cars33Rehabilitation was something the Cars franchise badly needed following the legacy-denting disaster of Cars 2. The saga of Lightning McQueen and his lovable friends never qualified as one of Pixar’s finest hours; still, the 2006 film that started it all – despite its odd premise – had some resemblance of a beating heart under its chrome surface. The same, however, cannot – by any means – be said about its sequel, which failed to hide the fact it was certainly put into production not because someone inside the company’s Emeryville headquarters had a bright idea regarding what to do with that universe, but due to how Disney felt the need to sell merchandise for young boys. As a consequence, moviegoers were treated to a 90-minute toy commercial that not only lacked a plot and a heart but that also saw a secondary comic-relief character be thrust into the spotlight.

It goes without saying that the reason Cars 3 exists is the same fuel that powered its predecessor: Disney’s wish to sell toys. After all, nothing else could explain Cars – one of Pixar’s least-revered products – has now as many installments as the brilliant Toy Story, while other properties that could receive organic sequels lie locked away in a jailhouse overseen by Lotso, the hugging bear. Yet, where Cars 2 ran of fumes during the entirety of its running time, Cars 3 feels a lot more genuine: the former meaninglessness stood still and lacked a purpose that would justify its existence; the latter moves the universe forward to what seems to be a natural conclusion to the racing life of its star.

In Cars 3, Lightning McQueen has grown old. He has not lost a bit of his jovial attitude and youthful energy; however, new technology-infused cars are slowly arriving to compete for the Piston Cup, and little by little McQueen and his peers are being replaced by team owners and sponsors. Desperate to keep up with the youngsters, following a series of losses, and struggling to accept a smaller role in the races and an inevitable upcoming retirement, the seven-time champion pushes himself to the limit during one of the championship’s rounds and suffers a terrible accident that brings his season to an end. While the media speculates and insinuates McQueen’s crash will be the final chapter of his career, he is left to do some soul-searching and training in order to come back to the track to prove he still has energy to burn and also to retire on his own terms.

cars32As such, Cars 3 sheds an unexpectedly intriguing light into the life of a superstar that has to cope with the fact a newer generation of up-and-coming hotshots is leaving them in the dust. It is not exactly a plot thread that is universally relatable, but it works: it engages the audience in the obstacles McQueen must overcome during his rehab, which seem to be unsurmountable given the unstoppable powers of Father Time; it carries some level of originality; and it pushes the franchise towards an inevitable and sensible ending, which hopefully will indeed be the final cinematic outing of the property.

Given its setup, Cars 3 runs the serious risk of being a movie that announces the full extent of its story’s arch right in its introductory act. By the time McQueen realizes he needs to return to racing and prove he can still beat his rivals, it is easy to visualize a training routine of ups and downs that will culminate with an unlikely victory that will silence his media detractors, and awe his younger and smug competitors. In a way, that is precisely what happens in Cars 3, as McQueen struggles to balance his traditional approach to training with the new technological regimes of the sport; has problems accepting he is not longer the fastest car in the cup; has a major confrontation with his new trainer, the likable and good-hearted Cruz Ramirez, who grew up dreaming of being a racer while watching McQueen’s victories; and eventually finds a way to come out on top.

However, Cars 3 – showing glimpses of the brilliancy that still lies within Pixar – follows that road by taking some unexpected detours that make the journey worthwhile. Cruz is an excellent character. By serving as McQueen’s main companion and bringing her own conflicts and backstory to the table, she shoves Mater (from whom, following Cars 2, the audience needed a much necessary break) to the side and anchors the movie in emotion rather than in humor, which is right up Pixar’s alley of greatness. Moreover, by traveling off the beaten track, literally and figuratively, Cars 3 puts McQueen back in touch with the legendary, and now deceased, Doc Rivers, who through flashbacks and stories told by his old racing peers brings vital levels of character development for both McQueen and Cruz, with the former learning a thing or two about the unmeasurable value and joy of teaching and passing the torch to others.

CARS 3Despite its heart and purpose, and even though it carries some of the best scenes to ever appear in a Cars movie (which, for some, is not saying a whole lot), Cars 3 is still held back by a couple of issues. Firstly, there is the fact that its detours do not totally save its arch from being somewhat predictable, making it fall below the impossibly high threshold of quality Pixar set up for themselves – one that the very recent Inside Out proves they can still reach. Secondly, and far more aggravating, is how the solid ninety minutes of Cars 3 are almost completely squandered in a climax that has got to qualify as the most hamfisted act Pixar has ever launched towards the silver screen.

The conclusion of Cars 3 is not completely outlandish because during the entirety of the movie there is an underlying theme, which is very well disguised, that leads up to it. Therefore, it is clear the movie’s final act was constructed with the purpose of serving as a delightful moment of epiphany to the audience; an occurrence that would make all of the film’s pieces fall beautifully into place. However, its execution leaves a lot to be desired, and no amount of suspension of disbelief (even for a movie where cars talk) could make what happens in the final moments of Cars 3 outlandish but acceptable, and it is clear some rewriting and adapting (extra work that perhaps Disney did not want to afford) would be necessary to make the execution match the excellent intention.

All in all, however, even if it carries an ending that happens through means that may dynamite the experience as a whole to some, Cars 3 is a good movie. It may fall by the lower echelon of Pixar flicks, where Brave, Cars, and Monsters University lie; but, at the same time, it floats far above the cringe-inducing experiences created by Cars 2 and The Good Dinosaur. With Cars 3, Pixar leads its least-admired franchise to a conclusion that comes off as natural and, to some degree, necessary, and therein exists the greatest victory of the movie: instead of making viewers wonder why it was produced in the first place, it takes them on the wheels of a journey that is a pleasant and entertaining ride. With Cars 3, McQueen and his peers can ride into the sun with some dignity, leaving the racing tracks on a sweet note, like a superstar who retires on their own terms and when the time is right.


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Albums of the Month: November 2017

as_you_wereAlbum: As You Were

Artist: Liam Gallagher

Released: October 6th, 2017

Highlights: Wall of Glass, Paper Crown, For What It’s Worth, Chinatown

Following the disbanding of Oasis in 2009, it was common knowledge among fans and music aficionados alike that, out of the two warring Gallagher brothers, Noel would most likely be the one to do better on his own. Surely, Liam – via his voice and behavior – embodied a lot of the coolness, and rock and roll recklessness upon Oasis was built; however, as great as his interpretations might have been, he was – ultimately – a singer who lent voice to the creative work of Noel, whose pen and paper gave birth to many of the greatest anthems of the nineties. It was not shocking, then, that while Noel was able to achieve solid critical acclaim while fronting his own band (Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds), Liam struggled to find solid footing with Beady Eye, in which he and other former members of Oasis were left with the task of filling up full albums with fresh material, something they never had to do as a part of the Britpop phenomenon.

After the implosion of Beady Eye, it seems Liam – armed with extra maturity and knowledge – was able to learn two very valuable lessons: first, that with his strong personality, perhaps more stability can be found in a solo career; second, that even though his own songwriting eventually yields shiny gems (such as “Songbird” from Oasis’ “Heathen Chemistry”), he needs collaborators to help him through the ordeal of writing a full album. Those two reasons alone make “As You Were” be remarkable: almost a decade after Oasis exploded as spectacularly as everyone thought they eventually would, the signature voice of the band is once more featured in a record of solid rock songs that will put listeners back in touch with his confrontational persona while also giving them a glimpse of a more sober and older version of Liam Gallagher.

Like Noel has done while fronting the High Flying Birds, Liam never quite treads back towards the bombastic rock sound of Oasis; a rather wise decision given the past cannot be reproduced and the world of music is vast enough to house many new possibilities. Still, through a few hooks (such as the ones found on the choruses of the beautifully layered ballad “For What It’s Worth” and of the pounding “Wall of Glass”) and guitar-oriented pieces (“You Better Run”, “I Get By”, and “Come Back to Me”) he gets pretty close to channeling some Oasis-like vibes, even if the rockers lean towards the generic and passable. It is quite pleasant, though, to see Liam drop his thick outer shell and let vulnerability and more personal songwriting shine through in cuts like the fully acoustic “Chinatown”; in the quiet yet grandiose “Universal Gleam”, where he sings of acquired wisdom; and in “When I’m in Need”, where Liam and Noel’s biggest influence (The Beatles) is clearly perceived from a melodic and lyrical standpoint.

In fact, nodding towards his idols is something Liam does quite a lot in “As You Were”, as he has perhaps seen the freedom of a solo effort as a chance to pay the due respects to those he feels deserve it. Through the record, he either quotes or downright names Neil Young, Joy Division, The Kinks, Talking Heads, Grateful Dead, and others; there is even space for mentioning the title of the second record of Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds (“Chasing Yesterday”) even though in that instance the reference is more likely meant as a stab rather than a homage. Overall, “As You Were” is surprisingly good, albeit not great. The tracks Liam penned on his own, with the exception of “Universal Gleam”, certainly fall behind those in which he had the help of collaborators: they are not bad, but they fail to impress. Moreover, like his brother, Liam is rather irregular and sometimes too obvious as a lyricist. Nevertheless, the fact that, on the closing days of 2017, the main voice of Oasis has unexpectedly emerged with an album that holds a good amount of excellent tunes is a satisfying gift to the music world.

chain_gang_of_loveAlbum: Chain Gang of Love

Artist: The Raveonettes

Released: August 25th, 2003

Highlights: Remember, That Great Love Sound, Heartbreak Stroll, Little Animal

Sugary pop melodies borrowed straight from girl groups of the 60s and the early work of The Beach Boys combined with a polluted, dark, and noisy ambiance – which can be traced back to “The Velvet Underground and Nico” – provided by fuzzy guitars and blistering bursts of feedback. With such a description, one could easily be talking about The Jesus and Mary Chain; after all, those heterogeneous elements were somehow successfully mixed together in the bowels of Scotland by the Reid brothers and unleashed violently upon the world for the first time in 1985 via a classic album appropriately called “Psychocandy”. Almost two decades later, amidst the rock revival of the early 2000s, that recipe was brought back to the forefront by The Raveonettes in their debut, “Chain Gang of Love”.

As The Jesus and Mary Chain would prove during the course of their great discography, that particular brand of noise pop is – despite its greatness and originality – severely limited. As so, it would be easy to beat on The Raveonettes for treading the very same sonic waters that had been so vastly explored during a not-so-distant past; and, indeed, “Chain Gang of Love” has such blatant echoes of “Psychocandy” that occasionally listeners may be led to think some of its tracks had already been written and put to record by The Jesus and Mary Chain before 2003. However, “Chain Gang of Love” has a set of songs that is so strong, carrying hooks that are so irresistible, that complaints regarding a supposed lack of inventiveness quickly succumb to how The Raveonettes’ catchy bubblegum melodies, paired up with blasts of cacophony, stick to listeners’ minds after a few spins.

It is not all purely derivative, though. Sune Rose Wagner and Sharin Foo, who form the duo, harmonize pretty much through the entire album, thereby accentuating the pop side of the songs a little more than the abrasive noise. Additionally, Sharin Foo’s soothing feminine voice places the tracks closer to the playfulness of the girl groups of the 60s than to the avant-garde mannerisms of The Velvet Underground. Therefore, while The Jesus and Mary Chain tackled pop hooks because it was simply subversive to drown them in unaccessible feedback, The Raveonettes approach them because it is part of their nature. And that makes quite a difference. The brothers who formed The Jesus and Mary Chain could not harmonize if their lives depended on it; furthermore, it was part of their rebellion to sing the sweetest melodies with the utmost indifference. Wagner and Foo, conversely, are clearly having fun amidst the sugar and buzz.

Surely, there are tracks, like “Remember” (which comes packed with a solo guitar line that William Reid would unquestionably applaud) and “Noisy Summer” (which has a discomforting and lengthy explosion of feedback to rival those of “Psychocandy”), where Wagner and Foo pay homage to The Jesus and Mary Chain by singing the lines as if they were bored out of their minds. The Raveonettes, though, anchor their music in previously untouched slices of water when they put enthusiasm behind the hooks they are sending out towards the world, like in the fantastic choruses of “That Great Love Sound” and “Heartbreak Stroll”, which are accompanied by angular riffs that could have appeared on The Strokes’ first two records; in “Let’s Rave On”, which is played at Ramones-like speed; and “Love Can Destroy”, where the pair uses their noise pop to create an unlikely ballad. Among many great records that suddenly poured into the market during the rock revival of the first years of the century, “Chain Gang of Love” is, therefore, an overlooked gem that leaves nothing to be desired when compared to the usual giants of the era.

murray_streetAlbum: Murray Street

Artist: Sonic Youth

Released: June 25th, 2002

Highlights: The Empty Page, Disconnection Notice, Karen Revisited

More than an institution of noise rock, Sonic Youth has always stood as a role model for indie bands due to a career arc that saw the group emerging from the American underground scene until they slowly made their way to stardom on their own terms. Therefore, as four individuals who always approached music in the way they saw fit, it is hard to say that by 2002 the band was lost; they were, in fact, precisely where they wanted to be. Still, their latest two releases, “A Thousand Leaves”, from 1998, and “NYC Ghosts & Flowers”, from 2000, indicated a key element of their sound was missing, the very item that produced musical masterpieces that bridged the inscrutable experimentalism of dissonant soundscapes with immediate pop flavors. That sweet balance between avant-garde tendencies and likable hooks was too diluted in the long-winded jams of “A Thousand Leaves” and it was completely absent from the unstructured cacophony of “NYC Ghosts & Flowers”. In that sense, “Murray Street” is a moment of epiphany; a point in time when, whether organically or intentionally, Sonic Youth reconnected with their most accessible and best nuances.

It is not that “Murray Street” is devoid of challenges or unchained trips down a rabbit hole of buzz, it actually has plenty of those: “Rain on Tin” opens up with eight brief verses before being sucked into a gripping jam full of ups and downs that continues until the track hits the eight-minute mark; “Karen Revisited” follows three minutes of one of the band’s most hooky melodies with eight minutes of abstract noise; and “Sympathy for the Strawberry” also concludes with a lengthy instrumental segment that shows the band is still embracing the concept of extending songs to their limit, an idea that had been fully explored in “A Thousand Leaves”. In “Murray Street”, however, the band seems to be bent on contrasting beauty with chaos. As so, they build songs that lean as heavily on ringing guitars whose tones have the cleanliness of Television’s “Marquee Moon” as they do on Moore and Ranaldo extracting sounds from their guitars no one thought existed until Sonic Youth came along.

And it is with that concept in their hearts that the band travels through the length of “Murray Street”. Similarly to what happens in a great Pavement record, no song makes it to the end unscathed. The sweet and soft rock of “The Empty Page” features a middle segment where Moore and Ranaldo scratch the strings of their guitars to oblivion; the equally smooth “Disconnection Notice” has an omnipresent wave of feedback looming in its background; the astounding choruses of “Karen Revisited” are haunted by loud bursts of noise that threaten to make the song implode, which is exactly what happens at the three-minute mark, when listeners are taken to a void where only the most confronting sounds exist; and “Plastic Sun” is a short and angry tune where the buzzsaw guitars of punk rock are replaced by what might as well be a buzzsaw itself, only it is lacking oil, creaky, and spinning so out of control it might burst out of its axis at any moment.

Consequently, after seven years during which Sonic Youth opted to explore grounds far removed from those that yielded their finest records, such as “Sister” and “Daydream Nation”, the band comes gloriously back to that realm. “Murray Street” is a remarkably strong record from a group that has been able to maintain an unlikely consistency during a long career. And, much due to its impressive melodic components and sober guitar-playing during the sung portions of the tracks, it might as well be one of Sonic Youth’s most welcoming set of songs, setting the band up nicely for a stunning run of records that would bring a historical and transgressive path to a victorious close.

franks_wild_yearsAlbum: Franks Wild Years

Artist: Tom Waits

Released: August 17th, 1987

Highlights: Hang on St. Christopher, Innocent When You Dream (Barroom), I’ll Be Gone, Yesterday Is Here

“Franks Wild Years” is the final piece of a trilogy that saw Tom Waits transform from a late-night bar crooner who played sorrowful ballads for drunkards and losers into a musical madman who sang like Captain Beefheart and whose band used an assortment of instruments acquired at the nearest landfill. Rather than feeling like a culmination of what preceded it, though, it comes off as comedown; such quality, however, is more closely tied to the excellence of the two legs that came before it than to the tracks it contains. “Swordfishtrombones”, from 1983, was a revelatory explosion of wild and insane ideas that were frantically splattered over the wall of a dark dirty alley located by a shady harbor where drunken sailors, abundant prostitutes, and violent mafia henchmen lurked. “Rain Dogs”, released two years later, was the consolidated masterpiece created in a colorful carnival that had the joy sucked out of it by a downpour, which led its attendees to go from happy families to bums and beggars looking for shelter inside the rides and tents.

“Franks Wild Years” is, therefore, the hangover: the sailors are back to the ocean, the prostitutes have receded into the brothels, the mafia henchmen have been killed, and the beggars and bums are lying unconscious over piles of garbage. Nevertheless, even if the scene is neither as refreshing and alluring as the one from “Swordfishtrombones” nor as inspired as the one from “Rain Dogs”, “Franks Wild Years” is quite fruitful, frantic, and varied. All the usual suspects from Waits’ rackety orchestra of lunatics are here: there are enough horns to assemble a big band, there is a melancholic accordion over which Tom sings at his most intoxicated, there is a piano for when sadness seeps in, there are keyboards and electric organs that are employed to create a foggy atmosphere, there are more kinds of percussive instruments than one can find in a calypso ensemble, and there is even a rooster, whose playing (done by undisclosed means) is credited to Tom Waits himself. With that army of instruments, which are most certainly in precarious states, Tom tackles – and finds success – in numerous genres, giving his restless spin to each one of them and somehow bringing it all together under an idiosyncratic umbrella.

Originally serving as songs for a play Waits wrote with his wife, Kathleen Brennan, “Franks Wild Years” follows the titular character through a sleazy trail that alternates hope and despair, which are always underscored by a destructive nature that appears right in the opener, “Hang on St. Christopher”, where Frank – who is driving recklessly – asks the patron saint of drivers for protection. As Frank takes his emotional turns upwards and downwards, the record zaps stylistically: “I’ll Be Gone” can bet better described as pirate music; “Straight to the Top” gets two wildly different versions, one in which Waits dabbles in rumba and another where he emulates Frank Sinatra; “Train Song” is a traditional Waits bawler where the piano takes center stage; “Temptation” is carried by the Cuban guitar of Marc Ribot; “Innocent When You Dream”, which earns two version as well, is an irresistible and tipsy sing-along; and “I’ll Take New York” is another shot at Frank Sinatra territory, only – in this case – Frank is too inebriated to care and his band has not rehearsed in a decade.

As such, even though the position of “Franks Wild Years” in Tom Waits discography has led many to qualify it as a lesser release – and it indeed is inferior to the two albums that came before it, such a drop does not stop it from being utterly remarkable. Due to the fact its tunes originated on the stage, as part of the same play, there is a thematic and atmospheric coherence that permeates the entire work, one that lends it a cinematic aura, as if it songs were meant to conjure – and perhaps be accompanied by – moving images. It is a trip through the back alleys of life guided by the always watchful, insightful, and romantic eye of Tom Waits, and he expresses what he sees and gives life to the characters that inhabit his mind in unashamed musical experimentation and rich lyrical imagery.

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Rhythm Heaven Fever Review

Original in its concept, outrageous in its presentation, silly in its heart and amusing its feel

rhythm_heaven_fever2In a world where, most of the times, more is usually seen as better, gamers who appreciate the two sides of the gaming world (its capacity to produce gems that are impressively big and complex, but to also come up with titles that are delightfully simple)  end up falling victim to an extreme need to play something that is stripped down, straightforward and fun; a game that does not demand huge amounts of physical or mental exercise, and that amuses without trying too hard. This huge void, caused by the industry’s intense rush to increasingly produce games with more flash, is where simplicity is acknowledged as a redeeming quality, and that space is occasionally filled up by companies with very creative minds that have no fear of swimming against the undertow.

Rhythm Heaven first appeared on the Nintendo DS as a fun alternative to either those who wanted to get into the rhythm gaming genre but did not have the ability to deal with the overwhelming amount of buttons that had to be mastered in Guitar Hero and Rock Band, or as a nice break for fans of those two titles that were on the lookout for a simpler, yet charming, experience. After its well-acclaimed original title, the series spread its wings and landed on the Nintendo Wii, and the result was a musical experience as great as any other one out there.

The first thing players will notice is how the game looks. In a similar fashion to what happened to the WarioWare series when it migrated to the Nintendo Gamecube, even though Rhythm Heaven now finds its home in a much more powerful hardware, the developers behind the game decided to leave its looks unaltered. After all – like it happens in Wario’s mini-game madness – the way the game looks is a big reason behind its distinct personality.

rhythm_heaven_fever3Rhythm Heaven would not be itself if quirky hand-drawn 2-D animations had been replaced by fancy polygonal models and attention-diverting environments, and it is an absolute blessing that Nintendo was sensible enough to realize that. Those who have played through the original will automatically feel at home when they glance at the game’s intentionally low production values; meanwhile, those who are new to this musical insanity will be pleased at how delightful the marriage between the rough over-the-top animations and the game’s vibe is. Equally, then, the two groups will be united in realizing that even though what is seen on screen does not quite make sense in a deep way, it is still an awesome companion to the act of pressing the button to the rhythm.

Rhythm Heaven Fever features a whopping fifty musical mini-games that last between one and three minutes each. During those musical challenges players will be met with a scenario that will involve an extravagant and wacky activity that demands rhythmic precision that matches the songs that play in the background of each mini-game. The scenarios include a pair of cats playing tennis while flying airplanes (which extrapolates all concepts of awesomeness), a samurai who must battle dark spirits in an equally dark forest, a wrestler giving interviews and posing for pictures, a boy deflecting sports balls in order to protect his date, and a bunch of seals who march to the beat and occasionally perform more complex physical maneuvers.

It sounds like total lunacy, and it is indeed absolutely insane; Rhythm Heaven unearths rhythmical scenarios in outlandish situations and makes them come off as even wackier as they are by definition by presenting them in a rough yet cute art style. And those are just five of the forty, or so, unique scenarios players will encounter during their playthrough; all of which are incredibly fun, and look like they have been created by a very mad man with an incredible sense of humor and the ability to find rhythmical value in the most mundane situations.

rhythm_heaven_fever4Being a game that demands ridiculous precision – where being off by a split of a second means not being timely enough and letting the tennis ball the cats are playing with fall from the sky, or making the wrestler pose awkwardly or say something stupid  – Rhythm Heaven Fever could have suffered, and made players suffer along with it, if motion controls had been implemented.

Thankfully, as a statement on its simplicity, the game only makes use of two buttons on the Wiimote – A and B – and that is pretty much it. Variety, then, does not come from the amount of actions that can be performed, but from the different presentation of the scenarios, their individual rhythmical quirks, and the different musical genres players will encounter throughout the game. Unlike more traditional music games, Rhythm Heaven does not challenge players by presenting ultra-fast finger-bending sequences of button presses; instead, it simply focuses on keeping up with the beat and adjusting, and recovering, from the rhythmical changes, which will always try to throw players out of their groove, that will occur during the mini-games.

The game’s structure is extremely linear. The 50 mini-games are unlocked one at a time, meaning players cannot proceed to the next mini-game if they want to take a break from their current challenge or avoid the frustration a certain mini-game might be causing them. For each set of four mini-games that are completed, a remix will be revealed, where the previous four activities are all mixed up into a three-minute song that will challenge players’ muscle memory into performing the different rhythms learned from the previous four challenges and successfully switching back and forth from one to another.

rhythm_heaven_fever5Completing the 50 mini-games will not take too long, probably between five and six hours, but it is always possible to go back and replay all levels in order to try to get a perfect score and a golden medal, which can be exchanged for little extras like endless mini-games where players can keep going following the rhythm until they screw up; a simple multiplayer mode, where 10 of the game’s mini-games can be replayed by two players; or a jukebox with the game’s many nice catchy tunes.

Sadly, Rhythm Heaven Fever does inherit some very basic flaws from its predecessor that could have been easily fixed. First of all, it is impossible to simply restart a mini-game once players notice they are not doing well enough to get a passing grade. They are therefore forced to pause, quit – which will lead them back to the game’s starting screen – and trace their way back to the mini-game in question. Considering how much practice some mini-games require in order to be cleared, or worse, how many times one must play a mini-game in order to try to achieve a perfect score, not adding a retry option to the pause menu is a big sin that leads to a lot of unnecessary frustration, especially to those who will get so addicted to Rhythm Heaven they will try their best to unlock all secrets the game has to offer.

Secondly, the game features a suspicious grading system. Thinking you did just fine to get an “ok” and getting a “That could have been better” instead will be a common occurrence that will baffle – and anger – anyone who has been trying to clear a mini-game for quite some time. Thus, it would have been a positive transparent move to add some sort of performance bar so players could visually check how they are faring as the mini-games progress.

rhythm_heaven6Still, Rhythm Heaven Fever is an absolute blast to play, look at and listen to: it is a feast for the senses. Games who embrace a simple approach to gameplay often rely on being addictive as a mean to achieve success, and an extremely addictive title is precisely the final result that comes out of this cauldron of insanity, wackiness, lack of common sense, music, colors and rhythm. Sure, there a few frustrating moments here and there; sure, some of the issues the game presents are addressed by any course of Game Design 101 out there; but what matters in the end is the bottom line, and the bottom line is Rhythm Heaven Fever is, like its predecessors, a unique gem among music games. It is original in its concept, outrageous in its presentation, silly in its heart and amusing in its feel. Rhythm Heaven Fever is, by all means, a game that is worth playing.

Rhythm Heaven Fever

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Super Mario Odyssey Review

Super Mario Odyssey greatly refreshes the property not by moving forward, but by looking fifteen years into the past, rescuing a gameplay style many thought to be dead, and making it bigger and better than ever

odyssey9Fifteen years. To those who either have lived long lives or have the tendency to look at the world through large time scales, it may seem like a brief period. To the Mario franchise, though, fifteen years, as of 2017, amount to almost half of its lengthy and often glorious history – a journey that has frequently merged with and impacted the timeline of gaming itself. And yet, that was exactly how much time it took Nintendo to take the plumber back to the root of his tridimensional adventures: one that focuses on free-roaming exploration rather than on the clearing of obstacle courses in which advancing means following the only available and predetermined path. And if the last example of open gameplay – Super Mario Sunshine, of the now distant year of 2002 – as well as the subsequent lengthy leave of absence the plumber took from wide and open spaces made many question whether the genre could still succeed in a widely different surrounding context, Super Mario Odyssey makes all doubts and skepticism quickly implode as they are hit by a mighty, and suspiciously mustachioed, Banzai Bill.

After unearthing a trio of undeniable gems (the two Super Mario Galaxy games and Super Mario 3D World) in the realm of linear 3-D platforming, Nintendo wisely decided that such a field had been sufficiently exploited in recent years and that the best way to keep the Mario franchise rolling as relentlessly as it had always been would be by revisiting its past from a bigger, more ambitious, and more creative perspective. As it is often the case, the company succeeds in its goal, and that is why Super Mario Odyssey comes off as such a remarkable game. It feels celebratory for in its quest to be as large as possible it ends up embracing and referencing elements from a history that has lasted for over three decades; it feels nostalgic yet refreshing for, after a long time, it puts Mario back inside environments that are just begging to have every inch of their surfaces explored; and it feels awe-inspiring for it implements excellent features that had never been even marginally tackled.

In a way, much due to these evident qualities, Super Mario Odyssey seems like a grand culmination. It is not a perfect game, as although it does not forget to turn any stones, it does leave open a few blatant opportunities for future improvements. However, running through the full extent of its quest there is a feeling the bits squeezed into the Super Mario Bros. cartridges, the strands of hair pulled out as developers found ways to approach the ambitions of Super Mario World, the frustrations of figuring out how to make a Mario game work in a 3-D environment during the development of Super Mario 64, and all the delightfully insane ideas crafted for the Super Mario Galaxy games have all been leading to it. And Super Mario Odyssey is good enough to make one say the certainly demanding and grinding adventure was worth it.

odyssey7Super Mario Odyssey’s position as some sort of climax is even present in its plot. Right as the game begins, Mario is seen battling a gallantly dressed Bowser aboard an airship. Princess Peach has been, as settled by tradition, kidnapped. This time around, though, Bowser’s plan is more final and straightforward than keeping her inside a room of his castle while he uses an evil contraption to conquer the known universe: he simply wants to marry her. Not only that, but on his way to the rather special location he has picked for the celebration he will stop in various kingdoms of the world looking to steal legendary items (such as a ring, a wedding dress, a cake, and a bouquet) that will make for a historically sumptuous reception.

As the battle rages on, Mario falls from the airship and has his cap torn to pieces by one of the vessel’s propellers. He lands on a dark and mysterious kingdom inhabited by half-hat-half-ghost creatures; as it turns out, the place has just been ravaged by Bowser and his minions, who dropped by to take away a shiny and living tiara. By forging an alliance with her brother, who quickly takes up the empty space on Mario’s head by turning into the hero’s signature red cap, he quickly procures a ship – the titular Odyssey – aboard which he can follow Bowser and stop the wedding.

And such is the general progression of Super Mario Odyssey: the character gets to a kingdom in which Bowser is wreaking havoc, deals with the trouble, watches as the wedding entourage makes a tight escape, and moves on to the next stop right on their tail. The twist is that the Odyssey requires fuel in order to give chase to Bowser and his troupe of wedding planners, and that is where the power moons – Odyssey’s equivalent to the stars of Super Mario 64 and to the shines of Super Mario Sunshine – come into play. They are the ship’s fuel; therefore, traveling to the next kingdom and trying to stop a sacred stew or a cherished bottle of sparkly water from being stolen can only be done after a specific amount of power moons has been collected.

odyssey4Therein lies part of the beauty of Super Mario Odyssey: the freedom it bestows upon gamers. By simply following the main mandatory goals of each kingdom, which are required to deal with the mad rabbits that are in cahoots with Bowser, players will only acquire a handful of moons. The remaining fuel units that are necessary to take the Odyssey off the ground require that players put their explorer hats on and dive into some of the side missions of every kingdom; and given how ridiculously abundant those partially optional power moons are, with pretty much all kingdoms holding between thirty and eighty of them, the adventure is highly open to customization.

As such, less experienced players can choose to collect just about what is necessary before moving on; meanwhile, those who have been following Mario around for quite some time can opt to sweep the kingdoms looking for as many secrets as possible before proceeding. It is a wise design choice that makes Super Mario Odyssey very welcoming to all audiences. At the same time, the fact such a structure is already sufficient to allow casual gamers to hop aboard the train without much trouble makes it a little bit disappointing most of the kingdoms leading up to the final battle and a huge percentage of the power moons they contain lean a bit too much towards the easy side, with a level of difficulty that falls below the one present in Mario’s most recent 3-D outings.

That problem, however, is alleviated by the sheer and unbridled joy contained in almost every passing moment of Super Mario Odyssey. That bliss stems from many places. Although Super Mario Odyssey feels absolutely big, when it comes to the construction of the kingdoms Nintendo traded pure size for detailed design, and the approach paid off. With one exception, none of the game’s levels are considerably larger than those of Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Sunshine; the main and most important difference between the kingdoms of Odyssey and the worlds of those two titles is that not a single inch of virtual space goes to waste in Super Mario Odyssey. Be it in the vast expanse of the desert of the Sand Kingdom or in the urban skyscraper-filled streets of the Metro Kingdom, it is incredibly mesmerizing how absolutely every corner that is explored in Super Mario Odyssey comes with a reward, whether it is a moon, a batch of regional coins (which are kingdom-specific currency that can be used in the local shop to buy costumes for Mario and other items), or other secrets.

odyssey3The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild gave life to its adventure and gargantuan world by finding a way to punctuate the entire landscape with alluring sights, side-missions, and places; Super Mario Odyssey does the same, but on a much smaller scale – one that is far more suiting for a platformer – and with a far greater density. Exploring the kingdoms of Super Mario Odyssey is the constant sighting of new places to go, as players will regularly be making mental notes to, once they are done with their current goal, go back and check a door, a ledge, or a path they have spotted while on the way to the moon they are chasing at the moment. And these small adventures will invariably yield results, creating an endless stream of satisfying moments.

Super Mario Odyssey does not shine solely in relation to its unprecedentedly meticulous world design. Much like Super Mario Sunshine, only more frequently, it pairs up open-ended exploration with moments when tighter, linear, and more traditional platforming challenges come into play. Many of the side paths and ledges of its kingdoms – as well as their standard main routes – include pipes and doors that lead the way to either enclosed spaces or amusing and seamlessly integrated 8-bit sequences that test players’ abilities to perform timely jumps and navigate through small platforms. As a consequence, Super Mario Odyssey ends up tackling, with excellence, both spectra of 3-D Mario platformers: the exploratory line, in which it easily topples both Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Sunshine, setting a new standard for the genre; and the linear vein, in which it fails to overcome the mind-blowing exuberance of the Super Mario Galaxy pair, but where it still succeeds in amazing gamers via cleverness, variety, and punctual insanity.

Alongside the unbelievable quantity of secrets and detours packed into each kingdom, Super Mario Odyssey’s defining trait, and certainly its best feature, is Mario’s ability to use his animated cap companion – appropriately named Cappy – to capture enemies and even a few lifeless objects. In total, there are slightly over fifty transformations available, each coming with unique quirks and useful abilities and giving the captured subjects a hilarious red cap and thick mustache. Capturing a Goomba, for example, will allow Mario to walk on ice without slipping and create enormous stacks of the creatures to reach higher places; becoming a Cheep Cheep, meanwhile, lets the plumber swim at high speeds and without having to worry about air (therefore making him able to reach very deep regions of the ocean); and Moe-Eyes, a new statue-like enemy, reveal invisible pathways when they put their stylish sunglasses on.

odyssey5The only downside that exists in the transformations is that certain skills of the captured entities can only be activated by shaking the Switch’s controller, a quirk that will undoubtedly frustrate those who do not appreciate motion controls. Moreover, when playing the game in the system’s portable mode, shaking the controllers means shaking the screen itself, which can be a bit confusing in regards to keeping track of what is going on in the game. Motion is also required for some of Mario’s movements; fortunately, in that case, such actions are generally minor (such as special kinds of cap throws or climbing poles more quickly) and will not come remotely close to breaking gameplay to those averse to any sort of motion-related moves.

It goes without saying that various of the moons and goals found in the kingdoms of Super Mario Odyssey make smart use of Mario’s many transformations – such as using a Lakitu to fish or a Hammer Bros. to break through walls. Consequently, given that sort of gameplay cannot be found anywhere else in the Super Mario saga, the transformations and their related moons are responsible for numerous of the game’s finest and most remarkable moments. Sadly, it feels a few of them are underused: for instance, the mighty Tyrannosaurus Rex only shows up twice to break a few rocky blocks; at the same time, Piranha Plants (of the fire and poison varieties) have no practical use whatsoever; and Chargin’ Chucks, which may as well be the most fun transformation to control, just appear towards the end of the game in very small sections.

Through a more positive perspective, though, that weakness can actually be seen as a major strength. In most games out there, powerful features like some of the transformations found in Super Mario Odyssey would have been used until they succumbed to repetition: Chargin’ Chuck and T. Rex segments would appear constantly until they stopped being fun. Here, though, Nintendo has so many absurd and smart ideas that they are constantly hopping between them, abandoning the transformations (with a few exceptions) before they overstay their welcome; therefore leaving players craving for more instead of making them wish the game would move on to different grounds.

odyssey2One aspect of Super Mario Odyssey that could have been unquestionably given a little more attention to, though, is found in the costumes. All kingdoms have thematically corresponding clothes that can be bought in the local shop with regional coins; as such, Mario can purchase an aviator costume in the Lost Kingdom and acquire caveman gear in the Cascade Kingdom. Wearing some of these costumes lets Mario walk into locked rooms where moons lie in wait. Sadly, all that it takes to get those moons is precisely that: entering the room. Like the transformations, these kingdom-related costumes could have given Mario a distinct ability to be used in specific challenges. Instead, like the dozens of extra clothes that can be bought with regular coins, they end up being mere – yet amusing – aesthetic changes.

The ease with which those costume-related moons can be acquired actually reflects a small issue that plagues some of Super Mario Odyssey’s main item. It is somewhat mind-boggling to think levels that are slightly bigger than those of Super Mario 64, which housed seven stars each, have up to ten times as many treasures. And while that abundance is linked to the stunning and unprecedented amount of secrets the kingdoms hold and the fact that every corner hides something to be discovered, it also causes some of the moons not to feel like achievements. Some of them are just lying around in plain sight waiting to be found, being just one ground pound or one jump away from being unearthed, or are related to recurring goals that are fun, but too simple (like playing Toad the song he wants to listen to based on a vague description, capturing rabbits that are running around the place, and a few others).

However, given Super Mario Odyssey carries an unbelievable amount of 836 moons scattered around seventeen kingdoms, complaining about how a tiny percentage of them are not demanding enough qualifies as major and empty nitpicking. Trying to collect as many of them as possible – or all of them – is a goal that will lure most players, because Super Mario Odyssey is a game that deserves to be explored to its total extent due to the pleasant surprises it contains and the constant feeling (which materializes) that there are smart gameplay ideas in every corner. Smartly, Nintendo gives gamers the tools to find all of them without the aid of a guide, via a Toad and a parrot that are present in all kingdoms: the former will mark the location of moons on the map for a small fee, while the latter will utter the name of a moon that has yet to be found (a tip that is occasionally quite helpful due to the descriptive nature of the names). As a consequence, even less experienced players or those who do not feel like combing through levels repeatedly will have access to helping hands that will guide them in their journeys towards full completion.

odyssey8Following in the footsteps of most 3-D Mario games, Super Mario Odyssey offers quite a bit to do after Princess Peach is rescued, and those who want to attain the coveted 100% will have quite a bunch of engaging tasks and a whole lot of challenge to contend with. The engaging tasks come from how, following the final battle, all kingdoms go through minor changes – including the appearance of dozens of new moons – making revisits a delightful must that will yield even more surprises. Meanwhile, the challenge stems from three particularly tough kingdoms that are unlocked after Bowser is defeated. Although the level of difficulty found on the main quest is not particularly high, these kingdoms and the unlocked moons up the stakes considerably, and are bound to stump even the most experienced Super Mario players.

It is not just in size, ideas, and content that Super Mario Odyssey pushes the boundaries of Nintendo’s most popular franchise and of platformers as a whole. Visually, both in its cutscenes and in-game visuals, the game excels: its colors are vivid, its animations are fluid, and its artistic prowess is blatant. Save for a generally visually mundane Snow Kingdom, the game tackles scenarios that have been a part of the Mario franchise since its early days (such as deserts, lakes, beaches, islands, volcanoes, forests, and castles) with new artistic twists that make them feel like entirely new settings; additionally, a couple of unusually realistic portions – like the huge human-filled city of the Metro Kingdom – are daring thematic leaps that besides adding new flavors to the franchise also work wonders by bringing fresh ideas to the table.

The same can be said about the game’s sound department. Super Mario Odyssey never quite reaches the full sweeping orchestral grandeur of the Super Mario Galaxy titles, as such an approach to the soundtrack would not fit the game; and it is also arguable that most of its original songs are not as great as those composed for that duology. However, its songs serve their purpose quite well, and the game dares to bring a few tracks with vocals into the fray to expand the franchise’s musical palette. While in most cartoonish games the singing comes off as cheesy or cringe-worthy, Nintendo makes it work quite well for Super Mario Odyssey, which is extremely commendable.

odyssey6Given both games have shared the same release year and are major entries in two of gaming’s biggest franchises, it is tempting to compare Super Mario Odyssey to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Both are similar in the sense they easily rank among the best games ever produced and, as of their release, they are the biggest and most complete installments in their respective sagas. The main difference lies in how while Breath of the Wild took The Legend of Zelda to unforeseen new grounds setting new standards of quality along the way for the franchise and open-world games as a whole, Odyssey greatly refreshes Super Mario not by moving forward, but by looking fifteen years into the past, rescuing a gameplay style many thought to be dead, revitalizing it, and taking it to a new level.

Thanks to the impressive quantity of items to acquire in each kingdom (the dozens of moons and regional coins), Super Mario Odyssey often feels like a collectathon, but one that merges the exploration aspect that reigned over Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Sunshine with the linear goodness found in the most recent 3-D outings of the plumber. The meticulous design of its kingdoms, the cleverness of the capture mechanic and the doors of gameplay possibility that are blasted open due to it, and the fact secrets and new objectives are uncovered with every passing minute make Super Mario Odyssey an utter joy to play through, whether it is to those who will just clear its fifteen-hour adventure or to the daring gamers that will sink more than fifty hours into the experience to seek full completion. Super Mario Odyssey’s ridiculous abundance of ideas more than justify the spectacular size of the quest Nintendo has put together. Mario’s fifteen-year absence from open-ended platforming has clearly done wonders for Nintendo’s creative juices in that particular subgenre; Super Mario Odyssey feels like the simultaneous coming to life of all smart ideas that accumulated during that period.

Super Mario Odyssey

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Ever Oasis Review

Through light stumbles and heavy falls, Ever Oasis will be able to please – to different and somehow uncertain degrees – anyone who wants a dose of role-playing thrown into their Animal Crossing, or vice-versa

ever_oasisIn a world that is overrun by Chaos, a dark force of unknown origins that drains joy out of people and turns animals into aggressive monsters, various oases spread around a desertic landscape serve as peaceful refuges. Inside their gates, people are free to live, trade, and work together to create a healthy friendly environment; outside them, many dangers lurk. Eventually, however, Chaos grows stronger, and – one by one – the safe havens begin to succumb upon being attacked by its servants. When the very last oasis suddenly falls from its prosperity to total annihilation following a nightly attack, its chief – by using the last ounce of his strength – sends his younger sibling out into the world. Cradled inside a seed, the future oasis leader lands close to the fountain of a water spirit named Esna, who proceeds to say she is the last of her kind. As water spirits and their fountains are the birth place of oases, she urges the young seedling to join her in creating and maintaining the world’s final oasis and, consequently, its ultimate hope to fend off Chaos.

It is with the introduction of these very high stakes that Ever Oasis begins. One naive seedling and an inexperienced water spirit are all that stand in the way of doom, and it is up to players to find a way to balance the need for adventure that the fighting against Chaos entails with the equally urgent necessity to keep their oasis healthy, happy, populous, strong, and protected. With these two facets in place, Ever Oasis proceeds to build an experience that pairs up the town-keeping aspect of the Animal Crossing franchise with the exploration and dungeon-solving found in The Legend of Zelda. What comes out of that mixture is a role-playing game is a bit flawed, starting with a storyline development that leans too heavily towards the cheesy, but that is still able to come off as charming, colorful (despite the very limited palette of environments the game’s premise locks the art department into), fun, and full of heart.

No amount of work and talent would be enough to create a game whose town maintenance features are as deep and engaging as those of Animal Crossing while its adventure is as enthralling as that of a The Legend of Zelda title; moreover, such a combination would be potentially overwhelming for players brave enough to try to juggle those activities. That is why Ever Oasis brings those two sides together by making them lighter: for the oasis to run smoothly, travelers need to be drawn into its gates, have their needs met by the chief so they feel like staying, and the shops that get built need to be provided with the materials so that their goods can be produced; meanwhile, the puzzles that need to be figured out while out in the world and the regions that need to be explored are nicely designed but far more straightforward than what one would find inside Nintendo’s flagship franchise.

ever_oasis6In fact, for the most part, the adventuring and oasis-keeping walk hand in hand. As Chaos starts to threaten the peace of the place, the chief is tasked with recovering three artifacts that will further power up the protecting aura that emanates from the fountain and the water spirit. Invariably, the finding of these objects will send players towards monster-ridden open fields, the numerous big and small caves they house, an encounter with a new race of desert folk who hold the key to the artifact, and a dungeon that culminates with a boss battle. As they do so, players will naturally bump into lost travelers or eager adventurers who – upon hearing of the oasis – will promise to visit the place.

With a certain frequency – which can be either once every day or whenever the chief decides to drop by the oasis – the place’s gates will open to receive both shoppers, who will just come in looking to buy from the stores, and travelers, who will become residents if certain requirements are met. Sometimes, all they want is the availability of one or more specific products; on other occasions, they will ask the chief to recover items that have either been lost in the overworld or snatched by monsters. Regardless of the goal, Ever Oasis is kind enough to show, on players’ maps, a mark that displays the location of the desired item.

One small annoyance that arises from such a situation is that, at any specific time, only one sidequest can be activated, which means only one marker will be shown on the map. It would be perfectly fine if players were free to switch between active quests whenever they felt like it; however, that is not the case. Switching between active sidequests can only be done from within the oasis, and although it is possible to warp back home from anywhere in the world with two touches on the 3DS’ bottom screen, it is nevertheless dumbfounding such a limitation exists.

ever_oasis2Once requirements are met and travelers decide to stick around, their willing hands can be employed for the well-being of the community. Seedlings, such as the chief, will offer to set up specialized shops, which will lure new consumers and travelers besides earning the oasis some much-needed cash, and they can also be assigned to tend the oasis’ garden, planting seeds and flowers that can be used as resources both in the shops and in the forging of new equipment. Additionally, other races of desert folk will also pop up, and although they do not have the trading skills of seedlings, they are useful warriors that can – alongside the chief – form a three-member party to tackle the dangers that lurk in the desert.

Most of the residents will also carry with them rumors and information regarding new travelers that they got to know while out in the world. Such intel may pinpoint a specific cave where a potential visitor can be located or vague details that indicate that if, for example, an ice cream shop gets constructed, a certain someone is sure to appear. This creates a rather interesting and time-consuming (in a pleasant way) cycle in which every new resident paves the way for the arrival of a new visitor, allowing players to willingly take a break from the main adventure and focus on making the oasis’ population grow.

Thankfully, taking care of the oasis is not just an aesthetic matter. As the number of residents rises, the oasis can be leveled up, which aside from making the place actually bigger – opening up space for more shops, adding new levels to the garden, and more – also increases the HP of the party members and unlocks the recipes for the forging of more powerful equipment and healing items. Moreover, if players fail to keep shops properly stocked, leave many residents idling, and let party members fall in battle, the happiness of the oasis goes down, which negatively impacts the extra HP.

ever_oasis5Truthfully, given Ever Oasis is not a brutally challenging game, the little rewards that are given to those who keep the place running smoothly are not absolute musts: one can easily make do without either extremely powerful weapons or the added HP. In order to counter that, at certain points in the adventure, the game builds blatantly forced walls that stop players from progressing if the oasis has yet to reach a specific size. They are neither annoying nor tough to meet; however, not only does the fact they exist reveals Ever Oasis could have integrated the two gameplay universes it contains a little bit more effectively, it also corrodes a bit of the freedom that is so vital to a game that tries to emulate aspects Animal Crossing.

That liberty is also slightly harmed by how many parts of the overworld are locked away until characters with specific skills make their way to the oasis. Due to that, many times, further progressing in the construction of the oasis – that is, looking for the travelers that are mentioned in the rumors – can only be done if players go back to the main adventure and unlock new areas and characters. All of those little constraints shackle players to tackling activities in a predetermined order, when a looser and – in a way – smarter progression that allowed gamers to truly take control of their fates and the destiny of their oases would have done wonders for the game.

Despite that, taking care of the oasis, and watching it develop and grow more beautiful is undoubtedly fun. To make the whole process even more pleasant, Ever Oasis – little by little – provides players with town-keeping tools that greatly streamline the life of the chief, allowing gamers to – via simple menus – send out expeditions into areas that have already been explored so that materials from monsters or from the environment can be gathered; provide each shop with the components they need to manufacture their goods; and manage the garden.

ever_oasis3Some irregularity is also present in the Ever Oasis’ adventure aspect. The game’s action-based combat system is simple but fun, and the nice variety of enemies and bosses packed into Ever Oasis makes those encounters be nicely varied; the problem is that as the party can be composed of three characters, two of them are always controlled by the CPU (with players being able to freely switch between characters as they see fit) and the game is not exactly very bright when it comes to avoiding blows from enemies and attacking in the most effective way. However, given Ever Oasis’ difficulty never rises to high levels, such issues are not as frustrating as they may sound.

The greatest design mishap of the game, in fact, lies elsewhere: in the caves and dungeons. Offering a combination of mandatory battles with puzzle solving that is good, but never brilliant, these places build riddles (and offer optional collectible resources) that require the special skills and weapons of the oasis’ residents, such as an arrow and bow to hit distant targets, a hammer to slam switches, a wand to light up dark areas, and other more idiosyncratic abilities like turning into a ball, mining, or digging. Given the limitations of the three-member party, and since all characters only have one skill and one weapon, it is not uncommon to be in the process of exploring a cave or a dungeon only to find out that no character that is currently out of the oasis has what is needed.

The solution to that problem is warping directly back to the oasis (a feature that was almost certainly implemented to reduce the pain of this annoying occurrence), going to the desk where the party is assembled, selecting the character that has the necessary skill, warping back to the point where the party was, and – finally – solving the puzzle and hoping that the following room does not hold yet another riddle whose required skill is not held by any party members. The lack of a menu option to change the party while out of the oasis is, therefore, a considerable oversight that harms Ever Oasis’ exploration facet.

ever_oasis4The conclusion is that a lot could have been done to make Ever Oasis a more solid experience. The two gameplay elements that make it up could have been integrated more firmly by more thoughtful design; and, individually, those parts could have turned out far more engaging if simple steps had been taken to avoid minor and recurring annoyances. Still, through stumbles and falls, it is a good game: taking care of the oasis is fun, and watching it grow is a joy; furthermore, going out into the world is motivating not only because there are nice puzzles and locations to be found, but also because the development and upkeep of the oasis depends on it. Therefore, the experience, which holds a twenty-hour adventure that can be greatly extended by those who want to take their oases to their full possible glory, will be able to please – to different and somehow uncertain degrees – anyone who wants a dose of role-playing thrown into their Animal Crossing, or vice-versa.

Ever Oasis

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Albums of the Month: October 2017

concrete_goldAlbum: Concrete and Gold

Artist: Foo Fighters

Released: September 15th, 2017

Highlights: Run, The Sky Is a Neighborhood, Arrows, The Line

It is hard not to be affected by the uncontrollable enthusiasm of Dave Grohl. The bandleader of Foo Fighters has, perhaps more than any other musician of his generation, emerged as a lone mainstream musketeer of pure rock and roll. He has become a musical entity that is not only omnipresent, but also invariably sporting the highest amount of energy a human being seems to be able to carry. Sure, some may interpret his endless displays of excitement as non-genuine, because no living creature can – in theory – be so thrilled with such an astounding frequency. But if actions do speak louder than words and perception, the fact he has spent the biggest portion of the last two decades captaining a major and productive rock act, and contributing with his excellent drum-playing to the albums of seemingly everyone he happens to be friends with should say volumes about his work ethic and passion for what he does.

As such, the most unbiased opinion one can have of Grohl is that, maybe, he simply knows how lucky he has been, and – for that reason – he cannot help feeling good about it and trying to give back to his fans and colleagues alike. Therefore, perhaps he just wants to make people happy, and he tries to achieve that by making them like him and by giving them what he understands he does best: friendly and catchy hard rock. In a way, that completely hypothetical analysis of Dave’s psyche may explain why the Foo Fighters have not made any bold artistic moves during their lengthy career: those shifts may cause fans to be alienated by a new musical direction, which invariably leads them to turn on the artist. Given negative feelings do not seem to exist in the world of Dave Ghrol, his band has stood as reliable a safety net; going into a Foo Fighters record is getting precisely what one expects of it, and “Concrete and Gold” is not different.

If an effort has to be made to differentiate “Concrete and Gold” from its predecessors, one could – as the band’s drummer, Taylor Hawkins, did – call it the weird record. The opener, “T-Shirt”, for instance, begins with punctual acoustic strums accompanied by Dave’s quiet singing before exploding into a gigantic Queen-like operatic catharsis (and it does all of that in less than ninety seconds). Nothing else in “Concrete and Gold” comes close to such oddity, but most of the other tracks show little delightful quirks. “Run”, which alternates a great deal of screaming with a more melodic chorus and bridge, has a very peculiar song structure; “The Sky Is a Neighborhood” dresses the hooks of its catchy chorus with choir-like backing vocals; “Dirty Water” is half acoustic contemplation and half borderline drone riffing in the vein of Queens of the Stone Age; the sweet “Happy Ever After” has soothing harmonies that nod to The Beach Boys; “Sunday Ray”, sung by Hawkins, is a slow-stomp rocker; and the closing title track is heavy and lethargic to a point that it is almost psychedelic.

As far as late-career victories go, “Concrete and Gold” is not as brilliant as “Wasting Light”; still, it is a more solid and engaging album than the aimless “Sonic Highways”. At this point, expecting the Foo Fighters to deliver a grand artistic statement is setting oneself for disappointment. Like the Ramones and AC/DC, they know what they do well and they are aware of what their fanbase desires; they will not stray away from that. “Concrete and Gold” adds melodic and harmonic flavors to the group’s sound. It wiggles inside the spectrum of the Foo Fighters’ area of operation. In doing so, it finds a set of good songs and some highlights that would have not appeared anywhere else in their discography. It is not an evolution; it is an adjustment of perspective, a look at the same themes from another view. With it, the hard rock safety net is still standing, and the worldwide ambassador of rock music can keep on fighting the good fight.

wonderful_wonderfulAlbum: Wonderful Wonderful

Artist: The Killers

Released: September 22th, 2017

Highlights: Run for Cover, Tyson vs. Douglas, Some Kind of Love, The Calling

It seems that, on the roadmap of many bands where one more prominent figure stands out from the rest of the group, there lies a record that will be labeled by critics and fans alike as a solo effort disguised, by superficial branding, as a collective creative product. In a way, The Killers could have been immune to that recurring theme; after all, numerous of the band’s songwriting credits have been historically shared between Brandon Flowers and some of the other guys. On the other hand, the fact not-so-devoted The Killers’ fans would be hard-pressed to name the band’s instrumentalists says a lot about Flowers’ towering presence and dominance. After four records, though, the scales seem to have tipped and the time has finally come for the album that feels a whole lot like the result of a solitary endeavor: “Wonderful Wonderful”.

Truth be told, the names of Keuning, Stoermer, and Vannucci – the first one to a lesser degree – do appear attached to the record’s tracks. However, the guitarist, bassist, and drummer of The Killers rarely make themselves be heard; without exception, their performances are not the anchoring point of any of the tunes: when they do show up, they merely complement the musical landscape that surrounds Flowers’ lyrics. As a consequence, “Wonderful Wonderful” feels like a sequel to Flower’s solo incursions into synthpop territory rather than a continuation of The Killers’ last record, “Battle Born”. That statement, on its own, is not detrimental to the record. In fact, running through “Wonderful Wonderful”, there is a powerful introspective and personal lyrical tendency that is not present anywhere else in The Killers’ discography, and most of the tunes do pack good melodies that rest on top of layered keyboards that are usually used in the construction of powerful ballads, with the cheery disco leading single “The Man” being an upbeat exception to the norm.

What is telling about “Wonderful Wonderful”, though, is that its best cuts emerge when The Killers are operating in their bread-and-butter territory. “Run for Cover” and “Tyson vs. Douglas” do feature prominent keyboards that are integrated into the music’s fabric nicely, but they employ those elements to fuel The Killers’ usual mixture of tense verses and extravagant sweeping choruses, and it works wonderfully well; “The Calling”, meanwhile, achieves greatness by taking a bluesy groove and guitar licks and adapting them to the band’s sound. Everywhere else, Brandon Flowers is treading too close to anthemic stadium-sized U2 ambitions for comfort; sure, sounding huge and being unfamiliar with the word constraint has always been The Killers’ defining trait, but those two pieces used to be employed in the building of songs with a distinctive character instead of tracks that seem to have been manufactured so that a tasteful The Edge guitar solo is inserted in the chorus and bridge.

With that being said, “Wonderful Wonderful” is not a bad album. Following Dave Keuning’s announcement he will not be touring with The Killers in support of the record, one could assume the old adage of creative differences between band members could be the reason why it lacks a distinctive flavor. Regardless of empty and futile suspicions, though, “Wonderful Wonderful” rarely fails despite the generic soul of many of its tracks. It is clearly a work into which Flowers – armed with a pen, his voice, and his keyboards – poured his heart and soul, and it shows. Hopefully, however, it will serve The Killers as a brief pit-stop on the way to a new sound rather than a place where a prolonged stay will take place.

dance_hallAlbum: Dance Hall at Louse Point

Artist: PJ Harvey and John Parish

Released: September 23th, 1996

Highlights: Rope Bridge Crossing, That Was My Veil, Urn with Dead Flowers in a Drained Pool, Civil War Correspondent

By the time “Dace Hall at Louse Point” came out, PJ Harvey had already published three full-length records in which she had, masterfully, explored different flavors of blues-influenced garage rock. Despite her rightfully earned critical acclaim, therefore, she had yet to mutate into the musical chameleon that would go on to put together stylistically unique albums of genres such as contemporary rock (“Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea”), haunting piano balladry (“White Chalk”), and English folk music (“Let England Shake”). As such, “Dance Hall at Louse Point”, her collaborative effort with her band’s guitar player and friend, John Parish, marks the first time PJ Harvey showed signs of the multifaceted artist that lay within the rough, sexual, and violent image she had held up to that point.

Truthfully, much – or perhaps all – of the experimentation that exists within “Dance Hall at Louse Point” stems from Parish, not Harvey; after all, with the exception of one cover (“Is That All There Is?”) and two brief instrumentals (“Girl” and the title song), all tracks have their music penned by Parish, while it was left for her to focus on the lyrics. Still, “Dance Hall at Louse Point” gave listeners a first view of Harvey out of the confines in which she was musically born. The album does not completely abandon blues and rock: those are still the cornerstones on top of which the songs are constructed. However, Parish’s approach to those genres is far more unusual than Harvey’s. In common with her songwriting, Parish’s is in equal parts rough and discomforting, but while Harvey uses those characteristics to build fully formed tunes that lure listeners into their claws, Parish does not smooth the rough edges of his compositions.

Such a quality means that “Dance Hall at Louse Point” sometimes feels too unstructured or unfocused for its own good, as if it is the work of two friends who were more concerned with pushing one another to new places than with using that methodology to create music that is uniformly enjoyable. As a consequence, there are instances in which the experiments work; and there are times when the resulting pieces of music fail to be engaging. Parish’s adventurous song structures never take Harvey out of her comfort zone when it comes to lyrical themes: she is still usually penning and singing quite powerful takes on women who are either broken by a former partner or anguished over the mixed signals sent by a new potential lover. What his music does, though, is challenge her to lay down melodies over rather abrasive surfaces.

Therefore, when Harvey succeeds in doing so, the album clicks in place, as it happens in the acoustic blues of “Rope Bridge Crossing”; the folk “That Was My Veil”; or in “Urn with Dead Flowers in a Drained Pool”, which is quietly aggressive and violently explosive like Harvey’s usual brand of garage rock. On the other hand, when the melodies and music fail to stick together, “Dance Hall at Louse Point” is left meandering throughout a barren musical landscape in search of melodic centers of gravity that are just not there. As a result, PJ Harvey and John Parish join forces to produce a record that is rather irregular and that does not yield much that is truly remarkable aside from a few songs. The most important outcome of “Dance Hall at Louse Point”, though, is not the tracks contained within, but the experimental and stylistic push that it provided to PJ Harvey so that she felt willing and confident to tackle new and bold musical grounds with her future works. History has already proven such jump-start to have been quite valuable.

heartwormsAlbum: Heartworms

Artist: The Shins

Released: March 10th, 2017

Highlights: Name for You, Mildenhall, Half a Million, Heartworms

Through internal ups and down, the firing of band members, and one hiatus from which it seemed like the group would never emerge, The Shins have always stood as a comfortable and safe net for the indie movement. Unlike acts that – purposely or inadvertently – eventually find a way to break into the mainstream, which is viewed by more extremist listeners as some sort of unforgivable act regardless of whether it is done with artistic integrity or not, The Shins have remained right below the line separating the two clashing musical universes. In a way, such a fact may as well be seen as miraculous, for not only does the band’s debut date from 2001 (the year in which indie was propelled into the stratosphere by The Strokes), but James Mercer – The Shins’ leader and songwriter – has more than a few times written tunes featuring hooks that were powerful enough to drill through the wall guarding the market’s mainstream.

It is hard to know exactly why the breakthrough never came; as Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo proves, quirkiness and awkwardness can win out when dressed up with genuine anger or irresistible pop sensibilities, and the wacky Mercer has a lot of the latter. Independently of the whys, though, and safely stuck in indie haven, where an eager audience will always be waiting for his next move, Mercer and The Shins get to their fifth record in “Heartworms”. By now, the world (or at least the small portion of the population that is listening) knows what to expect out of the band, and that is exactly what they get: light pop rock songs that lean towards the sweetest spectrum of folk music and that are decorated with Mercer’s seemingly endless stash of catchy melodies and lyrics that are smart without taking themselves too seriously.

What is different about “Heartworms” is how the folk rock elements are overtaken by modern electronic elements. These are not exactly new to The Shins: through their discography, sometimes to a lesser degree and other times to a much stronger level, synthetic sounds have always been present. “Heartworms”, however, pushes the boundaries to new heights. Although in some tracks they seem to be missing in action (“Painting a Hole”), Mercer’s acoustic strum and pleasant riffs can still be heard: they are in the entirety of “Name for You”; they guide “Mildenhall” and “The Fear”, the album’s purest folk tracks; and they make faint but key appearances in “Rubber Ballz”, “Half a Million”, “Dead Alive”, and “Heartworms”, where they are buried below keyboards. “Heartworms”, however, is undoubtedly characterized as a record where most of the musical hooks are not in the guitar, but in the colorful sounds that come from elsewhere.

The best aspect of “Heartworms” is that despite the shift in instrumentation, the album still sounds like a work by The Shins; the band’s soul – Mercer’s soul, that is – was not lost in translation. It is a far more psychedelic take on The Shins’ music, one that makes it seem like Mercer spent the time between “Port of Morrow” and “Heartworms” listening to a whole lot of acid-influenced rock like The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s “Axis: Bold as Love” or Jefferson Airplane’s “Surrealistic Pillow” and then proceeded to spit out his own contemporary and less technically prolific version of that music. It works well, and even though there are a few moments when it sounds like some songs will succumb to their electronic excesses, Mercer always manages to rescue the tracks via his signature melodic sorcery.

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Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia Review

Although it fails to address some of the shortcomings of the source material, Shadows of Valentia is a good remake that tells a story with a touching core and punctuates it with engaging battles

fe_echoes1Prior to the release of Fire Emblem Awakening in the early days of 2013, Nintendo’s saga of medieval strategic warfare had constantly failed to gain any sort of traction in the western gaming market, and it was not for lack of trying. Before Awakening, a full decade of attempts and failures to make the franchise relevant outside Japan elapsed, a period during which four Fire Emblem installments reached the shelves of American stores only to be either ignored or not given enough attention by the public. Regardless of why exactly Awakening succeeded in breaking through – a huge bag of factors that certainly includes the popularity of the 3DS, a strong marketing push, and the spotlight that was put on many Fire Emblem characters thanks to the Super Smash Bros. series – the bottom line is that the critical and commercial laurels achieved by Awakening opened up the door to quite a deep treasure trove: the saga’s backlog of titles that remained unreleased in the United States and that now could be shipped over from Japan into the arms of a welcoming audience.

That pile of titles ready to be ported consisted of six games published between 1990 (the year of Fire Emblem’s creation) and 2002, and given the original Fire Emblem had already been remade and released outside Japan – albeit before Awakening came out – it was only natural Nintendo would next turn towards the second installment of the franchise: Fire Emblem Gaiden, a 1992 NES game. And so, under the guise of Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia, Fire Emblem Gaiden reaches the modern gaming world and gives the Nintendo 3DS its fifth title of the now widely popular property.

Shadows of Valentia follows the story of Alm and Celica, two childhood friends that spent the early days of their lives together, under the protection of a famous knight, in a village tucked away in the southern portion of the titular continent. Valentia was created by two gods, Duma and Mila, which held different views on how humans should live: the former believed in power and conquest, while the latter stood for peace and leisure. The two warred, and the continent was eventually broken up into two kingdoms: Duma and his people controlled Rigel, to the north; and Mila and her children established the realm of Zofia, to the south. Rigel’s thirst for power grows, though, and the king’s wish to spread his way of thinking into the whole continent leads his armies to break the peace pact between Duma and Mila, invade Zofia, and start a war that throws the balance between the gods – and the land itself – into chaos.

fe_echoes2Alm and Celica have their lives and joy torn apart when the war begins. As the small village starts being invaded, Celica is taken away by her protector and hidden somewhere else, whereas Alm – searching for new meaning in his life and unable to understand why Celica had to leave – joins the Zofian resistance that is trying to stop the Rigelian forces. Players, then, follow and control the two protagonists as they take tackle their separate (yet occasionally overlapping) journeys and discover the truth about themselves, their past, and the roles they are to play in the conflict.

Given Fire Emblem was created to match the strategy elements of Famicon Wars with the stats-focused and story-heavy nature of role-playing games, it is not surprising all games of the saga have lived and died based on how well they were able to balance those pieces. Shadows of Valentia, therefore, does not escape such judgment; and while, truth be told, the game does not excel in any of them, there are redeeming and intriguing portions in all of those areas.

From a storyline standpoint, the relationship between Alm and Celica is nailed. Their bond, their ups and downs, the foggy reasons behind the distance that separates them, and their occasional meetings form the heart of the game, and players will most likely care about what happens between the protagonists because their backstory is nicely set up during the initial stages of Shadows of Valentia. However, the surrounding parts are a bit lackluster: the plot twists are predictable, becoming clear a few hours into the game; the dialogues featuring sidecharacters are usually too exaggerated for their own good, creating shallow caricatures rather than full-fledged personages; and the reasoning of some villains, with a few exceptions, is weak. The fact that it is quite interesting to see how the dual storylines of and the distinct objectives chased by the two characters converge and clash, though, somewhat makes up for those issues.

fe_echoes4When it comes to gameplay, Fire Emblem Gaiden was the franchise’s installment that introduced a navigable overworld, in the vein of Super Mario Bros. 3; as a consequence, players move one of the two protagonists from point to point, and – as they head towards their respective goals – they will do battle against enemy armies, stop by towns and other major locations, and dive deep into dungeons filled with treasure and lurking foes. The first element – the battles – will not hold any surprises to those who went through Awakening or the Fates trilogy; the explorable locations and the dungeons, however, which were present in Gaiden but were abandoned afterwards, offer new twists to the Fire Emblem gameplay that had so far appeared on the 3DS.

Battles take place on a grid-like map where players and their foes take turns moving units around and making them engage in one-on-one confrontations whose predicted results are viewable before the skirmishes are confirmed. Through most of the way, Shadows of Valentia presents pleasant variations in its scenarios and unity deployment, which pave the way for nice strategic challenges: there are open fields; enemy armies entrenched inside fortresses; tricky bottlenecks that only allow one unity to pass at a time; terrain types that increase defensive capabilities, heal, cause damage, or reduce movement; archers and mages that can attack from a distance; healers that are very useful but extremely fragile; highly maneuverable knights and pegasus riders; powerful sorcerers that summon new units endlessly until they are taken down; and more.

Differently from Awakening and Fates, Shadows of Valentia has no weapon triangle that dictates which sorts of armaments vastly overcome others; certainly, given it is a feature that has become a staple, some are bound to miss it. Still, the fact an axe user, for example, will not easily down hordes of sword-wielding soldiers gives the game a greater degree of balance and makes battles more even. Other changes lie in how weapons no longer break, a must due to how money is rather scarce in Valentia; and that the popular system of pairing up characters in the battlefield and eventually marrying some of them – introduced by Awakening and Fates – is absent. The most interesting shift of Shadows of Valentia, perhaps, is how many of the units players will initially come into contact with and add to their army pertain to the villager class; as such, once they reach a certain level, there is a lot of freedom as to which class they will be assigned to, which allows players to build very varied armies.

fe_echoes3The remaining elements that constitute Shadows of Valentia, and that make it stand out from more recent outings of the series, are rather uneven. The exploration of towns – where one can find healing resources that can be used during battles as well as support characters that upgrade weapons and follow recipes to create new goods – is done via a storybook-like interface that lets players move between areas, interact with the environment, and talk to villagers, and really does not add much to the game. Meanwhile, the dungeon-crawling leans towards the tedious for several reasons: firstly, because dungeons are just sets of tunnels with no showcases of clever design; secondly, because the battles that happen within them take place in very mundane fields that offer no nice strategic touches.

More aggravating, perhaps, is the fact Fire Emblem games offer a great balance between battling and story development; that is, for every battle that takes place, happenings that are relevant to the storyline occur before and after the confrontations, creating a constant sense of progress. For the battles that happen inside the dungeons, that is not the case; the enemies being faced are just faceless minions of different kinds, and beating them does not move the chains of the plot forward, which drags the game’s flow down. Moreover, later in the game when a couple of longer dungeons need to be cleared, failing in the fairly challenging battles that happen at their end means going all the way back to the beginning of the maze, which is rather frustrating.

Still, through stumbles and composing elements that could have been better implemented, Shadows of Valentia is a decent remake and a welcome addition to the 3DS’ library, even if it fails to use the received opportunity to fix some of Fire Emblem Gaiden’s shortcomings. It tells a story with a touching core via some nice animated cutscenes and almost fully voiced-over dialogues (the latter of which had not been done either by Awakening or by Fates) and punctuates it with battles whose challenge and complexity grow throughout the adventure while their engaging nature is solidly maintained all the way through.

fe_echoes5Despite some annoyances and eventual dullness, Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia succeeds in keeping the ball rolling after the giants that were Awakening and Fates. Like those, it embraces both casual gamers and a more hardcore Fire Emblem audience by providing an easier mode, where downed units come back; and a harder traditional setup, where death is permanent. Hopefully, through the newly introduced Echoes series, Nintendo will further explore the relatively vast backlog of Fire Emblem games that have yet to make it to the outside of Japan, and also give them a deeper overhaul than the one that was executed on Fire Emblem Gaiden.

Shadows of Valentia

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