Thursday, November 6, 2014

Spice And Wolf (Anime Review)

Disclaimer: I am not a fan of romance anime. I realize that it's only fair to call this one ~50% romance, but it is a main focus none-the-less. My reasoning for why is discussed and explored in this review. Don't worry, though, as even with my bias against its genre, I still heartily enjoyed it and give it my recommendation. Read on to see why!

Spice and wolf is a series about a traveling merchant, a human persona of a pagan wolf deity, and economics. Does that very odd combination intrigue you? Well, it should because Spice and Wolf certainly comes out as a unique gestalt that cannot be explained away by its seemingly unrelated individual pieces. The anime is based on an original series of light novels. There is also a manga adaptation that is still ongoing, but I believe they are separate adaptations. The light novel series is now completed in Japan, and the anime covers four of the first five volumes. The manga has not even finished going through the material covered in the anime, and I am unsure if they are planning on doing the entire story, or if they will stop at the same point as the anime. This is not the type of show that I would normally watch--mainly because I tend to avoid anime romances, and that does end up being one of the driving themes of Spice and Wolf. With that in mind, I hope that my perspective as a fan of anime, but not of anime romances can give a fresh take on this series. And don't worry, even I had to ultimately admit that it's very good. How about we continue on to explore why?

Animation / Visuals:
Spice and Wolf was brought to us by studio Imagin. The only series I have seen from their portfolio have them credited for the 'in-between animation'. I'm not entirely sure what that distinction means, but it did leave me with no pre-conceived notions going in. I was very happy with the animation quality. There are no jarring scenes where detail forsaken in an attempt to save money, and the picture quality on the blu-ray release is of a very high calipur. The series was released in '08, though, so its impressive visual fidelity is to be expected.

The real star of the visual department is definitely the designs. The style of the characters and the world at large are an absolute delight. The series takes place during the medieval time period in a country very similar to Europe, so there are fortress towns, ornate churches, and little country villages all being expertly brought to life. The characters and their clothing also do justice to the setting. I realize that I am in no way an expert on this period of history, but it all looks close enough and has enough synergy to feel genuine, which I think is very important. I can say that the visual design is objectively very good, but I also need to point out that I really liked it on a personal, subjective level; it simply worked for me.

Let's just plop it right out in the open; the soundtrack for Spice and Wolf is absolutely fantastic. It is, in fact, my favorite aspect of the series. The openings are sufficiently emotive--with the first being the clear winner--the first ending is a ridiculous slice of Engrish--but is just too cute to not like--and the in-episode soundtrack is phenomenal. The soundtrack is very heavy on what we would nowadays view as folk music. There are several flute type instruments, violins, etc. It ends up being epic and exciting when it needs to be, and it can also be incredibly playful and quirky during less intense moments. I would gladly listen to many of these songs outside of the show, and I am planning on acquiring the soundtrack. The playful tone fits so incredibly well with many of the quaint towns and situations that we end up seeing throughout the series. This is definitely a case of the soundtrack not only complementing the series, but almost outshining it.

Spice and Wolf has an odd, yet surprisingly simple premise. A travelling merchant--Kraft Lawrence, the main character--stops off in a little town that he visits from time to time to do business. While he is there, he ends up meeting their wise wolf deity, Holo, in her human personification. She explains that he is her ticket out of there because she is bound to wheat, and he happens to have some in his cart. She asks him to help her get back to her home in the north, and she promises to pull her weight on the trip there. That's honestly the entire premise. It's really quite shocking that something so innocuous--yet still rather fantastical--can turn into what Spice and Wolf turns into.

As they travel ever northward, Lawrence gets himself involved in many a scheme to make money. In some cases he comes out on top, other times he is taken complete advantage of, and things even deteriorate to the point of their lives being in danger multiple times. Given that the main driving point for all of the plot points are simply business deals, it's really quite impressive that they manage to be as interesting and diverse as they are. The one downside to this business focus is that it is very, very easy to lose track of what's going on and get lost in the jargon. They do a good enough job of explaining things, but many episodes require very astute viewing in order to not get lost. The anime covers four of the light novels, with each one representing one arc. Each of these arcs covers one specific business situation.

One of my favorite things about Spice and Wolf is actually the setting. It is set during medieval times--in what appears to be some fictional Europe. Due to this, the technology, ways of travel, food, etc are all completely steeped in the time period. On top of this, there is a certain degree of 'fantasy' that is just an accepted part of the world. Holo isn't the only human personification of a pagan deity that they meet, and there are also giant, intelligent creatures just roaming around the world. This all makes for a very interesting world to explore and learn more about with each episode.

The other aspect of the time period that I really enjoyed was the presence and influence of the church. Now, they make several remarks to the one true 'God', there is discussion of cardinals, bishops, and nuns, and we all know that the Christian church was spreading--and becoming rather oppressive--in Europe during this time period. It is absolutely no secret that the church is actually the Christian church, but it is never named as such--which could be seen as a lack of boldness, but I view it more as a degree of finesse. They have several run-ins with the church that really hammers home how corrupt they have become with their increasing influence. There is even the worry of them discovering Holo because they would likely kill her for being possessed by the devil. It's realistic elements and factors like these that help to make the world of Spice and Wolf so dynamic and engaging.

Now, the business might be the backbone of what is going on, but it really does take a back seat to the romance--especially for the latter half of the series. Holo and Lawrence quickly start being flirty and goofy with each other, and it becomes apparent within very little time that this series is going to have a strong romance focus. I take slight issue with this because I really do not like how anime tends to portray romance. The situation is always a perfect setup that both characters will fall into. At least one of them will be hesitant and very flippant in response to the overt flirting and signs of affection coming from the other one. Every little touch or moment is a big deal and leads to blushing and acting silly. And the couple to be will also always exhibit child-like levels of innocence when it comes to dealing with the opposite sex--or at least one them has to. I mean, I could go on and on, and Spice and Wolf has every bloody trope that I just listed. It always comes off feeling heavy handed, unrealistic, and non-genuine. I feel like the story teller--author, writer, etc--is just beating me over the head with what they are trying to show me and make me feel.

These tropes are not realistic. That's not how people actually act. Now, I realize that not every series and medium needs to be focused on absolute realism--that would be awful, really. But when it comes to something like romance--such a genuinely real human feeling and experience--it can be a bit jarring when it's so far removed from reality. It leads to two things. On the one hand, it leads to a sweet, innocent, and incredibly fun little love story that really couldn't exist in any other medium. On the other hand, though, it also romanticizes incredibly unrealistic relationships as some kind of ideal situation--one that just doesn't exist. With films and live action TV shows--for lack of a better term--the idealized romances are usually unrealistic, but they are still bordering on the outskirts of reality. There will be some overly convenient things that happen, and the guy might get the girl even when he really shouldn't, but the human reactions, the interpersonal communication between the 'couple' is still fully believable. With anime, and certainly with this series, it just simply isn't--for the most part.

And all of this leaves me feeling odd now that I've experienced Spice and Wolf. I am someone that enjoys stories by fully immersing myself in them. If they were an ocean, I'd be drowning in the deepest depths. I think that's why I have always been so incredibly enamored with fictional stories. It's not just a drawing on a screen, a 3d model on a monitor, or a name on a page. Every story that I get involved in I treat as if it was its own absolute reality. So when all is said and done, I need to resolve the experience in my mind--which is to say within that 'real' fictional world. That becomes incredibly difficult for me to do with something like this because of the subject matter. When romance takes the side seat in some kind of action or drama, and is a supplemental plot point, its short comings are easy to overlook because of the circumstances. There is something else going on that is the focus, we accept that the romance is progressing in an unnatural manner, and the extenuating circumstances allow for a lot of lee-way. The romance is front and center here, though, so no such excuse can be made. In fact, for the third and fourth arcs, it is almost the business that has become the supplemental plot.

It is what it is, and it must simply be taken with a grain of salt and put into the appropriate mental box. I want to be clear that I am not trying to be down on the show; this is an issue I have with the medium's representation of this topic as a whole. It managed to tell a very cute love story that I found myself grinning like an idiot while watching on several occasions. I am merely pointing out that it is so far removed from reality, that it cannot be resolved with our real life understanding of these themes and ideas.

The bread and butter of Spice and Wolf really are the characters. The show is carried by the main two: Lawrence and Holo. Lawrence is portrayed as incredibly intelligent, very innocent and pure hearted, and also very well spoken. It is shown time and again that he is not only a very talented merchant, but that he has a surprising amount of grace, and a dangerous amount of kindness. I like Lawrence, and I enjoyed watching him interact with Holo and the other characters that they come across in their travels. I really feel that he only works as well as he does, though, because he is a proper partner for Holo, who really ends up stealing the show.

And then we have Holo, the star of the show. Holo is, if I'm not mistaken, about seven hundred years old. With that in mind, she is actually extremely wise--she even calls herself Holo the wise wolf. She is, however, also out of touch with many aspects of human culture and relationships. This puts her in an interesting position of being far, far more knowledgeable than Lawrence, but also being incredibly naive in other ways. She is devious, haughty, jealous, melodramatic, and conniving. Her rather stuffy way of talking--proper English and such--does a very good job of reinforcing her antiquity, while also making her seem 'different', which is exactly how she needed to be portrayed. It's not all light hearted jests and jabs, though. As the series continues--and as her relationship with Lawrence builds--we come to find out that she still has fears and that she has been grappling with terrible loneliness. I will say this, for as hard as I was on Spice and Wolf's portrayal of romance, there are definitely some moments when Holo opens up that are incredibly genuine and emotive. Her desire to no longer be alone, her fear of getting close to Lawrence because of his mortality, her fear of hindering his chances of opening his own shop, etc. The overall romance may be heavy handed and rather ham fisted, but Holo's development is usually a genuine high point. She manages to be wise and snide, yet vulnerable and sweet at the same time. She is a very complex character, and easily one of the best female leads to ever appear in anime--based on what I have seen thus far.

Other than the main two, there aren't many characters that get a lot of screen time. The normal way of doing things is to introduce a small cast for each new arc. They get some development, serve their purpose, and then it's on to the next arc. Given these character's relatively short screen time--only up to about five or six episodes at the most--many of them actually get a very admirable amount of development. While the supporting cast may be a rotating door, each new set of them are given sufficient attention to be worthwhile. I really appreciated this about Spice and Wolf.

Well, how do I conclude such a seemingly-contradictory review? I spent near equal amounts of time praising the story as I did tearing it down on the basis of being an anime love story. So for my final word, let's ignore that it's one of those--as well as the inherent short comings that are attached. Spice and Wolf is an audio and visual treat. It has an interesting story with enjoyable and memorable characters. There are several funny moments, tense and dramatic scenes, and cute parts that will make you smile like a goon. I may take issue with this portrayal of a love story from the ground up, but I cannot ignore how well this one was done within those limitations--especially given that everything but the 'romance' part is outright fantastic. If you get invested in the story, be ready for a 'read the novels' ending. I went ahead and looked up how they end--there are still a few that are yet to be translated, so all I could do was skim forums. I was quite satisfied with the ending, and I think I'm going to leave it at that. I'm not sure that I need to read the rest of the journey. I really enjoyed what I watched, I got the closure of the true ending, and I think I'm ready to close the book on this experience. And let me be absolutely clear, this is an experience that I'm glad I had, and I would fully recommend to anyone who enjoys anime.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag Review

After having been severely burned by Assassin's Creed III, I was very skeptical going into Black Flag. I took issue with so many things in III that I fear beginning to list them would rabbit trail into an entire review for that game, rather than its sequel. Suffice it to say, Black Flag had some proving to do. The game is generally well regarded by critics and the gaming community, but it just simply doesn't change what the previous game was, so cautious optimism was the very most I could muster for this entry in the now annual franchise. Well, let me just dispel the mystery and let you know that I am not one of this game's few detractors; I quite like it in fact. However, as with nearly any game that I 'like', there are still several less than stellar aspects to talk about and dissect. With that in mind, let's get on to the review proper, yeah?


Assassin's Creed games are among the AAA games that go for absolute realism. They have advanced and very detailed 3d models, take place in 'mostly' historically accurate locations, and are now employing some damn fine facial mapping. This game is no different. It is easily the best looking Assassin's Creed game to date. Now, I don't mean raw number of pixels and how 'HD' the textures are--we'll be discussing that later; I merely mean that this game's realistic 3d visual style is very well realized. Everything looks as one would expect it to, and it is a joy to swim through clear waters, explore tropical islands, and traverse the various shanty towns.

Another high point comes from the character designs. Ubisoft have done a very good job of making everyone look quite 'pirate-y'--which isn't a word, but we're going to go with it anyway. Beards are scruffy, faces are dotted with scars, and wardrobes are out of a Pirates of the Caribbean fan's wet dreams. This game, like every other in the series, feels very much like a period piece. Now, I realize that the pirate setting and period has been pandered oo far more than some of the previous settings for the series, but I don't think that makes Black Flag any less genuine. I must admit, though, that I am not actually an expert in all things pirates, so if there is some historical inaccuracy for the sake of Jack Sparrow pandering, I simply did not see it.


Black Flag is really quite impressive from an audio standpoint. Whether you're listening to the rain pummel you during an especially nasty storm at sea or listening to the water splash underneath your feet as you run across a beach, the sound is rather dynamic and engrossing. The music also does a fine job of matching the mood of what is going on. Unfortunately, I am unable to recall any pieces in particular, but I was always pleased with what was playing at the time.

One more note for the music--it was high time for a good pun--that just cannot be ignored is the sea shanty system. One of the collectibles this time around are sea shanty song notes--say that three times fast. When you collect one, the crew of your ship learns a new song. This means that as you are out sailing, plundering, and being an overall mangy pirate, your crew will start randomly singing one of the songs that they know. Now, I am not ashamed to admit that I have attended a pirate festival, and I actually recognized some of these songs--Bully in the Alley is one that comes to mind. This is an incredibly fun extra layer that was added on, and it's minutiae like this that I often end up enjoying the most. You can also hear an assortment of other sea shantys sung by a female at some of the bars scattered around the world map. I have actually left the game on while sitting in front of the bars a couple of times--while doing other things around the house or on the phone--just to enjoy these in the background; they really are quite good.

The final aspect of the audio is of course the voice acting. Well, in typical Assassin's Creed form, it is very high quality. The characters all have very distinctive voices and personalities. They also do a very good job of managing all of the different accents that they are trying to deal with. I am so happy that we have come to a place with voice acting--especially in AAA games--where it is no longer cringe worthy, and we no longer need to be embarrassed when someone else enters the room when a scene with dialog is taking place. I also want to specifically point out two characters whose performance I was very fond of. Edward Kenway, the main character, has a very likeable voice actor. There is a lot of personality and sass in the performance, but there is a full range of other emotional responses to fit the situation. I was a very harsh critic of Connor's voice from the previous game--regardless of how accurate a portrayal of that type of character it was--so I was very happy to actually enjoy listening to the main character again. Blackbeard is the other one that I want to point out. Yes, he is quite cliché, but his performance is a perfect celebration of this game's subject matter, and it was a delight to listen to.


A nice visual design and great voice acting are obvious high points, but this is an interactive medium, so one might be wondering just how does it actually play? Well, this is an Assassin's Creed game! Honestly, the gameplay really hasn't changed all that much, and this is unfortunate. The combat is still rather boring, and there is still way too much of it. I wonder why the devs think that every encounter needs to end up turning into a twelve man murder simulator? There have been little tweaks here and there--like the ability to have four guns now--but these things are all quite minute in the scheme of things. The classic Assassin's Creed 'jank' is also here in full force. Why did you run up that wall three times in a row? Why are you stuck on that railing? Why can't you climb that rock? Who knows! Because: Assassin's Creed! Honestly, I am a huge fan of the free-form climbing mechanics in these games, but after this many entries in the series, the jank and irritation that comes along with it is really just unwelcome and unacceptable at this point. They can't just keep phoning it in. The engine and the very act of simple climbing, jumping, locomotion in general really needs an overhaul at this point. I was really quite frustrated by the end of the game with all of the nonsense.

The other main aspect of this game aside from the on foot gameplay is, of course, the ship combat. Well, I am glad to say that it is just as good as it was in Assassin's Creed III. It is a bit more in depth, of course, but it is certainly no worse for the ware. After the success of this game, Ubisoft sent out a questionnaire asking people if they would be interested in a non-Assassin's Creed pirate game. If it has the same level of detail and solid ship combat Black Flag has, then I would be all over that. The ship aspect of the gameplay is easily the most positive addition Assassin's Creed has made in years.

Like any game in the series, you'll be running around getting stuck on walls and brutally killing hundreds of enemies throughout a rather impressive amount of content. The main story is fairly lengthy; there are tons of islands and shanty towns to explore, and there are a lot of things to collect and upgrade. It's an open world game, and completionists will be kept busy for quite a while--my final play time was around fifty hours.

The other aspect of the main story that I have not mentioned yet is the present day segments. These are not a very prominent part of the story, and they honestly feel completely unnecessary. You walk around in the first person while the ham-fisted present day story is fed to you in piece-meal. There are also some rather boring hacking mini-games that you do here and there. That's all there is to it, really. I wasn't a fan of it, and it's certainly not why anyone should be playing this game.

The final thing I want to mention is the multiplayer. Now, I don't want to mention it because it's so great or because you should play it, but more-so because it is a thing that is there. I am not a fan of the multiplayer, and I haven't been since Revelations. I think the idea of the multiplayer is really unique and very interesting. I even really, really liked it in Brotherhood. You see, though, it is also rife with problems. People that decide to run around like idiots and not obey the unspoken 'rules' of how the games should be played can completely ruin entire matches. Now throw on certain annoying mechanics and the age old sin of higher level people having a FAR more impressive arsenal than lower level opponents and you have a multi-player component that I am obviously going to take issue with. I love how unique it is, but the execution is just severely flawed.


The plot sees you following Edward Kenway--a pirate who is still starting out and is certainly not established yet. You get to see him go from humble beginnings to a fair amount of prominence as a pirate by later in the story. The most interesting detail, though, is that he's not actually an Assassin. It is now that I should point out that spoilers are going to be fair game. The game begins with Kenway shipwrecked on an island with an Assassin. The Assassin and Kenway come to blows, and he ends up killing him and taking his outfit. The Assassin was actually deserting to the Templars, and Kenway decides to take his name and his cargo and go meet the Templars as the fallen Assassin. From here the story twists and turns with Kenway having run ins with the Templars and with the Assassins. Kenway is not hostile towards the assassins like he is towards the Templars, but he is also not one of them. He is a pirate that happens to be having some dealings with them due to some of the situations that he has gotten himself into. This makes for a very interesting story because it's not simply from the Assassins vs. Templars point of view. I mean, that is still going on, but Edward only partially has a horse in that race, and that makes the interactions more interesting and fresh.

Once we get past the initial setup, the story goes through periods of seemingly random meandering, which is then followed by a clear direction, and then it's back to a vague goal or meandering. I enjoyed the story throughout, but there is no doubt that it completely loses its way at certain points. Thankfully the characters are enjoyable enough that even when you aren't following the tenuous narrative threads, you will still simply enjoy watching them interact with Kenway. The story does ultimately build to have a couple of actual antagonists, and it does manage to contain several sub plots. I suppose that is part of why it becomes unfocussed. Each situation or 'arc' has some floaty and unfocussed time within it and between it and the next one. This allows the game to cover a few different larger situations over a period of time, which is a good thing, but it leads to the lack of focus that the game suffers from sometimes. I suppose it's a trade off, and the direction they took it certainly worked out alright in the end--caveats and all.

The other aspect of the story is the present day stuff. I will be honest with my view point on this. I absolutely hate what they ended up doing with the present day story. Throughout all of the games before III--and even during the majority of III--they had set Desmond up to be an actual Assassin. Hell, I wouldn't have been surprised if we had a game just set in present time playing only as Desmond. They had also been building the story to a crescendo with III; it was clear that was going to be the end. The problem is, they gave it a completely half assed ending--just enough so that this big building narrative was no longer sitting in their way--and they set themselves up to make an infinite amount of sequels. The present say segments see you as an employee working for Abstergo and going through Desmond's DNA memories. There are cameos of Shaun and Rebecca, so we know the assassins are still fighting back to some capacity. There are a couple of scenes dealing with the yet unresolved 'ones who came before' that do little to nothing to resolve or expand their story--which is how they need it to keep cranking out sequels--and there is a fairly cool cameo with the present day incarnation of the sage that you meet in Kenway's memories. Honestly, the present day segments did little more than remind me of the mess they have turned the overarching story into. I am still completely on board with the 'in-animus' stories that Assassin's Creed can tell, but the present day over arching story does nothing for me anymore, and I wish it was no longer a part of it.


Black Flag has its fair share of interesting characters. The best really has to be Captain Kenway himself, though. I really like how he progresses through the game. I am a huge proponent of character development. That means that no matter how unlikeable, archetypical, or shallow a character may seem at first, if they can experience substantial growth by the end of the story, then I will be happy and will be singing the praises of that story. Well, Edward fits this bill. He starts off as a fairly gruff and cocksure character. This attitude carries him through a good chunk of the game, but not without its consequences. As the story progresses--and time along with it--Edward starts seeing the repercussions of his actions. Friends either die or turn to enemies, plans fall apart, and he slowly starts understanding that his attitude and lack of finesse are having a substantial impact on his life. By the end of the game--when he finally pseudo-joins the assassins--he is much wiser and much more dynamic than who he was at the beginning of the game. He legitimately progresses and changes, and that is a wonderful thing to see. It also doesn't hurt that he is a very likeable character, so you are willing to put up with him when he is making rash and foolish decisions.

I was also very impressed with Edward Thatch--or Blackbeard, as he's more widely known. He also undergoes some very enjoyable development. When you first meet him, he is obviously already a fairly established pirate, but he doesn't yet possess the persona that he comes into by the end of the game. As the story progresses, he turns into Blackbeard, the fear of the sea and scourge of the earth. But, since Edward is a close friend throughout this, we also get to see who he really is during this transformation. He continues to be a high point of the game right up until his final appearance at his retirement party--yes, he realizes that he is old and the pirate life isn't for him anymore. I find it quite ironic that he would turn out to be such a high point. He is the most stereotypical 'pirate' character in the game. And yet, he is handled in such a way that he never feels anything but genuine and real. I applaud Ubisoft for making that very difficult combination work as well as they did.

There are several other more minor characters that end up being interesting for one reason or another, but none of the rest of the cast reach the level of Kenway and Blackbeard. Certain Templars--such as Laureano de Torres y Ayala--end up being engaging villains, and the sage Roberts is memorable for his craziness alone. I found that the rest of your 'friends' were very interchangeable--even though they play distinct roles in the story--with the exception of James Kidd. James is one of the few 'friends' that actually remains by your side without betrayal, or some other unfortunate circumstance, throughout most of the story. James is an interesting character because he is actually a she. I'm not sure if this was done for the sake of historical accuracy or if Ubisoft just wanted to be risqué, but it certainly adds an interesting layer to her character.

As interesting and unique as James/Mary--her real name--is, I don't feel that she actually gets enough attention paid to her. Why does she cross dress--aside from some obvious reasons that I could come up with? What about her past? Why is she a member of the assassins, and what is she doing for them? I could keep going, but you get the point. They had a very intriguing character with her, and I don't feel they fully made good on it. Perhaps they will use some other medium to explore her more, which would be great for the overall story, but it won't change the fact that she is somewhat underdeveloped in this game. This syndrome affects another of the main side cast, Adéwalé. He is your quartermaster throughout the entirety of the game. He is a slave that escapes captivity along with Edward very early on in the game, and Edward and he form a bond of respect--which would have been unusual between a white and black man during that time. They give his character a very strong foundation when he is first introduced, and he is then just left to flounder. His role in the game is reduced to the person that bitches at you for sixty seconds or so while you're sailing the ship at the start of certain missions. I know that he ends up with the spotlight in the Freedom Cry expand-alone, but that still doesn't change what is present in the main game. He is yet another character that Ubisoft wasted. I honestly wonder why they go to all the trouble of making such interesting characters that they could do so much with, to then proceed to not do any of those things with them. It's just a bloody waste.


As with all games I'll be reviewing, I've saved the performance discussion for last. Since this was a multiplatform game, I played it on PC. My rig as it was when this was played will be detailed after the wrap up. Assassin's Creed games have had a fairly storied past when it comes to PC versions, but I can honestly say that this is a large step in the right direction. The game has a rather robust options menu, supports resolutions at least up to 1440p--what I played it at--and even supports PhysX. Now, all of this comes at a bit of a price. Even at 1080p--what I played the first half of the game at--I needed to have PhysX at low and 2x MSAA or no AA at all to maintain 60fps--with everything else maxed, mind you. Once you look at my rig you will realize that is a little bit ridiculous. The game is absolutely gorgeous with strong texture work, fluent animations, and very nice lighting. It just all comes at a price.

I honestly can't say if the game needed more optimization, or if it's just legitimately that demanding, but the performance demands definitely need to be kept in mind. The game also has no triple buffering, so turning on V sync can make your frame rate plummet to thirty when it drops just a bit below sixty, which is obviously insufferable. The PhysX effects were integrated in post launch, and are nothing more than smoke effects--guns, cannons, and fires. These have a large FPS hit when in view, and I didn't find it to be worth it at all. The game also has a very odd sixty three cap for the frame rate, so no high refresh rate to be had here. As you can see, it is a bit of a mixed bag. It is a gorgeous game with fairly robust graphics options, but there are still some serious issues with their implementation and some of the basic expected functionality of a PC game. I hope that Ubisoft can take the foundation they have here and release a truly great PC experience with Unity--though after how they handled Watch_Dogs I am very skeptical.

As a quick aside for the other platforms, all of the console versions are locked to thirty frames per second. The PS4 outputs the game at 1080p, the Xbox One at 900p, and the 360, PS3, and WiiU at 720p (I will not be discussing any upscaling nonsense). Based on my research it seems that the WiiU version falls below the thirty FPS cap more often than the other seventh gen consoles. The PS4 version seems to be visually superior to the Xbox One version, although the performance seems very similar. I actually played a few hours of the game on PS4, and I was very impressed with the visual fidelity. It actually wasn't too far off how the game looked on my PC--while I was still playing at 1080p, at least. The idea that we're still playing AAA games on new hardware at thirty FPS is a different story all together, and one that I won't be diving into here. My research for differences in parity between the versions was largely done with information from Digital Foundry, who are extremely helpful for this sort of thing.

Wrap Up:

I find myself stalled and conflicted when it comes to wrapping up my thoughts on this game. On the one hand, I thoroughly enjoyed my time with it. I liked many of the characters, it was gorgeous to look at, and it is surely the best pirate game there has ever been. That said, though, I also strongly disliked how they are handling the current day segments--they seem so unnecessary to the core game at this point. I was unhappy with the lack of development for certain characters, the story loses its way several times, and the game still has way too much Assassin's Creed jank in it. Even with all that said, though, I can't help but feel that the good simply outweighed the bad. While I think it would have actually been a far better game if it was just a pirate game and wasn't an Assassin's Creed game, it is still a very enjoyable package as it is. If you are not someone who thoroughly analyzes and critiques the games you play, then I'm sure that many of my complaints will not even be apparent to you, and they will certainly not hinder your enjoyment of the game. This is a game that has a chance of pleasing non-Assassin's Creed fans and of appeasing those of us that were thoroughly disappointed with III. With that large of a potential audience, I can't help but recommend the game to anyone that has even a passing interest in it. Here is hoping that this year's Unity can right some of the wrongs that the series is currently grappling with, and give the franchise the advancement that it desperately needs.

My Rig:

EVGA 780ti Classified
Intel i5 3570k OCd @ 4.5ghz
8GB Ram
512 GB SSD
Windows 8.1

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Shiki Review (Anime Review)

Do you ever get done watching a show, sit back, and just think to yourself: "Ah, this is why I enjoy this medium." Well, I do--on rare and wonderful occasions--and Shiki just so happens to be one of the series that made me do this. Shiki is an adaptation of a manga, which is in turn an adaptation of a novel. It is a show about vampires moving into a small, isolated town in Japan and all of the 'wonderful' effects of their presence. I am going to start this review off talking about the overall qualities of the show--music, animation, design, etc--and I will then move into spoiler heavy details about the plot and characters. I don't want to ruin the plot for anyone that hasn't watched it, so I encourage you to not read the plot discussion if you have not yet seen Shiki.

Animation / Visuals:

Shiki is a rather new series--its original run was back in '10--so the animation quality is, as you may expect, quite high. It was produced by studio Daume, whom I am not at all familiar with, but they seem to do very high quality work. I watched this series on Blu-ray--as I do for all series that have a release in that format--and I was immediately impressed with the sharpness of the picture and the vibrancy of the colors. If you are someone that enjoys crisp, vibrant, 'new' looking anime, then the visual fidelity will immediately delight you. I can also say that the animation quality was very consistent. I have seen several series where the quality can have large fluctuations from scene to scene. That is really not the case with Shiki; it is consistent and of very high quality throughout.

A sharp and vibrant picture is always a good thing, but the character designs need to be worth seeing in all that beautiful glory. Thankfully, Shiki has a great visual style for all of the characters. They all have a rather 'lanky' look to them, and there are many completely quirky and unique characters to grow fond of. Shiki also pulls no punches when it comes to odd anime hair. You will see many a crazy hair style and colors ranging from purple, pink, green, and so on. I really quite liked that many of the characters looked so radically different from each other, as it helped give them personality, and it also made them easier to remember.


On the audio side of things, Shiki still comes out strong. The show has two different openings and two different endings--changing half way through. I was not overly fond of either ending, but it's very common for me to skip those, anyway. The openings, on the other hand, were very striking. I became particularly enamored with the first opening. The show doesn't actually start out with the opening--which I quite like. Instead, you get a small clip to start the episode off, and it will then freeze frame--often after something dramatic has happened or been said--and the opening will start with the last scene still frozen in the background. The first opening is not only catchy, but it just 'fits' the show very well. I especially like the vocal performance in it. I am a person that listens to metal and classical and usually critiques music based on technicality, so for anime I have to really force myself to stop that and look more at how catchy it is, and how well it fits the mood of the show. With these criteria in mind, Shiki's first opening is great. The second opening is by no means bad, but it was a marked downgrade from the first, so I could have done without it. As far as the music goes, it was rather forgettable. I literally cannot remember a single piece from any episode, and I only watched it less than a week ago. That said, though, I do remember it fitting the mood of what was going on, and it certainly didn't detract from any situations. With this in mind, I would call it serviceable, yet forgettable.

The other main aspect of the audio is of course the voice acting. Now, I need to be up front with my preferences: I prefer dubs. I speak English, and I would prefer to listen to a show in a language that I understand. I am also not someone who will talk about how much 'better' the Japanese voice acting is--even for a bad dub--because I don't speak Japanese, so I am really in no position to make that judgment. That said, dubs have improved so much over the past decade that they are now a very viable option for anyone, and this one is no different. Funimation did the dubbing, so expect to play the 'where have I heard them before game'. While this can be somewhat distracting, the quality of the performances definitely over-rides any weirdness caused by the remembered vestiges of the actors' previous roles. I really only have complaints with two characters. For one, Megumi is incredibly annoying. To be fair, though, her voice is very much in line with her archetype, so I can't really expect her to sound any differently. I also wasn't hugely fond of the performance that Natsuno's VA gave. It was by no means bad, but some of the delivery just felt slightly awkward or 'off'. This is very subjective, though, and much of his performance was very good; I just wanted to mention it.



Alright, it is now time to dive into the plot and characters. This is where the spoilers are going to start. I repeat: spoilers are now fair game, please turn back if you've yet to complete this series. Well then, you've been properly warned, so off we go! Shiki is a vampire anime. A strange family moves into a big castle/mansion up on a hill in a very rural community. This is a community full of farmers and everyone knows each other and is in the middle of their business. Just after these new--and very eccentric people--move in, people start dying. It starts very slowly, and it then progresses to a ridiculous amount of deaths. Most scenes in Shiki start with a date, so you can see how the situation is progressing over time. That is the general over-view of the story.

The first half or so of the series has a very mysterious feel to it. You are trying to figure out what is going on right along with the characters. The causes of death for the rising body count are mostly similar--being largely based around anemia, due to lack of blood--and the town doctor and his staff are convinced that it is some kind of epidemic. This thinking persists until about 75% through the show, when the towns folk finally open their eyes to what has been really going on. During this first half of the show, they do a good job of building suspense and not fully letting you in on what is going on. It is therefore very exciting when you start fully seeing the Shiki--or vampires--and start learning about what they really are and how they're doing what they're doing.

Now, as I said, the death count steadily increases as the situation progresses. This results in the majority of the named characters that you get to know being killed by Shiki by the end of the series. This is just something that you have to deal with if you're going to watch Shiki; it is not a happy or fun series, and it pulls no punches. This is immediately apparent, as in just the first two episodes Megumi, who you initially think is going to be the main character, dies. As things progress, you quickly learn that absolutely no one is safe. This leads to a very high amount of tension as no character really has the 'plot armor' that we have come to expect main cast members to have.

The immediate worry, then, is that all of the interesting characters will go away too soon, right? Well, that's not a problem. You see, when you are killed by a Shiki, you have a chance of coming back to life as one of them. This means that when they kill off a named character, they will just be able to bring them back as Shiki and keep them in the story in this new capacity. This is a huge perk to the kind of story that they are telling. It gives them the ability to kill any character that they wish, but still have them in the story.

After about the halfway mark, Shiki makes a marked shift from trying to figure out the mystery of what is going on to just learning more about the situation and watching it progress. The death count increases, more characters die, and you see that everything is falling apart in this little town. It is at this point that the levity becomes very scarce, and the tone begins to darken. This is when the morose and somber atmosphere starts setting in more and more because the damage that is being done simply cannot be undone. The entire town starts feeling like a lost cause. interestingly, this is equally true for before and after the villagers start fighting back. Why is that you might ask? Well, I think it's time to start talking about character development!


The character development in Shiki is where it really shines. The general story is really interesting, but let's be honest: it has been done before. In fact, the overall story--and even some of the vampire 'rules', like not entering a building unless invited--is almost completely aped from Salems Lot. This isn't such a bad thing, necessarily, but it does mean that this series would not be as good as it is without something else going for it. Shiki shows a descent into our baser animal instinct and into insanity in many ways. For example, The doctor grows progressively more and more unstable as the 'disease' spreads--and even worse once he realizes what is going on and has no way to stop it or convince people. We get to see the characters grow more and more desperate to survive and protect those that they love.

There are only a few 'human' characters that get very deep development on their own. The two that are the most important to the plot are definitely the doctor and his friend, the town monk. Watching how they both change so much--and start down very contradictory paths due to the situation with the Shiki--is incredibly engaging. Although they both 'survive' through the ending, there is absolutely no happy resolution for either of them, and this is pretty much standard for Shiki.

Aside from the monk and the doctor it is largely the Shiki that end up being the stars of the show. When they rise up from the grave, they are still the same person. But they are now that person with new abilities, a deathly aversion to sunlight, and the physical need to drink human blood to survive. You get to watch them struggle with the reality of their new existence. You also get to watch these people--who were mostly good people before--become accustomed and desensitized to killing their former friends, family and neighbors. Now, sure, there is always a chance that anyone they kill may rise back up and join them, but that is an enormous gamble. It's not as simple as them merely becoming complacent murderers, though. Shiki really hammers it home that they are still people, and they are simply trying to survive. This becomes incredibly relevant at the end of the series when what's left of the town starts hunting down the enormous amount of Shiki that now reside there. You begin to genuinely feel sorry for them as they are brutally executed. What makes it worse, is that this is done by their former family and friends.

Right about the time you start feeling sorry for 'most' of the Shiki, is about the time that you start wondering who are actually the monsters. Shiki is very deliberate in showing just how far over the edge the remaining villagers have gone. Most of them have no problem at all brutally killing the Shiki. They even start killing each other when they get bit during the fighting as a 'precaution'--even though the doctor explains that this is not necessary. They run around covered in blood like absolute lunatics. There are several very deliberate scenes to show how complacent the humans have become with killing, too. One in particular is of the women folk covered in blood and taking a break from stacking and moving the mutilated Shiki corpses. They sit down, drink some tea, and start chatting and laughing like nothing is happening at all. The message here is really that regardless of 'what' you are, the right situation can turn anyone into a complacent killer. Another way of looking at it is to say that when the chips are down and the situation is dire, the id is ultimately the core of who we are, not the super ego.



There are many more characters and situations that deserve mention, but this review is certainly long enough as it is, so I think it's time to wrap it up. Let me just sum it up very simply for you: Shiki is absolutely fantastic. It is an engaging and deep story that you will walk away from thinking about the deeper implications of what you have just viewed. It is a show that can be analyzed on a character by character basis and is perfect fodder for discussion. It is, however, also a very sad and mature series. The series progresses by bad things happening to one side or the other--Shiki or humans--and is full of death. There are also several scenes that are intentionally set up to be incredibly sad. And they don't feel cheap or forced, so the effect is fully realized--you will experience many feels. You will not walk away from this in a happy mood. Some of the best stories aren't afraid to leave the viewer feeling less than happy, though, and I think the complete disregard for pandering to the stereotypical 'happy' tropes in narratives that we are all so familiar with gives these kinds of stories an enormous amount of integrity and merit. Shiki has thoroughly reminded me why it is that I enjoy anime in the first place and just how deep of a story this medium can tell. I whole-heartedly recommend it.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Comfortable Guilt

Do you, my reader, ever feel any degree of guilt for living a comfortable lifestyle? Anyone that knows anything about me knows that I am a video game collector--especially steelbooks. I spend quite a fair bit of money on maintaining my large collection. There are, after all, an almost alarmingly huge amount of steelbooks being released for many games these days. It's nothing for me to drop at least $30 per steelbook; that's not even including the cost of the game, and heaven forbid if there is a collector's edition, as well. This spending clearly goes well above and beyond a need for entertainment. I find myself quite preoccupied with, but also quite pleased with the collection I have managed to amass. This is all well and good, but it also brings me to the point of this entry: guilt.

I was driving to school a couple of days ago, and it was really quite rainy outside. There are four or five different homeless people that I pass nearly every day on the way to school. They stand at the exits from the freeway, and they hope for pity from the morning commuters stuck waiting at red lights--who are probably too busy wallowing in pity for themselves to spare any for the vagabonds. I frequently talk to a couple of them; they're actually quite nice, just messed up. I saw them differently this day, though, then I had previously. I was sitting in my nice, warm car. I had my heated seats on, my music was going, I was all bundled up in my warm cloths, and they were standing out there in the rain, begging for money to eat. This is, of course, the standard situation when comparing homeless people to the drivers around them, but I really looked at it differently that morning.

I had spent a good portion of the drive bidding on some ebay items. I was extremely pleased to add them to my collection, but they served absolutely no functional purpose at all. I was spending money simply so I could have something else on my shelf and another line in my spreadsheets--yes, I'm one of those people. Meanwhile, in the world right outside my car window, there was this poor old woman standing there in the rain. She smiles and waves to everyone that goes by, and she hopes she'll get enough money to properly eat and warm up at some point that day. I couldn't help but feel bad once I lined this comparison up.
I am not a bleeding heart, so do not take me for one. She is not entitled to my money, and there is nothing wrong with hard work and success. This realization did not make me want to go sell my collection and sponsor a homeless person. The situation really just made me feel embarrassed at my obsession with material things. I could be in her shoes, after all. I was sitting there, in my warm car, that morning pleased with all the money I had just wasted on 'cool things'. She was standing outside, freezing her old bones off, hoping to eat and warm up. It just made me think.

I have worked with numerous charities over the years, and I have even coached Special Olympics twice; I would say I am a fairly charitable person. I don't think this was a wakeup call to my more charitable side; it's already awake and doing just fine, thank you. It was merely eye opening. In fact, I don't even have a point in mind with this. With my previous blogs, I have set out to illustrate a point. This one is more just contained rambling, however.

Do any of you ever feel any degree of guilt for you comfortable lifestyle? If so, what did you with it? 

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The paradox of modern game design (Spotlight: Crysis 3)

I am currently playing through Crysis 3 on the Xbox 360. This is a brand new game that was just released yesterday (2/19). This game was developed by Crytek and published by EA. This is not a small, niche game. This is a AAA shooter from a very talented developer and a [I]giant[/I] publisher. As we all know, AAA games have a very large budget--I was unable to find the exact number, but it seems Crytek usually have a budget of between 10-30 million--and usually have a large number of people working on them. They're a 'big deal', and they're made as such. Herein lies the paradox, though. Even with all this money and manpower thrown at them, AAA games are still often extremely vapid, or they are riddled with annoying bugs and problems. This blog will be speaking to the latter.

This game is buggy, dudes; that's all there is to it. Right from the very first level there are very annoying sound issues. The sound cuts out frequently. This seems to be worse in cut scenes, but it is certainly present during gameplay, as well. Nothing can take you out of an experience more than having the experience break down around you. I am reminded every 30 seconds or so that I am playing a buggy video game. The frame rate on this level is also inconsistent. The rain in the outside segments is clearly too much for the game to handle on consoles. It would be much better if they reduced the visual fidelity a little bit to make it run smoother. Consoles aren't PCs after all, and there is no way for a person to change the graphics settings.

It is also my understanding from those that I have talked to--I haven't played it enough to form an opinion on this for myself yet--that the multiplayer is also full of issues. The previous Crysis game, Crysis 2, had some of the most severe latency problems that I have ever seen in a console FPS. It sounds like this game continues that legacy. As I said, though, I cannot fully endorse this view yet; I will need to play it more to make a proper judgment on the multiplayer.

My mind is boggled that these issues made it past testers. I can understand that the frame rate drops were excused. That is a fairly common problem--especially with those types of effects. And it's honestly not too egregious to just overlook. The only reason I found that to be so annoying, is that the sound was already grating on my nerves, and my patience was completely spent.

I do not know the actual decisions, timelines, or contracts that led to this game being released in such a state, so take what I am about to say with a grain of salt; it is merely an educated assumption. I believe that EA rushed this game. I don't see how anybody that has poured all their time and energy in to making this game could want to release it in such a state. It looks bad for the developer and the publisher. The majority of people just don't care about these things, though.

The bulk of their audience will go buy the game at full new price from Gamestop or Walmart. They will barely notice the issues, and trade it in when they're done. Many video game consumers have barely any knowledge of what goes on behind the scenes. Many, in fact, barely even know what company makes what--much less what specific team makes it, not just the publisher. These companies get away with things like this because we, the consumers, don't hold them to a higher standard. They can still be rewarded for their laziness.

It's really a shame that the industry has turned into the 'big business' game that it has. I am hopeful about the changes that have happened over the past year, though. I'm not naive enough to say that Kickstarter can change everything, but I think it at least has a chance to make a ripple. Kickstarter allows for a completely different interaction between creator and consumer. It also presents an opportunity for the vision and quality of the game to come before the financial tight ropes that these big publishers tend to project onto the companies they publish for. I'm excited that there is a growing alternative to the EAs and Activisions of the gaming world. Hopefully someday it can grow enough for the bigger companies to take notice and make some changes. Oh wait, Call of Duty and Madden still come out every year. Never mind, the big companies won't be changing. :3

Games influence on our perception of reality

Do games have an influence on how we perceive reality? Can they change the way we observe and react to a situation? This is something that I have thought about from time to time for quite a while. It was just last week, though, when I finally noticed a prime example that has been right in front of me for quite some time.

I was taking my nice, and somewhat leisurely, walk from the far parking lot of my university up the hill towards the science building. I was walking up in that oft-abhorred ten minute break between classes. As I was making my way towards my destination, I was surrounded by professors hustling and bustling off towards their classes--some were moving from one to another, others had just arrived and were merely starting their day. It was at this point when I noticed that I had seen everything that was going on around me before. This was not a sudden bout with severe deja vu, but rather a realization. I watched these people run this same routine every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. I, likewise, watch another group of professors go through their routines every Tuesday and Thursday.

I thought it was quite funny how these people do the same thing week after week. They wear the same jacket; they wear the same hat--certain ones always carry a briefcase, too. They also all have their own quirky ways of walking and interacting with those that pass by. The Physical Science professor is always smiling and shouting out greetings to those that he passes as he skips his way towards his class. The Religion History professor has his nervous waddle down the hill as he tries to find the awkward balance of eye contact to ground staring that he is comfortable with. Their personalities really shine through in something as simple as walking to their class.

I'm sure that by this point you're all wondering: "What the hell does any of this have to do with video games?" Well, I'm to that point now, and congratulations for sticking it out this long. This whole scene--once I became aware that it was happening--immediately reminded me of countless hours spent playing The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask. For those that don't know--and shame on you, by the way--this Zelda game runs on a constant clock throughout its repeating three day period. The NPCs in the main town actually have daily routines that they will carry out whether you are there to see it or not. They will leave the house at the same time, head to the same destination, and walk in the same goofy--yet personality revealing--way every day.

The reason this event stuck out to me so much had nothing to do with it being special--in fact, it was anything but; it was really just a slice of life. It was made special to me, though, by my association with a video game that I have spent countless hours on and hold in very high regard. It also really cemented--in my mind, at least--that video games can and do change our perception of reality. When you spend a lot of time thoughtfully interacting with something, it only makes sense that it can have a long lasting effect on who you are. It may not have an enormous effect, but it does sink in somewhere. This can certainly be true for other forms of media as well, but due to the large time investment and interactive nature of video games, I think their effect is more potent. I look forward to the next time I am meandering through a boring and uneventful day, only to find myself perceiving my reality in a way that wouldn't be possible without video games.