bitparade, Gaming

bitparade: Dengeki Bunko: Fighting Climax (Vita)

Handhelds and fighters are generally a bit of a mixed affair, that’s not to say they don’t work, but its only natural that when you have a slight cramped input device, then you’re not going to necessarily be able to deliver as full an experience as you would in an Arcade or console environment. There’s also the difficulty in generating that all important competitive nature that’s so integral to the success of games within this genre, by limiting yourself to a handheld you almost limit the player to playing against the AI. Now admittedly we do have online modes these days, but it can be tough putting together accurate online code that doesn’t throw up additional problems of its own, and its in these area’s that the Vita version of Dengeki Bunko: Fighting Climax suffers.

Released over all three of Sony’s current platforms, the Vita version is, fairly obviously, the one that is likely to gain any following. Thats not because its a bad game, its pretty much mostly down to the suitability of the system. The d-pad and face buttons are far too compact for the games reliance on quarter-circle combinations to work making it even less useful as a training tool, nor is it really viable as a good place to start with the genre. It’s unfair to criticise this particular title for this, but all too often games within the genre are far too reliant on the player being an old hand and able to handle themselves, knowing each games variation on commands and being able to spot the seperate skills and techniques that differentiate something like an SNK Playmore fighter from a Capcom one (as an example). Dengeki Bunko: Fighting Climax is no different, there’s no tutorial and the practice mode doesn’t even let you display combinations required to pull off each characters moves outside of its designated menu area let alone record your inputs so you know you’re doing things correctly.

So why would anyone purchase this over, say, Blazblue? It’d be purely down to fan loyalty and aesthetics, ignoring the platform for the time being, the elements that’d attract anyone to this particular release would be down to them being a fan of manga publisher Dengeki Bunko (whom are responsible for manga and anime such as Sword Art Online and Durarara!!) from which characters appear within Fighting Climax to battle it out. SEGA fans may be mildly interested in the locations and music being taken from a handful of the developer/publishers titles plus an appearance from two famous faces from the Virtua Fighter series (Akira appears as an unlockable characxter, as an Assist Character, whilst Alicia from Valkyria Chronicles also appears as an Assist Character) but its not a huge amount of content that would make this an essential purchase for anyone other than die-hard fans of either company.

It”s a shame that Dengeki Bunko: Fighting Climax feels so hampered by its content, theres an additional story mode that sits alongside the main arcade mode, your standard versus mode just incase you know someone else with a Vita and an online mode, which holds up surprisingly well, I had no problem actually finding games here and had far more success at keeping a connection than I have done with previous fighters on the system, but unfortunately, it all just feels so thin.

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bitparade, Gaming

bitparade: Senran Kagura: Estival Verus (PlayStation 4)

This is the second time I’ve covered a Senran Kagura game, having reviewed 2014’s Nintendo DS title Senran Kagura Burst. Back then I made a note that there was an element of fun to the side scrolling beat-em up, even if it was incredibly repetitive and rather embarrassing to play. Those values still apply 2 years on and its now harder to escape that feeling of embarrassment with a full blown console release. But its that just judging a book by its cover?

Well, sort of. You see a huge part of what makes Senran Kagura Estival Versus is the level of titilation that is thrust upon the player, at every turn the game seeks to take advantage of its all female cast, with clothes being torn during battle, video sequence depicting their clothes disappearing as they transform to their Shinobi forms, dialogue that plays upon harem anime tropes (theres on character in particular that is pretty obsessed with the other girls’ breasts), ridiculous physics that invoke memories of Dead or Alive and a rather revealing and/or fantasised wardrobe collection. In this post-Feminist Frequency world it all feels rather crude and a little unnecessary. I mean I like boobs as much as most men, but Senran Kagura Estival Versus is basically one of those mouse mats with an anime girl print and �wrist support�.

And yet, its kind of fun. Once you get past all the dialogue sequence (which can be skipped and aren’t essential for actually playing the game) you’re presented with a 3D brawler. OK, its more Koei-influenced than Platinum, which isn’t particularly a bad thing. Theres normally a large amount of enemies on screen at any one time and you soon rack up a large number of comboes, and the actually battle system is fairly varied and has an approachable level of complexity, allowing you to mix up the normal standard + hard attack comboes with wall runs, specials, aerial dashes and projectiles, amongst other things. Each girl wields a different weapon and thus has a different fighting style with some being much faster than others, for example. Unfortunately, whilst all this is pretty good stuff, its all attached to a bunch of enemies who seem to want to wait for you to attack them. This could be put down to the number of foes involved, but even boss fights (which usually pitch one girl from a group against another) see your sole enemy backing off and waiting for you to attack rather than taking any initiative and challenging you, which means the only aspect of the combat mechanisms you really need to master is the timing on the parry, get that nailed down and nothing stands in your way, particularly as it stuns surrounding foes leaving you open to beat the crap out of everything without answer.

Personally speaking, and I refer back to Dead or Alive with this, in particularly the Xtreme offshoots, one of the things I think is really lacking is a point to the exploitation nature of the game. There’s absolutely nothing stopping you kitting out all of the girls in the skimpiest of outfits, right from the start you can have them running around in their underwear if you so wish, at least Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball encouraged you to try and develop a relationship with the other characters to get to that point, it’d also add some involvement for the player during some of the lengthier dialogue sequences if there was some sort of relationship aspect to the game, providing a bit more depth to the entire experience. As it stands, Senran Kagura Estival Versus is little more than a weaaboo version of a Tecmo-Koei game, there is an enjoyable brawler within the (un)dressing of titration, but its a pretty difficult obstacle to climb unfortunately.

bitparade, Gaming

bitparade: Republique (bitparade)

Back in the early 2000’s certainly after the release of Konami’s Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty and Ubisofts Splinter Cell, it felt like any third person action game had to include a section of the game that required you to be stealthy. These were often the weakest aspects of those games as it tended be something that both changed the pace of progression and asked the player to do something that felt against the nature of that particular game up until that point.

Whilst playing Republique, I’m reminded of this time, not because of any �shoe-horning� of a game type into something else, but because its been a while since I’ve played anything remotely like this. The player is initially tasked with aiding Hope escaping from a prison cell and the building she has been entrapped in and to do this you have to avoid the detection of guards using a combination of the games default camera settings and Hope’s mobile phone that has an app installed to allow her to control CCTV camera’s to gain an advantage over her captors. It all sounds needlessly complicated but, having been initially developed for mobile platforms its genuinely not, you can happily ping around the various cameras in each room/hallway, get an idea of your surroundings,m investigate any items of interest that appear and the navigate Hope to the nearest exit.

You see, Hope needs to escape, her reasons aren’t just because she’s been incarcerated, but that she is also going to be recalibrated, she has gained access to literature that those in power deem to challenge their Orwellian control over the populace and they will use any means necessary to keep the people from uprising the oppression they have been placed under. In some respects it reminds me a little bit of another early 2000’s era game, Ubisofts Beyond Good & Evil, this is down to a number of things, the use of camera’s (admittedly done differently between the two as Jade in BG&E; is documenting the oppressors actions rather than escaping from them), the game having a female lead character and the fact you tend to be in a rather defensive position rather than a need to be on the attack all the time, avoiding confrontation is usually (or in Hopes case, pretty much always) the best option. It also feels a little French, which I cant explain why, but the game feels like the kind of work we would have seen from Ubisioft prior to them just becoming a publisher that releases an Assassin Creed or Tom Clancy game every year. I suppose the develop, Camouflaj, being from Canada plays some part in that (although I only discovered that after beginning to write this review).

I actually really like Republique, although I struggle to play it for long periods of time, even though it is broken down in an episodic nature I find it difficult to play through a good chunk of each episode in one sitting. I’d say this is partly down to the games rather oppressive atmosphere, you want to free Hope, just because the game and its setting does everything in its power to make you feel that way. I also think that my struggles with it are also down to its very mechanics, the camera’s aren’t always clear and its sometimes difficult to know what a guard is doing as they move behind scenery that you just cant get a good view of add in that Hope isn’t the easiest character to control, whilst the pace of the game is reminiscent of stuck behind someone in a town centre who just wont move out of your way and let you get on with your business. There’s room for improvement here, but Republique, as a rather rare example of the stealth genre now, is actually a decent attempt at an entry into the genre and certainly rises above elements that used to get tacked onto other games, like that ridiculous stealth section in Atari’s Fahrenheit.

Books, Close Encounters Book Club

Handmaids Tale

A few months ago I picked up a copy of The Handmaid’s Tale from a charity shop, it cost me 50p, it went on the bookshelf with the intent to read it “one day”, that day came sooner than expected when during our previous meet to discuss A Storm of Swords 2: Blood and Gold, it was suggested that we read The Handmaids Tale next, and so my dear readers here are my thoughts on Margaret Atwood’s dystopian tale.

I’ll start by saying that, unlike A Game of Thrones, I’ve not seen the television show that was adapted from this book, my partner began watching it but she said it was too difficult to watch based upon the experiences she had when she had our three children, each of them had some difficulty, be it physical, emotional or mental, attached to her pregnancy and labour and so she was unable to keep watching. After reading the book I can totally understand the difficulty this presented her and there were certainly moments where some difficult memories came back for me.

Thats not the only difficulty I had with the book however, I had to read it in short bursts as its just so incredibly oppressive throughout, which is obviously its intention.

Firstly, its setting, for me anyway, felt very vague. Some of this was definitely intentional, as shown by the closing “Historical Notes” chapter wherein the reader is taken even further into the future to an academic discussing the Gilean rule, but I struggled with understanding the location and how the world was able to change so quickly with seemingly little to no conflict, Offred seemed either unable or unwilling to provide the reader with details that would help.

I think the reason I felt like this is that we are given glimpses into Offred’s previous life, we learn about relationships she’s had, that she was a mother and that she was successful in her career, and yet that is all. I struggled to understand just how there was such a quick turn about in events that Offred’s prior life was still so fresh in her memory, though the point is made that the woman suffering under the new rule will be the ones to suffer the most as they all remember the lives they had.

I did find it very interesting though, especially taking into account the time in which it was written, where women were first beginning to really start to carve out powerful careers for themselves (though, not too powerful, the patriarchy couldn’t’ possibly let a woman have too much control, after all, who will cook their dinner and fetch their slippers?), it definitely feels like it was written with this in mind, and in a contradiction to my prior comments, I can see how Atwood could see the world change so drastically and quickly in order to place women back into their “proper places” and being reduced to oppressive serving roles: child bearers, domestic maids, concubines, teachers and wives. As a father of three daughters, and having been the stay at home parent whilst my partner studied at University, not to mention having to put up with the likes of Gamergate and seeing our own worlds politics change so drastically in the past decade, both at home and abroad, it has me worried for my own families future.

It raises a question of if every teenage boy and grown man was given this to read, would there be a huge shift in feminist politics? I’m not entirely sure it would, those who are likely to try and understand the books message are the ones that are likely to have feminist leanings in the first place whilst the others will no doubt take the mindset of “well, the Republic of Gilead doesn’t sound all bad actually”, no doubt thinking that they’d be amongst the elite alongside the so-called “Commanders” rather than the ordinary man who himself is oppressed and forced into servitude.

The core message of a woman’s body becoming a political weapon is probably The Handmaid’s Tale strongest one, in Gilead a woman’s only worth is if she is able to provide the Republic with children. Higher born women who happen to be unable to do so (because its forbidden to state that the man is infertile) are placed in a position where the only control they have is over their own household, and whilst there are other elements of use for women, it’s all designed to provide the Commanders with a concubine with other female members of the household being there to keep the concubine under control. This is done by turning each individual against each other, the Wife has nothing but distain for those who serve her (especially the Handmaids) and all parties see the Handmaids as being loose of morals.

Like a few of the books we’ve read as part of the book club, I don’t think The Handmaid’s Tale is one that is supposed to be enjoyed, I think that it’s something that has a core message that should be listened to, but I also think it’s world building is a little vague and tied up to much in that worlds own language, it took a while for me to link titles such as Sons of Jacob to Jewish people and Sons of Ham to people of colour, for example and I couldn’t help thinking afterward that due to being a white male some of its commentary wasn’t obvious enough, though the fault there lays with me and not with Atwood.

bitparade, Gaming

bitparade: Corpse Party: Blood Drive (Vita)

I think I should start by stating that I haven’t played the previous two titles in the Corpse Party series and in actual fact I didn’t even know of the series until I started covering Blood Drive, with this in mind I don’t inte4nd to be particular judgemental of the overall story, but I am also kind of aware in the changes of gameplay from the previous instalment to this one.

Getting that particular part of the review out of the way first is key, Blood Drive plays in a similar manner to top down dungeon crawling RPG’s due to the developers decision to take this particular instalment down a 3D route rather than the previous titles more interactive novel approach. This is where my comparisons using my lack of any real knowledge beyond Wikipedia end. I will say though that despite being pushed as a horror title, the games 3D appearance and use of chibi-esque character designs detracts from the scares somewhat. It’s hard to find a large headed, small bodied ghost squealing like a baby as it floats towards you as something that is scary, and its only the immediate threat of harm that makes you concerned for their appearance.

It’s also at odds with the descriptions presented to you during the games long story and conversation dialogue moments. Things will be described that just don’t measure up when performed by the 3D characters and there are a few moments where events that are played out are contracted by the lack of change in those character models, this is exacerbated by the use of manga character art that appears during all of the story driven moments.

Corpse Party: Blood Drive is littered with numerous aspects that aren’t what one would consider to be good videogame design. For starters dialogue goes on for far, far too long, this isn’t something I’m normally bothered about, after all I’m a huge fan of Atlus’ rather dialogue heavy Persona series, but more often than not it feels like Corpse Party is either over explaining itself or the writers just don’t understand when to stop and let the game be played. Once it does allow the player free reign theres quite a bit of enjoyment to be had from the games hide and seek kind of gameplay. As you explore the alternate dimension school that the games plot takes you to (and which the characters are returning to from the series second instalment) you will find that you have to avoid various traps whilst also avoiding ghosts (even hiding in closets from them in a rather Metal Gear Solid-esque fashion), this is where the game is at its strongest. The school itself is rather crudely designed and takes some getting used to whilst you find your bearings due the lack of map which kind of adds to the tension of discovering a ghost. You can also rid yourself of such pests by using talismans to dispel them, butt he core mechanic revolves around running away and hiding until the threat has passed.

The lighting model doesn’t always help you avoid traps, there is very little light within the school and you will find yourself reliant on your torch, especially in new areas whilst you figure out where the various traps are. However the batteries on the torch do drain and you will only find a few replacements littered around during each chapter, I never actually ran out but I was really frugal with the amount I used my torch, mostly because I could never tell when it was likely to run out due to the games like of HUD. There are no on screen bars to tell you when your health, battery or stamina is low and its usually through character driven cues that you notice that you need to address a particular situation (i.e. not sprinting as much, instead relying on walking, as your character begins to stumble a bit).

The thing is, Corpse Party: Blood Drive, isn’t a good game, the lack of HUD, odd decisions over its presentation, weird mechanics and overly tedious interactions between characters that aren’t particularly interesting, plus the lack of being scary in any particular way, should all mark it out as one to avoid. And yet I found myself wanting to return to it time and time again just to edge a little further on each play, I genuinely found it intriguing and oddly morbidly amusing. I’m certain thats not the developers intentions though.

Anime, Movies

Spirited Away

On Friday I had the pleasure of seeing Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away at the cinema, its not my favourite Miyazaki (or Studio Ghibli) movie, that goes to Princess Mononoke, but its not often that many of us get to see these films on the big screen, especially somewhere like Bedford (there’s a showing of Princess Mononoke at the end of the month that I’m also hoping to attend).

It’s a film I’ve seen many, many times before. I bought it when it first came to the UK on DVD, and over the years its a film my partner and I have loved and shared with our children. This time round I happened to see it with the group of friends I’ve made through the book club I attend and it was awesome to see that there wasn’t an empty seat in the whole screening, (well, there was one, for a while, right next to me, then a weird guy came in half way through the film, asked me what it was called and what the time was, kept his coat on, then as the credits began to roll informed me that it was a “bit of a head fuck”).

Seeing it on the big screen was a real treat though, I’ve never had any trouble following it, but with the screen and sound system dominating your senses Miyazaki’s beautifully crafted, spiritual world is brought to life.

In this environment you really feel the pace of the film as it flies through some sections, throws gags at you and then takes some important moments to drop everything and just let you breath in this world, you really appreciate the craft thats gone into every single scene, especially during the quiet moments that are full of reflection that come at just the right moment to move onto the next act.

However, whilst most of Spirited Away is hand-drawn, there are moments of the film that have been created via computer. The most noticeable of these are when Chihiro is following Haku through the fields of flowers to get to the pig pens to see her parents. Now this might have been done on purpose, it could be to amplify the contrast in locations to the bathhouse where we’ve spent most of the film up to this point, it could be to help us appreciate the confusion and feeling of being rushed off her feet that Chihiro is no doubt going through, but the visual impact is very noticeable. Especially when blown up onto a cinema screen. Thats not to say it detracts from the film overall, its just very noticeable.

The music really has an impact here too. Maybe I’ve watched it too many times with the kids or other distractions, but I’d forgotten some moments of the music. There’s obviously the soaring moments such as when Chihiro is riding upon Haku’s back, but theres other moments such as on the bridge outside the bathhouse when we are first introduced to No-Face. There’s a few quiet notes playing, but then some really awkward sounding strings come in and the jankiness (for want of a better, maybe real, word) really sets the tone that even within this completely alien world where Chihiro is at odds with everything, theres are encounters that are stranger than others.

One last thing, I’ve been reading The Handmaids Tale for book club (more on that on Wednesday), and theres a bit of a cross over in themes between the two that I didn’t expect at all. There’s a strong conversation about the strength in ones name. In both of these stories the lead characters name is used to opress them and place them in servitude and both have their names replaced. Chihiro becomes Sen and its only through keeping the memory of her name alive, and also discovering/remembering Haku’s real name, that she is able to break out of Yubaba’s contract and leave the spirit world. In The Handmaids Tale, the protagonist also has her name taken from her, we’re never told what it is, it is forbidden for her to ever use it, but she remembers and its her name that helps her keep her memories of the world as it was before she begun telling the reader her story, but in both cases, they are given a new name, and in this case its also the narrators title Offred (Of Fred, Fred being her commander).

Both offer a commenatary on the power of words and how they can be used to control individuals and ultimately a group of people. There’s probably a lot more there to be discussed by somebody with far more intelligence than I have.

Again, I’m extremely happy that I had the opportunity to see this in a community setting, where people laughed at the funny moments and were swept along by Miyazaki’s story telling, all played out on a huge screen, and it’s thanks to the services of Our Screen that I was able to do so.