Monday, November 19, 2012

Assassin's Creed III Review

The Historical/Fantasy Action-Adventure series continues.  How does it fare?

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Darksiders 2

Just posted a review over this Fantasy-esque game on the site I recently started working for.  Check it out please!

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Movie Review: The Hunger Games

I don't typically watch movies based on novels without reading the novel first, but upon hearing The Hunger Games described as a shameless ripoff of Battle Royale, I decided to go ahead and check it out, assuming the book wouldn't be worth my time.  I came out with mixed feelings, as even though the obvious derivations were aggravating, the movie was able to hold my attention throughout.

The setting of The Hunger Games is that of a dystopian society in which many less civilized "districts" surround one powerful city.  For a past rebellion against the rule of central city, each of the smaller surrounding districts must send two children (one male, one female) to battle to the death in a televised event.  While author Suzanne Collins claims to have never even heard of Battle Royale, it's hard to ignore the clear similarities.  Children living under an absolutist government are forced to fight to the death in both works.  But, regardless, Battle Royale wasn't the first story that regularly popped into my mind.

Actually, it was Shirley Jackson's The Lottery that was at the forefront of my mind while watching this movie.  The setting at the beginning of a small, backwoods town is very similar, as are the background stories of both (the people in The Lottery tell of other towns in their world that are trying to abandon their death-event).  And of course, the lottery that is used to determine which children will be chosen for The Hunger Games is basically the same thing.  There are definitely references to other works as well, one line in particular will scream of The Most Dangerous Game, but The Lottery is the one that wouldn't leave my mind.

But once we get past these annoyances, it's a pretty good movie.  The shaky camera is an unnecessary problem for a third of the movie, but fits well once the action actually begins.  But if you're prone to motion sickness, you might want to watch out.  Technically, there's a lot of good here though.  The lighting effects are excellent, and the producers did an excellent with the setting.  The town of heroine Katniss Everdeen is horribly squalid, and the people of the villages are similarly dirty and depraved.  In general, there's a lot of good to be said about the film's mise en scène, with the acting matching up superbly.  While I don't typically like emotionless characters, it's hard not to empathize with the plight of Katniss, and Jennifer Lawrence portrays her beautifully.  That's not to take anything away from the rest of the cast; the movie is wonderfully acted throughout.

It's hard to call The Hunger Games anything but addicting, just like Battle Royale and The Lottery before it.  The movie starts off a bit slow and takes a while to get to the action, but the character development in between is worth the wait, and there are certainly plenty of moments of interest before the violence begins.  The battle itself has a few issues.  When reading The Most Dangerous Game, it's hard not to be impressed with the many intelligent ways in which the two characters kill each other, but much of that is cut out in The Hunger Games as many fighters die because of variables thrown in by the people who run the games, which range from forest fires to deliveries of aid.  While I disliked this greatly, it's still one hell of a fun movie.  Even if the ending is rather predictable and feels like the author was too scared to pull of a The Lottery-type gut-wrencher, my eyes were glued to the screen from the beginning.  That alone makes me recommend this movie (and, I suppose, the book) to anyone with a sense of adventure.  

Conclusion: 3/5 - The Hunger Games is fun and addicting, though it's very derivative of other famous works.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Dust of Dreams

Another deep, epic tale in this ambitious series.

Steven Erikson's latest tale starts off as you would expect, with a prologue that jumps around and illustrates what you're about to dive into.  This includes children suffering in the aftermath of an unexplained crises, which is an incredible hook for the rest of the story.  Chapter one starts frantically, which is a bit of a surprise, but soon the story cools down and sets up the greater conflict with important meetings, maneuvers, and discoveries.  

For the most part, Dust of Dream is slower than many books in the series.  Including bit slower than its immediate predecessor, Toll the Hounds.  Without a doubt, it's because Dust of Dreams is setting up an explosion of a finale, and that build-up is unsurprisingly slower than the conclusion.  But by no means is Dust of Dreams a bad book.  It still contains the mature themes, epic battles, and interesting political maneuvers as the rest of The Malazan Book of the Fallen series.  While the build-up is slow, there are also some very interesting plot twists that answer the big questions left behind by Reaper's Gale.

And of course, the conclusion is every bit as good as could be anticipated.  An epic battle and some stirring revelations regarding the mysterious inhabitants of another continent will keep you up at night to finish the last few hundred pages of this mammoth book.  It's still incredible how ambitious this series is, and the final battle of Dust of Dreams is one of the most brutal Fantasy battles I've ever read.  In the face of devastating magics and monstrous creatures, how can human soldiers stand a chance?  Steven Erikson is simply a master of this genre.  

It's unfortunate that Dust of Dreams is the first book in the series to end on a cliffhanger, but regardless of negative opinions of it in this regard, it's still an absolute must-read, especially for Fantasy fans that love the new wave of dark, gritty epics.  Book 10, The Crippled God, is slated for a paperback release in the coming month, and I personally can't wait to witness the conclusion of one of my favorite Fantasy series ever: The Malazan Book of the Fallen.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

A Look Back at The Malazan Book of the Fallen

Leading the charge of dark, gritty fantasy along with Glen Cook and George RR Martin.

Finally, I'm going to discuss an actual fantasy book series.  And man, this is a good one.  Before I read Gardens of the Moon, I had never experienced one of the truly dark fantasy novels (most people credit Glen Cook and his The Black Company as the catalyst of this new wave of fantasy).  I was missing out.

While you can make the claim that series like The Wheel of Time and The Lord of the Rings have their share of dark moments, they're easily accessible and enjoyable to younger audiences.  The Malazan Book of the Fallen, along with The Black Company and A Song of Ice and Fire, are strictly adults-only.  They delve into the brutal realities of life and human nature, from vivid descriptions of violence to young children forced into sexual situations, from rape to the agonizing lives of slaves and common people displaced by war.  It's unlikely that someone who isn't old enough to have experienced the world for themselves will understand this series and empathize with the masses of people trapped in the most squalid of conditions.

It's obvious from the very beginning that The Malazan Book of the Fallen isn't your typical fantasy.  While Gardens of the Moon is widely considered the weakest book in the series (it's also the shortest), it still provides us with deep political intrigue, epic battles, and a massive storyline loaded with interesting characters.  Thousands upon thousands of people are slaughtered within the first one hundred pages of this book.  It's a hook unlike any other, and it's very likely you'll be instantly addicted.  Steven Erikson is almost unique in that he doesn't need a big buildup before the action; he's not afraid to throw you right into the middle of the action, often with little background information, forcing you to piece together what's going on for yourself.  While this can make the early books a struggle, stick with it and you'll experience fantasy like you've never read it before.

If you can make it to book 2, Deadhouse Gates, you're probably not going to turn back.  Almost the entire story is one enormous battle, only occasionally interrupted by some adventuring.  It's easily one of the most epic fantasy books ever created.  Still confusing, perhaps, but I promise you'll have a hard time putting it down.  At this point, you'll also realize just how massive this series is in scope.  The series takes place over the span of several huge continents, with hundreds of characters for their own unique cause.  You won't find a bigger series than The Malazan Book of the Fallen.

As great as Deadhouse Gates is, I thought Memories of Ice actually trumped it.  The interweaving plot-lines are better than ever, the battles somehow more epic, and the pace never dropping despite being a longer book.  Memories of Ice is my favorite book in the series and quite possibly the greatest fantasy book ever written.  But it doesn't really go downhill from there, as I've currently read through book 9, Dust of Dreams.  They're all incredible for the same reasons mentioned above, and while Midnight Tides in particular gets slow, there are few series that exude that feeling of "epicness" like The Malazan.  Toll the Hounds got a fuzzy reception from fans, but I personally found the politics in it to be more interesting than any other fantasy book I've read.  The ending is also heart-wrenching, and it's not a cliffhanger like in Dust of Dreams. 

It's been too long for me to give a detailed review of each of these books (except Dust of Dreams, which is coming up), but the bottom line is that you need to read this series.  It's definitely one of the top 3 fantasy series out there.  When The Crippled God comes out in paperback (soon), I'll get right on that one as well, along with the Esslemont novels. 

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Game Review: The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword

 The newest game in the legendary series.

Apprehension filled me as I pulled out the disk and inserted Skyward Sword for the first time. It's not that I was scared to play the next saga in this great series, but that, like Twilight Princess, it wouldn't completely meet my lofty expectations. The series, especially with the DS Zelda games, had been turning in a direction that I did not like, and this had me worried that such a great series might finally be leaving me after all these years. Nintendo promised a completely revamped experience, however; one that even longtime fans had never seen. And, in many ways, that is exactly what they did. But before we go too crazy into all the changes implemented in this game, it's still obvious that it's Zelda. Skyward Sword is not such a complete overhaul so as to make it anywhere near unrecognizable. It still holds many similarities to The Legend of Zelda of old. But it has its share of big changes, for the good and the bad. And while some aspects of Skyward Sword are immensely entertaining, some changes indeed fall short of expectations. It might not be perfect, but Skyward Sword is a great adventure that sends off the Wii on a positive note.

The game opens in Skyloft with Link and Zelda as best friends in Skyloft, the floating world housing the majority of humankind in this pre-Hyrule era. Link must participate in a race that will allow him special moment with Zelda if he is victorious, and both characters do everything in their power to make sure that happens. They're both students at the Knight Academy, a school drama setting that has been heavily popularized in other franchises over the last two decades. The beginning is very much a tutorial for the rest of the game, similar to the farm setting of Twilight Princess. Therefore, you might be similarly frustrated with the first five or so hours of Skyward Sword if you found Twilight Princess' opening to be tedious. As would be expected, it's very easy to progress at this point, you'll get an introduction to the all of the gameplay mechanics, and the story moves at a turtle's pace. But even though the school drama setting is predictably lacking and there isn't much storytelling throughout the game, longtime Zelda fans will have many gems thrown their way before it's all over. For Skyward Sword is a prequel to the rest of the series and the latter quarter of the game explains much of the history behind the franchise, something that is very appreciable to those of us who have been with the franchise for many years.

Flying is the method of transportation in Skyward Sword.

Link's first foray into Skyward Sword's method of transportation, flying, occurs at the beginning of the game as the competition gets ready to begin. While it's hard to say that this is a superior traveling mechanism as compared to Epona and vast landscape of Hyrule, it's definitely an exhilarating experience. The controls are easy to get used to, and it won't be long before you'll have Link flying at ridiculous speeds from one destination to the next. The problem, however, lies with how sparse the territories are in the sky, which is the only place where you can truly free-roam to begin with. There are a lot of scattered islands, in which you can find treasure chests that you've activated in the ground world, but are otherwise useless. It's pretty much just Skyloft and a handful of other islands to explore and enjoy, and you otherwise get no open exploration. The ground world, pre-Hyrule, is unlike anything you've seen in a Zelda before, for good and bad. There are puzzles and enemies throughout, so you rarely have a dull moment. Even the backtracking you do will always see you with something to do. The problem is that it's incredibly linear. No more open fields of Hyrule to adventure and find the infinite secrets. The lands below are straightforward and always force you in one direction if you want to advance. While this is a direct response to the open and empty world of Twilight Princess, it's hard to forgive the lack of one of Zelda's key elements: that feeling of freedom and openness that few other franchises have ever achieved.

While the ground world itself is full of puzzles and enemies to hinder your progression, that doesn't mean there was any less effort put in the creation of numerous dungeons, some of which are basically extensions of the overworld while others are more traditional. You move through these dungeons in the same manner as you always have, defeating enemies, solving puzzles, and exploring every niche to find keys, items, and whatever you need to progress. The key annoyance here is that the game is overly helpful in almost every room you step foot in, and this is despite there not being any difficult puzzles in this game to begin with. The game always spotlights anything that might perhaps be a potential hurdle, so it's very hard to ever get stuck for too long in these dungeons. The dungeon design is otherwise excellent, but these are the easiest puzzles a Zelda has seen in a long time, and it's hard not to feel disappointed in that regard. The game's insistence on telling you unnecessary and unwanted information oozes into other portions of the game as well. If you catch a bug or pick up a non-battle item for the first time after turning on the game for a play session, it always brings up a menu showing you what you received. If your hearts are running low or your batteries are nearing depletion, this game's companion, Fi, buzzes an annoying sound until you call on her and hear her worthless advice about your problem. These moments are not only aggravating, but turn Fi into one of the most annoying companion characters the franchise has seen. On top of that, Nintendo continues to force fetch quests that serve as little more than filler in the game, and are really dull to boot. Cutting out a few of these jaded quests would go a long way in helping the experience, and this is a problem the series has had since The Wind Waker.

The intuitive combat system makes sword-fighting more life-like than ever.

If the puzzles in this game are too easy, Nintendo tries mightily hard to balance this with more difficult combat. This time around, unlike Twilight Princess, the motion controls don't feel tacked on. In fact, timing and precision are paramount if you don't want to see the game over screen constantly. The Wiimotion Plus allows for sword strikes that follow your Wiimote swings directly, meaning that the sword feels like an extension of your arm, allowing for immersive battles. Combat almost feels like a puzzle itself, with Link needing to utilize horizontal, vertical, and diagonal swings along with thrusts and Nunchuk-controlled shield bashes to defeat his foes. This can take some time getting used to, but in the end it's well worth it as Skyward Sword provides some of the most exciting combat in Zelda history. Exciting doesn't necessarily mean perfect, however, as hiccups aren't uncommon, which can be a pain as one mistake can sometimes be the difference between life and death. It's also worth noting that you can no longer swing while running, which is unfortunately noticeable. After your sword and shield, Skyward Sword provides a plethora of other interesting items, useful for varying instances of combat and puzzle-solving. There's the whip, which can be worked with a flick of the wrist, used for swinging across gaps and pulling certain enemies towards you among other things. Then there's both a slingshot and a bow, which are both utilized by pointing at the screen towards your target. And of course, many other items join the aforementioned, all of which use the Wii's motion controls to their fullest potential. The only problem arises as the game constantly recalibrates the pointer settings to help you aim no matter what physical position you're taking while playing the game. To make things short, I wish they would've just forced you to point at the screen at all times. As it is now, fast-paced aiming gets quite awry at times.

Even though the controls present untimely problems, that's not the reason the combat can get difficult. Some enemies not only present puzzle-like challenges as far as the way you need to swing, but later enemies are very quick and can counter you on a dime. But the small fries have nothing on the bosses. The opening boss in Skyward Sword is by far the most difficult this franchise has ever seen, and if you don't have the controls down or go in greatly underestimating him, Link will be eating dirt at least a time or two. Many of the bosses immediately after the first are much easier, but unlike in The Wind Waker and Twilight Princess, almost all of them present, at the very least, a threat. It gets very rough near the end as well, as unprepared adventurers might see themselves pummeled in ways no Zelda game has been able to manage in many years. But this isn't a bad thing; for the first time in quite a while, it actually feels like an accomplishment to run your sword through some of these monstrous bosses. To make matters tougher, enemies can destroy your shield. While the shield isn't necessary and actually not needed at all through most of the game, it can be useful later on, and there aren't many worse feelings that seeing it destroyed as a huge boss bears down on you. If you need even more of a challenge, then Nintendo has even added a Hero Mode and a Boss Rush Mode to satiate you in that regard. I still wish they would get on the ball as far as online leaderboards would go for things like Boss Rush Mode high scores, but it doesn't take away from the thrill of that aspect of the game.

The Wii isn't the strongest system, but Skyward Sword has some beautiful environments.

Other welcome additions include the item upgrading system, the variety of useful items to purchase, the stamina meter, and the new item selection interface. For the first time in a long time, rupees are highly valuable. From buying additional (and expensive) slots for your adventure pouch to buying upgrades for your items, there are many, many uses for this game's currency. To help you out, Nintendo has added a large variety of side quests, mini-games, and bug-catching to help you rake in the cash. This adds a good distraction to the main quest, though some of the side quests get tedious. Along with rupees, you can find many different items out in the open and on defeated enemies that you can collect, and these are the items you use to upgrade your weapons. Almost everything can be upgraded (so long as you have the parts and some money), and it's an intriguing feature that greatly helps you on your campaign. To pull out your items, you hit the item menu and point at the one you want to use. To use a potion, simply press A and drink. You can also open up your adventure pouch, point at the potion you want to drink (if you've already used one in the current battle) and press A again to drink that one. This allows for non-stop action and even more immersion, as it's not like a real enemy would give you time to heal yourself before continuing to maul you. And then there's the new stamina bar, which determines how long Link can climb, sprint, and use power attacks. This adds more strategy to some of the fights, and Link being able to sprint is a huge relief as you backtrack some of the more lengthy areas.

While many players might not appreciate the colorful graphics, I thought they fit in wonderfully considering the Wii's graphical limitations. Everything is very colorful and vivid, and this often masks the many areas of the game lacking textures. Nintendo also did an excellent job of making most of the characters, bosses, buildings, and enemies as smooth as possible, though some areas do contain noticeable jagged edges. Skyward Sword has some of the best character models the Wii system has ever produced, and let's not forget the game's ability to hold frantic action with many enemies on-screen without any slow-down. Some of the vast views you can behold are grand, and while they're often blurry, some of these views look like true impressionist art and are better than almost every sight in Twilight Princess. With some surprisingly good lighting effects and solid draw distance, Skyward Sword is one of the best looking games on the Wii. And this goes for sound as well as graphics. Skyward Sword possesses an enchanting orchestrated soundtrack with both new and familiar tunes. The soundtrack blends magnificently with the environments, adding extra charm to the adventure. Music is once again a key element to the game, and playing Zelda's harp with your Wiimote makes for some of the game's most remarkable moments. In contrast to the music is Nintendo's continued stubbornness as far as voice-acting is concerned, and none (outside of the occasional "Hey!") is present. It's still tough to get completely immersed in a game these days when I see lips move but no voice is emitted, but it's certainly not a killing blow to the game by any means. Instead, there are many grunts, groans, and other such utterances, but that's not really the same. The sound effects are otherwise excellent, with meticulous effort put into atmospheric sounds such as birds chirping, the wind blowing, and water running. The sound and music coalesce to create an entirely convincing and even powerful atmosphere that is really only missing one previously mentioned element: the freedom of previous games in the series.

Zelda is once again the sweet character we loved from Ocarina of Time.

Skyward Sword houses a closet of mixed reactions, the majority of them ultimately positive in the end. Before you're finished, you'll find some of the most beautiful moments the franchise has ever gifted us, but you'll also discover some of the dullest. And it's this inconsistency that inevitably keeps the game from reaching its fullest potential, other reasons aside. The combat, while not perfect, is outstanding, and even longtime fans will be forced to admit that Skyward Sword has some of the most entertaining and challenging boss battles of the franchise, the best since the series moved to the 3rd dimension. But the dungeons are too simple and almost balance out the difficulty of the combat, once again illuminating the inconsistency so rife within the game. The graphics are beautiful, the soundtrack stunning, and there is enough content for hours and hours of playability past the approximate forty hours it will take to complete the game. But once again, outside of limited free-roam in the sky, the overworld of Skyward Sword is dishearteningly linear, and that sense of adventure so wildly powerful in other games of the series is almost inexistent here. And this deficiency really sets Skyward Sword apart from its Zelda cousins, and despite being a great game, it can't claim the excellence of its forebears. Without a doubt, it sends the Wii off with a bang, and it belongs at the top of every Wii owner's wish list who hasn't bought it already. Skyward Sword successfully lays down the foundation of the Zelda story with some bumps along the way, but is worthy of its namesake.

Conclusion: 3.5/5 - Another great game in the series, though the linearity is a shame.