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.

Anime Review from the Vault: No Game No Life

(Posted to my Facebook page on June 5, 2015)

I was suggested No Game No Life by some friends, so I decided to check it out. Having seen a few anime about video games now (Including BTOOOM! and Sword Art Online), I wasn’t sure which direction this anime was going to go. The answer is… both? Sort of? Maybe I should start from the beginning.

No Game No Life follows the lives of Sora and Shiro, step-siblings who spend all their days online playing video games. Despite their young age (Shiro being 11 and Sora being 18), the two are utter masters. Going by the online alias of ” ” (While they call themselves “Blank”, they just use a series of spaces for their online names) they are famous as being completely undefeatable, even when the opponents cheat. One day they’re challenged to a game of chess by a stranger online that has somehow discovered their true identities. After a hard fought battle, they manage to win. The stranger then offers an invitation to a world where everything is decided by games. The two, thinking it’s a joke, accept and are transported to the world. There they are greeted by the stranger, who introduces himself as Tet, the god of this world and gives them ten rules which govern this world and bind everyone to various games which decide all conflicts. Shiro and Sora now seek to find meaning in their previously empty lives and conquer this world with their gaming prowess.

Very quickly I found myself rolling my eyes at this series because it seemed like it would be similar to Kill La Kill. That is to say, oversexualization of women to the point that which it’s almost disgusting. In fact, Sora and Tet are pretty much the only major male characters in the show, and there is a great deal of fanservice from the remaining characters (including the underaged Shiro, which is more than a little discomforting). However, then I noticed something strange. I was laughing. Hard. You see, this series doesn’t use nudity and asses shaking in your face to try and make you get off on it, it’s primarily used for comedy, and their jokes hit spot on. Good god, this is exactly what Kill La Kill missed! Their constant ass shots and nudity just seemed to be there in that show, and the writers seemed to think that just having those shots furthered their show. If you have those elements, you need to use them, and with how frequently I found myself laughing at the jokes that these situations set up, I have no trouble giving No Game No Life a pass on this. More than a pass really; genuine praise! It’s not shallow, it’s clever! I can’t say that enough, well done!

Ahem, well, moving on from that, the show has some very colorful animation that helps keep your attention where it needs to be even when watching the subbed version. You see, I generally try to watch the dubbed version because I frequently miss some part of the animation while focusing on the subtitles, but the animation did a very good job of keeping my eyes on the action. There were still some parts where I was flooded with subtitles and needed to rewind to catch them all, but I didn’t mind.

The characters are all interesting, funny, and keep you immersed in the story. Like I said, they tend to oversexualize the females, but they’re not just brainless boob-bots, and I generally like them enough to overlook this, and the show can even use it for some hilarious fake-outs. This is really a story about the brother-sister relationship between Shiro and Sora, and you really do get the feeling that the two care a great deal about each other (as much as you’d expect two people who had shut themselves in a room together for most of their lives) even to the point where they’ll damn near fall to pieces if they get too far away from each other. It’s a cast that seems lop-sided at a glance, but you end up feeling something for everyone, which is a tough thing for any series to do.

Really, it’s clear that every single part of this show was crafted with great care. It’s a very smart show, and is very good about helping the viewer keep up so as to not overcomplicate things (Looking at you, Big O). It usually gets a little choppy when Shiro and Sora are executing one of their plans, but they’re always sure to break it down by the end so that it’s easy to understand how exactly they blew your mind. It’s also a show stuffed to the brim with plenty of gaming references. Phoenix Wright, YuGiOh!, Civilization, and even more. Each is worth a good laugh and the writers clearly had fun putting these parts in.

The plot is surprisingly slow, which is a problem for a series that has only 12 episodes. I expect a second season eventually, but the fact that so little real progress was made in those twelve episodes is slightly concerning. Still, it manages to keep you entertained with varied games, crazy logic, some fantastic comedy, and a brilliantly realized setting and cast. If you’re up for something off the wall, thoughtful, and hilarious, give this a shot.

I give No Game No Life a 4 out of 5.

Anime Review from the Vault: The Big O

(Posted to my Facebook page on May 20, 2015)

“CAST IN THE NAME OF GOD. YE NOT GUILTY.” – Big O

The Big O is an anime that has been on my radar (of sorts) for a very, very, VERY long time. How long? Well, I remember seeing commercials for this show during Toonami, as it was set to air on Adult Swim after Toonami. Of course, being a kid I was not allowed to watch Adult Swim and it was past my bedtime, blah blah blah. Well, since I’ve been trying my best to really reeducate myself with anime (Both new and old. Seriously, in the past few months I’ve burned through like three or four different animes and that’s a lot for me) and this one came to mind. Another big reason is that my favorite voice actor, Steve Blum, plays the main character, so I had to give it a watch.

The Big O centers around Roger Smith, the top negotiator in Paradigm City. As he puts it, Paradigm City is a city of amnesia, as no one in the city has memories from before 40 years ago. One day, everyone (including the androids who also populate the city) simply lost all their memories. Life continued to go on, however, as people still retained enough vague memories of what skills they had in their previous life, language skills ect. to continue to function as a society.
Roger himself has memories that allow him to pilot a massive, powerful robot called “Big O”, a type of robot called a “Megadeus.” Despite also sounding like something that happens after a week of eating nothing but Taco Bell, these machines are somewhat a mystery themselves and hold more power than all of the police or military in the city.
(This next paragraph has some spoilers for episode 1. It’s a bit of an extended plot summary. If you don’t want these spoilers, just skip this next paragraph.)
On the first assignment of the series, Roger has to negotiate the rescue of Dorothy Wayneright, daughter of a famous doctor in the city. The negotiations seem to go well, but the doctor insists that Roger gave the ransom not for his daughter, but for an Android. It’s later revealed that the real Dorothy Wayneright is actually dead, and the android was constructed by her father, who dies later in the episode. Dorothy eventually takes up a position as a “maid” for Roger, working alongside his butler Norman Burg.

Okay, with that out of the way, let’s talk quality here. The animation is crisp and has sort of a noir-style that is complimented well with some excellent jazz tracks. Honestly, the animation and the style of the anime itself draws from a lot of different sources, but those which immediately are apparent are James Bond, Batman, and Cowboy Bebop (This one especially, sharing two voice actors with it!). So, that’s basically what we’re working with: Batman with a giant robot. How can it go wrong? Well, it kind of does, and it’s not easy to put my finger on why exactly it kind of fails. Well, “Fails” is a strong word. This is not a bad anime, but it was a struggle to get through some episodes, and it was frequently either unengaging or flat out boring.
The anime is split into two 13-episode seasons. The first season is a sort of episodic season, each episode mostly disconnected from the others and simply focusing on individual cases that Roger picks up. The second season is much more connected, focusing on solving some of the mysteries of what the Megadeus’s are, why everyone is missing their memories, Dorothy’s significance and other confusing crap that I ultimately failed to follow.
The reason that this show struggles to keep me engaged is that it has a very, very inconsistent tone. The beginning of each episode (At least in season 1) plays out something like a drama or a comedy, the middle features more of a noir-style mystery show or even some mild horror elements, but the end always, repeat: ALWAYS devolves into a giant robot fight. Big O just seems so out of place here that it’s almost laughable when the creators try to find a way to crowbar in a giant robot or a monster for Big O to fight by the end. The fights are cool, well animated and all, but I just find myself scratching my head and saying something like “Weren’t we investigating a kidnapping five minutes ago?” This show needed to decide if it was going to be noir-style mystery or a mech-combat anime, and it decided to take a half-measure, hurting it greatly.

The main cast of characters is one of the stronger elements of this show. As mentioned, Roger seems to share some traits with Spike Spiegel, Bruce Wayne, and James Bond which makes him a pretty slick character (At times). Dorothy is robotic and emotionless, but she is an android, so it fits. As she attempts to rekindle her human side and form a deeper relationship with Roger, it can almost get touching and tragic how the two seem to care for one another but can never really be together because of the whole android problem (For those quick to try and point out how it worked out between Krillin and Android 18, 18’s name was a misnomer and she was actually a Cyborg. Also, Krillin is still to this day fist-pumping about that). Norman is less of a Alfred and more of a Lucius (The Morgan Freeman character, for those who forgot his name and just started calling him Morgan Freeman like everyone else). He maintains Big O, he makes good jokes and in a pinch can help the hero out, but he’s just as supporting of a character as he needs to be. There’s also another girl named Angel (Voiced by Wendee Lee, another of my favorite voice actors who I swear is in every show where Steve Blum plays a lead role), shrouded in mystery and ends up playing a central point of the plot (And a stupid ending, which I’ll talk a little bit about later). Then there’s Dan, a cop who used to work with Roger when he was on the force. He’s the by-the-books good cop who is always trying to catch the bad guy. He just sort of serves as a foil for Roger and a way to explain certain parts of each episode, but since the police force in the city more or less accounts for nothing when a giant robot shows up, I did get a decent chuckle when Dan brought up the fact that the police is pretty much useless in those situations. Actually, it ended up being a bit of a sticking point for him and helped to strengthen his resolve in the end to help in any way he could, even if it meant putting his life on the line. Honestly, he was a pretty great character and I wish we had more episodes featuring him primarily (There was only like, one).
Additionally, there were some really forgettable villains. Seriously, they’re pretty much just a bunch of Batman villains but not nearly as well written. Also a dude who’s Lex Luthor but not nearly as well written. Sigh.

And now the story… god, the story. I’m not sure how The Big O manages it, but it can be both childishly simple and epicly complex at the same time. On one level, it has the episodic structure, which you think would be simple enough to follow since it has to keep each story short and concise, with Roger taking a job, following leads and finding out what he needs to complete his job. However, like I said, the fucking robot complicates things because the writers need to find a way in EVERY EPISODE to find a reason for Big O to fight a robot or a monster. This leads to very convoluted stories and doesn’t allow us to focus on the characters or the mystery as much as they should. It’s the equivalent of picking a lock, getting half of the tumbler open and then smashing the door open with a sledgehammer anyways. Both subtle and over-the-top at the same time… I’m sorry Big O, but you can’t have it both ways! I really would have liked it if they had an episode or two where the robot could stay home and we could have a legitimate mystery episode, but that never really gets to happen, unfortunately. It killed the tone every time and held almost every single episode back.
We also get into great positions in the show when it becomes “Hey, remember me? The villain from episode 4?” and I get to say “Yeah! Hey, it’s you… you… old dog you! How could I forget that time when you… uh, kidnapped the android girl? Attacked the city? Stole some memories? Am I getting warm?” Yeah, like I said, the story has a hard time keeping you engaged and the villains aren’t very memorable, which makes it all the worse when the show starts calling back to these old villains. And like I said, this is a short anime, and the fact that I’m forgetting these guys in a couple of episodes whereas I can remember every single villain in Fairy Tail 80 episodes later in detail says something about how engaging the show really is.
Season 2 gets a little better because, as a more continuous story, it becomes a little easier to follow what’s going on and it does a bit of a better job of following the characters… until the ending, of course, which is convoluted, vague, confusing, and worst of all, fails to make me care about anything that happened up to that point. I got legitimately excited in the last few episodes because I felt that they were building up to something huge that would blow the whole series open, make me reevaluate everything and enjoy the series a lot more, but what happened was having my disappointment utterly solidified.
There are also a lot of weird… I don’t want to say plot holes, but they’re elements that we never explained very well. For example, in the first few episodes it was implied that Dan doesn’t know that that Roger is the pilot of Big O, and that it’s sort of a secret identity for him. Then, about halfway through season 2, Dan seems to know that it’s Roger without any sort of “Revelation” episode where he figures it out. I thought that would cause some huge tension between these characters, since Roger is a former cop and current vigilante and Dan is the hard-nosed cop, but they just sort of glance over it. Maybe Dan knew from the beginning, but if he did, the show did a horrible job of conveying it. Another example of potential for great conflict that fell right on its face.
Like I said, pretty much ever way this story ended left me confused and not sure exactly what happened/what the writer wanted me to think happened/why I should care/what the point was. A shame, because this anime had some real potential; I wanted to like it, but it made that a lot harder that it should have been.

In the end, The Big O couldn’t decide what it wanted to be. There were chances for some really strong stories here, be it focusing on the mech-fighting aspect, the mysteries, or the characters, but the writers could never figure out exactly what they wanted it to be, and it ended up as a jumbled mess.
I’ll be honest, when I was right around episode 20, I was ready to give the anime a 3; boring but average, with enough cool fights, music, (main) characters, and animation to keep you entertained, but that crummy ending after all the mysterious buildup just really killed that possibility. Worst of all, I cannot stress enough how much of an effort it was to sit through this anime. I just wasn’t enjoying it most of the time and unfortunately, that’s one of the most damning things I can say about an anime. Cast in the name of God. Ye not good.

I give The Big O a 2 out of 5.

Anime Review from the Vault: Kill la Kill

(Posted to my Facebook page on April 29, 2015)

Kill La Kill… ugh this anime. Do I really have to talk about this? No, no I do not. But I’m going to because I sat through the whole damn thing and I am way too committed to NOT talk about it at this stage.

Let’s do an exercise. Try to picture what kind of anime Kill La Kill is based on its title alone. Go on, I’ll give you a second. I bet you pictured a horror anime, right? About a serial killer maybe? Some kind of ultra-violent action anime maybe? Oh no. You have no idea what this anime is. Kill La Kill is a… fuck man, let’s see what Wikipedia says its genre is… “Action, Comedy-Drama, Magical Girl”… oh boy, if only that was all it was. If I had to nail its genre down I would call it an Action-Comedy Clothes Anime. You may think that I had a stroke midway through that sentence and added an extra word. I did not. No, this is an anime about clothes. People who use clothes to make them better at fighting. Alien clothes from outer space that wish to eat humanity. A scientist who created a giant pair of scissors to combat these clothes and a girl’s school Sailor outfit which is alive and allows its wearer to transform into a super-powered fighter wearing a thong with her tits hanging out. I swear to god I’m not making this up. I couldn’t if I tried.

Okay, let me seriously try to explain the plot to this anime. This anime centers around a high school (Don’t they all?) called Honnouji Academy. This school is ruled by teenaged Satsuki Kiryuin and her powerful student council using “Goku Uniforms” which greatly increase their physical prowess. This school more or less rules the city that surrounds it. How students preform in the school and how they rank in their respective clubs directly relate to their social status (From a 0-Star student to a 3-Star student). In the middle of all this, a mysterious girl named Ryuko Matoi wanders into this city looking for the one who killed her father. Armed with half of a giant pair of scissors, she challenges Satsuki for her knowledge but is badly beaten. Returning to her father’s destroyed lab, she finds a living sailor uniform named Senketsu, which gives her enough power to fight back against the school clubs. Now she seeks once and for all to find her father’s killer, and plans to go through Satsuki to find that information. All the while, she befriends a fellow student named Mako Mankanshoku. As Ryuko has no place to call her own, her family agrees to take her in.

Okay, got all that? No? Too bad, I’m going to start analyzing this thing now.

Let’s start with… fuck, the animation. That’s probably the easiest place to start. Whatever else I have to say about this series, it has impressive animation. It has some stark colors, and despite the city and schoole themselves mostly featuring black and white, the colorful character designs, active fights and lively characters make up for it. That being said, there’s some… questionable design of characters. Like I said, this is a series that likes to dress its female characters in skimpy outfits (It has plot reasoning for it, of course, just as the man peeking into a woman’s changing room probably has reasoning for it as well). I shouldn’t accuse this series of sexualizing the women, however, because everyone, regardless of sex, is found naked at some point in the series. No, that is not an exaggeration, it’s a thing that happens. Regularly. This is actually a rather big problem I can have with this type of anime. I don’t care how compelling the characters of High School of the Dead are, or how cool some of the actions scenes are, because I get the feeling that the series is constantly trying to make me get off on some tits flapping in front of the screen, and that can make me uncomfortable because that’s not what I sat down for. Look Japan, If I wanted to watch porn, I’d go watch porn. I don’t need you rubbing your tits and ass in my face while I’m trying to enjoy a drama or action show. Is there actual nudity in this show? Nooooo… technically. Is there sex in the show? Again, technically no. Yet, compared to Gantz (Which is a fairly tasteless show in my opinion) which actually does have nudity and sex in it, I almost feel more uncomfortable watching Kill La Kill just because of the frequency of the nudity and how tiring it can be to get all these damn panty shots, ass shots (Of men and women), tit shots, and it gets old real quick how they try to “cover up” these bits. It feels, for lack of a better term, tasteless and it gets real fuckin’ old. Honestly, this is probably my biggest problem with the show, but because it’s such a big and constant problem, it hurts the overall quality quite a bit. On a bit of a side note, the show has a minor case of Sailor Moon Syndrome. No, I don’t say that because it likes to parade girls in sailor outfits in front of us (Though the more I think of it, the more apt a comparison it becomes. Hmmm…). No, I say it because there’s a decent amount of Stock Footage used, primarily for transformations. This is usually a trick used by animes to fill up several extra minutes and make a fight seem longer than it actually is by adding a lot of previously animated shots of someone transforming or doing the same attack. Kill La Kill isn’t too bad about that… it rarely shows an old transformation in full, but it does have a lot of other transformations the seem to far around way too much. They look nice at least, which is something.

Now the characters. Whoo, now that I have that rant off my chest, this is hopefully going to go a bit smoother. The characters, honestly, are quite well done. Most of them are funny, and they’re diverse enough with interesting enough backgrounds that I’ll find myself rooting for whoever the show wants me to root for, and despising whatever villain they have set up. Some of the villains can be sympathetic, but honestly I found the villains towards the end of the series to be pretty bland. A truly great villain can make you almost want to root for them, and their logic is often quite sound to the point of making you as an observer conflicted (See Handsome Jack, Galbatorix, or Caesar’s Legion for a crash course on that). On a whole, I’m rather satisfied with the quality of characters, their arcs and their individual endings. They’re not exactly revolutionary, but they drive the plot well enough. Ryuko is a little inconsistant at times for me, but on a whole she’s energetic and fun enough to drive the story. The character I really hold a decent amount of issue with it Mako. She’s just so damned annoying. A good comic relief knows when to ease the mood and give us a laugh and when to be serious. Hell, in Yu Yu Hakusho, some of the most touching moments belonged to one of the comic reliefs, Kuwabara. Mako has a moment or two where she can give us a touching moment, but I frequently groan when she steps in the middle of the action and tries to bring people back to earth with her song and dance. It’s just annoying, and isn’t even particularly entertaining like with Kid Muscle in Ultimate Muscle.

The action is really the entire reason I gave this series a chance at all. I heard that Kill La Kill had some excellent action, and I wasn’t really disappointed on that front. It suffers a little bit of Dragon Ball Z syndrome (“Augh! My foe is too powerful! Wait, I got a power boost! I can beat you! Augh, next foe is too powerful!” Ect), but I like Dragon Ball Z, so I don’t really knock that point so much. The fights are full of imagination and energy and here is where the animation really shines. The creators got really creative with these fights and they’re really the highlight of the whole anime.

The plot on a whole is… weak. I might be in the minority when I say that, but it’s seriously just all over the place. On one hand, it’s frequently very uninvolved and bounces around with disconnected episodes that just involve Ryuko fighting a new club. On the other, towards the end it gets so convoluted, complicated, and stupid that I officially stopped giving a shit where they were going with it and just watched the fights. I understood it all, but I really wish I hadn’t. The concept on a whole is just so fucking stupid and weird that I can’t bring myself to really care where they’re going with it. More importantly, the ending is pretty obvious. I mean, gee, will the good guys win in the end? Sigh… I feel like I’ve been spoiled by Angel Beats. You see, there they didn’t really need a villain. They just needed characters and a conflict. That fueled the series perfectly and nearly brought me to tears. Here… despite having so much more, it feels like a lot less.

So in the end, what did I think of Kill La Kill? Honestly, I’m still not sure. It’s so fucking bizarre I’m not even sure how to score it, so let me vocalize my thoughts quickly. Was it bad? Not really, no. Was it good? Apart from the action, not really. Would I watch it again? Probably not. Would I recommend it? Probably not (and not just because anyone I recommended it to might think I was a pervert). So there you have it. A sub-par anime with some superb action. I wouldn’t recommend it because it’s just weird Japan being weird Japan. There are animes with good action that actually have good stories to them, and I’d recommend those over this in a heartbeat. Nothing to see here, move along.

I give Kill La Kill a 2 out of 5.

Video Game Review from the Vault: Receiver

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

Reciever was a weird game a picked up for like a dollar during a Steam Summer Sale. What is Reciever? It’s a first person shooter designed to explore extensive gun handling mechanics. What do I mean by that? Well, this game features three weapons (A S&W Model 10, a Colt 1911A1 Semi-Automatic pistol, or a Glock 17), one of which you’ll randomly spawn with, along with a random number of bullets and magazines and even possibly a Flashlight. This game is extensive. To reload a weapon, you don’t just tap one button and watch your character go through the motions. If it’s the revolver, you’ll need to manually, by pushing each button individually, open the revolver, eject the spent casings, and then load each round individually before closing the gun. Miss a step and your gun might not fire at all. The Semi-Auto pistols are even more complicated, especially if you only have on magazine and need to reload mid-combat. Eject the magazine, holster your gun, place the bullets into the magazine one at a time, draw your weapon, load the magazine, release the slide. There’s a separate button for each of those functions (A little overlap on some) and in the heat of the moment you might accidentally drop your magazine, forget to release the slide, and it becomes a hectic experience. Even the buttons I mentioned are just scratching the surface. You can rotate the revolver’s cylinder, check the chamber for a bullet, switch your magazines (If you have extras) and more. It’s a really fascinating experience, and just toying around with the weapons can be a lot of fun.
The game itself is a walk through an infinitely looping complex looking for 11 tapes which will explain to you some jargen about these people named “Recievers”, but that’s not important. You’ll also find spare magazines, bullets, and flashlights along the way which will help, and enemies to impede your progress.
There are only two enemy types, but they compliment each other perfectly. A stationary turret can’t move and rotates slowly, but can shoot accurately from a distance. A noise will tell you when it has locked on to you and it’ll give you a brief delay before it fires. It can’t usually look up at all, which can be exploited to give you an edge. The other enemy is a flying drone. It moves quickly and is tough to shoot, but can only use its taser on you up close. It’s also loud, which can help you detect it early. These two enemy types compliment each other perfectly, and be it in one of the complex’s open rooms or tight corridors, the game can really get tense.
The music can indicate when an enemy is close (If you hear no music, you’re most likely safe, except from some miracle turret shot from the next room over). It makes things both tense, and lets you breath a sigh of relief when you’re in the clear and loot the rooms you’ve cleared.
This is also a pretty difficult, unforgiving game. You can pretty much only take one hit from either enemies (Depending on where you’re hit, you MIGHT be able to live a single shot from a turret, but I’m not positive on that) and you can’t fall from a very far height without dying right away. If you’re dead, it’s a start from the beginning kind of game. Still, for how short the game is (A successful run, from people I’ve seen online, usually takes 30 minutes to an hour) it does make sense.
On the downside, the complex/tape-hunting quest is the only thing in this game. It would have been really neat to see some multiplayer in this game (Imagine how hectic THAT would be!) but at the same time, I understand why. This game was actually created in a week for a 2013 game competition, and for how much time was given, it’s very well done. I really hope that the creator uses this engine for a full game in the future, that could be really interesting.
Still, for what it is, a $5 little experiment, it’s well worth a look. It’s a rough sketch, but one that’s worth experiencing.
I give Receiver a 3 out of 5