Jurrasic Bungle

the_good_dinosaurThrough its history, one that currently stretches for nearly three decades and encompasses sixteen full-length feature films, Pixar has proven itself to be a studio in which “what if” questions become large gateways to the creation of universes of mesmerizing quality, creativity, and depth. “What if toys had a secret life that unraveled when we are not looking?” gave us the wonders of Toy Story; “What if monsters relied on the screams of scared children to produce energy to keep their society going?” led the way to two delightful Monsters Inc. efforts; “What if heroes were forced to hide and try to live a common family life?” brought on the surprisingly clever and original superhero flick The Incredibles; and “What if everybody had a set of five emotions working around a control panel inside their brains?” delivered the spectacular Inside Out.

The Good Dinosaur has its starting point in a similar way, as its writers sit and wonder what would have happened if the asteroid that annihilated the dinosaurs had missed its original target by a relatively small margin. Although the journey’s beginning is the same of other Pixar classics, that is pretty much where the overlapping ends. For starters, the premise is clearly not as refreshing and unexpected as those bore by the likes of Ratatouille, WALL-E, Toy Story, and its peers; the envisioning of a planet where dinosaurs and humans live side-by-side has already been explored extensively by numerous works of fiction.

The most aggravating issue, however, is not lack of novelty; Finding Nemo, after all, took the overused idea of humanized animals (in that case, the sea fauna), and drove it home with style. The problem is that Pixar sets out to imagine a scenario where dinosaurs evolve into smart creatures and have to share their home with very primitive humans, and comes out practically empty-handed. The company’s usually fantastic world-building skill, one that takes elements and situations that are inherently human and brilliantly reconstructs them with assets related to the universe within which it is working, is almost non-existent.

THE GOOD DINOSAUR

As it turns out, their extra time on planet Earth, caused by the asteroid’s poor aim, allowed the dinosaurs to optimize their food-gathering: herbivores have built farms while the carnivores keep cattle, and that is pretty much everything Pixar could come up with – an astounding shock to audiences just coming out of Inside Out, a movie whose every passing minute held some sort of awe-inspiring revelation to the inner workings of our mind. That lack of inventiveness could have been forgivable if The Good Dinosaur balanced its simple world with a remarkable story, but the lack of inspiration to answer its starting “what if” prompt is also present in its script.

The film’s focus lies on a family of Apatosaurus that run a humble corn farm. Out of the three children, Arlo is the one who has trouble helping out their parents in the vital gathering of food for the coming winter; his fear, clumsiness, and insecurity stop him from being useful, hence leading him to feel like an outcast, a fact made even graver due to his father’s occasional harshness and his siblings’ natural, yet harmful, jokes.

From the outset, the writing is – almost literally – on the wall that The Good Dinosaur will eventually trigger some disastrous happening that will force Arlo to head out into the world by himself, face a series of daunting struggles which he cannot avoid, and come home strong and confident enough to aid his desperate family. That arch becomes visible ten minutes into the flick, and sometime later Arlo – while chasing Spot, a human caveboy who has been stealing his family’s crops – falls alongside the boy into the nearby river and is washed away to a place miles from his home, to which he must return so that he can help his family gather enough resources for winter before it is too late.

To be fair, Arlo’s quest does hold some redeeming features. Namely, his relationship with Spot, which humorously acts like a dog, helping Arlo along but also requiring a good deal of protection from the dinosaur; and the unshown, but constantly looming, despair that Arlo’s family certainly felt following his disappearance. In fact, those two elements are entirely responsible for the two scenes in the entire movie that live up to the Pixar standards of emotion and poignancy, but they are two bright spots in an otherwise dull affair, a reality that makes part of their resonance diminish.

the_good_dinosaur2The movie’s other noteworthy quality is how The Good Dinosaur shuns the use of one fearsome cliched villain and opts to turn both nature itself – with its challenges, traps, and wildness – and Arlo’s own psychological limitations into the obstacles that need to be surpassed.

Everywhere else, The Good Dinosaur falls flat and feels hollow. Aside from the aforementioned predictability of its developments, the movie is marred by borderline embarrassing dialogues, and characters that come and go without leaving any sort of relevant mark in the audience. The humor that successfully treads the line between amusing childish gags and adult punchlines, a Pixar trademark, is nowhere to be seen either, as the funny sequences aimed at children are delivered awkwardly and the more mature comedy (save from one small scene that is rather bold by the standards of modern Disney) is missing in action.

Even the visuals, which feature some of the most impressively realistic textures and assets that Pixar’s supercomputers have ever rendered (the water and grass are particularly mesmerizing), are lifeless from an artistic standpoint. The dinosaur designs are unappealing, transiting between plain boring to pointlessly grotesque, and the world they live in is way too grounded on reality to bring anything new to the table.

the_good_dinosaur4Some could argue that The Good Dinosaur is Pixar’s attempt at writing a movie directly aimed at the youngsters, especially following the intricate and overly complicated concepts of Inside Out, but even if it does punctually come off as entertainment built for children, it is of the mediocre kind. Instead of reaching for the likes of Ponyo and My Neighbor Totoro, two works blatantly produced for kids by Studio Ghibli – a company known for crafting mature animation – that are masterpieces; The Good Dinosaur presents all the bad quirks and goofs of a rushed and uninspired DreamWorks product. For any company, such result would be a major disappointment; for Pixar, a towering giant in the world of animation, it is appalling and, ultimately, sad.

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Albums of the Month: January 2016

good_bad_queenAlbum: The Good, The Bad & The Queen

Artist: The Good, The Bad & The Queen

Released: January 22nd, 2007

Highlights: 80’s Life, Northern Whale, Green Fields, The Good, the Bad & the Queen

Back in 1979, Joe Strummer, in the title song of the masterful The Clash record “London Calling”, announced the coming of Armageddon as the rising tides brought on by the melting of the ice caps threatened to drown the city in a watery tomb. Like the furious rebel he was, armed with the wisdom of a man who had seen the end of times coming from light-years away, he laughed at his impending doom, boastfully claiming “I live by the river!” as if exclaiming he would be one of the first to succumb and would – therefore – not live to see much of that spectacle of human dumbness. Nearly thirty years later, another musical chronicler of British society, Damon Albarn – joined with The Clash’s own Paul Simonon, The Verve’s Simon Tong, and the legendary drummer Tony Allen – goes back to the subject of apocalypse striking London, albeit in a rather different vein.

Like Strummer, Albarn does not fight Armageddon; they are both smart enough to be aware of its inevitably. Unlike Joe, though, he neither mocks it nor sinks to the bottom of the ocean while laughing hysterically; he sulks. Given the band consists of an often energetic and spirited frontman (Albarn), a loud guitarist of colorfully bright textures (Tong), and a rhythmic section that is well-schooled in the grooving traditions of black music (Simonon and Allen), it is shockingly surprising that their coming together produced a sound that is this bleak and slow-paced, but such is the case. It is as if Albarn, upon attempting to go back to writing about English life – something he had abandoned following Blur’s “The Great Escape”, found a scenario that was so utterly depressing that he could not help channeling its darkness; or perhaps the gloom had always been present, but the youthful sarcastic vibe of his mid-90s persona did not allow him to look at the situation in such a way.

Whatever the reason, “The Good, The Bad & The Queen” shapes up as a uniform mass of desolation. Some might say its monotony makes the songs almost indistinguishable from one another, and while that statement may carry a good degree of truth, here that homogeneity comes off as planned. Therefore, instead of emerging as one mass of dullness, “The Good, The Bad & The Queen” appears as a work of impressive cohesion. As a testament to its thematic strength, the songs themselves resonate as items of impressive beauty – these are all reflective and observant tunes covered in sadly beautiful melodies describing hauntingly sinister occurrences and scenes – that carry a sense of incompleteness in their aura, as if their whole was permanently torn apart by an unstoppable catastrophe.

By drinking on a musical source that transits between acoustic folk, as evidenced in the album’s first few tracks, and English music hall, Albarn and company pull everything together with the aid of Danger Mouse, who adds his signature electronic layers and tricks to lend a great deal of ominousness to compositions that are relatively simple in their structure and melody shifts. “The Good, The Bad & The Queen” is an impressive mood piece that flows along nicely and conjures one powerful listening experience, painting a cataclysmic picture with a brush that packs neither the humor nor the defiance that Joe Strummer showed in “London Calling”, but that nevertheless produces a canvas painted in dark colors that is quite intriguing.

plastic_beachAlbum: Plastic Beach

Artist: Gorillaz

Released: March 3rd, 2010

Highlights: Stylo, Superfast Jellyfish, Empire Ants, On Melancholy Hill

Inside Blur, Damon Albarn’s eclecticism was somehow constrained by both the expectations surrounding the group and Graham Coxon’s unrestrained rock aura; forces that often pushed the band towards guitar music, even if later albums did show the singer-songwriter branching out to new grounds. Therefore, in a way, Gorillaz – the virtual ensemble formed in the century’s early years – allowed Albarn to, hiding under the veil of a quartet of anthropomorphic monkeys, explore all his tendencies inside the world of popular music, frequently toying with electronic elements and incorporating his undeniable pop sensibilities to them, with the latter serving as the sole link between his work with Blur and his output with Gorillaz.

“Plastic Beach” is a lot like its two predecessors, “Gorillaz” and “Demon Days”, for its focus is set on the kind of music that dominated the radio airwaves during the century’s first decade: electronic-infused pop music and hip-hop. However, the album stands on a more elevated pantheon because it feels fuller and more satisfying: the number of tracks that come off as filler or unfinished studio experiments is diminished even though they continue to exist. Moreover, stand-out numbers are far more abundant, which makes the work rely less on the band’s invariably spectacular singles, hence emerging as a true and  fulfilling album. Damon’s enchantment with the freedom and the gimmicks that Gorillaz gave to him seems to have worn out while his motivation has remained pure and contagious, and those two factors combined let “Plastic Beach” become the balanced record it is.

Despite that new-found focus, the main charm of Gorillaz – their endless flexibility, which is heavily supported by the fact the band is composed of four cartoon characters – is not lost on “Plastic Beach”. Actually, it might be stronger than ever here, because “Plastic Beach” has an uncountable horde of guests (including Snoop Dog, Lou Reed, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon, De La Soul, and Mos Def), and each of them makes important contributions to the record with their influences and mannerisms. There are the usual hip-hop takes (“Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach”, “White Flag”, and “Sweepstakes”), the excellent electronic experiment of “Glitter Freeze”, the solid pop tunes (“Rhinestone Eyes”, “Some Kind of Nature”, “Broken”, “Plastic Beach”, and “To Binge”), and a gorgeous vocal-centered R&B piece (“Cloud of Unknowing”) that is courtesy of the beautiful and powerful singing of Bobby Womack.

Those pleasant numbers are complemented by a handful of songs that safely rank among the group’s finest. “Stylo” has a very unique, and previously untouched, mixture of soul and funk that is guided by a vicious and hooky beat. “Superfast Jellyfish” is a catchy jingle that nods to “The Who Sell Out” both in its Townshend-like backing vocals and general theme. And both “Empire Ants” and “Melancholy Hill” are pure pop candy, with the latter easily emerging as one of Albarn’s most gorgeously beautiful compositions – which is saying a lot for a man that seamlessly created moving melodies in Blur. “Plastic Beach” is, then, Gorillaz’s very best album; a package of styles and influences that are pulled together by the ambitions of an incredibly talented musician, and that are given weight thanks to a group of equally gifted guests.

idlewildAlbum: Idlewild South

Artist: The Allman Brothers Band

Released: September 23rd, 1970

Highlights: Revival, Don’t Keep Me Wondering, Please Call Home

Coming out of a wonderful first effort that saw The Allman Brothers Band announce itself as one of the most impressive and soulful representatives of southern rock – albeit one that did not fare well commercially, the group quickly followed it up with “Idlewild South”. Where the eponymous debut was purely electric – a delightful trip through the Allman’s blues influences coupled with technically mesmerizing performances by its instrumentalists (especially guitarists Duane Allman and Dickey Betts), “Idlewild South” is unquestionably different. Yet, rather than simply abandoning those strong black-music roots, it chooses to merge new styles with that proven structure within whose confines the band thrived spectacularly.

“Idlewild South” captures Dickey Betts emergence as a solid composer, and much of the record’s stylistic expansion is owed to his contributions, which fit nicely beside those produced by Gregg Allman – the band’s de facto leader and main creative force. The opener “Revival” spends almost half of its running time as an instrumental piece where the guitars of Duane and Dickey solo over an acoustic rhythmic layer that nears rockabilly territory, and then proceeds to repeat a feel-good chorus whose spirit and melody are reminiscent of church jubilees – a reality augmented by the gospel choir and hand claps that accompany the segment. On the other hand, the classic “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” is a seven-minute instrumental that depicts a masterful blues band pulling off an improvisational jazz number with the funk undertones of the jazz-fusion genre.

Besides Dickey, Gregg Allman himself was also looking for new sounds and sonics, and nowhere is it clearer than in “Midnight Rider”: a mostly acoustic track, where electric guitars are used for short solos and some ornamentation, the song features beautiful verses with harmonization produced by the reverberation of Gregg’s voice and eventually takes flight during its chorus with the singer’s usual strong and emotional voice being pushed by powerful instrumentation. Despite all of those pleasant and significant alternatives, unadulterated blues is still present in “Idlewild South”, whether it is in the great cover of Willie Dixon’s signature “Hoochie Coochie Man”, or in the originals “Don’t Keep Me Wonderin’” and “Leave My Blues at Home”. The package is rounded up by “Please Call Home”, one of the Allman’s most beautiful numbers and a track that displays how moving of a singer Gregg Allman is; a man that can conjure the force and suffering that was well alive in the soul of all bluesmen.

Although it would only be with the legendary live set of “At Fillmore East” that The Allman Brothers Band would get their well-deserved dues as an amazing southern rock act, “Idlewild South” is a key part of the group’s legacy – one that was built especially on the shoulders of its first four records. It was here that the Allmans found the versatility that is so key to every major and historic rock band, and they did it all while still displaying their unbelievable skills as musicians, and interpreters and re-inventors of the American southern musical tradition.

southern_harmonyAlbum: The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion

Artist: The Black Crowes

Released: May 12th, 1992

Highlights: Sting Me, Remedy, Thorn In My Pride, Hotel Illness

Amidst the swarm of grunge and alternative bands (such as R.E.M., the Pixies, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Sonic Youth, and many others) that ruled the American soil as the 80s became the 90s, The Black Crowes were a dot way out of the curve; an island of traditionalism on a sea of new sounds. Born inside the borders of Georgia, hence within the direct area of influence of R.E.M., the group set out to innovate not by looking ahead, but by glancing towards the past and reviving the rhythms that its contemporaries acknowledged and loved, but had chosen not to fully explore as a way to differentiate themselves from what had come before. The Black Crowes, on the other hand, ran straight onto them, and their second work, “The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion”, is also – quite possibly – their finest moment.

This is not southern rock produced inside a bubble, though, and so – in more ways than one, The Black Crowes do not summon the rhythm in its rawest state. Instead, they infuse it with hard rock, putting forth tracks that groove like the blues but that have a very heavy punch to them. “The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion” takes that unique, yet revivalist, brand of rock that was established on the debut “Shake Your Money Maker” and builds on it via a prominent layer of rhythmic keyboards, a gospel choir that is almost omnipresent (only being left out of a couple of tracks), and a more focused – yet stronger and more ambitious – type of songwriting, with three tracks surpassing the six-minute mark and a fantastic balance between heavier tunes and ballads.

That riff-based exploration of southern rock yielded four absolute hits that serve as the cornerstone for the album: the opener “Sting Me”, certainly the most energetic and fast-paced song on the record, featuring a simple and catchy chorus; “Remedy”, which is carried by an unmistakable riff that works as the song’s main hook; the moving ballad “Thorn in My Pride”; and the boogie of “Hotel Illness”. Although they are without a shadow of doubt the best songs in the package, everywhere else on the album The Black Crowes are hitting all the sweet spots: their sometimes gigantic riffs landing with sheer force, their folk melodies delivering the perfect degree of emotion, their short jams working as pleasant breaks from the guitar onslaught, and their solos being ideal both in length and execution.

Given they would later veer towards more improvisational material, “The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion” is the ultimate expression of The Black Crowes’ sound in its most direct and untouched form; a great testament to the impressive talents of the Robinson brothers and the rest of the group as well. Although moments of considerable brightness lay in their future, never would the group sound this good and determined again.

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Xenoblade Chronicles X Review

It proves how gaming can craft full-fledged parallel universes into which players can gladly immerse themselves

xenoblade_x_4Aware that two alien factions that carry impossibly advanced and powerful war technology will fight a large-scope battle in the vicinity of planet Earth, the human race braces itself for the worst: total extinction of the species through the annihilation of its home planet. To avoid that fate, governments from all over the world prepare a fleet of gigantic ships that will be launched from major cities carrying selected groups of humans; their mission: float around space while looking for a new land to colonize. Sadly, many of the ships are taken down as they leave the Earth’s atmosphere; one of them, though, escapes the blockade and sails through the great darkness until it is tracked down by a group of aliens and shot down mercilessly. It crashes on planet Mira, with many of its pieces being scattered all over the land’s surface.

That ship is the White Whale, launched from Los Angeles, and its main module – a city-like structure meant to serve as the headquarters for the eventual colonization – comes to rest in the middle of an open field. From that location, appropriately called New Los Angeles, the survivors must, with the aid of their skills and technology, find a way to survive and recover the missing portions of the ship, which contain valuable information and, most importantly, citizens in complete stasis, waiting to be woken up to begin their new life.

That setup makes the intentions of Xenoblade Chronicles X clear: to be an open world title in which gamers are given a lot of freedom when deciding what to do next. Players take control of a four-piece team of humans that are a part of BLADE (Builders of the Legacy After the Destruction of Earth), a military organization that is responsible for all matters related to human survival on Mira.

As it turns out, surviving on an extraterrestrial planet incurs a lot of work: surveying the land while looking for materials; defeating dangerous monsters that inhabit the planet and pose a threat to New Los Angeles; protecting members of BLADE that go out into the wilderness; resolving problems between the citizens; testing new weapons that have been developed by the city’s research groups; venturing onto new territory and installing probes that will help in the gathering of information and resources on the planet’s many regions; collecting minerals; and recovering parts of the ship.

xenoblade_x_2The game utilizes its early core missions to paint that general picture and give players a firm grip on its most important concepts. However, fortunately, within less than a couple of hours, gamers will receive a strong pat on the back and have their wheels removed, for Xenoblade Chronicles X will quickly will them to take control of their team’s fate and choose their own path towards survival and colonization.

Xenoblade Chronicles, the title’s predecessor, had already pulled off that trick, albeit using a different goal as bait. It was a JRPG at heart – with its complex menus, character stats and customization, story development, and battles – but it sprinkled that recipe with MMO tendencies, such as the huge open world, the ability to travel anywhere at anytime without restrictions, and its mission structure. In a way, Xenoblade Chronicles X uses the same trick, for it shakes up the stiff JRPG formula by borrowing elements found in the massively multiplayer online. Here, though, the recipe feels inverted: the Wii U game is an MMO with JRPG parts thrown into its structure.

There are a lot of similarities between both titles. Unfortunately, while the graphics, animation, and character models remain top-notch, the soundtrack is not one of them, for the tunes found in Xenoblade Chronicles X are clearly weaker (sometimes bordering on cheesy) than the spectacular music found in its predecessor.

The first noticeable similarity, gameplay-wise, is the battle system, which is the same; a smart choice given its quality and action-packed spirit, a relief to those who are not into the quirks of turn-based gameplay. When engaging an enemy, players will control one of the members of the party while the others will be handled by the CPU. Regular attacks are delivered automatically in specific intervals, and gamers have to worry about a couple of actions: moving their character around; and activating their special attacks (or arts, as they are called here), which have a cool-down time as to avoid the constant use of the same art in a short interval.

xenoblade_x_9Moving is key for three reasons. Firstly, some enemy attacks can be avoided if players are either far away from the monster or in a certain position relative to the creature. Secondly, it allows them to target specific portions of the foe’s body, which might be more vulnerable or breakable, hence allowing the delivery of high-damage blows. Finally, a few special attacks are far more harmful or have specific effects depending on the position from which they are landed.

Another aspect that is borrowed from the original Xenoblade is the high degree of character customization. Their stats are affected both by the class to which they belong and the BLADE division they choose to be a part of, both of which can be changed at any time. The class, in turn, affects the available skills (which can either give characters stat boosts or special abilities) that can be set; the array of arts from which players can choose to assemble their eight-art battle menu; and the types of weapons that can be used (one close-combat tool and a long-ranged gun, between which players can switch on the fly even during combats).

To top off the web of complexity, there are also customizable soul voices; i.e., the instructions shouted by characters during battles. That new mechanic causes those pieces of advice to have an influence on how powerful the moves are. Arts that are suggested by other party members will glow for a short while, meaning that – if activated during that period – their efficiency will be augmented. Although some soul voices are fixed, a few of them can be customized so that the set of instructions a character can yell are made compatible with the moves the party possesses and support a specific combat strategy.

Despite that inherited depth and similar battle mechanics, which form the main link that holds the two games together, the stronger MMO tendencies held by Xenoblade Chronicles X in relation to its predecessor are felt everywhere else. It all, however, begins and goes through Mira. The five regions that form the planet – Primordia and its green fields punctuated by absurd and beautiful geological oddities, Noctilum and its dense forest of overgrown plants, Oblivia and its arid landscape filled with archaeological sites, Sylvalum and its extraterrestrial wonders, and Cauldros and its fiery furnace – are huge and fully connected with no loading times in between them.

The size and intricacy of the world will not be news to those who have experienced Xenoblade Chronicles; they will, nevertheless, be impressive, for Xenoblade Chronicles X features what is possibly the biggest landmass to ever appear in a videogame. Traversing each of the continents with any amount of care, even given the pleasantly high speed in which the characters can run, is – at least – a one hour affair. Size by itself, though, is not that awe-inspiring; Xenoblade Chronicles X triumphs in the design of its overworld, much like its predecessor had done, thanks to how detailed and inviting it is.

xenoblade_x_3Each continent hides a number of sub-locations that have their own landmarks: fields with distinct beautiful vegetation; mountains with oddly shaped peaks; waterfalls of impossible size; lakes of incredible beauty; overlooks with views that dazzle the eye; rocks of uncanny proportions and disposition; hidden caves and beaches; enormous trees; gargantuan metal rings of unknown origin; impressive valleys; and much more. Sites like those are literally everywhere: the continents are a fully developed expanse of distinct environments, carefully planned paths and secrets, calculated bridges, and sheer immersion augmented by a draw distance that often allows players to see from one continent to the other. The attention to detail within such scale, which is mesmerizing both horizontally and vertically, is stunning and, without a drop of doubt, the game’s finest feature.

Spread through that eye-popping vastness are both BLADE outposts that allow for some rest and interaction with other characters that might carry intriguing pieces of information, clues, or missions regarding the region in question; and creatures of different design (often bordering on a blend between earthling and alien) and size (some of which are absolutely gigantic and beautiful).

Some of those beings are utterly docile and only attack when threatened, therefore behaving like a lovely moving fauna that complements Mira’s gorgeous flora; many, however, will attack when characters are either in sight (designated by an eye icon besides the enemy’s name) or if the party gets too close to them (designated by a lightning bolt). Adding to Mira’s state as a completely unknown and wild planet, the distribution of creatures according to their level is rather uneven, meaning that roaming around New Los Angeles are many hostile creatures whose levels tread beyond 20.

Even though conflict can generally be avoided by sneaking around, such reality will undoubtedly frustrate many gamers, for it is common to be chased and killed (sometimes via a sole hit) by enemies standing in a generally calm location or separating players from the goal of a relatively low-level mission. Thankfully, though, not only does Xenoblade Chronicles X re-spawn characters close to the place of their demise, it also offers dozens of warp points around Mira, unlocked as players explore the place and plant new probes, which make traveling to any location on the map a matter of tapping on the Gamepad’s display and walking a short distance.

Teletransportation is not the only item that makes moving through Mira easier. Halfway through the game, players acquire their own skell, a giant robot that can be fully equipped with up to eight purchasable weapons, and whose model can be changed for better ones for a very steep price. Besides allowing the team to blast through the scenario quickly and even fly to great heights, it also serves as a powerful tool in combat, making enemies easy to dispose of (unless their level is a bit higher than that of the player). Although seemingly overpowered, it comes at a cost: it needs to be refueled from time to time, and losing it in battle entails the paying of a high fee to have it recovered. It is, by all means, one of the game’s most intriguing and exciting features, and one that is perfectly balanced.

xenoblade_x_7The irresistible allure of the overworld plays right into the hands of two of the game’s core characteristics: its setting, which is the general quest for survival that entails the execution of various activities; and its mission-based structure. That spectacular synergy makes exploring Mira utterly satisfying, because any action that is performed – whether it is collecting a new material, killing a foe, rescuing a fellow human in trouble, locating and surveying a piece of the White Whale or planting a probe in a previously undiscovered location – feel relevant. Moreover, given players are free to choose which missions to tackle (that is it, if they want to tackle any of them instead of walking around aimlessly exploring and taking in the sights), a fantastic cycle of freedom and rewards is born.

That freedom becomes even more evident when the main story is analyzed. The fourteen missions that make it up add drama to the quest for survival by pitting BLADE and the other human inhabitants of Mira against a group of alien races that arrive on the planet with the goal of destroying the last remnants of humanity. Most of them, instead of being thrown directly at players, can be activated inside the BLADE barracks once certain criteria is met. Therefore, like any other side mission, they feel like an extra dish; one that only needs to be handled when players feel like it.

The problem is that such side-mission feel is not restricted to the way they are presented; it also exists in their meat. Not only are they generally short, but they are usually comprised of a series of sequential goals that have players going to a place on the map and killing a specific enemy, complemented by a sequence of cutscenes that develop the plot. Their structure, therefore, feels barren and undercooked; they come off as quickly put together affairs, which are compelling but ultimately repetitive and uninspired.

The game’s main missions are a source of a handful of other frustrations. All of them have prerequisites that need to be met before being started, some of which are the clearing of specific quests. The problem is the game never makes it clear where those missions can be picked up, as they are always one among dozens of equally designed mission icons that appear as players explore New Los Angeles. Gamers are, then, left with the choice of either interacting with all visible mission icons across the town until they find the right one or resorting to a guide to discover their precise location.

Additionally, the main missions invariably come attached with character restrictions, determining which of the available party members can be selected before starting them. It is a perfectly reasonable mechanic, but given the game pretty much always forces players to use their customized avatar plus Elma and Lin, there is not room for variety when progressing through the core plot.

xenoblade_x_6Aside from those three main characters, which can constantly be found inside your personal and customizable barracks, there are a handful of other members that are added as the storyline goes along. However, instead of standing inside that very same location, these other BLADE recruits are scattered all over the city. Sadly, whenever players want to reconfigure their party, it is necessary that the character be found in his actual in-game location so that they can be added to the squad, making the whole process of changing party members to those who are not the three main characters a huge and useless hassle that could have been avoided via a simple menu interface.

The final problem regarding the main missions, and the game itself, lies in the fact that the level required to start those quests and beat their bosses often goes up considerably between sequential chapters. As the main missions are relatively thin, they do not contain enough battles – therefore, experience points – to sustain the level growth that the game expects.

That issue, truthfully, possesses in-game solutions: its sidequests and extra tasks. Clearing the former group (which includes bounty quests, gathering goals, and even a horde of affinity missions that come with full-fledged cutscenes, plot development, and meaningful character interactions), and performing the latter (such as planting probes, surveying resources, scanning ship parts, and discovering locations) will earn players XP.

It is only natural that a game this big and deep would find a way to force players to sink their teeth into its endless, excellent, and engaging extra content, which is a fine way to avoid grinding mindlessly by battling hordes of enemies for hours. However, the amount of experience points gained through those (especially the extra tasks) is not meaningful enough to make them viable options for leveling up at a good pace.

Therefore, the irregular curve that describes the level required for advancing through the game’s main chapter will inevitably entail grinding, whether by clearing missions like there is no tomorrow, or by beating enemies for a long time. Optimistically speaking, at least having the option to choose how the grinding will occur – and the opportunity to mix things up – is better than being forced to battle for endless hours against weak foes.

xenoblade_x_5Xenoblade Chronicles X has its share of flaws, and many of them – such as the thin main quest and the poor job it often does at explaining its various and incredibly deep mechanics – keep it from being as satisfying and complete as its predecessor. There is no question, however, it stands as one of those most ambitious games of all time, one that tries to blur the lines between MMOs and JRPGs by delivering a spectacular single-player experience that matches an RPG with open-world gameplay, coupled with active and numerous online features, like being able to recruit other players’ avatars temporarily, and take on missions alongside other gamers.

Never has a game been this big, intricate, and ambitious; and rarely has a title offered as much content. Xenoblade Chronicles X is an amazing package that pulls players into a marvelous world within which they can exist and survive for more than one hundred hours. It has details and developments scattered all around its world and its missions, and the bits of satisfaction that it drops as gamers sink deeper and deeper into Mira make the effort and dedication it demands more than worthy. It is an unrelenting source of joy and wonder; a title that serves as a prime example of how gaming is capable of crafting full-fledged parallel universes into which we can gladly walk and explore for hours, plunging into a reality whose amazingly detailed and appealing mysteries are an endless pit of motivation.

Xenoblade X

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Home Away From Home

xenoblade_x3Xenoblade Chronicles, by all means one of the greatest games of the previous generation and unquestionably the Wii’s grandest adventure, was a JRPG – a genre generally looked down on by many – that was able to avoid the niche’s many traps, mainly, through the use of one simple trick: the disguising of its most negative quirks via the borrowing of MMO elements. What was a gaming category often restricted by a set of rules and narrow progression got turned into a full-blown journey filled with exploration, freedom, and open ends. Naturally, an audience that was growing weary of the same old molds embraced the title as a sort of second coming that dared to do what needed to be done.

Xenoblade Chronicles X, aware that fans of the saga wanted a mixture of more-of-the-same with bigger and better mechanics, delivers precisely that. However, where Xenoblade Chronicles was a JRPG covered in an MMO cloak; Xenoblade Chronicles X further embraces the tendencies of massively multiplayer online games and becomes an MMO dressed up in a beautiful JRPG garb. Freedom and exploration are taken to a whole new degree, and not simply because Xenoblade X features what is the biggest and, possibly, better-crafted world to ever appear in a videogame; the core reason that tide shifts so heavily has to do with the game’s design itself, for – differently from what had happened in Xenoblade Chronicles – the focus is not the main plot, but the thousands of ornaments that surround it.

Due to an alien war that happened a bit too close to our home planet, humanity had to escape Earth aboard huge ships and look for a new world on which to settle. One of the few ships that were able to get through the massive battle crashes on an unknown planet bursting with docile and aggressive wildlife, and hordes of alien species that either want to see humanity destroyed or that serve as willing helping hands. It is in the middle of that environment, with the city of New Los Angeles working as safe headquarters, that the surviving humans must organize themselves and join forces with one another to survey the planet for resources, recover vital parts of the ship, and battle the otherworldly threats that have followed them all the way to their new home.

xenoblade_xSuch setting serves as the perfect trigger for a number of missions of varying nature: setting up probes in newly discovered locations, finding and analyzing objects abandoned out on the field, fighting creatures that endanger human survival in some way, gathering resources, testing recently developed weapons, mending turbulent relations between the survivors, and more. As a member of one of the teams whose task is to venture outside the safe confines of the city, players are free to do all of that as they see fit. Aside from the game’s initial segments, Xenoblade Chronicles X never forces players to tackle the main quest; instead, it leaves it up to them to decide what to do, and it rewards whichever path is taken with cash, experience points, character development, and plot details.

Consequently, even when focusing on side-missions, players will feel like they are doing something relevant and advancing; after all, the game’s tasks are entirely connected to its central goal: keeping the human race safe and healthy. That sense of satisfaction found in the hundreds of extra quests that are present plays right into the hands of the game’s greatest strength: the sheer size and appeal of its world. Mira is divided into five fully connected continents (with no loading times in between them) that host astonishing sights, breathtaking geology, numerous sub-bioms, and eye-catching forms that just invite players to explore them. The unbelievable amount of time that it takes to traverse each of them, certainly a time span that reaches past the 90-minute mark, then, becomes alluring and pleasing rather than daunting and dull.

The game’s pleasant shift towards its sidequests has a noticeable negative effect, though. The main story, despite its obvious qualities, comes off as less-developed and not-as-engaging as the mind-blowing tale contained within the original title. The missions that make it up are not as compelling and as intricate as the ones present in its predecessor; they are often relatively straightforward battling affairs that send players to a region of the map to face foes guarding something that is vital to humanity or to investigate evidence that points to the location of one of the ship’s missing parts.

xenoblade_x2Regardless of that shortcoming, Xenoblade Chronicles X is a game that keeps on giving through its many hours of gameplay. It features, even when non-Nintendo games are included in the comparison, a world of unparallelled size whose constantly exposed brilliant design and details will frequently make players wonder about the amount of dedication that it took to build something so impressively big and carefully planned. The matching of something so gargantuan with the urgency of the game’s quest for survival and the rewards that lie in, literally, every corner of the map is the secret recipe that keeps players going for an obscene amount of hours of exploration, discoveries, battles, and adventures.

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Written in the Stars

fa5It is quite possible, and perhaps even highly probable, that never in the history of motion pictures has a film hit theaters with as much to prove as Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Thanks to the franchise’s absurd popularity, one that universally transcends barriers of age and genre, and the fact that it comes riding on the gigantic hype waves created by Disney’s masterful marketing machine, The Force Awakens arrives with the goal of meeting incredibly high expectations and, most importantly, proving that a formula that was born in the late 70s can still successfully support a satisfying move-going experience. Fortunately, like Han Solo on The Empire Strikes Back, director J. J. Abrams is able to steer that hard-to-maneuver ship through that trap-ridden asteroid field without much damage.

Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has gone missing for unknown reasons, and with the threat of the First Order – mostly formed by remnants of the Empire – rising throughout the galaxy, the allies of the sole living Jedi are looking for clues that might indicate his whereabouts. The key to that riddle lies in a map held by a mysterious old man who lives in a hostile desert planet. And when that piece of information is discovered by both the Resistance – an armed force that supports the New Republic and that is led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fischer), and the First Order itself – led by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a Sith of obscure origins – the wheels of the adventure start turning.

The greatest victory achieved by Abrams with The Force Awakens is how the movie recaptures the Star Wars spirit that was lost in the prequels. The premise of one valuable item that is sought after by two opposing sides triggers a wild chase through space that alters the destiny of the many characters it bumps onto, such as the likable and skilled scavenger Rey – played by a confident Daisy Ridley that is able to convey her personage’s growth and innocent brand of courage with perfection; the deserting Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), who starts having second thoughts about the First Order upon witnessing a bloody and cruel massacre executed by Kylo Ren; the Resistance’s ace pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), originally sent by Leia after the map; and Han Solo (Harrison Ford).

fa3Abrams, like a dedicated geek who decided to sit at home for days while looking for the ultimate answer to the question “What in the world made Star Wars so special in the first place?”, seems to have unearthed the truth, and The Force Awakens is a display of that. Gravitating around a plot that has characters in constant pursuit of one another, giving neither its stars nor its audience any reasonable time to catch a breath from the movie’s very first scene, are various sequences that feature exciting chases – either on-foot or aboard ships that defy the laws of physics, lightsaber duels, battles between blaster-wielding platoons, hide-and-seek games in space stations of gigantic proportions, swashbuckling adventure scenes with touches of humor, and silent tension – an element that is usually brought by the core plot occurrences.

The Force Awakens, therefore, feels like a pleasant compendium of distinct genres firmly held under the same umbrella: a space opera of epic scope. There is always something entertaining happening on the screen and the audience rides a wild roller coaster that has them alternating between laughing along the main characters’ tongue-in-cheek remarks and reactions, and being overtaken by the anxiety of worrying about the fate of the honest and humble people that are thrown right into the eye of a galactic hurricane that has – at its core – a struggle between the forces of good and evil.

The movie perfectly balances its darker, somber, and more serious palette – usually brought up by some very well-done and thoughtful character development and the mindlessly evil actions of its villains; with its light family movie tendencies, which shine brightly thanks to the reckless duo of Han Solo and Chewbacca, and Finn, a character that – despite his inner conflict and fear of the constantly omnipresent reach of the First Order – delivers a good deal of comic relief.

Upon studying episodes IV through VI, Abrams also seems to have noticed that technology and space were never at the center of what made Star Wars soar. They were but accessories that added charm and a unique setting to a story that was worthy of being told; the result of that conclusion is that The Force Awakens feels more human, candid, and powerful than the plagued prequels. The focus here is never on the flaunting of special effects or the construction of scenarios that could only exist in a very bizarre distant galaxy; the spotlight is always wisely set on the great dialogues and character interactions.

fa2Abrams and his crew know that the most spectacular dogfights computers can generate do not have any weight or urgency to them when the reason for the battling is shallow; they are aware that the most mesmerizing scenarios machines can generate will have no life whatsoever if the stories that exist within them are dull, empty, and poorly developed; and they understand that fighting for the sake of the universe is not that compelling when the people that exist in it are not likable, human, and easy-to-relate. Therefore, they set their aim firstly on building a story that matters, and only then worry about its ornaments; that first vital goal is fully achieved through spectacular writing and by powerful performances by the entire cast.

Most of the scenes that make up The Force Awakens are pulled off in relatively mundane locations: an arid desert with touches of technology that are just about enough to make sure viewers realize this is an otherworldly tale; a dense forest and a snow-covered area that could reasonably exist right here on Earth; the metallic interior of spaceships; and, of course, a regular-looking, albeit overly rugged, cantina filled with oddly designed extraterrestrial creatures.

Technology and space are almost always present – this is Star Wars, after all – but they invariably take a backseat to the script; the product on which most of the efforts were placed. Computer-generated imagery is indeed utilized, especially on the breathtaking air combats and on a couple of remarkable characters, but Abrams’ crew mostly limits what appears on the screen to objects, gadgets, and settings that were actually built by careful and skilled hands; a decision that makes the movie as a whole more palpable, believable, and far less sterile.

fa4In spite of all the compliments it does deserve, a few issues keep The Force Awakens surpassing the mark of being an excellent movie and reaching for the masterpiece status. Although it is obvious that this new trilogy of flicks has at least another four hours to wrap up its plot in a satisfying way, The Force Awakens should feel like a complete rounded-up package; however, a few threads that are left hanging stop that from happening. The cause of the fact that the New Republic – winners of the war depicted on episodes IV, V, and VI – has no army of considerable size and needs to, thereby, rely on the Resistance, which looks and acts like a band of ragged rebels with little resources and improvised installations, for defense against a mighty First Order, which was born out of the war’s losing side, is not exposed on-screen.

The same applies for the elements surrounding Luke’s disappearance. The reasons behind it are indeed detailed. Sadly, they leave a lingering feeling that there is more to it than what is told, and given the search for the last Jedi is the movie’s main motivation – and the cause for much of the pain and suffering that is depicted, it is disappointing to see it go only half-told. Moreover, and perhaps even more gravely, the holding of the map that leads to Luke’s location (which is the object both sides desperately look for) by an old man in the middle of the desert is not explained, making the whole mystery come off, at least – and hopefully – until the other two movies arrive and make matters clearer, as a quickly put together plot device whose only purpose is to get the ball rolling.

The Force Awakens’ greatest sin, however, is how the bones of its script work as a mirror to what happened on A New Hope. It is possible that, by carefully studying the older movies, J.J. Abrams flew too close to the Sun and ended up drinking too heavily on that source. From a droid that is used to hide a map and that ends up finding an unlikely hero in the middle of the desert, to the final battle on a powerful space station, the parallels between both movies are so many and run so deep that they transcend the boundaries of Easter eggs and might make the movie feel, to some, like something that transits between a remake that uses different characters and distinct plot details to a copy that tries to succeed by riding on nostalgic references.

fa1Surprisingly, considering their size and weight, those flaws do not ruin the movie; they merely hinder it, not allowing it to be as great as it could have truly been, a reality that is certainly frustrating. However, the bottom-line is that The Force Awakens succeeds spectacularly in recapturing the magic of the old Star Wars movies and proving that such structure can still work as the basis for an epic blockbuster that entertains a vast and varied audience.

It is emotionally poignant, both in terms of joy and sadness; expertly filmed, as many scenes are bound to go down in history as unforgettable pieces of movie-making; finely written, with strong dialogues and interactions popping up all through its running time; accurately acted, given the whole cast is working at the peak of their big capabilities; and relentlessly thrilling, with non-stop action and developments. It is a science-fiction flick as powerful and engaging as it can be. It introduces us to a cast of amazing characters that are bound to work as the central items in a fantastic trilogy that will only add to the franchise’s legacy, and maybe even surpass what was built by the three originals. With stumbles along the way, The Force Awakens sets the table and arranges the pieces to what will likely shape up to be an incredible series of movies.

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Albums of the Month: December 2015

blood_tracksAlbum: Blood on the Tracks

Artist: Bob Dylan

Released: January 20th, 1975

Highlights: Tangled Up in Blue, You’re a Big Girl Now, If You See Her Say Hello, Shelter from the Storm

Through his first fourteen records, Bob Dylan had transitioned between a number of personas: an acid and acute political folk artist; a prolific troubadour that used impossibly wide imagery and led a wild rock band; and even a country singer. In all themes he had explored, though, Dylan constantly found a way to distance himself from his subject of choice, be it in a heartbreaking tune like “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”, in a surrealistic fantasy such as “Mr. Tambourine Man”, or in the social commentary of “With God on Our Side”. He was never a part of his stories, but rather an insightful observer who provides clarity to his public. It was only with “Blood on the Tracks”, written in the aftermath of a painful divorce from his longtime wife, that Dylan  got close and personal to his audience; the outburst of emotion was so grand the artist could no longer keep the curtains shut.

Although the shift in tone is one of the album’s most remarkable characteristics, and perhaps the reason for its impeccable greatness, it is not its sole quality. After a sequence of works in which his songwriting had clearly slipped from the glorious heights achieved in “Bringing It All Back Home”, “Highway 61 Revisited”, and “Blonde on Blonde”, “Blood on the Tracks” comes off as a return to form. More than that, however, it arguably represents the reaching of a new peak. With the exception of a five-sentence stanza in “Idiot Wind” whose melody is repeated a handful of times but whose words change drastically each time around, “Blood on the Tracks” is completely devoid of choruses, bravely relying – instead – in the sheer power of Dylan’s melodies and words to find anything resembling a hook, and the strategy pays off.

In “Tangled Up In Blue”, the album’s amazing opener that tells of a man’s long series of  bitter love affairs, Dylan himself reveals the key to the record. His character finds a book of poems in which “every one of them words rang true / And glowed like burning coal”. And such is the secret of “Blood on the Tracks”; whether he is tackling simple ballads (“Simple Twist of Fate”, “You’re a Big Girl Now”, “If You See Her, Say Hello”, and “Buckets of Rain”), a blues number (“Meet Me in the Morning”), a complex folk tale about a man repeatedly saved from doom by the love of a woman (“Shelter from the Storm”), or an angry rant (“Idiot Wind”), Dylan finds melodies and words that sting and burn with both intensity and sorrow, giving birth to tunes with uncanny emotional poignancy and that affect listeners regardless of the mental state they find themselves in.

Lines with the weight of “Though our separation, it pierced me to the heart / She still lives inside of me, we’ve never been apart”, “If I could only turn back the clock / To when God and her were born”, “I know where I can find you / In somebody’s room ”, “I like the cool way you look at me / Everything about you is bringing me misery” are everywhere. They resonate with great power due to Dylan’s delivery, which is that of a very hurt man; and the band’s performance which, aided by the production, is fierce in its mostly acoustic setup and haunting. From start to finish, even while taking an odd but pleasant detour through the humorous storytelling of “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts”, “Blood on the Tracks” is a bold and cohesive work of art; one that stands on a level of its own in lyrical terms even within the impressive Dylan catalog.

konkAlbum: Konk

Artist: The Kooks

Released: April 11th, 2008

Highlights: See the Sun, Mr. Marker, Cap, Sway

Named after the studio created and owned by Ray Davies, where some of The Kinks’ most legendary albums were written and recorded, such as Lola versus Powerman and the Moneygoround and Muswell Hillbillies, “Konk” is the second effort by The Kooks: a young band that was just coming out of the surprisingly successful and impeccably rock-solid “Inside In/Inside Out”. As if fully aware of the irresistible nature of their brand of pop rock, built around simple song structures and whimsical immediate melodies that would be right at home on a record by The Beatles or The Kinks, the boys   do not abandon that ship. Rather, they build on it. “Inside In/Inside Out” was a record with no weak tunes, but with a handful of numbers that felt undercooked; “Konk”, on the other hand, as a natural evolution, is more muscular and full-fledged.

The announcement of a more focused and grown-up group is carried out by ringing guitar of “See the Sun”, which accompanies Luke Pritchard throughout the tune and serves as the main hook in a song that is devoid of a traditional chorus. Those same signals of musical maturity are broadcasted in “Sway” and “Cap”, a couple of power-ballads, with the former, in particular, having a great deal of anxiety in both the way in which its lyrics are irregularly and nervously delivered, and in how its tension comes to a dramatic peak in its final segment with a dirty solo, a shouted bridge, and a repeated chorus that reaches new heights of energy; and also in “Always Where I Need to Be”, a balls-to-the-wall rocker that has a relentless guitar riff that pounds mercilessly but that does not forget to feature an infectious pop hook.

Great melodies alone, however, would not be enough to make “Konk” qualify as a masterful modern twist on British pop rock, for that genre is incomplete without lightheartedness and humor. As it turns out, “Konk” has the two elements in droves. The youthful playfulness of “Jackie Big Tits”, one of the highlights of “Inside In/Inside Out”, which here reappears in “Do You Wanna”, has been replaced by a more sophisticated wit. The catchy “Mr. Maker” has the silly, yet deep, characterization Ray Davies often proudly employed, disguising numerous social commentaries with a heavy layer of storytelling. Meanwhile, “Shine On” and “Love It All” have the same kind of innocent outlook on the world that the Lennon and McCartney pair rode to stardom in their pre “Revolver” days.

Ultimately, “Konk” is an album that does a lot in a little. Within thirteen tracks and slightly more than forty minutes, it explores terrain that includes loud and furious rock, sunny guitar sonics, electric balladry, unpretentious little pop gems, and eventually wraps up the deal with a sequence of three gripping acoustic numbers. Much like the masters of British pop rock that preceded them, The Kooks know the importance of branching out into many areas and pulling all those pieces together under the same umbrella. Here, that unifying magnetic field is the feel-good simplicity created by the urge to craft irresistible and far-reaching guitar pop.

them_crookedAlbum: Them Crooked Vultures

Artist: Them Crooked Vultures

Released: November 16th, 2009

Highlights: Mind Eraser No Chaser, Dead End Friends, Elephants, Bandoliers

More than a supergroup, Them Crooked Vultures is an act that combines the forces of three musicians with astounding work ethics; men whose endless energy has sent them across numerous musical projects of varying styles over the course of their careers. Josh Homme, one of the brains behind stoner rock pioneers Kyuss and the mastermind pulling most of the strings in Queens of the Stone Age, is joined by Dave Ghrol – he of Nirvana and Foo Fighters – and John Paul Jones, the bassist of Led Zeppelin and an absolutely legendary studio musician and arranger, to produce a potent masterpiece of hard rock that is incredibly well-executed (these three men are, after all, virtuosos in their main instruments) and shock-full of hooks.

In a room with so many distinct and powerful personalities, the pendulum seems to swing more firmly in Homme’s direction. It is not just that he takes over the reins and sings in all of the record’s songs; it is that “Them Crooked Vultures” is an album that sounds a whole lot like his main project: Queens of the Stone Age. Although all tunes are credited to the group as a whole, these songs are right up Homme’s alley: these are tracks built around mid-tempo riffs that pound the listener into submission; a drone-like wave of sound that comes down hard while also swaying. The prowesses of the instrumentalists end up being perfectly combined: Josh’s merciless hammering guitar gains weight thanks to Ghrol’s violent energy when he takes over the drums and Jones’ punchy funky bass; the keyboard layers he provides are a pleasant extra element that highlights the tipsy vibe of the songs.

As it is the case with Homme’s post-Kyuss works, though, “Them Crooked Vultures” is not a straight-to-the-neck attack. There is a dancy and sexual aura emanating from the tunes; a hard rock brand that would rather shake its hips than soak itself in blood. Examples of such mixture are evident in “Gunman”, where a trance-inducing circular beat is paired up with sinister lyrics that pave the way to a chorus that stops the song on its tracks to take advantage of the high-pitched end Homme’s voice; and “No One Loves Me, Neither Do I”, whose stop-and-start dynamics eventually open the way for a relentlessly loud segment.

Within those confines, “Them Crooked Vultures” explore both long-winded multi-phase epics with lengthy instrumental breaks such as “Elephants”, “Warsaw or the First Breath You Take After You Give Up”, and “Spinning in Daffodils”; and relatively short and catchy tunes that are crammed with hooks, like “Mind Eraser, No Chaser”, “New Fang”,  and “Dead End Friends”. Regardless of the end of the spectrum they are tackling, though, Hommer, Jones, and Ghrol pull it off every single time. For Homme, after Queens of the Stone Age’s uninspired “Era Vulgaris”, it is a creative renaissance; for  Jones, and Ghrol it is an opportunity to flex their restless bones in a new realm. Most importantly, though, “Them Crooked Vultures” is a fine, mean, sleek, and sexy record.

electric_ladylandAlbum: Electric Ladyland

Artist: The Jimi Hendrix Experience

Released: October 16th, 1968

Highlights: Crosstown Traffic, 1983… (A Merman I Should Turn to Be), All Along the Watchtower, Voodoo Child (Slight Return)

An eighty-two-second track that uses a myriad of special effects to produce the sound of what seems to be a landing spaceship; that sketch, boldly titled “… And the Gods Made Love”, is what opens up “Electric Ladyland”. If aiming for the previously unheard sounds that heavenly entities emit was Hendrix’s blueprint when heading into the studio, then “Electric Ladyland” is by all means an undeniable success. It is a legendary trip through sounds that, instead of resonating, paint; and the images they create are gorgeous moving watercolors of feelings, life, and energy. Where “Axis: Bold as Love” had surfed the peaceful waves of 1967’s Summer of Love to define, along a handful of other records, the psychedelic music that marked a generation, “Electric Ladyland” was – more than its most perfect and ambitious point – its elevation to a new musical level.

As a masterfully done sixteen-track record, the album finds plenty of room to explore all of the facets of The Jimi Hendrix Experience. On its more orthodox side, which is conventional only within the unique standards set by the Experience, Jimi is captured at the height of his songwriting powers: “Crosstown Traffic”, with its bluesy rhythms and infectious backing vocals, is absolutely thrilling; “Long Hot Summer Night” locks into one of those mellow hypnotic grooves that serve as a trampoline for Hendrix’s exquisite playing and for the unraveling of a smooth melody; “Come On” and “All Along the Watchtower”, covers of Earl King and Bob Dylan respectively, tower above the originals thanks to spectacular guitar arrangements and Jimi’s soulful vocal interpretations; “Gypsy Eyes” is a flashy blues number; and “House Burning Down” finds the Experience playing with the same reckless energy displayed on their debut.

And then, there are the downright trippy songs in which Hendrix stretches out his magic to unforeseen dimensions, which – in the end – are the core of what makes “Electric Ladyland” so remarkable. “Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland)” invents, within three minutes, soul music dressed up in psychedelic mannerisms; the fifteen-minute live improvisation “Voodoo Chile”, which merges science fiction with blues, and its studio-recorded Siamese twin “Voodoo Child” project a showy Hendrix exploring the full extent of his talent as a guitarrist; “Burning of the Midnight Lamp” is a stunningly beautiful song hidden beneath layers of effects; “Rainy Day, Dream Away” has the band tackling a drug-infused jazz jam; and the thirteen-minute “1983… (A Merman I Should Turn to Be)” might qualify, thanks to its iconic guitar riff and lyrics depicting an underwater world, as Jimi’s most comely work.

Despite Noel Redding’s poor “Little Miss Strange”, “Electric Ladyland” rises – within the three studio records Hendrix put out during his lifetime – as his magnum opus. More than being a highlight inside the confines of his works, though, the record is an absolute landmark in rock history as well, for it redefined, with its lengthy numbers and multisection songs, the boundaries of what an LP could represent and contain. Its greatest quality, however, is how, as a hugely ambitious project, it hits pretty much all the marks it aims for. “Electric Ladyland” is an unmatchable display of technical fireworks, but – in the end – its most important legacy is how it serves as the most direct and accurate window into the universe that existed inside the mind of a genius.

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Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones Review

An incredible victory in game design and a worthy chapter to close a story depicted through a flooring trio of titles

tt_1Trilogies are extremely tricky for producers to handle as they can show both the best and the worst turns that the very same concept can take due to poorly made decisions that despite being small in their scope, end up having major effects on the final product. Keeping each and every installment of such a long-running series fresh and interesting is also another major challenge, and, truth is, finding a trilogy that maintains a good level of quality throughout its run is a very daring challenge. Even though Warrior Within – due to its technical issues and bland art direction – came off as some sort of dud when compared to The Sands of Time, the third and final installment of the series is a very graceful return to form that catapults this Prince of Persia trilogy into the status of a gaming masterpiece.

Where Warrior Within was a pit of darkness that from time to time bordered on bland and generic, The Two Thrones is colorful, bright and extremely lighthearted: it is The Sands of Time reborn. With the return of a storybook presentation, the game is able to provide a final chapter that is both intriguing and dramatic on the delivery of its plot that nicely wraps up the Prince’s many struggles against destiny. Through its technically impressive cutscenes and solid voice acting, the character development in The Two Thrones is able to capture most gamers’ eyes in a way that was not seen on its predecessor and if great trilogies are usually closed with fantastic installments then this game does a great job in fitting that bill.

After the events on the Island of Time, the Prince finally returns to Babylon only to find out that the city has been taken by a massive army led by the evil vizier. After witnessing the pain that his reckless actions had brought to his own people the weary, the Prince decides to take matters into his own hands and rescue the city from the clutches of evil while trying to save his father. However, the hero will also have to fight an internal battle for he has been infected by a wound caused by the Sands of Time and now an evil personality lurks inside his heart waiting for the perfect opportunity to take over and use the Prince’s body to its advantage.

tt_2The Prince will now go through the ruins of his own city while using his many acrobatic abilities such as wall running, clinging onto ledges, balancing himself on top of thin poles, jumping, swinging on ropes, and others to find quick ways out of tough situations and to reach apparently unreachable spots. Veterans will recognize most of the character’s movements right away and will have no trouble adjusting to the controls. Newcomers will also feel quite comfortable since although the Prince has a wide set of movements most of those are extremely intuitive to be performed. Besides, there is also a quick tutorial in the form of text located at the bottom of the screen that instructs players on how to perform a move the first time it is needed, a nice feature that teaches without disturbing the game’s fantastic flow.

The Two Thrones also brings back the sand tanks introduced in the first game that allow the character to go back in time to reverse previous mistakes, such as falling into an endless pit, or slowing down time during a battle so that he can easily slash away many enemies without giving them an opportunity to strike back. Fortunately, those abilities are limited by the amount of sand players carry so the overall result is an extremely balanced game in both combat and platforming that offers great level of challenge despite the many forgiving abilities players have at their disposal.

Still, a sequel would not be good without a few nice additions that breathe fresh air into the series, and The Two Thrones has many of those, most of which are provided by the Prince’s new dark powers. During specific moments within the story, the Prince will transform into a dark creature that is equipped with two powerful chains. In these segments, his health will constantly decrease while the sand tanks will quickly fill up after being used. With his pair of chains, the character gains a whole new set of movements for both platforming and combat. Not only do those segments offer some nice variety, they are also the source of a lot of thrill, because players need to be fast in their reasoning in order to make it through platforms, traps and hordes of enemies before the character’s health reaches a very critical point.

tt_6Whether one is playing as the Prince or as his evil alter ego, the combat keeps the same structure first brought by Warrior Within where a vast amount of combos can be performed by pressing a certain order of buttons. Different combos can be better for different situations, so knowing a good number of moves from the combo list can be very important at times, especially if the game is being played at its highest difficulty level.

In addition, the Prince can now use stealth abilities to sneak up on enemies and kill them without further battling, using only a few blows instead. Most of the game’s scenarios are in fact set up so that players can come up with clever ways of quickly disposing of those evil soldiers without being noticed, an amazing display of level creation that will certainly mesmerize gamers and add a few minutes of reasoning to every single one of the game’s areas.

As he sneaks up on an enemy, a timely button press will trigger a slow-motion animation where the Prince will perform acrobatic moves to deliver ultra fast attacks on his enemy. During the animation, the character’s dagger will occasionally shine, and at those moments players must act quickly and press the B-button in order to successfully perform the fast kill. The performance and the result are so amusing and bloody that getting those stealth kills is bound to become an obsession to most players as they go through the title’s many scenarios, turning into an extra source of entertainment in addition to the spectacular platforming.

tt_4Artistically speaking, The Two Thrones absolutely trumps its predecessor. Instead of dark corridors, there is an immersive city in the middle of the desert, an impressive palace full of details, and even beautiful hanging gardens. The Prince’s many interactions with his suffering people give life to the gorgeous scenarios that the game sports.

His amusing exchanges with his troubled inner self, that range from humorous to dramatic, and his growing relationship with a friend from the past turn an otherwise lonely journey into an adventure that is full of laughter, drama, personality, and life. The soundtrack, which now features a good number of Arabic tunes instead of hard rock songs, fits very well with the overall theme of the game and instead of feeling like a dislocated element it now perfectly complements the visual feast that is The Two Thrones.

The Two Thrones only flaws are directly inherited from its predecessors. The game still suffers from poorly placed, inconsistent checkpoints. As a consequence, during most of the adventure, one will lose a good amount of progress whenever the hero meets death, and while it is not very annoying at first, in the long run it gets frustrating to go through a huge number of traps and jumps only to lose to a massive horde of enemies that will send you back to the very beginning of the platforming section. In its attempt to be punishing the game usually wanders into the realm of frustration.

tt_5However, there is not enough frustration in this world that could possibly tarnish the fact that The Two Thrones is possibly the best game in this stellar trilogy with its exciting gameplay novelties, fantastic visuals, twelve-hour adventure, great character development, and fantastic storyline. It is an incredible victory in game design and a worthy chapter to close a story and adventure depicted through a flooring trio of titles.

Prince of Persia Two Thrones

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