Review of Log Horizon (Part One)

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Gadzooks! The appearance of Log Horizon in UK stores has got my plagiarism senses buzzing… and who can blame me? This anime adaptation of the books written by Mamare Touno (a naughty author who was recently charged for dabbling in tax evasion) is set in a fantasy MMORPG where the players are trapped and unable to log out. Hmmm, that sounds awfully similar to the smash hit series Sword Art Online doesn’t it? I shouldn’t be surprised though, as anime history is rife with examples of popular shows serving as the inspiration for pretenders looking to emulate the original’s success. The resurgence of magical girl shows after Madoka Magica took Japan by storm is proof enough of that. The question is whether Log Horizon is a shameless rip off or a show worthy of your precious cartoon watching time. Read on to find out.

OVERVIEW

The popular online role-playing game Elder Tales (not to be confused with the unpopular Elder Scrolls Online) has just released an expansion pack attracting thousands of players back to its servers. Virtual adventurers far and wide are keen to explore the new Novasphere Pioneer levels, but little do they know that the expansion’s new content could potentially keep them occupied for literally a lifetime. For some unexplained reason, the Elder Tale fanatics are teleported to a virtual reality recreation of the MMO and bestowed with both the look and powers of their in-game characters. Sounds like a larper’s dream come true, were it not for the fact that there is no way of exiting the game and returning home.

Log Horizon shares its name with the guild founded by a bespectacled chap named Shiroe. Back in Japan Shiroe is nothing more than a humble grad student, but in the online world of Elder Tales he’s a mighty spell caster who is renowned for his strategic mind. Shiroe forms the Log Horizon group to protect the vulnerable and establish order in the lawless virtual land he now finds himself in. Aiding the sorcerer in his endeavours are his travelling companions Naotsugu and Akatsuki. Naotsugu, a beefy knight clad in armour, is the muscle of the team and an unabashed womanizer whilst Akatsuki is a sneaky ninja who specializes in tracking. Despite being a lone wolf Akatsuki pledges her loyalty to Shiroe after he uses his magical gifts to switch her gender from male to female (via the consumption of a sex change potion.) Enchanted brews are quicker than hormone treatment and considerably less painful than going under the knife!

VERDICT

Having watched part one of Log Horizon (courtesy of MVM Entertainment’s DVD set, which contains the first thirteen episodes) I’m pleased to report that my concerns over the show’s originality have now dissipated. Although Log Horizon and Sword Art Online share a similar premise the way they go about telling their stories is very different. Out of the two SAO has the more straightforward plot – focusing on a couple that have to conquer a tower in order to escape their virtual confines. Log Horizon on the other hand is slower paced and boasts a larger ensemble cast. Thirteen episodes into the series and I’m still unsure where the script is heading. The story arcs contained in this inaugural collection are simply content with exploring how society acclimatizes to life in a fantasy world.

Slower paced doesn’t however mean that Log Horizon is dull (thankfully this MMO caper is no .hack clone.) The series may not be as action packed as SAO, but it still has it’s fair share of battles. Early on for example Shiroe’s party is forced to tangle with both hostile monsters and an unfriendly group of players. The later episodes are more dialogue heavy, with the narrative shifting towards politics between the adventurers and sentient NPCs, but I was never bored thanks to the amiable cast. As a Spice and Wolf fan I especially enjoyed the business centric arc were Shiroe begins to procure funds by opening up a medieval McDonalds. The show’s regular doses of comedy also help keep things from getting stale. The adorable Akatsuki is regularly in the thick of the laughs, be it in scenes were she smacks Naotsugu for being a perv or moments were admirers cannot resist giving her a hug.

My rating for part one of Log Horizon is four stars. It exceeded my expectations, so I am looking forward to watching the rest of season one. I’ll eventually get round to watching season two as well, although I hear that the quality dips from that point on due to an unwelcome change in studio.

Review of Gatchaman Crowds

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This month sees the release of Gatchaman Crowds, brought to the UK by fledgling anime distributor Animatsu (a company established by some former Manga Entertainment bigwigs.) The name Gatchaman may sound familiar to veteran viewers of Japanese animation, as it originates from a classic Tatsunoko Productions cartoon that was rebranded for western audiences under the guise Battle of the Planets. Anyone expecting a faithful remake of vintage Gatchaman should however temper their expectations. Aside from some token similarities (the name of the main antagonist and a story featuring an avian themed superhero team) the seventies Gatchaman and this 2013 successor are radically different beasts.

OVERVIEW

Gatchaman Crowds commences with high schooler Hajime Ichinose, a hyper active collector of notepads and scissors, getting inducted into the titular superhero team. The Gatchaman crew are a clandestine group of Iron Man wannabes who use their powers to protect Earth from rogue extra terrestrials. Well that’s the idea anyway; Hajime herself would rather resolve disputes with diplomacy rather than dishing out justice with her fists. One scene that illustrates her optimistic nature has the heroine almost getting flattened by an out of control automobile. Rather than lambast the loon behind the wheel she begins to speculate why the driver is breaking the speed limit. Perhaps the car’s occupant is dashing to the hospital as his wife is in labour?

Hajime isn’t the sole oddball in the Gatchaman roster however. Her colleagues include an alien named Paiman (who resembles a diminutive panda) a flamboyant gay chap called OD and Joe Hibiki – an unassuming office worker who transforms into a badass heavy smoker upon the cessation of regular business hours. The Gatchamen also include two students who attend Hajime’s school. Sugane Tachibana fancies himself as a modern day Samurai, although his doggedness for adhering to protocol can hamper his ability to save the day. Utsutsu is a freshman that possesses the ability to heal others in addition to cloning herself. She’s sure to appeal to the demographic that love softly spoken little girls – her aversion for wearing garments will undoubtedly augment her jailbait allure even further.

The show’s plot revolves around the Gatchamen squaring off against a crimson haired villain named Berg Katse. The epicene baddie can mimic the appearance of anyone he locks lips with – a skill he uses to frame innocents and cause civil disorder. Berg is affiliated with a tech savvy cross dresser who answers to the name Rui Ninomiya. Rui is the creator of GALAX – a popular mobile app that encourages users to aid those in need (be it by attending to traffic accident victims or warning school children of expired milk being sold at their academy.) Rui’s software is intended to better society (or upgrade the world as he puts it) but with the malevolent Berg pulling his strings there is a danger that his good intentions may go sour (and no I am not talking about the previously mentioned high school dairy products.)

VERDICT

My rating for Gatchaman Crowds is three and a half stars. I enjoyed the show enough to marathon it in a couple of sittings, but a number of flaws prevent me from awarding it a higher score. Firstly, for a superhero adventure, I was a tad disappointed by the lack of action on offer. Most of the fighting is reserved for the tail end of the story, were the Gatchamen tussle with hordes of easily dispatched enemies. When the heroes do decide to dispense justice I discovered that their power armour is rendered in CG. I got a very Tiger & Bunny vibe from the action sequences, which isn’t a good thing as I personally find 2D characters mixed with three-dimensional avatars to be a little jarring.

I think Gatchaman Crowds would have gotten a more generous score from yours truly had it ended stronger. The finale was a little too cheesy and chaotic for my tastes. I was especially displeased when I learned that a good chunk of episode eleven is nothing more than a clip show. Regardless of how poor my attention span is a recap of past events is unnecessary for a series that only runs for a dozen episodes. That screen-time would have been better utilized in fleshing out the plot, especially as episode twelve ends on a bit of a head scratcher. Thankfully a director’s cut OVA has subsequently been released which ties up the original ending’s loose threads.

Overall, despite a few blemishes, I can recommend Gatchaman Crowds – although I fear that fans of the original series will be unwilling to accept this iteration’s very different style of storytelling. If you approach the series with an open mind you’ll be rewarded with an anime boasting a quirky cast of characters and a script that comments on how social networking could be used to combat the darker aspects of human nature. A second season is apparently in the works, which should prove to be interesting. I’m hoping season two’s antagonist is devious enough to exploit Hajime’s bubbly optimism. However heart warming it is, I doubt that her hippie like naiveté would go unpunished if Hajime were a hero based in the darker Marvel or DC universes.

Review of Fantasy Hero: Unsigned Legacy

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Fantasy Hero: Unsigned Legacy is an action RPG developed by Arc System Works (a studio best known for coding 2D brawlers such as the Guilty Gear series and BlazBlue.) The game is set in a world that has been conquered by a race of anthropomorphic animals known as Decoders. Players assume the role of a resistance fighter striving to liberate the land from the oppressive furry menace. The quartet of playable characters on offer include Acress your stereotypical teenage sword fighter, Mask the beefy luchador, Ashta a tinkerer who specialises in assembling automatons and Haul a gun totting birdman (not to be confused with Michael Keaton.) For the purposes of this review I decided to play through the game as Ashta – partially because I like robots and partially because I dig emotionless girls who sport pink pigtails.

OVERVIEW

For all intents and purposes Fantasy Hero plays like an anime adorned Diablo. Each stage has the player fighting through zones that are presented via an aerial top-down view. Characters can perform two types of standard attack, by pounding square and triangle, in addition to unleashing special moves (that are activated by pressing the shoulder trigger in conjunction with another button.) In the case of Ashta square commands her to swing a giant wrench whilst triangle orders her to stab nearby foes using her mech suit’s built-in drill arm. Ashta’s special moves see her laying down traps, using gizmos that heal/buff allies and coolest of all she can summon a mechanical minion to fight in her place (whilst she safely hides away in a protective force field.)

The stages you tackle come in two varieties – story missions that need to be completed in order to advance the narrative and optional side quests, which offer a quick way of earning some extra cash and loot. Which level you desire to challenge can be selected from the bulletin board located in your hometown. The settlement also contains a vendor who sells a range of useful sundries and a blacksmith who can upgrade your weapons in exchange for the materials you’ll be plucking from vanquished Decoders. The resistance village is also the place where you beef up your character by spending the points earned upon successfully levelling up. Like in many other RPGs, skill points are invested towards unlocking new abilities whilst attribute points can be used to bolster attack power, health pool size, defence against physical damage and so on.

VERDICT

My rating for Fantasy Hero: Unsigned Legacy is a three out of five. I had good fun playing through the story mode, for the first couple of hours, but after a while things begin to get stale – mostly due to the simplistic combat system’s lack of depth. Thankfully the game doesn’t overstay it’s welcome, so you can expect to hit the final level after seven hours of action. That may not sound like great value for money, but when you consider that the title is an inexpensive PSN download I’m okay with the adventure’s brief duration.

Something I am less okay with is the game’s DLC model. Although you can play as one of four characters, Fantasy Hero only bestows buyers with one save slot. Said restriction forces players to stick with one hero, unless they are willing to erase their progress. To obtain additional save slots players are expected to fork out on DLC – a rather cynical practice that hurts the title’s replay value. It’s also disappointing to see that the game’s multiplayer is limited to local co-op. An online mode, allowing you to team up with random players, would have been preferable, because the odds of me finding somebody nearby who also likes this niche RPG are pretty much zilch. Overall the game is okay and may be worth checking out if you are seeking a portable Diablo like experience for the Vita. With a bit more polish however Fantasy Hero could have been a lot better.

Review of Good Luck Girl

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Some people have all the luck. That phrase especially rings true for Ichiko Sakura, the teenage star of Good Luck Girl – a humorous manga created by Yoshiaki Sukeno. Thanks to the bountiful amounts of happiness energy surging through her veins, Ichiko has been blessed with good fortune throughout her sixteen years of life. Miss Sakura was born into a wealthy family, excels in both sports & school studies… and she also has a fabulous rack (earning her the nickname Tit-chiko.) Unbeknownst to Ichiko, her eternally long winning streak is fuelled by her body sapping good luck away from anyone in the vicinity – a fact that has not gone unnoticed by the gods residing in the Misfortune Realm.

OVERVIEW

The thirteen-episode anime adaptation of Good Luck Girl (distributed in the UK courtesy of Manga Entertainment) begins with poverty god Momiji coming to Earth. She has been instructed to drain Ichiko’s happiness energy and redistribute it across the land, in order to bring balance to the force or something like that. Ichiko, as you can imagine, isn’t keen on being robbed off her good luck, particularly as the process involves getting impaled by an elongated hypodermic needle. Thus the hijinks begin. Using her unearthly powers Momiji tries to complete her mission, but things rarely go as planned. Trying to get the upper hand on a target that is perpetually lucky is no easy task – resulting in Momiji’s schemes often going the way of Wylie E Coyote’s attempts to nab the Roadrunner.

Ichiko and Momiji’s feud ends up attracting a whacky cast of supporting characters including Keita Tsuwabuki and Ranmaru Rindo. Keita is the dreamy classmate who dozes away during lessons, as he is exhausted from working part time jobs (necessary to support his siblings after the family was abandoned by their debt-ridden parents.) Ranmaru, who debuts in episode seven, is a transfer student who often gets mistaken for a boy. Her masculine appearance and street-fighting prowess stem from the fact that a strict martial artist raised her. Other characters of note include Bobby the perverted priest and Momo’o Inugami, a canine god who transforms into a Chihuahua whenever he gets aroused.

VERDICT

Comedy shows from Japan tend to be hit or miss with me, as I find that certain jokes can get lost in translation. Thankfully I can say that Good Luck Girl is a lot of fun thanks to its slapstick gags, fourth wall breaking shenanigans and a slew of giggle worthy anime references. The show is also a good example of how dubs can be just as watchable as subs, with the English language voice cast enhancing the material through some energetic performances. If eye candy is your thing you’ll be pleased to learn that there is a decent amount of fan service on display. Ichiko often finds herself in skin revealing situations, whilst cosplay lovers are well served by Momiji’s propensity for switching outfits.

The reason why I enjoyed Good Luck Girl more than some other comedies is because its characters have heart. Ichiko for example starts off as a selfish brat, who is accustomed to getting her own way, but as the series progresses we get to see glimpses of her more generous side. Even though she normally distances herself from others, after a kindergarten spat caused her to distrust people, there are several occasions were she uses her good luck to aid the downtrodden. Although she constantly butts heads with Momiji, as events unfold, their relationship transitions from an openly hostile one to a friendly rivalry of sorts. Nice touches like that sprinkled atop the zaniness is what makes this a four star series in my eyes. I’d be delighted if a second season were ever to be commissioned… but I doubt I’ll ever get that “lucky” as the Japanese DVD sales have reportedly been sub par.

Review of Atelier Shallie: Alchemists of the Dusk Sea

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Atelier Shallie: Alchemists of the Dusk Sea is the concluding chapter of the Dusk trilogy and presumably the last Atelier game that will appear on the PlayStation 3 (looks like the time when I finally upgrade to a PS4 is starting to draw near.) Gust has been churning out Atelier games almost as frequently as the Octo-mom spews out toddlers. There have been a total of six Atelier games on the PS3 (not counting enhanced remakes) and a number of them have also found their way onto Sony’s Vita. From the Atelier games I have played Shallie is arguably my favourite – thanks to its improved visuals, deeper combat system and gameplay tweaks that make this the most accessible Atelier title to date.

OVERVIEW

Just like in Atelier Escha & Logy, this game features two protagonists (who are both conveniently nicknamed Shallie.) Shallistera is the daughter of a village chief, whose settlement is suffering from a terrible drought. Seeking a remedy for the water shortage Shallistera sets off on an expedition, which unfortunately comes to a bumpy end after her airship has a run in with an ill tempered sand dragon. The irritable Smaug damages Shallistera’s craft causing it to crash into the nearby desert town of Stellard. There she meets the game’s other Shallie (aka Shallotte) an impoverished street sweeper who is learning alchemy in order to score more lucrative jobs from the local guild. The pair soon become friends and decide to join forces in order to investigate the mysterious Dusk that is sapping the region’s water supplies.

At its core Atelier Shallie plays much like its predecessors. The aim of the game is to complete objectives either by harvesting ingredients from the land, performing alchemy to create items or using your trusty broom to whack the nasty creatures that roam the Stellard outskirts. What makes this title more forgiving than its forerunners is that Atelier Shallie lacks the franchise’s infamous time constraints. The story advances after you complete a prerequisite number of tasks, but there isn’t a deadline date that will signal the game’s finale. Some diehard fans will argue that this change reduces the game’s challenge (much like how Fire Emblem veterans deride the removal of perma-deaths) but I personally am okay with the alteration. It’s nice being able to tackle optional quests without feeling pressured into battling the final boss by a predetermined day.

VERDICT

My rating for Atelier Shallie: Alchemists of the Dusk Sea is five stars. It narrowly pips Atelier Ayesha for the honour of being the most fun Atelier game that I own. The only complaint I have with the title is that it got released with a game breaking bug (triggered by activating the growth system) but if you are reading this review you need not worry as the glitch has since been patched. From a narrative perspective Shallie continues the Atelier tradition of delivering humorous slice of life cut scenes and graphically I approve of the developer’s decision to do away with static camera angles. Being able to rotate your perspective at will makes level exploration a much more pleasant experience.

Another plus in Shallie’s favour is the improved combat system, which is vastly superior to the basic turn based battles that appeared in Atelier Rorona. Smashing golems, eradicating wildlife and destroying dragons is much more satisfying thanks to the title’s dynamic mechanics. Taking on hostiles involves managing a team of six characters, were it is strategically advantageous to swap the trio on the frontlines with their pals in the rear guard. Doing so allows the party to perform extra attacks, protect allies from incoming damage and utilize the abilities of your full roster. Aside from the titular Shallies the team under your command contains Wilbell the spunky witch, Homura a sword wielding fur ball and Jurie the treasure hunter. Sadly the gorgeous blade master known as Linca does not return for this sequel. I instead had to settle for her bespectacled sister who works as a Stellard bureaucrat.

In summary – Atelier Shallie ends the series’ PS3 foray on a high note. It will be interesting to see how the franchise will develop once Gust transition over to more powerful hardware. Hopefully the game’s more casual friendly elements will attract new players to this instalment. The Atelier brand is blessed with a library of charming JRPGs that really deserves a bigger audience.

Review of Assassination Classroom (Vol. 1)

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Like many former students, there was once a time when I wished I could throttle my annoying teachers who tormented me with excessive homework and less than glowing report cards. Japanese artist Yusei Matsui must have harboured similar desires during his youth, as his smash hit manga series Assassination Classroom revolves around the underachieving students of Class E who spend their lesson time trying to inflict harm upon their eccentric educator. The series has been running in Japan since July 2012 and is now available to buy in the UK courtesy of Viz Media (the publisher of One Piece, not to be confused with the magazine starring Johnny Fartpants and Buster Gonad.)

OVERVIEW

The recent destruction of the moon ominously signals that the end of the world is nigh. Earth is doomed to suffer the same fate, as its cheesy satellite, unless the creature responsible for lambasting the Luna surface is vanquished. Shame then that humanity’s military is powerless against said planetary destroyer – their defence of the globe proving to be as ineffective as the backline of Gibraltar’s national football team. The seemingly invulnerable organism announces that March is the deadline for Earth’s obliteration… until then it shall pass the time by working in Japan as a high school teacher. I fear for the safety of the female teens attending the institution because Koro-sensei (aka unkillable teacher) is an octopi like monster, boasting more tentacles than an episode of animated porn.

Armed with a stockpile of arms, supplied by the army, Koro-sensei’s students do their level best to defeat their mentor before the calendar reaches March. If saving the world isn’t motivation enough, there’s also a ten billion yen reward for anyone who can slay professor octopus. Committing murder is no easy task though because Koro-sensei is a nimble bugger who can reach speeds of Mach 20, in addition to having Wolverine level restorative powers that regenerate damaged body parts. He’s also a surprisingly good instructor! Over the course of this first volume Koro-sensei helps a student improve their baseball pitch and he also aids a chemistry whizz in preparing deadly poisons. That’s probably a bad idea given that the intended consumer of the concoctions is Koro-sensei himself.

VERDICT

It should go without saying that Assassination Classroom’s plot doesn’t withstand any logical scrutiny, but it matters not because the book’s tone is clearly comedic. Once the ludicrous premise is established the story hits the ground running, barely giving the reader a pause in which to ponder how adolescents could succeed were soldiers have failed or why a tentacle creature would want to educate pupils that are fated to perish come what March. The attempts to exterminate Koro-sensei range from elaborate booby traps to shootings during class registration. In a way the action reminds me a little of Trigun, as both mangas feature a target (with a large bounty on their head) who evades harm in the daftest ways imaginable.

My rating for volume one of Assassination Classroom is four stars. The manga gets a thumbs up from me, although I cannot give it full marks because apart from Koro-sensei the book is severely lacking in memorable characters. From the student ranks, Karma Akabane is the only person who has made an impact on the story. Akabane was formerly suspended for assaulting a teacher and is brought back into the fold, by those in charge, in the hopes that history will repeat itself. Aside from Akabane, Nagisa Shiota could become a big player further down the line, as he seems to be jotting down Koro-sensei’s potential weaknesses in a notebook. I’m hoping that the supporting cast get fleshed out more in future volumes because it doesn’t say much for the human race when a beaming mollusc outshines you in the charisma department.

Review of Yamada-kun and the Seven Witches

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Yamada-kun and the Seven Witches is a manga series that is presently being distributed in English speaking countries courtesy of Kodansha Comics USA. The comic is the brainchild of artist Miki Yoshikawa (creator of Flunk Punk Rumble) and has appeared within the pages of Weekly Shonen Magazine since February 2012. The book is recommended for fans of gender bending, which is a surprisingly popular thing. During my brief time in airport security you wouldn’t believe how many blokes the x-ray body scanners detected wearing lacy underwear and bras. After spotting a five hundred pound chap sporting a G-string I promptly handed in my notice.

OVERVIEW

This manga stars two high schoolers named Ryu Yamada and Urara Shiraishi who are polar opposites. The titular Yamada is a delinquent who is teetering on the verge of expulsion whilst Shiraishi is an academic prodigy who effortlessly achieves the highest grades in her class. One day Yamada accidently trips down some stairs causing him to lock lips with the aforementioned bookworm. The unintended kiss causes the pair to swap bodies, which leads to much hilarity and a surprising upturn in fortune for both parties. Using her smarts, Shiraishi aces a bunch of exams saving Yamada from getting expelled whilst Yamada’s fighting prowess makes short work of some bullies who had been targeting Shiraishi.

The bizarre change in personalities doesn’t go unnoticed however. After a few chapters student council vice president Toranosuke Miyamura uncovers that the couple are able to shift bodies via smooching. Keen to investigate the phenomena Miyamura resurrects the defunct Supernatural Studies Club, as an excuse to have a clubroom where Yamada and Shiraishi can privately embrace without revealing their secret to the rest of the school. The plan goes awry though when a paranormal junkie named Miyabi Ito insists on joining the club. What shenanigans will Yamada’s powers cause and how will Ito’s unwanted presence hamper his body swapping routine? Only time will tell.

VERDICT

I have to say that I was very impressed with this inaugural volume in the Yamada-kun franchise. The artwork is decent, albeit a little cartoonier than some other mangas I have recently read, and the book itself is good value for money. The £6.39 paperback (£5.06 kindle edition) gives you almost two hundred pages worth of content to peruse, with each panel having a fair amount of dialogue to digest. I found Miki Yoshikawa’s comedy stylings to be thoroughly amusing and was relieved to see that the book didn’t become fixated with gender reversal gags. A more lowbrow title would have easily fallen into the trap of having all the jokes revolve around Yamada pervert-idly exploiting his situation.

My rating for this first volume of Yamada-kun and the Seven Witches is four stars. Based on this strong start I am not surprised to learn that the manga has been adapted into both an anime and live action series. I enjoyed seeing how the leads overcome strife by propping up each other’s weaknesses and am keen to see what happens next. Could magic be responsible for the body swapping hijinks? No hints have been offered yet, aside from the cover showcasing Shiraishi in a witch’s garb. I’m also wondering how a potential Yamada/ Shiraishi romance would work. Given their predicament, should they get amorous wouldn’t they just end up kissing their own face? That’s almost as disturbing as spying an obese guy in a thong.