Review of Adventures to Go (PSP)

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Adventures to Go is a Japanese Role Playing Game that was released in Europe back in February 2010. The game is a Playstation Portable title although PS Vita owners, desperately seeking new games to play on their handheld, can give it a go by downloading it off the Playstation Network. This Natsume release stars a teenager named Finn who has decided to pursue a career in adventuring as a means of making some quick cash. A profession that involves travelling to distant lands and battling dangerous monsters sounds like a lot of hassle though, so our cunning protagonist has devised a way curtailing those job hazards.

The town Finn was raised at has a facility named Adventures to Go, which serves as a fantasy training simulator of sorts were aspiring adventurers can hone their fighting skills. By paying a small fee patrons can be teleported to different regions were they can scrap with summoned creatures in relative safety. Clearly the populace aren’t very bright as sixteen-year-old Finn is been the first person ever to suss out the financial potential of Adventures to Go. If someone posts a request at the guild, asking for pork ribs, why bother trekking off to the woods seeking swine? Just summon a piggy at Adventures to Go, slaughter it faster than you can say “time to meet your maker Babe” and collect your reward.

As far as plot goes that is pretty much it. Adventures to Go is not one of those RPGs blessed with a Final Fantasy style convoluted storyline. For the most part the focus is on Finn performing odd jobs for the guild although things eventually transition to a showdown with demons that are miffed about their treasure being swiped by Adventures to Go during the company’s level creation process. The narrative doesn’t treat itself too seriously with a lot of silly humour being the order of the day. During his quests Finn will interact with shopkeepers who hit on the female members of his party, a fairy like monster who pays extortionate amounts of dosh for shampoo and a grumpy sister who bemoans Finn’s lack of assistance with household chores.

For the bulk of the game Finn will battle his way through dungeons of his own choosing that can be generated by selecting Adventures to Go from the town map. Creating levels is a breeze and merely involves chatting with the blonde lady situated at the information desk. Using a simple menu you pick the size of the level, the region you want to explore (there are deserts, caves, woods etc) and finally the type of creatures you want to face (such as undead, beasts, bugs etc.) Before venturing off it’s recommended that you pay a visit to the nearby shops to stock up on weapons, armour and restorative items. What’s this? The item shop is out of sunscreen? I better abandon the desert adventure or else my pale complexion is likely to turn lobster like.

Exploration of the early levels is a little dull as you start things off with just Finn traipsing across barren regions. As the story progresses things get more involved however with the stages becoming more maze like and three other companions joining Finn on his moneymaking schemes. The trio of pals include a witch love interest, a religious knight and a noble thief. There’s not much to differentiate between the cast of characters aside from the weaponry they wield. The ladies get the option of using ranged weapons, the knight can use spears permitting him to strike multiple foes from melee range and Finn wields a sword because that’s what RPG heroes do.

To complete a level, strictly speaking, all you need to do is locate the portal that returns you back to town. As making cash is your ultimate goal it is however recommended that you check out any huts or pedestals you come across. Interacting with these structures may yield money or free items although if you are unlucky they can also harm you courtesy of collapsing roofs. In the words of Admiral Ackbar “It’s a trap!” Disrupting your exploration are a plethora of monsters who Finn gets to face in random encounters that can spring up whenever he takes a step (that’s why I dislike walking, it’s not because I am lazy I just fear getting ambushed by mythical creatures.)

Whenever a battle begins the surrounding area transforms into a grid-based map were your characters and opponents take it in turns to perform actions. By using a limited number of action points it is possible to move your party members and attack any hostile in range. Ending a turn prematurely also permits you to defend, which reduces any damage you take or initialize a devastating pre-emptive strike that makes your warrior attack anyone who ventures within their weapon range. During combat you can also use items from your backpack and cast magic.

I have to say that the game’s spell system is rather neat. The number of magic crystals you carry determines how many spells you can cast and the effect of a crystal is dependent on what fragments were used to create it. Magic crystals can be used just once and recharge at the end of the day, so it’s best not to waste them on every critter you encounter. When creating crystals it’s fun to experiment with the different fragment types to see what you will get. Will you get the power to buff someone, heal an ally, torch an enemy with a flame or maybe even summon a goat? Okay I made that last one up. I was kid-ding.

Overall Adventures to Go is a fun little game. The combat system is tactical, yet the levels themselves don’t take too long to complete making it ideal to play in quick bursts during your travels. At the time of writing I have invested twenty-five hours into the game and have about three more quests to go to finish the main story. My only issue with the game is that it can get a little repetitive, especially when you have to grind stages to earn enough funds to upgrade your gear. Still for a relatively inexpensive dungeon crawler it’s not a bad purchase for RPG fans looking to play an adventure on the go.

Review of Spice & Wolf Complete Series One

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It’s been a long time coming, but finally UK based anime fans can watch Spice and Wolf on their region two DVD players. Thanks to the folks at Manga UK the first season is now available to buy on a two disc set containing all thirteen episodes and not a lot else extras wise (aside from the obligatory text free versions of the opening/closing theme.) For those of you not aware, Spice and Wolf is based on a light novel series penned by Japanese author Isuna Hasekura. The cartoon aired on TV in Japan back in 2008 with the States getting an English language version towards the tail end of 2009. It took until calendars showed 2012 for otakus across the pond finally get the chance to enjoy the show. Better late than never I suppose.

STORY

Spice and Wolf follows the exploits of a travelling peddler named Kraft Lawrence (hmmm I suddenly have the urge to consume some cheese slices.) Anyway, Lawrence visits towns across the land selling his wares with the hopes of someday amassing a fortune large enough to purchase his own store. Whilst conducting trade in the small town of Pasroe he discovers that a stowaway has snuck aboard his wagon. The uninvited guest in question is a young girl sporting what appears to be wolf ears and a bushy tail. Upon interrogating the lass, Lawrence learns that the human/animal hybrid before his eyes is none other than Holo the Wise Wolf.

For many generations Holo, a goddess of good harvests, has blessed the land providing the region with a bountiful yield of wheat every year. Holo is however disillusioned that the community no longer appreciates her efforts. With new farming techniques making it easy to grow crops, Holo’s legacy has been reduced to that of a myth that most people no longer believe in (especially with the church clamping down on those worshipping Pagan gods.) Holo now wishes to return to her home in the northern lands and convinces Lawrence to accompany her. In exchange for providing transport along with paying for food and board she promises to use her talents to aid him in his business ventures. Sounds good even if bunny girls are cuter than wolf gals.

SERIES OVERVIEW

This thirteen episode season can be dissected into two story arcs with an unaired TV episode sandwiched between them. Things start off with Lawrence and Holo learning that the kingdom’s monarchy is planning to devalue its own currency. The pair plan to use this knowledge to amass a stockpile of coins and trade them away before the price drops to make a profit. Unfortunately for them a rival group has similar aspirations and isn’t best pleased about sharing their profits. Our heroes’ lives are placed in jeopardy when the group kidnap Holo and threaten to hand her over to the custody of the church who would likely view her as a demon (unlike young boys they don’t seem to like wolf girls.)

From there we move to the unaired TV episode which merely chronicles how Holo upgrades her wardrobe to something warmer as the couple venture forth to the chillier climes of the north. Thankfully for viewers the episode proves to be more entertaining than a shopping trip to BHS. After that we conclude with a tale that sees Lawrence go bankrupt after the arms he acquires from a crooked merchant become worthless due to a price crash on weapons. Out of coin, Lawrence is forced to resort to gold smuggling in order to pay off his debt. It’s a risky move, which could potentially end his career and sever his ties with Holo forever.

SUMMARY

Despite sporting what appears, at first glance, to be an attractive fox girl on the box art Spice and Wolf elevates itself from being one of those smutty anime shows. It resists many of the tropes associated with the genre and even avoids using the medieval setting to dabble in stories about knights, archers or wizards. The focus is definitely on Lawrence’s business exploits with action kept to a bare minimum. Only on the briefest of occasions do we see conflicts resolved through violence when Holo is forced to don her full wolf form in no win situations. Fleeing from trouble or settling disputes through negotiation is the order of the day, which may not be to everyone’s liking. This is a dialogue heavy show which relies on the charm of the cast to keep your attention.

The slow pacing will put off some viewers, but I myself was hooked learning more about the characters and the world they live in. Even though the story revolves around business dealings, which may sound a little dry, I can attest to the fact that you don’t have to be an economics major to be entertained thanks to the likeable leads. Lawrence is savvy when it comes to bartering, but is perhaps too good-natured and naïve when it comes to women. Even though Holo helps Lawrence make a profit in some dealings (via her keen sense of hearing, feminine wiles and wisdom) you cannot help but wonder if she is taking more than she gives. As the series progresses she accrues quite a debt on clothes, alcohol and apples (despite being a meat eating animal she has a gluttonous love for fruit.)

Although the show is categorized as being a romance tale I wouldn’t say it is laden with mushy stuff. Holo playfully flirts with Lawrence, but most of the time it’s nothing more than a tease to get him flustered. No doubt their friendship will develop into something more in time, but at this stage I wouldn’t say they are in love (although it is funny seeing her get jealous when Lawrence is forced to work with a female Shepherd of all people.) Despite her strong exterior she is terribly lonely after being abandoned by the people of Pasroe and therefore desires praise and companionship from Lawrence more than a full-blown relationship.

Spice and Wolf season one is currently available to buy as is season two, which was released in August 2012. The set costs around twenty pounds for thirteen episodes – you don’t have to be a veteran merchant like Lawrence to realize that’s a good deal.

Review of Plants vs Zombies 2: It’s About Time (iPad)

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Plants vs Zombies 2: It’s About Time is the sequel to PopCap’s hugely popular tower defence game that debut on the PC back in May 2009. The subtitle “it’s about time” is rather apt because, although the original PvZ was ported over to every system known to man, fans have had to wait an agonising four years for a fully-fledged follow-up to be released. In the interim PopCap has been acquired by the video game Satan that is Electronic Arts, so it should come as no surprise that the Plant vs Zombies 2 garden has been infested with in-app purchase weeds. Does EA’s money grubbing antics soil (no pun intended) the game? Let’s find out.

The game’s story sees the unintelligible Crazy Dave celebrate his victory over the zombie masses by feasting on a spicy taco. Dave enjoyed the Mexican snack so much that he decides to travel to the past so he can devour the same taco once again, but alas something goes wrong (aye caramba!) A glitch strikes Dave’s RV time machine hurtling him to the distant past (that’s what you get for fashioning a time travel device in a form other than that of a telephone box.) In order to return to the present our bearded hero, who uses pots for headgear, will have to trek through Ancient Egypt, Pirate Times (yarrr) and the Wild West. It won’t be an easy journey though as it appears that zombie infestations were prevalent during the course of human history.

Game play wise Plants vs Zombies 2 doesn’t deviate from the strategic formula that hooked many a player to its predecessor. No surprises there given that it would be foolish to “uproot” the charming level designs that enamoured both casual and hard-core gamers alike. The aim of the game is to halt the swarms of zombies on the right of the screen from reaching your safe haven located on the left hand side of the iPad display. Most stages have you ceasing the waves of undead by planting sunflowers that generate solar energy, which in turn is used to grow an assortment of defensive flora.

Like its predecessor, battlefield gardeners can temporarily delay the advance of the walking dead by summoning wall-nuts that act as barriers, which the shambling corpses need to munch their way through. To destroy the smelly invaders you can call upon peashooters that pelt their targets with green projectiles or plant potato mines that detonate in spud-tacular fashion whenever they get trod on. Intermixed with those familiar plants are new seedlings such as the ice lettuce that freezes foes (what a “cool” ability), the leafy Bonk Choy who will literally knock your block off with its rapid-fire fists and Lightning Reeds that can zap pesky cadavers from a distance. Despite not doing much damage I was “shocked” by how effective the reeds are in large numbers.

As an obese glutton it should come as no surprise that the addition of food is my favourite new feature introduced to the game. Whenever a glowing zombie is killed… erm I mean defeated (they are already dead after all) it is possible to acquire plant food that can be sprinkled on your flowers to activate a powerful special move. I also enjoyed how each of the levels has a distinct feel thanks to the time travel theme. The Wild West stages for example have mine carts that can be moved to reposition any plant you have sitting atop them, the Pirate zone has watery sections were you can make zombies walk the plank to a soggy doom whilst the Egyptian segments include a memorization mini-game were you have to match hieroglyphic symbols.

It’s not all good though thanks to the introduction of in-game purchases. Levels are selectable on a Mario World style map, which sadly include blocked paths that can only be accessed by collecting a certain number of keys (why you need multiple keys to open a solitary door makes no sense, but whatever.) The keys needed to unlock these obstacles randomly drop from vanquished zombies forcing the player to repeat levels in order to farm sufficient keys or purchase them at the store (boo.) It’s a similar story with the game’s difficulty. Completing the required number of levels to progress the story isn’t always easy as this sequel is considerably tougher than the original. There’s nothing wrong with a good challenge, but one cannot help but think that the only reason the game is harder is to coerce players into spending money on the overpowered store plants or on coins that allow you to instantly destroy zombies with a quick flick of your finger.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand how business works. PopCap need to monetize their product, but I would rather spend a few quid on a complete game over downloading the software for free only to then get bullied into purchasing optional goodies that amount to more than the average retail price for a standard app. I have refused to buy anything from the game’s store on principal and still managed to complete the three levels on offer, but who knows what the future holds. Upon completing the last level a fourth zone is teased, which has yet to be released. Will we be expected to fork out cash to unlock it? We shall have to wait and see, as most of us don’t have a Crazy Dave time machine that can transport us to the future.

My stinginess aside, Plants vs Zombies 2 is an excellent game with many hours of content to enjoy. It’s not quite as casual friendly as the original, due to the increased difficulty, but you have nothing to lose in giving it a go given that the app itself costs nowt. At the time of writing the game has been reportedly downloaded an outstanding twenty five million times, so if you are reading this it’s likely that you have already played the game and formed your own opinions on it. For what it’s worth I think Plants vs Zombies 2 is good fun, but the free-mium model they have gone with “leafs” a bitter taste in the mouth.

Review of Clannad: Collection 1

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Clannad is a 2007 anime series based on a popular Japanese visual novel created by the folks at Key studios (a company not unfamiliar with anime adaptations having previously seen their PC releases Air and Kanon get turned into cartoons.) The show’s two seasons are currently available to buy, across four DVD sets, courtesy of the UK’s premier anime distributor Manga Entertainment. Series One Part One, which I am reviewing today, is made up of a trio of DVDs containing the show’s opening twelve episodes. At the time of writing the set will set you back around £26, which is a tad pricy (for the same cost multi-region owners can grab the U.S release containing the complete first season as opposed to just half of it.)

STORY

The series follows the adventures of a delinquent named Tomoya Okazaki who is about to commence his final year of high school. Tomoya is disinterested in his studies, regularly cuts class and is merely going through the motions after having his dreams of a basketball scholarship evaporate due to a shoulder injury. His aimless life gets turned around when he befriends Nagisa Furukawa, a lonely girl who is repeating her graduate year after missing too many lessons in the previous term due to illness. Nagisa would like more than anything to restart the school’s defunct drama club, but can a timid lass with no friends recruit enough members to revive the club and stage a play? Hopefully with Tomoya’s encouragement she can.

Nagisa’s drama club erm drama takes a backseat to other stories once the main cast is introduced in the opening episodes. The first, of two story arcs, revolves around Fuko Ibuki a scatterbrained girl who is obsessed with starfish. Fuko spends all her free time carving out wooden starfish, which she gifts to the student body as a means of inviting people to attend her sister’s upcoming wedding. Tomoya and Nagisa end up giving Fuko a hand with her mission before realizing that she may in fact be the campus’ fabled ghost. Fuko is allegedly the younger sister of a former teacher who tragically got hit by a car. Given that the Fuko in question is presently lying comatose in hospital could the girl before them actually be an imposter?

Following on from that spooky tale, Tomoya returns to his goal of recruiting drama club members on behalf of Nagisa. With that in mind he sets his sights on enlisting Kotomi Ichinose to their cause. Kotomi is the daughter of two scientists who have investigated the existence of parallel worlds. Given her parentage it is no surprise that she is blessed with a genius level intellect and spends most her time hidden away reading in the library. Tomoya uses the drama club as an excuse to get the reclusive Kotomi to come out of her shell and make friends. Things go well in that regard, aside from moments when Kotomi’s terrible violin performances cause anyone in the vicinity to flee in terror. When episode twelve ends Kotomi suffers a mental breakdown, which seems to be tied to a tragic event from her past. To find out more details on the incident viewers will have to buy the next DVD, which continues the story. Don’t you just love cliffhangers?

CHARACTERS

Despite being labeled as a delinquent, Tomoya is a nice guy whose reputation as a troublemaker mainly stems from his poor attendance record. He cares for his friends and is normally level headed, only losing his cool when forced to interact with his alcoholic father who injured his shoulder during an altercation. Tomoya cannot resist a good prank, whenever the opportunity presents itself, with the victim of his gags normally being his bleached haired pal Youhei Sunohara. Youhei’s combination of a big mouth and small brain is a good source of comic relief, especially whenever he shares the screen with Tomoyo Sakagami – the reformed female street fighter who is trying to become the next student body president (let’s just say an annoying kid mixed with a gal who can kick hard is not a good combo for Youhei’s health.)

Nagisa is a heroine who is hard to dislike. Her sweet personality, polite manners and fragile constitution gives us an adorable character viewers can root for. She’s got some cute traits including an unhealthy obsession with the big Dango family (a group of circular animated characters used to promote dumplings.) Along with Nagisa, Clannad boasts a fairly large female cast including the Fujibayashi twins. Ryou Fujibayashi is the class rep in Tomoya’s class and has a passion for fortune telling. Despite having a crush on Tomoya she is unable to confess her feelings due to her chronic shyness. Kyou Fujibayashi on the other hand is more boisterous. She looks out for her vulnerable sis, often using her knack for hurling textbooks with deadly accuracy to clobber anyone who rubs her the wrong way.

Two other characters worth mentioning are Nagisa’s parents Sanae and Akio. Sanae is the sweet mother blessed with youthful good looks that often cause strangers to mistaken her for Nagisa’s older sister. Despite working at a bakery Sanae is terrible at creating dough based products as evidenced in a recurring gag were she overhears people lambast her pastries resulting in her running out of the shop in tears. Sanae’s baseball loving other half Akio is another interesting character. Often he comes across as a wind up merchant, who spouts off silly lines to get a reaction, but when the chips are down he can man up and get serious to offer some sound fatherly advice.

SUMMARY

Clannad is a show that is hard to categorize. From the early episodes you are given the impression that the series is one of those slice of life high school comedies that are heavy on laughs and thin on plot. At the drop of a dime the tone can however drastically change with the narrative going into a dramatic story arc that tugs at your heartstrings. The conclusion to the Fuko storyline, for example, serves as an early warning that Clannad’s reputation for being a tale that can reduce the manliest of men to tears is well earned.

The series has a predominately female cast, who all are attracted to Tomoya, but it still manages to avoid becoming a mindless harem show. It’s pretty clear that Tomoya and Nagisa are destined to be together from the offset. Once that becomes apparent to Nagisa’s rivals in love they maturely accept defeat rather than hurl themselves at Tomoya to make him reconsider, as a lesser show would. The romance angle is handled well. Typical to many animes the leads act embarrassed whenever the subject is brought up, but gradually the relationship grows in a realistic manner. If you prefer one of the other girls over Nagisa don’t worry, the creators have you covered with a few out of continuity stories showing us what would have happened had Tomoya ended up with one of the other ladies.

Due to the girly synopsis and box art I wasn’t sure that Clannad would appeal to me, but good word of mouth convinced me to give the series a chance and I’m glad that I did. The show is packed with memorable characters that are a joy to spend time with. The presentation is slick with Kyoto Animation hitting the ball out of the park in terms of animation and artwork. Visually the series ends up trumping the Clannad animated movie produced by Toei Animation (which is no mean feat given that films tend to have higher production values when compared to a TV show.) The soundtrack, which is mostly lifted from the original Clannad visual novel, is also beautiful adding extra punch to the show’s emotional moments.

I highly recommend Clannad to anime fans that aren’t totally averse to mushy stuff. If you decide to pick up a copy of the series I would however recommend that you also add a box of tissues to your shopping cart. Whether it’s tears of joy or tears of sorrow, you can be sure that you won’t be watching the screen with dry eyes.

Review of The Walking Dead (iPad)

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The Walking Dead is a 2012 video game based on a popular comic book series that at present is also being adapted into a hit TV show. The game is developed by Telltale Games, a California based studio that specialize in making downloadable point and click adventures. Their previous work include resurrecting Lucasarts franchise Sam & Max, for a modern day generation, along with numerous titles based on well known movies (Jurassic Park, Back to the Future, Wallace & Gromit etc.) At first glance you could be excused for thinking that The Walking Dead is just another example of Telltale following a formula that works, but thanks to some stellar writing the game elevates itself into being a release that many agree was 2012’s game of the year.

As with many Telltale projects the game is broken up into episodic chunks, which is a neat sales model when done right (take note Valve, when are you going to release episode three of Half Life?) I like how you get to try out the first part, for a low price, before deciding on whether to invest more cash on the remainder of the story. It sure beats paying full price for a game, from the offset, only to then discover your purchase is a load of poo. As it turns out I loved episode one so much that upon completing it I immediately downloaded the next four installments. Once I consumed those I went on to visit Comixology and bought all the Walking Dead graphic novels on offer. It’s that damn good.

The game’s protagonist is Lee Everett, an African American university professor who is convicted of murdering a senator who was having an affair with his wife (a politician embroiled in sleaze, surely this story is pure fantasy.) When the story begins Lee is in the back of a cop car being driven to the slammer. The pig driving the automobile should have kept his eye on the road because the cop car in question ends up getting into a nasty crash. Lee emerges from the vehicle’s wreckage, a free man, but incarceration may have been preferable as the city he is in is currently being ravished by a zombie infestation. Before long Lee teams up with an adorable girl named Clementine who he vows to protect from the undead dangers tormenting them. The immediate goal is to escape the carnage and ultimately reunite Clem with her parents.

Given that this is a an adventure game you can expect some puzzles involving the use of items you pick up, but it is nowhere near as taxing as the point and click games of yore. The brainteasers in question are fairly straight forward, such as following a manual to start up a train or loading up a radio with fresh batteries. The simplistic riddles work well as you don’t want the compelling story to get interrupted by long pauses were you are stumped and forced to consult a guide in order to advance the narrative.

With the puzzle aspect getting relegated to performing rudimentary tasks the focus of the game ends up landing on your interaction with other characters. As the story progresses Lee and Clementine join forces with other survivors forming a ragtag group that don’t always see eye to eye. By using multiple-choice answers you can leisurely converse with your companions whenever the coast is clear. The same mechanic is applied for making life and death decisions, when disaster strikes, but in those instances a timer will force you to choose quickly preventing you from pondering too much on what is the best option to take.

It’s the ability to influence the story via these selections that make the game so much fun to play. Different players can expect to have a distinct experience depending on how they tackle the challenges they come across. Whether you choose to be diplomatic or a selfish jerk determines how key events pan out and influences who lives or dies. The composition of the group that makes it into the final episode will therefore vary drastically depending on how you react in certain situations. Yes, in the short term it may be tempting to eliminate a hostile character, but be aware that your teammates remember your actions. The disruption you cause by being rude to someone can bite you in the ass later when you need their assistance with something (gripes this reminds me of office politics at work.)

Some critics have accused the choices you make as being nothing more than smoke and mirrors giving players the feeling of freedom in what is a linear game. They cite the fact that the game only has one ending as an example and how certain characters will die no matter what you do (so in a sense all you are determining is the manner in which they meet their demise.) Although they have a point, I think the game is just being realistic. When you are surrounded by a horde of zombies it doesn’t matter whether you act like a saint or dictator, you have to accept that someone is going to die. Given the limited scope a downloadable game has, I didn’t feel cheated by this revelation unlike say the conclusion to Mass Effect. In that game promises that your actions over the course of a trilogy would wildly change the finale proved to be nothing more that false marketing spiel.

In terms of presentation I was impressed by the overall package. The visuals are great, especially when you consider that Telltale like to keep file sizes to a minimum in order to facilitate quick downloads. The graphics are very good for a mobile game and have an art style reminiscent to its comic book roots. The characters have expressive faces that, in conjunction with some fine voice acting, do a brilliant job of conveying what the cast is feeling during the emotional rollercoaster they are aboard on throughout the five episodes.

Control wise I found the touch screen to be suitably responsive. Certain genres of game don’t work on mobile devices, but adventure games are a perfect fit for the medium. Tapping the desired area of the display handles both movement and dialogue choices. Despite the zombie setting action moments are rare, but when they occur they are handled via quick time events, which is just fine. You may for example have to swipe across the screen or tap furiously on the iPad to wrestle yourself free from the clutches of a brain-feasting corpse. Thankfully if you screw up and die the game restarts you from the beginning of the encounter so less dexterous players won’t find themselves getting penalized too heavily.

There’s not a lot else for me to comment on without giving away spoilers. I would strongly recommend downloading The Walking Dead even if you don’t class yourself as a hardcore gamer. The writers deserve the most praise for making the game a success as it wouldn’t have garnered the praise it has had it been a bog standard adventure with a mediocre plot. Much like the comic books I couldn’t put the game down after getting hooked on the plot. I would literally finish a two-hour episode and immediately start loading up the next part.

Even though I feel that zombies are oversaturating pop culture at present, there’s no denying a good zombie tale can grip you like nothing else. It’s not so much the appeal of battling the undead, but rather seeing the depravity humans will sink to when society crumbles. Even the player will not be immune to performing horrific acts just to survive. I would find myself gloating with satisfaction at exacting revenge on an evildoer, only to then feel shame when Clementine’s puppy dog eyes looked at me in disappointment. The comic book is great, but I have to say the game is more engrossing as you are engaging in the terror as opposed to passively watching it all unfold. The Walking Dead succeeds in making this jaded gamer get emotionally attached to the story and characters like nothing else before it. If you don’t feel the same by the time the end credits roll I would suggest checking your pulse… you may well be dead just like a zombie.

Review of StarCraft 2: Heart of the Swarm (PC)

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July 2010 saw the release of StarCraft 2: Wings of Liberty, the follow-up to one of the finest RTS (real time strategy) games of all time. The game was a phenomenal success getting praise from critics far and wide, including myself who awarded it a perfect five stars. Over two years later and we finally get the next part of a planned trilogy dubbed Heart of the Swarm. Like its predecessor, which focused on the Terrans (basically redneck space marines) this installment centers on one of the game’s three playable factions – namely the insectoid alien race known as the Zerg.

STORY

Following on from the events of WOL, players get introduced to the Zerg’s former Queen of Blades (Kerrigan) who is getting re-accustomed to human life. Thanks to an ancient artifact she has transformed from a genocidal alien leader back to the smoking hot psychic sniper players may recognize from the early chapters of StarCraft 1. Kerrigan’s return to humanity proves to be short lived however as forces loyal to the fascist leader of the Terran Dominion (Arcturus Mengsk) attack the facility she is being sheltered in. During the assault Kerrigan’s main squeeze Jim Raynor is presumably killed which tips her off the edge. Kerrigan vows revenge, but in order to do so she will have to return to her Zerg brethren to amass an army.

The story is a sci-fi cheese fest, which may not satisfy fans that have become invested in the StarCraft lore covered in prior games and novels, but I think it is adequate for a strategy game. If you ask me StarCraft’s plot has never been anything out of this world (no pun intended) and the older installments just seem more epic as they were enjoyed when we were younger and far less cynical. There are some good character moments as Kerrigan wrestles with the dangers of becoming the monster she once was. Although she needs the power of the Zerg to enact her vengeance, she doesn’t want it to come at the cost of her humanity. On more than one occasion we see her show mercy, even if it places her forces at a tactical disadvantage, much to the annoyance of her bloodthirsty subordinates.

Heart of the Swarm’s tale is conveyed via the slick presentation Blizzard is known for. The voice acting is solid and key moments are animated using spectacular CGI sequences akin to those used to promote World of Warcraft. Like in Wings of Liberty, in between missions, it is possible to chat with your lieutenants to garner their insight. I wasn’t sure how this would all work, given that the Zerg is supposed to be a unified hive mind, but that is all explained away by the fact that the swarm has shattered into individual broods during Kerrigan’s brief absence. The exchanges between Kerrigan and her minions are a lot of fun, especially those involving Abathur who has no empathy when it comes to genetically modifying hapless captured specimens.

EVOLUTION

Abathur’s sole goal in life is to incorporate the DNA of assimilated creatures into the swarm, with the purpose of making the Zerg more powerful. The Zerg’s nature of constant evolution plays a big part in the way that units get periodically upgraded as you play through the story. After certain missions budding Overlords get the choice of modifying their troops in one of two ways. You could for example splice Roaches with DNA that will spawn additional mini-roaches, from the corpses of defeated foes, or alter the toxic bile they spew to slow down their attackers. Urgh that sounds gross. I apologize for not warning my readers to stop eating prior to checking out this review.

Much like Warcraft 3, Heart of the Swarm introduces hero units to the single player campaign. In addition to the regular Zerg beasties, Kerrigan herself takes to the battlefield, along with a few other characters that I shall remain tight lipped about to avoid spoilers. Kerrigan is extremely powerful and can change the tide of battle by herself so it is good to learn that, apart from a couple of missions, her death does not signal a game over. In most cases a vanquished Kerrigan merely respawns back at base ready to once again torment the corrupt Terrans and misguided Protoss. I welcome this design decision as it can be annoying when certain games grant you control of a badass character, only to force you to hide them away at headquarters for fear that their death will cost you the current objective.

Like her Zerg babies, Kerrigan also benefits from the evolution system that bestows her with a plethora of abilities as the story advances. Completing missions and optional side quests level up the tentacle haired protagonist unlocking new skills that are selectable from a tree, similar to what you would find in a RPG. What a shame that none of those power-ups improve her walking speed. For whatever reason Kerrigan likes to traipse across maps at a snail’s pace getting left behind by her more nimble army of Zerglings and Mutalisks. What’s the deal lady? During the cut scenes you can gracefully fly through the air so why are you dragging your heels in the middle of a conflict zone?

GAMEPLAY

Heart of the Swarm is pretty much the same as its predecessor and other RTS titles. Using the mouse and some hotkeys you mine for minerals and gas turning them into resources for building a base and combat units. Blizzard isn’t keen to rock the boat and change things too drastically as balance is key given that the game is popular in competitive multiplayer circles (in Korea StarCraft is practically a sport featuring professional players with inhuman reflexes.) You get some new units for each race along with new maps to fight on, but on a whole the mentality behind this expansion is “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.”

That’s not to say that the game isn’t worth picking up. The single player campaign alone is worth the investment, particularly if like me the Zerg happens to be your favorite race. Blizzard have been creative with the level design so the action is more interesting than simply amassing an attack force large enough to overpower the opposing side. Most stages have unique elements to them, which keep things fresh. One moment you may be infiltrating a Protoss ship as a lowly larvae and in another level you’ll be engaging in an Easter Egg hunt of sorts as you race against a rival to collect one hundred zergling eggs. There’s even boss battles were you have to avoid super attacks, which remind me a little of Diablo 3 due to the point and click nature of the interface.

SUMMARY

Needless to say I highly recommend Heart of the Swarm. The only real criticism I can levy at it is that the story ends all too quickly. There are only twenty missions to tackle and they aren’t particularly challenging either. After having two years to hone their APM (actions per minute) I cannot see veteran players finding the regular difficulty too taxing. Even newbies may find the whole thing to be a cakewalk given that the upgrades you receive are so overpowered that they border on breaking the game in favor of the player.

Despite that the game is terrific value for money. The length of the campaign merely means you are more likely to revisit it to earn achievements and try out abilities you didn’t utilize during your first run. There’s also the newly introduced experience system that rewards gameplay with portraits, decals and other unlockable goodies. The multiplayer component is however what will keep players entertained months after the story is done and dusted. No matter what your taste there is something for everybody including StarCraft themed arcade games, the competitive league ladder and cooperative play were one to three commanders can team up to challenge the improved A.I.

Although I wasn’t initially a fan of Blizzard chopping up StarCraft 2 into three games (it just felt like nickel and diming the fan base for all they are worth) I cannot fault their efforts thus far. Both Wings of Liberty and Heart of the Swarm have been excellent, which is no mean feat, as I normally prefer turn based strategy games over RTS ones. Let’s hope they pick up the pace with the release schedule though as waiting over two years for the concluding chapter would be unbearable.

Review of Un-Go: Complete Series 1

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Yuji Shinjuro is the Defeated Detective – a private eye who has a reputation for failing to solve the cases he tackles (makes you wonder why anyone would bother to hire him.) In his defence though, Yuji isn’t actually bad at uncovering the truth, but his revelations are often covered up to maintain the peace in a post war Japan that would rather keep its dirty secrets under wraps.

When it comes to solving mysteries Yuji has a trump card he can play in the form of his partner in crime Inga. Ordinarily the mischievous Inga resembles a purple haired boy, but when the situation demands it he can adopt the form of a buxom beauty that can nibble on someone’s soul to compel them to truthfully answer one question. A useful skill for extorting confessions… plus the gender bending must come in handy for using the ladies restroom whenever the gent’s public loos are full.

Yuji’s quest to expose Japan’s secrets often put him at loggerheads with Rinroku Kaishou, the world famous information broker who uses surveillance cameras to solve cases, from the comfort of his own home, at the behest of the Public Prosecutor’s Office. The rivalry between the two is complicated by Rinroku’s daughter Rie, a spoiled rich girl who gets a kick out of seeing her father’s flawless logic get proven wrong. If I was daddy dearest I’d cut her allowance, I’m sure that would put an end to her rebellious streak.

Prior to watching Un-Go my expectations were high as Studio Bones, who have previously graced anime fans with great shows like Rahxephon and Wolf’s Rain, produced the series. Sadly Un-Go fails to match the quality of either of those cartoons despite having Full Metal Alchemist director Seiji Mizushima overseeing the project. That’s not to say that Un-Go is a bad series, but a mediocre first half did mar my enjoyment, with things only picking up from episode seven onwards.

The first half dozen episodes are one off cases that invite viewers to join Yuji in playing detective as he goes about trying to solve a series of murders. Alas with the average duration of an episode being around twenty minutes there is insufficient time to craft a clever mystery. Despite not being blessed with the deductive skills of a pipe smoking Brit or slug moustached Belgian I was able to suss out the twist ending to a couple of the episodes. The outcome of the other cases depended on evidence that was hidden from the viewer until the finale, which felt rather cheap.

Once the main characters had all been introduced things thankfully began to pick up. The latter part of the series improves thanks to the arrival of Bettenou, a supernatural entity who has the power to turn her master’s words into reality. Via some crafty brainwashing Bettenou is able to lock away Yuji in a high security prison before turning her attention towards orchestrating the downfall of Rinroku. Bettenou is a good antagonist as her abilities nullify the edge Inga normally gives Yuji during investigations. This leads to a fascinating conclusion were Yuji’s crime solving skills are tested to their fullest. Will he be able to work out who is pulling Bettnou’s strings and emerge victorious or will he live up to the nickname Defeated Detective?

Overall I would class Un-Go as a decent anime. By the end I was invested in the series, but a disappointing start means that it’s not the type of show anyone would rank amongst their favourite animes of all time. The idea of solving crimes with a character that forces suspects to answer a question against their will is neat, but it sadly wasn’t executed as well as I would have hoped. The series would have benefitted from a higher episode count as I am sure the writers could have come up with cleverer Death Note like storylines had they not been restricted to twenty minute time slots.

Having some more memorable characters would also have helped. The star of the show is undoubtedly Inga who sporadically morphs from a playful rascal to a more sinister seductress. Unfortunately she is relegated to the role of sidekick. As a leading man Yuji doesn’t carry the weight of the series well as he isn’t much of a talker and his angsty demeanour will put off some viewers. Over the course of the eleven episodes he doesn’t develop much as a character so I was thankful that the two DVD collection from Kaze also includes a prequel OVA. The forty-minute extra chronicles how Yuji first met Inga and succeeds in explaining how he grew from an idealistic teen to the present day jaded investigator.

So what’s the verdict? If Inga forced me to truthfully answer I would say Un-Go is worth watching, but it’s hard to recommend buying at full price. I would wait for it to go on sale or see if it’s available to stream from an online anime provider.