Okami Review

Despite Okami’s undeniable visual qualities and artistic achievements, the game is able to build a journey so well-constructed and masterfully written that its greatest beauty is not of the superficial kind, but exists in a level that is emotional and borderline spiritual

okami2Being in the right place at the right time can go a very long way towards making a product successful. After all, history has shown us, time and time again, that quality itself is not the only element involved in the foggy, and certainly complex, equation that defines whether an item will fail terribly, do modestly well, be beloved by the general public, or transcend commercial boundaries to the point it will alter the very own world in which it exists. Case in point, Okami – originally released for the Playstation 2 and created by the talented hands of Clover Studio, a Capcom subsidiary – is widely considered to be one of the best action-adventure games of all time; however, despite the accolades and praise it garnered right upon its release, it was mostly ignored by gamers themselves, as it failed to be the commercial hit its quality indicated it deserved to be.

Two reasons can be singled out when it comes to figuring out the source of such an unfortunate happening. Firstly, Okami was in the right place at the wrong time: the Playstation 2 was one of the most commercially successful systems in history; yet, Okami arrived as the Playstation 3 loomed large on the horizon and the eyes of the users of Sony’s machine were set somewhere else. Secondly, Okami was just too bold for its own good: in a system whose best-selling titles either were grounded on realism or sported the names of big franchises, Okami was an artistically adventurous game that, despite coming from a popular producer, was both a new property and a title that embraced specific pieces of Japanese culture to build its universe. Fortunately, Okami was just way too good to fade into obscurity without putting up a fight, and it got, with the arrival of the Nintendo Wii, its second chance to amaze the world.

Okami beings in Kamiki Village. Located in the outskirts of Nippon, the huge continent where the game takes place, it is yearly haunted by Orochi, an eight-headed serpent that lurks in the nearby Moon Cave. Every year, it sends a silver arrow towards the house of one of the village’s maidens, who then needs to be sacrificed to the great beast on an altar in order to stop its darkness from corrupting the village itself and the lands that surround it. However, as the game narrates, 100 years before its events begin, that silver arrow hit the house of a maiden that was deeply loved by the village’s warrior. In order to save his damsel from such a terrible fate, the warrior heads to the cave with a white wolf as his companion. Inside the beast’s lair, they fight an epic battle, fail to completely defeat Orochi, but manage to seal the serpent with a sword.

okami3Although the legend of the warrior and his wolf companion lives on and is told over and over again in Kamiki Village, the place’s current defender – a brave yet completely clueless warrior named Susano – does not believe in it. To prove his point, he breaks the supposed seal, and – to his horror – releases Orochi from his century-long prison. As life is drained from the nature of Nippon and corruption makes its way into the lives of its numerous villagers, Sakuya – the sprite responsible for guarding Kamiki Village – summons Amaterasu – the sun goddess, who appears in Nippon as a white wolf – to cleanse demoniac forces from the land.

Like all excellent games, Okami’s greatness does not lie in a sole factor, but in a combination of qualities that propels it sky-high. However, if one was to pick the main elements that make it stand out when compared to other games of the kind, those would undoubtedly be its art style and its courageous dive into the depths of Japanese folklore. To make matters even more impressive, these two components walk hand-in-hand, creating an incredible level of synergy. And that is because while Okami’s graphics look like Japanese watercolor and wood carving art that have suddenly come to life and started moving, a great portion of its important characters – not to mention the design of its demons – are rooted in Japanese culture. Little to nothing about the game exists without a purpose, inspiration, or origin; and that makes Okami not only one of the most beautiful games ever made, but also perhaps the deepest effort of the gaming industry when it comes to studying a culture and representing it.

More importantly, Okami’s unbelievably charming set of characters is not wasted, for each one of them is used as significant players in a storyline that keeps on giving. As it turns out, Kamiki Village and its surroundings are not the only places of Nippon that are going through troubles because of the sudden presence of demons. Consequently, as Amaterasu travels through this breathtakingly gorgeous and carefully constructed world, she will come across various engaging subplots, of natures that range from dark and sinister to light and fun, that are somehow connected to an overarching tale that is only revealed far into the game. The writing is by all means spectacular, turning the game into more than a journey to discover new gorgeous places or unearth fantastic gameplay scenarios, but a quest in which remarkable stories, situations, and characters emerge from every corner.

okami6For all the seriousness of the cultural weight that Okami carries, and for all the unquestionably ominous moments it holds, the game is able to be surprisingly hilarious and somewhat self-aware. Much of that value stems from Issun, a bug-sized wandering artist that serves as Amaterasu’s traveling companion. Initially, and openly, he stands by her side for purely selfish reasons; and, like all major characters in the game, his arch of growth is both surprising and compelling. However, his most relevant feature is undoubtedly his role as Amaterasu’s proxy to the outside world, given she obviously cannot communicate. Issun is easily one of gaming’s most remarkable sidekicks, and he achieves that position through a great deal of sarcasm, which often flies over the head of gods, demons, and humans alike; a heavy doses of teenage hormones, which cause him to frequently comment on the most voluptuous parts of the bodies of female characters; a shortage of patience; and a funny mixture of overconfidence and self-deprecation.

In terms of gameplay, Okami is definitely not as original as it is in the visual and thematic departments; nevertheless, it remains relatively refreshing. Its one inspiration is quite clear: The Legend of Zelda. In other words, it alternates the exploration of pieces of the overworld – which includes interacting with characters and solving the problems they present – and the eventual trip into a dungeon of sorts, an enclosed space that features a bunch of enemies and a good amount of puzzle solving. However, differently from what happens in a regular The Legend of Zelda game, Okami leans more heavily towards the exploration vein than to the dungeons themselves, which are lighter than those of Nintendo’s flagship franchise. The mazes are, nonetheless, pretty great; in spite of their more straightforward ways.

The game’s originality is achieved by adding new components to that standard structure. First of all, and in a more low-key way, there is the element of restoration. The undeniable beauty of Okami’s world is tarnished by corruption, both big – in the form of large areas covered in sheer darkness – and small, such as in the hundreds of cursed cherry trees that are spread through Nippon. And there is an overwhelming wave of joy in watching one’s work materialize as nature comes back to occupy a space that had once been its own, be it through the defeat of a mean boss or through the return of mesmerizing pink leaves to trees that were once dead.

okami4Gamers, therefore, play an active role in making a title that is already quite gorgeous even more beautiful, and Clover Studio is able to unlock a nearly therapeutic effect via that activity. The reward goes beyond self-realization, though, as restoring the land, like completing the game’s various sidequests or feeding famished animals, will earn Amaterasu Praise, which can be exchanged for the improvement of her statuses.

More significantly, though, Okami shines because of the Celestial Brush: Amaterasu’s most powerful weapon. With it, players can freeze the action, turn the current scene into a black-and-white canvas, and draw on it by moving the Wiimote around like a huge brush. Each symbol that is drawn (there are thirteen available once Amaterasu is done learning them all) will have a different effect. A straight line, for instance, will act like a sword and cut objects; while two parallel lines will slow down time for a few seconds. The Celestial Brush will also give Amaterasu the power to manipulate electricity, wind, water, fire, and do much more. Needless to say, each of those moves – like the equipment that is gathered in a Zelda game – is used in the building of clever puzzles and gameplay scenarios.

Additionally, the Celestial Brush will also be quite useful in the game’s numerous battles. While in most adventure titles players will find enemies wandering around freely, Okami takes a different approach and makes them appear out in the open as giant cursed scrolls. If Amaterasu touches them, she will be transported to a circle of fire in which she will engage a series of demons by using her weapon of choice as well as the Celestial Brush itself, which will consume ink containers that slowly fill back up as time passes.

okami5Even though battles can be, mostly, easily avoided, they present three core problems. First of all, they do not give players any significant reward, only money. Although cash is indeed important, after all that is how Amaterasu can buy more weapons and secondary items, it is not quite as relevant as the increasing of her energy bar and ink compartments – which are both achieved via sidequests. In addition, using the Celestial Brush in battles reveals that its commands, sometimes, are not recognized properly, which may lead players to miss the opportunity to land considerable blows on foes, a problem that can be quite annoying in the game’s magnificent boss encounters. Finally, even if Amaterasu does have an impressive array of skills at her disposal during combats and despite the fact enemies are cleverly designed for the most part, combats against regular demons are sometimes too long, degenerating into mindless hack-and-slash affairs once players run out of patience to deal with foes.

Despite the occasional problems players may have when using the Celestial Brush via the Wiimote, it is hard – not to say impossible – not to walk away from Okami with the feeling that it is one beautiful game. Its beauty, though, is not of the superficial kind. Surely, there is a great deal of eye-candy and artistic glory to be found in its thirty-hour journey, and it is hard to avoid walking towards a beach or to a peak just to spin the camera around and bask under the magnificence of its watercolor spell. However, Okami’s real beauty is found in a level that is emotional – borderline spiritual. It is in the growth of its characters, the message of its script, and the soul that was poured into every single one of its tightly designed corners. To boot, it fills up that loveliness with a gameplay that drinks from the very best sources and that adds a special thematically cohesive flavor of its own to the recipe.


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Zack & Wiki: Quest For Barbaros’ Treasure Review

A creative adventure that transcends the boundaries of four popular genres to bring their elements together into one continuously flooring puzzle-solving spectacle

zack_wiki2The entire concept of genres revolves around the idea of tidily organizing the overwhelmingly big quantity of games that have been released into clearly defined categories, as if the gaming universe were a messy library in desperate need of order. Such a division does come in handy when gamers need to figure out whether or not they will enjoy a new title, or when one needs to define their taste in a few concise words. Still, both their existence and power of description are brought under an inquisitive light whenever games that refuse to perfectly fit within their domains, like broken jigsaw pieces, surface. Zack & Wiki: Quest for Barbaros’ Treasure, one of the Nintendo Wii’s first and most original third-party efforts, is definitely one of those products: a game that does not belong to any genre in particular because it borrows elements from a handful of them to create something entirely original.

Zack & Wiki could be qualified as a point-and-click adventure in the vein of numerous LucasArts classics such as Full Throttle and Grim Fandango. After all, our two heroes – Zack, the pirate; and Wiki, his pet monkey – move around the world that surrounds them as players point the Wiimote towards the screen and click on the location they must go to. However, its plot, which sees Zack join a gang of corsairs in order to fulfill his life’s dream of finding the treasure of the most legendary pirate who has ever lived, is neither the title’s guiding thread nor has enough meat for the game to comfortably share a spot with storytelling masterpieces that play like interactive books.

One could also easily call it a puzzle game, given the activity gamers will be engaged in during the title’s twenty hours will invariably be puzzle solving. Yet, Zack & Wiki decorates its riddles with so many extra ornaments, such as a storyline and scenarios whose constructions sometimes resemble those found in Zelda dungeons (albeit in much smaller scales), that it seems unfair to limit the perception outsiders have of Capcom’s quirky epic to the straightforward presentation most titles of the kind have, such as Dr. Mario and World of Goo.

zack_wiki4As a final attempt, a very dedicated – and somewhat stubborn – archivist might attempt to label it simply as an adventure game, which would make a great deal of sense, because Zack and Wiki spend a whole lot of time exploring 3-D scenarios in search for items that will either fill up the lowest deck of their ship with sweet riches or help them get to the end of the levels. Sadly, the label would quickly go through a weird process of self-combustion, as Zack & Wiki’s neat division into thematic worlds, which are in turn broken into individual levels that are sometimes joined by plot developments, is much closer to what players would find in a traditional platformer than to what is contained in games that are, undeniably, a part of the adventure genre, like The Legend of Zelda.

Quest for Barbaros’ Treasure is, then, clearly, hard to qualify. All of its more than twenty stages, though, are joined, in different degrees, by overarching themes. There are drops of action here and there, as enemies, which sometimes need to be avoided at all costs and sometimes need to be defeated, are present throughout the game. There is a great level of exploration, as examining the characters’ surroundings and becoming aware of all resources that are available in the stage are absolutely necessary in order to reach the golden chests that serve as the game’s ultimate goal. And, most importantly, there is an incessant requirement for reasoning – both inside and outside the box – as Zack & Wiki is nothing but the solving of an immense chain of puzzles that will lead the characters from their starting point as rookie pirates to the position of holders of the world’s most incredible treasure.

It is a long path, but Zack & Wiki masterfully guides players through it. Although the game takes an approach that is delightfully hands-off, invariably dropping the characters into levels without any sort of explanation and leaving it up to them to figure out what needs to be done to get to the golden treasure chest, it teaches via a level of difficulty that increases smoothly. The game lays down its basic features via brief tutorials, and then proceeds to abandon gamers to their brains and luck.

zack_wiki6Zack & Wiki’s brand of puzzle-solving involves scanning the environment; interacting with switches, levers, and other objects that are available; and figuring out how they must be employed to clear the road ahead. There are two great twists, though. Firstly, Wiki becomes a bell with transforming powers whenever the Wiimote is shaken, meaning that enemies and other creatures can become usable objects in a flash: bats, for example, turn into umbrellas; whereas snakes become grippers that let Zack obtain items that are initially out of reach. Secondly, when those objects are employed in any situation, players must replicate – with the Wiimote – the movement of their use, as if they were holding the objects themselves. At one point in the game, for instance, Zack will face off against deadly pirates from a rival gang by using a sword, and gamers will have to defend and attack by performing accurate motions.

Accounting for the fact some objects can be used in more than one way, the game presents a whopping total of 80 possible movements. Although it is undeniable motion controls have considerably evolved since Zack & Wiki’s release, the implementation of the actions players need to perform still holds up quite well for the most part, as they are relatively simple. Most importantly, though, they are enjoyable and provide a nice little layer of interaction between gamers and the world they are invested in; those who are averse to motion controls, however, will definitely feel those actions could have been done in a different way. The only problem related to the controls stems from how sometimes Zack will refuse to move to the location players have pointed to; yet, not only is such an issue rare, it is solved with good old-fashioned insistence.

The game’s greatest highlight is how it uses those building blocks in astonishingly creative ways. It all starts pretty simple: in the very first level, for example, one needs to figure out how to get to a treasure chest that lies on the other side of a chasm with a raging river at its bottom; a problem that is solved by cutting down a tree to make a neat bridge. However, before players notice, they will be trying to make an ancient gadget that functions like a Rube Goldberg machine work towards clearing the path ahead instead of murdering the titular characters; manufacturing ice keys in the correct shape; concocting potions via visual cues left around by a clumsy scientist; finding a way to sneak past a very violent tribe that stands between the pirates and their treasure; getting rid of a famished fish; figuring out the secret of a haunted art gallery; fighting mighty bosses via sheer puzzle-solving; and more.

zack_wiki3Zack & Wiki’s string of surprises is as long as the chain of puzzles it presents, meaning that with every level, and with every riddle that composes them, the game never ceases to amaze. They are, at least, as inventive as those found inside the very best Zelda dungeons, and the game does it by tackling environments that are as small as a room and as big as a fortress, and every scope that lies in between those poles. There are so many intricacies to them that even the smallest levels can sometimes take more than thirty minutes to be fully figured out; and one of the final levels, in particular, is so huge and complex it certainly demands more than a couple of hours of players’ attention.

Due to that, Zack & Wiki is a far harder game than its appearance lets on. Such difficulty is compounded by how, in stages where it is possible to actually die, the heroes may meet their demise with one tiny mistake, which makes them restart the level from the beginning, therefore opening the door to a good deal of dull backtracking. However, a couple of items are helpful in those regards: Oracle Dolls, which will reveal a hint with details of what needs to be done next; and Platinum Tickets, which work as continues that let players restart from where they stopped in case of an unfortunate death. Yet, given those items are expensive, and thereby not available in abundance, the former – positively – somewhat decreases the game’s difficulty but does not make it overly easy; and the latter – negatively – fails to completely do away with the backtracking problem.

Given Zack & Wiki is basically made up of lots of puzzles, and puzzle games tend not to have such a big replay value because once the solutions to the riddles are discovered the element of surprise goes away, subsequent playthroughs lean towards the uninteresting. Aware of that, Zack & Wiki tries to address these problems, and succeeds to a certain degree. First of all, when completing each stage gamers are given a score based on what they did and how quickly they figured out how to use a certain item, so the chance to improve one’s score towards perfection will be an allure to completists. Additionally, there some stages that can be completed in two or more ways, so figuring out all of the possible paths can lure dedicated players into coming back for more.

zack_wiki5Zack & Wiki’s gorgeous cell-shaded art style; its soundtrack, which conjures feelings of adventure and exploration; and its beautiful graphics, which sadly lead to some frame-rate drops in stages that feature too many foes or a big boss; may indicate it is yet another one of those games that tries to appeal to children based on looks and feel alone. However, these assets hide one brutal and creative adventure that transcends the boundaries of four popular genres to bring their elements together into one continuously flooring puzzle-solving spectacle. It is so utterly unique it calls for the creation of a genre in which it can exist by itself; it is so surprising it will leave the cleverest solutions to its greatest puzzles forever imprinted in the minds of those who go through it; and it is so unfairly overlooked it should be ranked way up high in any list of the best titles most gamers have never played.

Zack and Wiki

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Little King’s Story Review

Being king is certainly no easy task, but Little King’s Story makes it a whole lot of fun

little_kings_story7Ever since the dawn of the Nintendo 64 era, one stigma has been following Nintendo incessantly: the one that claims the company has a hard time garnering third-party support. Like most absolute truths, though, such a statement only holds if its intricacies are not analyzed very carefully. While lack of third-party games did indeed plague, to a large degree, both the Nintendo 64 and the Nintendo Wii U; saying the same about the Gamecube and the Wii is unfair. These two systems were able to build a respectable collection of non-Nintendo software, albeit in completely different ways: the former did it by receiving games that also starred in other platforms, whereas the latter achieved that same goal with quirky little exclusives.

From a creative standpoint, the Wii’s method of constructing a third-party library was far more interesting; after all, the side-dishes to Nintendo’s own juggernauts took advantage of the system’s numerous idiosyncrasies, hence being able to be high water marks of innovative gameplay design. However, the fact most of those exclusive gems had neither Nintendo’s bright seal nor the big name of a popular franchise attached to them meant they were quickly – and often unfairly – shunned towards a pit of obscurity. Out of all those titles, Little King’s Story may be the brightest one.

The comparisons to Pikmin are, naturally, immediate. After all, Little King’s Story is the tale of a boy (named Corobo) who, upon finding himself in some dark forest, discovers a crown that suddenly makes him the king of Alpoko Kingdom, thereby gaining the power to command an army of citizens to do as he sees fit. However, the real-time strategy elements are not the title’s main meat – as they are in Pikmin – but the starting point for the putting together of an adventure that borrows elements from Harvest Moon, Animal Crossing, and a whole bunch of RPGs and wraps them in a watercolor art style that is utterly perfect for the fantasy setting the game aims to bring to life, and a brand of humor that takes some rather unexpected and dark turns.

little_kings_story2Although Little King’s Story setup resembles something that jumped out of the pages of a sugar-coated fairytale, being the king of Alpoko Kingdom is not a dream come true, but a burden that incurs more work, deadly battles, daunting journeys, and political decisions than a child should come into contact with. At first, players’ humble realm is so tiny and poor the royal residence resembles a small shoe box and only a couple of possibly starving and certainly clueless citizens are awaiting their liege’s commands. The journey towards prosperity starts by giving them something productive to do.

By wandering through the kingdom, gamers can press B to recruit citizens. Initially, all of them are carefree adults that do not do anything throughout the day and can be found sleeping on the sidewalks or benches; that is, if the kingdom has any of those lying around, otherwise they will probably happily settle for the grass. So in comes the king to throw them inside training facilities, which need to be built, that will give them a purpose in life: a job.

The game offers a huge variety of 20 jobs, each one with unique abilities and weaknesses that need to be used wisely if one plans to succeed inside the brutal world of Little King’s Story. These jobs include three different kinds of soldiers, for battling enemies that lurk outside the kingdom’s borders; farmers, who dig for loot much faster than other units and can open cracks in the ground; hunters, who shoot arrows at ground foes or flying objects; miners, who break large boulders; lumberjacks, who bring down tree trunks; carpenters, who build structures at impressive speeds; doctors, who stun enemies with anesthetics; and more, including some that have humorously specific purposes, such as cooks and their ability to immediately kill chicken enemies.

little_kings_story5Citizens are not there for the sole purpose of doing as the king sees fit: they have lives of their own when they are not on duty. Some of them like to walk around in the late hours of the night while some go to bed early; others fall in love and can eventually get married, giving the kingdom another new baby citizen in the process. Moreover, in a bizarre – yet realistic – twist, losing a life on the battlefield affects the kingdom itself, as not only will the state have to pay a certain value due to that fatality, but a funeral will also be held at the cemetery in order to honor the deceased member of the community.

After building a nice and varied army, it is time to explore the vast and varied world of Little King’s Story. Shortly after becoming the leader of Alpoko Kingdom, Corobo receives a challenge from a nearby king, upon which he discovers Alpoko is one of eight existing kingdoms. From that point onwards, the ultimate goal of Little King’s Story reveals itself: sheer and absolute world domination. Corobo must, therefore, make his way towards the residence of each of his seven rivals; beat them in fierce and creative battles; and collect riches, land, respect, and also a cute personable princess he takes as his wife. In other words, the adorable coat of paint of Little King’s Story hides undertones of polygamy, and more.

Going straight for the jaws of the other kings, though, is not the only option the game gives players. Featuring a huge world, it manages to be refreshingly open-ended for a title of its genre. Gamers can choose to expand their kingdom by defeating nearby bosses, which are unanimously creative in their design; explore the land looking for treasure that will support the construction of new structures and full-fledged areas within the ever-growing borders of the territory; take on quests that are frequently sent to Coboro by mail; or focus on defeating the other Kings that dare to stand on players’ personal path to world domination.

little_kings_story6In order to do so, gamers will guide their army through the land in pretty much the same way it is done in Pikmin: that is, they will follow their leader around waiting to be thrown at an object or enemy they can interact with, and will quickly retreat when such command is given. Initially, it is only possible to take five citizens with King Coboro, but as the game goes on that number will be expanded to up to thirty. Sadly, Coboro’s minions’ path-finding abilities are slightly lacking, which means that occasionally they are going to get stuck on walls as players climb ramps or other structures of the sort. It is an annoying issue, but if Coboro keeps following his path those stuck soldiers will magically rejoin the other forces, which slightly reduces the occasional frustration of having a bunch of important units stuck on the lower level of a hill.

In terms of controls, what really hurts the game is the unexplainable lack of an IR interface: in other words, the pointer of the Wii’s controller – perhaps its most solid feature, and one that would have greatly benefited Little King’s Story – is completely ignored. When facing foes, players will have to turn the king in their direction so they can aim properly and throw soldiers into battle; given aiming in such a way can be a little tricky, it is common to miss. The use of a pointer would have made such a process much more comfortable and accurate. After reaching enemies, soldiers will proceed to attack them; if players notice the adversary is about to land a blow on nearby soldiers, a press of the B-button is enough to make Coboro’s forces quickly retreat.

Controlling which unit will be sent into battle is quite simple as a click on the D-pad will reorganize the army, and tiny icons on the lower-left corner of the screen will show the units that are up next. Unfortunately, on very rare occasions, during the most intense battles, players will certainly run into a few camera angle problems, as the camera will fail to automatically rotate into a better position or get stuck on a not-so-comfortable view.

little_kings_story4Despite of its obvious issues, Little King’s Story still comes off as a major victory thanks to its nearly uncountable qualities. Firstly, it is complete paradise to those who love great boss battles, as it features more than twenty of them. Guardians, which when defeated allow the expansion of the kingdom and the building of new structures, offer simple – yet engaging and creative – combats that are satisfying not only as prizes for a well-done exploration but also for the rewards they yield. Meanwhile, Coboro’s seven rival kings are full of personality: for example, one is a drunk man leading a kingdom focused on partying; another one watches TV from an underground base; and there is also a chubby leader who likes to spend his days eating his sweet kingdom up.

Facing the seven kings is one of the game’s biggest joys. The battles are very unique in setting and mechanics alike: one happens on a pinball table; another takes place over a vast world map where the player needs to find the country where the king is located based on a short description; and another plays more like a quiz show than an epic struggle between two kings. As a nice twist, developers also made the very wise choice of allowing players to restart battles right away if they lose instead of having to walk back into the battlefield and watch an introductory cutscene one more time; a move that obviously does away with any unnecessary and frustrating backtracking.

In technical terms, the game is also excellent. Its graphics may not be among the Wii’s very best; for instance, the animation of the units that follow the king is particularly lackluster, yet understandable given how many citizens are on-screen simultaneously. However, the visuals certainly do their job, especially because of the wonderful artwork the game has, which permeates everything from cutscenes that look like moving oil paintings to the colorful and charming visuals that mask some very dark subjects the game touches upon, such as the battle of Religion against Science, and death. Additionally, the soundtrack, which consists of public-domain reorchestrated tracks, is both lovely and thematically fitting.

little_kings_story3Finally, Little King’s Story is astonishingly successful in both its writing and content. The former is highlighted by sarcastic and witty humor that tries to sneak dark and adult themes past players, causing delight and laughter on those who catch them. The latter is not only thick, but also incredibly well-designed. Little King’s Story is a game that features between 30 and 50 hours of entertaining and highly addictive gameplay with a very nice level of difficulty, and its lengthy main quest is adorned by excellent sidequests that find their most irresistible instances in the quests that are given to King Corobo by the seven princesses, who will send him around the world looking for items they appreciate.

Little King’s Story is, then, a prime example of the Wii’s hidden treasure trove of third-party software. It may not have a big recognizable name, but it charmingly achieves a level of greatness that popular franchises sometimes fail to reach. It is an original take on the real-time strategy formula that mixes it up with world-building elements and the exploration found in the best adventure games. Being king is certainly not an easy task, especially when such a job comes with battles for world domination in its horizon; however, Little King’s Story makes it a whole lot of fun, and, if players are able to look past its punctual control issues, they will find a title that is great in size, heart, soul, and quality.

Little Kings Story

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The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild Review

In taking two gameplay styles – open-world and Zelda – to their very apex by joining them, it earns the right to be called a classic

botw1Nobody, even the most creative artists, lives inside a perfectly sealed bubble. Writers, oftentimes unconsciously, pick up cues and stylistic choices from the texts they read; filmmakers drink from numerous sources and sew them together to form their own unique movies; musicians learn chord changes from songs that have already been put onto records; and the same magical process of creation applies to painters, sculptors, architects, dancers, and performers that pour out their souls into their labor to transform the raw assets that nature has given us into the art that captures the heart of many.

Game designers, for that matter, are not different; after all, the gaming industry has moved forward and built its library of classics through a collaborative effort that has involved the plentiful borrowing of new successful gameplay mechanics and an equally large amount of blatant inspiration. For some time there, though, it seemed Nintendo was partially alien to that trading of ideas and concepts: while their titles were influential to many, the valuable pieces of the major works of those that did not reside within the company’s Kyoto headquarters were never utilized in any significant way to boost Nintendo’s own franchises.

On one hand, such a closed environment lent great idiosyncrasy to their franchises; when Mario, Zelda, Metroid, and numerous other properties were stellar, they existed and operated on a level of their own, standing far above and away from anything else that had ever been made. On the other hand, when those series reached their dullest and least inspired moments, they felt almost antiquate; as if they were the output of a stubborn artist that refuses to look outside their own mind for inspiration due to the false belief that their prowess is self-sufficient.

botw4First and foremost, then, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild – which works both as the swam song of the Wii U and as the fanfare that announces the arrival of the Nintendo Switch – is remarkable because it shows Nintendo stretching their necks above the walls surrounding their studio to see what is happening outside. More importantly, it captures the company jumping straight into the biggest fad of contemporary gaming – open-world gameplay – and using it to revitalize one of their greatest assets. However, even if it is following a trend instead of creating one, which is the opposite of what has been common throughout its history, Nintendo is able to turn their very first foray into the extensively explored landscape of open-world gaming into a glorious point of reference, not allowing it to become just another dot on an already overcrowded map.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild begins with a confused Link waking up from a lengthy slumber to the sound of a female voice urging him to move out of the dark chamber in which he finds himself. It takes approximately five minutes for players to free themselves from the shackles of that introductory portion and face the magnificence of Hyrule from the top of a hill. Aware that the greatest quality of this new adventure lies in the awe-inspiring world they have created, developers are quick to give players the freedom that is necessary for them to fully enjoy it. Therefore, Link is set loose into the wilderness of this kingdom armed with the branch of a tree, and with the knowledge that there is something terribly wrong and – for some reason – he is the one that needs to act upon it.

For a game whose stage calls for the use of all synonyms of the word “big” to try to do it justice, and for an overworld that is packed with so much detail it is fair to wonder how big of an army of developers Nintendo had to assemble in order to build it, Breath of the Wild is surprisingly minimalistic. In fact, minimalism might as well be its central theme. In storytelling, that means cutscenes, which include solid voice acting, are kept to brief durations and rare appearances. In the game’s opening hours, as players are trying to reach the four points on the map that mark the location of the challenges Link needs to clear to gain the abilities that will help him in his quest, Breath of the Wild reveals the bare minimum necessary to lure gamers into its world, and does a great job at that.

botw8Through the remainder of the adventure, it is purely up to the player (as it is the case with pretty much everything about Breath of the Wild) to decide if they want to pursue the extra tidbits of information – in the form of lost memories of a distant past – that add a great deal of emotional value to that initial setup or not. Thanks to that proactive approach to storytelling and to a script that decorates, with some pretty intriguing details, the traditional battle against an enormous evil that had once been sealed, Breath of the Wild is powered by a simple yet highly engaging plot.

Minimalism is also vividly present in the game’s music. Embracing wilderness as its main building block, Breath of the Wild leans on the sounds of nature to form its soundtrack. It is a choice that is quite effective in terms of immersion, as Hyrule comes alive and invades players’ living rooms. However, it turns the high-quality compositions that have always accompanied the series into supporting actors; they do exist, and when they do show up results are invariably remarkable. Yet, their presence is secondary, and they are often composed to complement the sound effects that surround Link rather than to call attention upon themselves; a style that is quite new to the franchise and that might leave some fans underwhelmed.

Where minimalism really comes into play, though, is in Link’s quest itself. After the hero is done with his four initial challenges and has recovered his lost abilities, Breath of the Wild sends players out of the starting plateau – which is quite big on its own – and considerably opens up. From that point onwards, Nintendo – like a joyous kid with a brand new toy – has a blast merging the unmovable staples of the Zelda franchise, such as dungeons, with the thrilling freedom of open-world gameplay, which – in its state here – is brilliantly dressed up with survival elements that make the exploration of Hyrule a constant search for the vital assets that allow a hero, who was originally almost naked and totally inept, to become a real threat to an unspeakable evil.

botw3Breath of the Wild does not hand anything to players for free. Rupees and health-recovering hearts, for example, are no longer dropped by defeated enemies. Likewise, there are no stores in the astounding expanse of Hyrule that sell shields, bows, and swords. Consequently, it is up to Link himself to track down these goods, which – in a world that is packed to the brim with all sorts of enemy camps, powerful mini-bosses, and foes that can kill an unprepared hero with one hit – are absolutely necessary for his survival. Thankfully, though, the wilderness of Hyrule is relatively generous, because it gives – with a certain level of abundance – what it asks for.

Rupees – which are used to purchase arrows, different kinds of armor, and more – are acquired by mining for ore and then selling it at nearby stores or to the dozens of traveling salespeople the game possesses. Shields, bows, and swords are either dropped by downed foes, found lying around their camps, or located inside chests that are simply well-hidden or locked up until all of Ganon’s servants are wiped out from a certain base; and the game forces players to always be on the lookout for arsenal pieces by implementing a weapon-degradation system that is quite aggressive, as all of these items break within a handful of combats. Finally, hearts can be recovered by gathering ingredients found in the wild – such as mushrooms, herbs, fruits, vegetables, and meat from prey that must be hunted – and cooking them by the fire to produce nutritious meals, which may (depending on the components employed in their preparation) even have secondary effects like increased defense, stealth, and others.

The utmost need for those assets and the laborious way with which they are acquired make the open-world component of Breath of the Wild incredibly strong. Link’s ultimate goal of visiting the land’s four races – the Goron, Zora, Gerudo, and Rito – and restoring the ancient artifacts they once used to help the legendary hero fight evil is, thereby, filled up with a world that is not there for the sake of forcing him to walk interminably through a vast emptiness, but for the sake of being thoroughly explored for reasons that are intimately connected with the title’s core gameplay.

botw5Moreover, Link’s own stats need to be developed through exploration. As the game begins, his stamina bar (which is used for running, swimming, and, mainly, for climbing up walls and mountains) is small, severely limiting the places he can reach; the number of hearts he carries is laughable, making him an easy target to even the most insignificant enemies; and the slots for weapons in his inventory can be counted in one hand. Solving those issues, though, is quite simply a pleasure, as it involves going out of the beaten track that leads to the game’s main goals and falling victim to the embrace of the beauty that is Hyrule. Its mountains, rivers, lakes, deserts, glaciers, beaches, forests, canyons, villages and plains are appealing enough to lure players in visual terms alone, but the fact they hold dozens of sidequests with interesting stories and goals (a nice change of pace considering the emptiness of the two most recent 3-D Zelda games) and other uncountable secrets makes them downright irresistible.

Link’s stamina and hearts are increased by clearing shrines, mini-dungeons – which also serve as warping points – that center around puzzle-solving or combat. There are 120 of them in total, and even though Link’s arsenal of skills is shorthanded when compared to those of other Zelda games (he can only use bombs, employ magnetic powers to move metallic objects around, create ice pillars from water, and lock objects in place for a short while before they regain their movement), Nintendo was able to build plenty of clever and entertaining shrines, some of which whose challenge is not in their clearing, but in finding them or making them emerge through the solving of highly engaging environmental puzzles in the overworld itself.

Meanwhile, the slots in Link’s inventory are increased through Korok Seeds. They are awarded to the hero by the little creatures themselves whenever he is able to find their hiding spots, which can be anywhere from rocks lying around in suspicious places and trees that are arranged in odd patterns, to air balloons in the middle of nowhere. Found in the hundreds, the Korok Seeds are the most significant example of the exuberant amount of detail that was poured into Breath of the Wild’s world, from lightning that strikes grass and makes it catch fire to a weather system complex enough to allow players to witness rain falling in the distance, the game is an endless source of surprises, both little and delightful, and huge and overwhelming.

botw7Walking through Hyrule is, invariably, an experience that involves noticing something curious on the horizon – be it a mighty tower that, if climbed, unveils a large portion of the map; or some intriguing ruins – and stopping whatever it is Link is up to in order to discover what is there to be found. Shockingly, there is just so much to do and to unearth that these detours will almost always yield some sort of productive result, even if it is just a picture of a never-seen-before animal or vegetable to be added to the Hyrule Compendium, an encyclopedia of sorts that can be filled up by dedicated players; a mushroom with heat-protection effects that will let the hero walk beside that lava river flowing down Death Mountain without burning; a mysterious salesperson with a weird fetish for monsters; or mythical creatures that add magic and awe to the greatest open-world ever conceived up-to-date.

Within the immensity of that open-world adventure lies a truly excellent The Legend of Zelda quest. In terms of sheer content, it is much closer to Majora’s Mask than it is to Twilight Princess or Ocarina of Time, meaning it contains a mere four dungeons, putting its focus – therefore – on the wonderful extra content. However, what little there is of a Zelda quest, which should last for around twenty hours, is very well-designed. Firstly, walking hand in hand with the game’s overwhelming freedom, Breath of the Wild borrows the original Zelda’s concept of allowing players to tackle the dungeons in whatever order they see fit and transports it to a 3-D environment. In fact, Breath of the Wild is so wide open that it is possible to ignore the dungeons and the races that are related to them altogether, and even leave the Master Sword in its resting place, and run straight into the final boss, even if such a decision will most likely lead to an embarrassing defeat due to a shamefully under-prepared hero.

The four pieces that make up the quest may be unique in how they can be tackled in any order, but their structure itself is pretty traditional: Link must solve a problem that is plaguing the race in question, either by finding important items, saving someone important, or sneaking into hideouts, only to then gain access to the dungeon. The main difference rests in the dungeons themselves, which instead of presenting an assortment of locked rooms that need to be cleared in a specific sequence are actually relatively wide open, as Link needs to figure out a way to get to five spots marked on the dungeons’ maps to activate special switches.

botw6The approach works. Dungeons may be briefer and lighter, but they are challenging enough to cause sighs of amazement whenever their puzzles are solved, and also widely original in their design. In particular, their most impressive quirk is how the mazes are puzzles themselves, as Link must manipulate their structure from within – one dungeon, for example, can be tilted at will – to reveal hidden paths or to simply get a structural helping hand in getting somewhere. The only couple of disappointments regarding this particular aspect of The Legend of Zelda saga, which is greatly revitalized here, are how the bosses are a bit lackluster, given their design is a bit repetitive; and how the dungeons all look pretty much the same, offering neither unique visual cues nor mesmerizing architectural features.

In concept alone, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild does for the franchise what only two other installments (The Legend of Zelda and A Link to the Past) had been able to do: it does not merely advance the saga, it dares to press the reset button on one of gaming’s greatest and most acclaimed properties in order to build it from scratch. In doing so, the game opts to retain many of the series’ vital staples – dungeons, tight controls, puzzles and thrilling combats – while also borrowing the open-world gameplay that has become one of the highlights of contemporary gaming. Not content with merely borrowing, though, Nintendo takes a hard look at the issues and qualities of that gameplay style and opts to get rid of the former by leaning on survival and sprinkling the map with mysteries and rewards, and keeping the latter – and augmenting it – by taking the freedom and the allure found in a well-constructed world to their very extreme.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is, then, not a continuation, but a new and exciting beginning. From this point onwards, it becomes the guiding light that will illuminate the path of not only future Zelda installments but also of any open-world game. Surely, there is room for improvement, as the Zelda aspect of the game could have been a little bit meatier in order to offer a more significant counterbalance to its open-world tendencies, which can take gameplay time up to one hundred hours. However, the existence of such shortcomings does not – in the slightest – mean Breath of the Wild is disappointing; it actually makes anyone who goes through its adventure become thoroughly excited for the road that lies open up ahead. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild may not be a pioneer, for it borrows more than it creates, but in taking two gameplay styles – open-world and Zelda – to their very apex by joining them, it earns the right to be called a classic and to become one of those tall poles that divide history into two parts: what came before it and what will come next.

Breath of the Wild

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Albums of the Month: March 2017

exile_on_main_stAlbum: Exile on Main St.

Artist: The Rolling Stones

Released: May 12th, 1972

Highlights: Rocks Off, Tumbling Dice, Sweet Virginia, Torn and Frayed, All Down the Line

Sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Throughout the history of rock music, such combination has been both the fuel to the creative fire that led bands to greatness and the spark that paved the way to their explosive demise. By 1970, The Rolling Stones were no different: they had been basking under that lifestyle since the early days of their career. And, while running away from the Queen’s taxmen and exiling themselves in a Belle Epoque 16-room mansion in the south of France, they would take that mixture to a new height. Only, instead of imploding because of it like they had almost done in 1967 during the recording of “Their Satanic Majesties Request”, they thrived, writing eighteen incredible tracks, burning them onto a record that is as messy as it is spectacular, and proving that – as time has shown – they might as well be immortal demigods walking among us.

The making of “Exile on Main St.” – which included shipments of drugs big enough for the addicts of a small country, drunk parties, the discovery of Nazi memorabilia in the mansion, and interminable unproductive sessions – is so legendary within the lore of rock that it often precedes people’s listening of the album. However, the record does not come off as smaller than its legend; it absolutely surpasses it. Surely, “Exile on Main St.” is not for everyone: its length and number of tracks may cause some to perceive it as unfocused; moreover, due to a producer that was often hanging out with the junkies that converged towards the mansion, an inexperienced Mick Jagger had to take the reigns of the mixing, causing it to be inconsistent, as the vocals were buried by the guitars and the lyrics became unintelligible.

Ultimately, though, “Exile on Main St.” plays like an interactive songbook that travels through the history of American music, with each page that is turned revealing a group of British lads tackling a genre as clumsily, energetically, and instinctively as possible. There is, obviously, rock and roll in “Rocks Off” and “All Down the Line”; blues in “Shake Your Hips” and “Casino Boogie”; country in “Sweet Virginia” and “Torn and Frayed”; soul in “Let it Loose”; and gospel in the gorgeous “Shine a Light” and in the weird “I Just Want to See His Face”, which sounds like something a hidden recorder would have captured if it were planted in a room where a bizarre, potentially satanic, cult takes place.

That is, however, not the only reason why “Exile on Main St.” is so great. In drinking from the genres and musicians that inspired them and coming up with their own versions of the music they loved so deeply, The Rolling Stones are captured operating at the peak of their powers in terms of songwriting and performance. Running loose and conducted by sheer instinct and talent, Keith Richards and Mick Taylor deliver droves of guitar riffs and licks that land like punches to the heart of anyone who loves rock music; while both Jagger and Richards come up with more than a dozen remarkable melodies and lyrics that permeate, without a tiny bit of exaggeration, every single song. “Exile on Main St.” is a transcendent and unstoppable force of nature; a moment in time in which The Rolling Stones cased something far bigger than themselves and the universe around them while being totally unaware of what they were doing. It is, without a drop of doubt, the greatest rock and roll record of all time, and it is quite suiting it was produced under the circumstances in which it was.

london_callingAlbum: London Calling

Artist: The Clash

Released: December 14th, 1979

Highlights: London Calling, Rudie Can’t Fail, Spanish Bombs, Death or Glory, Train in Vain

It is quite fitting “London Calling” came out when it did: the final days of the 70s. Strummer, Jones, Simonon, and Headon were not clairvoyants; therefore, they could not possibly know rock was reaching the end of its golden days, as during the following decades it would be, commercially and critically, surpassed by other genres. However, something must have certainly told them the tide was changing, for “London Calling” feels a whole lot like rock’s last hurrah. The signs are right there on its cover, whose typography and black-and-white picture are a nod towards Evils Presley’s first record. Yet, while Elvis looked absolutely thrilled and held his guitar up in his debut; Simonon was captured in a moment of sheer anger, swinging down his only functioning bass. The contrast between up and down might have been accidental, but, given what was to come, it seems almost prophetic, as if it were announcing rock’s journey had come to an abrupt and spectacular end as it hit the floor.

If it was indeed written as an end-of-times statement, “London Calling” certainly fits the bill, and not just because its title track is an apocalyptic march in which Strummer sings about zombies, floods, nuclear fallout, and war. “London Calling” seems like a final punctuation mark because it explores the past of rock music by tackling the genres that originated it; talks about its present in the form of a few scattered punk numbers; and, then, when it is time to look towards its future, it merges rock so well and deeply with other unusual genres that it reveals to its listeners that rock’s destiny is not to rule forever, but to be swallowed whole and become a part of something else. In such case, the key to the record’s message lies in “Revolution Rock”, one of its last and most overlooked tracks, in which The Clash seamlessly covers a reggae number while Strummer – like a preacher – enthusiastically declares the coming of a new rhythm.

As a punk band that was not afraid to dabble in a few big political subjects, mostly related to the stance one must take when facing the system, it is not surprising to see The Clash take it upon themselves to personally kill rock; after all, the punk movement itself was a loud rejection of most of what came before it, so it is no wonder that – in “London Calling” – The Clash tries to shape the musical future. On the other hand, it is utterly baffling that a band that belonged to punk – the subgenre with the three chords and a lot of speed – would reveal itself to be so utterly flexible, but that is precisely what The Clash does here, tackling ska (“Rudie Can’t Fail” and “Wrong ‘Em Boyo”), a piano ballad (“The Card Cheat”), rockabilly (“Brand New Cadillac”), an acoustic folk tale (“Jimmy Jazz”), somehow anticipating part of the post-punk sonority (“Lost in the Supermarket”), toying with rap beats (“The Guns of Brixton”), and producing their most fiery and acid punk declaration (“Clampdown”).

Due to its vast experimentation, which is almost entirely successful and invariably played with the utmost level of energy, “London Calling” is a smart kind of implosion. The Clash tears apart the building on which the group had been standing, but – in doing so – they proceed to construct a new platform they could climb onto, and which they would explore to full extent on the triple album “Sandinista!”. Many years after the release of “London Calling”, rock still lives; however, its existence has been filled with ups and downs since 1979. “London Calling”, then, does not stand as a true last statement, but as the final party that was thrown when the genre was at its peak. Still, it might as well have been rock’s last breath, because nothing ever since has come close to surpassing it.

bone_machineAlbum: Bone Machine

Artist: Tom Waits

Released: September 8th, 1992

Highlights: Dirt in the Ground, Who Are You, Black Wings, That Feel

In “Swordfishtrombones”, Tom Waits transitioned from a mysterious young man who sat at the piano of a bar to touch his audience’s hearts with gorgeous lyrics and inspired melodies to a clinically insane bum who built a band with instruments found at the closest junkyard. It was a shift that breathed new life into a career that had grown somewhat stagnant while also paving the way towards some of the weirdest and wildest experimentation in the history of Western music. Coming almost one decade after “Swordfishtrombones”, and with two fantastic and odd albums separating them, “Bone Machine” does not abandon the image associated with its predecessors: it is still, in essence, music that sounds as if it were made by throwing a lot of disjointed pieces together in the midst of a mad stupor. With it, however, Waits moved his act from the filthy junkyard to the gates of hell.

That is to say “Bone Machine” is one dark record. It shuns the humor, carnival spirit, and drunk sadness of the trilogy that preceded it and it chooses to explore, in lyrics and music, subjects that are nothing short of depressive. There is horrifying apocalypse (“Earth Died Screaming”), the meaninglessness of life (“Dirt in the Ground”), resentment towards a lover who takes pleasure in breaking hearts (“Who Are You”), suicide (“The Ocean Doesn’t Want Me”), social degradation into brutality (“In the Colosseum”), the atmosphere surrounding a mysterious assassination (“Murder in the Red Bar”), the devil himself – possibly – expressing a sinister kind of pleasure upon witnessing the destruction of the moral fabric that holds humanity together (“Black Wings”), and the attempt to hide the pain one feels when leaving the sometimes deadly comfort of familiarity (“Whistle Down The Wind”).

The greatness of “Bone Machine”, though, is not just in how Tom Waits approaches these matters with lyrics that are nothing short of spectacular; after all, that is par for the course for an artist as gifted as he is. “Bone Machine” augments its darkness by sounding not like a funeral where everyone weeps for the misery of life, but by coming off as some twisted celebration of death and destruction. Stripped from the complex instrumentation that was born in “Swordfishtrombones”, the songs here sound almost primal: percussion, invariably, serves as the guiding thread that unites them all; and over these wicked drums Waits and his band deliver melodies, piano arrangements, and guitar lines that drink heavily from the saddest blues numbers, as if they were conducting a frantic séance that summoned the spirit of Robert Johnson himself. Like a twisted maniac, Waits is clearly having a blast in dissecting our tortured existence, turning “Bone Machine” into an album that basks under the life-sucking vortex of a gigantic black hole.

Thanks to such consistency in mood and a powerful display of songwriting, “Bone Machine” easily qualifies as Tom Waits’ most solid work. Its ups do not go as high as those of “Rain Dogs”, but it is steadily reaching high marks throughout its running time. Instead of sulking when faced with the horrors of living, Tom Waits opts to stare down whoever is throwing this amount of trash at us, bang on a drum as maniacally as possible, and prove that he is loving the act of swimming through all the sewage. When listening to “Bone Machine”, one cannot help but smile towards old, crazy, and wise Tom, and join him in making some noise inside a basement directly connected to the furnaces of Satan. The alternative, after all, is sinking to the bottom of a garbage-ridden river.

the_wallAlbum: The Wall

Artist: Pink Floyd

Released: November 30th, 1979

Highlights: Mother, Goodbye Blue Sky, Hey You, Comfortably Numb

In July 1977, Roger Waters – Pink Floyd’s bassist and one of the two pieces of the songwriting duo that guided the band through its most successful era – spat on heckler during a concert. Following the show, upon reflecting on the situation with a much calmer mind, Waters landed on the dilemma of how the traumas that happen as a consequence of human interaction lead people to isolate themselves from the world. The embryo for “The Wall”, which has unquestionably grown into the most popular concept album of all time, then, came to existence. Like all records that attempt to merge the storytelling mechanisms of an opera with the formats imposed on popular music, it lives and dies in the balancing of its wish to tell a story with the fact it must ultimately deliver a solid array of tracks. And, like most of them, it mixes moments in which such balance comes apart with occasions when thematic coherence is joined by musical quality to propel a handful of tunes to a very high status.

Thematically, “The Wall” holds together quite well. Pink, the album’s main character, is solidly developed: the titular wall he builds around himself is perfectly explained, as he suffers at school in the hands of tyrannical teachers (“Another Brick in the Wall”), loses his father in the devastation of the Second World War (“Goodbye Blue Sky”), and becomes a helpless human due to an overprotective mother (“Mother”). All these happenings turn him into an adult that is emotionally distant from others (“Nobody Home”), sexually promiscuous (“Young Lust”), unable to nourish a healthy marriage (“Don’t Leave Me Now”), and ultimately hopeless (“Waiting for the Worms”). It all escalates when Pink hallucinates he, now so deeply hurt and isolated, transforms one of his concerts into a Neo-Nazi rally (“In the Flesh”); decides to halt all the madness (“Stop”); and undergoes a psychological self-analysis that leads him to tear down the wall (“The Trial”).

Where “The Wall” ultimately does not succeed is in its songwriting. For a band accustomed to producing records with less than ten tracks, making one with twenty-six numbers is quite a leap, a fact that is aggravated by how David Gilmour is missing in action through most of the album. The result is mixed: the simpler soft-rock approach of “The Wall”, which is very different from the group’s previous experiments in psychedelia but not completely unexpected considering the pop tendencies of “The Dark Side of the Moon” and “Wish You Were Here”, yields great pieces of music. However, they are outnumbered by tunes that do not go anywhere, serving as moments in which the plot is advanced but the role of “The Wall” as a rock album is forgotten, such truth becomes increasingly more evident as the record goes along, reaching a peak in the operatic conclusion of “The Trial”.

With a subject matter that is invariably easy to relate to (after all, feeling like building a wall around ourselves in order to save our souls from future heartbreaks is something all humans have been through), it is not a surprise “The Wall” is so universally beloved, as it shows how deeply inside a dark well of isolation one can go. At the same time, its fame sometimes clouds the lack of solid songs that permeates its running time, which makes it seem a little too overly indulgent for its own good. Still, as far as rock operas go, few have been more successful and critically acclaimed, and certainly none of them have been able to become so culturally relevant.

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Shantae: Half-Genie Hero Review

It shifts its focus away from what made the franchise unique and directs its attention towards action-platforming, stripping a portion of its originality and leaving it adrift among a sea of similar titles

half_genie_hero1Supported by a devoted fanbase that poured their hearts and hard-earned cash into a successful Kickstarter campaign, the Shantae franchise leaps from its handheld origins towards home consoles with its fourth installment: Half-Genie Hero. As a series that, with each passing game, slowly polished the edges of its unique gameplay style, culminating with the spectacular The Pirate’s Curse, one could expect Half-Genie Hero to be a continuation of the process; a game that would lean over the few lessons learned and improvement opportunities found in its prequel and catapult Shantae to a new-found level of greatness. However, even though the game does attempt to stretch its wings further than ever before – perhaps to make it more suitable for the bigger stage upon it now sits – Half-Genie Hero comes off as one step sideways and one step back instead of an evolution.

Through its first three installments, the Shantae games built their legacy upon a clever mixture of action-based platforming, Metroid-inspired backtracking, and a series of dungeons that recalled those of the Zelda series – albeit from a sidescrolling perspective. The hero would traverse lengthy and maze-like stages while beating enemies down, locate roadblocks in the form of characters in need of items or impossible-to-overcome obstacles, go back to find the necessary assets to proceed, and eventually reach smartly designed dungeons. It was a combination that worked not only because it was spectacular, but also due to the fact it lent the saga a great deal of originality, making it a one-of-a-kind platformer.

When Shantae’s uncle builds a machine that is meat to aid his niece in the daunting task she has as a half-genie guardian of protecting Scuttle Town, only to have it stolen by the pirate Risky Boots, Shantae must go out into the world to discover what her rival is up to. What players encounter as the character steps into the many locations of Sequin Land, though, is considerably different from what was brought to the table by the game’s most recent prequel.

half_genie_hero2Under a purely positive light, Half-Genie Hero greatly benefits from its encounter with high-definition platforms. The game abandons the lovely pixelated sprites that had accompanied the franchise since its inception, and replaces them with gorgeous hand-drawn models placed in front of nice and layered tridimensional backgrounds. The game moves with uncanny fluidity, and even though some of its menus and other secondary parts of its visual presentation are a bit dull, the in-game graphics are a top-notch work of art that stands shoulder to shoulder with the best-looking platformers of the past few years, such as Rayman Legends.

Half-Genie Hero will also please both newcomers, and especially longtime fans, by bringing back the character’s signature move: Shantae’s dance transformations, which were absent from The Pirate’s Curse due to story-related reasons and that had been replaced by obtainable pieces of equipment. Aside from jumping, running, and using her long ponytail to whip enemies to a shampooed oblivion, Scuttle Town’s guardian has, at her disposal, a whopping eight transformations, which are acquired as the game progresses.

Shantae can turn into a monkey in order to climb walls; an elephant that lets her smash huge concrete blocks; a crab that can squeeze into tight underwater spaces; a mermaid that swims freely and quickly; a harpy with impressive flying abilities; a spider that latches onto the ceiling; a bat that flies in a straight horizontal line; and a mouse for sneaking into narrow mazes. All of the transformations are as charming and fun as they sound; additionally, as expected with such an impressive array of skills, they allow developers to implement roadblocks and platforming scenarios of varied natures, hence creating an opportunity for the game to explore a wide palette of challenges and sustain fresh gameplay through the entirety of its running time.

half_genie_hero3The thing is, however, that Half-Genie Hero fails to capitalize on that scenario; Shantae’s arsenal leaves the door to a room full of alluring toys wide open, and WayForward mostly ignores it. That happens because, surprisingly, Half-Genie Hero somewhat abandons the Metroid-style exploration while also not implementing a single Zelda-inspired dungeon. The game shifts its focus away from what made the franchise unique and directs its attention towards straightforward action-platforming, which ends stripping a considerable portion of its originality and leaving it adrift among a sea of similar titles.

Besides Scuttle Town – which works as a hub where Shantae can buy items, upgrades, and look for information regarding where to go next – Half-Genie Hero contains six worlds that are actually formed by two or three levels played in succession and that culminate with a boss battle. Players will travel to each of those locations in a predefined order, clear them, and eventually return looking for either mandatory items that are hidden in locations that could not have been reached originally or additional assets such as heart containers, collectibles that are part of sidequests, or keys that unlock the doors of an art gallery.

It is a setup that, in its heart, is not all that different from what the game’s three prequels had offered; however, the delicate, yet critical, difference lies in how the stages are not built like branching Metroid maps anymore, but as linear levels that would have been right at home in any other platformer. Truth be told, Shantae’s move towards an action-platforming ground is successful: the game is fun to play through; the stages are varied (as they include a trip through a mermaid factory, a magic carpet race, a thrilling escape from a giant worm in the ruins of a tower, and much more); and the whole adventure is sprinkled with Shantae’s signature self-aware humor and many of the iconic sidecharacters players have grown to love.

half_genie_hero4Yet, the new format clearly holds the game back. Backtracking through a sequence of action-based levels is not as fun and natural as doing it through a structure that resembles a maze, even considering the fact they are slightly changed after being cleared and how Shantae can quickly wrap between the stages that compose a world. More gravely, though, is the fact such configuration makes the incredible eight transformations borderline insignificant. Instead of being the main stars of the show, their use is merely punctual, because the abundance of action-platforming levels and the absence of dungeons do not create enough opportunities for their use. One can, for instance, clear the game without ever using the spider transformation and its main skill, which is disappointing to say the least.

If it were a game from a brand new franchise Shantae: Half-Genie Hero could be easily called great. It is not overly lengthy, clocking in at about eight hours if players go for full completion, but it has a satisfying duration nevertheless; it is beautiful to look at; it packs a solid soundtrack; and it has charm, humor, and level-design prowess. However, as the fourth installment in a series that has always excelled in the way it borrowed elements from Metroid and Zelda, and stuck them in the shoes of a platformer, it ends up falling short of that status. Newcomers are far more likely to thoroughly enjoy it than longtime fans, for while the former will see it as a truly delightful action-platformer with some notable quirks, the latter are bound to view it as not just a missed opportunity, but a step back, one that apparently fails to materialize half of what made its prequels so beloved in the first place.


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Strength of Strings

kubo2Moviemaking in all its formats and flavors is impressive in itself. However, as magical as it is to lock actors and directors inside a huge studio and have them come out of there with a film roll containing journeys into outer space or voyages into impossible worlds, the field of animation may be even more impressive, for its starting point is a nothingness of white that needs to filled up from ground zero. And, as far as animated features go, none are as mesmerizing as those using the stop-motion technique; after all, it takes unmeasurable heights of patience and dedication to build a world out of clay models and produce a full-length picture by moving them inch by inch and capturing each shift in motion as a photograph before putting it all together.

On the heels of the widely embraced Coraline, ParaNorman, and The Boxtrolls, the minds inside the American studio Laika deservedly became the kings of that production style. Kubo and the Two Strings is the fourth entry in their filmography, and – for all effects and purposes – it might as well be the best of the bunch; an undoubtedly heavy statement considering what came before it.

Kubo is a one-eyed boy who lives with his ill mother inside a cave that lies tucked away from any contact with civilization. He daily visits the local village to tell stories using a magical shamisen that breathes life into sheets of paper, turning them into origami that recreate the tale that is being narrated. Kubo, however, always cuts his stories short, leaving the gasping audience without their coveted ending, as he rushes home to get there before it is dark, as his mother has forbidden him to stay out after the sun sets.

kubo3One day, though, after witnessing a ceremony in which people get in touch with their deceased loved ones by lighting up lanterns, Kubo tries to communicate with his dead father, fails to do so, and ends up staying out after dark. Right as the sun sets, he discovers the reason why his mother was so adamant about him avoiding the nighttime and sees himself forced to go on a journey in which he will discover not only the truth about himself and his missing eye, but also the backstory of his family.

In its heart, Kubo and the Two Strings is a straight-up action-adventure movie. Kubo and his traveling companions must collect the three pieces of a legendary armor that will grant its owner impressive powers. Naturally, such a journey will send the hero through breathtaking scenarios that are adorned with computer-generated backgrounds and effects, and have him in a collision course with ominous dangers that are occasionally so big and complex it is hard to fathom they were actually physically built and animated inside a massive warehouse.

However, there is much more to Kubo and the Two Strings than sword battles, daring escapes from devilish creatures, and the traversing of obstacles that seem impassable; although the movie does do those elements as spectacularly well as it possibly could, delivering it all with an uncannily smooth blend of stop-motion and CGI (employed only punctually) that had never before been attempted by the studio. Kubo and the Two Strings’ main thread is actually its story, for it is what keeps viewers engaged and lends depth to its flashy happenings.

kubo4As Kubo is on the village’s square telling his story, he states “If you must blink, do it now. Pay careful attention to everything you see and hear, no matter how unusual it may seem” and that could apply to the picture as a whole. As Kubo sets out on his quest, he is unaware of the story of his family, as he has only received vague explanations from his ailing mother regarding his dead father, her two sisters, and his grandfather. However, the closer Kubo gets to acquiring the armor, the more he learns about the strings that tie all the pieces together; and the more it is revealed, the darker the movie gets, which is a progression that walks hand in hand with the flick’s increasingly somber visual tone.

If Pixar movies cleverly appeal to both adults and children by presenting levels of strong messages under the visual sugarcoating, Laika – here – does something somewhat similar. The difference is that the line they choose to walk is a far more dangerous one, because not only does Kubo and the Two Strings carries its heaviest themes more blatantly on its sleeve, it also deals with emotionally charged subjects; at times, even feeling like a Studio Ghibli work, one that is an adult movie disguised as a beautiful and appealing animation.

The film’s greatest achievement, though, is how it refuses to play down to its younger audience; as it chooses to take a more elevated ground and carefully guide children through its toughest subjects. And Kubo and the Two Strings gets to the other side of that road successfully, delivering a message of how family bonds – or any links created upon the foundation of pure love – can overcome all and survive the harshest hits; and effectively proving, even if it is through fantasy fiction, that the strength of those strings that unite people have character-building and healing powers.

kubo5Kubo and the Two Strings, therefore, is not just a work of art and love that dares its viewers to wonder how such a magnanimous picture could have been created out of physical character models and hand-built scenarios. It is actually a movie whose lesson is handled so delicately and landed with such positive power that questions regarding its making fall to the wayside when the lights are turned back on. Kubo and the Two Strings goes to emotional depths Laika had barely touched with its previous efforts, and by doing so in such a spectacular way, it takes the studio to a whole new level. We can only lie in wait to see where they will take us next.


Posted in Animation, Miscellaneous | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments