Category Archives: Review

Dirtbound

In Starbound, I have officially surpassed the number of hours I spent playing Terraria. And I am more convinced than ever that Terraria is the superior game.

Simply put, Starbound is a game of multitude of systems that have zero synergies with each other. Dig dirt, mine for ore, create armor, and so on. Pretty basic stuff, right? Not really. The actual crafting mechanics in Starbound are terrible, as are 99% of the items you can craft. Your “tier 1” armor is made from iron and woven fabric (made from plant material), but tier 2 is made from tungsten and cotton wool. Not only does this skip Copper, Silver, and Gold ores, but I’ve been playing 20+ hours since the 1.0 release and have encountered a grand total of three (3) cotton plants.

I can understand if the cotton bottleneck was intentional. But it’s not: the interplanetary gas station sells every fabric type other than cotton.

Starbound_GasStation.jpg

Bold move, Cotton, let’s see if it works out for them.

You can’t explain that.

Indeed, it seems like the devs simply abandoned any attempt to structure progression in the face of a billion procedurally generated worlds (filled the same three enemy attack types). Matter Manipulator modules are a sort of upgrade currency that can be found in nearly every box, everywhere. So are the tech cards, which unlock double-jumping and the Metroid-esque ball rolling. Getting those upgrades early kinda sorta maybe trivializes a lot of the content that comes later. And it’s not as though you get more of them in more dangerous areas – the algorithm basically puts one in 25% of all containers.

Then there is the fact that the best items are drops, full-stop. I mean, I get it, trying to balance gear progression around both player crafting and dropped loot is hard. But the fact that there are effectively zero good weapons from crafting means that that entire element is gone from the game. So your whole desire to dig for ore is reduced to the amount you need to craft the next tier of armor. Without the desire to dig though, you don’t, which means you’re just exploring the surface of the world and missing out on all the dungeons/set pieces that exist beneath it.

“But what about building bases and such?” Yeah, that’s still there. Given the default “survival” mode requires constant eating, it makes sense for even a story-focused character to stake out a simple farm. But honestly? It’s about a million times easier just coming across an already-built set piece randomly, and then planting your flag on it. Or tearing one down and transplanting it elsewhere, as opposed to crafting the individual components.

I don’t know. There are a million more things going on in Starbound than Terraria, but Terraria actually has synergy between what its got. In Terraria, the houses you build unlock NPCs you need, and the act of building settlements attracts monsters and even bosses. The deeper you dig, the more dangerous stuff appears. You can actually craft cool shit in Terraria. All the pieces fit together into a cohesive whole. In Starbound? Not so much.

Review: HuniePop

Game: HuniePop
Recommended price: $5/bundle
Metacritic Score: 80*
Completion Time: 14 hours
Buy If You Like: Match-3, Dating Sims, Being embarrassed

HuniePop1

Brass tacks.

Let’s get this out of the way: HuniePop is essentially a dating sim in which you attempt to sleep with as many anime girls as possible. The default Steam version is “censored” (uncensored patches are available) but this is still a game that you are going to likely need to play in Offline mode with the door closed. And you’re still probably going to feel a bit embarrassed.

That said? I found the actual game elements to be incredibly engaging. The main game component are the Dates you go on, which play out in a Match-3 game in the same vein as Bejeweled, Candy Crush, Puzzle & Dragons, etc. The differences are the sort of progression mechanics involved.

Each girl has their preferred Affection token and least preferred (e.g. Red vs Green, etc) which affects the score multiplier for when you match said tokens. Then you have Romance tokens which don’t grant scores when matched, but instead boost the overall score multiplier. Then there are Sentiment tokens which, again, don’t affect the overall score but give you resources to then utilize up to six different Date items, which are sort of power-ups you choose ahead of time. Then there are Joy tokens, which grant additional turns when matched. Finally, there are Broken Heart tokens, which reduce your current score by a percentage, making them an escalating threat as you near your goal.

HuniePop2.jpg

I played for the articles. I mean, Match-3. I played for the Match-3.

Oh, and you only have a limited number of moves to reach your goal. And matching 4-5 in a single move sometimes grants special Power multiplier tokens of that color. And you can upgrade Traits which generally improve the score multiplier of certain colors, or increase the limit of Passion levels, or increase the odds of Power tokens appearing.

Did I mention each successive Date has a higher score requirement to reach?

Successful Dates grants Munie, which you can spend on gifts, food, and drinks as you try to woo a girl. Successfully giving the girl the answers she wants to hear gives you Hunie, which is the upgrade currency. Giving the correct gifts to a girl also grants you a Date item, of which there are a wide variety that can change your general strategy. For example, some items increase the odds of a specific Affection token appearing, which is nice to swap in when Dating a girl who prefers that specific token. Other items transform all Broken Heart tokens into something good, or give you +3 Sentiment for every 4-5 of-a-kind match for the rest of the Date, and so on.

HuniePop3.jpg

Pretty much.

Outside of the game mechanics, I have to say that the writing and voice acting is pretty hilarious. Stereotypes abound, with the Indian yoga instructor, the tsundere, the girl next door, and what have you, but the dialog itself remains amusing throughout. If some of the responses seemed rote by the end, it was only because I realized I had played this game for 15+ hours and unlocked all the special characters. Without failing a single Date, mind you.

As to whether this game is worth it appearing in your Steam library… that still comes down to your own comfort level. The Match-3 and general progression component is actually very good, and absolutely could (and arguably probably should) stand on its own. The dating sim bits? Not so much. This is definitely a kind of “read Playboy for the articles” situation, just less socially acceptable.

But you know what? I both played it and wrote a review about it. So, you’ll probably be fine.

Shadows of Ridiculousness

Started Finished playing Shadows of Mordor a few weeks ago, and my experience for most of it has been compelling. The game’s design hits the sweet spot in a whole lot of categories.

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Brutally killing orcs = definite sweet spot.

For example, running around in stealth and brutally executing orcs makes you feel overpowered. Manually attacking and parrying even a half dozen orcs does not. And so stealth is highly encouraged. And yet it isn’t the end of the world if you get spotted, as outside of specific missions, you can always just run away. Or even just kill every witness and get back to skulking about.

One of the flops though, is the RPG-esque Nemesis system. Or rather, the RNG aspect of some of the combinations.

In a nutshell, the Nemesis system simulates the ascension and power struggles of an orc army as they vie for control and fill in new vacancies made by you stabbing the predecessors in the throat/blowing them up/getting them eaten by wildlife. This specific part is insanely cool – the jockeying around and combat promotions – and is one of those features you kinda wish were in every open-world game from now on.

The issue comes from how the Captains have a random assortment of Strengths, Weaknesses, and combat abilities. Again, this is cool. Except when it’s not.

Witness, Hûmgrat, the Kin-Slayer:

I originally wrote several paragraphs about this guy – having hitherto unsuccessfully taken him out for bullshit reasons¹ – but I’m going to let the video speak for itself. Start at 2:50 (of this 5 minute video) if you want to see the actual “fight.” And keep in mind this is pretty much the only way to take him out, sans getting lucky with fire pit placement/existence or coming back after unlocking Branding (mind-controlled Orcs bypass the usual immunities).

So… yeah. Beginning parts are very fun, and then later ones much less so. You end up either facing more Hûmgrat, or you face an Orc you can practically one-shot. While Hûmgrat left enough of a bad taste in my mouth to almost poison the entire experience, he was not fully successful. And so I would recommend this game to any LotR fans, Batman fans, and/or Assassin Creed fans. If you can dodge the bad RNG orc combinations, there is much fun to be had.

¹ Bullshit reasons usually being other Orc Captains “randomly” appearing in the middle of my 5+ minute stunlock.

GTA 5 Complete

I finished GTA 5 a few weeks ago now, and my experiences can be summed up with this:

The game overall was actually phenomenal, albeit strangely balanced. It has been ages since I played GTA 3 and Vice City, but I remember those games being centered on steady progression with gun unlocks and even vehicle selection. For example, you couldn’t find the fastest cars in GTA 3 until the first bridge gets repaired, which only occurs after finishing several story missions.

In GTA 5? Some of the best cars are practically outside your first house. Indeed, several more things appear to be cash-gated too – gun unlocks and such – but completing a successful heist towards the beginning of the game ended up giving my characters over a million dollars apiece. Body armor costs $2500? No problem. Pretty sure I went ahead and unlocked most of the guns right away too.

GTA5_2

The best of introductions.

One of the more consistent pieces of feedback I heard about GTA 5 going in was that nobody really liked Trevor as a character. Turns out Trevor is one of the more authentic characters in the game, IMO. Granted, he’s a batshit insane psychopath, but the body count of the other main characters are nearly as high, and yet they act like it is no big thing.

I did try out the GTA Online aspect for about a hot minute. One of the tutorial missions required me to go to a specific clothing shop that was currently being camped by a player with an attack helicopter though, so I Nope’d right out of that server. This aspect of GTA is apparently wildly profitable (to the tune of $500 million), but I have little desire to grind (or pay) my way to progression in this sort of game.

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Christ, the visuals are amazing.

The single-player portion of the game though? It was a blast to play through. The three-person narrative worked out well, the graphics were sublime and ran at a silky 60 FPS with a GTX 970 the majority of the time, and there were plenty of emergent shenanigans. I barely played GTA 4 or San Andreas, so it’s hard for me to say how much the formula has improved, but the game is quality regardless.

Review: Dying Light

Game: Dying Light
Recommended price: $10
Metacritic Score: 75
Completion Time: ~30 hours
Buy If You Like: Dead Island meets Mirror’s Edge, Parkour, Zombies

Environments that, for the most part, don't feel contrived.

Environments that, for the most part, don’t feel contrived.

Dying Light is a less gamey Dead Island meets Mirror’s Edge. In other words, it is a zombie game in which you spend less time killing zombies for XP and more time parkouring along the rooftops to avoid them… for XP. It’s a game of movement, momentum, and generally avoiding battles wherever you can. Or mowing through zombies if you feel like it. Either/or.

The premise of the game is that you are a lone GRE agent sent into a zombie quarantined zone in an effort to resolve a rogue agent situation before it gets (more) out of control. In the process, you help people, sometimes not help people, and otherwise play Dead Island again. By which I mean collect crafting material and blueprints so you can craft increasingly unlikely weapon mods to help you separate zombie heads from zombie shoulders. There aren’t zombie health bars or numbers popping up after each attack, but we all know that they’re there, right beneath the surface. Especially once your badass electric katana inexplicably no longer one-shots random Biters.

Indeed, if there was one element from Dying Light that I felt fell flat (beyond the ending), it was the actual crunchy gamey bits. I enjoyed how the Skill Tree system was segmented into independent categories – you level up Power by fighting, Agility by parkour, and they have their own trees – but the crafting part was straight lifted from Dead Island, and otherwise felt out of place. Why is this Chef Knife dealing more damage than a Fire Axe? Oh, right, because the Chef Knife is purple. That didn’t bother me in Dead Island because I saw a cascade of “150 damage” pop-ups after throwing a Molotov, but it’s damn weird here.

Also, I hope you like the Fallout 3/4/New Vegas lockpicking minigame, because you’ll be doing that approximately a million times. Luckily, it becomes increasingly not worth it.

Fortunately, this sort of thing rarely gets old.

Conversely, this sort of thing rarely gets old.

Mirror’s Edge is the comparison everyone makes to any game that features parkour, but I must say that Dying Light gets the feeling closer than most. A lot of the more interesting maneuvers are gated behind level unlocks – including basic stuff like sliding – but even from the start things feel real good as you scramble on rooftops and vehicles. Indeed, once you start unlocking the rest of the tree (along with the grappling hook), you’ll start to feel like part Neo, part goddamn Spiderman. Even after 30 hours, running at a dead (har, har) sprint and vaulting onto a rooftop from the shoulder of a zombie trying to grab you never gets old.

One of the biggest gimmicks of the game is the Day/Night cycle, where especially overpowered “Volatile” zombies comes out to play. What is so curious about this is how utterly optional it ends up being; every Safe House features a bed, which you can freely use to skip Night segments, even when it doesn’t make much sense (e.g. something bad is happening in the next 24 hours… or next month, if you just want to sleep a bunch). The game makes a token effort to get you to venture out at Night via sidequests, but for the most part I ignored it. At least, I did until I unlocked the Grappling Hook and the “Camouflage” skill, the latter of which in particular removes basically all danger from Night escapades.

Overall, I enjoyed my time with Dying Light. If you were someone who didn’t enjoy Dead Island, Dying Light is probably different enough to make it worth your time to try it out. Then again, since I’m one of those apparently crazy people who enjoyed Dead Island in the first place, it’s tough to be objective. All that I know is that it’s going to be difficult going back to any zombie game that doesn’t allow you to scale walls and Spiderman your way around town.

Or if I’m honest, any open-world game.

Review: Fallout 4

Game: Fallout 4
Recommended price: $25
Metacritic Score: 84
Completion Time: 22-100+ hours
Buy If You Like: Fallout 3, FPS Skyrim, Post-apocalypse recycling simulators

Not your father's wasteland.

Not your father’s wasteland.

After 95 hours of gameplay, I have come to one conclusion: Fallout 4 is one of the strangest games I have ever played. It is simultaneously brilliant and baffling; moving the franchise forward and pulling it back again; an unfinished and undocumented disaster packed with the most intricate of details.

Like I said: strange.

The main thing to understand right away about Fallout 4 is that it is almost a direct continuation of Fallout 3 (in terms of feel), and not Fallout: New Vegas. While many people say that New Vegas was the pinnacle of the (3D) series – and that may well be the case – it was also developed by an entirely different design team. Fallout 4 is a Bethesda game, not a Obsidian game, and so it has more in common with Skyrim than anything else.

From a gameplay perspective, Fallout 4 is the best that the series has ever been. The gunplay and FPS elements have been refined to the degree that it is now entirely possible to play the game without using the VATS system at all. Indeed, even when using VATS, time no longer freezes, but simply slows down, always keeping the player in the middle of the action. The addition of Legendary enemies (and their assorted loot) keeps enemy encounters relevant and exciting throughout the entire game. Many of the staple monsters in the game have received a conceptual facelift, such that Feral Ghouls, Deathclaws, and even the Sentry Bot feel both “new” and like they should have been that way all along.

Textless stories.

Textless stories.

Then there is the crafting. Oh, the crafting. Every single piece of post-apocalyptic debris is now salvageable into crafting components to support the Settlement-building part of the game, or the gun modding. This one “small” change completely shifts one’s exploration perspective, as now suddenly all the empty rooms you might encounter are full of the priceless treasures that are typewriters, office fans, and aluminum cans. Indeed, this might almost work too well, as it is easy to get distracted with salvaging these things rather than seeking out other, more hidden loot.

By the way, let me just say that Bethesda seriously nailed the ambiance and setting in general. Boston felt like a real (ruined) city, and not just a series of loading screens and skyboxes. Even the surrounding cities and suburbs felt like actual towns. Putting aside their gameplay elements, the addition of Settlements really went a long way in making the wasteland feel populated by real people, rather than simply being trash heaps from which raiders and enemies spawn.

That said… a lot of the rest of the game just feels off.

The Lockpicking and Hacking minigames are back, directly lifted from their original incarnations, unexplained in any real way in-game. Speaking of unexplained, the Settlement system has one of the worst UIs I have ever seen in a videogame. The Perk system overhaul is similarly ugly as sin, giving the illusion of depth but none of the functionality. Perhaps the Skill point system wasn’t all that much better, but at least each level felt like it had tangible progress towards a goal.

Some lines are okay.

Some lines are okay.

The voice-acting is extremely good, but the dialog itself (and the choices given) all seem rather bad. Indeed, this was the first Fallout game I have played in which the main story quest felt inconsequential, incomplete. Several times I had to look up what the main quest even was, as the “find your son” narrative receded into the background radiation of the wasteland.

All told, I played Fallout 4 for 95 hours and still ended up skipping a tremendous amount of the game. In all that time, I never got around to doing any quests for the Brotherhood of Steel, or visiting Salem, or even really poking around the bottom-right part of the map. There is so much more that can be done… and I’m unlikely to muster the drive to see it through. Does this indicate the game is deficient in some (many) ways? Perhaps. On the other hand, what right do I really have to complain about a game that generated 95 hours of entertainment?

The bottom line is that Fallout 4 is a game worth playing, whether you are a fan of the series or if this is your first Fallout title. I don’t think Fallout 4 is possible to become anyone’s favorite game, but there is more here than in 99% of the other games you could be playing.

Review: The Witcher 3

Game: The Witcher 3
Recommended price: $15
Metacritic Score: 94
Completion Time: ~68 hours
Buy If You Like: Medieval fantasy immersion, witty dialog, terrible game design

Things will get muddled all right.

Things will get muddled all right.

Having finally seen the ending credits after 68 hours of gameplay, I can now officially conclude that the Witcher 3 (TW3) is the worst best game I have played. That is not a typo. The typo is TW3 receiving a 94 Metacritic rating from the gaming press that spends more time praising TW3’s visual novel bits than the actual gaming bits – which are not only bad, but actively depress the few parts of TW3’s muted brilliance.

If I had to point to one particular quality that the Witcher series as a whole has nailed down better than any other game, it would be Immersion. This series has always excelled in conjuring a dark (but not grimdark) medieval fantasy zeitgeist, and it is as true in TW3 as the others. Isolated villages feel isolated; muck-covered peasants cough with believable phlegm; people are petty, cross, and rather accustomed to living as though they could be killed by monsters at any moment.

In a word, TW3 is authentic.

This authenticity more or less carries over to the questing elements of the game. Gone are the “kill 20 drowners” garbage quests from TW2. Indeed, there is a developer interview floating around out there that states the team was basically tasked with coming up with quest ideas first, before anything else. This ends up making them feel more like distinct, mini-novellas than the side quests one might be accustomed to in other RPGs.

This distinctiveness has a double-edge however, and the full weight of all the other poorly designed systems causes the blade to backbite deep.

Psst... he's talking about this sword.

Psst… he’s talking about this sword.

For example, the overarching plot and impetus to action in TW3 is for Geralt to find Ciri before the Wild Hunt does so. As you might imagine, Ciri and the Wild Hunt always feel one step ahead of you – it would be a rather odd game indeed if she was found in the first place you looked. But the issue is that in your search for Ciri, the people with the information you need always have problems of their own… problems that you must solve for them before they divulge that Ciri has been gone for weeks. And those problems have sub-problems, sometimes nested four-deep. And in the course of solving those nested problems, you will encounter hundreds of entirely meaty side quests that have nothing to do with Ciri at all.

In any normal game, the Take Your Time trope that this turns into would be just whatever. But TW3 is not “just whatever,” it is a game that has to leverage its immersion for full effect – an effect that evaporates into the mists once you realize that you just spent 20 hours doing random shit that doesn’t matter in finding Ciri. Why create this huge open-world map to explore when the central plot is a supposed race against time? When you stop taking the central plot seriously, even the “meaningful” side-quests start sounding hollow; the writing tries to make you feel something about the world, while cheapening it at the same time by simply existing.

Every other thing about the game just gets worse from that baseline.

I could spend hours on how poorly designed everything is about TW3’s core systems – and who knows, I still might – but I feel the root revolves around the gutted crafting system. In prior titles, you collected all the things because you needed all the things to keep stocked on potions, oils, bombs, and so on. In TW3, you only have to craft a given item once, to essentially unlock unlimited amounts of them; crafting Swallow (the ever-useful health regen potion) might only give you 3/3 uses, but an hour meditating restocks all consumables. This has tremendous cascade effect on the rest of the game systems.

Using Swallow as an example again, the recipe calls for one Dwarven Stout, one Drowner Brain, and five Celadine (a plant). Craft it once, and you’ll have unlimited Swallow potions. There are upgrades to potions and bombs and such, but… do you know how much Celadine you’re going to ever need? Thirty (30). That’s enough plant material to craft every single thing in TW3 that requires Celadine. Drowner Brain? Six (6). Do you have any idea how many Drowner brains you’re going to accumulate throughout TW3? A fucking million. And every one of them after the first six are going to be useless.

Okay, fine, it's a damn pretty game.

Okay, fine, it’s a damn pretty game.

As you might imagine, needing only a tiny fraction of items you loot to gain immense power essentially makes looting pointless. At least, if not for the fact that TW3 also has random loot. Not just random loot, but unbounded random loot, such that you can find a level 20+ sword recipe in a burlap sack at level 3. Or never find it at all anywhere. There are some sanity checks involved regarding actual gear, but ingredients are all over the place.

What gets me the most is how much this affected my own sense of immersion. There were a lot of things wrong with the first Witcher game, but the convoluted Alchemy system felt right in the setting. You were in a dirty medieval world, crushing flower petals to combine various elements together to create a potion that was pure poison to a normal, non-mutated man. You had to keep collecting herbs and monster organs because otherwise you wouldn’t be powerful enough to survive the next encounter. That kind of system has a positive feedback loop with immersion. The one in TW3? It is a negative feedback loop. One and done, everything else is trash.

Then there is the combat itself, which is similarly streamlined dumbed-down. Left-click to light attack, Shift-left-click for strong attack, right-click to parry, Alt to half-dodge and Spacebar to full dodge. Use Signs and Bombs and whatever as you need them. At the 3rd-highest difficulty, combat was always a snooze-fest even if I died; a level 12 Drowner took out my level 22 Witcher in 5-6 hits because I got too lazy to time Alt correctly. Having to pay attention is usually a hallmark of an engaging, difficult combat system, but it simply isn’t in TW3’s case. It is more that actually paying attention and being careful makes TW3 combat a joke; it is only hard precisely when you’re trying to speed through it because you want to be done.

Don’t get me started on the talent trees and Rune systems. They’re bad, whoever designed them is bad, and every single person who allowed them to occur should feel bad. Seriously, after you spend 20 talent points in the Signs tree, the entire 3rd row of talents you unlock is… +5% Sign Intensity for a given Sign. The first two rows granted new abilities and effects to your normal Signs and you follow-up with +5% to an incomprehensible stat? And that’s exactly what all those precious Rune slots in weapons and armor are: +2% chance to stun, +3% Igni Intensity, and similar garbage. It’s like the designers aren’t even trying.

At the end of the day, the people out there praising this game are praising the Telltale Presents: the Witcher 3 story. From a game mechanics standpoint, this is one of the worst designed games I have played. It’s not clunky, it just works against all of the strengths that the game otherwise brings to the table. In other words, the worst best game I have ever played.

Anime Review: My Little Monster, Your Lie in April, Plastic Memories

My Little Monster

Episodes: 1-13
Genre: High School, Romance, Comedy

MyLittleMonster_04

My Little Monster is a charming and sometimes ridiculous romantic high school comedy focusing on the evolving relationship between Mizutani Shizuku, a girl who wants nothing more than to study and be alone, and Yoshida Haru, the namesake “monster” who ends up turning her peaceful life upside down. Both social outcasts, once Haru encounters Shizuku and immediately declares his love, Shizuku is left trying to salvage her grades and worldview from a boy who doesn’t even really seem to know what love is.

There isn’t much else I can say about this anime other than I enjoyed it. The show was entertaining to watch and still relatively satisfying even though it never really comes to a cathartic conclusion.

Your Lie in April

Episodes: 1-22
Genre: Drama, Romance, Junior High, Music

YourLieinApril1

Your Lie in April is… well, as beautiful as it is devastating.

It follows the life of Arima Kousei, a Junior High school piano prodigy who has been living life in monotone. Following the death of his abusive, piano-instructing mother, Kousei can no longer hear the notes he plays, and thus has abandoned the craft for the past two years. Forcibly introduced to Miyazono Kaori one evening during a friend’s double-date, the boisterous and free-spirited Kaori begins to reignites his world with color.

Almost every single element of this anime is brilliant and well-executed. The art direction is amazing, including how the designers incorporated Kousei’s monotone worldview into the actual color-scheme, while gradually having Kaori’s vibrantness bleed through. Then there’s the music, which forms the basis around which the plot pivots. While I already liked some classical piano pieces, in the context of this show I began to appreciate them on a higher level. Then there is the devastating emotional payload, which reminds me of why I watch these sort of things in the first place: to feel something. And it succeeds in doing so.

In short, Your Lie in April has, to my own surprise even, become one of the best anime I have ever watched. It’s sad, it’s beautiful, it’s fantastic.

Plastic Memories

Episodes: 1-13
Genre: Sci-Fi, Drama, Devastating Emotional Payloads

PlasticMemories1

Plastic Memories is a pseudo-Sci-Fi anime that follows the life of Tsukasa Mizugaki as he joins the Terminal Service Department of SAI Corp, and attempts to get along with his partner Isla. This particular department is responsible for the removal of the family androids who are approaching the end of their seven-year lifespans. What follows in this short, half-season anime is a series of devastating emotional payloads that, despite seeing them coming from a mile away, you nevertheless get destroyed by. Or maybe that was just me.

The closest analog to this anime would be Anohana: the Flower We Saw that Day, in the sense that the premise itself is sad, but you continue to get absorbed by the narrative and how exactly things will play out. You see the knife coming, but you still yearn to feel it twist. And in that regard, Plastic Memories does so with particular vigor. In spite of this, I came away from this catharsis with a greater appreciation of the relationships one can form, even if they prove to be temporary.

After all, that is exactly what everything is.

Anime Reviews: Mitsudome, Cross Game, SCHOOL-LIVE!

Mitsudomoe

Episodes: 1-13 (S1), 1-8 (S2)
Genre: Comedy, Slice of Life

Mistudomoe_02

Mitsudomoe is a risque comedy slice-of-life that ends up a combination of Azumanga Daioh and Kodomo no Jikan. It mostly follows the misadventures of the Marui triplets as they (intentionally or not) torment their 6th grade teacher and classmates with rampant misunderstandings, usually of a suggestive nature. For example, in an early episode they end up officially naming the class hamster… Nipples. Hilarity ensures.

In truth, how much of the humor actually gets a reaction out of you will depend on your willingness to let the show do what it does. I compared the show to Azumanga Daioh and Kodomo no Jikan, but both of those shows are far, far superior to Mitsudomoe as they have a sense of progression and deeper meaning underlying the jokes. Mitsudomoe? It’s basic, frivolous comedy. Don’t get me wrong, as I found the show quite funny. But if you aren’t looking for 24 minutes of 6th grade humor and panty jokes, you can keep on looking elsewhere.

For the record, there is a 2nd 8-episode season of this show, but it really felt like the entire second season consisted of jokes cut from season 1 for not being funny enough. Unless you are some kind of masochistic completionist (like I can sometimes be), feel free to skip it.

Cross Game

Episodes: 1-50
Genre: Sports, High School, Drama

CrossGame_1

Cross Game is an old-school-looking, baseball-themed anime centered around Ko Kitamura, the Tsukishima sisters who live nearby, and the struggle of growing up with loss.

In truth, it is difficult for me to really summarize Cross Game, for one specific reason: the anime is 50 episodes long. This is not to suggest that the show was boring or had any particular amount of filler – indeed, I sat down and watched 20 episodes in a row one evening – but rather its ultimate theme takes form over such a distance as to make the thematic transition gradual. Which, in a way, is noteworthy on its own; this is an anime of small gestures, long silences, poignant looks, and accumulated experiences. The character progression feels completely natural, and there is ample time to grow acquainted with just about every character.

At the same time, I could not help but feel like the anime would have been more impactful had it been, say, 26 episodes. Or even less. Indeed, what I keep circling back on in my head is how shows like Your Lie in April or Plastic Memories or Anahona can in 13 episodes deliver an emotional payload on a greater scale than Cross Game does in 50. The relationships in Cross Game are “thicker” with the sheer volume of experiences, but… I dunno.

Ultimately, whether Cross Game is worth your time is going to need to be a call you make yourself. You do not need to be a baseball fan to watch the show (I’m not into sports), but you do need to be prepared to buckle down for the long haul. It will be a satisfying journey if you aren’t in a hurry.

SCHOOL-LIVE!

Episodes: 1-12
Genre: High School, Drama, [spoilers]

School-Live_1

Holy shit, you guys.

I almost don’t want to write a review for this anime at all, as the best way to watch it is to go in completely blind, as I did. So this will be your first chance to stop reading and go watch it yourself without getting spoiled in any way.

…Continue?

The basic premise of School-Live is that a group of four high school girls have started a club with their teacher adviser called the School Life Club. In this club, the rules are that they are not allowed to leave the school building, and otherwise have to stay on school grounds. The anime follows their everyday life in this club, the various activities they get into, and the struggles they have with classmates, and adapting to living in the school building.

Last chance to stop.

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The huge, mind-blowing juxtaposition this show presents is that all of this occurs after the zombie apocalypse. I literally almost turned the show off before the end of the first episode, as it seemed just another goofy high school comedy. As it turns out, the “narrator” of that first episode, Yuki Takeya, has completely blocked out the mental trauma of seeing everyone she liked die during the fall of the city, and thus sees everything as “normal.” So Yuki goes to class and sees a normal classroom, whereas in reality it is an empty room littered with blood, broken glass, and other debris.

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And the most amazing thing about School-Live! is how it plays all this straight. These are not girls with magical powers, unlimited ammo, or even particularly strong constitutions. The only real weapon they have is a shovel, and only one of them is strong enough to even use it. They are simply trying to survive on the upper floors of their school, while Yuki inadvertently keeps their spirits up by suggesting club activities as if everything was fine. And in so doing so… it somehow is.

As stated the juxtaposition is the best part of School-Live! After the first episode reveal, the title sequence changes to reflect reality (and continues to change as a foreshadowing mechanism), but the cute anime style stays the same. By “cute” I do not mean that School-Live! avoids sucker-punching you in the throat on occasion (especially towards the end), but rather the style remains consistent throughout. These characters could be air-dropped, personalities and all, into any other anime and perfectly fit in. But they still work beautifully and devastatingly here as well.

In short, this show is worth your time. It might not change your life, but it will make you feel something.

Anime Reviews: Steins;Gate, Toradora!

Steins;Gate

Episodes: 1-24
Genre: Sci-Fi, Near Future, Drama

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Steins;Gate is a gripping, emotional drama that also reminds me of why I hate time travel as a narrative mechanic so much. The anime follows the eccentric teenage “mad scientist” Rintaro Okabe and his two friends/Lab Members as they spend their days fighting the “Organization” and otherwise goofing around with gadgets. After going to a conference on Time Travel, Okabe encounters a woman stabbed and lying in a pool of blood. Shaken, he texts his friend about the incident while the Phone Microwave gadget was running… and his text arrives 5 days in the past, changing the future.

What is brilliant about this anime is exactly what I dislike about the conceptual narrative. The first half of the anime explores the nature and limitations of the “D-Mail” system – the ability to send a phone text to someone in the past – and each successful D-Mail permanently changes the world and resets everyone’s memories to match it… other than Okabe, who remembers everything. Later on, the anime darkens considerably once Okabe realizes the butterfly effects of all these changes and the seemingly inevitable future it portends. And that is the rub. Each time the world is changed, everything that happened previously ceases to be. Okabe (and you) remember that other world, but it’s irrelevant in a practical sense, erasing huge swaths of continuity and character development.

Make no mistake, Steins;Gate is a superb, shocking, draining anime and by far the best version of Time Travel I have encountered in fiction. I still hate Time Travel as a narrative mechanic though, and my attachment to the characters of Steins;Gate and their sacrifices (which are erased) only deepens my antipathy for it.

But if you have no issue with Time Travel? You should see this anime yesterday.

Toradora!

Episodes: 1-25
Genre: High school romantic comedy

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In a nutshell, Toradora is a high school romantic comedy with enough dramatic elements and interesting characters to set it apart from what otherwise amounts to another entry in the busiest anime genre of all time. The show follows Ryuji, a high schooler who looks like a delinquent but is actually fairly sensitive and domestic, and his new neighbor Taiga, the short “palm-top tiger” with an even shorter temper. Once the two of them realize that they have crushes on the other’s best friend, they set differences aside while trying to set the other up with their crush. As you might expect, misadventures and misunderstandings abound.

Overall, I really enjoyed Toradora to the tune of crushing all 25 episodes across two days. As mentioned, there is enough drama and emotional scenes to set the anime apart from its peers, if the quirky characters did not do so already. And most importantly? There is actually catharsis by the end; this is no harem comedy in which nothing is resolved by the final credits.

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