Search This Blog

Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Top 20 Video Game Themes (#15-11)

So, this is the second part of my Top 20 Video Game Themes, if you've not read the first part and you're interested you can find it here.
Anyway, I won't delay any further, here are the next five entries on my list.

15. Parity (Katawa Shoujo)

I'll try to refrain from going on about how great I feel this the game is, Katawa Shoujo is a Japanese-style visual novel developed by Four Leaf Studios. I'd been aware of the game for a while before its full release due to the prior distribution of its first act. After first starting the demo it caught my attention quickly due to its clever, immersive writing, its cast of diverse and interesting characters, its mature approach to a sensitive subject and, importantly here, its startlingly good score. Almost every song not only suits the scenes it plays over but goes beyond background music to really help develop the atmosphere of each event. Parity in the original demo was already a favourite of mine, however when the full game was released with a reworked soundtrack the new version quickly became my favourite song from the game. As a character theme it works less on overall atmosphere and more as a representation of Rin's personality, describing her quirky disposition of upbeat disinterest brilliantly. On top of how well it suits her character, however, the laid-back, cool tone of Parity makes it as much a joy to listen to out of context as it is in the game.

14. Opening Theme - English (Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World)

The Tales of franchise is one of my favourite series in video games and as such I have a number of songs from the games that I love, but this is the first song I heard from the series and the one I could never shake. While the game is not as good as a number of the other Tales of titles, the music is still excellent. I'm aware a lot of people will prefer the Japanese opening theme, and while I do think the Japanese song is good, I feel the English release simply does so much more. It describes a huge range of emotions and tones in a short space, transitioning from one to the next so smoothly, always complimenting the animation. The dynamic of the song changes as required and it brings to light the true diversity of a full orchestral piece. It gets loud and grand for the battle scenes, subtle and dark toward the middle yet can still create warm, light tones towards the beginning and end all while capturing a feeling of adventure. For me, this opening theme just works.

13. Terra's Theme (Final Fantasy VI)

Let me say this now to get it out of the way...I have not yet played Final Fantasy VI. Trust me, I want to, but I've simply not gotten round to it yet. Despite my lack of context for Terra's Theme, however, it truly stands testament to Nobuo Uematsu's skill as a composer just how profound and powerful this piece can still feel. Admittedly it becomes quite difficult to discuss a song where I haven't played the game as I can't comment on how it suits the themes of the story or reflect's Terra's character and if I say I like it because of the way it captures certain emotions, someone might come up to me and tell me I'm reading the song completely wrong. Unfortunately, all I can say is that listening to this piece is something special and leave you to enjoy the music.

12. Fire Aura (The Impossible Game)

This time, a song with no extra meaning or contextual depth. No need to read into how it reflects the themes of the game or describes the story. Fire Aura simply starts a blood-pumping assault and never lets it die, creating an unbreakable feeling of determination as you play The Impossible Game. The tracks chosen for the game all carry this motivation with them, but for me personally Fire Aura does it the best. In my opinion, few other songs equal the same level of inspiration to get back up and not be beaten that this song presents.

11. "Metal Gear Solid" Main Theme (Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater)

Alas, another game I've never actually played, again somewhat to my own shame. I first heard this song watching Extra Credits' episode on video game music (which is excellent, watch it here). The extract they played grabbed me immediately and I needed to listen to the full song. After listening through it only once or twice it had already become one of my favourite video game themes. The Metal Gear Solid theme in general is a stand-out piece of music, but I love the way it's used here. The song is overflowing with tension and action for most of the first half, though the stealth essence of the series is also wonderfully represented by the calmer, moody sections of music. All of it's brought together in the finale, however, which is nothing short of epic. From 5:10 the tone of the song changes completely, but creates such a vivid climax of power and emotion using the Metal Gear Solid theme and the result is spectacular.

So that's Part 2. Hope you enjoyed it, feel free to leave comments and opinions about my choices or about your own, I'm always happy to discuss things. Look out for part 3!

Monday, 29 April 2013

Hyakka Ryouran and Character Dignity

Giving a character some semblance of dignity is essential if you ever want people to take them seriously. Without the sense of worth that dignity provides there is little reason for an audience to have any respect for or connection to them.

I recently began a series, however, which made me really think about the purpose of a character's dignity, how to sustain it, and how to completely remove all of it. At the beginning of this season I picked up Hyakka Ryouran: Samurai Bride, the sequel to 2010's Hyakka Ryouran: Samurai Girls. Now, anyone who has read my thoughts on Vividred Operation might wonder why on Earth I watched Samurai Girls, due to the large dose of fanservice and it's unerring way of getting in the way of any story at every turn almost as reliably as the abysmal Queen's Blade. The answer to that is quite simple... the first two minutes of episode one hooked me. Everything about that scene was stunning, the striking art, the beautiful animation, the stylistic use of the ink splatter across the screen with each strike all supported by the brilliant theme Arata na Master Samurai that steadily builds its earth-shattering crescendo.

Unfortunately, I dragged myself through the rest of the series desperately hoping to see even a glimpse of the grandeur of that opening again. Admittedly, once the first season was through and finished I could have easily decided that Samurai Bride was going to be an equally large waste of my time and just not watch it... but I started it anyway in a naive hope that something interesting might emerge. My hopes were quickly shattered. The first episode begins with a scene not dissimilar to that of the first series, epic music and a memorable introduction for the new antagonists. Of course, after that it quickly crashes downhill at breakneck speed.

Why not? Need to pay them bills somehow.

This is all really to expect with a series like Samurai Bride, however, ridiculous plot points that work as road signs toward fanservice. So what does this all have to do with dignity anyway? I mean, opening by turning a dojo into a maid cafe, clearly the series has none to begin with. It revels in every opportunity it can find to sexually exploit its characters for the sake of fanservice, how are they supposed to have dignity

Picking up the scent to catch the panty thief.

Surprisingly, that's not what I'm planning to talk about here. I'm looking at a particular aspect of the first episode, the scene during which our hero and his harem meet this seasons' antagonists, the Dark Samurai. The four characters come to the dojo turned maid cafe looking to do battle with our protagonists. The battle begins and none of the characters that we as the audience are supposed to be rooting for last more than a couple hits before being thrown into utter and humiliating defeat. This is clearly done to demonstrate the new enemies' strength and the significant threat they pose if even the most powerful of our heroes are tossed aside as if nothing... But is there not a better way to do this?

True, this scene does demonstrate the new villain's power and define them as a clear threat, but it does it completely at the expense of the main characters dignity. There is no respect left for these characters by the end of the scene. How am I supposed to get at all invested in these characters when all they can do is talk big, but then prove their own ineptitude. When introducing new villains into a series where you've already proven the strength of your characters, how do you make those villains a clear threat without reducing your heroes' current power to something meaningless? After that scene that Master Samurai title and rank that was so coveted during the first season means absolutely nothing as they posed no more challenge to the Dark Samurai than the comic relief character did.

Kanetsugu's ill-fated attempt to take responsibility for her mistake.

In fact oddly enough Kanetsugu, the character who spends most of the time being treated as the series' doormat and running joke by the rest of the characters is so far about the only character to earn any of her dignity back after she becomes a Master Samurai and stands on even footing with one of the Dark Samurai, even earning a respectful comment from her foe in the process, significantly more than any other character has managed thus far (and it doesn't hurt that she looks totally awesome throughout the encounter).

No, but seriously she's calm, she's collected, she's confident and her power really shines through in this scene.

There are numerous ways to tackle this question of dignity, however, which I'm sure many of you will have already considered or seen before. Providing tiers of villains, giving your characters the opportunity to at least stand up to some of the weaker ones can work well. Through this you don't necessarily even need to bring the stronger ones into the fight directly, their strength can simply be implied which often works even better in setting them up as an imposing threat. Giving your hero/heroine a notable disadvantage in their first encounter can be effective as it then invests your audience in seeing your character succeed. It creates a scenario where you want to see the protagonist fight them again but when they're at full strength, as you know that the protagonist is better than that battle implied and you want to see them prove that to this new antagonist. Samurai Bride had none of this, and I thought it was shocking how poorly the first episode handled this scene.

There's much more that can be said on the topic, and it would be interesting to hear any one else's thoughts or opinions on the matter, whether they agree or disagree with my own, but that's my personal thoughts on how Samurai Bride handled the introduction of its new characters.

Monday, 22 April 2013

Top 20 Video Game Themes (#20-16)

For a while now, I've not quite been sure what to do with my first video game related post. I've had a huge love of video games since I was young and they've been my longest and most enduring interest. There have been numerous releases I've not yet been able to play through for financial reasons and my backlog is getting huge, but those are for future posts. To start off, however, I thought I'd begin by combining my love of video games with my love of music and counting down my personal top 20 favourite video game themes.

These aren't the best or the biggest or the most influential or anything, they're simply my 20 favourite themes. So, let's get started...

#20 My Heart is Crying (Rusty Hearts)

I first encountered Rusty Hearts around a year ago. I was browsing the Steam store and felt in the mood for an RPG of any sort, and decided to see if there happened to be anything for free. There were a few games that I browsed through but held no interest for me, when I came across Rusty Hearts. A free to play MMORPG with quite a nice looking anime art style. I didn't have anything to lose, so downloaded and installed it. The game isn't amazing, though the combat can certainly be quite fun, however from almost the opening screen the music grabbed me. The soundtrack is memorable and varied with numerous stand out pieces that evoke excitement during battle or drip with atmosphere in quest hubs. The most prominent track for me, however, was this beautiful piano melody that hangs softly over the character select screen, equal parts elegance and melancholy. This piece took me in from the moment I loaded the game and though I've since stopped playing I still frequently listen to this track.

#19 Edo Castle (Mystical Ninja 2 Starring Goemon/Goemon's Great Adventure)

Mystical Ninja 2 Starring Goemon (or Goemon's Great Adventure in some countries) was a game I was introduced to as a child by one of our family's friends. It hooked both my younger brother and I as we dedicated hours to playing through it. However as we lost contact with our friend so too did we lose contact with the game. Many years later I decided on a whim to buy it again from ebay, as I remembered really enjoying it. The first few levels were fun, but it wasn't until I reached the first castle stage at the end of the first world that the magic came flooding back. As Goemon stood in the burning castle and this song came on I truly remembered why I loved this game. It has a great energy to it with a high tempo and upbeat melodies that never entirely subdue the undertone of danger eminent in the song as you slowly climb your way up the burning castle.

#18 Mice on Venus (Minecraft)

I have sunk more hours into Mojang's enormous sandbox masterpiece than I could ever hope to count. By now I've played a bunch of the mods and spend most of my time in creative mode designing my own ridiculous structures, but I can still easily recall my first adventures into the ever-expanding world of Minecraft. Most prominent among those memories, however, is mining deep underground in dimly lit caves, glancing around warily for signs of monsters down shadowy passages while the ambient melodies of Mice on Venus echo softly throughout the caverns. Those memories were of such a pure wonder and immersion and have been rarely matched throughout my entire gaming life.

#17 Working (SpaceChem)

For those who aren't familiar with it, Spacechem is an interesting indie puzzle game that challenges you to create intricate paths that atoms travel along, getting them to form or break bonds with other atoms as they go. It has a fairly steep difficulty curve, but allows for plenty of experimentation in searching for the most efficient solutions to each problem. It was recommended to me by a friend and it was available on the Humble Mobile Bundle, so I bought it. Along with the game itself, you could download it's soundtrack and it turned out that alone was worth purchasing the bundle for. The peak of this soundtrack is the track 'Working'. Its steady, almost mechanical beat combined with its slow pondering melodies suit the feel of the game beautifully. As the song begins to pick up towards the middle however, the tone slowly builds to nothing short of epic. Embedded in the music is a strong sense of purpose, a meaning to the work you're doing, and the grand tone of the track is inspirational as you sit there clicking slowly away trying to figure out just the right path for your little atoms to take.

#16. Phoenix Wright ~ Objection! 2001 (Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney)

The first game in the Ace Attorney series truly had an outstanding and memorable score with incredible diversity, easily capturing the wide variety of emotions that were portrayed through the characters over its numerous court cases. The most iconic for me, however, is without a doubt the Objection! theme. The progression it symbolises and the uplifting feeling of 'This is it, I'm on the right track!' is portrayed to the player so well through the music. It's not aggressive and it's not overconfident, but each time Phoenix's trademark 'Objection!' paves the way for this song it brings a feeling of security, satisfaction and determination. It sets the perfect mood for your steady, unyielding drive to uncover the truth of the case.

And that's the first 5 positions in this series of blog posts. I initially said I wanted to do one video game post every two weeks, but to prevent this list from lasting too long I'll try and post slightly more frequently than that. Hope you've enjoyed it, I'd love to hear any comments or opinions you have and I hope you stick around for the next part!

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Final Thoughts: Vividred Operation

This week I was initially planning to write my first thoughts on other series that have just started airing this season, however found pretty quickly that I didn't have as much to say about them as I thought I would. Luckily, last Sunday I picked up Vividred Operation on a whim, a sci-fi series that aired last season, so I can talk about that. Please note this technically isn't a review, if I were reviewing it I would take a more objective look, these are just my personal feelings about the series. I happened across it as I was downloading the latest episodes of a few of this season's series and despite knowing nothing about it, decided that it couldn't hurt to look into it. Twenty seconds in, I started to worry I'd been mistaken...

Though, while I may not particularly like ecchi, I'll generally put up with it in two situations. If a series is built around its fanservice and wouldn't work without it (e.g. Golden Boy, Panty & Stocking) then I'll put up with it because it's a fundamental part of the series. The other time I'm willing to sit through it is when it's there but doesn't get in the way of telling a story and is merely there as some bonus for those who do happen to like it (e.g. Saki). I'd prefer if such series didn't have ecchi because it doesn't need it, but as long as we don't get derailed every 5 minutes to end up in an unrelated situation where the girls need to take their clothes off and the plot continues I can deal with it. Fortunately, Vividred Operation falls mostly into that second category excepting a few occasions that are sparsely scattered. While there's ecchi in it, it's usually an occasional camera angle that provides the fanservice and doesn't halt the story's progression.

Speaking of the story, I was quite surprised by the end of the first episode. Not because it's story is anything unique or special, but because for all it's sci-fi cosmetics, Vividred Operation is at its heart a magical girl series. That might turn some people off from the series straight away but I've always had a soft spot for magical girl series. In the series everything that would usually be caused by magic is a result of technology but it's all still there: cute animal sidekick, transformation sequences, special moves, monster of the week formula, the incredible power of friendship and a trope made popular by Mahou Shoujo Lyrical Nanoha and Puella Magi Madoka Magica, the antagonist who may not be as evil as she seems.

So this series is basically Madoka and Nanoha except the magic is replaced by science and it never gets quite as dark. The tone of the series is far more uplifting and joyful, which isn't to say there's never a sad moment, but they're merely used to counterbalance the highs of the series and aren't constructed to create the same feelings of shock that Madoka provides. It also uses a similar moral choice to the one presented in both the first and second season of Nanoha. If both sides are fighting to save lives, who is right? However it never delves into the matter and the tone of the series makes it obvious from the beginning there will be a nice way to fix it all at the end. While this lack of aspiration to explore such a theme is a  weakness in the series, personally it didn't take away from my overall enjoyment. It would have been nice to see some more depth written into the otherwise standard magical gril~esque plot.

The characters are what you'd expect from a series like this and do little to break their archetypes. A number of viewers will likely find them uninspired and boring, however I generally found them likeable enough to grow attached to over the course of the series. Our main protagonist Akane is an energetic girl who likes making friends and helping people. In standard fashion, we're introduced to the other girls over the course of the first few episode and they're each given their ability to transform. Akane is soon joined by Aoi, a friendly but somewhat reserved rich girl, Wakaba, a kendo ace with a soft spot for cute things and Himawari, a genius introverted technophile.

Where I felt the series stood out, however, was in its art direction. Its character and costume design (excluding the absurd school uniform), the architecture and location design and the overall crisp clean look of the series. Battle and transformation scenes are fluid and full of life and a colourful variety of visual effects. The sequences and designs that result from characters' ultimate technique 'docking', where Akane combines with another girl to increase their powers, are all stunning and beautifully crafted.

The alien designs are diverse and interesting. I've heard that there are similarities with the designs of the aliens in the series Strike Witches but having never seen it I couldn't help but draw parallels with the designs of the Angels in Neon Genesis Evangelion. The enemy design for the final battle is particularly memorable and really shows off the talents of the art team behind the series. Overall the art and the animation supporting the series really helps bring the anime to life creating an aesthetically rich and detailed world.

Ultimately, I enjoyed Vividred Operation far more than I expected to, finding myself attached to the characters and immersed in its beautiful world that I was sad to let go of at the end of the final episode. It's not an outstanding series by any right, there are flaws in its underdeveloped story and characters, and the fanservice, while tolerable, brings nothing to the series. However I'm glad I picked it up for its wonderful design and uplifting spirit that sincerely improved my own mood at the time I watched it.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

First Impressions - Yahari Ore no Seishun Love Come wa Machigatteiru

Yahari Ore no Seishun Love Come wa Machigatteiru

Genres: Comedy, Romance, School
(Source: MyAnimeList)

With a single glance most frequent anime watchers can probably identify the sort of series that Yahari is and might dismiss it without a second thought. You can take one look at the above picture and the synopsis given for the series on anime website and no whether or not you'll be watching this series. On the surface Yahari is as formulaic as they come, set in a highschool we follow the day to day life of our main male character Hachiman Hikigaya, a loner who keeps to himself. He's suddenly thrown into an unexpected (only to him) situation where he's forced to interact with one of the school's most popular girls. Yukino Yukinoshita is that common anime breed of intelligent, beautiful girl who couldn't have less interest in a relationship with someone so out of her scope as the main character (but could easily end up falling for him anyway). By the end of the first episode they're joined by Yui Yuigahama an excitable, energetic girl whose mood switches with every few sentences. Ultimately it looks like almost any other highschool series to appear in the anime listings in the last few years.

When you start to look a little deeper at the series, it does have it's own quirks that give it its own identity, but doesn't make it unique or different. The main draw of the series is clearly going to be its characters, their personalities and the interactions and experiences they share. It breaks no new ground and doesn't introduce any novel ideas. That said, it's first 2 episodes are  inoffensive and if a romantic comedy set in a highschool is what you're looking for at the moment, while you could do better, you could also undoubtedly do worse than Yahari.

The three main characters that have been introduce so far have each been given distinct personalities from the beginning and while they all brush with the popular archetypes none of them quite fall directly into cliché. Hachiman is a loner by choice, with a suspicious and cynical personality. Despite this he appears quite self-sufficient and surprisingly intelligent in comparison to many lead males, though his abrasive character can be off-putting at times.

What I've found generally makes him interesting enough to stick by, however, is the security he has in his own reasoning for his beliefs. He's rude, uncompromising and is happy to keep to himself, but when questioned about these behaviours he can actually articulate genuine motives with an ability to rival those that do. A key weakness in this aspect of his character, however, is that the writers still find ways for him to play the deep down, good guy role. This usually works as a way of making the lead character relatable, but clearly clashes with Hachiman's personality even if he tries to explain it away.

His best moments, I feel, are when he's in discussion with Yukino. At it's core Yukino's personality is very similar to Hachiman's, cold, impersonal and distant, if a little more self-serving. Yukino has a very high impression of herself and sees it as her place to help those less fortunate. To do so, she is the only member of the Service Club when Hachiman first arrives, and helps people try to better themselves to solve their problems. Her disposition is very dividing, at times being polite and helpful (though never what one would call friendly), yet at others being blunt and belittling.

Having said this, Yukino has still quickly become one of my favourite characters this season, primarily due to her strength of character. While she may frequently be blunt or unkind I still feel she is well-presented as intelligent, firm in her beliefs, willing to help others and unyielding in the face of adversary.

Despite the shortcomings in their respective personalities, these two work together in the series because of their fundamental similarities and that they can talk to each other on an equal level, even if they don't see that in each other. Because of this, while not up to the standard set by some other series, the discussion and conversation between the leads can be both entertaining and engaging. 

The last of the current three main characters, Yui, is distinctly separate from Hachiman and Yukino, being warm and personable. She can often still be direct (mostly when talking to Hachiman), but is far less so than the other two due to her insecurities about being her own person. It is these insecurities that might be the most interesting thing about her, however, as they nicely set up room for character development over the course of the series.

The series' artstyle is appealing, reaming consistently clean and crisp throughout. The animation is standard for modern slice of life anime, not outstanding but not poor either, merely sufficient. The music is similarly average, suitably backing each scene but not leaving any real further impression. The OP and ED serve as an apt opening and close to each episode respectively, but again don't particularly stand out from the crowd.

All together Yahari is neither a unique nor special anime, however it has enough of its own personality that if you enjoy series of this genre it's worth giving it a try. It doesn't do anything to make it stand out from the abundance of these series, but is entirely inoffensive in its existence. If you've looked at the genre before and decided its not for you, Yahari certainly won't be the series to change your mind.

[Subs used: FFFansubs]

Blog Reboot

After another long break from any activity, I've decided I'm going to give blogging one last chance. In all honesty I love blogging, putting my opinion out there and providing grounds for discussion, both in agreement and disagreement with my opinions. There are so many things I feel so passionately about and I want an opportunity to express myself. However, I've tried doing this so many times in the past and struggle to achieve more than a few posts.

I've decided this is it. I want to change myself, I want to do the things I love and be the person I want to be. If I can't follow through with that then perhaps I'm mistaken in my own goals and I should focus my efforts somewhere else.

My new schedule with this blog is as follows:

- 1 anime post per week. This can be anything to do with anime, I might write my first impressions of a recently started series; a full review of a series I've completed; my own personal but informal feelings about a series; a top 10 list; or various other things.

- 1 video game post per fortnight. This is a similar prospect will occur less often as I have less time for video games than I used to. If I write a full review then it is unlikely I will keep up with modern releases as I don't have the money to spend on frequent new games. I have a huge backlog of games to play that range from retro to modern, so expect there to be no formula for what I choose to talk about.

- Intermittent life posts. When I first started this blog I said I'd try not to talk about my life, however I feel that putting more about me, my moods and my life in general will personalise my blog more and may, as a result, allow any readers to see who I am.

I may also infrequently upload:

- Pictures, WIPs, art-related things. While not very good, I enjoy drawing but have been in a slump for a long period of time, but have recently started again. I might begin uploading images I draw primarily as a means to motivate myself in regards to drawing and blogging.

- Music related discussion. I'm a huge fan of music, it's one of my most important hobbies and interests and so it's likely that I'll at least occasionally find time to talk about it on here. I love a wide variety of genres, so I could talk about almost anything.