Review of Return to PopoloCrois

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Return to PopoloCrois: A Story Of Seasons Fairytale is a 3DS role-playing game based on the Japanese comics created by Yohsuke Tamori. The franchise has inspired a handful of JRPG titles, although I believe that Return to PopoloCrois has the honour of being the first release from the series to reach European shores. The game stars thirteen-year-old Prince Pietro whose kingdom is presently being plagued by an upsurge of Shadow Beasts. Shortly after celebrating his birthday, Pietro is duped by the mastermind orchestrating the Shadow Beast infestation and banished to the distant kingdom of Galariland. Stranded, in a foreign nation, players must aid the young prince in finding his way back home before the malignant demon responsible for his exile succeeds in consuming his country.

OVERVIEW

Just like Ni No Kuni, PopoloCrois is a twee RPG designed with younger players in mind. The cast of playable characters, which include a virtuous white knight and a devious moustached tinkerer, wouldn’t look out of place in a Saturday morning cartoon. Storytelling wise the narrative may be geared towards kids, but the gameplay itself will feel familiar to adults who gamed during the eighties and nineties. What we have here is a vintage RPG complete with level ups, four man parties, random encounters and turn based combat. It’s all good fun, although I suspect that ADD youngsters may struggle with the early chapters due to all the tedious walking. Thankfully things improve once Pietro’s party acquires mystical fairy dust, which allows them to teleport to previously visited locales faster than you can say “beam me up Tinker Bell.”

PopoloCrois’ battles remind me a little of Adventures to Go. When a random encounter triggers the action switches to a tiny arena containing Pietro & pals on one side and the enemy monsters on the other. Characters can be ordered to move/attack during their allotted turn in addition to using items. Apart from regular attacks it is also possible to cast a variety of spells by consuming MP. Combat is far from challenging, but if you aren’t confident in your tactical acumen it is possible to both adjust the game’s difficulty on the fly and set battles to automatic. Compared to other titles, I was impressed by how competent the AI is at managing your units. It does a good job of healing injured characters and it doesn’t exhaust MP by needlessly spamming special attacks. Computers are so brainy these days… I fear the time when Skynet enslaves us all is drawing near!

VERDICT

My rating for Return to PopoloCrois is three stars. Like other titles in the Story of Seasons series (formerly branded as Harvest Moon) PopoloCrois allows players to partake in farming, even if the agriculture on offer is rather simplistic. Growing crops simply requires that you till the fields, plant seeds, water the soil and wait. After a while I gave up on farming, as it was too basic for my tastes and I disliked having quests interrupted with constant pop-ups notifying me that my turnips were ready to reap. Like other Harvest Moon spin-offs, PopoloCrois also allows players to woo a bevy of ladies. Maxing out a girl’s friendship meter will reward you with certain bonuses, but be aware that you cannot marry anyone. Pietro is much too young after all and the adulterous little git already has a girlfriend.

Ultimately my first impression of a PopoloCrois game is good, but could be better. Although the gameplay lacks the depth I expect from a modern JRPG, I did find the cell shaded graphics and brief animated sequences to be charming. Audio wise the background tunes are suitably cheery, if not particularly memorable. For the most part the English voice acting is fine, albeit lacking in enthusiasm during moments when characters yell out the name of their special attacks. Thankfully the option to toggle the original Japanese dub does exist. If you seek a portable game that blends JRPG action with farming my first suggestion would be Rune Factory 4. PopoloCrois is however a good alternative for younger gamers or anyone who prefers shorter RPGs (if you focus exclusively on mainline quests the story can be completed within fourteen hours.)

My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU Review

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Hachiman Hikigaya (who also goes by the nicknames Hikky and Gay-Kun) is the latest example of an anime mate-less wonder. Unlike some other socially inept animated characters, Hikigaya’s solitary existence is however one of his own choosing. After being rejected countless times, by members of the opposite sex, Hikigaya has opted to avoid further emotional pain by vowing off friendships. Hikigaya’s loner lifestyle isn’t something that his teacher approves of though. Under the threat of a punch to the gut, Miss Shizuka Hiratsuka (a thirty year old educator, who cannot attract a husband despite possessing supermodel looks) forces Hikigaya to join their school’s Service Club. Will volunteering for a group, which specializes in aiding students with their troubles, improve the gloomy teen’s interpersonal skills? Based on the contents of this DVD… probably not.

OVERVIEW

My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU is a thirteen-episode anime distributed in the UK by Animatsu Entertainment. Based on Wataru Watari’s novels the series follows Hikigaya’s after school activities, which are predominately spent with the Service Club’s two other members. Yukino Yukinoshita, an equally unpopular student who is disliked by folks due to her insensitive candour, leads the club. Joining the ostracized pair in their adventures is Yui Yuigahama, a bubbly gal who is cursed with maladroit culinary skills (her homemade biscuits are so dire that even the Cookie Monster would refrain from tasting them.) Over the course of season one, the teenage trio tackle various requests in their own unique unconventional style. Whether it’s organizing a cultural festival or critiquing a geek’s work of fiction, nothing is beyond the abilities of the Service Club.

What differentiates My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU from other shows is Hikigaya’s cynical approach to problem solving. Should we win this year’s sports day through teamwork? Nah, let’s resort to subterfuge instead. When acquaintances bicker shall we settle the squabble via diplomacy? Nope. It’s more efficient for Hikigaya to antagonize the party in question, so the former rivals can unite against a common foe. Adding to the unorthodox storytelling is a quirky support cast, which includes an obese chuunibyou and a bespectacled lass that is passionate about homosexual romance. Other characters of note include the effeminate tennis captain that the protagonist has a crush on and Hikigaya’s cheerful sister. She supports her oni-chan by cooking him meals… yeah SNAFU is one of those shows were all parents have inexplicably gone absent.

VERDICT

Three and a half stars is the score that I am awarding My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU. Worth checking out for anyone who enjoys amusing shows mixed with a smidgen of drama. Although the series isn’t dubbed I have no complaints, as the Japanese voice cast is competent and those involved with subtitling have done a fine job. In a similar vein, Kamisama Dolls animators Brain’s Base can be proud of the show’s visuals. The highlight of the series has to be Hachiman Hikigaya, whose combination of smarts and dry humour make him more interesting than your typical plain anime protagonist. Comedy is subjective though, so I wouldn’t be surprised if some viewers didn’t share my enthusiasm for this series. Audiences who favour slapstick over sarcastic banter may find the script dull and the narrative’s pessimistic outlook on society may not resonate with everybody.

One thing worth mentioning is that SNAFU’s title is a little deceptive, as the episodes I watched were deficient in romance. Hikigaya and Yukino could make a compatible couple, but their relationship has not developed beyond trading slurs due to Yukino’s deep seeded trust issues. Meanwhile Yui clearly has feelings for Hikigaya, although a lack of courage has prevented her from asking him out. Complicating matters is Hikigaya misconstruing Yui’s affections. Thus far he is under the impression that she is merely expressing gratitude, after he saved her beloved pooch from becoming road kill. I wonder who will win his heart in season two? My money is on Hikigaya rejecting both girls and hooking up with tennis club president Saika Totsuka. He is so cute that I am sure Hikigaya could easily overlook the racket and two tennis balls located between his legs.

 

Review of Golden Time (Collection One)

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Dang! A quick glance at the UK anime calendar reveals that this week’s sole DVD release is Golden Time from Animatsu Entertainment. I am therefore burdened with the task of once again critiquing a romance show. From the many genres covered in Japanese cartoons I make no secret that tales of love rank amongst my least favourite. Perhaps my feelings stem from a lonely history devoid of February 14th gifts? Nah, I just dislike romance shows in general because they tend to be mediocre at best. There are some exceptions of course (such as Clannad) but for the most part love stories usually test my patience. The market is oversaturated with harems who cock block each other and don’t get me started on anime were it takes twenty-six episodes for a couple to share their first kiss. Will Golden Time manage to subvert these overused tropes? Read on and find out.

OVERVIEW

Amnesiac Banri Tada is moving on with his life after an accidental bridge plunge robbed him off his memories. The forgetful teen has moved to the big city where he intends to study law. Tada’s first day on campus doesn’t start well though, as his inability to navigate Tokyo’s labyrinth of streets results in him arriving tardy. Our hapless protagonist ends up missing his university’s opening ceremony, but on the plus side he befriends a fellow freshman named Mitsuo Yanagisawa on the journey back. Whilst conversing with Yanagisawa, Tada gets the opportunity to meet with his new pal’s childhood friend Koko Kaga. As it turns out Koko is rather loco. She has been pursuing Yanagisawa, ever since they were little, under delusions that the pair are destined to wed. Her infatuation is so strong that she has gone through the trouble of secretly enrolling at Yanagisawa’s academy, much to his annoyance.

Unsurprisingly Koko gets kicked to the curb by Yanagisawa and is eventually forced to accept that Mitsuo will never reciprocate her feelings. The heartbreak is short lived though, as Tada wastes no time in hooking up with the now available Miss Kaga. Initially things go swimmingly for the fledgling couple. Tada tolerates Koko’s possessive quirks better than Mitsuo ever could and he isn’t intimidated by his girlfriend’s affluent heritage. Their courtship is put to the test however when Tada decides to leaf through an old high school scrapbook. Whilst perusing the tome he stumbles across a photo, which reveals that Tada once harboured romantic feelings for a girl named Linda. As luck would have it Linda happens to be an upperclassman in Tada’s new school, putting him in an unenviable bind. Will Tada persist with his current relationship or will his re-emerging memories compel him to investigate this long lost crush?

VERDICT

My rating for Golden Time (Collection One) is three stars. The series is mildly entertaining, but I can’t say that the twelve episodes contained in this set have converted me into a fan of romantic comedies. In hindsight I should have expected just as much, given that the series is based on light novels penned by Yuyuko Takemiya. Her previous works include the popular Toradora franchise, which never made an impression on yours truly despite being highly regarded. If you are a fan of rom-coms don’t let my lukewarm assessment dissuade you from giving Golden Time a chance though. The series is competently put together, boasting solid animation from J.C. Staff and plenty of chuckles. Although the script’s romantic moments didn’t resonate with me I did at least giggle at Koko’s robotic dance moves and the scenes were Tada is abducted by the Tea Drinking Club’s party hardy membership.

Golden Time would have been more to my liking had its leads been more amiable. Tada is a nice enough chap, but I can’t condone how he jeopardizes his bond with Koko by pursuing Linda. His actions are especially odd when you consider that his motivations for migrating to Tokyo were to escape his forgotten past. I guess he may be okay with severing ties with Koko, as she is a deeply flawed character. Not only is Koko spoilt, clingy and manipulative but she also gives the vibe of loving the glamour of being in a relationship more than the act of loving someone. I especially disliked how she jealously assaults an innocent girl that Mitsuo fancies in one episode. Koko will have to grow up fast in the final dozen episodes to garner my support in the show’s upcoming love triangle. Given how nasty romance anime can get is it a wonder that I avoid the genre? In comparison the murder filled action shows I usually watch seem rather tame.

Review of Bravely Second

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It has been two years since the events of Bravely Default transpired and once again the kingdom of Luxendarc finds itself in peril. A masked tyrant known as the Kaiser plots to rewrite history by overloading the world’s elemental crystals. We’ve all heard of violent movies inspiring lunatics to commit atrocities, but who knew that the Back to the Future anniversary would motivate someone to partake in time travel misdemeanours? Standing between the Kaiser and his aspirations is a band of heroes known as the Ba’al Busters (Nintendo may loathe cleavage exposing attire, but they are evidently fond of puns.) The player-controlled group is comprised of Crystal Guard captain Yew Geneologia, a French speaking lunar warrior named Magnolia, the returning Hero of Light Tiz Arrior and the grand marshal’s gluttonous daughter Edea Lee.

OVERVIEW

Bravely Second: End Layer is the sequel to one of the finest handheld JRPGs from recent times. The original title was an awesome game boasting cute graphics and a combat system that harkened back to the days when Final Fantasy was actually fun. Having recently completed End Layer, I am pleased to report that the follow up is more of the same. It does however trump its predecessor, in terms of storytelling, by not padding out its fifty hour running time with a repetitive third act. Great news for anyone who abandoned Bravely Default due to its endless cycle of boss rematches, although do note that the adventure’s setting does demand that you return to dungeons featured in the first game. Similarities also manifest in the sound department. Complimenting the beautiful score is a cast of actors reprising their roles from the last title and some new faces including Cam Clarke (who in Metal Gear tradition plays a villain sporting a replacement arm.)

RPG veterans are sure to enjoy Bravely Second’s turn based battle system, which permits you to strategically employ brave/default commands during encounters. Default allows you to sacrifice a turn in favour of performing multiple actions later on in a fight, whilst Brave does the opposite. Another tactical aspect to consider is the makeup of your four-man party (and no I am not commenting on what cosmetics to apply to their faces.) Each character will have different skills at their disposal dependant on what job, sub-class and support abilities you bestow upon them. There are thirty different jobs to choose from, which can be procured by vanquishing the bosses you face over the course of the story. Many of the jobs from Bravely Default make a comeback, along with a multitude of new ones. My favourite classes include the Exorcist who transforms into a spook upon death and the Catomancer that summons kitties onto the battlefield.

VERDICT

My rating for Bravely Second: End Layer is five stars. If you enjoyed the first game I can highly recommend giving this second instalment a bash. The main campaign is fun and the same applies to the mini-games on offer. The diversions in question include a Cookie Clicker styled timewaster, where your party fabricate adorable Plushies in exchange for un-lockable tunes. There’s also a construction side quest, which tasks players with rebuilding the moon colony Magnolia hails from. Much like in a Farmville clone, enlisting the aid of friends can vastly speed up your lunar renovation works. There aren’t many flaws I can point to in Bravely Second, aside from the developer’s decision to recycle levels from the last game. A little lazy perhaps, but it didn’t bug me too much. Just like a tourist returning to a vacation spot they previously enjoyed, I rather welcomed the opportunity to reacquaint myself with Luxendarc’s various sites.

To wrap things up, I’d like to thank Nintendo for releasing Bravely Second early in Europe. It’s rare for our continent to get a title ahead of the US. Take the upcoming Fire Emblem trilogy for example. Our chums across the pond can already purchase said game whilst the EU territories are forced to wait until late May. I can’t praise Nintendo too much though, as westerners are effectively getting a watered down version of the Japanese original. Bittersweet quest outcomes have been annexed to spare sensitive players from grief and graphics have been tweaked to make costumes less revealing. The daftest alteration of all involves the Tomahawk job. In Japan the class is modelled after Indians, whilst we have to make do with a cowboy. Replacing Native Americans with the gunslingers who slaughter their race in movies seems a tad insensitive. Mrgrgr, needless censorship makes me want to go on the warpath.

Review of Akame Ga Kill (Collection One)

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When Akame Ga Kill begins viewers are introduced to a plucky swordfighter named Tatsumi. The young blade master, who is able to topple colossal beasts with the aid of his steel weapon, is on a pilgrimage to the big city in search of employment. Tatsumi seeks coinage to help alleviate his village’s financial hardships, but sadly for him finding a job isn’t easy (I guess the recession’s effects can be felt even in animated fantasy worlds.) In episode one poor Tatsumi is left out of pocket after a buxom blonde swindles him out of his savings. To make matters worse his hopes of enlisting in the army are promptly rejected. Oddly enough, recruitment officers dislike applicants who demand that they should commence their armed forces career at the rank of captain. Go figure.

OVERVIEW

Akame Ga Kill is an anime based on Takahiro’s ongoing manga. The series chronicles the adventures of Tatsumi who, after the events transcribed above, is forced to band together with a group of assassins named Night Raid. Presumably, if you can’t make enough scratch to save your village, you might as well join the rebels who are plotting to dethrone the corrupt officials responsible for taxing your homeland into poverty. Although Night Raid is outnumbered in terms of manpower they pose a threat to the land’s immoral government, as they possess an arsenal of Imperial Arms. These mystical weapons confer their wielders with all manner of powers. The Spectator headpiece for example can read minds whilst the Phantasmagoria cosmetic kit could make someone like Steve Buscemi look beautiful, given that it can alter a person’s appearance.

Night Raid’s ranks consist of seven colourful characters. Najenda is the silver haired leader who sports a prosthetic arm. The titular Akame, who is awfully possessive about her food, carries a poisonous Katana that can slay any assailant with one swipe. Mine is a twin-tailed sharpshooter whose firearm deals damage proportional to the peril its owner is facing. Leone, who conned Tatsumi out of his cash in episode one, is able to transform into a beefy cat girl. Sheele is a clumsy bespectacled beauty that wields giant scissors, which can slice through anything (even the annoying plastic packaging ink cartridges are encased in.) Lubbock is a womanizer capable of manipulating enchanted threads and last, but not least, is the armour-clad homosexual known as Bulat. I’m sure gay guys find his combo of muscular torso and an Elvis hairdo to be irresistible.

VERDICT

My rating for Akame Ga Kill (Collection One) is three and a half stars. I almost dropped the series due to its mediocre start, but thankfully things got steadily better as the story advanced. Part of the improvement can be attributed to Night Raid tackling mightier foes, in the later instalments, which resulted in some exhilarating (and rather visceral) action sequences. My interest in the show was also fuelled by morbid curiosity. Who will perish next? Much like Game of Thrones, Akame Ga Kill’s cast is not protected by plot armour. Villains and heroes can meet their demise at any moment; so don’t get too attached to anyone. If a minor character begins to recount their tragic origins do beware – fishing for audience sympathy is normally an indicator that the death flag is about to be hoisted.

Perhaps Akame Ga Kill’s biggest failing is how it careens between comedy and tragedy. Using levity to make a sombre plot more palatable isn’t a bad thing per say, but Akame Ga Kill’s writers don’t seem to know when it is appropriate to deliver a gag. Tatsumi engaging in slapstick can really kill the mood, when you consider that the preceding scene had him tearfully lamenting the passing of his friends. Hopefully the script will improve in that regard come collection two. From what I have heard the second half of Akame Ga Kill diverges from its source material, resulting in a definitive finale. I’m all for avoiding an unresolved cliffhanger, but let us hope that the anime original content doesn’t signal a dip in quality. No one wants another example of Incognito replacing Nazi vampires or the Gate of Alchemy leading to Germany, when the comic book alternative was so much cooler.

Review of Haikyu!! (Collection One)

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What’s this? An anime based on sport? Wow, what a rare sight. In recent years the only shows I can recall watching, which featured athletes, were Stella Women’s Academy and Bamboo Blade. It’s a real shame that sporting shows rarely get localized, because back during my teens I remember enjoying the escapades of Captain Tsubasa. Said soccer themed anime was a lot of fun, albeit rather unrealistic (players would routinely burst the goal net with their powerful shots and teams played on pitches that seemingly stretched on for miles.) Sport starved anime fans can however rejoice because Animatsu has ended the animated sporting famine with their UK release of Haikyu.

OVERVIEW

Despite being vertically challenged Shoyo Hinata has always dreamt of playing professional volleyball. Unfortunately for the orange haired midget he didn’t play much of his favourite game during his younger years, as his middle school lacked a volleyball club. He was forced to train on his lonesome and his only taste of competitive play came during a junior high tournament. During said playoffs Hinata’s ragtag group of friends were eliminated in the first round by an exceptional side containing a talented setter nicknamed “King of the Court.” Advance ahead a few years and Hinata enrols at Karasuno High School. His first order of business is signing up for the academy’s volleyball squad, which much to his surprise has just recruited the services of Tobio “The King” Kageyama.

The rival freshmen must now patch up their differences and learn how to work together, in order to make Karasuno High’s starting line-up. Easier said than done though, as the quick to anger Kageyama has little patience for a clumsy teammate who has yet to grasp volleyball’s fundamentals. Through sheer enthusiasm Hinata does however manage to earn Kageyama’s respect. The half-pint’s speed and prowess for high jumping more than make up for his other physical deficiencies. Finally Kageyama has found a partner that is capable of reaching his meticulously placed passes. Thus the Hinata/Kageyama bromance was established. I can hear the shrieks of yaoi fan girls shipping them together already.

VERDICT

My rating for Haikyu (collection one) is five stars. From the offset I found myself invested in plucky Hinata’s underdog tale, which is impressive given that I know next to nothing about volleyball. Thankfully knowledge of the six-a-side game isn’t mandatory to appreciate the show, as Karasuno club advisor Ittetsu Takeda does a fine job of explaining positions and rules to clueless audiences. Collection one’s thirteen episodes deliver an entertaining mix of thrilling matches and the amusing banter one would expect from testosterone fuelled teens who cannot resist ribbing on each other. Most impressive of all is how the script intermingles sports drama with character development. Through vigorous training and exhibition matches Hinata improves as a player whilst Kageyama matures past his prima donna phase.

When I first heard that a volleyball anime was coming to the UK I half expected a show chronicling the adventures of an all female beach volleyball squad. Haikyu thankfully bucks the trend of using eye candy to ensnare male viewers. The cast list only contains one girl of note and she is portrayed in a respectful manner. Gasp, who would have thought that solid storytelling is all you need to keep guys invested in a series? Sadly the same cannot be said for the opposite gender. From what I have read online Haikyu has a fair share of female fans and they no doubt tune in to gaze at sweaty blokes leaping around a court. Really ladies? Can’t you be a bit classier like us chaps? One of the reasons why I sometimes avoid recommending anime to family/friends is because every series on the planet is embarrassingly saturated with shirtless hunks and pretty boys. For shame!