Wednesday, 17 September 2014

The Comic Artist and His Assistants


About a week or so ago, I finally decided to try out this ‘Crunchyroll’ Website that I keep seeing adverts for. If you want to know why I put it off for so long, it was because I was under the impression that I needed to pay to use the site – whilst that is technically true, it is only for premium members that want early access to new episodes or the vast amounts of manga they have reserved for premium users. Oh, and it also disables adverts and gives you the option of watching in HD and some other features.
Anyway, not having been prominent in the anime scene for a while, I found myself being rather confused by a vast majority of the shows presented to me. Whilst I know of Naruto Shippuden, Bleach and other such popular shows, most of Crunchyroll’s content was rather alien to me. However, there was one show that, based on the title alone, I figured I’d be able to get into.
The Comic Artist and His Assistants is, in a nutshell, exactly what it says on the tin – a glimpse into the daily life of Manga-Ka Yuki Aito (Yoshitsugu Matsuoka) and his interactions with his assistant Sahoto Ashisu (Saori Hayame) and editor Mihari Otosuna (Arisa Noto). As time goes by, two other assistants join Aito in his work in the form of bubbly fangirl Rinna Fuwa (Yuka Iguchi) and ‘super Assistant’ Sena Kuroi (Rie Kugimiya). Each ten minute episode focuses around a series of incidents, often focusing on Aito getting into awkward situations with his assistants.
Over the 12 episodes of the series run, there is no set story beyond the backdrop of Aito working on his Manga - Hajiratte Cafe Latte – and attempting to meet his monthly deadlines. Unfortunately, Aito has a habit of getting easily distracted and his work gets slowed to a halt whilst he goofs around, usually doing something perverted.
The first thing you will begin to notice about the show is that the characters are usually expressed with a singular personality trait rising to the foreground. For Aito this is his perverted personality and love of panties. This is taken so far in the extreme that Aito not only collects panties, but his entire manga is centred on panty shots. Panties are his passion, and woe upon anyone that has to bear witness to this.
That is not to say Aito is a bad person, he’s simply the result of a mad obsession. In the brief moments where his perverted side is not in control, Aito is a decent human being that honestly cares about people and manga. Unfortunately, this is a rare side indeed, but it is noted that he would never cause any of his assistants harm, and never attempts to take advantage of his all-female staff.
The rest of the characters fare similarly. Ashisu is presented as a tolerant but stern woman, Mihari responds to violence when embarrassed, Fuwa is adorable and bouncy (in many ways) and Kuroi is arrogant and quick to anger. You may find these personality traits similar. If so, then you’ve worked out that the foundation is the same as any Harem anime. Just without the romance or sex and a tendency to mock itself.
That last part is the greatest assist of the show. Aito is an extension of the usual Harem anime protagonist, and a mockery of it. His perversion is constantly mocked and is presented as abnormal, with characters repeatedly informing him that life is not like an anime or game, providing him with constant reality checks. It’s actually a rather welcoming sight. Aito’s perversion is something that stops him from ever getting close to forming an actual human relationship beyond his work relationships.
As the episodes go by (more specifically, about half way through the series), the show begins to go into detailing out the two most interesting characters –Ashisu and Mihari. We see how they met Aito and how they came to work with him, as well as flesh out the characters relationship with the artist. The episode dealing with Mihari and Aito’s original working relationship is probably the best in the series (even if it does cause a continuity error). Unfortunately, Rinna and Sena don’t get as much development. I don’t even think Rinna got anything beyond her initial personality.
The show is principally comedy, with only the occasional episode being more serious or romantic (the MIhari/ Aito working relationship being one of the few). The shows humour initially is focused more on mocking certain aspects of manga and anime culture, whether by pointing out that the relationships are much different to reality, or in regards to the idea of cute mascot characters. One short segment focuses on a rather amusing discussion on which type of panty shot is the best – full exposure, a brief glimpse or none at all.
The show also has a large amount of humour based on awkward circumstance and the sheer oddity of Aito as he attempts to interact with people. These sequences have a tendency to fall into the more tried and tested Harem anime jokes, but the show usually pulls them off decently, although nothing particularly new is accomplished. It is these moment s where the show feels at its least imaginative, with the audience knowing exactly what the punchline will be.
As I mentioned before back in the personality section, the female characters are all drawn off of a basic template. Each girl represents a specific fetish or ‘type’, with Mihari being a flat-chested business woman with short hair, Sena looking like a child and being a sadist and Rena being a well-endowed woman that strips into a bunny girl outfit. Ashisu represents the idea of a normal woman in this situation, although later episodes paint her as being domineering and sadistic. Occasional side characters also fit into this, such as the chief editor looking like a very young girl with a fascination with Ashisu’s breasts.
That last sentence was a little creepy. Unfortunately, there are several other instances where the show leans into questionable material, such as a lengthy sequence of a drunk Sena being naked. I will remind you that she looks (and can act) like a child. It’s a very awkward sequence from the point of view of an audience, although the show (and Wikipedia) assure us that the character is 19. Doesn’t stop it from being creepy.
I will praise the show on the fact that it manages to make each character visually distinct in every area, something that some anime seem to struggle with. The animation itself is decent enough, though there is rarely anything exceptionally taxing or challenging visually. I will note that the opening sequence doesn’t particularly make much sense in context with the content of the show.
As a whole, there is nothing exceptionally wrong with the show, but at the same time, there isn’t much which is noteworthy. When the show mocks anime and manga traditions and systems, it becomes more than its parts. However, it will almost immediately fall back into traditional Harem routine. Perhaps the greatest praise I can give the show is that it never results in romance, making it an exception to the genre. Since the show is only short, it makes for something amusing to watch, though it is, at the end of the day, nothing particularly great.  


      At the time of writing, the series only has a Japanese dub with English subs. Also, Ashisu is refereed to by her last name rather than her first as that's how shes refereed to in the show.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Fez





                Fez is a game I wanted to play for quite a while, but not because I was particularly interested in the game. Rather, it was the events that surrounded the game that interested me. Fez was announced back in 2007, the first (and only) game to be made by Phil Fish, and the game was crafted by a small team. It took five years for the game to be released, and there is a great deal of very interesting material floating around regarding the games creation – most of which I will not go into, as it is neither important to my point or the game.
                But the thing that made me want to play Fez was Phil Fish, and not the game. Fish is an incredibly outspoken person, and has made a great many bold claims throughout the games creation, including one that stated that all modern Japanese games suck. Whilst I cannot say if Fish is a good person or not, his statements tend to paint him as an individual with a strong sense of himself, though perhaps not the most aware or thickest skinned. I will give him this – his sheer belief in his work was enough to get me interested.
                But the question is, is his game any good?
                The common consensus is that it’s a masterpiece. It certainly was Fish’s master piece, as his only other real technical contribution to the industry was as a level designer for the Golden Compass game. But was Fez worth the five year development cycle?
                Fez is a 2D/ 3D platformer puzzle game, where you play as a relatively non-descript individual called Gomez, who lives in a 2D world. One day, Gomez is gifted with a magical Fez that gives him the ability to see the world from other angles (he himself stays 2D) after watching a great golden cube explode. It is now Gomez’ responsibility to find all 32 pieces of the cube, and the 32 anti-matter cubes, and restore the cube to its full glory. Joining him on this quest is a tiny hyper-cube fairy called Dot, a reference to Navi from Ocarina of Time. She may have another purpose, but I never encountered it.
                Much of Fez is about careful platforming and exploration, intermingled with the occasional puzzle. There are no enemies in the game, and you can die as often as you like, making the gameplay a rather relaxing stroll through some minor platform challenges. There are some difficult areas where you have to be very quick and precise about your jumps, but these are few and far between. Since dying is irrelevant, these aren’t really a problem.
                Fez’ big draw is the rotation mechanic, which allows for the horizontal rotation of the environment by 90 degrees, revealing new sides to locations. Since the game is on a 2D plane, depth is rarely a factor, so you can create new paths by rotating the camera so that two distant paths merge on a different axis. This is one of the most basic and reoccurring puzzles in Fez, and it may take a little while to adapt to the idea as you force yourself to think both in 2D and 3D.
                The world of Fez is divided into a large variety of detailed areas. These rooms may have blocks within them, or block pieces. Some have puzzles, some have hints, and some are empty. These areas can take one of a few forms – Hub areas have several doorways leading from them, many leading to other hubs, some leading to single rooms. Each of these areas is unique and very pretty, and some areas are interconnected by puzzles – lowering the water level in one area can have an effect on other sections.
                Some rooms will have a naturally spawning black hole cluster within them. These clusters will suck you inside should you so much as walk near them, and are often used as obstacles to make some platforming sequences somewhat irritating. These black holes are effected by the rotation of the world, but they occupy a 3D space, meaning they will always exist no matter the angle. Careless rotation will lead to your very quick death (it’s okay, though, as the camera will rotate back to where it was before you died).
                As much as I tend not to talk about the ending moments of game, it should be noted that it is not possible to get a complete run through in your first playthrough of Fez. Rather, you have to complete the game once to unlock a new ability in new game +, which allows you to view the world in a first person perspective in full 3D. This is vital for solving some puzzles.
                It should be noted that Fez is a very pretty game, with everything looking so delightful and lovingly rendered in pixels. Character is presented through simple animation and design, as well as location. The music is also very charming. Dialogue is kept to a minimum and seems to consist entirely of videogame references, right down to the seemingly poor translation quality (as a Canadian game, I’m pretty sure it was a deliberate stylistic choice). That being said, I wonder if the game needed dialogue in the first place as there is little in the way of story to tell – at least, I think there is. A lot of the game’s dialogue is actually presented in a made up language, and I honestly could not bring myself to translate any of it that was not directly needed in the game.
                I must hand it to Mr Fish, some of the game’s puzzles are quite well thought out. The as fore-mentioned language can be decoded if you pay close enough attention to the games incidental visuals (I will admit fully to missing it until it was pointed out), and some puzzles are delightfully Meta. Unfortunately, there are ones that are not as quite nicely thought out, but these are to deal with end game material that is not relevant for the completion of the core game.  That being said, I will rant about them further down.
                Fez is a game that draws heavily from its inspiration. The games simplicity is very much in line with Mario games, the collect-athon nature drawn from games like Banjo-Kazooie or Crash Bandicoot. The art is designed to emulate 16-bit graphics, and some design choices are very much in the spirit of Metal Gear Solid and Eternal Darkness, where the game will screw with your perception of reality. That being said, it doesn’t do the best job here – the game occasionally simulates crashing (at the beginning and end, all three times), but the boot-up sequence is that of a PC being restored. Fez was designed as a console game – the PC boot-up makes no sense. True, it would be more annoying to program specific console failures, but it never made me pause and wonder what was going on, unlike Metal Gear Solid and Eternal Darkness.
                I think it’s here that I started to have a problem with Fez. So much of the game feels a little too similar to what has come before it, whether it be that the art and general game design is too much like Super Paper Mario, or that the game is emulating Metal Gear Solid. There are moments where I did pause, but it was mostly just to work out the more complex puzzles, and I honestly stopped paying attention at one point or another, to the point where I hadn’t been aware that I’d gotten most of the collectables.
                In terms of criticism to direct at the game, there are a few issues here and there. The biggest gripe is that the games map system is rather poorly designed and doesn’t seem to work all that well. The way the map is represented is that every area is a cube, and every adjoining area is joined with a white line. The sides of the cube represent the axis of the in game area, and the white lines are mapped to where the doorways to new areas on that side of the in-game area. At least, this seems to be the theory, as there were times when the map and the in game locations didn’t quite seem to be in tandem. The map is also rather annoying to navigate, and it only provides a brief image of the rooms each cube represents. It does, however, tell you what to find in that room, which is nice.
                For a game that seems to have had so much effort put into the visuals, there were a lot of occasions where the games graphics were glitched. I’m not talking in regards to the deliberate glitches, but rather platforms that would appear to be in one place, but the actual model had moved away, leaving a ‘ghost’ image. Many deaths were had from these ghosts, and it surprised me every time. I never quite worked out whether the ghost images were actually the platforms for that angle, or remnants form the previous angle. However, since death is irrelevant in this game, it never amounted to more than an annoyance.
                There are also a few areas where style has been chosen over consideration for the players. Some areas of the game are rendered to look like they are being played on a Gameboy classic or Virtual Boy, both of which are not particularly kind to look at on a TV screen. There was also a ‘glitch’ level that was headache inducing to look at, and I am thankful it was just a single room.
                What was more than an annoyance, however, are the solutions to the final few puzzles in the game. One of the anti-matter cubes assumes you know how many times you can unfold a cube.  The three hidden bonus items (which you do not need to collect and don’t do anything anyway) all have annoying solutions, two of which are beyond most people. The easiest of these is a riddle, which I got hopelessly wrong (oddly, by being too Meta). The final two require a knowledge of binary and the final puzzle solution isn’t in the game. At all. Someone that worked on the game had to tell people how to finish it. After collecting these final pieces (I used a guide, because otherwise I would have no clue), there is a final puzzle. Apparently, the solution was hidden in the coding for the soundtrack.
                Yeah.
                That’s not good game design. That’s just being too damn cryptic for your own good. No one should have to dismantle a game to find out the ultimate solution. If you’re going to include a puzzle that requires thinking outside of the game, you probably shouldn’t include one where 99.99% of players will have no damn clue where to begin looking.

                Anyway, I should probably wrap this up. Fez is a decent game. The most apt word would be ‘cute’. It almost feels like a little kid pretending to be like his father. Yes, it is more original than a lot of games out there. However, I had more fun playing a lot of those games than I did Fez.
                The problem is, Fez does absolutely nothing wrong. Sure, it doesn’t do anything new or particularly interesting and its relatively easy for most of its play time (save for the last few puzzles), but I would hardly say it’s worth the immense development time. Whilst I completely understand the amount of love and creativity that was put into the game, I don’t think I can say much more than ‘it was cute’.
                I feel slightly bad for that conclusion, but that’s all I really can say about Fez. It’s a cute, decent game. I wouldn’t recommend going out of your way for it, but I would say to play it if you’ve got the time.
                So, Fez. It’s cute. It’s a cute game.   

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Okami



                Okami is an easy game to introduce by concept – it’s a Zelda style action-adventure, but the fantasy trappings have been switched from vaguely European to firmly Japanese. That’s a great pitch, and a lot of people would buy that game, especially Zelda fans. Then you throw in the next sentence – you play as a wolf (that’s female), accompanied by an insect sized artist and the entire game is styled to look like traditional Japanese artwork and watercolours. Oh, and it is very, very Japanese.
                It is also one of the best games in its genre, second only to Zelda. The only reason it isn’t on par with Zelda is because Clover Studios/ Capcom do not know how to program functioning cameras in their games (for a good example, see every Resident Evil game before 4).
               
                Okami is set in a fictionalised fantasy variant of Japan – referred to as Nippon, the Japanese word for Japan – where a great evil that was thought to have been vanquished by the great hero Nagi has emerged. This great evil is Orochi, an eight headed dragon that feasts on a maiden once every year. Orochi has cast the land of Nippon into a great all-consuming darkness, his power beyond compare. The old Gods are unable to help, having faded away after 100 years of dwindling belief.
                But there is hope. In the village of Kamiki there stands a staute of the white wolf Shiranui, who fought with Nagi to vanquish Orochi 100 years ago. Sakuya, a wood sprite and guardian of Kamiki, calls forth the sun goddess Amaterasu, who takes the form of Shiranui. Sakuya explains the dire situation to the wolf, but is interrupted by the Poncle Issun, a self-proclaimed great artist and swordsman. Issun agrees to accompany Amaterasu on the basis that Amaterasu is a goddess and is capable of learning the 13 divine brush techniques, which Issun wishes to memorise for himself.
                As Amaterasu starts her journey, she begins to learn the brush techniques that belong to her 13 children, and begins to bring back life and beauty to Nippon, earning back the praise of the people. She also encounters Susano, the descendent of Nagi, a man that regrets his lineage and despises the fact that people believe that he will defeat Orochi as his ancestor did before him.
                As Amaterasu and Issun travel, they find out the true extent of the darkness that has spread throughout the land, and realise that there is more at work than just Orochi. Their journey to vanquish this darkness will take them to the furthest reaches of Nippon and beyond time itself.
               
                Okami’s story starts as nothing particularly spectacular – evil entity appears, go kill it – but s it progresses the plot deepens, thickens and twists. The story, roughly cut up into three chunks (with only the first focused on Orochi), becomes far more than the sum of its parts as characters that seem rather flat and one-note at first become more interesting. Each of the major characters has their own reasons for their actions and their stories can be rather emotional as they progress.
                The core narrative element of Okami makes for a solid foundation for its lead character, Amaterasu, and provides all of the motivation for her quest quite quickly and logically at the beginning of the game. From here on, Amaterasu is simply a player avatar that partakes in occasional moments of emotion, usually for the sake of comedy – being a wolf, Amaterasu cannot speak, leaving only actions to speak for her. And Issun, of course.
                Issun is, arguably, the main character of the game. Whilst he has little direct impact on the plot for much of the game and acts as your guide for the majority, it is through Issun that we learn about the world around Amaterasu and interact with characters. He is effectively a more prominent version of Navi/Midna/Fi from the Zelda series – an omnipresent guide to speak for the mute character. Thankfully, Issun is closer to Midna in this comparison by the sheer fact he has an amusing personality and is fun to listen to, whether it be from his fawning over beautiful woman and general perverted-ness to his refusal to address anyone by their actual name and his quick to anger attitude. Encounters with female characters that involve Issun tend to be some of the best in the game, specifically those you have with Rao in the second story ark. Issun also grows and develops as a character as the game progresses, and his involvement in the final sections makes for some of the most poignant parts of the game.
                   The rest of the cast are also blessed with fun personalities. Many of the characters you bump into throughout the game are blessed with simple personalities that are reflected in everything from their design down to their activities in game. This makes most of the character interactions into small, unique moments that linger in your memory long after the character has been gone from the game.
                The games decision to go more for comedy in its personification of its characters is something to be grateful for. With too many games being focused on more ‘mature’ or darker stories, Okami’s colourful cast of characters makes for a nice break and balances out the games tone so that it never becomes too serious (something very important in later parts of the game where it becomes quite clear how dark and malicious aspects of the story are).
                Gameplay wise, Okami plays like a more mobile Zelda, where movement is faster and more fluid, and you can jump and traverse the environment with greater ease. The Zelda comparison is one that is very apt, as much of the gameplay comes from the use of a few functions. Combat is usually based simply on stringing basic combos with the attack button, with the occasional need for an ability or item to speed up defeating enemies. Unlike Zelda, the addition of jumping allows for the inclusion of flying enemies and some more combat choices, though flying enemies are some of the rarer types.
                As the game progresses, you begin to unlock more of the divine brush techniques, which allows you access to more areas – again, very Zelda – and gives you an added option in combat (for those abilities that can be used in combat). These abilities are also needed to access hidden items and treasures, which can be very useful in later segments. The divine brushes are all mapped to the same button, but require different brush strokes to be activated. Thankfully, the patterns are all fairly easy to remember, but mastering when to use them is part of the challenge of the game.
                In order to make the combat sections of the game more interesting, you are graded on your performance in each battle. This may seem slightly pointless at first, until you realise that the amount of money you receive fluctuates based on your performance. Since money is needed to unlock new abilities and items, performing well in battle becomes something to strive for. Getting the best results requires you to avoid enemy attacks and defeating your opponent in a timely manner, so you’ll find yourself working out the most effective ways to defeating enemies without getting hurt.
You can also earn items called Demon Fangs by performing a finishing move on an enemy.  As an enemy dies, it will temporarily entire slow motion. If you manage to perform the correct brush technique on it during this time, you will be rewarded with Demon Fangs. However, hitting the enemy or using the wrong technique in this state will simply kill the enemy with no reward. Since Demon Fangs unlock useful accessories, earning a lot of them is essential. As a result, battles tend to become a mad dash to kill enemies as quickly as possible in certain ways without getting hit, which requires a surprising amount of effort and concentration, as well as skill.
                There is also an added incentive to doing well in battle – keeping up a long combo without being hit or interrupted will bestow Amaterasu with a sliver of godhood, which acts as a temporary shield. This is represented by a circles on the lower left of the screen, which grows in size and changes colour based on your level of godhood. If you are hit whilst you have godhood, you will not be hurt – your godhood will simply decrease until it reaches zero. This is very useful in chaotic fights later in the game, as well as against the bosses.   
 Okami also boasts several different styles of your basic combo. By equipping different weapons (yes, Amaterasu carries weaponry), your basic attack pattern changes, as does the rate and power of your attacks. The weapons are divided into 3 categories – mirrors, which provide a mix of speed and balance; beads provide weak damage but fast speeds and long combos; and swords which are slow but powerful. It also changes the animations you perform in battle, as well as your in-game character model, which is a nice touch. You can also equip these weapons as sub-weapons, which will bestow different abilities based on class – Mirrors become shields, beads can be shot and equipping a sword gives you access to that sword’s combo through the sub-weapon button.  
                 As well as the core story, there are plenty of distractions in Okami to keep you occupied whilst generally exploring. You’ll discover early on that there are several side missions available to you, ranging from feeding wild animals to earn their praise, to finding the 99 scattered beads that litter Nippon (some of which are rewards for other missions). You can also spend time helping out random people in the game, a task that will usually net you some decent rewards and praise.
                If you’ve noticed, I’ve used the term ‘praise’ a couple of times. Praise is Okami’s variant of experience, and gathering enough praise will allow you to level up specific skills – your total health, the amount of Ink you have to draw with, the size of your wallet and the amount of times you can lose your health without getting a game over.  Since praise comes from a variety of sources, levelling up skills is relatively easy early on, but hunting down praise sources becomes a large part of later sections.
                Visually and aurally, Okami is beautiful. Both draw from classic Japanese culture and arts in order to create such lovely renderings of this fictional world. The music is beautiful and energetic, the art design and graphics simply lovely. Unfortunately, some of the texture work has begun to show its age, but the visuals remain solid nonetheless. There could also be a fair amount of criticism aimed at the female art design, though it is in keeping with traditional Japanese culture and art, which is part of the point of the game.
                Of the few criticisms I can throw at the game (and there are few), the most obnoxious and immediate of these are the cutscenes and the very slow dialogue crawl that accompanies it. The game is completely text based as far as dialogue is concerned, which is usually fine, but the text scrolls by very slowly during cutscenes – far too slowly. It is also accompanied by nonsense noises that vaguely represent speech – something that becomes incredibly annoying when the same sound clips are played slowly whilst the cutscenes play out. This is partially responsible for the fact it takes almost 20 minutes for the actual game to start.
                Secondly, and less annoying, is the camera. As I mentioned earlier, this issue is not unique to Okami, but rather tends to be a problem with Clover studios (now Platinum studios) and Capcom in general. In fact, there are surprisingly few games released that don not have problematic cameras - the Zelda games falling neatly into this small exclusive category. This issue isn’t really prominent except for a few occasions, where the camera will snap to a specific angle or in battles where you find the camera has taken too much interest in a specific angle and no longer shows most of the battlefield. It is mostly a momentary annoyance, but still one that detracts from the game greatly.
                Brief note – the Wii edition of the game struggles slightly due to the motion controls, which surprisingly make it harder to use the divine brush tools due to being too sensitive.
                Otherwise, Okami is one of the best action adventure games available. Beautiful in almost every way, Okami makes for a fun (and funny) distraction, and I highly recommend it to anyone. It is also quite easily available from the Playstation Store, and the wii edition isn’t that hard to locate either. Okami is, quite simply, beautiful. Or, to borrow a phrase from another Clover game, Okami is Viewtiful.