Hyrule Warriors Legends Review

Hyrule is on the brink of annihilation. A seemingly endless horde of evil monsters is invading the kingdom. The castle’s walls are littered with the bodies of its defenders. Eldin Caves have been completely overrun, and something sinister lurks in its fiery depths. The trees in Faron Woods are burning down, and what’s left has turned poisonous. Princess Zelda is missing in action – again – leaving Impa and Link to lead what remains of the army to certain death.  Whoever is commanding the enemy forces is actively hunting the legendary hero. Is it a personal vendetta? A morbid obsession? No one knows. Regardless, the war won’t stop at just the borders of this Hyrule; its counterpart realms from Ocarina of Time, Twilight Princess, Skyward Sword, and The Wind Waker have all been dragged into the mess.

Even Link is going to need some help with this one.

At first glance, the story seems like a Zelda fan’s dream come true. After 30 years of games, worldbuilding, and diverging timelines, everything comes back together in the ultimate crisis crossover. In order to save his Hyrule, Link has to travel to the other versions and team up with the finest (and in some cases, most popular) warriors in the series. For those who grew up with the Nintendo 64 games, seeing Sheik, Darunia, Ruto, Young Link, and Skull Kid in action will be like a tidal wave of nostalgia. There are several nods to the mythology of respective games; Midna’s true form seen in Twilight Princess returns as a plot point, and Fi explicitly mentions that the current Link is not the same as his Skyward Sword iteration. Sheik’s true identity and Ganondorf’s involvement are foregone conclusions; the narrative indulges in those twists solely for the sake of newcomers to the series. It’s just enough fanservice to keep longtime players nodding along to an otherwise brisk pace and somewhat shallow story.

A narrative with such a grand scale is a double-edged sword. As awesome as it sounds, there’s no way to give every single character the same amount of focus and keep the story moving steadily. It only takes a few battles to liberate each of the respective Hyrules; there’s just enough time for character introductions, some banter, and a brief glimpses of the games by way of the battle maps. Beyond that, the majority of the warriors receive no development after they’ve joined the team. Despite being heavily promoted in the previews, Linkle has almost no impact on the story whatsoever. Link gets his usual arc of starting as a nobody and eventually earning the Master Sword, but now with a “power of friendship” moral tacked on. Even if it is cheesy, it makes sense; this game is all about banding together and making a combined effort to thwart a much larger force. Ganondorf is in an amalgam of the best aspects of his previous incarnations; he is intelligent, ruthless, overwhelmingly powerful, and seems like an unstoppable force of evil. His attempt to conquer Hyrule is one of the most entertaining parts of the game. The same cannot be said for Lana and Cia, the newcomers who drive the plot in their own ways. Their arcs are all about the dangers of obsession, and the emotional turmoil and unspeakable lengths that come with it. The big plot twist would’ve been more interesting had it not been so blatantly obvious, or at least had a slower build-up. Other games have handled similar subject matter, but with far better storytelling.

You’ll probably be too busy killing things to care, though. Rather than typical adventuring and puzzle solving of the Zelda series, Hyrule Warriors Legends is a straightforward musou-style action game. The overall goal is simple: conquer the battlefield and defeat the invading army. This is made slightly more complicated because, you know, you’re usually outnumbered a thousand to one. It’s easy to mow through dozens of minor enemies per second, but you’ll get trouble once you run into things like Icy Big Poes, Moblins, ReDeads, and other recurring enemies strong enough to block and take few hits. It’s even tougher when you’re facing off against a main character armed with a slew of signature moves and impressive durability. As a battle wears on, managing your army takes higher priority over your kill count. In order to stem the flow of enemy forces, you have to conquer their bases and outposts one at a time; doing so lets you control where and how powerful their presence will be. This typically involves running into an enclosed area and slaughtering everything until the game proclaims your success. You can try running blindly across the map and attempt to kill the opposing commander immediately, but you’ll probably get stopped by a locked door, thus leaving your bases unguarded, and your allies without backup. You’re left wide open for counterattacks and surprisingly fast losses. Side missions and objectives pop up frequently, forcing you to improvise your way to victory. The trick is learning to strike a balance between offensive and defensive tactics; steadily crush your enemies, but pay attention to your friends’ needs. Once you’ve gotten everything else out of the way, go for the final kill…

Oh, if only it all worked that well.

In certain respects, Hyrule Warriors Legends is technological marvel.  Taking such a huge Wii U game, adding even more content, and then cramming it onto a 3DS cart is nothing short of astounding. It’s far from perfect, though. There are still plenty of glitches to be fixed; I’ve had every enemy randomly freeze after using an Owl Statue warp, but then prevent me from conquering any bases. Some of the auto-saved checkpoints can re-spawn objectives you’ve already completed, refuse to unlock doors, or mess up your weapon’s hit detection. Your AI-controlled allies are borderline useless; the Hylian Captains fail miserably so often, they’re probably all secretly traitors. No matter how much you level up and develop the playable characters’ abilities, they will become utterly inept the moment you switch to another warrior mid-battle. The sub-weapon system, which includes arrows, bombs, and other Zelda staples, has awkward, lethargic controls and is poorly utilized. It’s used to defeat major bosses like King Dodongo, Gohma, and Manhandla, but little else aside from simple puzzles tacked on for the sake of battlefield progression or bonus items. The AI for those monsters are especially abysmal; it’s common for them to constantly recycle their animations instead of set attack patterns, which turns their fights into annoying, time-consuming games of chance.

The camera, which utilizes the C-Stick a la Monster Hunter 4 and Majora’s Mask 3D incredibly well, is barely responsive in certain directions. You’ll spend more time struggling with it than against any enemy in the game. It’s not uncommon for your view to get stuck in a corner or behind a wall, which is absolutely lethal in more difficult battles. That’s a huge problem when you have to rely on it to switch between targeted foes. Speaking of which, seeing all those dozens of classic Zelda monsters moving onscreen at the same time is amazing…Assuming you’re playing on a New 3DS, of course. The game runs decently on it, but you’ll still encounter foes that are invisible unless you’re standing right next to them. Some of the maps – Death Mountain and Valley of Seers come to mind – have intricate, cleverly-designed structures, but the draw distance is lacking, and the colors and textures are far below the 3DS’s usual standards. Even if you don’t care about the graphics and have are using an older version of the system, the poor camera controls, the sheer amount of processing, and their impact on the gameplay deserve some consideration.

The game tries to distract you from its shortcomings by focusing on its most important aspect: the combat mechanics. There are over 20 playable characters, each with unique movesets and abilities. While it’s easy to mash the X button and unleash a barrage of weak attacks, you can mix them up with stronger moves, and build up an energy meter for powerful specials. There’s no real challenge in terms of timing or technique; unless you’re trying to stun and kill a boss in a single combo, it all boils down to preference. The controls are wonderfully responsive and the attacks are flashy, and that’ll hopefully be enough to get you through the most tedious fights. There’s nothing quite as awesome as annihilating a small army by summoning Ganondorf’s giant demonic arm, or having Zant twirl and flail around like a maniacal blender. Stylishly juggling enemies with Linkle’s dual crossbows defies common sense, but it looks cool. Everyone gets unlockable alternate weapons, but the main characters get far more attention; aside from the Master Sword, Link can wield the Magic Rod, the Twilight Princess Spinner, and a few others, all with different uses and animations. Everyone can be further developed via the simple upgrade system, which allows you to improve combos, chip damage, item usage, and other stats. Combined with the character models, music (the Hyrule Field, Gerudo Desert, and Eldin Cave rock remixes are amazing), achievements, and Puzzle Swap-style artwork, there’s a ton of content waiting to be unlocked. No matter how bad the rest of the game seems, there effort involved in designing the moves and additional content is undeniable.

Since getting all of that extra stuff requires item drops, you’re going to be replaying. A lot. It’s easy to plow through the main story in a single weekend, but unlocking everything is a slow, arduous burn. You’ll spend the majority of your time on Adventure Mode, which has you tackle battles with specific win conditions and a grading system. You might have to kill a certain number of enemies with limited time, all while being chased around by a boss. Or you could slog through the laughably easy quiz missions, which give you a gauntlet of specific enemies to slay for your answers. Others, such as boss rushes and Cucco turf wars, can be surprisingly challenging. That’s especially true with the grading system; your score determines what mission you unlock next, so you’ll have to play exceptionally well if you want to get anywhere. Progression in Adventure Mode is further complicated by its layout; it’s a set of grids that resemble maps from other Zelda games. You’ll earn candles, whistles, and other old-school items that help you unlock new areas, characters, and equipment. It’s all about knowing when and where to use those items, just like the original game. Even if it is challenging and frustrating, it’s a clever, creative way to celebrate the franchise.

That can be said for the game as a whole. Hyrule Warriors Legends is an impressive feat that ultimately falters under its creator’s ambitions. Porting one of the biggest Wii U games to a handheld console was never going to be perfect, and it shows. Even if you’re playing this on a New 3DS, be prepared for glitches and questionable camera controls. The developers rightfully focused on making sure the characters played smoothly and stylishly amidst a ridiculously huge amount of enemies onscreen, and sacrificed the rest of the visuals in the process. The AI leaves much to be desired, though slaying hordes of video game monsters with iconic heroes is quite fun. If there was any Nintendo game that would benefit from patches and DLC, it’s this. There’s plenty of room for improvement in many areas, and time will tell if and how it’ll happen. Much like the overall Zelda franchise, Hyrule Warriors Legends has had a rough start, but could be potentially brilliant. Despite having so many heroes, it still needs a savior.

Originally posted here.

The Martian (Book) Review

Mark Watney has a problem. Due to a dust storm during his NASA mission, he’s been stranded on Mars. His teammates – and the rest of mankind – thought he died. He has no way to communicate with Earth. He’s trapped in a small habitat designed to last a month. There’s no breathable atmosphere outside. He has enough food for six people which, even if rationed, will last him less than one year. Since a rescue mission will take at least four years to arrive, he has to figure out a way to grow more food…on a planet devoid of water. But if no one knows he’s still alive, he’s going to starve anyway.

Okay, make that several problems.

SPOILERS

Needless to say, The Martian isn’t your typical survival story. A deserted island is one thing, but Mars is a completely different beast. How do you live on a planet that’s essentially uninhabitable? The answer is an awesome blend of the sheer isolation and desperation of Castaway and the determination and scientific improvising of Apollo 13. Watney was part of the NASA mission for a reason; as the team’s botanist and engineer, he’s got the right skills and knowledge to keep himself alive. Not enough food? Okay, cover the floor of the Hab with dirt, plant potatoes, and use your own waste as fertilizer. Keep track of your daily calories and ration accordingly. No water? Fine, burn some hydrazine, store the results, and be careful not to blow yourself up. Need to go on long excursions outside? Outfit your rover with solar panels, create a breathable atmosphere inside, and find a heat source to keep yourself from freezing. Communications array busted? Scrounge for leftover technology, fix what you can, and send information via telemetry, handwritten signs, or Morse code. Your spacesuit helmet cracked? Duct tape.

Seriously.

While some of these MacGuyver-esque techniques might seem daunting for the non-scientifically inclined, The Martian is quite to easy to read and understand. Andy Weir’s extensive research in potential and existing spaceflight technology shows through in both the details and the way they’re presented. While most sci-fi narratives are bogged down by their technical aspects, this novel benefits from having a narrator with a sense of humor. For all his expertise, Watney is a huge geek with a penchant for sarcasm. His first journal entry is laden with profanity, which is exactly how any normal person would react. His ability to describe realistic science in layman’s terms is impressive and often funny; he can say things like, “Problem is (follow me closely here, the science is pretty complicated), if I cut a hole in the Hab, the air won’t stay inside anymore” or “Something very hot and very explodey had happened” without coming off as condescending. His journal entries give a sense of confidence and self-awareness; he confronts the dire situation with straightforwardness and honesty, but relies on knowledge and humor to keep himself sane. When he’s not explaining how stuff works, his idle musings over Aquaman, Three’s Company, disco, other pop culture tidbits are more than enough to keep readers hooked.

Whenever we need a reminder that Watney’s situation isn’t all laughs, however, the perspective switches over to the rescue operation. NASA discovering he’s still alive is a foregone conclusion; they still have active satellites observing the planet’s surface. Communicating with and getting him back to Earth requires extensive logistics and engineering marvels. The novel examines what would actually happen in this kind of situation; the media frenzy, JPL redesigning rockets with limited time and budget, spaceflight physics, and frantic improvising when things go wrong. There are no villains; everyone wants Watney to make it back alive. How that’s achieved is up for debate, and coming up with a decisive plan is what forms the conflict. While the explanations are in-depth, the characters describing them are not. Most of NASA’s higher-ups (aside from the wonderfully brash Mitch Henderson and supremely competent Mindy Park) are sadly forgettable. Watney’s crew fare little better; their personalities are developed just enough to keep things interesting. There’s potential, like Commander Lewis dealing with the guilt of leaving one of her men behind, or Johanssen’s adorkable interactions with Beck. Aside from those, the astronauts are utterly one-note. Martinez is an ace pilot, constant joker, and nothing else. Then there’s Vogel, the German orbital mechanics and chemistry expert. That’s all. They all provide a little witty banter and technical expertise to get them – and the reader – through the mission, but nothing else. While the story is supposed to be focused on Watney’s survival, a little more time with the rest of the crew would’ve been appreciated.

That doesn’t make The Martian a bad novel. Far from it. It’s got just the right combination of humor and technical know-how to keep readers hooked. Mark Watney is a wonderful protagonist; his snarky attitude and determination turn what should’ve been a tragedy into an epic survival adventure. While the other characters don’t get nearly enough time, they serve their purposes in portraying a nearly impossible rescue mission. The story is well-paced and incredibly difficult not to finish in one sitting. Not due to brevity – the paperback release clocks in at just under 400 pages – but because it’s entertaining. I’m not going to spoil if or how Watney survives, but let’s just say that you’ll be rooting for him every complicated step of the way. This is one of those rare science fiction novels that strives for realism, but absolutely refuses to be weighed down by technical jargon. It can inspire people to study sciences, space flight and exploration, and anything else associated with astronomy. That, above all else, makes The Martian worth reading.

Wind/Pinball Review

It finally happened. After years of letting them fade into obscurity, Haruki Murakami brought Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball,1973 stateside. For longtime English-speaking fans, the 2015 release of Wind/Pinball was a dream come true; finding translated copies of these novels was almost impossible. The fact that they were were the first two entries in Murakami’s “Trilogy of the Rat” made things even worse. While it wasn’t necessary to read them before A Wild Sheep Chase, having some background on the unnamed protagonist and the Rat would’ve been helpful. Now that the full story is here, Western readers can finally get the experience as it was meant to be…for better or worse.

For those of you expecting another round of Murakami’s bizarre shenanigans and magical realism, be prepared to reign in your expectations. Wind/Pinball were his first two novels, and it shows. Hear the Wind Sing is about the college-aged narrator coming back to his hometown during summer break and spending time with the Rat, his longtime friend and binge-drinking partner. The novel tries to encapsulate the sense of change and budding maturity of a young twenty-something. The narrator gradually realizes that the summers of his youth are long gone, and how much of his life he took for granted. He tries to track down a former high school classmate, but fails miserably. He’s had three previous girlfriends, yet can barely muster any memories of them. He attempts to romance a young lady – who, of course, has only nine fingers – but the relationship barely goes anywhere. We’re only given a glimpse of the girl’s issues towards the end of the novel (she’s practically a precursor to Yuki from Dance Dance Dance), but little else. Murakami’s female characters are often regarded as shallow satellites to the protagonists, but it’s especially obvious here.

Considering that Hear the Wind Sing is the first entry in the “Trilogy of the Rat,” it’s no surprise that its namesake is the more interesting of the two main characters. Unlike the narrator, the Rat has yet to take the first few steps into adulthood. While all of his friends are off studying at the universities, he spends his time getting drunk and avoiding responsibility. He uses alcoholism to drown out his sense of loneliness. Despite coming from a wealthy family, he loathes being rich and considers himself a social outcast. Like the narrator, he confronts some harsh truths: the times are changing, his friends are leaving him behind, and he needs to be able to connect with people beyond drunken debauchery. It’s rather telling that the narrator introduces the Rat as a “virtual stranger to books,” yet he’s seen reading literature in almost every scene he appears after. Whether this is a result of the Rat’s curiosity towards novels or an attempt to strengthen his friendship with the narrator remains ambiguous. Regardless, his character development adds flavor to an already bittersweet story.

The Rat’s issues are taken a step further in Pinball, 1973. Thanks to his wealthy background, he’s able to spend every day at the bar and have drunken flings…but they’re not as fulfilling as actually living. He’s well aware that life is passing him by, and he has yet to find a purpose. There’s a vague notion that he needs to leave town and find his own place in the world, which is nicely illustrated with Rat’s association with the town’s waterfront. As a child, he used to go down to the beach every night; there was a beacon that would turn on at sunset, and he could sit on the pier and watch the waves. However, his current girlfriend undermines his nostalgia. She lives in an apartment near the beach, but loathes the location. She’s complains about the ocean and shuts the blinds on her window, thus cutting the Rat off from the allure it gave him. It’s foreshadowing their doomed relationship, as well as the Rat’s ever-growing wanderlust. While his decision seems obvious (and a foregone conclusion to English-speaking fans who read A Wild Sheep Chase first), his character development is satisfying.

The narrator’s storyline is a little less straightforward. He’s already made the transition into adulthood, but gets a serious case of nostalgia. His focus is on a pinball machine called Spaceship, which used to be part of the bar where he and the Rat frequented. He goes to great lengths to explain the appeal of playing pinball. The dazzling lights, and the rush of a well-played game, the satisfaction of a new high score…and the inevitable burnout. Anyone who has grown up with video games will understand the sentiments all too well. However, it was something more for him; he describes as an obsessive love affair; it is intense, costly, and ultimately fleeting. He also has to face the unfortunate reality: reliving your past isn’t as easy or fulfilling as it sounds, and most people won’t share your passion, let alone even know what you’re talking about. The narrator goes to great lengths in his search for Spaceship, but recapturing those moments is something else entirely.

Pinball, 1973 also serves as the starting point for Murakami’s signature elements. Anyone who’s read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle will perk up when the narrator mentions wells, and the name (and fate of) “Naoko” ought to give Norwegian Wood fans a jolt. There’s even a pair of identical twin girls – called 208 and 209 respectively – who inexplicably live with and interact with the narrator, yet he never questions their origins and possibly otherworldly existence. It all seems like typical Murakami, but not as structured or developed. Some of these aspects, much like the love interest from the first book, feel tacked on at best. Aside from providing the narrator a little emotional depth and some surreal conversations, they add little to the story. If anything, they’re the rough drafts of the stuff we’ve come to expect from the author.

They don’t make these novels necessarily bad, though. Every author, no matter how popular they are, has to start somewhere. Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973 were Murakami’s first attempts at storytelling, and it shows. They’re not perfect by any means, but they do well at capturing the loneliness and confusion of someone coming of age. Longtime English-speaking fans will be glad to finally get the missing pieces of the Trilogy of the Rat and read the story as it was meant to be seen. Though far from Murakami’s finest, it’s still an interesting look into a great author’s humble beginnings.

Go Set A Watchman Review

Like countless other children, I read and watched To Kill A Mockingbird in a grade school classroom. I could spend hours writing about how it introduced me to the concept of racism, illustrated the importance of compassion, the complexities of its theming, and Gregory Peck’s phenomenal performance as Atticus Finch. You probably know all of that already, though; Go Set A Watchman has been a bestseller since its release, and for good reason. Be it for Harper Lee’s legacy in the literary world, talk of the scandalous publishing circumstances, or the morbid curiosity in regards to a fallen hero, readers are interested in going back to Maycomb. The reunion is bitter, but worth the trip.

SPOILERS

Before getting into this, one thing above all else needs to be understood: Contrary to what might’ve been marketed to you, Go Set A Watchman is not a sequel. It started as an early draft that eventually led to a famous novel. It featured a 26 year-old Jean Louise Finch coming home to visit, finding out how messed up everything is, and dealing with it while accompanied by flashbacks to her supposedly idyllic childhood. Those flashbacks – and advice from Lee’s editor – are the foundations of To Kill A Mockingbird. Any transition from first draft to book is fraught with changes, and Harper Lee’s work is no exception; the continuity errors and lack of editing are obvious. Tom Robinson was acquitted (the iconic trial is only mentioned in passing) in this version, which makes one wonder if this story can even be considered canon. Jem is dead and Dill is likely traveling through post-World War II Europe, thus depriving her of  some much-needed friends/confidants. The cast is limited to only a handful, and even fewer get any kind of development. Rather than a fully fleshed-out novel, it comes off as a character study strung together with a series of anecdotes.

It seems fine at first. Scout has grown into a confident, successful young woman. Not only can she afford to live in New York and visit Atticus annually, but approaches her hometown’s seemingly old-fashioned traditions with open contempt. She has a passive-aggressive war with her Aunt Alexandra (who serves as the embodiment of Maycomb’s values as opposed to a fully-realized character), and considers her Uncle Jack as eccentric bookworm. With her peers gone, the narrative focuses on Scout’s relationship with Henry Clinton, her not-quite fiance and Atticus’s protege. It’s a charming story until Scout finds out about their participation in the local Citizens’ Council. Rather than taking a step back and trying to figure out what’s going on, she immediately assumes the worst and spends the latter half of the book having a meltdown.

This is nothing new for her. We get to see Scout’s childhood and coming of age via flashbacks, and they all foreshadow her problem. She tends to believe whatever she sees or is told without question, makes assumptions, lets her issues build up, and either gets caught or has to be bailed out of trouble by her companions. These passages blend often comedy and tragedy; we get a glimpse of a clueless Atticus turning to Calpurnia for help with Scout’s first period, which is a reminder of how Mrs. Finch is long dead. Scout also gets French kissed on the playground, thinks she’s gotten pregnant, secretly harbors the guilt for months, culminating in a half-baked suicide attempt. Not to mention insecurities with her appearance,  which nearly ruin her experience at school dance, and how it leads to her near-expulsion. With stories like these, it’s not surprising why To Kill A Mockingbird became its own thing.

Scout’s misunderstandings and awkward stubbornness are endearing when she’s a kid, but not so much when she’s 26. When attending a coffee luncheon with her former classmates, she spends the entire time musing how they have nothing in common and how she despises Maycomb’s expectations of women. She never makes an attempt to see them as actual people instead of walking cliches.There are over 100 pages between her finding about Atticus and confronting him about it, and she spends them either reminiscing about her childhood, dismissing other people, or inwardly fuming. The narration explains it immediately: Scout worshiped her father, but never realized it. It’s one thing to respect your parent, but holding him up as an idealized bastion of moral perfection is not good for you. Parents are flawed just like you, and you won’t always agree with them. Scout’s near mental breakdown and falling out with her family shows how bad such a character flaw can get.

“She was extravagant with her pity, and complacent in her snug world.”

Surprisingly, Atticus is written more sympathetically. Make no mistake: His view of African Americans is offensively patronizing at the very least. To modern audiences, his anti-integration stance is disgusting. By no means is he the frothing, manic, lynch-happy racist Scout thinks he’s become (she compares him to Hitler in one eye roll-inducing moment during her lengthy, bitter speech), but his brand of bigotry is more subtle. Unlike his daughter, he argues his side calmly; he hates what happened with Brown v. Board of Education and its relation to the 10th Amendment, and loathes the idea of NAACP affecting Maycomb. His heritage is deeply intertwined with the town; of course he’d want to protect its values and keep things unchanged for as long as possible, even if (to us, anyway)  they are horrifying. It’s no coincidence that Atticus is 72 and crippled with arthritis; he, like the town, embodies beliefs that are on the verge of death. He’s not necessarily evil, but merely a product of his time.

Unfortunately, the rest of the cast didn’t get the same attention. Calpurnia, now withered and confined to a rocking chair, shows up for one incredibly sad and guilt-ridden scene. Aunt Alexandra only shows a hint of depth when Scout makes her cry during their final argument, which makes their interpersonal spats look juvenile in retrospect. Henry seems primed for character growth; he’s the scion of one of Maycomb’s “trash” families, worked his way out of poverty, and done well under Atticus’s wing. He admits that he’s just going along with the Citizens’ Council because he’s trying to live according to others’ expectations, and is desperately afraid of being shamed by the community and losing everything he’s worked for. It would’ve made for an interesting arc, but Henry slips into irrelevance soon after the reveal.

Uncle Jack, however, steals every scene he’s in; he’s savvy enough to understand that a confrontation is inevitable and tries to stealth-mentor Scout via exposition and literary quotations. She ends up so angry and confused that he has to physically intervene and slap her just to keep her from walking out on them forever. He then has to spell out Scout’s personal failings – and a major theme of the novel – because she’s too dense to understand them. The fact that he considered Scout and Jem to be the children he never had – and the revelation that he was in love with their mother – is practically tacked on as an afterthought. Uncle Jack’s lack of character development is unfortunate, because his sarcasm and eccentric personality makes him such a great contrast to the straitlaced Atticus:

“”Listen, girl. You’ve got to shake off a twenty-year-old habit and shake it off fast. You will begin now. Do you think Atticus is going to hurl a thunderbolt at you?”

“After what I said to him? After the-”

Dr. Finch jabbed the floor with his his walking stick. “Jean Louise, have you ever met your father?”

No. She had not. She was terrified.

“I think you’ll have a surprise coming,” said her uncle.”

There’s a scene in which Scout, desperate for something welcoming and familiar, returns to her childhood home. It’s been replaced with an ice cream shop, and it takes only a few pages before she vomits up her vanilla and realizes that everything has irrecoverably changed. While I doubt Go Set A Watchman will provoke such an extreme reaction from its readers, there’s no denying what it means for To Kill A Mockingbird. It’s easy to dismiss this novel for its lack of proper editing, continuity errors, and questionable background, but its messages are worth considering. Just like Scout, we’ve spent decades worshiping Atticus Finch as a figure of ultimate moral integrity. It’s so easy to forget that perspectives and values change over time, and not everyone will be on the right side of history. Our heroes aren’t as great as we thought…and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. They are not perfect, but they are human. Maybe it’s more interesting that way.

Xenoblade Chronicles 3D Review

Oh, I want to get away…

Once upon a time, two titans clashed in the middle of an ocean. The Bionis and the Mechonis – the deities of natural and mechanical life respectively – fought until they were locked in an eternal stalemate. Both figuratively and literally; both beings died before they could win the battle, and their enormous corpses petrified together. Rather than crumbling under the ravages of time, their bodies formed a new world. Whole civilizations grew and flourished on these fallen gods, but the modern world hasn’t forgotten the ancient conflict. The human race is fighting a losing war against the Mechon, a seemingly unstoppable horde of killing machines. With death already on their doorstep, the ever-dwindling colonies of survivors desperately need a savior.

They’ll have to settle with Shulk.

He’s not a hero. He lacks both the physical capabilities of a soldier and wisdom of his elders. He’d rather spend his days doing research than going on adventures. That’s what makes him more believable than most game characters; he’s a naive bystander that gets swept up in a war, suffers, survives, and gradually becomes a hero. He’s far more interesting a protagonist than his friend Reyn, who acts like a stereotypical thickheaded, temperamental warrior. What starts as a fairly creative story is dragged down by the cliches typical of the RPG genre. Shulk is somehow chosen to wield the Monado, a legendary sword capable of slaying Mechon. His background is hazy at best, which leads to a few predictable plot twists. He’s trying to avenge the destruction of his home town, but eventually gets drawn into something much bigger. Revenge is hardly an original motive, but the game does well in getting you emotionally involved; the heroes seem real and sympathetic, and the villains are sadistic and powerful. While the story is long – even the most straightforward playthroughs take dozens of hours to finish – the decent pacing and character development keep things interesting.

Shulk’s inexperience isn’t just for narrative purposes. He embarks on his quest woefully unskilled, armed with only a handful of awkward slashes and stabs. Finesse and variety are sacrificed for practicality; the combat mechanics focus on teamwork, positioning, and ability buffs. Some attacks deal more damage when he approaches from behind his opponent, while some enemies can’t even be hurt unless they’ve been inflicted with status effects. Battles take place in real-time, and attacks need to be recharged after each use. It’s not so bad early on, but many of the later fights require you to constantly manage your party’s tactics. The controls lend themselves well to the New 3DS’s button mapping, but surprisingly lack touch screen menus; the top screen is needlessly cluttered with information that could’ve been displayed  in other ways. It’s tempting to blindly mash your way through and pray your random commands work, but you’ll just get everyone slaughtered. As you rack up critical hits, you’ll build up a gauge that can be used to either trigger high-damage chain attacks or revive fallen party members. Shulk can occasionally see oncoming attacks and let his friends decide on moves, but it’s inconsistent at best. Since the AI is rarely reliable in terms of advanced strategies, you’ll have to divide your time between keeping everyone alive and dishing out damage. While it seems overwhelmingly complex at first glance, the essentials are easy to learn.

It’s not all about fighting, though. Xenoblade Chronicles was designed around exploration, and it shows. Shulk’s quest spans two continents, taking on over 400 optional side-quests and killing creatures along the way. There are no random battles; just several areas teeming with monsters that don’t necessarily have to be attacked. The game tells you how strong they are, so you can go in or back off accordingly. While most RPGs favor linear designs, this world practically begs you to go off the beaten path. Not only are there tons of nooks and crannies hidden everywhere, but the game rewards you with experience points and other bonuses for your curiosity. There’s almost no downside to getting hurt in battle; health is plentiful, and you’ll re-spawn close by if you die. There’s even an ability to warp to any landmark you’ve previously visited, which eliminates countless hours of backtracking. It’s especially handy if you’ve accidentally passed an area or need a certain item for a side-quest. These tasks are usually menial, but are essential for developing the huge assortment of skill trees, equipment, character affinities, and everything else that factors into combat system. Fair warning, though: You need to find a balance between storyline progression and going off on your own. If you focus too much on exploring, the pacing will slow to a crawl, the characters will be over-leveled, and you’ll likely burn yourself out.

Xenoblade 3D is indeed a massive game, both in terms of gameplay content and sheer scale. You won’t understand just how big and open-ended it is until you see Gaur Plain for the first time. The green fields and hills seem to go forever, and the silhouettes of the Bionis and Mechonis loom distantly in the drifting clouds. It gives you a sense of how utterly small you are, and how much there is left to see. Since there are so many creatures with widely varying strengths roaming around, the world feels more like a cohesive, living whole instead of a pre-structured journey. It’s no wonder the game can only be played on the New 3DS; it would’ve been impossible for the older handhelds to process these kinds of visuals consistently. That doesn’t mean they’re perfect, though. The Wii version of Xenoblade was absolutely gorgeous at a distance, but suffered from poor texturing and bland facial designs up close. These issues are more prominent on a handheld; even with its impressive frame rate and 3D effects, the New 3DS can’t match the splendor of a console and television screen. Everything just seems a little fuzzier and faded, which lessen the overall experience. That being said, this is still one of the best-looking games on the system. Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate might be more colorful and look smoother, but Xenoblade 3D trumps it in terms of draw distance and size.

The downgrade wasn’t limited to graphics, either. The Japanese voice acting was removed entirely, but the localized cast does an admirable job at bringing the characters to life. Phrases like, “Now it’s Reyn time!” or “I’m really feeling it!” are grating in their repetition, but the thick English accents are endearing and memorable. That goes double for the hammy villains; their “MUH-NA-DO BOY” nickname for Shulk is both sinister and unintentionally hilarious. The soundtrack is back in all its glory, too; if the visuals don’t stun you, the superb audio certainly will. You Will Know Our Names, Mechanical Rhythm, the Gaur Plain theme, and other instrumental tracks add so much emotion and atmosphere. It’s tempting to wander into an area, put your system down, and just listen to the music. If you want to enjoy the songs without the adventure, you’ll have to unlock them in the newly-added Jukebox. It’s pretty gimmicky – you have to either rack up tokens via StreetPass or buy a Shulk amiibo – but it’s well worth the effort. Combined with some good headphones, you’re in for one of the greatest soundtracks in recent memory.

That can be said for the game as a whole. It’s a testament to the quality of the original Xenoblade Chronicles that a technically inferior port is arguably the best RPG on the 3DS. Its visuals aren’t perfect, but they’re still impressive. The game’s design was ahead of time; no other handheld title gives you the kind of freedom and sense of exploration seen here. The sheer scope, scale, and complexity of this adventure might be intimidating, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Rather than limiting you to a strict path, it encourages you to find your own pace and rewards curiosity. With hundreds of side-quests, it’s so easy to ditch the lengthy story and go hiking for a few hours. Shulk’s cliched revenge isn’t nearly as important or compelling as the journey he undertakes to achieve it. Thanks to the New 3DS, you’ll be able to experience each amazing moment at a time, all in the palm of your hand.

When was the last time you got lost?

Stardust Review

Tristan Thorn is in over his head. He’s a made a promise to Victoria Forester, the supposed love of his life: He will venture forth into the world and bring her back a fallen star. Such a promise is normally nothing more than romantic and poetic gesture (Victoria obviously never took him seriously), but this boy meant it literally. You could blame it on Stardust’s fairy tale setting, the sheltered life in the village, or sheer teenage stupidity. Regardless, Tristan packs up his things and journeys into the strange and magical world of Faerie, fully expecting to fulfill his ridiculous vow. Needless to say, things don’t go exactly as planned.

SPOILERS

The story starts off strong with the introduction of Wall. It’s got the usual assortment of townsfolk going about their daily lives. Working on the farm, getting drinks at the tavern, a little romance, the whole bit. What keeps it from being a quaint (if cliched) village in 19th Century England, however, it also serves as a gateway into the realm of Faerie. The image of a tiny opening in an ancient wall – and the temptation of the idyllic meadow beyond it –  makes the setting seem more mysterious and otherworldly. You’ve got to wonder if the citizens of Wall realize they’re living on the border of a magical realm. It could be a case of selective obliviousness; Mr. Bromios is practically taken for granted as the innkeeper and bartender, despite his striking appearance and lack of aging. Then again, Dunstan – the primary character in the first couple of chapters – is shown to be rather gullible. It’s interesting to see how magic works from the perspective of a normal person; he doesn’t even realize he’s been enchanted and seduced, while the readers can only watch from the sidelines and hope nothing bad happens to him. He’s a little wiser after the 17-year time skip, though Tristan seems to inherited his father’s old traits.

What struck me most about the book wasn’t the subject matter, but the brevity of it. I’ll admit that I’m not the most well-versed in fantasy; I’ve a couple of Gaiman’s other works, slogged through the Wheel of Time and gotten my fill of Tolkien, but nothing else. I was expecting some incredibly long-winded descriptions of everything, but Tristan’s adventure starts just over 50 pages in and ends 200 pages later. The pacing remains steady and brisk throughout the novel; locations seem to be more for the sake of moving the narrative along, and nothing else. While I can appreciate this approach – the characters deserve more focus anyway – it just comes off as a series of missed opportunities. Who wouldn’t want to see more surreal days in Wall, or dive into the political intrigue of Stormhold’s succession crisis? There are little glimpses of Faerie’s amazing world – the ghostly brothers acting like a pseudo-Greek chorus is pretty hilarious – but there could’ve been so much more.

The secondary plot of Primus and Septimus trying to outwit and kill each other for the throne is interesting enough to merit its own series, but it ends abruptly to keep the narrative focused on Tristan and Yvaine. They’re fine as a couple, though anyone could’ve predicted they’d end up together. Their character development ties into the novel’s themes of duty, desire, and sacrifice; Tristan initially sees Yvaine as merely an object needed to fulfill his promise, but gradually becomes less self-centered and realizes his mistakes. His brief, tear-jerking return to Victoria demonstrates how much he’s matured. Yvaine only stays with Tristan because he saved her life, but eventually grows to love him; she becomes Stormhold’s immortal ruler and Tristan’s widow, never returning to the sky. It’s bittersweet, but fitting. Septimus wanted Primus dead, yet he is obligated to avenge his murder; he attempts to uphold his family’s honor via underhanded means, and suffers a karmic death for it. Even The Witch-Queen and Semele are bound by the rules governing their magic, no matter how much of it they throw around. Lady Una’s triumphant use of these rules at the end is one of the novel’s highest points.

But it’s not enough, though. Unless you’re going into this looking for a brief adult fairy tale (it was originally conceived as a story book), Stardust will leave you wanting more. More depth, descriptions, everything. In the “about the book” section, Gaiman even calls it, “the sequel to a book I haven’t written.” It boils the plot down to the essentials: a handful of characters, their motivations and growth, and the consequences of their actions. Its complex theming and magical setting keep it just interesting enough to finish. Stardust’s most creative ideas, much like the eponymous stars, shine brilliantly for a moment before fading back into the text. Maybe that was the idea all along.

Kirby Triple Deluxe Review

So eat it, just eat it…

They thought it was over. After years of saving their homeland from evil, Kirby and King Dedede thought they were safe. But this morning, their worst fears were realized: Dreamland was invaded by Queen Sectonia and her army. Someone unleashed a giant beanstalk, utterly wrecking the idyllic kingdom and thrusting whole chunks of countryside into the clouds. The queen’s second in command personally handled the attack on the remains of Dedede’s castle. Despite mounting a valiant and desperate defense, the king was kidnapped Princess Peach-style and carried off into skies unknown. With no remaining allies and the fate of Dreamland literally on the edge of destruction, Kirby must ascend the beanstalk and wipe out the new threat.

Kirby’s latest crusade spans six sections of the remnants of Dreamland, each broken down into six or seven levels each. Progression involves the simplistic platforming that has become a staple of the Kirby series. Unless you’re completely inept, the risk of falling into a bottomless pit is practically nonexistent. Oh sure, there are some lava pits and collapsing walls of instant death, but those are exceedingly few and far between. Well-placed collectibles and unlockable hidden stages keep things from being a complete cakewalk. Rather than focusing on difficulty, the game uses its backgrounds to introduce hazards or obstacles. You might have to wait for a train to pass through the foreground before crossing the tracks, dodge falling columns, or navigate through layers of boxes in order to reach a door. Some of the more creative puzzles involve outrunning an enemy running parallel through the background, and defeating them when they jump over to Kirby’s side. It’s a clever use of 3D models and camera perspective; you have to focus on what’s happening in the distance while dealing with the layout in front of you. There are also a handful of obstacles that use the 3DS’s gyroscope, mainly to control the direction of a gondola or aim missiles at unwary baddies. They aren’t bad – few games utilize the motion features at all – but they feel tacked on at best. Considering how much more Kirby Tilt ‘n’ Tumble accomplished with similar technology on the Game Boy Color in 2001, this latest implementation reeks of wasted potential.

The game tries to make up for it with a surprisingly complex combat system. Kirby retains his iconic (and slightly terrifying) power of eating his enemies whole and copying their abilities. Kirby Triple Deluxe boasts 26 different techniques, most of which are from older games. While the swords and beams are always good standbys, they’re completely trumped by some of the newer attacks. The deadliest weapon is the Beetle ability, which can pull off several devastating close-range attacks. Depending on the control inputs, it lets you charge into and skewer targets, carry and throw your victims, or even drill them into the ground. Kirby’s archery skills not only let him snipe foes quickly and efficiently, but give him temporarily invincible camouflage as well. While not game-breaking, these powers render Kirby’s defensive options – a block and dodge mechanic akin to the Smash Bros. series – almost pointless. The biggest addition, however, is the Hypernova ability. It basically supercharges Kirby’s inhaling and swallowing capacity, resulting in him chowing down on everything from vehicles to mini-bosses. Unfortunately, it isn’t used creatively enough; in most levels, the Hypernova is just used to pull blocks or destroy certain obstacles. It’d have been much more interesting to beat levels that are designed around this power. You’re capable of devouring backgrounds, so why not have more interactive and complex stage elements?

Things don’t get interesting until after Kirby’s adventure ends. Finishing the main game unlocks a slew of additional gameplay modes. This includes Dedede Tour, which lets you replay an abridged version of the story as the king himself. His raw power and flaming hammer attacks are balanced out with larger and more aggressive enemies, as well as revamped bosses. It’s not challenging in the slightest – you might be able to breeze through it in a single sitting – but at least your exploits are timed and ranked. Dedede’s Drum Dash is far more engaging; it’s a challenging rhythm mini-game disguised as a platformer. Not only do you have to jump along a row of drums, collect items, and avoid hazards, but you have to press the buttons in sync with the beats as well. Getting perfect scores and unlocking the final level is arguably the toughest part of Kirby Triple Deluxe. The other contender is the True Arena, which pits Kirby against a gauntlet of super-powered versions all the bosses. Considering the ridiculous damage output and attack patterns involved, this brutal test of endurance and gaming skill isn’t for the faint of heart. It does give you access to all of the copy abilities, though; even if you fail miserably, you’ll at least get to practice and hone your strategies against some vicious opponents. The Kirby Fighters multiplayer mode really demonstrates how intense and competitive Kirby combat can be. Unfortunately, it’s limited to only CPU or local matches. Having all of these crazy powers and slugging it out Smash Bros.-style online would’ve done wonders for the game’s longevity. Kirby Fighters Deluxe was later released as a standalone title, but its absence here was a huge oversight.

It’s mostly drowned out by the nostalgia, though. Nintendo wanted to celebrate the Kirby franchise’s debut on the 3DS, and it shows. There are tons of shout-outs to the previous titles, like the reappearance of certain characters from The Amazing Mirror, a boss reminiscent of Canvas Curse’s antagonist, and a wall scrolls depicting Kirby’s old adventures and graphical evolution over time. There are also over 250 collectible key chains strewn throughout the levels, each depicting different Kirby sprites from all the games. Seeing classics like Meta Knight and Dyna Blade redone with a shiny metallic sheen is pretty awesome. While it would’ve been better to have descriptions for each item, they provide a good incentive for replaying stages multiple times. You’ll probably spend more time tinkering with the Jukebox; there are over 100 songs available, all with the superb quality expected from Kirby soundtracks. Special mention goes to the amazing violin and guitar instrumental of Green Greens, which is hidden near the end of the playlist. The piano and xylophone remix from the Old Odyssey stages is pretty catchy as well. Kirby Triple Deluxe might not be the most engaging 3DS game out there, but its soundtrack has some of the best music on the system.

It’s sad. This game tries so hard to make you like it. Using both the back and foreground in tandem is a clever way to approach a platformer, but there could’ve been so much more in terms of creativity and complexity. It looks interesting in terms of 3D graphics and camera perspective, but little else. The combat system is surprisingly deep and rewarding, even though quite a few offensive and defensive techniques are overshadowed by the new ridiculously overpowered abilities. The whole Hypernova concept seems amazing at first, but it could’ve been implemented in better ways. That goes double for gyroscope controls, which are treated more like an afterthought than a gameplay feature. The post-game content is what’ll keep you coming back. Between ridiculously tough mini-games and the sheer amount of collectibles, it’ll take a while to get a 100% completion…assuming you don’t get bored first. Kirby Triple Deluxe is a decent franchise debut on the 3DS, but it hardly lives up to its name.

*Also posted here.

Star Trek Into Darkness Review

When the Star Trek franchise was rebooted in 2009, many long time fans rejoiced. Gone were the stale plots built up from the previous series; it was time to revisit that universe with a fresh set of eyes, new ideas and possibilities, and a cast that could the characters all their own. With the first film laying the foundation, hopes were high that the sequel, Star Trek Into Darkness, would be even better. In the attempt to appease the fans and make a modern sci fi action movie, however, something got lost along the way.

****SPOILERS****

The movie opens with what can only be described as a sci-fi homage to Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. Kirk is being chased through an alien jungle by a horde of angry natives. Seriously, the only difference is that the trees are red, the natives are covered in crusty white paint, and Kirk is wearing a shabby robe as disguise. He makes it a few hundred more yards before some gigantic saber-toothed bear…thing rears up in front of the camera. Like any good action hero, Kirk whips out his phaser and stuns the beast unconscious. The monster drops out of view, revealing an angry Dr. McCoy behind it.

“Damn it, man! That was our ride! You just stunned our ride!”

Wait, what?

This is the first of many instances in this move that demonstrate Kirk’s utter inability to think things through. It’s one thing to neutralize a wild animal in your way. But why would he willingly take out something so integral to his own mission? He’s the captain; shouldn’t he, of all people, be privy to the exact details of the plan? They went through the trouble of disguises and exit routes, so it’s not like they’re making this up on the fly. Did he just panic and forget his method of escape? Is he trigger happy? Or just plain stupid?

Judging by the rest of the mission, it’s leaning toward the latter. The objective is simple: lead the natives away from an erupting volcano while Spock, Uhura, and Sulu somehow neutralize the explosion. This involves hovering a shuttlecraft over the mountaintop, lowering an armored Spock on a tow cable, and detonating a “cold fusion device.” Things go awry when the shuttlecraft’s engines overheat, and Spock is dropped onto a rocky outcropping surrounded by lava. As the others ditch the craft, Kirk and McCoy jump off a seaside cliff and swim to the Enterprise hidden underwater. Now they have to somehow save Spock, detonate the device, and leave without being seen.

…Wow. So little of this plan makes sense, it’s kind of impressive. Firstly, why would they hide the Enterprise underwater? It’s a starship capable of planetary orbit; if they were worried about being seen (and it’s not like these natives have telescopes), they could’ve just drifted on the other side of the planet and designated a rendezvous. What’s the ship made of, anyway? Scotty implies that saltwater will potentially wreck it. Also, what’s the deal with the shuttlecraft? As an exploration vehicle, it’s designed to enter and exit alien atmospheres. That requires an incredibly high resistance to heat; reentry is far hotter than surface lava. On that note, why would they even send an away team in the first place? The ship has a transporter. All they had to do was set the cold fusion device on a timer, beam it to coordinates that account for gravity and timing, and let the thing detonate. Speaking of which, the “cold fusion device” is basically useless in this situation. Cold fusion refers to nuclear reactions that happen at room temperature, certainly nothing capable of stopping an active volcano.

But since this is a summer blockbuster action movie, everything works out okay. The Enterprise rises out of the water in an admittedly awesome shot, and they focus on getting Spock back on board. The problem is that by doing so, they’d be seen by the natives and directly violate Starfleet’s Prime Directive of non-interaction. Because stopping a volcano from exploding and drastically altering a planet’s geothermal system with advanced technology totally isn’t the same thing. They do know that just freezing the surface of a volcano doesn’t turn it dormant…right? Way to stave off the inevitable, guys. Whatever. Kirk predictably defies orders and Spock is beamed out at the last second. Uhura is noticeably angry that Spock (her apparent boyfriend in this alternate universe) was so willing to throw his life away. He’s more angry about the Prime Directive thing, but Kirk just shrugs it off. The crew triumphantly hightails it back to space, while the natives draw and worship an Enterprise-shaped symbol in the dirt. Kinda like Comic Con, but with less cosplayers.

After the title card, the scene shifts to a family in London. A mother and father visit their daughter at hospital; it’s implied that the little girl has some kind of terminal illness. Side note: the special effects in the background are pretty cool. Having anti-gravity gurneys in an otherwise realistic facility is a nice way of showing that this isn’t too far in the future. There’s a brief scene with the parents staring teary-eyed at the poor girl, something to which anyone with sick relatives can relate. What can you do for the dying? The answer comes from Benedict Cumberbatch, who walks up to the father with a swell of music and says that he can save the child. The guy asks who this mysterious man is, and of course there’s no answer for the sake of maintaining the drama. Most savvy viewers will immediately – and correctly – guess that he’s really Khan, but whatever. Why is someone so blatantly evil hanging around children’s hospital wings? Is the father so desperate that he’ll believe any random passerby proposing a cure?

Meanwhile, Kirk is having some PG-13 rated fun-time with a pair of alien cat girls. Apparently some traits never die, even if they are in an alternate reality. Side note: Kirk not only has a vintage record player, but he’s playing “Body Movin” by the Beastie Boys. I was in high school when the Hello Nasty album dropped, and this movie has now made me feel old. Lovely. Kirk and Spock get called to Starfleet HQ in San Francisco, apparently for a meeting with Admiral Pike. Kirk optimistically assumes they’ve been promoted for the fleet’s upcoming 5-year mission – a nice foreshadowing/call back to the original Star Trek series – but Spock is doubtful. Even if they’re brief, these glimpses of Starfleet are interesting; there are plenty of people in dress uniform, complete with military-style caps. It’s a good indication that Starfleet has recovered since the events of the last movie.

So has Pike, who’s traded his wheelchair for a cane and an immaculate office. He questions Kirk and Spock about the mission, but it’s obvious he’s not happy. Kirk apparently lied on his captain’s log and tried to cover up the ludicrous plan. Spock, being the responsible paragon of proper protocol, wrote his own report. If this was happening in the old Star Trek verse, the situation would probably be brushed over and forgotten, maybe with a threat of demotion. But this shows what would actually happen if a military captain pulled these kinds of shenanigans: He gets demoted and loses command of the Enterprise. That’s it. It’s amazing he didn’t get a court martial. Pike gives the kid a much-needed dressing down over his recklessness, irresponsibility, lack of humility, and inability to understand his shortcomings. Kirk points out that he was originally given the Enterprise for being such a maverick, but clearly doesn’t understand what being a leader is all about.

Gee, I wonder what Kirk’s character arc is going to be.

This meeting scene is brief, but it’s one of the most underrated ones in the movie. While everyone else is acting like younger, hipper versions of the iconic characters, Bruce Greenwood’s take on Admiral Pike is the most believable. He captures the angry, aging father figure with just the right amount of energy and personality. Of course, the fact that he’s retaking command of the Enterprise (and taking Kirk back as his first officer?! Wow, so much for common sense!) means he’s going to die pretty soon. Mentor characters have a habit of being killed as a way kick-start the student’s character growth. It’s a narrative thing. Side note: the face-to-face argument gives the audience lingering shots of Chris Pine’s inhumanly bright blue eyes. Did the post-production crew think Kirk was secretly an alien?

Back in London, it’s established that Benedict Cumberbatch has magic blood. No, seriously. This is the plot point they’re going with. Apparently it has healing properties that completely disregard things like type or allergic reactions. Why, that’s just what the little girl needs! Dad hooks up the IV and watches his daughter’s stats return to normal. In exchange for this wonderful cure, he is tasked with blowing up the Starfleet building in which he works. He does this by dropping some kind of chemically-enhanced ring that explodes in water. The camera pulls back from the fiery destruction and settles on a snapshot of the little girl. It’s the way to remind the audience that this horrific act was done for her sake by a loving father. But why? After seeing his daughter healed, he could’ve easily contacted the authorities and had Mr. Magic Blood arrested for plotting terrorism. The magic blood could’ve made a temporary recovery; the girl could’ve keeled over the next day. Also, how did he think this was going to end for his daughter? Did he really believe the doctors were just going to let her walk out after a miraculous recovery? If anything, they’d keep her there for scientific study and discover a mutation in her blood…Growing up is not going to be fun for that kid.

Whatever. Starfleet’s been attacked, so Admiral Marcus (played by Peter Weller of RoboCop fame) calls for a meeting of all senior officers at HQ. En route, Kirk gives Spock a bitter talk about the whole honesty thing, and even calls it a backstabbing. He implies that Spock doesn’t understand that the two are friends, something that would actually make sense. In the original series, Kirk and Spock had known each other for years, and their relationship reflected that. In this alternate universe, they’ve only known each other since the events of the last movie. They were at each others’ throats – literally. Not surprising they still don’t work well together. The two part ways at the start of the meeting, believing they’re never going to see each other again. Yeah, like that’s going to happen.

Admiral RoboCop explains that the building in London was a Starfleet data archive. The father-turned-bomber conveniently sent a message (Seriously, why didn’t he just send the message without triggering the bomb?!) warning of what was going on. The mastermind is John Harrison, one of Starfleet’s top agents gone rogue. He’s commandeered a ship and gone into hiding, but apparently hasn’t left Earth. Kirk, of all people, makes an astute observation: Why would a terrorist target a data archive? Everything in there is public knowledge and has no tactical value. Also, why hasn’t he stolen a ship with warp capability and vanished into deep space? It’s almost like Harrison wants to stay close by…As everyone mulls this over, a small ship hovers outside the window and starts blasting everything.

Oh, so that’s why Harrison is still there.

The plan is simple: bomb the archive to get the Starfleet’s top brass in one room, then blow it to smithereens. It’s brutal, effective, and relies heavily on a complete lack of common sense. Is the audience supposed to think Starfleet is incompetent? They know Harrison is one of their top agents; why would they use the same protocol – which he would know – to set up an emergency meeting? Couldn’t they have chosen a new place to hold a conference? Also, why are they having this secret meeting in the upper floors of HQ, next to a massive window? They live in a world where flying vehicles with guns are normal. Anyone could hover nearby, take a phaser shot, or even read lips with a telescope! Why aren’t they in an underground bunker? How did Harrison even get close enough to the building? They know he’s commandeered a ship. Doesn’t it have trackers or anything on it? This is all happening mere hours after a terrorist attack; shouldn’t the airspace around Starfleet HQ be closely monitored? He should’ve been blasted to smithereens by security as soon as he opened fire.

But of course that doesn’t happen. The attack lasts just long enough for most of the senior officers to be gunned down, including Pike. (Called it!) He spends his final, agonizing moments cradled in Spock’s arms. Unlike certain characters in other Star Trek films, he does not die well; there’s blood flowing out his mouth, and his eyes are brimming with tears. Bizarrely, Spock takes the opportunity to do a Vulcan mind meld. Why? Does he have some kind of fascination with death? Was he trying to preserve Pike’s memory a la Wrath of Khan? Is he using it to better understand his own mortality? Shouldn’t he have been trying to get Pike to a doctor? Meanwhile, Kirk manages to destroy the ship’s engine , and he and Harrison have a brief stare-down before the villain teleports away. Kirk actually has a pretty sad moment when he realizes his mentor is dead. Then airspace security shows up.

In the meantime, Harrison reappears on some other planet, dons a stylish hoodie/trench coat, and vanishes into parts unknown. Scotty has a pretty good idea, though; when examining the wreckage of the ship, he comes across a “portable transwarp beaming device.” No, seriously. That’s the mouthful they’re going with. It conveniently displays its last programmed destination, the Klingon homeworld…Wait, what? Technology in this universe has not only advanced enough that people can carry their own personal transporter, but it lets them go to other planets too?! Why isn’t every ship in Starfleet equipped with these things? Doesn’t this undermine the entire point of building habitable starships? Why don’t they just send probes equipped with these things into deep space? Wouldn’t that save tons of money and resources? Boy, they sure could’ve used one during that  volcano mission…And if Harrison had such technology, why would he even need to get someone else to blow up the archive? Why attack the conference room directly?  He could’ve just teleported a bomb into the room. If he’s Starfleet’s top agent, I shudder to think what the red shirts are like.

Despite the Klingon planet being the space equivalent of North Korea, Kirk is determined to get revenge. Admiral RoboCop inexplicably gives him the Enterprise again – despite demoting him less than a day before – and assigns Spock as his first officer. Also, the building Harrison destroyed wasn’t an archive; it was a secret military research facility run by Starfleet’s clandestine Section 31. Ooh, Star Trek espionage sounds promising. They’ve even developed a long-range, untraceable photon torpedo! The mission is simple: Take all 72 of these bombs to Harrison’s location, blow everything up, and warp out before the Klingons figure out what happened…even though the Klingons would be able to read the Enterprise’s warp signature and trace it back to Earth. They don’t seem to realize that last part. You’ve got to wonder why the admiral chose to reinstate Spock, though; he’s a notorious stickler for rules, and I’m pretty sure the whole murder-from-a-distance-and-possibly-trigger-a-war plan isn’t Starfleet regulation. There’s no way he’d let that happen. It’s pretty obvious that there’s a bigger scheme going on – the lingering shot of the spaceship models in the admiral’s office is blatant foreshadowing – but everyone agrees to go along with it.

Especially Kirk, who poorly attempts to hide his revenge-fueled rage as they prep for the mission. Spock points out the lack of morality involved in killing someone without a trial, how it completely goes against protocol, and the needlessly risky idea of bombing a place home to a war-faring people. If only they had a portable transwarp beaming device…Kirk, of course, brushes all of this off. He’s too busy staring at Carol Wallace, an advanced weapons specialist assigned to the mission by the admiral himself. Carol Wallace…That name sounds familiar. Like Carol Marcus, Kirk’s love interest in the original timeline. But that means she’d have the same last name as the admiral. There’s no way those two could be connected, right? Right?

The mission prep hits a snag with Scotty’s recurring bouts of common sense. He’s refusing the shipment of those long-range torpedoes because he can’t scan their payload, and the contents are classified. He’s absolutely right, too. If you’re working with weapons, especially explosives, you need to know exactly how they work. Are the contents toxic? Does they have to be stored at a certain temperature? What is its fail-safe? What kind of fuel does it use? It’s kind of important. Considering that the ship’s warp core is essentially “a radioactive catastrophe waiting to happen,” Starfleet’s militarization, and his transwarp equation being weaponized, Scotty has legitimate concerns. Since Kirk is too revenge-focused to give him another choice, he promptly resigns and begs him not to use the weapons. Later, man. See you when the plot inevitably needs you again!

Forty minutes in, and we’re finally back on the Enterprise. I’m suddenly reminded of bridge’s ridiculous lighting scheme. It’s like going to an Apple Store, but even more blinding. I get J.J. Abrams has a thing for lens flares, but what kind of spaceship has lights that are positioned to shine directly in the crew’s eyes? After warping into space and replacing Scotty with Chekov (Seriously?) in engineering, Kirk announces his plan to the entire ship: He will take a landing party to the surface, arrest Harrison, and bring him back to face trial. Wow, looks like Spock’s impromptu ethics lesson paid off! So has his background check of Carol, which reveals that she’s the admiral’s daughter and boarded with false documents. Man, Starfleet really is inept; there have been two acts of terrorism in a week, and they just let anyone on without proper inspection? For all they know, she could be some kind of saboteur. They should keep her locked in the brig until they can find out her actual intentions…But due to plot purposes, Spock keeps her secret for no reason.

Speaking of sabotage, the warp drive breaks down 20 minutes away from their destination. Kirk, Spock, and Uhura (and two guys who will probably killed off-screen soon) take a shuttle to Harrison’s location in an otherwise deserted part of the planet. That leaves Sulu in charge, which is a cool nod to his counterpart in the original series. He’s tasked with broadcasting a message to Harrison, warning him to surrender or get wiped out by 72 missiles. “If you test me, you will fail.” Oh, how intimidating. Hey tough guy, how do you know Harrison can even hear you? Does he have a radio? How are you broadcasting this message? You do know the Klingons can probably pick up your transmissions, right? You’d change your tune if you had a few Birds of Prey aiming at you. Why are you even warning Harrison that you’re coming? You don’t know what other resources he has. You’re giving him time to come up with another escape, or even a counterattack! This is supposed to be a stealth mission, right?

Uhura’s priorities are a little skewed, too. She spends a good portion of the ride chewing out Spock over his stoic reaction to the whole near-death in the volcano thing. Because a lovers’ quarrel is exactly what we need in the middle of a high-stakes and possibly suicidal mission. He explains the difference between not caring and choosing to accept death on his own terms, which gives a lot of insight into Spock’s personality. Before anyone can ponder on it, however, the shuttlecraft is attacked by the Klingons. Wasn’t this area supposed to be abandoned? They try to hand wave it by saying it’s a random patrol, but how could they miss something like that? Don’t they have scanners? Maybe if they weren’t so distracted with the soap opera drama…Anyway, a big, loud chase scene ensues, resulting in them being caught and forced to deal with the Klingons face-to-face. Uhura tries negotiating, but gets nearly strangled to death.

They’re saved by Harrison’s grand, bloody entrance. He wastes little time in annihilating over a dozen Klingons in with a hail of lasers, blades, and explosions. The crew tries their best to fight as well – the entire scene has a first-person shooter vibe – but they’re completely outclassed by his brutal efficiency. There’s a reason he’s one of Starfleet’s best. He casually dismisses Spock despite being held at gunpoint, and surrenders after asking about Sulu’s torpedoes. Kirk takes the opportunity to use excessive force (several punches to the face) during the arrest, but it has no effect whatsoever; Harrison just stands there looking bored. It’s a demonstration of his physical prowess as well as his intellectual; unlike most battles, Kirk can’t brawl his way out of this one.

After notifying Starfleet, they put Harrison in the brig. This results in an unintentional homage to The Silence of the Lambs. A creepy, intelligent, and cultured killer trapped behind a wall of thick glass, while the heroes try to get information out of him? Yeah, Cumberbatch is channeling a sci-fi Hannibal Lecter. As McCoy takes his blood sample, he implies that he knows why the warp core is busted and offers his insight. Kirk angrily shuts him down at first, but eventually gets a set of space coordinates and the suggestion to open one of the torpedoes. It’s a start, but Harrison didn’t need to be so cryptic. Why not spell out what’s going on right then and keep the plot moving? …To bring Scotty back into the picture, of course. He’s busy getting hammered in San Francisco (sharp-eyed Bay Area viewers will note the club is at the end of Pier 3 near the Ferry Building), and takes a personal call from Kirk. Wait, what? Their communicators have a range that spans across planets?! How far apart are they? Scotty agrees to look into the Harrison’s mysterious coordinates and accepts the captain’s apology.

That leaves the torpedoes. With Scotty gone, Carol is the only person qualified to examine them. Kirk’s confused reaction to her being Admiral RoboCop’s daughter is funny, but it’s a reminder of how pointless the coverup was. Did Spock keep it a secret just to mess with Kirk? Shouldn’t they be more worried about the security breaches involved with someone using fake transcripts? They’re lucky she’s not evil; she’s here because she knows her father is pulling some kind of scheme. After her ridiculous and pointless fan service scene (seriously, who thought that was a good idea for Kirk to ogle while she stripped down?), she and McCoy start operating on a torpedo. Since this would be too boring on its own, the bomb somehow arms itself and activates a timed explosion. Carol fixes it with the good old pull-out-all-the-wires trick from every action movie ever, and it’s revealed there’s someone cryogenically stored inside. Harrison then drops the big reveal of the movie:

His true name is Khan! (Dun dun dun!)

For a second, I thought they’d put in a bolt of space-lightning for dramatic effect. It’s supposed to be some huge revelation, even though long time fans could’ve picked up on it long beforehand. It was so obvious, even the back of the DVD case spoils it. The only real reason to have Khan return is because he’s the most famous villain in the Star Trek lore; people are familiar with the name, so it instantly makes the film more interesting to the average viewer. He reveals that he and his 72 followers were genetically engineered to be superior to human beings in every way. They were condemned as war criminals and frozen over 300 years ago, but were found by Admiral RoboCop sometime between the two movies. Khan was revived alone and tasked with developing weapons technology, thus laying the foundation for the admiral’s dream of a militarized Starfleet. Kirk asks, “Why would a Starfleet admiral ask a 300 year-old frozen man for help?” That’s a very good question; no matter how intelligent someone is, it takes time to learn things. Going by the timeline, Khan would’ve needed to learn three centuries’ worth of technology and science – including the development of interstellar travel and warp engines – in less than one year. That’s like asking Benjamin Franklin to design the Large Hadron Collider! Are there really no better qualified tacticians in this continuity?!

Khan tries to gain sympathy with Kirk (and the audience) by pointing out their similarities: they’re both leaders who would do anything for their “families.” Only difference is, Kirk didn’t go on a murderous rampage when he lost someone. Admiral RoboCop clearly isn’t working with a full deck, either. Not only did he try to blackmail Khan by threatening to kill the other 72 crew, but he knowingly sent the Enterprise into enemy territory with a sabotaged warp core as well. All for the sake of kick-starting a war with the Klingons and getting rid of any evidence of the conspiracy. Using the long-range torpedoes with Khan’s crew inside was just the icing on the cake…even though it makes no sense whatsoever. If you’re a evil military mastermind and have six dozen pieces of evidence linking back to your scheme, why would you let someone else dispose of them?! Why did the admiral even bother giving the torpedoes to Kirk? He could’ve just cremated the bodies and then equipped the Enterprise. Did he seriously think they’d risk bombing the Klingons after the engine broke down?

Admiral RoboCop tries to make up for it by personally taking the USS Vengeance – an absolutely massive warship Khan designed – straight to the Enterprise in a last-ditch attempt at a cover-up. Boy, he sure could’ve used a portable transwarp beaming device right then. So much for being discreet. He chides Kirk for disobeying orders (I don’t know why he’s surprised, as Kirk is an established rule-breaker), and asks for the prisoner’s location. After both sides give up on the pretenses of this being a real mission, the admiral admits the truth and demands Khan be given up. They attempt to warp back to Earth, but the ship is gunned down a hail of phaser fire and explosions. Carol tries to talk her father out destroying the Enterprise, but is promptly teleported to the other ship. With death mere seconds away, Kirk frantically tries to surrender himself to spare the crew – a nice parallel with Khan – but is mocked and shut down. It’s at this point that Kirk finally realizes what being a leader is all about: taking responsibility for your choices. You can’t just go gallivanting through life without handling the consequences. With his pride finally crushed, he turns to apologize to his crew before being vaporized…

…Or at least that’s what would have happened, but Scotty snuck on board the Vengeance and temporarily shut it down. Yes, he went to Khan’s coordinates and found a huge warship at a secret base, and somehow infiltrated their security. How convenient. Couldn’t he have sabotaged the weapons down earlier? You know, before all the explosions and death? With both ships now adrift and incapable of fighting, Kirk decides to team up with Khan, jump over to the Vengeance in a spacesuit, and take it over from the inside. When Spock calls him out on his ridiculous plan, Kirk admits that he’s just making things up as he goes along and isn’t fit to command the Enterprise. It’s true on both counts, considering that they’re only the moon’s distance away from Earth. Why don’t they just call for help? Kirk used his personal communicator to phone Scotty from Klingon airspace. Also, why are there no other Starfleet vessels in this area? Did Admiral RoboCop somehow plan for this to happen and order everyone else on deep space missions before dealing with Kirk? There were two terrorist attacks against Starfleet within a week; if anything, there should be even more ships near Earth than usual.

Whatever. Scotty warns that the Vengeance will have weapons restored in three minutes, so time is of the essence. While the entire space jump scene is nonsensical, it provides some of the coolest-looking visuals in the movie. If you’ve ever seen any of the NASA space walks, you know how awesome they are. This version goes much, much faster, and the visor navigation displays have a nice Tron vibe. There’s even a bit of tension with Scotty temporarily getting caught by security (Finally!) and the entrance being wide enough for only a couple of people. Of all the potential teams to infiltrate a ship in Star Trek, would anyone expect Kirk, Scotty, and Khan to do the dirty work? They make it up to the bridge just as the Vengeance powers back up – the infiltration actually takes about nine minutes instead of three, but the audience is supposed to be too distracted to care – and hold Admiral RoboCop at phaser-point.

Kirk is savvy enough to have Khan stunned at this point, but apparently forgot that he’s capable of withstanding physical injuries. The villain plays possum just long enough for the admiral to babble some last-minute fanatical warmongering. With the dramatic tirade over, Khan jumps up, knocks out both Scotty and Kirk, breaks Carol’s leg, and crushes Admiral RoboCop’s skull like a melon. With full command over the deadliest starship in the area, he triumphantly contacts the Enterprise and demands Spock hand over the crew in the torpedoes. It’s kind of disappointing. In Wrath of Khan, there was a similar battle between two ships. But what made the original Khan so dangerous and awesome was his cunning; he nearly destroyed the Enterprise by using a smaller, less-equipped ship. This time, everyone knows he’s going to pull something, but he wins via superior firepower anyway. Oh sure, there’s a brief spoken battle of wits – Khan and Spock are the two smartest characters in this continuity – but Khan wins by virtue having the only ship that can actually function.

Spock isn’t out yet, though. While the others were busy with the Vengeance, he took the time to call Spock Prime and give Leonard Nimoy a cameo scene. He did this to get advice about Khan, even though he just assumes his alternate reality counterpart knows about the villain. It’s supposed to be a haunting callback to Wrath of Khan, but it’s kind of pointless. Spock Prime’s scene can be summarized as, “I’m not supposed to tell you anything that might alter your destiny, but Khan is a really dangerous guy.” No kidding. Presumably Spock Prime explains how Khan’s pride and vengeful nature makes him easy to manipulate and outwit, but those are insights the younger Spock could’ve realized on his own. Did we really need to drag the older, wiser Spock into the fray just to give a villain a little more credibility? Also, if you’re capable of contacting someone on a nearby planet, why are you not calling for help?!

Spock must have learned something, though. His plan is simple: Pretend to give into Khan’s demands, but take the frozen crew members out of the torpedoes first. Set the bombs to detonate, and watch the pretty fireworks of a huge space ship exploding. It’s actually a clever trick, and it’s much more interesting than the mindless battles in some of the other movies. The problem is the fact that Khan let it happen at all; he willingly teleports armed torpedoes onto the Vengeance without thinking it through. At first glance, it’s a way to demonstrate Khan’s flaws and overconfidence, but it doesn’t work. Before taking the bait, he spends a few seconds to scan the torpedoes. It would be befitting of his methodical and tactical nature, except that he doesn’t notice his crew has been removed. How did he miss that?! The entire point of the scan is to confirm the physical makeup, contents, or location of an item; do life signs not show up in cryogenics? The oversight is baffling.

Khan’s temporary triumph is admittedly awesome, though. After getting the torpedoes, he teleports Kirk, Scotty, and Carol back to the Enterprise. His taunt, “No ship should go down without her captain” is easily one of the best lines in the entire movie. He even dishes out ten more direct hits on the Enterprise before the torpedoes detonate. The crew doesn’t have time to celebrate, though; the ship took way too much damage and is now caught in Earth’s gravity. Sulu says that without shields, the ship will burn up in the reentry. If they don’t get the engines back up and running, they’ll crash in minutes! It’s an interesting dilemma, even if it isn’t scientifically possible. The battle took place near the Moon, and both ships lacked propulsion. Nor were they using momentum from coming out of warp; from that distance and lack of speed, it would’ve taken them months to drift to the planet. However, it gives Kirk just enough time to get a serious reality check. As he and Scotty race down to engineering, he gets to see the consequences of his actions: the Enterprise is being torn apart, his crew is dying, and there’s no chance of escape. Watching him trying to save someone from plummeting to their death – and failing – is gut-wrenching. Some of the scenes, like people running through a sideways-tumbling hallway, are some of the most nightmarish visuals in any Star Trek film.

Boy, they sure could’ve used a portable transwarp beaming device.

This doesn’t last long, unfortunately. Considering how much this move takes from Wrath of Khan, it’s not surprising that it’d reuse the ending as well. Kirk makes it down to engineering, goes directly into the housing of the warp core to fix it (apparently it involves a bunch of dropkicks from impractical angles), and gets a lethal dose of radiation. He gets it working just after the Enterprise falls through Earth’s cloud layer…Wait, didn’t Sulu say they’d burn up in reentry? They should’ve been a giant cinder by the time they reached that altitude! At least seeing the battered, broken Enterprise triumphantly rising was worth it. However, Kirk’s conversation with Spock and his death-by-radiation kind of spoil the mood. It’s sad watching Spock with a trembling voice and teary eyes. He just lost the closest thing to a friend. However, any tragedy is lost when he turns his head skyward and screams:

KHHHHHHHHAAAAAAAAAAAAN!

…Wow, I never thought I’d be laughing so hard at a Star Trek death scene. Did you really have to go there, screenwriters?! That scene was hammy enough in Wrath of Khan. Can’t you at least try to let this film stand on its own? Whatever. Turns out the Vengeance is also crashing back to Earth, and Khan aimed it straight for Starfleet HQ. Of course. He actually misses his target and destroys a huge chunk of San Francisco, and manages to jump to the ground with only a small face wound. Then a prolonged foot chase between he and Spock ensues. No, seriously. Because there’s no better way to end a blockbuster space action movie than a foot chase through San Francisco.

They end up fighting on top of a floating barge, and it seems promising in concept. Both Spock and Khan are gifted with extraordinary intelligence and physical strength…so they battle like a couple of drunken brawlers. It’s the Vulcan Nerve Pinch versus raw genetically-enhanced power! Khan actually has a few opportunities to kick Spock off the edge – the fall would’ve easily him – but tries to crush his head a la Admiral RoboCop. So much for being a master tactician. Uhura teleports in as a distraction and says they can use Khan’s blood to save Kirk. This gives Spock the reason not to succumb to vengeance – hence the big theme of the movie – and manages to haul Khan back to the Enterprise off-screen. Two weeks and a magical blood infusion from McCoy later, and Kirk wakes up in the hospital. Way to go, screenwriters. You’ve completely negated the tragedy of a main character dying, thus cheating your audience of any lasting emotional torque. Kirk was dead for less than ten minutes! Now that they’ve found a way to cure death, how are they going to handle mortality in the next movie? Rather than having Khan studied and the effects replicated, they put him back in a cryogenic tube and leave him in storage. What about a trial? Whatever. Skip forward a year, and the Enterprise has been rechristened and is embarking on her iconic 5-year mission. Cue credits and a classic Star Trek theme music remix.

…Well, that could’ve gone better.

It’s a shame. Star Trek Into Darkness has a lot going for it. The premise of Starfleet espionage and the issues of its militarization are interesting. Having an intelligent villain like Khan is great; it makes him more dangerous and fascinating. Kirk’s overall character arc is great; he starts as irresponsible braggart and gets a deadly, painful lesson in responsibility and leadership. From a narrative standpoint, however, the rest of the movie falls flat. Several characters didn’t get enough development, and there so many plot inconsistencies that it’s mind-boggling. There’s a fine line between paying homage to the original series, and using it as a crutch. Wrath of Khan was an amazing movie; Into Darkness should be able to stand on its own without it, but doesn’t. Don’t go in thinking like this is an old-school Star Trek film. If you just want sci-fi that’s more about flashy explosions and action, go for it. Otherwise, trek somewhere else.

Super Smash Bros. 4 (3DS) Review

He’s got the whole world in his hands…

Designing the new Smash Bros. must have been hard. It’s understandable why Nintendo did it; adapting a famous franchise for their currently most popular system was the obvious, practical, and lucrative option. Actually producing the work, on the other hand, must have been Herculean undertaking. It’s one thing to make a follow-up to Brawl, which was by far the most content-extensive title on the Wii. But how do you take something so over-the-top epic and cram it into a 3DS card? Not only did it have function with the limitations inherent to a handheld format, but had to meet the ridiculously high standards set by the previous game as well. The results aren’t perfect, but it’s a valiant effort nonetheless.

It looks promising at first glance. Iconic fighters like Mario, Link, Kirby, Fox, and a slew of others make their triumphant return. Zelda and Samus now have separate entries for their alter egos, resulting in some much-needed move set revisions. The Pokemon Trainer from Brawl has retired and left only Charizard to do the heavy lifting. The Ice Climbers were completely cut due to the technical limitations of the system. Metal Gear’s Solid Snake is also missing, though it’s likely due to licensing issues. Once they get over the loss of some of their favorite characters, longtime fans will find several new characters to master. Pac-Man’s appearance is practically a given considering the growing ties between Nintendo and Namco, but it’s a pleasant surprise to see the original Mega Man – complete with a range of signature attacks from the NES games – back in action. Others, such as the Wii Fit Trainer and the dog from Duck Hunt, are completely unexpected. Some of the returning franchises boast even more characters, like Lucina and Robin from Fire Emblem: Awakening, Rosalina from Super Mario Galaxy, and Palutena from Kid Icarus: Uprising. Aside from a few wasted slots (Did we really need Dark Pit?), the nearly 50-strong roster is varied and impressive.

Despite all the new faces, the basics remain the same. The goal is simple: knock your opponent off the stage. The more damage they rack up, the further they’ll go flying. If they manage to make it back on solid ground, you’ll have to keep fighting. Aside from an assortment of punches, kicks, slashes, and throws, each character has a set of special moves taken from their respective games. Link’s Spin Attack isn’t just for cutting grass, Mega Man’s Buster even has the classic power-up sound effect, and Kirby’s copying ability remains as versatile and somewhat unnerving as always. Hidden tactics, like Ganondorf’s Reverse Warlock Punch and Samus’s Grapple Beam ledge tether, have returned as well. That’s on top of the usual blend of dodging, tactical rolls, shielding, shield breaking, and wall jumping. The old ledge-grabbing tactics have been completely revamped; if your character grabs a ledge while someone is already on it, you’ll automatically latch on and send your opponent scrambling. The most important revision, however, is the removal of random tripping. It allows players to focus more on competitive strategies instead of luck. The overall gameplay pacing falls somewhere between Melee and Brawl; it’s slow enough to keep new players from being overwhelmed, but fast enough to keep veterans satisfied.

That’s assuming you can even keep track of what’s going on. While the gameplay is solidly built, how it is presented and played certainly isn’t. The Smash Bros. series was originally designed with televisions and consoles in mind; the scale of the stages, the number of items, camera perspective, and everything else were built for a larger screen. To make that work on a handheld, a few sacrifices had to be made. Longtime fans might have trouble getting used to the button layout, especially on the original 3DS model. Playing on relatively large stages like Corneria or Boxing Ring becomes a hassle because the camera has to zoom out to maintain view of all the characters. At least it spares you from seeing the limited texturing. Even with the optional highlighting reticule, it’s still easy to get characters mixed up or overlook smaller items. That’s really troublesome when you have to contend with motion-sensing bombs, banana peels, smoke balls, bee hives, and the slew of other weapons that randomly spawn. Using such items also demonstrate the 3DS’s technical limits. The game runs at a surprisingly smooth 60 FPS most of the time. However, Assist Trophies are animated at 30 FPS, and Pokeballs only appear one at a time. It’s telling that, unlike previous Smash titles, there’s no way to adjust the frequency of item appearances. If there were, it’d be too easy to crash the game completely.

These problems are even worse in online matches. Smash 4 is much faster than Brawl’s infamously laggy multiplayer…some of the time. As there’s no way to see your opponents’ connection speeds before you commit to a match, you’ll often be flung blindly into an unplayable fight. Sometimes the game completely freezes before kicking you back into the menu. Even decently-running matches are slightly slower. It’s doesn’t completely break the game, but it messes up more advanced tactics and input timing. When you manage to get a great connection, the fights are smooth and responsive. You’re allowed to manage lobbies with people on your friends list, but there’s no way to narrow down based on location, voice or text chat, and other features common to fighting games. The ability to play one-on-one matches with strangers via For Glory mode is a great feature for more competitive players, yet it lacks a ranking board. Though it’s possible to view other people’s matches via either live spectating or replays, you can’t look up specific playbacks. Speaking of which, there aren’t any options for the replays you save on the system; there’s no way to share them with friends, upload them to YouTube, etc. While the online multiplayer functions on the most basic level, it could’ve been so much more.

The designers tried to make up for such shortcomings by giving you more gameplay options. One of Smash 4’s most touted features is its customization menu. All of the fighters have unlockable variations on their special moves. Most have practical effects, like adjusting jump trajectories or attack range. For example, Ganondorf’s Warlock Blade not only lets him wield a sword, but it extends his punch as well. The game also lets you equip items that boost the characters’ attack, defense, and speed capabilities. In an attempt to keep things balanced, you can only equip three things at a time. Tired of Bowser being so slow? A little tinkering with his speed stat – at the expense of his raw power – can make him far more dangerous. Some equipment has secondary effects, like auto-healing, stronger smashes, etc. While this adds some much-needed variety, its implementation is lacking. Aside from a brief description and stat chart, the equipment is utterly forgettable. That’s a step back from the image stickers in Brawl, which served the same function while delving into Nintendo’s back catalog.

The customization is taken even further with Smash Run, a gameplay mode exclusive to the 3DS. Taking cues from Melee’s Adventure Mode and Brawl’s Subspace Emissary, Smash Run drops four fighters in a labyrinth crammed with platforms and enemies from various Nintendo franchises. The goal is simple: Explore under a time limit, slaughter tons of foes, and pick up whatever items they drop. Every last Kremling, ReDead, Goomba, and wild Pokemon leave stat boosts, allowing you to build up your attack, speed, defense, etc. There are also treasure chests containing unlockable character moves, extra equipment, and additional power-ups. Doing a Metroid-esque Shinespark and summoning laser beams is quite awesome. Actually playing Smash Run is another story. The platforming is straightforward, but it becomes a hassle when you’re completely surrounded by enemies. Depending on your stats, it’s easy to get thrown around and killed without any chance of recovery. It’s annoying when you’re just out of reach of a valuable item, only to get denied at the last second. All of your efforts culminate with a brief battle with the other contenders. Most of these fights are based on the old Special Melee rules; giant characters, set stamina, and enemy teams are common. Others are designed as contests, like the traditional Race to the Finish mode. The problem is that rule types are randomly chosen; there’s no way tell if you’ll have the necessary stats built up until the fight starts. It would’ve been far less frustrating had these matches been selectable separately.

Once Smash Run inevitably goes stale, you can fall back on more conventional single player features. Classic Mode returns with its usual assortment of giant and metal opponents, but it’s been expanded with branching paths, random rewards, and varying difficulty settings. Since you bet more of your in-game currency the higher the difficulty, there are much bigger risks and rewards involved with a playthrough. All-Star Mode is still a gauntlet of opponents set in chronological order, but little has changed about it. The same goes for the Multi-Man Smash modes; aside from recording matches and high score bragging rights for Cruel or Rival Smash, there are few incentives to play them more than once. At least Melee’s iconic Home Run Mode is back and tough as ever. That can’t be said for Break the Targets, though. The formerly grueling test of your ability to handle characters’ moves has devolved into a simple Angry Birds knockoff. You merely launch a time bomb at a huge wood and block structure from different angles. In their attempt to make things more appealing to new players, the designers completely missed what made the target challenges fun and interesting. It’s overshadowed by the new Trophy Rush, in which you fight through an onslaught of falling boxes and explosions to nab dozens of collectibles. It’s entertaining, but it doesn’t make up for the game’s lesser offerings.

The same can be said for the stage selection. As this is a 3DS game, there was an effort to design levels based on Nintendo’s handheld titles. Some, like the Magicant, 3D Land, and Paper Mario stages, are fun in their variety and colorful visuals. Gaur Plain inverts the usual layout by having all the platforms on the sides and a huge hole in the middle. The old Gameboy-styled version of Dream Land was a nice touch. Others fall flat, though. Of all the places in the Zelda franchise, the decided to go with a collapsible Gerudo bridge fraught with fire and ice attacks. The Unova Pokemon League has the same basic stage hazards, yet is even less interesting to look at. Not all of Tomodachi Life took place in the apartment complex; as funny as it is seeing your Mii cowering in the background, it would’ve made more sense to tour the entire island and vary the platforming. At least returning fan favorites like Jungle Japes and Brinstar keep things from getting too bland. It’s disheartening when to play in the Living Room or the Trophy Rush mini-game, because they’re so reminiscent of Brawl’s level editor. It’s a shame that feature didn’t make it into this version. Even with the optional flat levels for competitive players, it feels like something’s missing.

The music fares better, though. There’s no way Smash 4 (or any game, really) could top Brawl’s gargantuan playlist. Instead, the soundtrack uses a couple of optional tracks per stage. Though lacking anything as grandiose as MGS4’s “Theme of Love” or Wind Waker’s sailing theme, this OST focuses more on the essentials. The Corneria and Fire Emblem themes from Melee are obvious choices. Tracks like “Ocarina of Time Medley” and the orchestrated “Tetris Type A” were far too good to pass up. Several familiar tunes are back, but as arrangements. The “Gerudo Valley” guitar instrumental and Donkey Kong Country 2’s “Stickerbrush Symphony” are some of the best versions out there. The Gaur Plain theme and the Mega Man 2 remixes are more than enough incentive to play their stages. Combined with a little voice acting – the Kid Icarus and Fire Emblem casts especially – Smash 4’s sound menu exemplifies quality over quantity.

It’s been a long time. The build-up to this Smash Bros. was unlike anything else in gaming. No title could have lived up to the expectations, but this one tries so hard. The results are far from perfect; most the single player modes are flawed, the online multiplayer needs an overhaul, and every technical aspect of the gameplay limited by the 3DS’s capabilities. Despite such glaring issues, the game has a huge roster, hundreds of collectibles, tons of stages, a deep (albeit bland) customization system, improved combat mechanics, faster pacing, and a great soundtrack. To take all of that and make it work on a handheld system is an impressive feat. Is this the best Smash Bros. ever? No. Is it one of the best 3DS games? Absolutely. Nintendo’s greatest fights are finally in the palm of your hand.

*Originally posted here.

Guilty Gear Xrd Review

She’s A Killer Queen…

It began with a declaration of war. Ramlethal, a mysterious young woman from another dimension, proclaimed that all who were unworthy would be destroyed. Genocide isn’t a new concept in the Guilty Gear universe – it’s only been a year since the showdown in Overture – but there’s good reason to take her seriously. She backed up her boast by summoning The Cradle, a magical structure the size of a mountain. Within seconds, an entire city full of people was wiped off the face of the planet. The Cradle vanished as quickly as it appeared, with the unspoken threat of a future attack. It’s up to Sol Badguy and Ky Kiske, the two most powerful and iconic fighters in the franchise, to join forces and save what remains of human civilization.
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It’s not the most ideal partnership, of course. As any Guilty Gear veteran knows, the rivalry between Sol and Ky is the stuff of legend. As a direct sequel, Xrd examines how they and the returning cast are dealing with the fallout of the previous game. Ky has matured into a competent king, though political realities and responsibilities have forced him to rethink his morality. Sol is still a gruff and bitter bounty hunter, though he’s kept his word and raised Ky’s son as his own. Sin doesn’t have his father’s brilliant mind, but he certainly has his idealism. May is similarly positive, but vague hints at her backstory (and foreshadowing of events in the next game) imply that all is not well with her and the Jellyfish Pirates. Faust is still crazy, though he’s embarked on a long, wacky road to redemption. The Assassin’s Guild is still operating under Venom’s leadership, and he’s even managed to end the longstanding feud between himself and Millia. More importantly, Zato – long dead and possessed since XX – has been magically resurrected. His surprise reappearance is a herald of something far more sinister.

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Not everyone is back, unfortunately. The Guilty Gear series is known for its bizarre and unique designs, but some of the biggest fan favorites didn’t make the cut. Baiken is arguably the most missed; her incredible swordplay was among the best in any fighting game. The same can be said for Johnny, who gets nothing but a few scenes in Story Mode. Dizzy gets a similar treatment, though she’s out of action for plot purposes. The newcomers have enough personality to distract you from such shortcomings, though. Ramlethal pretends to lack emotion, but she enjoys summoning giant swords and viciously slashing you to pieces. Elphelt is far more cheerful and ditzy, but she’s a bride that takes the term “shotgun wedding” literally; she tosses grenades instead of garters, and pumps any runaway spouses with lead. Bedman looks like a harmless coma patient in a silly-looking hospital bed…until he starts summoning spiky wheels of death with his mind. Sin isn’t as terrifying, though his long-range spear combos are powerful. He’s balanced by a stamina gimmick akin to the Monster Hunter games (he has to eat steak to prevent exhaustion), but he’s lethal in the right hands. That goes double for Leo Whitefang, the exclusive DLC character. Imagine a hulking man/lion hybrid who dual-wields greatswords, can change stances to attack you backwards, and whose every word is dripping with deliciously hammy voice acting. Yes, Leo is hilarious, awesome, and a perfect fit for the game’s setting.

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Speaking of which, Xrd’s story is surprisingly easy to get into. Guilty Gear’s lore is notoriously convoluted, but this game alleviates much of the problem. While the new Story Mode has the underlying assumption that you know what happened in Overture, it occasionally retouches some of the major points – such the importance of Justice and That Man – to keep new players from getting lost. If you’ve endured the stories of Persona 4: Arena or any of the BlazBlue games, don’t worry; Arc System Works forgoes its usually sprawling narrative in favor of focused storytelling. It takes only a few hours to finish, with plenty of cameos and no repeated scenes. As usual, the majority of it is told through voiced dialogue. Instead of simply plastering the characters’ avatars on the screen, however, it uses drawn scenes. They aren’t fully animated – there’s a lot of standing and talking – but it gives players something interesting to look at. Considering the costs for such a production, having a relatively brief story makes sense. If you miss anything, there’s an entire in-game library to keep you informed.

However, you’ll probably skip over all of that and dive right into Arcade Mode. If you’ve played any of the XX games, it’s like returning to a childhood home: familiar and nostalgic. It utilizes most of same move setups as before; there’s the usual array of punches, kicks, slashes, and heavy slashes that create a wide variety of combos. Every character comes with their unique special attacks, like Sol’s iconic Dragon Install or Venom’s billiard-style ranged tactics. That’s on top of the guard crushing, air dashing, Overdrives, Psych Bursts, Faultless Defense, Instant Kills, and the other returning features. At first glance, it’s easy to assume that Xrd is a hyper-aggressive button mash-fest. Blindly running into battle, however, will get you slaughtered. While not as intensive as BlazBlue’s commands, the inputs in this game require a good sense of timing and attention to frame animation. Unlike the Persona 4 fighting games, Arc System Works didn’t implement any kind of auto-combo control scheme. If you take the time to learn the fundamentals, you’ll be surprised at how far they carry you.

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For more experienced players, there are several new advanced mechanics to master. Guilty Gear’s Roman Canceling system is back again, but it’s been expanded into three types. They still allow you to cancel attacks into other moves, but their effects are more situational. RCs depend on things like opponents’ hitstun status, timing with animation frames, using projectiles, character momentum, etc. It’s technically demanding, but mastering it pays off in spades. Elphelt, for example, has some ridiculously good unblockable setups with her grenades. The classic Dust Attack has been modified as well. The traditional homing jump version lets you launch foes skyward and follow it up with mid-air combos. The homing dash, however, forces your opponent into the wall and leaves them wide open for cornering tactics. For more defensive players, the newly-implemented Blitz Shield lets you repel oncoming attacks while sacrificing a quarter of the energy otherwise saved for Overdrive moves. It doesn’t seem like much in the midst of all the offensive capabilities, but using it well can completely turn a fight on its head. So can Danger Time, which randomly triggers whenever attacks clash. It basically boosts your attack power, countering, and canceling capabilities for ten seconds. Unlike the other features, this one feels tacked on; the randomness completely throws off the match’s pace and doesn’t fit well with high-end competitive gameplay. If Danger Time had to be included, it would’ve made more sense to make it a limited optional command, like Instant Kill Mode. It detracts from what is an otherwise solid and engaging experience.

Regardless, there’s a lot to learn. If you’re feeling intimidated, there’s a robust Tutorial Mode that covers every aspect of the game. It’s even structured as a series of lessons taught by Sol to Sin, which is amusing in itself. There’s also a Challenge Mode that focuses on increasingly demanding character-specific combos. However, the Mission Mode is more practical. It assumes that you already know the basics, and focuses on situational tactics instead. How do you block attacks while dashing? How do you perform air-to-air combos? How do you combo into an Instant Kill? You need to know if you’re playing competitively. Having a feature that focuses on advanced tactics is immensely useful, and it’s something that more fighting games should include. It could never replace Practice Mode, of course. It lets you customize everything from the health and special bars to computer competency and blocking techniques. The recording function is as useful as ever, but it’s the Input Delay – essentially a lag simulator – that’s the most important. When the crux of your strategy depends on how well you can handle the animation frames, mastering the inputs is a must.
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Speaking of lag, the online multiplayer isn’t quite up to par yet. By no means is it unplayable, but it’s inconsistent. The majority of the matches played thus far have been incredibly slick and responsive – as expected for an Arc System Works title – and making the transition from offline has been easy. However, a few of the fights have slowed to a crawl or randomly disconnected. It’ll likely warrant another patch in the near future, but it’s questionable right now. Ranked matches are few and far between, though there are dozens of player matches going on at any given hour. The lobby system takes the next logical step from BlazBlue: Chrono Phantasma’s design. The rooms are separated by continental regions, and then further divided by geographic location. Each place on the map has 32 rooms, which can accommodate up to 64 players each. Not surprisingly, most of the rooms are completely empty. If you find a busy location, you can set up lobbies with certain skill level requirements, connection speeds, voice chat, and even differentiate between casual and serious matches. Inside, you have the choice of pairing off with someone for a quick match, switching opponents, or waiting on the sidelines and spectating someone else’s fight. Despite the lack of a YouTube uploading feature for replays, there are a lot of options packed into such a simple design.

If you want something not so competitive, the offline M.O.M. Mode will keep you busy. It’s basically a huge, customizable survival mode. You begin at the center of a massive map of panels, and must fight across other panels to progress. The more you win, the more cash you’ll earn towards stat boosters, items, and equipment. For example, my Slayer can’t move quickly, but he hits like a truck and his health bar is three layers thick. You can spend time building up resistances to status ailments, reduce chip damage, etc. You’re not the only one with upgrades, either; at higher levels, you’ll run into enemies with increasingly broken movesets. You think Axl is bad at long range? Try dealing with a version of him that doesn’t flinch and can summon May’s whale. Only patient and masochistic completionists need apply. It’s worth the effort, though; everything you do in any of the modes will net you bonus points that go towards unlocking stuff in the gallery. It’s a little sparse compared to BlazBlue’s offerings, but it’s definitely a case of quality over quantity. Character avatars, cutscenes, voice acting, music…It’s all there, practically begging to be unlocked.

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You’ll want every last bit of it, too. In an unusual move, the designers chose to use Unreal Engine 3 for Xrd’s graphics. Rather than attempting to make traditional hand-drawn character sprites, they decided to go with 3D cel-shading. It works beautifully with Guilty Gear’s anime-influenced style; just look at the way Ky’s hair moves when his ponytail becomes undone, or the way Ramlethal’s cloak flaps in the breeze, or how Slayer seems to slide across the screen in one fluid motion. Sol’s detailed Dragon Install animation – and the epic music track that activates with it – is the stuff other 2D fighters could only dream of achieving. Not to mention all of the fully-animated and voiced Instant Kills. The backgrounds are detailed as well. May’s airship drifts above the clouds before diving low enough to skim the ocean, and the bridge in the Japan colony gives a good sense of depth and perspective. There accompanying soundtrack is, as usual for Guilty Gear, a stellar blend of rock and metal. Tracks like “Storyteller” and “Holy Order III” steal the show with their awesome instrumentals, and “Lily” sounds like a long-lost Queen song. Considering who designed the game, there’s nothing more fitting.
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It’s been a long time. After so many years, it’s great to have Guilty Gear retake center stage of the 2D fighting genre. Arc System Works has learned from their experiences with BlazBlue and Persona games, and it shows. It’s a reminder of what makes these games great: a small but unique cast of quirky and awesome characters, highly technical gameplay, and a style second to none. It’s not the easiest game to get into, but the streamlined story and in-depth tutorials are enough to keep newcomers hooked. The drastic changes to the old combat mechanics are interesting, though not everything is perfect. The online multiplayer still needs some reworking, though most of the matches work flawlessly. This game sets a new standard for the inevitable future titles. Judging by what Xrd has accomplished, Guilty Gear is back and here to stay.

*Originally posted here.