Friday, 5 February 2016

On Truck Simulators and Romanticism


It's interesting to me reading other people's experiences when playing Euro Truck Simulator 2 and now American Truck Simulator. The way they let their imagination enhance everything and how their preconceived notions color the way they look at a particular part of the world is fascinating. Whether it's North Americans in Europe or Europeans in America, there's something about their perception of the world around them that is adorable, and I find myself doing the same thing.

We all grow up somewhere and our surroundings are largely what we view as simply being "the way things are". The streets, neighborhoods, buildings, nature, it's all there and we go about our daily routines in this environment all the time without giving it much thought. There isn't any mystique surrounding hopping in the car and going to the park, commuting to work, or getting groceries. We've been down those streets so many times that it's just going through the motions for the most part.

However, while far away countries have streets, neighborhoods, buildings, and even nature, we don't see them every day, so we have to fill in the nuanced gaps with our own ideas of those places. The shops will be different, possibly in another language, they have makes and models of cars there that we don't, there may even be completely different laws governing how one drives. We're fuzzy on the details but the whole thing sounds so exciting!

This really started to hit home for me when I was driving around in American Truck Simulator. Having lived my whole life in this part of the world, I found myself having a different take on the experience compared to that of Europeans who were sharing their thoughts on the game. They seemed to be blissfully embarking on their own personal Jack Kerouac-inspired road trip across the US of A. Kudos to them for having that connection with the game, but my thoughts hovered around how brown the experience was and the legions of classic 50s cars on the road. Do the developers genuinely believe that there are so many mint condition mid-50s Mercuries cruising America's highways? After a while, every time I saw one of these things the only thought that crossed my mind was that this game needs more Camrys.

There is still a lot of fun to be had. The game is very good. However, I couldn't get this romanticized je ne sais quoi while hauling across California. It was neat driving into Los Angeles for the first time, and the scenery can be pretty when in more lush, green parts of the state, but at the end I wonder if I'm just too close to all of this. Having seen these roads and many more just like them all of my life there isn't this wistful, dream-like state of mind that sets in while soaking up the ambience.

Meanwhile, I couldn't drive two blocks in Euro Truck Simulator 2 without being swept away by something distinctly not North American. "Is that a roundabout?!?" *swoon* "Look, flags! We're crossing the border again!" "Wow, England sure has an awful lot of speed cameras!" "Right-side drive really is the best thing ever."

These are the sort of things that I think about when playing ETS2. Europeans would probably look at me strangely and ask, "Don't you guys have these things?" No, not really. Side streets around my place started having things that look vaguely like roundabouts a few years ago to stop people from speeding, but we have nothing of the size and majesty of European ones, never mind having any sort of hope to get a big rig around them.

The point is that these are things that I have a basic concept of floating around in my brain, but since I don't see them everyday they seem far off and different. Driving around virtual Europe in my virtual, right-side drive big rig is like going to Narnia for me, while hopping in a Peterbuilt and taking some cheese to Sacramento feels like just another day of doing chores. The romance is gone. With that, I don't just look at games like ETS2 and ATS as simply being simulations, but rather an escape into a world we have a basic understanding of while dolling them up with our own biases, making what would normally be mundane somehow strangely magical.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Is Peter Molyneux's Reputation Irreparably Tarnished?

This morning, while perusing through what was new on Steam, I noticed a game called Godus Wars in the Early Access section. It got me thinking, "Godus? Where have I heard that name before? Wait a minute...I smell a Molyneux." Seeing this game lurking on Steam actually surprised me. After the disastrous mess that was normal Godus, the hype surrounding it, the game's complete inability to live up to it, and the grilling Peter Molyneux got from Rock, Paper, Shotgun after, I just assumed this was the last that we'd be hearing of both the game and the man behind it.

Now, this game comes out of nowhere, and it looks like Molyneux is trying to make another comeback. However, one has to wonder how long this will last. Judging by the screens, Godus Wars looks a little more Populus-esque, so that's something, I guess. Look a little more closely at the Steam page, though, and one quickly notices that only hours after going live the game is already getting trashed in the user reviews section.

I haven't tried the game myself, so can't comment on its quality, but no matter how you look at it this does not bode well for 22cans or Peter Molyneux. This means that either the game is poorly made in some way, in which case one simply has to boggle that the company hasn't learned anything from past mistakes, or PC gamers have lost so much good will that they're going out of their way to down vote this game. If it's the latter, it suggests that some people are going so far as to plunk down fifteen bucks for the opportunity to dog pile on Molyneux. That's a pretty impressive level of hate right there.

After years of over promising and under delivering, Molyneux was already skating on thin ice going into Godus. Even with the pedigree of games that he made in the 80s and 90s, there's only so much of this that people will put up with before they become fed up. If anything, in the current environment of internet outrage that gamers are capable of when a developer falls short of expectations, Molyneux and his company still got a lot more goodwill and benefit of the doubt over the years than many other companies would have were they to have suffered similar missteps.

When he did his interview with RPS, many thought this was it for him, and Molyneux would simply walk away from the industry. He seemed so utterly defeated and, more than anything, angry and disappointed with himself. It would have been a sad exit from game development, but coming back with what appears to be a re-branded Godus seems utter madness.

Usually it takes a few days for a game to fall into "Mostly Negative" territory when it comes to Steam reviews, but Godus Wars has managed this in hours. At this point, it doesn't even feel like this is a matter of gamers running out of patience with Molyneux, but more of a message that can be read, "Just stop already!" Really, it's hard to see there being much left that the man can do. This bizarre attempt at a comeback already appears to be dead on arrival. It seems only a matter of time before he retires for real at this point.

Monday, 1 February 2016

Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen - Final Thoughts

After gushing about this game in a preliminary article a short while ago, it felt a good time to come back with some closing thoughts on Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen's PC port now that I've finished the game. Long story short, it's quite a good game, and the effort that Capcom put into this port is commendable, but it isn't without its flaws. On the one hand, environments, monsters, and characters look amazing, the pawn system is interesting, combat is solid, and fights against larger foes genuinely deserve the adjective "epic". However, the world doesn't feel truly alive, much of what happens in the story is seriously lacking in context, and after a time players will notice that they are retreading the same paths again and again.

Just spending a few minutes gazing at the screen with settings turned up, it's hard not to feel that Dark Arisen is a very pretty game, even with it being a few years old now. Climbing to any high vantage point then taking a look at whatever vistas are in the area are always impressive. It's some mighty fine eye candy and if there's anything of interest in sight, a sudden urge to go there begins to swell. Characters look very good as well, and they have quite a lot of customization options thanks to all of the different gear that they can wear, not to mention the insanely detailed character creator. Unfortunately, there isn't an option for an aesthetic set of gear to display while your actual equipment is underneath. Still, there is a lot of stuff to wear and at higher levels you'll be hard pressed not to look like a badass while gallivanting around the countryside.

The real standouts are the larger enemies, though. Run-ins with ogres, cyclops, griffons, hydras, cockatrices, dragons, and the like feel like something out Shadow of the Colossus. A lot of detail has been poured into their designs and animations. Cyclops lumber around slowly, lugging their club around. Dragons soar above the canopy of trees as you make your way to this or that destination, only to swoop down in front of you. Just seeing one of these big monsters in the distance while exploring the over world can either give pause as you ponder whether or not to engage it or a sense of elation, throwing danger to the wind and dive headlong into battle.

These monsters have their own unique weaknesses and strategies for taking them down. Moreover, they can all be climbed, so you may need to scale up the tale of a griffon or dragon and be taken for a ride, or scoot up the back of a cyclops in order to poke it in the eye. While the comparison to Shadow of the Colossus is certainly a fair one, it should be said that these fights are simpler on the whole. Regardless, locking horns with these creatures is a highlight of Dark Arisen.

It really should be said that the combat in this game is quite good. Movement is fluid and controls are intuitive. Both going with a controller or keyboard and mouse feel comfortable, so it's really up to the player what they go with. Personally, I liked using a controller when going with a straight-up brawler class like a warrior or fighter, then used a keyboard and mouse as an assassin so to have better fine control while aiming a bow as I'm just not used to controllers when it comes to that sort of thing. All the while, combat feels fast and fluid. Clunky is most certainly not a word that I would use to describe combat in this game. Zip around as a rogue-ish class, blast magic from afar as some kind of mage, or stand toe-to-toe with enemies as a warrior. Even classes like warriors and fighters, which wear the heaviest gear and wield the biggest weapons don't feel all that bogged down. If anything, there's a sense of momentum and power as they swing their weapons.

A nice thing about the game is that players can change classes when talking with certain NPCs. Tired of lugging around a sword and leading the life of a fighter? Why not try assassins and whip out the daggers and bows instead? Or maybe dawning the robes and staff of a mage seems more interesting? Players can bounce around between classes as they progress through the game. Each class awards different distributions of stats with every new level, so min-maxers will need to keep that in mind. Those who bounce around willy nilly will have a more generalist character at higher levels, and this is totally fine. You won't gimp yourself into a corner by doing this. However, if you really want to accentuate aspects of your character it's better to pick a side of the fence between magic users and non-magic users. Doing this will result in either a physical attack powerhouse, or the game's equivalent of Gandalf at high levels as your character's stats climb. Your primary pawn can also have it's stats changed by the same NPCs, so players can adjust its class as well when tweaking of party composition is necessary.

And this brings me to pawns. They're helpers that swear fealty to your character who, in the lore of the game, is referred to as the Arisen, someone who has been touched by the dragon (more on this later). Players will have one of their own and be able to recruit two more into their party. What's interesting here is that the other pawns that one recruits actually belong to other players and your own pawn can be used by others as well. Players earn a specific type of currency for renting out these pawns at a one-time fee and can release them whenever they like only to find a new one to take their spot. All you need to do is give some thought to what kind of party composition you would like and then grab pawns in the desired classes. They can be recruited by visiting a rift stone and being teleported to another realm where a number of pawns in your level range will present themselves for your consideration. If they aren't to your liking, there are more selection and search options in this plane to help find a pawn more up your alley. These beings can also be recruited while wandering the game world as they can be seen wandering the major roads and loitering in the cities. In this situation one can only recruit on a case-by-case basis, stumbling across pawns that seem interesting.

What's nice is that these guys are extremely useful in battle. While not perfect, they tend to make reasonably decent decisions, learning how to fight different monsters better, making good decisions on what spells to use, and even holding baddies down so that other party members can wail on them hassle-free. Even their pathfinding is pretty good. Watching these guys do their thing, I couldn't help but think of all the time that I had spent wandering Skyrim with my house carls, marveling at the seemingly non-stop cavalcade of bad decisions that they were capable of. These pawns by comparison are brilliant, and I hope other developers that insist on having NPC helpers take some cues from this game.


As much as it may seem that I'm gushing about Dark Arisen, one area of the game that consistently felt lacking was the story. Basically, your character starts as a simple villager by the sea and is then attacked by an ancient dragon that takes his heart and tells the protagonist to come find him if he wants it back. From there, you find yourself doing odd jobs for NPCs and slightly fancier ones for the Duke, who apparently runs the Duchy of Gransys. Eventually this leads to a showdown with the dragon, but all the while things keep happening and it's hard to understand why. The narrative in this game is seriously lacking in context. At one point, the main character is somehow involved in an affair with the Duke's wife without much explanation as to why. There's a strange cult running around that worships the dragon for reasons that are never really explained, and in the end the story becomes some sort of take on the circle of life. It's something that could have worked if the game did a better job of explaining why all of this was happening.

It's also a bit weird how the world doesn't feel alive. There are people wandering around doing their thing, but they come off as cardboard cutouts. I'll visit the capital and see the same kids running around day or night, and a lot of the stores there seem to never close. Since the only inhabited areas are Gran Sorem, Cassardis, and the keeps peppered throughout the land, it doesn't feel like a very fleshed out world. Players don't have the experience of being on a long journey and coming upon the welcoming lights of an inn or other small inhabited area while exploring Dragon's Dogma. You always know that those places are behind you and not in front since there are so few towns, which can make the game feel lonely at times.

Moreover, while running around doing random quests for everyone at first it's pretty mesmerizing wandering the countryside, taking in the sights and sounds of the game, figuring out where all of the holds, bandit hideouts, and chimera stomping grounds are. After a while, though, you start to notice that the game asks players to revisit these places quite a bit and many of them feel pretty samey. Even Skyrim, a game that some criticized for having overly similar architecture and locales, feels more varied than what Dragon's Dogma has on offer.

This is somewhat offset by Bitter Black Isle, an area that is unlocked not to far into the game, but isn't really worth visiting until after one has unlocked New Game Plus mode. It's a kind of Dark Souls Lite castle that players can explore at higher levels containing very powerful enemies and gear. Exploring this place seldom gets old. It's a very large zone with multiple areas and there's always a sense of foreboding while wandering its halls. It looks ancient and you never know when you'll run across something dangerous. Bosses here will get you thinking, "That's a lot of hit points!" and they take a fair bit more strategy than others in the game. An interesting feature here is that some bosses will randomly spawn, as they're attracted by the carrion that you create by killing the lesser enemies of the castle. This can be particularly troublesome should this happen while already fighting a standard boss. Farming gear here can take a while because the items are a bit randomized and the treasure chests only respawn every four days in-game, so players have to wait before hitting them up again. There are exploit strategies floating around the internet for those so inclined, however.

One the whole, Capcom's PC port of Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen is well worth a look for fans of series like Elder Scrolls, Risen, or The Witcher. It's an interesting take on these sorts of games from a Japanese developer. The combat is excellent, the game looks amazing, and the monsters are really well done. I just wish I better understood what's supposed to be going on story-wise half the time and that there were more towns to visit. That aside, this is definitely a game to look into for fans of open world fantasy RPGs.

Get This at Green Man Gaming ($29.99US last I checked)
Dragons Dogma: Dark Arisen

Sunday, 31 January 2016

On the Deluge of Japanese Games Coming to PC

Growing up, I always leaned more toward what Japanese companies were releasing when it came to video games. Being about 10 when the NES came along, it was just the right age where I would be hit by one game after the next that wound up creating an affinity in me for the stuff coming out of that part of the world. Whether it was big series like Super Mario Brothers, Castlevania, Mega Man, Final Fantasy, Contra, or just one-offs like Faxanadu (yes, I know it's part of a much larger series), Excitebike, or Blades of Steel, I was hooked. It just continued from one generation to the next as I migrated to the SNES and Genesis, the PlayStation and Saturn, and then the PS2 and DS.

However, when the PS3 came along, something unfortunate happened. The amount of games coming out of the region slowed down, and Japanese publishers started to hit a real funk. Interests were shifting in the West and a new generation of gamers were hungry for Gears of War, CoD, Battlefield, and the like. Sales were dropping and Japanese developers were not necessarily porting games to overseas markets with the same zeal as before. Moreover, with the rise of mobile gaming, especially in their home region, a number of them were shifting their focus to that sphere instead. So, for people like myself, options were feeling somewhat limited. It wasn't so bad for people who enjoy handheld gaming. The DS and 3DS as well as the PSP then Vita have seen a number of very good Japanese developed games come to their libraries over the years, but when you compare it to the heyday of the early 2000s, it's still not as vast.

Lately, though, with the swelling number of games that have been showing up on PC from Japanese developers and the constant uptick in announcements for more games to come, it feels like things are slowly starting to change. Sure, a considerable number of these are ports, especially stuff from the Vita and PS3, but we're also seeing it as a target platform for new releases with increasing regularity. Bandai Namco have been pumping out stuff on the PC for a while now with Dark Souls, Naruto games, and the Tales series leading the charge. Square-Enix has been porting more and more of their stuff to the platform. NIS America, XSEED, Idea Factory, Capcom, and legions of others are also bringing their games to PC.

It's feeling like a resurgence to the West to some extent as many of these games start to see a wider audience. Some of the PS3 and PS4 stuff would already get into quite a few people's hands, but with them coming to PC that's an even broader base who can and will plunk down their money on these games. Vita ports in particular are able to reap far better sales in the West by going this route because as snazzy as the handheld is, it just didn't catch on in this part of the world. Moreover, these games have the benefit of becoming relevant and easily accessible across multiple generations. They aren't shackled to a specific console, leaving fans at the mercy of publishers as to whether or not they'll add backward compatibility support for these games in future systems. Given the quite niche nature of some of these games, it can go either way in that regard.

So, it is nice that we're seeing more and more of these games come to PC and between announcements, leaks, and reliable rumors it looks like this trend will only increase in the future. However, even now, a few years after this whole practice started, we're still seeing a number of quick, down and dirty ports. A lot of companies are pretty much dumping their games on Steam without really giving them much polish. Koei Tecmo is particularly bad for this with a lot of half-assed ports of their games. Namco Bandai are still sketchy in this regard with fans like Durante often being the ones to enhance their games, getting resolution and the like up to spec for what PC gamers expect. Then there are are a number of others that could have used some tweaking before coming to Steam. A couple of examples would be Neptunia and Fairy Fencer F. I've been playing these lately, and they work fine, but they are both games that took the express train from Vita Land. Their keyboard and mouse controls feel barebones and the games handle much better with a traditional controller. Moreover, they have issues with the visuals, especially during cut scenes, that, while not overwhelming, are still noticeable enough to make me think, "Ah!" when they happen.

I'm really hoping that at some point Japanese publishers will start addressing things like this, and put a little more TLC into their PC versions. By the looks of things, I get the feeling that this will happen later rather than sooner as there are quite a few more ports coming down the pipe in the next few months that sound like quick conversions of older games. I'd love to be proven wrong, but will take a wait and see attitude for the time being.

There are a few occasions in recent months that are giving me some hope that this is slowly starting to change. The best example of this is Capcom's PC port of Dragon's Dogma. This is a game that really went above and beyond when doing this. It has a ton of graphic setting options (including an FOV slider which isn't all that necessary in third person games, but the gesture is appreciated nonetheless), giving us something that can run in very high resolutions and at 60FPS for those who want to push the game that hard. The game was ranking high on the Steam charts when it came out, so here's hoping that it does well and turns some heads not only at Capcom but also at other companies, encouraging them to take the next step and not only bring their games to the PC but also improve them for the platform.

In the end, it's great to see this shift from Japan where publishers were traditionally hesitant to put their games on PC. Now it looks like they're finally seeing that there is a demand for their games on the platform. Usually when something like Valkyrie Chronicles, Neptunia, or the like goes on sale, they see a big jump in the charts. Stuff like Tales of Zestria and Dragon's Dogma both had a fairly hefty contingent of folks who pre-ordered it. The demand is definitely there for more games from the region. It would just be nice if we could get a bit more polish and the technical options for them that most native PC games get. Hopefully, with time we'll see improvement on that front.

Monday, 25 January 2016

Noteworthy February 2016 Game Releases

With the shortest month of the year right around the corner, February doesn't seem to be lacking for interesting game releases, especially for PC. I remember a time when the first three or four months of the year were nothing but tumbleweeds rolling by as game web sites licked their wounds from having to review dozens of games in short succession in the run-up to Christmas. Memories...

Anyway, looking at the games due out next month there are quite a few that stick out for me. As much as I'd like to play them all, time and my wallet won't be having any of that. Nonetheless, let's take a moment to look at some of the stand out titles due out then, at least the ones I'm interested in and know I should probably avoid so to whittle down my backlog instead.


Tales of Symphonia

While I've not religiously followed the series, I do enjoy picking up Tales of games every now and then. They have nice, light stories that feel like something out of an anime series and tend to sport fairly interesting combat systems. Missing out on Symphonia was something that I'd always regretted, especially when the Wii game's price started going up on auction sites as folks realized it was a bit rare and in-demand. Now, with it getting ported to PC there's a chance at getting the thing at a reasonable price, assuming Bamco doesn't get greedy.



Arslan: The Warriors of Legend

An anime where big armies face off against one another? Sounds like the ingredients for a musou game. Tecmo Keoi certainly seem to think so. Musou's gonna musou, so I suspect fans of the genre will keep an eye on this one while the haters will keep on hating. It looks pretty nice visually, and the folks at Famitsu rated it reasonably well with all eights, so I guess it plays reasonably well. I'm not in a rush to pick up the game myself having recently binged on some Dynasty Warriors, but could see myself being tempted by it at a Steam sale.


XCOM 2

Part of me is genuinely a bit annoyed that this game broke with tradition and put a number after "XCOM". That's just not how these things are done. We've had Enforcer, Interceptor, Terror from the Deep, and a bunch of others. Those are interesting. Engaging. Sexy. "2"? Not so much. I'm sure this won't be enough to stop folks from grabbing this day one and embarking on another adventure to save earth from an alien threat, marveling at just how bad some of their units aim is. "The thing is right in front of you! Why do you keep missing?!?"



American Truck Simulator

Before Euro Truck Simulator 2, I had no idea that I could fall in love with big rigs and drive them like proper semis. Previously, the only time I'd play a game with such a vehicle in it was in GTA or Twisted Metal because the things were big, heavy, and could wreck carnage with ease. As it turns out, these mighty vehicles can also haul freight across vast distances and the whole process can be extremely relaxing. I even developed a new found respect for backing up trailers and roundabouts while playing that game. Soon, we'll be heading to the even vaster, though less roundabout-intensive, United States where the highways are numbered and roll on for miles. Will there be opportunities of raunchy rendezvous in remote rural restrooms as players embark on long, transcontinental hauls? Only time will tell, but even if there isn't maybe someone can patch it in with Steam Workshop or something.


Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc

This has been out for ages on the Vita, but it's heading to the PC in February, which has caught my attention. A visual novel that combines Battle Royale and Phoenix Wright, high school students try to get away with murder in order to escape the facility they've been trapped in by a sadistic robot bear. You don't see a premise like that every day.


Street Fighter V

After several years of dominating the fighting game scene, it's finally time to put Street Fighter IV out to pasture and bring in number five. It's Street Fighter, so most people have a pretty good idea of what to expect here and those in the know have been playing the beta for months now. I'm just happy to see a mountain man Ryu skin. There will also be a lot of other outfits, as that's the thing folks demand in a fighting game nowadays. So, if you want to see Chun Li, Laura, and the gang oozing out of their clothing, that'll be an option. Personally, I'm holding out for a Rufus outfit that does this.


Disgaea PC

Miss console strategy RPGs of the early 2000s? Like grinding out hundreds of levels on each of your characters? This may be a game to consider. Disgaea getting a PC port is quite the pleasant surprise, as it's something that I don't think anyone was expecting, but here we are. It's a solid game with a fun, lighthearted, and often rather humorous story. What I want to know is if we'll see more of these games if this one does well. There are tons of Disgaea games, as well as stuff like La Pucelle, Phantom Brave, and Makai Kingdom. I'm kind of hoping that this game succeeds and opens the flood gates for other titles in the genre.


Project X Zone 2

Sometimes when franchises crossover we can be in for a fun ride as popular characters team up. I was hoping this would be the case in the original Project X Zone, but found it got bogged down by trying to introduce too many characters. It got to the point where the first few hours of the game felt like the fight scenes from the Anchor Man movies with its cavalcade of cameos. By the sound of things, the sequel will be addressing this with a more fleshed out story which happens to focus a lot on Ryo from the Shenmue series. On top of this, the game will still have the interesting team-based combat system of the first PxZ, so it could be one to watch.


Fire Emblem: Fates

It's finally almost time for a new Fire Emblem game (February really is a great month for fans of strategy games and RPGs). Combat is shaping up to be what one would expect from the series with characters gaining an affinity for one another, permadeath, and all that good stuff. Interestingly, or expensively depending on how you look at it, the game is being split into separate editions. Each of these will focus on a different country in the game as war breaks out. There will be a lot to do in each version of the game, as they clock in at around 30 hours each, but it'll be interesting to see how sales do for the game with Nintendo trying this unconventional means of release out.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Beautiful Bones: Sakurako's Investigation Anime Review

Look hard enough and you're likely to find anime themed around just about anything. Whether it's cooking, fishing, a myriad of sports, video games, or countless others, it is truly impressive just how many different things the medium can find to hover around. In the case of Beautiful Bones: Sakurako's Investigation, bones play a prominent role through the lead character, Sakurako, who is an osteologist, and, thus, obsessed with the things. This plays into the show being a series of whodunits as she and her assistant, Shoutarou, solve a series of deaths through forensic investigation.

While Sakurako is the person who the show is named for, Shoutarou is the one that it centers around. He's a high school student who happened to befriend Sakurako through a misunderstanding, and largely helps her out as circumstances throw one dead body after the next at the pair. The first few episodes are one-offs with the pair find themselves in situations where they stumble across a dead body. Sakurako is delighted whenever this happens given her field of expertise and is eager to both figure out how the person died and find a way to sneak the bones home to add to her collection (Shoutarou always prevents the latter, so she'll have to settle for collecting animal bones).

Watching her walk through what likely happened is always interesting, as there's a logic behind the techno-babble. She'll bring up a lot of stuff about how bones work, chemicals, or some such, but in the end the cause of death makes sense and isn't bogged down in the explanation. One thing that I didn't like early on in the series was when she would say she was about to solve the case, as it segued into a silly animation sequence where she would put on latex gloves and there would be these weird silhouettes of animals walking by. It was cheesy and nonsensical. I have to assume that the reason it was there was because the studio that made the show felt they needed some sort of catch phrase for when she was about to solve a case, and it also made a nice way to waste a few seconds on repeatable footage for killing time and bringing the budget down a bit. In any case, this was surprisingly off putting for me even though it was such a short sequence, but, thankfully, they did away with it later on in the season, which was a huge relief.

Such a terrible animation sequence...so glad they got rid of it.

What's also nice is that not all mysteries in the show are murders. There are some circumstances where Sakurako is just trying to figure out how someone died with little to no foul play involved. I particularly liked the episode where she was helping Yuriko (one of Shoutarou's classmates) figure out how her grandmother died. There was still a death to solve, but more so it was about trying to find a way to bring Yuriko a bit of closure in the wake of someone very important to her passing away.

Some of the best bits, though, were anything to do with Hanabusa, a mysterious painter that is involved with many of the deaths and attempted murders that Sakurako has been trying to solve. The guy is obviously very smart and a master manipulator, making for a worth arch rival to her. The only problem right now is that the series ended on a big cliffhanger as of this writing and I have no idea if they ever plan to continue the anime or are they expecting us to get the light novel, which has not been translated into English.

The back and forth between Shoutarou and Sakurako feels very natural as if they're brother and sister, which begins to make sense as we learn more about Sakurako's past. While she can seem cold and distant at times, she obviously cares very much about Shoutarou and always has his best interests at heart. Also, it's humorous when we see a softer side of her should the opportunity for sweets arise, which she is quite fond of. While much of what the pair are investigating is serious stuff, often times there's very good use of lighthearted comedic elements in the banter between them.

Supporting cast also feels reasonably well done. Yuriko is likable enough, and the episode where she tries to help the lost child at the festival makes her out to be quite the sweet girl. Shoutarou's teacher, Ituski, can be fun too. His obsession with plants is almost as intense as Sakurako's is with bones, and he can be quite laid back in so far as teachers go. I noticed that he's voiced by Akira Ishida, which was nice, as I've been a fan of his since Katsura on Gintama. He sure does seem busy these days, being in many of the series I've been watching of late. Hiroki was the only supporting character that I never really warmed up to. Seeing as Sakurako and Shoutarou keep finding corpses, he's the local police officer that often is on the case first when they report what they found. He just seemed too much the stereotypical bumbling, easy going guy, and a bit cookie cutter as a result.

Conversely, the setting for Beautiful Bones felt comparatively unique seeing as the show takes place in Hokkaido. This made for a lot of rather pretty vistas as Sakurako and Shoutarou often ventured of into the wilderness in their travels. As a result, the animation was very colorful with all of the foliage, not to mention a number of scenes at sunset creating golden hues on everything. The detail in the designs of the different scenes and characters are also worth noting, especially places like Sakurako's house.

So, on the whole, the show was a good watch, and I do recommend checking it out. The mysteries are interesting, while the characters add more flavor to the story. My only concern now is that we don't know if there will be a season two, which is a bit worrisome given the ending to the first season. If this is all we'll get and it turns into a "Please Read the Manga!" series, I'll be thoroughly disappointed and have a slightly more bittersweet view of Beautiful Bones.

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Wild Arms Revival Incoming?

One of the earliest JRPGs on the original PlayStation was Wild Arms. For a lot of early adopters of the system, it was what kept them busy as they waited for Final Fantasy VII to come out. What they discovered, though, was that the game was actually pretty good. While simple, it handled 3D visuals reasonably well, and the Old West aesthetic was a setting that just wasn't coming into play in the genre (or any other genre for that matter). With that, Wild Arms became a reasonably successful series, resulting in five mainline games and a tactical strategy RPG. However, we haven't seen a new entry in the series since 2007.

Now there's reason to be excited as the series creator, Akifumi Kaneko, tweeted about meetings he was having with Sony regarding Wild Arms' 20th anniversary. Gematsu has a translation here, and it looks like the series composer, Michiko Naruke, was there as well. That's all we have to go on right now, but it does open the door to some interesting speculation.

Will this just be a remaster of one of the early games, possibly with some new arranged music tracks a la Final Fantasy X / X-2 Remaster? Maybe a bit of fanfare for the Wild Arms PS2 games before they become available on the PS4? If it was a new game in the series, I could see people being pretty happy about that. There've been rumors floating around that Sony has two JRPGs in development for the PlayStation 4 with one possibly by Level-5, but we don't know what the other is. For all we know, it could be a new Wild Arms.

For now, though, all we can do is wait and see if any more information trickles out. I for one wouldn't complain if the series came back. The Western theme always struck me as unique and the games are something I've closely tied with the PS1 and PS2. Star Ocean managed to stick around, making an appearance last generation. However, Wild Arms just disappeared. It could all be a pipe dream, but it would be nice if this is a beginning to actually reviving the series.