Limbo Review

In an era where bigger is taken as better, Limbo is a delightful well-polished small diamond

limbo1The world around you is awfully dark. You wake up in the middle of nowhere. It would be hard to tell exactly where you are if it wasn’t for a few shy rays of sunlight breaking through the treetops right above you. It is a dark forest where the only sounds that can be heard come from the occasional whispering wind, the cracking of a branch, and the distant murmurs of nature. Due to the darkness, everything standing in front of you has no color, or face; you can clearly tell their shapes by their distinct shadows, but it is impossible to see if that platform made out of a piece of trunk is safe to walk on or if that human-shaped form is just another child like you or a bizarre human-like creature that is set to attack. Limbo is all shadows, mystery and atmosphere; it has the dense air one would expect from a more realistic thriller, but instead, here, the creepiness and the constant feeling that there is something lurking out there somewhere is wrapped with a platforming gameplay and is pleasantly contrasting with cute cartoonish lines.

Limbo is yet another platformer where one travels from left to right. Here, however, the concept of a stage is non-existent, turning the game into a constant journey from beginning to end. The world of Limbo is only one, it is a finite yet long string of obstacles that feature an amusing blend between puzzle and platforming. There are no loading times. The game is one cohesive stage and as one goes from forest to caves and from caves to an industrial site it is possible to watch as the environment slowly transforms, hence creating a very unique and immersive experience as the game draws players into its darkness with amazing efficiency. It all feels uncomfortably real and believable and due to that Limbo becomes an absolute blast to play.

limbo2The controls are as simple as the color palette the game uses: players can move, jump, and grab onto objects to interact with them: that’s it. The joy of playing Limbo comes from solving all of its puzzles and getting away from all of its traps one by one and moving on to see what is going to happen next. The puzzles go from straightaway block-pushing riddles to much more complex gravity-related obstacles that appear down the line. In total, going from Limbo’s starting point to its curious ending will take most players about four hours. However, the game has some nice achievements for those who are willing to do some extra exploration, something that is bound to extend the game’s duration for a short while.

Limbo is not exactly a challenging game, but it requires a lot of patience from players as most of its puzzles involve a trial-and-error process. It is nearly impossible to fully grasp the nature of most of the puzzles at first glance; a factor that will undoubtedly frustrate many. However, in a display of wonderful game design, Limbo features extremely well-placed checkpoints that steer the game away from frustration. Most of the time, players will be experimenting with different solutions only to end up being killed in absolutely horrific ways, which, despite being softened up by the fact that the game stars a faceless shadowy silhouette, still end up being surprisingly gory for a game of this nature. The gory deaths are no coincidence, they are here to add to the looming threat hanging in the game’s atmosphere and to tell players that even though Limbo has a cartoonish look to it, its world is a disturbing unforgiving place.

limbo3Given the compact nature of Limbo, developers had plenty of time to pay attention to detail, and they made sure to use it in a productive way. Every corner of Limbo adds to game’s atmospheric vibe, and the its visuals are no different. Obviously, the art direction the game presents is quite unique and mesmerizes at first sight, but it is the animation that makes everything click together. Limbo is a slow moving game, and the way in which the shadow animations slowly progress in their very calculated, smooth and defined moves adds another layer of fright to this work of creepiness. The same can be said about the sound, which replaces music for very well-produced noise. The wind, the flapping of wings, the steps slowly advancing through the grass: everything comes off as amazingly realistic and close to players.

Still, Limbo could have used a few punctual improvements. As atmospheric as it may be, the game loses a bit of its dark value once the character leaves the forest and steps into an industrial site. In a game that is so sensitive, it is hard to pinpoint exactly why that happens, but it may be due to the fact that the strange kids that appear in the forest and try to attack the protagonist through a big portion of the game’s opening act simply disappear once the title gets to an area that should be more populated. Besides, the ending might end up leaving a few questions out in the open that some players would have loved to see answered. All in all, though, Limbo is one stunning piece of software, and in an era where bigger is wrongly taken as a synonym of better, it is delightful to see a small, but ridiculously polished adventure, shine so bright.

Limbo

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Super Meat Boy Review

A game good enough to die for over 1,000 times

Super-Meat-Boy4Once upon a time, there was Meat Boy. He lived happily with Bandage Girl, his beautiful sweet girlfriend. Such beauty and sweetness would clearly not go unnoticed by others and, unfortunately, in this case, their relationship attracted the envy of Dr. Fetus. Such an evil man he was, in his wish to tear apart the wonderful couple, he developed a deep dislike for poor Meat Boy. Therefore, Dr. Fetus beat Meat Boy up and took Bandage Girl away from him. Literally beaten down, Meat Boy was down in the dumps until a motivating – and very convincing – inner voice awoke the hero within him, and he set out to rescue his adorable loved one.

Super Meat Boy may only seem like a straightforward platformer whose simplicity and insane difficulty level create a rather unique experience, but beneath the surface there is one of the most powerful love stories ever told, because it undoubtedly takes a lot of love for such a tiny guy to face not only the weirdest meanest assortment of traps ever setup by any level designer, but also death itself. For Bandage Girl, Meat Boy faces dangers beyond human comprehension, but his love gives him motivation to keep going fearlessly; he gazes at all painful challenges ahead that are bound to murder him multiple times and focuses on his goal: the shiny eyes and enchanting smile of his soul mate. In far less poetic and complicated words: Super Meat Boy will possibly be one of the hardest – and occasionally most frustrating – games one will ever play.

Super-Meat-Boy2Super Meat Boy is divided into six chapters, with five of them being comprised of twenty levels and one boss battle, and the sixth one featuring five levels and one boss. The levels are all extremely short, ranging from ten to fifty seconds in length, but they have so many traps (buzzsaws, cannons, creepy enemies, lava pits, tricky jumps, deadly lasers, crushing blocks, among others) that each millisecond of the experience comes packed with a lot of tension and nervousness. The game always keeps players on their toes, wondering and fearing how tough the next set of traps they will have to face are. As a result, dying comes accompanied with outbursts of frustration; conversely, reaching the goal brings such a genuinely happy feeling that players will not be able to avoid celebrating.

It is rare to come across a level in which death will strike less than a dozen times, but Team Meat did the game a great favor when they tried to strongly mitigate the frustration of dying. The fact levels are short obviously gives a whole lot of support to that cause, and the speed with which Meat Boy is quickly transported to the beginning of the stage a few moments after he dies in a gory explosion of blood and meat also helps. In addition, it is vital that a game that requires so much precision and perfect timing have controls that allow for such perfection and do not – at any times – get in the way of the player. Super Meat Boy basically consists of running, jumping and wall-jumping, and all those commands have fast and precise responses, with the physics being absolutely sensible to the kind of game it is, balancing the character’s speed and weight incredibly well.

Players’ advances through the stages happen in a pace and manner that is similar to that of early Mega Man games: there is a lot of pattern memorization. However, there is the caveat that, here, the stages are far shorter than those tackled by the Blue Bomber. Getting through a course, then, is a matter of being killed by a trap many times, finding a way to regularly go past it, only to be killed many times by the subsequent trap, and so on, until all of the obstacles are learned to a point that gamers rely more on physical button-pressing memory than visual cues.

smb2As a consequence, frustrating moments will be plentiful, but any player that goes into a game like Super Meat Boy should already be expecting that. Knowing how to handle the frustration while enjoying the little seconds of joy that come with finally reaching Bandage Girl at the end of the stage, only to see her taken by Dr. Fetus to the next level, is a must. Super Meat Boy is an endless cycle of a whole lot of pain and hints of pleasure. If players are willful enough to be able to deal with it, they will unquestionably find a ridiculously fun, challenging, and addictive game.

Actually, Super Meat Boy is so utterly aware of the charm and engaging nature of its brutality that its greatest feature might be one that celebrates it. After completing a level, players will be automatically greeted by a replay that will simultaneously show all of their playthroughs on the screen, with dozens (or hundreds) of Meat Boys running around the stage replicating the mistakes and bloody explosions gamers went through on their way to success. It is like a fireworks show where bright colors are replaced by blood and gore, and it is oddly beautiful, funny, and uplifting.

For the bravest among the brave, the fun of Super Meat Boy does not end when all regular levels are completed. All stages are timed, and when finished within a specific, short – but reasonable – time an alternate Dark World version of that level will be unlocked. Hence, the total amount of stages grows to a whopping three hundred. Additionally, there is also the possibility of unlocking characters from other indie games.

smbThose characters are not just pixelated models that behave just like Meat Boy; they actually have physics of their own and posses certain special skills that can help players get through some of the more grinding situations that will show up on later levels, which is a quite nice twist. Those characters can be unlocked in two ways: some can be acquired by collecting bandages that are dangerously positioned on the courses, and others can be found by going into equally tough-to-reach warp zones that will lead Meat Boy to mini-levels inspired by those indie games. Anyone who thinks a platformer this straightforward could not hold any secrets would be dead wrong, because Super Meat Boy is loaded with extra content.

Super Meat Boy ends up being a glorious homage to the ridiculously hard platformers that were a big part of the gaming industry in the 80s. The game is not ashamed to show its influences, starting from its title with suspiciously familiar initials and its Mega Man stage progression, to the pixel art that its visuals display. It also looks back on the industry’s past via its humorous cutscenes, appropriately lacking any display of technical prowesses, which will make clear references to memorable titles of the past, delighting old-school players with its writing’s incredible humor. When it is all said and done, Super Meat Boy is so fantastic that it ends up being more than a celebration of the past; it is the proof that what is truly great will never die, but will keep being reborn and refreshed through the years, and that those who love the sheer simplicity of the brilliant platformers of gaming’s early years should be thankful for living in an era that loves to produce fresh nods to those simpler, and more brutal, days.

Super Meat Boy

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Cave Story Review

Cave Story proves that new games with old-school roots can be as good as its counterparts of yesteryears

cavestoryCave Story is, originally, the work of a single man: Daisuke Amaya. The game’s success as an indie PC title led Nicalis to pick it up in order to dress it in a new coat of paint by adding an extra level of polish to character models and more detailed background scenarios, and then port it to some of Nintendo’s platforms. Despite the small workforce employed in the making of the title, which was literally as small as it could be, nobody could possibly realize that the sheer greatness of the adventure contained within Cave Story was crafted by just a pair of hands. Everything the game offers is well-designed enough to draw positive comparisons to the great Nintendo games of the NES and SNES eras. It is an achievement that is certainly no small feat, for such an honor is sometimes not even closely reached by games produced by full-fledged companies with enough professionals to fill up a small arena.

As amazing as the title’s gameplay may be, it is not the only part responsible for elevating Cave Story into the status of one of the greatest indie downloadable games. Its plot kicks off in a very mysterious way as, without any introductions, players take control of a character that has lost his memory and finds himself within a dark cave, holding no knowledge whatsoever of his exact location and his surroundings. Still, from a very early point in the adventure, it is possible to notice that its story has much more to it than the game initially lets on, which is a fantastic and very effective design strategy to keep players interested in the plot. As they advance through the game’s levels, elements of the script are slowly explained and little by little the form of the game’s narrative is revealed. Before players know it, they will be involved in the engaging web of happenings that underscore the battle between an underground race and a mad doctor of dark origins who is driven by an evil goal.

cavestory3If one were to narrow down Cave Story’s location to a single branch on a big tree of different gameplay designs, it would probably be located on the limb that houses Super Metroid and its less memorable peers. The game world is set up in a way that makes all of its many areas connected via a series of teleports, and even if its many settings are not as cohesively knitted together as Super Metroid’s, it is simply impossible not to make such a comparison because the caves have many different scenarios, a maze-like configuration, a few collectibles along the way, and – most importantly – some level of backtracking. Although it does share a lot of characteristics with the Metroid series, Cave Story never triggers déjà-vu feelings due to the pace of its gameplay and a few RPG-like elements, which make it vastly differ from Samus’ crowning 2-D achievement.

The game’s controls have the simple efficiency of those of an NES game. The protagonist’s actions are limited to quickly switching between weapons, jumping, shooting, and running at a surprisingly speedy pace. Besides, the main character is affected by some really unique physics: his jumps are very high and fast, offering mid-air control that is extremely flexible. When those quirks are paired up with the frantic pace of the game’s shooting, the result is the ability to perform some downright insane maneuvers that look stunningly awesome and that are a must to deal with the most brutal enemies in the game.

In fact, the game’s chaotic and fun shooting will easily remind old-school gamers of the space shoot’em ups of yesteryears. Only, instead of having a ship that flies through space and blasts foes to oblivion, gamers are controlling an agile little boy that is confined to Metroid-like caves ridden with devilish foes.

cavestory2Cave Story’s most curious element, though, is the way in which the guns are powered-up. The game offers a nice variety of weapons, such as a regular pistol, a fireball-throwing gun, a missile launcher and even a sword, each varying in range and effectiveness against some kinds of enemies and bosses. All of the game’s weapons can be enhanced up to level three, and in order to do so players need to collect golden diamonds left behind by defeated enemies.

Those diamonds are very easy to find and leveling up most guns to their utmost power, hence improving their reach and firepower, won’t take a long time; however, there is a twist. When hit by an enemy, the gun that is being held at that time will have its level bar decreased according to how powerful the blow is; as a consequence, a few hits are enough to bring them back to their regular strength – a not so welcome occurrence, especially when facing powerful bosses. This constant level roller coaster that players’ weaponry will go through will effectively turn even the silliest combats into key battle for survival. After all, slip-ups against a set of enemies that was meant to be simple potentially means having to face upcoming, and more powerful, foes with less effective weapons.

The game also features a group of very creative boss battles that come packed with a lot of challenge and action. The boss battles start out relatively easy, but by the end of the game some bosses are likely to drive even the most skilled players mad. It is a shame, though, that the fun of some of those battles is extremely harmed by the fact that Cave Story will often throw bosses at the screen without offering players a resting place and a checkpoint before those battles. Trying to overcome the game’s tough bosses is a lot of fun; however, the same cannot be said about having to go through tight platforming sections over and over again just because one has lost to a mighty boss that comfortably sits after tons of traps and away from any checkpoints. It is unpleasantly surprising that such a well-designed game stumbles upon a very primary game design issue.

cavestory4Nicalis didn’t limit the improvements they implemented to the game’s visual part. The title’s soundtrack has also been remixed and had its quality improved, offering songs and sound effects that are in tip-top shape. Moreover, adding to Cave Story’s seven-hour adventure, there are three levels of difficulty, three different endings (a bad one, a good one, and a great one) that are triggered based on decisions made during the adventure, and a bunch of new game modes. Those modes include another Story Mode with a different character, and a Time Trial struggle where players face all of the game’s bosses with small intervals to regenerate some health and re-upgrade weapons that were downgraded during battle. Sum those replay incentives with the health and missile capacity upgrades that are spread around the caves, and Cave Story offers plenty of value.

Cave Story ends up being a game that blatantly drinks from the Metroid source, but that adorns that long-established structure with its own ideas, removing the hunt for equipment that Samus tends to engage in and replacing it with a unique brand of fast-paced shooting; and taking off the silent storytelling approach and putting interactions between numerous characters and revealing dialogues in its place. The result is an old-school adventure that is simultaneously classic and refreshing, and immerssive and thrilling, carrying an impressive emotional punch and a grand level of game design that few other titles achieve.

Cave Story

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The Unforgettable Second Fiddle

doryRemarkable supporting characters are not exactly new to Disney and its partners. In fact, they have been an integral part of the company’s animated magic ever since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs came out in 1937, as the titular group of bearded little men, and also the lovable Dopey, gained far more prominence than the starring princess. From that point onwards, Disney has been building an ever-growing list of unforgettable sidekicks that, by playing second fiddle, have been responsible for gags and laughs, such as Frozen’s Olaf; and for intriguing emotional hooks as well, as it was the case with the talking furniture of Beauty and the Beast.

As the abominable Cars 2 proved, though, handing major roles to successful side characters is not a guaranteed recipe for success. Finding Dory, however, shows that not all supporting personages are created equal, and some of them can actually succeed when the spotlight is tilted towards them. Like Mater, Dory was often fondly remembered for her major quirks – in that case, her short-term memory loss and delightful optimism; unlike him, fortunately, not only did Dory quietly become the most universally beloved character in her debut movie – the equally cherished Finding Nemo – but she also received a proper full-fledged treatment – in other words, had a rock-solid backstory developed for her – before being thrown towards a leading role.

Finding Dory is focused on the character’s major feature, the fact that she can’t remember much of anything at all. Instead of serving as some sort recurring joke, though, which would have naturally turned the movie into something that would get old pretty fast, Pixar wisely decided to explore the dark implications of that problem. As soon as the flick begins, viewers are greeted by a young Dory being taught by her parents to explain to strangers that she has memory problems in case she happens to get lost. And we see as the lovely little fish, and her parents, suffer – in different ways – from the issues caused by her disability: Dory is frustrated by her inability to do mundane tasks, while her parents worry about what will happen to her once they are gone.

FINDING DORY

Naturally, as events on Finding Nemo imply, it is only a matter of time until Dory does get lost, wanders the sea seeking for help while progressively forgetting about where she came from and what she is looking for, and bumps into a helpless Marlin seeking his missing son. Some time after that adventure, Dory has her memory triggered by a lecture delivered by Mr. Ray and remembers she longs for her family and so she, alongside a reluctant Marlin and an energetic Nemo, departs on her second cross-ocean journey.

Finding Dory seems to know that its prequel – released thirteen years before its debut – has grown into a classic both in the eyes of the now grown-up generation that watched it as children and of the youngsters who have been taught to love its characters thanks to their older siblings, parents, and relatives. Due to that, it does do a little bit of coasting on nostalgia: Crush and Squirt make a brief appearance; and many of the occurrences and characters from the previous movie receive nods. However, at the same time, it is wise enough not to blindly rely on nostalgic value, as it does a considerable palate cleansing, turning over its locations and characters alike.

For starters, knowing that the ocean – as big as it might be – has been sufficiently explored, Finding Dory quickly abandons it, as Dory’s quest takes her to a Marine Institute in California, thereby replacing the dangers of the deep sea for the threat of human interference and the challenge of navigating through a relatively urbanized location. Consequently, the new setting paves the way to the introduction of an assortment of great new characters: a bitter Octopus, a pair of whales, a trio of hilarious sea lions, and a whole lot of unique species that Finding Nemo did not tackle to a deeper degree.

dory2Due to that small and extremely sensible shift, Finding Dory feels fresh enough to justify its existence as a sequel and avoid accusations of being a safe cash-grab by a company that is struggling creatively. Still, even if its pacing is solid, as Dory is constantly unearthing new memories that further amplify the resonance of the movie’s stellar heart, Finding Dory does feel a bit formulaic at times, particularly in its midsection, when the trio of adventurers goes through a series of unfortunate and outlandish events that, albeit fun, clearly exist for the sole purpose of filling up running time.

In the end, the element that does lift Finding Dory above the “good” threshold is its heart-wrenching emotional nucleus. Dory is always positive and good-hearted, but the world she often encounters in her search for help is one that is indifferent or that often does not know how to, or care enough to, give a hand to the poor friendly fish that wants to find her home but that has trouble figuring out where it is and how to get there. Any relation to a modern world that is way too self-centered and worried about its own problems to pay attention to those of others, which may be much more urgent and grave, is certainly not a coincidence; and Pixar delivers that message with a light and deft touch.

Those that are indeed willing to aid her, which at first usually happens due to their own interests and motivations, have their lives significantly altered by the planet’s most beloved regal blue tang and her true heart. A heart that has probably reminded so utterly pure due to the fact she cannot remember the things that have happened during her life; events that would probably make her lose a part of her kind spirit and relentless faith in others.

FINDING DORY

Dory’s wide-eyed naiveté and how she manages to keep optimistic despite everything that surrounds her are responsible for generating some of the most emotionally powerful moments Pixar has ever put to film, with one of them in particular ranking as the most distressing and agonizing one the company has produced. Therefore, Finding Dory’s child-friendly action is constantly punctuated by scenes that trigger tears or at least some sort of internal reflection by its audience, never letting them lose sight of what is guiding the journey and why it is so important, revealing that Dory has always been far more than an unforgettable side character; she has been the guiding beacon of hope that has led her friends through the troubled waters they have navigated.

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Albums of the Month: July 2016

2003Album: Transatlanticism

Artist: Death Cab For Cutie

Released: October 7th, 2003

Highlights: Title And Registration, Expo ’86, Transatlanticism, We Looked Like Giants

Following three albums in which Death Cab For Cutie’s brand of indie pop alternated between unremarkable moments and close brushes with greatness, “Transatlanticism” is the beacon that indicates the point when their songwriting and production came together to form a work of undeniable quality. It is easy to label “Transatlanticism” as the mandatory mature album that seems to always appear somewhere in the life-cycle of all bands that stick around for long enough to actually get there, but more important than neatly qualifying it is recognizing it as one of the genre’s finest products and as an album that preceded the onslaught of indie bands that would hit the market during the next few years. “Transatlanticism”, then, emerges as the finest kind of excellent record: the one that is made not because of its context, but despite it.

Here, the group takes their inclination towards mid-tempo pop-rock and slows it down a notch, and in the serenity of that pace they happen to encounter a whole lot of beauty. Before it gets there, though, “Transatlanticism” can be deceiving, for it opens up with its most by-the-books song, “The New Year”, an archetypal indie number of the mid 2000s. From that point onwards, though, the record gently grabs its listeners and pulls them into a melancholic yet beautiful soundscape guided by jangling guitars that would make Johnny Marr, Peter Buck, and Roger McGuinn proud, not letting go until its final track, the acoustic folk ballad “A Lack of Color”, ends.

Given its songs bear obvious similarities in both instrumentation and tone, “Transatlanticism” is one of those albums that often run the risk of coming off as overly monochromatic. However, the band keeps that from happening altogether. Firstly, there is the fact Ben Gibbard has come up with strong melodies for all of the tunes; secondly, there is the smart song sequencing, which ends up forming mini-suites composed of slower and moodier tunes (“Lightness” and “Title And Registration”; and “Tiny Vessels”, “Transatlanticism”, and “Passenger Seat”) and breaks them apart with opposing sets of songs that pack more energy (“Expo ’86” and “The Sound Of Settling”; and “Death of an Interior Decorator” and “We Looked Like Giants”), constructing a record that is rather dynamic inside the scope in which it operates. The outcome, therefore, is that “Transatlanticism” is musically cohesive in a very impressive way.

Such close-knit nature is not reserved to its sound, though, as its lyrics – despite showcasing some irregularity here and there – also come together to form one closely related package. Appropriately, no other tune defines the album’s theme as well as its title track, an eight-minute hauntingly gorgeous and sad masterpiece that has echoes of Blur’s “Sing” and “1992”, which pictures the creation of the Atlantic Ocean as the result of a brutal downpour, leaving the narrator stranded from his love as he comes to realize that “The distance is quite simply much too far for me to row / It seems farther than ever before”. “Transatlanticism” is an amazing introspective study on distance, both physical and emotional, and inside our human confines there is nothing quite as scary and significant as the separation caused by an immense water body.

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big-black-the-blueAlbum: The Big Black and Blue

Artist: First Aid Kit

Released: January 25th, 2010

Highlights: Hard Believer, Sailor Song, Ghost Town, I Met Up With The King

The fact that Sweden is a rather fertile land for music is no secret. For example, any heavy metal fan is fully aware of the country’s knack for producing great groups of the sort, which means that it is not exactly surprising to see a band from that portion of the globe break geographic borders and spread their music around the planet. First Aid Kit, formed by sisters Klara and Johanna Söderberg, then, is far from being shocking in its nationality, as the act comes from the land of The Cardigans, Roxette, ABBA, and The Hives. The biggest surprise the group holds, instead, is related to the music sources from which the young girls drink: the old-school country of Johnny Cash, Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, and many others. In their debut – “The Big Black and Blue”, not only do they show that they have the musical gift to match those legends of the past, they also display they are well capable of bringing that type of country music back to the mainstream air waves, where the genre has been stripped from its soul and degenerated into an unrecognizable animal.

The album’s opener, “In the Morning”, is quick to show the sisters’ greatest prowess. A mostly a cappella cut with a few acoustic guitar strums, the song is carried by tight, gorgeous, and angelical harmonies Klara and Johanna pull off, with the former singing the lead and the latter harmonizing with impeccable precision. From that point onwards, the pair proceeds to tackle the genre’s entire musical palette always guided by basic yet delightful instrumentation centered around Klara’s guitar and with occasional appearances of Johanna’s keyboard. There is the pop-tinged country with blatant hooks of “Hard Believer”, the joyful tongue-in-cheek aura of “Sailor Song”, the reflective ballad with an impressive fluid melody “Waltz for Richard”, the vocal tour-de-force of “Heavy Storm”, the sorrowful and deeply moving “Ghost Town”, the standard country melody of “Josefin”, the waltz-time beauty of “A Window Opens”, the despairing “Winter Is All Over You”, the folk fantasy of “I Met Up With The King”, and the thoughtful “Wills Of The River”.

Written by two young girls who had yet to reach their twenties, most of the tunes contained inside “The Big Black and Blue” stun in their insight whether one considers the ages of Klara and  Johanna or not. The lyrics show a level of maturity and craft that many bands that are now considered staple, or even classic, acts did not come close to displaying in their early teen-years albums. Lines such as “You’ve got to go on and get moving / I can’t do that for you”, “Don’t come preach about morality / That’s just human sense to me”, and “If you’ve got visions of the past / Let them follow you down / They’ll come back to you some day” are examples of thoughtful and evocative songwriting that is not achieved without an impressive deal of talent and effort.

For all of its qualities and pure beauty, which point towards a very bright horizon for First Aid Kit, “The Big Black and Blue” is not immune to the deficiencies that tend to appear in the debut works of artists that start creating at a very young age. Klara and Johanna’s channeling of country traditions through their gorgeous harmonies and their fantastic lyrics often hide the fact that a few tracks either come off as not fully developed or as songs that were not ripe enough for reaping, a fact that becomes quite evident on the album’s tail end, which drags slightly. Still, anyone with a love for acoustic balladry, folk music, country, or even just catchy pop hooks that lean to a sorrowful side will not be able to go through “The Big Black and Blue” without feeling overwhelmed by beauty and touched by emotion. Klara and Johanna got off to quite a start, one that would make the country stars of the past they so profoundly admire immensely proud.

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Little_JoyAlbum: Little Joy

Artist: Little Joy

Released: November 4th, 2008

Highlights: Brand New Start, Keep Me in Mind, How to Hang a Warhol, Don’t Watch Me Dancing

Little Joy is the side-project of Fabrizio Moretti, the drummer of The Strokes; Rodrigo Amarante, one of the leaders of the Brazilian band Los Hermanos; and Bikini Shapiro. As its name, which is also the title of its only album up to this day, may imply, the group’s music is light, unpretentious, and delightfully charming. The brief thirty-minute running time of the record is almost uniformly made up of short catchy tunes that display the band’s numerous influences, which range from bossa nova – not an entirely unexpected turn of events given the band’s two core songwriters are Brazilian; to The Strokes and their musical New York City forefathers of The Velvet Underground. Put those elements in a cauldron and mix them up while adding some clever pop hooks and what comes out is Little Joy’s brand of music, which gains laid-back and relaxed contours thanks to Amarante’s soothing yet rough singing approach.

The warm, sunny, and breezy aura that permeates the whole record – even when it veers into introspective territory, makes itself visible right from the start, as “The Next Time Around” launches with a strumming ukulele before immersing itself in a surf rock rhythm that is ingeniously backed up by harmonies that are reminiscent of the vocal pop groups of the 1950s, lending the whole tune an incredible old-school soul. That joyful vibe keeps going strong through “Brand New Start”, the album’s most immediate cut and a tune that would be right at home alongside The Beatles’ early soft bubblegum rock material; and “Play the Part”, which marks the first time the album blatantly bumps into bossa nova. Given Amarante’s Brazilian band, Los Hermanos, is often lauded for bridging bossa nova and rock, it is not surprising that other detours into the genre, “Shoulder to Shoulder” and “Evaporar”, happen during the record.

When Little Joy decide to rock, they do so with guitar lines that would make Albert Hammond Jr. and Nick Valensi, the two men responsible for that department in The Strokes, nod in recognition. That is true in “No One’s Better Sake”, a slightly messy, yet interesting, tune that packs three somewhat disjoint segments into less than three minutes; “Keep Me in Mind, which might as well be a lost track that from “Is This It” or “Room on Fire”; and the awesome “How to Hang a Warhol”, whose twin guitars almost replicate The Strokes’ classic “Last Nite”. Speaking of the New York pop artist, the band he temporarily managed – The Velvet Underground – also makes its presence felt both indirectly and directly. Indirectly because The Strokes drank heavily from that source, and directly on “Don’t Watch Me Dancing”, where Shapiro delivers gorgeous female vocals over music that has pop ambitions that are drowned by a lo-fi approach, a strategy that worked wonderfully in a couple of tracks from the ultimate classic “The Velvet Underground and Nico”.

With compositions shared between Rodrigo Amarante and Fabrizio Moretti, both cooperatively and also individually, “Little Joy” works as an output for the duo’s creativity away from their original projects and the expectations that accompany them, and – in the case of Moretti – it is a great opportunity for him to show his compositional skills, as in The Strokes much of the writing work is done by Casablancas, Valensi, and Hammond Jr. The results don’t fall far from the trees under which they have built their musical careers, but they are – nevertheless – interesting and unique, giving birth to a record that is certainly worth a listen.

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lamfAlbum: L.A.M.F.

Artist: The Heartbreakers

Released: October 3rd, 1977

Highlights: Born Too Loose, Chinese Rocks, One Track Mind, Let Go

Rock and roll and punk rock are not strangers to one another. Even though The Clash famously dissed three of the former genre’s most important pillars in their song “1977”, as the group enthusiastically exclaimed “No Elvis, Beatles, or The Rolling Stones”, hence looking at them as museum pieces whose relevancy had been lost in the years following their respective peaks, punk often leaned towards the rock and roll source for inspiration. The Stooges did it in their wild energy; the Ramones showed it in their simplicity; and both the MC5, especially in the band’s late-period records, and the New York Dolls went for it in the rhythms they explored. It is not surprising, then, that The Heartbreakers – formed by the New York Dolls’ guitarist, the legendary Johnny Thunders, a couple of years after that band’s breakup – is one of the flagships of that love-and-hate relationship, and such link is in full-blown display in their one and only record: “L.A.M.F.”.

“L.A.M.F.” is not simply a proof that, somewhere deep down, rock and roll and punk rock were intrinsically connected; it might as well be the point in which the two musical styles came the closest to merging into one creature. From the get go, the enthralling “Born Too Loose”, The Heartbreakers show their weapons and approach: riffs and grooves that seem to have been stripped straight from a Chuck Berry record, with solos that would have undoubtedly sent Chuck himself into a signature duck walk, all played with the recklessness prominent in the attitude of the Ramones and the Sex Pistols. Like those groups, The Heartbreakers do not have a member who can sing, at least according to a puritanical definition of the term, which gives their sound the same “anyone can do it” vibe that led a wide-eyed youth to flock to the punk rock groups. Unlike them, though, The Heartbreakers sure can play.

Surely, Thunders, Lure, Rath, and Nolan are unable to deliver the technical fireworks summoned by the MC5 – their compositions never call for those, anyway – but they show a level of skill that is nevertheless impressive, one that is reached without losing the wildness and roughness punk rock usually calls for. The Heartbreakers’ most impressive prowess, however, is how – not unlike the Ramones – the band has a knack for great pop melodic hooks, and barely does a tune go by without a chorus or segment that sticks to one’s mind. Sometimes, those hooks are rooted in punk, as it happens on “All By Myself”, “Chinese Rocks” – which would later be recorded by the Ramones, “Pirate Love”, “I Love You”, and “Goin’ Steady”. Most of the time, though, they feature an irresistible hint of rockabilly and rock and roll, making it seem as if Bill Haley or Jerry Lee Lewis could have recorded tunes like “One Track Mind” and “Let Go”, or at least certain portions of those.

Guided by an impressively talented but unstable frontman, The Heartbreakers experiment would not last enough to leave a big and strong enough mark to make them be put side-by-side with some of punk rock’s giants. Not only that, but the fact that their debut came in the late days of 1977 also meant they arrived a little bit too late to the party’s kick off. However, “L.A.M.F.” still stands up as a remarkable record that is as easy to get into as any of the material put out by the Ramones and almost as inspired as the best albums produced by the punk movement.

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Star Fox Guard Review

A great use of a famous property in a simple, smart, and unique scenario; an experiment Nintendo will hopefully replicate with other franchises

guard1In their success, the Nintendo DS, 3DS, and Wii are united by a singular theme: many of their finest games would either fail to translate well, or be downright impossible to carry over, to other consoles. The dual screens and touch features of the former duo, and the motion-responsive controls and pointer of the latter opened the door to the creation of unique titles that found greatness in the exploration of their distinctive hardware characteristics, and developers proceeded to walk into that room and come out with spectacular results. Such victorious formula was pursued once more by Nintendo with the Wii U, whose Gamepad was meant to allow companies to toy with the double-screen setting in a home console. Sadly, though, where those three systems would prove to be extremely fertile grounds for creativity outbursts, the Wii U would turn out to be a barren land where smart ideas of Gamepad implementation were scarce.

Star Fox Guard, a pleasant spin-off of Nintendo’s space shooting saga that can either be purchased alongside Star Fox Zero or acquired by itself via the eShop, is one the very rare instances where the existence of the Gamepad is resoundingly justified. It is an inventive little title that could neither work nor exist anywhere else in the gaming world, for it is entirely built around the capabilities of the controller. With the different perspectives provided by the TV and Gamepad screens, and the touch recognition of the second, Star Fox Guard takes the tried and true structure of the Tower Defense genre and gives it its own twist, one graced by the always welcomed Nintendo charm.

guard5As it turns out, Slippy Toad, the skilled mechanic and infamously helpless pilot of the Star Fox crew, has an uncle named Grippy Toad who runs a mining company with bases installed all over the Lylat System. Unfortunately for the rich amphibian entrepreneur, those sites have recently turned into the favorite target of an army of destructive robots of unknown origin, which storm the places and wreck havoc upon the facilities. Players are, then, hired to stand watch and protect the goods from upcoming attacks by remotely operating the bases’ surveillance cameras, which are all equipped with laser guns, and shooting the hostile bots down.

With that setup, the TV will simultaneously show the view from each of the twelve cameras of the base, and a big square in the middle of the screen is reserved to displaying what is seen by the camera that is currently being controlled by players. Meanwhile, the Gamepad will show a map of the base, with icons representing the robots and the cameras themselves, which can be moved to a new location, turned around, or selected to be controlled with simple touch motions.

Star Fox Guard, then, is a game of nearly constant thrill and tension. Gamers must keep an eye on the twelve cameras on the TV, watch for incoming robots, and, by using the Gamepad, quickly select the camera that is best suited to take them down. If one of the robots manages to reach the center of the site and attack the mining equipment, Grippy Toad will have lost his precious metal; if the enemy waves are stopped, players can celebrate, collect the scraps left by foes in order to level up, and move on to the next stage.

guard3It is a simple, effective, and smart concept that is seamlessly taught by a short non-intrusive tutorial, and an idea from which Nintendo extracts an impressive amount of variety. For starters, the game has a whopping total of one hundred stages scattered around six planets, which have – subsequently – three differently shaped bases each, in which both regular and special unlockable missions take place, and one boss battle.

Truthfully, the planets themselves do not contribute heavily to that variety. The change of scenario is so basic that it is almost as simple as a palette swap, which goes hand-in-hand with the game’s generally bland visuals; moreover, even though each one of them has an environmental twist – with, for example, the desert world of Titania being plagued by occasional sandstorms that block the view some cameras have from the outside of the base – those could have easily been more frequent, varied, and prominent.

Most of Star Fox Guard’s variety actually comes from its three best features: the unique form of the mining sites, the smart quirks of the extra missions, and – especially – the impressively clever kinds of enemy bots. The shape of the mining sites comes into play with that fact that although all of the bases’ cameras are already in place before the robots start coming, players are free to analyze the place and move them around in order to find an optimal configuration to cover as much ground as possible and adapt their defense strategy to the kinds of foes that will show up for that specific mission, which speaks volumes about the well-done level design and its synergy with the bots that are deployed.

guard2The special levels, meanwhile, offer intriguing variations on the standard Star Fox Guard gameplay and tend to demand an extra level of skill, reflexes, and preparation from gamers. They will have to deal with robots dropping from the sky with parachutes; tackle a mixture of tiny, fragile and fast, and huge, resistant and slow versions of the enemies; defend the base with only two cameras mounted on top of moving tripods; survive with limited ammo; and other challenging twists.

The true stars of the show, by all means, are the robots themselves, which are divided into two general classes: combat, which are the ones that need to be defeated in order for levels to be cleared, given they are responsible for destroying the mining equipment; and chaos, whose goal is creating numerous diversions to disrupt players and help combat bots get to their target. While the first class has its share of smart designs that create amazing gameplay situations, with robots that climb or jump over walls, ride speedy rockets to the center of the stage, have ridiculously strong armor, carry shields that force players into aiming from certain angles, become invisible, or are immune to detection by radar, it is the second class that truly shines.

Chaos robots are stunningly inventive in the number of strategies they employ to disrupt gamers. One of the bots, for example, is shaped like a television and will latch onto cameras and generate fake footage that makes it seem like the area is free of enemies; another one uses magnetic power to draw the focus of all cameras in the vicinity. There are also UFOs that sweep in and abduct cameras, tank units that blow the surveillance equipment up, ghosts that appear out of thin air, ventilators that use wind to make cameras aim towards the sky, balls that generate smokescreens when shot, and much more.

guard4Completing Star Fox Guard, discounting its special stages, should take somewhere between three and four hours, with experienced players leaning towards the former due to the fact that the game does not get truly challenging until its final two planets, in which failures become more frequent and clearing missions usually takes more than one try. The game does a pretty decent job at extending its duration, though, as it features a solid online mode where gamers can create their own robot squads via a simple interface that acts like a timeline of bot deployment and check how it fares against other gamers, and also – naturally – challenge squads created by others, earning or losing rank points in the process and unlocking collectible stickers according to certain achievements.

Underlining all of that is a leveling system that goes from one to fifty, with each level yielding a unique award such as special kinds of cameras, the ability to transform more of the bases’ cameras into one of those special types, and new special stages. It is an effective feature that keeps the experience constantly satisfying and rewarding; however, the fact that many of the game’s special stages are only unlocked at higher levels that can only be achieved through a whole lot of grinding, either online or offline, is sort of frustrating.

Star Fox Guard is a game that shows Nintendo acting like an indie developer: having to abide to tight budget constraints, which become visible in the graphics and sound, and being forced to come up with a simple yet amusing gameplay idea that can be developed within a strict scope. In the end, it all works. The game is an inventive use of an established property in a completely different scenario, and – most importantly – it is one of the Wii U’s few titles to justify the existence of the maligned Gamepad. Star Fox Guard is a rather unique experiment for Nintendo’s standards and, given it is quality, one can only hope the company will repeat the process with some of its other franchises, taking them out of their safe haven and using their universe as the trampoline to straightforward, yet brilliant, gameplay concepts.

Star Fox Guard

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Metroid Prime 3: Corruption Review

It streamlines the Metroid gameplay while preserving the franchise’s key characteristics: its immersion, ominous loneliness, and the maze-like maps

corruption5Although, understandably, much of the focus surrounding the Nintendo Wii was related to its motion controls, which were a remarkable and long-awaited step forward despite their flaws, all of that commotion overshadowed what was indeed the console’s best feature: its effective pointer. More than streamlining all kinds of user interface, that capability brought actual applications to several genres, as it supported the plarforming greatness of Super Mario Galaxy, brought clear improvements to The Legend of Zelda, and allowed the creation of some rather inventive gameplay features. In spite of its wide applications, however, nowhere was the pointer as beneficial as it was in first-person games, and in Metroid Prime 3: Corruption the Wiimote found what was probably its finest utilization.

The title handles like a bliss, as if the the Wii’s unique control scheme were built with the game in mind. Samus’ arm canon perfectly replicates the direction in which the pointer is aimed, allowing for shooting and visual exploration of the character’s surroundings with a level of accuracy that is not matched even by the mouse and keyboard setup that has long stood as the efficient basis around which first-person shooters have been constructed. With all aiming and turning set to the Wiimote, players can freely move Samus around with the Nunchuck, which – when moved forward – also works as the character’s grapple beam, a weapon that in Metroid Prime 3 can be used both to latch onto certain points and rip parts of many enemies’ protective gear.

Naturally, not only does that perfectly intuitive control scheme work as an enhancement to Metroid’s explorative vein, which gains a whole new level of immersion, it also is heavily positive to combat scenarios. Both the original Metroid Prime and its sequel, Echoes, featured a lock mechanism that automatically fixed Samus’ aiming reticle onto a foe, making battles a matter of pressing the A button to shoot and moving around to avoid incoming fire. Corruption, meanwhile, seriously up the stakes, because while the lock functionality is still present, it no longer guarantees spot-on shots. Here, the reticle is merely aimed at the general vicinity of the enemy, leaving it up to players to adjust it as characters move around the screen, therefore making shootouts far more interesting and thrilling.

corruption6Metroid Prime 3: Corruption is not shy to take advantage of that newly found quality. Where its two predecessors merely punctuated sequences of exploration with moments where shooting became imperative, in Corruption battles gain bigger prominence. Thankfully, though, the franchise’s gameplay integrity is preserved, and firefights do not come remotely close to being as frequent as Metroid’s signature features: its environmental puzzle solving, and the constant search for missing pieces of equipment that allow the bounty hunter to get to previously untouched locations on the map and make new discoveries.

Samus’ new session of figuring maze-like maps out and shooting a whole lot of Space Pirates begins when the Galactic Federation summons her and three more hunters to a meeting. They are briefed on how the federation’s organic super computers, called Aurora Units, have been attacked by a Space Pirate virus, hence making the whole network of valuable information vulnerable. Before much is revealed, though, an attack by that faction occurs on a nearby planet and the four hunters are dispatched to deal with the problem. Working alongside the others, Samus is able to stop both the pirates and an incoming mighty meteor of Phazon – the mysterious substance that had corrupted the worlds featured in Metroid Prime and Echoes – that was heading towards the planet. In the process, though, she is heavily wounded by Dark Samus, who tried to stop the hunters from succeeding in their task.

One month later, Samus wakes up from her coma. She discovers that her body and those of her fellow hunters had been infected by Phazon on the attack. The federation scientists, therefore, upgraded their armors with a Phazon-enhanced powerful beam called Hypermode, which is a pleasant addition given the combat-heavy ways of the game and a story-related asset, as using it for a long period of time causes Phazon to take over Samus’ body and kill her. Moreover, she learns that the federation had sent the other three hunters to three distant planets where Phazon corruption had been detected. Having mysteriously lost contact with every single one of them, the federation asks Samus to clear the looming threat.

corruption3The grand contours of the storyline, told through a surprising amount of cutscenes with dialog and the traditional logs acquired from Space Pirate computers, materialize into a plot that is quite impressive. Besides managing to involve Space Pirates, the federation, Samus, the other three hunters, Dark Samus, and Phazon into one overarching story, it succeeds in tying the entire trilogy together and leading it to an extremely satisfying and epic conclusion.

Perhaps as an answer to the mixed opinions caused by the complexity of Echoes, Corruption plays a whole lot like an optimized and streamlined take on the original Metroid Prime. Given the threat is spread across the galaxy, Samus must hop into her ship and travel between four distinct planets (the major Galactic Federation outpost in Norion, the flooring organic variety of Bryyo, the ruins of an advanced civilization in the Skytown of Elysia, and the toxic environment of the Pirate Homeworld) and a few other minor places – including the abandoned and destroyed G.F.S. Valhalla, certainly the scariest and darkest location to ever appear in a Nintendo game.

Although the sum of all those maps amounts to a world whose size is similar to that of the environments of Metroid Prime and Echoes, the fact they are disjoint – working as individual units instead of fully connected settings – greatly decreases the intricacy of the level design and the need for backtracking. Samus’ ship – which plays a larger role in the game than ever before in the history of the saga, as additionally to serving as transportation it can be summoned to lift major obstacles from the terrain – has plenty of available landing spots on the main planets. Thus, walking from the furthermost extremity of one region to the most distant point of another one, whether as part of the main quest or in a search for extra energy tanks, missiles, or power bombs – can be done much more easily and smoothly.

corruption2Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, then, is easily the most friendly and accessible game of the entire trilogy. Its general simplicity, though, which can be felt even though it does offer a great share of the traditional Metroid puzzle solving and geographic riddles, may bother longtime players who expect the series to yield backtracking-heavy affairs. As a way to try to cater to those, however, Retro Studios packed the game with three difficulty modes – Normal, Veteran, and Hypermode, which is only unlocked after beating the game once – that offer an extra level of challenge by making the frequent enemies stronger and the mighty and creative boss battles, which are certainly easier than those of the original and Echoes, more difficult.

The final distinction Corruption has in relation to its peers, and another shift that might bother some purists, is how – this time around – her collaboration with third parties, namely the Galactic Federation and the hunters, is intense for Metroid standards. The feeling of isolation and immersion that is so important to the franchise is still standing strong, after all Samus is the only one that is truly capable of figuring out the problem and dealing with it accordingly, but that vibe is certainly somewhat diluted by the punctual communication and interaction with people who are fighting on the same side that she is.

corruption4The split and more digestible overworld, the fact that Samus has got some close company to deal with the current galactic menace, and the more frequent shooting segments will undoubtedly bother some fans. In the end, though, Metroid Prime 3: Corruption is excellent; a fitting closing chapter to one of gaming’s finest trilogies and a title that is able to give closure to the themes and stories approached in the three installments that make up the Metroid Prime saga. A technically perfect game with an extremely smooth and intuitive control scheme that takes full advantage of what the Wii offers, it streamlines the traditional Metroid gameplay to embrace a new audience while doing a great job at preserving the franchise’s key characteristics: its overwhelming power of immersion, its ominous loneliness, and the engaging process of figuring out its maze-like maps.

Metroid Prime 3

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