Albums of the Month: May 2017

damage_joyAlbum: Damage and Joy

Artist: The Jesus and Mary Chain

Released: March 24th, 2017

Highlights: All Things Pass, The Two Of Us, Mood Rider, Can’t Stop The Rock

To most bands, two decades is a long period; there are enough days in twenty years for a musician to change his style and way of thinking a half dozen times. That truth, however, does not seem to hold for The Jesus and Mary Chain, as “Damage and Joy” proves. Maybe it is the fact brothers Jim and William spent a good portion of that period away from one another (as the band was inactive between 1999 and 2007), or maybe it is the fact they have always been cold-faced rebels (and true rebels, as it is known, never change their ways); but one thing is for sure, “Damage and Joy” – their first album since 1998 – does not feel like a record made by two guys halfway into their fifties. It comes off, instead, as a continuation of its distant predecessor, “Munki”; it is an album that does not push any envelopes that have never been pushed before, and therein lies the reason it is reasonable to either like it or dismiss it.

It is important to remember that The Jesus and Mary Chain have never been rock and roll chameleons. Their debut, the noisy and violent “Psychocandy”, hit the world hard due to its audacity in the merging of The Velvet Underground’s feedback with The Beach Boys’ melodies. It was a daring move that yielded great results, and the group was so fascinated by it that they went on to produce another five albums with that very same mixture, in which the only variation came in how some of them were noisier while others were poppier. “Damage and Joy”, therefore, roams inside that clearly delimited spectrum, and given the number of stoned ballads it holds, it is fair to say it leans more heavily towards the pop. In fact, it seems to be so enamored with the band’s knack for producing soothing melodies that it is almost too soft for its own good (and soft is not exactly an adjective that one wants to use when referring to the work of a band whose shows produced violent riots in its heydays).

Certainly inspired by “Sometimes Always”, the gem in 1994’s “Stoned & Dethroned” that centered around a duet between Jim and Hope Sandoval, “Damage and Joy” features a whopping five tracks in which vocals are shared with a female singer; a number that speaks volumes in relation to how the band seems to be retreading rather than moving forward. Meanwhile, “Amputation”, the opening track, has the synthetic beats that marked much of “Automatic”; “Black and Blues” seems to look back on the catchiest moments of The Jesus and Mary Chain’s poppiest record, the noise rock masterpiece that is “Darklands”; and “Simian Split”, in which Jim proclaims he was the one who killed Kurt Cobain, recalls the mentions to Jesus Christ and JFK made in 1992’s “Reverence”.

That is how all of “Damage and Joy” is constructed: its bricks are references to the past. They, however, are mostly good, because if there is something these twenty years have not been able to change – besides the group’s approach to songwriting – is William’s ability to produce excellent riffs and Jim’s nose for good melodies. “Damage and Joy” may be hurt by a sound that is too clean (which is a shame given a dash of repugnance has always been key in making the group sound dangerous and subversive rather than plain and accessible); lyrics that are occasionally too dumb for their own good; and by Jim’s forced vocal delivery (as he clearly has to stress his voice to sound like he did in the past), but it is a fun listen. Even if it is a bit too neat for the band’s standards.

humanzAlbum: Humanz

Artist: Gorillaz

Released: April 28th, 2017

Highlights: Saturnz Barz, Andromeda, Busted And Blue, Let Me Out

A party taking place right before the end of the world, in an alternative reality in which Donald Trump had become president. It is the instruction Damon Albarn, the leader of Gorillaz and the singer of Blur, gave to the sixteen collaborators that would give birth to “Humanz”, the fifth album by the virtual band and the first since the 2010 pair of “Plastic Beach” and “The Fall”. Back when handing out those instructions, little did Albarn know the parallel dimension he envisioned would materialize; and, given the world’s political state signals the apocalypse is indeed right around the corner, “Humanz” could have come off as the work of a visionary, an album that captures the atmosphere of the context in which it was released, like some self-shaping sponge. Sadly, that does not happen, for while “Humanz” delivers the party – as it consists of fourteen dancy tunes (discounting all interludes and the intro) of electropop and hip-hop – it fails to conjure the apocalypse.

The album’s concept, therefore, was left shattered on the ground somewhere in between its planning and execution, and it is relatively easy to see why: it is just too hard to pull off any kind of coherence when all tracks feature at least one collaborator both in writing and performing. Albarn’s experimental soul, and his wish to work alongside others, yielded excellent results in “Demon Days” and “Plastic Beach”, so it is not that the Gorillaz formula is inherently bad; it is just that something did not quite click this time around. That is why “Humanz” ends up being a record in which great tunes like “Ascension” and “Strobelite” (which do represent Albarn’s original concept – the former by pleading a love interest to give in to desire because the sky is falling and the latter by posing questions about the frailty of existence over a pulsating beat) share space with “She’s My Collar”, a song about relationship angsts in the digital era.

If the inconsistency of “Humanz” existed in thematic terms only, it would be rather negligible; after all, numerous are the great albums that do not gravitate around the same subjects. Likewise, the same could be said about the fact “Humanz” feels more like a compilation by various artists than a work by musicians working together, as the unifying elements of the Gorillaz sound (such as 2D’s voice) are more absent than present. The problem here, though, is that such irregularity leaks into the quality of the tracks. “Saturnz Barz”, in its alternation of Popcaan’s rapping and 2D’s nonchalant singing, has the makings of a Gorillaz hit; and the dreamy electropop duo of “Andromeda” and “Busted and Blue” is equally brilliant. Sadly, “Humanz” has just way too many tracks that are either downright terrible or unremarkable.

“Momentz”, with its grating beat and high-pitched vocals, is a disappointment given the previous collaboration with De La Soul had birthed the classic “Feel Good Inc.”; “Charger” is devoid of lyrical meaning and musical purpose; “Sex Murder Party” and “Carnival” meander without going anywhere; “Hallelujah Money” has powerful lyrics but, with its lack of melody, is too close to pretentiousness for comfort; and “We Got the Power”, the long-awaited product of the partnership between two Britpop geniuses (Albarn himself and Noel Gallagher) is a cheesy conclusion with an empowering message that could have been penned by someone in primary school. In the end, even if it has moments that will go down as some of the finest by the band, “Humanz” is too fragmented to rate as anything higher than an average and disjointed apocalyptic party.

audioslaveAlbum: Audioslave

Artist: Audioslave

Released: November 19th, 2002 Highlights: Cochise, Show Me How To Live, Like a Stone, I Am The Highway

How do you replace a singer whose voice had been compared to a weapon? It seems like an impossible task, especially when one considers such voice was responsible for uttering – with the utmost fury and anger – leftist ideas supporting a revolution and a total dismantling of the system. Yet, it was that very same challenge the instrumentalists of Rage Against the Machine had to face when Zack de la Rocha left the band. Morello, Commerford, and Wilk found the new voice to their music in Chris Cornell – the former vocalist, guitarist, and main songwriter of the grunge group Soundgarden. And through his impressive use of the belting technique, which makes his screams come off as the sound high-pressurized air makes when it finds a breach through which it can escape into a rarefied environment, he lent them anger and anguish to match the pounding sound of their playing.

Qualifying Audioslave as Rage Against the Machine with a different singer is, at the same time, accurate and misguided. The precision of that statement rises via the fact a lot of the songs on their debut feature the blueprint that guided Rage Against the Machine through their three records of original material: in other words, many tunes are carried by rhythmic riffs that land somewhere in between Black Sabbath and AC/DC and that culminate in explosive choruses in which the singer lets his voice loose. The mistake of seeing Audioslave as a mere renaming, though, is ignoring that even though the dynamics of numerous songs are certainly grounded on what Rage Against the Machine did (perhaps a reality that stems from how the four members had yet to gel as a unity here), Chris Cornell is not Zack de la Rocha: neither does he rap nor is he politically engaged enough to use his lyrics to express his ideas.

That means “Audioslave” is a record that replaces social matters with existential ones. And although Cornell’s lyrics are not exactly brilliant, they approach those subjects in a more mature way than in which they were treated inside the grunge movement. Moreover, the fact that he puts melody and singing – rather than rhythm and rapping – over Morello’s fantastic riffs means Audioslave is more hard rock than alternative rock; they sound like a heavy metal band from the 70s would have sounded if they had come to be after the turn of the century. The final dimension Cornell adds to the group comes in the form of balladry: where Rage Against the Machine only worked in one gear (the most vicious one available), Audioslave knows how to mix up guitar attacks with introspective moments, and the record’s quietest tunes (“Like a Stone”, “I Am the Highway”, “Getaway Car”, and “The Last Remaining Light”) are uniformly moving.

“Audioslave”, though, has flaws that go a little bit beyond irregular lyrics and being the product of a group that had yet to come together. Like many albums released during the early 2000s, it tries to fill up the length of a CD when it clearly does not have enough material to do so. With fourteen tracks that produce sixty-five minutes of music, the record falters at some points either because there are certain tunes that are simply lackluster (namely, the entire sequence of “Exploder”, “Hypnotize”, and “Bring Em Back Alive”) or due to not having enough stylistic flexibility to justify such a length. Nevertheless when it clicks, and it does so more often than it stumbles, “Audioslave” is an immensely enjoyable fix of adrenaline punctuated by powerful beauty. Unlike what Rage Against the Machine produced, it does not aim to change the world; it, instead, alternates the wish to set it on fire with the sinking into its dark depths.

make_yourselfAlbum: Make Yourself

Artist: Incubus

Released: October 26th, 1999

Highlights: Stellar, Drive, I Miss You, Pardon Me

Good music must be written with a purpose; it needs to be fueled by genuine intentions and, most importantly, it requires a clear target. Songs that are composed for everyone usually end up striking no one in particular, standing on a weird middle ground that separates universal adoration from total indifference. In “Make Yourself”, Incubus seems to be stuck on that island: there is little to nothing about the album – save for few tracks – that is truly remarkable; likewise, almost none of it – with the exception of occasionally embarrassing lyrics and “Battlestar Scralatchtica”, a four-minute instrumental starring turntables – is downright awful. Its strongest songs (which include the notable ballads “Drive”, whose acoustic setup was a first for the band; and “I Miss You”, with its swirling delicate guitar and a brief touching chorus on which the title is sung with heart) will still move those who grew up listening to them; however, save for that understandable nostalgic beauty, the record falters under a contemporary light.

And that is because “Make Yourself” does not seem to be willing to make the effort to get to the place where it wants to go to. It is quite obvious what Incubus wanted to do here: the band was bent on surfing the radio-friendly nu metal waves of the turn of the century. It is quite unmissable, though, that the group did not make it, for “Make Yourself” is still stuck on the funk rock wackiness of the two records that preceded it, and trying to pair up the extravagance and tongue-in-cheek humor of that genre with mainstream aspirations – which are evidenced in the album’s clean production and blatant hit singles – can only be done when one has the flexibility of the Red Hot Chili Peppers during their “Blood Sugar Sex Magik” era, and there are not many groups that can make that claim.

Despite the fact it is walking on a tightrope between the Red Hot Chili Peppers (sans the self-awareness), Jane’s Addiction (minus the delightful debauchery), and ensembles from the nu metal scene (with a prominent DJ included), without the bravery to jump straight into any of those pools, “Make Yourself” manages to hold some good moments in addition to the pair of calmer tunes that propelled it to stardom. “Stellar”, for instance, is a great exercise in dynamics, with a quiet verse that explodes into a chorus backed up by a wall of guitars Linkin Park would ride to the top of the charts one year later; “The Warmth”, meanwhile, has a chorus that – melodically – might be the album’s finest hour, and – as a bonus – it has a perfect merge between turntable effects and distorted guitars; and the title track sends a message of self-reliance and independence with a vocabulary that is aggressive enough to justify the tune’s loudness.

Three records into their career, Incubus attempted to grow out of their funk rock beginnings; and, while such a move was definitely commendable, its conduction was definitely a bit misguided, because “Make Yourself” lacks purpose and audacity, trying to move to new grounds and simultaneously making sure its roots are still attached to the place it has just left from. Thankfully, though, such a period was not in vain, for it was a change that – down the line – would yield positive results in the shape of “Morning View” and “A Crow Left of the Murder”. That, however, does not save the album from being, at best, average and inoffensive.

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Mario Party Review

Mario Party works because it mixes the concept of having a group of friends sitting around a table and reacting to each other’s moves and actions with the craziness only a video game could provide

mario_partyCheckers, Chess, Monopoly, and Clue all have something in common. Firstly, and most obviously, they are all board games; and despite their variety in terms of complexity and intricacy, they are widely beloved and undeniably entertaining, as if they tapped into some sort of pure transcendental form of fun that is impossible to resist and impervious to the effects of time. Likewise, all of them have, at some point, been translated to the world of electronic entertainment only for gamers, critics, and developers alike to notice that regardless of effort and hard work, there are intangible values these board games hold that just cannot be captured and sent to a television screen. It is a reality that has made their virtual counterparts fall somewhere between downright lousy, and decent but not as a great as the real deal.

Although pinpointing what exactly was missing in those video games is hard, singling out the reason behind such absence is easy, and it has a whole lot to do with the word adaptation. The process of adapting something entails modification; it requires adjustment. And it is in those slight shifts that the untouchable values escape between one’s fingers. For a video game of a board game to succeed – for it to be more than a simulation of the true act of playing – it had to be neither a translation nor an adaptation: it had to be built from the ground up with the thought that it would be played by groups of friends sitting around a console instead of a table. As it turns out, Nintendo was the one to figure it out before everyone else did, and the original Mario Party – the first installment of a lengthy franchise that has received more flak than fanfare – is the product of that realization.

Mario Party is not perfect; and it will never be. For starters, there is little to no value to be found in its single-player experience, as it makes as much sense (and it is supposedly as much fun) as playing Monopoly against oneself. Secondly, its reliance on luck, with boards that hold random traps that can send one towards disaster in the blink of an eye and a few mini-games that are as fair as a casino roulette, will certainly leave many players angry once they see a solid lead become dust. Finally, it has no desire to be technically flashy, as it features graphics that are far below standards and a soundtrack (save for a few remarkable tunes) that is more elevator music than worthy of a video game orchestra.

mario_party2However, Mario Party is fun, and its first outings are especially noteworthy because the formula was still fresh, as its gameplay was quite a finding by the partnership of Hudson Soft and Nintendo. In it, four characters from the Mario universe take turns rolling dice and moving through the number of designated spaces around boards. As it happens in all games of the sort, the boards are packed with different kinds of spaces that trigger distinct events, and it holds one ultimate goal: reaching Toad and purchasing a star, given that by the end of all turns the player with the biggest number of stars will be declared the victor (with coins serving as a tiebreaker).

Despite the fact there is a great deal of satisfaction to be found in moving around the boards while trying to reach the coveted star and attempting to avoid passing in front of the villainous Bowser, who is not embarrassed to force players to buy absolutely useless items for a steep amount of coins, the real highlight of Mario Party comes at the end of each turn. That is when the game adds an explosive component to the board game format; one that could only be done in an electronic medium: the series’ famous mini-games.

These brief activities (which are divided into free-for-all; 2 vs. 2; and 3 vs. 1) are, quite literally, the life of the party, as winners get ten coins as a prize while losers leave the arenas empty handed and likely distant from the twenty coins that are required to buy a star. Mario Party has a solid collection of fifty mini-games, and although some are clearly better than others, the overall quality is spectacular, for the challenges are able to join simplicity, competitiveness, fun, and addictiveness into tiny packages.

mario_partyWhat is most impressive about these mini-games, though, is how stunningly varied they are. There is basketball, bowling, bobsled racing, rope jumping, limbo dancing, instrument playing, mine-cart racing, mimicking, balloon bursting, hot potato, tug of war, diving for treasure, fishing for gold, block smashing, skateboarding, musical chairs, platform jumping, avoiding bombs on a tiny floating platform, trying to bump adversaries into the water while standing on a ball, and much more, all sprinkled with Nintendo’s charm and the wackiness of the Mario universe. Mario Party’s take on basketball, for instance, involves a bob-omb; and its skateboarding takes place over fiery lava with a collapsing floor and Thwomps that stand on the way.

Mario Party’s mini-games work because, in their simplicity, they allow even the least experienced players out there to get a hang of them quite easily; it is casual gaming before such an expression became a marketing fad. Moreover, even though the fact that the commands that must be used on each of them are limited – at most – to a couple of buttons, the mini-games mostly rely on skill. Therefore, although there is a certain leveling of the field of play (which is excellent because it makes parties and multiplayer sections thrilling beyond compare), practice and dedication will – most of the time – come out on top, which makes Mario Party one of the few games out there that can be simultaneously enjoyed by rookies and veterans, because the former group will feel like they have a shot pretty quickly (and that is indeed true because the mini-games’ learning curve is short) and the latter will never feel cheated.

The problem is that while the mini-games do a fantastic job in setting up the grounds for fair competitiveness, the boards tend to act against it, because on them randomness is the overwhelming ruler. For example, chance spaces, which are few, trigger a twisted game show in which players will roll three dice to determine the exchange of a specific amount of stars or coins between two players; similarly, happening spaces activate events on the board that can easily send someone who is well on their way to reaching the star right towards the beginning of the board or – even worse – to the clutches of Bowser.

mario_party5Moreover, all of the game’s eight boards, which feature varied scenarios and clever themes, have built-in encounters with chance; and those encounters will most likely determine if one will be sent towards the star or towards Bowser. On Peach’s Birthday Cake, for instance, players need to plant seeds at a crossroad, and the fruit the seed bears will indicate the path that must be followed; on Wario’s Battle Canyon, which is formed by five separated circular platforms, moving between these islands can only be done through canons and the direction towards which they will shoot is chosen by a roulette; meanwhile, on Mario’s Rainbow Castle, Bowser and Toad stand on the very same tower at the end of the cloudy road, and every time somebody reaches it – or steps on a happening space – the character who inhabits the tower changes.

All of that means there is plenty of room for frustration in Mario Party. Instead of taking the path traveled by the mini-games (one in which parity between players is achieved through simplicity), the boards rely on devious methods to level the field. And even if they leave some room for strategy and reasoning through their design, luck remains the biggest player on this stage. Fortunately, to those who are way too annoyed by the random tendencies of the boards, Mario Party is kind enough to let players tackle a mini-game-only mode in which all that matters is coming out on top in those skill-based activies.

In spite of the punctual anger that will occasionally afflict some players when they see fate take a bad turn, and despite all conflicts that may arise when someone openly hires the devilish Boo to steal coins or even a star from one of their friends, Mario Party is mostly a bliss. Its casual value and its incredible simplicity make it – more than any game that came before it – capable of gathering people around a console. Mario Party does not quite capture what it is like to throw a party around a video game system because such a concept did not exist prior to its release; Mario Party invented the very idea of throwing a party in which a video game system was the main star, and the straightforward nature of its mini-games and – yes – the outrageous twisted evil tricks its boards play on gamers were the fuel for that fire. And that fun still stands even if the original game feels a bit archaic and stripped down given all good additions its successors would make.

mario_party3Mario Party works as a virtual board game because it mixes the concept of having a group of friends sitting around a table and reacting to each other’s moves and actions with the craziness that only a video game could provide. By building something that leans on human interaction as much as it relies on the interface between players and machine it successfully makes the magic of Checkers, Chess, Monopoly, and Clue materialize in the electronic gaming world. It makes it clear that these games do not simply work because they are addictive or well-designed, but because they pair that prowess with the ability to gather people so that they can laugh, get angry, and shout together. That is the beauty of board games; that is the beauty of Mario Party.

Mario Party

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Punch-Out Review

Bringing a franchise that basks under its arcade simplicity to a modern home console is both bold and challenging; however, Little Mac was never one to run away from a big adversary

punch_out2Out of all old-school Nintendo franchises that spent an obscene amount of time inside the company’s merciless limbo, Punch-Out was not among those that were likely to make a glorious come back. While the game’s first two home-console versions, released for the NES and the Super Nintendo, were packed with fun and challenge, the latter being a feature that is not exactly prominent in modern gaming, its mechanics were extremely simple; perhaps way too straightforward to warrant a full-fledged sequel in a scenario where most games need to have huge scopes to be successful.

However, all rules have their exceptions. And, maybe by feeling that, with the emergence and praise garnered by smaller indie games, the market was becoming warmer towards titles with arcade-like simplicity, Nintendo was brave enough to believe Punch-Out could once again achieve greatness. The responsibility to deliver on that promise was, then, given to Next Level Games.

In a superficial analysis, the Wii version of Punch-Out could easily be described as more of a refurbishment than an overhaul; it is a bright new coat of paint put over a structure that was left mostly unchanged when compared to its arcade origins. Therefore, it would not be surprising to catch one singling it out as a lazy effort that does little to update a franchise that had been dormant for fifteen years. However, playing the game’s Wii version is realizing that the formula still works remarkably well, even when used as the core of a full-fledged console title; and, in that sense, Punch-Out knocks out all accusations of complacency to reveal its true nature: that of a game which is, in equal measures, the product of boldness and sensibility.

punch_out3Those two concepts come into play because Punch-Out never runs away from what it is: a boxing game that plays more like a puzzle than an actual fighting effort. Players step into the ring as Little Mac, an underdog boxer from New York who needs to climb up the ranks of three circuits (Minor, Major, and World) in order to become the world champion. Punch-Out, though, exists in a parallel universe in which boxing is, to put it in mild terms, weird: moving around the ring is not an option; there are no weight categories; and psychological evaluations of athletes are certainly not performed, because such an absurd cast of lunatics would never be allowed to step into the fray in normal conditions.

Due to the limitations of movement, in Punch-Out players have two main concerns: dodging and punching. Button 1 performs a left hook while button 2 executes a right hook; when combined with the D-pad’s upward direction, these buttons are used to land jabs. Avoiding attacks by the adversary, meanwhile, can be done by dodging to the sides, ducking or blocking. Finally, it is possible to unleash a special punch with the A-button; the move, however, is only activated once three stars – which are earned by punching adversaries at very specific moments – are gathered.

Given it is a Wii game, developers did not miss the opportunity to utilize the system’s motion controls. They exist here as an option in which the Wiimote and Nunchuck represent the character’s left and right hands respectively, and although there is some excitement in watching Little Mac punch faces and bellies as one recreates the same motions in their living room, the novelty is bound to wear out with time. The standard NES configuration of the Wiimote, with the device turned sideways, proves to be ideal for the intense gameplay of Punch-Out, which requires brutal timing and absurdly precise responsiveness.

punch_out5Such need for accurate response stems from Punch-Out’s incredibly unique, borderline inimitable, brand of gameplay. Little Mac’s way to the top will be paved with the tears, and invisible blood, of thirteen boxers. And, for each one of them, the general process for the achievement of sweet victory will be the same. All boxers follow a blatantly predetermined pattern: every one of their attacks is preceded by cues that will let players know what is coming, and dodging them successfully is the only way to land blows on the opponent, as they become temporarily vulnerable.

It is all easier said than done, though. As matches go on, cues become briefer, attacks come in at a faster place, and new surprising moves are thrown into the pattern to catch Little Mac off guard; and, naturally, as Little Mac climbs up the ranks, adversaries with larger sets of techniques, smaller vulnerability windows, more powerful blows, and faster gaps between cue and punch will show up. Punch-Out, then, is one constant delightful grind that requires memorization and rhythm; it is a dance in which one wrong move does not end with a toe that is stepped on, but with a cheek hitting the cold floor.

The total number of rivals – thirteen – may not seem like much, but Punch-Out’s approach to boxing makes each encounter last considerably, as players need to learn the behavior of opponents to perfection. Moreover, the game’s legs grow considerably once one takes into account how after winning it all, Little Mac will go through a title defense that includes rematches against all of his defeated rivals, who will reappear with more complicated patterns, stronger attacks and new ways to defend themselves. It all sounds brutal, and in a way it is, but Punch-Out’s lengthy uphill climb is smooth, satisfying, and rewarding: battles get progressively harder all the way through the game, but – with so much sweat and tears involved – players’ agility, perception, and endurance also improve as Little Mac advances.

punch_out6To those who are looking for even more content and to have the limit of their skills tested – and Punch-Out is a game that will bring out such desire for many, thanks to its addictive simplicity – there are the challenges of the exhibition mode. Once boxers are defeated in the career mode, it is possible to face them in friendly combats, which would not have been truly special save for one sweet detail: the fact that each of the two forms of the boxers, the regular one and the one that is encountered during Mac’s title defense, comes with three challenges to be met.

These sound, at first, downright impossible, such as beating a mighty boxer without dodging or taking one down with just one punch. However, not only are they doable with clever tricks and absolutely impeccable timing, they are also incredibly fun to perform, as players will slowly find new ways to beat their opponents down and uncover all twisted little secrets hidden within their attack patterns.

Speaking of Little Mac’s rivals, they have been – historically – one of Punch-Out’s signature and most appealing features, and the Wii version of the game retains that quality. Coming from different nations around the world, Punch-Out’s main stars are built around stereotypes related to those countries: there is the fragile croissant-eating Frenchman; the Spanish Don Juan who doubles a bullfighter; the vodka-drinking Russian; the drunk, and positively psychotic, Irishman; the Canadian bear-loving lumberjack; and more. Although such brand of humor has fallen out of favor with many, those who are not offended by it will be absolutely thrilled with Punch-Out’s over-the-top depiction of the boxers and their habits, a quality that makes each adversary an immediately likable and undoubtedly iconic character within the Nintendo canon.

punch_out4Due to having its home in a console that is significantly more powerful than the one that had housed its prequel, Punch-Out gives the franchise a big update in presentation and sound. All of its characters are voice-acted, and those who are born in non-English speaking countries have plenty of lines in their own language, which is a nice detailed touch; additionally, the game is supported by very solid sound effects and songs that, albeit a little repetitive, get the job done. Moreover, the break between fights is usually adorned by cutscenes that show Little Mac training beside his mentor, the legendary Doc Louis. It is a shame, however, that the introduction of Little Mac’s adversaries is done via slideshows of pictures that portray the boxers’ hobbies and personalities, as cutscenes would have been far more effective and welcome.

The star of the show, in the presentation department, though, is certainly the game’s cell-shaded look. Not only does it work towards alleviating a lot of the violence that happens inside the ring, it also fits like a glove when it comes to Punch-Out’s general humor, which turns the fights into extremely light-hearted affairs thanks to the characters’ dialogues and reactions. The game takes advantage of its simple setup, as only two characters appear on screen, to present their moves and models with as much detail as possible, turning the whole package into an incredible sight for the eyes.

In the end, Nintendo’s brave decision to bring a game that was born in an arcade to the arena of modern gaming without altering an inch of its core structure pays off in a big way. Punch-Out’s inborn simplicity has not made its gameplay age one tiny bit. In a world where games are becoming more complex and bloated by the hour, its straightforward ways actually highlight the brilliant charm of its design and augment the addictive nature of its setup. Through punches, dodges and a whole lot of hard work, Little Mac proves he can stand side-by-side with all of the industry’s giants. They may be bigger than him, but – as Punch-Out shows – taking down adversaries of a much larger stature is what that humble boxer does for a living.

Punch Out

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Okamiden Review

For the good and for the bad, Okamiden heavily relies on its prequel

okamiden2Okami was an overlooked masterpiece that came out during the twilight days of the Playstation 2 and, therefore, was unable to gain a level of commercial recognition that matched its critical acclaim. Sensing its greatness deserved a second shot at success, Capcom took the game over to the Nintendo Wii hoping its highly artistic visuals and its gameplay based on brush motions would find not only a welcoming audience but also a hardware that would leverage the title’s core features. Sadly, the sales numbers of the Nintendo Wii entry still failed to do the game any sort of justice; fortunately, though, they made Capcom feel confident enough in the software’s performance to fund a handheld sequel to the game. And so, Okamiden was born.

In Okami’s central plot piece, the main character – Amaterasu, the sun Goddess – returned to earth not only to defeat the demons that had suddenly spread distress and darkness throughout the land, but also to regain her former power, which had vanished as people’s faith in the gods had diminished over time. Any parallel between that script and the story of a game that had to garner a big enough group of followers in order to keep on going as an amazing action-adventure franchise is certainly unintentional, yet poetically delightful.

Okamiden starts exactly nine months after Okami’s blissful conclusion. Amaterasu defeated the mighty Yami, supposedly ridding the land of Nippon of all of its demons. For achieving her goal and regaining people’s faith, she had her power restored and was able to return to the Celestial Plain, from which she looked after the world below. However, as Okamiden begins, demons mysteriously make their way back to curse the landscapes of Nippon and its gentle citizens alike. Sakuya – one of the continent’s guardian spirits – notices trouble rising and calls upon Amaterasu to save Nippon once again. However, her pleas are, instead, answered by Chibiterasu, Amaterasu’s son, who comes clueless into Nippon and stumbles upon the Celestial Envoy, and Amaterasu’s former traveling companion, Issun. After showing the little puppy the basics and having fond memories of Amaterasu awake in his heart, Issun tells Chibiterasu he should find a partner to help him in his quest; it is then that the lonely wolf departs towards adventure.

okamiden4One of Okami’s greatest qualities was its strong writing, which backed up all of its fantastic characters and the many plots that surrounded them. Unsurprisingly, then, Okamiden manages to keep the ball rolling in that regard. Aside from the intriguing scenarios, occurrences, and dialogues that appear as Chibiterasu dives into the demoniac problems of Nippon, Okamiden deftly takes advantage of the young wolf’s search for a partner in his journey and uses it as a trampoline for astonishing character development.

As the game goes by, Chibiterasu will come into contact with five children who will eventually, at distinct points in the adventure, mount on his back and aid in his quest. Each one of those partners will have stories, troubles, and motivations of their own, which means that Okamiden has a very strong set of main characters that will – along with Amaterasu’s son – learn a lot about themselves and mature right in front of players’ eyes as a result of the challenges they will undertake.

It is extremely hard not to develop strong connections to all these central playable characters, who will start as insecure kids and leave Chibiterasu as stronger humans that are aware of their responsibilities. Playing Okamiden is witnessing their development, and as they grow so does the game’s fantastic plot. It is extremely rare to find such quality writing in a game that focuses on adventure and exploration, but Okamiden does it to such a high degree that even the overall absence of Issun – and his humorous and naughty tone – is not felt. The great aura he lent to Okami is replaced by one of a more touching nature, which goes a long way towards defining Okamiden as a separate entity from its predecessor, even if – thankfully – the humor is certainly still there.

okamiden5Okamiden follows the same basic structure of Okami, which is excellent considering how great and unique the latter was. Players will explore huge areas that have been torn apart by the demons and their curses, and try to restore them to their former beauty. The culmination of that exploration comes in the form of puzzle-filled dungeons or battles against mean bosses that have taken over one area and harmed its inhabitants. Many of the places present in Okami will be revisited, and while some of them will still look exactly the same, which is slightly disappointing; others will have changed with time due to natural disasters.

The fact that the Nippon explored in Okamiden is pretty much the same one that was visited in Okami is a bit of a double-edged sword. On the bright side, it is something that makes a whole lot of sense given both titles are just nine months apart; additionally, it brings a great sense of unity and connectivity between both games, as Chibiterasu will come across numerous characters that met his mother, be able to see how their lives have changed, and hear various references to her glorious adventures. On the negative side, however, going through the same scenarios once again can be a tad boring, and it reveals that developers spent more working hours towards successfully translating a huge world from the Wii to the DS (which is indeed a magnificent achievement) than aiming to create an entirely new region.

And therein lies Okamiden’s greatest strength and weakness: it is just way too close to its prequel for comfort. While in a way that is utterly fantastic, because an extra doses of the Okami gameplay is exactly what gamers who went through the original wanted; it is hard not to walk away from Okamiden feeling that developers could have done a little bit more to embed the game with its own character.

okamiden6Not only is the world the same, but Chibi also has the exact abilities his mother possessed. He can slash enemies with his weapon of choice, and use the Celestial Brush – and its many powers – to bring them down or to solve puzzles on the environment around him. The brush techniques found in Okamiden are pretty much the same ones that players mastered in Okami. It is possible to make plants bloom, manipulate elements (such as water, fire, and thunder), restore broken artifacts, slash objects and foes, create bombs at will, and perform a few other nifty tricks. The difference, naturally, is that – on the Nintendo DS – these skills are activated by drawing with the stylus, which is far more effective and precise than the Wiimote, even if some symbols will occasionally not be recognized despite the fact they were drawn relatively well.

The really big change, gameplay-wise, that Okamiden features is that depending on the child that is accompanying Chibi at a certain moment in the game, the wolf will gain a new ability as a consequence of a special skill possessed by his partner. When the young Kagu is on his back, for example, Chibiterasu will be able to see objects that are invisible to most. This characteristic allows for every segment of the game to be considerably distinct from the others, as the design of the dungeons will be inspired by the abilities of the partner Chibi will be carrying at that point in the game. That way, the over twenty hours of Okamiden always bring something very fresh with them, and while the game copies its predecessor a little bit too much, it never really repeats itself.

Another ability that comes with the addition of partners is that it is possible to control Chibi and the kids separately. All players have to do is press the X-button, and the child will get out of the wolf’s back. With such a move, it is possible to guide the children so they can use their skills to reach places that Chibi cannot. However, despite being a very unique characteristic to Okamiden and the source of very clever riddles that could not have been done in Okami, having to control both characters to get through a simple puzzle sometimes breaks the pace of the game, especially because the children are quite vulnerable when they are by themselves.

okamiden7The game’s pace is also harmed by some forced battles against minor enemies that players will find along the way. Battles were never the most exciting aspect of Okami, as they are basically hack and slash affairs that occur in the midst of very compelling exploration. Therefore it was always a good thing that it was simple to avoid battles against regular enemies in the original. Okamiden, though, will often throw mandatory battles at players, especially inside dungeons, which is quite disappointing.

By being in a system that is not as powerful as the Playstation 2 or the Nintendo Wii, most would expect Okamiden to suffer due to being unable to reproduce the artistic goodness and visual candy of Okami. However, Capcom achieved quite a bit with the title, because Okamiden genuinely feels like Okami in a handheld, and there is not a single moment in the game where one could possibly think that visuals or characters could have been done better. The game still looks like a moving watercolor painting and its scenarios are absolutely gorgeous, even though they are broken down into smaller zones with short loading times in between them. Okamiden is huge, there is a lot to do, discover and explore, and in those categories it is not matched by any other game available for the Nintendo DS.

Okamiden, then, is a very good game that both lives and dies by its heavy inspiration on its predecessor. On one side, flying so close to the sun yields very positive results, for it is an epic adventure filled with cultural and artistic references to Japanese folklore, astounding boss battles that are almost way too big to fit in a portable console, amazing abilities that are used to construct inspired puzzles and dungeons, breathtaking scenarios, abundant sidequests, and remarkable songs. However, on the other side, when it comes to being original, it really does not do much aside from he partnership system and the character development style that stems from it. Nonetheless, Okamiden is one of the best titles in a system that is widely know for its strong library and certainly one of the grandest adventures to ever be put inside a Nintendo handheld. It is a precious gift to a world that, for a little while there, ran the risk of never again playing a new Okami game. We should all be thankful Amaterasu blessed us with yet another journey into the world of Nippon.


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Albums of the Month: April 2017

i_see_youAlbum: I See You

Artist: The XX

Released: January 13th, 2017

Highlights: Say Something Loving, Performance, I Dare You

Progression is key to all kinds of good music; after all, artists who get stuck in the same place for way too long end up metamorphosing into caricatures of themselves: people who try to recapture a moment that is long gone in the past and that end up sounding like bad cover versions of their initial material. If there is something that can be said about the first three albums of The XX is that there is a good deal of progression to them; better yet, it is a kind of evolution that is cohesive. Their debut record was filled with lyrics that portrayed the tension and excitement of young love; meanwhile, their sophomore effort carried feelings of loss. Hopefulness was gone, and so was love. And in their place all that was left were ashes, scattered pieces awaiting to be picked up, and disappointed broken hearts. Given such context, it is only natural “I See You” is the step that comes after that: the search for new love; one that is done in the attempt to balance lessons learned from hurtful experiences with joyful new hope.

Whether the smoothness with which the band has traveled through that arch is part of an artistic plan or merely a reflection of their own lives is up in the air. However, one thing is for sure: Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim nailed it both in terms of writing and performance, for in “I See You” they sound like two people who are trying to move on but that have punctual trouble escaping the vines of the past that are holding them back, and freeing their hearts to love again. Nowhere is that idea best encapsulated than in “Say Something Loving”, in which Oliver sings “I just don’t remember the thrill of affection” and “I do myself a disservice / To feel this weak, to be this nervous”. It is intimate; it is vulnerable; and it aligns itself perfectly not only with the subdued singing of the duo but also with the band’s sound, which in “I See You” moves forward without losing its core identity: minimalism.

What the group does here is move its minimalism between scenes: if the two predecessors of “I See You” were rooted in the post-punk of Joy Division – albeit a brand of post-punk that adorns its beats and bass with electronic trickery; “I See You” runs full speed towards the indie electronic landscape. Consequently, the record almost completely does away with the organic sounds of Romy’s guitar and Oliver’s bass, and tips heavily towards the synths and the turntable of Jamie Smith. Beats and samples, then, tower over all other elements, turning “I See You” into a delicate electronic work that knows how to use silence and introspection in its favor, which are the two main characteristics that connect it with everything else the band has done.

“I See You”, however, falls short in the hard task of matching its precursors. Given the limited area and emotional scope in which they operate, The XX had always sounded like a band that ran the risk of producing an album that is a little too monochromatic for its own good. And “I See You” seems to have been the one to have fallen into that trap. The duets of Romy and Oliver (whether they are singing simultaneously and through each other, or tackling different lines of the same song) remain as overwhelming as ever. Yet, the fact the band digs itself into a mostly electronic corner here makes the tracks, with the exception of the anthemic “I Dare You”, almost merge into one another. Still, “I See You” is a touching and beautiful album with a large degree of cohesion both within itself and inside the band’s oeuvre, and that is an impressive feat.

The Birthday Party

Artist: The Birthday Party

Released: November 1st, 1980

Highlights: Mr. Clarinet, Riddle House, Happy Birthday

Transitional. It is a term that gets thrown around too frequently when it comes to records as a whole, but it also happens to be an adjective that perfectly describes The Birthday Party’s self-titled debut. Using such a word to qualify a group’s first effort may seem weird, but it is understandable once it is taken into account that The Birthday Party is nothing but the renamed incarnation of The Boys Next Door, the Australian post-punk band that was the launching pad for the career of one of the world’s greatest songwriters – Nick Cave, and an incredibly gifted multi-instrumentalist – Mick Harvey, who would go on to become one of the major cogs in the juggernaut of alternative rock Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. In that sense, “The Birthday Party” is the second of the four records that would be released by The Boys Next Door and The Birthday Party and, for that reason, it stands in a weird middle ground between the blatant inexperience of former and the boundless experimentation the latter would go on to tackle.

The musical parable that describes the four-piece oeuvre of the group is one in which things get progressively wilder. The Birthday Party was, from the get go, driven by a maniac spirit and it seems that, the older they grew, the more confident they were in letting themselves be carried by their most savage instincts. Therefore, there is nothing controlled or restrained about “The Birthday Party”: it is post-punk at its rawest most visceral state. However, it is not the apex of the insanity; it is a compromise between a ravaged soul that came out of the ashes of punk rock and a desire to write palpable tunes. Rarely is the guitar the leading instrument of the tunes. Such a role is given to the bass of Tracy Pew and the drums of Phill Calvert, which create threatening rhythms that awaken some sort of tribal fire in the hearts of the guitarists – Mick Harvey and Rowland S. Howard – and of the poet of the damned who wields the microphone, Nick Cave.

Harvey and Rowland play their instruments as if possessed by a spirit of chaos and destruction: the guitars do occasionally ring like the bible of post-punk calls for; but, mostly, they are scratched to an inch of their death, punctually decorating the rhythmical core of the songs with vicious sounds. Over that borderline cacophonous symphony, Nick Cave half-sings and half-pleads like a demented preacher who, instead of urging his followers to strive for salvation, paints horrifying pictures to force them to face life at its most brutal. The result is music that is somewhat jubilant, hence more than justifying The Birthday Party’s aptly chosen name; however, it is a celebration that is happening inside one dark asylum, where the most dangerous patients have crawled out of their cells and killed everyone who has a drop of sanity running in their bloodstream.

“The Birthday Party” is a record that is more interesting than good. There are a great deal of things that make it appealing and amusing; after all, it is rare to see a band so shamelessly – or perhaps naturally – be as lunatic as possible, and then proceed to take that madness through a spectrum that goes from frightening (“The Hair Shirt”) to hilarious (“Hats on Wrong”). However, it does not have enough songwriting quality for most of its tunes to rise above the status of curious amusing items. Nevertheless, it is worth a listen, as a whole lot of its artistic aura explains where elements of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds came from.

tom_petty_heartbreakersAlbum: Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers

Artist: Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers

Released: November 9th, 1976

Highlights: Breakdown, Hometown Blues, Anything That’s Rock ‘n’ Roll, American Girl

One of the greatest qualities of rock and roll is the fact it is so adaptable. The rhythm originally propelled towards the stratosphere by Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley has grown and mutated through the years either by borrowing from other genres it has no relation to or by shifting its focus in the direction of one of the many styles whose mixture started all the hip-shaking and guitar-breaking. And, by 1976, it had already lived long enough to be made poppier by The Beatles; blown up to new proportions by psychedelic progressive bands; deconstructed by the punk movement; turned into soothing music by folk and country rockers; and much more. Given this never-ending inflow of different ornamentations and arrangements, the playing of basic and straightforward rock and roll becomes – in its simplicity – utterly remarkable, and that is precisely where Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers come in.

There is absolutely nothing new about the set of ten songs that make up the now-legendary group’s self-titled debut, nor is there anything shockingly inventive about the numerous records that would follow. However, that is the beauty of it; Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers never aspire to be more than they are, which is a fantastic rock and roll ensemble, and Petty works hard with a guitar, a notebook, and a pen to give his musical machine the material that will serve as fuel for the combustion that is The Heartbreakers’ brand of rock and roll.

In “Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers”, just like he embraces the rhythmic characteristics of the genre, he also throws himself into the pool of the style’s usual themes: girls and partying, be it separated or joined together in the same song. In the infectious and positively danceable “Hometown Blues”, there are girls who leave town to chase their dreams of becoming rock stars; in the ballad “The Wild One, Forever”, there is the girl who is an impossible catch and the one that – naturally – the singer desperately pines for; in “American Girl”, by a wide margin the album’s strongest cut, there is the girl who strives for a new life away from the constraints and heartbreaks that surround her; and in the brief opener “Rockin’ Around (With You)”, there is the girl who cures the composer of his pain by accepting to be with him whether for a couple of dances or for a while longer than that. Petty, however, finds the time to take some thematic detours during the atmospheric “Strangered in the Night” and “Luna”, which take advantage of Benmont Tench’s keyboards to approach a sinister and almost supernatural story – in the case of the former; and an unexpected introspective take on loneliness – in the case of the latter.

Although Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers would go on to produce better records, their self-titled debut stands as one of the strongest points of their output because of its humility, sincerity, and – of course – its songwriting. Petty was never a Dylan, nor was he ever a Springsteen; and in knowing that he sought not to replicate their grandeur, but to aim for a different market and goal. As one of the album’s most energetic cuts says, “Anything that’s rock and roll’s fine”, and Tom Petty knows how to conjure that feeling better than everyone else.

triplicateAlbum: Triplicate

Artist: Bob Dylan

Released: March 31st, 2017

Highlights: I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan, I Could Have Told You, Once Upon a Time, The Best Is Yet to Come, Day In Day Out

Bob Dylan has never been shy to do the exact opposite of what the expectations around him look forward to. He did it in 1965, when he shunned his folk followers – and angered them deeply – by picking up an electric guitar; he did it in 1969, when he chose to become a country crooner even though his voice had always been a point of contention among his critics; and he also did it in 1978, when he released the first of what would be a trilogy of albums containing originally penned Christian music. Fast forward through four decades, and here we are again, sitting – possibly – in the end of yet another trilogy in which Dylan did not give one drop of attention to what his fans wanted and proceeded to do whatever it is he wished to, which – in this case – was singing covers of classic American songs that were once done by Frank Sinatra.

It is unquestionable such free will and disregard for outside opinions have been key in making Dylan the artist he is – one that recently earned the Nobel Prize in Literature via his songwriting. And in “Triplicate” he multiplies – and flaunts – the liberty he has by putting together a whopping three records – containing ten songs each – in which he squeezes most of the juice that was left in the American songbook. Aggregated with “Shadows in the Night” and “Fallen Angels”, then, “Triplicate” – if it indeed turns out to be Dylan’s last effort in the field – is the final brick in the construction of his statue as one of the most important interpreters of the genre; someone who has dared to bring these old treasures into the modern music world. Although such journey was neither as well-documented nor as resounding as it would have been had it happened decades ago, it is still a pretty remarkable achievement to fall alongside his medals of folk bard and rock and roll legend.

“Shadows in the Night” was nocturnal and moody. “Fallen Angels” was more energetic in its balance between ballads and numbers with faster tempos. Given “Triplicate” carries thirty tunes, one would expect it to be one of those traditional lengthy albums that carry a little bit of everything. That, however, is not the case. “Triplicate”, save for rare exceptions that never quite reach the swinging pace of the most exciting moments of “Fallen Angels”, is uniformly built of slow songs. And in such a massive set, that is quite a problem, because anyone who is not familiar with these tracks will have an awfully hard time telling them apart. Through most of its ninety-five-minute running time, then, “Triplicate” is not about emoting its listeners to high degrees, but luring them into the web of its atmosphere, and it does a great job in that regard.

It all works because even though “Triplicate”, like its two predecessors, is a homage to a time that is the antithesis of the singer-songwriter model that Dylan himself – along others – made popular, it is clear Bob and his band are having a blast playing these tunes. The arrangements are true to those of the originals, but they are masterfully executed; and over this musical bed Dylan captures the heart of these songs with his scruffy voice and an endearing delivery that tries to reach notes it knows it cannot get to. Due to the size of its content, “Triplicate” is not as immediate, likable, and easy to get into as “Shadows in the Night” and “Fallen Angels”, and a greater variety of tempos would have done it a big favor. Nevertheless, it is a finely produced music set.

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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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