Review of Diablo 3: Reaper of Souls

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Reaper of Souls is the first expansion pack for Blizzard Entertainment’s smash hit game Diablo 3. It couldn’t come soon enough for me because, despite selling by the bucket load, it feels like a lot of players abandoned Diablo 3 a few short months after its release. Reasons for the mass exodus included the frustratingly punishing Inferno difficulty, as well as the controversial auction house that replaced thrilling loot hunting with the chore of farming for money in order to purchase better gear. Reaper of Souls thankfully addresses those complaints and gives us some extra content to boot.

The game’s plot follows on directly from the events of Diablo 3. The Lord of Terror’s demise should have heralded an era of world peace, but alas things are never that simple. Just when the heroic Nephalem thought he could take a breather and perhaps celebrate with a trip to Disneyland, the Angel of Death (known as Malthael) swoops down from the heavens and sets in motion a sinister plan. By harnessing the power of the Dark Soulstone Malthael intends to rid the world of human beings, as in Diablo lore the race of man is descended from demons. However much angels detest devils I feel it is harsh to punish all of us just because some people claim to be a demon in the sack.

Cue more frantic mouse clicking action as players command the Nephalem to slay legions of undead in the name of justice. The eradication of the auction house has removed the convenience of trading with fellow players, but it’s still a plus as the change means that the game’s onus is now squarely on bolstering your arsenal by scavenging drops from the carcasses of defeated foes. That works for me, as the thrill of adventuring for treasure is much more satisfying than hording gold to spend at an online market. Thankfully with the advent of Loot 2.0 you are less likely to acquire junk, so your character is constantly progressing as you consistently find better weapons to wield. That sure beats grinding for hours on Inferno difficulty only to have nothing to show for it.

Although Reaper of Souls does a lot of things right, I was disappointed to learn that this addition to the Diablo 3 saga is only one act long. Your average player will have no trouble blasting through the story’s content in just a few hours. Thankfully the addition of an Adventure mode, that allows you to tackle randomly generated levels, adds some extra life to proceedings. For your money you also gain access to a new class in the form of the Crusader. This armour clad holy man assaults demons much in the same manner that priests assault children. As a former World of Warcraft paladin I enjoyed the character’s play style, which allows you to soak up damage with a shield whilst at the same time dishing out righteous fury via divine spells.

If I recall correctly I gave Diablo 3 a rating of five stars, so I will give Reaper of Souls a score of four. It’s another stellar release from Blizzard, but I feel that I have to mark it down given its steep asking price. At the time of writing R.O.S retails for close to thirty quid, which is rather expensive for an expansion. Given its cost I would have liked a lengthier story and perhaps another new playable class (particularly when you consider that Diablo 2’s expansion contained two new characters.) Fans of Diablo 3 will welcome the end game content supplied by the Adventure Mode, but I think it’s a bit cheeky to ask us to pay for a feature that should have been included in the original product. Overall I would say Reaper of Souls is good, although I am expecting more whenever the inevitable second expansion comes out.

Review of High School DxD

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High School DxD is a twelve episode anime series based on the light novels penned by Ichiei Ishibumi. The show follows the exploits of Issei Hyodo, a horny high school student, who has yet to find a girlfriend despite having the advantage of attending an institution were the gals greatly outnumber the guys. Issei’s search for putang seems to have finally borne fruit when Yuma Amano asks him out, but alas things don’t go as planned. During their inaugural date Yuma reveals herself to be a fallen angel and then proceeds to impale Issei in the torso with a magical lance. I feel for you bro. I’ve lost count of how many of my dates have ended in the exact same manner.

Thankfully for Issei he is saved from certain death by Rias Gremory, a beautiful redhead bestowed with some amazing gazongas. Rias, who is the president of the school’s occult club, is in actuality a powerful devil hailing from the underworld. Using her mystical gifts, Rias resurrects Issei by turning him into a devil servant who is tasked with serving his mistress by forging pacts with humans. Joining Issei in his endeavours are the other demonic minions of the occult club. The members in question include Akeno Himejima a sadistic spell caster who gets a thrill out of zapping people, Yuto Kiba the speedy pretty boy who is adept with a sword and Koneko Toujou a freakishly strong first year student who has zero tolerance for Issei’s perverted antics.

Manga Entertainment’s twelve episode DVD collection can effectively be split into two parts. The first story arc has Issei adapting to life as a devil, culminating in a showdown versus his ex. Aside from wanting payback, for being skewered during their date, Issei is confronting Yuma in order to save a captive nun who has been branded a heretic due to her unholy ability to heal devils. The second half of the series has Rias trying to weasel her way out of an arranged marriage. In order to sever her nuptials with the head of the Phoenix faction Rias must best her betrothed in a Rating Game (basically a Dragonball Z bout with lots of mammary jiggling.) Let’s hope she emerges victorious. It would be tragic if Rias were forced to wed the womanizing Riser Phoenix. Surely our heroine would be much happier with Issei… the perv who spies into women’s locker rooms.

I am giving High School DxD a rating of four stars. Be aware however that this is one of those marmite cartoons you’ll either love or hate. Anyone who finds the objectification of women distasteful should steer well clear of this release. Seconds into the show’s opening sequence, which features the main cast completely topless, the series sets itself up as a feast of fan service. There are panty shots aplenty, nipples protruding through tight tops and you can bet that every battle will involve the ladies’ clothes getting torn off (strangely the male characters have garments that never sustain damage.)

There is however more to High School DxD than mere eye candy. The show has a good sense of humour that mercifully avoids ever getting too goofy. Visually it’s also good-looking in terms of both character designs and animation. The action set pieces are enjoyable for anyone who appreciates battles featuring super powered combatants. It’s essentially what you would find in Bleach minus the pointless filler. Is High School DxD a contender for best anime of 2014? Hell no, but for viewers who enjoy shows like Sekirei it’s a worthy addition to the guilty pleasure section of their DVD collection.

Review of From Up on Poppy Hill

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From Up on Poppy Hill (known in its native Japan as Kokuriko-zaka Kara) is an animated movie based on the eighties manga penned by Tetsuro Sayama. This Studio Ghibli feature is directed by Miyazaki, but don’t get too excited because the man at the helm is not Hayao, but rather his far less talented son Goro. Poor Goro will forever live in his father’s shadow… although on the plus side he does kick arse in Mortal Kombat.

Set in sixties Yokohama, the movie revolves around the teenage romance between Umi Matsuzaki and fellow high school student Shun Kazama. Umi is mature beyond her years after spending much of her youth raising her siblings in the absence of her parents. Umi’s father sadly died during the Korean War whilst her mother is presently abroad studying medicine. This leaves Umi following a busy schedule composed of schoolwork and helping out with chores at her grandmother’s boarding house. Shun, who is the son of a tugboat captain, writes for the school paper and is presently fighting against the school board who are proposing to demolish his dilapidated clubhouse.

Most of the movie deals with Umi and chums trying to convince the powers that be to spare the aforementioned clubhouse, by restoring the structure to its former glory. There’s also the small matter of the romantic chemistry building up between the leads, although a surprising revelation later in the flick seems to scupper any hopes of the two getting together. For a brief stint I was wondering if the creators would have the courage to explore what would have been a controversial love story, but in the end they decide to take the easy way out. Just as well as I doubt Disney would have localised the movie in the States had Ghibli opted to go with a questionable courtship.

Although I was impressed by how well Ghibli’s talented artists managed to recreate sixties Yokohama, whilst watching the movie I couldn’t help but yearn for a more colourful and whimsical setting. A dreary harbour town cannot compete with the dazzle of something like Spirited Away’s world, which may explain why Poppy Hill isn’t as memorable as other features in the Studio Ghibli library. Out of the handful of Ghibli films I have watched I would have to say that From Up on Poppy Hill is the one I have enjoyed least. That’s not to say that it is a bad movie though, as even a mediocre Ghibli movie is a darn sight better than your average cartoon.

I think I would have preferred the movie if the characters had a bit more personality. Everyone is so polite and courteous that no one really stands out. There’s not even an antagonist to root against, which is a shame. The script could have easily been livened up if the chap advocating the demolition of the clubhouse was a colourful moustache-twirling villain. All my misgivings aside, I still think the movie is worthy of four stars. The writing is solid, the voice acting is good and as you would expect from Studio Ghibli the movie is saturated with impressive artwork. Anime fans should appreciate From Up on Poppy Hill, but it’s too slow paced for kids. If you want to keep the young-uns entertained I would suggest buying one of Gibli’s grander offerings instead.

Review of Guilty Crown (Part Two)

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Four months after the release of the last volume, Manga Entertainment has finally graced UK viewers with the second part of Guilty Crown. Although I am no marketing expert, I’d have to imagine that making fans wait so long between releases can only be detrimental for a show’s sales figures. By this stage some anime shoppers are likely to have forgotten about the show’s existence, especially when you consider that the first instalment wasn’t particularly memorable. Don’t get me wrong Guilty Crown isn’t a bad show, but its tendency to “borrow” inspiration from other animes means that it doesn’t stick in your mind (especially for people like myself who have goldfish like memories.)

STORY

Those who aren’t so lacking in the memorization department will recall that the first part of Guilty Crown ended on a doozy of a cliffhanger. Episode twelve provides the resolution to that suspenseful finale before leading the series into a new story arc. Given the way things pan out I cannot help but wonder if it wouldn’t have been better to conclude part one with episode twelve, before starting things afresh in this second chapter. Splitting the twenty-two episode series evenly in twain disrupts the flow of the narrative, although I suppose leaving viewers wanting to know what happens next is a good way of ensuring that the subsequent DVDs sell (curse ye manipulative anime distributors!)

Anyway, after the events of part one the poop has finally hit the swirly blades of a fan. Shu, his classmates and the remnants of Funeral Parlour find themselves trapped in Tokyo, which is locked down under quarantine. Seeking refuge from desperate looters and hostile troops our heroes set up camp at their old school in order to plan out their next move. During the turmoil Shu is elected the group’s leader, which is rather odd given that he is Mr Indecisive. As it turns out his promotion to head of the resistance ends up being a masterstroke that fixes my chief complaint with the show.

What I disliked about the first part of Guilty Crown was that its protagonist was a bit of a whiny crybaby. Upon being appointed leader Shu is however forced to man up in order to keep his friends alive and ultimately save the world. The tough choices he is forced to make see him gradually grow into a credible hero, even if it strains his relationships with others. After flip-flopping between high school hijinks and touching drama Guilty Crown finally settles down and decides to run with a darker tone for the remainder of its story. Notable characters die, others switch allegiances and the show’s mysteries are unravelled giving us a more engrossing viewing experience.

SUMMARY

My rating for Guilty Crown (Part Two) is a four out of five. It’s a show that rewards viewers who did not abandon it prematurely. Anyone who perseveres with it beyond the mediocre first part will be pleased to see that as the story matures it improves substantially around the halfway mark. The only gripe I had with this second collection is that the final episode feels like it is desperately rushing to wrap up all the loose plot threads within its twenty-minute running time. In hindsight the series may have benefitted from being twenty-four episodes long.

Part two is however still guilty of pilfering ideas from other shows. The way in which the meteor virus plot plays out feels a lot like Evangelion mixed with a smidgen of Darker than Black. The whole notion of a kid with powers trying to overthrow Japan’s oppressors also comes across like a poor man’s Code Geass. Thankfully the plagiarism of ideas is easier to overlook in this second instalment as the character relationships are better developed. Disabled mech pilot Ayase continues to be my favourite character so it’s a shame that she didn’t get more to do, aside from wrestling with feelings of uselessness stemming from her handicap.

After seeing the series to its fruition I can say that I recommend Guilty Crown to fans of science fiction animes. Viewers who prefer more lighthearted shows may not approve of the darker direction taken in part two, but I personally enjoyed it. The action sequences throughout the twenty-two episodes are a spectacular sight to behold. The use of still frames does however begin to creep into the later episodes, possibly indicating that the producers were feeling the budgetary pinch of delivering a show with such high production values. Although the talent behind the series didn’t manage to give us a timeless classic, after a slow start Guilty Crown did at least manage to exceed my expectations.

Review of Short Peace: Ranko Tsukigume’s Longest Day

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Short Peace: Ranko Tsukigume’s Longest Day (there’s nothing short about that title) is a novel experiment in trans-media entertainment. Blu-Ray owners can pop this disc into their players to enjoy a quartet of critically acclaimed anime shorts directed by the likes of Shuhei Morita and Katsuhiro Otomo. PS3 gamers on the other hand can insert the same disc into their console to play a fast paced platformer crafted by the wacko (or should that be eccentric developer) known as Suda 51. As a fan of both video games and anime Short Peace sounds like a marriage made in heaven, but is the final product more than the sum of its parts?

ANIME REVIEWS

The anime portion of the disc kicks off with Possessions – a tale of a travelling craftsman who, seeking shelter from the elements, decides to rest at an abandoned shrine. Unbeknownst to him the temple is haunted by the spirits of broken brollies and shredded tapestries that have gained sentience. Rather than flee in terror, the protagonist quells the restless apparitions by using his prowess with a thread to restore the discarded items to their former glory. Its positive message and colourful visuals earned the feature a well-deserved Oscar nomination.

Out of the four animes Combustible was my least favourite. Although well produced I didn’t warm to it, which is weird given the movie’s title. Set in feudal Japan, the short tells the tale of Matsukichi and Waka – two neighbouring youngsters who live under the thumb of their oppressive parents. After a brief time skip we see the duo all grown up. The rebellious Matsukichi acrimoniously leaves home to become a fire fighter whilst the more docile Waka resigns herself to living at home with her abusive elders. During the movie’s conclusion Waka’s abode gets engulfed in flames setting up a touching finale. Will Matsukichi be able to rescue his childhood sweetheart from a fiery death and unhappy existence or will Waka perish for lacking the courage to confront her domestic woes?

Anime connoisseurs who like cartoons with action will no doubt prefer Short Peace’s concluding two features. The first of these is the visceral Gambo (not to be confused with the Stallone character), which tells the tale of a polar bear who befriends a little girl. Although Gambo doesn’t battle against Soviet forces he does spar with a demon instead, which in my opinion is even cooler. The final anime on the disc is A Farewell to Weapons, which follows the exploits of a marine squad who are tasked with disarming a warhead that is located within the confines of a ruined city. Impeding their mission is an automated tank that is patrolling the area. The explosive confrontation between the soldiers and armoured machine ends Short Peace with a bang (literally.)

GAME REVIEW

To finish off I will touch upon Ranko Tsukigume’s Longest Day – a video game that reminds me of Sonic the Hedgehog due to its speedy platforming. The game stars a teenage girl named Ranko who is nicknamed Meter Maid, as her family have amassed their fortune by managing parking lots. Ranko, who is a schoolgirl by day and assassin by night, is on a quest to murder her father who happens to be a masked Mexican wrestler (I warned you that Suda 51 is a whack job.) The majority of the game’s levels will have Ranko dashing to the exit, constantly pursued by anything from malicious spirits to a humongous Pomeranian.

The regular levels are a simple case of navigating through a stage as quickly as possible. Killing enemies along the way charges up Ranko’s ammo meter that can be discharged to momentarily halt the advance of her pursuer (I guess telling the giant doggie to “stay” doesn’t work.) Adding some variation to the mix are the boss fights, which range from blasting a dragon whilst riding atop a flying car to the eventual clash with Ranko’s pop in an arena mimicking the graphical style of an NES game. As with many of Suda 51’s offerings there isn’t much depth to the gameplay, but you are unlikely to notice once you get wrapped up in the title’s slick presentation.

SUMMARY

My rating for Short Peace: Ranko Tsukigume’s Longest Day (pauses to catch breath) is a three out of five. Both the video game and animes are entertaining, but the overall package feels like a bit of a swindle. The anime movies last for around twenty minutes each whilst the Suda 51 game can be bested within a fifty-minute session. Demanding over thirty quid for this PS3 title is a bit steep, when its contents could easily have been distributed as a £10 DVD and an inexpensive PSN download. If you are a video gamer who appreciates anime it’s worth checking out, but you may want to pick up a used copy or wait for a price drop. Short Peace sadly lives up to its name. It is both short in duration and will leave you feeling short changed.

Review of Fate/Zero (Collection 1)

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Fate/Zero is an anime adaptation of Gen Urobuchi’s book series, which tells the prequel story to the visual novel Fate/Stay Night. The anime is available to buy in the UK courtesy of MVM Entertainment, who are distributing the twenty-five-episode saga across two collector’s editions. The first DVD set, which I am reviewing here, contains the opening thirteen episodes and can be purchased from United Publications (www.up1.co.uk) for a reasonable £22 (which is considerably cheaper than the £32 Amazon are presently demanding for it.)

Zero’s story chronicles the fourth Holy Grail War, which occurred ten years prior to the events featured in Stay Night. For those of you not familiar with the franchise, the Holy Grail War is a contest fought between rival mages who are vying to win a mystical artefact that can grant its owner whatever wish they desire (a bit like Aladdin’s lamp, minus the blue skinned comedy stylings of Robin Williams.) Aiding each spell caster, in their quest for the sacred chalice, are powerful servants who happen to be historical figures that have been summoned from the past to modern times via mystical means.

Anime fans that disliked Stay Night may still want to check out Zero, as the show is far more intelligent than its predecessor. For me, Stay Night was marred by the harem antics revolving around its drab protagonist. Rather than focusing on a main character, Zero instead is an ensemble piece and is all the better for it. I personally find stories more gripping when the motivations of its entire cast are explored. Yes there are some bad eggs to jeer at, but a good chunk of Zero’s characters have commendable reasons for coveting the Grail. Whilst watching the show I cannot help but root for multiple factions even though in the end there can be only one victor (just like in Highlander.)

For those of you who enjoyed Stay Night (and are still reading after I irked you in the last paragraph) you’ll be glad to know that Zero has some references tying the two shows together. Rin’s father (Tokiomi Tohsaka) for example features in the series. He’s a Lex Luthor like wealthy mastermind who plots on how to win the Grail, without dirtying his hands, whilst sipping upon wine. The female knight known as Saber also appears in Zero as a servant to both Kiritsugu Emiya (a despised mage who uses firearms in addition to magical techniques) and his silver haired homunculus bride named Irisviel. Irisviel is actually one of my favourite characters as she has a sweet personality and rarely ventures outside without wearing those adorably fluffy hats that are so popular in Russia.

Other characters of note are Waver Velvet and his servant Rider, who are responsible for injecting some chuckles into what is a mostly sombre show. The mismatched pair are always trading verbal barbs, as Waver is a snivelling coward whilst Rider is a boisterous gung-ho oath. Much less likable is the teenage serial killer named Ryunosuke Uryu and his deranged servant Caster. Instead of participating in the Holy Grail War, the unscrupulous duo spend the majority of their time abducting and butchering innocent children. Needless to say I hope they get their comeuppance soon.

I am giving the first part of Fate/Zero a four out of five. Aside from the slow paced forty-minute opening episode, I have thoroughly enjoyed what I have seen thus far. The plot is smart, doing a good job of focusing on how the combatants attempt to outsmart each other. I also liked how time is spent showing the strained relationships that surface between masters and servants who have very different ideologies. The action is great too, thanks to the gorgeous animation and good use of CG effects. How many of the duels end in a stalemate does however irritate me. After spending so much time developing the characters I suspect that the writers weren’t keen on eliminating anyone too early.

Needless to say Fate/Zero gets a thumbs up from me. I previously haven’t been enamoured by the Fate franchise, but after sampling Zero’s first thirteen episodes I have no hesitation in adding the second Collector’s Edition to my shopping list, once it becomes available.

Review of My Little Monster (Vol 1)

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My Little Monster (known in its native Japan as Tonari no Kaibutsu-kun) is a romantic comedy manga penned by the artist known as Robico. Hmmm, that’s a name I would associate with a Brazilian footballer, instead of a Japanese illustrator, but whatever. The series, which spans over thirteen volumes, was originally published from August 2008 to June 2013 in Dessert Magazine and has since been adapted into a short thirteen-episode anime. UK readers can enjoy the franchise courtesy of Kodansha Europe who are presently selling the first volume on Amazon for eight quid (and half that prize for the Kindle edition.)

The book stars Shizuku Mizutani, a short statured high school student whose dedication to her studies has seen her forego distractions such as making friends or socialising. She sounds a bit like me… minus the pursuit of knowledge, as my dire A-Level grades will attest to. Shizuku’s life is forever changed when her teacher tasks her with delivering some homework to Haru Yoshida, a fellow classmate who is regularly truant after kicking off the school year with an all out scrap against fellow pupils. When the two first meet Haru reckons that Shizuku must be a dear friend, as only a true pal would make the effort to come over and hand him schoolwork.

From this point onward the mate-less Haru starts to attend class in order to stick to Shizuku like glue, much to her annoyance. This being a romantic comedy however it isn’t long before a relationship begins to blossom between the pair. Although things are far from mushy, at this stage of the story, the first four chapters included in volume one already have Haru declaring his attraction for Shizuku, who in turn is surprised to discover that she is developing a crush on him. As the two interact they begin to come out of their respective shells, iron out their bad habits and make new friends (such as Sohei the softball player and Asako – a ditz who struggles to make chums with people outside of the internet community.)

I am going to give My Little Monster a rating of three stars out of five. Overall it succeeded in winning me over after a shaky start. At first I was uncertain if I would enjoy the comic, as Haru comes across as an annoying buffoon whilst Shizuku personified the role of unlikable ice queen. The book reminded me a little of Toradora – particularly as both mangas feature male leads who have a reputation of being scary guys, despite actually being nice chaps. Thankfully with each passing page I began liking the characters more as I became acquainted with their distinctive quirks.

Robico manages to score a hat trick of good artwork, funny moments and a love story that isn’t too in your face. Although the comedy never had me roaring with laughter it was amusing throughout. I especially enjoyed the gags revolving around Haru’s pet rooster and Shizuku’s annoyance whenever Haru bests her in exams (thanks only to his knack for memorisation.) If you pick up the digital version of the book I would say that volume one is good value at four pounds. The chapters are fairly long and have plenty of dialogue, so this isn’t one of those mangas you’ll skim through in a few minutes. All in all, My Little Monster isn’t the greatest manga ever, but it’s an entertaining read none the less.