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Deception IV: Blood Ties - PlayStation Vita
Deception IV: Blood Ties - PlayStation Vita
Price: $39.96
8 used & new from $38.40

30 of 31 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Deceptively Complex, March 29, 2014
"Don't judge a book by its cover," is the old axiom, but to some extent, its hard not to do that for video games. Games aren't like books, really, as they're far more expensive and much more of an investment of time than your average novel. So aside from review scores and some gameplay footage, it can difficult to not judge a game based upon what it says right on the tin, because you want every little scrap of information you can gather before you take the monetary plunge of purchasing a new game.

And yet with "Deception IV: Blood Ties," I can't help but warn consumers against judging this game by its sexual trailers and glossy cover art. This is not your average "otaku-bait" game, with moronic fan service and a pedantic plot. Staying true to its namesake, this game deceives audiences into thinking it's just that, when in reality, it's one of the most complex, challenging, and entertaining games on the market.

Players step into the high heels of Laegrinna, a part of the Devil that has been broken off and given physical form. Or, to make things less complicated, she's the Devil's daughter. And seeing as her father was banished thousands of years ago by twelve saints, she wants to bring him back in order to spread evil across the land, or so it seems initially. With the help of three Daemons that represent Elaborate death, Sadistic death, and Humiliating death, she lures people into various lairs in order to get 12 pieces of a seal that, once reconstructed, will help bring big poppa Lucifer back into existence.

Yes, just like the other "Deception" games, this title puts you in the role of a villain and expects you to revel in it. However, it must be said that "Blood Ties" does a very good job of helping you empathize with the characters. That may sound odd, but the more you play, the more it becomes clear that Laegrinna and her cohorts are more interested in restoring some semblance of balance as opposed to just being malicious jerks. As every single enemy unit in this game has a short biography, players can read into the goals and motives of their victims, and for the most part (with the exception of some occasional civilians and mercenaries,) they tend to be very corrupt. So, in that sense, the protagonists are really just trying to cast judgment on avarice, violence, and other things of a reprehensible nature. Does that make it okay to kill and maim them horribly? Yeah, no, probably not, but it's nice to at least have some motivation to bump off a lot of the characters.

This concept might seem very dark, but as with most things, it's all in the presentation, and "Blood Ties" has the comedic chops to pull it off and make it very amusing. Dialogue between the main characters frequently makes me laugh out loud, instead of just the usual light chuckles most games of this nature give me, and it's supplemented by an inside look at the foes you'll be going up against. Personal favorites include a nun who appears pure-hearted but is actually a violent sadist, and a cocky, bumbling knight who pulls a "look over there" trick at one point to run away. It's a very amusing little romp, story-wise, and I really love that the story isn't just a lame excuse to get from one map to the next.

However, "romp" is not a word I would use to describe the rest of the game, as it's a very intricate and often frustrating experience. Players control Laegrinna as she runs around different maps, leading foes to give chase and, by consequence, fall into a wide melange of traps. Most of these traps are ones that players set, ranging from the practical (bear traps,) to the absurd (saw blades that drag enemies across the room,) to the ridiculous (pumpkin heads that blind enemies,) to the absolutely insane (giant yoyos that send enemies flying.) On top of these traps, more of which get unlocked as the game goes on, there are also traps exclusive to certain rooms. These can be as simple as causing the pipes of a church organ to fall and impale somebody, or as complicated as getting them knocked into the air by a robotic chariot rider, impaled on his sword, chucked through the air, then having their torso pierced by a sharp fountainhead. Yes, this is not a game focused on realistic, gritty death. It's all very stupid and grandiose, which in turn makes the experience much more fun overall.

Setting up deaths is perhaps the most fun I've had in a game this year so far. In order to set the traps, players need to go into a grid-based overhead view and place them in different locations. At first, you're limited to only three per each room on a map, but as you progress, you'll get more slots to fill. Then you have to wait for them arm, then time their activation with an enemy's arrival. This is an incredibly frustrating trial-and-error experience, and I mean that in the best way possible. You can fall into your own traps, miscalculate the range of something, or get too distracted by hitting one enemy that another one manages to flank you and start attacking. Laegrinna has no real self-defense capabilities, aside from a few slight status ailment inflicting attacks, and so her survival relies primarily on your wits and the utmost attention to detail.

That's why I might say that this is not a game for everyone in the gameplay department. Personally, I adore the frustration. Every time I've died in "Blood Ties," it's never been due to a camera issue, or a bug, or any type of artificial difficulty. It's been my fault completely, and that's why it's so rewarding. When you die, you'll know what you did wrong, and you'll be darn sure not to make the same mistake twice. On top of that, certain enemies have their own strengths and weakness, and are invulnerable to certain things, forcing players to prioritize who to eliminate first, and how to eliminate them.

But while I absolutely love games like this, to many others, it might come across as punishing and unfun. Getting right down to it, this is a complex and brutally difficult game for people who like being tested; the type who enjoy cutting their teeth in "Dark Souls," or preserving their units in "Fire Emblem." "Blood Ties" is detail-oriented to a ridiculous degree, and is not the light-hearted, anime-style affair that the cover may lead you to believe it is. Softening the blow is a feature where Laegrinna will automatically dodge attacks, and while I didn't use it, it might help ease newcomers into the game. Still, it's not an easy experience, and can be immensely stressful at times, so if you're the type who likes kicking back and mindlessly playing something, this is not the game for you.

Overall, though, I really admire the way "Blood Ties" plays. It doesn't simplify its formula and pander to the otaku audience who might be drawn to the sexy character designs and promises of fan service. Instead, it consistently ups the ante, and forces players into learning the mechanics and memorizing the maps, or dying a cruel and unusual death. With enemies that get consistently more irritating, what with their invulnerability to certain things and ranged attacks that can kill you in mere seconds, and maps that can just as easily maim you as they can your rivals, you're in a for a real treat if you like a good challenge. Tie it all together with controls that are impeccably smooth, and you've got a winner.

Tecmo has also produced a winner in the visuals department. Sure, this might not be a AAA title with realistic textures and lifelike character animations, but then, nobody was really expecting that of it. And if they were, then, well, that's a bit silly. What really matters here is the art direction, which is very nice overall. While the main female character designs are kind of pandering and improbable, the game never really draws attention it, as most of the time you'll be trying not to get slaughtered, as opposed to ogling Laegrinna's pronounced butt cleavage. Some may take issue that some traps can knock armor off of enemies, but from my perspective, it's funny in a very stupid way, and both male and female knights can be stripped down to their skivvies. There's some serious humor to be found in destroying the armor of an enemy to find they're wearing a bikini or crotch-pronouncing tighty whities.

Aside from that, this is definitely a slick-looking game overall. The characters look great, the environments are varied and interesting, and the sheer creativity put into some of the more ridiculous traps is truly admirable. There's more originality in this game than most on the market today, and given that originality is one of the deciding factors I tend to judge games by, I have to say that "Blood Ties" is certainly special when it comes to looks, in the grand scheme of things. I'll take unrealistic courtyards and rooms of deadly conveyor belts over lifelike grey-and-brown corridors any day of the week.

The appeal may be limited, but that doesn't stop Tecmo's latest from being an excellent little title. Those looking for something to test their brains and nerves should find plenty to enjoy here, what with the long campaign featuring multiple endings and 100 challenge missions, not to mention the fact that the game can be played differently every single time.

"Deception IV: Blood Ties" is a strategy game by way of a survival horror title sprinkled with liberal bits of comedy, and with all three of these elements sorely lacking in today's marketplace, I can't help but give any PS3 or Vita owner a strong recommendation for this little gem.

Overall: 8.75
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 8, 2014 7:00 PM PDT


Welcome to the N.H.K., Volume 1 (v. 1)
Welcome to the N.H.K., Volume 1 (v. 1)
by Tatsuhiko Takimoto
Edition: Paperback
37 used & new from $4.35

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Welcome to the Transitional Period!, March 26, 2014
Tatsuhiko Takimoto is a writer whose skill is comparable to contemporary literary greats, in my mind, such as Chuck Palahniuk or Bret Easton Ellis. His body of work is impressive and varied, but unfortunately, we only know him in America for his acclaimed "Welcome to the NHK" franchise. It tells the story of Satou Tatsuhiro, a deluded shut-in who leeches off of his parents to support his shallow existence, and the individuals in his life who either try to help him break out of this behavior, or encourage it to an even more unhealthy extreme. The initial novel is positively brilliant, and one of my personal favorites, and the anime adaptation is pretty great as well. But then, it's easy to forget about the third venue to experience "NHK," which is through this manga version.

Personally, this is my least favorite "NHK" work, which isn't to say it's bad. In fact, it's quite the engaging little series, and definitely one I recommend highly compared to most. Still, as a fan of Takimoto's work, and of Gonzo's adaptation, I can't help but feel a little put off by the way this manga handles the subject matter. First and foremost, the tone is incredibly uneven when held in comparison to both the novel and the anime. The novel is a very bleak satire, to the point where many can't even find any comedy to be derived from it. It offers a borderline nihilistic view of humanity, a kind of hopelessness that you can't help but think that Takimoto truly felt while writing it. By contrast, the anime is much more optimistic, and while it definitely treats the serious subject matter with respect, it came several years after the novel, and I suspect when Takimoto was feeling a bit more optimistic about life.

The manga, also penned by Takimoto, feels like a bit of a rough transitional piece. We see glimpses of the gloomy despair that dripped off so many pages of the source material, yet it's place side-by-side with some jarring tonal shifts. Ultimately, this does the series a lot of harm, and works to undermine the entire narrative at times. For example, Satou's descent into being a pedophile for a chapter is played for mostly laughs, while in the novel, it's not funny at all, and meant to illustrate how far this character has fallen (for those curious, the pedophilia addiction is glossed over in the anime, for reasons that should be very obvious.) To me, it feels like Takimoto and Kendi Oiwa fail to strike a good balance between the funny and the serious at times, which undoes the strength of the content.

That aside, though, it must still be stated that this is a good manga for all intents and purposes. The characters are truly dynamic and interesting, and their depictions here are arguably the best in the franchise. I say that because that, over the space of eight volumes, they have room to grow and breathe. In turn, their respective bundles of psychoses are unpacked in a slow-cooking, pressure-boiler kind of way, especially with the case of Misaki, the young girl trying to "cure" Satou, and Hitomi, a pill addict with crippling anxiety and self-confidence issues. While perhaps this isn't my favorite "NHK," I think I like the depictions of the memorable cast best here. It helps, too, that Oiwa's art is great, and his depictions of the characters helped shape them for the subsequent anime.

"Welcome to the NHK," in my mind, is the lesser of the three versions of Takimoto's opus, but it's still a very good series with great art and an off-the-beaten-path story that you don't see in manga every day. Despite the pacing issues and tonal shifts that undermine the overall narrative, this is a very solid manga that is definitely worth your time if you can handle some occasional tasteless depictions of sensitive subject matter.

Grade: B


inFAMOUS: Second Son Limited Edition (PlayStation 4)
inFAMOUS: Second Son Limited Edition (PlayStation 4)
Price: $59.93
81 used & new from $38.00

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Not All Smoke And Mirrors, March 22, 2014
"Infamous" has always been a series that never quite stuck with me. Electricity powers were cool, and seeing the story unfold depending on my choices was neat, but a bland protagonist and a sort of pedantic narrative offset any enjoyment I could gain. Yet I had high hopes for this entry, given that it looked like the first "must-own" PS4-exclusive title after the disappointing "Killzone: Shadow Fall" and "Knack," and that despite my apprehensions about the franchise, Sucker Punch is still a very capable developer with a lot of talent under their wing. Perhaps they could deliver the exclusive that I'd been waiting for since launch day, one that could stand head and shoulders with the best Sony has offered in the past. Is the third time the charm for "Infamous: Second Son"?

Yes and no. All of the pieces are here, that's for sure. The charming rogue protagonist, Delsin Rowe, is a Native American whose Washington reservation is barged into by a prison convoy escorting three Conduits (read: people with superpowers) to a maximum security facility. They, of course, break loose, Delsin absorbs one of their powers, and has his reservation assaulted by the ruthless antagonist, Brooke Augustine. With the help of his cop brother, Reggie, Delsin sets sights on Seattle to absorb more powers, stop Augustine's oppressive regime that has taken over the city, and use his new abilities to help his tribe recover.

The story does so much right in a lot of regards. First off, it's genuinely refreshing to see Native American characters portrayed as, well, actual people, and not defined by worn tropes about spirits or hating "the white man," like we saw in last year's frankly poor "Beyond: Two Souls." Here, we see Delsin and Reggie as two brothers, and their tribe as a family; it's very respectful, and I admire it for not going down a more racist path. Furthermore, the characters themselves are generally likable, but perhaps none more so than the protagonist. Delsin is a remarkably likable protagonist, almost like a PG-13 version of Dante. His quips and witticisms are funny and delivered without a hint of irony, and on top of that, his trials and tribulations throughout the course of the game really make you feel for the guy. His realistic reactions to gaining powers and coping with the burden of being discriminated against by the general populace round him out, helping to avoid the pitfalls of having a character who's too stoic or too silly. The writers struck a perfect balance with this character, and I sincerely hope we see more of him in future entries.

That being said, the rest of the writing could have used some serious work. The supporting cast is all over the place, with high points like straight man Reggie, and the delightfully evil Brooke, and serious low points like the walking cliche that is the gamer geek Eugene, or the manic pixie hobo girl that is Fetch. Characterization isn't the real problem here, though. No, what really sets "Second Son" back is its by-the-numbers, "us against them" plot. Despite some later twists and turns that genuinely surprised me, the story is unfortunately hamstrung by its usage of the same narrative ideas "X-Men" was touching on back in the 1960's. Not only that, but the supporting cast backstories come across as afterthoughts, tacked on to make the mostly ancillary cast seem more compelling. Ultimately, the story gets the job done, and there are some truly emotional moments during the climax, but it doesn't dig quite as deep as I'd like it to.

Same goes for the moral choices players can make. Aside from the obvious (don't kill civilians, don't act like an all-around hooligan,) players are often given two choices during cutscenes, and the binary choices available are astoundingly black-and-white. There's no moral grey area, only "good" and "bad." There are even games with binary choices that still managed to make me think about things for a few minutes, but the choices here are so blatant, a child could tell you what's wrong and what's right. It makes it so that players either have to be playing as an intentional hero or intentional villain, with no moral wiggle room to speak of. Granted, it is nice that what choices you make have obvious impacts on the narrative, which is more than I can say for, say, a David Cage game. Still, a bit more ambiguity would have gone a long way here.

Issue with the plot aside, let me stress how much fun this game is once the world opens up to you. I've played a lot of games with superpowers, as they've always been a guilty pleasure of mine. And while this might not be the best out there, at least in my opinion, it's definitely one of the most creative and consistently fun. Players are given three sets of powers for most of the game: smoke/fire, neon, and video. Each of these offer their own projectile capabilities, melee attacks of varying strengths, and other various attributes. For example, smoke lets you break yourself down into ashen soot and go through vents; neon allows you to run up walls and snipe enemies from a distance; video lets you sprout wings and, eventually, fly around the city to some extent. Players are, of course, given attacks that are similar to third person shooter weapons, such as pistols, rocket launchers, assault rifles, but with such unique twists that they never feel like mere stand-ins. Few games have given me as much joy as I felt gliding over a hundred feet above ground, sending enemies below flying with a constant barrage of pure television static.

At the same time, though, "Second Son" plays it too safe too often for me to truly commend it for being original. The same gripes I've had about open-world superhero games for years reared their ugly head several times over the course of my time with this one. Finding awkward ways to exploit my powers to cheaply take cover from enemy fire, realizing that all of my enemies have similar powers and immediately feeling less powerful, nagging limits to otherwise cool abilities... the downsides here are immensely annoying, and it continues a trend of games that give you cool powers, then immediately start pounding you into submission with stronger enemies. I hesitate to bring up other games so much, but I can't help but be reminded of "Saints Row IV," and how downright satisfying the powers in that game were. While what's on display here is fun, and certainly interesting, I can't help but feel disappointed at the lack of innovation on display here. The game limits the player far too often for them to feel truly empowered, and with a game built around superpowers, that's a serious problem in my book.

Still, where it counts, the gameplay is mostly solid. Players are given a large playground to mess around in, and one that has plenty of things to do in it. Aside from just tooling around by scaling buildings, or pulling ridiculous stunts off, you'll also get to participate in some truly engaging side missions. While a few of these are standard "find the collectible" or "fight a hoard of enemies," they take place in the midst of some great set pieces, and with cool powers that truly allow the players to navigate the environments in any way they see fit, even the most trivial parts of the game become ridiculously fun. That is to say, the goals themselves might not be that interesting, but if you're creative, you can turn the game into a hectic, creative and engaging time with a few flicks of the analog sticks.

Lastly, the game makes pretty great use of the DualShock 4 touch pad, perhaps the best I've seen in a PS4 title thus far. It integrates the little gadget in a way that, while somewhat gimmicky, is nevertheless creative and seamless. Turning the controller sideways and shaking it to paint graffiti is cool, as using it to tear open fences, smash support pillars, or absorb energy. Other than that, there are some contextual moments where it's used to an impressive degree. For example, Delsin goes through a security checkpoint early on the game, and gets his hand scanned. The game prompts the player to place their finger on the pad, then keep it there as the game "scans" it; this prompts the controller to rumble and make noise. While, yes, this is a little goofy, I still found it a neat way to show off the latent potential for immersion that Sony's newest little gizmo has to offer.

Graphically, though, there are barely any complaints to be made. The world Delsin inhabits is beautifully rendered, down to the very last detail. I only spotted the occasional jagged edge, and there were no real pop-ins to be seen for the most part. A colorful urban sprawl, Sucker Punch's dystopian Seattle maintains the atmosphere and scenery one would expect from Washington, yet offers enough interesting, futuristic technology to keep things fresh. Aside from the eye-catching scenery, the character models in "Second Son" are arguably some of the very best I've ever seen in a video game. The main characters speak, and their faces crinkle, their complexions change, their eyes bulge and narrow. For all of the pretensions of Quantic Dream's "emotional" graphics, I found the characters here to look and behave in a far more human fashion than anything that divisive studio has ever produced. Sure, there are some lazy textures here and there, like reflections on buildings that don't match what's actually behind them, or clothing on certain pedestrians, but that's really just nitpicking. This is a gorgeous game, hands-down, and given that we're already getting something of this caliber early on the PS4's life cycle, it makes very excited about the graphical capabilities of this system.

Yes, "Infamous: Second Son" is a bit trite in the execution of its narrative, and yes, it has some serious issues with limiting the player's enjoyment of their powers in combat situations. Yet it's hard for me to discount the sheer amount of fun that can be had with this game, and the impressive amount of content offered for sixty bucks. This is a sleek-looking and fun experience with plenty to do, and an enjoyable cast of characters participating in a relatively fun plot. While I would hesitate to call this a "system seller," this is undeniably the best console-exclusive title of this generation so far, and one of the more intriguing superpower-fueled experiences on the market.

Score: 8.5
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 22, 2014 9:12 PM PDT


Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes - PlayStation 4 Standard Edition
Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes - PlayStation 4 Standard Edition
Price: $29.63
54 used & new from $20.53

18 of 26 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Still Kept Me Waiting, March 18, 2014
"Metal Gear Solid" is a franchise that means a lot to me, on a personal level. "Snake Eater" is arguably my favorite game, and "Peace Walker" arguably my favorite portable game. I defend "Sons of Liberty" against critics who complain about the often bewildering plot, and I feel as if the extraordinarily long cutscenes "Guns of the Patriots" are entirely justifiable. And as soon as this latest release opened with Kiefer Sutherland uttering one of Snake's most memorable lines, I felt like this would be yet another game to add to my list of personal favorites. Sadly, that is not the case, and after playing through "Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes," I feel taken advantage of as a consumer, despite some glimpses of sheer brilliance here and there.

The very scant narrative content, which utilizing spoilers could be summarized in about 2-4 sentences, takes place after "Peace Walker." Snake infiltrates a Cuban black site which houses several prisoners of war, hoping to find former allies Paz and Chico. He does so, but at a terrible cost which results in the nine-year coma that kicks off "The Phantom Pain." Oh, yeah, and we get introduced to a new villain named Skull Face. That's pretty much it. No, I'm not being sarcastic. Aside from a few minor spoilers which I won't ruin, the narrative content of this game is a farce in many ways, and much like "The Matrix Reloaded," ultimately an expensive commercial for the follow-up. Konami even had the gall to end the game with a teaser trailer for the next game, one that's actually shorter and less substantial than anything we've seen so far.

If this comes across as me complaining, it's absolutely supposed to. Length is something that I'm not overly concerned with in games. Case in point: "Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance" was about four hours long, yet its content was substantial enough for me to fall in love with it and feel as it was worth the entry price of the expensive collector's edition. Yet "Ground Zeroes," at thirty dollars, simply does not feel worth it from a narrative standpoint. It contains plot points we already knew were going to happen based on previous trailers, and background information on a minor locale that could be easily described in a passing sentence or two. Even going through and listening to audio logs... I mean, "cassette tapes," doesn't add much to the world. This is an advertisement, pure and simple; a collection of tech demos to get players excited for "The Phantom Pain." But instead of getting excited for free, players have the privilege of paying Konami to experience the feeling. It's sleazy, and as a fan, it's even enough to make me a bit angry.

At least what little you do get is pretty incredible. That's right. As much as I dislike "Ground Zeroes" for its lack of content and inconsequential narrative, the gameplay is (no pun intended) rock solid. The new direction Kojima Productions is taking has finally won me over, still attached to fond memories of older titles. Players are invited to approach the situation in any way please, whether they want to go through non-lethally, shoot everything in sight, or even hijack enemy vehicles to go on a rampage with. Even in this tiny map, there's tons to do, several areas to explore, and dozens of ways to go through different missions. The more intuitive, open-ended combat that was introduced in "Guns of the Patriots," then toyed around with in "Peace Walker," feels very well-realized here, and I can comfortably say that any strategy could be adopted in completing the missions in this game.

The only problem, then, is that "Ground Zeroes" is essentially a series of tech demos for what the new Fox Engine is capable of. There's the main mission, and then four more missions you'll receive upon completion of it (five if you collect the nine well-hidden XOF patches,) all of which can take as long or as short as you want them to. They all take place at different times during the day, and have different focal points. But quite frankly, only a few of them are much fun at all. A few others feel very cheap, such as one that's essentially an on-rails shooting segment, or one that involves blowing up anti-aircraft turrets. These missions are, by and large, very by-the-numbers affairs as far as video games are concerned, and nowhere close the level of inventiveness that one expects from the "Metal Gear" franchise. Also, the unlockable mission exclusive to the PS4, "Deja Vu," is pretty flat, and relies solely on fan goodwill to derive any entertainment value from. Quite like the majority of this game.

If you're looking for something pretty to show off to your friends on your shiny new PS4, though, this will certainly fit the bill... you know, considering you haven't already played the excellent "Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition." This is definitely a beautiful game, and for the first time in series history, I feel as if the graphics do make a difference in relation to how you play. Spotlights add beautiful glistening effects to surfaces, but they also blind you, making it more difficult to take them out, or to see if there are enemies behind them; the sunset realistically glistens off of the pavement, and as a consequence, far off enemies may not be immediately visible. On top of the practical usages of the graphics, everything is just plain gorgeous. The flora and fauna of the game are lush and vibrant (the scant bits we see of it are, anyway,) the character models carefully rendered down to the slightest details, and the various "eye-catcher" effects like rain drops and explosions are impressive. But while the game certainly is pretty, I just wish there were more to see here, a sentiment that, once again, applies to the rest of the experience.

Another thing that applies to is the audio department. Now, as a fan of David Hayter (although I'm still not convinced he's entirely out of the picture,) I was very apprehensive about a big-name actor taking over his iconic role. Yet, the more I heard, the more I fell in love with Sutherland's rendition of the protagonist. We hear hints of sadness in his voice, the tone of a man who has seen more pain and suffering than he knows how to cope with, one who is about to boil over with explosive anger at any moment. But we don't really get to hear a lot of it, and most of the time, we hear longtime partner Miller giving him advice on his codec. That's due to the nature of the game, I suppose, considering this prologue is more about setting up the events of "The Phantom Pain," and less about exploring Snake as a character. And the same principle goes for the music, really, as while what we hear is uniformly lovely, there's not much of it to go around. There are only two cutscenes, and a few different situations to experience. So, presentation-wise, what's here is nice, but there's not nearly enough.

That's the problem with Kojima's latest, as much as it pains me to say. While I'm no conspiracy theorist, I would hazard to guess that this is a product Konami put out to help cover the costs of "The Phantom Pain." Looking at what "Ground Zeroes" has to offer, and taking into consideration that the "real" game is going to be hundreds of times larger, I would boldly stake a claim that this is a project that the publisher, whose financial state has not been the best as of late, could simply not afford as it stood. Perhaps they urged Kojima to chop off the front end of the game, then sell it in order to build up capital for the rest, and to cover it up with claims of "fan demand." Perhaps not. Ultimately, we may never know what prompted the bizarre series of events which led to us having this game plopped down onto our laps.

It's irrelevant at the end of the day, though. The game is here, and is being offered up as a stand-alone release for thirty dollars. Thirty dollars that could net you countless HD collections of entire franchises, or three movie tickets (roughly,) or a Blu-Ray of a new movie. Even as a fan, I have to say that "Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes," is not worth thirty dollars. It's barely worth twenty, as even at a reduced price, it's still a commercial that you're paying for, and it's still nothing that's not going to be recapped in a blip at the beginning of "The Phantom Pain." What's here is very good, but there's not enough of it to justify paying full price for it.

Kojima "kept me waiting" for this game, and unfortunately, I still am waiting... for the real "Metal Gear Solid V" experience.

Score: 6.5
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 24, 2014 11:17 AM PDT


South Park:  The Stick of Truth - Playstation 3
South Park: The Stick of Truth - Playstation 3
Price: $39.99
75 used & new from $32.99

24 of 27 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Meet (And Kill) Some Friends OF Mine, March 5, 2014
"South Park" is an acquired taste, and over the years, I've met an equal amount of people who despise it to counterbalance those who love it. I fall on the "love it" side of the spectrum, as I've always found the franchise to be full of clever and deservedly mean pokes at modern society, as well as good-natured ruminations of what it's like to be a kid. That same experience applies to role-playing games, as while I fully adore grinding levels and sinking several hours into a world-building experience, I'm well aware that many people find RPGs to be long-winded and dull. So, to some, the combination of "South Park" and RPGs sounded miserable, while to others, it seemed like a blessing. And while "South Park: The Stick of Truth" might not be for everybody, those interested will adore it, and all others will hopefully be able to see the impressive craftsmanship that went into it.

"Stick" follows the New Kid, who moves to the quiet little mountain town under mysterious pretenses, and quickly falls into a raging battle between elves and the noble warriors of the Kingdom of Kupa Keep (KKK... yes, they call themselves that.) The epic struggle is over the titular Stick of Truth, the owner of which can control the universe. Well... not really. See, the kids of South Park are engaged in a town-wide LARPing session, complete with leveling, custom weapons, armor, classes, and the like. This puts an interesting spin on the show's universe, as everyday locales like the school or Jimbo's Guns become dungeons or supply stores. And instead of going all "Calvin and Hobbes," the writers wisely chose to make it perfectly clear that these are little kids pretending to be in a role-playing game, and decided to build off that concept.

The result is one of the more clever video games in recent memory. Narrative tropes, worn gameplay mechanics and other aspects of role-playing games are put on display and mocked here. When learning the turn-based battle system, a character questions why they have to wait their turns, only for Cartman to bark that it's "like olden times." Naming your custom character is irrelevant because you'll end up going by "D*uchebag" for the majority of the game. Other things of this nature help solidify this is as a tongue-in-cheek parody of the genre, complete with visual and verbal cues to famous series. As a functional, funny parody of an established type of game, it's a rollicking success.

On top of that, it's "South Park" at its absolute finest. Beneath the clever satire, we have Matt Stone and Trey Parker's signature blend of shock humor and gross-out gags. Only this time, it's a lot funnier than many recent episodes of the show itself have been, as it feels less constrained by time and censorship, and more like a creative burst of lovably vile, gut-busting energy. Before playing this game, I would have laughed in disbelief at the concept of beating up meth heads for coffee ingredients, or using different types of farts to solve puzzles, but lo and behold, these are both things that you'll end up doing in "Stick." Admittedly, some jokes wear thin after a while, and as is the nature of licensed games, hearing certain characters repeat lines in different circumstances makes them lose some of their luster. As a whole, though, this is still a very funny and fresh experience, akin to the funniest bits of the "Saints Row" franchise distilled into a 12-hour (18-20 if doing the side-quests) game.

And yes, despite the copious amounts of "South Park" fan service, clever satire, and rip-roaring gags, this is still a game. Actually, it's quite a good one, and I say this as an avid fan of RPGs. The turn-based combat is only tight and fun (if not a bit easy,) and holds a surprising amount of depth to it. Aside from wailing on opponents with a variety of humorous weapons, you'll also have to learn how to break down enemy armor, counter different stances, and handle the buff/debuff system. Players who are weary of turn-based RPGs might find solace in the fact that you'll be doing a lot more than clicking commands, as using attacks often requires a series of button presses or flicks of the analog sticks. Of course, you won't only be locked in fights for the entire game, which is where the sizable overworld comes into play. As the new kid, you and a "Buddy" of your choice can wander around South Park taking side quests, finding collectibles, and making friends to add to your Facebook-esque list of pals. There's plenty to do, all around, and both the combat and exploration aspects of "Stick" are admirable in their execution.

One's opinion on the graphics and sound in this game will boil down to how much they like "South Park." As a fan of the show, I feel like it captures the visual style and musical elements perfectly, right down to the crude walking animations. The music sounds like a mixture of Western RPG soundtracks and the typical musical motifs one would expect from the series, even blending the two occasionally (listen for Cartman’s voice during a choral section of a certain piece of background music.) It looks like “South Park,” sounds like “South Park,” and most importantly feels like “South Park.”

All of this being said, it’s important to stress that this game isn't going to change minds of the uninitiated. If you hate the humor of the show, and find it to be far too offensive or nasty, you probably won’t get many laughs here, as it’s arguably “South Park” at it button-pushing worst. Those who think that the visual style is jarring to the eyes and lazy aren't going to be impressed by the graphics, as they look exactly like fans would expect an average episode to look. Basically, if you don’t like “South Park,” you’re not going to be getting much out of this, nor do I think you were intended to in the first place. It would be like the protagonists taking their parents to a movie by the infamous Canadian duo Terrance and Phillip; obviously, the humor wasn't intended for them, and it’s going to do more harm than good.

To put it bluntly, this isn't intended for general audiences. It’s for people who like either like “South Park,” RPGs, or both, and if you don’t fall into that category, odds are that it isn't for you. Just because it has a limited audience, however, doesn't make it a bad game by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, it’s one of the best licensed games out there, and by far, the best “South Park” game ever developed. And, to go out on a limb, it’s one of the most devilishly original and fun role-playing games to come along in a few years, albeit a simplistic one.

Despite some jokes overstaying their welcome, and despite the limited appeal of the whole package, “South Park: The Stick of Truth” is quite the admirable little game. Creative, hilarious, and fun, it’s pretty much heaven for anybody who likes the show, and even for people who are only casual viewers. It might not win over any new fans, but considering that most likely wasn't an intention of Obsidian and South Park Studios, it’s not really a tragedy.

And if you do feel like this game should cater to each and every gamer out there, I only have one thing to say.

“Eyyy, relax, guy!”

Score: 8.5
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 6, 2014 11:12 AM PST


Insufficient Direction: Hideaki Anno X Moyoco Anno (Insuficient Direction)
Insufficient Direction: Hideaki Anno X Moyoco Anno (Insuficient Direction)
by Moyoco Anno
Edition: Paperback
Price: $11.94
56 used & new from $8.61

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The (Otaku) King and I, March 3, 2014
Verified Purchase(What's this?)
Moyoco Anno is one of the most significant female manga-ka out there today, delivering hit after hit for an older female demographic, as well as a significant hit state-side for younger audiences in "Sugar Sugar Rune." She is married to Hideaki Anno, who is arguably the most important living anime director, having crafted not only the classics "GunBuster" and "Nadia," but the monolithic piece which redefined anime as we know it, "Neon Genesis Evangelion." As Moyoco was not an otaku before marrying Hideaki in 2002, she slowly found herself being sucked into his lifestyle, just as he found himself becoming more accustomed to "normal" life. Drawn in a very loose, silly style, "Insufficient Direction" tells their story in a very intimate, entertaining way, even if some of the humor is lost in translation.

"Rompers" (Moyoco's baby-esque caricature of herself) is a successful manga-ka who finds herself getting married to "Director-kun" (a pot-bellied version of Hideaki,) and in the process gets thrown into a culture clash of sorts. Her husband's introverted, obsessive nature becomes painfully aware as he plans living spaces around his figurine collection, or forgets to bathe for days at a time while continuing to wear the same clothes. On the same token, she gets reminded of her past passion for tokusatsu and old-school mech anime. Both of them go through their day to day life, taking care of each other when they get sick, looking for houses, going on vacation, and other things.

That description doesn't belay how downright inaccessible to a mainstream Western audience "Insufficient Direction" is at its very core, though. Every page is chock full of oblique anime references, and the assumption that the reader is versed not only in Japanese language and culture, but in otaku culture as well. But the term "otaku" doesn't apply to just anime and manga here; true to its meaning, the word is applied to Director-kun's enthusiasm for tokusatsu and even different types of trains. Vertical was very, very wise in including an extensive glossary with this release, as even though I was able to catch on to a healthy amount of references here, most will need some context for what takes place here.

On top of the core manga, which is very sincere and sweet, not to mention funny, there's a fascinating short essay by Hideaki Anno himself, musing on the book, his wife, and otaku culture as a whole. It is this essay that's almost worth the entire asking price of the book for "Evangelion" fans, as it is deeply informative and intriguing. His love for his wife, as well as his past struggles with depression and addictive tendencies, not to mention his no-holds-barred opinion on the problematic otaku culture, comes through clearly here. For a man that helped shape the industry as we know it today, Anno rarely makes a lot of public proclamations, and to hear his thoughts straight from the horse's mouth is something very special.

"Insufficient Direction" can be confusing at times, but ultimately, it's well worth reading. Very few manga of this nature get translated, let alone published by a major company like Vertical. Moyoco Anno's love for her husband and for her life in general comes through in this very intimate work, and for any "Evangelion" fan, or those interested in Japanese pop culture, it's a must-read. If you don't know much or don't care about those two things, well, this may not be the book for you. But then, it wasn't made for you, anyway.

Grade: B
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 13, 2014 8:30 PM PDT


No Title Available

17 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Everything Is, Indeed, Awesome, February 15, 2014
Hype for this movie has been at a fever pitch ever since release, and even though I was a little late to the show, I could understand why. The pedigree behind it was top-notch, the casting was great, and the prospect of a multi-universe crossover from several unrelated franchises was enticing. In a word, it looked fun, and like the type of movie that both kids and adults could enjoy. That, however, was a terrible underestimation, because it was far more than fun, although it certainly was that in spades. But "The Lego Movie" is also emotional, thrilling, and, in more ways than one, a total surprise. Warner Brothers managed to blindside me with this one, and while it may not top a certain Disney movie involving ice (at least, in my book), it's still an incredible feat in its own right.

Emmet is a typical Lego minifigure. That's no joke. He's actually the generic figure, complete with a blank-slate face and a typical haircut. That's just perfect for him though, as he lives in a city where everybody is encouraged to behave in uniform fashion by the ominous Lord Business. Unfortunately, though, he's so thoroughly average in every respect that nobody seems to notice him, which isn't the best situation to be in when he's suspected of a massive crime. The crime, as it so happens, is stumbling upon "The Piece of Resistance," which will stop Business' plan of unleashing a mysterious weapon known as "The Kragle" upon the unsuspecting populace. Luckily, he gets rescued by the deadly and sexy (as far as Lego people can go) Wildstyle, who reveals to him that his world is only one in a series of many universes, and that Business has plans to use the Kragle on all of them. This sets off a wild adventure to stop the villain, with the aid of several heroes, known as "Master Builders," and for Emmet to discover his hidden potential that may very well change everything as the characters know it.

If this sounds like a trite set-up, it's because it kind of is, but that's the point. See, despite the movie being insanely creative and funny, not to mention subversive in a weird of way, the overall narrative seemingly proceeds in a formulaic fashion... for reasons that will make sense about two-thirds of the way through it. While it's tempting to discuss this twist, it would ruin the element of creativity and surprise that makes the whole experience work. Rest assured that any gripe you have with the plot will, most likely, be thrown out the window when you realize what's really going on, and why things seemed sort of cliche for a bit. In all my years of watching films, the writers on board here delivered one of the best silver screen twists since "The Sixth Sense," which is no small accomplishment.

But what about the rest of the movie? Fortunately, the formulaic narrative up until that point is aided by three things: a great cast, wickedly funny dialogue, and clever visual trickery that's worth the ticket price alone. Everybody here is perfectly cast, with special props going out to Will Arnett for his deadpan, lampooning take on Batman, Allison Brie as the infectious and adorable Unikitty, and Charlie Day as the ADD-addled Benny. However, it's worth noting that Chris Pratt as Emmet is one of the better low-key performances in any film recently, even those by directors who specialize in that niche like Wes Anderson. Sure, he'll occasionally make a silly joke, but on a deeper level, he turns a stock Lego figure into somebody with genuine pathos, whom almost anybody could surely relate to.

On top of the great cast, everything on the A/V side of things is charming and awe-inspiring in equal amounts. There's a score from Mark Mothersbaugh (known for both his excellent video game and film scores, as well as being a member of Devo,) which effortlessly blends styles at the drop of a dime, and routinely shifts from emotional to peppy, thrilling to soothing. It complements the visuals well, which are nothing short of remarkable, and probably the best usage of CGI animation I've seen in all my years. Yes, that includes every Pixar flick. To me, everything in "The Lego Movie" is teeming with life, somehow overcoming the fact that everything is supposed to be made out of plastic. Everything in this movie, being made of the titular plastic bricks, is used in a wide variety of surprising ways, especially in the powerful and inspiring climax. Anything can become, well, anything, if that makes any sense, and seeing somebody use the art of animation in this way should make Pixar ashamed of how derivative and bland their last few movies have been.

There's no way around it, really. Much like "Frozen," "The Lego Movie" is not just a good "animated movie." It's not just "good for a kids' flick," or "funny enough for adults to like." As a film critic, this is one of the most brilliantly constructed (if you'll pardon the pun) films in years, and emotionally resonated with me in many respects, especially when the film's world and lore is fully realized in the final act. This is, quite simply, one of the greatest animated films ever created, and to a lesser extent, one of the best films to come along, and certainly one of the most wildly inventive. Subversive, cheeky, and beautiful in many regards, this is a movie that I feel almost anybody could enjoy.

If not, well, maybe you're just missing a piece.

Grade: A-


DanganRonpa: Trigger Happy Havoc - PlayStation Vita
DanganRonpa: Trigger Happy Havoc - PlayStation Vita
Price: $39.96
37 used & new from $33.50

27 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Shin Megami Tensei: Ace Attorney, February 12, 2014
I've been dubious about "Danganronpa." The fandom hypes it up to be one of the greatest things since sliced bread, and I've been suckered into playing or watching too many bad things with those promises. Still, though, the concept intrigued me, and new titles on the Vita are always a sight for sore eyes, so I had to pick this up on launch day. I still had apprehensions, of course, what with the characters coming across as cookie-cutter stereotypes and the art style initially striking me as trying too hard to be "quirky." But with confidence in Spike-Chunsoft, developers of the fantastic "999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors," I jumped into the game and hoped for the best. It was a good call on my part, as "DanganRonpa," in spite of its flaws, is on the way to becoming one of my personal favorites of this year.

The novel concept involves a completely ordinary high school student who is accepted into a prestigious academy due to a lottery drawing. But upon his arrival, he blacks out and wakes up in a sterile room, which turns out to be his new dorm. Turns out, the protagonist and a group of elite prodigies have been kidnapped and locked inside of a school cut from the rest of the world, all while being taunted by a maniacal teddy beard (I'm not kidding.) The only way to get out is to "graduate," which involves murdering another student and getting away with it. All of these new acquaintances are instantly turned against one another, and as you make friends throughout the entire experience, it may be very likely that your new best buddy is, in fact, the guilty party. And if you don't play your cards right in the class trials, everybody but the murderer will be executed. High stakes, indeed.

It's hard to describe this game, as it's kind of amalgamation of various genres, all mish-mashed into one frantic but ultimately rewarding experience. Primarily, players will progress through things as a visual novel, scrolling through a lot of dialogue (and I do mean a lot; even while scrolling at a brisk pace, it took me three-plus hours until my first trial) to progress the plot, build the world, and understand the characters. In a way, it's a lot like the "Persona" series, minus the demon-fighting; you talk, build relationships, and see how those relationships shape the overall experience. While some might find this dull, I'm finding the characters to be incredibly fascinating and diverse. Furthermore, the element of any given person being the murderer adds a pressure-cooker atmosphere underneath even the most harmless of exchanges, as even the most harmless person could be the murderer. Plus, you don't know who's going to live and who's going to die, which makes every exchange seem infinitely more urgent.

Aside from scrolling through dialogue, players will engage in the investigation of crime scenes when somebody finally does kick the proverbial bucket, gathering evidence in the form of "Truth Bullets." As that name might suggest, this is nothing like "Ace Attorney," despite some basic similarities in their investigation mechanics. Once you've collected enough ammo, so to speak, the trial begins, and here's where things get interesting. In order to find contradictions in different statements (these come out during "Non-Stop Debates," which are back-and-forth exchanges between all of the characters,) players use a targeting reticle to shoot their evidence at conflicting statements. On top of that, players have to do a hangman-style game to find letters to construct key words for evidence, and engage in a rhythm game segment to argue with the accused party. Sounds hectic, yes, and at first, it is. But once you get into the flow, things begin to make sense in a crazy sort of way. When all is said in done, the murderer is executed in an incredibly elaborate way that can only be described as "Looney Tunes" meets "Saw." Ah, yes, and did I mention that this is all timed? Yep.

This is all tied into a neat little package by some excellent visuals. The character designs are blissfully unique, and despite the fact that some characters are a bit archetypal, they make up for it by being very visually appealing. Furthermore, the overall visual aesthetic, which reminds me of a darker "The World Ends With You," is seductive in the way that it pulls you into the sadistically cartoonish world. Everything is hyper stylized, from exaggerated facial expressions to copious amounts of neon pink blood. While it's silly at times, that's almost what makes it so endearing; such dark and gritty subject matter, offset by the stylish and silly tone, makes for a game quite unlike anything else on the marketplace. Topped off with some very punchy and well-translated dialogue, that has a distinctive sarcasm and wit to it, along with a hypnotic soundtrack and you've got a winner.

While it's true that some elements of this game might be grating on the nerves to some, such as excessive amounts of dialogue and some pacing issues, I've found myself entranced with this unique little gem. Perhaps it's not perfect, but most games aren't, but what "Danganronpa" has going for it is pure, unadulterated style. It oozes out of every exchange with characters, out of the murders themselves, and just about every other thing you can imagine. Visual novels very rarely manage to maintain a consistently interesting tone, let along blend humor and horror effectively, but somehow, Spike-Chunsoft has done it.

For those willing to put a bit of time into scrolling through dialogue, "Danganronpa" is a fun and creepy little thrill ride that's unlike anything else out there, especially on the Vita.

Score: 9
Comment Comments (5) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 13, 2014 3:59 PM PDT


Frozen (Two-Disc Blu-ray / DVD + Digital Copy)
Frozen (Two-Disc Blu-ray / DVD + Digital Copy)
DVD ~ Kristen Bell
Price: $19.96
26 used & new from $18.46

52 of 65 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Ironically Heartwarming Masterpiece, December 15, 2013
During the entirety of "Frozen," I was in thrall at what was occurring on the screen in front of me. Honestly, it was kind of hard to tell what was hitting me, as I cheered, cried, and almost stood up clapping for the characters on screen. By the time the credits were rolling, and the hairs on my arms were still standing up, I still wasn't sure what to think. So I walked out of the theater, then bought another ticket to the next showtime. Walking home as the sunset after the second screening, it became clear to me. "Frozen" is the best thing Disney has put out in well over a decade, and will probably go down in cinema history as one of the greatest artistic achievements in animation. Oh, yes, and it's a darn fine film in its own right, for adults and children alike.

A very loose retelling of "The Snow Queen" that Walt Disney himself had been planning since the 1940's, "Frozen" tells a tale of two sisters, Anna and Elsa. From a very young age, they were inseparable and played together all the time. But when Elsa's control over the element of ice threatens her sister's life, her father puts her powers under control, and erases Anna's memories of her sister ever being anything but normal. Years go by, and a rift occurs between the siblings, which comes to a head on the day of Elsa's coronation as queen. Anna angers her sister into fleeing and releasing an eternal winter for their oceanic trading town, as well as the entire land. To undo the damage, she must find Elsa and reason with her, lest the livelihood of thousands be threatened. With the help of the travelling ice merchant Kristoph (and his silly reindeer Sven) and the lively snowman Olaf, she goes up against seemingly insurmountable odds to save the day.

That's about the most basic description I can give of the film without giving away too much. Which is a wonderful thing to say, because for the first time in far too long, Disney has created a movie that is almost entirely unpredictable, and incredibly subversive in terms of what we expect from them. Startling new revelations occur at a very rapid rate, especially during the film's masterful climax, which completely floored me due its unwillingness to fall into trite, cliche territory. The admittedly great "Tangled" looks like small potatoes compared to how fantastic this movie in terms of its powerful and surprising narrative, and Jennifer Lee should be commended for her masterful screenplay (as well as her direction alongside Chris Buck.)

What really makes this a special film, as mentioned above, is how it's unlike anything Disney normally puts out. Routinely, the movie takes out trite tropes and plot devices from their usual stock, dangles them in front of our faces to the point of approaching parody, then coyly smashes them to pieces right before our very eyes and does something entirely new. While I can't really give examples without spoiling the movie, I can assure you that this isn't the typical Disney experience, and it feels like the aging studio has turned a new page, much like it did in the 80's with the release of "The Little Mermaid," ironically another Hans Christian Anderson piece.

Speaking of "The Little Mermaid," this is another tale with incredibly strong female leads in Anna and Elsa. Anna will stop at nothing to simple establish better bonds with her sister, and Elsa's struggle to contain her power and be herself can be paralleled to the struggles faced by young women growing up in modern society. Their rich characterizations reinforce the idea that girls don't need to grow up looking for a prince in shining armor, and instead, can be strong and independent by their own merits. The same can be said for the character of Kristoph, who teaches the idea of chivalry versus sheltering, teamwork versus saving the damsel in distress. For children, "Frozen" carries some fantastic messages that parents are sure to appreciate, and are much different from other kids' movies today.

On top of the great writing and rich characterizations, the visuals on display are simply majestic. The characters are deeply expressive and creatively designed, with crisply animated flowing hair and endearingly exaggerated physical attributes. Set pieces are a wonder to behold, from Elsa's beautiful ice castle to the mysterious frozen tundras trekked across by Elsa and Kristoph. Everything in this film is pure eye candy of the highest caliber, and easily one of the best works of CG animation to come out of the field for quite some time. Years down the line, this will most likely still be captivating to look at.

The same can be said for the voice work and music, as both are top-notch. Every character is perfectly cast, and while it's really difficult to pick favorites, I must say that Idina Menzel's mysterious and sultry voice as Elsa is enchanting to the ears, and her soulful singing voice during both her solo bits and duets make me suspect there might be an Oscar for Best Original Song in her future. All of the singing complements Christophe Beck's truly awesome score, which includes some of the best songs in all of Disney history, including the tear-jerking anthem to freedom "Let It Go," heart-wrenching ballad of sororal love "Do You Want To Build A Snowman?," and the peppy uptempo piece "In Summer." Great music and a talented cast round out the film into a complete, wonderful package.

It's no secret that Disney's been in a bit of a bind lately, what with uninspired sequels and tired standalone films with worn-out premises. But "Tangled" was a step in the right direction, and now, "Frozen" is an unabashed dash ahead in that very same direction. Make no mistake, this is not just a great work of animation, or a well-done Disney film. It is a truly superb and divine cinematic experience, the likes of which only comes along a few times every decade or so, if we're lucky. Regardless of your age, or whether you like these types of movies or not, this is something you must experience. If you like movies, or more basically, if you like feeling happy, watch this film without delay.

"Frozen" is an artistic achievement beyond comprehension, and perhaps a sign that we are on the precipice of Disney's second renaissance.

Grade: A+ (Superb)
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 13, 2014 1:47 PM PDT


Ys: Memories of Celceta - PlayStation Vita
Ys: Memories of Celceta - PlayStation Vita
Price: $39.99
31 used & new from $31.97

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Worth Remembering, December 12, 2013
The PS Vita is a fantastic system with terrible support. Even fans of the console won't deny that fact. And yet, when exclusive games are released for it, they tend to excel in their respective genres, and slowly but surely bolster the clout of the underrated handheld. Thus, it seems fitting that the Ys series undertakes one of its most drastic transformations yet on this system, transitioning away from the 2D sprites we've grown accustomed to in even the most recent entries. Breaking bold new ground in this ground-up reimagining of an older Ys title, "Memories of Celceta" is not only an excellent action RPG in its own right, but another line on a growing list of reasons to own Sony's latest handheld.

The fourth version of "Ys IV," "Celceta" puts players in the boots of Adol Christian, an amnesiac adventurer who has emerged from a mysterious forest that nobody has ever returned from. Yet as soon as he arrives into what players are led to believe is his hometown, the unpopular government of the region tasks him with travelling back into the sprawling territory with the express purpose of creating a map for the people of the nation. With a massive fortune promised to him and his travelling companion, Adol sets off on a dangerous trek to chart the uncharted, as well as uncover the mystery behind who he really is.

Amnesiac protagonists are nothing new to JRPGs, yet for some reason, my jaded cynicism has been kept remarkably under wraps with this game. The method utilized to recall Adol's memories (more on that in a second) is rather ingenious, and prevents the narrative from turning into the same tedious hokum we've been dealing with since the SNES era. And while the narrative itself is not entirely original, it's the type of archetypal video game comfort food I can get behind, with an excellent translation propelling likable characters into more than the sum of their part. Insofar, this is a cast that I want to see succeed in their ultimate goal, and I can't help but cheer for them every step of the way.

And with odds like these, they're going to need somebody cheering them on. Within less than twenty or so minutes, players are plunged straight into battle, throwing long-winded exposition to the wind in flavor of raw challenge and tight gameplay. Not too far into the game, characters will be getting paralyzed, poisoned and other things at a fairly frequent pace, as "Celceta" doesn't do any real hand-holding to speak of. As you hack and slash through the wilderness, you'll find yourself scrambling for campsites and checkpoint stones, as large foes you're unable to fight early on will kill Adol and company in one hit. Every step you take is risk, and for every wave of weak enemies, a solitary behemoth is lurking around the corner or underwater, waiting to take you out. It's this sense of exploration and dread that has kept me on my toes throughout my playthrough, and it's one that very few games can capture without resorting to the ludicrous difficulty found in something like "Dark Souls." Falcom has done a commendable job of balancing out the difficulty nicely, while still maintaining a nice ratio of risk and reward.

There are some interesting quirks to "Celceta" that make it much more than difficult hack-and-slash, though. The first of these is the phenomenal character-switching system, which is perhaps the most streamlined and fluid I've experienced in any action RPG. Different enemies have different weaknesses, and it's up to players to discover this so they can switch between party members on the fly and wail away on them. It turns enemy encounters into hectic, fun brawls, filled with rapid switching, intricate combos, and numerous strings of special moves. Secondly, the system through which Adol recovers memories is fun and rewarding. By exploring different parts of the expansive map, players will uncover memories that contain snippets of backstory, then reward them with stat boosts. This gives an incentive to discover the memories, because here, knowledge is literally power.

Some Vita features in the game are utilized, and much to my delight, they're entirely unobtrusive and actually add to the game. Touch screen interface options are seamless and responsive, making menu navigation a speedy and painless process. Swiping the back touch pad allows you to switch AI partners from "Offense" to "Defense," and tapping enemies on the front screen shows you information on them. It's nice to see the Vita's touch features used for the sake of convenience, and not shoehorned in for the sake of having them present.

The same could really be said for the graphics. While many games attempt to wow players with "console-quality" visuals on the system, "Celceta" doesn't engage in that trend. The result is a game that is beautiful in terms of the level design, the imagination put into the worlds, and the gift of allowing players to see where they're going to end up miles down the road, as opposed to attempting raw graphical horsepower like "Killzone: Mercenary" or "Uncharted: Golden Abyss." Much like this year's "Tales of Xillia," "Celceta" proves that a game doesn't have to run at 60 FPS or look photo-realistic in order to be awe-inspiring.

"Awe-inspiring" is also a phrase that could be used to describe the wonderful soundtrack, which is, in a word, breathtaking. Beautiful synthesizers and strings work in perfect harmony to create a score that is energetic, mysterious, and about a million other positive superlatives. It really hit me when I was overlooking an oceanic town, or exploring a mysterious bog, that the music sucks me in like no soundtrack has this year thus far, breaking down the boundaries between myself and Adol. A composer's work to pulling me into a world so thoroughly has not happened for a very long time, and it's an experience that I relish with every chord of this amazing piece of music.

Every battle lost and every dead end reached does not make me want to put down "Ys: Memories of Celceta." Rather, it motivates me to pick myself up and push onward, wanting to see everything this amazing game has to offer. While this year has been packed with amazing RPGs, most have not pulled me into their worlds so forcefully, demanding my full attention as a player. As I have not finished it, I cannot truly say whether or it is deserving of a perfect score. But from what I've seen thus far, it's darn close to pure gaming nirvana, and one of the defining reasons to own a PS Vita.

Score: 9.75
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 13, 2013 10:16 AM PST


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