Review of Atelier Meruru: The Apprentice of Arland (PS3)

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Atelier Meruru is the third and final instalment of The Alchemist of Arland series, a franchise which is fairly popular back in Japan, but not as well known on these shores. After enjoying the game’s predecessors, Atelier Rorona and Atelier Totori, I was eager to snap up the trilogy’s finale – even if it meant handing in my man card. Fun as the games may be it’s hard to come across as macho when you spend your weekends playing as a pink haired girl who utilises her alchemic talents to conjure up homemade pies. Describing the game to friends has raised a few eyebrows and failed to convince anyone to give it a go which is a shame. Their loss I say, because the series proves that the Japanese RPG genre is not quite as dead as some reviewers would like to make out.

STORY

Merurulince Rede Arls (known to her friends as Meruru) is the star of the show. The impulsive princess has recently met Totori (the heroine from the last game) who has introduced her to the wonderful world of alchemy. Meruru loves nothing more than spending her days at the alchemy workshop, learning how to craft items by synthesising materials together. Her father, the king, would rather that his daughter attend to her royal duties, but is eventually convinced to nurture Meruru’s latest hobby. He gives the princess a three year deadline to use her alchemy skills to develop their rural backwater kingdom into a thriving nation. As the player it is up to you to guide the crown wearing teen towards reaching her allocated goal.

As you would expect this Atelier game plays much like the ones that preceded it. You’ll spend a good amount of time in town interacting with Meruru’s friends and crafting items using alchemy. When you decide to venture forth and exit the safety of your home you’ll be presented with a board game style map which allows you to travel around the nearby regions. Exploring an area involves harvesting materials such as berries and ore from the land whilst fending off hostile monsters. In order to succeed and avoid the bad ending you’ll have to schedule your time appropriately. The clock is ticking whenever you travel between zones, pick up items or enter a fight drawing you nearer to the three year ultimatum set by the king.

QUESTING

Every now and then citizens will mail requests for aid to the alchemy workshop. These tasks vary from vanquishing some foul beast that is terrorising the land to delivering the goods you transmute to a specified location. Each time you accomplish a goal you’ll be rewarded with development points which can be spent by speaking to Meruru’s stern butler. Trading away the points will begin construction of various buildings which increases your kingdom’s population and endows you with certain bonuses. Developing the marketplace for example will result in a richer selection of goods at the store whilst building military structures increases the amount of experience you earn from battle.

In addition to mail from the townsfolk, additional missions can be picked up by visiting the tavern and speaking to the shy (yet secretly pervy) guild receptionist who is based there. Completing work for the guild is your main source of income and in addition to increasing your coffers it also raises the popularity of your kingdom. Being popular is always nice, especially as the increased fame will attract more immigrants which bolsters your population (well until the Conservatives get in power and start to scare off all the foreigners.)

GAMEPLAY

As mentioned previously some of the quests you undertake will require battling against the local wildlife, spirits and even axe wielding lizard men. Combat is a turn based affair much like most JRPG titles during the early Playstation days/16 bit era. Your three man party comprises of Meruru along with two other characters of your choice. When you start off you’ll be stuck with Keina the maid and Lias the town guard, but as the story progresses more characters become recruitable including the always serious Sterk and Esty the sword wielding lass who is sensitive about her age. The combat system is fairly simplistic so spamming attack is normally sufficient to win, although against bosses you may have to resort to consuming magic points to perform special attacks or getting the alchemists in the group to lend a hand by using items from your inventory.

Whether this is the best game in the Alchemist of Arland game series will ultimately boil down to which title has your favourite story or characters. Strictly from a gameplay point of view I would however have to say that this was the most enjoyable of the three. Mechanically speaking they have refined things which each iteration so Meruru benefits from having the best interface. At a glance for example you can easily tell if you have sufficient ingredients to craft an item. This all means that you spend more time doing fun stuff like completing quests and less hours navigating menus to perform tedious actions such as transferring items from your basket to the workshop container.

SUMMARY

Visually Meruru employs the colourful hand drawn like art style we saw in Totori. Although the character designs are anime influenced, like they were originally in Rorona, the environments and character models have a more realistic look to them. The soundtrack is decent and allows you to switch things on the fly. If you don’t care for the music playing in a particular zone it’s possible to change the tune to a piece from one of the Atelier games which is a nice touch. Overall the voice acting is good although I once again find myself pulling my hair out (what little is left) on the decision to only voice certain cut scenes and force you to read text boxes in others. It’s a penny pinching move by NIS America when localising games which I wish they would address.

If you enjoyed either of the previous Atelier games I can highly recommend this one as it’s more of the same but done better. A good portion of the cast from Rorona and Totori make an appearance in this third game which will go down well with fans of the series. That’s not to say that new players will find themselves lost as they do a good job of introducing the characters you meet, instantly giving you a feel for their personality and back story. If you are not acquainted with Atelier lore you even have the option of selecting a prologue clip from the main menu which recaps the story of the last two games.

This may be a niche game which will only attract a cult following, but I enjoyed it. Whilst playing it the hours can fly by as you get into the “one more go” zone which makes you play a bit more to unlock a new town facility or alchemy recipe. The item crafting may not be particularly exciting, but I never found myself getting bored as alchemy sessions regularly get broken up by funny cut scenes. For your money you get a story that runs for about thirty to forty hours in addition to some replay value. There’s a new game plus feature that allows you to retain your equipment on your next play through, which is a big help for anyone trying view all the endings on offer.

All in all this is a great conclusion to the series. Now that I am done with the princess role playing I better go and clock in some hours on Duke Nukem to earn my man card back.

Review of Guilty Crown (Part One)

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Guilty Crown is a twenty-two episode anime series directed by Tetsuro Araki (whose other works include the blockbusters Death Note and Attack on Titan.) The show is an anime I have wanted to check out for quite some time after being impressed by an episode screening during my first ever visit to an anime convention. Two years later I am finally able to sample the series in its entirety thanks to the folks at Manga Entertainment. UK fans can watch the first part of the show on this recently released collection that contains eleven episodes across two DVD discs.

The show takes place in the near future (2029 to be precise) when disaster befalls the nation of Japan (atom bombs, nuclear meltdowns, tsunamis… the creators of my favourite cartoons seem to be cursed with the worst luck.) This time round a meteor crashes on the place unleashing a lethal virus that crystalizes the skin of anyone unfortunate enough to contract it (that sounds almost as bad as man-flu.) The situation is ultimately brought under control when an organization known as the GHQ shows up and uses their medical expertise to halt the spread of the infection. Unfortunately for the residents of Japan the GHQ decide to take over the country as well.

A decade later a resistance group named Funeral Parlour is formed to liberate Japan from the GHQ’s oppression. The group’s trump card is Shu Ouma – a high school student who accidently acquired the Power of Kings after becoming exposed to a mysterious concoction. Shu’s ability allows him to plunge his hand into an individual’s chest and extract the person’s void (which can be anything from a robot busting sword to a ray gun that manipulates gravity.) It’s a useful skill to have and much less messy than ripping out a heart, which is the normal consequence of driving your arm into someone’s torso.

Whilst watching Guilty Crown I couldn’t help but be impressed by the show’s spectacular visuals. The high production values are one of the things that caught my eye during the aforementioned convention screening. Unfortunately after watching the opening eleven episodes it has become apparent that the eye candy on show isn’t supported by a deep story. Guilty Crown is ultimately “guilty” of robbing most of its ideas from other animes, which have handled the pilfered material better. A teenage protagonist, fan service courtesy of cute girls, fighting robots, relationship drama, conspiracies revolving around the hero’s past… gripes its almost as if the creators were working off a checklist of anime clichés when they came up with the series.

The show’s biggest weakness would probably have to be its leading man. I didn’t warm to Shu as he seems to have graduated from the Shinji Ikari school of whining. Although he isn’t as intolerable as Evangelion’s lead he is certainly guilty of excessive moping. Most of the time he moans about being a reluctant freedom fighter and don’t get me started about how he sulks when teen idol Inori Yuzuha blows off his romantic advances. I would have been happier if the narrative would have focused its attention on the more interesting supporting cast. Funeral Parlour’s respected leader Gai Tsutsgami for example is easier to admire given that he is a master tactician who keeps his cool under fire. I also took a shine to Ayase Shinoiya who, in her limited screen time, shows how she overcomes the handicap of being wheelchair bound to become the resistance’s top Endlave pilot.

If I had to rate part one of Guilty Crown I would give it three stars out of five. It’s entertaining and blessed with sublime visuals, but content wise it has yet to wow me. Given that it borrows so many ideas from better shows, the series struggles to establish its own identity, not knowing what it wants to be. The anime’s tone feels disjointed as it uncomfortably transitions from comedy to heart wrenching drama. One minute we are expected to laugh, when Shu’s failure to extract a girl’s void ends with him groping her breasts, and the next moment we are meant to weep tears when it is revealed that one of Shu’s friends has a terminally ill brother.

This first part of Guilty Crown ends on a doozy of a cliffhanger, so fingers crossed that the next instalment takes the story in a more interesting direction. What I’ve seen thus far has potential, and I can recommend it to sci-fi action anime fans, but as a show handled by the director of Death Note I was expecting something a little cleverer for the twenty quid I paid.

Review of Cowboy Bebop: The Movie

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Cowboy Bebop is a highly regarded anime series which first aired on television during the late nineties. The show garnered respect from western audiences after being included as part of Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim. Until only a few years ago I would have ranked Cowboy Bebop as my favourite anime series of all time, and at the time of writing I would still say it is amongst my top five shows in the genre. Two years after the conclusion of the series the movie I am reviewing today (subtitled Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door) was released. Canonically speaking the story takes place some time between episodes twenty two and twenty three. This gives the feature the feel of an extended episode as opposed to an epilogue which could have tainted the anime’s finale.

WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE

The feature kicks off with the male members of the Bebop crew taking out some low level hoods who are attempting to rob a convenience store. The opening sequence does a good job of introducing audience members who are not familiar with the series to Jet Black and Spike Spiegel. Jet is a former police officer who has since become a cowboy (aka bounty hunter) after sustaining an injury which cost him his arm (which has since been replaced by a mechanical limb.) His partner Spike used to be part of a criminal syndicate, but when that didn’t work out he changed his career to something more noble. Aside from establishing the characters the scene reminds us what was so good about the show. An entertaining altercation between the cowboys and thieves showcases Spike’s martial arts prowess, sharp shooting skill and witty banter.

If you are not acquainted with the series you could be forgiven for thinking that Cowboy Bebop takes place in present day America, but the film is actually set in the not too distant future (2071 to be exact.) The Martian city which serves as the backdrop to proceedings looks like a modern day U.S city and the populace still dress in apparel you can see walking down the high street today. Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door does away with some of the more implausible outer space shenanigans the series would sometimes portray, preferring instead to keep things down to Earth (or Mars as the case may be.) If you eliminate the spacecraft the cast pilot this could well be a regular crime story that wouldn’t cost that much to convert into a live action flick. This may disappoint fans who liked the sci-fi heavy instalments of the show, but on the flip side it helps attract viewers who normally shun away from programmes with cosmic elements.

MAN SHOULDN’T LIVE BY CARBS ALONE; COMPLEX OR OTHERWISE

Once the opening credits roll we get to the meat and potatoes of the story. Gambling addict Faye Valentine is returning to the Bebop after another unlucky session at the horses. Hoping to recoup some of her loses she pursues a lorry which she believes is being driven by a wanted computer hacker. When she catches up with the truck she however finds that the driver isn’t the bounty she is seeking. A shaggy haired, bearded man emerges from the vehicle which a few moments later explodes. The direct blast results in casualties, but more worryingly so, the aftermath sees citizens in the surrounding area begin to suffer from symptoms that point to a virus. The Martian government is understandably worried and therefore posts an astronomical three hundred million wulong bounty for apprehending the perpetrators responsible for unleashing a biological weapon on their city.

Spike and company don’t give the air of being the most professional cowboys in the universe, but the big reward on offer certainly motivates them to investigate the case. The three hundred mill reward would ease their ongoing financial difficulties and would allow them to purchase a more varied menu than the daily ration of instant ramen they have had to endure of late (eating Pot Noodles every single day can certainly get tiresome on the old taste buds.) Faye, assisted by Ed the computer whiz of the group, searches for the hacker who they believe is an accomplice to the bomber. Jet hits his old law enforcement colleagues for leads whilst Spike investigates a pharmaceutical company, with ties to the military, that may be linked to the contagion which was released subsequent to the explosion.

FIRST RULE OF COMBAT – SHOOT THEM BEFORE THEY SHOOT YOU

Most of the movie, which runs for almost two hours, deals with the Bebop team trying to uncover who the bomber is and foil a much bigger attack that could eradicate all life on the planet. The investigation gets a little slow paced in parts, but the screenwriter who penned the script does a fine job of livening things up just when the case starts to get dull. We get comedic moments which lighten the mood and there’s also a number of action sequences which help fight off the tedium created a dry criminal investigation. As in the show the action comes in the form of gunfights and Spike displaying his range of kung-fu maneuvers. I especially enjoyed the part were Spike attempts to escape from a laboratory he infiltrated disguised as a cleaner. At one point action and comedy combine in a duel that sees him wield a broken mop (which reminded me a little of something Jackie Chan would do.) Spectators who enjoyed the show’s spaceship dogfights needn’t worry as they are catered for later in the film when Spike, piloting his Swordfish, has to get away from military jets.

Vincent the villain of the piece deserves a mention as I found him to be a captivating antagonist. His motivations, for the bombings, are never fully explained leaving you to wonder if he is doing it all for revenge or just because he has been driven insane by experiments he suffered during his military days. Whenever he is on screen he grabs your attention as the uneasy calm surrounding him is constantly threatened by his unstable personality. One moment he will sit alone playing solitaire, waxing lyrical about purgatory, and the next moment the peace is shattered when he brutally murders any unfortunate person in the vicinity. He speaks of how his life feels like a dream which harkens back to comments made by Spike, on his own life, during the series. This makes Vincent a good foil for the protagonist. In a manner of speaking they share the same soul, but their confrontations are made all the more interesting by the different way they approach things. Spike lives for the moment and relies of instinct whilst Vincent is more strategic and prefers to plan things ahead. In combat Spike uses graceful martial arts to defend himself unlike Vincent who attacks with strength and brute force.

SEE YOU SPACE COWBOY

Cowboy Bebop is one of my favourite anime shows and this movie ends up being one of my favourite anime films. It gets a solid four stars from me, but it cannot quite elevate itself to attaining a perfect score. However much I enjoyed the film I ultimately found myself enjoying some of the episodes from the show over it. I would have liked to have seen the other characters get more attention as the story focuses mainly on Spike. Faye gets taken out of the picture, for while, in the second half of the movie and Jet spends most of his time mopping on the Bebop about how his companions lack team spirit. Ed is only called in to aid the investigation with her computer wizardry when the story demands it, although that’s alright as she is a comic relief character who can get annoying if overexposed. Granted in the series you would get episodes that concentrate on a particular character over the others, but given the ample running time they had I wished they would have shared out the limelight more evenly.

That complaint aside, I cannot think of any other faults with the piece. The series already looked great and the injection of a bigger budget ramps up the visuals even further. This benefits the gorgeous artwork in the form of greater detail and lifelike fluid animation. Sound wise I have nothing but praise for the soundtrack as well as the English voice cast who did a terrific job. Only the most ardent of anime purists would deny that the dub doesn’t match the quality of the original Japanese audio. If you are a DVD bounty hunter on the trail of entertainment I would advise that you to track down Cowboy Bebop: The Movie. The reward for its capture is close to two hours of excellent animated viewing.

Review of Persona 3 Portable

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Persona 3 Portable is a handheld remake of Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3, which was originally released in Europe, for the PlayStation 2, back in February 2008. The game sees players take control of a high school student who is able to summon powerful Personas by placing a gun shaped evoker to their temple and pulling the trigger (kids please don’t try this at home.) When the story begins the protagonist transfers over to a dorm sponsored by the Specialized Extracurricular Execution Squad who are made up of fellow Persona summoners. As a member of SEES your goal is to lead a band of brave teenagers (along with a super intelligent canine and a smexy android lass) in battle against the sinister shadow entities that prey on humans during the post midnight Dark Hour.

Even though P3P is on a handheld device the game has not been watered down, boasting plenty of additional features that were not present in the PS2 original. The first of these extras is the choice to play through the campaign as either a boy or girl. It’s a great addition as it gives cross-dressers the opportunity to don a virtual skirt, as well as allowing fans of the original to experience the game through a different perspective (and who wouldn’t given that the PS2’s male hero is an unlikable emo.) What gender you ultimately select is not a decision that should be taken lightly as it will affect what relationships you can form over the course of the story, which is a big deal as a huge part of the Persona games involves building social links that boost the power of the Personas you employ in battle.

Speaking of battle, another significant tweak that fans should appreciate is that Persona 3 Portable allows players to control all four active party members. For the most part I stuck to the default option, of controlling the main character and allowing the A.I to handle my partners, but there are a few tough boss fights were I appreciated having the option of directly telling my companions what to do (a strategic feature that was sadly absent in the PS2 iteration.) Other new goodies of note include extra tunes for the already excellent soundtrack (I love the song titled Danger Zone that plays during the female’s boss fights) along with extra story segments (including a cameo featuring someone from the Persona 4 cast.)

Sadly there’s only so much you can squeeze into a PSP title with over a hundred hours worth of gameplay content. The most notable sacrifice is the loss of the animated story sequences, which are now presented using in game graphics. The game over world has also been transformed into a series of visual novel style still pictures were you click on the destination you want to travel to. This may annoy fans of the original, although I feel it is a blessing in disguise. Using a pointer to fast travel to a location saves time and cuts down on needless walking, which as a chubby person I approve of given that I loathe using my legs.

Thankfully the core gameplay remains untouched. For the most part you simulate the life of a high school student, although your routine gets interrupted every full moon when you are expected to take down the powerful shadow creatures that manifest at the end of each lunar cycle. You’ll have to manage your time wisely in anticipation of those encounters by attending a part-time job to make money, playing at the arcade to boost the stat of your personas and explore the randomly generated floors of the Tartarus Tower, which is the source of the evil shadows. With so much stuff to do you’ll have to think up a good excuse to convince your professors why you didn’t complete their assignments on time… do you think they will buy that a demonic shade ate your homework?

Persona 3 Portable gets full marks from me, as it is virtually flawless. Playing through the story is a real treat thanks to the likable characters whilst the turn based combat never gets old as it manages to be both fast paced and strategic. Whether you enjoy it more than its successor Persona 4 will ultimately come down to personal taste. Mechanically speaking both games are equally competent. Although I slightly favour P4, due to its cast, I am sure many other players would give P3 the nod due to its darker narrative. Either way Persona 3 Portable is a must have if you own a PSP or Vita. If you can’t appreciate a masterpiece like this there’s no hope for you, so do us all a favour and try to summon a Persona with a regular handgun.

Review of Soul Calibur V (PS3)

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Soulcalibur 5 is the latest of the long running fighting game series. The franchise started its life in the mid-nineties as an arcade release dubbed Soul Edge. Since then the weapon duelling saga has been rechristened Soulcalibur and made its way onto the home consoles. I first became acquainted with the series when Soulcalibur 2 caused some buzz by supplementing its roster with an exclusive character that was unique to the version it was being played on. As a PS2 owner I had to settle for the Tekken fighter Heihachi whilst Xbox and Gamecube users had the far cooler comic hero Spawn and Legend of Zelda star Link to pick from. Despite that I loved Soulcalibur 2 and the follow-up Soulcalibur 3 which introduced the option of creating custom fighters, much like you can in modern day wrestling games.

THE RETURN OF SOULCALIBUR

In my opinion the series went downhill with the release of Soulcalibur 4. Initially I was excited by the prospect of playing as Star Wars characters, in addition to the usual Soulcalibur combatants, but after the sci-fi novelty wore off I found myself getting bored of the game. Perhaps I was miffed at being expected to cough up extra cash to unlock Yoda, as downloadable content, even though hackers revealed that the character was already on the disc. It was my first experience of a game company cutting out existing content so they can resell it later as an “extra.” That sort of mentality is what has put me off supporting DLC offers as I loathe the idea of encouraging companies to swindle consumers via such practices.

Looks like I wasn’t the only one displeased with how Soulcalibur 4 turned out because after lacklustre sales Namco decided to give up on the franchise. The death of the series was however averted when fans petitioned Tekken producer Katsuhiro Harada to revive the project. Their pleas did not fall on deaf ears because four years after the last game, Soulcalibur is back. The question is, has the work put into resurrecting the series been worth it or should the series have been left to die an honourable death? Let’s take a closer look and see.

STORY

The game is set almost twenty years after the last adventure which turns out to be a double edged sword (no pun intended.) On the one hand the passage of time allows the creators to freshen things up by adding new characters, but on the flip side it also means that some series favourites will not be making an appearance this time round. I was, for example, saddened to learn that the wind priestess Talim was not playable as I found her easy to pull off combos a big help in besting the challenges of the older games. It’s not all bad news though as a lot of the missing fighters are replaced by new characters with a similar fighting style. The absence of the big boobed ninja Taki for example isn’t as terrible as you would expect given that her apprentice Natsu takes her place. She’s not quite as blessed as her master in the bosom department, but makes up for it by having a booty that most males cannot resist staring at.

Let’s not get distracted by irresistible hineys though and return to discussing the game’s plot. The story centres around Patroklos, holy warrior and son of series favourite Sophitia. Our hero, who is on a quest to find his missing sister, starts the game serving a lord who sends him out on missions to eradicate corrupted humans known as Malfested. After realising that his master has been manipulating him all this time he decides to leave his service and join a band of warriors who are battling Nightmare, a swordsman who has been cursed to devour souls by the demonic blade Soul Edge. In a cruel twist of fate it is later revealed that Patroklos’ sister is a Malfested who is being groomed to become the new wielder of the Soul Edge. Can Patroklos save his sibling from her deranged destiny or will he ultimately be forced to destroy her? Only time will tell.

I’ve heard a lot of reviewers criticize Soulcalibur 5 for having an uninteresting story, but to be honest I rather enjoyed it. Fighting games aren’t renowned for being literary masterpieces, but at least this game gives you some motivation for fighting the opponents you come across. The storyboard style artwork and accompanying text do a fine job of detailing Patroklos’ journey through Europe and Asia which spans a total of twenty chapters. Sure the story mode isn’t as long lasting or well put together as Mortal Kombat, but it’s far more satisfying than what we get from the Capcom 2D fighters. My only quibble with the story mode is that you’ll spend most of the time controlling Patroklos. From time to time you switch over to his sister and the werewolf summoner ZWEI, but the rest of the cast are relegated to being AI opponents.

GAMEPLAY

At its core Soulcalibur 5 plays much like its predecessors. The aim of the game is to beat your opponents in one on one duels by earning three wins. To achieve victory you must incapacitate your enemy, by depleting their health bar, or by knocking them out of the arena to score a ring out. As a 3D fighter not only can you advance and retreat from foes, but also sidestep attacks. The x button is used to block, circle unleashes a kick with the other buttons being responsible for vertical and horizontal swipes of your weapon. The gameplay although not drastically different to the older games is more refined. I have to give props to the new engine for feeling smoother which makes the exchanges between combatants more fluid.

Introduced to the series for the first time is a power meter which seems to be a staple of most modern day fighters. As you take and dish out damage the meter fills up and once it reaches certain levels you have the option of draining it to pull off some devastating attacks (as I soon learned when the A.I would knock off half of my life bar in one foul swoop.) To discourage defensive play the meter also powers the guard impacts which limits their use. This is a good thing as in the past the guard mechanic could be abused by masterful players to counter anything thrown at them. As a button basher I didn’t make the most of these new features, but I am sure fighting game veterans will appreciate the additions as it adds an extra layer of strategy to the combat.

SUMMARY

I’m giving Soulcalibur 5 four stars as the combat is fun and overall I enjoyed it much more than the last game. If you are a fan of the series you’ll like this edition, especially if you take advantage of the multiplayer features which allow you to take on other Soulcalibur enthusiasts online. If you are purchasing this solely for the single player experience I must however warn that their isn’t much content to keep you occupied. You may want to wait for a price drop as the story mode can be completed fairly quickly. On the default difficulty the story isn’t too challenging, although Nightmare lives up to his name and will give you sleepless nights as you recover from the horror of his cheap ass attack. After you finish the story there isn’t much else to do other than the repetitive task of replaying the game to unlock characters and gear for any custom fighters you may want to create.

What a shame that the single player portion of the game is lacking in content. Had Namco gone the route of Mortal Kombat, which gives solo players a plethora of things to do, this easily would have been a five star game. Even the arcade mode feels lacking as completing it only rewards you with a screen displaying your completion time. A short ending unique to the character you used would have added to the replay value and given some back story to the new characters, who otherwise feel like lifeless copies of previous stars. This complaint can be addressed if downloadable content gets released in the future, but I won’t be buying it. As I mentioned earlier I’m against companies that have sold their “soul” to the all mighty dollar – I’ll keep my cash rather than allow them to make profit on expansions that complete partially finished titles sold at full retail price.

Review of Puella Magi Madoka Magica

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For Manga Entertainment, the Starz Media owned company dedicated to distributing Japanese animation to an anime starved UK audience, 2012 turned out to be a big year. They released the classic Ninja Scroll on Blu-ray whilst also bringing out the phenomena that is Dragonball Z on DVD. Considering the clout of that particular show I find it incredulous that it has taken so long for that particular series to reach these shores. You’d think those two blockbusters would be the focus of Manga’s attention, but that is not so. October saw the much-hyped Puella Magi Madoka Magica hit the UK market after heavy promotion on Manga’s website and podcasts.

Even if you aren’t a Japanese animation connoisseur you are likely to have heard of Dragonball Z, so you may be wondering why it is getting equal billing as a short twelve episode series with a pink haired girl on the DVD cover? The synopsis on the back reveals that Madoka Magica is a magical girl show, which isn’t exactly an original premise for a anime (anyone remember Sailor Moon?) Thing is that this isn’t your regular magical girl show. That may explain why its been a mega success in Japan, despite being an original property with no roots in an existing comic or novel from which to syphon a fan base from.

STORY

Madoka Kaname is a regular teenage girl, brought up by a loving family, who spends her days going to school and hanging out with her best friend Sayaka Miki. One day, after class, the pair decide to visit a local music store and end up getting much more than they bargained for. After exiting the shop they come across Kyubey, a talking feline, who offers to grant them any wish they desire. The offer isn’t a generous genie style one-way deal though. In exchange for their heart’s desire the wish recipient has to agree to become a magical girl and battle evil entities known as witches, who unknown to the general populace are responsible for spreading suicide inducing despair to unsuspecting victims.

Initially the pair are keen to accept Kyubey’s proposal, as it appears to be a win-win deal. Fight for justice and get anything you like in return? Sign me up! Under the tutelage of Mami Tomoe, a veteran magical girl, they see first hand what encounters with a witch entail and despite the risks are willing to go along with it. Doubts begin to surface however when Homura Akemi, a transfer student who reveals herself to be an extremely powerful magical girl, warns them to spurn Kyubey’s advances and keep the humdrum lives they presently enjoy.

Further complications arise when Kyoko Sakura, a spear wielding magical girl, arrives in town. Rather than take down witches straight away she is content to let them run rampant so she can harness their powers at a later time, once they fully mature. Kyoko’s philosophy puts her at odds with the other girls, which threatens to escalate into a life or death duel between the opposing sides. Madoka ponders if she should become embroiled in this magical girl civil war, but her time to think runs out when a massive witch manifests in her hometown threatening to wreck the entire area. Should she run away or accept her destiny and awaken her latent talent, which could turn her into the most powerful magical girl of all?

CHARACTERS

It’s ironic that even though the show is named after and revolves around Madoka, that she may well be the least interesting of the featured magical girls. She cares deeply for her friends, which is a commendable trait for a heroine, but her timid disposition means that she often gets overshadowed by the supporting cast. Her indecisiveness prevents her from taking the limelight until the culmination of the story when she is forced into making a choice. Up to that point she isn’t sure what to do, what to wish for and instead spends her time sheepishly designing the magical girl outfit she would like to wear.

The way the plot is structured results in the story getting broken down into mini arcs focusing on the other girls. Madoka’s more impulsive and energetic friend Sayaka is a big player early on in the narrative. She has idealistic aspirations of using magical powers to help people and is even willing to use up her wish to benefit a third party (namely a talented violinist she has a crush on who can no longer play due to his injured hands.) Mami, the beret-wearing mentor who blasts witches with conjured muskets, also makes a strong impression in the opening episodes. She is cool and composed, hiding the fact that she is lonely after leading a solitary life post making a wish to survive a traffic accident. The joy she gets out of teaching her magical girl apprentices is rather sweet.

When Kyoko makes her appearance it seems like she could be the antagonist of the piece given that she butts heads with our heroines from the offset. One cannot help but wonder if her wish was for a speedy metabolism, given that she sports a trim figure despite chomping on junk food in every scene. She also has a taste for grief seeds, an item that drops from defeated witches, that replenishes a magical girl’s power. Her desire to amass a stockpile of seeds results in her effectively farming witches, by only attacking them once they have reached maturity. An unethical strategy given the damage young witches can cause, although glimpses into her past make her into a more sympathetic character later in the series.

My favorite character would have to be Homura who is blessed with the power to seemingly teleport at will. Initially she appears to be a typical silent badass, who is hard to like, but that perception is changed near the show’s conclusion when her backstory is revealed in arguably the best of the twelve episodes. I also cannot forget to mention Kyubey, the mastermind behind everything. At first glance he would seem to be the adorable mascot you always see in magical girl shows, but like the series itself you shouldn’t be suckered in by superficial looks. He’s the only one who knows exactly what is going on. The question is whether the cute kitty is a helpful guide or a sinister entity manipulating events for some greater scheme?

SUMMARY

Neo magazine described Madoka Magica as being for magical girls what Neon Genesis Evangelion is for giant robots, which is spot on. Both shows took a, shallow anime genre, were heroes beat a monster of the week with no consequences and used realism to inject depth to proceedings along with mind f**king your brain in the process. Reviewing the series is a tough ask because, despite the short episode count, the concise story is jam packed with twists and turns which I wouldn’t want to rob for first time viewers via excessive spoilers. A big factor in my enjoyment of the show was my surprise in the direction it took at the end of episode three.

Visually the anime is a treat. The charming character designs mask the dark tone of the show, which reminds me a little of Elfen Lied (although Madoka Magica doesn’t have to resort to gore to shock the audience.) Whenever characters enter a witch’s realm the art style changes to a collage of unsettling cut outs, which is the most distinct imagery I have seen in an anime since the funky colour palette of the anime adaptation of the Count of Montecristo.

One concern I had was that once the cat is out of the bag the rewatchability of the anime would suffer. Thankfully I can say that isn’t the case. I loved Madoka Magica just as much on a second viewing. If anything, knowing what to expect lets you pick up on subtle nuances you may miss the first time round. I would liken the experience to watching an impending train wreck. You don’t want to see the likeable characters suffer in an upcoming disaster, but for some reason you cannot avert your eyes. Anyway, who says you cannot enjoy something once you know the finale? We all knew the ship was going to sink in Titanic and it didn’t stop that particular film from smashing box office records.

I hope that Madoka Magica proves to be as big a hit here as it has been in Japan. Hopefully good word of mouth will encourage male audiences to give it a go despite it’s girly exterior. Those secure in their manhood will be rewarded with a five star show. The three-disc set is also great value. Other territories have had to collect the twelve episodes by purchasing separate volumes, which works out being more expensive. What’s that? The UK market not getting ripped off for once? That’s a wish come true… and you don’t even have to don a tutu at the behest of a cat to reap the benefits.

Review of Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars (3DS)

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Back in July 2012 I decided to purchase a 3DS to replace my chunky DS, which met its demise after an unfortunate case of butterfingers. Even though I wasn’t thrilled with the new handheld’s battery life I wanted to have a device to play my library of DS titles. When splashing out the cash I couldn’t resist acquiring some 3DS releases too, in order to see what my new toy was capable off. One of my new acquisitions ended up being Ghost Recon Shadow Wars. With N64 remakes and Mario titles making the headlines this particular game has gone under most people’s radar. I hadn’t heard anything about it myself, but figured it was worth an impulse buy as the box promoted it as being a turned based strategy affair which I am normally fond of.

Well after completing the main story I have to say that the risk was worth it. Shadow Wars has ended up being the 3DS game I have played the most and one of my favourite video games of the year on any system. Part of that reason may be that it was designed by Julian Gollop who is a real pro when it comes to making tactical games. His previous work includes Laser Squad, which I vaguely remember from my Amstrad CPC playing days, and the legendary X-COM series.

STORY

The game is set in Russia where presidential elections are about to take place. Clearly this game isn’t very realistic as the Ruskies don’t have polls anymore. Putin wins by default and anyone who doesn’t like it can expect to receive some radioactive poisoning for their troubles. Anyway, in the Shadow Wars world one of the candidates is trying to seize power by making his opponent look weak against national threats. The nasty chap in question is covertly orchestrating bandit attacks along the border which he can use as examples of the current president’s incompetence in dealing with defence matters.

Players take control of a special ops team that is sent in to help police the area in the hopes of averting instability in Eastern Europe. The Ghost team you are in charge of become scattered after being shot down somewhere over Russian airspace. From this point on it is up to you to reunite the team mates by completing a series of tutorial missions, which showcase each soldier’s special abilities. Once that is done you can get down to the nitty gritty of stopping the corrupt general who is threatening to plunge Russia into a civil war. The Ghost Recon team under your command is as follows :-

1. Duke: The squad leader who isn’t related to John Wayne. He’s a good all round unit who goes into combat with an assault rifle. Later on in the game he also gets a missile launcher which can blast groups of enemies and deal serious damage to enemy drones.

2. Haze: The sniper of the group. This veteran is Duke’s number one and specialises in picking off targets from a safe distance.

3. Richter: If Ghost Recon was the A-Team this guy would be Mr T. He’s the muscle who can take a pounding and dish it out with his badass machine gun.

4. Saffron: Not to be confused with the singer of Republica. As the team’s medic she isn’t great in combat, but performs the equally important service of healing injured allies. Her med kit can also boost a troop’s power meter which is used in activating special moves.

5. Banshee: Probably my favourite character thanks to her stealth cloak, which makes her invisible to any enemies who are not standing adjacent to her. Although her silenced pistol isn’t anything special it’s fun seeing her assassinate entire squads with her close range knife.

6. Mint: The engineer named after a Polo who gets a lot of stick as he’s the rookie. In several missions he’ll have to take care of the technical stuff such as operating consoles or disarming bombs. His unique skill allows him to deploy powerful turrets and remote controlled drones. He’s handy to have against mechanical targets, such as vehicles, as he gets access to an energy based weapon that can stun inorganic opponents.

GAMEPLAY

The game interface is similar to other strategy games you may have come across on a handheld. If you’ve played something like Fire Emblem or the Advance Wars games you shouldn’t have too much trouble getting to grips with the controls. Missions are made up of a number of objectives, which range from eliminating all hostiles, protecting hostages or getting to a specified location within a time limit. To accomplish this the player and enemy A.I take turns to move their forces and attack any opposing troops that may be in range. As with many games of this ilk the action is presented via an overhead map that is broken down into square grids.

Although navigating your troops is fairly straight forward Shadow Wars does feature some advanced tactical innovations, which make it a little more deep than a strategy RPG were the level of your character normally is the determining factor on whether you succeed or fail. Attacking from an elevated position for example grants you a boost in damage and range. Defensive terrain is also something worth considering when moving across the map. Standing behind cover or cowering a building for example will reduce the damage you take. When positioning your team it is also worth adopting a sensible formation to benefit from cover fire which activates whenever an ally is struck. In between battles you also have to ponder on how to spend the stars you are awarded to upgrade your guys’ weapons, armour and statistics.

SUMMARY

In terms of visuals I would say that the graphics are adequate. Given that strategy games are made up of maps and seeing the top of people’s heads you cannot expect anything too flashy. Given the less than demanding sprites and environments I think this game could easily have been released on the DS, but was probably brought out on the 3DS to command a higher retail price. It must however be said that it looks better with the 3D effect turned on as it gives the terrain depth and grants the still pictures you see between missions a holographic effect that makes them stand out. It’s cool for a few minutes, but I prefer to play with the 3D slider turned down. I don’t suffer from headaches when using the 3D, but I personally find the effect to be a little distracting so I wouldn’t want to stare at it for long periods (such as the forty minute duration it takes to complete some missions.)

There’s little to complain about in Shadow Wars. I suppose the dry storyline could be better, especially as it has author Tom Clancy’s name on the box. The banter your characters engage in also fails to add personality to your squad, who mostly come off as stiff no nonsense soldiers. Those quibbles however aren’t anything that would bother strategy game fans. What counts is that you get a story which lasts for over thirty hours and can be replayed on three difficulty settings. Aside from that you also have the option to tackling stand alone skirmishes or engage in some multiplayer action, which means budding generals get good value for their buck. I’m giving the soldiers of Ghost Recon five medals out of five. Now I just wish the 3DS battery life was better so I could play this for longer bursts without having to seize gameplay for a recharge.