Donkey Kong Country Returns Review

It astounds with sheer design brilliancy and, as far as 2-D platformers go, that is the main recipe for success

dk_returns2Donkey Kong was undeniably one of the strongest and most popular characters under Nintendo’s belt during the time Rare was still an integral part of the Japanese giant. Among the British company’s many achievements during their golden years, the inception of Donkey Kong Country easily ranks as one of the most remarkable. From a contemporary standpoint, it is easy to take both the franchise and the character’s sustained existence for granted; after all, both have been around for so long they precede the birth of many gamers. However, a deep glance at the past reveals that Donkey Kong could have easily ended up as a forgotten relic of the arcade era and a mere trampoline for the launch of Mario towards stardom if Rare had not intervened in his fate.

Prior to 1994 and Donkey Kong Country’s release, the simian’s appearances had been limited to either a mindless villain that served as the videogame equivalent of King Kong, in both Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong 3, or as a caged beast that had to be rescued from Mario’s evil clutches by his young son, in Donkey Kong Jr. Thanks to Rare, though, the gorilla was able to escape the confines of arcade gaming and walk, gloriously, into the 16-bit era by riding on a era-defining trilogy that conquered what was, at the time, the industry’s noblest genre (platformers) and, in the process, produced what is likely the style’s greatest sidecrolling masterpiece: Diddy’s Kong Quest.

Following the conclusion of the saga, the franchise lay dormant for a whopping fourteen years, a time during which the gaming industry’s blind love for 3-D visuals caused 2-D platformers to be seen as a genre that belonged solely in museums rather than as a viable gameplay alternative to the large open-ended scenarios that dominated the landscape. With the arrival of the Nintendo Wii, though, there came a sudden rebirth of sidescrollers, and perhaps aware that the homecoming party would not be complete without one of its most beloved stars, Nintendo (now without Rare by its side) handed over the task of bringing Donkey Kong Country back to life to the only development team that was worthy of the challenge: the highly acclaimed Retro Studios, which were hot out of the conclusion of the masterful Metroid Prime trilogy.

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In Donkey Kong Country Returns, as dictated by tradition, the Kong family faces a huge problem that will sound familiar to anyone who has played any of the Super Nintendo classics that came before it: their treasured and tasty banana hoard is stolen. While the crime remains the same, the culprit has changed its nature. The humorous crew of Kremlings (the anthropomorphic crocodiles that tormented the Kongs over and over again during the nineties), apparently tired of having themselves kicked out of the DK Isles in a remarkable fashion, has given way to the Tiki Tak Tribe. Following the theft, the evil Tikis use their powers to hypnotize the islands’ animals and alter their behavior in order to stop Donkey Kong from achieving his ultimate goal of recovering his goods. While the fact that players are fighting regular animals, as opposed to wacky crocodiles with ridiculously amusing behaviors, is a tad disappointing, the Tikis are an interesting bunch that, while not nearly as remarkable as the Kremlings, do have quite a bit of personality.

Like a usual Donkey Kong Country game, Returns is broken into eight distinct worlds, each one with a varying number of levels ranging from six and nine, and a boss sitting at their end. The thematically varied worlds include the usual Donkey Kong Jungle, the fiery fury of a volcano, and go through a beach, a factory, and other interesting scenarios. One would be right to point out that these settings have been used to death in every single platformer that has come out ever since Super Mario Bros. amazed the world in 1985; the Donkey Kong Country franchise included had already presented its own versions of all of those locations. Still what Retro Studios has been able to construct within each one of those clichéd environments is absolutely out of this world.

The level design in Donkey Kong Country Returns is constantly mesmerizing. There is not a single stage in the entire game that feels like it has been quickly slapped together, and there is not one obstacle that has not been planned carefully. The game does an excellent job of finding balance between new ideas and traditional staples of the franchise, and these elements are mashed together to create an adventure that feels, simultaneously, refreshing and nostalgic. All assets that made the series so unique back in its glory days return in full force: blasting barrels are plentiful and are used to create tension as well as excitement; swinging vines are devilish and tricky enough to mess with the timing of newcomers and rusty veterans; and the always trusty animal buddies reemerge even if it is with the considerable caveats that their appearances do not feel sufficient and that their nature is limited, as only two (Rambi the Rhino and Squawks the Parrot) show up.

dk_returns4Furthermore, Retro is so aware of the series’ legacy that the company went out of its way to create a whole world that is mostly filled with mine cart stages. And although such knowledge may cause some to worry about looming repetitiveness and others to be haunted by nightmares of such levels’ zero tolerance towards mistakes, in the long run those fears will likely not materialize. Firstly because, as it is proven repeatedly during the course of the game, the minds at Retro Studios excel at creativity, and they have used that inventiveness to, even in the most limited of scopes, come up hundreds of challenges that stand out and do not overlap with one another. And secondly because checkpoints are abundant and well-placed.

Through these stages, players will control the duo of Diddy Kong and Donkey Kong. However, in a turn of events that may disappoint those that lean towards the nimbler member of the pair, Diddy cannot be moved individually like it happened in the original game of the series, as he stays stuck to Donkey’s back through the duration of the quest. The exception to that rule comes during multiplayer sessions, in which each player takes control of a Kong and the death of one of the members can be reverted by rescuing him from within a DK Barrell. Regardless of the mode, each monkey holds a total of two hearts, meaning that when players have both Kongs they can take up to four hits before finding their demise.

In single-player mode, where both Kongs are a four-heart unit, dropping below three hearts leads to the loss of Diddy Kong, at least until a DK Barrell can be found. As such, keeping the number of hearts at three or above (in other words, keeping Diddy alive) is quite valuable for his presence on Donkey Kong’s back lets gamers use his jetpack, which gives the heroes a nice amount of extra air time and an added dose of control that is extremely welcome when performing many of the dangerously precise jumps gamers will need to execute throughout the adventure. Having a total of four health points, as opposed to the two of the Donkey Kong Country franchise, may come off as one of those breaks modern games have been giving to players in order to make the difficulty level smoother, but in the case of Donkey Kong Country Returns, four hearts is a very well-calculated margin because the title is genuinely hard.

dk_returns6That high level of challenge never becomes overly frustrating, though. Donkey Kong Country Returns is the good kind of challenging, because as much as players may fall victim to the same traps repeatedly, they will rarely feel overwhelmed by anger or frustration. Donkey Kong Country Returns is constantly motivating players to keep on going and not to give up, simply because it is one of the most fun and well-designed games one can find on the Nintendo Wii. And the combination of its very well-placed checkpoints with the good amount of lives the game hands out and its between-levels auto-saving gives gamers plenty of wiggle room not to lose any considerable amount of progress as they go through the adventure. Donkey Kong Country Returns is certainly one of the toughest games the Wii has to offer, and it achieves that without being painful.

The eight worlds and many stages scattered around DK Isles are sure to give gamers many hours of enjoyment, but for those who do not feel satisfied after battling through the game’s already difficult regular adventure, Donkey Kong Country Returns brings a lot of extra things to do. Each stage features the already famous K-O-N-G letters, and this time around collecting them does not add a new life balloon to the Kongs’ loot, as it used to happen in Donkey Kong Country. Instead, they serve as collectibles that count towards full completion.

Gathering all of the letters is a lot of fun, as some of them will require players to do extra insane acrobatics with equally insane timing in order to be grabbed. Besides, all levels have a set number of puzzle pieces that can be found either hidden around the scenarios, or in bonus mini-games whose entrances are also tucked away around the stages. The sad part is that those bonus mini-games are extremely repetitive: there are only about six of them and they are reused, with only very minor alterations, throughout the game. It is a glaringly disappointing contrast with the varied fun bonus mini-games of the previous three installments of the series, where a short list of objectives (such as collecting all bananas or reaching the coin before the time is up) was used as a basis for mini-levels that were quite different in the way they were setup.

dkcreturnsAll worlds also have a secret stage that can be unlocked by buying a key on Cranky’s shop. Although activating them is easy, beating them is certainly not that simple. Those stages are designed to beat down the most skilled platform gamers on the planet, and they require a lot of playthroughs before all their details can be learned and memorized so that players can finally make it to the end. Being skilled will not be enough to get to the end of these gauntlets, as their solid length and lack of checkpoints will test gamers’ patience and endurance. The prize awaiting those who conquer all secret levels is an extra secret stage that, when completed, unlocks the game’s mirror mode, which will, in turn, allow players to reach the game’s coveted 200% completion.

Donkey Kong Country Returns is, albeit great, held back from reaching the same quality plateau that its precursors were able to achieve in another couple of areas. While graphically it is a beautiful work of art with great multi-layered environments and fantastic character models; in terms of sound the game leaves a lot to be desired, especially because it is naturally put side-by-side with its three older brothers, and in terms of music that is very tough competition. The most remarkable tunes of Donkey Kong Country Returns are remixed songs that felt slightly more compelling in their original form. Meanwhile, the newly composed tunes fail to inspire and live up to the very high bar the Donkey Kong franchise set for itself.

Additionally, the game suffers from rather uninspired bosses. With Metroid Prime, Retro Studios was able to create the most amazing boss battles of a generation, but here in Donkey Kong Country Returns the bosses are not really that unforgettable. On the contrary, the creativity employed in their creation strongly pales in comparison to the brilliancy of the levels that precede them, and while these have been clearly crafted by a team seemingly drawing from a bottomless well of ideas, the boss encounters are sidescrolling battle design in autopilot, failing to provide any moments of remarkable greatness, which were plentiful in the skirmishes of the Donkey Kong Country saga.

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Ultimately, though, what the issues of Donkey Kong Country Returns reveal is that the aspects in which the game falters are only perceived as weaknesses because they are inevitably compared to the best of what was offered during the classic trilogy that inspired it. Individually, none of its building blocks stand as the best to have ever appeared in a Donkey Kong Country game, but at the same time, save for its soundtrack, bosses, and mini-games, all of them rank away from the bottom and in pretty respectable positions. The result is a modern classic that, without any legacy to live up to, would come out nearly unscathed from even the most rigorous evaluation. With the exception of Diddy’s Kong Quest, none of the Donkey Kong Country games that came before it clearly surpass it. As such, Donkey Kong Country Returns stands among the best sidecrolling platformers not only of its generation, which was quite prolific in its production of great games of the genre, but also of all time.

Donkey Kong Country Returns

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Metal Gear Solid Snake Eater 3D Review

Despite the flaws of its translation into a portable format, Snake Eater still stands as one of the best implementations of stealth gameplay

snake_eater2In a franchise as successful as Metal Gear, it is hard to see any kind of consensus among fans regarding which of its installments is the best one. One thing is for sure, though, Snake Eater is certainly among the ones to which most fans will flock once such discussions ensue. Even though its original title may point newcomers to believe that it is the third game of the series, Snake Eater, actually, chronologically serves as the introductory chapter to all international conspiracies that Hideo Kojima came up with to power the espionage featured in the games that follow it.

As a consequence, porting Snake Eater to the 3DS ends up being a very sensible choice, for even players who dedicate themselves more strongly to Nintendo’s platforms are able to jump aboard without any previous knowledge of the saga. In hitting the 3DS, Snake Eater 3D reveals that while the portable is more than capable of housing such a grand adventure, some shortcomings stand on its way to successfully capture the spirit of the original in its purest and truest essence.

In relation to the other Metal Gear games, which are overly demanding of the attention of rookies, Snake Eater is ridiculously easy to pick up. After all, it is set many years before Kojima expanded the storyline of his videogame masterpiece into a bold convoluted web of characters, governments, and political factions. Snake Eater’s plot is as easy to follow as it gets, hence while the game’s gameplay quality will be the core alluring factor to those who are familiar with Snake, those who have never gotten into the series will find, in the story’s simplicity, reason to finally step into this universe.

snake_eater3On Snake Eater, during the Cold War, a CIA agent is tasked with the mission of exploring the jungles of the USSR and tracking down a kidnapped scientist who, threatened by a rebellious soviet group, is developing a dangerous nuclear weapon that could ruin the cooperation between the American and soviet governments, therefore kicking off the feared worldwide atomic conflict that would spell the world’s doom.

Even if down the line the story does get constituted of many different threads of political interests, the game keeps events and developments relatively simple all the way through. Still, there is no denying that Snake Eater – like the whole franchise – is very heavy on storytelling. In the game, watching cutscenes and actual playing share a nearly equal part of the title’s running time, and some of the very well-produced scenes can extend for over forty minutes.

Long cinematics have always been one of the franchise’s core strengths, and the central diverging point among those who love Metal Gear and those who do not, and here they are looking quite good due to the solid use of 3D effects. Still, this integral part of the series’ nature comes into conflict with the main feature of the system housing it: its portability. Those who like to take their handheld experiences in small morsels of time would better stay away from a title such as this, but anyone who is willing to use the 3DS as a home console for the duration of the game will have no problems whatsoever with that issue.

snake_eater6When not watching cutscenes, gamers will most likely be guiding Snake through some stealth scenario, and those are certainly the game’s defining moments. Snake has a vast arsenal of moves and tactics at his disposal in order to go through enemy lines without being sighted: he can use a tranquilizer gun, select the most suiting camouflage according to the terrain he finds himself in, knock on hollow surfaces to attract enemy attention, use special kinds of goggles, and so on.

What really makes those segments an absolute thrill, though, is how well-designed they are. As impossible as some of them might seem at first, with a little observation and a lot of calculation the enemies’ move patterns start revealing small gaps in coverage that can be taken advantage of. Players are then required to act in a few split seconds to either move to another more advanced location without being seen or sneaking behind enemies to take them down quietly. Those sections are very tense, and getting to the next scenario without being noticed is incredibly rewarding.

The stealth nature of Snake’s mission is not the only reason why players will try hard not to be seen, though; they will also want to stay hidden from enemies’ view due to how average the shooting gameplay on Snake Eater is. When sighted, players can choose to try to find a new place to hide until soldiers give up on their search for the elusive spy; the alternative to that course of action is, naturally, engaging in fire weapons combat.

snake_eater5Sadly, not only is enemy AI not very well-programmed to handle such situations, but Snake is, at times, too resistant in relation to enemy fire, making it possible for players to get away with murder way too easily once they are seen, running towards the next piece of land without dealing with foes. Fortunately, as the game reaches its midway point that shortcoming is mostly eliminated, for soviet soldiers start carrying more powerful guns that indeed give players the right level of punishment for blowing their cover, forcing them to clear the area while keeping their presence unknown instead of firing away madly or running towards the exit mindlessly.

As it is set mostly in a jungle, Snake Eater features a number of survival elements that are very important to its gameplay and that ultimately define the game within the franchise to such a great extent that they are responsible for the installment’s title. Snake Eater is neither a clever code name nor a lighthearted joke that falls right along the game’s usually humorous exchanges between Snake and his team, but an accurate depiction of the struggles the character has to face in the jungle and the unusual energy sources he is forced to consume. Snake can acquire a huge amount of injuries, either coming into contact with wild animals or insects, or being beat down by soviet forces. Those injuries, given Metal Gear thrives in trying to be as realistic as possible, need to be treated quickly, otherwise Snake’s stamina bar, which when reduced causes the character to perform simple combat actions very poorly, will decrease to dangerous levels.

Due to how important stamina is, finding food and medical supplies with which wounds can be treated either in soviet storage locations or in the wild is key to surviving. However, while locating food can be a good challenge at times, the items for medical care are too plentiful. Healing, consequently, ends up being more of a formality that requires gamers to navigate the surgery menu and less of an actual quest for survival, as it should have been the case.

snake_eater1Aside from clashing with the 3DS’ portable nature on its tendency for long cutscenes, Snake Eater has one extra struggle with Nintendo’s machine: the controls. Saying Snake Eater does not control well would be extremely unfair, because most of the game’s commands can be performed with ease, and the touch screen keeps the game’s many menus and maps in handy for players to use in a split second.

However, it is worth noting that the lack of a second analog stick forced Konami to map the camera controls to the A, B, X, and Y buttons, and while that is more of a hardware limitation problem than a shortcoming that is on the developers’ backs, it is an issue nonetheless. Controlling the camera with those buttons is far from natural, and it takes some good time to get used to it. Fortunately, even if not totally comfortable, it is far from being a gameplay disaster.

In spite of all those minor issues that keep the game from reaching its full potential, Snake Eater is definitely worth a purchase, especially for those who have never had any contact with the franchise. Its gameplay time may not be too long, but the different range of difficulties are enough to send players into at least a second playthrough, especially since finding ways to sneak past enemies and silently disabling them requires a great deal of planning and some creativity, as if Snake were an artist and stealth was the canvas onto which he painted his masterpieces. Furthermore, the brutal nature of higher difficulty levels makes not being seen at all extremely critical since the mission’s early stages, thereby completely eliminating the possibility of using an escape under heavy fire as a strategy for proceeding.

snake_eatrer5And while the story loses its magic on a replay, the stealth segments and bosses are all worth revisiting; the first for how they can be taken on in different manners, and the second for how creative and outlandish they are. Snake Eater 3D has an absolutely marvelous cast of villains, and their mannerisms and quirks have entered the halls of gaming history gloriously for very good and fair reasons. Despite their maniacal and threatening behavior, they add colors and surrealism to a universe that would, otherwise, be way too attached to grey reality for its own good. Although there is plenty of lightness to be found in much of what Snake does in his sneaking around, as well as his tongue-in-cheek interactions with his friends and foes, the big bad guys of Snake Eater take the cake when it comes to infusing the quest with personality.

Snake Eater 3D, shackled by a hardware that is not entirely suitable for its complexity and ambition, does not, naturally, surpass the original. Still, to anyone who has no alternative to get in touch with the Metal Gear franchise, it is certainly a must-buy. It carries an utterly flawless stealth component and a survival ordeal that, while not as grueling as it could have been, gives the quest a lot of realism and character. Despite the flaws of its translation into a portable format, Snake Eater, in its grandeur in gameplay and production values, still stands as one of the best implementations of stealth.

Snake Eater

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Kirby’s Return to Dream Land Review

Return to Dream Land gets everything right, but it does not excel at anything

return_dreamland2In the midst of the relatively recent Kirby revival started by Nintendo, fans have seen the charming pink ball go through some rather exotic transformations that nearly turned the series on its head. In Canvas Curse (and its sequel), Kirby lost not only his ability to rob enemies of their powers, but also his limbs, taking away from him the biggest part of his functional mobility; in Epic Yarn, still lacking his traditional sucking skill, he was given a thread to be employed as a whip in order to deal with enemies made of cloth; finally, Mass Attack divided the character into one wacky ten-unit army that swarmed foes like a pink and more cuddly version of a Pikmin squad. After such a rodeo of quirkiness, Nintendo decided it was time they went back to basics by crafting a Kirby game that, aside from looking like a traditional puffball platformer, also played precisely like one. And that is what Kirby’s Return to Dream Land is: a smart return to form, one that feels like a warm homecoming and is made even sweeter by the fact that Kirby – in his purest form – had been away from it for so long.

As it appears, strolling through Dream Land has become increasingly dangerous during the past few years, for once again – when having fun with Dedede, Meta Knight, and Waddle Dee – Kirby puts himself in a complicated position when they witness a damaged ship fall at a nearby location. The gang decides to take it upon themselves to help the poor alien life form whose damaged ship has lost five parts. From that point, players know the drill: it is up to them to find those five pieces, which are properly guarded by bosses waiting for Kirby at the end of distinct worlds.

In total, the game features eight worlds, eight bosses, and around forty stages that range from being as easy as pie to as soft as cotton candy. There is some challenge here and there, especially if players are looking to locate the not-so-hidden 120 power spheres scattered through the stages, but the joy of playing a Kirby game is not overcoming a hardship, but being delighted by the straightforward nature of the adventure, basking in controlling the unstoppable powerhouse that is the main character, destroying enemies in creative ways, and enjoying the ride up to the end. Anyone who cannot have fun with a game devoid of major ordeals, will most likely not be engaged by Kirby’s Return to Dream Land – or any Kirby titles for that matter.

return_dreamland1As a statement on how basic (in the most positive sense of the word) Return to Dream Land is, the game plays pretty much like Kirby’s Adventure (a classic from the NES era) did. Kirby is one slow floaty character who has the ability to suck enemies up and steal their abilities in order to destroy other foes or to advance through a specific part of a level, which allows for some nicely varied stage-design opportunities.

All of the conventional abilities are here: Kirby can turn into a rock, gain electrical powers, become one spiky ball, spit fire or ice, throw bombs, fly, spin around creating a tornado, wield a sword, use a boomerang, carry a whip, turn into a ninja, sleep, punch, kick and do a few other tricks. There are even some instances where one can acquire super powered versions of some of those abilities to create even more mayhem around the levels, destroying everything in Kirby’s path with the press of a button. And – in the gaming world  – there are not many activities that top the satisfaction of causing so much destruction in a cute scenario such as Dream Land.

If Mario sidescrollers are generally considered family games, the Kirby games take that concept to an even more extreme level, because not only are they easier for kids to succeed, but they also beat Mario on the cuteness factor. Kirby’s Return to Dream Land takes advantage of that and, in the spirit of New Super Mario Bros. Wii, brings a cooperative mode where Kirby, Meta Knight, Dedede, and Waddle Dee work together to get to the end of the levels – with Kirby obviously being the only one who is able to copy abilities.

return_dreamland3It blatantly makes things much easier than they already are, but while it loses on the challenge department, this multiplayer option clearly beats the lonely single-player mode in terms of laughs and hilarious moments. If there is one thing to complain about regarding the mode, is the fact that if player one falls to their doom, the team automatically returns to the beginning of the area they find themselves in; and if that happens with no lives left, everybody has to start the whole level again. On the other hand, if any of the other players die, nothing happens, and that player can come back to the action as long as the life pool that is shared among all characters is not empty. It is an issue that makes gameplay unbalanced and puts extra pressure on whoever is player one, which goes against the family fun purpose of the whole mode.

By the end of the adventure there is still plenty to get out of the game. Kirby’s Return to Dream Land comes packed with nice extras such as another Story Mode where Kirby has his energy bar nearly cut in half, adding some of the challenge that the regular adventure lacks so strongly; a bunch of amazing challenges built around Kirby’s special powers and cleverly set obstacle courses that test players’ abilities with some of the character’s most unique powers; and some nice multiplayer mini-games that are more than perfect for when players are looking to take a break from the pace of the standard adventure. As it is traditional in all Kirby games, then, Return to Dream Land has a lot of content to up its replay value.

Finding fault in Kirby’s Return to Dream Land is a hard task. It is game with good level design, a large set of enemies, good graphics (featuring somewhat bland backgrounds, yet great character models), catchy little songs, a fun multiplayer mode, decent scenario variety, engaging boss battles, and compelling collectibles. The fact that makes it stand a few notches below other equally good Wii sidescrollers is that while it doesn’t do anything woefully wrong, it doesn’t do anything wonderfully right either. It is a game that doesn’t innovate, rarely surprises, and hardly does anything new or different when it is put side-by-side with the character’s classic adventures.

return_dreamland4The fact Return to Dream Land was a long-awaited revival of the traditional Kirby formula quietly clouded the lack of excellence that can be found throughout the game. In the end, Kirby’s Return to Dream Land just does not mesmerize, it simply does its job of entertaining for ten hours and then proceeds to leave the stage while being shyly applauded by the crowd. It walks on a very safe line, and as a Kirby platformer it does what it is supposed to do, but when put in the light of comparison to Donkey Kong Country Returns and even Kirby’s Epic Yarn, other classics of the era, it falls a bit short.

Kirby Return to Dreamland

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Albums of the Month: March 2018

ruinsAlbum: Ruins

Artist: First Aid Kit

Released: January 19th, 2018

Highlights: It’s a Shame, Fireworks, Postcard, My Wild Sweet Love

With “Ruins”, the Swedish Söderberg sisters, unlikely admirers of American country legends such as Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, Johnny Cash, and June Carter, reach their fourth full-length release. And to anyone who has been keeping track of Klara and Johanna as they travel down the road of traditional country music, the record holds little surprise. Firmly rooted in the more folksy branch of the genre, the one that is better reproduced when sitting on a porch with an old guitar while surrounded by a small group of people that are willing to clap along, “Ruins” carries tunes that fully take advantage of the girls’ prowesses. These are highly melodic and catchy songs that leave plenty of room for irresistibly beautiful harmonies to resound and for a sweet down-to-earth nature to shine through. Klara and Johanna undeniably know how to write a good hook, be it of the sort that moves listeners’ emotions or of the kind that invites people to sing together with them, and aware that – on its own – good old stripped down country is not enough to draw contemporary audiences, they are able to balance respect for the ethos of the genre with smart touches of modern indie-folk flavors.

The fact that, stylistically, “Ruins” is not too distant from “The Big Black and the Blue”, “The Lion’s Roar”, and “Stay Gold” does not mean it lacks distinguishing features, though. Given country music has never been a stranger to heartbreak (in fact, it is questionable the former would even exist without the latter), sadness over relationships that have turned sour has been a recurring theme for Klara and Johanna throughout their discography. In “Ruins”, however, the pain of lost love is far more omnipresent, and the fact the album’s title nods to what is left after a beautiful story between two people implodes indicates the girls are fully conscious of that. It is an appropriate label, for the record is rarely concerned with the events that lead to a break up. Rather than that, it chooses to dwell on the misery of the aftermath: the attempts to reconstruct bridges that have been burned or to find meaning in what has happened, the coming to grips with the vanishing of joint dreams and plans, the harsh realization that one is alone, and the difficulty to move on.

Klara and Johanna guide listeners through those themes via two distinct musical patterns. Firstly, there are the songs that are so utterly country in their essence that their instrumentation and structure, as recorded onto “Ruins”, could have come straight from a work by the genre’s legends the sisters so deeply admire. “It’s a Shame”, “Postcard”, “To Live a Life”, “Distant Star”, “Ruins”, and “Hem of Her Dress” not only enchant but also serve to remind the audience of where First Aid Kit’s inspiration comes from. Secondly, there are the tracks where, despite the existence of a country essence, an indie grandeur overwhelms it enough to take center stage. “Rebel Heart”, led by a atmospheric picked guitar, concludes its five-minute journey with a coda that is almost psychedelic; “Fireworks”, which is so evocative one can actually see the colorful explosives against a starry sky, is an excellent indie ballad; “My Wild Sweet Love” is supported by synthesized beats that almost make it a pop song; and “Nothing Had to Be True” starts as a simple guitar-and-voice track and then takes the album to a cathartic closure that includes strings and crashing drum rolls.

Truth be told, such a nice equilibrium between the past they so deeply cherish and the current music scene in which they are building their careers is not new to First Aid Kit. To different and always increasing degrees, integrating indie and pop into country has been a task they have been tackling alongside their producers ever since 2012’s “The Lion’s Roar”, so – musically – “Ruins” does not present significant evolutions. It is more of the same, but when the same is well-written material filled with heart, good intentions, and truthfulness, all one can do is applaud Klara and Johanna for their impeccable taste and their ability to produce songs that are so immediately likable. They continue to honor their idols, captivate their audience, and be true to their art.


always_ascendingAlbum: Always Ascending

Artist: Franz Ferdinand

Released: February 9th, 2018

Highlights: Always Ascending, The Academy Award, Lois Lane, Slow Don’t Kill Me Slow

Ever since their excellent 2004 debut, dance music has always been an integral component of Franz Ferdinand’s sound. In fact, impossibly tight beats and grooves that begged audiences to dances were the main ingredients that made their material stand out among the myriad of indie guitar bands that appeared during the 21st century’s early years. As their career arch evolved, much of the group’s works concentrated upon presenting different balances between the rock music their instrumental setup of guitar, bass, and drums suggested, and Alex Kapranos and his crew’s wishes to attach a mirror ball to the ceiling, turn on walls of strobe lights, and transform their concerts into open-air night clubs. When that mixture leaned too heavily to one side, as in the innocuous “Tonight”, the music ran sour and dull; contrarily, when none of the two sides of the Franz Ferdinand coin overwhelmed its counterpart, fans were rewarded with efforts that were, at worst, solid and entertaining.

For “Always Ascending”, the group arrives somewhat transformed. Nick McCarthy, founding member and guitarist, is gone; and, to make up for his absence, the band brings in multi-instrumentalist Julian Corrie and producer Philippe Zdar, both of synthpop fame. That, alongside an album cover that could have been easily used for a electronic music compilation, should be enough to let listeners know where “Always Ascending” heads to. Never before in their entire career had Franz Ferdinand embraced synthesizers and keyboards so thoroughly. And, surprisingly, after having wisely toned down those elements for “Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action” in the wake of the cold reception that “Tonight” had received, this particular trip back to the land where unbridled synths meet the band’s jumping rock beats is far from unrewarding. Surely, there are occasions when “Always Ascending” falls flat, but in-between the punctual lack of inspiration Franz Ferdinand uncovers a few gems that would not have been found had they remained restrained to their previous safe framework.

On the negative side, “Lazy Boy” and “Finally” are grand examples of synth-rock failure; reliant on the repetition of their respective chorus and bridge – like a far less thrilling “Take Me Out” – the tracks depend on hooks that are just not there. “Huck and Jim”, meanwhile, only shines in its lo-fi distorted chorus. Everywhere else, though, the band succeeds to different degrees. With the exception of the gorgeous closer “Slow Don’t Kill Me Slow”, one of those layered yet silent ballads that seem to be eternally floating in outer space, “Always Ascending” is packed with rather dynamic tracks with segments that widely vary in instrumentation, energy levels, and style, showing Franz Ferdinand was clearly able to find a considerable amount of worthy ideas. The title song, for instance, begins with a lengthy heavenly intro before breaking into a dance rock body; “Paper Cages” approaches its great chorus differently every time it comes around; “Feel the Love Go” has an extended coda where a wild saxophone that could have come from The Stooges’ “Funhouse” seems to struggle against a swelling wall of electronic music; and the synthesizer work put into “Louis Lane” and “Glimpse of Love” is downright spectacular.

It is true that, sometimes, even during the album’s finest moments, the hooks that were clearly planned to be the centerpiece of the songs are not as great as they could have been. And given the band seems to have gone into the process of writing “Always Ascending” with the mindset to come up with simple melodies that are repeated over and over (a staple of the electronic genre), the listening can become grating at points. Nonetheless, the album offers quite a bit of enjoyment. Kapranos is still bursting with coldness, coolness, cynicism, a feeling of superiority, and cruel judgment, and he aims his acid pen towards many: the idealistic youth that wants to change the world to achieve happiness, those who have seen their best years go by and now have to dwell on the misery of what is left, a self-centered generation that engages in online posting competitions to see who is living the best life, and people who watch their lives through screens. Whether one is part of those groups or not, the positively British way of criticism works, and so does the music, because although it is far from being solid all the way through, “Always Ascending” is an interesting new take – with a few highlights – on the sound of one of the few relevant bands of the turn of the century that is still alive, kicking, and being artistically daring.


all_nerveAlbum: All Nerve

Artist: The Breeders

Released: March 2nd, 2018

Highlights: Nervous Mary, MetaGoth, Spacewoman, Dawn: Making an Effort

Although it may be purely coincidental, one has to wonder whether Kim Deal’s creative outpours are not genetically programmed into her being to, as precisely as clockwork, be activated with the passing of every ten years. The legendary bass player and occasional vocalist of the Pixies, who provided a much needed sweetness to Black Francis’ violent madness, founded The Breeders back in 1989 in order to find an artistic outlet for her songwriting, which had no room to breathe inside a band dominated by a great composer that was in the midst of one historical roll. Following the release of the solid “Pod” in 1990 and of the utter indie classic “Last Splash” in 1993, it took The Breeders a whole decade to follow up their influential masterpiece. It was a time that operated drastic changes in the music scene but that – as “Title TK”, from 2003, and “Mountain Battles”, from 2008, would show – failed to erode Kim Deal’s desire to use her group and her writing skills to craft an abrasive brand of straightforward noise rock that relied on sugary female vocals to find the right degree of pop to make itself palatable.

Fast forward another ten years, and yet again Kim Deal – alongside her sister, Kelley, as well as bassist Josephine Wiggs and drummer Jim MacPherson – has taken The Breeders out of their Ohio garage for one more rodeo. And if the decade that rushed by between “Last Splash” and “Title TK” did not alter Deal’s approach to writing and The Breeders’ take on indie, neither did the years elapsed between “Mountain Battles” and this new release. The instrumentation is minimalistic to the point “All Nerve” often toys with the contrast between silence and sudden guitar punches; the songs are simple and brief, rarely significantly eclipsing the three-minute mark; and, grounded in this tight scope, The Breeders strive to come up with tracks that try to challenge indie accessibility without breaking it, turning in a collection of tunes that are – simultaneously – inscrutable and direct. What is different in “All Nerve”, especially when put beside its lauded counterparts of the 90s, is that the elusive balance of weirdness and loveliness is slightly off.

The Breeders do still sound like a rough, noisy, and punk garage band; and the vocal interplay between Kim and Kelley remains an irresistible delight. However, “All Nerve” suffers from an overall lack of ideas. Locked in plodding slow-to-mid-tempo grooves, many of the songs come and go without leaving a mark, making them sound like the work of a band that, despite carrying a trademark sound, just reformed to put eleven songs together without considering whether or not they had something urgent to say and showcase. The tunes that do find either a hook or a distinguishing trait to be defined by work fine: “Nervous Mary” stomps forward mightily and takes advantage of the clash between a robotic vocal delivery and a tense melody; “MetaGoth” is haunted by a screaming background guitar that lends it a ghastly aura; “Spacewoman” works thanks to how its silent beautiful verses are broken apart by a chorus whose punchy guitars wash over listeners; and “Dawn: Making an Effort” is a stunning electric ballad that goes drum-less through most of its duration and extracts gorgeous sunrise-evoking music from echoing guitar picking.

These great moments, though, even within a record that is relatively short, are just way too diluted among tracks that are either mundane or plain bad, as it is the case of the two songs that bring the album to a quite anticlimactic close. Despite being true to The Breeders’ ideal of sound, therefore, “All Nerve” amounts to an album that stands somewhere between forgettable and average. It is not that, almost three decades after their debut, time has outpaced the band; after all, the current indie-dominated rock scene looks up to alternative legends such as The Breeders and the Pixies, bands that wrote the book on how to be successful and receive widespread acclaim without compromising their values. It is just that “All Nerve”, amidst a crowded indie environment with plenty of albums that rely on the blueprint designed by those bands, is not good enough to either stand out like a statement by veteran trailblazers or seem significant given the long lull that preceded it.


ill_be_your_girlAlbum: I’ll Be Your Girl

Artist: The Decemberists

Released: March 16th, 2018

Highlights: Severed, Sucker’s Prayer, We All Die Young, Rusalka Rusalka / Wild Rushes

After “The Hazards of Love”, released in 2009, it was obvious The Decemberists had a problem. It is not that the album qualified as a grand culmination of their sound and as a masterpiece that would be hard to surpass; actually, not only was it a pretty irregular record, but the label of career magnum opus was also far more suiting for its two predecessors, “Picaresque” and “The Crane Wife”. The problem The Decemberists had to tackle following that album was that, with it, the band had taken their opulent, epic, wordy, and charmingly highbrow brand of folk to its ultimate extreme of grandeur: a lengthy rock opera. Therefore, what was – from the get go – a journey in which big narratives, occasionally loose structures, and lush instrumentation got increasingly more ambitious had reached a peak; and, like all summits, the sole exit it offered was downwards. The Decemberists, naturally, took it, and along the descending path they slowly stripped their music off many of its defining traits, consequently unearthing a safe, accessible, and mostly great country record (“The King Is Dead”), and a generally unremarkable folk rock work (“What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World”) that failed to stand out within the overcrowded genre despite its value.

“I’ll Be Your Girl” is the continuation of that trek, and yet another shot at solving the nagging question of where to go next. What The Decemberists do here, though, is throw synthesizers at the problem, and – as it turns out – decorating bland and stripped down folk rock with the electronic instrument does not make the wolf at the door go away: it merely changes its appearance. Within a bubble, “I’ll Be Your Girl” is by no means awful: most of the songs packed into it are melodic, catchy, fun, and carry a bounty of hooks. Additionally, in order to better integrate their folk mannerisms with the synthesizers that dominate the record, Colin Meloy and his crew mostly drop their acoustic tools in favor of electric ones, hence giving birth to unexpected praiseworthy moments in The Decemberists lore, such as the low guttural guitar riff of “Severed” (which would not have sounded weird, if played with more punch, in a Black Sabbath album) and the traditional blues riff that backs the joyful sing-along chorus of “We All Die Young”.

The downfall of “I’ll Be Your Girl”, ultimately, is that it is a The Decemberists album. As such, in the opener “Once in My Life”, when Meloy takes on the role of a character who pleads to the heavens for a sole success after a lifetime of failures, one expects a gripping tale describing a series of situations in which hope was shattered into sorrow; what listeners get, instead, is five minutes of a self-pitying chorus, punctuated by electronic synth-heavy instrumental interludes, that is repeated so much it goes from decent to grating. That theme reappears through a good portion of the album; personages that could have had their lives transformed into deep stories – like the suicidal man of “Sucker’s Prayer” or the killer of “Cutting Stone” – are left undeveloped, and the brief straightforward nature of the songs makes them over-reliant on choruses that sometimes backfire, either due to sheer annoyance (“Your Ghost” and “Everything Is Awful”) or exaggerated repetition (“Once in My Life”).

There are saving graces to be found in “I’ll Be Your Girl”. Among a couple of other instances, the sunny Californian vibe of the instrumentation of “Sucker’s Prayer” cleverly contrasts with the dying wishes of its narrator, proving the humor of Colin Meloy (a man occasionally capable of singing about tragedies with a tongue in his cheek and using words that send all his fans towards the nearest dictionary without coming off as a unlikable pedant) is still intact. Furthermore, the glorious eight-minute two-part piece “Rusalka, Rusalka / Wild Rushes” showcases The Decemberists doing what differs them from the rest of the indie folk crowd; that is, using a complex song – which goes from a piano ballad to an explosive coda – grounded in the genre’s traditions to tell a detailed story. Despite the bright moments it carries, “I’ll Be Your Girl” is not only a little bit too generic for its own good, but it also comes off as the work of a group unable to move to new musical grounds without losing its identity. If The Decemberists are able to find that balance, though, down the line the album may be seen as a fun, quirky, and flawed detour by a band in search of a new summit to climb. For now, it is nothing but the pleasant – yet generic – folk rock of “What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World” with a load of synthesizers added to the formula.

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Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask Review

Five games, and one handheld system later, Miracle Mask was a huge statement on the consistent quality of the Layton series

miracle_mask1With Miracle Mask, the Professor Layton series reached its fifth installment in as many years, and – differently from many other famous franchises of this day and age – the professor somehow managed to stumble upon a weird formula which combines constant releases, and little to no gameplay changes, and mixed those two ingredients to form games that are seemingly immune to criticism.

It might be awfully easy to negatively point out how Layton offered us over a hundred hours of eerily similar gameplay, but – as a contrast – it is just impossibly hard to ignore the glorious strides the folks at Level-5 were able to take in creating settings and stories that turned every one of the Layton games into odd mysteries that delicately floated in the border of the realms of the plausible and the outlandish. Miracle Mask followed that tradition and delivered one of the finest gaming adventures of the Nintendo 3DS’ early life.

Two elements are key in pushing the Professor Layton games beyond the label of glorified puzzle packages: setting and plot, and in Miracle Mask, especially aided by the 3DS’ powers and capabilities, they were more impressive than ever. This time around, the picturesque location of choice is Monte d’Or: an entertainment oasis located in the middle of a bare desert. Mostly populated by the marveled tourists who stay in the city’s many luxurious hotels, the place is a delightful clash of the European vibe and architecture that is so vividly present in the Layton series, the lights and colors of Las Vegas, and the French-influenced carnival celebrations that take place in New Orleans. The combination turns Monte d’Or into a believable confluence of styles, and, in the meantime, places the city into an nonexistent earthly geographic location. A match of tendencies that plays right into the hands of the Laytonesque plots that so often combine the possible with the far fetched.

miracle_mask2Monte d’Or is not just bizarrely interesting, it is also gloriously beautiful. Visually, with the Miracle Mask, the Layton series went through an incredible overhaul, and the result comes in the form of scenarios and characters that pop out of the screen in full life, and not solely because of the game’s wonderful use of 3-D effects. Some players may be disappointed to learn the pure cartoonish sprites were replaced by cell-shaded 3-D models, but truth is that at no point the game loses its charm.

On the contrary, the visual leap forward is extremely beneficial to the title both in its storytelling, and – even more strongly – in the development and growth of its setting. No other location ever explored by Layton offered so many details, people, and life, and for that reason players are instantaneously drawn into the many wonders of this paradise in the middle of the dunes. While the fully hand-drawn past of the series provided very remarkable locations to explore, the new blend of drawing and polygons introduced in Miracle Mask was a welcome change that made it stand out from the get go.

As alluring as the usual Layton locations might be, one thing is always certain: if the professor is on site, it means that something wrong is going on, and thankfully this is no exception. Built by a childhood friend of his, Monte d’Or has been under attack. A masked man in an impeccable white suit has been making public appearances in crowded places and executing dark miracles right in front of the tourists’ eyes. A town that thrives under flashy shows and casinos is suddenly being threatened by a twisted man who enjoys putting on shows himself, such as turning passersby into animals. Watching as the economic health of this tourist wonderland is in danger of turning into dust, Angela summons the professor to investigate the happenings.

miracle_mask3The story is as well-told as expected. The game alternates silent dialogues, voiced exchanges, and full-blown drawn cutscenes, depending on how crucial the moment is to the plot as a whole. Comparatively, the game’s plot offers as many twists and unexpected turns as all the other Layton games do, which brings a great balance between the puzzle-solving and the story development. That equilibrium makes the two factors complementary to one another, instead of turning one of them into a little accessory, and hence highlighting the brilliance of both the storyline script and the puzzle design. However, differently from the Layton game that preceded it – The Last Specter, Miracle Mask as a whole has developments that are more grounded in feasible reality, even if it is some sort extravagant view of what is real and what is not, which makes the whole quest for truth much more satisfying for players.

From that point onwards, the game is Professor Layton as fans know it. In point-and-click fashion, the professor must wander around the streets of the city, talk to its residents to gather either random information or new important leads, and solve a handful of puzzles along the way. As usual, the city is populated by quite an assortment of curious and unforgettable characters that start being missed by players as soon as the credits begin to roll. The game’s dialogue remains as sharp as ever, turning every little character interaction into one enjoyable experience that further adds layers to the remarkable Professor Layton universe. Though 3-D models are used in place of straight cartoons, the designers were still able to pull off some likable but bizarre designs that seem to have come out of a Saturday morning cartoon.

miracle_mask4The puzzles remain very solid. For those who are familiar with the series, the first few riddles will certainly be quite a breeze to figure out, as more experienced players are already quite high in the scale of true gentlemanliness, but as the game progresses, puzzles grow truly challenging and some of the adventure’s many hidden puzzles can take quite a while to figure out.

Though most of the puzzles follow the traditional structure displayed in the previous Layton games – where static text and a charming little goofy image are all that is shown to players, some of the puzzles here offer brand new interactive interfaces, such as a few occasions where a little sprite of the professor must be moved around in order for him to defeat threatening enemies in a very logical way.

All in all, the game comes packed with 150 puzzles, with an additional set of riddles made available through the Nintendo Network. If players just want to blast through the story and get to the bottom of the Masked Gentleman mystery, the game will last for about fifteen hours, but anybody who wants to become a true gentleman and solve all puzzles will find a game that will deliver over thirty hours of very satisfying gameplay. Once the case is solved, after many mind-blowing happenings, there isn’t much reason to replay Miracle Mask, such is the nature of a story-centered game, but its gigantic collection of puzzles and the already traditional extra mini-games, which contain dozens of puzzles within themselves, will certainly make it last for long.

miracle_mask5In the end, the Miracle Mask undoubtedly stands out among the Layton series due to its visuals, while its gameplay and plot remain true to the series’ traditions, which is not bad at all. Five games, and one handheld system later, Miracle Mask was a huge statement on the consistent quality of the Layton series, and it is quite amazing that the professor still astounds players as strongly as he did when he ventured into one curious village with an equally curious secret.

As veteran gentlemen, experienced gamers have come to expect and nearly foresee all the amazing turns that the plot and puzzles will take, but even in the face of those trained brains Level-5 simply never fails in pulling off surprising tricks. Players have grown mentally addicted to asking their favorite gaming franchises to change and transform, but, after playing Miracle Mask, they will become even more certain that, when it comes to Layton, all they should ask for is: keep coming, and stay the same.

Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask

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No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle Review

Its vibrant and unique personality transcends its limited gameplay and powers the game onto greatness

desperate_struggle2In a way, designing a game, like building pretty much anything from the ground up, comes down to doing a lot of little things right – or wrong – and then finding a way to integrate them nicely – or poorly – to form a single glorious – or disastrous – package. That is why, more often than not, the difference between a great game and a poor one is in the tiny details that in conjunction rescue the game from the bargain bin and lift it straight into the list of critically acclaimed best-sellers.

No More Heroes 2 is a classic example of that concept. Though its bare bones reveal a game that could have ended up being labeled as generic or monotonous, the items and decorations added to that structure end up catapulting the game into much higher grounds. Suda 51 found a way to craft one of the most outrageous, dirty, provoking games to ever make its way to a home console and, ironically, it landed on the family-friendly Wii.

At its core, No More Heroes 2 is annoyingly straightforward. Armed with a laser sword, the starring character seems to have an ability to dispose of enemies a little bit too easily. Hence, the game is nothing but a 3-D version of the old-school beat ’em up games that populated arcades in the early 90s. Players walk into a room, a large horde of foes comes, players beat them senseless, or headless, with their sword while producing very gory results (including water fountain-like torrents of blood coming out of decapitated bodies) and then they are either attacked by more enemies or receive the green light to move onto the next room to face the yet another group of bad guys. Sure, the main character has a few varied moves available to be used during battle, but they are not enough to break the game’s mold at any times, meaning that No More Heroes 2 could be a game blindly walking into a dark pit of rinse-and-repeat gameplay.

desperate_struggle5However, long before the game falls to its doom, it is readily rescued by the many layers of personality added on top of the formula. Travis Touchdown, a former assassin and inhabitant of Santa Destroy, suddenly sees himself in a situation where he must go back to his former bloody life when one of his closest friends is murdered by the top-ranked assassin in the city. Since confrontation with the killer, and sweet revenge, can only be achieved by climbing up the ranks, Travis rejoins the assassin guild with a strong urge to fight and slice his way to the top of the list. However, his way up the ranks will demand a lot of work as, since the guild has become increasingly popular and Travis is re-entering it from the bottom: he ranks in the meager 99th spot.

Although he does not fight 98 assassins, Travis’ journey up the ranks will put him in confrontation with some absolutely ridiculous – in the good sense of the word, of course – figures. The game’s many stages take place in different locations across town, such as a stadium, a university, and others, and in each of these locations Travis will come across assassins that not only fit the theme of the place perfectly, but also often work as exaggerated caricatures of the people that would inhabit those places.

What is truly great about No More Heroes 2 is that it is impossible to know what to expect next, and due to that the game constantly keeps players on their toes and wondering what maddening insanity they will find at the next location they have to visit. There is only one certainty; whatever there is to be found, it will most likely be either offensive to a part of the population or simply disgusting.

desperate_struggle4The game’s personality obviously extends beyond the assassins. It overflows Santa Destroy and contaminates everything Travis does or says, and all the people he interacts with. Santa Destroy reveals itself, either through the development of its story or through the minor side-encounters, to be a true concrete jungle where people are selfish, reckless and have no regard whatsoever towards common sense or public opinion. Travis himself is the very extreme portrait of a geek that loves games, wrestling, and manga, and has politically incorrect thoughts of women as frequently as he slashes somebody’s throat open. He is a man that sits on the toilet in order to save the game, undertakes any kind of job in order to collect some money, applies foul language to every sentence, and only shows true affection towards his overweight cat.

Speaking of the jobs Travis takes, they are possibly one of the highlights of the game. No More Heroes 2 is a title filled with old-school gaming references, to the design of some of the game’s visual elements to the beeps that occasionally appear among its sound effects, and that 8-bit-gaming homage becomes full-blown in those jobs. Whether he is removing giant bugs from a house, cooking a steak to the requested point, making deliveries in his motorcycle, or collecting coconuts, gamers will be accompanying Travis on those activities through 8-bit mini-games divided into many levels. Each of those activities could, without a drop of exaggeration, very well have been full-fledged NES titles given they are incredibly fun and addicting. There are about ten of those mini-games, including the ones Travis must perform in the local gym to increase his stamina and attack power, and even though money is not an extreme necessity in the game, at least on its easiest levels of difficulty, players will most likely be spending many hours – literally – performing those activities while they take a break from the constant killing.

Outside the 8-bit realm, the game’s visuals are perfectly suited for the world the software tries to convey. No More Heroes 2 features a highly-stylized cell-shaded art direction, giving characters the ability to broadcast their over-the-top emotions and ideas with great precision and allowing developers to take some rather extreme and ideal steps when it comes to the violence shown in battles. Most importantly, though, the visuals nicely go along with Travis’ love for HQs, making the whole of No More Heroes 2 feel like it lives inside a very bizarre nearly-apocalyptic comic-book setting where humans are about to destroy themselves due to sheer insanity.

desperate_struggle3No More Heroes 2, though, does have a good number of flaws that work against its many qualities. The game’s sound effects, more specifically the words uttered by characters during battle, are so limited that players will be hearing the same exact cries for mercy or help once every five seconds. Another considerable issue is the game’s camera, which often fails to show the best angle that the action demands, creating some rather frustrating situations. Finally, the repetitive nature of the battles could have been solved by bigger enemy variety, but that is not the case as even though the groups of enemies differ in their composition and number, they are usually formed by less than ten different sorts of enemies that can, pretty much, all be defeated in the same way.

Overall, No More Heroes 2 is a great title. It could have gone wrong in a number of ways, but through its sheer disregard for all things naturally human it manages to find many ways to succeed. The adventure lasts for about eight hours, discounting the time spent on the mini-games, and there are nice extras – such as a few challenging difficulty levels – that serve as good incentive for players to come back. More importantly, No More Heroes 2 shows that videogames are at their very best when they are set free from the constraints and rules that make our real world so dull and mundane. Travis Touchdown slices open the throat of those limitations and uses their gushing blood as his own demented version of the popular yellow brick road. And the path constructed by all the gore leads him to some rather entertaining places.

No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle

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Dead Space: Extraction Review

Extraction is the perfect example of the benefits a console environment can bring to a genre mostly dedicated to arcades

dead_space_extraction2On-rails shooters have always been considered as more of an arcade experience than a domestic one. Whether it is the fact those games thrive when played through short bursts of time or due to how much more engaging it is to hold a plastic gun and physically aim at the enemies rather than just move some sticks and press some buttons, arcades and their auxiliary features have always been a perfect environment for those titles, which were always seen by most as a mindless pastime. With Nintendo’s decision to create a controller designed around a pointer (which perfectly replicated the gun-in-hand feel on-rails shooters are centered on), and their system’s lesser hardware power, the Wii became the ideal ground for the transition of the genre from malls and arcade palaces to homes. And of all good on-rails shooters that hit the Nintendo Wii, Dead Space: Extraction easily ranks as the very best one.

The core component that makes Dead Space: Extraction rise above the competition is its acknowledgement that it is a game made to be played at home. While some on-rails titles embraced their simplistic nature, Extraction tries to take advantage of the environment where it is meant to be played, without leaving behind the genre’s most important characteristics. The main point where it becomes clear the game has gained in quality and value due to its migration is the emphasis on story. If on an arcade environment characters and plot fall victims to the overwhelming importance of scoring and shooting ridiculous waves of enemies, at home players can take their time, sit back and enjoy the plot underlying all the bullets that are flying.

Serving as a prequel to the original Dead Space, Extraction begins when a group of miners are extracting a mysterious artifact from a human colony in the planet Aegis VII. It all goes awry when the members of the crew begin suffering from hallucinations caused by the object, and start behaving wildly and violently. Later, the bizarre infection has spread through the entire colony, causing most of the population to turn into a creepy blend of zombies and aliens, and the few who have survived start planning a desperate escape. Through the ten missions and six-to-eight hours of gameplay, the story is slowly developed and characters are built into respectable levels, giving Extraction a whole new dimension in addition to the shooting and wandering through dark, silent, and eerie corridors.

dead_space_extraction3The second area in which the game is obviously influenced by its console’s nature is production. By locking players into a fixed path and allowing them to only move the on-screen reticule, the game’s producers gained the power equivalent to that of movie directors, and they fully take advantage of it. During the game, players will not feel like they are hostages to a brainless camera that follows a pre-determined path. Instead, they will truly feel like they are seeing the game through the character’s eyes. The camera will occasionally move to the side when sudden noises are heard, it will look at a partner’s direction when they say something or give an instruction, and will move, shake, and twist in impressive accordance to what goes on in the game.

That sole characteristic makes the whole experience extremely engaging, turning players into characters rather than viewers, and allowing developers to meticulously arrange the game so that it produces the desired effects and emotions on whoever is playing it. The emotional roller-coaster is nicely accentuated by the fact that, in doing away with freedom, the game gained a lot in graphical quality, hence making enemies, visual effects, character models, and dark environments much more believable than they would have been in a free-roaming game whose visuals were chained by the Wii’s hardware. Producing games that attempt to be realistic on the Nintendo Wii has always been tricky, but Visceral Games comes pretty close to nailing it perfectly.

The game presents great pacing throughout the adventure, alternating a few moments of straight action with slower tense segments, and punctuating them with the occasional cutscene or character development. The reasonably short duration of each of the ten episodes every one of them lasts for about 40 minutes or so – makes the individual bits of the game very replayable, which goes along nicely with the Extraction’s long range of difficulties, which go from Normal to the boldly titled Impossible. For those who are willing to dedicate themselves to the game more intensely, there are ten challenge mode levels, which focus on shooting and brutal combat and exclude any mentions to the story; and the ability to play through the game cooperatively.

dead_space_extraction4All in all, Dead Space: Extraction is definitely worth playing. It is rare to see a game that has the potential to change negative views on the genre that it belongs to, but Extraction is a game that deserves such a distinction. People who admire on-rails shooters will fall in love with how Visceral Games has taken advantage of the chance to expand the genre due to its transition to a home console, and those who have never really had much admiration for games of this kind will find, in the tense Extraction, the opportunity to learn to love them. Extraction pairs the simplicity of the on-rails gameplay with ambitious movie-like direction, thrills, and a good deal of nice storytelling, the fact aiming a gun at incoming disturbing aliens is extremely intuitive thanks to the Wiimote’s pointer is the cherry on top of a tightly designed cake.

Dead Space: Extraction

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