Saturday, September 29, 2012

SHIELD: Architects of Forever (comic)

Writer: Johnathan Hickman
Artist: Dustin Weaver
Collects: SHIELD #1-6

I actually finished this comic a month ago, but when it came time to review it I kept putting it off. I've had a hard time figuring out what my thoughts were. This comic is obviously the first part of a story, which makes it difficult to really come to a conclusion about whether it works or not.

The book uses history to weave an interesting tapestry, which is quite possibly its biggest strength. Most of histories greatest figures are shown as members of SHIELD, the protectors of the world; SHIELD is likewise retconned as an organization that was around long, long before Nick Fury was even a thought. A lot of visually interesting scenes abound.

Said moments are at least part of what makes this book engaging. There's something captivating about seeing Leonardo Da Vinci, time traveller extraordinaire, or having Galileo topple Galactus long before Reed Richards. In a medium that is at least half visual, having so many "cool" scenes to look at in your book goes a long way, especially when you have yet to reveal your hand by the end of the book.

The storytelling structure takes a bit of getting used to, though. Hickman uses a LOT of flashbacks that range from thousands of years to as little as five minutes ago. At least half of the first issue is done in flashback. While this provides the book with many of its standout images, it also has a habit of getting confusing.

For instance, here is at least one occasion where it's difficult to tell if a scene is supposed to take place in present day or recent past. Then it feels like the book is trying to get cute when two scenes see time going backwards in five minute increments. The moment I refer to in particular sees one scene set as "five minutes ago" from a scene with Nostradamus and the scene after it also set as "five minutes ago", leaving me to wonder if it was supposed to be five minutes ago from five minutes ago or if both events were meant to be happening simultaneously. It wouldn't be quite so bad if it didn't feel unnecessary.

But even with the books at times non-linear structure, there's a lot going on that feels important. Only trouble is, you're not sure if it is or not. The miniseries ends with a revelation, but it only pulls a couple threads together while leaving the majority hanging. Clearly, the book is meant to come together later on - which I assume will be the second half of the story - but for now the book leaves us with a lot of puzzle pieces I'm not sure we have the context to put together as of yet.

I think this is what makes the book awkward to review. The story feels like the sort that is meant to be taken in when its finished rather than judged by halves. On the other hand, it's perfectly legitimate to judge whether a series works for you based on what you've seen. It's a tough call.

One aspect that's easy to judge, however, is Dustin Weavers artwork. It's simply fantastic on a level you'll only find from the JH Williams III's of the comic world. Each page is packed with tons of detail and interesting things to see. The wonder evoked from many of the books coolest scenes might not have worked as well under another artist. His art makes SHIELD worth the purchase alone.

The Score: 8 out of 10

I wasn't entirely sure how to grade SHIELD, but I eventually settled on an eight. Everything could go wrong in the second part of the story, but for now there are enough strengths to this comic to make it worth the cash. Recommended.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Hexyz Force (game)

Platform: PSP
Developer: Sting Entertainment
Genre: RPG
ESRB Rating: Teen
Release Date: May 25th, 2010

The PSP has a fair number of RPG's, so it's easy for a lower key title to get lost in the shuffle. Hexyz Force is one I'd never heard of before I came across it and decided to play it. It doesn't stand out enough to really make a big impact, but Hexyz Force is unique enough to be worth a playthrough.

A long time ago, the Goddess of Creation descended with the Holy Vessall and created the land of Berge. But eventually, disaster struck and a group of the divine had to fight off Delgaia, the god of Destruction. The world was reborn under one condition; that one day an hour of judgement would come to pass and the chosen would choose the future of creation or destruction. You play as those tasked with this decision; only you can stop those who wish for Destruction over Creation.

One thing of note with this game is that you have some measure of choice here. There are two main playable characters and you will choose one at the start. Each has their own story to play through. This offsets the fact that this RPG is fairly linear; there's only so much to see and do - side quests in particular are few and far between - but it's easier to go along with this when the game offers you two twenty to thirty hour plot paths to play through.

The battle system of the game is unique. When you boil it down, it's a big old game of rock, paper, scissors. Each weapon has one of the three different forces, each of which has a strength and weakness. If you coordinate your attacks so the elements are used in order, the damage you do - and even the amount of health you heal - is multiplied. Monsters must also be taken into account, as their attacks add to the multiplier and they also get the damage bonus. Use the wrong force type and the chain will be broken, requiring you to start over again.

It's a system I welcome, because it requires some semblance of strategy. The key to defeating a boss quickly is proper use of this mechanic; if you just attempt to power through boss battles without keeping an eye on your multiplier percentage, there's a good chance they'll massacre you. Even some of the stronger common monsters can take you down if you don't keep an eye on things. You won't be holding the button down on "fight" like in other RPG's.

I liked the music in the game well enough. It's not on the level of an Uematsu, but each song fits the area it corresponds to well. You won't find yourself humming the melodies or anything but some might stick in your head. Pretty respectable overall.

The Score: 7.5 out of 10

A perfectly respectable RPG to kill time. There are several ways it could have improved - more to do in the world not related to the main quests is one particular way - but it's otherwise a solid game. Feel free to rent it from your service of choice.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

All Star Batman and Robin (comic)

Writer: Frank Miller
Artist: Jim Lee
Collects: All Star Batman & Robin #1-9

Frank Miller's at a point where he's not the surefire hit he used to be. Oh sure, he'll probably sell a lot of copies of whatever book he's putting out, but critically he's fallen pretty far. Kind of hard not to, though, when you put out shit like Holy Terror.

If Dark Knight Strikes Again was the book that made everyone realize he could, in fact, do wrong, All Star Batman is where people started to turn on him. The book is a love it or hate it affair among fans these days, but for a while there it was the joke of the internet for several reasons. The dark mirror of the universally beloved All Star Superman.

Its reputation is somewhat deserved. I've rarely seen a book filled with characters this unlikable. Wonder Woman is a radical misandrist - she calls a random passerby a "sperm bank" for no other reason than he had the misfortune of walking near her - Batman is the guy forching a freshly traumatized child to eat rats, Commissioner Gordon is a guy who chats on the phone with his former flame while his wife is in the other room and so on. If there's a single decent person in this book, it's Alfred.

Frank Millers typical traits are on full display. Everyones a slut, whore or at least dresses like one. First time we see Vicki Vale she's on the phone in her lingerie while inexplicably wearing high heels in the comfort of her penthouse. An ass shot follows within three panels, of course. The protagonist is a cackling, uber-violent maniac. It's like Miller never managed to dial things back after Sin City.

Worse still, it feels like it takes forever for the book to go anywhere. Only in the last issue or so do we get the idea that Miller may be going somewhere with this. Where that is, only he knows. After all, this volume collects nine of the ten issues released in the seven years since the book started. As it stands now, the book has vanished into the ether with the six issue conclusion wildly off schedule*. It's tempting to wonder if anyone will even care by the time this finishes.

Is there any merit to the story? I suppose. Millers Batman has always openly opined that his fight against crime is a war, which is taken to its absolute breaking point with Robins recruitment. Dick Grayson is practically drafted into this "war" and the parallel doesn't stop there. In the old days, part of the point of the training was to break you, to mold you into the killer the army wanted and needed. The effects were, frankly, real bad; we hear a lot about how utterly broken many soldiers were after wars**. The cruel treatment of Grayson seems a similar attempt to mold him and it seems just as likely to break him. It likely even explains the murderous psychopath he became by DKSA; like a soldier, it seems this treatment had ill effects that never truly went away and going by this book the blame can be laid entirely at Batmans feet.

The Batman Miller has been writing since DKSA is a hell of a lot less heroic - despite the good his actions inspire - and definitely more of an outright psycopath. I suppose that's a perfectly valid interpretation and there's certainly no harm in it existing as a contrast to the typical heroic Batman. Still, it leaves a sour taste in your mouth.

Using Jim Lee for the artwork is an odd choice, one I'm not sure paid off. We'll set aside the delays it caused for now; the problem is more that Lee does not seem to suit Millers world. When we think of Millers Dark Knight work, we visualize his artwork, faults and all. Lee, however, is much more mainstream with his art; it's cleaner, brighter, smoother and suited more to a regular depiction of Batman. The result is a man doing the best art of his career on a book that isn't quite suited to it.

Perhaps when the conclusion hits at some vague point in the future this book will hold up better, but as is it's a curiosity at best.

The Score: 6 out of 10

Lee's artwork is worth an eight, at least, but on the whole this book is a misfire. It has merit, but little I can really appreciate. I can understand why others like it - it can be funny at times if taken as a deliberate parody of Millers typical work - but I don't think it's for me. Not something I can recommend.

* Fitting, I suppose, given the books notorious delays. At one point there was something like a year between issues. All Star Batman truly is the Duke Nukem forever of the comic world. Ten to one it'll disappoint just as badly.

** My step-fathers father was a particularly bad case. His war was Nam. He came back an abusive, horrible man who had any good in him destroyed by the experience. Stories of my step-fathers childhood are pretty heartbreaking in regards to the abuse. I've also heard plenty about how his father would wake up from a dead sleep, dive for cover, flip the coffee table and scream about Charlie over the ridge. Chilling stuff to hear about.