Review of Magical Diary

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Magical Diary is a video game created by indie developer Hanako Games who specialise in RPGs and visual novels staring female leading characters. Set in a school where magic users learn the art of spell casting, it is pretty clear to see that the title gets its inspiration from the popular Harry Potter books. Players simulate the life of a freshman going through their first year at the prestigious Iris Academy where you’ll have to contend with strict teachers, managing your studies and attracting a date for the end of year prom. As a macho man, I’m clearly not the target audience for this game, but I decided to give it a go after enjoying Hanako Games’ 2012 offering Long Live the Queen. If you are interested in trying out either title they can be purchased from Valve’s Steam service or directly from Hanako’s website.

Gameplay wise Magical Diary feels like the adventure books some of you may have played during your youth. You’ll read some story until something noteworthy occurs. When a key event happens you’ll be asked to choose what to do from a list of multiple-choice answers. What response you select has an impact on the plot making it branch off in a different narrative path, which certainly adds replay value for anyone curious enough to explore all of the game’s content. Will you be a model student and ace your exams or will you skive classes and potentially risk expulsion? When it comes to dating will you try to court one of the school’s bachelors or do as I did and break the heart of a blue skinned senior by pursuing a lesbian relationship with my bookish roommate instead?

As a student of Iris Academy you’ll be expected to complete various exams, but these are nothing like the coursework or written tests you would find in a regular school. Examinations in Magical Diary consist of being teleported into a dungeon and using your spell-casting prowess to find a way out. In order to succeed you’ll be expected to solve brainteasers using the enchantments you learn in class. In one dungeon for example you can escape by destroying a wall that is obstructing the exit with a well-placed fireball. Whether you know how to cast a fireball or not however depends on if you have completed enough lessons in red magic (I wonder if Ryu from Street Fighter attended those classes.)

This all means that planning out your curriculum plays a big part in Magical Diary. At the start of each week you have to decide what types of magic you wish to learn. Blue magic focuses on transformations, green magic allows users to manipulate nature, white magic is used for communicating with spirits whilst pink magic makes you appreciate musicals and say the word fabulous in a camp voice (okay I made that last one up.) Don’t go overboard with the cramming though as stress can have a detrimental effect on your character. Thankfully it is possible to combat the effects of mental fatigue by unwinding at the mall on weekends.

Much like an examiner grading a student’s homework, the time has come for me to rate this game. My final score is four stars out of five as I enjoyed Magical Diary a little more than Long Live the Queen (which I awarded a three.) Visually speaking Long Live the Queen is the more polished of the two, but I enjoyed replaying Magical Diary more as it has a more fleshed out cast of characters. I also liked how your decisions have a greater impact on the plot as opposed to Long Live the Queen’s more linear storytelling. As far as visual novels go Magical Diary isn’t top of the class, but it’s a solid B student all the same. Strong writing, light romance elements and a story told through a girl’s perspective make this an ideal purchase for female players who may be frustrated that there aren’t enough games on the market catering to their tastes.

The Top 5 Animes I Watched in 2013

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Following on from last week’s top five list, that named my favourite video games of 2013, I have decided to write up another chart this time focusing on the other subject my blog covers – namely anime. As was the case with the games top five, my selections are based on titles that I witnessed for the first time during 2013 (even if they happen to have been released in prior years.) So without further ado, let’s get on with the show.

5th) Arrietty: We can’t have a list mentioning the cream of the anime crop without including a Studio Ghibli movie can we? To satisfy that quota I present to you Arrietty, which is Japan’s take on Mary Horton’s The Borrowers. The melancholy storytelling may not be to everyone’s taste, but it’s hard not to be impressed by the film’s sublime animation and attention to detail. With the legendary Hayao Miyzaki on the cusp of retirement it is good to see that Studio Ghibli can still produce quality even when someone else is taking up the directorial duties.

4th) Wolf Children: From the director of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (which happens to be one of my favourite animated movies ever) comes a tale of a young widow who moves to the countryside to raise her family of two children, who can morph between human and wolf form at will. Director Mamoru Hosoda’s last effort (Summer Wars) didn’t wow me, but I am pleased to report that Wolf Children sees him return to form. I cannot help but admire the movie’s lead named Hana who always manages to confront life’s challenges with a smile on her face. She really proves that mothers can be just as heroic as cops, fire-fighters and mecha pilots.

3rd) Anohana – The Flower We Saw That Day: Sadly I don’t believe this series has been released in the UK, so I am grateful to a fellow anime reviewer who brought the show to my attention. Anohana revolves around Menma, a ghost girl, who one day appears in front of her childhood friend Jinta. In order to pass on Menma asks Jinta to grant her dying wish, but to do so Jinta will first have to reunite with a number of former pals who he has drifted apart from over the years. It’s a touching tale that spans for eleven episodes and concludes in a sweet finale that will test your tear ducts, much like Clannad did.

2nd) Persona 4 – The Animation: Incredibly Persona 4 almost succeeded in becoming both my favourite video game and anime of 2013. When I first heard that the Atlus JRPG was being turned into a cartoon I had my doubts, as most video game adaptations tend to be quite poor. Against the grain Persona 4 however managed to transition from being an excellent video game to a thoroughly entertaining anime. It’s impressive how they managed to condense so much of the game’s narrative into a mere twenty-six episodes, complete with excellent music, demon fighting action and high school comedy. The series is currently being re-printed in the UK, as the original run sold out, so clearly I am not the only one who liked it.

1st) Steins;Gate: Topping my list of 2013 anime titles is the tale of Kyoma, a mad scientist who manages to fashion a time machine out of a humdrum microwave. My fondness for Steins;Gate isn’t a surprise, as I’m a sucker for good time travel stories, although the show’s biggest appeal ends up being its likable cast of characters. As you would expect from a series whose roots stem from a visual novel it’s the relationships between Kyoma’s small circle of friends that carries the series. Kyoma borders on being an annoying loon, but once you see the hardships he goes through, to save his friends from the detrimental effects caused by alterations to the past, you cannot help but root for the guy. Needless to say, the show gets a thumbs up for me and I cannot wait to check out its follow-up movie at some point in the future.

So there you have it folks, my top five animes of 2013. It wasn’t an easy list to compile given how much good stuff got released in the UK last year. Against the odds the anime industry in Britain continues to grow, which is no mean feat given that it is hidden from the mainstream due to its absence from terrestrial television. So dear reader, what anime shows have you enjoyed watching recently and which shows are you looking forward to checking out in 2014? Let me know in the comments section below.

Review of Sword Art Online (Part 1)

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Sword Art Online (part one) is a DVD release from Manga Entertainment, which contains the opening seven episodes of a series that adapts Reki Kawahara’s light novels into anime form.  The show focuses on a newly launched online roleplaying game named (yes you guessed it) Sword Art Online. Unlike games like World of Warcraft, which are played with a keyboard and mouse, Sword Art Online immerses players in a fantasy world via the use of virtual reality technology. Although replacing a traditional controller for a VR headset sounds cool, you may want to cancel that Oculus Rift pre-order because if this series is to be believed the use of such gizmos carry an inherent risk.

On the first day of the game’s release it is revealed that Sword Art’s creator is suffering from a serious case of God complex. Much to the players’ dismay, SAO’s developer announces that he has disabled the system’s log out command, effectively trapping their consciousness in the game. If the MMO’s players wish to return to their comatose real world bodies they’ll have to clear SAO’s tower, which contains one hundred floors filled to the brim with traps and monsters. This would not be so bad were it not for the fact that the game’s safeties have been disabled, so players who die in the game will also cease to live in the real world. Gulp. I’m glad that my PS3 collection doesn’t function in the same way. I wouldn’t be around to type this review if titles like the rock hard Dark Souls murdered you just for getting a Game Over.

The series follows the adventures of Kirito, one of Sword Art’s trapped players. With no hope of rescue from the outside world (as it is revealed early on that removing someone’s VR helmet will fry their brain, much like a convict sentenced in Texas) we watch as he gradually fights his way past the tower’s many challenges. Although initially presented as a bit of a loner, who favours soloing over grouping with others, he’s actually a pretty friendly guy -which is just as well, given how his relationship with the other players is what drives the show forward.

Despite all this talk of virtual reality and other fancy technology, the series feels like a fantasy anime as the action is focused squarely on the medieval world Sword Art Online’s servers are running. The stories will have Kirito and chums clearing out dungeons, smacking kobolds and acquiring rare magical items. At first glance the show doesn’t come across as being especially deep, but the number of touching episodes included in this first DVD surprised me. Highlights include Kirito helping a girl find a flower that can revive her pet dragon, a tale were Kirito teams up with a blacksmith who develops a crush on him and a bittersweet yarn were the protagonist abandons his soloing ways to temporarily join a guild of low levelled players.

I’m giving part one of Sword Art Online four stars out of five. This is a strong start to an anime, which eventually develops into being one of the more memorable shows that I watched in 2013. The music is great and so are the visuals that make good use of light CGI effects, which makes sense given that Sword Art Online itself is an elaborate computer simulation. In terms of value for money I wish the series would have been released over two boxed sets instead of the four DVDs we are getting, but I understand that decision has more to do with demands by the show’s Japanese licence holder rather than Manga trying to milk the property for all it’s worth. If you enjoy fantasy cartoons I can highly recommend Sword Art Online and I am sure anyone who has dabbled with MMO gaming will appreciate it too.

The Candy Crush vs Banner Legal Saga

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Whilst browsing my Facebook feed the other day I came across a rather odd titbit of video game news. It appears that Stoic, a developer comprised of former BioWare employees, is in a bit of a bind regarding the release of their debut game The Banner Saga. From what I understand King.com, the company behind the addictive Candy Crush Saga, has taken legal action against Stoic as they claim ownership of the word Saga.

First of all I have to say how can US trademark law allow companies to claim copyright over a commonly used word? If the article I read is accurate, King.com have also taken action against other indie developers who use the word “candy” in their games. It seems outrageous to me and King’s argument that use of the word may cause consumer confusion is utter poppycock. Banner Saga is a strategy game loosely based on Norse mythology whilst Candy Crush is a colourful puzzler designed to milk gullible players out of money. They are nothing alike.

I’m no law expert (despite my Judge moniker) but if there was any justice in the world such claims would get thrown out immediately. Common sense should prevail and anyone wasting the court’s time with such nonsense should be fined. What’s sad is that big business can use such measures to bully more creative indie developers. I very much doubt a sole programmer, who is working on a game, has either the resources or guts to contest legal threats. They’ll inevitably capitulate and rebrand their product to avoid the stress of it all.

So where do you guys stand on this issue? Do you think King.com is justified in protecting their intellectual property or has the whole thing been blown out of all proportion? Speaking of The Banner Saga, is it any good? I bought the game recently, but like many other Steam impulse buys I have not got round to playing it yet. I’d love to hear your feedback in the comments section below.

Am I The Only Person Who Dislikes One Piece?

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A few months ago Manga Entertainment started to release the phenomenon that is One Piece in the UK. Based on DVD sales the series is proving to be a smash hit in the British Isles, much like it has been in the States and its native Japan. I however cannot see why it gets so much attention over other better-crafted animes.

Years ago I gave the series a chance as my pals were constantly raving about it. It got to the stage that I would get embarrassed to be seen with them as they could not resist the urge to mimic the goofy catchphrases and character poses the series is renowned for. In my defence I have to say that I gave the show a fair crack. I watched one hundred and fifty episodes before calling it a day. That’s more episodes than any of my favourite animes of all time!

When the show is good it is really good. I especially liked the battles with Arlong and Crocodile, but in order to get to the good stuff you have to wade through a lot of boring or just plain silly story arcs. It’s a similar case with the show’s cast of characters. Zoro is a badass, Sanji’s womanizing is hilarious and even Usopp grew on me. Yes he’s obnoxious, but when crunch time comes he does overcome his fears and uses his ingenuity to win the day, which is a redeemable trait. Shame then that the show is fronted by a hyperactive buffoon I cannot stand. Why anyone would want to serve under Luffy is beyond me.

As you would expect from a series that has run for hundreds of episodes the artwork isn’t great. It’s not a deal breaker for me, but certainly a strike against it. I especially despise how a lot of the women look like the same person apart from them sporting a different outfit and hairstyle.

So am I alone on this one? Does anyone else share my misgivings on one of animes hottest properties? What about you fans of the show? Can you enlighten me as to what you find so appealing about it? As usual leave your thoughts on the comments section below.

Review of Project X Zone (3DS)

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Project X Zone is a 3DS strategy RPG, featuring a host of famous gaming characters. The game stars Kogoro Tenzai (a ninja detective) and his partner in crime Mii Kouryuuji (a gun toting high school monk) who are embroiled in a grand adventure that will see them travel across numerous worlds that gamers should recognise. PxZ’s main selling point, without a doubt, is its huge roster of playable characters that include notable names from Sega, Capcom and Namco. As the story progresses players will be able to assemble a small army made up of heroes from the Resident Evil, Tekken and Virtua Fighter series to name just a few.

As you would expect from a strategy RPG, player movement involves commanding tiny chibi versions of your fighters across isometric grid based maps. What distinguishes Project X Zone from something like Final Fantasy Tactics is the way in which combat is handled. When two units clash the action switches to a 2D view akin to what you would find in a 1v1 brawler, such as Street Fighter. In this mode players are able to execute a limited number of attacks by pressing the A button in unison with a direction on the circle pad. Many of the strikes you dish out will send opponents flying up into the air with the trick to scoring major damage comprising of juggling a hapless victim by punching them as they descend back down to earth.

The game pretty much revolves around executing combos. Chaining a series of uninterrupted attacks gradually increases your cross meter that powers your special abilities in addition to defensive manoeuvres such as counter-attacks or guarding, which negates incoming damage. Aside from timing your attacks, how much damage you dish out is dependent on your party composition. Most of the characters you recruit come in teams of two that can be paired off with a soloer who can be summoned mid-combat to temporarily freeze enemies in place. All this means that you’ll need to experiment a bit to see what combination of characters work best at stringing attacks together.

As is the case with most role-playing games, defeating enemies earns you experience points. Once enough experience is accumulated your characters level up, which unlocks new moves for them to perform. Levelling up also increases a character’s attributes slightly, but the benefit to their stats from growing in this manner is negligible at best. Any boosts your characters receive are negated by the fact that the enemy forces you face get tougher with each passing level. That’s a shame as in RPGs I like seeing my teams develop from a squad of weaklings to a team of badasses. Alas I never got that sense of achievement when playing Project X Zone.

Much as it pains me to say it, I can only give Project X Zone two stars out of five. I really wanted to love this game, as it features some of my favourite video game characters of all time, but in the end things got too tedious for me to stomach. The combat system seems fun at first, but once you suss out the most efficient combos you’ll pretty much be performing the same moves over and over, which gets monotonous. This wouldn’t be too bad if the levels were short and sweet, but inexplicably the creators decided to drag out the latter stages by forcing you to fight waves of enemy reinforcements. Two hour long conflicts is way too long, especially when the game is severely lacking in the tactical department. Forget organising battle formations, all you are expected to do to win is dish out combos.

Perhaps I would be more forgiving if the story was decent, but it isn’t. The plot is just a thinly veiled excuse to have Kogoro and Mii travel to alternate dimensions so they can team up with the likes of Ryu, Megaman and Dynamite Cop (aka Bruce Willis.) Given that the cast of characters is huge everyone is relegated to spouting one inconsequential line before passing the dialogue baton to someone else. After a while I started to skip the story segments as they were littered with puerile gags that I didn’t care for. Although I am normally tolerant towards fan service, even I have to say that the featured female characters were overly sexualized. Bouncing boobs are the order of the day and even cartoony characters like Tron Bonne are not spared from having a mini-skirt that exposes her posterior. Don’t get suckered in by the all-star cast on the box art. Save your money and give PxZ a wide berth.

Oh Dear. More Video Game Censorship

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Yesterday it was announced that Compile Heart’s digital card game Monster Monpiece will be getting a European release later this year. Vita owners can expect a tactical game with plenty of fan service, in the form of rubbing monster girl cards to get them to power up. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, as the title is made by the same company responsible for Hyperdimension Neptunia, which is known for its eye candy.

Publisher Idea Factory International has however warned that the game is the latest victim in a worrying trend of video game censorship. As a result a number of overly sexy cards will be removed from the European and North American versions of the game. Although Idea Factory assure fans that the game’s story remains untouched, from their statement it isn’t clear what is being done with the affected cards. Will their images be redrawn or will they be axed altogether, which I imagine would have a detrimental effect on the game’s strategy?

All this follows on from a number of other recent cases were notable video games have had their content modified, presumably to appease the sensibilities of local players. Previously an image of a bikini clad Tharja was altered in Fire Emblem Awakening along with reports that costumes in Bravely Default have been redesigned to showcase less flesh. Even the European version of the supposedly mature Beyond Two Souls had clips tweaked to avoid getting an eighteen-age rating. What a shame, had the edit not gone through some younger players would have been spared from experiencing that snore fest.

This sort of thing really irks me, as I cannot stand censorship. I don’t like having an outside force dictating what is and isn’t acceptable for me to watch. Never mind the hypocrisy of it all. Skimpy garments are unacceptable, but excessive violence is okay? Why should consumers be protected from provocatively dressed animated girls, but here in Europe it’s alright to have men’s magazines with actual topless girls? Is it because kids might play the games, even though they are more expensive to buy than a magazine and therefore harder to obtain?

So what do you guys think? Do you agree with my ramblings or do you think I am getting worked up over nothing, providing that the game remains essentially the same? Let me know your opinions in the comments section below.