Thirty Day Anime Challenge: Days 13 to 17

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Earlier this month I was reading Matt Doyle’s excellent blog. He had just completed a Thirty Day Video Game Challenge. That reminded me that I had yet to finish the anime challenge I started way back in July. Oops! I better make some long overdue progress on that by answering a few more questions today. For those of you who only subscribe to this site for reviews, and therefore have no interest in this series, I recommend that you check out these reviews penned by other bloggers instead…

Anime: Sword Art Online (Season Two)
Manga: Black Butler
Movie: Aquaman
Video Game: Pokemon Red/Blue

DAY 13: CHARACTER I AM MOST SIMILAR TO

I pretty much resemble any anime character who is a stereotypical geek. Perhaps you could compare me to a male version of Moriko Morioka, as I stay indoors all day, am terrible with face to face interactions and often play characters of the opposite sex in video games. I once asked a friend what animated personality I remind them of. They said Master Roshi, as I am a bald headed pervert. Can’t argue with that logic!

DAY 14: ANIME THAT NEVER GETS OLD NO MATTER HOW MANY TIMES I REWATCH IT

These days I don’t have enough free time to re-watch shows. Just keeping up with the current season’s anime (and older stuff that I want to check out) is a big enough struggle. Many moons ago however, when I limited my anime viewing to DVDs, I wasn’t averse to watching a series multiple times. One particular box-set that got a lot of mileage was Full Metal Alchemist. No matter how many times I watch FMA it never gets old.

DAY 15: FAVORITE ANIMAL SIDEKICK, PET OR SUMMON

I had to rack my brain to come up with an answer for this one. Generally I am not a fan of mascot characters. You can blame eighties cartoons for that. Back when I was a kid, the cartoons I watched often featured comic relief mascots who were super annoying. Anime critters aren’t all bad though. I recently had fun traveling with Pikachu in Pokemon Let’s Go for example. After much thought I am going to pick Taromaru, the pup from School-Live. He’s very cute and played a big role in the show’s emotional finale.

DAY 16: ANIME WITH THE BEST ANIMATION

There were many contenders for this category. Garden of Words has some exceptional visuals, as does anything that has Studio Ghibli’s name attached to it. The last Madoka movie is also worth mentioning, due to a particularly impressive fight sequence. All those nominations however have the benefit of a motion picture budget backing them up. With that in mind my vote goes to Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works. Who knew that a TV production could look so amazing? One could say that Ufotable’s artists brought their A-game to the (ufo)table in that series.

DAY 17: FAVORITE SUPPORTING MALE CHARACTER

I had to think long and hard for this one. Nothing immediately came to mind. Most of my favourite male characters, from the world of anime, are protagonists. Although I suspect a better answer will come to me later, I’m going to go with Akio Furukawa from Clannad. His childish antics make me laugh, as do the scenes were he gives Tomoya a hard time. Akio isn’t a one note comedic character though. During tough times he acts as a second father to Tomoya and is selfless when it comes to his family. This is evidenced by the reveal that he abandoned a career in acting in order to support his daughter. Instead of the stage he now works as a baker. The family business depends on him because his wife hasn’t got a clue when it comes to recipes. Octopus tentacles and bread do not make for a tasty combo.

 

SAO Alternative: Gun Gale Online Review

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Sword Art Online is a bit like Marmite. You either love or hate it. There’s no disputing that the anime adaptation of Reki Kawahara’s novels is insanely popular. We recently got a movie and a third season is due out later this year. Despite all that, many of the bloggers I follow detest SAO with a passion. They dislike how the second half of season one played out and how protagonist Kirito is a Gary Stu of Rey (Star Wars) proportions. If you are a Kirito hater you’ll be pleased to hear that this spin-off series stars a completely new cast of characters. Viewers of season two will recognize the setting though – it’s Gun Gale Online.

OVERVIEW

Karen Kohiruimaki hates being tall, which I can understand. Height may be a desirable trait for males, but that isn’t the case for members of the opposite sex. Lanky girls can have a tough time finding a boyfriend, as guys are sensitive about size… and no, I am not talking about their junk. Asking your partner to crouch down, for a kiss, can be a tad embarrassing for us blokes. Although there is nothing Karen can do about her stature in the real world, she can at least experience being petite in VR games. The main reason why she elects to play GGO is because it permits her to control an undersized avatar named LLENN.

LLENN begins life in Gun Gale Online hunting down NPC monsters. Due to her terrible aim, LLENN’s weapon of choice is a close range submachine gun that she christens P-chan. The pink firearm occasionally sprouts cute eyes and utters words of encouragement to her. Weird. Anyways, one day during her wasteland hunts she bumps into a fellow gunslinger named Pitohui. The pair become friends and begin grouping together to partake in PVP action. After proving her prowess, in taking down players, Pitohui suggests that LLENN register for the upcoming Squad Jam contest. Little did LLENN know that Squad Jam would live up to its name, by placing her in a sticky situation where Pitohui’s life is on the line.

VERDICT

My rating for Sword Art Online Alternative: Gun Gale Online is a three out of five. The series is entertaining enough, but overall I would rank it as the weakest SAO title to date. My chief complaint with the show is its lack of story. The script tries to resurrect the SAO idea of “potentially fatal online game” with its finale, but for the most part the thirteen episodes simply chronicle LLENN’s performance in two battle royale tournaments. Due to the focus on competition, GGO feels like a sports anime. This sport however features brutal takedowns and inappropriate flirting, where opponents hit on a protagonist that looks underage.

Best girl without a doubt is Pitohui. She reminds me a little of Revy from Black Lagoon, as she excels at killing and is bat shit crazy. This bloodthirsty chick doesn’t respect truces and has a reputation for slaying her own teammates. LLENN is a far less interesting character. Just like Kirito, she comes across as plain and unbeatable. Despite being an MMO newbie she is able to defeat professional marksmen with a combination of agility and serendipity. Karen is the type of girl I would gladly group with in Overwatch. Would I date her? Nah. Climbing up a stepladder, every time I want a smooch, would get tiresome.

Review of Sword Art Online: Lost Song

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Despite a terrible localisation job, which made the game’s script read like something put through Google Auto Translate, it appears that Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment sold reasonably well in the West. That’s good news for fans of the popular anime series because we can now expect Bandai Namco to bring over more titles featuring Kirito the pussy magnet of the online world. Lost Song is the follow up to the aforementioned Hollow Fragment. The game takes place in Svart Alfheim, a virtual reality MMO loosely based on Norse mythology, where players get to LARP about the land using avatars that resemble pixies, leprechauns and um… cat girls (Viking legends be damned – this is a Japanese game after all.)

OVERVIEW

After escaping the digital confines of Sword Art Online, the online RPG where hundreds of innocent players lost their lives, Kirito and chums decide to celebrate their freedom by exploring the newly released Svart Alfheim. Gripes, talk about pushing your luck. Kirito sounds like the type of chap who would take up skydiving after surviving a bungee accident. Thankfully for the protagonist of Reki Kawahara’s light novels, Svart Alfheim has safeguards in place to protect the wellbeing of all gamers who log onto its servers. Although the removal of permanent death is much appreciated by Alfheim’s player base, it does mean that Lost Song’s story is less exciting than its predecessor’s tale. Instead of fighting to survive, this time round Kirito and pals race against the Shamrock guild to see which party will clear Alfheim’s final dungeon first.

Lost Song’s most notable feature is that players now have the ability to soar through the skies, which comes in handy when travelling across the world’s various floating islands. Playing as a fairy may not be especially macho, but in terms of reaching your destination flight sure does beat relying on smelly public transport. In terms of combat the game has received a facelift too. Hollow Fragment’s clunky system of auto attacks and abilities tied to cool downs has been replaced with third person real time battles. Square/triangle perform weak/strong swipes whilst unsheathing your blade will allow you to cast magic. Weapon proficiency and the power of your enchantments increase naturally the more times you use a skill.

VERDICT

My rating for Sword Art Online: Lost Song is four stars. The game is a vast improvement over Hollow Fragment thanks to its superior translation, more exciting combat and the huge roster of playable characters you can choose from. Practically everyone from the SAO universe is available to directly control or set as an AI companion in your three-man party. You also have the option of creating your own characters, if you so desire, although the customisation options on offer are extremely limited. Speaking of customisation, you can tweak the appearance of your team by selecting what outfits they wear. The attire you can pick from includes bikinis and a bath towel, which is surprising in this era were bust sliders are banned and bouncy beach volleyball games are not released outside of Japan.

If I wasn’t an SAO fan I may have given Lost Song a slightly lower score because the game isn’t perfect. The graphics for example aren’t state of the art, although that is to be expected given that this is a port of a PS3/Vita release. Linked to the mediocre visuals is a disappointing lack of enemy variety. Much like a Mortal Kombat ninja, many of the foes you encounter are recolored opponents from earlier levels. As alluded to earlier, the story could be better – although I will forgive that failing, as some of the cut scenes are humorous. Much of the comedy centres on Kirito’s harem of spelunking admirers trying to get into his pants. That’s dangerous when you consider that he is already dating Asuna. Tread carefully Kirito. You are a (cat girl) whisker away from being dumped.

Review of Dengeki Bunko: Fighting Climax

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Cross over fighting games are a plentiful commodity these days. Capcom started the ball rolling with titles that pitted their Street Fighter brawlers against Marvel superheroes and in more recent times Nintendo mascots have pummelled each other in Smash Bros. Not to be outdone, the Vita has recently jumped onto the bandwagon with Dengeki Bunko: Fighting Climax – a one on one beat-em-up developed by Ecole Software and French Bread (I had no idea that baguettes were proficient at coding games.) Fighting Climax’s roster of warriors feature characters that appear in ASCII Media Works’ library of light novels. From my grammatically challenged reviews you may have ascertained that I am an illiterate dolt, who doesn’t read, but I was still looking forward to this title as I recognise many of the characters from the books’ anime adaptations.

OVERVIEW

Fighting games aren’t known for their stellar storylines and Dengeki Bunko is no exception to that rule. The solo arcade mode has players squaring off against a sinister entity named Zetsumu at the behest of Denshin, a pink haired girl who has a Dreamcast controller plastered to her forehead. To save the day players will need to vanquish a total of nine fighters, plucked from the Dengeki Bunko universe, who have been brainwashed into doing Zetsumu’s nefarious bidding. Much more interesting was the Dream Duel mode, which pits you against a series of six challengers. Prior to each bout the competitors partake in humorous banter, which is sure to amuse fans of the novels in question. If you have ever longed to see Taiga (Toradora) bicker with Shana (Shakugan no Shana) or Kirito (SAO) wax lyrical with Mikoto (Scientific Railgun) this is the game for you.

Combat is the usual fare you would find in something like Street Fighter, only that instead of featuring muscly men the battles are fought between effeminate chaps wielding swords and underage schoolgirls. Victory is achieved by smacking your opponent, with an array of standard attacks and special moves, until their life bar is depleted. Square, triangle and circle perform weak, medium and fierce strikes respectively whilst x allows you to momentarily summon a support character into the fray. The selection of non-playable allies you can call upon is impressive, but I was a little disappointed to discover that only a dozen fighters are controllable. Titles like Mortal Kombat have spoiled me into expecting a bigger roster (even if they cheat a bit by recoloring the same ninja and calling him a new character.)

VERDICT

My rating for Dengeki Bunko: Fighting Climax is three stars. The combat system may not be robust enough to satisfy the hardcore Evo crowd, but casual players who like anime should have fun with it. Whacking the A.I controlled characters never gets old, which is a good thing given that there are plenty of unlockables and trophies to earn. For the purposes of this review I briefly dabbled with the multiplayer mode and am happy to report that I have no complaints. My online experience was a smooth lag free affair. Despite connecting at an unsociable hour (curse you insomnia) the match making servers did a good job of quickly hooking me up with an opponent of similar skill (i.e like myself he/she sucked.) The titanic duel that followed was all button bashing and no blocking – fighting game champion Yusuke Momochi would shake his head in disgust.

Graphically, Dengeki Bunko: Fighting Climax is a fine looking game. The animations are fluid, the colour palette is vibrant and I dug the backgrounds that feature some Sega locales (such as Sonic’s Green Hill Zone and a Valkyria Chronicles battlefield.) If you squint enough however you will spot that the sprites are suffering from jagged edges – perhaps the result of shrinking a PS3 title down to a handheld. That blip in visual fidelity is a black mark on an otherwise enjoyable game. Is it worth buying at full price? That depends on your fondness for the Dengeki Bunko brand of characters. An enhanced version, boasting more content and additional playable waifus, is due out in Japan soon. My suggestion would be to wait and see if that edition gets localized.

Review of Sword Art Online (Part Three)

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Manga Entertainment’s third release of Sword Art Online collects episodes fifteen to nineteen for the sum of eighteen British pounds. If you’d rather not donate valuable shelf space, to house the four volumes making up season one, the entire series is also available to buy digitally via iTunes. Before downloading the anime just be aware that the App Store version of the show is restricted to the English language dub, which may be a deal breaker for some anime purists. Personally I’m fine with listening to dubbed anime although there are some notable exceptions. If you are feeling brave check out the English language version of Bible Black for some truly woeful “acting.”

STORY

Roughly two months after the events of episode fourteen, Kirito is well on the road to recovery after spending two years in a coma playing Sword Art Online (I know games are addictive, but give me a break.) Most of the players trapped in the virtual reality MMO were freed once the teenage protagonist defeated the game’s final boss in a duel to the death. Technically speaking Kirito suffered a fatal blow during the encounter, but he remains alive thanks to the power of deus ex machina. Sadly the same cannot be said for his beloved Asuna who is one of three hundred SAO players who remain lying unconscious in hospital for some unknown reason.

To make matters worse it transpires that in the real world Asuna has a sleazy fiancé who has a fetish for sniffing the hair of comatose youngsters. If our chestnut haired heroine doesn’t recover from her vegetative state she is doomed to marry the sleaze bag, against her will, because Japanese law seems to have no qualms about imposing lifelong commitments upon unconscious ladies. Thankfully there is a sliver of hope, as Kirito learns that a character matching Asuna’s description has been spotted in the popular role playing game Alfheim Online. If he manages to rescue said character, from the cage she is trapped in, will Asuna wake from her slumber?

Alfheim Online may not have the peril of executing players who die in game, but the stakes are still high in this latest instalment of SAO. Death forces defeated players to move back to a checkpoint, which Kirito can ill afford in the race to crash Asuna’s January wedding. Assisting Kirito in this new fantasy world is a winged elf named Leafa, who unbeknownst to him is actually his little sister Suguha. As the two journey together Leafa begins to develop romantic feelings for her virtual companion, which could get awfully messy. Japanese animation seems to have an unhealthy fixation with incest, although it is later revealed that Kirito and Suguha are actually cousins… so I guess that’s okay? Hey, if marrying someone in a coma is legal what’s the big deal with siblings dating?

VERDICT

My rating for part three of Sword Art Online is a four out of five. The series remains an entertaining show providing that you can come to terms with the new direction it takes. After building up the Kirito/Asuna romance so well it is sad to see the series start afresh in a different setting with a new female companion. Although I was eventually able to adjust to the new status quo I wouldn’t be surprised if the change puts some viewers off the show entirely. Asuna fans, for example, will not care to see how the once strong female heroine effectively gets relegated to the role of damsel in distress.

Other viewers may also not like how fan service has began to creep into the series. Although the earlier episodes featured plenty of cute girls the introduction of Suguha is the first example of the female cast getting objectified. Suguha has been blessed with an ample bosom, which A-1’s artists are not shy about showcasing in scenes were she parades about in nightwear. It’s a shame to see her get sexualized because personality wise she is a well fleshed out character. Her crush on Kirito doesn’t develop into a full-blown love triangle, but I think it added some nice drama to the story – particularly in the segments that take place outside the virtual world.

Speaking of the virtual world, aesthetically I much preferred the medieval look of Sword At Online over the fairy themed Alfheim Online. That said the new location gives audiences new kinds of action to marvel at. Gone are SAO’s swordfights and in their place are equally exciting magical duels featuring aerial combat. It’s hard to argue that the second half of Sword Art Online is as good as the fourteen episodes that preceded it, but overall I can still recommend watching it. In my opinion the naysayers who claim that the series fell from grace, starting with this DVD, are grossly exaggerating a slight dip in quality. One would almost think that they are describing the disparity between Bible Black’s Japanese and English vocal performances.

Review of Sword Art Online (Part Two)

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Sword Art Online (Part 2) is a DVD set that contains episodes eight to fourteen of the popular anime series based on Reki Kawahara’s books. The collection’s tales take place roughly two years after the events of part one, which saw protagonist Kirito (along with thousands of other cyber role-players) get trapped within the confines of the titular VR game. The only way of escaping their computer-generated prison is by clearing all one hundred levels of the Aincrad tower, thereby completing the game. Gripes, I know many MMOs try to prevent users from leaving their clutches, by tying them down to a subscription plan, but SAO’s way of retaining active players is ridiculous. I don’t suppose there’s a cheat code to skip ahead to the final stage?

STORY

Two years since the game’s launch, the surviving players have gradually adjusted to their new digital lives. Despite suffering a number of casualties the players battling on the front lines have made steady progress climbing up the tower. How much easier their journey would have been had the structure been installed with a functional elevator. With the end goal now in sight Sword Art Online switches from touching one off stories to an on-going narrative exploring the blossoming relationship between Kirito and Asuna. The pair begins to bond after suave Kirito invites Asuna to a romantic dinner, in exchange for her cooking up the tasty morsel he acquired from a slain monster. Kirito’s cooking skill is too low to make said ingredient edible, but Asuna can because both her tailoring and cooking stats are maxed out (she is a woman after all.)

Aside from some short bursts of action the focus of this DVD set is squarely on the Kirito/Asuna romance. Refreshingly Sword Art Online isn’t one of those shows that tease the viewer on whether the leading couple will or won’t end up together. Kirito and Asuna actually tie the knot over the course of these seven episodes, although getting hitched comes at a price (and I don’t mean a healthy sex life getting replaced by wifely nagging.) In order to stay close to the missus, Kirito has to abandon his soloing ways and join her guild. This leads to many complications including putting up with the group’s smug leader and dealing with a nasty bodyguard who refuses to let Asuna out of his sight. On the plus side Kirito and Asuna get to have a brief honeymoon at a lakeside cabin. Their vacation has them adopting an amnesiac girl and tangling with a giant lungfish… standard stuff for holidaying newlyweds.

VERDICT

My rating for Sword Art Online (Part Two) is a five out of five. The series may not be perfect, but when scoring this set I wanted to indicate that I enjoyed this collection of episodes slightly more than part one’s offering (which I have previously rated four stars.) As the series progressed I found myself becoming more and more absorbed in the Kirito/Asuna love story, so much so that it has eclipsed the fantasy adventure aspects of the plot that initially attracted me to the series. Their relationship feels more genuine than other anime partnerships I could mention, so much so that I would rank Kirito and Asuna amongst my favourite animated couples (in your face Homer and Marge.)

Production wise this second chapter in the Sword Art saga maintains the impressive production values witnessed in part one. The artwork is polished and meshes well with the CG effects used to animate the giant bosses Kirito faces. On the audio side of things everything is top notch, from the strong voice acting to the catchy soundtrack. The general consensus is that Sword Art Online peaked with the end of episode fourteen, which prematurely sees Kirito duelling against Aincrad’s final boss. Given that bombshell you may be wondering where the story could go from there. Well it does manage to continue, although the direction it takes wasn’t to the liking of many fans. My thoughts on episode fourteen’s aftermath will however have to wait for the next review.

Review of Accel World (Part One)

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Accel World is a twenty-four episode anime series based on the light novels penned by Reki Kawahara (author of the smash hit Sword Art Online.) When it comes to storytelling it appears that Mr Kawahara follows the old adage of “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” Both the aforementioned shows feature characters playing virtual reality games, although Accel World’s setting is futuristic whilst Sword Art Online caters to fantasy/medieval fans. At the time of writing UK viewers can purchase the first part of the series, courtesy of MVM Entertainment, for the sum of seventeen British pounds (or ten thousand Zimbabwe dollars.)

STORY

The show takes place in the near future, where Internet technology has advanced to the point were users can communicate telepathically and play virtual reality games using a portable Neuro-Link. Wow I am so envious. VR games are a pipe dream for me. My net connection is so bad that I can’t even play Farmsville without suffering serious lag. Moving back on-topic, Accel World’s protagonist is a high school student named Haru Arita who is lacking in the height department, but more than makes up for it in the girth of his waist. As you can imagine Haru is a target for bullies so he likes to retreat from the real world into the sanctuary of online games.

Despite his unpopularity with the student body, Haru’s gaming prowess catches the eye of the beautiful Kuroyukihime who invites him to participate in a multiplayer fighting game dubbed Brain Burst. Unlike Call of Duty players, whose intelligence regresses the more they play that detestable shooter, Brain Burst supercharges a participant’s intellect to the point that they can ponder sixteen minutes worth of ideas within the space of mere seconds. Using said cerebral ability however costs burst points, which are only obtainable by beating opponents in a Brain Burst duel. Clearly Electronic Arts didn’t design this game, as their greedy corporate ways would demand that players cough up cash to buy points via online transactions.

ROMANCE??

Haru ultimately decides to aid Kuroyukihime in her quest to become the first ever level ten Brain Burst player. Kuroyukihime’s dreams of glory won’t be easy to achieve though, as losing battles depletes a player’s reserve of points. Any fighter whose score dips to zero will be permanently barred from Brain Burst. Ouch! That makes Brain Burst almost as unforgiving as Dark Souls.

Intermixed with the virtual reality scrapping, Accel World also features some implausible harem antics. Somehow every female Haru meets ends up falling for him despite the fact that he is an obese dwarf. One example of unlikely love is Haru’s childhood friend Chiyuri who gets jealous whenever Haru interacts with another girl. What makes this scenario even more unbelievable is that Chiyuri already has a dashing boyfriend, who happens to be a kendo champion that attends a prestigious school. I may not be an expert in what women desire, but out of those two choices I am sure Haru would not be a lady’s first pick for a romantic fling.

VERDICT

My rating for this first part of Accel World is a four out of five. I really enjoyed the twelve episodes contained in this collection and was especially impressed by the show’s visuals. The only area where the artwork stumbles would have to be the design of Haru, who looks out of place when compared to the other characters. It’s akin to watching Ghost in the Shell only to then spot that one of the cast is drawn like a character from Dexter’s Laboratory. Yes I get that Haru has low self-esteem and his appearance is a contributing factor, but the artists went a little too far in making him unattractive. I think drawing him like the rest of the cast, but making him a bespectacled nerd would have better achieved the effect they were aiming for.

Undoubtedly, given their similarities, comparisons will be made between Accel World and Sword Art Online. Out of the two I slightly prefer Sword Art Online, as it focuses more on character relationships. Viewers who prefer balls to the wall action over mushy romance may however favour Accel World in the battle of the Reki Kawahara creations. Overall Accel World is good fun, providing that you can suspend your disbelief. Brain Burst is a video game that in effect freezes time? Yeah, I can buy that. A gluttonous midget makes the hottest girls in school moist? Nah. Sorry that’s way out of the realms of possibility.