Baccano!

Baccano!
Baccano!

There’s a lot that can be aimed at the anime series Baccano! Schizophrenic, fast paced, action packed, comedic, supernatural. It flies between several parts of a timeline so much you’ll lose track when you realise you’re seeing things out of order. You have to go with the flow and hope for the best!

The backdrop is 1930’s America; high rise times of the mafia and tommy guns. These don’t factor into the story a huge deal other then, yes, it appears they’re all criminals in it – although most of the cast don’t seem to actually do much in the way of crime, and it certainly isn’t the focus of it. However it does add something to have a non-Japanese, fedora-wearing time – it is classy, and some of the music is very fitting, including the introduction theme which in itself is quite brilliantly done.

The actual supernatural part, although not revealed how it works until later in the series, surprises you right in the first episode (here is that surprise!) that some of the character are immortal and can’t die. It is…interesting, and while not particularly delved into too much philosophically or morally, for better or worse it drives some of the plot along; after all, eternal youth is obviously something everyone would want, right?

Some of the large cast; not all of these even appear in the Anime (it's an ongoing light novel series)
Some of the large cast; not all of these even appear in the Anime (it's an ongoing light novel series)

It is a series that decimates the leading protagonist trope too. The series stars plenty of offbeat characters; amusingly many are quite unhinged and almost all are cheerful (except the real bad guys of course). To counter this are a lot of much more normal characters, who in their own way are enjoyable to watch, but have more toned down personalities. Having such a large cast, while sometimes confusing, allows for a whole load of interesting situations to arise, with some very coincidental meetings. Obviously these meetings make up a large part of how the plot evolves.

Isaac and Milia; most of the comic relief
Isaac and Milia; most of the comic relief

To top it all off, and causing much of the mayhem in a very Laurel and Hardie way, are a couple – who are completely cheerful and insanely stupid. They’re a treat to listen to in Japanese – the voices just are brilliant (you’d have thought a series set in America would have a good English voice cast too!). They do the most outlandish things, double-commenting and bring good comic relief to the series. Even with what happens, it never gets melodramatic and comes off as quite lighthearted.

The plot and series as a whole suffers a bit from the rather wacky pacing it uses; slipping between around 3 different stories; one pre-Train, one on a Train and one post-Train. This is actually called out immediately in the first episode (along with the lack of main character), so you do understand that it is meant to be that way.

The Flying Pussyfoot - one of the stories is set here
The Flying Pussyfoot - one of the stories is set here

Each story thread contain overlapping characters; you’re never quite sure (until the end) the exact progression of events, but the pre-episode summaries are short and sweet enough to keep you informed. The cast is also rather large – just check the intro credits. This can be confusing having it move around so much with subplots in plots and mini-arcs within arcs, but it keeps it moving – you’ll never be bored at least, and you keep getting surprised – the plot doesn’t fill up with cliches and subverts a lot of typical plots with rather outrageous circumstances. Each time it shows you a shot of something really strange happening it simply raises the interesting question of how that happened, which happens a lot! It quite likely would have worked fine in chronological order, but was an interesting take on telling a story in a strange way.

The final thing to say perhaps is that, while Baccano! is fast paced and enjoyable, if you don’t like the characters just don’t bother; the first few episodes set the scene well enough, along with some rather gory violence to boot, but the basic plot perhaps by itself isn’t too enjoyable with it being very disjointed. To me, I might have preferred a series with no supernatural stuff, since the parts without it were possibly the most interesting and 1930’s America is rarely visited in animation, but since I enjoyed it might well have been poorer if that was lost. Give it a shot if you in any way like fedoras too πŸ˜‰

5 Minutes…

Since Margaret Robinson did a nice feature of 5 minutes in Geometry Wars’ Deadline, deconstructed, I posted this massive list of 5 minute moments for myself on her blog. It just seemed something worth doing at the time! I still need to post about some of these fabulous games…

5 minutes near the start (just after the train) of Half Life was pretty damn impressive at the time. Talking to NPC’s, sauntering around, without an alien in sight. Usually the start of the game immediately has an explosion of some kind or an immediate enemy to fight (even the popular Halo does this with agusto), it’s still rarely done; and also it sets up the action well for later. Half Life 2 does a similar thing; roughly 5 to 10 minutes, at the start of it too.

5 minutes of exploring the darker areas of STALKER’s world is a possibly terrifying experience – especially the underground segments. Away from the slightly more secure areas by yourself, you have to be quick witted…probably getting more scared of your own shadow then any enemy. One underground location in the game has basically only one enemy in it, it makes you paranoid! Wish I could remember which underground it was, heh.

5 minutes towards the end of a Phoenix Wright game, you know, with music ramping up, the evidence being laid down with agusto, making tough decisions and beating the real bad guy into a self-confession – and finally the confetti reigns down, huzzah! Can never put them down in those parts. The way what basically is a interactive book does that well is really good.

5 minutes of Katamari Damacy – I’ve honestly never completed any one game, but man in short bursts (since it is a timed game) it is immensely engrossing, especially playing it for the first time on the first level.

5 minutes of most Grand Theft Auto games doing what players like to do – which is, usually, blowing lots of things up and being chased by the police, can be exhilarating and fun and an absolute contrast to the (more serious) cutscenes and very linear structured missions. Utter mayhem at it’s finest; a escape from the structured game and bending what accounts to the rules of the simulation – such as getting to locations the police cannot, or using the biggest weapons you can find. In this mode, you don’t get cutscenes and invincible NPC’s, or escort missions, just a playbox to do with what you like (as long as it involves blowing things up).

The first 5 minutes of the original Fallout does, in 5 minutes, what most games take ages to show you tutorial-wise; rats are bad, you shoot them and they die, etc. It stands out as the game does – being a very tough opening dungeon (if you do it wrong) and it make sure you’ve read the manual first! It helps to also make sure you don’t have a character that will simply die in any harder combat situation. You’re alone, against the world, it sinks in very quickly you’ll be over your head shortly if rats are that tough…

The last 5 minutes of a Left 4 Dead finale of course sticks in the mind. The rest of your game is progression to a goal – the goal so close you can almost feel it, yet so far away since the timer is still ticking down. Finales almost make the rest of the game pale in comparison; no wonder they added more slow-down or defensive variations for mid-mission obstacles in the second game. Doing it in Versus mode also is very tough – not just playing against the AI now, but vindictive and cunning players. Planning your places, what guns you use, where defences are placed…all crucial to making it through.

The opening 5 minutes of Sim City, well, 2000 being what I randomly play; the starting of planning, the big ideas, the laying down of groundwork that will make up your city. It’s fascinating giving the same map to different people and seeing what they immediately try and do. The simulation and planning aspects evolve from the initial designs after all.

This opening thing applies to other games such as RTS titles. How you scout the enemy, or work with teammates to begin a level. What you build, and how fast you order troops, which has progressive effects on later moves you can make and decisions you take. Not just ones with building either – the Total War series, 5 minutes can last a lifetime planning opening moves which affect the rest of the battle.

Some games are hard to get a 5 minute “worthwhile” part which isn’t just a cumulation of existing effort though. Long hard battles – what part do you choose? The final hit? the early time you almost died before getting spells up? It’s almost fascinating (since I don’t play them) that more spreadsheet-like battle systems, especially the Tank, Healer, Damage trio ones or turn based RPG games are fun for someone to play since to an outsider it mainly consists of numbers floating up from people πŸ™‚

5 minutes fighting the first Big Daddy early on in Bioshock was immensely fascinating (even if some of the rest of the game isn’t so much fun). Every other enemy dies in a few hits; this one doesn’t and is angry and armed with a big drill. It also is an optional enemy too, so the design of how you can pick and choose to fight it (using the environment to your advantage) makes it much more unique then any other FPS game’s battles.

If you’re going beyond videogames, in Dominion, while perhaps not 5 minutes worth of game time, and I’ve not played it a great deal but once you get a almost perfect hand – the one that will get a gazillion cards drawn, with a gazillion actions to be played, in perfect order – and you meticulously pull it off to the groans of other players, is fascinating since it takes some careful planning to pull off and a moderate amount of luck. It can take a while to play such a glorious hand, but perhaps 5 minutes is stretching it πŸ™‚

If you can ever do it, 5 minutes in the harder continuous random-game modes of Warioware is an ever-faster-paced rather harsh set of minigames that sticks with you as an experience. In the normal singleplayer, you play a few rounds of each type but these are what you do after that – play a large variety of faster paced challenges. Very tough, and very fair.

I could go on…heh.

Angel Beats!

Large speaking cast but it helpfully concentrates only on a few predominately.
Large speaking cast but it helpfully concentrates only on a few predominately.

It likely is because I enjoyed Life on Mars, but Angel Beats!, in spite of an initial shaky start, really did pull through into being a very enjoyable 13-episode anime series.

The series ramps up from an initially shaky premise of “A high school afterlife” (oh how wrong that could have gone) to a much more enjoyable questioning of regret and lives cut short for young people; that’s explained pretty early on, taking the opposite approach to Life on Mars which never makes a reveal on the nature of the world. The characters helpfully don’t do much in the dark; you get to see them propose theories and do just the right amount of internal monologue rather then having to guess it all.

It’s rather heartwarming too; if anything this has the largest amount of sympathetic characters in almost any series I’ve seen and an actually likeable smart protagonist. The short series helps this; any longer, and I’d have expected a bit more behind peoples personalities to be revealed. One or two of them was just a bit cross wired so I wonder what other ideas they’d have come up with here. In fact if they had cut some of the plots, it’d not have suffered at all; they make good use of taking over the credits at several points, making for more enjoyable lengthy episodes. The music numbers are pop/rock background tracks and don’t take over the series, which is a nice way of doing it.

TK: For some reason his off-beat English comments are the funniest thing in it.
TK: For some reason his off-beat English comments are the funniest thing in it.

There is comedy in the mix too, which I’ve not even mentioned yet; odd for a series which on the face of it appears to be a highschool action/comedy not to mention it first perhaps? The comedy is predictably based around silly comments and over the top stunts/action, sadly sometimes at the most inappropriate times (luckily they stave off doing it in the more important parts). Given two episodes are basically a massive collection of silly deaths, it is a relief how it gets can get serious while still being quite lighthearted – the past might be bad, put the present afterlife world is full of possibility after all. Humour wise though one stand out point for the English listener though is a character called TK, who just interjects in the strangest pronunciation English phrases out of the blue; this was something I did actually chuckle at πŸ™‚

It also has some things that hang in your mind at the end poking you that it doesn’t quite make so much sense (not to list any one specific one but you do question the given world quite a bit and some of the plots are odd) but in any case; push these things aside since you can’t take it too seriously. A shame however it isn’t perhaps questioned more; frequently God, the purpose of the world and how it works, reincarnation and past people who were in the world are brought up or pointed to but never gone into much detail.

It is though fully of sentimentality and like I said, is very heartwarming! I’d watch this if you’d enjoy a rather interesting story with a nice set of characters (even if you don’t remember all their names), set against a rather barmy set of plots which luckily mainly serve to further the characters interacting – go with the flow and you’d be well rewarded overall with a satisfactory end to what amounts to a well told short story.

Red Faction: Guerrilla

Red Faction: Guerrilla. In a sentence; you’re a Space Asshole with a big hammer. I’ve seen it referenced recently as Red Faction: Gorilla which is utterly apt description of the game. I also appear to have a spare copy of the game from owning Metro 2033, hehe πŸ™‚

In any case, please watch this before continuing:

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IcUBI-YVRY8[/youtube]
(Thanks to the ever-great Chris Remo for making the song!)

Building destruction makes it hard to take screenshots
Building destruction makes it hard to take screenshots

Boom! Kapow! BOOM!

A few seconds later…

BOOOOOOM! CRASH!

It’s a sandboxy game set on Mars (thus almost a literal sandbox! ho ho!). You’re basically a person thrown into a rebellion where your job is to blow everything up of importance in a world. You’ve got no reason for doing this whatsoever, unless the opening cutscene really persuaded you that fighting in a rebellion against a huge army good idea. The game is pretty bare faced about it: You blow things up and then blow more things up.

Short-lived brothers can't be killed until the second cutscene silly!
Short-lived brothers can't be killed until the second cutscene silly!

It does this pretty well; play it in a lighthearted way and you’ll enjoy some of it, the bits involving explosions at least. Generally though it is pretty subpar. The third person combat is boring, pretty dumb, and pretty overall hopeless to enjoy (add up poor allied and enemy AI, limited ammo and weapons and no real cover system into the mess). Blowing up buildings people are in or dropping buildings on them are much more fun. Getting killed because there are a dozen enemies out of reach of your explosive grenades is not as fun; because hell, if I’m in demolitions, why can’t I blow them up? Who says I need to use a gun?! Being able to blow up the vehicles at least proves to be an effective countermeasure to them coming in massive waves. πŸ™‚

You also get a hammer; one of the more satisfactory melee weapons I’ve used in a game, since you can destroy buildings (slowly) with it; but sadly the enemies all come armed with guns. How is that fair?! πŸ™

What else?

Look, look, equality! A sole female NPC! She upgrades weapons and needs rescuing in a very early mission (no joke).
Look, look, equality! A sole female NPC! She upgrades weapons and needs rescuing in a very early mission (no joke).

I’ve almost run out of things to say about this, which isn’t good. I’ve not finished it; I might sometime, but it’ll take some effort such as deleting all other games from my PC first. I’m being a little tough – but really this is a very basic game, but I got it cheap so can’t complain since the building destructions are just fun to do. Explosions are exciting, especially when you can place them all down yourself πŸ™‚

This is a defiantly anti-AAA title; real lack of breadth since there is one thing to do but it does it really well and is utterly polished to gem like status. Almost a tech demo of blowing buildings up with structural damage; there’s no way you can take seriously your in-game job of blowing up “key structures” for the rebellion, but just revel in the fact you can blow lots of things up in very imaginative ways.

It is a passable excuse to have something to play in between games; but don’t go out expecting anything amazing. Gone are the days of Geo-mod which is something I’d welcome the return of, buildings might be fun but blowing up cliffs, the ground, whatever would be massively fun; imagine having water flooding, or lava, or collapsing terrain, or tunnelling beneath the world…

The in game codex fails to give any useful information on generic enemies.
The in game codex fails to give any useful information on generic enemies.

Gone are linear levels and boss fights. In is the rather empty almost literal sandbox. In are the mindless swarm of stupid allied and enemy NPC’s. In is a plot and set of characters you simply can’t care much about; they pretty much shout at you to get on with the plot, even the protagonist doesn’t seem to care about it, something that I shared with him!

Did I mention you can blow things up a lot in this game? It seems to be worth mentioning again in case you missed it.

To Sum Up

You’re thrown in there to do what you do best no questions asked; blow things up.

You do this for no logical reason except you can.

You go blow everything up.

Right up.

Often into the air.

Often on top of people.

Often allies stupid enough to stand in buildings you need to blow up.

Thus becoming the utter Space Asshole that is totally unavoidable as far as I can see.

Game that forces you to be a Space Asshole, I salute you!

Game Podcasts

I irregularly listen to the Giantbomb Bombcast. They’re now doing membership ($50/year, or monthly $4.95, woo…). Hmm. Just: No thanks, while the irrelevant ramblings and absolutely off-beat podcast length might be unjustifiable as a cost, why make it that long in the first place? They even mention it during this 45 minute long one; they say they like it but it takes lots of time (and so money! “money going out the door”; “what do we get out of that? it’s a hard thing to quantify and a hard thing to monetize”, and going on into adverts on podcasts)…so…hmm, not shorter then; quantity over quality after all.

Instead they split it up into two separate hours. Justification? Other Whiskey Media sites don’t do such a long podcast. This weird split is done so free users get the first hour on time, but the second hour later. Kind of splits it up badly, but there we go.

Oh well, their choice. I guess we’ll see if it works for them. One reservation about this is that Giant Bomb would be pulled directly in two ways; from the people paying subscriptions and advertisers. I hope they’ll keep their quality up, hopefully it won’t slip – if I pay for a site I’d be expecting a level of service that I otherwise wouldn’t expect from free sites. Sadly I don’t expect that level of paid quality from Giant Bomb so can’t justify paying for it πŸ™ but maybe they’ll prove me wrong: they’ll have to do it that way around first however.

With Idle Thumbs now gone πŸ™ I’ve now got very limited good game podcasts to listen to. I’ll be giving Yet Another Gaming Show a chance, but what others are worth the time? Anyone got any? I guess I’ll try looking around the major sites to see who does a reasonable one.

Edit: no longer a mini-side post!

Choice of Games

They do fun browser-based diversions – text-based choice games, which have fun stat-changing decisions and chapters. You can be a roaring Dragon or take part in a Hornblower-esk Navy adventure.

I never really seriously read “Choose your own adventure” books – I did have some but always cheated just to check out how the books worked, which was much more fun. Drawing out maps, getting through the game, was the fun part.

These however are fun and entertaining in their own right – and quite intelligently done. You get several chapters, several vignettes (they explain how to write your own, the blog is great at explaining the choices behind their games (including on genders). Also; nice theme πŸ˜‰ ), which all press you into deciding some major action or other. It’s done so well and gives you a lot of agency – as they explain in their “Why” section.

I’ve not replayed any however; mainly because I’ve been fully satisfied with my own mini-adventure, being a Dragon or a member of the Royal Navy! I expect the choices you do make can be, as in most games, variable between a small change in text and a entirely different branch (and perhaps early end to the story). The interestingly devised stats change outcomes, and it does a great job at making it book-like without taking away your own agency – the actions are widely different a lot of the time.

In any case; these are easier then text-based adventures to navigate, fun to leap into and enjoy, and also are well written. Give them a shot if you’ve got half an hour or so to spare πŸ™‚

Website and journal of Andrew Armstrong