Saturday, June 30, 2012

Luminous Arc (video game)

Platform: Nintendo DS
Developer: imageepoch
Genre: Tactical RPG
ESRB Rating: Teen
Release Date: August 14th, 2007

The Tactical RPG genre is pretty great, but it also hasn't advanced much over the years. It feels like a lot of these games have a certain sameness that makes it so they just sort of bleed together in your mind. Take this game, for example, which is Textbook TacRPG Example 1A.

You start off as a teenage knight in service of a church, because Japanese games tend to have this odd love affair with underage heroes. Apparently, said church teaches that witches are the bane of all existence. You can see where this is going, right? Kid meets witch, kid changes his mind about them, realizes boobs are pretty great, realizes that the being the church deified is actually a monster and sides with the witches. "We're gonna give God such a pinch" twist aside, it's a by the book coming of age story, sans anything to make it stand out from the pack.

Really, there isn't much about this game that isn't by the book. The story and characters are steeped in Japanese cliche, while the gameplay could be culled from any number of games in this genre. Luminous Arc doesn't have an original bone in its body and you could be forgiven for feeling as though you've played this game before.

Unoriginal as it may be, however, it's still a solid title. The character designs are stock anime for certain, but they're still appealing enough. We get voice acting as well. The gameplay itself is, of course, tried and true. It's certainly not reinventing the wheel, but it has a certain competency that redeems it, even if it doesn't make it something you just gotta have.

The Score: 7 out of 10

I wouldn't recommend this game over any of the classics, but if you've already crushed the greats it could serve as a fair rental. Just don't expect anything unique out of it.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Avalon Code (video game)

Platform: Nintendo DS
Developer: Matrix Softwares
Genre: Action RPG
ESRB Rating: E10+
Release Date: March 10, 2009

I'm one of maybe four guys in this world who couldn't give a damn about Legend of Zelda games. I liked II - you know, the one everyone hates - A Link to the Past - got bored after reaching the Dark World - and Twilight Princess. That's it.

A main complaint I've had is that while details may change, it feels like the series has never done enough to evolve or keep my attention. It feels like the same game every time, to the point that different games may have the same basic dungeon names or themes. Before you say "well Mario does it too", he kind of doesn't; the lions share of the main games change things up all the time and manage to keep from feeling stale.

Avalon Code feels like what would happen if you took some of the very basics of Zelda gameplay and did something radically different with the rest of it. The world map is done in square sections traversed by going to the edges, the view is top down, you use swords, shields and bombs, so on so forth. Hell, your character is even silent, though you occasionally choose responses to NPC's. The rest is new, building off that tried and true play style with something truly unique.

The story is that you play as a boy - or girl - plagued by vague, apocalyptic nightmares. But one day, after one such nightmare, you find yourself bequeathed with a strange book. Turns out, it's the Book of Prophecy and it only shows up when the world is about to end. When things go too far south in the world, someone is chosen to chronicle the things in the world and decide what is worth saving for the new world you will create. Guess who's the chosen one?

Much of the games uniqueness centers around the book. The bottom half of your screen is filled with the book at all times, which you may traverse at will. You scan things, people, items and weapons into the book. Each page carries its own grid, where you place the titular codes, which range from elements - fire, ice, you know, the standard stuff - to animal types - bird, dog, so on - to concepts like hope, justice and freedom. Through arrangement of the codes, you can change the properties of pretty much anything.

This is, ultimately, pretty damn cool. If you're having difficulty with an enemy or boss, you need only get behind them to scan them into your book. Then you can change their codes around at will, which effects their stats; remove things like metals from their page and both their defense and hit points will drop, then put a bunch of Ill codes on the grid to plummet their hit points, to give just one example.

Weapons and items are switched about much in the same way. You can scan "recipes" for different items all over the game world, allowing you to change, say, your broadsword into Excalibur or some other cool blade, while you're measly old hammer could become Mjolnir, the hammer of Thor. As a bonus, the different recipes have unique looks that translate into the game world, instead of only being seen in a portrait in the book or something like some games might lazily pull.

There are also some RPG elements to the game. Obviously, in changing the properties of your weapons and armor, you change its effectiveness and damage. But there are also hitpoints and MP to worry about. Plus you get along with people in the world by giving gifts. Slide your way in with some of the girls - or guys if you're playing a girl - and they might just take a hell of a liking to you. Most residents - especially the romancables - also have their own worries and sidequests to take care of.

As you can probably tell, there's plenty to do. It's a pretty hefty little beast, especially for an action RPG. I got a good twenty or thirty hours out of it, just dicking around, changing everythings codes and screwing with the Book of Prophecy. It's a pretty good time.

If there's a downside at all, it's that you can only carry four codes in your inventory at a time. That means you're going to be dumping a lot of codes on any empty spaces on different characters pages and switching codes around. That means flipping back and forth between pages while you take the codes you need out, put them where they need to go, take the unnecessary ones out of the page you're changing and so on. Most of the time it's fun to screw around in the Book of Prophecy, but occasionally, it gets just a little bit tedious. I don't think there would have been much harm in giving an extra slot or two to your code "inventory"; it would have eased the process a bit at times when you need to switch around a lot of codes without sacrificing anything.

Other than that, the game is pretty spiffy.

The Score: 8.5 out of 10

I checked this title out on a whim, mostly because it sounded interesting. What I got was a fairly unique little action RPG that stood out from the pack. I'm a little surprised it's not better known. Aside from a few issues, it's definitely worth tracking down if you can. Definitely recommended.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

X-Men Legacy: Lost Legions (comics)

Writer: Mike Carey
Artist: Khoi Pham
Collects: X-Men Legacy #250-253

Here we are, back again, with what is likely to be my last volume of X-Men Legacy. The last one was just so... yuck that I pretty much haven't felt like reading, much less reviewing, comics recently. Frankly, the last one was so aggressively dull - and questionable - that I would not have continued if I didn't already have this volume in my possession.

Hot on the heels of last volumes events - where we learned several of Legions personalities were running free - we find the cast looking to reclaim them. I mean, they're seperate personalities of a mentally unstable dude each with a power set of their own. You can't just kick back, call it a day and hope somebody else deals with it, especially when one is fond of draining souls and using the bodies like puppets.

This volume redeems the book a little bit. For one, it's a far more straightforward adventure; a far cry from last volume, where a blind mutant mused about bad things coming for the X-Men while semi-invisible giant spiders roamed around and Rogue decided to go have sex with an old homicidal egomaniac. The pleasant characterization returns and hell, Professor X is actually allowed to do something for once, so it can't be all bad.

It's just that there isn't anything remarkable about it. It's good enough that, had last volume not occurred, I may well have continued, but not good enough to erase that sour taste. I'm not sure there was any one element that did it - or if I could even pinpoint what the tipping point was for me - but the previous volume well and truly soured me on this book.

Yet again, we have another artist. It is, of course, no one from the previous two volumes I read, because apparently "regular artist" is a foreign concept to this book. Still, it's Khoi Pham and the work is very, very good. Clean, expressive and far from the muddy, inconsistent art the book has had previously. Frankly, they should have had Pham on from the start.

On the whole, this isn't a bad volume, but it isn't enough to have me keep going. But then, I believe Carey only has one volume left, so who knows. Maybe if it's in the library and I have nothing else to read I'll give it a shot.

The Score: 7 out of 10

And so the search for a good X-Men book continues. Somebody has to put out a good one eventually, right?

Monday, June 18, 2012

Captain America: Prisoner of War (comics)

Writer: Ed Brubaker
Artists: Mike Deodato, Butch Guice, Chris Samnee
Collects: Captain America #616-619

This volume has the distinction of being the last before a relaunch; a new Captain America #1 came about - as I recall this was right around when the movie hit - while this book pulled an Incredible Herc and changed its mission statement whilst retaining the numbering.

Personally, I think this is stupid - just because a major run is ending and a movie is out doesn't mean you need to relaunch the goddamn book - but I can kind of understand why they're doing it in this case. The fourth volume - from Winter Soldier up to now - has been as much about Bucky as anyone, even when Steve was holding the shield. With Steve set to be the main focus of the new volume, I suppose they're looking for a clean break. Fair enough, but I don't think it's necessary.

When we last left Bucky, he'd managed to triumph in his trial, only to find himself suddenly extridited to Russia for crimes he supposedly commited as the Winter Soldier. Steve Rogers, not being a complete idiot, smells a rat - it's very likely Russia is just sore that their Cold War secrets are out in the open, after all, and are looking to dispose of that nagging loose end - but officially his hands are tied. It doesn't stop him from covert attempts to follow up. Meanwhile, Bucky is forced to survive in a Russian gulag, where everyone is out for his blood.

Everything is fine right up until we hit the end. As I noted earlier, this volume contains the last issues before the books relaunch, so you'd expect some manner of closure. It wouldn't necessarily need to be definitive or tidy, but an ending of sorts to Buckys days as Captain America is certainly in order.

Well guess what; we don't get one. For the first time since Civil War, Ed Brubakers run falls victim to a crappy event. Hell, at least that one worked to his advantage. Nope, we end on a "to be continued in Fear Itself", even if it isn't necessarily worded that way. I don't know if Brubaker was in on it or okay with it, but thanks for that regardless, Marvel. I guess it's way too much to leave a book alone to wrap it's own business. Gotta stick it in the summer event, of course.

That aside, there isn't much to say about the writing that hasn't been said before. This time, Bru splits the narrative between Bucky adventures in Russian prison and his buddies outside trying to figure out how to get him out of the mess. This is, of course, not what Bucky signed up for; he was ready to face his past before, but that was also before it involved being thrown to the wolves in Russia, where the warden and everyone employed by him are corrupt and the inmates all want to kill him. This on top of the fact that memories of his Winter Soldier days are bubbling to the surface, haunting him.

Bucky's a very compelling character under Bru. After all this time I think it's safe to say his return was a masterstroke. I'm sorry to see him leave this book, even if he is getting one of his own.

The art does a bit of mixing and matching. Each section - Bucky, Steve and Widow - has it's own artist. Not a great way to keep some visual consistency under normal circumstances, but it's clear it was designed this way. Hard to say if it's a good or bad move on Marvels part - I guess it comes down to the individual to decide - but I must say I kind of liked the effect. I don't mind assigning different artists to sections involving different characters as long as the stylistic shift isn't too jarring. There's a big difference between structuring your comic that way and having crappy fill-in art.

The Score: 7.5 out of 10

It doesn't quite provide the closure it should have to Bucky's time with the shield, but it's still a solid, entertaining book through and through. Hopefully the quality holds up when Steve Rogers is the focus.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

X-Men: Legacy - Aftermath (comic)

Writer: Mike Carey
Artists: Paul Davidson, Harvey Tolibao, Jorge Molina, Rafa Sandoval
Collects: X-Men: Legacy #242-244, 248-249

As you'll recall, I read and enjoyed the previous volume, which ended with issue #241. Well, somehow, in the time between that issue and #242, the book took a nosedive so sharp I think I got whiplash from it. I do not know what the hell happened, but the end result is a particularly odd, boring and downright ridiculous read .

First off, this volume essentially bookends a separate story, that being Age of X. If you want to read the series or stories sequentially, it requires you to read half a trade paperback, go read another one, then pick the first one up where you left off. I hate that stunt with a passion. Daniel Ways Deadpool series did it once, too, when the book crossed over with Thunderbolts. They had the good sense to collect everything in order when they did the big whopping hardcover release though.

So already we're off to a bad start.

The first half deals with some crap that happened after Second Coming. Essentially, a dude got his hands chopped off and has PTSD over it. Then there's a damn Omega Sentinel the X-Men keep around that I don't recognize who loses her shit - I would never have seen THAT one coming! - at which point the Little Depressed Boy kills her. Of course, his attitude beside, he made the right decision - that one sentinel was wiping the floor with the X-Men present at the time - but apparently he's a demon for stopping her. Then there's some giant spider that can only be viewed in some angles and I just don't even know what the hell all that was about. It sounded like it played off something earlier in the run, but it came out of nowhere and wasn't much more than a fake-out.

After that, we skip ahead to right after Age of X. Everyone is kind of flipping out because they have memories of an entire life lived in the alternate dimension. Most get their memories wiped. This is the point when the writing completely loses track of its own series internal continuity, as suddenly we're told that Rogue and Magneto's alternate forms had feelings for each other in Age of X, something that would have been handy to see. Of course, Rogue decides to keep the memories from the other life because she made a promise to remember the people there who didn't exist and Gambit tells her to screw off until she has her head on straight - admittedly, a moment long overdue - and geez, let's just dispense the pretense and say it's nothing more than an excuse for Rogue to keep these "feelings" and go ride Magnetos magnetic pole.

Oh, I didn't mention that, did I? Rogue shacks up with Magneto.

This is... wow. Magneto takes her to a Holocaust museum and tells her a story about how he killed someone and could sleep well at night. He then pulls a "I know I'm bad for you, so you best run back to Gambit, but if he ever hurts you" trick. Stories of murderin' and preserved corpses apparently turn Rogue on - because of course they do - so she decides it would be a great idea to hook up with thus guy, because she "wants what's bad for her". This also happens immediately after Magneto tells her he wishes she feared him, because it suits his ego better.

Hoooo-ly shit. I'm not usually someone who is always bothered by this kind of thing, but this is on another level. Who thought this was a good idea*? How did such a decent book go from respectable read to boring to mind boggling so quickly?

For the proverbial cherry on top, the book employs an army of artists just to keep things moving. Four artists for five issues. As such, we've got numerous stylistic shifts and geez it's rough. What happened to Clay Mann? There were some rough spots, but at least he brought visual consistency to the book. This is just all over the map.

I hated this. A lot. Just really, really questionable stuff here wrapped up in a package so boring I practically snoozed. I'm giving this series one more shot - some shenanigans with Legions numerous personalities sounds like an alright time - but if I hadn't already borrowed a copy of the next volume I would have dropped it right here. Avoid. Just avoid.

My Opinion: Burn It

* Probably the same people who thought what happened in Sentry: Fallen Sun (ha ha geddit) was a good idea. At least you can say no one read that comic. Not so here.