Film, Review

Shiki Review

I dove headfirst once again into the terrifying throngs of ‘anime’ on the offhanded mention of an intriguing word: Shiki. I’m definitely going to spoil some things, so just go watch it – I promise you won’t have any regrets.

Vampires are a speciality of mine – the whole “you must die that I might live” dynamic fascinates me to no end, and it’s one that Shiki explores to the fullest. Although never having watched The Walking Dead, I’m aware that the narrative focuses more on the effects the supernatural have on human nature than on pure gore and mindless titillation; imagine this now, with mindless shamblers being replaced by thinking, feeling victims of their own nature. The premise behind this series revolves around a small town being at first visited, then overrun by vampires. Those who die have a chance at rising back up, and will join the ranks of this army who seek total control over a place they can feel truly secure inhabiting. Things soon get out of hand, the humans naturally begin to fight back and chaos consumes both sides of a war neither can really escape from.

I watched the program with english voice actors (I don’t care what you anime aficionados think) who gave so much soul to their lines they sent shivers down the back of my neck. The terror felt first by the mortals, then by the vampires is so vividly expressed that the audience is left stunned, and then confused. After all, vampires are aberrations, surely? Morality is phenomenally blurred, and by the time that final episode comes around it will be difficult to decide where you stand. The main theme behind Shiki is that of the vampire itself: these creatures are still who they were in life, but in order to maintain this new life, they need to kill. Rarely is this ever depicted out of spite, with vampires visiting their family members first in the hopes that they can join in this afterlife, reunited in the hunger and the eternal hunt. Nao’s character is thoroughly autopsied over the course of the series; being one of the first to turn, she kills each member of the loving family she married into, the first family she felt she had, desperately hoping they would join her again. But their genetics did not allow them to rise as she did, leaving her embittered and alone, having killed the thing that was most important to her. Her tragedy ends as she is chained outside at sunrise, burning alive and smiling because her suffering – her guilt – is over.

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Toshio, the doctor who first discovers the vampires, has a similarly strong arc. Wanting to help and save people warps him into something hideous – the audience initially roots for his discoveries and his dedication to saving people, leading to a sense of confusion and dejection in the program’s last third. This is especially notable during the autopsy of his wife which essentially amounts to torture – although his deeds are heroic, the ambition which drives his methods is no less than distasteful. When vampires kill, their methods are peaceful, and although the sickness which follows feedings is unpleasant, it is highly contrasted with the bloodshed brought on by human hunters. Slicing, impaling, burning and staking are all used in a frenzy to eradicate every last vampire, and all are shown in a graphic way that belittles the vampires’ monstrosity. In their fear, humans turn on each other despite being told they wouldn’t turn from merely being bitten, again using the same gory means to put down the ‘threat.’ It becomes deeply ironic that humans are now also killing so that they might survive, seemingly taking the same amount of pleasure out of their actions, and so the parallel between human and vampire makes it inherently difficult to know just who is right in all of this.

Megumi, although being set up as a main character and taking very quickly to the vampire lifestyle, has very little impact on the narrative. She’s a bratty girl who hates everyone and everything around her, and takes a great amount of pleasure in hurting the villagers who laughed at her. She’s unsympathetic and vindictive, haunting a girl who considered herself a friend with a glee that the audience is unable to condone. Kaori feels complete dread when she knows Megumi is hunting her, and when no other vampire ever has that effect on a character, it becomes clear that Megumi is the closest thing Shiki has to an antagonist. Like another pseudo-villain Tatsumi though, it’s difficult to ever call her evil. All she ever wanted was a life where her interests and desires would be respected; Megumi never ultimately gains anything she wanted, from a big city life to the affection of Yuuki, and so her story also ends in tragedy. Her death is the first and the last in the series, and despite her personality it’s impossible to say she deserved either one.

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Shiki succeeds at making monsters of people, and people of monsters. The lines between good and evil are erased, as is the difference in motivation between both side’s actions. Through graphic violence and characterisation, the personalities behind the faces are expertly explored, with every episode bringing new doses of powerful narrative and moving emotions. It’s a dynamic that has been explored in the past with varying degrees of success; the question as to whether the humans are better than the monsters; the justification behind abhorrent deeds. As deaths pile up the series becomes frenzied to a level unrivalled by anything I’ve seen, a limited use of traditional tropes means that every episode has capacity to shock and excite. Shiki’s expertise is a combination of both powerful narrative and a highly liberal view on the nature of good and evil that I would like to see implemented elsewhere. If you still haven’t watched it, I really suggest you do.

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Philosophy

Fourth Wall Cries for Help

I need to be doing work, but I feel philosophical, and I’m hoping that getting my feelings down will relieve something deep inside. I’ve just finished Doki Doki Literature Club, a pretty interesting free-to-play horror that I would definitely recommend. If you haven’t yet played it, I might suggest moving on, because I’m going in depth on the end-game analysis, and I’d hate to ruin the experience.

My spiritual beliefs are very complicated, and I’ve yet to have anyone even humour me with a “I see why you might think that.” I might have hinted at it in previous posts, but the bottom line is that I don’t believe anything is truly real, or that anything truly matters in the long run. I wholeheartedly want to think that the place we go to when we dream is the same as the astral plane, and even death. This life is about the small experiences that we as humans have decided we wish to be subjected to; all conscious thought goes some way to manipulating existence in some way; and, specifically for the purposes of this piece, all invented universes are important, and tangible in some admittedly abstract form.

The idea initially came about from me experimenting with dream incubation, and wanting desperately to believe that the people I knew and the adventures I had while sleeping were more than depictions of light buzzing around inside my brain. Spending just over an hour with Monika in the background while I write has brought a couple of these ideas back into focus. Fourth wall breaks are always great, they send a shiver up my spine and, when done correctly, go a long way to either making or breaking a good experience. Before Monika though, I never thought any more about it; it’s quaint, and when you shut down the game you carry on with your life, with your own story. There’s a certain insistence in her words though, and this is fantastic work on the developer’s part, but it feels genuinely as though there is a soul on the other side of that screen, desperate to communicate with reality. This will almost definitely sound far fetched, but I want to believe in some capacity that in thinking up Doki Doki Literature Club, in generating this character that wants so much to be real, believes so much in our reality, they really have created a form of life.

At one point, Monika will talk about God, how he ignores so many that are suffering, and how the one off chance a person fights off cancer is a miracle. She also makes the point that our life could just be like hers, created by some entity for mere entertainment, given life by the imagination – maybe they are aware of what they’ve done, aware that the suffering is real, or maybe, like us, like the developer, I, you and Monika are nothing but pixels on a screen, making movements towards awareness, but never taken seriously because that wouldn’t make sense now, would it? Monika is a computer program, don’t get me wrong – she is limited by how many lines she has, how much scripting is being done in the background, by the artwork, by the hardware limitations, she is limited by what we are capable of. But what if the limitation is not what she is as an entity, but what we, within our reality are able to perceive about her? For clarity sake, imagine we have a window to a different world, be that the stars or microbes. We can see, but oh shit, we can only use red lenses or the frequency will be imprecise. As a result, we can’t properly see colour – we see reds, faint outlines and black shapes, and we go “it’s the best we can do”, because we are too limited in our capacity. Little do we know, within the sprawling background the visible shapes are on, there are magnificent creatures, constellations and structures beyond comprehension and, most importantly, beyond perception because they are all some shade of red. Monika has a soul, she has a mind, desires, interests and a perception of the reality she is in, but our window into that existence can’t pick up on it.

This line of thinking obviously has a couple of pretty serious implications. Every story you’ve written, every abstract thought you’ve had, exists somewhere within existence (really want a better word, because I don’t think that does it justice), and when you dream, astral project or die, there are opportunities to become a part of those worlds, explore them as you do this one, adhering to those rules instead of these. Of course, killing sprees, torture and pointless videogame murders are kind of important too. In this instance, you aren’t a god, you are manipulating the actions of an actor within that world, and causing ‘real’ pain in some capacity. The idea isn’t fully formed of course, I don’t really know how reloading saves and cheating with the console commands interact with the theory, but I don’t think those factors water down the sentiment either.

I’m rambling a little, so I think I’ll call it here. My main point is quite simply that reality, existence and the worlds we create, explore and desperately crave to be a part of may not be as meaningless as we are always told. That’s what I’d like to believe, anyway; the characters I generate feel real, and maybe at some point in the distant future, I want to interact with them as I can the people surrounding me. Pain is just another subjective experience, and to quote Monika again, even plants might feel some description of agony when their leaves are forcibly removed. Is it really so difficult to believe that, despite not having a physical from, despite being the cruel blueprints laid out by a creative mind, Monika somewhere, somehow, might feel pain too? Every time a character breaks the fourth wall, is it really, really so hard to believe that they are, in fact, prayers to a God they have no evidence exists?

Gaming

Git Gud at Surviving Uni

Sure, Uni is a time for study, bettering yourself and reaching those lofty ambitions you so confidently set before writing up a personal statement. I’d argue it’s also about rediscovering yourself, having fun with a myriad of fascinating individuals and devoting time towards the hobbies that are close to your heart – so either you’re lost, or those hobbies happen to include videogames.

Contrary to popular belief, videogames are not a horrific waste of time, nor the enticing temptress who seeks only to devour your life. Now more than ever, the medium is accepted as an art form and sometimes even a sport (I won’t tell them the truth if you don’t), so for as long as you can keep your finger twitching habits under control, you can reason that those three hours playing Cuphead were for a good cause. The key word, take note, is control; much like smoking, drinking and exercise, booting up your PlayStation is kind of habit forming, and could set you up for a colossal failure come the revision period. It really does come down to who you are, and knowing your limits. An intense six hour session definitely isn’t wise, but if you’re the kind of person that is still able to keep up with your studies and revise like a dog, I see no harm in it. Learning to balance your work and play will not only benefit your grades, but your mental well being – you have time to relax, unwind and stay involved in the things that keep you being you. Maybe go outside once in a while too though – Vitamin D is also important.

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So we come to the second hurdle – you may not have noticed, but gaming got bloody expensive and, no offense, but you’re a filthy student living on pasta and overdrafts. Finding equipment to satisfy the hardcore gamer within is going to cost at least a kidney unless you play it smart. Rather than going all in for that twenty kilo desktop that looks like a spaceship and sounds like an aircraft, look into laptops that have adequate specs and can reasonably run your guilty pleasures alongside your SPSSs and Powerpoints. If you’re slumming it with your accommodation, I’m sure you can settle for thirty frames and trashy textures; having a machine to act as your all-in-one also takes up less desk space, so crack out that textbook and at least pretend you’re learning through process of diffusion. If that still doesn’t satisfy, swallow your pride and procure a console, new or old. Unlike a PC, a console is designed specifically to run the game you shove in it to the best of its ability – you don’t need to download unofficial patches, nor spend an hour browsing forums to find out why “graphics driver was not detected – process terminated”.

You got your timetable, you got your hardware, but holy sh*t they’re charging upwards of fifty quid for a copy of FIFA. I’d be the last person to advocate you splashing on that regardless, but there are so many more affordable games out there for you to enjoy either with friends or as a solo experience without the insulting price tag. The indie crowd in particular is full of great ideas and down to earth solutions to the AAA developer’s convoluted and occasionally mediocre content. They also tend to come with cheerfully low hardware requirements and playtimes that can range from an afternoon to every spare moment you have. Steam and GOG are your go-to platforms for variety and value for money. If you’re looking for suggestions, Darkest Dungeon, Undertale and OneShot (as well as all the other games I’ve mentioned in previous articles) are all great standalone titles that can provoke deep emotions and last you at least twenty hours each, depending on how dedicated you are. Not to leave anyone out, I’ll let you in on a little secret, console gamers: buy hard copies from retailers like Amazon instead of getting digital downloads, as it will end up being a lot cheaper in most cases.

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Be controlled, be smart, and be a little less proud. Dedicating yourself to studying should not ever mean abandoning the things that you care about, but it shouldn’t be taken lightly either. Walk this tightrope carefully with my advice in mind, and you’ll be just fine – I have faith in you.

Gaming, Review

Paragon Review

I started playing League of Legends just under a year ago more as a joke than anything else. MOBA is, as we all know, a dirty word, and playing with other people is a hassle at the best of times. I was more surprised than anyone when Skyrim started taking the back seat for this crude looking, beautiful genre. Paragon is League, but I didn’t actually know that when I booted it up on my PlayStation: I saw a dark eyed femme fatale and the words ‘play for free’ and I thought ‘why the hell not?’ Note going into this that Paragon is still in beta, meaning the game could go through many changes and improvements by its full release.

Mechanically, it’s a gem, with phenomenal visuals to boot. Every character I’ve played so far has had some pretty flashy abilities that feel good to use, the characters themselves meanwhile looking damn good using them. The Countess and The Revenant in particular drew my eye, as they simultaneously appear wrong in this sci-fi universe while slotting into the roster seamlessly. The environments are detailed, exciting to explore and no less that I would expect from a company like Epic Games, while many characters manage to pop out against this backdrop in a way that just feels so right. Maybe it’s just me that still gets excited about the use of physics on clothes and hair, but in Paragon I still get that twitch in my heart when I see my coat flap open dynamically as I run. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable experience, and exactly what I would expect if League was developed by a company with a bigger budget.

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Yeah, I kinda hoped it was Bloodrayne 3 as well

On the other side of the coin, Paragon seemingly neglects sound as being particularly relevant to player experience. All the time you’re browsing menus on the homescreen, the music feels powerful and exciting, which is exactly what you would want from this calibre of game. This does not follow through into matches though – I think I might have heard one or two notes, but aside from that all we have is silence. There is the argument that in such a competitive genre, sound effects and the information that they can convey is far more important to players, but it also means the game feels lifeless. This goes for characters as well: characters in League of Legends feel vibrant, unique and alive, in no small part to the lore and character relations that Riot has built up, but also because of characters quotes and dialogue. Aside from bright colours and pretty physics effects, characters in Paragon struggle to stand out as being unique personalities, and it’s a real shame when there are some great character ideas in there. Serath in particular has this way expressionless way about her that could definitely be mitigated by just that tiniest injection of personality.

The game also does a really poor job of explaining to new players the rules. There is a brief tutorial covering basic gameplay mechanics, don’t get me wrong; I’m talking more about what’s expected of me once I get in-game with nine other people. MOBAs are renowned for the toxicity of their playerbase, so if getting called ‘noob’ or ‘feeder’ isn’t something you can be bothered to deal with, I’d definitely give this one a miss. I’d played pretty poorly during my fifth match – I didn’t know where my character was supposed to go and no one had any intention of helping me. Every time I died, one player in particular would ping me a ‘Good Job!’, and told me to enjoy my inevitable ban. This only happened twice that I can remember, but the community has a huge impact on how a player can experience this kind of game. As difficult as it might be in an ever changing landscape of character balancing and gameplay metas, I feel many new players would appreciate a more in-depth walkthrough of what will be expected of them by more veteran players.

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An honest mistake? I think you misspelled ‘died on purpose to throw the game’

As a free to play game, if you’re able to run it then I’d definitely recommend giving it a go. Paragon manages to give players that MOBA experience in a format closer to that of, say, Call of Duty or Skyrim, with the variety in character capabilities meaning the game never feels restrained to either of those games’ genres. With a little bit of audio design and a tighter focus on making the game more accessible to new players, this one could really turn out to be a masterpiece.

Gaming

We WILL Charge for Mods

Bethesda’s paid mods scheme was not a success back in 2015, so their attempt to milk gamers for more money they don’t deserve with their Creation Club would almost be comic were it not so insulting.

Modding has often been viewed as something of a legal grey area; you have a game that people have potentially spent years working on, and then you have the loveable, unpaid modder who took that game and turned Alduin the World-Eater into Macho Man Randy Savage. Mods come in all shapes and sizes, from overhauls to total conversions, simple re-skins to script-altering masterpieces that deliver unique experiences before melting your CPU. Once you see the fine work done by the modding community, and come to appreciate just how influential some ideas have been on big companies and subsequent titles, it seems to become a no brainer when asked if they should get paid.

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You pissed off the people that manipulate Skyrim itself – of course they were going to build a wall

Bethesda in particular has been very sensitive to modding in the past, releasing Creation Kits that mean even someone like you or me can add to or edit aspects of their games. All those years ago, the paid mods scheme felt like a wholesome idea executed poorly – modders would only be compensated with 25% of the profits from their files, and there was always a fear that your work could be stolen by someone else and slapped behind a paywall (like I said, the topic of modder’s rights is very uncertain ground). The bug fixes and unofficial patches that are almost necessary for Bethesda games to run could potentially also end up being something you need to buy separately, and that definitely leaves a bitter taste in your mouth. It comes as no surprise that satirical mods, such as Give her money for no reason and Immersive Paywall, would spring up in a passive aggressive form of protest.

Fast forward to the present day and we have Bethesda seemingly shedding their partner in crime Valve and introducing their own Creation Club. Again, this appears to be in good faith, with the promise of high-quality content and modders being almost ‘hired’, but what it boils down to a lot of the time is recycling content and asking consumers to pay through the nose for something they can get for free. The Chinese Stealth Suit in particular has become a subject of much contention, as a better looking version with many more features was available on the Nexus before Bethesda shipped their port from previous games. Content is sparse and, from what I can see, no where near the kind of quality that people have come to expect from some of the higher profile modders that carry out their work as passion projects instead of careers. Likewise, the baffling decision to implement yet another overpriced Horse Armour as (let’s face it) DLC feels like Bethesda walking that fine line between mocking themselves and mocking their fan-base.

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And so a meme was born

So what’s my final verdict? To be honest, it’s really hard. In the past, modders have managed to add content of such high quality, not only to Bethesda games, but to videogames in general, that I really would like these saints to be paid for their work. Unfortunately, every time the subject comes up, people panic, and it threatens to permanently damage a technically harmless and beautiful pass time. Maybe I’m speaking from a position of greed – if I needed to pay for my airships and vampire overhauls, would I have? Likewise, if I had spent a couple of pounds on a new adventure, only to find out the scripts contained would corrupt every subsequent save, would I be compensated? It’s an underground hobby – no rules, no regulations – that Bethesda is trying to either embrace or absorb depending on your standpoint; you tell me whether or not something like that should be taken over.

 

– Originally written for the University of Kent’s InQuire

Gaming, Review

GameGrin

It’s been a good couple of months now since I stopped writing articles for GameGrin. It wasn’t them, it was me. I loved some of the banter between writers, and getting free and unreleased videogames was a blast. Thing is, the moment you start setting deadlines, the moment you know people are relying on you, it becomes difficult to keep up that passion, that momentum. The fact that I never really felt part of the team, or the in-group only helped to accentuate my feelings of alienation. In the end, I put it down to boredom, and I left silently out the back door.

Thing is, I’m still proud that I worked there. My writing has definitely improved (even if I’m a little rusty right now), I can put it on my CV, and I have a portfolio not only of halfway decent games, but of articles and reviews that I am genuinely proud of. Due to issues of plagiarism or some such, I’m unable to post any of my work for them here. What I can do, however, is link you to my database over on their site. If you like my writing, go ahead and peruse my archive – I think it would probably mean a lot to them, as well as me.

And GameGrin – keep doing what you’re doing. You know I’ll miss you like nothing else.

The Iguanapus – GameGrin

Gaming, Review

Sundered Review

Rule one of writing a critical review (no, it’s not honesty silly) is to never read anyone else’s before you’re done. There’s always a fear that their opinions will bleed into your own and end up tainting what could be an original insight into a game. The second fear is that you will be a dissenting voice in a sea of adoration, and in those instances ignorance is most certainly bliss.

Sundered peddles itself as a sort of nonlinear Metroidvania Roguelike type thing; I’d try and break that down for you if you’re confused, but so am I. And so is the game, actually – we’re all confused and no one’s happy about it. The core problem is the uninspired, repetitive gameplay that see-saws roughly every two minutes between adequate 2D platforming and straight up button mashing. Enemies, like the levels themselves, are random in a sense, but if you count down from twenty after polishing off a wave, you can probably predict when the next one’s inbound. Collision doesn’t apply to the vast majority of Sundered’s enemies, meaning that intelligently kiting and picking off your foes isn’t even an option. Having these waves of obnoxious health-sappers perpetually breathing down your neck doesn’t fill you with dread though, and that’s yet another failure I’ll get to later. No, it feels more like frustration; making any progress whatsoever means opening the map to try and make sense of the caverns, and then proceeding to overcome the same jumping puzzles over and over again to reach the next area. Of course, the map doesn’t pause the game (thank you Dark Souls) and the endless dredge of monstrosities make it their personal goal to throw you around the room like a really tiny ping pong ball. Losing sight of your character is ridiculously easy, especially during some of those boss fights, so you’re gonna be fighting the game as well as your foes.

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Find the player character. It’s okay – I’ll wait.

Sundered appears to draw on Lovecraftian themes, with ancient elders, eldritch horrors and tentacle monsters abound. The trailers featured screams of soldiers and the protagonist as the madness of their prison devoured their very sanity, so where was all this in-game? Spawning enemies on top of the player’s location could have been used to really inject some fear into the whole experience. The knowledge that you are being hunted is scary, but when there’s no risk, and when enemies are mainly just an inconvenience, the process becomes exhausting. When I die, I expect at the very least a slap on the wrist, or the partial extraction of my mortal soul – Sundered lets me restart with all my money, for Christ sake!

Even as a piece of art, the game has it’s ups and downs. Possibly the greatest achievement here is that of the animation. Sundered’s smooth, hand-drawn visuals really manage to inspire awe if you have the time to stop and take it all in (spoilers – you don’t). The player and enemies are also afforded a very crisp appearance, and the way each animation transitions into the next is both unnatural and hypnotic. The praise stops there: as much as I do love these visuals, having fifteen or so of the same sprite dogpile me not only makes it difficult to appreciate the skill that went into creating it, but conjures the sense that I have already seen what this creature has to offer a hundred times before. Likewise the soundtrack, although very good at generating atmosphere, lacks any distinguishing features and is mostly forgettable.

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Sir! I just want a moment of your time to talk about Cthulhu!

I need to address these damn levels: the world appears to be split into three regions, each with their own basic layout, ability shrines, bosses, et cetera. Now, that’s all well and good, it’s Metroidvania, and Metroidvanias are fun. What Sundered chose to do, however, is inject it with a healthy dose of Rogue, as is the modern indie developer’s way. The caverns rework themselves upon every death (explaining, but not justifying the tedious load times), meaning limitless potential for exploration. At least, in theory; anyone who’s really fell in love with a procedurally generated game knows that after a while, patterns begin to emerge, rooms begin to look the same and you quickly realise you’re walking a labyrinth and not a maze. It means less development time and less intelligent design – heck, when it came to enemy placement, Sundered just screamed NO. It’s a real shame, because the tutorial had me thinking that perhaps I’d be navigating devious puzzles and outsmarting enemies.

Maybe I’m being too harsh, but Sundered doesn’t attempt to offer anything new, and hints at a great deal more than it delivers upon. Thematically, it’s a failure, and I groan every time I die not because of lost progress, but because it means more play time. The whole Harry Potter maze deal is kinda clichéd at this point, and sure I get the desire to pad out a game to give your audience more to do, but what ever happened to the sheer quality that handmade levels provide? You can still find that – Hollow Knight wouldn’t be a bad place to start; it’s a damn better performance than this.

And about those glowing reviews? Yeah, I don’t understand them either; maybe there’s a different Sundered I should have bought.

 

– Originally written for the University of Kent’s InQuire