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Until Dawn
Until Dawn
Price: $59.96
37 used & new from $42.99

2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Cabin In The Mountains, August 26, 2015
This review is from: Until Dawn (Video Game)
The state of modern slasher movies is pretty saddening. In the 80's, 90's, and even early 2000's, these dominated the horror film market, giving viewers increasingly absurd and implausible situations to watch teenagers get hacked to bits over. That's an oversimplification, of course. There were dozens of genuinely good movies that took the formula and twisted it around in fun ways. "April Fool's Day," for example, or "Sleepaway Camp," "Scream," and maybe even every "Friday The 13th" after the sixth one. The point I'm making is, this is a genre in need of some love. All we get now are the same ghost stories, the same "found footage" flicks, ad nauseum. The only thing in recent years that's truly impressed me was the gleefully chaotic "Unfriended," and that wasn't even a "proper" slasher flick. So, with Supermassive Game's much-hyped "Until Dawn" presenting itself as a sort of interactive slasher movie, I got pretty giddy with excitement. But is it another "Night Trap," the deservedly ill-fated Sega CD "game"? Or is this finally the resurgence I've been waiting for?

The answer is "sort of kind of," but don't let that sound like a knock against the quality of this riveting little thrill ride of a game. Because, up through the very last moment, "Until Dawn" delivers not only more scares, more twists, and more ridiculous gore than most modern horror films, but manages to hearken back to the PS2 glory days of survival horror while it's at it. It's the best of modern and classic horror films, while still managing to be a surprisingly proficient game in its own right. Oh, and did I mention that it's horrifying? Because it really is.

Truthfully, the set-up is perhaps the most benign and predictable out there, at least as far as these sorts of affairs go. Some teenagers go to a remote ski lodge one year after two of their friends bit the dust, trying to rekindle the flames of their friendship. Of course, most of them are also trying to get laid, because this is a horror joint and of course they are. Sadly, not one, but two masked maniacs are there to try and put a damper on their fun, to the tune of flamethrowers, "Saw"-style death chambers, and trained wolves. Also, ghosts, Also, ambiguously cannibalistic monsters. Also, ancient Native American spirits. Yep.

The thing about "Until Dawn" is that none of it makes any sense until about 3/4 of the way through the game, and believe it or not, that actually works to its advantage. Instead of being content to scare players with one consistent threat, there are numerous forces to contend with, and none of them feel like they have any connection with each other. What does a ghost have to do with a perverted man in a clown mask, or a flamethrowing maniac with malevolent mountain creatures? More than you might think, actually, and that's where the true strength of "Until Dawn"'s narrative comes to the forefront.

In 2012, "Cabin in the Woods" took every horror movie trope imaginable and mashed them together, then gave the most cop-out and ludicrous reason why they were all there. Of course, that's a great movie, but it went really far with the absurd comedy. "Until Dawn" does the polar opposite. It takes every horror trope imaginable, then gives a completely plausible and compelling reason why, exactly, all of them decided to converge on this particular night and assail this particular set of teens. The late-game twists aren't actually funny... at least, not intentionally. Everything feels very sincere and authentic in its attempts to weave a yarn, and that's something I admire. It's not cheap. It's not a satire. It's horror, through and through, until the very end.

That counts double for the gameplay as well, which is a glorious and satisfying return to older survival horror games. Cantered camera angles, slow controls, selective lighting... it's all here, recreated in loving detail by a developer who obviously cares about the genre. Even the best new horror titles either take a first-person view ("Alien: Isolation," "P.T.," ) or an over-the-shoulder view ("Dead Space," "The Evil Within,") when it comes to guiding the player. Not "Until Dawn." The camera is perpetually at a fixed angle, bringing to mind the vintage "Silent Hill" or "Resident Evil" titles. However, because this is 2015, the controls are more responsive, more smooth, when it comes to directing characters to their potential demise. It takes an aspect about older horror games that I positively adore, them modernizes it in a way that I had previously thought to be impossible.

But where the gameplay diverges a bit is in the combat. Namely, there isn't really any, outside of some context-sensitive events, which play out very much like a game helmed by David Cage. However, this is Cage gameplay in the hands of a developer who actually knows what they're doing, so the result is a game that doesn't feel like an interactive movie. In PS2-era survival horror games, confronting the threats at hand would lead into bouts of janky combat that sometimes worked, sometimes didn't. I have a soft spot for that gameplay, but it just doesn't hold up in this day and age. "Until Dawn" takes the survival horror mold, rips out the combat, and replaces it with quick-time event segments. Now, I really hate modern gaming's reliance on QTEs, as I usually feel like it's just an excuse for lazy game design, but in the case of this game, it actually works. They're not abused, and when they're used, it feels urgent and tense. And, most importantly, you usually see immediate consequences for failing them. Characters will lose items, get hurt, and sometimes straight-up die if you miss prompts. In most games, players will just see a slight riff on the same basic flow of events. In "Until Dawn," the central gimmick of "you control who lives and dies" ends up feeling like a fulfilled (and tense) promise as opposed to marketing hype-speak.

That could be said of this whole package. Everything about the way "Until Dawn" has been marketed made me think I'd despise it. "It's an interactive slasher movie," they said. "It has cutting edge visuals and well-known actors," they said. "It'll make you scream out loud," they said. I scoffed at all of this, but I was proven wrong. This game is a subversive and truly disturbing take on slasher films, and takes some totally out-of-left-field twists near the end that made me cackle at their absurdity. It has some truly gorgeous visuals, perhaps the best on the PS4, aided by a haunting and masterful art direction and some stellar performances from Panettiere, Rami Malek, and, most importantly, the inimitable Peter Stormare. And, all tied together with tense gameplay that blends old-school progression and new-school action, the result is a tense, terrifying experience that made me actually cover my eyes and scream out loud more times than I'd like to admit.

"Until Dawn" was something that I went in expecting to hate every hour it dragged on, but instead, I found myself hanging on every second, even through the ending credits. The scares feel very real and palpable. The threat of permanent death is around every corner. The plot keeps you guessing even after the game wraps up. Simply put, Supermassive has taken my favorite type of interactive horror experience and modernized it, crafting something that genuinely scares and feels like it has a lot of love put into it. Aided by a great deal of replay value, the whole package feels like the rare AAA, "cinematic" game that never loses sight of being a game, and the result of that is the scariest game that will probably come out this year, maybe even within a few years.

Slasher movies may be past their heyday, but if "Until Dawn" is any indication, enough people still care to keep doing novel, clever, and, most importantly, scary takes on them. Only, this time, we got a stellar horror game instead of another movie. And truth be told? I'll take it.


- A twisty and absurd story that shocks through the ending.
- Loads of replay value that's organized in a steamlined way.
- Tense gameplay that feels interactive and not passive.
- A great throwback to older titles with some fresh twists.
- Beautiful visuals that render an excellent art direction.


- The early hours are deceptively simple.
- Absurd late-game twists might not impress everyone.

Score: 9.25 (out of 10)

J-Stars Victory Vs+ - PlayStation 4
J-Stars Victory Vs+ - PlayStation 4
Price: $58.49
45 used & new from $49.90

12 of 16 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Super Jump Bros., July 2, 2015
Nintendo's Super Smash Bros. series is held as the standard for gaming crossovers, but it's never quite gone far enough with their fan service for my tastes. The focus is primarily on making an accessible game, one that has a more or less familiar roster, all of whom have movesets that are pretty self-explanatory and not necessarily steeped in their respective series. Giving oblique, obscure shoutouts to each series the character hails from takes a back seat to making the game fun for everyone. Which is fine, of course. That's a smart call, and part of the reason the games sell so well.

But J-Stars Victory Vs+ takes the polar opposite approach. In fact, most of the enjoyment of Bandai-Namco's game hinges upon whether or not a player has an intimate knowledge of the characters. If not, well, this isn't the game for them. But as for the rest of us?

For people who live and breathe anime and manga, and have spent years of their lives dedicated to the stuff, J-Stars Victory Vs+ might be just what the doctor ordered. I say "might" because those "years" I mentioned were hopefully dedicated to at least a marginal number of Jump series (known as Shonen Jump over here.) I'm not just talking the ones big in North America right now, either, like Naruto, One Piece, Bleach and Dragon Ball. Do Dr. Slump, Bobobo-bo Bo-bobo, Saint Seiya or Toriko mean anything to you? I sure hope so. While a Japanese player would probably look at this roster and go, "oh, man, Luckyman and Momotaro are in this," a Western person only marginally familiar with anime would probably be lost at about 50-75% of this roster.

Which makes this whole package a bit of a double-edged sword, then. On the one hand, a kid who goes, "oh, wow, Luffy and Naruto!" will buy this and be immediately disappointed at how little the One Piece and Naruto leads actually matter here. On the other, somebody like me, who laughs at the very idea of Arale and Seiya duking it out in the Soul Society, will have a total blast with all of the series representation. Most of the roster hails from stuff I've known about for a while, but they're mostly older series that remain relatively obscure in the West. For me, this is a dream come true. I never though I'd get to play a video game on the Playstation 4, in North America, in 2015, with Bobobo in it. It was something like that seemed like a fever dream more than a feasible reality. But for a less niche audience, it will mean more headscratching and Wikipedia searches than excitement.

There's nothing wrong with a niche game, though. And rest assured, this is very much one of those, at least to people on this side of the pond. J-Stars isn't content to just cram a bunch of characters into a game, then call it a day. Each and every character is lovingly rendered in their original art style, then given movesets and animations that are absurdly respectful to the source material. To a lot of people, Kenshiro doing a series of punches, then having a text bubble detailing the name of that move appear in front of him won't mean anything. To me, it means that the developers sat around and thought, "how can we be as faithful to Fist of the North Star as possible?"

There are little visual and audio gags, cameo appearances, and so, so much more from every character in the roster here, all of which are squarely pitched at dedicated Jump diehards. It's as if the staff were a bunch of nerds who left their basement for the first time in three decades, then happened to bump into each other on the street and decide to make a game. Everything here is very much a labor of love, in the best way possible.

What does that mean for the gameplay, then? It means that literally nobody plays the same way. And in a game with 39 playable characters, that's saying something. Some characters rely on strict button mashing and nothing more. Others rely on setting up long combos. Some are distance fighters, some are melee, some are varying mixtures of both. Some are strong, some are weak, some are fast, some are slow. There's an impressive variety on display here. It's clear that there was a square focus on giving every character something that defined them, as opposed to just reskinning some characters and tweaking them a little. That's something that even Smash Bros. hasn't managed yet.

But on a technical level, this clearly and predictably doesn't have the same level of polish as Nintendo's series. Nowhere is this more clear than some absurd balance issues. Very clearly, there are some characters that are just blatantly better than others, and if you learn how to exploit their movesets, it's possible to make matches miserable for the opposition. Joseph Joestar is a particularly painful example of this. At long range, he can take out half a health bar with an Ultimate Attack and keep opponents trapped in a machine gun volley. Up close, he can keep hitting people with a spammable combo, which can then be used to knock somebody away, then trap them in another long-distance volley. Long invincibility windows help curb some characters' spamming capabilities, but make no mistake: this game is pretty imbalanced, and while it's really only a few characters out of 39, that's still too many, at least in my opinion.

At least when somebody is griefing you with a cheap character, you won't just be confined to a 2D plane. J-Stars matches take place in large, free-roaming arenas filled with stuff just waiting to be destroyed. And, yes, unlike most games that boast "destructible environments," which really just means, "sometimes you take cover and then it crumbles," pretty much everything in a given stage can be totally wrecked. Want to punch somebody through a building, kick down a tree, or topple a huge pillar with a special move? Go for it, buddy, nothing's stopping you. Yeah, the physics are a little cheesy and silly, but nothing beats the satisfaction of sending somebody flying several feet down a city block, taking down several buildings in the process. It really adds to the feeling that J-Stars is every ridiculous anime/manga battle ever, just interactive.

It helps, too, that the gameplay is relatively uncomplicated. Yes, every character plays differently, so some naturally require a little more effort, but the basic concept is pretty easy to pick up and run with. Pick a character, run around, hit people, knock said people out 2-3 times. There's not a lot of complication here, and honestly, I feel like that's a good thing. I love a lot of the properties here, but I don't want to master yet another nuanced, EVO-ready tournament fighter. It's nice to just be able to pick a character, learn some moves, then just run around and have a good time.

Some critics have torn this apart for not being a "serious" fighter, but to be honest with you? I couldn't care less. Competetive players aren't going to pick this up over the new Street Fighter or BlazBlue. People who just want to wreck stuff as anime characters probably don't want to master super specific, elaborate controls. Things don't have to be tailored to the competitive set to be good. There's something to be said for games that pit players against each other in the easiest ways possible. And that's what J-Stars is all about: punching people in the face in the quickest ways possible. Nothing wrong with that as far as I'm concerned.

There are plenty of opportunities to do that in J-Stars, too. For single players alone, there are three separate modes, all of which also have couch co-op capability. There's a whole customization element in collecting character cards. There's online and offline competetive play. This was made by people who not only love Jump, but seem to love gaming in general, and in turn, gave players plenty of chances to do just that here, with no strings attached.

It would have been the easy road to pull a JoJo's Bizarre Adventure All-Star Battle and piecemeal fan favorite characters off as DLC. But Bandai Namco took the moral high ground and just crammed this game full of content, which will inevitably take hours upon hours for players to get through and unlock everything. It's the type of business practice that I'd like to see more of.

It's all content that looks good, too. People have also ripped into J-Stars for having "bad" graphics, and while I respect opinions of all varieties, I genuinely can't see what the problem is. This game doesn't have bad or lazy or sub-par or "last-gen" (god, I hate that term) graphics in the slightest. Does it have the visual fidelity of Arkham Knight or The Witcher 3? No, of course not. But in terms of accurately representing the visual style of every franchise here? In terms of being vibrant and varied across the board? In terms of having the distinct aesthetic trappings that make this feel like an anime come to life? It gets the job done, and that's the only job it needs to get done, frankly. J-Stars might not have 50 GB worth of textures or a particularly modern physics engine, but it has one thing a lot of games nowadays lack: style. The whole thing practically oozes it, and it cements the whole "you're playing an anime" feeling.

It's impossible to not have an inherent bias towards J-Stars. After all, I'm perhaps the exact demographic this sort of thing is aimed at. The same demographic that would complain about Kuwabara, Yoh Asakura, or Yugi Motoh being absent. The same type of person that legitimately got excited when he saw Penguin Village and Athena's Temple were stages. Basically, somebody who knows too much about too many anime. But I do think there's more here than that. There's a basic, visceral satisfaction that comes with kicking somebody into a giant tomato and watching it explode into a heap of neat slices, or in speeding into somebody with a moped, making them sail hundreds of feet. What I'm trying to say is that J-Stars gets one of the most crucial aspects of gaming right: fun.

While J-Stars Victory Vs+ could have, perhaps, included a few more stages (there are only twelve,) polished up the balance issues, and reconsidered some character choices (I doubt more people care about Chinyuki and Luckyman than Yu-Gi-Oh! and Shaman King,) there's no denying that it's a wild ride through the history of one of the most important movers and shakers of the Japanese comic industry. For the target audience, there's a lot to love here, and since that's probably the only audience Namco Bandai was banking on, I'd count it as a pretty decent success.

But, seriously. Where's my Shaman King love?

- A large roster with some deep cuts from the Jump library.
- Loads of content that'll keep fans busy.
- A lot of love for the material.
- Core gameplay is satisfying and fun.
- Each character looks ripped right from the page and/or screen.

- Balance issues make some characters unfun.
- More stages would have made it nice.
- Makes no attempt at involving newcomers to Jump.
- More music from each series needs to be here.
- Major franchise oversights like Yu-Gi-Oh! and Shaman King.

Score: 8
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 16, 2015 3:07 PM PDT

Batman: Arkham Knight - PlayStation 4
Batman: Arkham Knight - PlayStation 4
Price: $43.25
159 used & new from $34.99

55 of 68 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Batmobile Simulator 2k15, June 25, 2015
(For the purposes of this review, I will not be reviewing any of the retailer-exclusive or preorder DLC. While it's all very enjoyable, it could have easily been a part of the complete package, and I won't justify it with any more space than this blurb, on principle.)

The Arkham series isn't that fresh anymore. When Arkham Asylum came out, it was a burst of creativity and a testament to how licensed games could actually work if done right. And when Arkham City was released, it took the established framework and used it to make one of the definitive open-world titles of the last generation of consoles. But now? Times have changed. Origins was very solid, but not exceptional, and Blackgate barely worth mentioning. The basic gameplay of the franchise has been aped so many times that it now feels tired. And grim, dark, brooding superheroes are becoming a bit passe. The times have changed since 2009.

For better or worse, Rocksteady has changed with them.

To my surprise, Arkham Knight manages to pull off the unthinkable and avoid the pits of sequelitis. At no point during my several, several hours of playtime have I stopped to think that this was more of the same. In fact, I'm duly impressed with how different everything is. While the basic ideas of combat and gadgetry usage are mostly intact, roughly everything else has been changed. To an extent, it almost feels like Rocksteady saw how much of a retread Origins was, then decided to push Knight into almost absurdly different territory for the sake of being original. "A" for effort, I suppose.

Thing is, that effort actually pays off more often than not. It starts at the most basic level: the narrative. While the story itself feels somewhat conventional, the way in which it's told is easily the most interesting I've seen in a game this year. What should be a formulaic, "Batman has to stop a big bad bomb and take out a big bad guy" experience turns into something that delves into psychological horror. This is a Batman that's clearly traumatized from all the horrible stuff he's been through, and it's starting to get to him. Add in some of antagonist Scarecrow's nerve gas and you've got a volatile, damaged antihero whose quest for justice is constantly thwarted by his own mind. That is to say, the way he sees the world isn't quite how it actually is.

And this is what makes Arkham Knight so particularly effective in the story department. Time and space start bending in the most bizarre ways possible. Players will pan the camera around Batman, then back around only to find that the room has changed, or that a new character is standing there. People that die may or not actually be dead, and major narrative events might not actually be happening. After the introductory bits, Rocksteady's swan song for the Dark Knight turns into an often unnerving descent into the darkest corners of its protagonist's mind. Players are simply yanked along for the ride, at the mercy of what's one of the darkest Batman stories ever told.

Of course, no story is perfect, and Arkham Knight's certainly has some glaring flaws. Some twists end up getting blatantly telegraphed and dampen the surprise. The cast is a bit bloated and ends up feeling packed full of characters that don't necessarily need to be there. And, most importantly to me, every female member of the cast is put in some sort of captivity at some point. Some might take issue with me pointing this out, but it needs to be stated. The source material has some really interesting female characters, and the way all of them get represented here is sorely lacking. I won't go into much more details at risk of spoiling anything, but it really ground my gears to see some of my favorite characters only get utilized as lazy motivation for Batman to do a thing.

That isn't to say that the overall story in Arkham Knight isn't good, because good lord, it's excellent. Despite those particular flaws that stuck like a sore thumb, I quite enjoy the main narrative brunt of the game, and think it's one of the better ones put on the market this year. Add on the fact that every side mission has its own sort of important narrative, and you've got a lot of content to sink your teeth into. Overall, from a narrative enjoyment standpoint, this is definitely a solid win.

Rocksteady innovated the brawler with Asylum, but with so many other games aping the simple, fast-paced combat of that title these days, does it hold up here? Surprisingly, yes. The developer has gotten the formula down to a near-art. It's still basically a series of intuitive, timed button presses, but the accompanying visuals, different sets of abilities and new varieties of enemies make things much more interesting. Also helping is the introduction of other characters into the mix. Playing through a good portion of the various missions, I've taken control of 5-6 unique characters, all of whom play a little differently. This keeps the combat interesting, snappy, and full of different elements that managed to take me by surprise.

Stealth segments are also a vast improvement over what they have been before. In previous entries, stealth has been required at times, but often felt like it progressed in a very closed, linear sort of way. In Arkham Knight, it's become an impressively dynamic system. Enemies are constantly chattering, always adapting to whatever strategy you're adopting. They'll bomb vents, rip floor panels up, and use sonar. They can tell if you hit somebody from above or at ground level, even if they didn't see you do it. Players have to use every ability at their disposal in order to stay hidden in the large stealth playgrounds the game provides. To be honest, this never feels like you're playing a stealth game; it feels like you're trying to hide from real, thinking human beings who start learning your every move. Of course, there are some fun and funny little things players can exploit to easily win, but the illusion of actual intelligence is fairly palpable here.

Any semblance of realism goes out the window with the introduction of the Batmobile, however. Critics are divided on this addition and I'm going to be up front: this is my favorite part of Arkham Knight outside of the story, hands down. To be blunt, the Batmobile is one of the most improbable, stupid vehicles ever put in a video game, and doesn't behave according to any rational laws of physics... in the best way possible. Steel beams crumble like cardboard by just bumping the thing into them. It can drive upside down with minimal acceleration. It's often used for environmental puzzles, such as scaling a wall with a cable or counterbalancing a scale to make a ramp. If it isn't obvious already, I'm trying to say that the Batmobile is used in the most counter-intuitive, hammy ways possible, and I honestly can't get enough of it.

But wait, there's more! The Batmobile also transforms into an agile tank for some of the game's most fun sequences. The streets of Gotham are filled with unmanned drone tanks, and the only way to take them out is by blowing them to pieces with machine guns and shells. Player have to boost out of the way of incoming shots, fire off barrages of missiles, and just wreak general havoc among enemies. It's some of the most fun I've had in a vehicle in a game since Grand Theft Auto V hit shelves.

I appreciate what the Batmobile adds to the experience because it reminds players that they're playing a video game. Too many games these days try to be realistic and gritty and bleak. Here, things go from zero to stupid in one second as soon as you step into the Batmobile. Things careen through the air while the vehicle flips and bounces without abandon and any semblance of immersion goes out the window. And I mean that in a good way. If I want to drive a car, I'll go drive a car. If I want to jump a car/tank hybrid between skyscrapers while it flips for no reason and is also firing missiles, I'll play a video game. And it's not like it controls poorly. It's totally accurate to every twitch of your finger. The Batmobile is some of the most fun I've had in a virtual vehicle in way too long, and the sheer variety of stupid stuff you can do in it never ceases to bring a smile to my face.

Despite the funny break in realism with the Batmobile, however, the visuals never cease to arrest and pull you right into the action. In terms of graphical fidelity and performance, Arkham Knight might be the most impressive game of this generation so far. Character's faces are convincing without treading into Uncanny Valley territory, as are different fabrics and textures. It's striking. The environments are also impressive, in particular the billowing water that surrounds all of the islands of Gotham, and the practically lifelike clouds of poison toxin that get shown off later on in the game. What I don't like is that this is still a game that mostly takes place in the dark, and the color scheme is relatively limited. It's arresting overall, yes, but I guess I'm sick of that color scheme in modern games, and am spoiled by the several dozen hours I've put into both Splatoon and The Witcher 3 in the past few weeks, both of which are very colorful. Still, Arkham Knight is an impressive technical achievement overall, and even more so considering that the frame rate practically never dips while rendering everything.

Once last thing to note is the fantastic voice acting. And I do mean fantastic. As in, premature shoe-in for several, several voice acting awards. Kevin Conroy returns as Batman, and carries the character with a nuance and gravity that we haven't seen before. Troy Baker is does a stellar job as Arkham Knight, and this is speaking as somebody who's a bit sick of the guy, But, by and far, the two scenestealers are John Noble as Scarecrow and Mark Hamill as Joker. The former is a haunting, vindictive sociopath with an approach that's horrifically methodical, and Noble does an eerily good job nailing it down without coming across as hammy or forced. And Hamill... well, what else is there to say about him that hasn't been said? The man's a legend, and his turns as the Clown Prince of Crime here are among his best and most psychotic (mostly thanks to the M rating.) While I won't say what capacity he appears in outside of "flashbacks," rest assured that you're in for a real treat.

A "real treat" is probably the best description of Batman: Arkham Knight I can think of. There are some niggling complaints that prevent me from gushing praise of it being "the most next-gen game ever" (which doesn't even mean anything,) but overall, it's just straight-up fun. It's a blast zipping around rooftops as Batman. It's a joy getting totally blindsided and startled by visual trickery straight out of something like P.T. (RIP.) It's pure dumb fun doing literally anything with the Batmobile. Arkham Knight has some issues, sure, but for a AAA game to come out, be functional, and most of all, not feel like contrived, focus-tested garbage... well, that's pretty great.

Trashy DLC practices and narrative hiccups aside, Batman: Arkham Knight does a skillful job of ending one of gaming's most popular story arcs and avoiding any serious feelings of "sameness" brought on by being the fourth game in a franchise. Rocksteady is clearly one of the the best devs in the business, and I'm looking forward to whatever new IP they work on next.

- The Batmobile.
- Narrative is a perfect balance of darkness and camp.
- Startling visual trickery.
- A great blend of several types of gameplay.
- Dynamic and talented cast.
- A lot of fun optional stuff that doesn't run together.

- Story takes some pretty obvious turns.
- Treatment of women is questionable.
- Bloated cast.
- DLC piecemealing is despicable.

Score: 9
Comment Comments (22) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 2, 2015 10:02 AM PDT

Holy Knight
Holy Knight
DVD ~ Maaya Uchida
Price: $11.99
23 used & new from $8.00

1 of 4 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Unholy Terror, June 20, 2015
This review is from: Holy Knight (DVD)
Typically, my reviews are long and pretty in depth, at least, I like to think they are. This will be a little different. This is more of a tirade, and I apologize for that, but I had to get this out here. CrunchyRoll and Media Blasters did a bit of a promotional blitz to promote this insipid, wretched garbage heap of a show, so you might be suckered into watching it. And now, it's on DVD. Please, for the love of all that is good and "Holy" (I know, I'm a comedy genius,) don't. Just don't. I've been watching anime for well over a decade, and I can firmly say that "Holy Knight" is at the very, very bottom of the barrel of the wide gamut of stuff I've seen.

Oh yeah. It's that bad.

Let's start with the story... wait, hold up, that's right, there is no story. I mean, there's sort of one, I guess, if you're really reaching. There's this girl, and her parents are dead, and now she has to sleep with an average Japanese high school boy for an ancient ritual or something. There are also evil, sinister men in black suits trying to kill her. And there's a childhood friend thrown into the mix, and a sultry school nurse with a huge bosom. Wait, you know, scratch that. Everyone (except for the token underaged character) has a massive, heaving bosom in this sleazy garbage disposal refuse masquerading as an anime.

This is apparently a fantasy/action show, but there's no action. There's barely any fantasy. What is here, then? Fan service. Lots and lots of fan service. No straight sex or anything, despite this being based on a porn manga. Nope, just heaping helpings of objectification. And keep in mind, I'm not opposed to fan service. "Dance in the Vampire Bund" is one of my all-time favorite manga. I love the heck out of "Kill La Kill" and "Heaven's Lost Property." But those shows have something that "Holy Knight" lacks (well, okay, maybe a lot of things it lacks): substance. "Vampire Bund" has a fantastic, nuanced plot, "Kill La Kill" has likable characters and is packed with cool, stylish action, and "Heaven's Lost Property" is just a gut-buster. But this? This has zilch. Zip. Nada. Instead, we get to see panty and tit shot after panty and tit shot with not even the slightest trace of plot to make it feel less exploitative. As a consequence, the women all feel like their sole purpose is to be objectified, not to further whatever little plot there is in any significant way. Oh, yeah, and there's a little bit of "almost but not quite sexual assault" humor thrown in for good measure. Because that's always fun!

Aside from being the walking embodiments of stuff that makes anime, as a medium, look bad, the women aren't good characters. Ah, wait, no, no one is. Everybody's a cliche. Everybody's backstory, motivations, and character traits have been done before and done better. I liked "strong-willed childhood friend" better in "Love Hina." I liked "perverted shapeshifter" better in "Ranma 1/2." I liked "clueless school boy thrust in the middle of a conflict" better the last 1,000,000 times I've seen it. Here, though, I hate it all. Not because they're tropes, because tropes can be used effectively. No, because these are tropes with no justification or reason for why we should care about them.

You know why else we shouldn't care about them? Because of the horrendous dub. See, CR only has the dub uploaded, and that's what I watched, and lord almighty, is it one of the worst I've heard. I daresay infamous bad dub champions "The Humanoid" and "Harmageddon" have been given a run for their money with this trash. Everybody here knows nothing about lip syncs, annunciation, natural speech, forceful delivery, or literally anything else required to be an effective voice actor. They all sound like a bunch of early 20-something's who got paid twenty bucks for an afternoon's worth of work. What makes this sting even more is that Anime News Network has been heavily promoting the casting of this show (probably getting a little bit of money from Media Blasters, I dare say,) and I was actually looking forward to seeing if it was worth the hype of several, several separate news stories about the casting process for this trainwreck. Spoiler Alert: it wasn't, and I'd rather listen to every Creed album back-to-back than ever hear this apathetic and pathetic dub again in my entire life.

I would be remiss to not mention the animation. The amateurish, abhorrent, abominable animation... if it can even be called that. Characters go off model constantly. Hands look like mangled blobs. Anatomy fails spectacularly. Things barely move. Foreshortening makes people either look like little people or people with limb deformities. I thought "Sailor Moon Crystal" was as low as modern animation could sink. I was wrong, and the result is something that should be shown to every aspiring animator. Why? So they can know to never make something this visually atrocious and foist it upon the unsuspecting masses ever again.

"Holy Knight" is only good if you're going to watch it with friends and laugh at it, enjoying it ironically. Even then, I'd recommend being slammed, for extra laughs. As far as ironic comedy goes, this is actually quite good. As far as a good show? "Good," "bad," "awful," or even "wretched" don't come close to describing this miserable cesspool of a sad little show made by and for sad little people. It's a sex comedy without sex or comedy. It's a fantasy/action without fantasy or action. I mean, it's an anime without animation. "Holy Knight" is easily one of the worst anime I've ever watched, and a great way to scare anyone away from watching the stuff ever again.

The Cobbler
The Cobbler
Price: $3.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Magical Sandlerism, June 13, 2015
This review is from: The Cobbler (Amazon Instant Video)
Adam Sandler does magical realism. No, that's not a joke, that's the basic premise of The Cobbler.

The only funny thing here, though, is that it actually works. I noticed that this movie got savaged by critics, but audiences seemed to adore it. It was some of the starkest polarization I'd seen over a movie in a long time. I was worried that Sandler fans (you know, people who actually thought Jack and Jill was a good movie... yes, they exist,) just bombed the reviews. But then I actually watched it, and by all accounts, I found a movie that typical Sandler diehards would hate. Why? Because The Cobbler is, in reality, a very thoughtful, meditative movie about trying to find a happy medium between your current life and your dream one.

Seriously. I'm not kidding.

Sandler and "thoughtful" might not mentally go hand-in-hand at first, but think about some of the roles the actor has taken over the years. He was the awkward, affable lead in Punch Drunk Love, a tragic comedian in Funny People, and an emotionally damaged musician in Reign Over Me. The guy has a pretty good range, even if most of his movies as of late are pretty much garbage. Don't count Cobbler among them, though. Here, we see him tone down his "I'm a living cartoon character" routine and actually turn in a performance that's almost subdued.

"Almost," I say, because the basic premise of the movie requires Sandler to be a little reactive at times. See, he plays a cobbler, or in everyday terms, a shoe repair guy. Living in an older neighborhood on the verge of corporate buyout and taking care of his dying mother, his life is fairly miserable. That starts to change when he finds an old shoe repair machine that, by fixing somebody else's shoes and wearing them, allows him to transform into other people.

If this sounds like a premise for Sandler to get into wacky shenanigans, that's because we're conditioned to believe that's all he's capable of these days. And, I'll be honest, I thought that's where this was heading too. In reality, it takes a turn into some dark, treacherous territory that I didn't see coming. Murder happens. The effects of gentrification are touched upon. Dustin Hoffman shows up. All-in-all, it's just a really strange trip that takes bizarre turn after bizarre turn, until the ending, which is one of the most out-of-the-blue and, dare I say it, smartest endings I've seen in a minute.

Now if you were to ask me if The Cobbler is Oscar-bait or anything, I'd first ask why you think I care about the Oscars (considering how abysmal Birdman was and how nobody could shut up about it,) and I'd then say "no." It's too original, and honestly, it's a bit too out there. That's evidenced by the negative critic reviews, most of which center around it not being a good Sandler movie. Which is true. It's not. It's an awful Sandler movie. But, really, I don't think it was trying to be a Sandler movie to begin with. I think it was just trying to be a movie that happened to have Adam Sandler in the lead, which works for the part.

The Cobbler isn't necessarily perfect. It has some pacing issues. I didn't care for its questionable depictions of African-Americans and (in one instance) transgender people. But I will say this: it kept me thinking after the credits had rolled, and most movies don't do that anymore. And what's more, I plan on watching it one or two more times, because I think there's stuff I may have missed. And that would require buying it, probably on a discount.

So, yeah. I'm not sure The Cobbler is a great film, and your mileage may vary. But, for my purposes, it was a surprisingly sentimental and thoughtful journey, and one that I'd recommend most people at least try taking.

Price: $54.99
69 used & new from $45.98

58 of 63 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Nintendo's Not Squidding Around, May 31, 2015
This review is from: Splatoon (Video Game)
Last year, I saw a sarcastic tweet directed at the E3 Splatoon reveal from a pretty prominent geek journalist. "4-on-4 multiplayer? I bet those servers are going to be jumping!" Of course, if that guy had played Mario Kart 8 online, which was already out at that point, he would have known that things were already looking up on Nintendo's online front. But I digress.

After dozens of online rounds and several dozens of Miiverse interactions, not to mention the excitement of checking out daily gear and map refreshes, I can officially say that, yes, these servers are jumping. Not only that, but I can say that with Splatoon, Nintendo has confidently asserted their dominance over most of their peers when it comes to online gaming.

I say this as a seasoned veteran of all the major online shooters. Halo, Call of Duty, Battlefield, and a ton of other, less prominent games are all tucked safely under my belt. A good portion of my life has been spent in some form of online arena, pumping anonymous people full of virtual lead. But games that have provided the constant stream of dopamine like Splatoon does have been few and far in between. In fact, I might contend that none of them have managed to excite and surprise as much as this one. Which is funny, because for starters, it's barely even a shooter.

See, as you might have heard by now, in Nintendo's first blatant pitch at the online set, you take the role of both a kid and a squid. They're called Inklings. Now, on top of being squid-kids, Inklings are both aggressive and fashionable in equal amounts . You deck yourself out in hip clothes, then buy guns that shoot obscene amounts of ink and try to lay claim over different areas of turf by painting them. If anyone gets in your way? You take them out. By inking them to death. Yep.

While, on the surface, this sounds like nothing but a kiddified version of a typical shooter, it's anything but. Players get put in teams of four and thrown into an arena. From there, they're tasked with inking every surface possible in order to claim the turf for their team. Along the way, they blow enemy Inklings into smithereens and assume a more squid-ish form to swim underneath their ink so they can traverse the varying surfaces of a given level.

It's all a bit hard to describe, but can be summed up in a succinct label: shooter/platformer. You shoot things, jump on/swim up them, then shoot more things. Rinse, repeat. Those are the basic mechanics, and they work just about as well as you'd expect a platformer from the company that practically invented them to. That is to say, very. Certainly, it takes a little bit of getting used to. There's nothing else like this on the market, and it plays like a strict hybrid of the two types of gameplay I mentioned. If you play it like a traditional shooter, your territory is going to get laid waste to. If you just focus on inking the ground and jumping on everything, you're going to get blown up constantly. This is a new type of gameplay, and as such, it demands players acquire a new set of skills in order to stand a fighting chance at it.

And really, "different" is the operative word to describe Splatoon. Sure, you can trace elements of it back to other games. Its influences seem to range from Super Mario Sunshine to Jet Set Radio to maybe even the Blinx 2 multiplayer. But is there really anything else like it? I'd say "no," with full confidence. Maybe Nintendo hasn't created a new genre or anything quite that dramatic, but they've definitely struck on something that hasn't been touched before.

Not only that, but they've polished it to a glistening, inky shine with other trimmings. Miiverse has never been better in a game, playing both a large role in the hub world and in online matches. The ability to play a lengthy Doodle Jump-esque mini-game while waiting in lobbies is a neat touch. And the gamepad integration is brilliant, delivering the type of seamless "using the menu while playing" mechanic that Nintendo promised when they debuted the Wii U in 2011. The core gameplay is already great, and all of the extra, thoughtful touches added just make it that much more sweet.

But what about the amount of content in this 60 dollar, online-focused game? Pre-release, a particularly vocal batch of people were worried that Nintendo was skimping on stuff with Splatoon, that the gameplay would be fun, but there wouldn't be enough of it to go around. Admittedly, I was marginally concerned that Nintendo would follow the "pay 60 dollars, then pay for the rest" model that so many companies have for the past few years. But, lo and behold, all of those fears were unfounded. Not only is there a decent amount of content already here, but as of this writing, all of the future modes and maps will come in the form of free updates. Thank you, based Nintendo.

Speaking seriously, though, that's a huge boon, and one of the many reasons I'm 100% on board with Splatoon right now. Its five maps are all pretty sizable, and don't really get stale, but the fact that Nintendo is going to supplement the core package, which is already well worth sixty dollars, with free content is not only benevolent, but smart. People like me, burned by most AAA titles, will gravitate towards this game, wanting to master what's already there, and anticipating an entire slew of content updates, free of charge. On the other side of coin, people who don't want to adopt early will come to this a few months from now with a whole stash of content ready to download, including weapons, outfits, maps and modes. It's a win-win, all around, and both a practical business decision and a merciful act towards consumer wallets.

And when that latter party of players, the ones who pick it up a few months down the line, come to it, they won't get immediately ganked by a community of know-it-alls. That's because, in all my years of gaming online, shooters or no, Splatoon is perhaps the most balanced experience I've ever had. That's a big claim, and I back it up with the fact that every weapon, piece of armor and gadget has a practically even split of risk and reward. For example, snipers are powerful and can end somebody in one well-placed hit, but require being charged in order to be shot and can't be used to effectively cover turf. Assault weapons are lethal at close-to-mid range and can cover a huge chunk of land in seconds, but their lack of pinpoint accuracy and quick ammo depletion mean having to be up close, personal and smart.

There really are no definitively "bad" guns or equipment sets, only sets that don't work for some people. Some weapons that I lost brutally with were later used to take me out effectively several, several times in a different match. It all depends on the players, and to me, that's the mark of a truly great game.

Everything I've mentioned up until now pertains exclusively to the online component, but don't think for a second that Nintendo skimped out on single-player material. The campaign, required to unlock certain things and a good way to get your bearings, is one of their more ambitious attempts at platforming in quite a while. It adds puzzles into the addictive blend of shooting and platforming, and mixes it up with some interesting level designs that get switched up constantly. While it's a bit light in the story department, the writing is cute and funny enough, and the enemy designs are pretty adorable and unique. While the gameplay is essentially the same as the multiplayer component, that isn't necessarily a bad thing. Splatoon's campaign isn't of the quality of, say, a Super Mario 3D World, but it doesn't feel like it's trying to be. Instead, it offers up a lengthy series of imaginative worlds and bosses, spiced up with a heaping helping of collectibles. Nothing more, nothing less.

But while the campaign is excellent and brimming with content, don't take that to mean that Splatoon is something you should buy if you don't plan on going online. Frankly, this is a game that is built for online play, along the lines of Team Fortress 2 or Loadout, and if you're not into that, then this isn't the game for you. The split-screen content is, sadly, lackluster, with only the two-player Battle Dojo to speak of. It's pretty frustrating that Nintendo, whose games usually have great local multiplayer, dropped the ball in this department. While, yes, I understand that this is meant to be an online-focused game, I can't help but feel that the whole package could have benefited from at least the ability to take a buddy online, a la Call of Duty, Halo, or even Mario Kart 8. It definitely hurts the overall package in my eyes.

That's about my only major complaint with Splatoon as a whole, though. I barely have another ill word to speak of it, or should I say, ill words to spill ink over. As a cohesive online package, Nintendo's new IP hits the sweet spot between accessible and competitive. The gameplay is novel but not impenetrable. The weapons are satisfying but never overpowered. The maps have a sense of cohesion but never run the risk of running together. Everything here, coupled with a stellar art direction and soundtrack, is the perfect online package. Oh, and there's a pretty neat campaign, which is a plus.

To me, this is the game that cements my long-standing suspicion about Nintendo when it comes to online-oriented games. Over the years, naysayers have sneered and said that the monolithic developer simply couldn't "get with the times." This proves that those people are patently wrong. This is the type of game that, I feel, Nintendo could have probably made whenever they wanted to, if they wanted to. But they didn't want to. It wasn't their focus. And now that they finally feel like actually doing it, they do it leaps and bounds better than people who have been doing it for years. With one game. Their first game of this variety, no less. This isn't a case of, "oh, Nintendo's finally doing something right," and trust me, I'm somebody who's definitely picked a bone with their practices in the past.

But this? This is a case of, "Nintendo finally decided that an online-focused game was worth their time, then blew it out of the water." And they did. This is a perfect marriage of competitive gaming sensibilities and Nintendo's signature creativity, all rolled up into a stellar package. Splatoon is, all at once, a brilliant new IP, another fantastic Wii U title, and the most fun I've had online since the last generation of consoles.

- Ingenious gameplay that's unlike anything else.
- Bright and adorable art direction.
- An infectious, fun soundtrack.
- Balanced to perfection.
- Nintendo's best online title.
- A diverse and fun campaign.
- No launch DLC; purchases are done with in-game currency.
- Solid amiibo integration justifies the purchase.

- Offline content is fairly lackluster as a whole.
- First tutorial forces you to play with motion controls.
- More modes at launch might have been nice.

Score: 10
Comment Comments (5) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 25, 2015 10:10 AM PDT

Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor 2 Record Breaker - Nintendo 3DS
Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor 2 Record Breaker - Nintendo 3DS
Price: $39.80
47 used & new from $32.99

4 of 4 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.

- 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

- 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 (5) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 30, 2015 5:27 AM PDT

Mortal Kombat X - PlayStation 4
Mortal Kombat X - PlayStation 4
Price: $46.88
105 used & new from $37.95

79 of 88 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.

- 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

- 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:
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 13, 2015 7:02 AM PDT

Price: $51.18
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2 of 2 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.

- 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

- 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: $31.99
124 used & new from $21.87

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.

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

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

Score: 8

(This review also appears on my website,!)

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