Saturday, February 27, 2010

Review: Kara no Kyoukai

This week seems to be a slow week tech-wise, and with a dearth of topics to talk about, I might as well take a look at Kara no Kyoukai. I wasn't intending on reviewing this series, since it's a bit polarizing. Either you'll love it, or you'll find nothing special about it. If I had to describe Kara no Kyoukai in a few words, I would say it's quintessentially mono no aware; it's a slow but deliberate story that highlights the relations between characters through the spiritual and mystical world around them.

Kara no Kyoukai takes place within the universe of Tsukihime, and even though it takes place within a parallel universe to the main story of Tsukihime, it still contains lots of references that Tsukihime fans can appreciate. Newcomers to the Tsukihime story line and Type-Moon's works will feel a bit lost, since the story doesn't stop to explain concepts or events clearly. Another thing that contributes to the slow, methodical feel of the series is it's format; Kara no Kyoukai is a series of seven movies, so even though there's lots of tension and bits of action, there's a lot of 'dead time' in between.

I use the term 'dead time' quite loosely though. The slow panning scenes are there for the atmosphere and tension, and the action sequences are all the more enjoyable as a result. The action sequences are few and far in between, but they're definitely among the best animated sequences I've seen. From the rain-drenched rooftop fight scene to the leap of faith off an apartment block during an intense battle, these beautifully animated and choreographed scenes are hard to forget.

Along with the action, the characters of Kara no Kyoukai are similarly just as memorable. They each have unique quirks and traits, and more importantly they have intriguing personalities. With characters that are this interesting, it's fascinating to watch the relationships unfold between the characters, especially the relationship between the main leads Mikiya and Shiki. While the art, animation, and atmosphere might attract you to Kara no Kyoukai, you'll most likely stay for the characters.

Of course, we arrive at the reason why I was so hesitant to even share my thoughts on Kara no Kyoukai; it's very art-house. The methodical pacing and the slow unfolding of the plot and relationships takes quite a bit of patience to enjoy. The narrative is also structured to keep the viewer guessing, which can be frustrating since the plot isn't very easy to grasp. Kara no Kyoukai isn't something that I'll recommend to those expecting constant action or those new to anime, but those who come ready to immerse themselves in a mysterious world won't be disappointed.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

First Impressions: Nodame Cantabile Finale

It's more Nodame Cantablie, so that means more awesome musical adventures. If you've watched the first two seasons of Nodame, and aren't watching the final season, then I don't know why you're wasting time reading this instead of watching it. What are you waiting for?

That said, the final season is a bit different from the previous one. They're still in Paris, and they're still continuing their roller coaster ride in the musical world, but in this season we finally see more development in the supporting cast. The second season of Nodame just dumped a bunch of new faces on our plate without much explanation, and that didn't make the loss of the stellar supporting cast from the first season that much more palatable. Thankfully, the final season is wrapping up those loose ends, and I'm enjoying see the supporting characters finally getting some more face time on screen.

Chiaki and Nodame's relationship and musical destinies are almost a known quantity at this point, so watching the relationships between the supporting characters has been something that's really drawn me in. The development between one Mr. Samurai (obviously not his name, but I can't spoil it here) a female supporting character particularly has me riveted.

So far, Nodame Cantablie Finale is definitely looking like it'll be the epic ending that we all wanted. More music, more adventures, and more heartwarming-yet-awkward romance.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Breaking News: Windows Phone 7 Announced

At the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona today, Microsoft announced their newest mobile smart phone OS platform, the Windows Phone 7.


Let's be honest, Microsoft has a tendency to promise big and fail utterly in recent years. I think Windows 7 has been their only major product they released that was a success, and that's because we hit them over the head enough times because of Vista. Plus we're getting into smart phone territory here, in which the popular mind-share of this market has long been captured by the iPhone.

Don't get me wrong, I think Windows Phone 7 is a really slick mobile OS, and it's integration with Xbox Live has great potential. But the success of integration like that is highly dependent on the existence of a diversity of content for it (e.g. games), and there won't be enough Window Phone 7 users to justify developers investing in games for the platform when they can make so much more money off of the wildly popular iPhone app store.

Long story short, I'll be excited if Xbox Live integration isn't just a gimmick a year or so from now. But I'm willing to put down money that nobody will care about it then.

Source and image: Gizmodo

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Review: Mass Effect 2

To say that Mass Effect 2 is my favorite game this year would be an understatement. Saying that Mass Effect 2 is my favorite game that I’ve played in my whole life would be more accurate. Mass Effect 2 is by no means the ‘perfect’ game, and there are games out there that arguably have better elements. Bioshock has better atmosphere, Modern Warfare 2 has more thrilling gameplay, Fallout 3 has a bigger world to explore, and the upcoming PS3 game Heavy Rain will definitely be more ‘cinematic’ and emotional than Mass Effect 2. So why Mass Effect 2, if it’s not perfect?

I’ll say it in one word; Immersion.

Video game graphics have proved to be amazing in recent years, but despite these leaps in technology the main problem with video games has been their inability to immerse us in their worlds. Running around any game, you have to actively suspend your notions of reality just to accept what you’re seeing in the game. Some games like Bioshock try to use art style and atmosphere to make it easier to get drawn into the game, other games like Modern Warfare 2 simply rely on pushing you along as fast as possible so you don’t think too much about the world the game is presenting to you.

With Mass Effect 2 though, it engages the most important factor in immersion; you. The whole game is masterfully designed to engage the player in choices that shape the gameplay and the universe.The character that you play isn’t nameless or voiceless like in most other games, your character has an actual personality who builds actual relationships with characters around them. You give the character a name, gender, change their appearance, write their backstory, and customize their abilities to your preference, and all this is before you are presented with the decisions that develop your character's story and relationships.

Decisions you have made in the first Mass Effect have a noticeable effect on the immensely detailed world in Mass Effect 2, effectively writing a game universe that feels unique and tailored to you. The choices that you make don’t have an easily visible foreseeable impact, and they’re morally ambiguous too, which makes every decision fraught with tension as you try to choose what you think is the best decision.The game almost makes you believe you’re writing their story, and that’s the key in Mass Effect 2’s immersion.

It also doesn’t hurt that Mass Effect 2’s combat and level designs have improved leaps and bounds over the first game. Just like the tension found in the moral decisions in the game, every enemy encounter is thrilling and fast-paced, a testament how well designed the combat system and level designs are. You’re still suspending your belief in reality while playing, but the immersion happens so effortlessly because everything in the game is working in harmony to draw you in and invest your emotions in what is unfolding before your eyes. From the vibrant and lush alien worlds to the stellar voice acting (did I mention Martin Sheen voices one of the main characters?), Mass Effect 2 truly rivals some classic sci-fi epics.

Of course, like I said before the game isn’t perfect. I have several gripes with the way that the game’s plot is structured, along with some uncertainties about the balance of the different character abilities, but I haven’t been this enthralled like this by any other video game. Mass Effect 2 isn’t for everyone, as it’s hybrid RPG-FPS system isn’t easy to pick up and the game’s immersion is highly dependant on the player having completed the first Mass Effect (which had its fair amount of gameplay flaws). However, it blows every other game out of the water with its superbly balanced composition of personalized immersion, gameplay elements, epic story, intriguing characters, and emotional impact.

You’ll be hard pressed to find a better produced game than Mass Effect 2. Until Mass Effect 3 comes out, that is.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Google Behemoth Strikes Again: Google Buzz

If you accessed your Gmail today, you've probably noticed that Google's added something called Buzz. Some people are calling it Google's answer to Facebook, but that's really a poor way to describing Buzz. Yes, Buzz is Google's new social networking add-on to Gmail, but the two services aren't really comparable beyond that. And that's the problem; Facebook is by far still offers more features, and Buzz doesn't offer anything radically compelling to justify being labeled a 'competitor' to Facebook.

Instead, I think the best way to think about Buzz is that it's enhancing your Gmail experience.You can upload and share decently-sized photos, and if you have Buzz on your smartphone you can 'tweet' your status with a geo-location tag on it so your friends can see where you 'tweeted' from, and all of this is integrated in the Gmail browser. Of course, there's some features that you'll recognize from Twitter and Facebook. Like your Facebook posts, your friends in Gmail can now comment on your Buzz post, and you can have people 'following' you.

Honestly, even if you think of Buzz being an add-on to Gmail, it doesn't really enhance the Gmail experience by much. I have at least 100 friends on Facebook who are constantly on Facebook-stalking, but I have about 10 people on my Gmail list who actively use it for stuff like Gmail chat. Whether you like Facebook's user interface or not, it's impossible to deny the fact that it's much more intuitive and efficient for socializing than Gmail's user interface is.

That said, the additions in Buzz make it a better competitor to Twitter, since it allows much more social interaction with your posts. Even with this positive outlook though, it's hard to deny that it's the awkward late comer to the party; it wants to be popular to be like Twitter and Facebook, but instead of being original, it tries to act like them and fails to appeal to anyone. C'mon Google. We expected more from you.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Favorite Superbowl Commercials For 2010


This year's game between the Saints and the Colts was really entertaining, but this year's crop of Superbowl commercials were a bit lacking. But there were a few good ones, and surprisingly this time my favorite commercial wasn't one by Bud Light or Budweiser. No, I didn't like the Motorola commercial (above) just because Megan Fox was half naked in it...well, actually I did since that was the whole joke, but that's besides the point. Props to Motorola for a commercial that was classy and funny, and props to Megan for being more entertaining than she was in Transformers 2. I was more entertained by this than I was for most of that movie, and I didn't get a headache watching it either. 

The honorable mention here is the Google ad. It's rather subtle, and I admit I kind of missed the point the first time I watched it. Luckily, thanks to the magic of Youtube, you can experience the simplistic but heart-warming ad as many times as you want. Pay attention to the ad closely if you watch it. It's definitely not the funniest or catchiest of the ads that aired, but it sure stood out for it's simplicity and cleverness among the screaming chicken ads Denny's ran. The screaming chickens were funny the first time, amusing the second, and really annoying the third time.

"Timmy, what are you doing?"

Friday, February 5, 2010

I finally stopped being lazy

Actually, I'm just procrastinating from doing something else that I need to work on. Anyways, I'm currently updating the layout of the blog so it looks better. I might make some edits to the coloring and what not later on, but for now I made a new header and fixed the width of the website. Go ahead and leave some comments if you think that I'm doing a horrible job with the layout, or if you just hate the header that I made. Or if you like what I'm doing, by some weird twist of fate.

Now I should start working on that paper of mine...

Edit: I just noticed that the Youtube embedded videos aren't showing up on IE8. There's some shenanigans going on with either the Youtube coding, or Microsoft's coding. And guess which one I'm blaming. Get Firefox (or Chrome if you're feeling adventurous) if you're still stuck in Microsoft's stone age.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Review: Star Trek Online


I've been jaded with massive multiplayer online games since my time with the infamous World of Warcraft, plus I'm not old (or nerdy) enough to be a true Trekkie. Games that are designed to waste your time like MMOs don't fit my lifestyle, and the only person I can really recognize from Star Trek is Captain Jean-Luc Picard. So you can imagine my sense of disbelief when I realized I actually enjoyed my time with Star Trek Online.

From the time I spent in the game's open beta, there's not much that I can praise about the game's structure. The ground combat is clunky and boring, the user interface isn't intuitive to use, and there's little in the way of guidance in what to do in the game. Want to know the difference between Photon and Quantam torpedos? Don't look at the descriptions in the game, Google it. Want to know where the hell the 'Crystaline Entity' is for that one mission? Google it. I could go on, but you get the overall picture.


But I wouldn't be talking about Star Trek Online if it just was mediocre. One thing that the game has satisfied is my childhood fantasies about blowing things up in space. Piloting a lumbering Federation cruiser around Klingon Bird of Preys and crushing them with disruptor beams and photon torpedoes has created a sensation that I haven't felt since I was seven years old and doodling sprawling space battles on the margins of my math homework. The game is quite good at fulfilling the inner Captain Kirk, and even the cumbersome ground battles serves the purpose of giving us the Star Trek experience by expanding the universe beyond go-here-and-blow-up-3-Klingon-ships.

Star Trek Online is about as geeky as one can get (complete with in-game voice over from Leonard Nimoy), and it even appeals to non-Trekkies if you love sci-fi enough. The game is an MMO in concept, but in reality you won't miss much if you want to do things by yourself, which is another plus in my book. I won't be spending much time with the game, but I do appreciate how it has awoken the inner child that I had assumed to be long gone. 

Beam me up, Scotty!