Albums of the Month: April 2016

nebraskaAlbum: Nebraska

Artist: Bruce Springsteen

Released: September 30th, 1982

Highlights: Nebraska, Atlantic City, Highway Patrolman, Reason to Believe

In the music business, especially after an artist transcends the halls of mortality and becomes a legend, song demos turn into little pieces of treasure. However valuable they might be, though, they are merely seen as items that will only catch the eyes of the most dedicated fans; curious novelties that are put out in the market after the vault of finished songs has run dry. That reality makes “Nebraska” utterly bold, for it is an official studio album by a major recording artist at the peak of his chart-topping powers that is entirely composed of demos recorded at home with a simple 4-track cassette recorder. Some might call it lunacy, others might claim it is an attempt at commercial suicide, but the bottom-line is that “Nebraska” clicks. More than that, it envelops listeners in a world of despair and darkness with enough power to strike their soul like an incandescent branding iron.

Legend has it that Springsteen recorded the demos as a way to flesh out the songs before teaching them to his group and finding the right full-blown energetic arrangements that only the E Street Band can pull off. Upon listening to the tape, though, he noticed that the album was ready: the stripped down voice-and-guitar approach and the fact that the recording setup had made it seem like he was singing from the bottom of a dark deep well were perfect matches to the tunes that had been composed. As it turns out, his perception was right. Whereas Springsteen’s previous albums featured characters who faced their working-class lives like relentless wrestlers that refused to go down and wished to break free; “Nebraska” was concerned with people that sunk under the same circumstances, the ones that became soulless, resigned, broken, corrupted, and alienated due to the issues they had to face.

The title cut, which narrates in first-person – with accurate coldness and distance – the murdering spree of real serial-killer and his eventual capture and judgment, sets the tone for the bleakness present in the rest of the record. The track’s closing line, “Well, sir, I guess there’s just a meanness in this world”, is a poignant summary of the tales told throughout “Nebraska”, as the album shows people dealing with, and often being consumed by, the evilness that haunts humans both internally and externally. “Atlantic City” shows a man turning to organized crime to escape a dire financial situation; “Mansion On the Hill” and “My Father’s House” are bittersweet reminiscences on better times that are long gone after being hurtfully shattered; “Highway Patrolman” is an analysis of a conflicted sergeant who has to deal with the crimes committed by his brother; “Used Cars” is a sad picture of poverty; and “Johnny 99” and “State Trooper” are tales on criminals.

By embodying the soul of the characters he created, and doing so in a basic setup, Springsteen turns in a mature full-fledged singer-songwriter folk record, a fact that becomes even more impressive when one takes into account its release date. Much has been said about how “Nebraska” might be overrated due to its unique and courageous nature; however, truth is this is a record that features an impressively cohesive atmosphere during the entirety of its running time, and that is powered by incredibly sad and remarkable melodies. Its closure on a positive note, the hopeful “Reason To Believe”, is the final brilliant touch on this bleak, moody, and haunting masterpiece.

postpopAlbum: Post Pop Depression

Artist: Iggy Pop

Released: March 18th, 2016

Highlights: Gardenia, American Valhalla, Chocolate Drops, Paraguay

With Lou Reed and David Bowie gone, Iggy Pop stands as the last rock ‘n roll rebel; the final bastion of the proto-punk generation of musicians that, through their looks, attitude, themes, and – most importantly – musical prowess, displayed to countless other talents that tackling the music business and consequently bringing that giant down could be done without losing one’s authenticity. From his maniacal presentations with The Stooges; going through the life-threatening addiction that followed the breakup of his legendary band and the subsequent start of his solo career with the help and support of Bowie himself; and including his most recent artistic endeavors, Iggy Pop has always been a man willing to live and die on his own terms. “Post Pop Depression” is not different from that mindset: it is loose, dirty, weird, passionate, energetic, reckless, and incredibly genuine; and it might also be Pop’s best work in well over a decade.

Joined by Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age), Dean Fertita (Queens of the Stone Age and The Dead Weather), and Matt Helders (Arctic Monkeys), Iggy sounds as reinvigorated and as close to being back on track as his persona allows him to. Whether consciously or not, in “Post Pop Depression” Pop pays homage to his two deceased companions. From Bowie, he borrows the feel and sound of both David’s Berlin Trilogy and of his own albums produced in Germany alongside the British star, the classics “The Idiot” and “Lust for Life”. Meanwhile, from Reed, he takes the distant and dry delivery of poetry concerning the deranged, the outcast, and the emotionally disturbed; subjects that, truthfully, have always been Iggy’s main theme given his identification with such people.

In fact, such recognition runs so deep that while Reed was firmly attached to the description of third-party characters, Iggy’s lyrics here seem more personal than ever. There is little to no doubt that Iggy Pop is talking about himself when he sings “I’ve shot my gun, I’ve used my knife / This hasn’t been an easy life” and “But if I have outlived my use / Please drink my juice”, in American Valhalla; or “I followed my shadow / And it led me here / What is the problem / If I disappear?” in “In the Lobby”. It is as if, by looking at himself and the world that surrounds him, Iggy was so unnerved by the incompatible values, lifestyle, and way of thinking that he used it as fuel to power one final grand statement as an artist. It is no surprise, then, that the album concludes with the epic “Paraguay”, whose coda is a hilarious, lengthy, and angry rant where Iggy shouts “I don’t want you” and “I’ve had enough of you” at the listener before exclaiming  “I’m gonna go to Paraguay / To live in a compound under the trees / With servants and bodyguards who love me / Free of criticism / Free of manners and mores”.

Under that wild thunderstorm of words, Josh and the band lay thick grooves and textured beats all over the record, setting the table for Iggy to shine, understanding who the real star of the show is here. Although pounding riffs and spiraling guitars do occasionally show up, the instruments never overpower the vocals. Instead, they complement them with accuracy either in the album’s poppiest moments (“Gardenia” and “Chocolate Drops”); in its most inscrutable tracks, like the Nick Cave inspired “Vulture”; or in its borderline hard-rock numbers, like the heavy opener “Break into Your Heart”, which is as close to Queens of the Stone Age as this excellent album gets.

soundcolorAlbum: Sound & Color

Artist: Alabama Shakes

Released: April 21st, 2015

Highlights: Don’t Wanna Fight, Dunes, Future People, Gimme All Your Love

After getting a strong hold on the garage brand of blues their early career success was built on in “Boys & Girls”, a record that alternated many blissful compositions with a few rather mundane tracks, the Alabama Shakes quickly moved onto new territory with “Sound & Color”. Perhaps not unintentionally, the way the titles of the two records mirror each other is rather telling of the distinctions between both works. “Boys & Girls” was grounded, a record done by regular people who got together and wrote songs sustained by the black-music sources upon which their taste had been built; “Sound & Color” looks to transcend those earthly confines of concrete musical pillars and easy-to-grasp subjects and land on an abstract plain of feelings and nuances.

It is unquestionable that, in terms of soundscape and experimentation, “Sound & Color” successfully travels through a realm where Pink Floyd would have roamed through if blues musicians had been their primary influence, and had Waters, Gilmour, Wright, Mason, and Barrett had access to the modern-day electronic witchery that exists in a recording studio. In its heart, this is the very same blues that was present in “Boys & Girls”; the difference is that, here, it is not tackled by a four-piece band in the same stripped down way. Therefore, a genre that is often simple and emotional gains contours of weirdness, trippiness, and idiosyncrasy.

At its best, the new presentation found in “Sound & Color” makes the compositions penned by Brittany Howard seem fresher while retaining their incredible power, a feature that is almost always evident in the Alabama Shakes’ sound thanks to her incredible voice, which is a flooring combination of a more technical Janis Joplin with a  whole lot of Otis Redding. Tracks, like the opening sequence of “Sound & Color”, “Don’t Wanna Fight No More”, “Dunes”, “Future People”, and “Gimme All Your Love”, are a spectacular example of that effect. At its worst, though, the new outfit these blues numbers put on ends up taking them down meandering paths that either drain them of that same power which is such an integral part of what the Alabama Shakes do or simply unnecessarily lengthen the path that some tunes take to get to somewhere significant.

Fortunately, none of the twelve tracks that make up “Sound & Color” are totally undermined by that issue; they are simply held back from realizing their true potential. Consequently, “Sound & Color” ends up being more praise-worthy than a magnet for criticism. This is a bold career move by a group that could have spent at least another two albums cooking the same recipe inside the same tried-and-true caldron, but that opted to – instead – steer their relatively successful ship onto new waters to see what they could find there. What they wind up discovering is brand new sound that is derivative of their original work but still widely original and that could, with a few refinements, yield a modern-music masterpiece down the line. Until that moment does not come, “Sound & Color” should be interesting enough to keep listeners satisfied.

beadyeyeAlbum: Different Gear, Still Speeding

Artist: Beady Eye

Released: February 28th, 2011

Highlights: Four Letter Word, The Roller, Kill For a Dream, The Beat Goes On

Although his voice lent relentless defiance to the songs that served as the soundtrack for the teenage years and early adulthood of a generation, Liam Gallagher never really was Oasis’ greatest talent, as all melodies and lyrics that propelled the group to super-stardom had come from his older brother’s brain. That is the reason why Beady Eye is such an utterly intriguing concept, as the group’s line-up can be described as Oasis without Noel Gallagher, the man responsible for – even in the band’s more collaborative final two efforts – creating most of the tunes. The question that arrives attached to “Different Gear, Still Speeding”, Beady Eye’s debut, then, is whether the remaining bits of the Britpop phenomenon would drown or float without their former creative leader, and it does not take long into the album to realize that neither answer is thoroughly correct.

“Different Gear, Still Speeding” has little to none of the pop-rock subtleties that marked most of Oasis’ numbers; as it turns out, Liam Gallagher is way too driven by instinct to have the time to stop and pay attention to any of that. That is why even though “Different Gear, Still Speeding” is not an album comprised exclusively of loud straight-up rock tracks, it feels like a record done with feeling rather than one created through an extensive thoughtful approach, a tactic that has the benefit of making the music sound almost unanimously fun, but whose downside is the quality slips it causes. In a way, it is “Be Here Now”, Oasis’ loosest and most overblown work, without the absurd indulgence of a modern rock mammoth that has run out of control, but with songwriting that is far more irregular.

“Different Gear, Still Speeding” has its shining moments: the violent riffs of “Four Letter Word”, which support a Liam Gallagher that comes off as the vocal representation of a mighty force of nature; “The Roller”, a perfect bubblegum piece of pop-rock music that could comfortably sit, even in terms of quality, in either “Definitely Maybe” or “(What’s the Story) Morning Glory?”; and the gorgeous balladry of “Kill For a Dream” and “The Beat Goes On”. Its lesser moments, some of which are plain bad and others that are merely average, tend to be saved by the fact that the album shows a band that is surprisingly flexible, albeit one that never truly transforms its influences into something completely fresh or remarkable.

“Millionaire” is a decent swing at writing a song built on a variation of traditional blues’ progressions; “Beatles and Stones” is a fun rock track that name-drops the boys from London and Liverpool, but that actually borrows its angular riff from The Who’s “My Generation”; “Bring the Light” has enough Rockabilly blood in it to make Jerry Lee Lewis climb on top of his piano; and “For Anyone” could be a mid-tempo acoustic song from one The Beatles’ first five records. “Different Gear, Still Speeding” is not excellent and might not have enough juice in it to even qualify as a great album, but it is a fun, honest, and energetic attempt by Archer, Bell, and Gallagher to keep on rolling following Noel’s abandoning of the ship.

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New Super Mario Bros. U Review

Its overall cautiousness holds it back, but in its level design New Super Mario Bros. U stands proudly beside the best sidescrollers

nsmbuAfter a lull of two generations, Nintendo decided to go back to its roots and release, alongside a brand new system, a fresh Mario game. However, differently from what other Mario adventures that came before it and that kicked off a new Nintendo generation, New Super Mario Bros. U is by no means a glorious display of what more powerful hardware can do. Instead, it opts to safely bet on the gold mine that the sidescrolling Mario series has become in recent years and decides not to shake things up in any significant way or form.

Such matter-of-fact description may seem inherently negative, and indeed – for most studios – that choice would be a recipe for disaster, especially considering that, upon its release, New Super Mario Bros. U was the fourth New Super Mario Bros. game to come out during an eight-year interval. Yet, what surfaces from that path is a game that, through all its more than sixty stages, pulls off exciting and unexpected tricks using the same old mechanics that have been established decades ago, hence giving birth to an effort that – while certainly neither original nor groundbreaking – was certainly worthy of being the opening note for a new console.

First, it is important to get the bad stuff out of the way: there is nothing incredibly mind-blowing or impressive about the bricks with which New Super Mario Bros. U is built. The series’ art style has not received any tweaks, neither significant nor minor, which means that it is still mostly generic and ordinary; the songs and sound effects remain as unchanged as they can be; the enemies and bosses are all incredibly familiar in their behaviors, looks and weak spots; princess Peach is once again kidnapped by Bowser and his offspring; and even the themes used for the worlds are commonplace, not only in their nature, but also in their order, as Mario will start his adventure on some calm plains, move on to a desert, to a snow-covered land, and a few worlds later, wrap it all up among waves of magma.

nsmbu2Nintendo is so aware of the repetition that they do not even attempt to conceal it; they, instead, choose to resign themselves to those constraints while attempting to thrive on them. Those issues, save for the reused story, which is more of a humorous staple than a flaw, are undeniable. Yet, it is arguable that, when everything is said and done, the mundane nature of pretty much everything about the game works in favor of one true king: the stage design. After all, extracting so much greatness from general dullness only serves to highlight the sheer glorious brilliancy of the courses contained within the package, which stand like a beautiful diamond among a sea of sameness.

In its core, that is what New Super Mario Bros. U is all about: stage design. The tricks Nintendo is able to land with a limited set of tools, which has the return of the raccoon suit as the only real difference in relation to its Wii predecessor, is utterly flooring.

As usual, things start slowly and simple in the first world, but as the plumber moves on towards the desert, New Super Mario Bros. U starts picking up speed, and – before one realizes it – the game becomes a train of fun going downhill at full-speed with nothing in sight that could possibly stop it. Within the same world, or even inside the boundaries of the entire game, Nintendo barely re-utilizes or recycles any mechanics, making every single stage an entirely different creature and turning the adventure into a big chain of impressively engaging obstacle courses, which reach an overall level of quality the sidescrolling series has not seen since its 16-bit days.

nsmbu7If there is a noteworthy change in the game’s structure, it is its overworld. While not being a new concept – it was, after all, introduced in 1988 by Super Mario Bros. 3 and greatly improved a few years later by Super Mario World – the game features a single overworld map that presents the individual worlds in a fully connected manner. Players can, literally, walk from stage one to Bowser’s place continuously, without any screen changes or apparent seams.

Though that construction is equal to what Super Mario World brought to the table, it is plain to see that – here – the map is better designed. As players clear courses, especially the secret ones, the scenario will creatively shift its shape to open the way to new places that are truly hidden, often unveiling paths that will leave one world, go through a nearby one, only to end up in some remote location found on a third distinct place. It is even possible to argue that a big part of the joy of finding a secret stage is seeing how the world map will transform to accommodate it.

For those who have been rightfully complaining about the ever diminishing difficulty of Mario games, New Super Mario Bros. U is an oasis. Though simply finishing the stages isn’t exactly painfully hard, going after the star coins will almost invariably lead to the need to perform complicated maneuvers that require both skill and timing. And, as a good sign that the game stays on the right side of the line separating frustration from difficulty, it does not matter how many times Mario falls to his death, players will always feel the urge to try once more. If looking for full completion, newcomers to the series will find one daunting task whereas veterans will encounter a great deal of challenge, especially on the secret and special stages, which are worthy of their fame for being brutally tough.

nsmbu3New Super Mario Bros. U might not be an impressive display of the Wii U’s technical capabilities, but – as the first Nintendo-made title on a new console – it worked as a solid blueprint of how games can interact with Miiverse in an effective and game-improving way. Whenever players clear a stage while performing any significant achievement such as collecting all star coins, not taking any damage, or getting to the flag really fast, the game will automatically prompt them for comments on the stage so that they can be posted on the game’s community on Miiverse.

The same will happen in frustrating situations; for example, when Mario loses a number of lives on a stage and said value goes over a predetermined threshold, the text box will also pop up, allowing gamers to spill their anger. In cases like this, the game will humorously ask players to send out warnings or angry letters to Bowser on how tough the stage is. Not only are those interruptions brief and seamless, therefore not disturbing the game’s pace, but the manner with which comments are integrated into the game (either being shown in the overworld or while the stage loads in-between attempts) adds to the experience.

The stages are astonishing, the graphics are smoother than ever (something that does not completely make up for the dull art style), the multiplayer can range between cooperative (with two players) to maddeningly chaotic (with four players), and the disc is packed to the brim with extras such as time-centered, coin-collecting, and enemy-defeating challenges that extend the game’s twenty-five hours of adventure into a package that can last for over forty hours of fun. Nonetheless, from a freshness standpoint, all of those aspects are trumped by the novelty of the game’s social factor.

Although such interactions have become increasingly commonplace and even deeper as the Wii U has progressed through its life-cycle, New Super Mario Bros. U was the game that established the starting ground for those features. Sharing achievements, failures and angry outbursts will be entertaining to many, and the constant reminder that there are tons of people around the globe going through the same ordeals somehow makes the whole game more fun, and it will certainly motivate some players to look into every corner of the game for every secret or achievement that is possible to find or accomplish.

nsmbu4At first glance, New Super Mario Bros. U does not seem to do justice to the past Mario games that debuted alongside new Nintendo systems, as it is devoid of any visual leaps or visible gameplay improvements. In the end, though, it is certainly worthy of carrying that legacy forward, not only because, in a way, it set the parameters for how the Wii U’s social components could be integrated into a game, even one belonging to a genre in which such a connection is hard to establish; but, most importantly, because of how ridiculously fun it is.

As it is usual for a Mario sidescroller, New Super Mario Bros. U shows gaming at one of its purest and funnest states, where everything exists for the sake of gameplay, and the outcome is the strongest game of the New Super Mario Bros. saga; one whose design goodness is comparable to the heavenly course-creation art achieved by Super Mario World and Super Mario Bros. 3 even if some of its safe decisions keep it from being a true masterpiece.

New Super Mario Bros U

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Fire Emblem Fates Review

Fire Emblem Fates succeeds in picking up where Awakening left off and building on the extremely solid grounds established by it

fatesFire Emblem Fates is not a sequel to its most recent counterpart, Fire Emblem: Awakening; however, it is a game that sets out to build on what was achieved by its direct predecessor, a game that unexpectedly turned the Fire Emblem franchise into a smash hit in the West. The series – with characters whose designs blatantly nod to an anime art style, and a gameplay of grid-based strategical movements and automatic battles – was always seen as an irremediably niche product; one that would never be able to amass an audience large enough to lift it to the pantheon reserved to Nintendo’s greatest properties. That belief, though, along with the insurmountable invisible barriers that pigeonholed Fire Emblem as a minor product outside Japan, came down when Awakening, without stripping the series of any of its remarkable characteristics, broke through.

Fates is a game that seems to hit the market fully aware of the context in which it is inserted. With Awakening, the usual dedicated fanbase that had always followed new Fire Emblem installments was joined by a group of gamers coming to grips with the franchise’s concepts, which led Nintendo to realize the series’ potential for market expansion. That is precisely why, seeking to please diverging groups of fans and satisfy Nintendo’s urge for an accessible product, it is rather fitting that Fates is not a standalone Fire Emblem game, but a trio of titles that have the same characters and universe, albeit in slightly different perspectives; share the same gameplay; and offer varying levels of challenge.

Players take control of a customizable avatar, named Corrin, that lives in a land in which the two major kingdoms, Nohr and Hoshido, are on the verge of total war; with both accusing each other of sudden attacks, and Nohr, led by the stern King Garon, about to launch a massive offensive with the goal of conquering Hoshido. As it turns out, though, Corrin is not a mere pawn in this foggy game of who is wrong and who is right, but someone who has – thanks to a rather eventful life story – emotional family-like ties to the royal families of both countries.

fates2Divided into chapters where a combat scenario is sandwiched between introductory and concluding pieces of story development achieved through occasional gorgeous cutscenes and a good deal of text bubbles, Fates spends its six opening chapters exposing Corrin’s ties to both sides, with the character’s relationship with the four royal siblings fighting for each nation being especially highlighted. That necessary and pleasant buildup comes to a close when, in the middle of a battlefield where Hoshido and Nohr’s armies face each other, Corrin must choose which cause to support and which siblings to disappoint; as a statement on how well-done the first six chapters are, the decision is not an easy one even though Nohr is painted as being completely misguided by the actions of a tyrant leader.

To some gamers, the decision will be automatically made, for the purchase of Birthright or Conquest will, respectively, lead the way to the forging of an alliance between themselves and Hoshido or Nohr. Buying one of the versions means that the other two, including Revelation – in which Corrin chooses to act independently rather than opt for a side – become available for a discounted price.

The concerns that Fates’ division into three separate pieces would mean that players would have to pay more than the regular price in order to get a full-game’s worth of value end up being baseless: Birthright, Conquest, and Revelation are not a trio of jigsaws that form a full picture; they are actually entities that stand on their own both in terms of storyline, with each game coming to a satisfying conclusion, and content, as every single one of them is as long and fulfilling as any other Fire Emblem outing. The true result is that players end up getting three Fire Emblem titles for a very pleasant price if they wish to see all perspectives of the story.

fates3The split is, actually, such a success that it happens to be the game’s greatest quality. For starters, there is the fact that each one of them has its own level of difficulty, with Birthright being relatively light when it comes to challenge; Revelation working as some sort of middle ground; and Conquest emerging as a tough journey.

That balance is achieved in many ways: Birthright and Revelation are generous when it comes to giving players resources to improve the weapons and skills of their army, while Conquest is quite stingy, forcing players to do a lot with a little; additionally, the former pair is also packed with a nearly endless stream of random missions that allow players to grind for levels, whereas Conquest offers absolutely none of those; and finally, Conquest is incredibly tricky in its level design and rather punishing when players make key strategic mistakes, making it the most intriguing and engaging version to seasoned Fire Emblem fans. At last, while Birthright’s missions are focused on either routing the enemy or defeating a boss, Revelation and Conquest have more variety in their objectives, with the last one featuring missions where players need to defend a position, achieve a goal within a certain limit of turns, or even escape a dire situation.

Naturally, as it has become the series’ norm, players can freely adjust the difficulty settings of each title whenever they see fit, choosing between Classic (fallen unities are lost forever and cannot be used again) and Casual (fallen unities return in the following chapter); and Normal, Hard, and Lunatic, with the caveat that the difficulty level can only be decreased, never increased. It is a nice feature that allows the three games, despite their inherent challenge setup, to be enjoyed by anyone.

fates4The second alluring ripple caused by the different paths that can be followed lies, obviously, in the storyline. Given that Nohr, in spite the good intentions of the royal siblings, is depicted as the bad side of the events portrayed, choosing Hoshido and going for Birthright transforms the plot into a traditional good vs. evil affair. Conquest, on the other hand, takes some dark and interesting turns in its plot. Revelation, meanwhile, happens to reveal nuances that are completely obscured from players’ sights in the other two versions. The similar thread that runs through the three tales, other than the participating characters, is the fact that the writing is spotty, with cheesy forced lines and outlandish situations rearing their heads every once in a while and disrupting what is a pretty impressive and complex universe that was carefully built.

Outside of that realm, it is hard to find fault in Fire Emblem Fates: each game, aside from the six initial missions that are shared among them, features twenty-two other maps – plus around a dozen extra quests that can be unlocked by building strong relationships between characters. Players will choose a certain number of unities from the available army roster and take the field with them in order to battle the enemy, trying to calculate the better route for attack – especially by taking advantage of how the various weapon types available match against one another; knowing when to defend by avoiding the area of action and movement of each rival unity that is on the field; and using endless kinds of other strategies to achieve the chapter’s goal.

Those simple mechanics gain an impressive range of strategic undertones that need to be accounted for if players are to succeed. Firstly, there are the various unity classes – some of which are exclusive to certain versions, that need to be known and managed carefully: knights that mount flying animals, for example, are incredibly weak to arrows; while heavily armored generals suffer huge blows when attacked by magic. The fact that it is possible to move unities between classes or simply upgrade the current class to a higher one, not to mention how some classes can carry different kinds of weapons, adds a whole level of complexity to army management.

fates5Moreover, while deployed on the field, unities can be either paired-up – in other words, two soldiers can be assigned to the same square on the grid and move as one – or stand side-by-side. The former strategy is very effective from a defensive standpoint, for one unit can help the other avoid incoming attacks; whereas the latter is incredibly useful offensively, as a soldier standing on an adjacent space to that where a conflict is happening can jump into the action and deliver attacks.

Like it happened on Awakening, those two actions have an off-the-field impact, for the more two members of the army act together, the more their relationship will deepen, which – in turn – will increase the stats bonuses those unities gain when standing close to one another. As they grow closer, new dialogues that get progressively more personal between the duos will unlock, providing players with a sweet reward for their efforts in battle that is neither leveling up nor stat building, but good old character development, a very nice gift given Fire Emblem Fates is bursting with memorable personages.

It is worth mentioning, though, that – like it happens with the storyline – the writing of those dialogues sometimes drops below an acceptable quality level. Even more aggravating, however, is that, as it was the case in Awakening, two characters can marry and have children that can be added to the army. Sadly, while the time-rift upon which Awakening’s plot was built worked as a reasonable explanation for how the offspring of your unities appeared as fully competent and grown adults so quickly, Fates finds an embarrassingly amateurish excuse to explain how such an occurrence is possible.

fates6To top off that enthralling mountain of content, Fire Emblem Fates also has a solid amount of online gameplay, including the opportunity to match up against other players, and the brand new My Castle feature, a completely customizable home-base in which players will construct many buildings that will provide support for their army – such as an armory, a smithy, a staff store, a dining hall, and a lottery, or work as defense mechanisms for the “Castle Invasion” online battle mode.

All in all, Fire Emblem Fates succeeds in picking up where Awakening left off and building on the extremely solid grounds established by it. The game puts together an impressive and complex universe and uses it as the setting for three distinct stories of equally engaging strategy sequences and deeply emotional events. Not only do Birthright, Conquest, and Revelation all go down in history as some of the finest Fire Emblem games ever released, but they also appeal to a wide array of audiences with their simple yet effective production values, flexible difficulty settings, exciting mechanics, and absolutely remarkable characters. Like a lengthy and epic series of books, when the Fates trilogy comes to a close following at least seventy hours of gameplay, players will not be relieved to finally have reached full closure; they will actually feel a tug at their hearts for having to leave such a fantastic world. And that alone should be a testament loud enough to prove the greatness that is found inside Fire Emblem Fates.

Fire Emblem Fates

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Roads Not Taken

fates3Fire Emblem: Awakening achieved what many had once thought to be an impossible goal: it succeeded in popularizing Nintendo’s strategy-based franchise of medieval warfare in the West. The title’s undeniable quality, its timely release, a great plot, and a whole lot of marketing that created massive buzz across the web came together to form an impressive perfect storm that somehow transformed a brand that was previously considered too niche into a property with considerable mass appeal.

With the series’ claws firmly gripping the attention of the American audience, Nintendo’s next step was nothing short of bold; the sequel to Awakening, the recently released Fire Emblem Fates, would not be a single game, but three divergent stories that have as their starting points six shared chapters. To those who were left either scratching their heads or boiling with frustration due to the fact that purchasing all three pieces of the installment costs eighty dollars, the doubts and angry-mob pitchforks can be put aside: not only is the price fair, for each version feels like a full-fledged Fire Emblem game – featuring 21 exclusive missions and eight unlockable ones; but each of them is also perfectly self-contained, working as satisfying standalone games to those who do not wish to play all three versions.

fates2The kingdoms of Nhor and Hoshido are at war and through a series of twists explained in the six initial chapters that are common to all games, your avatar happens to have a deep connection with both sides. Intelligent Systems uses that opening arch to introduce players to the main characters fighting for each nation, especially the royal families that are leading the struggle, and building a solid emotional connection to them. As it turns out, Fates achieves that goal perfectly, because when one comes to the fork on the road – as their character stands in the middle of a battlefield where the royal children from each country beg Corrin to join them – the decision is tough, as the affection links have been carefully built.

To those who have purchased the three versions of the game, choosing Nohr leads them to Conquest; sticking with Hoshido paves the way to Birthright; and denying the two countries and opting to start a new kingdom from scratch sends them to Revelation, which is only available as DLC. To those who have not done so, the decision is made when the physical or digital copy of the game is bought.

Regardless of the road chosen, the game works the same way: aiming to fulfill the goal established for the chapter, from a view that shows the battlefield from the top, players move their unities around a grid to either defend their position or attack the enemy. Familiar mechanics that give great depth to the strategic undertones of the game are back, albeit slightly adjusted for better balance: placing two characters on the same square improves their chances to block incoming attacks; putting them in adjacent spaces leaves them more vulnerable to blows but allows the assisting character to join the fray and suddenly attack the enemy, hence enhancing the army’s offensive potential; and a rock-paper-scissors triangle determines the weaknesses and strengths of each weapon, making it essential to be aware of which unity is being deployed to face, defend against, or lure in a certain foe.

fates4The choice of which path to take affects the game in three different ways: the storyline, the characters available to enlist in the army, and the difficulty of the missions. In terms of plot, Conquest ends up being the more intriguing path; after all, Nohr – despite the good nature of the royal children, which amazingly adds a whole lot of grayness to a setting that could be black and white – is depicted as the dark side. Consequently, where Birthright degenerates into a good vs. evil affair, Conquest has more engaging outlines and nuances given the fact players are fighting for an evil king, and Revelation works as a curious middle ground.

The best reverberation of the choice that is made in chapter six is, by far, located in the adventure’s difficulty. Since Fire Emblem is a franchise whose audience has long-time aficionados standing beside newcomers, not to mention that Nintendo is certainly interested in expanding its popularity, each version’s different level of challenge – plus the traditional options to play or not to play the game in classic mode (where characters who die in battle do not comeback), and the adjustable difficulty – is a feature that is fully aware of the series’ context, one in which it tries to please different types of fans.

Birthright is very forgiving: its missions, focused on routing the enemy’s army or defeating a boss, can be cleared in numerous ways, therefore giving players plenty of room for error; it is possible grind for experience by scouting the field for foes or doing challenges; and resources, especially gold, are abundant. Meanwhile, Conquest, whose chapters have more varied goals – including defending a position or escaping a tough situation, is hard: its stage design and stronger foes punish approaches that are not ideal and force players to plan everything carefully; resources are scarce, therefore making buying new weapons and health-recovering items truly hard, which puts players in a position where they need to scour the enemy-ridden battlefields for treasure; and grinding is not available. Revelation, as it happens on the storyline front, stands somewhere in between.

fatesFire Emblem Fates winds up being a rare case of a game whose most contested feature before its release ends up being its greatest prowess: the diverging paths and versions offer fulfilling experiences that appeal to distinct groups of fans, while also leaving the door open for new fans to enjoy Conquest by lowering its difficulty and for veterans to tackle a more brutal take on Birthright. Even though the writing occasionally falters in some places, especially regarding dialogues supporting character development, it is a worthy sequel to the glory that was Fire Emblem: Awakening.

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Albums of the Month: March 2016

if_you_leaveAlbum: If You Leave

Artist: Daughter

Released: March 18th, 2013

Highlights: Smother, Youth, Still, Shallows

As indie rock spreads like fire through the backdoors of the music scene, a probable consequence of the almost complete domination of the mainstream by other genres, groups that are part of the movement tend to use their folk inclinations as either a trampoline for anthemic songwriting or introspective balladry. Daughter, a British trio led by Elena Tonra, falls under the latter category: like a modern and plugged in Joni Mitchell, Elena knits – through a whole lot of string-picking – a steady bed made of beautiful guitar chimes over which her strong melodies and haunting voice can stand, producing a hypnotic and slow soundscape from which it is impossible to get away.

Widely aware of the tricks and resources available, Daughter smartly adorns its simple and quiet folk tunes with a huge assortment of electronic elements, and therein lies the group’s most distinctive feature, as their music is decorated by pulses, sounds, and atmospheric hums that lend the songs numerous otherwise unachievable strata of tension, feeling, and drama. The emergence of such traits, as great as it might be, however, is not the best effect of the band’s unique blend of electronic music with folk, for that mixture also supports a great deal of dynamism that would have been non-existent in a scenario in which these songs would be approached in their naked state. Often within the very same song, electronic effects will be employed to make the tunes’ intimate moments even more introspective – usually through borderline whispered and tiny-sounding environmental noises, and to turn their emotional peaks into points of true grandeur.

Therefore, it frequently seems that Elena starts her songs in a peaceful and lonely forest where small sounds echo in the air, only to suddenly be transported to a small rowboat stranded in the middle of a deep ocean; her microphone capturing the gigantic music-like noises that come from the depths below. Any ten-song and forty-five-minute exploration of reflective folk rock runs the serious risk of landing as one monotonous work, but Daughter avoids that trap by over a mile thanks to its wise use of electronic elements, which instead of overwhelming the true star of the show – the songwriting – like so many groups seem to do, only serve to augment it and take it to another level; the gorgeous remarkable melodies that appear on pretty much every song; and a simple and beautiful brand of poetry, usually centered around romantic love which has grown cold and distant, which is easy to grasp but strong enough to make a mark.

From “Winter”, the effect-heavy opener whose title’s frostiness is perfectly broadcast by its pulses; going through the dramatic and painful self-analysis of “Smother”, the arousing and bittersweet “Youth”, the almost pure pop of “Still”, the honest reckoning of “Human” – the record’s most traditional song; and concluding with the spectacular epic that is “Shallows” – likely the best exposure of the record’s sober balance between its folk and electronic tendencies and how the latter greatly supports the former, “If You Leave” is excellent. It swallows listeners whole into an immerssive and intimate world of music and does not let go until its very last second, its pieces falling in place to form an incredibly coherent and involving environment.

beneath_skinAlbum: Beneath the Skin

Artist: Of Monsters and Men

Released: June 8th, 2015

Highlights: Crystals, Hunger, Empire, I of the Storm

With “Beneath the Skin”, Of Monsters and Men decide to tackle two obstacles that invariably appear in front of most bands – the tough second record and the so-called album of maturation – with one swift jump. To deal with the first matter, the group hinges on a safe four-year interval between releases, hence giving themselves plenty of time to come up with new material and find a refreshing magnetic North; and on Nanna and Ragnar’s uncannily natural abilities to come up with strong sing-along melodies. To handle the latter, they steer the big and feel-good sound of “My Head Is an Animal” away from the green plains of a sunbathed Iceland into the maw of a gigantic and isolated glacier inside which the group promptly settles on building introspective numbers whose grandeur rises from the reverberation of the ringing sound waves they conjure against the impassable walls of ice.

“Beneath the Skin” is simultaneously huge-sounding, intimate, cold, and powerful; qualities that certainly do not tend to walk hand-in-hand. The vulnerability that appeared in tracks such as “Love Love Love” and “Sloom” in “My Head Is an Animal” permeates the whole record here; the difference is that, instead of retracting, that frailty – highlighted by lyrics that sink their teeth into the flaws of the human condition – rises and expands like a tidal wave. “Beneath the Skin” is built to overwhelm: Brynjar’s guitar lets out beautiful echoing rings that would make The Edge jealous; Arnar’s percussion and drum work is magnificent, as rarely does he follow a standard beat, relying on patterns that are almost tribal – a perfect compliment for music that has a very primal quality to it both in terms of sound and lyrics; and keyboards and organs thread thick layers of ambiance.

Above those mountainous and freezing billows, both Nanna and Ragnar shine. Sometimes, the pair can be seen riding those waves in beauty-infused moments of self-discovery – as in the anthemic opener “Crystal”, the battle between instincts and control depicted in “Human”, the natural joy and fear of becoming one with someone else shown in “Wolves Without Teeth”, and on the spiritual renewal brought by the rain described in “Empire”. On other occasions, they are sinking far into the depths of the music, as it occurs in “Slow Life”, when the song’s main character acknowledges their destructive traits and, in the choice of isolation from others, is swallowed by those personal issues; the painful look on a past relationship told in the simple ballad “Organs”; the oblique descriptions of depression in “Black Water” and “Thousand Eyes”; and the hurtful insecurities of “I of the Storm”;

“Beneath the Skin” is excellent; a statement that is in itself is a major victory for a tough and somewhat ambitious sophomore work. It is not, however, perfect, for it is hurt by its sequencing: the option to leave all of its energetic tracks in positions one through five makes the second portion of the album drag after a certain point. The long string of atmospheric and slow tunes, despite their impeccable melodic and emotive qualities, makes the work stall a bit too heavily and abruptly, only giving listeners room to breathe in the closer “We Sink”. In spite of its tendency to become muddle during some listens, “Beneath the Skin” is a triumphant moody album that expands the band’s palette and shows that Of Monsters and Men is indeed one of its generation’s most talented groups.

the_hurtingAlbum: The Hurting

Artist: Tears For Fears

Released: March 7th, 1983

Highlights: Mad World, Pale Shelter, Suffer the Children, Change

Out of the ashes left by punk rock after the youngsters in leather jackets had burned the whole music scene down to a cinder, numerous new wave groups started emerging from both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. By tinging punk’s tempos and agitation with pop sensibilities, and, further down the line, dressing it all up – or drowning it all mercilessly, according to some ears – with wide reverberating soundscapes filled up with grand synthesizers, the genre rode those resounding waves to the top of the charts. Although its instrumentation and production neatly summarize most elements that tend to make mainstream tunes of the 80s be looked down on as irreversibly outdated, “The Hurting” by the duo Tears for Fears still stands strong as an impressive showcase of cohesive, deep, and effective songwriting.

The album’s greatest victory is how it achieves to sneakily tread the line between infectiously catchy and downright depressive without overplaying any of its two aces: the melodies, despite the immediacy with which they rise to a remarkable status, never come off as intentionally built to stick like bubblegum; while its lyrics navigate angst and anger without getting stuck in a swamp of annoying tantrums. Over the programmed drums, processed beats, synthesized effects, and occasional guitar strums and solos that give the tunes punctual openings through which they can breathe some organic pure air, Orzabal and Smith build a record that alternates between challenging tunes that employ surprising degrees of experimentation, such as “The Prisoner”, where Smith’s voice is buried under noise and choir-like effects; songs that arrive like pulsating anthems ready to storm the charts, like “Suffer the Children”, “Mad World”, and “Pale Shelter”; and even a great attempt at a straight pop rock number, “Watch Me Bleed”.

Despite that variety in tone, “The Hurting” still lands as one whole piece; an organism composed of ten parts that are integral to its functioning. That quality is realized due to its very characteristic production, but – more importantly – it is maintained by its lyrical content, which unanimously gravitates around pain. The eponymous track that kicks off the record works as an epitome for what is to come, sensitively approaching isolation, lack of understanding, and depression, and it is no wonder that one of its final verses, “Touch the hurt and don’t let go”, serves as the gateway to the rest of the album, where a study on distress is constructed.

From there on, “The Hurting” covers – without ever being too specific – painful situations that happen through the life of all humans, therefore attaining a message that is universally delivered. Childhood traumas, nervous breakdowns, attempts to mend broken relationships that only serve to further deteriorate the matter, the rebuttal of faith, the emptiness of life, and the loss of friends are all mentioned more than once through the record. And so, with the sound of their era being worn proudly on their sleeve, Tears for Fears deliver an opera of sorrow with incredible expertise for a duo that was only starting its career. “The Hurting” and its sound might not stand the test of time to all ears, but the power of its core subject is undeniable and impossible not to relate to.

high_flying_birdsAlbum: Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds

Artist: Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds

Released: October 17th, 2011

Highlights: Dream On, If I Had a Gun, The Death of You and Me, AKA… What a Life!

The debut record of Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds shows that great changes in the environment that surrounds an artist do not necessarily transform his work. Away from his brother Liam and the constantly toxic airs of animosity that surrounded the leaders of Oasis, Noel does not stray away from his songwriting brand: rock and roll feel-good tunes with signature melodies that compensate for inconsistent lyrics that attempt to be deep but never quite make it. That absent of stylistic shifts signals that not only is the older Gallagher comfortable in his mastery of the musical niche in which he thrives, but it also indicates, unsurprisingly, that his creative dominance in Oasis was so resounding that he was the one who dictated the band’s overall sound, for the High Flying Birds’ self-titled album has close ties to the music that turned Oasis into a worldwide phenomenon.

Since the last, and great, pair of Oasis records (“Don’t Believe the Truth” and “Dig Out Your Soul”) had a handful of Noel-penned tunes joined by generally lesser songs from his counterparts, “Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds” stands as the best collection of songs Noel has written since “(What’s the Story) Morning Glory?” of 1995. Given that Noel is arguably one of his generation’s best composers, it should not come as a surprise that the album is excellent. Instead of sprinkling wall-stomping rockers with beautiful ballads, the High Flying Birds settle for a set of swinging mid-tempo melodic tunes in the vein of “Acquiesce”, “Live Forever”, and “Part of the Queue”, albeit considerably less anthemic, and roll with it through the course of forty-two minutes and ten tracks.

Inside those familiar confines, the most obvious change presented by Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds is the absence of Liam’s voice. The replacement of his younger brother’s defiant-rock-star approach to singing for his more grounded and workingman-like tone makes the songs come off as more introspective and sincere, which suits Noel’s words – which often border on pep talk or touch on the survival skills necessary for one to make it in real life – just fine. In “Dream On”, “Record Machine”, and “AKA… Broken Arrow” Noel spends their great verses and choruses depicting characters who use dreams, music, and a partner – respectively – as a way to keep on facing their dire situations with optimism; “Everybody’s On The Run” looks at the healing power of love; and other tunes follow suit in handling equally easy-to-relate and simple themes.

The fact that the incredible “The Death of You and Me” is basically a rewrite of the equally impressive Oasis late-career classic “The Importance of Being Idle”, that “If I Had a Gun” shares the same opening chords with “Wonderwall”, and that “Stop the Clocks” – a long-awaited legendary Oasis cut – works as a closing “Champagne Supernova” makes it clear that “Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds” is not a reinvention, but a continuation that takes place in a looser and less pressured ambiance. Consequently, it is a fun, unambitious, honest, and fantastic piece of music. Out of the sad debris left behind by the loud crash of the Oasis juggernaut, it is comforting and pleasing to the group’s fans and the music world itself that Noel will keep producing and putting out great tracks for as long as he feels like it.

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Through the Looking-Glass

zootopia5Early on, within Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking-Glass”, Alice, with her wide-eyed child-like wonder, glances at the mirror with hopes of catching a glimpse of a fantastic world that secretly exists parallel to her own. What she finds, though, is not any sort of weird enchanting reality that somehow lives up to her expectations; it is something far more remarkable, perplexing, and intriguing. Alice sees a world that is exactly like the one in which she inhabits: the same cracking fireplace, the same lazy cat, the same neat bed, the same curious girl, the same familiar half-open door that reveals a hallway that looks pretty much like the one that leads into her room, and – one can conclude – the same limitations.

When leaving the confines of their homes to watch a movie produced inside the Walt Disney Animation Studios, audiences tend to enter the theater and look at the screen in pretty much the same way little Alice stares at her mirror. Their wish is to come across a universe that floats some miles above reality and that lifts their hearts to a similar height. It is a reasonable urge; after all, this is a company that has, during the past few years, modernized the telling of fairy tales in Princess and the Frog, Tangled, and Frozen (the first through its setting, the second through its tone, and the latter through its message); showed that a classic children’s story can still succeed as long as it has a soul in Winnie the Pooh; acknowledged and paid great respects to the contemporary phenomenon of videogames in Wreck-It Ralph; and tackled the superhero realm with a great dash of sensitivity in Big Hero 6.

zootopiaAs Alice finds out, however, having one’s prospects completely subverted is not inherently bad; it can, actually, be even more delightful than having those hopes fulfilled. Sometimes, finding what we are not looking for is far more rewarding than encountering precisely what we wanted. Zootopia, the latest on a line of astonishing Disney animated features, is to audiences – in more than one way – what the titular looking-glass is to the inquisitive young Alice. Not just because it is distant from what a regular spectator has come to anticipate regarding a Disney movie, but because by refusing to show the purely whimsical and sugar-coated world people come in wishing to see, Zootopia ends up projecting a frightening accurate portrayal of the world that surrounds us: the same painful issues, the same pitiful narrow-mindedness, the same frail morals, and the same unscrupulous schemes that lead into even bigger crimes.

On its surface Zootopia may initially come off as a movie produced on auto-pilot; after all, it takes the overutilized concept of anthropomorphic animals as its basis. However, Disney employs a simple and effective trick here: it throws those creatures with human-like traits neither in a standard wild scenario, as Madagascar, Finding Nemo, and many others have done; nor in some unrealistic setting, such as the ones depicted in Kung Fun Panda and The Rescuers. The beasts of Zootopia are, instead, transported to an average contemporary city with opportunities, overpopulation, politicians, crime, and social issues. From that starting point, the writers proceed to have a field day building what is the most thought-provoking script to ever walk out of Burbank.

zootopia4As it turns out, “contemporary” is the key word to the success of Zootopia. The whole movie works as a modernized fable where the lives of animals inside the city and the many occurrences displayed are frighteningly accurate allegories to our own world and many of the topics that are currently in vogue, such as invariably harmful and dangerous stereotypes, racism, sexism, conformism, corruption, the oversimplification of matters that are astoundingly complex, shallow and misguided labels, and the media’s capacity to create widespread hysteria and broadcast biased opinions as unshakable facts.

It all sounds too heavy, and – in a very successful and positive way – it does carry enough of a punch to extract a few gasps from the audience, but Zootopia never overlooks the fact it is a Disney animation, and so its plot is ambivalent enough to also come off as a standard tale of overcoming challenges and the transforming power of love and friendship. Judy Hopps is a bunny born in the rural district of Bunnyburrow, and even though it is traditional for her species to focus on the peaceful activity of planting and harvesting crops, Judy chooses early on – upon witnessing the unfair way in which bullies push their victims around – to become a police officer in Zootopia, a place that, according to Judy’s own optimistic outlook, allows beings to become whatever they want to be.

zootopia2Due to the world’s pettiness, Judy’s decision is often contested: her parents say bunnies should never be police officers because of their frailty; some of her peers mock her dreams; and, even after getting the best grades in the police academy, Judy’s capacity is questioned by her bosses, who are infuriated by the notion a bunny did become a police officer and, therefore, assign her to handing out parking tickets. Judy’s idealism itself suffers quite a blow when Zootopia reveals itself as a city where stupid generalizations abound: foxes, for example, are seen as deceitful; and many of the species are expected to behave in a certain way, causing a giant wave of stereotypes and prejudices that surface when animals walk out of the path that society determines they follow.

That boiling pot overflows when a few predators start disappearing or suddenly show wild behavior, a nature that was believed to be long-gone, reserved to the world’s prehistoric era. Naturally, Judy is – much to the frustration of her bosses – thrown in the midst of that engaging investigation by accident, and so she sets out to uncover the truth that lies behind those reported kidnappings and, consequently, prove herself worthy of her badge.

zootopia6As the driving force of the movie, the whodunit story is a resounding success. Firstly, it is incredibly smart and well-written, taking full advantage of the many questions raised by the movie to deliver a rock-solid detective story. Secondly, the fact that Juddy ends up traveling all across the city while going after valuable clues is perfect for the full exposition of Zootopia as a setting; the incredible inventiveness Disney derived from the concept of an animal metropolis – including different biomes such as a tundra, a desert, and a rainforest that are fully integrated into the urban theme – is thoroughly explored, and the creativity in display is bound to awe both adults and children. Finally, given the bunny’s constant travels between points, she comes into contact with a remarkable assortment of characters from varied species that reveal portions of the complex social fabric that exists in Zootopia while allowing Disney to point fingers towards various relevant issues.

For all of its qualities, Zootopia does have a couple of issues. Still, they are nothing but minor nitpicks. For starters, the considerable size of the complex investigation, one that is filled with twists and turns, paired up with the limited running time imposed on animated flicks, causes some of the happenings to take place in too close succession to one another, therefore causing the movie to occasionally come off as a constant fetch-quest through Zootopia. Moreover, the valuable and relevant messages the film delivers are, most of the times, too blatant, leaving no room for subtleties. While such a characteristic is positive because it allows even kids to grasp those ideas, it is also partially negative because beauty is frequently found in a light delivery instead of in blatant preaching.

zootopia3In the end, though, Zootopia is nothing short of impressive. It gets all compliments usual Disney classics achieve: it is funny, enchanting, visually stunning, highly emotional, universally likable, and fun. At the same time, it is a dot far out of the curve for it shows Disney tackling an animation while being armed with a politically engaged soul. It forces audiences to take a good look at the mirror and analyze themselves, their world, their problems, their minds, and their reasoning. Regardless of whether one happens to see their image reflected on the looking-glass, or to simply identify the damage that certain lines of thought and actions can provoke, Zootopia succeeds because it raises awareness and fosters discussions; it is a movie that is fully aware of the world in which it exists and takes a fair shot at addressing its most important issues. Like little Alice, what we see beyond the mirror – a reflection of our world, is an alluring new perspective of problems we have grown used to; and that is what makes it so overwhelmingly revealing.

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Mario and Luigi: Paper Jam Review

Paper Jam is held back by the fact that, under its rock-solid elements, lies a crossover that never truly blends to produce awe-inspiring results

paper_jam2The Mario and Luigi series is built on the premise of pairing up the two brothers and launching them on a role-playing quest filled with humor that is self-referential, fourth-wall breaking, and outrageous. Superstar Saga, the franchise’s genesis, spent its running time establishing, with astounding success, the pillars that would serve as the basis for its future installments: action-packed battles that require reflexes and timely button presses, and meticulous exploration sprinkled with puzzle solving; both activities that, to achieve originality, naturally – and brilliantly – took advantage of the partnership between the titular duo.

Partners in Time, Bowser’s Inside Story, and Dream Team, the original’s three sequels, then, used those solid basics as a starting point and added increasingly wacky ingredients to the formula. Partners in Time had Mario and Luigi working along their young selves thanks to the appearance of various worm holes; Bowser’s Inside Story forced Bowser to collaborate with his two nemeses due to the fact he accidentally swallowed the pair after consuming a very unusual mushroom; and Dream Team transited between the real world and the insane landscapes and scenarios that popped inside Luigi’s mind whenever he fell asleep. Paper Jam follows that same formula of adding external elements to the firm association between Mario and Luigi, only, this time, a bridge is built between the two RPG realms within which Mario exists and Paper Mario ends up being invited into the fray.

paper_jam6The event that triggers the unlikely crossover happens when a clumsy Luigi, aided by one of the many Toads that inhabit Peach’s Castle, tries to fix a hole on one of the building’s rooms. The absolutely straightforward task gains disastrous outlines when Luigi, fleeing from a mouse, bumps onto a shelf and inadvertently knocks down the book in which the Paper Mario universe exists. The characters within, both good and bad, spill out onto the tridimensional Mushroom Kingdom and cause havoc: confused paper Toads run around desperately and clueless to what in the world has just happened; enemies that roam the wilderness meet their flat counterparts; and both Bowsers join forces to kidnap the two princesses that now exist.

Paper Jam has, as its launching pad, one spectacular and intriguing concept; after all, although both the Mario and Luigi saga and the Paper Mario quest share the same genre, they implement completely different concepts and mechanics that make each part stand out on its own. The crashing of these world onto one another, then, is a prime opportunity for developers to go all out and pull off all sorts of surprises. Unfortunately, while Partners in Time, Bowser’s Inside Story, and Dream Team do succeed in mining their premises and coming out with some true gems, Paper Jam never achieves the same level of brilliancy when it comes to the exploration of its core idea.

It is not that the game is bad. The title is, in the end, supported by the humor, the charming visuals, the frantic battles, the beautiful scenarios, and the blend between platforming, puzzle solving, and RPG-like exploration that has been boasted by the series since its inception in 2003. The problem is that the paper elements that it introduces do not affect the gameplay and the plot, which is a Bowser-kidnaps-Peach tale with no twists whatsoever, deeply enough to make it stand out. Instead of being a significant step into yet another new direction, Paper Jam lands as a work that is shy and borderline uninspired; a standard Mario and Luigi where Paper Mario is tagging along for the ride.

paper_jam3Divided into segments with commonplace settings such as beaches, plains, and forests, the overworld is tackled piece by piece – with some eventual backtracking – as the brothers try to make their way towards Bowser’s castle and often fall victim to his many traps and obstacles. Its greatest victories are how everyone single region fits together perfectly, forming one huge mass of land that feels connected; and its environmental puzzles that have players exploring the connected subareas that form a specific location in order to figure out how to proceed.

Often, the trio’s objective while advancing through an area will be gathering a bunch of scattered Paper Toads so that they can come together and help the heroes overcome some major block on the road. To do so, little mini-games are frequently triggered once certain spots are reached, those range from battling enemies and rescuing Toads within a certain time, finding the sneaky mushroom-men who are hiding in fear around a certain area, simply running after the desperate creatures, or performing fun and simple activities that would be right at home in a Mario Party game. While their quality is irregular and most of them seem to have been haphazardly sewn together onto the game, the majority of those mini-games are great, and they add a good deal of variety to the standard gameplay.

As far as the exploration goes, Paper Mario’s contributions – whose simple nature highlights the lack of ideas developers had for using the character – are squeezing into tight spaces, allowing Mario and Luigi to glide, and helping the brothers along with moves they already performed when on their own, such as hammering rocks or burying underground.

As it was the case in other Mario and Luigi games, the overworld is packed with enemies that – when touched – will cause players to be transported into turn-based battles. Both attacking and defending require timely button presses, a fact that keeps gamers on their toes at all times and makes those combats potentially engaging even to those who tend not to like these kinds of battles. In the former, precision will vastly increase the damage that is delivered; in the latter, good timing will allow the heroes to avoid hits altogether. Since foes tend to pack quite an offensive punch, learning their attack patterns is not a matter of winning battles with ease; it actually tends to be the difference between a Game Over screen and victory.

paper_jam4Paper Mario additions to the skirmishes, while not awe-inspiring, are more significant and fun than the elements he brings to the table out in the field; more importantly, they are rather valuable strategically. Some complex enemy attacks will drastically change the battle’s perspective and force players to use the combined forces of the trio to stay clear of the incoming hits. Besides, Paper Mario can freely spam a certain limited number of copies of himself: when he is hit, those copies will take damage and stop him from losing HP; when he attacks, the damage done and the number of foes hit will be proportional to the number of copies available.

Finally, just like Mario and Luigi can execute powerful “Brother Attacks” that are visually stunning and that, if all actions are performed correctly, deliver mighty blows to foes, Paper Mario can transport all fighters to the Paper realm and, with enemies turned into sheets of paper, smash them through numerous varied attacks that demand that the buttons Y (Paper Mario), B (Luigi), and A (Mario) be pressed at the right moment. Those complex and thrilling moves are a blast to execute and add a great degree of action to the combats, making the battle system a clear highlight of the game and even among all RPGs.

Sadly, the combat is slightly marred by the narrow variety in the enemies that are encountered. While boss battles are unanimously great, epic, challenging, and surprising; regular battles end up becoming dull after players spend a certain amount of time in each region. All of the game’s areas have a type of foe that is very predominant, and once the strategy to avoid its attacks is properly mastered, most struggles will be automatic wins even considering all enemies have paper versions with partially distinct moves.

paper_jam7The final influence the world of Paper Mario has over the Mario and Luigi universe is in the Papercraft Battles that punctually happen across the adventure. Directly inspired by the Giant Battles of both Bowser’s Inside Story and Dream Team, they are far more immerssive than those, as they replace the borderline on-rails feeling of those two with a free-roaming terrain where two enormous robot-like toys made out of paper utilize a series of moves to destroy one another. Every combat is built around a new twist given that, as the boss and player-controlled papercrafts change in shape, different moves are added to the formula.

When it is all said and done, Mario and Luigi: Paper Jam is a game that is able to be – at the same time – well-done and somewhat disappointing. Its basics are rock solid and hold up just fine throughout the quest, which should take somewhere between 25 and 40 hours for players to complete, with the latter time being reached by those looking to collect all hidden stats-enhancing beans, activate all blocks, and rescue all paper Toads. Its visuals are almost flawless, with their only issue being the lack of remarkable scenarios; the soundtrack is very good, even if the tunes that play out in the field do not match the flooring quality of the in-battle songs; and both the battles and the exploration are fun.

Its problem, however, is that its integration with the Paper Mario universe feels half-baked, as if its developers came up with an intriguing premise but failed to deliver the goods. What could have been a gameplay-altering experiment that brought new breath to the franchise, something that the concepts of its three predecessors were able to achieve, winds up resulting in just a few scattered elements that pop up here and there but that are neither well-integrated enough to make much of a difference nor carry enough weight to have the impact that was expected. To those new to the franchise, Paper Jam will certainly be impressive; to those that have been following the two brothers tackle this humorous version of the Mario universe since Superstar Saga, the game will likely feel like it does not do enough things differently in order to justify its concept.

Paper Jam

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