Profile for Elias > Reviews

Browse

Elias' Profile

Customer Reviews: 169
Top Reviewer Ranking: 1,329
Helpful Votes: 4329




Community Features
Review Discussion Boards
Top Reviewers

Guidelines: Learn more about the ins and outs of Your Profile.

Reviews Written by
Elias "The Fried Critic" RSS Feed (Nowhere In Particular)

Show:  
Page: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11-17
pixel
Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor 2 Record Breaker - Nintendo 3DS
Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor 2 Record Breaker - Nintendo 3DS
Price: $46.40
29 used & new from $36.01

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "I'm A Survivor, I'm Not Gonna Give Up", May 7, 2015
Full disclosure: I never got around to finishing the initial release of Devil Survivor 2 when it back in 2012. Not even close, actually. Even though I'm a pretty big fan of the MegaTen series, something about it just didn't pull me in like the other entries and spin-offs in the franchise. So, I half-expected my experience with the re-release, Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor 2 Record Breaker, to be in a similar vein. That is to say, mild interest followed by a quick and prolonged shelving.

But, lo and behold, I'm still pretty invested in Record Breaker a few days after getting my hands on it. I'm not sure if it's just me or if Atlus has really overhauled everything about the title, but this time around, everything about DS2 has managed to wrap me up and keep me wanting more at every possible turn. The narrative is enthralling, the gameplay is complex, the music is top-notch... just about everything here puts it head and shoulders above most 3DS role-playing games, and even most of the 3DS MegaTen entries. The entire package is a snappy yet deep title that commands your utmost attention whether you're in a battle or trying to unravel the convoluted, bizarre narratives, of which there are two.

The first campaign is a tweaked and tuned version of the original game. Players jump into a Tokyo that's been ravaged by a massive disaster and besieged by mysterious demons that can be captured inside of... cell phones. Yep. But that's not all. As the main characters of the trendy teenager variety, they obviously do devious things on the internet, so there's also a plot about a bizarre social network that lets people watch "death videos." These videos accurately show how somebody is going to die in the near future. At first, they look like a mass hoax. But when the main characters start appearing in the videos and are suddenly attacked by all sorts of nasty things, it looks less like a prank and more like an otherworldly plot to murder people. As players dig deeper into the plot, the natural disaster, demon invasion and death video site all end up being intertwined, and it's up to the protagonists to figure out what, exactly, is going on, and whether or not it can be stopped before things get much, much worse.

I tried my best to keep a straight face writing that summary, because frankly, DS2's narrative is so patently absurd that I find it deeply amusing. Demons being summoned from cell phones? Alien demons that cause earthquakes? YouTube predicting deaths? While, yes, it's super inventive and imaginative, it's in the same vein as Soul Hacker's ridiculous "broadband internet as a soul harvesting tool" to me. Which is to say, really, really stupid. Not in a bad way. Not in a way that makes me any less interested in how it's all going to wrap up. It's in a way that makes me feel like a bunch of 40-somethings were sitting around an office going, "hey, kids these days have, like, cell phones and MyTubes, right? What if those things were evil, like with demons and aliens and demon aliens?" That's basically how I imagine the brainstorming session went down. But hey, there's nothing wrong with a little absurdity, and in fact, I quite like it. The MegaTen franchise has always been home to ridiculous things, from jumping inside TVs to demon summoner detectives to phalluses riding chariots, and this fits that overall tone quite nicely. In any case, it's a vast improvement over the original Devil Survivor, which was patently bland and uninteresting throughout.

What bothers me about DS2, then, isn't necessarily the narrative itself, but the overall pieces it's comprised of. This is yet another "hip teens save the day and become best friends" tale that we've seen from the last two Persona games, and it comes complete with its own version of the Social Link system. Everything here, from that to the art style, reeks of a blatant pitch towards fans of the Persona franchise. And while I get it, with those games being outrageously popular, I can't help but feel simultaneously let down and worried for the state of future MegaTen outings, especially with the upcoming Fire Emblem crossover looking to be very, very similar to both this and the popular sub-series. Persona is supposed to be a spin-off, a diversion, and the fact that it's started to bleed over into other sub-series makes me really weary of where things are going. So while I'm not docking too many points based on this, I'm still really weary of yet another game with this conceit, and I hope that Atlus starts doing more interesting things with the franchise again like they did with Strange Journey and Shin Megami Tensei IV.

None of these concerns carry over to the gameplay, however, which offers the ultimate refinement of the combat introduced back when this sub-series began six years ago. It continues the tradition of blending tactical, Fire Emblem-esque navigation with the first-person, turn-based battles hallmark to the MegaTen franchise. Players try to gain strategic advantages on maps through both positioning themselves in different areas and making great usage of buffs and debuffs. When battles break out, players utilize both the character they're controlling and up to two other demons in battle, using both physical and magic attacks to defeat enemies, gain experience and absorb skills from other units.

That's about as simple as I can make it sound in writing, because DS2 has some incredibly complicated, convoluted gameplay that goes above and beyond what one might expect from a typical strategy game. Assigning platoons of demons to each character, allotting Skill Cracks, making the most of the demon auction system, effectively making use of the in-game clock, ranking up your friendship with all of the characters... there's a lot to learn here, and it's all loaded onto players up front. Even people who are leaps and bounds better at anything involving strategy than me have looked incredulously at this game, and with good reason: it's not easy to get a grasp of. In fact, even as somebody used to complicated games, I still find myself really confused as to what, exactly, is going on sometimes.That's not a knock against the game, of course. It's a micromanager's wet dream, and because this sort of thing is my jam, I'll happily get lost in numerous stat screens. But for people looking for a more streamlined, less menu-heavy experience, this may be a bit too daunting.

Overall, though, I'm happy with the gameplay present here, especially with the vast improvements Atlus has made. The original DS2 was unfairly punishing, with ridiculous difficulty spikes that were part of the reason I ended up putting the game down. With Record Breaker, there's definitely a more steady sense of progression. While, yes, this game is more difficult than 90% of role-playing games on the market, and yes, a momentary lapse in judgement will screw over your entire party in a matter of a few turns, it never feels totally impossible. You always know what went wrong. And at worst, you'll have to grind a few levels in Free Battle. So, yeah, DS2 is still a very challenging game, it feels much more balanced and manageable than the original release did, almost to the point of it feeling like a new game entirely... partly on part of there actually being a new game on the cartridge with that second campaign.

And perhaps it's because of this sense of freshness, this rebalancing, this overhauling, that I have gone from "unimpressed" to "pretty enthused" over Devil Survivor 2. The Record Breaker release takes what was, in my opinion, a bare bones, unbalanced and arguably unfun game and turned it into something that I would recommend to anybody in the market for a good challenge. It's hard and complicated and a little weird on the plot side, but I like that about it. It's so off the beaten path of most game releases, even most RPGs, these days, and it feels like an antidote to big-budget tech demos and "pick a girl to ogle" niche JRPG experiences. While it has a bit of a Persona-lity (I know, I'm hilarious) crisis at times, I still can't help but feel this is an authentically MegaTen experience, through and through. That is, a game that's weird, hard, and complicated.

Those three traits are what drew me to this franchise to the first place, and their presence Devil Survivor 2 Record Breaker have managed to help me retain my love for it.

Pros
- A challenging game that's never unfair
- The story is ridiculous, but in a good way
- Ridiculously great soundtrack
- You're basically getting two games for 50 bucks

Cons
- Thematic elements feel aped a little from Persona
- May be a bit too esoteric for some tastes
- Art style feels a little too "tween anime" at times

Score: 8.5
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 13, 2015 3:00 PM PDT


Mortal Kombat X - PlayStation 4
Mortal Kombat X - PlayStation 4
Price: $54.99
66 used & new from $41.00

63 of 71 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Flawed Victory, April 16, 2015
In an age where hyperviolence is the norm, is Mortal Kombat still relevant?

That's a question I find myself asking when I look at the copious amount of brutality that takes place in Mortal Kombat X. Whether you're taking in a cutscene, fighting in a match, or finishing off other players, there's all sorts of nastiness on display here. Yet, can the franchise continue to subsist on shock value alone? The days where Ed Boon and his partners in crime were the undisputed lords of gory games have long since passed, meaning that the newest entry in the franchise is, ultimately, just another gory game in a market full of them. That means that Mortal Kombat X needs to offer more than blood, guts and fan service in order to survive.

I'm happy to say that, for the most part, the ever-changing franchise manages to pull it off. Unlike the franchise in its infancy, as well as many of the entries in the early 2000's, gore is no longer the selling point. Yes, it's there, and it's just as extreme and unrealistic and laughable as ever. But you can get the brutal X-Ray shots in a Sniper Elite game, or the heinous violence in any of the numerous God of War titles. If that's the case, what is it, exactly, that Mortal Kombat X brings to the table that makes it a worthwhile purchase? Simple: sheer mechanical perfection.

It may come as a surprise, considering this is a series that's never been about in-depth combat. Up until Deadly Alliance, virtually every character played the same outside of specials and fatalities, and even then, a lot of them still bled together... erm, pardon the expression. Point being, while most fighting franchises continued to evolve into highly technical games based entirely on perfecting elaborate button combos, Mortal Kombat was sort of left in the past, its sloppy combat failing to engage dedicated fighting game fans, myself included. While the 2011 reboot, Mortal Kombat (MK9 for the purposes of this review,) managed to infuse some much-needed precision and technicality into the franchise, the package as a whole felt a bit uneven. Still, it was a step in the right direction, and a vast improvement over misfires like Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe.

Mortal Kombat X is, essentially, more of the 2011 game... just done umpteen times better. It's the same basic set-up. You've got Towers to conquer, a Campaign to beat, and a nice smattering of characters to master. It's the same 2.5D gameplay, roughly the same variety of characters, so on, so forth. It might not be the most eloquent thing in the world to say, "it's the same, only better," but that's really the only way I can think to describe it. If you liked what NetherRealm put out in 2011, you'll probably like this too.

But if you didn't, or just didn't pick it up, I'd contend that you'd probably get something out of Mortal Kombat X. That's because, on top of being a highly technical fighter, one that rewards patience and precision, there's plenty of stuff here for button-mashers to fall in love with. There's a basic pattern to every combo, depending on the character (some are definitely reserved for more expert players,) and once you figure them out, it's pretty easy to piece together the rest and pull off huge combos and elaborate special moves with minimal effort. While some of the more "elite" fighting game crowd might balk at this accessibility, I really don't mind it. It means that practically anyone can pick it up and start hacking off limbs with ease.

At its heart, that's what makes the core gameplay of Mortal Kombat X so great. Nobody will be left out of the fun. If you want to cut your teeth on a deep, intricate fighter to train for EVO, you're set. If you're going over to a friend's and just want a fun, relaxing time, that's fine, too. You can fight in traditional Kombat, or try to duke it out with several ridiculous status effects in Test Your Luck. You can have plenty of fun alone, or take the battle to friends or strangers. It's a rarity these days, but this is a fighting game where virtually any type of player can have their own kind of fun, alone or with other people, casually or seriously.

This is reflected in the roster, which ranges from "you can mash to win" to "being constantly aware of your movements at all time." For example, D'Vorah (a new favorite) is a sadistic bee woman whose basic attacks can be strung together quite easily for devastating damage; by contrast, playing Mileena requires the utmost degree of precision, and one wrong button press can doom the rest of the match. The thing is, unlike MK9, the roster isn't ridiculously unbalanced by easily spammable characters. There is no equivalent to Stryker here. Even with the ease of access, it never feels entirely unfair.

I wish, though, that could be said for virtually everything else about the game, especially as it pertains to the fundamentally broken and, in some places, morally bankrupt online practices. On paper, it all sounds great, and some features are, indeed, awesome. Daily Towers and challenges keep things fresh, and the Faction Battle aspect, a metagame where players all over the world contribute to a Faction they pick, is excellent.

Where things fall apart are when you want to actually play the game. NetherRealm's last two titles had notoriously bad netcode, and Mortal Kombat X is unfortunately not exempt from this. Matches stutter, lag, or just stop outright. Most of the time, I can't even log in. This is an anomaly for me; I don't have the best internet connection in the world, but virtually every other game I want to play online, even major releases, works fine at launch. For a game in which all that needs to be loaded are two fighters and a background, the state of online at the time of this writing is completely abysmal.

This is compounded by some of the worst DLC practices I've come across since last year's biggest AAA failure, Assassin's Creed Unity. Don't want to learn a button combo for a Fatality? It's alright, pay for some single-button-press ones. Want to unlock everything at once? WB Games made that easier for you by decreasing the rate at which in-game currency is dropped and charging 20 bucks to get it. Fight against a cool character in the campaign that you want to play as? You'll be covered by the eventual DLC rolling out that will unlock them, despite the content basically being on the disk.

Is it really that bad, or am I just really reactionary to this stuff in 2015? I'm going for the former, because in conjunction with the spotty online, it cheapens the entire experience. An experience that, otherwise, is one of the best (and best-looking) fighters in years, one that I'd recommend to almost anyone. But with on-disk content gated behind future DLC, deliberately slowed down unlocks, and microtransactions, in a game that already costs sixty dollars and launched with two bits of DLC already. Aside from the lackluster internet play, Mortal Kombat X could have made a large sum of money on its own merits. It's a strong enough package by itself. But WB Games has shown an insulting lack of faith in their own product by hobbling the experience in a cynical, corporate attempt to turn even more of a profit.

That's why, unfortunately, I can't, in all good faith, make a wholehearted recommendation of Mortal Kombat X. Without those two major handicaps, I'd probably be urging everyone to go out and buy it without hesitation. At its heart, this is one of the best games of the past few years. It plays, looks, and sounds the part. But the content that surrounds it, the sleazy, slimy muck that's attempting to drown out whatever good NetherRealm has done, makes me hesitant to recommend paying full price for the title.

For sixty dollars, packaged with insidious DLC strategies and lackluster online play, it's tough to recommend with the inevitable reality of a "Komplete Edition" coming out within the next year or so. Still, it's tough to deny that Mortal Kombat X is one of the best fighting games to hit store shelves in years, especially out of a Western developer. If you're a fan of the genre, or just want something fun to play with friends, you could do a lot worse.

Pros:
- Stellar combat that's fast and brutal
- Easy to pick up and fun to master
- Nice spread of modes and content
- Best visuals in a fighter to date

Cons:
- Bad netcode means bad online
- Blatant on-disk DLC is infuriating
- "Freemium"-esque DLC schemes
- An incomplete game that will inevitably get a better version

Score: 8

(For more on the awful DLC, check out the breakdown on how much it all costs and the extent of the damage here: http://www.thefriedcritic.com/2015/04/fatality-mortal-kombat-xs-brutal.html)
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 13, 2015 7:02 AM PDT


Bloodborne
Bloodborne
Price: $39.99
103 used & new from $35.00

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Legend Is "Borne", March 27, 2015
This review is from: Bloodborne (Video Game)
As I write this, my eyes are bloodshot from sinking several hours into Bloodborne yesterday. My mind is occupied by it. I want to just jump back in and tackle the last area that killed me, and if I get killed again, then I wanted to keep trying and trying until I get past it... then do it all over again in the next area. I'm hooked, to say the least.

I'm thinking of new weapon combos, new strategies to get through areas, new shortcuts to find. Only a few days after release and it's a bit of an obsession already. Is that a bad thing? I'm not sure, but I am sure of one thing: Bloodborne is the furthest thing from something "bad" that I can think of. It's actually the best thing to happen to video games in years, and the best thing to happen to the PS4, period.

That may sound hyperbolic, but it fits the outrageous atmosphere From Software has crafted. And yes, outside of the difficulty and core gameplay (more on that in a second,) "outrageous" is the only word that can accurately describe the acid trip that is this game. From the get-go, it doesn't care what you think about it, or whether or not it makes sense. Giant shaving razor as a weapon? Sure, yeah. Elderly men in wheelchairs with gatling guns? Why not? What about little skeleton demons that teleport you places that you can adorn with top hats? Perfect!

The tone wildly swings between humorous and horrific, never signifying what, exactly, will be next. This results in something that's downright bizarre, in the vein of strange gaming oddities like Deadly Premonition or D2. It's grotesque and hilarious in equal amounts, and to me, it's a game that feels like it has completely lost its sanity... if it even had any to begin with. But then, for a game about a werewolf/zombie/monster virus corrupting the sanity of humans, maybe that's appropriate.

And while, yes, Bloodborne is hilarious at times because of how absurd it all is, the sparse narrative coupled with the dense lore ensures that players are never without some interesting curio to think about. While I can't necessarily explain the story present here, I understand it, if that makes any sense. All of the collective notes, cryptic NPC dialogue and visual cues in the world combine to craft a cohesive experience that you can't easily summarize, but seems logical and easy-to-grasp if you really let yourself be taken in by the world.

To me, the overarching narrative of Bloodborne blows most modern games out of the water. Without trying to artificially insert emotion or shock value or romance or some sort of misguided social commentary, the story is compelling and kept exciting me to unravel more. Nobody is marginalized, nothing is hamfisted, no elements are "cinematic." It's just a game with an accessible, fascinating story that shows and doesn't tell. Nothing more, nothing less. More games could learn from this style of storytelling. Just saying.

More games could also learn from the complex elements that lie at the heart of Bloodborne's deceptively simple gameplay, because frankly, it might be the best game I've ever gotten my mitts on in terms of raw mechanical craftsmanship. While I've always enjoyed the Souls series for its unrelenting commitment to precise, calculated decisions, I've also been in the minority who finds the control schemes between the three games to be a bit oblique and unwelcoming.

There's a definite appeal to that, I admit, with so many games today content with mollycoddling the player up through most of the experience, but I also feel there's something to be said for having accessibility and a steady difficulty curve. Bloodborne has both, but still doesn't sacrifice the signature challenge of the Souls series that it's a spiritual sibling to. Because of that, I would defend the position that it's an overall better experience than any prior game thus far, and if not that, at least a better starting place. It starts off easy enough to grasp, but as you progress through the sprawl of Yharnam, you need to be quick on your feet and constantly demonstrate mastery of the controls if you hope to get anywhere.

Fortunately the controls are simple enough to pick up, but complex enough to facilitate deeper learning of how everything works. Dodging, a much bigger deal than it ever was in the Souls games, will eventually become second nature to you. Learning enemy attack animations so you can stall them with gunfire becomes key to survival. Perfecting the art of knowing when to keep your weapon extended or contracted helps to keep more dangerous foes at bay through either rapid slashes or slow, concentrated strikes. Basically, Bloodborne is what happens when you crash a game like Devil May Cry into a Souls game, and the result is something that is fast and furious, but quick to punish any sort of lazy button-mashing.

This ends up making the game work on two very different levels: as a pure action title and as a punishing, strategic RPG. Playing it too strictly as either will spell an early demise. If you're too tactical and focused on perfecting your technique, you'll find yourself getting gored by werewolves or deranged gunmen or giant pigs or lanky demons that throw you into a sack and put you in demon prison (!). On the same token, more "hack n' slash" approaches will leave you blindsided and vulnerable to all sorts of nastiness, which could have been avoided had you paid more attention. Balancing action and strategy, Bloodborne feels like a very different breed of game, despite hewing very closely to the established Souls formula.

And it's because it feels like a different breed, a new sort of hybrid, that it ultimately works in the gameplay department. "Works" is actually a severe understatement. It would be more accurate to say that Bloodborne houses some of the, if not the, best gameplay I've encountered in all my years of gaming. Everything works how it ought to. Players are in complete control of every step, stab, shot, etc., and every death happens for a reason. In a way, this doesn't really feel like From's game when you get to a certain point. It feels like your game, based entirely around how you want to experience it. To give players that degree of autonomy is no small feat.

It's also no small feat what the developer has done with Yharnam and its surrounding areas to make everything look and feel so astonishing. It's funny, too, because most of Bloodborne is rendered with greys and browns, two varieties of color that have become synonymous with too many games trying a bit too hard to be "realistic." From Software has proven that it's not about the colors themselves, but how they're used. Instead of creating generic "realism," they've instead opted to craft an atmosphere of what can only be called macabre beauty.

Everything feels dark and sinister, and even when the sun hangs above you, the sky has an eerie brownish-orange tinge to it, making even the "safer" times of the game feel a bit unnerving. "Unnerving" could be used to describe the rest of the visual offerings, too, but in a sort of awe-inspiring way. You could be fighting for your life against some oozing abomination above a bottomless chasm, but you'll find yourself hard-pressed not to admire the sweeping vistas comprised of gleaming towers rising hundreds of feet in the air that serve as a backdrop. At least, you will until it gets you killed.

Yes, the art direction here is superb, impeccable in its ability to use a worn color scheme to such wonderful effect. The aesthetic here is what happens when you take the worlds of Harry Potter and Castlevania, then crash them into each other with the utmost precision. And all of this is backed up by some amazing processing power, allowing players to see where they were an hour ago while simultaneously charting out their next move. It all looks so good, and the only visible slowdown happens with stuttering enemy animations on rare occasions; it never affects gameplay.
Also, if you're a fan of the dumb/awful/beautiful rubbery ragdoll physics of Dark Souls, they make their return here, and they're just as unintentionally hilarious as ever. So there's also that.

There's not much else I can say about Bloodborne, outside of giving a mention to its masterful sound design and score. What else can be said for a game that hits every criteria I have for a good game? It not only does that, though. It breaks those criteria and forces me to raise my subjective standards by a sizable amount. I'm not quite sure I've played a game of this caliber on either the PS4 or One, and at the rate things are going now, I doubt I will again for at least another several years. A golden standard has been set, and if other developers want to catch up, they'll have to find a way to hurdle over the bar that From Software has set thousands of feet above them.

Everybody who seriously plays games will tell you about their personal great gaming moments. Whether it's getting the Master Sword in Ocarina of Time, the tragic final confrontation in Metal Gear Solid 3, or the lighthouse sequence of Bioshock Infinite, we've all got them. But Bloodborne? Bloodborne doesn't just have great gaming moments. It is a great gaming moment, as a cohesive unit, from start to finish.

Bloodborne is, to me, as perfect as a game can get, and a new high point for the medium.

Plus, come on. Wheelchair gatling gun guys. You just can't lose.

Pros
- Rich lore with intriguing narrative
- Unintentional comedy galore
- Atmosphere of bizarre horror
- Gives players complete control
- Graphics are the best on the system
- Masterful sound design sets an eerie mood
- Giant straight razors and deranged men in wheelchairs

Cons
- Long loading times are a pain at times

Score: 10


Final Fantasy Type-0 HD - PlayStation 4
Final Fantasy Type-0 HD - PlayStation 4
Price: $39.80
83 used & new from $26.81

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars My "Type" Of Final Fantasy, March 22, 2015
I've been calling myself a "lapsed Final Fantasy fan" for quite some time now. This opinion has started many a flame war on the internet, and quite frankly, I've never understood why. It's hard to defend the sharp nose-dive in quality that the series has taken in recent years. Tetsuya Nomura and Motomu Toriyama have steered what was once supposed to be a series about grand, sweeping adventures into an edgy, grimdark pit occupied by pretty teenagers wearing lots of buckles and zippers.

Numerous spin-offs, only a small percentage of which are decent, have saturated the brand name. The core series has somehow gotten less robust and interesting than it once was, with XIII being a series of ornate hallways, XIV being an MMO that, while decent, apes a lot from better, less costly games, and XV looking to be a cribbing of both Monster Hunter and the worst elements of Western AAA games... not to mention possessing the most obnoxious cast to date. While this is just my opinion, I do find it a bit baffling that anybody would adamantly defend the choices Nomura and Toriyama have made, polluting a series that once gave us excellent titles like IV, VI, VII, IX, X and some of the early spin-offs. Different strokes, I guess.

And, looking at Final Fantasy Type-0 HD (it was originally a Japan-only PSP title back in 2011,) I really expected more of the same. Long, complicated, fake words that do nothing other than make the story a convoluted garble of boring lore. Characters that look ripped from the cover of Tiger Beat, decked out with zippers that do nothing and lead to nowhere. Boring, generic gameplay that simply allows the player to go from point A to B, and nothing more. Imagine my surprise, then, that Type-0 is not only the best entry in the Final Fantasy series to hit a home console since the PS2 days, but simultaneously one of the most engaging RPGs and exciting action games I've played on a current-gen console. It has problems, yes. Undoubtedly. But it's a step in the right direction.

But the plot could fool you into thinking otherwise, initially. There's a school called Akademia (snort) that trains elite soldiers to train in the front lines of a raging war between four nations. All of these students have different abilities, strengths, weaknesses, so on, so forth. One military, in particular, is trying to wage war on all of the nations, and take everything under their iron fist, and it's up to Akademia and their growing list of allies to team up and overthrow the threat. But, despite looking pretty decent on the surface, the intent behind Akademia and its enigmatic head might not be all that they seem. Or... something.

Yes, as people who have played this game so far might notice, that is a very, very pared-down version of the narrative. Honestly, Type-0, despite gradually growing into an engaging, interesting game, still suffers from problems hallmark to Final Fantasy games made in the last ten years. That is to say, the narrative is jam-packed with moronically-spelled words, all crammed together at once, in hopes of building a deep, intricate world with lots to learn about.

In actuality, though, it only results in a story that's interesting until people try to actually explain what's happening using made-up lingo. Yes, there are things to help understand it somewhat, but I've always felt that's a bad narrative decision. Your story should make sense and not be packed to the brim with whimsical buzzwords to begin with, which should then stimulate me to learn more, not the other way around. It's not as egregious as the worst parts of XIII, which is apparently part of the same canon, but it can get pretty obnoxious. At least, though, the surface level, bare bones narrative makes enough sense to follow and be engaged by, and again, it does pick up once things get rolling.

Luckily, though, the similarities to modern Final Fantasy games end there. Unlike XIII, which made you play for 30-40 hours until the gameplay turned into something more than "press X and sometimes use an Eidolen to win," Type-0 is fun and stimulating right from the get-go. After the lengthy intro, you're dropped straight into combat, and it's soon thereafter that you'll start to realize that this is, mechanically, one of the best entries in the franchise. Playing like a pared-down version of a Devil May Cry-type affair, we have a game that's part action, part role-playing, all fun.

Each of the fourteen characters play in a distinctly different way, meaning that players can experiment with both main campaign missions and side quests until they find the party that works for them. Do you want to focus on long-range attacks and buffs, or maybe heavy melee attacks and attack spells? There are dozens of possible combinations, so players are bound to find something they like with all of the choice. There's not really a definitive "best" type of trio to have, and it ultimately boils down to how you want to play. Personally, I always find that to be the most rewarding type of game, and I commend the devs for breaking from the traditional "this is how you do X thing exactly" rut that Final Fantasy games often find themselves stuck in. It's pretty neat stuff.

There's also a ton of different stuff to do on top of the solid base of fast-paced action. This makes for the most Final Fantasy-y Final Fantasy in a while, surprisingly enough. Players can explore Akademia, getting to know the student body, upgrading their characters and attending different classes to strengthen their party en masse. They can take up side-quests to get items, level up, and just find new stuff. They can explore the world map, gradually unlocking more as the campaign continues, and gett lost in optional side-dungeons or cities. There's a ton to here, really, and that's quite the surprise for me. Most action-oriented spin-offs of this series have been linear, not matching up the open-world epic quest feeling of the main games. Now, though, Type-0 ironically feels a lot more like what the franchise is supposed to be than the core games, and that's something worth celebrating, I feel.

It's also worth noting that there are light RTS elements sprinkled into the campaign when players overthrow or protect regions, and they're implemented in such a way that it feels like a natural, fun shift, as opposed to unnecessary drudgery. It's nice that this isn't another ActRaiser situation: fun core mechanics, dull progression.

There's very little about this game that I'd call dull, actually. Very little, though, not nothing, because honestly, the way that players find themselves leveling their characters is a bit of a slog, and not in line with the fun, streamlined nature of the rest of the package. In fact, I wasn't even completely aware I could upgrade anything until multiple hours into the experience. Done at save crystals, players will use points accrued through leveling up to strengthen their characters of choice, and the experience is quite the tedious one. A long list with annoying pop-ups that are slow to disappear, the process through which players upgrade their characters is monotonous and takes way longer than it should, especially with fourteen effing characters to maintain. It's a royal pain, and an unwelcome departure from a series that has introduced ingenious leveling mechanics like the Sphere Grid and the Crystarium.

My sentiments are the same for the process of upgrading spells. When players kill enemies, they explode their corpses (!) and synthesize special gems from them. These gems are used to strengthen magic, and lord, is it easily the worst part of the game. Each element of spell has a series of sub-spells that are only differentiated by confusing acronyms, and not, you know, actual names. And all of the characters have different types of acronym spells, and you have to access a separate screen to see who knows what, and, well, you're probably beginning to see the problem here. You'll end up wasting gems you earned in battle upgrading the wrong spell for the wrong character, without even knowing you're doing so. The system in place here is clunky and unnecessarily complicated, and could have done with more streamlining. It reeks of being limited by its original platform, and not being upgraded for home consoles. Four years after release, that's a bit of a letdown.

You know what else wasn't upgraded for home consoles? A lot of the visuals, because, easily, this is one of the most badly textured games on modern consoles. Some of the textures are literally ripped straight from the PSP, and look godawful when blown up on a bigger screen. The same can be said for 80-90% of the NPC models, who are disturbingly static, never doing anything beyond standing in uncomfortable poses and moving ever-so-slightly to simulate breathing. Some parts of this game are simply ugly and a brutal letdown for a series that's always prided itself on sharp visuals.

But the odd thing is, it's only some of the textures. Other textures and models and whatnot look astounding, and more in line with what I expect for my sixty-dollar purchase from a AAA publisher. Namely, places you're doing battle and the characters you're controlling look fantastic, and make me long for a version of this game that looks consistently good. It's a bit jarring when a beautifully rendered and animated model is standing next to a static one rendered with muddy textures from a handheld. Yes, the exaggerated motion blur and carefully positioned lighting makes you not notice the visual flaws at times, but it takes only a cursory look to see that this game is not what it could be in the looks department, and that's a real shame. The art direction is great and all, but sometimes, that can only go so far.

At the very least, though, the soundtrack is gorgeous. It's the signature mixture of electronic and orchestral sensibilities that has anchored the series since the early 2000's, and it works just as well here as it ever has. In particular, the remixes of classic tunes, like the main theme of the series (used for the background of Akademia) and the darker version of the Chocobo theme (used for the overworld theme) are fantastic. The battle themes are nothing to sneeze at, either, and a bit catchy as well. Oh, and that classic "victory theme" is just as good ever, and makes leveling up feel that much more satisfying.

Is Final Fantasy Type-0 HD a good game? Undoubtedly, yes. It's the best game in the franchise for way, way too long, and has hours of fun, engaging content that'll keep you busy for quite some time, on top of having a load of replay value. But on the flip side, is it all that it could be? No, not quite. The leveling system is flat-out dull, the visuals aren't up to snuff for a sixty dollar game on a home console, and the plot still has a lot of the same niggling flaws as other entries where Tetsuya Nomura and Motomu Toriyama have been at the reigns.

The end result is a game that recaptures what the series is supposed to be all about, but is still held back by some meandering issues that prevent the game from being a gung-ho, balls-out return to glory. Still, though, it's hard to deny that this is a very good game with a lot of great things going for it, and for fans jaded after a series of duds, that's more than enough reason to pick this up.

Pros
- Interesting story and world
- Fantastic core gameplay
- Lots of diverse content
- Pleasing art direction
- Great soundtrack

Cons
- Underwhelming visuals
- Dull leveling systems
- Counter-intuitive menus
- Still a convouluted Nomura/Toriyama joint

Score: 8

(This review also appears on my website, thefriedcritic.com!)


DMC Devil May Cry: Definitive Edition - PlayStation 4
DMC Devil May Cry: Definitive Edition - PlayStation 4
Price: $34.99
53 used & new from $28.00

18 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Black Hair, Don't Care, March 11, 2015
Is it acceptable to say nice things about Ninja Theory's 2013 reboot yet? If you were going by the vitriolic Facebook comments that can be found on the franchise's official page, you'd think not. Yes, continuing the current trend of "buy time for making new games by re-releasing old ones," the controversial reboot of "Devil May Cry" is now out on the PS4 (which is the version I played) and Xbox One with all the bells and whistles you've come to expect with these sorts of releases. Somewhat upscaled graphics? Check. All the DLC bundled in? Check. Somewhat cheaper price point? Check and check. At this rate, it's become less of "how much has changed" and more "how little am I going to regret buying this game twice"? Luckily, Ninja Theory seems to know that more prudent players are dubious of these rehashes, and has done a lot to merit second-time adopters giving this another go... along with making the best version of the product for newcomers.

Is this still the same game that came out in 2013? Largely, yes. The story is the same, of course. Dante is a lovably loudmouthed punk who gets thrown in the middle of an age-old conflict between angels and demons. The latter party controls the world through televised news and soft drinks, among other things. In order to stop their control, Dante, along with Virgil and Kat, learns to tap into his past in order to take down everything keeping America lazy and stupid, then eventually take down the demons behind it all.

I said this in my review two years ago, and I'll say it again: the story here is one of the very best out there, at least in terms of video games. It's a sarcastic, rude pop in the face to the side of America that any rational person despises. There's no "we need to respect these opinions," or, "they have a right to do this" sort of diatribe here. The writers don't play nice with the material, and why should they? The best political satires are sharp, focused and mean. This is all of that and then some, and by consequence, it feels like a much more mature satire of American society than, say, "Grand Theft Auto V," which is more content to softly poke at things rather than voraciously attack. As far as political games goes, "DmC" is one of the smartest and funniest out there, and while it may liberally borrow from "They Live" in some capacity, it does enough with the concept that it feels fresh and original.

Are there any changes to the story? No, not really. There's a small snippet of dialogue cut out (yes, people are already crying "censorship," but please note the developers just didn't care for the line,) a new cutscene added to provide context to something that happens later in the game, and... well, that's about it. Oh, actually, Virgil's dumb fedora got the axe, too, but I'm not sure anyone was too, erm, euphoric about that look the first time around, right? Right. Moving on.

Now, I could go into heavy, heavy detail explaining the numerous, minute changes made to combat here, because that's where the meat of the upgrades lie. But we'd be here for a very, very long time if I talked about all that, and Capcom actually put up a 30-ish page changelog detailing everything new under the hood, so you can just go look at that if you're interested. So I'll keep it brief. Basically, if you button-mashed your way through "DmC," you won't notice a lot of differences here. Maybe you'll see that some bosses are tweaked, or that some enemies take more or fewer hits, but the game will feel basically the same to you. However, if you're one to focus on mastering combos, racking up scores, collecting trinkets, then this is a whole other ballgame. Certain combos don't work the way they used to. It's harder to pull off good Style Combos. A lot of collectibles have been shuffled around. A good portion of enemies react differently to different moves. There's a solid lock-on mechanic. So on, so forth. Again, there are enough changes to merit 30-plus pages of tiny details, but the overall point is that people who love breaking apart a game's mechanics and mastering them will have a field day with this game. The only complaint I might have, perhaps, is that by "rebalancing" the gameplay, everything feels a touch easier on the standard difficulty level... but maybe that's just me.

Is the gameplay still good, though? Yes, definitely, 100%. Of course, this game still has numerous detractors, people who will try to explain why it's objectively inferior to the originals, because opinions are apparently facts when it comes to video games. To this day, I don't understand the complaints. Everything about "DmC" is smooth as butter. Every button press has a certain weight to it, and if you really focus on learning the intricacies of the combat, each move has a distinct feeling of purpose and meaning behind it. Like other action gaming greats like "Bayonetta," the key to victory isn't blindly spamming the same moves until you win. You have to mix things up and have variation to how you tackle each and every enemy. When consumers these days end up spending sixty dollars on titles that are, essentially, five-hour interactive movies with barely any thought put into the gameplay, a game like "DmC" still feels woefully unique... even over two years after its release. Compared to other action games in this vein, Ninja Theory's title is very good. Compared to virtually everything else on the market that isn't on the Wii U right now, though, it's a complete and total godsend.

In the visual department, get ready for a bit of a trade-off. For the first time on consoles, "DmC" runs at a full 60 FPS, and it's one of those games where the difference is massive. Action is blisteringly fast, truly capturing the frenetic energy that the game's tone is trying to convey. Nothing feels plodding or sluggish, and there was absolutely never an instance of stalling, chugging, or even screen tearing on my copy. As far as the performance goes, on top of adding the Turbo Mode (which makes the game go 20% faster, adding a whole other level of challenge,) Ninja Theory has hit it out of the park with this version, and deserves serious commendation. That said... the actual visuals are more lukewarm. Artistically, yes, this is still a very visually arresting game, and at 1080p, you can see virtually every detail about it. The way the world comes alive to try and kill Dante, the varied and amusing facial expressions of characters, the vibrant colors... that's all here. But so are a copious amount of lazy textures that just flat-out don't look good, and were obviously not a huge concern to the devs when touching this game back up. While I would argue that this looks leaps and bounds better than most of these "Definitive Super Ultra Wombo Combo" editions, it's still not the sort of game that I expected to playing on "next-gen" consoles well over a year after their release, and it's still a tad disappointing that this is still where we are. Paying for upscaled versions of last-generation titles. Kind of sad, if you ask me.

I'm not losing much sleep over it, though, because "DmC Devil May Cry: Definitive Edition" is still very much worth your money. What with the tweaks in the gameplay department, the new resolution, the improved framerate, all of the bundled DLC, a whole boatload of extras, and on top of that, a very attractive price point... you're getting a lot of bang for your buck. If you have a PS4 or One, and haven't played this already, then it's definitely worth your time and money. It was an excellent title when it came out, and it's only gotten better with all that Ninja Theory has done to it. And for people who picked it up the first time around? I can fairly say that it's the second time, with all of these upscaled re-releases, that I truly feel like the double-dip is worth it (the first being the wonderful "Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition.") No matter who you are, unless you fall into the "hating it because it's not like the old ones" camp, Ninja Theory's take on the venerable demon-slaying franchise is a blast, and this is easily the best version to snag.

And if you do fall into that camp, well, you can play as the original Dante from the outset so... you win, I guess?

Pros:
- Still a funny, well-written game with a likable lead
- Gameplay has been honed to a razor's edge
- 60 FPS makes a lot of difference here.
- Hours upon hours of content

Cons:
- Lazy visuals in some areas
- Feels like a much easier game this time around
- It's another re-release, and I'm kind of tired of them, aren't you?

Score: 9 (Bomber)
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 14, 2015 5:39 PM PDT


Kirby & The Rainbow Curse
Kirby & The Rainbow Curse
Offered by game-ware
Price: $38.29
59 used & new from $29.50

32 of 36 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Breaking The Mold, February 22, 2015
I always feel bad for reviewing Kirby games. Not because they're not fun to play, or because I don't like them. Quite the opposite, actually. As a whole, I love the franchise for all of its various entries and incarnations, almost to a fault. That is to say, there isn't a single entry in the series that I dislike, and so, I feel bad, because anybody reading a review will immediately see my subjective bias towards the cute, cuddly and inventive worlds that various developers always seem to cook up. This time, HAL Laboratory picks the reins back up and takes the series back to the gameplay of 2005's "Canvas Curse," but also brings two new things to the table: claymation and GamePad-snapping difficulty.

You read that last part right. "Kirby & The Rainbow Curse," the pink puff's first go at a Wii U title, steers the series in a completely unexpected direction. Historically, the Kirby games have been satisfying little romps that are none too difficult to complete, unless one is trying to 100% the title. Usually, players are able to set their own difficulty, go at their own pace, and play how they want to play. If you're expecting more of that here, you're out of luck, buddy. "Rainbow Curse" has a very specific way it wants you to play, and if you don't play by its rules, be prepared to send Kirby careening into chasms, spikes and to a multitude of other grisly ends.

Well, grisly to an extent. It's still a Kirby title, meaning that everything is adorable, right down to the sugary sweet story. Kirby's world is attacked by Claymia, who sucks the color out of everything, meaning that the world is a colorless wasteland, and more important, the apple Kirby's about to dig into turns into a grey sphere. Heavy stuff. It's up to players to guide the little guy (with the help of new friend Elline) through a variety of worlds to restore order to everything. Except, Kirby opts out of walking this time around, and with the aid of your trusty stylus and touch screen, you have to draw lines and tap him as he rolls through almost every level. Again, it's the exact same concept as "Canvas Curse," only on a bigger screen and with a new art direction.

But as far as that bigger screen is concerned? You won't be using it much, unless you're playing co-op. That's because, due to the very nature of the game, players are forced to almost constantly look down at the GamePad throughout the entire experience. This means that, regardless of how big your TV is, you won't be seeing much of it if you're playing alone. If you even so much as try to draw lines while looking up at the TV, it's going to end disastrously. This may sound like a minor trifle, especially if you have a couch co-op partner (thankfully, my girlfriend loves Kirby as much as I do, so that wasn't an issue,) but it's a massive disappointment because of how utterly gorgeous this game is. Of course, it's hard to focus on the visuals when you find yourself frantically struggling to stay alive.

Yes, this game is hard. Very, very hard, to an almost unbelievable extent at times. Not even including the seemingly impossible challenge maps, almost every level after the second world or so is a large-scale, fast-paced puzzle, where the penalty for not solving it is death after death. Kirby rarely stops moving, and the amount of magical brush power stuff that creates lines is limited, meaning that precision becomes critical if you want to survive. A single, tiny flick of your wrist can make or break an entire run, and with the sometimes unforgiving checkpoints and introduction of several heinous enemies, the game eventually evolves into a frustrating exercise in trial and error.

That said, unlike some negative reviews directed at this game from big-name websites, I don't believe "too hard" is a valid criticism, and in fact, I admire "Rainbow Curse" for its challenge. It rarely feels unfair when you lose a life, and generally speaking, it's easy to see where something went wrong. Only every once in a while have I suffered a touch screen hiccup, and for the most part, success relies purely on learning the mechanics. It's the type of difficulty that can be overcome by getting good, as opposed to the type based on artificial boosts in enemy strength or other such garbage. To other critics's credit, though, there are some irritating moments (mainly boss battles) where I felt stuff was up to blind luck, which could have been smoothed over to make a consistent package. I'm not really a fan of "randomly send Kirby flying everywhere and hope you hit something" types of encounters, which are admittedly rare, but still present and accounted for. Altogether, however, I do feel like over 90% of the game is based on mastering the mechanics, which is the best sort of difficulty in my mind.

Aside from guiding your cute Kirby ball through the colorful worlds, you'll also take control of his various forms, ranging from tank to submarine to airplane. These segments are a nice break in the gameplay, and a total blast to play. Aside from the delight of watching a clay Kirby get molded into another clay figure, the shifts in gameplay are definitely remarkable. That is to say, all of them feel significantly different, and lend variety to the overall package. My personal favorite insofar would have to be the sub, where Kirby automatically fires missiles, and players have to steer the missiles into stuff while simultaneously managing where they are on the screen. It's fun little challenges like this that help make "Rainbow Curse" feel like a well-rounded package.

Yet there's even more to help with that feeling. Aside from the core game, which is of a decent length, there are numerous, numerous challenge maps, most of which are hellish. There's a whole library of music to collect and listen to in a cute screen where Kirby dances to the beat. You can collect pages of Elline's Secret Diary, which all fit together to form one of the cutest things ever put in a video game. But, most importantly (to me,) there's the collection of virtual figurines you can build. Each one has an adorable description, and can be looked at from virtually every angle, a la the trophies in "Super Smash Bros." It's in this collection that you get a real appreciation for the painstaking effort HAL put into this game, ensuring that everything look as much like stop-motion claymation as possible.

Which, in turn, makes this a visually arresting experience unlike anything on the market. I feel like this is something I have to say about every major Wii U game at this point, just to remind people that raw processing power does not equal good visuals, but I'll say it again: "Rainbow Curse" has better graphics than most PS4 or One games. I would know, I own both consoles, so please, keep that in mind before mouthing off. Look, when you look at this game, you see a beautiful world that looks and moves and feels like it was handcrafted. Coasting or rolling or diving through levels, or looking at the gorgeous virtual figurines, I was convinced that this game was interactive claymation at several points. It's bright, smooth, crisp, and just downright pleasing to look at. You can use however many polygons or whatever high-tech engine or whatever other thing that can be done better on a PC to render 1886 London or Revolution-era France, but that doesn't change the fact that your game is grey and brown and full of people and stuff that run together, not to mention look the same as almost every major release on the market. I may get flak for saying this, but add "Rainbow Curse" to the pile of Wii U games (including "Super Mario 3D World," "Pikmin 3," "Mario Kart 8" and "Bayonetta 2") that look better than almost anything else the competitor has to offer, outside of rare exceptions like... I dunno, "Sunset Overdrive," I guess?

And tying this aesthetically stunning package together is something I rarely take time to commend: the soundtrack. This, hands-down, might be the best music ever put in a Kirby game. Not only does it provide catchy takes on classic jams, but most of the soundtrack is composed of new music, and it's all stellar. Utilizing several different styles and instrumental arrangements, the musical soundscapes here are top-notch, and I seriously hope that consumers are able to get their hands on a copy of this soundtrack, whether physically, digitally, or both. Yes, it's that good, a perfect blend of retro and modern sensibilities. Marvelous, in a word. Oh, and Kirby's little squeaks and grunts are cuter than ever.

"Kirby & The Rainbow Curse" has a few issues. I'm not denying that. Some of the boss stages are frustrating. Having to look down at the touch screen in single-player is a bummer. The controls definitely mess up at times. But despite those, it's excellent based on three criteria that I hold near and dear to my heart, and help me decide how to score a game. Firstly, it's a wildly original title, what with the inventive art style, great implementation of the GamePad, and a great co-op mode (the second player plays the game like a standard platformer, making for some interesting times.) Secondly, it has a distinct style of gameplay that is undeniably challenging, but based in mastery and problem-solving as opposed to mindless repetition. And third, it's a bang for your buck. For forty bucks, you get a great single-player AND co-op game, loads of supplementary content, and hours upon hours of replay value. It's a total bargain. Oh, and to top it all off, it's all cute as a button.

In a gaming landscape where things keep getting greyer and big-name releases keep blending together, a game like "Kirby & The Rainbow Curse" helps to remind me that there are still people out there that care about making fun, original titles that don't shove DLC down your gullet and end in a series of quick-time events. Because of that, it comes with my highest recommendation.

And seriously, guys. It's really adorable. Do you see that cover? Do you? If that doesn't sell you on it, well, I have nothing left to say to you.

Pros:
- A wildly original title
- A beautiful art style
- Fantastic soundtrack
- Loads of content
- Cute
- Really, really cute

Cons
- Occasional control hiccups
- Some boss fights are mechanically frustrating
- Solo players barely get to look at the TV

Score: 9.0 (Bomber)

amiibo Impressions: The amiibo integration here is pretty nifty, as it's useful, but you won't suffer without it. Kirby amiibo figures allow you to use a super dash ability at anytime; DeDeDe lets you have twice the normal amount of health; Meta Knight makes your attacks tougher. Keep in mind, these only work for one level, you can only do it once a day, and oh yeah, it's next to impossible to get DeDeDe or Meta Knight currently. I used a Kirby for the sake of this review, and will probably use it again at times. Again, it's not imperative to the game, but it's a nice supplement. Plus, the figures themselves are, of course, fantastic. A nice complement to an already stellar game!
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 12, 2015 9:29 PM PDT


The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask 3D
The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask 3D
Price: $37.59
111 used & new from $30.53

97 of 105 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Dark Side of the Moon, February 16, 2015
About a year ago, I was talking to my girlfriend when she was in the middle of playing 2011's excellent "Ocarina of Time 3D" about the possibility of "Majora's Mask" getting the same treatment. We both agreed that it was next to impossible. It was a smaller Zelda game, that from my understanding didn't sell particularly well, and its dark, sinister setting seems to not jive with the tone modern incarnations have. And yet, here we are, four years later, give or take a few months, holding what may very well be the definitive version of the game in our hands. Was it worth the wait?

Most definitely. "The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask 3D" is a loving restoration of the dark horse favorite in Nintendo's flagship adventure franchise. Every detail is lavishly restored with eye-popping visuals that run at a crisp framerate. New mechanics are added to make the game more accessible, while still retaining the core difficulty fans expect. And it's a large, intricate game packed with content that can be put in your pocket and played anywhere at any time. A game that, at one point, was thought to only be possible on consoles, yet somehow is a vast improvement over the past incarnation.

Believe it or not, this is the first time I've seriously played through the game, having only dabbled in it in the past. For the first time, I can truly appreciate the darkness inherent in the world and in the narrative. Nothing in "Majora's Mask" feels heroic or grand. Everything is grimy, sinister, creepy. Even when Link is technically saving the world from the machinations of the Skull Kid, who plans to destroy the planet with the aid of a grinning moon, the player doesn't feel like a savior. They're accomplishing things by harnessing the souls of dead characters through putting on masks. The way to Termina's salvation is paved with the bodies of fallen heroes, and as the last one standing, all of their hopes and desires rest on your shoulders. Kind of intense, right?

That's why I'd have to say that "Majora's Mask" may be my new favorite Zelda game. Never before has the idea of being a "hero" and "saving the world" been undercut so dramatically by the narrative itself, at least in this franchise. It challenges the very structure of the traditional hero's journey narrative. True, it adheres to the basic highlights, but does so much different from other entries and other fantasy games in general. There's no princess to save. There's no significant rise to action. Link is simply thrown in the middle of turmoil and expected to thrive, and he barely does so. In fact, one could argue that he doesn't, and that his entire journey wouldn't happen if it weren't for the benevolent spirits guiding him every step of the way. Not to get too deep here, but I might go so far as to say that "Majora's Mask" is a cynical critique of the typical Zelda plot, much in the same way that landmark works like "Watchmen" and "Neon Genesis Evangelion" were critiques of their respective mediums. The "lone savior saves the land and gets the girl" type of story is deconstructed and challenged, and that's what makes "Majora's Mask" so memorable to me. It's something different, and something that hasn't been done since.

Of course, it wouldn't be much of an undercutting if the basic formula wasn't altered somewhat. It is, though, which is another rarity. There are four main dungeons, not eight or more. You don't get to the first dungeon until a good deal in. There are an unconventional amount of side-quests. And, of course, there are the masks. Masks which alter Link's body and give him an arsenal of cool abilities. Skip on water as Deku Link, zip around like Sonic as Goron Link, or effortlessly cut through water as Zora Link. The masks help break up the typical "go around with a sword and some items" format. All of this, combined, make for an entry that looks, feels and plays differently from its brethren, and by consequence, in a time where I've grown a little weary of the formula (especially after the multitude of misfires in "Skyward Sword,) feels fresh. Which is ironic, considering it's well over a decade old.

Of course, the fetch quests are a hit or miss for some people. I really enjoy them. Micro-managing people's schedules, getting little trinkets to get more trinkets in order to get even MORE trinkets... all of that is kind of my jam. It reminds of the old days in the best way possible, where getting new stuff wasn't simply a matter of progressing the story, where players weren't spoonfed everything. Basically, it feels archaic, but in a good, nostalgic way, instead of a monotonous, clunky way. I'm aware that not everybody has the same affinity for this style of gameplay, and I respect that. But for me, it's a fun way to add length to a game, provided the rewards are worth all the back-and-forthing. And considering that the eventual reward here is the famous Fierce Deity Mask, I'd say it totally is.

That said, there are a few new tweaks here to make the fetching and questing a little more easily managed. For starters, there's the overhauled Bomber's Notebook. It not only keeps track of everybody's schedule, but automatically tracks each and every side quest for players. This makes managing everything a lot less frustrating and allows for greater focus on certain tasks. On top of that, players are able to save far more often than before, what with the numerous save points scattered across the map. And, of course, there's the return of the Sheikah Stone from the previous remake, which lets players who need a little help get an idea of what they need to do next. These additions, on top of some remixed dungeons and boss stages, make the game feel like a more streamlined package, while still retaining a good deal of challenge.

The original "Majora's Mask" doesn't look too hot by today's standards. Not so with this beautiful remake. This is one of the most visually arresting games I think I've played on the 3DS, matching and maybe even topping personal standards like "Resident Evil Revelations" and "Kirby: Triple Deluxe." Of course, like the original, there are reused assets from "Ocarina of Time," but you barely notice in the face of all the improvements. Character animations are more detailed and expressive. Environments feel more distinct than ever before. The colors are vibrant, bringing the mysterious land of Termina to vivid life. And, most impressively, the framerate and load times are impeccable, even when playing on the standard 3DS XL. It's a beautiful, crisp game, perhaps even more so than "Ocarina," that makes the most of the console, and on top of that, has pretty spectacular 3D effects.

As a newbie to the full "Majora's Mask" experience, I'm finally seeing what the whole fuss is about. I kind of expected the same old, same old from it, and tapered my expectations accordingly. But what I found was something much, much more. So much more in fact, it not only puts modern Zelda games, but a lot of modern games in general, to shame. Yes, it's a collection of fetch quests that reuses a lot of assets from the previous game, but the extent to how different the whole package feels is remarkable. It's dark, but not artificially so. It's epic, but not lavishly so. It's emotional, without stooping to Spielberg levels of heartstring-tugging. In more simple terms, it's the most stripped-down, raw, genuine entry in the venerable series, and hits on something that I feel hasn't been touched since, with the possible exception of "Twilight Princess."

This may be one of my shorter reviews, because everything I can say about this game boils down to one sentiment. "The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask 3D" is an unconventional game in the best way possible, and nothing like it has been made since its release. And now, Nintendo has given us a version that's been improved in virtually every area. There might not be something this unique for years to come.

Pros:
- The narrative is dark, twisted, almost cynical
- Unconventional structure for a Zelda game
- Great art design rendered with gorgeous graphics
- More accessible than the previous version

Cons:
- Fetch quests aren't for everyone.

Score: 10
Comment Comments (7) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 22, 2015 7:28 PM PDT


Dying Light - PlayStation 4
Dying Light - PlayStation 4
Price: Click here to see our price
83 used & new from $31.26

127 of 142 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Techland's Brightest Light, January 29, 2015
Techland is a developer built upon a series of caveats. For every ounce of promise in one of their titles, there's always some sort of flaw, mishap, or otherwise unfortunate design choice that hampers the overall experience. In other words, it just wouldn't be a Techland game without an intriguing concept held back by bad production choices. For better, for worse, it's sort of their trademark at this point. So, when going into one of their titles, one usually needs to taper their expectations accordingly, so the good can surprise you, and the bad you're already braced for.

When the initial hype train for "Dying Light" left the station, and I discovered that it was, in fact, a Techland game, my response was apprehensive at best, turned off at worst. I'd grown tired of wading through the myriad issues in all of their titles just to glean something good out of the experience, and just wasn't interested in yet another zombie game. Yet their last project, "Call of Juarez: Gunslinger," was a fantastic title, and gave me a bit more faith in their future endeavors. So I took the bait, and for once, I'm glad I did. "Dying Light" is one of the most interesting AAA titles in ages, and the most promising new IP in recent memory. Maybe that seems like hyperbole, but it's something that I stand behind. What with all the corridor shooters and tower-climbing simulators, the AAA marketplace has grown stagnant with a sense of "same-ness," Despite obvious cribs from other games, "Dying Light" does a flying leap over competitors in terms of originality and pure fun.

That originality starts at the story, shockingly, which is something I never thought I'd be saying about this title. Zombies are kind of beat at this point, to be honest, and whatever life they had in them was drained by "The Last of Us" and "The Walking Dead." Somehow, though, the world and scenario of this game managed to grab me and not let go. Players are put in the shoes of an undercover GRE (Global Relief Effort) agent Kyle Crane, and thrown into the impoverished yet oddly beautiful Harran to hunt down a terrorist. But no sooner does he arrive than is he swept into a group of people trying to survive after a viral outbreak of a rabies mutation has zombified most of the inhabitants of Harran. Crane ends up aligning himself with them while trying to act as a double agent for the GRE, and throughout the game, he becomes gradually torn between his mission and his growing concern for his new allies.

The whole idea of being trapped in a liminal space between honor and duty isn't new or original, but the way in which it's executed in "Dying Light" is impeccable in its approach. Players aren't given any reign over Crane's decisions, so as he's struggling to do the "right" thing in any given moment, players have to experience this from his perspective. They're forced to watch his decisions help or hurt others, to see if he'll take the high or low road, to live every mistake he makes. This is a stark contrast to the trend of giving players the keys to the story, and to me, it's a bold move on part of Techland. There are obvious wrongs that Crane perpetrates, yet players are helpless to stop him, and in a way, forced to be a sort of accomplice. That basic disconnect between player actions and character choices doesn't always work, and can sometimes ruin a game. Yet here, I feel as if it does a good job of defining Crane as more than just a generic, run-of-the-mill self-insert, which is a serious challenge to first-person games.

Anchored by Crane's struggle to define his own morals,steered by some pretty major twists after the halfway point, and supplemented by a cast of surprisingly robust and diverse characters, the narrative in "Dying Light" is one that's better than it has any right to be. A modern zombie game with such a conventional set-up shouldn't have a decent plot, yet lo and behold, it has not only an acceptable one, but a memorable one at that. There's some cool stuff brewing in this game, and I'd behoove players to try and pay attention to it. It's definitely worth your time.

But is it worth playing to experience that story? Is the talked-up parkour gameplay really that special, or does it swan dive into a "Dead Island" meets "Assassin's Creed" pitfall? Much to my surprise, "Dying Light" manages to do plenty to differentiate itself from that latter title, with more nuanced gameplay than "hold a button to win." As players leap from rooftop to rooftop, plummet 20-30 feet, balance atop railing and other things in that vein, they have to pay the utmost attention at all times. One poorly timed jump or slip from a ledge, and you'll be sent to your death, either at the hands of gravity or the hoards of zombies that roam the streets. For the first time since "Mirror's Edge," which is an obvious inspiration on this title, parkour feels like something entirely in the player's control. As you learn the ins and outs of the mechanics, you'll notice yourself being able to pull off trickier maneuvers as time goes by. Combine that with being able to upgrade Crane through a skill tree, and you've got a pretty rewarding experience in terms of navigating the impressive world.

But the combat is a different story, sadly. It's... unremarkable, to say the very least, and some might even hazard to call it "sloppy" or "unpolished." On top of that, it's uninspired as all get-out, because it's simply the "Dead Island" combat copied and pasted into a new title, then given a fresh coat of paint. The melee often feels unwieldy, leaving players unable to figure out what, exactly, Crane is going to do with the weapon he has in his hands. Bash? Swing? Something else entirely? It's too unpredictable, and coupled with weapons that break too easily (sorry, wrenches don't bust after hitting a skull five to ten times,) and a stamina system that needs to be upgraded to not be horribly limited, it feels like a huge lash against an otherwise fun title. Imagine the "Dead Island" combat, but less consistent and more up to chance, and you've got a clear idea of how the mechanics feel. It's not the worst combat I've experienced in a game, but it's far from ideal in tense situations when quick, direct actions are needed.

At least the ranged combat fairs a bit better. In fact, I'd go so far as to say the gunplay and projectile combat are the most memorable parts of fighting off zombies and thugs here. This isn't a title where you get a gun and then get free reign to wail on opponents. It's a tactical, tense affair that feels incredibly gratifying, and honestly, I wish that guns were more of a focus in the title, considering your firepower is somewhat limited, and guns don't even get introduced until way later in the game. Techland crafted some fantastic shooting mechanics, then barely ever utilized them, and honestly, that's a total waste in my book. As far as other projectiles are concerned, though, they're plentiful and a delight to use. There's just something special about a game that lets you jump off a rooftop, chuck an exploding throwing star into an enemy's head, then bolt off as they burst into pieces behind you. So, again, as long as the combat is based away from Crane, it's visceral and satisfying. It's when it gets in the proximity of a few feet that it sort of falls to shambles... even if the slo-mo zombie decapitations are fun at times.

Two last things worth mentioning that elevate this game above other zombie titles are the nighttime gameplay and the PS4-exclusive features. Yes, believe it or not, I really just said that last part. Anyway. The former, which (obviously) takes place during the night cycles of the game, turn "Dying Light" from "Dead Island with parkour" into "Outlast in an open world.". All of the zombies become ridiculously powerful, and more advanced breeds hunt Crane down by climbing and chasing after him at breakneck speeds. This shifts the focus from platforming and zombie killing to just trying to run for dear life and hope for the best. It's intense, fun, and helped to shape some of the best survival horror moments I've had in a game since last year's excellent "Alien: Isolation."

As far as PS4 features go, it's all a bunch of gimmickry... but I'm a sucker for solid, well-implemented gimmickry when it comes to games, and "Dying Light" fits that bill quite nicely, more than any other game on the console. The controller clanks with each reload of a gun, lights up when the flashlight is switched on, and talks to the player when a character is coming in through walkie-talkie. It's all stuff that's been done in other titles, but it just feels more seamless and less forced here. The implementation draws you into the experience instead of yanking you out with needless touch-pad distraction or making you holding the controller a weird way, and to me, that's the mark of a good gimmick when it comes to video games. A supplement, not a distraction. Hats off to Techland for making the most of the system's little bells and whistles in a fun way.

Also, hats off to them for creating something this jaw-droppingly gorgeous on a home console. Now that the PS4 and One have been out for well over a year, we're finally started to see developers try to get the most of the systems, and there's no better example of that than this game. Rivaling the PS4's most gorgeous titles, like "Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition" and "Far Cry 4," the world of "Dying Light" is elegant in its mastery of a bleak, oppressive atmosphere, and beautiful in its attempts to show players an ancient, lived-in city on the brink of destruction at the hands of zombies and humans alike. Players can climb atop tall buildings and see the landscape for miles, then simply go wherever they want, with the only loading screens reserved for going inside major interiors. This sort of "see a place and go to it" aspect is something I value very, very highly in open-world games, and few have done it this well on current consoles. The world is interesting to look at and explore, and the textures used to render it are disarmingly pretty, to the point where I sometimes forget I'm even playing a game. Really, this is one of the prettiest games on the market right now, and a nice sign of things to come for this generation, I hope.

To recap, "Dying Light" is a beautiful game with an engaging story, held together by perhaps the most compelling parkour mechanics ever put together, and polished off with a sprawling world jam-packed with stuff to do. On top of that, the PS4 version has some awesome controller chicanery, and the night time sequences are thrilling and terse. If it weren't for the deeply flawed and frustrating combat, something that the limited and unsubstantial crafting mechanics don't help, this would be a near-perfect experience. Yet, unfortunately, they hold back and hamstring an otherwise stellar experience. What we're left with is a game that, for all intents and purposes, is an easy recommendation... provided players can put up with serious mechanical problems. So, yes, it's still a Techland game in that sense. Big shocker.

Yet I find myself not hating this game as much as their past titles, if at all. In fact, I'd say that "Dying Light" manages to hit all of the right notes outside of close range zombie-slaying, and could be a contender for the best game they've made yet. I'd also say that it brings something truly unique to the market, which is a relief, considering most AAA titles these days are a resounding disappointment and an excuse to buy DLC above all else. While, yes, some parts of the game are cobbled together from other, more popular titles, these elements work to provide a level of familiarity as opposed to feeling like straight rip-offs. It lets players not think about certain things and focus on mastering the new, innovative mechanics on display instead, which I feel isn't a bad trade-off.

So, yes, if I were more cynical, I'd say that "Dying Light" is a typical Techland title, what with the enormous caveat of "the melee combat blows" threatening to hamper the entire experience. Yet everything else is so sublime and presented so well that I can't write this game off as a failed experiment. I feel like the developers did exactly what they set out to do, then added the combat as an afterthought, plain and simple. The result is a game that is one step shy of true greatness, yet still somehow manages to pull off being a great game well worth almost anyone's time. As the first "big" title of 2015, it's a blast, and hopefully sets a precedent for how to pull off unique, interesting games in a rapidly stagnating marketplace. If Techland tweaks the combat, the sequel could very well end up being one of the best games I've ever played. Here's hoping.

In the meantime? Don't write "Dying Light" off as just another Techland joint, because you'd be missing out on one of the most intriguing open-world titles in quite some time.

Pros:
- The game world is detailed, beautiful, life-like.
- Parkour is sublime and nuanced.
- The night time gameplay is pitch-perfect.
- Narrative is shockingly compelling and engaging.
- The PS4 gimmicks are fun and help provide immersion.

Cons:
- The melee combat is a sloppy mess.
- Fun, tight gunplay is underutilized.
- Techland needs to stop aping their own "Dead Island."
- Opening is a bit slow, takes a while to get going.
- Frame rate is a tad inconsistent at times.

Score: 8.5 (Groovy)
Comment Comments (9) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 23, 2015 6:25 PM PDT


Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth - Nintendo 3DS Standard Edition
Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth - Nintendo 3DS Standard Edition
Price: $44.49
28 used & new from $28.66

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Worth Getting Lost In, January 18, 2015
Where would quirky Japanese games be in America be without the Persona series? The popularity of Atlus’ flagship spin-off to the larger Megami Tensei series opened up the floodgate for dozens upon dozens of weird, niche titles that now commonly populate store shelves. Yet very few achieve the level of success, let alone the quality, found in the seminal franchise.

Something about the seamless blend of randomized dungeon crawling and dating sim mechanics just works, and has worked ever since the series as we know it was born with Persona 3. But can the characters and stylistic choices from both that game and its wildly popular sequel succeed outside their element? In short? Yes.

Developed by the same internal team who brought you the notoriously difficult Etrian Odyssey series, Persona Q is a first-person dungeon crawler that operates largely in the same way as that franchise. Players go through preset dungeons, drawing the map as they go along, and run into frequent random battles. Each floor of a dungeon has large enemies (called FOEs here) that run amok and shouldn’t be engaged until one has long since mastered that dungeon.

But despite the core similarities to the Etrian games, I can’t help but feel that Persona Q is a far more polished, organized and overall more fun experience. I think part of that lies in the sense of progression and organization. Instead of a large open world populated with several, several dungeons, there’s a small hub world and five dungeons.

While that may seem a bit scant, each dungeon will take you an upwards of 10 hours at the very least, and that’s just on first clearing. Expect plenty of returns to levels both to grind and to take care of FOEs. And then there’s the hub world, which is home to several hours just of spoken dialogue and anime cutscenes. So, in spite of seeming like smaller title, Persona Q is still a large time sink with plenty of content.

And I think that’s important, actually. It demonstrates that you can have a lengthy title while still having some steady sense of progression and an organized layout. I’ve always felt like the Etrian games lacked a coherent structure, even though they’re definitely good RPGs overall. The overwhelming sense of disorder and lack of instruction is more frustrating than fun for me. But Persona Q introduces a bit of a compromise. Unexplored dungeons with unrelenting difficulty married to a tidy, minimalist hub that progresses the story. I like it.

Speaking of the story, it’s a bit of compromise in and of itself… much like the Persona series as a whole. I mean, this is a franchise where solving serial murders and stopping mass depression diseases is interspersed with sub-plots about puppy-dog romance and peppy school trips. Here, there’s definitely a focus on the lighter side of things.

Taking part at a point in both Persona 3 and Persona 4 when all party members are available, it weaves a yarn where the casts of those games are thrown into a perpetual high school cultural festival into a dimension that definitively falls outside of the ordinary space-time continuum. And while this is still a Persona game, meaning some deliciously ridiculous plot twists, the story is a largely farcical one.

The reason for that? This is, first and foremost, a game for franchise fans. It’s an excuse to see characters you know and love fight side-by-side, break the fourth wall, and crack jokes. While, yes, this is still a canonical entry in the universe, and there is some interesting and serious stuff that happens, it’s definitely more interested in self-referential hijinks than main entries. When you think of a game revolving around fan service, this could practically be the poster child.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. For any non-fans who might pick this up, scarce as they may be, everything else here is definitely top-notch, and there’s at least some moderate universe explanation. The localization is punchy and fun, as per usual, and the character dynamics are just as good as they’ve always been. And despite the story being played fast and loose, it’s still a fun yarn to follow.

As mentioned above, the gameplay is basically the same as it has been throughout the whole Etrian franchise… to an extent. Yes, you map out dungeons, and yes, the battles are in first-person, but everything else is pure Persona. That rings true for everything from enemy weaknesses to the flow of combat to the usages of Personas. I mean, the same battle strategies I used throughout the entirety of Persona 3 Portable work here. And the same enemies have the same vulnerabilities. People who have sunk dozens of hours of their lives into these games will feel right at home here.

There are some differences, of course. Characters can be equipped with secondary Personas, which give them supplementary abilities and HP/SP buffs. This comes with a bit of a trade-off. On the one hand, it means that characters can be equipped with different Personas and be more adept to varying situations. On the other? It’s entirely possible to create a completely overpowered character who spends barely any MP and takes very little damage, and within the first 20 hours of play, no less.

While I take no issue with this, some may feel a bit let down at how the secondary Persona mechanic significantly dampers the “risk and reward” formula. To be fair, though, those people may be better off playing some of the higher difficulty levels, as there are four to choose from. The easiest, “Safety,” lets players start over any battle they lose without getting a game over. But “Risky,” the hardest? Prepare for a game over when the main character falls in battle, on top of ridiculously amped-up difficulty in combat.

So, despite the added mechanics which ease progression, there’s still challenge to be had here. Even “Easy” mode is nothing to sneeze at for the first several hours of play time. Overall, I would say that the gameplay in Persona Q is a nice blend of accessible and challenging. It successfully manages to give people who expect difficulty some of what they want, while not seeming like an insurmountable task to newcomers.

And the presentation? The presentation is among the best on the system, and the reason I say that boils right down to one thing: the art direction. The art direction is varied and beautiful, with each dungeon possessing different motifs and directions. You’ll travel through an ominous version of Wonderland. You’ll get lost inside a maze of Japanese horror movie tropes. And, when out of combat, you’ll get to interact with adorably cherubic versions of the Persona 3&4 casts.

Everything about the stylistic choices here just works. It blends the threatening with the cuddly with such effortlessness that it continues to impress me. If you’re looking for something that is stylistically unlike anything out there, this is a sure contender.

It would be impossible to review a Persona game without giving props to Shoji Meguro, the maestro behind the music. Aside from more original tracks in his eclectic blend of every style known to humans, Persona Q also contains plenty of tracks from both of the featured games, both in their original and remixed forms. As expected, it all sounds great, and really rounds out the package to make this feel like an authentic entry in the series.

And that’s what I think surprises me most about Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth. People can argue day in and day out about what makes a Persona game what it is, but I think it’s pretty simple. You can change the gameplay around, mess with the progression, and even put a heavier focus on comedy. But at the end of the day, it’s the characterization, the style, and the atmosphere that make these games so endearing and wonderful.

“Wonderful” is an apt word to describe Persona Q, actually. It’s been one of the rare games this year that both challenged me and motivated me to rise up to the task. No matter how much the difficulty gets ramped up, it stays impossible to put down for more than a little bit at a time.

And while perhaps this is lacking some of the more substantial bits in other entries that would push it to a higher score for me, I still say that Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth is a damn fine game that most RPG enthusiasts will love, and that all Persona fans must have.

Pros:

– An accessible yet challenging adventure spanning 50+ hours.
– A great art and sound direction make it feel authentic.
– Progression feels steady and gradual, very organized.
– Localization is top-notch and snappy.

Cons:

– Secondary Personas can make characters overpowered.
– Story lacks complex social issues tackled in main entries.

Score: 9.25


Dance in the Vampire Bund II: Scarlet Order, Vol. 1
Dance in the Vampire Bund II: Scarlet Order, Vol. 1
by Nozomu Tamaki
Edition: Paperback
Price: $11.07
42 used & new from $6.41

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars May I Have This Dance?, January 18, 2015
Dance in the Vampire Bund has truly come into its own as a series over the course of its lengthy run. What started as a pulpy vampire series with copious amounts of fan service and overblown violence has turned into, basically, a political conspiracy thriller with vampires… while still maintaining a certain quota of fan service and violence. Because why not?

The point being, creator Nozomu Tamaki has crafted a rich world populated by diverse characters acting as players in a huge, overarching narrative. Now, after a hiatus to work on some side-series, the main brunt of the DitVB narrative is back in full swing again. And if this first volume is any indicator, readers are truly in for something special.

It always shocked me, truly, that Seven Seas got on board with publishing something like Dance in the Vampire Bund in the first place. After all, this was the company that balked at releasing Kodomo no Jikan (retitled as Nymphette) in America due to the entire premise being, well, patently pedophiliac. Yet DitVB always had more shocking content to me, and despite protagonist Mina Tepes technically being hundreds of years old, she still looks like a child with baby fat routinely put in unsavory sexual situations. I suppose that’s less offensive than a third-grader trying to sleep with her adult teacher, but still, visually, there’s some weird stuff that could potentially make certain individuals do a double take.

Which is why, in Scarlet Order, I was actually a bit surprised at just how restrained Tamaki has become over the years. The first chapters of the original series featured the main protagonist, Akira, dressing and undressing Mina, as well as rubbing oil on her naked body. Here, we barely get any glimpses of nudity from her, and the only full-frontal we get is from a woman encased in crystal. This is no longer the untamed, fan-service-laden series it was when it first hit the pages of Comic Flapper almost a decade ago. Despite the fact that, yes, every woman looks like they’re about to burst out of their clothes, that’s not what the reader’s attention is drawn to.

Instead, almost every page is packed the brim with word balloons and text filled with complicated political jargon, which is a direction the franchise has been taking since about 3/4 of the way through the initial series. Of course, there are still action sequences, and yes, there are still plenty of heavily sexualized ladies (and the occasional dude) to go around, but readers will be spending more time trying to process all of the complex lingo and layered conspiracies being conveyed in the text, as opposed to ogling the characters.

The thing is? I don’t mind that one bit, personally. What initially drew me in to Tamaki’s twisted web of vampiric politics were the intricate world and dynamic characters, and to me, the fan service and blood n’ guts always distracted from that. Now, there are barely any distractions, and instead of feeling like I’m reading a violent T&A manga that has some occasional plot, it feels like much more of a plot-driven work with the occasional violence and T&A. It’s a huge shift, and one that I, as a longtime fan, appreciate.

But is the core narrative any good? To me, it’s gearing up to be the best story arc we’ve seen from the series yet. While the “evil twin” concept in the second half of the original series was fun, it eventually spun out of control and was wrapped up in a hasty, haphazard manner. Now, Tamaki’s reeled it back in, and is seemingly giving us a story that operates on multiple levels. There’s a radical religious terrorist cell dedicated to the eradication of all vampires. There’s a freshly-awakened bloodsucker who’s running amok in Tokyo. There’s the growing political tensions stemming from the fact that Japan’s economy is now intrinsically tied to and run by vampires. Throw some romantic drama into the mix, and you’ve got a rough idea of what you’re dealing with here.

This type of story, where several concurrent narratives are happening, is what’s kept me reading this series for almost five years now, and I dare say is something that Tamaki is a bit of a master at. It’s all deliciously complicated and can’t be read passively. Scarlet Order‘s first volume not only requires your utmost attention, but demands it if you want to derive any sort of enjoyment from your reading experience. So while, yes, it’s a complicated, wordy yarn, it’s worth paying attention to.

That isn’t to say that everything is entirely perfect here, because despite being an enjoyable read, some things are rearing their head that could become an issue if they continue unchecked. First off, despite the excellent female characterization, Tamaki still relies a bit too much on the whole “world that’s incredibly awful to women” trope. This time around, we see two women dragged into a van and almost raped by a gang of thugs. In the middle of getting their clothes ripped off, though, they’re saved by the aforementioned new vampire villain, who murders the men and (seemingly) leaves the women alive. Sexual assault is a thing that happens, yes, but it’s also a really lazy way to up the ante of a scene in any media, and there are countless ways in which Tamaki could have shown his new villain wrecking some criminals without stooping to that level. He’s better than that, in my opinion.

Secondly, the character of Akira’s longtime friend, Yuki, is starting to feel a bit forced. Initially, her purpose was to crush on her friend and be jealous of Mina. Then, she became Mina’s best friend, and provided emotional support for her. And then, she became a paralyzed mute that used her brainy disposition to help solve the mystery of the “fake Mina.” And now, she’s… just kind of there, stuck somewhere between a background character and a trusty companion, her role in this volume incredibly underwhelming. With such a great development of her character near the end of the first series, it’s really a shame to see her already falling into the ranks of the maids and Mina’s advisors. I’m hoping Tamaki does something cool with her, because she’s just too good of a character to waste like that.

As for everything else, it’s top-notch as usual. Tamaki’s art is fantastic, and even if you’re not a fan of his “gargantuan bosoms and rippling six-packs” style, there’s no denying that he has a certain visual flair. Characters have a ridiculous range of facial expressions, and every panel is packed with so much fluid motion that it almost feels cinematic at times. Not only that, but he’s proven once again that he’s one of the few modern manga-ka that can draw people of color in both a non-insulting fashion and in a way that you know they’re not just really tan Japanese people. I feel like that’s worth mentioned because, again, it’s a rarity in modern manga, and it’s nice to see him carry on his tradition of diverse representation, comparatively speaking.

The first volume of Scarlet Order: Dance in the Vampire Bund II sets into motion a lot of plot threads, and all of them seem particularly enticing, and perhaps even better than the first series, despite Yuki seeming to no longer be an important character. That said, Tamaki still relies a bit too much on female victimhood to artificially amp up tensions, which is a pitfall he’s always been sort of trapped by, and one that I hope goes away with time. Still, this is a good read, and if you’re as much of a fan of the franchise as I am, you’ll be pleased with the direction it’s taking.

Pros:
– Beautiful art as per usual.
– The new story arc looks to be a good one.
– Segues from the original in a way that doesn’t feel awkward.
– A diverse cast of interesting characters.

Cons:
– Some major characters are getting a downgrade.
– More of Tamaki’s typical “women in peril” filler.

Grade: B+ (Groovy)


Page: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11-17