Review of Go! Go! Nippon!

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For most geeks a pilgrimage to the video game/anime Mecca that is Japan would be a dream come true. If you are anything like myself though leaving the house is a big enough ordeal – let alone venturing out to another country. If said anti-social tendencies apply to yourself fear not because visual novel specialists Overdrive have you covered with Go! Go! Nippon! This snazzy game, for all intents and purposes, simulates a trip to Tokyo. Anyone intending to pack their virtual suitcase for this vacation can presently buy the game from Mangagamer or Steam for around seven pounds.

Your lovely tour guides for this digital holiday are Makoto and Akira, two sisters whose place you’ll be staying at during your weeklong break abroad. Akira is the bashful tsundere whilst Makoto is blessed with some great melons, but sadly cannot cook to save her life. Over the course of a single playthrough budding tourists can visit three of the game’s six available locations. Each daily trip will have you accompanied by one of the sisters who will regale you with titbits of historical information pertaining to the sites you are checking out. The sister you spend the most time with will ultimately determine which of Nippon’s two romantic endings you get.

In terms of providing a holidaying experience I was pleasantly surprised by Go! Go! Nippon. The game’s artwork does a commendable job of depicting the touristy sites you visit and the nation’s customs are well explained by both sisters. All of the title’s dialogue is presented both in English and Japanese, which should serve as an invaluable teaching tool for any players who have purchased the game as their love of Japan has motivated them to study the language. One feature that I especially dug was how throughout the story you get frequent pop-ups displaying your on-going expenses. These are calculated in your native currency using the exchange rate you enter when the game first boots up. If playing Go! Go! Nippon ever inspires you to actually visit Japan you’ll have a good idea of the costs associated with travel, dining and attraction admission fees.

My rating for Go! Go! Nippon is four stars out of five. As far as visual novels go both the soundtrack and graphics are of a good standard. I have however heard that some of the featured backgrounds are lifted from other Overdrive releases, which is a little lazy. The game’s script gets a thumbs up from me for being educational and entertaining at the same time. Once the end credits rolled I was more knowledgeable about Japan, but unlike reading a textbook I was never bored as the story is peppered with funny moments (such as an incident were the main character loses their anal virginity to a jet of water in one of Japan’s infamous automated loos.)

Players who watch anime should enjoy the story that is bundled along with the narrative’s sightseeing exploits. The romance angle is rather sweet and thankfully devoid of the pornography associated with other Japanese visual novels. The raunchiest things get are a couple of scenes were the player inadvertently walks in on the gals in various states of undress. Makoto is rather diplomatic about the incident whilst Akira takes a less pacifist approach when reacting to your ogling of her panties.

My only real gripe with Go! Go! Nippon is its length. Your seven-day stint in Japan can be finished in around three hours, which is rather short. That said you’ll probably want to complete the game twice to visit all the locations on offer, as well as unlocking the two available endings. With that in mind the game isn’t bad value for money. Two playthroughs work out as being a pound per hour of entertainment and it is worth noting that the asking price is cheaper than most titles available from the Mangagamer store. Has playing Go! Go! Nippon made me want to abandon my hermit ways and visit Japan? Perhaps, but I am now terrified of using the country’s toilets!

Review of Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons (PS3)

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Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is a downloadable video game that is presently available to buy for the PlayStation 3, PC and Xbox 360. The game is the brainchild of Swedish director Josef Fares who approached Starbreeze Studios (developers of Payday 2, Syndicate and The Darkness) with his vision of an adventure game staring two siblings who must set off on a journey to attain an elixir that can cure their sickly father. The game normally retails for around ten pounds, but as a PS Plus subscriber I was able to nab it for zilch during Sony’s generous April PSN offer.

The game’s unique selling point is that you control both brothers simultaneously even though the title is strictly a one-player affair. Each of the controller’s analogue sticks is assigned to handling the movement of one of the brothers whilst the L and R buttons command the siblings to interact with the environment. Although this may sound awkward to play, on paper, trust me it is surprisingly easy to get used to. The control scheme never becomes frustrating as you can tackle the game’s challenges at your own pace. The light platforming sections are never taxing and Jack Burton reflexes are not required to best the dangers you face.

Instead of finger dexterity, in order to succeed, players need to use their grey matter to suss out how to get past obstacles. As you may expect from a title that asks you to concurrently control two characters, the puzzles you come across require teamwork to solve in addition to making use of each character’s talents. Is a passage too narrow for the eldest brother to traverse? Try squeezing in with the younger sibling instead. Stuck because the little guy’s aqua phobia prevents him from swimming across a stream? No worries. Get him to cling onto big bro and have the older boy carry them both across the river.

One thing I appreciated about Brothers is its attention to detail, which gives each of the main characters a distinct personality. How they interact with strangers for example is very different. The older brother may ask a passer-by for directions whilst the younger sibling will playfully challenge the same person to a game of rock/paper/scissors. It’s neat touches like that that make you want to explore the game’s world. Sadly the main story is fairly linear although there are some optional quests to discover, which will reward anyone uncovering them with achievements. Even if you aren’t the type who covets trophies I would still encourage tackling the side quests, as they can be surprisingly touching. One of the quests for example has you preventing a suicide whilst another asks you to reunite a momma turtle with her missing offspring (aw.)

Graphically Brothers isn’t a visual powerhouse, as you may deduce from its small download size, but I was nonetheless impressed by its picturesque locations. I was also taken in by its emotional tale, which it manages to convey without a single word of dialogue (the characters appear to speak the same language as the Sims.) Its bittersweet story alone is enough for me to give it a score of five stars. The only negative I could levy at the title is its length (I completed it in three hourly sittings) but it’s not something I would penalize the game for given that I downloaded it for free. If you find the game on sale I can highly recommend it, especially if you appreciate artistic titles like Journey.

Review of Midnight Secretary (Vol 1)

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Midnight Secretary is a romance manga created by artist Tomu Ohmi. The series originally appeared within the pages of Japanese magazine Petit Comic and has since been brought over to English language countries courtesy of Viz Media. The paperback version of the first volume (which collects chapters one to five) is presently available to buy from online retailer Amazon for just a fiver, whilst the Kindle edition is currently priced at three quid.

The series follows the exploits of baby faced Kaya Satozuka who has recently been appointed secretary to Kyouhei Touma, the director of a renowned tableware company. Much to Kyouhei’s annoyance, Kaya insists on donning a pair of specs and tying her hair in a bun (to appear more mature) whenever she is in the office. The womanising head of the Touma Corporation would rather have a sultrier underling in his staff, but retains Kaya’s services due to her exemplary work ethic. What’s wrong with a presentable outfit and glasses anyway? If you ask me the naughty librarian look is hawt.

Kaya is attentive to her duties despite being irked by her employer’s tendency to mix business with pleasure. Kyouhei’s reputation as a playboy is well earned, as he regularly invites women over to his office for a spot of hanky-panky. Fraternizing in the workplace is most unprofessional, but most worrying of all is Kaya’s suspicions that Kyouhei is using narcotics to coerce unwilling ladies into bed. What other explanation could there be for Kyouhei’s amorous conquests leaving his office looking pale and woozy? Well as it turns out the gals in question are not suffering from the aftereffects of drugs. Their whitish complexion can be attributed to anaemia as Kyouhei is a vampire who feeds on the gals he seduces. Unfortunately for Kaya the blood running through her veins is especially tasty. What will happen when her boss eventually sets his sights on her? You’ll have to read the book to find out.

I’m going to give Midnight Secretary a rating of four stars out of five. Even if the artwork can be a little rough in patches I enjoyed both the story and characters. Although not billed as a comedic book I did find myself chuckling at Kaya’s reactions to Kyouhei chauvinistic remarks and found the second chapter, were she coyly tries to test if fabled vampire weaknesses have any effect on her boss, especially funny. It was also refreshing to see that the narrative doesn’t drag things out like many other love stories do. By the end of this book Kaya and Kyouhei are well on the road to hooking up.

Perhaps as the cast is well into their twenties, this isn’t one of those mangas that takes hundreds of chapters for the leads to finally kiss. There are even some brief sex scenes in the book, although nothing pornographic (unless you consider the occasional nipple shot to be overly saucy.) The onus of the story isn’t on whether the main characters will eventually get together, but whether they can maintain a stable relationship. Kaya is a workaholic who pushes herself too hard whilst Kyouhei is too proud to admit that he could ever fall for a mere human, so they certainly have some obstacles to overcome in making their coupling work. I look forward to seeing how they fare in future volumes. See Twilight? Not every vampire love story has to suck (blood.)

Review of Night Raid 1931

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Night Raid 1931 is a fifteen episode anime series set in nineteen thirties Shanghai. The show follows the adventures of the Sakurai Agency – a clandestine group tasked with protecting Japan’s interests in the region. Sakurai’s four-man team (well three man and one gal to be exact) are unique in that they are blessed with supernatural skills in addition to being masters of espionage. Fans of Japanese animation can presently buy the series, in the UK, courtesy of MYM Entertainment’s three-disc collection. At the time of writing the set is priced at twenty-two pounds from Amazon and other good DVD retailers.

The show’s first DVD introduces viewers to the cast via one off stories, which chronicle Sakurai’s early missions. A sample of these cases include the group disrupting a prostitution ring aboard a cruise liner, rescuing a Japanese businessman who has been captured by Chinese militants and the investigation of a Russian spy masquerading as a concert violinist. Towards the end of the second disc the narrative settles down to tell the tale of Sakurai’s battle against rebels who are rushing to create an atom bomb, which they hope can be used to scare off western colonists away from Asia (as well as deterring foreign nations from using such a device against Japan in the prophesized Second World War.)

From the four Sakurai agents I would have to say that Aoi Miyoshi and Kazura Iha are the most fleshed out character wise. Aoi has the power of telekinesis, which he manipulates to deflect bullets and hurl opponents, whilst Kazura is a teleporter who can instantly transport himself and others over short distances. The two, who conceal their true professions by pretending to be photographers, are forever butting heads due to their very different ideologies. Kazura is the stuffier of the two and prefers to do things by the book whilst the more free-spirited Aoi is often guilty of acting recklessly during missions.

Sakurai’s sole female member is Yukina Sonogi who is adept at telepathy, which comes in handy for reading people’s minds in addition to facilitating mental communication. Personality wise there’s not much to her character, which is a shame given her importance to the plot (Sakurai’s chief antagonist is actually her older brother.) Always by Yukina’s side is her faithful servant Natsume Kagiya whose clairvoyant gifts are tied to the lunar cycle. He’s presented as the wise man of the group, but is criminally underutilized in the story were he gets both little screen time or lines to deliver.

My rating for Night Raid 1931 is three stars out of five. I enjoyed how the series started off and the finale ends with a bang, but some of the second DVD’s episodes are a little dull as they focus on political exposition. Overall I would still recommend the show as its setting is a breath of fresh air compared to other animes, which are predominately set in modern day Japan or the far distant future. Although a little dry, the story is clever and I appreciated how the Japanese creators did not shy away from the despicable acts their nation committed during the time. That’s so different from American moviemakers who often rewrite history to present their country as the heroes.

Review of Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft

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Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft is Blizzard Entertainment’s entry into the world of digital card games. The title is the spiritual successor to the now defunct World of Warcraft Trading Card Game, which ran from October 2005 until August 2013. Although collectors of the WOW Trading Card Game may argue that a digital title cannot replicate the experience of amassing physical decks, there are some benefits to turning the hobby into an online game. The most notable one is that finding challengers to play against is considerably easier thanks to the convenience of Internet match making. Building a competitive deck is also theoretically cheaper as Hearthstone costs nowt to buy.

A barrier to entry for most collectible card games is their complex rule sets, but much like how World of Warcraft made MMOs accessible to your average Joe, Hearthstone has been designed to be newbie friendly. Before you are permitted to play against a human opponent, new players need to best a series of tutorial matches, against AI opponents such as the infamous Gnoll known as Hogger, which do a fine job of teaching you the game’s mechanics. The basic gist is that players start with thirty health points and need to whittle their opponent’s HP down to zero in order to claim victory.

Much like in other card games, to harm an opponent players randomly draw cards from their deck, which allows them to summon minions or cast spells. Every card has a mana value, which is proportional to how powerful it is. Players start a match with one mana and each subsequent turn sees their mana reserve increase by one (until the cap of ten is hit.) I like this system as it results in matches were combatants start off by playing weedier cards before gradually building up to the point were they can call upon their big guns. This trumps other games were it is feasible to win a contest in a few turns should fortune be on your side.

Decks are made up of thirty cards composed of neutral cards (that anyone can select) along with class specific cards that are limited to the hero you choose to play as. At the time of writing there are nine heroes to select from, each based on Warcraft’s core classes. My personal favourite is the priest as he can restore health points. Some of the other available classes include a paladin who can summon holy knights, a warrior who can protect his health by donning armour or a mage who can toast enemies with fireballs (as well as poly morphing minions into sheep.) “Bah” I hate it when my best warrior gets transformed into a fluffy farmyard animal.

Right now Hearthstone offers two main game modes. Players can have a one off match (exhibition/ranked) or can spend gold coins to enter the arena. The arena is pretty cool as success is dependent on luck as well as strategy. Participants assemble a deck from a random selection of cards and then square off against fellow card gladiators, until they eventually succumb to three defeats. The quality of the prize you earn for participating in the arena is dictated by how many wins you accrued prior to getting eliminated. It’s a neat idea, which I expect other companies to mimic for their games in due course.

Although it is hard to judge this type of game, after a few weeks of play, from what I have experienced thus far Hearthstone comes across as a five star game. It doesn’t feel like a “pay to win” title, which is often the downfall of similar games. Serious players have the option of paying real cash to buy card packs, whilst the casuals can simply earn in-game gold by completing daily quests or winning a hat-trick of matches. Gameplay wise the current library of cards seems to be balanced. Legendries are powerful, but can be taken out with smart strategy and a well-assembled deck. If you are interested in card games I can highly recommend giving Hearthstone a go. You have nothing to lose, as it is free, and by the looks of it Blizzard are keen to support the release. After a successful PC trial the game has come out for the iPad and more content is planned including a single player campaign.

Review of From the New World (Vol 2)

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From the New World is an award winning sci-fi novel penned by writer Yusuke Kishi. The book’s popularity has seen it get adapted into a twenty-five episode anime series and a collection of mangas. The second volume of the comic, which I am covering today, was recently released in the UK courtesy of publisher VERTICAL, who is selling it via Amazon and other good retailers for around seven pounds.

The book’s story, which takes place in the far distant future, is based in the town of Kamisu. The plot follows the exploits of five teenagers who are attending classes that will teach them how to harness their emerging telekinetic powers. Although initially presented as a utopian society, one cannot help but sense that something is amiss with the Kamisu populace. Urban legends warn youngsters that a malevolent feline will snatch away anyone who fails to meet the expectations of their tutors. Whether this is a fabricated bogeyman tale or not is impossible to collaborate as struggling students have a habit of disappearing without a trace. Mysteriously whenever a kid goes AWOL no one seems to be able to recall them ever existing in the first place.

Volume two follows on directly from the events of the first book, which saw the quintet of youngsters disobey their elders by setting off upstream for a spot of camping beyond the confines of Kamisu’s holy barrier. After an encounter with some hostile wildlife the group is forced to abandon their boat and become stranded in the region’s inhospitable woods. Thankfully they are found by a colony of friendly humanoid rodents who offer them shelter, but things take a turn for the worst when a rival clan of Morph Rats decides to raid the settlement. The budding telepaths are once again forced to flee for their lives, which eventually results in one of them overexerting their powers beyond what is safely recommended. This catches the attention of Kamisu’s adults who dispatch a team to the scene. The subsequent cover-up offers some fascinating insights into the conspiracy permeating this new world’s culture.

My rating for volume two of From the New World is three stars. It’s not bad, but after reading this latest instalment I am left scratching my head as to why this series is being showered with so many plaudits. The story thus far comes across as fairly standard science fiction, which leads me to believe that some of the narrative’s depth must have been sacrificed in the transition from novel to manga. The character designs for example look like something you would find in a high school slice of life show rather than a dark sci-fi tale. The unnecessary fan service also feels out of place, given the tone of the plot, although its not as bad as the needless lesbian sex scene found in volume one.

Not all the artwork is overly cutesy though. The Morph Rats are suitably hideous and I would not recommend dining whilst reading the latter chapters as they feature grossly deformed creatures. Thus far I would say that From the New World is adequate reading material, but I will reserve my full judgement until I experience the whole thing in its entirety. The story’s secrets have me intrigued and there is plenty of potential for it to impress me once I hit the concluding chapters. I suspect my impression of the comic will ultimately lie with how well they execute the mystery’s revelations.

Boring Easter Sunday

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My hopes of spending the day off catching up on unwatched anime DVDs and unfinished games was dashed when an explosion at a nearby power station left the country without electricity for over six hours. No working appliances equals one dull day, but thankfully no one was hurt.