Review – Dragon Quest Heroes: The World Tree’s Blight and the Woe Below

As far as gratuitously long Japanese game titles go, Dragon Quest Heroes: The World Tree’s Blight and the Woe Below is actually not half bad. The “Woe Below” part carries a particularly nice ring to it. That said, you’re best to avoid this game unless you’re a veteran  DQ fan, or you’re really into games that throw waves of minions at you for hours on end with little variety.

The game starts out with a cut-scene that explains the setup for our two main heroes. At first we’re shown humans and monsters living together in harmony, only for the big bad to show up and turn them all hostile with a dash of black magic. You’re immediately tasked with protecting the king (who is a pretty great character, to be fair) by slaughtering hordes of monsters without a second thought for the rest of the game.

Yes, there are many things wrong with this but I decided to go with it. However by the next hour I was electing to skip all cut-scenes because it doesn’t get any better.

Oh well, a hopeless fantasy story can be backed up with some good gameplay and presentation, right? Square Enix knows why you’re really here.

Unfortunately, only one of these ascpects pulls through.

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Let’s start with the presentation. Firstly, it’s great to have an option to play through the game with Japanese voices + subtitles. Japanese games are often spoiled by poor localization but this is a non-issue here. It’s great to see this option in the game and I hope it remains a feature for future titles. The Japanese voice acting is enthusiastic and lends some welcome flair to the game as a whole.

The OST is neat, sound design is great and all the jingles you know and love from the series are out in force. The game looks and sounds great… But that’s where it all ends.

The gameplay is relentlessly mind-numbing. Battles take place in closed arenas where you and 3 other characters are charged with killing everything that moves. I’ve learnt that the game opens up and offers some more interesting fights later on, but forgive me for bailing out on this game early – It’s just so damn repetitive. 99% of enemies are weak as hell, to the point where it’s almost impossible to lose. Even if your main character gets caught off guard by a wayward ogre fist there are 3 more superpowered heroes nearby who are more than ready to mop up without even draining half an MP bar. The game uses an old formula which is OK, but brings almost nothing to make it more exciting which just leaves the player bored way too soon.

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Fighting off hordes can be exciting and stressful when there is real pressure, but after yet another cycle of turning a million small creatures into XP followed by a predictable boss battle, it just felt plain boring. If the idea of eradicating a species of small bats or goblin-like monsters in 10 minutes works for you then you will no doubt enjoy this game. Otherwise, don’t bother.

Additional aspects to compliment the gameplay are also undercooked. There is an array of items and equipment to discover although it’s stock standard fantasy gear we’ve seen a million times before. Upgrading your characters is almost interesting but it doesn’t count for much when everyone has such similar spells and combo moves. Switching party members in and out is a nice option to have, although there aren’t enough strengths and weaknesses across the group for it to be totally necessary here. Your party formation doesn’t really effect the flow of battle at all unless someone is hopelessly under-leveled, or has decided to fight with plastic scissors. You’re still going to be fine.

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Dragon Quest Heroes: The World Tree’s Blight and the Woe Below looks appealing, but an ultimately hollow experience lies beneath its bright exterior. It’s a shame to see such a prestigious franchise take a nose-dive like this but fans of previous games (or people who like to beat up millions of enemies in a short space of time) will probably still enjoy it.

*There are some online features for this game too but I didn’t really get to know them because (at the time of writing) PSN is… Well, you know.

4/10

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Review – Bullet For My Valentine – Venom

At some point over the last couple of years, Bullet For My Valentine woke up to find themselves existing in an awkward state of musical limbo.

The band achieved unprecedented success with “The Poison” in 2005 but they’ve been unable to capture that same energy ever since. That album is now a decade old and the group quickly descended into mediocrity, culminating in one of the worst metal releases in recent history know as “Temper Temper”.

So pathetic and outright incongruous was that recording, Bullet had slipped from trailblazer status to the butt of jokes. What could possibly happen next?

Fortunately, weary Bullet fans have been rewarded for hanging about.

Venom is a return to form. It’s not exactly golden-era Bullet, but it’s a lot more encouraging. The band is playing their strengths again and it sounds refreshing. Tracks like Army Of Noise and Worthless lead the charge with that perfect mix of melody and riffage. Both tracks chug along with an attitude and groove that was sorely missed in recent years. The songwriting is tighter, more thought-out and just makes more musical sense.

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Sure, the lyrical content is still pretty derivative but the vocals are sharp and you can hear the chemistry once more. Vocal and guitar harmonies are carefully thought out and professionally executed. There are more breakdowns on Venom than we’ve heard in a while but they don’t sound overly repetitive, instead providing extra bite and complimenting the overall tone of the record.

Unfortunately the band slams on the breaks at the halfway point of Venom. The tracks become a less interesting, as if the group just ran short of ideas. The second half isn’t bad, but it’s nothing when compared to the first. Pariah is a yawn, Playing God is repetitive and boring, and the bonus tracks aren’t worth playing more than twice.

That said, the album stills holds up pretty well thanks to its first half. The title track is even reminiscent of “Tears Don’t Fall” without feeling overly similar, and “No Way Out” is full of the energy and fire we heard from Bullet long ago. This is great news.

Venom may be plagued by a slow fade in quality over its timeline, but that’s only because the first few tracks are so good. If Bullet can build on the energy shown on this album they could well be on their way to a renaissance period. Venom has put the band leaps and bounds away from Temper Temper and has me very interested in their next move.

3/5

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Review – The Devil Wears Prada – Space (EP)

In the style of 2010’s Zombie EP, The Devil Wears Prada  have delivered another collection of tracks based on a single theme.

Space captures the danger, wonder and excitement of what lies beyond our earth.

The band has injected their modern sound with a little more atmosphere this time round. Haunting keyboard lines invoke images of deserted space stations and enormous starry chasms. Guitar melodies are deliberately dreamy and almost hypnotic at times. There are a variety of tones and subtle effects riddled throughout the soundscape, but not enough to overcomplicate matters. The EP is musically explorative, but also very much a metal album.

While everything ties into the space theme, each track gets its own mini-narrative.

The opener “Planet A” isn’t as heavy as the rest but contains one of the most impressive choruses. It touches on how humans have always been inspired by what lies beyond the stars, but also the loneliness of what it must be like to be up there all alone. But immediately after this we’re transported into panic mode: “Alien” is the fastest and probably most urgent-sounding track. It describes an extraterrestrial encounter that hasn’t exactly gone to plan and the main guitar hooks are particularly feisty.

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“Moongod” explores the idea of space as a vessel or metaphor for a higher power, and is followed by a brief interlude track. It’s not outstanding, but it’s suitably creepy and spacey and acts as a good build up to what happens next.

The final two tracks are bigger and a little heavier. “Supernova” is blistering and quick with yet another strong chorus, but the most epic track is saved for last. “Asteroid” describes the insignificance of man in relation to the enormity and power of the greater universe. What better way to explore such a topic, than in the context of a metal band that’s arguably at the peak of their career? It’s an epic poem about retrospection and who we are in relation to things that happen outside of our control.

The production value is impressive throughout and it’s easy to hear all the different layers within each song. By the end of the EP, the listener is left both quizzical and inspired. In essence, the Space EP is what happens when a very proficient metalcore band looks up to the stars and begins to wonder out loud for 20 minutes.

The end result is strikingly beautiful.

4/5

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Dragon Quest X and XI Coming to Nintendo NX, and Why You Should (Not) Be Excited

Yesterday we learnt that Dragon Quest X and XI will be coming to the 3DS, PS4 and Nintendo NX.

On the surface this looks like great news for Nintendo fans, and it probably is.

Nintendo struggled big time in winning over third-party support for the Wii U from the start. And yet here we have a third-party game announced for the next console, NX, before even learning anything about the console itself.

This looks like a great start for a Nintendo system that hasn’t even been released yet.  Third-party support on top of classic Nintendo IP could lead to the most stunning software line-up we’ve ever seen, right?

Of course! In theory, anyway…

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This announcement calls for some quiet optimism, but let me remind you of a game called Rayman Legends.

Ubisoft first announced Rayman Legends as an exclusive launch title for the Wii U in November 2012. It then failed to launch alongside the new console, but that was merely the tip of the iceberg. What followed was a maddening 12 months of delays, miscommunications, and broken promises that culminated in the game being released for the PS3, Xbox360, PSV, Windows and Wii U systems around November 2013.

This was only aggravated by the Wii U’s barren software catalogue at the time (Smash Bros and Mario Kart 8 hadn’t shown up yet). Legends was supposed to be exclusive as well! But it gets worse.

Tacked on to the final release and blamed for a significant portion of the delay was a bunch of content from Rayman Origins, the prequel to Legends. This was received as yet another smack in the face to long-time fans who bought a Wii U; Not only was the delay already longer than it ever should have been, but to see it slowed down yet again just to ram in previously released content… Well, you can guess how that was received.

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All things being equal, Square Enix are not Ubisoft and Nintendo 2015 are not Nintendo 2012. Hopefully they’ve learnt from the mistakes of mishandling third-party titles at launch. As consumers though, we have the right to be skeptical now.

Let’s just hope the NX gets off to a better start than the Wii U did. Hopefully Nintendo learn from their mistakes and focus on what matters most to gamers – the software!

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Review: When Marnie Was There / Omoide no Marnie

Studio Ghibli has returned with yet another high-quality offering for fans and newcomers of all ages. When Marnie Was There is based on the book by Joan G. Robinson and explores the life of two young girls who come from different worlds, but are linked in a very special way.

The film is an engrossing story of friendship, hardship, and learning to grow up without giving up.

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Our main character is Anna, a girl of just 12 who is sent away from her home in Tokyo to live with relatives in the countryside. Anna suffers from asthma and lives with crippling anxiety. She’s a talented artist but struggles with her illness and finds it hard to make friends. The story focuses very closely on her but does a good job of illustrating her initial plight without feeling too cliche. Anna is easy to connect with, and the characters around her feel very realistic too.

Soon enough Anna meets a very beautiful, mysterious young girl across the water from her new home. The young girl is Marnie, and the two quickly become special friends. Anna almost can barely believe her luck. Marnie is brave and adventurous, and on top of that she even lives in a mansion… But it’s not until Anna begins to wonder who Marnie really is that the story takes off.

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The narrative is well told and a number of trademark Ghibli features are on display. Scenes and environments are beautifully hand drawn and the characters are all vibrant and expressive. I found the pacing of the film to be a little slow for the first half, but considering the quality of sound and animation this didn’t really feel like much of a drawback.

Studio Ghibli live up to their reputation for remarkable attention to detail, and When Marnie Was There is no exception. The little country town and the nearby marshlands are just breathtaking, and Marnie’s mansion is a sight to behold. You can distinctly hear the sound of wooden floorboards creaking underfoot in Anna’s home, and the gentle buzz of insects and other wildlife from outside. It’s almost magical, and audiences both young and old will find themselves immersed in Anna’s world with ease.

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A cast of relativley unknown voice actors even paid off astonishingly well, the characters are brought to life with passsion and enthusiasm. There’s plenty to like across the board here, an it’s easy to feel the creative care and dedication that went into the whole film.

When Marnie Was There didn’t feel quite as absorbing as some of Studio Ghibli’s more fantasy-based stories although there are a few dreamy moments along the way, and the harsher realism is set up for a purpose. The film does stand up on its own though and communicates a interesting story with its own sense of wonder and intrigue.

I think many viewers will have just about unraveled the mystery element to the film by the time the end credits roll, but this doesn’t really subtract from the enjoyment because it’s just plain fun to watch.

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8/10

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Review – Parasyte: The Maxim (Kiseijuu: Sei no Kakuritsu)

[A quick note: There will be some minor spoilers here, but the source material for this show is 25+ years old so go figure. The narrative is by no means original or groundbreaking but I will avoid mentioning anything overly significant.]

So, Parasyte has finally come to a close and the adaption turned out to be simultaneously good and bad at the same time. You know, like most anime. If you haven’t heard about this show yet, it’s the one everyone is talking about with the main character who has a weird alien growing out of his hand and struggles with the implications of how this will affect his chronic masturbation habit, amongst other things. Or was that Midori Hibi

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On the plus side, the pacing was done pretty well (until the final arc, where Shinici lives in a small village community for a number of days as represented by mere minutes of screen-time). Parasyte did manage to sell suspense to the audience well enough as the story unfolded. However there were a few patchy parts and some of the climatic parts were often hurt by censorship.

Nonetheless, we got to see Shinichi change massively as a character – from bumbling self-conscious nerd to an existentially challenged hybrid parasyte murderer over the course of 24 episodes. And for the most part he was likable. It was interesting to watch him attempt to understand his relationship with Migi (the creature that has morphed into his hand) and the implications of playing host to such an intelligent yet wildly unpredictable and bizarrely foreign entity.

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Conversely, Murano managed to single-handedly cripple the show in ways that are impossible to overlook. She is a very old-school love interest: she’s totally gorgeous, possesses the brain of a goldfish and the personality of a particularly unremarkable rock. Not even the voice talent of the omnipresent Kana Hanazawa could save such a poorly written character.

Murano is constantly at Shinichi’s side throughout the show like a sad puppy, hoping to understand his erratic behaviour despite the fact he keeps everything secret from her. I can’t count the number of times she said “Are you really Shinichi-kun?”. It was fucking mind-numbing. If she had a personality or some ambition then maybe I could connect with her but she has nothing. She simply just is. For the sake of it. parasyte2

Fortunately there are a bunch of more interesting side-characters, and the relationship between Migi and Shinichi was cool.

Unfortunately, the OST was unremarkable and the action scenes were hit and miss. World-building was handled well enough but the narrative was plagued by a couple of significant hiccups, relying on Muranos selective memory (did I mention she was stupid and forgetful?) and possibly even stupider police decision-making to advance the plot. These flaws were particularly difficult for me to overlook.

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An additional sin made by Parasyte came in the form of an epilogue. Shinichi treats us to a pseudo-intillectual and complentative monologue that touches on how humans are actually kind of greedy creatures themselves and, get ready for this bombshell: parasitic in nature, and that we should be nicer to each other and our environment.

In essence, Parasyte was not a bad show. Although it likes to think it’s a lot smarter than it actually is.

4/10

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Opinion: Zelda U Is the Last Chance For the Gamepad to Be Relevant

In November of this year the Wii U will be 3 years old.

Looking back, the console had a very rocky launch period and took a long time to build sales momentum. However, with the success of titles like Mario Kart 8 and Super Smash Bros (for Wii U) things are finally looking up for Nintendo. People are finally buying the console now, but one very awkward and blatantly obvious problem still plagues the system.

The gamepad.

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After all this time the gamepad is still mostly irrelevant when used with the Wii U’s top-selling games.

Take Mario Kart 8 for example. This is the best-selling game on the console and you technically don’t even need the gamepad to play it if you have a pro controller or wiimote/nunchuck combo. Sure, you can use the gamepad to display a map while racing but this is practically useless because you end up focusing entirely on the tv instead. Holding a pro controller is much more comfortable when compared to the much bulkier size of the gamepad as well. It’s almost totally unnecessary.

On top of this, Super Smash Bros. for Wii U has almost zero gamepad functionality. It can be used to display damage percentages during fights and that’s it. An entirely optional feature that doesn’t bring anything new to the game at all. You can’t even operate the menu with the touch screen… It’s almost like they don’t want you to use the gamepad.

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These are just two examples, but you don’t have to look very far to find another Wii U game with poor or virtually non-existent gamepad implementation. This leads me to my main point.

The upcoming Zelda game for Wii U will be the last chance to make the gamepad to work effectively.

We’ll probably see some basic streamlining like in A Link Between Worlds and The Wind Waker HD (map display, menus etc) but what else can the gamepad bring to the series? Will it actually play a significant role in the game?

To be honest I don’t mind if the gamepad is yet again underutilized (it beats being simply tedious), but it would be really cool for the console’s signature feature to come out hot for a change. I don’t expect to be blown away, but lets see if they can surprise us this time. Eiji Aonuma said back in 2012 that the gamepad will be a big part of the game. There’s been plenty of time for him to have a change of mind but there’s also been plenty of time to think up some cool ways to implement it.

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I think this is Nintendo’s last chance to really bring out the gamepad’s potential. There will almost definitely be no more Zelda titles on the Wii U after this, and another 3D Mario game looks unlikely. Let’s see if Nintendo can finally earn some real praise for their spectacularly weird design choices. I hope they do.

Bring on Zelda U.

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