Saturday, 31 October 2015

November Releases and the Q4 Slugfest

Every year it happens. We start heading into October and the last big push of game releases is set upon us. It usually starts as a trickle, but before too long the flood gates open, the marketing campaigns go into full swing, and the battle for people's hearts and minds begins. With that, there pretty much always winds up being winners and losers.

This year is no different with a small army of high profile games coming out in November. We have Rise of the Tomb Raider, Fallout 4, Need for Speed, Black Ops III, Star Wars: Battlefront, StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void, and Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash on that front. Meanwhile, handhelds will be slugging it out with the likes of Pokemon Super Mystery Dungeon, Sword Art Online: Lost Song, Stella Glow, and Yo-kai Watch all coming out that month. Then, even with all of these big name titles and in-demand niche releases, there are the also-cames that will be slotted into the category of, "Maybe I'll get that at a sale some day..."

I don't expect everyone to be lining up for each and every game coming out, but there is a certain degree of overlap, not to mention that many of these games demand a fair amount of one's time. As such, it stands to reason that choices will be made and some games will fair far better than others.

It seems a pretty safe bet that Fallout 4 will sell like gangbusters. The series is immensely popular, open world games draw a big audience, and the hype has been through the roof for it since the thing was announced. The game also has the luxury of being released in a window where it doesn't have to compete against any other popular console or PC RPGs. There are a few MMORPGs getting major content updates in November, but I don't see them eating into Fallout 4 in any way. It has a wide-open field to come out and reap massive sales. About the only thing that may get in its way is when it comes to people with limited budgets and find themselves choosing between it and Star Wars: Battlefront.

And this is the other game that I see dominating November. Star Wars: Battlefront is something that people have been keeping an eye on for a long time, and it will obviously benefit from the massive hype as we head into the run-up before Star Wars: Force Awakens. People have been enjoying the demo, watching all of the trailers, and eager for the complete game to finally come out. This will be the online shooter that most folks want this year, and it will make life very difficult for Black Ops III.

Activision's shooter series hasn't quite enjoyed the level of success that it has in the past with recent releases and, while I'm sure the diehards will stick with it, the casual crowd will likely swarm toward Star Wars eager for storm troopers, the Force, and whatever else the game throws at them. It's a franchise that has always been popular and now enjoying a resurgence. If anything, it would have made sense to try and release Black Ops III earlier, say September, and hope for better sales because as I see it now, those sales are going to get heavily cannibalized by Battlefront.

There are other games that already have a dedicated audience and don't really need to worry about competition, though. The next StarCraft II expansion will be one of them. RTS is so much more of a niche genre now with StarCraft holding the fort as everyone else is scrambling to hop on board the MOBA gravy train. I'd be shocked if Legacy of the Void didn't do quite well for itself. I don't see it doing the insane numbers that Fallout 4 likely will, but the long time fans will be on it day one. The same thing seems likely for the new Mario Tennis. Nintendo fans love themselves some Mario, and it's been a while since we've had a tennis game from the franchise. Even if the Wii U was a bit of a misstep for Nintendo, I could see fans picking this up over the Christmas season.

I'm not quite sure how much draw Need for Speed has, though. Racing games are no where near as prevalent as they were in the past, especially not arcade racers. We see a niche community gobbling them up on places like Steam's Early Access, and there are a decent amount of folks who enjoy racing sims, but on the whole the genre has seen better days. Being a long time fan of racing games, I hope it does well, but it's really hard to say for certain.

The one major release I am doubtful will do well in November is Rise of the Tomb Raider. There just doesn't seem to be all that much excitement for the game right now. It doesn't help that the announcement of a time limited console exclusivity for the game wound up being a bit of a buzzkill either. My guess is that the game's best hope is to be a slow burn like the last Tomb Raider. It's success will likely come from steady, sustained purchases over a longer period of time, boosted by sales on Steam, XBL, and PSN when it hits the PS4. I'm expecting initial sales to be subpar, though.

It may well be interesting to see what happens on the more niche handheld side of things as well. We do have a Pokemon game coming out and even though it isn't quite in the same vein as the mainline series, I can see fans of the franchise buying it in droves. The real question is what will happen with the likes of Stella Glow, Sword Art Online, and Yo-kai Watch. Sword Art Online is still quite popular as an anime and while it is a Vita release, people own that system are religious about it. I don't think the game will do amazing, but it will find an audience. Yo-kai watch may do alright for itself. The series is much more popular in Japan, but it may get a steady trickle of sales here perhaps from the more dedicated Japanese gaming crowd. Stella Glow may well turn out to be too niche for its own good. I'm kind of wondering if it'll turn into a collector's item in 5 or 10 years. If it turns out to be decent but gets poor physical sales, the game could find itself selling for quite a bit on eBay in the years to come.

In any case, it should be interesting to see where the chips fall this year. Fallout 4 and Star Wars look likely to be the big winners, but I'm more curious where the surprise successes will come from. Whatever people go with, it's going to be a busy month for a lot of folks that'll likely carry into the new year if they go hog wild with new releases. While I am tempted to get in on the action, day one purchases are a tough sell for me these days. If I'm going to contribute to any of the Q4 statistics this year, that won't happen until the Steam sale hits.

Thursday, 29 October 2015

Gate Season One Review

Gate Anime Image 1 Itami, Lelei, Tuka, Rory

The juxtaposition between a fantasy world and the present day (or future) can be pretty interesting. In one corner, we have a realm with a motif that smacks of the Middle Ages: knights on horseback, quaint villages, castles and kings, while the other side is all about skyscrapers, jet planes, and maybe even space ships. It looks like it should be a decidedly one-sided affair if these two places came to blows. However, fantasy worlds have a really big ace up their sleeves: magic. Forget all of the techno jargon, atom bombs, and legions of robots. Pit those things against a mage academy or some dragons, and the advantage can quickly shift to the other side.

This is what I was expecting when I first started watching Gate. It's a show where a magical gate opens in Ginza between Earth and another dimension where all of the tropes of fantasy are real. Sure, the initial horde of marauders, scaly flying creatures, orcs, kobolds, and the like took everyone by surprise as they poured through the gate, but these folks were civilians, and once the Japanese military showed up they got thumped. Eventually, Japan sends an expeditionary force through the gate, faces off against even more of this fantasy world's army, and proceeds to once again annihilate them.

Gate Anime Image 2 Itami and Tuka
The whole thing really is a looking quite bad for the Empire that initially pushed through the gate and onto Earth. The whole situation is leaving me scratching my head as to why their leader thinks this is a good idea. What sort of ace in the whole does this guy have up his sleeve? It's established that there are mages and dragons in his realms, but we haven't seen him deploy any in his attacks. Does he not have any under his command? It seems odd if this were the case given his position. Fighting against a military with tanks, fighter jets, and helicopter gun ships, one would think that the emperor would be bringing out his own big guns, but up until now he's suffered defeat after defeat. Maybe reading the manga would answer these questions for me, but I'm seldom one to read the manga first when watching an anime. If I'm going to find this stuff out, it'll hopefully start making sense when season two starts up in the new year.

Moving past the lack of any real explanation as to why the Empire embarked on this campaign, there's still a lot to enjoy about this show, most notably the characters. Itami Youji is the main character, leader of one of the squads exploring this new world. No one would ever guess he's either the military or leader sort given his extremely nerdy tendencies, but he seems to get things done in a pinch. He's likable, doesn't take himself seriously, and always good for a laugh.

As his squad progresses further and further, the show takes on a borderline harem feel with various girls joining their group, though none of them seem to harbour any sort of romantic feelings toward Itami. For the most part, they all have pretty interesting, unique personalities. Lelei La Rellena is by far the most archetypal of the lot, being a studious young mage. Tuka Luna Marceau is hard to figure out so far. She's an elf, is quite kind, helpful, and a bit shy, but hasn't really come out of her shell yet. She's been through some tough times, so it may take a little while for her to develop, but she is a pretty pleasant person to have around

Gate Anime Image 3 Rory Mercury
Rory Mercury has been getting most of the screen time of the trio, though, and she's a bigger than life character. Then again, she is a demigod who will one day ascent to full-fledged godhood, so that can certainly instill more than a little self-confidence in someone. I have mixed feelings about her, though. She's involved in some of the best fight scenes in the entire series, and it's fun to watch what looks like a 15-year-old girl running around with a massive axe, laying waste to everyone in her path. The problem is that she looks like a 15-year-old girl, and that the show uses her for a lot of fan service. Rather creepy fan service.

Basically she doesn't seem to differentiate between blood lust and regular lust when near a battlefield. Since Rory is a death demigod, she feels compelled to enter battles she comes up and help people on her way (and by help I mean kill). If she does and is able to destroy an army, she feels sated. If she doesn't get involved, about the only way to calm her is through more carnal means, which leaves Itami trying to fend off her advances on more than a few occasions.

This stuff really bugs me, as I can't stand when anime tiptoes around more erotic content with underage characters. The same bullshit gets bandied about that according to the character's stat sheet, he or she is X years-old, "so totally not a minor!" We all know it's just a tactic dreamed up by a studio's legal department to make things come off as being fine when anyone with half a brain knows that it's absolutely not. It doesn't happen often in Gate, and it never goes anywhere, but the hint of it is there nonetheless, and it's one of the few things that I dislike about the show.

There is other fan service that is a lot more tolerable, and the show makes an effort to present it in a very logical manner, which is easy enough to do since Itami and one of his subordinates are huge nerds that go gaga for the elves, cat people, "enter cute fantasy girl race here" that they come across. The type of manga that Pina Co Lada and her knights wound up being into felt a bit shoehorned in, but it was good for several chuckles, as well.

Gate Anime Image 4 Pina Co Lada

While the big question is what will happen between the Japanese forces and the Empire, the show is also going for some political intrigue on Earth. Since the gate appeared in Japan, they have jurisdiction over it, but that doesn't mean major world powers like the US, China, and Russia aren't interested or have ideas of their own for the gate and the world that lays beyond it. We saw a bit of cloak and dagger stuff going on in the series, which was pretty interesting, but this area has a lot more room to grow and I see no reason why it won't.

Really, what carried the show for me was the characters in the end. Itami's lackadaisical attitude toward work, yet being quite capable of getting things done and staying in touch with his nerdy core makes him quite the endearing protagonist. All of the girls that wind up surrounding him over the course of the show range from at least being likable to downright interesting. Lelei, Tuka, and Rory are fun to have around (gratuitous Rory fan service not withstanding), and so far feel reasonably well developed. Tuka could probably use some more work, but the story hasn't really had much time to dig in too much with her, so I'm willing to wait that out. As much as Itami spends quite a bit of time around these girls, though, I can't help but feel that Pina Co Lada is the best match for him. Their personalities don't totally match up, but there's enough overlap that I could see them becoming a couple at some point, or at least becoming more interested in one another.

Story aside, Gate's aesthetic was a bit of a mixed bag. The main characters look pretty nice. They adhere to fantasy tropes for the most part with the people from Earth mostly going around in army garb, but there was a decent amount of detail to the outfits people went around it. Environments were occasionally nice to look at, especially large, panoramic views, but often times felt pretty minimalist. Large-scale battles weren't big on detail with simplistic looking beastmen running around and the occasional close-up of Earth military hardware. It was more the smaller battles that looked good, like when Rory would take the field. Those had a lot more visual panache to them both in terms of sheer eye candy as well as choreography. Meanwhile, the soundtrack was fantastic. It's primarily a sweeping orchestral score that added a lot to the show whether Itami and company were visiting a small village, armies were clashing, or folks were getting on with daily life.

The first season does a pretty good job of getting the ball rolling, introducing the characters, the world, and how people on Earth are taking this gate showing up all of a sudden, but that's really all it's done thus far. If anything, it's whet my appetite. I'm interested enough that I want to learn more, and am very glad that a new season will be starting up in January (for a moment I was worried this would be a one-off "Please Read the Manga!" series). Hopefully, the next season will flesh out why the Empire invaded, Earth-side politics, and the girls travelling around with Itami; not just focus on the dragon slaying that the trailer alludes to. In any case, the first season of Gate has been a pretty fun ride, and made me care enough about the series to want more.

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Housekeeping: More Anime Incoming

Back when The Armchair Empire first started I decided it would be nice if there was a section of the site devoted to anime. Sure, it was a bit outside the "All Things Gaming" mantle that we were going for at the time, but it heavily influenced it. One just had to look at the art direction and narrative themes of a lot of the games coming from Japan to see that the medium played and important role in shaping video games.

So, for several years we included anime reviews. It was a pretty great time talking about the various series we loved but over time the output slowed in part because I wasn't terribly enamored with what was coming out at the time and also the early to mid 2000s was a crumby time to track down anime legitimately as it was a period of expensive DVDs with only a handful of episodes per disc. Eventually, we just pulled the plug on the anime section to focus on games, which were a lot easier for us to get a hold of.

Now here we are in 2015 and things have changed. Streaming online video is a booming business and companies like Crunchyroll and Funimation have come along making it very easy for people to get their mitts on mountains of anime cheap and legit. I've certainly been indulging myself in this renaissance.

With that, I've decided to discuss the medium on AE once again. It'll be somewhat sporadic, as I'll be review either entire series or taking them on a season by season basis, but it'll definitely be coming back as we head into November. It's been one of my other favorite entertainment mediums I've enjoyed since childhood besides video games, so I guess it was only a matter of time before something like this came about.

In any case, it seemed appropriate to put up a quick post to let you all know what's going on. I'll be look at series both new and old as I explore the medium, so hopefully you'll feel compelled to come along for the ride.

My Biased View of What a PC Adventure Game Is

I've never been a huge fan of adventure games, but have been playing them a bit more recently. Growing up, friends more into the genre would be chatting about the latest game with "Quest" in the name, Willy Beamish, Maniac Mansion and the like, telling each other how they got past certain puzzles. I even ventured into these games from time to time. As the years wore on, certain expectations began to solidify in my as to what an adventure game "should be".

Are the areas meticulously handcrafted set pieces? If so, that's one sign it could be an adventure game. Is there a fairly involved, well-realized story? Also a sign that it may be an adventure game, but be careful, it could also be an RPG. Are there mind-breaking, often times obnoxiously obtuse puzzles? If so, then it is most certainly an adventure game. The more I play these games now, the more I expect these ingredients to be mixed together.

The problem is that nowadays, the genre seems to have splintered in two directions: traditional point-and-click games, and what feels more like an interactive story. In recent years, we've seen the rise of Telltale Games where their games have been lumped into the adventure game category.

While I do enjoy what Telltale is doing, I have a difficult time really accepting their games as being adventure. The one strong feature that they have is the storytelling. In this regard, the games are great to experience. Good dialogue, well-paced plots, and often with a tasteful amount of humour. As far as their stories go, they're great, but after that I start really questioning whether I should look at what they're doing as adventures.

A lot of the areas don't really feel like set pieces. They're still relatively small, contained areas, but the detail isn't there. There's a certain wow-factor I feel when changing screens to a new area for the first time in point-and-click adventure games that is lacking in the Telltale universe. Going into new zones in King's Quest, The Longest Journey, or even Deponia all manage to impress me with all of the little details that are inserted and it leaves me wanting more as I progress through those games. The lack of detail in Telltale's adventures makes it so I don't feel this in their games.

Moreover, the puzzles are comparatively rudimentary in Telltale adventures. I know to a degree they're trying to appeal to the widest audience possible, so there's a degree of dumbing down at play, but I wouldn't mind if the puzzles were made at least a little bit more difficult. I'll be the first to admit that some of the more out there puzzles I've come across in adventure games have been infuriating, and I don't blame people for wanting to avoid those things. However, it feels like the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction now. Many of the puzzles that I come across in Telltale adventures can be figured out in a few minutes. It would be nice if a happier sort of medium could be found.

All of this isn't to say that I dislike Telltale's games, as I do enjoy them. The stories are usually quite well done, and it's that which keeps me playing them. It's not often that I come across a game with a story that I find as engaging as what they're doing, but this just leads me to look at their games more as interactive stories rather than adventure games. I know it's a biased viewpoint to have, but it is what it is, and I tend to still look at point-and-click as true adventure games instead.

Friday, 23 October 2015

Freedom Planet and Waxing Nostalgic for the Genesis

After being engaged in a grueling staring contest with it as the game sat in my Steam library for months, I've finally gotten around to playing Freedom Planet. Its aesthetic had caught my eyes as it screamed 16-bit. The character designs, the environments, and the use of color all brought back a flood of memories from the heyday of the Sega Genesis. The game really does bare a resemblance Sonic the Hedgehog and it isn't just how it looks but to some extent how FP plays as well, as it does go for the "Gotta go fast!" mentality that is so prevalent from Sega's series. All the while, there's an element of exploration from trying to find all of the collectibles scattered around a level. Part of me kept thinking that I should be annoyed by this while playing the game because it does make for bit of a stilted experience from all the zipping around at full throttle, then slamming on the breaks to look for stuff. However, that just wasn't the case. The ambience of the game, combined with the platforming, and boss fights made me enjoy FP quite a bit and overlook that.

For someone who quite likes revisiting games of old and has a soft spot for the Genesis, FP really is something special. It can't be said enough how much the developers nailed the whole 16-bit Sega era in terms of visuals and animation here. The game looks like something straight out of 1994 or so when games on the Genesis were starting to look really good. There's a lot of detail without going overboard, smooth animation, and the color palette really pops off the screen.

The levels are actually really big. While there's a clock counting up from the start of each stage, I quickly began to ignore it. Exploration has always been a big thing to me, as I've mentioned before while playing Skyrim, so poking around and finding all of the things was far more of a priority than speed running the game to complete stages in as little time as possible. I'd go so far as to say that speed running the story mode levels on the first playthrough does FP a disservice. A lot of the fun comes from poking around trying to find everything, It brings back a lot of memories of playing Metroid and games of that ilk, just methodically checking every nook and cranny.

About the only area of the game that left me with mixed feelings was the voice acting. While it is very good, there's just so much of it. The cut scenes are very long in FP. They have a Saturday morning cartoon vibe to them, and do bring out the occasional chuckle, but they really do a number on the game's pacing. After downing the boss for a level, while I do like a bit of a break for advancing the story, a bit more brevity would have done wonders here. This is pretty much the one area where they game falters for me.

While the voice acting was a bit much, the music is amazing, and I can't get enough of it. The composer really nailed the feel of 16-bit platformer soundtracks. Thematically it's spot on, and the instrumentation does an interesting job of straddling itself between the bleepy bloopiness of the 90s and more current sounds. It's easily one of my favorite soundtracks to come along in the last few years.

With the huge wave of pseudo retro games to come out in recent years, there's just so much to choose from. Action games, RPGs, platformers, adventure games, you name it. Players have some hard choices to make when considering picking up a game of this ilk, but I'd definitely have to recommend Freedom Planet. It does so many things right when it comes to recapturing the feel of Genesis-era action platformers. If you like Sonic and have a soft spot for video games of the early 90s, you owe it to yourself to check this game out.

Saturday, 3 October 2015