Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress (2016)


Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress is a 12 episode original anime that is not based on any existing works.  It is set during the industrial revolution era in an alternate world.  Therefore, people still ride on horses, wield swords and the main mass transport used is steam locomotives.  There are a few fantasy elements such as rudimentary steam guns and later on, other gigantic machines.


The world is swarmed by kabane.  These are zombie-like creatures with a glowing red heart visible through the skin.  They are in this condition due to being infected by a contagious virus that is spread through biting.  once bitten, the person will change into a kabane within three days, losing all their intelligence and becoming overly aggressive, seeking out other humans.  They only way to kill them permanently is to either cut off their heads or pierce their heart, which is surrounded by a natural steel-like ribcage.


In order to survive in this harsh world, the remainder of the human population has created walled communities which are accessible via train tracks.  however, these walled communities, or stations as they are called, are rapidly falling one after another.  One such station hosts our protagonist, Ikoma.  He has been fascinated in the science being the kabane and devised experiments to kill them easily with a pinpoint steam pressure gun.  However, the kabane attacked his hometown before he could complete it.  The other main character is Mumei.  She is a mysterious young girl who appears frail and elegant at first but shows quite the power against the kabane later on.


Kabaneri is basically a zombie anime series as it explores the survival aspect of such a world.  Characters have to make hard choices, whether that is when they are infected, when they are trying to find a safe have, or just trying to grasp at hope when all seems lost.  Through a series of events, the objective of the anime soon appears.  A group has to head to the main stronghold of humanity to seek help.  During this journey, Ikoma himself transforms from the weak nerdy self that we were introduced to into a stronger more capable person.  At the same time, due to the power that he had gained, naturally, other characters heavily distrust him, particularly since he was revealed to be investigating real kabane parts.


While Ikoma's background is stock standard and simple, Mumei's is much more complicated.  When we learn about her past, it's filled with interesting tidbits on the lore of this world.  As the kabane are fairly predictable, the anime changes it up by having them start showing signs of mutation.  Instead of just the same tired old cliche of mindlessly chasing anyone they could see, some of them seem to have the capability to learn from experience.


The series gets intense with the events that happen on their journey, from their encounters with stronger and stronger kabane to situations that somehow become worse than the last one.  It leads to some fast-paced action sequences.  While most of these situations are near impossible to get out of, you can forgive the exaggeration because it is so well done.  The second half twists the concept of the enemy around and loses the survival aspect which is a shame.  It presents a shocking and cruel series of events and this is where the true opponent of Ikoma reveals themselves.  What happens afterwards is horrific and makes an already bad situation even worse.  Although the anime has a tendency for melodramatic scenes, these usually work okay with its ability to rouse your emotions through it.


Unfortunately, the antagonist is underdeveloped while his motivations were revealed, they were shallow and did not justify why they did what they did.  It was even more perplexing that the rest of the enemy's group was following along since their success would mean a world filled with kabane.  The other negative was that the potential abilities of the kabane were touched upon at multiple points but the anime did not have enough time to flesh it out.  What we did get were interesting and while the protagonist did exploit this to give himself more power, it felt like it was pulled out of nowhere.  With a few predictable turn of events, we get what you can call was not exactly a happy ending.  It's satisfying in that is makes sense for the world it was set in.


The series caps off with a three-part movie that takes place after the ending of the first season.  It's a simple plot with the group having to exterminate an area along the way from a serious kabane infestation.  The characters are actually quite annoying here at times, including Mumei who seems degraded from the strong person that she was.  However, the ending was worth it, especially the interaction between Ikoma and Mumei.  Overall, Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress is surprisingly solid.  It has a few things going against the concept such as the zombie-like kabane set in an industrial revolution era but the animators have managed to make it work really well.  The rousing music coupled with exciting action sequences make this an enjoyable watch.

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Monday, January 27, 2020

Book Review: The Castafliore Emerald


Review:  #894
Title:  The Castafliore Emerald
Series:  The Adventures of Tintin – 21st book
Author:  Herge
Comments:  The Castafliore Emerald has the ingredients for a good story but ends up lacking because it feels pointless by the end.  The plot is set up as a mystery where Castafiore comes to Marlinspike to temporary stay there but then loses her previous jewels.  Over the course of the volume, there are numerous suspects, some more suspicious than others.  Interspersed are a bunch of running gags and everyday events, or as normal to everyday events as it can be with a famous person staying.  The flaw is that the plot never has a sense of urgency and never quite builds up, such that when the ending comes and the culprit is revealed, it feels anticlimactic, especially when it doesn’t seem quite like the focus.
Rating:  6/10

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Toy Review: Transformers Generations War for Cybertron Siege Optimus Prime (Voyager)


Review:  #534
Name:  Optimus Prime
Brand:  Transformers
Allegiance:  Autobot
Line:  Generations - War for Cybertron:  Siege
Year of Release:  2019
Size Class:  Voyager (Wave 1)
Mold Status:  new

VEHICLE MODE:


Once again, as expected, Optimus transforms into a red short nose truck but with a twist.  There are Cybertronian elements such as the partially concealed rear wheels and lights/windows above the windshield.


This is a pretty good truck mode and the back makes a little bit of effort to not make the robot legs and feet look obvious.


In terms of size, Optimus is really compact.  Above is a comparison against Titans Return Optimus.


The two robot weapons can peg onto either the roof (the gun) or the back (the shield/ax).  Apart from rolling him on a flat surface, there's no other play value to speak of.


A good vehicle mode and unique enough from the typical Optimus design that it's interesting.

TRANSFORMATION:

The transformation is familiar to anyone who has had a G1-inspired Optimus figure in the past few years.  However, it is still well done here and incorporates a few neat elements, refining the transformation scheme.  The back naturally folds down to form the legs, while the bottom half of the cab rotates to reveal the faux truck grill.  The arms fold out and there are a few twists in order to get the kibble out of the way.

ROBOT MODE:


Ignoring the significant amounts of silver battle damage paint, this is an excellent robot mode.  The proportions are perfect and he has elements of the Masterpiece figure.


It's not 100% perfect since he has the truck roof as a giant slab of kibble on his back, and the exposed legs from the back doesn't look great (but is a moot point since you'll rarely look at him from the behind).


The headsculpt is also one of the best.  It's able to look up and down in addition to the normal left and right.


As a size comparison, above is Studio Series Optimus (Bumblebee) and you can see the Siege figure is the typical Voyager height.


Articulation is absolutely fantastic.  The Siege line focuses on poseability and Optimus is a prime example of that.


He has swivels joints for his shoulders, elbows, wrists, hips, knees, ankles, waist and head.  Since all of the joints are swivels, he feels very solid and robust.


Optimus comes with two weapons, his iconic rifle, and a black and silver shield.


Optimus can hold the gun in either of his hands, as expected.


The shield on the other hand, can peg on the outside of his forearm.


In addition, the shield has fold out pieces to form an ax.


The ax can then also be held in either hand, thus Optimus has a truly versatile set of weapons.


When not in use, both weapons can be stored on his back simultaneously.


This figure is the height of the craziness that is the Siege's line gimmick of battle damage paint.  The silver completely ruins the look.  Thankfully, they are all on unpainted plastic so you can easily remove it if you wish.


Thanks to the ankle tilts, you can pose Optimus with ease.  You might expect the kibble to get in the way but they don't.  While the kibble underneath his forearms are annoying, they're not a deal-breaker.


A wonderful robot mode that doesn't have many flaws.

OVERALL:

Don't let yet another G1 Optimus Prime fool you, this is one of the best toys in the Siege line.  He has two amazing modes, the truck mode is unique while the robot mode is crazy accurate.  The amount of poseability, plus the weaponry options, make this a fun and versatile figure.

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Saturday, January 25, 2020

Uncharted 4: A Thief's End (PS4)


Uncharted 4:  A Thief's End is the fourth mainline game in the Uncharted series and is significant in that it is the first game of the series for the PlayStation 4.  This is an action adventure game and alternates between third person gunplay and platforming.  However, it focuses more on the latter and the platforming mostly involves climbing from place to place.  It is nothing too special since we have seen this all before in the previous games.


The biggest addition to the platforming is the rope which Nathan can wrap it around branches and poles to hang from or to swing to a far away platform.  The introductory sequence feels like it did try and shove as many rope platforming segments as they could get away with to show it off and get the player familiar with how it works.  On the shooting side, the game plays as a cover shooter.  Nathan goes from cover to cover and pops out to shoot enemies.  There are a variety of different weapons and the shooting feels great.  Nathan can also stealth kill enemies if you wish to take on a more peaceful route through the game.


A Thief's End has an involved story where we find out more about Nathan's past, when he was younger and it jumps between events in the past and present.  It begins with Nathan Drake in retirement from the treasure hunting business and settling down.  However, as expected, he is roped back into it through circumstances beyond his control and goes off in search for a legendary hidden treasure once again.


The game tends to focus more on the story than gameplay.  You get plenty of cutscenes with only bits of gameplay here and there, especially in the first half of the game.  It gets to the point where it can interfere with the pacing and flow of the game in general.  It gets much better as the game goes on and soon becomes fun with the combination of exploration and shooting segments.  The story has a heavy focus on the relationships between the characters and it works really well here.  Although the beginning of the game feels dull since Nathan is not exploring the exotic locations the series is known for, it is filled with drama, just of the non-action kind.


That being said, the plot picks up from halfway and while it then starts to settle on samey environments with the last act, which is decent in length, set on the last island, the mystery of the treasure keeps you engaged.  The little tidbits revealed as Nathan slowly discovers what had happened are really engaging.  The situations that Nathan finds himself in rapidly escalates as the game goes on.  There are heaps of over the top action, even more so than previous games.  Some of the set pieces work well, sending a lot of adrenaline through your system and being intensely exciting to play.  Others take you out of the immersion when Nathan just brushes off something that any other normal person would be down for days or months.


The ending fight was cool and fun but can be tough on the higher difficulties.  The game culminates into a fitting end for Nathan Drake's story over the course of four games.  It takes around 10-15 hours to finish the game.  The puzzles are one of the disappointing aspects since all of them are really easy.  They just involve finding crates tucked away somewhere that you need to jump to higher areas, or moving a few levers to align certain points.


There are a lot of collectibles that only appear as shining points in the environments totaling over one hundred.  This provides most of the replay value and reason for exploration but also helps unlock bonuses.  The graphics are phenomenal and looks absolutely fantastic.  The areas with plenty of fauna are some of the best looking scenes in a game that you have ever seen.  Due to the massive improvements in graphics though, sometimes it is not immediately clear where to go next.  Whereas the PS3 games had shimmering and yellowed colored climbing points, Uncharted 4's colors for these are more subdued.


The game also packs some of the biggest environments in the series and with it, this means the collectibles are a lot harder to find now too.  It's impressive to see how big the space is, especially when you are not confined to a linear corridor anymore.  Good news is that the game has chapter select once you complete a chapter for the first time, along with being able to skip straight to certain gunfight segments.  There are a few minor gripes such as how Nathan is limited in however fast he is able to fun.  It feels a tad bit too slow and limited for a big chunk of the game.  He's often only allowed to walk or a slight jog, this can make it frustrating during a speedrun if you are aiming for Trophies.


In addition to the single player story you get Multiplayer as well as a Survivor mod where you are pitted against waves of enemies.  Both of these can provide a lot more hours of enjoyment.  Overall, Uncharted 4:  A Thief's End is a solid game overall but there is a tad bit too much boredom in the first half.  The slow pacing at times and overabundance of cutscenes thankfully is overshadowed by an excellent second half and a fitting ending to the series.

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Friday, January 24, 2020

The Great Wall (2016)


The Great Wall stars Matt Damon an is set in ancient China, taking place mostly upon the titular Great Wall.  The film doesn't exactly inspire confidence in the opening scenes with poor special effects which continues to permeate for the whole length of the feature.  This is because The Great Wall has the plot of monsters that have a certain degree of intelligence, constantly attacking China.  The Wall was built to help fight off these monsters and prevent them from entering the city, devouring all and increasing their strength to take over the world.  Unfortunately, with its tendency for over-the-top action and heavy reliance on poor CGI, The Great Wall stumbles, a lot.  Of course, one guy is all China needs in order to repel their enemy of two millennia.  It's hard to take seriously when the enemy has such a convenient weakness, and the battle tactics of the army are impractical.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Book Review: Tintin in Tibet


Review:  #893
Title:  Tintin in Tibet
Series:  The Adventures of Tintin – 20th book
Author:  Herge
Comments:  Tintin in Tibet is perhaps the best Tintin book so far, containing a charming and intimate story.  Tintin is happily enjoying some downtime in Marlinspike when he learns that his friend Chang (from a few volumes ago) is coming to visit.  Unfortunately disaster happens and Tintin must travel to Tibet to find Chang.  Tintin’s dedication along with his resolve is much to be admired about.  Perhaps the best thing about the plot is how for the first time, Tintin doesn’t rely on any lucky coincidences for escaping tight situations.  The jokes work wonderfully and the scenes help showcase Tintin in a positive light.  Captain Haddock, despite what he says, has a heart of gold and their friendship is heartwarming.
Rating:  6.5/10

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Good Omens (2019)


Good Omens is a six episode miniseries based on the book of the same name. As you'd expect from the authors of the book, Good Omens has a quirky atmosphere and equally quirky performances.  It sets the tone and atmosphere really well.  In particular, the performances for both the angel, Aziraphale, and demon, Crowley, are outstanding and endearing.  The plot follows Aziraphale and Crowley, both of whom live on Earth and are representations of heaven and hell respectively.  They both love the human life and have secretly formed an alliance to delay and hopefully prevent the inevitable war between heaven and hell.  Dubbed the Armageddon, the Earth is foretold to be destroyed in the battle and a new place be formed.


The first episode is a setup for the arrival of the anti-christ and the multiple things that happened which caused it to be a mess.  This becomes important later on as the day approaches when the anti-christ is supposed to start Armageddon.  It is a tad bit vague in the opening where it doesn't convey its main plot point immediately.  It takes around half the episode before it becomes clearer on where it is going and from then on, it starts to hook you in.  The second episode once again is messy with its take on the story.  It rapidly introduces new characters where their plights interrelate with each other but are not immediately shown how.  It actually takes all the way until the end of the series before we see properly how they all fit into the plot.


As Aziraphale and Crowley are working together to actively prevent the anti-christ from rising (against their orders no less), their banter and interactions with each other is great.  Their personalities are reflective of their nature.  Crowley is more aggressive and short tempered while Aziraphale is more elegant and appreciates the finer things in life.  Their unlikely friendship is definitely the highlight of the show.


The series touches on the story on how the pair got together.  It is fascinating as it feels like Crowley is slowly corrupting or twisting Aziraphale's way of thinking into that it is okay to team up.  The rationale is that they were just cancelling each other out anyway.  The pair's job of Earth was to help humanity or tempt them, and apparently there is heaps of paperwork to file.  As their backstories are told, it goes through multiple time periods including touching on well known stories from the bible.  It's always fun to see what period that they are as well as the clothes that they are wearing.  The pair's personalities have not changed at all over the years.


Through the pair's actions, we see that heaven and hell might not be so different after all.  Well, heaven is depicted as white and clean, while hell is more dark and dank, but both sides feel that the war is inevitable.  Their superiors refuse to listen to any rationalization and the pair are doing all they can to sway them, to no avail.  The rise of the anti-christ is put on the back burner from time to time and this makes it kind of weird and hard to follow.  Their power is hard to fathom and as the time draws to a close, they get stronger and stronger yet we don't know where they are headed.  As the episodes go on, the time frame in which it is set in is shorter and shorter.  The series began with events that took place over years while the later episodes are all happening within the last few hours before Armageddon.


A sticking point is how God provides narration throughout the series.  She usually provides some sort of snarky yet serious comment.  One thing though is that the quirky nature and humor is spot on, particularly in the last few episodes.  Everything does come together to form a solid ending.  The final episode felt like it dragged on after the major conflict was over; however, it made sense to see the aftermath.  It has a clever (if expected) solution and conclusion to the pair's final problems.


Overall, Good Omens is a solid series.  While the storytelling can have its issues, the charisma of the unlikely friendship between Aziraphale and Crowley is what keeps you going.  It is a strong bond that's wonderful to see how they work off each other.

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