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By Charles On 21 Mar, 2012 At 11:37 PM | Categorized As Featured, Nintendo DS, Portable/Mobile Gaming, Reviews | With 0 Comments

No GravatarWhen it comes to long standing JRPG franchises, Shin Megami Tensei might seem like the “red-haired stepchild” of the bunch. Not as globally beloved as Pokemon, nor as ever-present as Final Fantasy, but still a powerful force in the JRPG community. It has its well-received titles- the acclaimed Persona series, side stories like Nocturne and Digital Devil Saga being a few of them- and is often lauded for its blend of traditional battle elements with compelling stories. But it generally flies under the radar of mainstream US audiences due to a lack of flashy cutscenes, over-the-top graphics, and “cookie cutter” characters.

I was one of those mainstream US gamers before I played SMT: Devil Survivor in 2009. I had heard of Persona, but hadn’t played it due to lack of time for console gaming (and a raging addiction to World of Warcraft). The fact that the title was available for the Nintendo DS, and an alternative to the Pokemon games I had been playing on the go, grabbed my attention enough to warrant purchase. I was expecting an entertaining story involving demons and suspense- what I got was an experience in gaming far beyond anything I had ever anticipated. I logged more hours in Devil Survivor than in any other game that year, my completist nature calling on me to see every story and fuse every demon. I still refer to it as one of my favorite games of all time.

So imagine my delight when a sequel was announced. Easily the most-anticipated game of my year, I managed to acquire a copy a full week ahead of release date, eager to once more jump into the wide world of demon-fusing and dystopian survival. Plus this time I had a gigantic DSi XL to play it on. Unfortunately, the game wasn’t fully able to live up to my own hype.

What a day for a field trip to Tokyo Tower…

As with most MegaTen games, you are the Protagonist- a high school student in modern day Japan. You have your friends, your classes, and a style all your own. One day you sign up for a service called Nicaea, which promises to upload “death clips” directly to your phone- these clips can be of anyone, even yourself, which has made the ‘service’ extremely popular. Of course, your own death clip is the first you see (a bloody train accident in central Tokyo), but rather than bite the proverbial dust, your impending doom is halted by the arrival of demons from some great Otherworld. Following a battle in which you forge contracts with the demons so they fight for you, you discover the world has changed.

Earthquakes have ravaged the country, toppling cities and plunging Japan (if not the entire world) into a decline. Your demons are your only chance at fighting against the anarchy at first, as you make your way through ruined Tokyo. Similar to the first game, these early hours are the only similarity, as the story diverges from a war between heaven and hell into something…else. Shadowy government organizations, alien entities, more death clips and rioting civilians all appear in the hours and days that follow, testing your mettle, honor and sense of duty.

At its core, Devil Survivor 2 is the same game as its predecessor: you acquire demons through the auction house, fight battles with them to acquire new skills, and fuse them when they reach their “limits” into other powerful demons, and repeat the process. Gameplay proceeds along a timeline, with each event taking a half hour of the clock. Based on your decisions, the story alters and sets you off on different endings based upon who you interacted with, and how you approached each interaction. Like it’s predecessor (and a few of the recent MegaTen titles) the game is a mix of visual novel interaction and JRPG battling, blending the elements seamlessly into a complete experience.

God, why did I go into the tall grass…

But this time around there are some new features missing from the previous game: borrowing from the popular Persona series, interacting frequently with other party members triggers a “Fate” system, whereby they gain advantages when partnered with the Protagonist in combat, and obtain the right to fuse certain demons upon attaining max level. Also borrowed from Persona is the Compendium, where demons are stored and can later be withdrawn for placement on the team. While the former mechanic is more quirk (I only really used it to make cracking skills easier), the latter makes the process of fusion much simpler.

In Devil Survivor, one had to memorize a lot of combinations and use a good deal of trial and error when fusing new demons, since a fuse required losing a valued ally. Now it’s a simpler matter to just withdraw the component demon and replace him. It also allows for customization of the party, as the player can pull out multiples of a non-unique, powerful demon to pair with other party members. The downside is how much money it takes to do so, thereby requiring a lot of grinding Free Battles. Also regarding fusion, the addition of Add-Ons also allows a greater deal of customization during the fusion process, provided the player has done enough battles to obtain the Add-Ons themselves.

My biggest gripe with the game lies with its story. Devil Survivor was a philosophical and theological “nightmare:” demons were breaking into this world, battling angels and spreading corruption. Angels, in turn, were judging mankind for past sins and preparing to wipe out Tokyo after 7 days. Your job was to prove the “greatness” of humanity and stop the ascension of the demon king Babel, while not giving in to the whispers of your summoned allies. The game contained a strong element of suspense and survival, as you tried to eek out resources (especially electricity) in a dwindling world of refugees locked away from the rest of Japan.

The Knights who say "Ni" of the Round Table

By contrast, the story of descending alien consciousness and the “merit-based world” espoused in DS2 seems somewhat flat. While the world is clearly suffering, the characters all find refuge in aiding “JPs,” a government organization dedicated to fighting the “invasion.” No more scrounging for food, or desperately seeking a phone charger. While the story plays out over more cities this time, the level of suspense is reduced. Things feel “cleaner.” There were points where I would rather have aided the rioters and civilians than JPs, simple because I felt their story was a bit more urgent and desperate. While the designers went all out to create a mechanical system of gameplay, they skimped on the story enough to where it rarely felt tense or compelling. Especially when compared to such MegaTen gems as Nocturne, Persona 3, and its predecessor. And don’t get me started on the “main trio:” I found the supporting cast to be a lot more interesting than the annoying Daichi and “neutral” Io.

All in all, Devil Survivor 2 is a very entertaining game. Shortcomings in the story are more than compensated by the intricacies of the auction/fusion system, and the complexity of battle, which makes the game appear even more of a “Pokemon with demons” experience than its predecessor. And even with a weaker story, I was still willing to play through the two “main” story lines, just to get a different perspective of what was going on (it helped that the second play through was ridiculously easy, owing to all my demons carrying over into New Game +). While I would definitely recommend playing the first game over this one, Devil Survivor 2 is still a solid title, and likely one of the better games released for a portable system so far this year. It will easily capture 60+ hours of your time, and will not be regretted in the slightest.

By Charles On 1 Nov, 2011 At 10:10 PM | Categorized As Featured, Movie News, Reviews | With 0 Comments

No GravatarWell, its over. October, my favorite month of the year, over and done. This year I had one of the most eventful Octobers in recent memory, despite lacking con attendance, or managing to eat something pumpkin flavored every day, as I usually attempt to. But it was still memorable nonetheless, because I did manage to accomplish something I had been wanting to try for years.

Lower Karazhan- People actually break IN to this place.

I watched horror movies. A lot of them. One every day, give or take. And most of them underground, low budget, cheap thrills. This is something I’m proud of, actually- normally my Octobers consist of nightly walks, a few movies here and there, and a whole lot of creepy dungeon crawling on World of Warcraft. This year, since I mercifully quit that addiction just as the month was starting, I had to fill my time with other things. So I set out to cram as much Halloween-related stuff into my nights as possible, breaking the idea of quality and replacing it entirely with nothing more than pure quantity.

Here’s how it broke down.

Best movie nobody heard of: “Bereavement.” A prequel to the indie-horror slasher flick “Malevolence,” this movie told the story of a boy abducted from his parent’s front yard and forced to help an insane serial killer with his work. The setting- rural America, a rundown meat packing plant, and local school- worked to make this tale more tense than some others. Added to it the somewhat offbeat nature of both the killer and the boy (who feels no pain, literally), and what came out was a twisted, violent, bloody mess of a movie that kept me fully engrossed for its duration. And I liked the ending, which is so rare these days.

Best “classic” movie: This past month, I made sure to watch at least a few “established” movie franchises. While I avoided the “Saw,” “Halloween,” “Nightmare/Friday the 13th” movies, as I’ve seen them enough, I did manage to partake of some Romero, Craven and Williamson blood candy. I was tempted to say “Scream” for this one. I loved that movie, and the recent third sequel (Scre4m). But the movie I enjoyed the most this past month? “Dawn of the Dead.”

I love a good zombie movie. I love watching hordes of the undead rampaging through the streets, terrorizing people. In fact, in the past few years, the movies I have remembered the most have all been zombie flicks- be it the Nazi marauding death machines in “Dead Snow,” or the shambling hordes standing between Woody T Harrelson and his search for a twinkie in “Zombieland.” “Dawn of the Dead” is equal parts comedy and survival-horror joint- trying to stay alive while trapped in a shopping mall, as the dead close in around a small cluster of survivors. Watching those survivors slowly go crazy and turn on each other. The last, mad dash for freedom. And the hope of better days, trounced in the end credits. It’s probably the most realistic zombie movie ever made (sorry, Tallahassee), and full of enough humanity to leave a lasting impact.

Whiskey not included

Movie that made me take a drink right after the credits rolled: “Last House in the Woods.” Not to be confused with the revenge/horror “Last House on the Left,” this was an Italian movie, that made me never want to watch another Italian horror film as long as I live. Part of the Ghost House Underground series of indie films, it revolved around a pair of lovers beset upon by thugs, a well-to-do family living alone at the edge of the forest, mutant freaks, cannibalism, and a decent-sized body count.

I should have known better. After all, I love the films of Dario Argento, and that man is one twisted soul. But what I got, after a somewhat confusing intro, degenerated into a mindless gore-fest, with predictably bloody effects, minimalist music and an ending so profoundly messed up, that I immediately needed a swig of something strong to block it out. If you can find this one on DVD, watch it. It’s not for the faint of heart, but shows exactly what passes for horror in Italy. God help us all.

Best foreign film: “Let The Right One In.” I watched, in all, maybe 6 foreign movies this month, two of them Japanese, two Italian, and two Scandinavian. The Japanese ones were predictably weird, with bizarre endings and strange cinematography. The Italian ones…well, read the previous entry. One of the Scandinavian ones was “Troll Hunter,” which I reviewed this past weekend, and the other one was a delicious vampire film that managed to do right what ever single vampire love story fails to.

Based on the bestselling novel of the same name, “Let The Right One In” is, at heart, a love story between two 12 year old children- blond-haired Oskar, a perpetual victim of bullying, and dark haired Eli, a vampire trapped in the body of a preteen. When Eli moves in next door, Oskar is delighted to have a new friend, who helps him find himself. As for Eli, she begins to see a new world, and a new life, in the form of innocent Oskar. The film is a solid mix of blood and honey- you cheer when Oskar (finally) stands up for himself, and expresses his feelings to the vampire next door, and you cringe when Eli loses her caretaker and is forced to hunt for food, leaving behind a trail of bodies. But this film succeeds where “Twilight” fails miserably- it makes the characters both human and believable. And that makes the romance believable as well.

“WTF” did I just watch movie: “Hausu.” I said I watched some Japanese movies this month, and this one was the hands-down strangest. Having been a fan of J-horror for some time, I had heard about this movie, but never had the chance to actually see it. I heard it was bizarre, and very f-ed up, and figured it was a blend of the terrifying “Ringu” (The Ring) and decidedly art-house “Jigoku” (Hell). Well…

“Hausu” (House) is a typical haunted house movie, with a number of young girls traveling to the countryside to visit the Aunt of one of their friends, Oshare. Upon arriving, they each start dying, one by one, eaten by the malevolent entities in the “House,” until none remain. Sounds pretty much like standard fare, right? Not in the slightest. The girls all have names that stereotype their glaring character type (Kung-Fu fights, Sweet is adorable), and are themselves caricatures of stereotypical schoolgirls. The monster that lives in the “House” is equal parts lonely spirt, and her bakeneko. There are random musical numbers throughout the movie, lots of dancing, and at one point a girl is killed by pillows. If this sounds utterly ridiculous, it is. And worth every minute you spend watching it.

Movie that kept me awake all night: “Paranormal Activity.” I love these movies for three reasons: first, they take place in suburban tract housing, not predictably old gothic homes; second, they feature demons, not ghosts, and this offers a wealth more storytelling potential; third, each one is better than the previous. So when I watched the third installment the week before Halloween, I spent the rest of the night catching up on the previous 2. And let me tell you something- I stayed awake all night. I’m not ashamed to admit that, either. Paranormal Activity messes me up, keeps me jumping and won’t let me look away, because unlike any other film of its ilk (like, say, 13 Ghosts), it has a healthy dose of realism in it that makes the back corners of my mind believe in it. Blair Witch did the same to me in 1999, The Ring did it in 2003, and Paranormal Activity does it now.

The third installment was the best one yet, with slowly building tension, an ending that hits you before you expect it, and enough story to fit it into the continuity prepared by the first two films. It’s not a seamless fit, they did have to do a bit of retconning, but the end result features the most tension I’ve felt in a “cam flick” to date, and the ending sequence is damn near flawless, as far as I’m concerned.

Best “stupid” horror movie: “Dinoshark.” Roger Corman + Eric Balfour + Bad CG x Lovely Mexican scenery / no plot whatsoever = Uwe Bolle’s worst nightmare.

Most squandered potential: “Shadows of the  Dead.” I got this in one of those “12 Movies for $5” sets they often sell at Best Buy around this time of year, and while the premise was intriguing, the end result was just plan pathetic. The story is about a young couple who get lost in the woods on the way to a cabin for a romantic weekend. The man get bitten by a zombie and starts dying, so he of course infects his girlfriend and they are stuck alone, in the woods, dying together. Potential story-lines involving love and the struggle to retain one’s humanity are there, but are easily overshadowed by the hokey dialogue, dime-store makeup, and general lack of acting ability of the two leads. This could have been great: instead it made me shrug and move on. This movie edged out “Land of the Dead,” only because that movie had explosions and Dennis Hopper, two things that would have possibly made this one a bit more entertaining.

The Obligatory Stephen King reference: “Storm of the Century.” Billed as his first miniseries written exclusively for television, I remember loving this movie a little too much back in High School. Now that I’ve had a chance to see it again, it didn’t hold up all that well. I remember Andre Linoge being creepier, the storm being more devastating, the demonic references less obvious and the ending being a bit more screwed up. But still, it was a trip down memory lane, and didn’t make me laugh as much as re-watching “The Shining” did.

Number 10- Low budget laugh riot: “Red Riding Hood.” Not the Amanda Seyfried “Twilight-esque” retelling of the classic fairy tale, this one was on the same box set as “Shadows of the Dead,” and was infinitely better. It doesn’t try to be anything it’s not- the acting is over the top and hilarious, the blood is plentiful, the story is just barely there enough to keep it going, you see the ending coming almost from the beginning, and then it surprises you with the single most ridiculous twist I’ve ever had the privilege of sitting through. This film was worth all 60 cents I paid for it.

 

Oh Damn, I forgot one: “Wake Wood.” Timothy Spall + “Wicker Man” + “Pet Sematery” x Irish Countryside / Why wasn’t Christopher Lee in this movie too? = I want to see more.

By Charles On 28 Jul, 2011 At 02:19 PM | Categorized As Animation, Featured, Reviews | With 0 Comments

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Oh Gainax, what will you do next?

Recently I had the chance to watch the first episode of “Dantalian no Shoka,” prolific studio Gainax’s entry into the 2011 summer anime season. I initially chose it because I tend to enjoy what Gainax has done (you might have heard of one of their titles, Neon Genesis something-or-other, got a little fanfare back in ’96), and the teaser behind the show appealed to me. So I tracked down the first episode to give it a shot.

Huey and Dalian, from the preview catalogue

First off, I want to preface this by saying a few things: this isn’t Evangelion’s Gainax. It isn’t Gurren Lagann’s Gainax. It isn’t even Panty and Stocking’s Gainax (but really what is?). Dantalian no Shoka is something entirely different, and whether it will pan out is best left up to time and viewers. An intriguing premise set up to be a mix of supernatural study, possible romantic tensions (purely inference on that chord) and a lot of flashy, colorful magical explosions.

The story set up in the premiere follows the story of Hugh Anthony Disward, who inherits his grandfather’s vast library of rare books, when the elder Disward is killed in a robbery. When he goes to check on it, he finds two things he didn’t expect. First, one of the books is missing, apparently stolen in the same robbery. Second, there is a strange girl, named Dalian, who is reading all the books in a storage room deep beneath the main estate. Some exposition regarding the nature of the library, references to something called “Dantalian,” a powerful demon who guards knowledge, and then the two are off in search of the man who stole the book, and killed the grandfather.

What they find at the rival’s estate is nothing less than a massacre: dead people, dark halls…and is that a lion? And a demonic, murderous clown? A DRAGON? Seriously? Huey (as Disward prefers to be called)  must draw on the power of both Dalian and the strange key he was given to destroy the dragon and seal the book (apparently a pop-up book full of circus stories) away, thus preserving the world, or something along those lines.

The premise behind the show, which was adapted from a series of light novels, is intriguing, which is what drew me in. I liked the idea of books harboring evil spirits. I like the idea that knowledge can lead to destruction. I even liked the idea behind “Dantalian,” apparently an actual demon in Japanese mythology (and who reminds me of a demon I created almost a decade ago for a book I was writing). All of these were enough to grab my attention. Unfortunately, there were times during the opening episode where I felt I had to force myself to pay attention.

I’m not exactly sure why. The art style is very pleasant, and colorful at times (with a lot of purple). The voice work suits the imagery and the animation. The character of Dalian, herself a cross between lolicon and clockwork girl, was an interesting part of the story, especially when taking into account the cryptic nature of what exactly she is, and how she relates to these monsters Huey now finds himself fighting. But for some reason, I found my mind wandering during the first part of the episode. It wasn’t until the action started that I really paid attention, and even then I wasn’t exactly raptly entranced. It’s not that the story seemed forced or implausible (speaking from the point of it being an anime story). It just felt like something was lacking.

But this was only the first episode, the introduction of what is to come. There are going to be another 12 or so episodes this season, so anything can happen. And the story in the premiere was interesting enough to warrant following the series, at least for now (and especially given what I’ve read about the story online). Gainax has done a lot of great shows in the past, so I will stick with this one for the time being.

Gives new meaning to the term "Keymaster"