Review of Freezing

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The dress code is about to be violated. That’s the aptly worded blurb on the back of Freezing’s DVD case, and man they weren’t kidding. Based on a long running manga comic book, Freezing is one of those anime shows, heavy on fan service, that is targeted at an adolescent male audience with an appetite for animated flesh. If you are on the cusp of maturing to full-blown hentai this could well be the series for you, but those with a distain for Japanese animation’s objectification of women are best served keeping their distance from this three disc DVD set currently available to buy from Manga Entertainment.

STORY

Set in the near future, this twelve episode series tells the tale of how extra-dimensional invaders known as Nova are wrecking havoc on Earth. To counter the alien threat the Earth forces use teams of genetically enhanced human beings called Pandoras. These super powered beauties have the might to take down a Nova, but need to be paired with a male “Limiter” who is tasked with nullifying the invader’s freezing aura, that would otherwise render anything in its range motionless. Forcing guys and gals to work together in order to save the world? Sounds like an un-tactful way of shoehorning some sexual tension into the story.

Freezing’s protagonist is the blonde buxom Satellizer el Bridget who is presently training to become a fully-fledged Pandora at the West Genetics Academy. Dubbed “the untouchable queen” by her fellow trainees, as she won’t permit anyone to lay a finger on her, Satellizer has earned the reputation of being the second year’s mightiest Pandora despite the handicap of refusing to work with a Limiter. That all changes however when Kazuya Aoi, the brother of a famous Pandora who perished at the hands of the Nova years earlier, transfers to the academy. Kazuya is drawn to Satellizer given her resemblance to his late sister and wishes to become her Limiter.

Although Satellizer isn’t initially interested in a partner, a bond begins to form between the two culminating in Satellizer rescuing Kazuya from the unwanted attentions of a seductive third year student. The ensuing scrap between Ms Bridget and the succubus in question is brought to the attention of the third year trainees who are not best amused. Satellizer is disliked on campus for being a loose cannon and the incident involving her disrespecting an upperclassman is deemed to be one transgression too many. The upper ranked third years decide the time has come to teach Satellizer some discipline.

BAD STUFF

I’ve read a number of reviews on Freezing and the vast majority of them have been critical. Having watched the show I can see why as the series has some deep flaws. The biggest one is that the first two thirds of the show aren’t very good. The premise of superhuman lasses protecting the world from an alien menace is right up my alley, but unfortunately it gets shoved into the background in favor of episodic duels between Satellizer and the third years that are unjustly bullying her. Why is the security so lax in a military academy? I cannot believe how the staff tolerate potentially fatal battles between promising candidates, especially when they be may called at any moment to protect Earth from attack.

Another problem with the early episodes is the introduction of a new character named Rana, which derails the blossoming romance between Satellizer and Kazuya. Rana has decided that Kazuya is her destined partner and will stop at nothing to secure his affections. The resulting rivalry between Satellizer and Rana is no doubt intended to spice things up narratively, but I found it to be nothing more than an annoyance. Rather than establishing a potential love triangle, Rana is nothing more than a third wheel stalling the growth of the leads’ relationship

CHARACTERS

Given that the series is promoted as being mindless eye candy it shouldn’t be surprising that the characterization of the cast is weak. That said I did find myself taking a shine to Satellizer once her backstory is revealed. In combat her never say die spirit comes from her mother’s dying words, which is rather touching. We also learn that she isn’t the heartless loner others purport her to be. Satellizer’s distant demeanor stems from the sexual abuse she suffered during her childhood. Her interactions with Kazuya help to overcome these deep-seated issues revealing her true nature. As Satellizer opens up to others its sweet to see her transform from a badass to a socially inept gal who gets easily flustered.

Kazuya on the other hand isn’t as well fleshed out. He lacks any real charisma making him easily forgettable. Clearly the focus of the show is on the female fighters. Although none of them have the depth of Satellizer they each have distinct personalities, unique fighting styles and cosmetically all look very different. Given the demographic the show is catering to it doesn’t hurt to have a broad range of ladies on display. No matter what your taste there’s bound to be one girl that takes your fancy. I’m sure over in Japan this franchise is making a killing selling merchandise, such as display figurines, to the hormonal fans of the cartoon.

SUMMARY

So after writing all that I suppose most of you will expect me to give Freezing a terrible score. Well despite it’s failings I find myself having to award it a very low three stars. Perhaps I am a perv who succumbed to the charms of the titillating beauties on show, but I actually enjoyed the third DVD’s content. It signaled the arrival of the Nova, ending the petty schoolyard squabbles between the West Genetic Academy girls. The ensuing combat between the Pandoras and Nova is exciting (think Dragonball with the pointless powering up and cursing trimmed away) making me appreciate the show from a purely action standpoint. The attractive character designs and above average artwork don’t hurt either. I even enjoyed the music including the J-Pop opening/closing themes along with the electronic/instrumental scores that play in the background during each episode.

If nudity bothers you feel free to knock a star off my rating because I cannot imagine you will find much to like about the show. Although the fan service is the franchise’s selling point it ironically will also put off many viewers. Some people will find it crass whilst others will find it too silly to follow. To be honest I can’t blame them. It’s hard to get invested in a fight when you have the distraction of boobs hanging out of torn garments that were never suitable for battle in the first place (seriously how much protection can a panty flaunting mini skirt offer.) Having girls lose their kit in a fight is nothing new for anime, but Freezing would have benefitted from not treating itself so seriously.

The nudity can be bothersome as it feels mean spirited at times. Characters are depicted in humiliating poses, which make me wonder if the artists are just using the project as an avenue to release latent bondage fantasies. It’s very different to something like Sekirei. That anime wasn’t shy about stripping its characters either, but it used slapstick humor to make the fan service less creepy (think flashing in a Benny Hill skit.) Still I think the show has potential. Near the end shadowy figures hint at a greater conspiracy that could make season two’s plot more captivating… bah who am I kidding. They’ll probably just give us more super powered mud wrestling with tits bouncing everywhere.

Review of Atelier Ayesha: The Alchemist of Dusk (PS3)

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Atelier Ayesha is the latest game from the long running Atelier JRPG series. Playstation 3 owners, in the UK, have already had the pleasure of playing three Atelier games this current console generation; namely Atelier Rorona were players had to save a struggling alchemy shop from closure, Atelier Totori were the protagonist used her transmutation skills to reunite with her missing mother and finally Atelier Meruru were a princess utilized her alchemic gifts to turn her kingdom into a prosperous nation. With Meruru signaling the end of the Arland trilogy of games, Atelier Ayesha transposes players to a different region with new environments to explore and a whole host of new characters to become acquainted with.

STORY

The title character, Ayesha, is an apothecary who ekes out a living by selling the medicinal goods she cooks up in an oversized cauldron. Ayesha lives alone in the land of Dusk ever since her sister Nio was spirited away. Since her disappearance it has been presumed that Nio is dead, but hopes that she may have survived resurface one day when Ayesha is out and about collecting herbs from the woods near her home. An apparition resembling her sibling appears before her briefly only to then vanish without a trace. After describing the encounter to a veteran alchemist named Keithgriff, Ayesha is led to believe that there may be a chance of reuniting with her sis, but doing so will require studying alchemy and investigating the mysterious properties of the flora that grow around Dusk. With that our heroine heads out to the big city determined to learn more about the ancient art.

In terms of story I would have to say that Atelier Ayesha is the strongest of the series’ PS3 releases. From the offset you are given a clear goal of researching alchemy to find a way of saving Nio from whatever fate may have befallen her. This is much better than Rorona and Meruru’s open-ended goals of saving a shop or developing a kingdom. Even Totori’s parental quest didn’t have the urgency of Ayesha’s adventure, given that it is only revealed late on in the game. The more focused story doesn’t however mean that the series’ lighthearted hijinks have been abandoned. Although the task of rescuing Nio is Ayesha’s paramount concern there’s still plenty of time for comedic cut scenes and optional side quests to partake in.

As in the older games it is the visual novel style cut scenes that trigger when you visit a location after specific events that bring the game to life. The clips star the franchise’s new characters that adequately fill the shoes of the Arland trilogy’s stars. Yes, it’s a shame that fan favorites no longer appear in this game, but on the flip side all the fresh faces mean that the game is a good jumping on point for players new to the series. The cast of playable characters that can team up with Ayesha and NPCs you meet in town all have distinctive quirks making them entertaining to watch on screen. Some of the folks you will interact with include the sassy witch in training Wilbell, the tomboyish prospector Regina, shopkeeper Marietta who cannot resist berating her relic obsessed eccentric employer and Linca a female bodyguard whose devotion to the blade has made her socially inept.

GAMEPLAY

Gameplay wise Atelier Ayesha can be divided into item crafting and turn based combat. To advance the story you’ll often have to complete quests that involve using alchemy to synthesis items. Quests can be obtained from the residents you meet walking around town, which differs from the older games that had you obtaining missions from an adventurer’s guild. Although I imagine some players may prefer a centralized location where they can get all their alchemy requests I didn’t mind the change. The new system encourages exploration and is less cold than going to the guild and using a menu to select a fetch quest. Alchemy itself is more streamlined than the older games, making it less of a chore, with complex weapon forging done away with altogether. In this game gear is dropped by vanquished enemies, which you can then customize with alchemy to adds traits such as health regeneration, elemental resistances and so on.

In order to synthesis items you’ll need ingredients, but unfortunately not everything you need can be procured from a store. Some ingredients have to be harvested from ruins and woodlands that are populated by hostile monsters, which is were the combat system kicks in. Battles with wildlife, golems and ghosts are pretty much identical to the older games and should be familiar to anyone who has been playing JRPGs since the days when Final Fantasy made a big impact on the NES. Players simply have to command Ayesha and her two other party members on what to do. As usual you can attack, perform MP draining skills or use items to turn the tide of battle. Sustaining and inflicting damage fills up a meter that is used to activate support abilities or powerful offensive moves. One new feature to the combat is the option of directing characters to move to different parts of the battlefield. This comes in handy for executing damaging rear strikes or preventing your team from getting bunched together (always a recipe for disaster when facing enemies with area effect spells.)

One thing that may not appeal to completionists, who like to unlock everything in a single play through, is the game’s time limit. Ayesha’s adventure spans across three simulated years, with the clock ticking down every time you enter a battle or cook up something with alchemy. Organizing yourself to efficiently complete quests therefore plays a factor, although it’s a problem that is alleviated as your character grows allowing you to research methods of fast travel and speedier item gathering. To be honest Atelier Ayesha is far more forgiving than its predecessors in terms of time management as I had no trouble finishing the main story with ample months left to spare. Not bad considering that this time round you don’t get a homunculi servant to help you out with ingredient collection and item manufacture.

SUMMARY

In my opinion Atelier Ayesha is the finest of the PS3 Atelier games. Every sequel seems to refine what works in the previous installment making it a more satisfying experience. Case in point would be the strides made with the graphics. Although the series has never been known for state of the art visuals, in the space of a few years it is impressive to see how much better Ayesha’s cell shaded art style looks when compared to what we got in Atelier Rorona. Sound wise the game boats an excellent soundtrack packed with a plethora of tunes. The composers have really outdone themselves as you get treated to multiple samples of background music during battle, which switches depending on how your party is faring. The voice acting is however a mixed bag with the quality varying from actor to actor. Depending on the character it ranges from adequate (although a little wooden) to good. When I first heard Ayesha speak I thought her voice would grate on me, as she sounded like such a ditz, but as I learned more about her personality I warmed up to it and now find her portrayal to be rather sweet.

If you have enjoyed any of the previous Atelier games Ayesha is a must buy. Some hardcore fans may feel this game is dumbed down, when compared to the previous three, but overall I feel that the changes made are worth it as they cut down on the frustrating niggles that hampered past titles. If I recall correctly it took me around thirty hours to finish the story, which is good value for money especially when you consider that multiple playthroughs are encouraged to unlock all the endings on offer. The three-year time constraint isn’t a big deal as a new game plus feature allows you to transfer your money and equipment the next time you restart the story. This makes things significantly easier granting you more freedom to check out content you may have missed the first time round. Ultimately the Atelier games cater to a niche audience. If you hate RPGs this latest installment won’t change your mind, but JRPG fans that couldn’t get into the Arland trilogy may want to revisit the series with this game. This is the most accessible Atelier game to date and that alone could convert those on the fence into becoming full-blown fans.

Review of Hyperdimension Neptunia Victory (PS3)

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Another day, another review and another video game sequel. With the current console generation dwindling to a close it really feels like developers are playing things safe by releasing follow-ups to established intellectual properties. This time round I am checking out Hyperdimension Neptunia Victory, the third game in the Hyperdimension Neptunia series. I’m surprised the franchise has persevered this long after the generally poor reception the first game got, but Compile Hearts’ tenacity seems to have borne fruit as Neptunia has become a hit back in its native Japan. At the time of writing spin-off handheld games are planned, as is an anime series.

STORY

For those of you not acquainted with the older games, the Hyperdimension Neptunia series takes place in the fictional world of Gamindustri, which is divided up into four nations each led by a goddess (also known as a CPU.) What distinguishes Hyperdimension Neptunia from other JRPGs, with similar plots, is that real world consoles serve as inspiration for the goddesses in question. The title character Neptune for example is based on a Sega machine that was sadly cancelled before ever seeing the light of day. Her fellow CPUs include Blanc the leader of Lowee (Wii), Vert the goddess of Leanbox (Xbox) and Noire who heads Lastation (Playstation.)

This particular adventure sees Neptune get transported to a parallel world populated by alternate versions of her friends. The aim of the game is to get Neptune back home, but in order to do so she will have to cross swords with a group known as the Seven Sages, who are opposed to Gamindustri’s present hierarchy were the populace is led by CPUs. As per the formula established in prior installments, Victory’s story is peppered with comedic video game references whilst at the same time using the friendly rivalry between Gamindustri’s nations as an allegory for the real life console wars that have Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft vying to be the world’s top video game company.

PRESENTATION

In terms of visuals the Hyperdimension Neptunia games have never pushed the graphical envelope of what the Playstation 3 is capable of. The original game wouldn’t have looked out of place on the PS2 to be frankly honest, but thankfully the aesthetics have since been beefed up. Victory is the best looking Neptunia game to date with smoothed out character models that resemble a 3D cartoon as opposed to an amalgam of polygons. The highlight for animation fans, such as myself, would however have to be the anime style character portraits and still pictures used to convey the plot during the visual novel-esque story segments.

One area that hasn’t significantly improved from its predecessors would have to be the sound, specifically the English language dub. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have a problem with the performances of the voice actors (although I wish Blanc’s actress would speak up as I sometimes struggle to understand what she is mumbling) but it is disappointing to see how sparse the voiced segments are. Only during key story moments do we get to hear the characters speak forcing the player to read oodles of text most of the time. It’s a shame as listening to the delectable tones of the vocal cast adds to the gameplay experience as well as preventing players from skimming through the narrative during the wordier exchanges.

GAMEPLAY

Much like in the older games Victory has players partaking in dungeon crawling were the aim is to complete quest objectives obtained from the capital’s guild. There are main quests that advance the story as well as optional tasks that will reward explorers with money/loot that can be used to purchase/craft new weapons, stat boosting accessories or clothing for those unsatisfied with their party’s default costumes. Quests range from beating up a boss, defeating a certain number of enemies or picking up an allotted number of items (obtainable from harvest nodes or dropped from vanquished monsters.)

Although the levels are fairly straightforward to navigate they are at least a little more involved than the earlier games. There are now transporters on certain stages than can beam you over to inaccessible areas and the ability to jump is utilized to reach elevated platforms. For those not wanting to get their hands dirty there is now a scout system that permits players to hire underlings to explore dungeons on their behalf. After a few days the scout will return from their expedition with any swag they collected or news of new enemies/dungeons they may have unlocked. The results of a scouting survey are completely random, but paying scouts a better wage increases the odds of them finding something worthwhile.

COMBAT

Those familiar with the last game will note that the combat system hasn’t changed much. Battles are triggered whenever you bump into an enemy and are pretty much a turn-based affair were players and the enemy move their combatants one at a time. You can attack, defend, use items or cast magic (including buffs, heals and offensive moves.) As you level up your team learn new attacks that can be mapped to the controller’s face buttons. These offensive moves can be broken down to regular attacks, weaker rush moves that hit multiple times (handy for building up the combo meter used to activate special moves) and break attacks that reduce an opponent’s guard.

Over the course of the story a plethora of characters will join your cause, but only four can be used in combat at any one time. Unused characters aren’t wasted though as they can be placed in the reserve team and paired up with active party members. Gradually over time the relationship between a pair grows unlocking useful support bonuses. During tricky encounters your team can be beefed up even further by transforming them from their regular underage jailbait form to a more mature super-powered HD guise – sporting skin tight plug suits that reveal a lot of flesh (hmmmm I can suddenly see why this game is so popular in Japan.)

SUMMARY

By now most gamers should know were they stand with respect to the Neptunia series. The vast majority will probably not care for it citing a combat system that gets repetitive (you pretty much fight through a level building up your combo meter and then use it to kill off a boss with special moves once you break their guard.) If you are in that camp you can pretty much disregard this review, as Victory doesn’t break the established mold. Those who enjoy Compile Heart JRPGs will however eat this up, as mechanically speaking this is the best Neptunia game to date.

In terms of content it took me 82 hours to get the best of the three endings on offer, which is a marked improvement over HDN2’s short-lived story. This installment also trumps its predecessor in terms of challenge, proving to be no cakewalk. If you neglect the optional side quests be prepared for difficulty spikes were one moment you are cruising through a level only to then get decimated by a boss. Victory also delivers in the comedic department with lashings of quirky gags that the franchise is known for.

Players who have grown up playing consoles will have a hoot spotting all the gaming references packed into the game, but be forewarned that the comedy is hit and miss. Although it’s a riot seeing the cast’s fourth wall breaking antics, players will also be subjected to numerous boob jokes that fall flat (no pun intended.) The writers are also guilty of running jokes to the ground. One example is Plutia, a sheepish character who transforms into a dominatrix that everyone is fearful of. The first couple of times she morphs into her evil persona are a blast, but by the twentieth time it happens it gets tiresome. No wait mistress! I didn’t mean that! Ouch stop whipping me! Crap what’s the secret word to make her stop? Aaaaarrrh!!!!

Review of Devil May Cry

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Devil May Cry is a popular action/horror video game series made by Capcom, the Japanese developer best known for titles such as Streetfighter, Megaman and Resident Evil. The original Devil May Cry was actually intended to be a Resident Evil sequel, before taking a life of its own and blossoming into its own franchise.

The twelve-episode anime adaptation I am covering today aired on Japanese TV back in 2007, coinciding with the release of the fourth game (in case your interested some of the cut scenes of that particular title can be found under the DVD’s extras section.) As a fan of the games I decided to pick up this set after spotting it at HMV for a bargain £6. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but I should have remembered that video game animes are seldom any good.

STORY

Chronologically speaking, this anime series takes place sometime between the first Devil May Cry and the fourth game (Devil May Cry 3 is a prequel and confusingly the events of the second game take place after DMC4.) As with the games, the anime follows the exploits of a human/demon hybrid named Dante, son of the powerful demon lord Sparda (not to be confused with the barely clothed chaps from 300.) Devil May Cry is technically speaking a detective agency, but in reality that’s just a cover for Dante’s real occupation – demon hunter.

I wish I could write more about the show’s plot, but alas there isn’t a one… or at least an ongoing narrative spanning the dozen episodes that comprise this set. What we have here are pretty much standalone cases, although some effort is made to weave them into one big conspiracy during the two part finale (although to be honest tying the unconnected stories together at that point feels rather forced.) Most episodes have Dante being hired to protect someone or to take out a demon. The quality of the stories range from mildly entertaining to downright dull. There are a few twists, intended to keep the audience guessing, but when the revelation is sprung it feels like something you have seen elsewhere and done better.

For the most part Devil May Cry treats itself seriously, but there are times were it tries to inject some comedy to proceedings. The more lighthearted capers, such as the episode involving a diner patron who tries to woo a waitress by mimicking Dante, were amongst my favorite of the twelve cases but alas the gags don’t always work. One such example is Dante’s love for strawberry sundaes. The writers seem to think that a badass ordering a girly dessert is hilarious and keep repeating the joke throughout the series. It barely registered a chuckle, from me, the first time and got tiresome by the end. In a similar vein we are supposed to laugh at Dante’s bad luck with money, which stem from his terrible gambling skills or blowing his mission rewards on repair bills incurred by his destructive battles. What a hoot… not!

CHARACTERS

One of the bigger disappointments in the anime adaptation of Devil May Cry would have to be the writers’ take on Dante. In the games he’s a smug hero who takes down evildoers in the flashiest, most badass, way possible. He’s so popular with players that there was a massive outcry over his redesign in the series reboot. The anime version of Dante is however one of the most apathetic protagonists you will ever find. Despite his financial woes he’s reluctant to accept any jobs, instead preferring to stay in his office gobbling capacious amounts of beer and pizza. I’m not sure how viewers are supposed to get behind a hero who is averse to going on missions, particularly as the noble tasks save innocents from the impending demonic threat.

Stunt man turned actor Reuben Langdon voices Dante, as he does in the fourth video game. For consistency sake, fans must be pleased that they secured the services of Dante’s video game vocals, but I wasn’t too impressed with his performance. Reading a few sporadic lines for a game isn’t quite as demanding as carrying a TV series and it shows. Perhaps I am being too harsh though given that the unemotional cartoon version of Dante is one of those silent types who don’t get phased by anything.

Speaking of voice actors, I was disappointed to learn that one of my favorite anime actresses (Hilary Haag) was forced to play the part of Patty Lowell, the show’s most annoying character. Patty is a young orphaned girl who Dante saved in the first episode. After putting up with her infuriating escapades, for a few hours, I wish he hadn’t bothered. Patty is another prime example of comedy that falls flat. She’s there to bicker with Dante about fixing his busted TV – so she can watch soaps, decorate his gloomy office with cute stuff and beat his ass at poker. I’m not sure what my real life casino employers would make of an animated program that promotes underage gambling, but whatever. Needless to say the show would be better without her inclusion, but thankfully her presence doesn’t pollute the bulk of an episode as she rarely joins Dante on missions.

To finish off I should also mention that two ladies from the video games also feature in the anime. Out of the two gals in question Lady is the one who gets the most screen time. She’s a capable human demon hunter who Dante owes a load of money too (way more than what appears on my credit card bill.) There’s a recurring theme of her manipulating Dante into helping her out with a job, only for her to take his cut of the profits when the mission is done. The other lass from the games is the blonde bombshell Trish, who is a friendly demon with the power to command lightning. In the games it’s hinted that Dante may have a thing for her, which is somewhat disturbing given that she is the splitting image of his mother. I wonder what Sigmund Freud would make of that.

SUMMARY

Even though six quid for twelve episodes is good value, and some of those episodes are watchable, I’ll have to give Devil May Cry a paltry two stars out of five. Anything higher would be generous based on my many complaints and when taking into account the grade I’ve awarded other animes. I wasn’t expecting anything epic from the series, but some flashy mindless action akin to what we find in the games would have been nice. I’m surprised to learn that one of the writers of the recent games was involved in the project, given the contrast in tone between the cartoon and its source material. The video games are high octane spectacles were you constantly fend off legions of enemies. The stories that make up this anime are however slow plodding affairs with barely any action.

Veteran anime studio Mad House animated the series, which makes the lack of action all the more puzzling. These guys are after all the brains behind thrilling movies such as Ninja Scroll. On the few occasions Dante fights, the encounter is over all too quickly. Whether he is facing a lowly demon servant or a creature capable of enslaving the entire world, Dante triumphs with one slash of his oversized skull hilted sword. Mad House’s artwork is sufficiently detailed, but in addition to the mediocre action they also seem to have taken shortcuts with the character designs. In some shots Dante looks like the lead of Mad House’s Highlander cartoon, wearing a silver wig, instead of his in game likeness. I also didn’t like how the women were drawn. Despite sporting an oversized chest, Lady looks masculine due to the contours of her face.

Normally when we get a subpar licensed release I can at least say that fans of the game may enjoy the anime, but I cannot put that disclaimer on this review. The cartoon doesn’t feel like the Devil May Cry games at all. If I didn’t known better I would say that they were working off an existing script, about a detective that takes on supernatural creatures, and tweaked it ever so slightly to use the Devil May Cry rights. Stick to the games I say and if you really must watch some animated monster slaying check out something like the Vampire Hunter D movies or Hellsing Ultimate instead.

Review of Full Metal Alchemist (Vol 2)

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The second volume of Full Metal Alchemist continues the adventures of Edward and Al, two brothers who are searching for a way to restore their bodies, which were damaged after a failed attempt to bring their mother back from the dead. During the botched attempt at human transmutation Edward lost an arm and a leg, which have since been replaced by cybernetic prosthetics, whilst Al has had to substitute his missing body with a hollow suit of armor. Leading on from the opening volume that focused mainly on the Elric brothers, using their alchemic talents to help the downtrodden, this second book begins to expand the story and introduce the series’ colorful supporting cast.

Volume two kicks things off with Edward visiting Shou Tucker, a fellow state alchemist who specializes in creating chimeras by splicing two animals together. Shou rose to prominence after using alchemy to produce a chimera that could understand human speech. Unfortunately for him the creature passed away and he has since been unable to recreate the experiment. This opening chapter to book two sees Ed delve into Shou’s research notes, hoping to find a way of adapting Tucker’s bio-alchemy to repair his missing limbs. Meanwhile Al spends his free time playing with Shou’s adorable daughter and pet dog, totally oblivious to Tucker’s fragile state of mind.

State alchemists are expected to present an annual report to their superiors detailing the progress of their research. With the report deadline looming Shou is no closer to replicating the process that produced a talking chimera, leaving him in real danger that his research funding will be cut. It’s a harrowing prospect for a single parent who could well find himself out on the street penniless. What subsequently transpires is one of the most tragic things I have ever read in a manga, although it must be said that I found the anime adaptation to be more distressing as we get to spend more time with the characters affected by the story’s events.

The next two chapters signal the entrance of an Ishbalan named Scar (who gets his name from the cross shaped markings on his face.) State Alchemists decimated the Ishbalan people in an earlier war so Scar has taken it upon himself to go on a one-man crusade of vengeance. Using a bastardized form of alchemy, Scar is able to destroy anything he gets his hands on. He has been using this technique to murder a series of alchemists and poor Edward is next on his hit list. When the two clash Edward only manages to get away thanks to the timely intervention of Major Armstrong – a comedic beefcake who likes to tear off his uniform, when in combat, to showoff rippling musculature that would put Arnie to shame.

Edward doesn’t escape from the scrap with Scar unscathed however and literally needs a hand to patch up his injuries. His auto mail arm was wrecked in the battle so he is forced to head back to his hometown, where his mechanic is based, for repairs. Along the way he encounters Dr Marko, a former state alchemist who deserted the army out of disgust at the atrocities he was ordered to commit during the Ishbalan conflict. Dr Marko may well hold the secrets to developing a Philosopher’s Stone, which could help the Elrics reclaim their lost bodies, but the question is can Edward convince the doctor that he won’t use the stone for less noble endeavors once he creates it?

This second installment of the Full Metal Alchemist manga proves to be even better than the first book. The story is getting into full swing with some solid world building that gives the reader a good sense of how things operate in the FMA universe. Although the first chapter concludes with an emotional gut punch things never get overly grim thanks to the comedic banter between the cast. The Scar segments are packed with exciting action and although things slow down in the final chapter, the writer kept my interest with more tidbits of information concerning the trio of black clad antagonists that briefly appeared in the last book. What are they scheming and where does the triad’s female get her elongated nails, that rival Freddie Krueger’s claws, pedicured? I guess we’ll have to wait until volume three to find out.

Review of Full Metal Alchemist (Vol 1)

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Full Metal Alchemist is the title of a manga series that has spawned not one, but two hugely popular animes (both of which I would rank amongst my favorite cartoons of all time.) Penned by Hiromu Arakawa (who was raised at a dairy farm, which possibly explains why she illustrates herself as a cow) the series has received critical acclaim in both its native Japan as well as overseas. Viz Media are responsible for bringing over the books to the U.S and thanks to the wonders of online shopping English speakers like myself can purchase their translated versions to read over here in Europe. This first release, which I am reviewing today, collects the first four parts in what is a one hundred and eight chapter long saga.

The series is set in the fictional nation of Amestris were alchemy is treated as a bona fide science. Accomplished alchemists can instantly transmute materials from one form to another, providing that they adhere to the law of equivalent exchange, which states that in order to obtain something of equal value must first be lost. By drawing a transmutation circle it’s therefore possible to instantly turn a few wooden planks into an Ikea grade table, but you can’t create giant statues out of a mere pebble due to insufficient mass. Oh and before you get any fancy ideas, no you cannot transform base metals into gold. The practice is outlawed, as it would collapse the economy faster than an investment banker suffering from gambling addiction.

Edward Elric and his brother Al are the stars of the show. The duo are travelling across the land seeking the Philosopher’s Stone, which they hope can restore their broken bodies (hopefully Mr Potter won’t find it before they do.) In case you are wondering, the pair are missing body parts as a consequence of unsuccessfully trying to resurrect their mother via forbidden human transmutation. Edward lost an arm and a leg during the attempt, which he has since replaced with auto-mail (pretty much steam punk’s answer to bionic limbs.) His brother Alphonse fared even worse, losing his entire body forcing him to bond his soul onto a suit of armor (which for some reason comes complete with a snazzy apron.)

Although Full Metal Alchemist has a rich story packed with many twists and fleshed out characters, this opening volume eases the reader into the F.M.A universe with a trio of self-contained tales. The first of these has the brothers visiting a desert town were they must confront a false prophet who has tricked the populace into believing that his feats of alchemy are miracles bestowed by “the Sun” God Leto (a deity who showcases topless girls on page three.) The next adventure sees the Elrics help out a struggling mining town that is being oppressed by a corrupt military governor. After that the book concludes with Ed and Al using their alchemic gifts to save a group of hostages who are trapped on a train that has been hijacked by rebels.

Readers of this first volume will note that the narrative is identical to the animated adaptation save for a few minor differences. Knowing how things would pan out didn’t however prevent me from having a blast revisiting Full Metal Alchemist in its original printed form. My enjoyment of the book was mainly due to how well written the lead characters are. The stories themselves are fairly straightforward affairs, which combine action with amusing banter, although a brief flashback sequence involving the Elrics’ mother shows how the series isn’t shy about exploring darker themes when the situation demands it. Visually speaking, the artwork is easy on the eyes and does a good job of seamlessly switching to a cartoonier look that enhances the more goofy comedic moments.

Overall this is a solid opener to the Full Metal Alchemist franchise, serving as a foundation from which one of the finest animes of all time was built upon. Any consumer who decides to follow the law of equivalent exchange, by losing money to attain a copy of this book, is unlikely to be disappointed with their purchase.

Review of Tiger And Bunny (Part 1)

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Tiger & Bunny is a cartoon series that sees the anime world try its hand at the superhero genre, which has been all the rage since Marvel cracked the formula for producing successful films based on its comic book properties. Japan has its fair share of costumed champions of justice (Ultraman, Kamen Rider, numerous Super Sentai shows etc) but Tiger & Bunny stands apart from those by trying to recreate the feel of western comic book heroes. Set in a futuristic world, the series tells the tale of super-powered individuals (known as NEXTs) who use their unique gifts to protect the citizens of Sternbild City from evildoers.

One unique selling point that the series offers is that the show’s costumed vigilantes have their crime fighting exploits chronicled live on the network station Hero TV. Good deeds, such as foiling robberies, earn the heroes points that are used to determine who will be crowned the King of Heroes at the end of the current season’s run. Think Big Brother meets Avengers. It’s an interesting premise that gives a realistic reason as to why someone would want to don a pair of tights and risk their life preserving the peace. Hero TV is big business offering plenty of incentives for joining the superhero game such as fame, lucrative corporate sponsorships and even the opportunity to promote a fledgling musical career.

The show’s main character is the veteran hero Wild Tiger (real name Kotetsu Kaburagi) who has the ability to greatly enhance his strength and speed for a period of five minutes, before the effect wears off and needs to be recharged. Tiger joined the superhero ranks years ago after the world renowned Mr Legend inspired him, as a boy, to harness his powers for the good of mankind. Unlike his fellow caped colleagues, Tiger has no interest in following Hero TV’s tune of playing for points and is merely motivated by a keen sense of justice. He’ll for example ignore orders to pause his heroics for a commercial break and cares little if saving the day results in costly property damage.

Frustrated by the repair bills Tiger’s antics generate his sponsor decides to sever their ties with him. Thankfully a new company wants Tiger to mentor Sternbild City’s newest hero – Barnaby “Bunny” Brooks (who coincidentally shares the same power set as Kotetsu) and sign him to their payroll. Hilarity then ensues as the pair don’t see eye to eye. Despite his age, Tiger is gung-ho and wreckless, much to the annoyance of the younger Bunny who is more composed and prefers to plan out strategy before rushing into battle. Can the not so dynamic duo patch up their differences and form a successful hero team? Time will tell.

I have to say that, as a fan of Marvel and DC comics, I had great expectations for Tiger & Bunny especially given the positive buzz the show was generating over in Japan. Having watched this opening volume I however have to say that I was a little disappointed. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a bad anime but I was expecting a little more than what we got. The interesting concept of Hero TV is only superficially touched upon, which is a missed opportunity. In an age were reality television dominates the airwaves I would have liked to have seen the show comment on how a noble career (like being a superhero) can be perverted by greed. If you think about it, how is this story any different to TV doctors who shun the position of helping the sick to make dosh on TV and by selling books?

Aesthetically I also didn’t like how the anime followed the recent trend of incorporating 3D computer effects with traditional 2D hand drawn work. Whenever the heroes go into combat they switch from a regular cartoon character to a CGI representation, much like the action sequences in the recent Berserk movie. This isn’t too bad for characters like Tiger who don mechanical power armor (similar to Ironman) but the effect really stands out for the likes of Fire Emblem who wears a spandex outfit and colorful cape. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – 2D or 3D animation. Pick one. They both have their positives, but mixing the two just doesn’t mesh well.

My biggest complaint with the series however is the Tiger and Bunny dynamic. The series is pitched as a superhero odd couple, but there is hardly any chemistry between the leads. I cannot fault the animated Tiger whose accident-prone exploits are fun to watch, but Bunny is just a dull pretty boy with no charisma. His subdued demeanor gives Tiger little to play off as Bunny rarely loses his temper. No sparks fly between the two as Bunny’s feelings towards his partner seldom grow beyond a mild irritation. I cannot help but wonder if the series would have worked better had Tiger joined forces with one of the other supporting characters.

Pretty much all the fringe superheroes are more entertaining than Bunny. Fire Emblem, who is literally a flaming homosexual, for example has some funny flirty interactions with Tiger. Then there’s the female heroine Blue Rose who has no passion for being a superhero. As a teenage girl she is irked by how playing hero interferes with her regular high school life or how she has to utter cheesy catchphrases at the insistence of her sponsor. Making her Tiger’s sidekick would have opened up many story possibilities such as Tiger showing Rose that helping others is worth the personal sacrifice. It would also setup a plot of how Tiger is in effect raising Rose whilst having to neglect his real daughter who he has kept his hero identity a secret from.

One thing I can praise this first volume on is the stellar job Kaze has done with the packaging. The release comes in a combo pack housing seven episodes on two DVDs and one Blu ray. If you own a DVD player the Blu ray is nice as you won’t have to double dip when you eventually upgrade. Blu ray owners on the other hand have a backup DVD copy they can loan out to friends. All that said I suppose some consumers would prefer separate DVD/Blu ray releases with more episodes at the expense of a disc format they do not use. Another nice addition to the combo is the inclusion of trading cards and booklets with series information contained within the box. Animes tend to get bare bone releases so it is always nice when a distributor makes the effort to give us something extra.

If you like shows with comedy and action Tiger & Bunny is an entertaining romp, even if it may not wow you due to the reasons I mentioned above. Perhaps things will pick up in the later episodes once all the characters are finally introduced. At the end of this volume we get some information about Bunny investigating his parents’ killers along with the reveal of a rogue NEXT who murders criminals as opposed to apprehending them. If those storylines are handled correctly we could get a more deep and meaningful series than these opening episodes seem to suggest. From what I have seen thus far though I am in no hurry to use my super speed to dash out to the store and purchase volume two once it comes out.