Ori and the Blind Forest (2015)

ori0 ori1

OatBF is pretty much one of the best surprises for metroidvania-fans in recent years. A highly polished game that seemingly came out of nowhere and that does nearly everything right (nearly, because the PC-versions went unpatched for 2 months, which stopped me and probably a lot of other people from actually playing the game). Gameplay-wise, a lot of reviews agree that it is one of the most refined variations of the genre, even if it doesn’t do anything original.

Not sure I agree there, as the game has some stuff that you won’t find in any other metroidvania or platformer, from the setting (reminiscent of Miyazaki movies) with its entirely nature-derived levels and mostly tech-free mechanisms, the overall feel of the gameplay that allows you to make incredible long and intricate jumps and makes it seem easy (I’m not sure I ever played a game that evokes the same feeling). While at its core a metroidvania, the game has taken some notes from cinematic platformers, especially the highly fluid movement animations. An excellent make-your-own save point system (never seen something like that in any other game) I would like to see crop in other games too.

All that together with a clever progression system where you can upgrade a three-pronged ability tree and also skills you get from various items that allow you to proceed beyond some of the hard-locked areas typical for a metroidvania. Basically the game has some unique new stuff while also following most of the conventions of the genre, all together in a highly polished package that is just a pure joy to play. I wasn’t a big fan of the story per se, but it didn’t bother me much and the core gameplay is just so good that I didn’t mind seeing the occasional superfluous plot-scene.

One thing the game doesn’t have are any real boss fights, you have some minor and easily defeated sub bosses, but nothing major that puts a big obstacle in your way. Instead the game has three slightly more difficult sequences where you’re forced along a certain path without the ability to save. It requires mastery of all the skills acquired up to that point and can be a bit annoying, as finishing these requires a bit of trial and error and memorization of the entire sequence.

It does go against the spirit of metroidvania’s in general, but on the other hand these sequences are never unfair if you’ve learned to use all the abilities to some degree and one you’ve beaten them it gives a high the game rarely offers (which you usually get in much more demanding games, overall Ori is pretty easy). Depending on the player it varies which of these sequences is more difficult, I managed the first two in 2 or 3 tries, but had a problem with the last (because I forgot to use one ability), but overall they should be doable after a few tries for most players.

Cave Story+ (2011)

cs+1 cs+2

I remember playing the original Cave Story when the fan-translation by Aeon Genesis hit the net and it’s easy to see why it became such a hit in the indie space before that was even a thing. A pretty big, highly polished platformer with a big, semi-continuous world , charming visuals and all the compelling rest.

These days I mostly get annoyed when another Top-10-Metroidvania-Games-List lists Cave Story among them, as the game in theory has one large, open world ready to explore, but the narrative effectively forces you along a very linear, highly gated part that doesn’t allow much freedom to explore. More or less some tiny adventure elements grafted onto an excellent platformer, but no way in hell, by any definition (exception is if you’re either stupid or ignorant) a metroidvania game.

That said, I never get annoyed at the game itself and replaying the commercial plus-version brought home just why. The distinct upgrade mechanic for weapons, the enemy design and the excellent boss fight, the overall great level design, the cute characters and engaging story, the difficulty that slowly ramps up from easy to average to hard to hell no. The game has it all and then some.

The added gameplay modes for the plus-version and the various technical improvements (higher resolution, optional soundtracks) are nice-to-haves, but if all you want to do is play the game, the free option is still available and has exactly the same brilliant gameplay as the game you pay for. Overall, whatever version, it’s a great game.

Black Hole Mass Evolution (2014)

blackholemass

I’ve never tried out much grindcore, but if more of the stuff would be like this, then I could definitely see the appeal of the genre, though admittedly I’m not even sure if this is proper grindcore or if it’s just some fusion of various genres, and this mix is what makes Under the Pledge of Secrecy’s first album so appealing. The best analogy for the sound I have is that of an unrelenting, crushing wall of sound (though the sound of their first EP is even more unrelenting), which is pretty great all around. They are on bandcamp, so you can test the album to your hearts content

Blekinge (2010)

blekinge

pretty cool melodic black metal debut album from Istapp, creates a bit of cognitive dissonance between the themes and the very melodic approach (I would have expected more grit and gloom considering the themes)

Sproggiwood (2015)

sproggiwood

First, there were the original roguelikes, a genre of harcore rpgs that build on the foundations of Rogue and its predecessors, using (most of the time) ASCII-graphics and which increasingly grew in complexity until they surpassed every other RPG on the market. Yet only a tiny part of the already diminished rpg-player base actually played and appreciated these games, which were as far away from the commercial markets as possible.

Then the genre was sort of re-discovered by the wider public and simplified (core mechanics) and yet enhanced (graphics) roguelikes like Dungeons of Dredmor showed that these games could attract a bigger player base and “worse”, could actually sell. Then games that were clearly not roguelikes were more and more labelled as such, because, you know, randomness, permadeath, retrographics and so on.

On of these was Rogue Legacy, that managed to have permadeath and yet allowed for character progression (big innovation for me at last, haven’t seen it been done before like that). Instead of XP, you grind for money, with which you buy skills and other enhancements for the overall character template from which your characters are derived, sort of a meta-gaming progression path. Which was okay, I actually loved that game, because the initial difficulty could be alleviated by platformer skills and there was a lot of stuff that could be unlocked by grinding money.

But if you happen to not like the coreplay, then the addictive quality of the game including the endless repition of castle-visits became your typical, boring grind. All that is a roundabout-way of explaining why I disliked Sproggiwood. It actually looks and feels more like a typical 2nd generation roguelike (simplified and with nice graphics), but adapts the meta-gaming component of Rogue Legacy. And while I initially liked the core gameplay, I realized after a few hours with the game, that it lacks Rogue Legacy’s varied enhancements to unlock, which makes progression decidedly less interesting.

Besides a few basic character template updates (more HP, faster EXP gain), most of the outside-of-character progression is based on finding and buying better equipment (which again isn’t all that varied). There’s actually an old-school EXP progression during dungeon trips, but this is reset each time you finish one, which just adds insult to injury, with the limited progression outside of them (and which makes each dungeon visit feel even more grindy).

But the biggest problem is that combat feels more like a puzzle game than typical RPG combat. Enemies hit for the nearly the same amount of damage every time, so the game becomes about avoiding their hits and getting in a position where you strike first most of the time. Second, they always have the same set of movement patterns and once you know them, its all about maneuvering. Which is fun for enemies the first few times you meet them, but after some time, its become grindy fast.

Which is not to say the game can’t be fun for a few hours, but after that I wished either for the meta-gaming progression complexity of Rogue Legacy or for the more-oldschool (if heavily simplified) character progression and build-variety of Dungeons of Dredmor. Instead we get a game that after a certain point has decidedly outstayed its welcome and all you want to do is finish the main story. Unlocking all the other stuff and playing through each dungeon with all characters (who despite some skill differences in their in-dungeon progression paths feel very samey) seems more like a chore than anything else.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

ageofultron

I wasn’t a big fan of the first Avengers movie and the reviews that came out for the newest one seemed to indicate a nice spectacle that overreaches and goes on slightly too long. I’m happy to say that instead of seeing the movie falter, A:AoU improves upon any of the weaknesses of the predecessor and manages to be superior even to the stuff that worked.

The movie has a better villain with a much better motivation (Stark-derived megalomanical AI that shares some of its creators hubris), tight pacing that delivers slow and fast scenes at exactly the right moment, from a strong prologue starting with Hydra and ending with a fight in a small city somewhere in Europe (albeit with mass-scale destruction, the fate of the world in the balance, lots of great fight scenes and the Avengers managing to save most of the people, exactly how you wished heroes would act) and best of all, the interaction of the Avengers themselves comes of as more relaxed and natural than in the first movie, not counting the rising attraction between Banner and Natasha, which was really nicely done.

Overall, unlike the first movie which felt like an overblown epilogue for the first wave of Marvel movies, but didn’t stand all that well on its own and relied on the other movies to provides all the heavy lifting in terms of characterization and content cues, A:AoU characters and content arcs feel more natural and complete and are just more fun to watch in general. And if you’re comic-reader, it’s great to finally see Ultron and Vision (thought I’m not sure I’m a big fan of the Vision’s design, Ultron’s is impeccable).

Lego Batman: The Movie – DC Super Heroes Unite (2013)

legobatmanovie

If this movie has shown me anything, it’s that Lego Batman is a dick, whether it’s in this more canonical version or his less canonical appearance in the Awesome Lego movie. Here he’s not a complete jerk, but his reaction to Superman’s honest Can I help you?-attitude comes of as less than mature. Plot-wise this story seems to take inspirations from a couple of comic stories, though I’m not sure it’s actually a direct adaptation of anything.

Lex Luthor has teamed up with the Joker to get elected as president, hoping that using Joker’s mind-controlling gas will help with all the votes. This has forced Batman to team up (reluctantly) with Superman and try to stop them. Honestly, the plot is thin, but serviceable and it keeps the action going. It’s not like anyone is watching this for the plot or deep characterization anyway. It’s because we want to see DC superheroes as Lego figures and in a DC universe entirely made of Lego bricks and some mayhem and action along the way, and in this regard the movie absolutely delivers.

Lego DC Comics: Batman Be-Leaguered (2014)
A 20 minute short that is mostly an excuse for Batman to visit the various Lego versions of the heroes of the Justice League and fight together with them against some of their more known enemies and finally to get Batman to join the League. Has either the most annoying or the most fun and meta super-villain of Batman’s villain gallery (depending on how much you can take camp and general weirdness over the usual Batman grim’n gritty).

Ghost in the Shell: SAC 2nd GIG (2004-2005)

sac2ndgigcover

2nd season of the Ghost in the Shell TV-series that deployed the same heady mix of philosophical musings and political intrigue as the first season. Again, another social emergent meme is at the core of the narrative (which also seems to have no real origin, just like with the Laughing Man case), though deeply interlinked with a powerplay of old-school hardliners who want to strengthen ties between the Japanese and the American government and those who rather would not. Most of the major players think they know what’s going on, often not realizing that they are just a pawn in a deeper game.

The emergent meme thing and the connected philosophical musings about human nature were just, as in the first series a bit too wordy for its own good, with lots of talking but often lacking anything to tell. It’s an extreme show don’t tell approach, by way of exposition-heavy seemingly pointless drivel (what they are telling you is not what they are telling you, clever but tedious) and it often makes for very long, boring scenes that contain few nuggets of real information among all the noise. And since the second season has worse pacing than the first, that’s not a good combination.

There are lots of interesting ideas and concepts, though nothing really mind-blowing. One bigger theme is that the environment that is shaping humans, both on the individual and group-level, has changed drastically with the dawn of cyberspace (basically next generation, virtual reality internet), yet most humans aren’t even aware how distinct that change is as they lack the perspective and/or means to really see the big picture. One of the players in the series has a two-layered game of revolution going, with the base layer taking place in the real world but hiding inside a deeper game where lots of human are forced to upload their minds into cyberspace, go through a forced evolution and basically become transhumans who see cyberspace for what it really is.

It’s a bit on the naive side and the overall concept is not very well thought-through (though this could be a matter of the anime just not giving the viewers enough information), but it’s at least more interesting than the whole emergent social meme with no real origin thing both seasons had going on.

Overall I appreciate what the season was trying to do, but I found the delivery seriously lacking. The first season had just the right mix of individual and overarching-plot-related episodes that I was easily drawn into it. The 2nd season felt just like one long slog from start to finish with fewer episodes that dived into the personalities of the characters while the pointless drivel-talking was ramped up a notch or two. Still worth seeing, but to a much lesser extend than the first season.

The Voynich Hotel (2006-2015)

vol1 vol2

Three volume manga that is pretty hard to categorize or summarize. It has a lot of fantasy elements (ghosts, witches, demons) and one science fictional one (an utterly useless police robot), but it’s not exactly fantasy or science fiction either. It’s about a hotel on a small island, where bizarre and weird stuff happens daily, yet most people act rather indifferent despite knowing how strange all this is. They take it in stride and go on with their lives (or as is often the case, their afterlife).

The main plot arc is about three witch sisters who got destroyed by European invaders and how one of the three survived to the present day (alive, her other sisters are still sort of around) and now works in the hotel and gets closer to one of the guest, who is former yakuza guy and run away with all of his boss’ money. Nearly every character has a crazy backstory like that and often the more fantastical elements seem like the most mundane aspect of them.

Despite having a main story arc, the romance angle between the witch sister and the former yakuza (though this is overstating things as the romantic aspect is downplayed in favor of situational comedy and the other stuff that is going on 99% of the time), the entire plot is often side-tracked, e.g. into a murder spree and a gang of youngsters trying to solve the crime (as well as the above mentioned police robot making fun of the robot cop cliche), into a demon creating his competitive hotel, a female trio of drug dealers, the assassination attempts of the former yakuza guy and so on.

A lot of the individual plot elements seem like running gags that went out of hand, a lot of the individual characters arcs intersect with each other and when they do usual hilarity and mayhem ensues. It’s overstaffed, overstuffed and most of the time just plain bonkers. But it’s also a lot of fun.

The Secret of Kells (2009)

cover kells

The Secret of Kells left me vaguely unsatisfied, as it seems a movie that doesn’t knows which of two major stories it wants to tell: the story of a boy who meets a magical wood sprite and of an ancient threat deep in the woods that both of them can only confront together or the story of the creation of the Book of Kells. And when the plot about the Book of Kells becomes the main thrust of the story toward the end, it feels like the movie has settled on the less interesting path plotwise.

There is one major reason to watch the movie and even enjoy, despite the weak plot, which is the animation style. It’s entirely different from any major animated movie from the US or Asia and reminiscent of some of the small short animated movies you can see on European animation festivals sometimes. Its utterly charming and beautiful too look at and it makes its characters and the setting coming alive despite the flaws of the movie. It can’t completely negate the weakness of the plotting, but it’s a very good reason to overlook it and just watch it for the gorgeous art alone.