Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Golden Time Anime Review

It's one of those things that have plagued anime and JRPGs for years: a cast of characters in their teens. Sure, it makes them into people that a sizable proportion of viewers can project themselves into, but given the frequency with which it happens I can't blame people for angrily looking at the phenomenon as being a bit trope-like. These days there are so many shows that take place in high schools. We have magic schools, mech pilot schools, zombie schools, normal schools, you name it, all littered with 15-18 year olds going about their business. The saturation is pretty bad.

This is a big reason why I decided to check out Golden Time, as it takes place in university. No robots, aliens, or anything like that, just a contemporary post secondary institution with some 20 somethings becoming adults. It was a very nice change of pace with its combination of being a slice of life and romantic comedy, although the first half of the series was definitely much better than the second, but not enough to ruin the show. The characters kept my attention throughout and the humour was fairly well done, making me overlook the shows foray into the supernatural.

The show centers around a guy named Tada Banri who is in his first year of university as he makes new friends, goes to classes and winds up encountering one Kouko Kaga who is stalking her childhood sweetheart, Mitsuo. He just so happens to be in Tada's law class and one of the first friends he makes at the school. Over time, Kouko finally takes the hint that Mitsuo isn't at all interested in her, but she hangs out with Tada a lot and the two become an item. However, we quickly learn that Tada suffered a serious head injury in his hometown after graduating high school, took a year off, has amnesia, and cannot remember anything about his past. While things are going well at university and with Kouko, there's a good chance that one of his other friends, Linda, may actually have been his girlfriend in high school before he lost his memory, though she's mentioned nothing of this to Tada. So, quickly, the story becomes a hybrid college slice of life drama with a love triangle thrown in.

Since Golden Time involves college students, it does make for a nice change of pace from the scores of other series that would likely tackle all of this in a high school setting. You do get the sense that everyone is enjoying their lives while going to university, as it is often the case in Japan. High school is a lot more focused on education to get into a good college, but once one gets there things relax considerably since it's viewed by many as a last hurrah before entering the work force where everything gets very serious and very busy very quickly. Banri, Kouko, et al do seem to be enjoying themselves and watching them do their thing is quite relaxing.

Kouko herself takes a little bit of getting used to as she comes off as very aggressive and obsessive, especially in the early episodes where she's still stalking Mitsuo. Once she gives up on him and starts getting closer to Banri, Kouko becomes far more tolerable. She winds up being a bit clingy with Banri too, but not to the point of her being annoying to the viewer, and it becomes clear that she has her own insecurities driving this to an extent which helps explain her behavior, making it more acceptable.

Meanwhile, Linda is very much a level-headed, down to earth woman. She's pretty much the polar opposite of Kouko. She tries to keep Banri at arms length so that he can sort out his amnesia on his own, but tends to show up whenever he's in trouble, especially during the second half of the series. As the show progresses and the love triangle between her, Kouko, and Banri develops, it's easy to see viewers starting to fall into pro-Linda and pro-Kouko camps.

We don't really see enough of the supporting cast to get to know them, though. Sure they're around and everyone does stuff together but they aren't all that developed. Mitsuo's around and is obviously one of Banri's buddies but we don't really learn much about him. The same goes for Chinami, 2D, and Nana. It would have been nice if these people were fleshed out more instead of the series focusing so much on Banri, Kouko, and Linda.

As mentioned earlier, the first half of Golden Time is much better than the second and this has a lot to do with Banri. For the first dozen episodes, he's treated like a typical college student getting on with his life, making friends, finding a girlfriend, and such. The amnesia is there and it's something he's dealing with, but one gets the sense he'll pull through eventually. However, when the second half of the series comes along we get Ghost Banri, which is just stupid.

Basically, he's supposed to be some sort of non-corporeal manifestation of Banri from before he lost his memories. He wants his life back and doesn't like the current Banri mucking things up, especially the fact that he's hanging out with Kouko instead of Linda. Ghost Banri becomes a mildly vengeful spirit and tries to find ways to interfere in Banri's life. He doesn't do anything huge but manages to give Banri a run of bad luck. It's a very silly plot element that didn't need to be there.

The first half of the series was shaping up nicely but this was tough to swallow. The last episode in particular was very confusing with the scene on the bridge. It was obvious that this was meant to tie everything up with Banri choosing someone and dealing with Ghost Banri but it came off as a convoluted mess leaving me thinking, "Okay, he chose someone, but I still don't quite know what's going on here."

Normally, this would have completely soured my opinion of an anime series, but the fact that the show was a slice of life series that didn't take place in a high school and seeing as how the first half of the series was quite entertaining, I'm not prepared to completely dismiss Golden Time. It is something that people who enjoy a slice of life anime should consider trying out. There are still good times to be had. Just keep in mind that the second half of the series isn't nearly as good as the first.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Thinking About the SNES 25 Years On

On November 21, 1990, the Super Famicom was released in Japan and with that the system has just turned 25. I still remember all of the hype when it came out because the thing wasn't released in North America yet and magazines like EGM and GamePro were talking about it constantly with tiny images of Super Mario World, Pilotwings, and the like smattered across their pages, while kids were being bombarded with terms like "Mode 7" and "color palettes".

With the NES pretty much ruling the roost in my neck of the woods, it seemed natural that most people would want an SNES when it came out. I was certainly among them, but wound up waiting until 1993 to get mine. Other choices were made by me in the early 90s that resulted in a TurboGrafx-16 and a Sega Genesis being the center of my 16-bit console gaming. A rather ridiculous amount of time was spent on the likes of Streets of Rage, Phantasy Star II, Dungeon Explorer, Military Madness, and The Immortal.

These games kept me plenty occupied and also in the minority as most of the folks I hung around with in high school were much more in the SNES camp or weren't into games in the first place. As time wore on, though, more and more games showed up on Nintendo's 16-bit system and it became increasingly difficult for me to resist getting one myself.

From the beginning A Link to the Past caught my eye, and it was also becoming quite clear that if I wanted to continue playing Final Fantasy games I'd have to get an SNES. Then Street Fighter II came to the system and I capitulated, finally scrounging together enough birthday money, cash from odd jobs, and the like to get one second hand.

It was a glorious thing in all of its ugly gray and blue grandeur, feeling noticeably firmer than the Genesis. I only had two games on the system for quite some time: Super Mario World and Final Fantasy II (which was actually IV, but got renamed to this since II and III hadn't been released in the West and the publisher wanted to avoid confusion). I did want Street Fighter II as well, but was tapped out by then, so it would have to wait. Diving into Final Fantasy was more than enough to keep me happy for months, though. I marched around with Cecil and the gang, got them to level cap, and remember just beating the final boss repeatedly to hear the music during the 20 minute ending because it sounded so much like an orchestra compared to the beeps and bloops of my other systems' sound chips.

The console never completely pulled me into its camp, however. Even when the console wars were just emerging and kids were picking between Sega and Nintendo, I was decidedly agnostic about the whole thing. Both systems had stuff I liked, so why not enjoy all of it. This was a time when lots of people rented games, so one could partake in all sorts of experiences for relatively cheap if they at least had the systems to play the stuff on. One week I might take out Secret of Mana, another Kid Kameleon, and some other time Veigues Tactical Gladiator. There's plenty out there to explore, so why be partisan about it?

If anything, I'd say that my SNES library didn't really start to expand rapidly until 16-bit systems were being phased out to make space PlayStation and Saturn games at most shops. It was a good time to get things on the cheap. I remember getting stuff like Ninja Warriors, Lufia, and A Link to the Past for about 10 dollars each and playing the hell out of them.

Ultimately, the SNES primarily functioned as a Street Fighter II and RPG machine for me. RPGs were a bit touch and go in terms of what got released here during the 16-bit era, but the SNES had a lot of stuff that I was very interested in. Most of my time on the system was spent ploughing through Final Fantasies, 7th Saga, Paladin's Quest, Ogre Battle, Breaths of Fire, Lufias, Chrono Trigger, and the like.

In recent years, the system has seen quite a resurgence in popularity as people who grew up with it have been going on a spending spree buying up the games they couldn't afford as a kid at online auctions, consequently driving the prices up so that they're games they can't afford as adults, but it is nice to see renewed interest in the system nonetheless. I'm just left to wonder how many folks will still have fond memories of the SNES after another 25 years have past, or will the system be long forgotten as a new generation of 30-somethings wax nostalgic about "classic" mobile games like Angry Birds, Candy Crush, and Clash of Clans instead.

Friday, 20 November 2015

I Still Can't Decide Whether to Be Excited about Final Fantasy XV

Since the very first game, it's been easy for me to get excited for Final Fantasy games thanks to a combination of the series generally being quite good and a borderline unconditional love for JRPGs. However, the more I see of the fifteenth installment currently in development, the more my enthusiasm falters and I find myself not sure what to think of the thing.

A big part of this is probably the protagonists, as the game looks like Pop Idols Go On An Adventure more than anything else. To a degree it smacks of a "design by committee" approach where people in high places that really shouldn't be allowed anywhere near the design process looked at some consumer purchasing statistics, noticed what way the wind was blowing and went in that direction. Part of me wonders if this will devolve into Uta no Prince X Final Fantasy at some point when my cynicism gets going.

On the plus side, I suppose one could look at this as a bit of an about face in terms of character design, though. Instead of going with a cast of buxom beauties that have their tits jutting out, which is often the case in this industry, the game is going for some rather handsome men. So, now the female segment of the series fan base has some characters to oggle, and a slew of FFXV boys love fan art will surely proliferate through Google image search in the coming years. So that's something.

Questionable cast aside, combat is the big thing that makes or breaks an RPG for me, especially if it hails from Japan. There's something so charming about how developers from that part of the world put so much effort into this aspect of their games with unique systems ranging from resource management to party composition to special abilities. The fact that Final Fantasy XIII had a good combat system was one of the very few saving graces of that game, preventing me from completely hating it.

So now I'm left feeling a little bit uncertain about what's planned for this game, as the combat is very action-oriented and very simplified. It's more like something out of Elder Scrolls or Dragon's Dogma, which makes sense as Final Fantasy XV is planned to be an exploration-heavy open world game, just like those two. As such, this action RPG approach seems more logical in the greater context of the game. That being said, part of me can't shake my decades old expectation of a more traditional approach to combat in a JRPG that the Final Fantasy series has been known for. It's obvious bias on my part, but at the same time it leaves me wondering if this will feel like a Final Fantasy game or will it just be an open world action RPG with the Final Fantasy label slapped on the box cover. I don't think this would be such a big thing for me if this wasn't a mainline Final Fantasy, and initially it wasn't since the game was originally supposed to be Final Fantasy Versus, but with a mainline installment in this series comes certain expectations, and a much more robust battle system is one of them.

So, with that, I'm having some very mixed feelings about Final Fantasy XV based on what we know so far. XIII made me very skeptical of the series and XV isn't doing anything to change that so far. It may turn out decent, but the cast of characters look set to be more annoying than Snow, Vanille, and Hope, while the battle system comes of as anything but what I've come to expect from a Final Fantasy game. Square-Enix will have a lot of convincing to do to make me want to try this game when it comes out.

Monday, 16 November 2015

Disgaea on Steam = Yes, Please

It looks like NIS America will be bringing Disgaea to Steam in Febrary 2016, so fans of strategy RPGs can develop legions of characters to their hearts content, bringing them to level 9999 and maybe even try and finish the game at some point.

This is something I certainly wasn't expecting to see happen. It's a series that's had countless iterations on consoles over the years with not a peep about it on PC, but now they've decided to port the first game over with some improvements (UI update and better textures, M/KB support, and they're tossing in Disgaea: Afternoon of Darkness).

There really aren't that many strategy RPGs of this ilk on the PC, so I'm remaining hopeful that this could be the beginning of much more coming to the platform. It's not like NIS is lacking for games in the genre that they could follow up this release with. (La Pucella, Makai Kingdom, and Phantom Brave say hi) I certainly wouldn't complain if this lead to many more console-styled SRPGs coming to PC. Maybe in a perfect world we'd get Tactics Ogre and Final Fantasy Tactics ports as well, but that may be wishful thinking.

For now, I'll just wait patiently for Disgaea, maybe play the DS version to build up my hype, and quietly speculate to myself what other games NIS could port to PC in the future.

Friday, 13 November 2015

Quick Thoughts: Mushihimesama on Steam

mushihimesama first boss
A while ago, there was that announcement that Cave's shoot 'em ups were going to start making their way onto Steam. It's been about a week since the first of these appeared there, and they went with Mushihimesama. I was wondering what game they would choose, and figured it would probably be either this or one of their Dodonpachi games since these are their most well known series. Of course, I wasted no time in picking it up because Cave shmups are amazing, and, minor technical issues aside, it's been a lot of fun playing this on my PC.

There are a few game modes including Novice, Normal, and Arrange. They're pretty self explanatory with Novice being a slightly toned down version of the game for those new to bullet hell shooters. Normal is just as you would expect, and Arrange has different music, tons of bullets (but a smaller hit box on your character), and crazy high scores. I've been spending most of my time in Arrange mode because all of the bullets flying around have me thinking, "Weeeeeeee!" the whole time I'm playing, and there's something immensely satisfying about seeing the big numbers flashing on-screen as they're added to my score.

Some folks have run into technical issues, myself included, however. The big thing that I was hit with is trying to get the game to run in fullscreen, as it left my monitor black with sound still working and no way to exit it. Even alt-tabbing had no effect, so there was no alternative but to force the computer to shutdown by holding down the power button. There have also been some issues with frame rate and resolution, but these as well as other problems are already being addressed by Degica. The game is still plenty playable on my end so long as I do so in windowed mode, but it would be nice to see these tweaks get implemented as soon as possible.

mushihimesama dodging bullets
Just in terms of soaking in the atmosphere of Mushihimesama, though, it's great. It just screams of the arcades from the art, to the music, and all of the stuff happening on the screen. Whenever I'm in Japan I make a point of playing this game at one of the arcades I like to pop by there, so it's nice to have a legitimate way of experiencing this at home.

It's hard not to smile while dodging all of the bullets are whizzing by, with the music blasting. I'm not very good at these games, but they're exhilarating to play, and pretty darn satisfying as one gets used to them and progress becomes noticeable. I'd even say that Mushihimesama is a pretty good game to look into for people who want something a little more entry level for bullet hell shmups. The Novice mode is great for introducing players to the genre, while Normal is a nice, logical progression to harder content, especially if playing it on Maniac setting or higher.

I'm certainly having a good time with the game, and it's been getting far more play time than a lot of other shmups in my library right now. It's great for a nice time waster or serious progress, depending on how you want to approach the game, or just soak in Mushihimesama's atmosphere. There really is a lot to enjoy here, and it's doing a lot to renew my interest in shoot 'em ups. Now I'm just curious what Cave game will show up on Steam next.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

The Irregular at Magic High School Anime Review

tatsuya miyuki erika leo mizuki and friends
I've really got to get out of the habit of checking out anime that are adaptations of light novels only to find out that the show only covers a portion of said books. It always leaves me wanting more, and since I don't live in Japan, and am not fluent enough in the language to read said novels, I'm inevitably left hanging in the end. That is something that I'm left worrying about having recently completed the anime run of The Irregular at Magic High School, as I really enjoyed the show, but it's based on a light novel series and covers only about the first half of it. Granted, it does sound like the anime did quite well for itself sales-wise, so I'm a lot more hopeful that we'll see more of it in the future, unlike Rokka, which I lamented about recently, but still part of me will live in fear that the anime will remain half finished. In the meantime, though, let's chat about the show so far.

In a nutshell, the show focuses on the Shiba siblings, Tatsuya and Miyuki, as they go to the top mage high school in Japan. Sorcery is something that has only recently awakened in humans, and has lead to several wars, so now each country does its best to educate magic-proficient individuals so to include them in their military. The school discriminates between two tiers of students which are kind of like honour students (called Blooms) versus regular ones (called Weeds) where the former exhibit exceptional skills in magic while the latter only average. Miyuki gets accepted as a Bloom, while Tatsuya enters as a weed. As the show progresses, though, we start to see that Tatsuya is hiding his true power and is on a level well beyond anyone in the school, and possibly one of the most powerful magicians in the world. So, the series largely acts as a slow reveal of who Tatsuya is and just what he is capable of with his magic.

Tatsuya using magic

This results in Tatsuya gradually earning the respect of his peers through his exceptional engineering skills, and we see the show be a bit of a story of acceptance. While wearing the mantle of a Weed, he has to prove himself on merits and show that these differentiations between magicians isn't necessarily as cut and dry as the establishment would have one believe. Thankfully there are a number of level-headed students who don't share these discriminatory Bloom vs Weed sentiments and are more inclined to judge one on the content of their character. Tatsuya quickly befriends these people, but there are still the stubborn ones that won't accept him simply because he's a Weed, so he has to prove himself to these folks, resulting them very much getting their comeuppance, which is oh so satisfying.

As all of this is going on, we start to see that there's a lot more to our protagonist here than he's letting on, and with that the show feels like a very gradual reveal of just how powerful Tatsuya is. Slowly we see that he is a brilliant engineer with amazing magical powers as we follow him through his day-to-day life in high school. The series ends on a crescendo with Tatsuya using some of his most devastating abilities, and left me hungry for more. This is where it becomes apparent that we're only halfway through the light novel in terms of content covered, but I'm cautiously optimistic that the series will continue at some point.

Ichijo and Cardinal George
While Tatsuya is doing all of this, he's meeting plenty of folks at school, of course. It's a bit touch and go in terms of how well developed the rest of the cast is. His sister, Miyuki, is interesting. On the surface she seems like she's just a very powerful magician with a big brother complex but it's through her that we start to understand just how different Tatsuya is as well as the siblings connection to the Yotsuba, one of the most powerful magician families in Japan.

Their friends and classmates are where we see things bounce between reasonably well developed and cardboard. Erika Chiba is probably the most interesting of the bunch, and it could very easily work if someone wanted to make a spin off series based on the Chiba family seeing as they're all very good sword fighters with several of them involved with law enforcement or the military. Meanwhile Mikihiko's whole thing with summoning spirits and the accident that the series hints at suggests there's quite a bit to explore with this character. Leo and Mizuki seem nice enough, and help keep things feeling light from time to time, but they aren't really all that well developed in comparison to Tatsuya and Miyuki's other friends, and, if anything, I get the sense that Mizuki is mostly around for the purpose of fan service.

The student council has its fair share of members that are introduced to us, but only a handful of them get fleshed out in any way. Mari has her moments during action scenes, but it's more Saegusa and Jumonji that are of particular interest since both of their families are two of the other top magician families in Japan, so they get involved in the political side of mage life outside of school.

Erika sword fighting
One person I'd like to learn more about, though, is Masaki Ichijo, as he's the closest thing to a rival that Tatsuya has in The Irregular at Magic High School. While there are a few other people that are straight up evil bad guys that Tatsuya fights from time to time, they were all just cannon fodder. Ichijo is seen as a prodigy at his own high school and the two cross paths at an inter school, magic-oriented sporting event. It was one of the few times where Tatsuya had to work hard to win, and made for some exciting action. There's obviously a lot more backstory to Ichijo, and I'd like to see it.

If anything, it made me more annoyed when the show tried to present Lu Gonghu as some sort of badass, but he wound up getting thumped again and against. For someone with a reputation for being a beast of a fighter, he got soundly whupped on multiple occasions, and not even by seasoned soldiers, but green, inexperienced high school students. The guy quickly devolved from potentially interesting villain to anti-climatic bore.

What with all of the magic getting flung around there are some pretty good action scenes. The showdown between Tatsuya and Ichijo is by far the best, but there are a few other scenes in particular that stood out. Erika gets in a few scraps that are reasonably entertaining, and there's a big multi episode battle towards the end of the series where everyone is fighting pretty much non-stop. They're fun scenes, but the big thing is waiting to see if Tatsuya will pull any particularly big rabbits out of his hat, which happens with increasing frequency toward the end of the series.

Lu Gonghu
The quality of the animation itself helps quite a bit in enhancing the fight scenes (and everything else for that matter), as the show is quite pretty to look at. There's a nice use of color, glowing computer terminals, and, of course, all that magic. So, the series is very easy on the eyes, if a tad heavy on the blue and teal tones.

In the end, though, we're only about halfway through the light novel with a whole lot more that we need to learn about. We've been introduced to a lot of people, and we know that Tatsuya is secretly a freakishly powerful magician and brilliant engineer. There's also still a lot of mystery surrounding his and Miyuki's aunt. So, there's still quite a bit that we need to know. What will Tatsuya do with all that power? How will the world respond to the events of the last few episodes? When will Mr. Zhou be back? Just what is the Yotsuba family scheming behind the scenes? We'll need to see the anime cover the last half of the light novel to get answers to those questions. I'm remaining cautiously optimistic that we'll see more episodes at some point in the future. The anime proved reasonably popular, so there's a monetary incentive for the show to continue. It's just a question of how long it'll be before it returns.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

The Warcraft Movie Trailer Looks Pretty Bad

warcraft movie poster
The trailer for the Warcraft movie came out the other day, and I have to say that it didn't impress. Right from the opening visuals, the thing dripped of fantasy cliche as it showed one sweeping vista after the next, orcs that looked kinda flabby, and humans that had armor made out of plastic. Then it gets even worse, we have to listen to some of the dialogue. As it stands, I'm not sure how many people are going to line up and see what is starting to look like a two hour cut scene. Maybe some of the super diehard fans will go watch it, but this is something that probably should have come out five years ago when the franchise was at the height of its popularity.

Looking at the motifs, the movie comes off as a paint by numbers approach to fantasy in the trailer. If anything, it felt like it was aping Lord of the Rings a little too much. Granted, fantasy, and especially fantasy video games, have been doing this for years, but watching how it is approached in the trailer brings it into sharp focus. There was nothing really striking about the places that they were showing, even if they were hinting at major cities of Azeroth in it. I was just left feeling like I'd been drawn through a montage of very traditional fantasy locales and had a lot of trouble mustering any interest in them.

Even worse is that the visuals seem off. The orcs, while huge, had a strangely doughy look to them as if there was an unusually thick layer of fat and flesh covering their muscles. Meanwhile, the scenes of humans were far from impressive and I was left wondering if the studio was going cheap on the armor because it all looked like it was made from plastic. The whole time I watched the trailer, the more grating it was to look at all of this. It also got me wondering why they couldn't just make a CG movie instead of going the live action route. The cinematics that have come along for each expansion for World of Warcraft have been very good, especially for the last couple. I would have been fine if the movie looked like that. Maybe it would have been expensive and time consuming to do, but it would look far better than what we have now.

I'm also wondering how much they're going to try to squeeze into a single movie because the trailer sure seemed to be trying to cram a lot of people, places, and events into it. The whole thing could turn into a confusing onslaught of lore that doesn't get very well explained. Moreover, the dialogue feels really bad. Granted it has always been bad in the games. I only find Warcraft's lore tolerable if I consume it via Wiki articles. Having to sit through actual cutscenes and listen to the characters talk has been a consistent exercise in patience as it has been one cliche after the next with really corny lines for everyone. Now it would seem that this is being brought straight into the movie, which could make any time someone talks in it pretty darn cringe worthy.

As it stands, I'm thoroughly unimpressed with what I've seen of the Warcraft movie judging by the trailer. This is supposed to be making a first impression, and right now that impression is to stay far away from this thing. Part of me really does wonder if this will turn into Blizzard's Spirits Within, and expensive, over-hyped disaster.