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Killer is Dead

By Boogie Knight:

KillerIsDead

After feeling a little burned by the excessive grinding created by roadblocks in the last couple Disgaea games I happened upon a little game called Thomas Was Alone. A short game, but I was so engaged I marathoned through that puppy like I was about to solve the mystery of the number 23. Conventional wisdom in the game industry has been that the more you can pad the length of the game the better, and these experiences were evidence in my mind that perhaps a more compact game with concentrated awesome would make for an overall better game experience. I don’t think this alternate line of thinking is necessarily wrong but upon playing Killer is Dead I get the sense that shorter and more concentrated game experiences will only result in us getting sold half a game.

Killer is Dead tells about a quarter of the story of Mondo Zappa, an unflappable katana wielding jerk working for the ostensibly state run Execution Office. Rounding out the cast is Older Cyborg who runs the office, Vivienne the supervisor, and Mika who is Mondo’s pet Japanese schoolgirl. In this job Mondo hunts down and kills nefarious characters as well as countless nondescript robot skeleton monster things. You’d think that something like the Execution Office would be part of a comic book universe which was not retarded, where guys like the Joker would be sentenced to death but would have to be tracked due to their supervillain tendency to break out of jail. However it operates more like the shadowy office of a dime novel detective story and characters make broad absolutist statements which may not be necessarily true. While stories which treat the audience like drooling idiots spoon feeding them every plotpoint gets insulting the lack of explanation for the world is more than a little aggravating. The big reveals would have felt more meaningful if we had more of a foundation and were let in on more of what was going on.

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A simple combat system is not inherently bad, but the subweapons control like crap and are powered by blood which you can refill from power ups and from slashing the enemy with the katana. Suffice to say that you will almost exclusively be using the katana as you mash the same button and try to dodge once in a while. Dodging does not make you invincible so you have to evade in the right direction and time it properly. Yet the challenge is almost nonexistent as about a third of the story missions are glorified tutorials and the game is practically over once it really gets started. The boss battles themselves tend to be easier than regular enemy encounters, though the battle with Big Head was somewhat enjoyable because it felt like an upgraded version of the Killabilly boss fight from Lollipop Chainsaw. In light of the insufficient challenge I decided to give the game a try in Ultra Hard mode under the presumption when the stakes are raised one can see clearly the nuances that might have been missed. Harder difficulties in general instruct the player in how to play a game the way it was intended.

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Ultra Hard is a joke until Episode 9 when the stronger enemies show up and they mob you like crazy and a single hit can take out a big chunk of your life. You practically have to use the Ulti-Mondo costume to boost your stats and get through parts which are tough due to imbalanced design, but once you use that special costume then Ultra Hard is really no harder than normal mode. At least Lollipop Chainsaw kept things interesting by incentivizing the player to perform simultaneous decapitations of enemies, Killer is Dead has fight mechanics which you have no drive to master because it is too childishly simplistic.

It’s hard to believe that this game was made by the same man who gave us No More Heroes and was able to solve the problem of transcending money. In No More Heroes you still needed to hand over cash to access the next rank battle and progress through the story. Even after you did bought all the clothes and upgrades there would still be a reason to spend money and want to earn money. Contrast that with Killer is Dead where cash is separate from the items which upgrade your health, blood, and abilities. Enemies spews out some combination of the upgrading goodies so there is no reason to spend money to boost your character. So cash is primarily used to buy gifts for dates (more on that mode later) but the rewards are so paltry that there’s no incentive to sink time into spending time with dates. Replaying missions for a higher ranking is an end onto itself because there are only a few alternate costumes you unlock and the rest of what you unlock are more gifts to buy for dates. Going to a lot of trouble for rewards I don’t want to be used in a gameplay mechanic I hate is the very reason I quit playing Assassin’s Creed III after I finished the story.

Then there’s Gigolo Mode… oh dear god there is Gigolo Mode. I looked up info on this side objective and allegedly it was originally something planned for Shadows of the Damned but was cut from the game. Thank goodness for that as it would make cheerleading for Shadows of the Damned so much harder. These “missions” follow a simple pattern: Eye bang the life out of your date when she’s not looking, get worked up enough to give her a gift, and repeat until you bang the life out of your date. No dialogue, no real interaction, and no real sense of who the hell these women are. The first one you see briefly in an early cutscene but the second woman inexplicably calls you in the middle of a mission and declares her interest in meeting Mondo. I want to be able to defend it by arguing Gigolo Mode only takes the bullshit of videogame character courtship to its extreme.

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Let’s try to keep this in context: How many games can you list of the top of your head where the main character can easily hook up with women because of his aura of main characterness? Well done. Okay. Okay, you can stop now. In all likelihood satirizing this element of game design was not the intent even though the way the game responds seems to convey Mondo has an inflated sense of himself. Yet this mode troubles me as the rewards kinda suck, the dates are non-entities for all practical purposes, and while there is little reason to indulge in the modes the game is built in a way that getting gifts for dates is pretty much all you can really do with your money once you max out everything.

Then there’s Scarlett, the nurse who hides in several spots throughout the real levels in the game. Finding her means getting your blood supply refilled and that can help you out in more demanding levels. Each time you find her in a different location you unlock special challenge missions which get creative sometimes but are largely straightforward. Like any other missions, success results in cash rewards but they also get you point and once you reach the cap a “special challenge” unlocks in which sex happens. Still very self involved but at least these scenes are purely optional and Scarlett is sort of a character as opposed to an anonymous lay (Which now makes me think of the Fable marriage option with the interchangeable NPCs).

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I feel a need to talk about the DLC content because there’s so little game and I keep wondering why the hell this content couldn’t have just been in the “real game.” You get a whole level with a unique setting, not a recycled stage, with a story that has at least one element from the main one even though it’s a side story. The vampires Betty is the client for this story mission and also appears in an additional Gigilo Mode mission. Gigilo Mode still remains creepy as hell but slightly more tolerable because she’s a character.

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Killer is Dead may not be a terrible but there is so little game there with so little to offer. At best the game is a rental even though it’s the limited edition which for now seems to be exclusive on the DLC content. In the Japanese version there was a contest for finding Juliet Starling from Lollipop Chainsaw hidden away in Killer is Dead. Looked up info on it and the Easter Egg was in the DLC mission. There was a little speculation on whether Juliet was playable in Killer is Dead, but that doesn’t appear to be the case and it’s probably for the best. Never remind the player they could be playing a better game in your not so good game.

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Persona 4: The Golden

By Boogie Knight:

Complaining about the identity crisis of major franchises seems to be something I’m doing a lot lately, because so many major franchises have become increasingly bland in the mindless attempt to “capture a wider audience.” So how we go over a sequel which is a dramatic departure from the series that I like, Persona 4: The Golden. Yeah, yeah, yeah, it was actually Persona 3 which paved the way, but the Vita port of Persona 4 is the most recent and refines what Persona 3 started.

In Persona 4: The Golden, you play a quiet, manipulative prick who is driven by the need to be liked by everybody. Plucked out of his big city home, our hero is plopped into a small community at the same time a brutal murder takes place and events unfold which put him in a position to prevent future murders and hopefully track down the killer.

Through battle a player can acquire his Stands, I mean Personas, but through fusion a player sacrifices Personas in order to create a brand new one with skills from the ingredients. Further, the grind which can come from having multiple Personas to call on is diminished through experience point bonuses granted during fusion through the development of Social Links. Social Links come from meeting and getting to know people in the town.

The core aspect of the game is time management as the player balances building bonds with the residents of Inaba and fighting through the dungeons in order to level up and progress through the main story. Arguably, the games mechanics have you live like a superhero even more that Arkham Asylum. While there are JRPGs which have date sim elements, they either do the Azure Dreams thing where it is purely optional and has no effect on gameplay, or they do the Record of Agarest War thing where you have to go through a strictly regimented order and precise actions to unlock the True End.

Thinking on the matter more, one of the things which makes Persona 4: The Golden work so well is that it takes the best of Western and Japanese RPGs. It has the Japanese characteristics of character focused and driven stories with the quality control associated with Japanese games, while it has customization and freedom generally associated with Western RPGs. Completing all the Social Links in one go is the crown of achievement, but it’s not required to get the True End and in truth the player can go about his time focused or spread out however they like. In my first run, I spent most of my time in my room focused on reading all the books with few close friends and pursuing a romance with one of the girls, which oddly was much like my real high school experience except for the remote chance of getting lucky.

On the second run, I went for the prize, I shot for all Social Links in one go. Considering that the goal is talking to a bunch of people one would think of this as a slow, meandering process. Yet, I am hard pressed to think of another game where I moved at such a breakneck speed to reach a goal legitimately. Progress is neatly divvied up with positive reinforcement along the way. It is very easy to get caught up in the process and want to keep playing for one more ingame day to make just a little bit more progress. To be blunt, this playthrough made me wonder if the dungeon crawling is a vestigial limb from an old convention to RPGs we just blindly accepted, as I felt like that screwed up the rhythm of the game with treks into samey dungeons. Granted, the did have their own themes, and were an upgrade from Tartarus which you scaled for no reason other than to level up for the boss fight, but better level design that doesn’t dramatically inflate production costs would be welcome.

True to form in the date sim tradition, the player character has numerous attributes such as Courage and Expression which is necessary to advance some Social Links and in rare cases be able to use certain dialogue options. I recall the first time I tried certain dialogue options which told me that I had insufficient Courage and being wowed, which can come off as odd but to me it communicated that the player was taking an unremarkable shlub and molding them into the most amazing person in the world. A nice thought that the player isn’t starting off with a character who skates through the plot because they are awesome because they are the main character.

Of course, The Golden is the second version of Persona 4 and there have be ample new features to justify rebuying a game and a Vita as well. The biggest addition worth mentioning are the two additional Social Links: Aeon and The Jester. Aeon was introduced in the FES version of Persona 3 because Yukari having a Social Link while Aegis didn’t was an oversight which needed to be fixed. In this game, Aeon is a brand new character who fills in some details about the supernatural stuff in the story, while the Jester is an established character who could already be guessed by people who already finished the game. The Jester also gives the player the option for an evil ending which left a sinking feeling but it was a good choice to allow the option at all. These Social Links are two great additions, and they certainly take that silly POWA’ OF FRIENDSHIP thing to an insane new level.

Persona 3: FES had a few select pieces of gear which changed the look of the characters in the dungeon, which was nice but eventually the armor would become obsolete and not very practical late game. The Golden fixes this by having a separate slot for costumes so that stats can be improved with the perpetual arms race while you can play with various looks for the party members.

Another major addition are the scooters which can be accessed before the summer. Take one for a ride around town to get a feel for the place, and eventually you can venture into spots like Okina City which you only saw briefly in scenes with other characters as well as a beach (which unfortunately means an expansion of the fishing minigame). Taking trips with allies on scooters gives the player an opportunity not only for them to relearn forgotten skills, but potentially learn new ones which can make them even more effective.

Which reminds me, several of the skill selections for party members have been tweaked and overall I have to think that in every case it is for the best (Though for the life of me I cannot figure out how to make the most out of Chie yet again). Naoto was always good for making whole swaths of enemies just die, but with h- improvements, the tiny detective can deal solid damage and support magic for any boss encounter. After regular battles, the previous version made bonuses a game where you had to pick the reward which was shown on a card, turned over and spun around. More annoying than challenging, it was pretty easy to get the experience bonus every time it was available. There is a far greater challenge this time around as all the rewards are lain out before you and many of them are so damn good it’s hard to pick one. Thus a player might be able to accept a penalty in rewards for more turns to pick juicier rewards.

I will get scolded if I fail to mention the additional winter scenarios. The original game abruptly ended at Christmas Eve, then time skipped all the way to March for the finale. Very irksome for players with more Social Links they wanted to develop, even more so since beating the dungeon in December early was actually a penalized for potential social butterflies.

Some reasonable people (and people who think the new fans are evil lepers who are dumbing down the fanbase) might wonder why in the case of the Persona games I am all for the new direction while I give games like Resident Evil 6 more bile than I even knew I could make. To put it succinctly, it all comes down to one word: Inspired. Yes, the first two (actually three) Persona games were fricking awesome, but aside from the Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure aspect of the Personas and a little more character focus there was not much to differentiate Persona from the rest of the Shin Megami Tensei franchise. With Persona now being the most recognized brand to non-SMT fans, it’s easy to completely forget than when Persona 3 first came out the game was risky as it forged a very different path and identity from the rest of the franchise.

What has made the two recent installments of the Persona series so spectacular is the inspired direction taken. The approach of many mainstream titles has been to ape more successful games and hope to make the magic happen for them. In short, the AAA game market right now is little more than an insanely expensive cargo cult. While the basic ideas which recent Persona games have utilized are not entirely original, Atlus did not blindly imitate but rather took a fresh and original spin on established concepts. What makes a role playing game is not turn based combat, leveling up, and constantly scrounging for slightly better equipment but rather (shocking to admit) role playing. As the player tries to warm up to various characters with their own hopes, dreams, and drama they might easily play different roles, different “personas” if you will, while trying to figure out how that character ticks and act accordingly. Contrast that with other role playing games where it only pays off to be pure saint or pure monster, implementing social masks into a video game is a genuinely inspired direction.

Some fans are going to reflexively complain that with all the new direction which breaks from tradition as well as the new filthy Persona fans the SMT brand as a whole will suffer. However, the strength of the SMT franchise is that it is not entirely one thing. Literally for decades, the franchise has had offshoots which allow for playing around with different gameplay, tone, and thematic elements. That it won’t be until this summer that Shin Megami Tensei IV comes out, when the over 20 year old franchise already has had a boatload of titles to its name tells me that Atlus has a much better sense of what the series can be than other companies do with their own franchises. Just look at the games Square Enix has been playing with how they have been numbering thier games lately.

Iron Man 3

By Boogie Knight

Iron Man 3 (free clip art)

Iron Man 3 (free clip art)

Thankfully, I didn’t get towed for parking in a spot not designated for folks going to the theater. Thus, I am able to bring to you a review of the latest, and presumed final, installment of the Iron Man flicks. Of course, some may wonder, “Boogie, why would I care what some anonymous dude on the internet thinks about a movie I’ll probably like anyway?” A good question, let me know when you think of a good reason.

First couple Iron Man movies were fine, the characters were engaging, but the action felt like an afterthought. While this is not an inherently bad thing, The Avengers upped the action, and Iron Man 3 scaling back to something like that sadly out of place final battle in the first movie would be disappointing. Luckily, it does appear that we have a solid sequel which ends the arc of Iron Man on a high note, and might be jabbing The Dark Knight Rises by showing the right way to end a superhero trilogy.

There are two points of fan grumbling I’d like to address. The first are complaints about the amounts of sarcasm in the movie, which I can only throw up my hands and wonder if these folks even saw the first two movies. True, a few quips might have been a bit forced in some scenes where a lot was going on, but this has been par for the course in the Iron Man movies. I’m also pretty sure this is part of what made Marvel’s heroes popular: The colorful and sassy personalities in stark contrast to DC where the heroes were squares that felt more like one’s parents in embarrassing costumes.

The second complaint pertained to changing things up from the comic books. Fans may have some reason for grievance, but the change up did fit with some ideas presented by the villain, and I think the change was for the best since it lets the ending wrap up more neatly. Staying true to the comics likely would have meant either lengthening an already epic length movie or weakening good parts of the movie to allow for the canon. I also think it was clever to play with the expectations of people who know the lore inside and out.

Focusing on the movie itself, Iron Man 3 takes a logical progression with the characters and their world in response to events of The Avengers, and I suppose to a lesser extent events in earlier Iron Man movies. I am a tad miffed that this movie seems to go out of its way to keep War Machine from being awesome. Admittedly, the tale is about Tony, but it wouldn’t hurt for one action scene to be stolen by another character. On the other hand, many of the supporting characters have a moment to shine in a non-action capacity. As for the action itself, the scenes are pretty well thought out. The money guys probably wanted to get more scenes which would look good in 3D and overall I think this is a net plus.

All in all Iron Man 3, was certainly a strong finish and we might be able to reasonably expect future sequels of other Marvel heroes to do well.

Redline (and Battle Royale)

Remember Galaxy Express 999, or Robotech, or pretty much any of the anime that made its way overseas and opened the door? For a number of people, the works of anime that got them hooked were because of the mind expanding experience. Lately, it seems like the vast majority of anime is about naked highschool girls and their panties. Not an especially new phenomenon, but there’s a chasm with ample room for an anime that reminds people of what got them into it in the first place.

Fear no more, boys and girls, we have the movie Redline full of oldschool goodness that fills every second with a visual feast. The story is simple: an eclectic mix of characters participate in a series of high stakes races in a bizarre variety of machines. Things get more interesting as this particular race is set on a bizarre fascistic planet which does not want the race to happen. As the story is very simple, it’s hard to elaborate without ruining all the crazy events which happen. That the story maintains a tight focus speaks well of it, as there is so much going on that could easily water down the kickass racing. This reminds me of one of the things which bogs down many anime with sci-fi or fantasy elements: The need to explain so much of how the universe works.

Visually, it’s an absolute joy to behold. Words cannot adequately describe how amazing this movie looks. The audio is solid, with a pulsing soundtrack that matches the action perfectly. Dubbing has gone a long way since those early titles, and that is one recent development which enhances the movie. Just watch the movie!

Battle Royale

“Could you kill your best friend?” Possibly one of the best taglines ever in cinema, and naturally the movie has one of the most memorable premises. With the nation in spiral, and the youth in revolt, the adults are so frightened of their own children they create Battle Royale to turn the youth violence inward. In short, a class of high school students are abducted, taken to an island, rigged with explosive collars, and given weapons as they are set on each other or else get blown to bits. In this free for all, there are no rules of engagement and no quarter given as the name of the game is to be the last one standing at the end.

An obvious comparison will be made to The Hunger Games for a similar premise, but there’s one detail which makes all the difference in the world: In Battle Royale the contestants know each other. Rivalries, friendships, unrequited feelings, all of these come bubbling up and are tested as the class is put in an impossible situation. At least one scene comes to mind which played out like something out of Shakespeare, but more awesome because there were guns involved.

The current version available is the Director’s Cut with additional scenes that were shot after the fact, an unusual choice. Even more unusual the extra bits were not scenes of extra violence and sex, but scenes which expanded the characters including a recurring flashback. This also includes three epilogues, which is a little absurd but it’s hard to pick one and say that it should be removed. I’m especially partial to the final epilogue and the last line spoken which even got its own epitaph. Could also be a sign of getting old that it felt especially poignant to me.

Yes, there was a sequel to Battle Royale, but one might be better off skipping it. From what I read, it sounds like a few characters were arbitrarily brought back. While the first movie has a subtext with political implications, the second one really packed it in, which wouldn’t be so bad if it had anything insightful or fresh to say. It’s pretty much: Youth good, adults bad. Watching the first movie, I got the impression that the real problem was that nobody was being an adult. The principle antagonist in the first movie was this strange blend of terrifying, douchey, and just plain sad. Overall, Battle Royale is one of those movies which a movie buff has to see at least once.

Lollipop Chainsaw

For some time, when friends would complain that the zombie games need to go away I would add that they should go only after Lollipop Chainsaw comes out. The advertisements and trailers played up the raunchy parts, but the real appeal is in the sheer madness and unabashed old school fun. While the game itself doesn’t innovate, the game is a solid, albeit brief, experience.

The story revolves around a cheerleader with a knack for zombie killing and a giant chainsaw fighting through a horde of the undead. Her boyfriend gets bitten, so she removes his head to save him and proceeds to carry him around like a set of keys throughout the game. The player character with a bodiless sidekick sounds like the winning formula from Shadows of the Damned, and it works well. Nick, the boyfriend, makes a good Sancho to Juliet’s Don Quixote. As a rule of thumb, I don’t like stupid heroes, but Juliet comes off more as ditzy than oblivious. That she more often explains to Nick the way the universe works than others explain it to her is refreshing, and she is having a blast killing zombies which fits the goofy tone of the game.

Combat is straight forward, but it should be noted that the name of the game is getting a high score and lots of medals. The first time around, just winning will be the goal, but as you progress through the game and make sufficient upgrades, you’ll become quite a killing machine. Sparkle Hunting is when you deal the fatal blow to three or more zombies simultaneously, and this nets more points and medals compared to killing zombies individually. This will be difficult to do early on, but this is compensated for with a gauge you can fill up and trigger at will a special mode where Juliet is invincible and can smite zombies with a single blow, set to a memorable one hit wonder. Stage 5 has to be my favorite level in the game: it’s minigame free, all about putting the lessons and upgrades you acquired to use, and it culminates in an awesome boss battle.

Minigames and QTEs, these are ubiquitous in modern games and it’s no shock that they would be part of this one too. Overall, minigames are a nice way to break up the normal gameplay though to be honest I don’t think it ever gets boring. One stage is minigame heavy, but it works with the nature of the level. QTEs in general are a pain in the neck, but they are done at times that make sense, are practically telegraphed to the player, and you have plenty of time to do them. There are QTEs where failure means death, but they are very hard to screw up.

Seems like everyone can’t avoid talking about the risqué humor and pantyshots, so let’s get this nonsense out of the way. As upskirt action goes, you find it if you’re looking for it, if not then it’s pretty sparse. Yes, there is plenty of perversion in the scenes involving the elderly Japanese gentleman, but he’s a minor character. The alternate costumes are par for the course, and the one that managed to raise my pulse was the Shiro from Deadman Wonderland outfit hugging Juliet’s curves. I can’t help thinking about the time some friends got up in arms because of the sexual themes in the game Catherine because the ads overplayed it, but in the end it was a good game that simply had some grown up subject matter. Plainly put: If any talk of sex bothers you and you don’t care about playing good games, then don’t play it. If you want porn and you don’t care about playing good games, then don’t play it.

The one real defect of the game is that it’s too damn short. The first run could be finished in less than six hours, but there’s replay value in fulfilling objectives like beating the high score, buying extra outfits, or tackling the Ranked Mode. However, Ranked Mode should be challenged in earnest after getting all the goodies you care to get as those medals received don’t count for buying stuff in Story mode. The gun can be wonky between the autolock sticking to one enemy and you’re trying to pick off the explosive barrel behind him. Nick Tickets let you use a special move, but are of limited usefulness even though using those fit with the absurd tone of the game. All in all a fun game that is only hindered by being a little too short, but the crazy fun to be had is abundant though a frugal gamer might be better off renting or waiting for a major price drop.