Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Ryan's Favourite Video Games of 2014

With the addition of a little one to my family there hasn’t been much time for gaming this year, so I barely eked out five new games in 2014. Also, of the list I’d say that I’ve only really finished two of them. I have played an extensive amount of each title, however, so I feel justified in the list. It’s about quality over quantity, right?

5. Mighty Gunvolt (Nintendo 3DS)

This one is a bit of a cheat, but it is a video game and I did play it in 2014. So there.

Mighty Gunvolt started out essentially as an “early adopter” bonus for buying Azure Striker Gunvolt on the Nintendo 3DS eShop. There will be more information on Azure Striker Gunvolt in a moment. If you bought ASG on, or around, its release you would receive a download code for Mighty Gunvolt. Both this title and ASG were developed by Inti Creates, a company best known for developing the Mega Man Zero series on the Gameboy Advance.

It plays like an old school Mega Man game and features Gunvolt - the titular character of Azure Striker Gunvolt - who can perform a double-jump and a charged attack, Ekoro from Gal*Gun - an Inti Creates developed series only released in Japan - who can float in the air and “charm” enemies to fight for her, and Beck - the hero of the yet-to-be-released Mighty No. 9, a joint project from Mega Man creator Keiji Inafune’s new company, Comcept, and Inti Creates - who has the ability to slide and perform a tackle attack. Get it “Mighty Gunvolt”?

The initial game was really short and could easily be beaten by each of the three characters in just a few short hours. It contains four stages with bosses that are found in each of the three games. It has been expanded since its release and can now by purchased on the Nintendo 3DS eShop along with DLC, which adds four more stages and four more bosses.

It’s a fun little title that won’t take you long to finish, but was very enjoyable. I’m not sure it’s worth the current price of $3.99 USD, though.

4. Azure Striker Gunvolt (Nintendo 3DS)

Azure Striker Gunvolt was the first independent project by Inti Creates announced at around the same time that Comcept first started their Kickstarter campaign to fund Mighty No. 9; the spiritual successor to the Mega Man series. It was an apt time to launch ASG, as well, because Inti Creates title is most definitely a spiritual successor to their Mega Man Zero and Mega Man ZX series, made popular on the GBA and Nintendo DS.

If you’ve played a Mega Man game then you’d be familiar with the gameplay of ASG, as it is a side-scrolling, action platformer. You play as Gunvolt or “GV”, a young boy who is an Adept; an individual who can command “septimal” or psychic powers. In GV’s case he can manipulate electricity in what is called a “Flashfield”.

The main concepts of a Mega Man title are in place: you choose an enemy from a list and whittle them away in whatever order you like. The differences are in the gameplay. In ASG you don’t “shoot” enemies in the typical sense. Instead, you mark them with your gun and then use the Flashfield of electricity to destroy them. Any enemy marked on the screen will be affected by the Flashfield. At first you can only mark two enemies at a time, but as you progress you can upgrade GV, and receive new guns, so that you can mark several enemies on screen.

The gameplay in ASG is very fast-paced, but I personally find it difficult to get out of the mindset of simply shooting the enemies. I don’t usually have such a learning curve with a video game, but Azure Striker Gunvolt definitely had me upside-down and backwards. When you eventually get used to it, it is a very fun and rewarding experience and one I would definitely suggest you try if you are a fan of Inti Creates Mega Man titles.

3. Mario Kart 8 (Wii U)

If you’ve played video games at any point in the last 20 years or so then you’re probably familiar with the Mario Kart series, as it has become a flagship title for any Nintendo console since the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. There probably isn’t much I can tell you about how Mario Kart 8 plays, so I’ll stick with my experience of the title, thus far.

From the moment it was announced at E3 2013 I was shocked by how great the game looks. It is so colourful and vibrant. Nintendo set up booths at different Best Buy locations around the US and Canada where you could check out demos of some of the games they’d revealed at that E3. I managed to find my way to a Best Buy not long after and checked out a few of the demos. Seeing Mario Kart 8 running at a smooth 60 frames per second just blew me away. It really is a stunning game to look at.

And – most importantly – it plays well! The game handles incredibly on whichever controller scheme you choose. You can play on the Wii U Gamepad, the Wii U Pro Controller, the Wii Remote and Nunchuk, and several other input methods as well. I ended up finding that I preferred the Wii Remote and Nunchuk combination, because it reminded me most of playing on the Nintendo 64 controller. Mario Kart 64 is my jam.

There are a plethora of characters to choose from in this installment. The core characters of the game remain in the Super Mario Universe, but with the addition of DLC packages that were released a few months ago, now Link from The Legend of Zelda can join in on that Mario Kart fun!

This is one of those games that you never just beat and put away, but you play now and again and savour. No matter if you’ve achieved everything the game has to offer you can always find a challenge and with the addition of DLC – something Nintendo is just starting to get used to – more life could be breathed into this wonderful title in the future.

2. Shovel Knight (Wii U, PC)

Shovel Knight is the freshmen release of Yacht Club Games, which is a company started by Sean Velasco in 2011 after he left Wayforward. Wayforward is responsible for all sorts of games, but are mostly known for their Shantae series on Nintendo’s handhelds, as well as several movie tie-in games, and recently an HD remake of DuckTales, from the Nintendo Entertainment System, on modern consoles.

Yacht Club Games first effort is an odd little title; a game where you play as a renowned knight in a far-off fantasy land, whose weapon of choice is, just as the name suggests, a shovel.

The game is a wonderful throwback to retro classics on the NES. It is a perfect union of the elements of Mega Man, Castlevania, Super Mario Bros. 3, and even the aforementioned DuckTales. The style of the game is in a pseudo 8-bit. Everything is created in sprite work that harkens back to the NES era, but at the same time would be far too technical to ever play on Nintendo’s oldest home console.

Shovel Knight is taking on the Order of No Quarter, a group of evil knights that are up to no good! You traverse the world in a map akin to that in SMB3, and you can take on the Order of No Quarter in any sequence you choose, much like Mega Man. In each stage you can find a relic, which if you purchase it, can help you defeat the boss for that area. Coupled with Shovel Knight’s shovel attacks, including one that is just like ol’ Scrooge McDuck’s pogo stick cane from DuckTales, he is a formidable hero!

Playing this game was a wonderful experience from beginning to end. It has a hilarious script, is perfectly paced, doesn’t take forever to finish, and it also balances its difficulty quite well, although being a little on the easy side. The music is full of beautifully crafted chiptune songs, which may make a future list, so keep your eyes peeled.

Shovel Knight is currently available on the Wii U, Nintendo 3DS, PC (via Steam) and has future releases planned for PS3, PS4, and PS Vita, so if you have the means to play it, you should definitely do so.

1. Bravely Default (Nintendo 3DS) 

Bravely Default is a new Square Enix-published JRPG developed by Silicon Studio, known mostly for creating game development software, but also for their only other release, 3D Dot Game Heroes. The game is in many ways a spiritual successor to Final Fantasy: 4 Heroes of Light, which was released in 2010 for the DS and developed by Matrix Software.

Much like 4 Heroes of Light, the game uses an iteration of the famous Final Fantasy Job System - made popular in games like Final Fantasy III, Final Fantasy V, and Final Fantasy Tactics - in which players use “asterisks” to give their characters new jobs and abilities.

This game is an odd duck, because it is a completely new title and series from Square Enix, but is in every way a Final Fantasy game. The story line starts off like so many FF titles before it, in which a young man from a small village is thrust into the role of hero to save the world.

Although that sounds really played out, you have to trust me on this: Bravely Default is a breath of fresh air in the world of the RPG. It plays on your nostalgia, giving you the same experience you came to love from the FF titles of yesteryear, but with a new refreshing story, great characters, incredible music, and – most importantly – a new battle system. Bravely Default is not just the same old Final Fantasy game you might be expecting.

Although the game features turn-based combat you won’t get very far if you simply let everyone take their turn. Enter: the Brave/Default system. What an inventive name!

This system allows the characters to pass on taking their turn, instead stockpiling it, which is known as Default. In the Default state your character goes into a defensive stance, which greatly protects you from enemy damage. You can do this up to four times at which point you can take advantage of using Brave. Brave allows you to attack up to four times. If you’ve stored enough moves thanks to Default, you can do so and then still perform another command on your next turn. If you haven’t, however, you’ll have to sit there and let your enemy unleash upon you while you wait for your turn count to replenish.

I’ll admit, I’m a bit of nostalgia junkie and this sort of thing is immediately going to be up my alley, but I assure you there is something special about Bravely Default that makes it worth the playthrough.

I can’t give this recommendation without a serious warning, though: The second half of Bravely Default does something that is pretty stupid. I can admit that. In fact, for many people, it’s enough that they won’t finish the game, nor recommend it to anyone, and I can see where they are coming from.

I don’t want to say any more than that and ruin the storyline, but there is a section of the game that can be a bit of slog to get through. In my personal opinion the game is good enough to play through the second half, even if it is rough. I would also add that a good portion of this “bad section” of the game is not mandatory and can be skipped, so if you hate it you can do the minimum amount necessary and get through it relatively quickly.

Regardless of the general reception of the second half of the game, Bravely Default did incredibly well in Japan and North America, and a sequel is in the works from Silicon Studio entitled Bravely Second: End Layer. I for one can’t wait for more!

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Shane's Favourite Movies of 2014

I prefer to post these annual movie lists before the end of January, but time keeps slipping through my fingers like dog shit down a storm drain. Sometimes you have to go with the flow. Let's get to it.

5) Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The only thing better than apes riding horseback while firing machine guns are apes that you care about riding horseback while firing machine guns. I was really impressed by how entertaining and fresh the 2011 franchise reboot was with Rise of the Planet of the Apes, but Dawn was damn near perfect. It had impressive visual effects, a compelling story, and excellent action set pieces.

The harmony we're seeing now with motion capture performances combined with skilled digital animation is kind of stunning. Look at the dramatic performances of Caesar and Koba and try not to be drawn into the story. They conveyed far more emotion than some live action human performances last year (Example: All the humans characters in the new Godzilla movie were played by bags of potatoes). This time around I'm actively sympathizing with the apes and rooting for the demise of those deceitful HOO-mans. You go, Koba! Get in that armoured vehicle and fuck shit up.

I'll always have a place in my heart for the oddball campy goodness of the original series (well maybe not for Beneath the Planet of the Apes), but this updated take on the story is really fun and handled so well that I'm 100% on board for the next entry in the series ... even if they continue their confusing titles and call the next one Emergence of the Origin of the Planet of the Apes: Beginnings.

4) Whiplash

Who would have though that a movie about drumming would keep me on the edge of my seat? They should have called this Full Metal Jazz Kit with all the vicious verbal and physical abuse being unleashed on Miles Teller's character, Andrew. He's a student with a passion for drumming who attends a competitive music conservatory and is soon being pushed to the limit of his abilities. Dishing out the abuse is Fletcher, a strict and ultra-demanding music instructor who will stop at nothing to realize Andrew's potential, or destroy him in the process.

J. K. Simmons is perfectly cast here as Fletcher. It's the asshole he was born to play.  For the entire film you keep bouncing between hating his guts and then discovering he actually has compassion. Then despising him, and then seeing a glimmer of a soul. Where the coin toss lands, I'm not even certain.

The music was delightful and upbeat, which worked well in contrast to the constant anxiety I felt throughout the film. It all builds to an astounding "all or nothing" confrontation between Andrew and Fletcher that I wont soon forget.

3) Nightcrawler

Nightcrawler asks the question, what would a monster do in a monstrous profession? And the answer is, succeed. Jake Gyllenhaal gives one of the finest performances of the year as Lou Bloom, an unsettling character of the highest order. Gyllenhaal lost weight for the role to give his character the appearance of a hungry coyote prowling the night, and it works. Bloom is a gaunt, unblinking creep who discovers the world of crime journalism and he stops at nothing to achieve success against the competition. Everything about him is eerie, grotesque, and unethical. Even his empty, corporate buzzword vocabulary can make your skin crawl.

The film is very dark, literally and figuratively, and mostly takes place on the streets of L.A in the dead of night. Bloom's mad ambitions are perfect for this ruthless world of camera crews hunting down car accidents and crime scenes. The movie is fascinating, and while the subject matter is often upsetting, it's hard to look away.

2) Snowpiercer

This movie is crazy. It's full blown banana sandwiches and it just doesn't care.  Based on a French graphic novel, Snowpiercer takes place on a train carrying the remnants of society through a post-apocalyptic frozen wasteland. The train traverses the globe in an annual loop; it's upper class passengers enjoy a posh life at the front of the train, while an enslaved lower class are stuck to wallow in the rear cars. The film follows a rebel uprising from the back of the train as they fight their way to the front. I think - wait ... yes ... I believe there is some metaphor at play here.

The premise aside, I don't even know where to start here. Do I talk about the pitch-black tunnel axe war, the gun fight in the school car, the sniper showdown around the curve, the brutal battle in the sauna. What about the amazing lineup of actors here? John Hurt, Ed Harris, Chris Evans, and Tilda Swinton stealing the show at every opportunity. My favourite Korean actor, Song Kang-ho, plays a drug addicted security expert helping the rebellion move from car to car. Although the film takes place on a single train, the array of different settings our characters pass through is brilliant.

Okay, look. The movie is far from perfect. It somehow manages to get sloppier in the third act with some laughable dialogue and depressing twists, but I can overlook all that because I've never seen anything quite like it. It feels like a film that should have only worked as a bleak and brutal anime from the Akira-era of Japanese animation. It's bold and inventive, and (no surprise here) always moving forward to new and unexpected places. If you've been hungry for some sci-fi action ... all aboard! *gunshot*

1) Gone Girl

Gone Girl feels like the best directed TV movie you've ever seen, and I pity any couple who chose it as their first date. It may be a long film, but it doesn't feel long. It keeps its momentum with plenty of intrigue and twists with each act, and while you may be able to guess the general elements of the plot, it's doubtful you'd be able to successfully predict where the story will lead. It's nice to feel surprised, and this movie is a perfect modern day thriller.

Some have complained about the ending of the movie; how it leaves some things unresolved and differs from the ending of the book. That's fine with me since I haven't read the book and I don't need all my movies to have conclusions where justice is served. Gone Girl could be summed up with "men be pigs and women be crazy", but it explores the utmost limits of being trapped in, and escaping a relationship.

David Fincher is on point here as always. The cinematography is sharp and natural. The cast is solid all around, though I'm especially smitten by Rosamund Pike's performance. Judge me as you will. Maybe the greatest praise I can give is that I wanted more Tyler Perry. I can't believe I just typed that. There's a ton to appreciate and it's worth repeated viewings because it's dense with details. All in all, the movie executes its insane storyline with finesse and I wouldn't change a thing.