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.


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Advance Wars 2: Black Hole Rising Review

It may feel far closer to an expansion pack than to a true sequel, but its deep strategic values painted with a charming cartoonish look are still a blast

black_hole_rising4Save for considerable overhauls that are absolutely necessary every once in a while, Nintendo – and its closest partners – have been successful in producing sequels to their greatest franchises by sticking to one solid formula. The bases that garnered critical praise and commercial glory are preserved, and developers proceed to focus on the addition of punctual new features that will significantly alter the overall experience. Therefore, games that are simultaneously more of the same – which is what most fans want following a remarkable effort of great originality – and fresh are born destined to earn accolades to match, or come close to, those of its predecessor.

In a way, Advance Wars 2: Black Hole Rising does follow that blueprint. The original Advance Wars was, for gamers of the West, the discovery of a new niche that merged war and strategy: players moved their troops and vehicles around a grid-like map in order to achieve a predetermined goal, usually routing the rival army or conquering its headquarters. Black Hole Rising, then, uses that very same premise as its starting point and builds up on it through the addition of new gameplay elements. Naturally, powered by such an incredibly strong setup, the game easily qualifies to stand beside its prequel as one of the best Game Boy Advance efforts; sadly, it is highly questionable whether or not the novel twists it brings to the table are enough to make it a worthy new installment.

Black Hole Rising sees the titular evil faction of unknown origin come back to haunt the four countries of Wars World. This time, however, instead of resorting to pulling the strings from behind the shadows, Black Hole has opted for a more direct approach. Four of its commanding officers, the underlings of the threatening Strum, have been sent to directly conquer the world’s four countries: Orange Star, Blue Moon, Yellow Comet, and Green Earth. It is up to the COs of those nations, then, to defend their homes, retake the lands that have fallen under Black Hole’s command, and join forces to take the battle to the baddies’ own territory.

black_hole_rising2Advance Wars 2 thrives for the exact same reasons its predecessor did. It is a game of astonishing complexity and difficulty that reaches brutal heights, requiring players to really think and analyze all possible outcomes before they make their moves; however, it is, at the same time, a title that dresses up its daunting nature in extremely charming cartoonish visuals and that knows how to make all of the elements that form its deep strategic fabric accessible and easy-to-learn even to the most inexperienced players.

Its nineteen ground, naval, and air units are entwined in a wide web of rock-paper-scissors that needs to be learned to some degree: reckon vehicles, for example, are extremely effective against regular infantry; while fighters easily dispose of bombers and helicopters of the battle and transport kinds. Moreover, each of them has its own attack and movement range, the latter of which is affected by the battlefield’s terrain; specific kinds of units it can attack; ammo;  fuel, in the case of vehicles, which can be recovered – just like their HP – if the unit is parked in a conquered city; defensive stats that are dependent on the ground it stands on – with forests, for example, providing extra coverage and plains and rivers leaving units vulnerable; and a specific range of vision that comes into play on maps where there is fog blocking players’ view of enemy battalions.

All of that information, however, is not only covered and clearly explained in brief and efficient tutorials that take place in the campaign’s early missions, but also readily available during battle, as players can go through menus or look at indications on the screen to remember, or discover, all they need to succeed. Due to the game’s didactic nature, then, newcomers will be able to learn the basics and rusty war veterans will be capable of slowly recovering their existing knowledge.

black_hole_rising3As Nintendo’s sequel-making recipe dictates, with those pillars in place, Advance Wars 2 sets out to add its own flavor to the mixture, and therein lies the problem. The game does pull off a number of improvements. Even though it inherits the repetitive soundtrack and simple but suitable graphics of the original, the game’s presentation is far superior, both in terms of interface and storytelling. The menus are slick; the single-player world map now allows players to choose which mission they want to tackle, a welcome addition that lets gamers that are tired of failing on a map look for a new fresh challenge somewhere else before returning to it; and the game’s plot development feels far more full-fledged even if it still restricts itself to using straightforward dialogue boxes with clever dialogue and static sprites, as each mission has its background explained in a more satisfying way than in the original game.

When it comes to gameplay itself, however, Advance Wars 2 does very little to topple its prequel. Truthfully, the main campaign feels much thicker, as there are far more missions. Moreover, given players will take control of the armies of all four countries, the number of available commanding officers with unique abilities and CO Powers – temporary special skills that are activated after a bar has been filled by destroying some enemy units – is far bigger, and opportunities for players to choose with which CO they want to tackle a mission are much more frequent, a fact that certainly increases the game’s strategic component.

Yet, there are no new modes whatsoever, and – most importantly – in-combat additions are restricted. There is just one new unit, the mighty Neotank; one terrain feature, missile silos that can be used by infantry to deal a little bit of damage to all units standing in the area in which players choose to fire; a handful of weapons that are used by Black Hole, such as cannons, that nicely require some new strategic considerations by players and that provide new goals to the campaign’s missions, like breaking a pipe that is feeding a factory or destroying all cannons protecting a fortress; and the fact each Commanding Officer has a Super CO Power in addition to their standard CO Power.

black_hole_rising5To complement the campaign, which can be beaten in twenty hours but that can last far more given players are awarded a grade after each mission according to certain criteria, there is also a fun multiplayer mode that supports up to four players, a great tool for map creation, and the excellent War Room, where two armies that start with no units need to conquer land and use factories, ports, and airports to build up their power and defeat one another. Sadly, as an extra disappointment that further shows Black Hole Rising is often too comfortable with resting on its prequel’s laurels, the majority of the War Room maps were already present in Advance Wars and are merely reused here.

Advance Wars 2: Black Hole Rising is still a blast, though. It is a fun, engaging, and challenging game whose value is a sight to behold. It may feel far closer to an expansion pack than to a true sequel, but it is a must-buy to either those who greatly enjoyed the original and are looking for more missions of deep strategic values painted with a charming cartoonish look or to those that want to get to know the franchise and feel like starting with its most complete and well-presented installment.


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Albums of the Month: February 2017

wowee_zoweeAlbum: Wowee Zowee

Artist: Pavement

Released: April 11th, 1995

Highlights: Rattled by the Rush, Black Out, Grounded, Father to a Sister of Thought

If Pavement were a major league pitcher, its repertoire would not contain a single fastball; it would only launch the nastiest stuff, the curveballs that start their trajectory waist-high and finish their journey by touching the dirt by the catcher’s mitt. As the beautiful melodies he comes upon by the dozens reveal, Stephen Malkmus – the group’s songwriter – does have the ability to write a straight-up pop rock song; he, however, simply chooses not to, whether because he is a punk rebel that was born a little bit too late or because he is just overly lazy. Even the sweetest and most likable Pavement tunes reach a point when the wheels come off, making them deteriorate into either a mass of noise or random jams, as if the band could not bring itself to conclude a number without letting their psycho blood get the best of them.

Out of all curveballs the group threw during its career, “Wowee Zowee” was unquestionably the most wicked one. Musically, it is not considerably different from its two predecessors – the noise-dominated “Slanted and Enchanted” and the poppier “Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain”. It, after all, still combines the alluring and clean jangly guitars of R.E.M., the impossible guitar distortions of Sonic Youth, and the indifferent and careless vocal delivery and lyric-writing that only Malkmus could pull off. However, “Wowee Zowee” seems to be the first time ever Pavement was given carte blanche to do whatever they pleased while in the studio, and the result – apparently – was a productive creative section in which the band threw everything they could at the wall to see what would stick, and then proceeded to burn songs onto the record regardless of whether they were still attached to the surface or forgotten on the floor.

The result is an eighteen-track beautiful mess that sees Pavement achieve fantastic pop rock victories (“Rattled by the Rush”), go through one-minute tunes that exist for the sake of rocking maniacally and serving as inside jokes nobody will ever understand (“Serpentine Pad”), perform thrilling operas of noise (“Half a Canyon”), and build tunes that are so utterly gorgeous (“Father to a Sister of Thought”) it is hard to decide whether Malkmus’ intentionally careless lyrics and singing turn them into wasted opportunities or amazing displays of subversive attitude (the latter option is far more likely). The opener “We Dance”, for example, has a piano and acoustic guitar combination that is so sweet most artists would kill for, but Malkmus chooses to use it as the background for his melodic and ethereal ramblings about the expiration date of the Brazilian nuts one has bought for their engagement.

Surely, many will see “Wowee Zowee” as indulgent, as if the band got way too enamored with their embedded recklessness; and, in a way, it is true, for a couple of tracks should have never made it. However, the album is ultimately fun, because by giving its fans eighteen tracks to pick from, Pavement allows us to choose to focus solely on the over a dozen remarkably great tunes contained within the package or just push the play button, sit back, and bask under all crazy twists and turns “Wowee Zowee” takes. As the nastiest curveball from a wicked pitcher, the record is not an easy one to grasp; those who spend a good time trying to wrap their minds around this madness will certainly be generously rewarded, though.

amAlbum: AM

Artist: Arctic Monkeys

Released: September 9th, 2013

Highlights: Do I Wanna Know?, No.1 Party Anthem, Fireside, Knee Socks

Gearing up to the release of “AM”, Arctic Monkeys’ leader Alex Turner famously stated that, to his ears, rock had become rather dull, as he found himself unable to be moved by legends of the past and stars of the present alike. According to him, the only music he listened to during the period in which “AM” was being produced was rap and Black Sabbath, and that those two geographically distant poles worked as his guiding lights during the album’s construction. Given how heavy metal and rap are two ingredients of such different natures it is hard to imagine how they would mix, one could easily have looked at Turner’s claims as musical trash talk; eye-catching remarks purposely built with the goal of luring people’s attention towards the album. As it turns out, though, the quotes were not empty: “AM” is a weird spot in which modern hip-hop trends meet heavy guitars that seem to come out of the depths of hell.

That concept is displayed, and masterfully proved, right on the opening track: “Do I Wanna Know?”. Like most songs on the record, it is guided by steady and slow drum beats and a heartbeat-like bass line that are more Dr. Dre than British garage rock; over those, Jamie Cook summons a low guitar tone that delivers a riff that would make Tony Iommi himself rather proud and a weary, yet resolute, Alex Turner addresses a potential love interest, wondering whether or not the feeling flows both ways. “AM” spends its running time alternating between songs that lean more heavily towards hip-hop (“Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?”) and tracks that revisit the Arctic Monkeys’ fast-talking hard rock (“R U Mine?”), and on the way it even finds time to deliver a remarkable layered ballad that John Lennon himself could have written (“No.1 Party Anthem”); however, through all its shifts in tonality, it remains musically cohesive.

The album is uniformly dark, but not in the same way as The Cure’s “Pornography”, as it does not feature the cries for help of one who has given in to depression. Its darkness is that of the night, one where a group of friends goes club hopping for the sole sake of chasing girls, and “AM” paints that picture so vividly in its lyrics and music it almost plays like a movie. There is the indecisive girl the singer truly pines for; the various shallow and potential catches he bumps into during the night; and the alternation between moments in which they succeed in making him forget about the pain in his heart and occasions when all he wants to do is give her a call and escape the emptiness of those clubs. There is the sweet excitement of hope, the nervous tension of approaching a target, and the sadness of sitting by the bar and wondering what in the world you are doing.

In theme, “AM”, although thoroughly impressive because of its unity, is not surprising; as even though Alex Turner is one of rock’s most talented lyricist, boy-and-girl troubles have always been his sole subject of focus. Therefore, what takes it over the top is not Turner’s gift for analyzing that storm of feelings with a lot of words and clever sentences, but the group’s ability to merge heavy rock and hip-hop so seamlessly and take their creation to its most natural habitat: the night. Few albums in rock history are able to join theme and music so well, and by conjuring all the thrill, anxiety, and frustration of the sexual chase in all their contours and dilemmas, “AM” is a contemporary work of art.

fables_of_the_reconstructionAlbum: Fables of the Reconstruction

Artist: R.E.M.

Released: June 10th, 1985

Highlights: Feeling Gravitys Pull, Driver 8, Life and How to Live It, Green Grow the Rushes

R.E.M. is a band that is historically associated with the American South. Its origins, which can be traced back to the depths of the state of Georgia, have always played a major role in the image they put forth and in the music they wrote. The mystery, the murkiness, and the idiosyncrasy of a rock group that crawled out of the swampy ends of the country and navigated the waves of minor radios to a level super-stardom that did not fit well with their quiet demeanor are part of their legend and legacy, and nowhere is it better exposed than in “Fables of the Reconstruction”. Ironically, though, their most southern album – one whose title makes a reference to the reconstruction the South had to go through after the American Civil War – was produced far away from the United States, under the cold embrace of the foggy London.

Still, the central subject matter of “Fables of the Reconstruction” is not surprising. R.E.M.’s second record, “Reckoning”, focused on being away from home, as the band wrote most of its tunes while out of Georgia on their first nationwide tour, a fact that is quite revealing regarding their affection for their roots and the feeling of being out of place that certainly took over many of the group’s members during the long journeys musicians must undertake. Therefore, with an ocean separating them from the simple confines of their hometown of Athens, R.E.M. changes their sound not by moving away from the gloomy brand of jangle pop rock they had established in “Murmur”, but by sinking further down into the abyss of the South. If “Murmur” and “Reckoning” felt like listening to a post-punk band in a watery swamp, with its sound being muted by the mist; “Fables of the Reconstruction” kidnaps its audience and takes it to a dark cave where southern myths are engraved on the walls.

“Fables of the Reconstruction” comes off as thematically stronger than its predecessors because it marks the point when Michael Stipe started writing lyrics that, instead of being a stream of consciousness soup of words, had meanings – even if obscure. Therefore, the album plays like a kaleidoscope (sans the bright colors) of southern tales and images. “Maps and Legends”, “Life and How to Live It”, and “Old Man Kensey” talk about curious old men the band had met during their college days; “Driver 8” references trains, railways, and people who work by traveling away from home; “Can’t Get There from Here”, “Auctioneer”, and “Good Advices” nod towards a rural way of life; “Feeling Gravitys Pull”, the band’s most sinister song, conjures in five minutes the darkness of the most remote places of the South; and “Wendell Gee” attempts to build a disturbing folk tale that could only have come out of the region.

Musically, “Fables of the Reconstruction” sees R.E.M. stretch their arms past the relatively standard, albeit played quite characteristically, rock arrangements of their early works, as the group toys around with strings (“Feeling Gravitys Pull”), a banjo (“Wendell Gee”), and even a horn section (“Can’t Get There from Here”). Still, this is a record of slow-to-mid tempo tunes that are in equal measures gloomy, alluring, and catchy – the latter quality being highlighted by Stipe’s great melodies. As R.E.M. would move on to a more mainstream sound with its next releases, “Fables of the Reconstruction” easily stands out as their darkest and foggiest effort.

muswell_hillbilliesAlbum: Muswell Hillbillies

Artist: The Kinks

Released: September 24th, 1971

Highlights: 20th Century Man, Acute Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues, Alcohol, Muswell Hillbilly

Like two siblings that became estranged from one another due to simple twists of fate, American and British rock have historically developed like two separate entities with no contact with each other whatsoever save for a few brief exchanged letters. While grunge was blowing up in the United States, for instance, the British youth remained entirely aloof towards the phenomenon and embraced the Britpop heroes that appeared as a reaction to a brand of music whose flannel shirts and loud guitars were quite unappealing to most of them. Similarly, numerous other major rock acts were only able to achieve success on one side of the Atlantic, remaining as obscure blips on the radar to folks across the pond. Still, truth is, British rock would never have existed if a pack of teenagers from the United Kingdom had never gotten in touch with the music produced by American musicians, and as such, the queen’s serfs own quite a bit of gratitude to their English-speaking brothers.

Alongside The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and many others, The Kinks were on the leading edge of the wave of groups that listened to blues, rockabilly, rock and roll, and R&B in order to forge music of their own. And out of all members of that gang, they were certainly the most British: being sarcastic and dry in their humor; dealing with traditions and behaviors that only made sense to British ears; and incorporating vaudeville, music hall, and other British musical traditions into their songwriting. It is rather ironic, and somewhat beautiful, then, that the point in history in which British and American rock came the closest to fusing together to form one musical monster would come to be through their hands: “Muswell Hillbillies”. The title says it all. A mash-up between Muswell Hill, a traditional London suburb in which the Davies brothers inhabited, and “hillbilly”, the American word to designate those who live in the rural and mountainous areas in the United States, it is a nod by four British lads to the country, folk, and blues musicians that made them who they were.

“Muswell Hillbillies” achieves its status as a musical bridge across the Atlantic by being positively British in its themes and absurdly American in its sonority. In “Muswell Hillbilly”, Ray Davies proclaims that even though his home is Muswell Hill, his heart lies in Old West Virginia and he pines for New Orleans, Oklahoma and Tennessee despite the fact he has never been there; and in the folk-tinged ballad “Oklahoma U.S.A.”, he speaks of a girl that is utterly bored by her working-class British life and wishes to travel to Oklahoma to become a star. Such a tone permeates the entire work: the words, paranoia, sarcasm, and problems of modern life contained within the package have been clearly written by British hands; but the music is composed of unfiltered American influences, extracted directly from the source and not changed by any transformation process.

Ultimately, “Muswell Hillbillies” is spectacular for it captures Ray Davies, one of the greatest composers and lyricists of popular music, working at the peak of his powers. His acute observations on the troubles of modern life are carried by witty humor and remarkable melodies, as he dissects the 20th-century man of the album’s opening track with all the sharpness and derision his spirit as an entertainer possesses. The fact it brings together two universes that are so distinct ends up being the artistic cherry on top of this fantastic work, which easily ranks among the band’s best albums.

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