. A game that I’ve always wanted to play but never had the chance and kind of spoiled for myself by watching a let’s play of it some years ago. A game by legendary development company Team Ico who made… two games. Cough. Anyways, I just played Shadow of the Colossus, and this is what I thought.

First, I would like to make a statement about the expected quality of this game and my opinion. Scoring this thing is going to be very difficult because if I give it a perfect score some people will say “Oh, he’s just saying that because everyone else said it!” and if I give it anything less someone people will say “He doesn’t know what he’s talking about!” or “He’s just trying to be different!” Let me just say this plainly now: I’m judging this game solely on my experience and opinion. I didn’t have any trouble tearing apart a game lots of people liked (Oblivion) and I’m also perfectly willing to admit when a popular thing is worth the hype despite my prior disposition (Skyrim). With that being said, let’s begin.

The game doesn’t actually give us a lot to work with in terms of story. There’s very little dialogue (Other than in the cutscenes at the very beginning, a short one in the middle, and a few at the very end of the game, you only get a little dialogue from one character), which is an interesting choice for such an artistic game but helps add to the mystery. However, thanks to Google, I have managed to fill in a few blanks. You play as Wander, a warrior from the land of (ERROR NAME NOT FOUND). He has traveled with his horse Agro and the body of a young girl (Whose name Google informed me was Mono) to a forbidden land in hopes of finding a way to revive Mono. Mono it seems was sacrificed because she was destined to live a cursed life and that’s actually all we know about her. Seriously, we don’t know if she’s Wander’s sister, friend, lover… backgammon partner, nothing. Anyways, Wander reaches a temple at the center of the Forbidden Land and encounters the voice of a god named Dormin who has the ability to revive the dead. After learning that Wander carries a special magic sword, Dormin agrees to revive Mono provided that Wander destroys sixteen colossi that are roaming the land. Wander agrees and, until the last cutscene, that’s about it. The story does a decent job of giving the player motivation to hunt down the colossus and goes with a “Less telling, more showing” idea of storytelling that Team Ico is famous for, and it fits well here. More dialogue would have just weighed everything down and overcomplicated things, so the game knows what to keep and what to toss. The ending is interesting and thought provoking because it doesn’t try to really jump the shark. There’s something of a plot twist for sure, but it’s still completely reasonable. It doesn’t spell everything out for you but also doesn’t leave you completely in the dark, which is an important balance that seems to be lost in many stories now a day. It’s simple, has depth, and most importantly, it doesn’t get in the way of the gameplay.

The gameplay is… well, it’s not terribly uncommon now that a game is entirely focused on boss fights, but that’s because those games are trying to copy Shadow of the Colossus. In the Forbidden Land, there are no common enemies. No spoopy skeletons, no bandits looking to carve you up, no cave bats, nothing. There’re just sixteen colossi and a few animals farting around doing nothing. So, what exactly do you do other than fight colossi? You travel to the fights! No, seriously, those are pretty much the two things you do in the game. You go to a colossus, kill it, go to the next one, kill it, rinse, repeat, ect. So now you think “So… that’s ALL you do?” And… yeah, that’s it. There’s a side-activity where you hunt White-Tailed Lizards to increase your grip gauge, but that’s all. In that respect, the game seems rather bare bones, and it kind of is. It took me about eight hours to complete the game (I had a fair amount of prior knowledge about the colossi going in, but I still got stuck for a while on the last two, so I’d guess that’s about average, but I have no trouble believing that someone could blaze through this game in five hours or less), and other than the story, there are time trials, New Game+, and Hard Modes to tackle with a handful of items to unlock, but exploration and colossi battles are really all this game has. So why is this game so well regarded then? Because it does those two things so well that it doesn’t matter that it’s all it has.
While the world seems empty and uninteresting at a glance, the sheer scale and variety that this world has to offer is what makes it so interesting. Riding to a colossus battle doesn’t feel tedious, but instead instills general tension and giddiness as you imagine what type of colossus you might be fighting next through the journey. It doesn’t take so long to find the battle that it becomes generally irritating, and that’s thanks in part to a rather genius way to find the next colossus. Rather than simply marking it on your map, your sword will guide you to it. Lifting your sword above your head while in the sunlight will focus the light and point towards your next destination. The world is designed very well and finding these battles often isn’t too difficult, thankfully. As I also said, there’s a great variety in this world. Scorched plains, deserts, abandoned cities, lakes, caves, and even battles in the sky. While large parts of the world don’t have a lot in them, it adds to certain eeriness that this “Forbidden Land” should have. Exploring this land is somehow more exciting and tense than, say, Oblivion, which has monsters hiding under every rock because Shadow of the Colossus knows exactly how to pace itself.

And then… the Colossi. Team Ico really outdid themselves with these creations. 16 behemoths and most of them look amazing, unique, and are really fun to fight. You’ll use your sword’s light to identify weak points before climbing all over their bodies to stab their weak points. Some of these fights will play out like puzzles where you’ll need to find how exactly to expose of make it to the monster’s weak points, others will be more action based, and some will require you to use the environment to your advantage. The variety here is really staggering; from the expected man-shaped creates (Like the one on the cover) to a bunch that I just don’t want to spoil. They’re interesting, exciting, and unlike anything that I’ve ever played. There are certainly a few head-scratching puzzles and a few frustrating bits, but they’re few and far between. Most of the time it’s very reasonable and satisfying to figure it out and slay the beast. My only real complaint with the colossi rests with two of them: the two little ones. When you hear the word “colossus” you expect giant monsters that make you feel like a mouse. Most of these monsters fall into that category, but two of them are about the size of an SUV, which is pretty disappointing. One of the fights is really fun and interesting but the other is a really weak fight. Not to mention that these small and quick colossi smack Wander around a ton, and Wander has this stupid habit of staying down for a solid five seconds after a hit, which just adds to the frustration. This is really just a small complaint though, the fights are the main attraction and they do a damn good job of holding the weight of this game.

The graphics are utterly gorgeous for the PS2. Agro looks and moves like a horse, Wander’s cloak flutters in the wind, the landscape seems dead—but only because the designers wanted it to look like that. You really get the feeling that long ago this land was something great, but something terrible just sucked all of the life out of it. The colossi… oh man, imaginative and how wonderful to fight if only to look at them up close. They look so great… almost too great, actually. These colossi are very intensive on the game and during some fights I found that the framerate would start to chug a bit. It never got to the point where it got unplayable (Though in the final fight a few tricky jumps became more problematic than they needed to be), but certainly noticeable. Actually, this problem might not be a problem if Sony would pull their heads out of their asses and make a digital re-release of this for the PS4. There’s a Shadow of the Colossus/Ico bundle on the PS3, but no PS4 release for some reason, and since, of course, you can’t play PS3 games on the PS4, I’m a little screwed in that regard. Still, like I said, it never got unplayable, just a tad bit annoying.

The sound design… I mean hell, I was a fan of this game’s soundtrack before I even played it. Some of the most beautiful tracks ever composed for a game are here. The game knows when to make you feel awe, when to be excited, and when to just drink in the atmosphere and the soundtrack is one of the main reasons that the environment works so well.

The controls are fairly simple and work pretty well with only a few minor complaints. The camera can be a bit of a pain in the ass to get to work properly while you’re scaling a colossus and sometimes can get you turned around and waste grip, which can be an utter death sentence at the wrong time. An option to zoom the camera out a little bit would have been appreciated for sure. The camera also doesn’t seem like it knows what the hell to do when you’re riding Agro and takes a low angle which is great for admiring the scenery, but not so great for seeing where you’re going. If Agro didn’t automatically stop short of cliffs, I would have had quite a few more deaths underneath my belt. There’s also a little confusion with some of the attacks. With a bow and arrow, you hold the button down to draw the bow and release the button to shoot, but with your sword you press it once to begin winding up your strike and press it again to stab. It’s not unintuitive; it’s just that it seems to contradict itself at times, which is confusing and slightly annoying.

So, where does that leave us? Well, I went into this with a strange perspective. I had seen a Lets Play of this some years ago so I had some expectations there, but mainly I was something like “Okay Best Game EVAR, let’s see what you’ve got!” And show me it did. This is one of the most unique gaming experiences I’ve ever had. The lonely yet calming atmosphere, the beautiful music direction, the simple story, the amazing battles, the creative Colossi, this has earned its classic medal in spades. My few complaints are really nothing more than nit-picks. This really is an incredible game worth of a play from just about everyone.

I give Shadow of the Colossus a 5 out of 5.

Movie Review from the Vault: Dragon Ball Z: Resurrection ‘F’

(Posted to my Facebook page on August 11, 2015)

The last few years have been huge for classic anime franchise Dragon Ball. Battle of Gods was the first movie for the series in 17 years, and Dragon Ball Super airing nearly two decades after the end of Dragon Ball Z. To add to that, we have the brand new film recently released here in America: Dragon Ball Z: Resurrection ‘F’

Taking place after the events of Battle of Gods, Resurrection ‘F’ shows that since Trunks killed Freeza and King Cold, their empire has been falling to pieces. With no choice left, their current leader Sorbet decides to revive Freeza using the Dragon Balls. However, they have been unsuccessful in locating New Namek and the Namekians, and instead travel to Earth to use their Dragon Balls. With the help of Emperor Pilaf, they soon do just that. The revived Freeza, learning of Goku’s immense jump in power, decides to do some drastic training so he can enact his revenge.

As a sequel to Battle of Gods, this movie really hits home. It brings some really fantastic humor and references while still containing the pulse-pounding action that made Dragon Ball famous in the first place. Many of your favorite characters return, but unfortunately even more do not. Majin Buu, Hercule, Chiaotzu, Yamcha, Goten, Trunks, Chi Chi, Dende… all of these characters and more are never seen once in the whole movie. I understand that trying to crowbar them all in could make the movie seem crowded and not give the main characters enough time, but I was especially interested in seeing Buu and Freeza fight, especially after Bulma makes one particular comment about Gohan and Buu holding Freeza off until Goku could arrive. However, Whis and Beerus return and are just as funny as they were in Battle of Gods, and even a “new” character from one of Toriyama’s recent mini-series’ named Jaco makes an appearance and manages to fit in quite nicely with the rest of the Z-Fighters.

The animation is just as amazing as it always is; colorful yet stark, energetic and yet able to be calm when it needs to be. My only real complaint is that I can absolutely tell that some parts of the fight used CGI rather than the traditional hand-drawn animation which was distracting and a little disappointing.

Some scenes also seemed to be lacking some level of ambiance and music… some of the fights just seemed to carry on nearly in silence (Apart from the explosions) and some of the traditional heavy DBZ fighting music could really have helped here. Not to say that the whole movie is like that… there are some really well done songs that can really add to fights when they’re there, including this metal song that I’ve included.

Despite the music and certain parts of the animation lacking here and there, the fights themselves are just as incredible as ever. Each blow has an impact that seems to rattle the whole theatre and the energy attacks are just as epic as I remember them. Just with the show, Resurrection ‘F’ remembers just how to build tension with quiet and slow moments just as much as its more action-packed moments. Some people think that’s what makes Dragon Ball bad, how slow it can be at times, but that’s exactly what can make it so exciting. Like a good samurai film, the moments before the fight or even during with a power-up or beam struggle, just the act of witnessing these calms in the storm give a weight to ever single moment that keeps you on the edge of your seat. (And for the record, yes, Super Saiyan God Super Saiyan is a really stupid name. As is Golden Freeza. Still cool though)

Even if you aren’t exactly a Dragon Ball fan but like Anime in general, this is a movie worth checking out. It’s a blast from beginning to end with enough laughs for just about anyone. Grab some Senzu Beans for the experience because this movie’s intense enough to wear you out.

I give Dragon Ball Z: Resurrection ‘F’ a 4 out of 5.

Anime First Impressions from the Vault: Detective Conan (AKA Case Closed)

(Posted to my Facebook page on July 11, 2015)

So, uh, I had a plan to watch through Case Closed (Also known as Detective Conan) and do a review of it but uh… well, some people think Dragon Ball is a long series. It’s pretty long, with about 500 episode between DB, DBZ, and DBGT (And more coming from DBS). Some people think Naruto is pretty long, with something like 600 episode between Naruto and Shippuden. Some think that One Piece is pretty long at 700 episodes. Case closed has almost 800 episodes and, here’s the important part: IT’S STILL RUNNING. How “alive” is this series? The newest episode was released today. And this is a series that started in 1996. As yet another frame of reference, The Simpsons has been around since 1989 and has less than 600 episodes. Let that sink in.

Funimation isn’t even dubbing it anymore, their dub got discontinued after Season 5 (Episode 130 was the last one they dubbed). I finished through what they called the end of Season 1 (Episode 26, though wikipedia shows Season 1 ending at episode 29), so I figured I would give the best review I could given that information because there is no way in hell I could push my way through 800 episodes of this in any reasonable amount of time.

Case Closed follows world famous teenage detective Jimmy Kudo, who has dedicated his life to becoming a great detective like Sherlock Holmes (Despite being reminded that Holmes is a fictional character). A former soccer superstar and all around genius, Jimmy pieces together cases with ease that the police are unable to make heads or tails of. However, one day while tailing a pair of suspicious looking people, he is attacked and knocked unconscious. The attackers know he overheard them and slip him some poison that they were told would be untraceable before escaping. When Jimmy wakes up, he discovers that he now has the body of an eight year old, the poison having a strange effect on his body. Confiding in long-time friend Doctor Hershel Agasa about his condition, the doctor warns him that if the men who attacked him discover that he’s still alive, that they would come after him and his loved ones again, persuading him to keep his identity a secret. Jimmy adopts the name Conan Edogawa and poses as a relative of Doctor Hershel’s, living with his friend Rachael Moore and her father Detective Richard Moore. Now Conan seeks to find the men who poisoned him to find a way to reverse the effect and get his old body back, all while still trying to solve cases with his young body.

This is where things get… weird. After the first two episodes, the amount of actual plot and character development we get is extremely limited (At least, as far as season 1 goes). Conan becomes friends with some kids his own age and form the “Junior Detective League”, Doctor Hershel makes him some gadgets to assist in his work (Such as a Bow-Tie that allows him to change his voice or a tracking device built into his glasses), and Conan has to deal with the fact that few, if any adults value his opinion on cases, but he’s often the only one able to piece those cases together. Worst of all, Rachael’s father is a terrible detective, but Conan frequently has to use him to get the police to arrest the right person.

My main problem with this series is that because the overarching plot develops at a literal snail’s pace (As one would expect from an anime with nearly 800 episodes), it can get a little tedious to watch the show go through the normal motions. Each case IS unique, and enough attention to detail and care is included that it’s possible to puzzle things out for yourself, and it’s always entertaining to see Conan put everything together in the end, but just having to do a hard reset and watch the motions over and over again can get kind of boring. This is really an anime that should probably just be watched at something like one episode per day (Which, even if done religiously, would still take you more than two years to watch through). My marathon approach seems rather ineffective against this beast, but even if it was, I just have sort of an issue with seeing so little progress being made after so much time investment. It’s like trying to watch the first season of Code Lyoko. So little happens until episode 25 that it’s almost pointless to watch, but the characters themselves are pretty interesting so…

Ahem. The show has some pretty basic animation style, but as I mentioned the attention to certain details is very impressive, and those details always matter in the end. The series also features some really great music, from a great theme to some kick-ass music for every mood the story needs.

It almost seem pointless to talk so much about a series that I’ve barely scratched the surface of; I’m not even going to offer a score for it, because I lack enough of a grasp to really know for certain. I enjoyed it a great deal at times, but it can also be draining, and somewhat annoying at certain moments. Still, the voice acting is good, it’s a very thought-provoking show, and you end up caring about most of the characters and situations, which is probably all that matters. Give it a shot if you’ve got the time.

Video Game Review from the Vault: Ori and the Blind Forest

(Posted to my Facebook page on July 7, 2015)

Platforming is dead, some say, only living on in the likes of Mario, kept alive by nostalgia. If there is any game to prove that the genre is alive and well, it is Ori and the Blind Forest.

Ori and the Blind Forest, designed by Moon Studios, focuses around the story of Ori, a tree spirit living in the forest of Nibel. As an infant, a storm blows Ori away from the Spirit Tree, where he is found and raised by a creature named Naru. The two grow up together until one day, the forest begins to wither around them and Ori must journey across the forest to put things right before the forest dies forever.
If it sounds like I was especially vague about the story, it’s because it’s a short, simple story (There are only like five or six characters, and only two of those actually talk). It’s masterfully told, but to say anything more would be giving everything away. Trust me when I say it’ll tug a few heartstrings. Nothing like To the Moon, but it’s well told in its own right. There isn’t much else to say without spoiling anything, except that the ending features a very small cop-out. I won’t go into details because it would ruin most of the story, and I think it did ultimately end up working, but it just struck me as a little too convenient… you’ll know it when you see it.

The game is a sort of “Metroidvania” style platformer, focusing on finding new abilities to help you traverse the terrain and upgrading your existing abilities. Wall-Jumping, Double jumping, and several rather unique abilities that make traversing Nibel an utter joy. Ori controls fairly well and has a sort of fluid motion to him that only adds to the great feel of the game. You’re always checking over you map to return to old areas and find hidden collectables that you weren’t able to reach before, and being able to breeze through an area that gave you trouble earlier with your new abilities is just as satisfying as it is in games like Shadow Complex. The game only clocks in at somewhere in the 6-7 hour range, but that’s a good value for a $20 game (Cheaper, if you find it in a humble bundle or on sale on Steam) and it doesn’t overstay its welcome. Its runtime is just as long as it needs to be, but it does make me wish we have a few more areas to explore… not because it wasn’t varied enough, but because I just want to see what these artists could do in a few more settings. Oh well, maybe another day.

If the gameplay aspect has any weaknesses, I’d have to try to nail down two. First is the combat. The combat isn’t bad and in some of the more creative moments can actually be quite fun, but seems somewhat uninspired (At least until later in the game when you unlock some of the cooler tricks) and boils down to a lot of button mashing. It seems like the combat should flow like the platforming does… but it just doesn’t. The only other issue is the save system. On one hand, it’s a pretty cool idea, namely that you can expend energy to make your own save points (Which also serve as places to upgrade your abilities), but it can lead to some pretty frustrating moments when you forget to save for a while, die, and get booted fifteen minutes back. Also, this system doesn’t allow you to save in certain spots (Like places you could get locked into an infinite death loop, obviously), which is great except that it also stops saving during certain cinematic moments and boss fights, leaving you to the mercy of the game’s very unforgiving autosave feature. It will save after many important story moments so you don’t have to sit through the cutscenes again which is great, but it lacks any sort of mid-boss-fight checkpoints, which can make certain parts (The final boss fight especially) turn into a frustrating grind when you make it most of the way through, aren’t sure what to do, and get instakilled, forcing you to dredge back an epically cinematic fight that you’ve already seen fifteen times just to get another shot at it. Overall, however, these are minor complaints, and the bottom line is that the gameplay is classic metroidvania at its best.

The real strengths of this game, however, are the visuals and music. Gorgeous doesn’t even begin to do it justice. This is a game that creates a style and then completely owns it. It’s a sort of watercolor style that gives the game a warm, cheerful feeling that is just a pleasure to look at. You can keep your “Realistic Military Shooters” which features 1080p closeups of every shade of brown and gray, what we have here is real artistic beauty. We have warm fields, frigid craves, boiling volcanoes… man, when I think of places a game can take me, this is what I’m looking for: A true place of fantasy that takes every advantage of its setting and turns itself into a work of pure art. The only weak place in terms of the art are the enemies. There are a lot of rather uninspired designs (Many enemies are just blobs), but this is also made up for with the absolutely amazing and shit-your-pants terrifying main enemy of the game. It’s a very simple design and concept for an enemy overall, but it fits the theme so well that it ends up just being one hell of a design.

But I’m not done. In addition to the stunning visuals, we have one of the most beautifully composed soundtracks I’ve ever heard in a game. It has cheery upbeat songs that just make you want to see Ori sprint, sad melodies to accompany the more somber moments, and pulse-pounding jams that know just how to turn up the tension at the right moment. I’m really awful at trying to describe why a soundtrack works, but this one does. Don’t take my word for it though, take a listen to the soundtrack I have included, it’s really a treat.

In the end, Ori may go down as one of my favorite platformers of all time. It’s energetic, fun, beautiful, emotional, and it just manages to do almost everything right. If you have a chance, do yourself a favor and give this game a try; it’s well worth the price of admission and can be admired as though it were a fine piece of art because, honestly, it is.

I give Ori and the Blind Forest a 5 out of 5.

Video Game Review from the Vault: Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale

(Posted to my Facebook page on June 28, 2015)

“Capitalism, ho!” – Recette

Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale is a game created by EasyGameStation in 2007 and localized in 2010 by Carpe Fulgur and is one of the most unique RPGs I’ve ever played. Its concept isn’t entirely original, and harkens back to those old flash games on the internet where you would run lemonade stands, only with more swords, crippling debt, and fairies. Hmm… maybe I should start from the beginning.

You play as Recette (Pronounced like “Wreck-It,” I believe. Based on a joke they make early on, it seems to be the pronunciation that makes the most sense), a young girl who lives alone after her father left several months ago to become an adventurer and promptly disappeared on one of his adventures. But one day, Recette is visited by a mystical quirky fairy who tells Recette of her destiny, convincing her to pick up the sword and go out to rescue her fath… PFFFFT, just kidding. This fairy (Named Tear) has a clipboard and informs Recette that she’s in debt to the bank! Yay! The fairy explains that Recette’s father disappeared on his quest after taking out a large loan, which now is falling on Recette to pay, with the bank threatening to seize her house if the debt isn’t paid. Tear, however, has a solution: convert the house into an item shop and work to pay off the debt; Tear even offers to help assist in running the shop. Recette dubs the store “Recettear” after the newly forged partnership and the two begin a month-long journey to repay this debt…

If I had to describe the mechanics to this game, I’d say it reminds me most of a blend of elements from Animal Crossing, Harvest Moon, and various dungeon crawling roguelikes. That may sound confusing, so I’ll explain. As you run your shop, you’re responsible for keeping the shop supplied with goods to sell and attracting customers. You attract customers by decorating your shop and by displaying items in your window. Once you get customers, you have to sell them items, haggling with them to get the best possible price. You’ll buy items from them, take orders, offer suggested items, and restock your shop once supplies get low by purchasing them from the market or by going dungeon crawling. “But Jack!” I hear you cry “You just got finished telling us that Recette isn’t an adventurer!” Very attentive of you, imaginary reader! You dungeon crawl by hiring adventurers to go to the dungeon for you where they’ll battle monsters in search of sweet, sweet loot to sell back at your shop. Not just any adventurer will fight for you, however, and you’ll need to gain an adventurer’s trust before they’ll give you their precious adventurer’s card and allow you to dungeon crawl with them. It’s fairly beneficial to do this as well, as you’ll find that each adventurer has their own strengths and special abilities, such as the durable warrior who can deflect ranged attacks with his shield. In addition, these adventurers will visit your shop, so stocking up on quality weapons and armor to sell them is extremely beneficial, as it will make them much more effective in the field later.

Now I know what you’re thinking: This game sounds hella boring! Sitting around in a shop selling stuff certainly sounds kind of dull, but you’d be surprising how immersive it can get and how absorbed you become in this little shop. I think it comes down to a combination of the aforementioned games: Harvest Moon (Creating a business and maintaining it), Animal Crossing (A huge goal of paying off a debt that seems too big for you at first), and the dungeon crawling games (Changing things up with good ol’ hack ‘n’ slash). On top of that, there’s just a charm to the game that can make it a blast to play. It’s pure, undeniable fun; the most important aspect of any game.

The characters are all interesting and help add to the strategy of the game. You need to learn which customers are willing to shell out extra, which are stingy, which heroes to offer bargains to (So they can get better gear), and which will flat out try to rip you off (Don’t worry, there’s only one, and she’s rather obvious about it). The heroes you recruit have interesting backstories to explore, and the NPCs themselves do as well. The city you run your shop in really seems to come alive, and you find yourself becoming absorbed in the little stories that pop up here and there, interactions between the adventurers and so forth.

There’s a real sense of progression as you slowly raise your merchant level to unlock new bartering techniques, new items to buy at market, new crafting recipes, dungeon crawling upgrades, shop upgrades, redecorating your shop, getting new, more valuable treasures to sell, increasing your relationship with customers (Which gives them bigger wallets and can allow you to sell them items at higher percentages) and that, along with the interesting game mechanics and pressuring deadlines makes this game extremely addicting. My run just through the base five weeks took over 15 hours, and on top of that you can continue after the main campaign to unlock new heroes, dungeons, story points, and goods that weren’t previously available. On top of that, there’s still New Game+ (Starting again from the beginning with all your stats and goods still intact), Survival Mode (See how long you can continue to pay off a never ending series of payments), and “True” Hero Cards to unlock, which allow you to take that adventurer into dungeons from the very start of playthroughs. For such a small, cheap game, there is a surprisingly huge amount of content here.

Now, at this point in the review, I would like to offer a few gameplay tips for anyone interested. This may seem really random and off-topic, but I assure you it is not, as one of my biggest problems with this game is its crummy tutorial. Namely, Tear’s advice is mostly wrong or… rather, misguided. Firstly, she encourages the player to haggle with customers to try and sell it for about 130% of its base price. While certain customers can be persuaded to take this price right out of the gate, many will turn their noses up at it and storm out of the store angry, making turning a profit very difficult and building reputation difficult. Early on, it’s best to try to charge customers 110%-120%, which they’re more likely to accept. You can also experiment with price ranges on certain customers to learn which ones you can push a little higher and push that percentage a little higher once you do get a higher reputation with certain customers. On top of that, another thing Tear is flat out wrong about is how she encourages you to haggle to get better prices. While it’s true that certain customers can be pushed to buy for a little more with some haggling, the small monetary gain isn’t worth it; you want customers to accept the first price you offer them (But you still want to charge enough to actually make a profit). The reason for this is that if a person accepts the first price you give them, it begins a combo, giving you extra experience to level up Recette’s abilities. The bonus multiplies and caps out pretty high. Without using this method, it takes much, MUCH longer to level up, which can make the game seem like much more of a grind than it actually is. Those tips make the first run much, much easier. Also, I did say “First run” because if you don’t have enough money at the end of a week, that’s it, you get a Game Over. However, don’t get discouraged and quit, because after the Game Over screen, it will reset you to day 1, but Recette keeps all of her experience and all of the merchandise that was in the shop when the Game Over occurred. As such, if a deadline is coming up and you know you won’t make enough money, it can be a good idea to quickly run out to town and spend all your money buying more merchandise for the next run because you do NOT keep your money. Getting through the game on the first run is also very difficult even for experienced players, so don’t get discouraged if you get a Game Over or two.

Next, I should mention the music. Bad… bad isn’t the right word for it. It’s very grating, which might actually be worse than bad. The game plays this very bland, slightly annoying loop pretty much start to finish. There are a few loops depend on where you are, but trust me when I say it’s a good idea to mute the music and put your own on via Pandora or Spotify, because it can make the game much more annoying than it needs to be with bad, repetitive music.

In addition the art and graphics… again, bad is the wrong word, but they seem somewhat bland and uninspired. The backgrounds aren’t anything spectacular, the pixel art is just okay, monsters in dungeons look very goofy with their out of place 3D models, and on a whole, the game just isn’t very appealing to look at. The exception are the character portraits you see during normal conversations, which do look nice and are quite imaginative, but otherwise, this isn’t the prettiest game. I don’t normally harp on this, especially on what is basically a 2D pixel art game, but the problem here isn’t so much the actual quality of the art and animation itself, but rather the style. It goes for a very, very generic high fantasy. While there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s something that, even back in 2007, had been done to death and there was nothing original done with the style. I just wish the artist had taken the time to really flavor the world in a way to make it visually memorable.

So in the end, while the tutorials, music, and visuals fail, I’m able to mostly forgive that for how engrossing and utterly unexpected this game was. I’m not joking when I say it’s the most original and interesting game I’ve played since Papers, Please. If you have the extra scratch, head on down to Recettear and pick it up; I’ll put in a good word, I’m sure they’ll give you a good deal.

I give Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale a 4 out of 5.

Video Game Review from the Vault: Remember Me

(Posted to my Facebook page on June 16, 2015)

“My name is Nilin. I am a memory hunter. I can know everything about you, and I can make you believe whatever I want. This is my gift. My legacy.” – Nilin

Remember Me was a game released to somewhat lukewarm reception back in 2013. I heard it had a rather strong story, so I checked it out when it went on sale. For the life of me, I can’t remember much marketing about this game two years ago. I vaguely remember hearing about it and seeing some images from it, but for some reason I kept getting it mixed up with “Beyond: Two Souls”, so they two kind of bled together and I ignored them both. Now I have a chance to go back and take a look at this game. Is it a hidden gem worth remembering, or is this a game better left forgotten?

Remember Me takes place in 2084 in “Neo Paris”. Don’t let that staggering imagination fool you, we’re just getting started. In this world, memory is power. A company called “Memorize” has monopolized memories, allowing people to purchase memories, store memories… or even have them stolen. Still, this has led to memories almost becoming a drug, people willing to sell everything they have to buy a good memory that doesn’t belong to them rather than live it themselves.

You play as Nilin, a young woman who has recently woken up in a maximum security prison missing most her memories. Before having what remains of those memories destroyed, Nilin is rescued by a mysterious man contacting her via a com link. This man calls himself Edge and says that before you lost your memory, you were an Errorist, a group dedicated to taking down Memorize and freeing the population from their grip. In addition, Nilin is the most skilled memory hunters around. Memory hunters steal memories from others to sell on the market, but Nilin surpasses them all, as she also possesses the ability to remix memories, causing the victim to remember that event differently. Edge wishes to use this talent to overthrow Memorize and release the world from the hold that the company holds on the world, returning memory to all. Nilin wants to recover her memories, finding out who she is in the process.

Let me start out by saying that this games had some very good ideas, and that they were actually executed fairly well. Remixing memories is a very strong gameplay mechanic that drives the story well. Poking back through a memory and making slight altercations and seeing how they play out is an experience unlike any other and does an excellent job of fleshing out some characters and quickly getting across certain plot points. On another hand, exploration and free running is fun and, while the controls are a little clunky (at least on PC), it makes getting around very enjoyable. The combat uses a “Build Your Own Combos” system, which is surprisingly rare in games like this. You build your combos with a combination of punches and kicks, each strike being tailored to doing more damage, restoring health, reducing the cooldowns of your abilities, or amplifying one of the previous three. The combat feels very similar to the Batman Arkham games in a way, but both more complex and somewhat shallower at the same time, if that makes sense. My dreaded foe Quick Time Events rear their ugly head here, but they’re not too awful; they’re generally only used for finishing moves on bosses and doesn’t punish you too badly if you fail with them.

The game is utterly gorgeous. Neo Paris ranges from dirty slums overflowing with memory addicts and hooker-bots to a pristine city shopping mall, and the attention to detail is great. Little electronic billboards tell you about shops (even if you can’t visit them), advertisement billboards are constantly chatting about the newest thing, and the world on a whole felt fairly alive, which is surprisingly for a game as linear as this. The characters as well, on a whole, are fairly likeable. Nilin has to confront the shadows of her past and the sins she committed in her past life, struggling with the choice of doing something awful for a greater good or doing nothing and letting the world crumble. Edge has an air of superiority and almost a god-complex about him, but his care for Nilin and everyone in the city seems quite genuine. The two compliment each other well and make for an interesting narrative.

Now, with all that said, this sounds like a pretty great game, doesn’t it? Highly recommended? Well, there are some faults that I would be remiss if I didn’t mention. This is a very linear game and suffers from a surprisingly short campaign which, according to steam, took me about eight hours to complete. On top of that, while the combat and memory remixing mechanics are good and work, they’re both very cramped in this game, having to share room with the other in what is ultimately a pretty short game. The memory remixes especially are rare, with only four in the game! The combat begins to get very samey at about the halfway point in the game, which is a shame with how deep it could have been. The enemy variety isn’t the worst problem here, it’s mainly just that the game is forced to focus on combat and doesn’t push its interesting system as hard as it can. Free running, while fun, feels very linear and directed, which makes the game feel a little scripted and claustrophobic. The cast of characters, as I previously mentioned, is good, but unfortunately because the game is so short the good supporting characters hardly get any screen time, which is very disappointing. One character in particular I expected to end with a huge confrontation with towards the end that simply never happened, the character herself only being involved in like two or three scenes total.

Lastly… the story. Now let me say right away that because of the strong characters and well crafted world that I did enjoy the story. However, like many other parts of the game, it feels unrealized. With a story trouncing around with amnesia, memory manipulation and the sharing of memories, you’d expect some huge plot twists that leave you completely shocked. While there are a few twists in this game, they were very underwhelming. I watched Yahtzee’s review prior to writing this and he put it well, saying that he was trying to spot the plot twist throughout the story and when it finally came, he realized that all the twists he came up with were way better than the real one. That’s kind of where I ended up: I wanted the story to be more invasive, more surprising, and deeper. What I got wasn’t bad… just a little disappointing.

On a whole, however, I was pleasantly surprised with Remember Me. It isn’t exactly a sleeper hit, but it had enough interesting mechanics and a world crafted with enough care that I’m certainly happy I experienced it through at least once. If nothing else, it makes me hope for a sequel where some of these mechanics can get overhauled and given the attention they deserve. More importantly, a deeper story that explores this world in much more detail. Until then, while I wouldn’t recommend this game at a full retail price, you’d certainly be able to find it at a more than reasonable price on steam. If you’ve got the cast and some time for a unique game, I’d recommend giving it a shot.

I give Remember Me a 3 out of 5.