Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Black Rock Shooter Anime Impressions: Beta

For some reason, before starting this show, I didn't look up any previous reviews or impressions.  This wasn't on purpose, but now I am glad I did as it would have hampered my original viewing.

There is a lot of hate out there for this show, and really I'm not surprised.  While there is divergence of course, it seems people fall into three camps.

1) They loved the OVA because it left EVERYTHING up to interpretation, and thus hate how the anime explains anything.

2)  They hated the OVA, and by default hate the anime because they wanted a Black Rock Shooter TV series that is more like the PSP game, with less moe slice of life high school girl stuff.

3)  They like the TV show

I guess I fall into camp three, though with an added, I also hated the OVA.  And at one point a part of me would have liked a more sci-fi BRS, like the PSP game.  However, the more I get into the anime the more I realize that is a shallow, and overused concept compared to what is going on in this TV show.

Now I'm not going to say the anime is revolutionary or one of the best series ever, but it is really good, after more than a few seasons of really lousy anime.  I think it is a step in the right direction.

Sure it has the overused "highschool girls/slightly yuri" vibe, but it doesn't really fall into a lot of traps of other anime before it.  There is a cast of female students, but you won't find any K-On moments here.  It feels a lot closer to high school for me than most shows, as everyone is worried about their own personal hangups and relationships and what everyone thinks about them. 

And through all the awkwardness of adolescents, our main heroine Kuroi, stands the voice of reason in the series.  Every time I see her I like her more and more.  She is such a good easy to relate to protagonist.  Most of the time when everyone else is doing something completely stupid, she won't beat around the bush to tell them they are being a moron.

One scene in particular (which I should have mentioned in the Alpha impressions), was when she confronted Yomi's mother about letting her daughter waste her childhood taking care of a girl who didn't need taking care of.  She called Yomi's mother "weird" about 30 times in 10 seconds, and I couldn't have agreed with her more.

Of course that is Kuroi's role in the series, to fix everyone's personal hangups, while Black Rock Shooter cuts off their heads in the other world.

It's nice to see now, the direct effects from BRS's actions and how they affect the human world.  At first it seems when she lops off someones head she severs Black Gold Saws control of that person, but at the same time, that person looses some of their memories or feelings during that point in their life.  But by the sixth episode we know the full extent of what is going on in a pretty shocking plot twist.

Black Rock Shooter is more of a villain than a hero.  Black Gold Saw is trying to keep people in the other world alive and safe and Black Rock Shooter is going around decapitating anyone she meets.

In her own way BRS thinks she is doing the right thing, in that when someone dies in the other world, in the human world, all their emotional baggage vanishes, including any positive and negative feelings they were feeling at the time. 

The twist caught me off guard, as I was just rooting for BRS for no good reason other than she seemed like the good guy.  And she still kind of is, but now every character exists in a shade of gray and not just good and bad.  In the other world, the humans "other selves" feed off the emotions of the human world counterparts.  Saya, as Black Gold Saw is keeping everyone alive in the other world, but in the human world as a school counselor she has to make all the girls as emotionally damaged as possible to make them stronger in the other world. 

Kuroi gets really emotionally attached to everyone she meets and wants to help people through their problems, thus making Black Rock Shooter really powerful.  However, BRS is a murdering lunatic and keeps slaughtering anyone who gets close to Kuroi. Kuroi and BRS merge completely by the end of the sixth episode with it seeming like Kuroi is in full control of her other self.  But we will see what the last two episodes have in store for us.

The character of Yuu/Strength has turned out to be an amazing character in the series.  In the OVA she was annoying and forgettable.  Here, she is the shining star.  In fact, the biggest mystery so far, is who she is.  She doesn't have a shadow, but in flashbacks with her and Saya in high school she does have a shadow.  My theory is that Yuu and Strength switched places.  Strength in the other world seems a lot like Yuu from Saya's flashbacks.  Yuu in the present (who hasn't aged) is much friendlier and outgoing, and no one seems to remember her after she leaves their field of vision (except Kuroi).  Also Saya keeps referring to Strength as "that girl" when she should be referring to Yuu.  That's just my theory anyway.


Although I always liked Black Gold Saw's character design, up until the last two episodes I was fine with BRS killing her and getting back at Saya, but now I want to see her make it through the series.  the last two episodes should prove interesting. 

Now, I'm actually caught up to the series so I won't be able to post those final comments for another two weeks.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Black Rock Shooter Anime Impressions: Alpha

I'm going to go back to something I tried a long time ago, where I give impressions of a show in three stages, instead of going by each episode.  The Alpha stage will cover initial thoughts while watching the show, Beta will cover the middle, and of course Omega the final thoughts.

To get back in the groove of things, I'll start with a show that is only 8 episodes long, and also a previous subject of this very blog: Black Rock Shooter.

First of all a little background.  For my feelings on the Black Rock Shooter franchise you can check out a previous article I wrote called "What I want (wish) out of Black Rock Shooter."  Since that article was written, what I wanted has more or less come true.  There are a couple of BRS manga (not counting the  beaucoup and beaucoup of doujin), a couple of video games,  an OVA and an anime, and all of them have different plots... for the most part.  The two most similar are the OVA and the Anime series, obviously because they share the same creative staff.

I was not impressed with the BRS OVA at all.  It seemed like a pretty bland concept, with boring characters, no explanation, and no emotional tie to anything going on.  The idea in a nutshell (or I assume as it is never stated) is that there are two worlds and one of them is like the world we all live in and deal with our real world problems, and the other world everyone just fights.  There is never any explanation as to how the two worlds connect.  You can kind of infer that the girl that looks like Black Rock Shooter in the real world (Kuroi) and the girl that looks like Dead Master in the real world (Yomi), when they interact, their fighting counterparts engage in battle.  But there never seems to be any rhyme or reason to it.  In fact, by the end I'm more convinced that the Black Rock Shooter world is the future and they will do battle for all eternity.  Who knows?  There is no information given to the audience to explain any of it.  It was a sloppy mess.

Really the OVA's only purpose was to drum up enough interest in the idea to support the development of a TV show.  I found the OVA to be such a poor spectacle, that I hardly felt any excitement when the TV show was eventually announced.

Like most people, my interest in Black Rock Shooter comes from huke's character designs.  There is something about the designs, that you just want to see them in something awesome.  So then, the trailer for the TV show came out to try and get people excited again, and then what little interest I had in it dipped even further.

The character designs changed for nearly every character!  At least that was how it seemed from the trailer.  The twintails that Black Rock Shooter was known for, were now covered up by a hoodie.  Dead Master looked like the crazy cat lady who chased you off her lawn when you were 8.  And Black Gold Saw, my personal favorite of all of huke's creations, looked like a blonde girl with wheels for feet.  At that point I pretty much wrote off the entire show without seeing a single episode.

But as time went on, and the show started, and I would sit at my desk and look at all my beautiful Black Rock Shooter Figmas, it was only a matter of time before my mind was like, "Hey just give the first episode a shot.  It won't hurt anything."

So I did, and now I can say, being only two episodes in, I'm hooked.

What I find the most perplexing is; how come, in only one episode of the TV show, with an airtime of almost 30 minutes, I care way more about these characters than I did in the 45 minute OVA?  Kuroi is a whole lot easier to relate to, and she has this wide eyed optimism that you just want to see her succeed, but damn it seems like everything and everyone is against her.

This is where the show shines, and what the OVA was missing.  With the character of Kagari, a sickly girl who keeps Yomi at her beck and call, you instantly feel Kuroi's pain and humiliation when Kagari berates her in front of her new friend, Yomi.  I think every person has been in Kuroi's shoes at some point in their life, and because of that, I felt a bond grow between myself and Kuroi, which I never felt in the OVA.

And speaking of bonds, there is also the bond between all the main characters and the other world, the more familiar Black Rock Shooter characters.  Also, unlike the OVA, there is a clear connection between what is happening in the other world and the human world.  While in the first two episodes, nothing has really been explained as to what the other world is, the connection between the two worlds is very clear as for every action in the human world, has a clear metaphor battle in the other world.

This is what really captured my attention.
As a video editor by day, I have an appreciation for good editing.  The OVA failed in editing in about every way imaginable.  Shots were too long, the cutting was haphazard, and I never knew what I was supposed to be looking at any given time.  Why all of a sudden did we cut to the Black Rock Shooter world?  If the characters aren't telling me, then the visual storytelling should be doing that.  But it didn't.

The BRS anime by comparison has some of the best editing I've seen in modern anime.  By the end of the second episode, the first storyline arc comes to a head, and is culminated in a back and forth between the human world and the other world.  While the high school character girls are all having an emotional verbal back and forth fight in the hospital, their other world counterparts are having a physical battle.  But the editing of the two worlds back and forth make both worlds seem like they are part of the same battle.  The point in particular is when Kagari is yelling in hysterics at Yomi trying to get her attention and screams "Why are you smiling?", then it cuts to Black Rock Shooter's actions in the other world and we see her fighting to free the imprisoned Dead Master.  It makes it seem like she is smiling because of what it happening in the other world, and I think that is partly true, but then we cut back to the hospital and Kagari is saying, "Are you smiling, because she called you Yomi?"

It's like a double hitter as far as the emotional impact, and I know I'm not doing the scene any justice by describing it.  But it is very effective in what it is trying to accomplish.

Which brings me another observation that really impressed me with the show.  I think one of the major criticisms to a lot of action anime is there is no real weight when characters are involved in fight scenes.  The fights are always these flashy over the top spectacles which look really good when you see them in trailers and in music videos.  However when it is tied to a story, it seems these characters are invincible while being thrown into a wall or getting stabbed or tossed off a fifty foot building and walking away.  There is nothing ever stated as to why characters can take so much punishment and not die.  It's the same reason I've never like Superman.  Too powerful and not enough vulnerability. 

If Black Rock Shooter were just composed of the other world segments, then it would easily fall into this stereotype.  BRS herself is stabbed by a giant metal crab at the end of the first episode, with her blue electric blood flying everywhere, and is seemingly fine in the next episode.

But the writers decided to turn this concept on its ear.  The vulnerabilities of the characters are shown in the human world.  Their weaknesses are the human avatars they are tied to.  They are all powerful Gods in the other world, and can do their flashy moves and pull chain guns out of midair and look badass doing it, but in the human world they are just human and that effects them in both directions.  So instead of seeing Black Rock Shooter in a sticky situation and thinking, "she's not going to make it out of this," instead it is the moments in the human world where you think, "ah poor Kuroi is going to be hated forever".  But that feeling only works because of what you witness Black Rock Shooter do.  I understand it's confusing, and it's hard to explain, other then just saying I felt a new kind emotional experience that was unique.

While it seems, so far, no one is aware of the connection people have with this other world, the draw of Kuroi's character is that she is starting to get the connection, and has used information she learned in the other world to help her human world self.  Likewise, in this battle in the hospital, Black Rock Shooter used information from the human world to help her win (or at least it is implied.  BRS is a silent protagonist so far).  It gives both Kuroi and BRS a slight advantage in their own lives to get ahead of their challenges.  It's what they were trying to accomplish in the OVA but failed, but here they master it beautifully. 

Then the big shocker at the end, just when you think everything in the human world is matching up with the other world, with Dead Master and Black Rock standing together against the defeated Chariot, and Kuroi and Yumi are standing against Kagari.  BAM!  Black Gold Saw shows up in the other world and just screws up everything.  She takes Dead Master away and give Chariot extra power.

But in the human world Black Gold Saw doesn't have a human avatar represented.  So everything I thought I knew about what was happening between these two worlds just got demolished.  Again, it worked beautifully.  It also confirms that the other world isn't just a dream world happening in Kuroi's head.  Something else sinister is in the works.
Also this would be a good time to mention that my worry for the earlier character design modifications, has also been mostly eliminated.  Black Rock Shooter looks just like she should with her twin tails.  She fights a lot of the times with her hood up, but that is okay as it makes the moments where she puts it down all the more awesome.  The character I thought was Black Gold Saw was Chariot.  Black Gold Saw looks exactly the same, which couldn't make me any happier.  Dead Master still looks like an old school marm.  My only hope is that by the end of the series she takes off the glasses and veil and looks more like the younger, cuter, Dead Master.  I won't hold my breath though.

So I think it is pretty apparent I have been really impressed with just the first two episodes of the series.  If the OVA had consisted of just these two episodes I would be happy, but now I have six more episodes to look forward to.  I only hope it can build on the momentum they have already started.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Gaming with a Newborn

Well, I'm back from outer space, and I come here to see you with that sad look upon your face.

But be sad no longer, as I have survived having my first child! Woo hoo!

Of course the Dad has it a lot easier than the Mom, and we are only two months into his life, but still I think it is safe to say I am a survivor.

The whole pregnancy and getting ready for the baby is the reason I give for letting this blog fall off the map.  I'm not sure if it is a good excuse, but it is an excuse nonetheless. 

Regardless, even though I'm only two months in I can already tell a change in my lifestyle, and most notably my gaming habits.  That shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone, but I'm here to say it's not as bad as you might think.

I have a good friend who just had his 3rd and 4th kid (twins!) and I remember when he had his first, he gave up gaming altogether.  He was never that big a gamer to begin with, but still, that prospect of giving up my favorite hobby scared me a little. 

So then my own little bundle of joy came, and I was able to take about a month off work to help my wife take care of the baby.  All that time off, at home would be the perfect time to get some gaming done, but I decided to follow the lead of my friend and quit cold turkey.

And perhaps, maybe I'm just addicted, but I went a good two weeks without turning on a game console at all.  But after a few nights of staying up late with the kid, with him laying on my chest, going in and out of sleep, and me with nothing to do but stare at a dark room and a blank TV screen I thought, "Hey I should be able to do SOME kind of gaming."

This is where things have changed.  Before my son was born, I was playing Madworld.  Madworld is a Wii game where you use gesture controls to kill your opponents, and rip off their limbs.  The kid is a month old and I'm not that concerned about picking up subliminal messages, so the content of Madworld wasn't what made me think twice.  It was the motion controls.  I couldn't be swinging my arms around on the couch with a fragile little baby on me.  So ironically, the "family friendly" Wii will get virtually no playtime while he is in this delicate state. 

This made me go through different video game genre's as to what would be safest to play around a baby.  I'm not a big FPS player, so striking that off the list was fairly painless.  FPS games require too high reaction time to play while not disturbing a sleeping kiddo.  The flip side of this was it also meant most action games were out as well.  Shadows of the Damned was another game I was currently in the middle of before the birth.  While it uses a standard controller, I use too much of my body to play it while in sticky situations.  So sadly that was out.

To make a long story short I realized my best option, was the Japanese RPG.  Most of the time you only press one button, and you can travel around a wide open area at leisure.  Of course there are all kinds of JRPGs, but for the most part this assessment holds true.

I decided to go into my archive of games I have bought but never played.  There sitting in the middle, nearly glowing with it's bright beautiful golden yellow cover box was Persona 4.

I'm a HUGE Shin Megami Tensei fan, and Persona fan, but for some reason I was never able to get into Persona 4.  Well all that has changed in just a month.  Without getting into a review, Persona 4 is hands down the best Persona game.  It flows so much more like a natural narrative than Persona 3 and the characters are all so well fleshed out that you really feel that connection.  Persona 3 was a great game (until the out of nowhere horrible ending) but most of the time I felt like I was going through the motions of a game.  Persona 4 felt like an actual story unfolding like a great novel.  I loved it.  And I guess that was kind of a review.

And more importantly, it was easy as hell to play with a sleeping baby on my chest.  I think it also helped add to the feeling of the game, that I usually only got to play from about Midnight to 3 am in the morning (while the Wife gets some much needed rest).  The game world revolves around this place called the Midnight Channel.  A channel that takes you away from real world responsibilities.  There is some kind of metaphor or life imitating art in there somewhere I'm sure. 

The real benefit was, when my son wakes up from his slumber with a roaring wail, I can easily put the controller down, get his bottle, rock him, change his diaper or do whatever needs to be done until he is happy or asleep (preferably both), then I just pick up in the game where I left off.  Any other type of game would result in an immediate "Game Over" as soon as the baby was awake.

A benefit for the baby, is a lot of the times, as I played, he would be wide awake and just watch the screen mesmerized.  Persona 4 especially has lots of big splashes of bright colors and fantastic music, so the effect isn't much different than Baby Einstein.  And I don't know about you, but I would much rather play Persona than watch

Then about a week ago I finally beat Persona 4.  Oh no!  What now?  I figured another JRPG was the way to go, and lo and behold Final Fantasy XIII-2 came out.

I didn't care for Final Fantasy XIII that much.  I had the same problems with it that everyone did, but as I played the demo for XIII-2 I loved the new "Pokemon" mechanic where you can fight and train monsters to fight with you in battle.  Having that extra character in battle to buffer you while choosing what Paradigm you want makes a WORLD of difference. 

The game is no Persona 4, but it is a really fun game.  Also the improved HD resolution and even more vibrant colors really make my son happy. 

Developmentally, he has gotten older and has become more aware of his surroundings, and one of his favorite things to do now is be rocked while I stand up and play Final Fantasy.  He just watches the screen and coos and laughs while I do my thing.  It is actually a rewarding experience.  Although I know he has no idea what is going on, and is interpreting what he sees and "colors are pretty and voices are funny", just knowing he is getting joy out of the same thing that I'm having fun playing is a fun feeling to experience. 

And as he gets older and starts to appreciate games more and more, I know I will have a good time sharing that with him.  And eventually, our experiences playing the game will be similar.

Now comes my second point with having a baby and gaming.  This probably goes without saying, but money becomes a lot tighter with a baby in the home.  Meaning I can no longer buy every new game that comes out on release day.  This has been a killer, because while normally I would have picked up Soul Calibur V along with FFXIII-2, I now have no idea when I will be able to pick up SCV.  When it hits the bargain bin most likely.  And in the next month Mass Effect 3, Street Fighter X Tekken, and Hyperdimension Neptunia mkII all come out.  But for the foreseeable future my game of choice will be Final Fantasy XIII-2.  That is what I have invested in until I beat it, and then I can think about the next game.  I can no longer plan ahead my gaming purchases.  Play what I have until completion, and then get a new game.

Really this is a much more healthily way to live, as I've mentioned, I had Persona 4 sitting in my closet untouched since it came out.  A game I payed full price for, where I could have easily walked to Gamestop and bought one for $10 by the time I actually got to play it.

But at the same time it means when I get a game now, I want it to last.

This is why I'm going to say something that is probably blasphemous to a lot of people, but DLC is the future, and now I fully embrace it.

Lets face it, a lot of gamers, like myself are getting older.  If not just having kids, but marriage, or just work gets in the way of gaming.  It's sad but true.  DLC is the best way to keep the life of a $60 purchase going.  Of course DLC costs money too (usually), but a few bucks here for a few more days of gameplay is well worth it instead of dropping another $60.

Final Fantasy XIII-2 already has two DLC episodes out with the promise of a lot more in the near future.  While I'm not even close to beating the game, some people say the ending just leads into needing to be wrapped up in DLC.  Works for me.

I beat Disgaea 4 a month after it came out, and it makes me happy to know that there are now two extra episodes that I can play when I go back to it.  And eventually when I get Mass Effect 3, I know it will be supported with DLC episodes as well.

As a new gaming father, DLC that was once an evil word to me, now sounds like a saving grace. 

So, yes, parenthood will change how you approach your hobbies, but you don't have to eradicate them.  One thing I've learned in life is that with any new situation you only need to adjust to it, not change who you are.  If you change who you are completely, you won't be happy.  And being unhappy is no way to raise a child into the world.

And instead of ending this article with the usually hot fictional babe, I'll be obnoxious and end it with a picture of my totally nonfictional babe: