Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Valkyrie Drive - Mermaid

Valkyrie Drive - Mermaid is, without a shadow of a doubt, the most offensively tasteless anime I have ever seen.

It is aggressively misogynist softcore pornography, in which women are sexually subjugated in order to turn them into literal objects.

There's fanservice, and then there's… whatever this is.

How does something like this get created? Who comes up with this sick bullshit, and how the hell do they find other people that like it enough to fund its production?

I'm finding it difficult to put into words how enthusiastically horrible this show is. Its closest relative, in my viewing history at least, would be Ikkitousen, a similar "sexy battle" show where female characters were the subject of simultaneous physical violence and lecherous sexualisation - though I'm not sure if it's better or worse that Ikkitousen "only" had the camera participate in the violation. Valkyrie Drive's constant insistence that the characters are willing(-ish) participants somehow feels more sickening.

I've tried to think of something - anything - positive about Valkyrie Drive, but every aspect of it from character design to the music is cheap and nasty. The only things keeping it from being instantly forgotten are how dreadfully it treats its characters and how spectacularly low an opinion it has of its audience.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

The World


The first show I watched as it was broadcast in Japan, .hack//SIGN was part of a multimedia experiment spanning TV anime, OVAs, manga and videogames with a shared universe - a fictional MMO named The World - and long-form stories that fed into each other to varying degrees. .hack//SIGN was the first part of the franchise, although the PS2 games (offline single-player JRPGs, rather than actual online games) are probably more well-known in the UK.

I remember sitting up until two or three in the morning, waiting for the torrents to finish so I could see the newly-fansubbed episode. I wasn't even engaging with any other fans on forums, reading and sharing theories about what was happening in the show. I was just obsessed with it, desperate to find out how it ended. Now, 13 years later, I can't even remember the ending.

I've never managed to rewatch it though, until now. I tried, when the UK DVD release first came out, but I couldn't even finish the first disc. What had somehow been so engaging in 2002 just seemed tedious and boring. The show is stubbornly paced, dripping character and plot information over the first several episodes.

I'm now six or seven episodes into my second proper viewing and the glacial progression of plot isn't as frustrating as I found it a few years ago - I'm appreciating the importance of showing how The World operates and how its players approach their time there, but a few things are sticking out as bizarre.

There appears to be zero administrator presence in the game. The closest thing to a moderation team would be the Crimson Knights, a hardcore RP guild inexplicably led by low-level axe-wielding mage Subaru. They appear to have contact with the game's operator and even mention getting access to server logs for their investigations, but appear to have no enforceable power over players.

Of course, since there seem to be next to no players anyway, maybe they just make up enough of a majority to do as they please. Most of the game's areas seen in the show appear to be abandoned; you'll occasionally see a couple of players walk past a main character, but it's rare even at what look to be spawn points. The "Aqua Capital", the only urban area shown, is sparsely populated, and at least some of the people you see must be NPCs anyway.

Something I've noticed recently is my tendency to reimagine shows I'm watching - trying to figure out what the core idea or theme of the series is, and how you'd reshape the rest of it to work as a live-action film or TV show, that might appeal to someone who's not interested in the animated version. These thought experiments have varied results, from realising that Evangelion is basically unadaptable, to wondering how a mainstream audience would react to a GATE series that's basically Game of Thrones meets Generation Kill.

But it's also resulted in my trying to come up with a back story for The World; how it would end up in a place where the company running the game appears broadly uninterested in what's happening to its players, and why there are so few of them anyway.

My headcanon, as it stands, is that the game's been running for years and its popularity is fading. The only people left are high-level players with established friendships, and solo players like Tsukasa using it to escape real life and be alone. The developer has all but abandoned development and moderation, allowing the Crimson Knights to police the userbase. Rumours of hidden items and players unable to log out are being dismissed as forum jokes or creepypasta.

I'm hoping to get all the way through .hack//SIGN again, but I'm already feeling the fatigue starting to set in. Fingers crossed my curiosity about the ending keeps me going, even if we never find out why The World is still running.

Thursday, August 20, 2015


I want to like Volume, but it's making that so difficult.

The new game from Thomas Was Alone designer Mike Bithell, Volume is a top-down(ish) time-attack stealth game, where you creep around levels avoiding and distracting guards, stealing diamonds and (eventually) attempting to overthrow a corrupt dictator.

Mechanically it's solid; you can see enemy vision cones, duck into cover and distract guards with a variety of gadgets. Levels are short and varied, in colour as well as challenge, and if the 100 "campaign" levels aren't enough there's a level editor and a huge list of maps created by other players. It also looks great, with levels deforming and rebuilding themselves out of flat triangles at the start and end of each mission.

The missions are just a little too short, however - and you don't carry equipment over between them, so you'll pick up a gadget in one level and then not see it again for three. Progression feels stilted and uneven; there's no sense that you're getting more powerful, and no excuse for the loss of tech between levels (or the restriction to a single gadget at a time). You're dumped back to the Level Select menu after every map, breaking up the flow even more. Some levels are grouped together with the implication that they're all in a single location, but aside from the portrait indicating whose house it is there's no consistent theme between them - and you're back at the menu after every one anyway.

But where Volume really falls apart is the story - or more accurately, the way the story is told. Voiceovers play constantly, either distracting you from the game itself or being ignored as you figure out your approach to the next section. The conversations seem designed to span multiple levels, but restarts (either due to failure or manual resets) will reset to the start of the current dialogue. Lines are accompanied by an on-screen subtitle box which covers a huge chunk of the bottom of the screen, blocking your view of anything to the south, which you won't read anyway because you'll either be listening to the dialogue or paying attention to guard patrol patterns.

The end result is occasionally brilliant, but frequently annoying. Constantly stop-starting between missions and with a story it doesn't seem to know how to fit between such short bursts of action, Volume is ambitious but deeply flawed.

And it corrupted my save data when I completed a user-generated level earlier. I don't know if I can force myself through those opening sections again.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015


I don't know when chuunibyou became such a big deal in anime, but it seems to have exploded from nowhere. All of a sudden, every high-school anime seems to have a character with delusions of grandeur based around their (maybe genuine?) belief that they have supernatural powers or a long line of historically-significant past lives. The term is apparently a genuine "middle-school second-year syndrome" where young teenagers act out elaborate fantasies to varying degress in an attempt to... I'm not sure.

The most visible example of this in anime is Chuunibyou demo Koi ga Shitai! - an insipid moe show about a guy indulging a younger student's delusions until she falls in love with him - but these characters seem to be popping up all over the place these days.

In most anime cases, the afflicted character doesn't actually have supernatural abilities; they just pretend or imagine that they do. What makes Charlotte a bit different is that not only do its characters actually have powers, it explains why the chuunibyou phenomenon is so short-lived.

Similar to mutant powers in X-Men, abilities in Charlotte emerge during adolescence, but disappear by adulthood. So the various characters' superpowers - which range from mind control to telekinesis - will only be usable for a few years.

The other great thing about Charlotte's superpowers is that each one has a ridiculous limitation that makes it practically worthless.

Otosaka can take control of someone else's body - but only for five seconds at a time, and his own body is catatonic (usually having faceplanted in the street) for the duration. Takajou can "teleport" - but in practice just moves imperceptibility fast in a straight line until he's stopped by an impact. Tomori can turn invisible - but only from one person at a time, remaining in plain sight to everyone else.

The three of them make up the core of the student council at their school, which is specially set up to find and gather children with powers, protecting them from discovery and experimentation until they're old enough for their powers to disappear.

For the first six weeks the show has been pretty lighthearted, focusing on the ways powers can backfire or be misused for comedic effect (and profit). It's had some serious moments - Tomori's back story and her behaviour when revealing it to the protagonist are at odds with her usually-carefree personality, which is jarring - but the final moments of the most recent episode have taken a turn towards a darker tone that will hopefully drive the story with a bit more force.

Thursday, August 06, 2015

B-type H-isms

B-gata H-kei

This might sound like an overstatement, but I'm standing by it: B-gata H-kei (subtitled Yamada's First Time in the US) might be the best romantic comedy ever made.

It's certainly the best I've ever seen, although it's perhaps more accurate to call it a relationship show than a romantic one.

It's not just surprisingly honest about how difficult high school crushes are, but also about how they are difficult; self-consciousness and doubt, jealousy, the pressure to get everything right - the protagonists spend much of the series' running time trying to figure out if they like each other, why, and whether their other half is even worth the trouble of this pursuit.

Yamada initially just sees Kosuda as a means to an end - a first sexual partner to give her the confidence to embark on her quest to bed 100 guys. Kosuda is, no doubt, smitten with Yamada from the outset - but as a timid loner he's mostly just happy with attention from the prettiest girl in class.

But over the course of the series - a thankfully brief 12 episodes1* - Yamada is forced to admit that her continued focus on Kosuda (and rejection of other would-be suitors) is about more than the first notch on her bedpost.

Few anime romances take this much time to show the development of a relationship from the initial attraction into deeper feelings, and B-gata H-kei not only manages that easily, the series does it with an honesty and sweetness that I'd not expected.

And it's hilarious into the bargain.

1 Not that I wouldn't like to see more of the couple as their relationship develops further, but a couple of subplots already felt like padding. A 22 or 26 episode series would have been overkill.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Shenmue III is going to suck

Listen, I love Shenmue. I've completed the original Dreamcast game a half dozen times, and attempt to play through it every year at Christmas. But it seems like a lot of people have forgotten something about the game:

It's really not good.

The controls are even more obviously dreadful than when the game was released, sixteen years ago. The last decade and a half has been incredibly unkind to the visuals. The story is over-padded, dumb and poorly paced. The script and dialogue are laughably awful. The Virtua Fighter-based combo system has been surpassed by modern combat systems, leaving Shenmue's battles feeling sluggish and boring. The one thing it still does better than nearly any other game I've played, the minute details of the world that Ryo could explore, pick up and examine, was all but dropped by the first sequel, leaving little hope that a third installment will reduce its scope in exchange for focus.

The Kickstarter for a third installment has, at the time of writing, just passed its $2,000,000 funding goal - a thirty-fifth of the Dreamcast original's $70 million budget - with 31 days remaining.

If I'm honest, I never wanted Shenmue to continue. The second game's out-of-nowhere cliffhanger, with a levitating magic sword, was the final straw; the believable, realistic world of Sakuragaoka and Dobuita was what I loved about the game, and by introducing overt supernatural elements - seemingly out of nowhere - the game had lost me.

I'm surprised the Kickstarter has been this successful. As vocal as they were, and continue to be, Shenmue can't have enough fans to justify the kind of budget that's required to produce a game that'll satisfy them. This campaign is undoubtedly a kind of financial proof-of-concept for a larger investor - maybe Sony, since they hosted the announcement at their E3 press conference - to put up the rest of the budget.

But who's going to buy the game apart from the people already clamouring to support it? Who's going to be willing to jump straight into the third installment of a sixteen-year-old period kung fu series? Shenmue isn't going to appeal to the Call of Duty or Assassin's Creed crowd, which is where all the money seems to be, these days. How many people remember Shenmue as anything other than a forum joke?

Especially given the terrible pitch video on the campaign page. My brother sarcastically described it as "really pushing the upper limits of what the Dreamcast can do"; to me, it looks like a particularly impressive third-year computer arts student's showreel. I guess it looks like a $2 million game, but that's not what the series' fans want, and I'm sure it's not what Yu Suzuki wants either.

But even if I'm not going to play it, I do hope Suzuki gets to finish Shenmue. Closure's been a long time coming for its creator as well as its fans - let's just hope Shenmue III doesn't end on another 14-year cliffhanger.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015


I'm terrible at Netrunner but I love it anyway and not an hour goes by that I don't wish I was playing Netrunner except when I'm actually playing Netrunner (when I wish I was playing Netrunner better).

I went to a tournament on Sunday (and came second last, above the guy who rage quit after three rounds); a bunch of us get together on Tuesdays on the pub and play for a few hours.

I've played eighteen games in the last four days, only won four of them, and I'm already wondering when I'll get another game to try out this HB deck I've been trying to get right.

I can't remember the last time I was this monumentally bad at something but still enjoyed it this much.