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Hyrule Warriors - Nintendo Wii U
Hyrule Warriors - Nintendo Wii U
Price: $59.99
9 used & new from $55.75

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Dynasty of Zelda, September 28, 2014
Nintendo, as of late, has been taking some interesting risks as a company. A shooter featuring an adorable cast of squid-human hybrids? Sure! An entire game focused on Captain Toad? Why not! But to me, the most unusual announcement recently was "Hyrule Warriors," which is exactly what it sounds like. That is to say, a "Zelda" game that plays exactly like a "Warriors" title, albeit with a few tweaks. Would this be a simple reskin, a la the "Dynasty Warriors Gundam" titles, or would it bring the best of both series together in a deliciously orgasmic package? The series have very little in common, and putting them into one game sounded like the most incongruous mixture possible.

Pleasingly, "Hyrule Warriors" represents the very best of franchises in varying capacities. Koei-Tecmo brings its satisfying core formula of "press one or two buttons to kill hundreds of enemies in minutes," Team Ninja spices said formula up with gameplay mechanics that lend a distinct variety and weight to each attack, and Nintendo brings its established lore and does some really funky stuff with it, in the best way possible. These three forces collude to produce a game that is rich in content and heavy in fun, not to mention some of the most fun I've had with a co-op game in a long time.

From a narrative stand-point, this is one of the more interesting "Zelda" titles out there. A new villain, the unrealistically proportioned sorceress Cia, tears rifts between different points in Hyrulian history in an attempt to cause disorder and steal Link's soul. This is a sinister and evil plot, yes, but it's also an advantageous one for longtime fans of the franchise. The reason? It's the perfect excuse for fan-favorite characters from different games to team up and knock down evil forces side-by-side. So, aside from a patently annoying original character (Lana, a walking anime stereotype,) players will be able to get their hands on Midna, Ruto, Darunia, and many others, anachronistically teaming up to dispatch foes both fresh and familiar.

There's obviously a lot more going on in the plot, but to spoil it would be a crime. While it would be silly to say that this is one of the absolute best "Zelda" storylines, it's certainly one of the more interesting ones. It constantly undermines your expectations, despite some jaw-droppingly predictable "twists," and does away with the traditional "one villain" storyline that's made of the more recent entries a bit stale. It's also a novel concept to have three different periods in history appearing at the same time and interacting with each other, something that I've always longed to see happen. While there are no real moments of emotional resonance or significant character development going on here, there's a sense of chaotic whimsy that feels really fresh and interesting. Most importantly, it avoid the pitfalls of many crossover titles, and for that, it deserves some praise.

That sentiment can be echoed for the gameplay as well. Many crossover titles lose something in translation, favoring one franchise too much and the other too little, or doing something entirely unwelcome and feeling nothing like either franchise. But here, it truly feels like a wonderful mash-up between both franchises, much like this year's earlier "Professor Layton VS Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney." Players will hack through thousands of enemies in a fast, frantic fashion, and unleash ridiculous special moves that devastate the opposition. They'll capture bases, take on special enemies, and upgrade their gear. But on that same token, maps are sprawling and varied, peppered with hidden collectibles and chests, and many possessing a signature boss fight that can only be effectively fought with a certain item. Koei-Tecmo and Team Ninja have both brought their own things to the table, but without losing the fantastical atmosphere and sense of exploration that comes with Nintendo's flagship.

There's no hurting for both variety and depth of content here, either. On top of Legend mode, which is where the narrative unfolds, there's Free Mode (a hallmark of the Warriors series) in which players can play through any story level with any character they've unlocked thus far. There's also Adventure mode, where players progress on a charming 8-Bit recreation of the 1987 "The Legend of Zelda" map, taking on special challenges along the way. Each mode interacts with the others, too, meaning that materials collected, characters unlocked, and levels gained in one mode count towards the other two. As if this, along with the numerous collectible trinkets and healthy catalog of unlockable music, wasn't enough, everything in "Hyrule Warriors" can be tackled with two players locally (one on the TV, one on the WiiU GamePad.) Playing this with a friend or significant other comes highly recommended, as it makes tackling tasks easier by leaps and bounds. One player can conquer a base while the other hunts for a Golden Skultula, for example, and both can then come together to tackle a boss. This is one of the finer examples of local co-op I've seen in recent years, and with minimal slowdown, there's no reason not to play this with another person if you can.

There have been some reviews disparaging the visual quality of "Hyrule Warriors," and to be blunt, they can sod off. It might not have the resolution and parity of, say, a AAA title on the PS4 or One, but for what it's trying to do, it more or less hits the mark. The maps are carefully crafted and beautifully designed, taking players from a tree-top village to the depths of "Ocarina of Time"'s infamous Water Temple, among many other locales, some new, some fresh takes on old classics. Despite some occasional texturing issues, each map does a good job of pulling one in, especially with the usage of varied, vibrant colors. The real showstopper here, though, are the characters. Everybody on display looks absolutely magnificent, rendered with the utmost attention to detail and fluidly animated. While Cia's design reminds me of what a horny middle-school boy would create on DeviantArt, everyone else looks great. Again, this might not win any awards for sheer horsepower, and the camera could use a little work (it has the tendency to grow unfocused from time to time,) it makes up for it with style and variety.

"Hyrule Warriors" is a lovely bit of fan service to longtime fans of the "Zelda" franchise, packed to the brim with content (with more on the way for some time to come,) fun to play, look at, and listen to. It avoids some of the monotonous repetition that comes with certain "Warriors" games, and the plodding pace that comes with some "Zelda" titles. Without strictly being one game or the other, it somehow represents both titles at their very best, and it's quite obvious that a massive amount of effort went into making this game just right.

If you have a WiiU, love "Zelda," and like killing lots of things at once with friends, it doesn't get much better than "Hyrule Warriors." Also, you can bring down the moon from "Majora's Mask" and crash it into a dragon using hookshots that spring forth out of a magical abyss.

I rest my case.

Pros:
- Polished gameplay, tons of content
- A great balance of both franchises
- Excellent co-op
- Looks and sounds great

Cons:
- Camera can be wonky at times
- Only three or four Zelda games are pulled from
- Main campaign is a bit short

Score: 9.0


Destiny - PlayStation 4
Destiny - PlayStation 4
Price: $59.40
102 used & new from $44.86

6 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Destined for the Bargain Bin, September 18, 2014
I have not seen everything Destiny has to offer. I know this, for a fact. And in fact, I may go one step further and say that I will, in all likelihood, never see everything this game has to offer. Of course, part of this has to do with the absolute chore it is to get this game to get connected, stay connected, and not throw about a dozen different cryptic error messages at me. But I'll save that complaint for later. Because if Bungie's overhyped exercise in the power of marketing was worth putting up with the horrible connection issues and egregious crashes was truly a great, original game, it would be worth it. But it's not. Like many dedicated video game players expected, Destiny is not particularly an original, innovative, or even a fantastic game. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it is one of the most derivative, by-the-numbers experiences I've had with a piece of software this year, held together by a half-baked story and truly awful progression.

The story, what little of it is there, is a hodgepodge of cliches filled with utterly forgettable characters and needlessly convoluted terminology. What can be sussed from it is that a giant orb, known as the Traveler (it's a Bungie game, so get ready for about a zillion capitalized nouns,) appeared out of nowhere and beckoned in an era of space travel for humanity. But the Traveler itself has had enemies in its, erm, travels, and those enemies of course end up attacking humanity and ravaging Earth. What remains of humanity is on distant planets, fighting against said enemies, most of whom are comprised by the generically-named Covenent wannabes, the Darkness.

All of this exposition, and so little to care about. Honestly, you can ignore most of this story and be fine. In fact, you might be better off, because it's some of the most uninspired tripe out there, and I honestly expect more from Bungie at this point. This is a studio that's been around since the 90's, giving us the Marathon and Halo games, both series that have interesting lore and compelling narratives. But here? It's the stereotypical "humanity must survive" narrative we've seen time and time again in games, and considering this is 2014, where games have evolved to tell fantastic narratives grounded in believable yet fantastical worlds, stuff like this holds the industry back. Simply put, the narrative content of this game is bland and intellectually offensive, and not even worth trying to put thought towards. Because it feels, frankly, like no thought was put into it to begin with.

No real thought seems to have been applied to the rest of the game, either, from what I was able to play. Yes, the core gameplay is very tight, and satisfying to a degree. The gunplay is polished and snappy, the melee feels good, vehicles control like they ought to, but... something is missing. There's a certain kind of spunk the Bungie-developed Halo games had to them, a type of freshness that's almost impossible to describe unless you're actually playing it. Yet that's entirely missing here, much to my chagrin. We have a futuristic story with strange weapons, mysterious worlds, a foreboding intergalactic threat, and yet all one can muster while playing this game is a resounding "eh." There is nothing broken here, yet nothing particularly wonderful. It works, but it doesn't excel at its task. When you think of a typical, big-budget, stereotypical "AAA" shooter, well, this is it. Right here. Just with some Borderlands elements slapped onto it haphazardly.

And yes, I did say haphazardly. I'm not a big proponent of Gearbox, but with the first two Borderlands, they really nailed something special. They took the addictive qualities found in dungeon-crawling lootfests and somehow translated them successfully into an open-world shooter. There were hundreds of guns, a lively world to explore, and upgrades that packed a real punch if you knew what you were doing. Bungie, knowing that they couldn't just crank out another shooter and call it a day, looked at everything that series did right and figured they could produce a carbon copy. The problem? Borderlands takes place in a living, breathing world inhabited with memorable characters and a constant stream of new and unique weapons. Destiny, on the other hand, exists in a lifeless, dull vacuum, sprinkled with a few characters whose names you'll quickly forget, along with a few guns that wholly unremarkable. Yes, there are upgrades and perks, but why bother? Their progression is incredibly limited and stunted, and can be cheesed by exploiting the patently broken leveling system. Every similarity to that other, better game is only surface-level. It is a sociopathic imitation of an established formula, going through the same routines yet failing to truly grasp what makes it work.

But what really undoes Bungie's allegedly ambitious new game is the insistence of having the entire experience be online. For the uninformed (I don't blame you, Activision has done an awful job advertising this fact,) everything component of Destiny requires the player be constantly connected to the game's servers. Want to progress the stale story? Grind a few levels? Go solo for some loot-hunting? Too bad. Even if you have no interest in playing with anybody else, the game insists that players be connected to the thing like an MMO. The problem I have with this is that the game functions nothing like an MMO. There are a few players in your lobby, and every once in a while, you'll see them do something. Maybe kill an enemy or open a chest. For the most part, though, you'll be wandering the lifeless landscapes by yourself, with no need for any other players. Yeah, you can invite whatever player you run into to form a team, but that's about it. This is a game that could have easily been a single-player experience, and forcing an always-online system onto players just wanting to experience the world by themselves is a pretty scummy thing to do.

Aside from the vast expanse of nothingness to explore and the limp noodle of a campaign to go through, there are some other multiplayer options. There are deathmatches, which are pretty typical affairs albeit with some neat little gadgets, and Bungie promises a future of scheduled community events, such as raids. Again, everything here works as it should, I feel, but it all ultimately comes together in something that feels very undercooked. Bungie has done multiplayer before, and honestly, they've done it in some of the best ways I've ever seen accomplished. But that was with Halo, not this. This just feels a bit forced by comparison, at least for my purposes. For my money, there are better games on the market with playable deathmatch modes, and quite frankly, better games on the PS4 if you're looking for an MMO to sink some hours into.

There are very few other things I can say about Destiny without really forcing myself to try. It's pretty to look at, sure, but as I've been saying this entire write-up, there's nothing particularly engaging the aesthetic on display. There were games about space travel released several years ago with worlds that felt more like living and breathing spaces than boring plains with some stuff to jump on. Even with very polished graphics that look almost lifelike in some areas, nothing can disguise the fact that Bungie has given players a tray of plastic fruit. That is to say, it's all very pretty looking, but there's nothing to really sink your teeth into and pull you into the experience.

Writing about Destiny, I can't help but get a strange sense of deja vu. They are two entirely different games, yes, but this game reminds me very much of this year's Watch Dogs. Both experiences were built up with colossal amounts of hype, using buzzwords like "revolutionary" and "innovative" to drive preorders up. But at the end of the day, neither product was anything close to what I'd call a game-changer. They're riffs on things we've seen before, and quite honestly, seen done far better. Just because we're in a new generation of consoles doesn't mean developers get permission to just hit the "reset" button and start again from the ground up. That's not how this works. Each console generation does not exist in a vacuum, and nobody should get a free pass to just shove something we've been playing for years in our faces and call it the next big thing.

But I guess this is where my opinion of the two games differs. Watch Dogs at least tried. It was a GTA clone, yes, but it had some novel hooks and a nice world, not to mention the fact that Ubisoft has never tried their hands at an open-world crime game. But Bungie doesn't get that much lenience from me. They've been in the industry for a long time, and have been developing shooters for most of that time. They know what they're doing. And for them to put out something this poorly thought-out, this soulless? Well, it's kind of insulting. It's insulting that I ever thought that they were capable of something great beyond Halo.

Ultimately, Destiny is not a bad game. But it's certainly not a good one. It's above-average, yes, and better than the last attempts at shooters Activision has published. That being said, it's still a wholly derivative start to a series that, from first impressions, is looking to be absolutely nothing special. And from the people who crafted some of my favorite console gaming experiences to date, that's a real shame.

Pros:
- Polished gameplay
- Pretty graphics
- Good soundtrack

Cons:
- Awful plot
- Progression is uninspired, dull
- Always-online is unnecessary
- Bungie can do better

Score: 6.0
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 21, 2014 2:25 PM PDT


Professor Layton vs Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney
Professor Layton vs Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney
Price: $29.96
33 used & new from $28.95

21 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Puzzle Solvers At Law, August 30, 2014
The most recent main entry in the venerable "Ace Attorney" franchise had one phrase uttered dozens of times throughout its hit-or-miss story: "the dark age of the law." It referred to the fact that corruption in the legal system had become rampant, with forged evidence pushing forward cases in which the "ends justified the means." To a lesser extent, that's how I've felt about the game industry as of late. Giant games boasting most preorders in history or developed by some big, AAA studio who developed some other massive franchise are dominating the market. Trailers with gameplay that is, beyond a shadow of a doubt, fabricated and not indicative of the final product. The ends justify the means, just so long as the big companies get their profit. It's instilled me with a healthy dose of bitter cynicism about gaming in general, and for a while there, I felt like I wasn't going to be able to keep on reviewing games, or pursuing a career in that vein. There just wasn't enough to keep me going.

Yet there were some bastions of hope. Some of the upcoming Fall titles look engaging, the return of survival horror into the marketplace is great, and, more related to this review, Nintendo has put up its dukes again and started pounding into the competition again. Given that I love the company dearly, and that I obviously am heavily invested in the "Ace Attorney" franchise, this title was always a no-brainer purchase for me. In fact, it was one of the reasons I wanted a 3DS, when it was announced way back in 2010. I didn't know how good it would be, though. In fact, I had no idea that one game could singlehandedly restore my faith in video games, and my love of them. But that's what's happening with "Professor Layton vs Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney." It sounds hyperbolic, but this is one of the best games I've played this year.

The set-up is ridiculous and whimsical, very befitting of both franchise involved. A mysterious book owned by a girl named Espella holds the history of Labyrinthia, a sleepy town that feels straight out of a fairy tale. And indeed, Espella's book makes that seem like a likely possibility, considering it not only holds the tale of Labyrinthia's past, but of its present and future as well. In two very different capacities, Layton, Luke, Phoenix and Maya get involved with Espella, and get drawn inside of the magical tome. To their surprise, being sucked inside of the book takes them straight to Labyrinthia, which is very much a medieval joint complete with knights, cobblestone streets, and... witch trials. Yep, you see where this is going, don't you?

Four rational individuals are thrown into a wildly irrational world and expected to survive. Not only that, but they're expected to go up against widespread superstition to save innocent lives, and to try and topple a man known only as the Storyteller, who is essentially a god. Will logic prevail? Will their objections be heard? Or will the future written by the Storyteller come to fruition and foil everything our heroes are working towards? The basic conflict of this game is a top-notch "fish out of water story," and it's one of the best adventures any of the characters have ever had.

What makes the narrative work so well is not only the core conflict of "logic versus superstition," but the combination of excellent pacing and great characterization. Layton and Phoenix are entirely out of their element, and watching them try to navigate the waters of Labyrinthia's tenuous legal system is thrilling, to say the least. The horrific nature of a guilty verdict equaling instant execution is balanced out by both series' signature senses of humor, which work perfectly together. It pushes all of the characters to their logical extremes, and as somebody who enjoys both series, it's a pure joy to watch unfold. At the same time, the game's structure and excellent usage of cliffhangers makes sure that players don't get too tired of puzzle-solving or courtroom drama, breaking everything up into nice chunks that prevent tedium from setting in.

The gameplay itself is a perfect combination of both series' hallmarks. Sections in which you're pointing and clicking are now not only filled with puzzles, but with clues and evidence that can be used in court. This means that you'll see Phoenix and Maya solving puzzles in the same fashion as a Layton game, as well as Layton and Luke questioning witnesses and discussing evidence in a similar way to an Ace Attorney entry. This simultaneous combination and role-reversal is the compelling kick in the pants both franchises have needed in recent entries, in my opinion, and keeps things constantly engaging.

Long-time fans of the Ace Attorney franchise, the ones who expect each entry to have a cool new mechanic (Psyche-Locks, the Mood Matrix, and the like,) will be pleased to see two new features added here. It's a bit of a mixed bag, though, as one of them is a bit perfunctory, while the other is surprisingly novel and interesting. The useless one is the addition of a spell book, which the player can use to present different spells in court. We've been collecting and presenting evidence since 2005 (earlier in Japan,) though, and this just feels like another arsenal of evidence as opposed to a legitimate new feature. That being said, the second addition is having multiple witnesses on the stand at once, which is a healthy amount of chaotic fun. Different testimonies contradict each other and trigger other trains of thought of other witnesses, and it's up to the player to suss through all of these to get to the bottom of each case. It's a novel feature that could only really work in this setting, and while I'd like it to return, I understand that it wouldn't work using the modern legal system as a template. As it stands, I'm grateful for such a cool feature here, and appreciate the exciting twist on the formula it brings to the table.

I would say that my biggest qualm with the gameplay is the incongruous mixture of difficulty and mollycoddling players get. I get that hint coins are an integral part of the Layton series, but I don't really feel like they have a place in Phoenix's courtroom. It's true that Ace Attorney has always had a problem of oblique answers to vague questions, but using hint coins that either narrow the evidence you can present or straight-up tell you the answer to things is not the right way to go about fixing that. Personally, I would have preferred better lines of logic instead of a cheap tactic driven by collecting trinkets which are overly abundant in the game world. That doesn't speak to the quality of the core mechanics themselves, of course, but it is something that I really take issue with. So while everything works as well as it should, some more fine-tuning of the lines of logic and less liberal application of coins would have been nice.

There are no real complaints in the presentation department. In fact, this is one of the best looking titles on the 3DS in terms of pure aesthetics. Just to be clear, that doesn't mean it has the most polygons, or the most "realistic" appearance. Instead, its art direction can only be described as brilliant. It is a beautiful collision of both Layton and Ace Attorney's radically different styles that feels tasteful, and is aided by a fantastic presentation in the town of Labyrinthia itself. Playing video games for as long as I have, I've seen plenty of medieval villages and mysterious dungeons. Yet few of them have managed to make me feel the sense of awe and whimsy I feel while playing "Layton vs Wright." It's filled with several interesting characters of varying art styles that, somehow, never clash, and feel like living, breathing citizens of their world. This fantastical cavalcade of bright color is tied together by a fantastic use of 3D and smooth character animations, further drawing players into Labyrinthia. Oh, yes, and those animated cutscenes? They're easily the best either franchise has ever had.

Arguably, though, my favorite part of this game is the soundtrack. Layton and Ace Attorney are both scored by some of the best in business, and have distinctive tunes which franchise fans know and love. While the primary Ace Attorney composer didn't work on this, which is kind of surprising, the main Layton composer and another famed game musician teamed up for the soundtrack this time around. The results can only be described as... actually, no description does them justice. But what I can say is that this is the best soundtrack, to any game, that I have heard all year. The light yet mysterious vibe of Level-5's games is given copious amounts of punch and spice by the signature brash and bold atmosphere of Capcom's. Musical hallmarks of both series are touched upon and messed around with in new, interesting ways, which helps drive home the fact that this is a true combination of both franchises.

To me, that's what makes this a must-play. This is not a cheap crossover, an excuse to just throw a few beloved characters into a game in hopes of making a quick cash-grab, which is a shocker considering Capcom was involved. Like peanut butter and jelly, like fries and a chocolate shake (try it sometime,) this is a flavorful combination, with both tastes complementing and aiding each other to make the entire experience something that could not be replicated elsewhere. This game represents both franchises at the top of their game, no pun intended. It is both the best Ace Attorney since "Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney" and the best Layton since the early entries, mixed into 20+ hour experience.

"Professor Layton vs Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney" is not without its issues, but in my years of experience, no game is. As it stands, though, it's two fantastic franchises done right, thrown into one game and then put on the market at a budgeted price. For adventure game fans, it's a fantastic value and a great introduction to a cast of unforgettable characters. For fans of both or either franchise, it's everything you know and love, plus so much more. Either way, it's a fantastic game with very little hampering it from being one of this year's best.

At the end of the year, after the overhyped shooters and DLC cashgrabs have come and gone, I will look back on this game still, and might even still be playing downloadable puzzles and bonus episodes. I will look back on it and remember it as the game that restored my faith in games. Not bad, huh?

Pros:
- A lengthy, twisty story.
- Engaging, varied gameplay.
- Vibrant graphics.
- Beautiful, brilliant soundtrack.
- Both a great starting point and a great piece of fan service.

Cons:
- Hint coins have no place in the courtroom.
- The spell book is a useless addition.
- Ace Attorney still has some oblique lines of logic.

Score: 9.5
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 29, 2014 10:55 PM PDT


300: Rise of an Empire
300: Rise of an Empire
DVD
Price: $3.99

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Rise of a Franchise, July 24, 2014
Personally, I went in with the lowest of expectations with "300: Rise of an Empire." The first "300" was very good for its time, an entertaining festival of unadulterated machismo and bloody carnage. Perhaps it hasn't aged very well in the seven years since its release, with its more problematic elements becoming more highlighted by the influx of action films with better female characterization, but I would still contend that it's a very entertaining, fun film. But three years shy of a decade later (god, I feel old,) why is a follow-up even remotely necessary?

For much of its 100+ minute runtime, "Rise of an Empire" desperately tries to prove its worth to skeptics like myself, and mostly succeeds. It isn't a sequel, in the strictest sense of the word, nor is it a prequel. Instead, we have a story that takes place before, during, and a bit after the events of the first film, It follows Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton,) a blue-caped Athenian crusader responsible for killing King Darius, which in turn spurs his son Xerxes into becoming the borderline iconic villain fans remember. But while Leonidas focused on direct ground confrontation, most of the action here takes place on the high seas, pitting our protagonist against the menacing navel commander Artemisia (expertly played by Eva Green.)

And when the focus is on that action, this sequel soars. The action sequences are some of the most well-choreographed I've seen all year, especially the explosive, physics-defying climax. When films have a focus on navel warfare, they often tend to drag on and becoming grandiose, budget-driven bores. But here, the script eschews typical ship battles, instead focusing on implausible yet exhilarating bits of action. Horses jump from boat to boat, ships spew oil which is of course lit ablaze, soldiers leap from masts and plunge their blades into the skulls of the opposition. If you're looking for fun swordplay and bloody chaos, few movies do it better than this.

Which makes other parts of the film feel like a thundering bore. Yes, when "Rise of an Empire" decides to focus on political intrigue or grand proclamations of battle, it falls woefully short of the heights delivered by its predecessor. There are no "tonight we dine in hell" or "this is Sparta" moments here, only cut-rate dialogue which exists only to drive the plots. That is, when we're focused on the Athenian side of things. The characters of Artemisia and Gorgo (Lena Headey reprises her role) get the best lines, ironic in a movie so blatantly pitched towards men. But when they're off camera, which is too often, the film necessitates that Stapleton steps into the spotlight, and not to be too harsh, but the guy just can't carry a whole movie.

Speaking of Gorgo and Artemisia, I have to commend Zac Snyder and Kurt Johnstead for improving the female characterization present in this series. While it's still no "Divergent" or "Hunger Games," both of these characters get to slay the opposition and remain mostly undefined by victimhood. I also have to hand it to the movie for handling the topic of sexual assault in a non-glorified, non-sexualized manner. It's portrayed not as some forbidden vice, but as a disgusting act of subjugation and domination, which is exactly how it was implemented in the time period during which this is supposed to take place. Gone are the days of the naked, dancing oracle and Gorgo's assault in the previous film, and it shows that the franchise is willing to not entirely alienate a female audience. Good stuff. Not great, but good.

What more is there to say about "300: Rise of an Empire" aside from that last sentiment, then? It's nothing groundbreaking, nor does it feel as innovative or original as the first film, but it constantly undermines the viewer's doubt in it being a worthy addition to the series canon. It may get dull at times, but the action sequences and great performances from Green and Headey, paired with Junkie XL's excellent score, manage to save the film from complete mediocrity. This won't win over people who don't like this sort of film, but for fans of the original or people looking for a high-flying action experience, it's a solid bit of entertainment that'll probably be worth your time.

Grade: B-


Appleseed: Alpha [Blu-ray]
Appleseed: Alpha [Blu-ray]
DVD ~ Luci Christian
Price: $17.49
33 used & new from $15.57

11 of 18 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Rotten Core, July 23, 2014
What happens when you give an American studio and the "God of War" writer access to a cult favorite Japanese property? I was hoping for something good, really. The first two "Appleseed" movies are much better than some people give them credit for, and I'm always sure to recommend the first one to those looking for a fun, futuristic thrill ride. It looked, from the trailers, like the prequel was on track to have an interesting set-up for the franchise coupled with some beautiful animation. Still, there were warning signs, like Deunan's absolutely moronic costume change to the unfortunate choice of generic, dated dubstep. I held out hope, and was promptly shot in the foot.

Without any exaggeration, I believe that I could fairly assert that "Appleseed: Alpha" is one of the worst things to happen to a great franchise since "Metroid" got hit by the speeding semi that was "Other M," or when George Lucas thought Jar Jar Binks would be a genuinely worthy character addition to the "Star Wars" lore. Without trying to come across as a bitter nerd here, I'll keep details on why this is a bad "Appleseed" movie to a minimum, and try to focus on why this is just a bad movie, period.

First off, the plot, or what little there is, is one of the most contrived pieces of drivel to be churned out by a writer this year. We see the world in ruins after World War III, and series protagonists Deunan and Briarios are travelling through a ruined New York, running errands for a black stereotype that also happens to be a robot with devil horns. Off to a great start, I know. They're searching for Olympus, this fabled Utopian society that viewers of the previous films will be all too familiar with. Somehow, they get embroiled in a conflict stemming between a mysterious pair of androids and a young girl who is apparently the key to some nefarious scheme they're hatching. Will our heroes save this young girl in a suit seemingly made of latex? Will Briarios get the help he needs to repair his cybernetic body? Can this movie get any more cliche?

You probably know the answer to all three of those questions. Yes, this movie is comprised of some of the worst tropes to grace science fiction since its inception, and it doesn't use them in any original way. No unique twist or spin, just regurgitated archetypes and plot points that can be and have been executed in a far more compelling fashion. None of this is aided by the positively awful script and patently bad direction, both of which work in tandem to give the film an abundance of awful tough guy dialogue and stilted scenes rife with awkward pauses. From a narrative standpoint, this movie is positively broken down its very concept, and not at a single point did I begin to think this was a story worth telling.

To add a bit of a nitpick here, the characterization of Deunan here is downright awful. Here we had a character with an excellent personality who was unafraid in the face of adversity and handy with a gun. She had practical clothing for the battlefield, and stylish clothing for going out on the town. Brash but bold, caring yet tough, she was one of the best female anime leads of the mid-2000's when the first CG "Appleseed" film hit. Here? She's the stage nag to Briarios, who is actually the lead here, spewing macho lines and talking with a grizzled voice about the war. Deunan barely does anything except for act as a caregiver, fire off a few rounds, and then become emotionally overburdened at the drop of a hat. This is not the character fans know and love, and while I wasn't expecting good female characterization from the writer who brought us the "God of War" series, this isn't mediocre. It's bad. It's flat-out bad. But hey, at least we get a scene where she cooks, and the hilarious joke is that she, in fact, is terrible at cooking! Aren't those jokes still hilarious in 2014? So fresh!

Perhaps the only thing that "saves" this movie is the animation. I'm not going to lie here, it's what prevents me from giving this movie a flat "F" and going about my merry way. Make no mistake, this is a beautiful film. The characters are expressive, and the environments are very,very pretty. And on the rare occasion there's an action sequence that isn't botched by terrible direction or pacing, it can get moderately exciting for a few moments. Unfortunately, the budget sunk into it was squandered, as even the decent action sequences are very trite and worn, nothing like the high-flying, dizzying spectacles I've come to expect from this series. It's all very pretty, but very soulless and repetitive. Oh, yes, and Deunan's new costume is utterly stupid.

Also utterly stupid is every aspect of the sound design here. I don't have very much to say about it, other than it's basically sewage. The voice acting is tepid and bland at best, atrocious and grating at worst. It's all uniformly bad, and the more minor the character, the worse it sounds. But honestly, it's nowhere nearly as atrocious as the music, which is a completely disorganized mess. One second it's awful dubstep, the next it's a symphonic score, then trance, then rap, and then... you get the picture. And while variety is the spice of life, there's something to be said for knowing how to blend different things together in a seamless fashion. This film does the polar opposite and suffers gravely for it.

Ultimately, your enjoyment of "Appleseed: Alpha" will depend on how little you care about plot-to-visuals ratio. If you're the type of person who plops down money to go see a Michael Bay movie for the technical wizardry, or buys new games based on their graphical fidelity, you might enjoy this. There's nothing wrong this. I'm not one of those people, though, and that makes me the polar opposite of the type of person Aramaki and company wanted to pull a fast one over on. Banking on franchise good will and hoping to get away with just having pretty visuals, this movie falls apart the moment one begins to try and pay attention to the garbage plot, listen to the atrocious soundscapes, or expect any sort of interesting action.

The bottom line? "Appleseed: Alpha" is a bad apple in a franchise of ripe, juicy ones, and there's no reason to give it your time. Even if it does look shiny and delicious on the surface.

Grade: D+


Robocop (2014)
Robocop (2014)
DVD
Price: $12.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars I Might Buy That For A Dollar, July 22, 2014
The original "Robocop," made by Paul Verhoeven back in 1987, was a product of its era. This was a period that I wasn't alive during, but from my understanding, was filled to the brim with violent action films that oozed testosterone and viscera in equal amounts. While some of these films have aged quite well, such as "Commando" and "Die Hard," many of them were exercises in mind-numbing repetition. But "Robocop" was the antithesis to this. It worked on several different levels. As a satire, it laid bare the societal fascination with hyper-violent entertainment. As an analogy, it told a biblical tale as filtered through a cynical, post-modern lens. And as a sci-fi action movie, it managed to excited and thrill with memorable sequences and set pieces galore. At the time of its release, the world needed it. It felt urgent.

Which is partially why this update feels so passe. The new "Robocop" is a film that can't decide what it wants to be, and frantically tries on far too many hats for its own good. One moment, the audience is given a rollicking action sequence with a pumping soundtrack, and the next, a futuristic news program hosted by Samuel L. Jackson as a far-right political pundit. This is not a film that is "one part X, one part Y"; instead, it is a film that wants to be "parts A-Z," but lacks the writing and directing chops to pull it off. The result? A film that is a frantic mixture of various things that, ultimately, feels superfluous and unnecessary in today's cinematic landscape.

Why, for example, do we really need a sob story about the lukewarm protagonist and his family? The original film left the titular robotic do-gooder, Alex Murphy, abandoned by his wife and son, the memories of his past life a cruel facade that gave him drive but could never be recreated. But here, we have an underdeveloped family who are supposed to act as the catalysts to him finding his humanity again, after an explosive attack on him leaves with only a head, a hand, and a robotic body. While this could be an okay plot device in a better movie, handled by capable writers, the fact remains that it is botched here. Watching these scenes that were so obviously attempting to be "emotional," I wished that the film would stop its cloying attempts to tug at the heartstrings and get back to the central conflict of the movie.

Which is when I remembered that there is no central conflict, yet another reason why this is a far inferior film to its predecessor. In the original, we had the menacing Clarence Boddicker, a psychotic mobster who shot up the protagonist for fun, blowing him apart limb by limb until barely anything resembling a corpse remained. To top that off, we had an entire gang of equally depraved individuals who engaged Robocop in an array of dazzling and violent action sequences. Here? We have a bloated cast of cliches parroted about like they're important or interesting. They're far from it. The bland criminal who killed Alex is barely there, and only gets brought up again in the ancillary revenge plot. There's a robot specialist cum weapons expert who also wants Alex off the streets because... he hates the idea of androids or something. And last but not least, there's Michael Keaton as the head of OmniCorp, whose character fluctuates wildly between "rogue," "greedy suit" and "sociopathic murderer," with no sense of development or rational progression of actions. There are also several sub-plots that come and go, which left me wondering which one I was supposed to really be caring about. The answer? Not many of them.

It's become a common sentiment, I feel, to lash out at critics who compare the old film and the new one. I call shenanigans with that sentiment, because "Robocop" so desperately tries to ape the original while adding completely jarring and unnecessary flourishes that do nothing but fill the story with bloated nonsense. There are little nods and references that feel wholly out of place here, and quite honestly, undermine what could have been a good film. And make no mistake, there are flashes of compelling stuff here. Gary Oldman's tortured scientist character, in particular, is fascinating. His struggle between his humanity and his desire for technological innovation is surprisingly interesting, and provides a compelling anchor to some of the more stupid bits. On top of that, the film raises some very stimulating questions about US foreign policy, and the morality of drone warfare, not to mention the caustic nature of American imperialism and unfettered patriotism. Indeed, when this movie isn't trying to focus on sappy family bits, phoned-in action, or a perfunctory revenge plot, it actually starts to work and become compelling science fiction.

That, coupled with some strong performances from Oldman, Jackson, Keaton and (shockingly) Jay Baruchel, prevent "Robocop" from becoming a truly bad movie. But while that may be the case, there's no denying that it's a mediocre one which lacks direction or a compelling central conflict. If you come in expecting a cohesive plot and exciting action, well, you're going to be disappointed. But if you can overlook these faults and take away some of the interesting things the writers are trying to accomplish, you may be pleasantly surprised by the genuinely engaging politics in this movie.

"Robocop" lacks the bite of the original, yes, but it's an entertaining little morsel that will make you think about some cool stuff, if only for five minutes or so. With some more polish, it could have been something special, but as it stands, it's simply worth a rent and a casual viewing. Nothing more, nothing less.

Grade: C+


Tomodachi Life
Tomodachi Life
Price: $29.96
48 used & new from $23.00

5 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Absence of Sense, But Not of Fun, June 22, 2014
This review is from: Tomodachi Life (Video Game)
There are some things that I review where I simply can't describe why I like them. I just do. It may be a certain trait that just plays right into an interest of mine, or an original concept that I particularly jive on. But sometimes, even that's not the case. There's no fathomable reason why I should love this thing as much as I do, yet I go and sing its praises to anybody who will listen. And so, I can't really explain why I love "Tomodachi Life" as much as I do. But I suspect the ability to make anime icon Lupin III and Hillary Clinton get hitched, or have Hank Hill and Sadako of "The Ring" infamy be best buddies might have something to do with it.

"Tomodachi Life" has absolutely no plot, and to an extent, absolutely no point whatsoever. You might think of it as "The Sims," but played with Miis and done in the style of a particularly abstract Andy Kaufman gag. You either import Miis from your 3DS, create your own in-game, scan them in, or use a friend's, then put them on an island that you name. Oh, yes, that's after you customize their voice and personality. After that, you set them loose to interact with each other, solving their crises, aiding their relationships, and occasionally taking a peek into their dreams. Which sometimes involve them in humorous "Sailor Moon" fantasies. Or dancing and chanting in a very cult-like fashion around a miscellaneous household item. Yep.

Honestly, there isn't much in the way of real, engaging gameplay, but to me, that's what makes it such a fresh experience. There are no convoluted menus. No annoying menial tasks that might take 20 minutes at a time to do. Nothing like that. "Tomodachi Life" is, to an extent, a life simulator for people who hate life simulators. Everything is handled with a few clicks of the touch screen, and you can either play for five minutes at a time or fifty minutes at a time. Yes, sometimes, things will repeat. A Mii will have the same dream, or a line of dialogue will be uttered twice. But having been played at a very dedicated rate for over two weeks now, I can wholeheartedly say that I am seeing new and unique things everyday still. To top it off, my partner has the game as well, and her experience has been almost entirely different from my own. To me, that speaks volumes to the quality of the game. No one copy will progress or act in the exact same way, which is more than I can say for Nintendo's other major life simulator, "Animal Crossing," despite being a very big fan of that as well.

But what do you do outside of creating Miis and paying attention to their needs? You'll definitely be shopping for them, whether it be hats, clothes, outlandish costumes, food, or new decorations for their rooms, which contribute to their RPG-like "Happiness Level." Outside of that, you can check in on them in a restaurant, send them on an 8-bit role-playing quest, watch two lovebirds chase each other down the beach, or peek in on an outdoor barbecue party. My personal favorite side-activity, and one which can certainly become a time sink if you let it, is at the concert hall. Choosing from a nice variety of musical choices, you can make Miis sing as a solo act, a duo, or a group. Best part is? You get to write the lyrics to any song and hear them sing it. They can be silly, funny, or (if you work around the censored words list, which is pretty easy) a veritable cornucopia of nonsensical raunch. This is just one of the many activities in "Tomodachi Life" that may seem like a silly diversion, but can quite easily keep you engaged for far longer than it should.

That's something that could be said for the entire experience, though. "Tomodachi Life" might not be the most in-depth, realistic life simulator out there, but I don't think it's trying to be. If "The Sims" is the most painstaking, and "Animal Crossing" the lighthearted equivalent, then this is the out-of-left-field, completely off-the-rails festival of unmitigated silliness that people who just want a good laugh play. It's fun by yourself, and it's fun playing side-by-side with a friend, trading Miis and watching them interact with each other's islanders. There's no huge commitment, and you can play it every day, or quit for a month then come back to it. Honestly, this is the type of life simulator I've been waiting for, and it's the type of bizarre, risky game that I've wanted to see Nintendo make more of. Abstract in its humor, novel in its execution, this is something that I can't help but love every second of.

So, like I said above, at the beginning of this admittedly short review, "Tomodachi Life" is something that I can't necessarily put into words. Simply put, it's just fun, funny, and most importantly, fresh. There's nothing else on the market quite like this. Any person of any age, I think, could have a blast with this. While I do think it would be nice if same-sex relationships were included, and that the default "player hand" that shows up sometimes could have its race customized (because, y'know, not everyone has pale skin,) I still think this is, all-in-all, a very wonderful and unique experience that almost anybody could have a total blast with.

I mean, c'mon. Where else are you going to watch Duke Nukem become the most desired man on an island? Or watch yourself get into a committed relationship with a dreadheaded goth? Or see Danny Trejo role around on the floor in a sweatsuit out of boredom? Yeah. I rest my case.

Pros:

- A unique idea executed well.
- Loads of content, and most of it is fun.
- One of the funniest games on the market.

Cons:

- Lack of same-sex relationships sucks for those aren't straight.
- Occasional repetition.

Grade: 9 (Bomber)


Flowers of Evil: Complete Collection [Blu-ray]
Flowers of Evil: Complete Collection [Blu-ray]
DVD ~ Artist Not Provided
Price: $40.16
19 used & new from $33.53

11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Stress, Animated, June 12, 2014
There are plenty of experiences that could be called stressful, but watching something isn't usually one of them. Typically speaking, you watch something to relax, to engage your mind, to tickle some sort of fancy. But there are those rare experiences that make you cringe, make you ask more questions than receive answers, that truly unnerve and stick with you, and make you question why you're even watching the darn thing... yet you just can't get enough. And before you've realized it, your nerves are fried and you've finished whatever it is.

"Flowers of Evil" is one of those things. Easily the best psychological thriller since "Lain" or "Paranoia Agent," and on the very same level of quality of the former, this 2013 series is one of the most controversial anime in recent history, and for good reason. It's unconventional both its approach and its execution, and by no means is this something I'd recommend to the casual consumer. It's a show for those like to question everything they hold sacred, and for those who like their viewing experiences to be the intellectual equivalent of trying to drive through a wall of molasses or glue. This is a show that is unsatisfying and impenetrable in many regards, yet on the exact same token, one that is satisfying, cathartic, and engaging.

Without giving too much away, "Flowers" follows Kasuga, who is a painfully introverted book lover who gets a crush on the beautiful, seeming epitome of normality, Saeki. After class one, he notices she's left her gym clothes behind, and takes them home in order to keep them safe, but somebody sees him. This person is Nakamura, a young woman who can only be described an absolute, literal psychopath. She accosts Kasuga for taking the clothes, and swears that if he doesn't undergo a series of demented "tests" she has lined up, she'll tell the entire class that he took the clothes for some perverted purpose.

This begins what is one of the most nerve-wracking experiences ever put to animation. The tests, while generally non-violent, are positively deranged in their perversity, and difficult to watch Kasuga go through for 13 episodes. It would be a real shame to spoil any of them, but I will say that they usually involve the protagonist constantly on the verge of public humiliation, or engaging in some kind of defacement of property. Unfortunately, because of the nature of this show, there ends up not being anybody you can really cheer for. As things wear on, you'll realize that no one character is actually good person. Everybody is absolutely messed-up in their own unique way, and a little more than halfway through the series, the whole experience becomes watching bad people do bad things to each other in increasingly disparaging ways. If you couldn't take the hint, this show is a giant downer, and a mentally taxing one at that. Oh, yes, and it's positively horrifying.

One of the major contributing factors to this is Nakamura herself. She's a brilliant character. Everything about her oozes ill intent and sadism, yet the way she manipulates people into doing what she wants is masterful. You hate her, but you want to see how she's going to enlist Kasuga or any of the other characters to help get her way. I've been reading books, playing games, and watching things since I was essentially cognitive, and I can fairly assert that she is one of the greatest villains ever written. Every horrible thing that happens in the plot, every negative aspect of every character that gets brought to light can all be traced back to her and her actions. Nakamura is a cunning master of deceit, constantly on the verge of an angry and violent outburst if she doesn't get exactly what she wants, exactly how she wants it.

What also manages to contribute to the overall atmosphere of tension and unease is the combination of bizarre imagery and the masterful usage of silence. There is, indeed, a soundtrack, quite a good and chilling one, but there are numerous instances throughout the series in which the only audible sounds are voices, background noises, or neither, for extended periods of time. This very minimalist approach also applies to the divisive rotoscoped animation, which sometimes is packed with action and unsettling, otherworldly imagery, yet sometimes is spent depicting a 12 minute walk back from school. Sometimes, the horror comes from what's occurring on screen, and others, it's based in what's inferred out of what isn't visible. "Flowers" is not a show that gives you things, unlike most productions in today's instant-gratification anime marketplace. Instead, it demands you to work through it, and to come to your own conclusion. And much like the works of David Lynch, or his late anime equivalent, Satoshi Kon, that mind-bending approach helps elevate it above the majority of what's released today.

As mentioned above, the animation in this series is very controversial. You can find articles praising it for its artistry and ambition, but you can also find angry forums about how it's not "real anime," accompanied by unfortunate screenshots that "prove" that the animation is "terrible." Note the usage of quotations. I will face rage from fellow anime viewers and say that anybody who claims that this isn't "real animation" is patently wrong. Yes, the characters are rotoscoped from real actors and actual locations, but so much effort went into coloring it, adding visual flourishes, and drawing the otherworldly, hallucinatory scenery that calling it anything but animation is positively foolish. Anime, by its very nature, is animation that is Japanese. It does not mean big eyes, unrealistic proportions, or "moe" character designs. Insisting that it should adhere to those principles limits artistic expression in a field that desperately needs it, and furthermore, is the kind of entitlement that is exactly what's wrong the anime industry.

"Flowers of Evil" is not a good show. It's not a great show. It's a fantastic show. In my 10+ years of watching anime, I haven't seen anything like it, and the stuff that's comparable came out a long time ago. It's a masterpiece, simply put. It's something that should be loved and cherished, passed down from one generation to the next like a fine work of cinema by Lang or Kubrick. It's all the things that the anime industry needs more of (risky, bold, thought-provoking,) all rolled into one. Whether you care about anime as an art form, or are simply looking for something in a Lynchian vein, this is something you simply must watch.

Grade: A+


Murdered Soul Suspect
Murdered Soul Suspect
Offered by Purple Hydrant Games
Price: $39.61
35 used & new from $23.74

13 of 16 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars I Ain't 'Fraid of No Ghost, June 4, 2014
This review is from: Murdered Soul Suspect (Video Game)
Many games I enjoy are, unfortunately, forgotten by the annals of time. Games that I feel are unique and invigorating, a solid break from the usual hokum this industry offers and a concentrated effort of original ideas are, unfortunately, mauled critically for their unwillingness to conform to industry norms and current trends. It happened to personal favorites "Wet," "Enslaved: Odyssey to the West," and last year's excellent "Remember Me." These were experiences that, while definitely not the most polished in the world, were nevertheless worthy of commendation and praise based on the very purpose of their existence. By my standards, a game should not be reviewed based on how pretty it is, or how much it's like whatever's big on the market at that moment in time. It should be judged on how fun it is, and what it brings to the table in terms of what content it's trying to put forth, whether that be tactical gameplay, mindless chaos, or narrative depth.

And from where I stand, "Murdered Soul Suspect" was squarely focused on that last one, perhaps even at the expense of other gameplay elements. But the thing is? Those other elements actually work, and in fact, don't really hinder the game at all. Everything else in the piece simply exists to further the plot, and never really bothers to hamper the player with padding or artificial difficulty. What we're left with, then, is a game that has a fantastic story leagues above anything out there, aided by simple yet engaging gameplay which serves its purposes admirably and without fault, complemented by an interesting art direction and elegant score. For a game that many contemporaries are savaging for not being enough of one thing or another, I feel like too few people are really appreciating this game on its own merits, or appreciating it for what it truly is.

And what is it? Well, at its core, it's a modern-day noir mystery engaged in a head-on collision with a classic ghost story. "Murdered" follows detective Ronan O'Connor, who's hot on the trail of a vicious serial murderer known only as The Bell Killer. A little wrench gets thrown in his case, though, when he's hurled out of a window, then shot in the chest seven times. He dies on the spot, but the game doesn't end there. Ronan, unsatisfied with how his life ended, must roam the streets of Salem as a ghost, trying to solve his murder and get some sense of closure before he can move onto the next plane of existence with his deceased wife, Julia. But to do that, he'll need to enlist the help of Joy, a sassy delinquent who happens to be a spiritual medium... and quite possibly the next target of the killer. As Ronan helps Joy find her missing mother, and she helps him solve the murders, players will be dragged along a winding plot of twists and turns that genuinely manage to surprise and engage.

There's no superlative that I can immediately drudge up to describe how bizarre and wonderful Anna Megill's script for this game is. Some may call it inconsistent in tone, or scattershot in its approach, but to me, that's actually part of the charm. Much like SWERY's perverse masterpiece, "Deadly Premonition," "Murdered" throws several things at the wall and doesn't really care what sticks. The result is a game that is thrilling yet darkly humorous, disturbing but still somehow lighthearted. It's really unlike anything else that's come out this year, in the narrative department, and it takes some interesting risks that most writers would shy away from out of fear of being a bit too risky, a bit too "out there." And because of this, it comes across as patently genuine, something that I really can't say for many games, or movies, or books. This is not a story that is meant to have mass appeal, or to "broaden the audience" of the game. Instead, the narrative of "Murdered" is a heartfelt piece with equal amounts of pathos and humor, not to mention a compelling core mystery that kept me guessing until the out-of-left-field, "what in the heck did I just play" finale.

Part of what makes this narrative so good, I feel, is the massive amount of plot that exists within Salem itself. The game operates within a series of very small sandboxes, connected by the hub world of the town, and within all of these spaces exist numerous opportunities to expand the universe, explain character motivations, and even engage in entirely tangential plot threads. Ronan can help other ghosts pass on, or simply engage in clever banter with the deceased about their predicaments. NPCs in this game are handled well, ranging from deranged ghosts haunting people for varying reasons, to lost souls unable to realize that they're dead. Other narratives come in the form of collectible notes, objects, and other trinkets that actually serve purposes, instead of the obligatory and annoying trend of "audio logs" that modern games seem so attached to. From Julia's notes on her life and death, to the killer's modus operandi, players would be well-served finding and taking all of the narrative content this game has to offer. Rest assured, you won't find it on your first playthrough.

Another thing that does this game justice is the great characterization. Ronan is a fascinating character, fedora/trilby notwithstanding, and manages to nicely straddle the line of pulpy detective archetype and tortured man looking for redemption. And Joy, honestly, is one of the more refreshing female characters in gaming this year. She's resourceful and interesting, not ever held down by Ronan's commands or defined by any male characters. It's nice seeing interesting, well-written female characters in an industry where the norm is gradually becoming "white dudes do white dude stuff, and sometimes there's a girl or somebody who isn't white." The supporting cast is a bit less interesting, composed primarily of ancillary characters defined by collectible artifacts. While I do wish the core, driving cast was slightly larger, the fact remains the characters here are compelling and intriguing, and somehow, the writing makes you care for even the less important players. Good stuff, all around.

As stated above, the gameplay here simply exists to drive forward the plot, with one novel hook: you're a ghost. Airtight Games, historically, has promised big things but present games flawed in their execution, with their 2010 definition of mediocrity, "Dark Void" as a prime example of this. Naturally, I was very skeptical of their work here, yet somehow they've actually managed something quite interesting. Ronan, as a ghost, can walk through most objects and people, possess things, and affect real world objects. There's some disappointment on my part when it comes to this, because I feel like there was a lot of potential with this concept, and the result is kind of a compromise. See, certain things are "consecrated," and what that means for a player is that they cannot go through them. This applies to most of the buildings in the main hub, and it's disappointing that the world was, in fact, not my oyster as a ghost. Yet despite that, I did really feel empowered in the other departments. There's a definite pleasure in activating copiers or coffee machines to spook cops while Joy sneaks through a police station, or sprinting through walls in order to get to a place faster, as once you're inside a building virtually anything is fair game to ghost through. Despite compromises, I enjoyed the abilities I had at my disposal, and felt like they gave me an experience that was actually special and quirky. Think gritty "Ghost Trick" and you're halfway there.

As far as the actual detective mechanics go, things are very much like point-and-click adventure games of days past. Ronan walks around a crime scene, gathers clues, then mentally pieces together different things in order to reach conclusions. Sometimes, you'll need to collect a lot of clues, and others, only one or two out of the several available will need to be sniffed out. It falls in a nice, comfortable middle ground, where obsessive sleuths will want to hunt down everything in order to know every little detail, while more casual players will be okay with just getting what they need and progressing the story. Still, the game doesn't handhold you, and expects you to figure out how to find clues, where to find them, and the ways they fit together. It's a nice departure from, say, a David Cage game, which essentially smack players in the face with the answer before the question is even asked.

Speaking of demonic, soul-sucking entities (sorry, I still haven't gotten over "Beyond: Two Souls,") the combat in this game is mercifully nonexistent. From where I stand, too many developers find it necessary to implement shooter or brawler mechanics where they simply don't belong. Airtight, learning from its mistake with the last AAA title it was in charge of producing, decided to have players execute the antagonistic demons in a strategic, almost puzzle-esque fashion. Players are completely defenseless against them hand-to-hand, and must approach them from behind and perform a speedy exorcism. This makes a combat more of a cross between stealth and light survival horror, making strong use of the ghost abilities. Hiding through walls, and inside residual living spirit energy where the demons can't spot him, Ronan sneaks up the demons, sometimes employing distractions, and takes them out... or tries to simply sneak around them and get out of wherever they're roaming. It's a cool mechanic that remains faithful to the rest of the core experience, and doesn't simply try to lazily cop whatever else is out there.

Perhaps the only ill words I could speak of "Murdered" are that it was obvious Square Enix pushed Airtight into releasing this last-gen game on the current-gen consoles, as it really doesn't benefit from the horsepower of the PS4. It looks like an upscaled PS3/360 game, to be frank, but not bad by any stretch of the imagination. Anybody who actually buys a game based on graphics (read: too many people) might be patently offended that a game might dare to not run at 60fps and look like a cutscene out of a modern "Final Fantasy" at all times, but all others shouldn't be bothered too much, thanks to the great art direction and cool imagery. If I were to leverage a legitimate graphical complaint, though, it would be that the cutscenes are poorly compressed, and sometimes look a bit distorted. A shame, yes, but nothing truly upsetting or too distracting. All-in-all, it's a decent-looking game that is greatly aided by designers that put some serious effort and thought into Salem and its inhabitants.

How do I review a game like "Murdered Soul Suspect"? Yes, it has definite flaws, and might not be the most polished game in the world yet... yet it's still subjectively better by my standards than so many things released today. This is the concentrated effort of a developer to release something smart, something that's unlike anything else being trotted out from a major publisher. Honestly, I have to applaud Square Enix for releasing and funding something so rare and special. It's not a perfect experience, no, and it's not for everyone. Not by a long shot. Still, for those who want a great story with a bizarre, almost "so bad it's good" atmosphere, and gameplay that's more interesting than shooting or driving or bludgeoning, this is definitely for you. Even though it's not perfect, I have a feeling it will be one of those special gems that everybody else forgets about, but I will be recommending years from now.

Hopefully, it has a ghost of a chance with other players. Sorry, I had to.

Pros:

- An engaging, gripping story with good characterization
- A novel approach to the gameplay that doesn't mollycoddle
- Bizarre atmosphere that's cheesy and silly, yet serious and spooky

Cons

- Graphics aren't the best in the world
- It could stand to be a bit longer

Grade: 8.5 (Groovy)
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 30, 2014 7:31 PM PDT


Mario Kart 8 - Nintendo Wii U
Mario Kart 8 - Nintendo Wii U
Price: $48.15
90 used & new from $41.99

40 of 52 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Defying Gravity (And Expectations), May 31, 2014
Today's gaming marketplace demands innovation. Personally, I don't innovation is entirely necessary in all aspects of game development, yet there's a large number of people crying for "next-gen" games like entitled children. These people want lifelike graphics that pull them into the experience, and new gameplay that's unlike anything they've ever seen before. Never mind the fact that something entirely lifelike is pretty much impossible and things that get close would dip extremely into the uncanny valley, and that if every game played in some new, crazy way, less people would feel compelled to buy them out of fear of not being able to access them as easily. Yet publishers still trot out games with all of these features... at least, you know, games that promise to have these features. The hype builds, people preorder, the game's released and it's completely ordinary, but you're so convinced that you're playing something new and "next-gen" that you're blind to any criticisms, and by the time you realize you've been playing almost the exact same kind of game for years, it's too bloody late and the publisher has your money lining their fat pockets. Ah, the modern game industry in a nutshell.

What does this rant have to do with Nintendo's latest entry in their uniformly fun racing franchise? Actually, it has everything to with it. See, the current AAA landscape is reliant on smoke and mirrors. Pretty trailers get released at E3 or some other big gaming expo, with cherry-picked footage that's nowhere even close to indicative of what the final product is going to look like. Still, people preorder this game as soon as they see one trailer, just so they can get in on whatever arbitrary reward the publisher is going to hand their loyal little lapdogs. The sad thing is, this game isn't going be anywhere nearly as good as the hype is setting it up to be, and people are just be suckered into something ordinary that claims to be "truly next-gen" or "groundbreaking." On the flip side, though, there are games that simply come out, are honest with what they do, and anything else they have is just icing on the already satisfying cake.

One such example is "Mario Kart 8." Let's face it, you've probably played an entry in this series once or twice in your life, even if you don't care much for video games. If not, you've almost certainly heard of it. And because of this familiarity, you know exactly what you're going to get. Mario, Peach and other cast members from Nintendo's biggest franchise are going to commandeer vehicles, drive around a cavalcade of colorful and wacky courses, and try to murder each other with turtle shells, bombs, and banana peels. For the franchise, that's a blessing and a curse. You immediately know what you're going to do, but once a formula gets used so many times without many changes or refinements, it can get stale. "Mario Kart 7" was a good game, but it was nothing great, and "Mario Kart Wii," despite the inclusion of motorcycles, wasn't anything particularly amazing in my opinion. The last truly great entries, to me, were "Mario Kart: Double Dash" and "Mario Kart DS," with the former offering up novel hooks with vehicle statistics and two racers to a kart, and the latter introducing worldwide online play to the series for the very first time.

And so with this newest entry, I'm pleased to say that almost every single change that has ever been made to the series is present here. Not only that, but they've been refined to almost absolute perfection, and when you're done marveling at all of the new bells and whistles, you'll realize that this still the same wonderful cartoon racer you've been playing for years, just done exceedingly well and arguably better than it ever has been. It cannot be described in words how much fun "Mario Kart 8" is, but because there's not a substitute for words here, I'll try my best.

Players are given 32 tracks to run amok on, half of which are new, and half of which are old courses that are so remixed they might as well be new additions as well. There's a large roster of characters, and despite the questionable usage of every Koopaling known to man, they're a pretty diverse bunch that are fun to play as. You pick a vehicle body, wheels, and a glider, and then you're good to go race. Each little modification actually does make a noticeable difference, affecting things from acceleration, handling, and traction. There are definitely some modifications where I can feel my kart or motorcycle handling differently, or speeding up more quickly, and it's really nice to see that the customization brought over from MK7 has been tweaked and handled better here. Bonus props for bringing back motorcycles and effectively balancing them this time around.

The actual racing is simply the best it's ever been. Vehicles handle like a dream, the controls tight and responsive to even the slightest twitch of the thumb. Drifting feels more precise and controlled than it ever has, and varies wildly depending on which vehicle you're using. Do you want a tighter turn, or more room to adjust your kart? These are things you're going to have to ask yourself when choosing a vehicle. On top of that, the item selection is perhaps the most balanced in series history, with an item existing that can, at long last, take out the dreaded blue shell. The boomerang flower is also a nice medium ground between red and green shells, giving players three chances to knock another racer out before it flies off without returning. And while some may complain that the Bullet Bill power-up is back, I still find it a really great tool for keeping races interesting and keeping players in the top slots on their toes.

Of course, there's one thing I haven't talked about yet, and that's the addition of "anti-gravity" gameplay. This is one of the three big changes Nintendo has made to the franchise, and it works beautifully. There's no silly gimmick or throwaway mechanics involved. Most tracks simply have sections where players will either drive on the wall, up the wall, upside down, or in some type of bizarre corkscrew motion. Many tracks have diverging paths with this feature, with some players remaining grounded while the opposition whizzes by above them. It's a new feature that I really hope will be kept for future iterations, because it makes racing so much more interesting than it has been in the past.

The last two big changes come in the form of the online multiplayer and the overhauled battle mode. Firstly, the online features are a welcome change from the barebones offerings we saw in DS, Wii and 7. Everything is organized quite nicely, players can chat with a preset box of greetings, taunts and questions, and people can even host their own tournaments. Not only that, but with the MKTV feature, players can upload highlights of their races, edited however they want. Yes, the editing tools are a little scant, but they work and give players a quick, easy way to show off their skills and upload them to YouTube and the MiiVerse, which, given the diverse audience bound to be playing this game, is probably for the best.

In terms of the battle mode changes, I can't help but feel a tinge of disappointment. There are no more arenas in "Mario Kart 8." Instead, players are given eight racing courses from the main game to duke it out on, and the problem with that is the courses are way too big for anything less than four to five players. Clearly, this was a move designed for the online battles, which can host up to 12 players, but as the numbers thin, the battles become less about frantically hurling items and more about hoping you can find the opposition before time runs out. This feels like an incredibly lazy move, and while it doesn't damper the rest of the package, it certainly doesn't add anything to it.

One questionable mode notwithstanding, "Mario Kart 8" feels like a complete package in the gameplay department. It's definitely not hurt by the visuals which ar,e almost indescribably beautiful. I can hear the graphics snobs screaming from a mile away about "polygon counts" or "frames per second," but I'm going to stake whatever reputation I have on this site and say that these are some of the best graphics I've seen in any title so far on the WiiU, PS4 or XBOne, in terms of how vibrant and aesthetically pleasing they are overall. Each level is overloaded with color, all of them completely different and interesting to look at, and most of them full of some kind of life, whether it be piranha plants that shrivel up when you hit them with items, or crates that smash open, or cones that get knocked about when hit. Quite honestly, I had no idea a game on this system could be this beautiful, and it's impressed me more in the looks department than 90% of what I've seen on my PS4 or WiiU thus far.

That, coupled with fantastic music, unique animations for every character, and whole other host of little A/V touches, helps bring "Mario Kart 8" whizzing past the finish line, doing a victory lap around its competitors. Everything here works exactly like it's supposed to, and then some. The controls are perfect, the graphics are great, the music is wonderful, the courses are fun... I could go on, but it would be easier to just say that this game is a winner in almost every department, and not even a lackluster battle mode can bring it down.

This is where "Mario Kart" has been heading since its inception. A game that's accessible for everyone, but deep and fun enough for more veteran players. Multiplayer that can be played and enjoyed by everyone, whether it be on the couch with some friends or across the globe from each other. Something that's cute yet competitive, whimsical yet very grounded and polished. This is the absolute best the franchise has ever been in terms of mechanics and looks, and I can see this game having a lasting appeal over a decade from now, much like the classic N64 incarnation of this franchise. Simply put, "Mario Kart 8" is an absolute triumph for Nintendo, and one of the strongest reasons to rush out and buy a WiiU. Despite the disappointing battle mode holding it back from sheer perfection, that would be a very bogus reason indeed to pass up hopping in a kart and chucking some turtle shells at your buddies.

"Mario Kart 8" is one of the best games of the year so far, and I suspect I'll feel the same when compiling my year-end favorites, because I hazard to say I'll still be enjoying it even then.

Score: 9.75
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 22, 2014 6:18 AM PDT


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