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Monday, November 23, 2015

Lord of Magna: Maiden Heaven; Final Thoughts

 After three weeks of playing this game, I've finally come to what I suppose we could call "The end."
It's not what I would call a very good ending, nor what I would call a conclusion, but the credits were rolling and at the end it said "Fin" so I'd go ahead and say that that's the conclusion of the game. I might not like the end, but I like that I'm done with the game.
I went into Lord of Magna: Maiden Heaven hoping that I'd enjoy the experience, and while I didn't care for the plot at first, I started out having some fun with the combat, but over time it just got tedious. The smaller technical issues with the game just piled up over-time, and all enjoyment I had at the start of the game just fizzled out towards the end.
You know what? That pretty much describes the entire plot of the game, except for the fact that it the plot started out bland, and proceeded to dig a bunch of plot-holes.
Over the course of the game between what we covered two weeks ago and what we're covering now, they introduced a member of the party whose only purpose in the story is to provide exposition, they revealed that the weird sinister figure we fought earlier in the game was actually a hero, and had a more interesting background than the bloody main-character, who's only revealed to be more bland as the game goes on. Not to mention more proof that the main plot of the game should have been about Luch's ancestor who worked for Kaiser.
Let's sum up the plot in its entirety, shall we? I know I covered it a bit in the last part of the review, but I'm going to discuss it in more detail so I can pick apart the various failings of the story.
The main characters name is Luchs, he runs an inn out in the middle of nowhere, and he never gets any visitors except for his buddy Bart, who minds the inn while Luchs goes out hunting for crystals, which he then sells. While he's out, he finds a girl trapped in a massive crystal formation. Then, an earthquake happens and a bunch of monsters appear blocking his way out of the cave. One of them gives him a concussion, and a voice starts talking to him, asking him what he wants. He wishes to not die right then, and then the girl bursts out of the crystal and kills the monsters. Please note that this whole sequence takes about twenty minutes, and is entirely unplayable.
After that, the girl passes out, and Luchs has to haul her back to the inn. Bart then dresses her up in a maids outfit, and it's at that point we notice the hidden pun in the title. The girl's name is Charlotte, and she has amnesia, as I mentioned in the previous part of the review.
Something that bugs me that I didn't bring up during the first impressions review is the fact that the story gets kicked off by a massive coincidence. Luchs just happens to get up at the right time to meet up with Bart, who just happens to convince him to go out and collect crystals, and Luchs just happens to pick the crystal cave where the girl was in, and he just happens to get attacked by monsters. I've never been one to accept "destiny" as a decent excuse for why things happen in a game. Sure, happenstance can be a good way to kick off some stories, but this game tries to pass it off as some kind of grand destiny of the main character, since it's later revealed that he's descended from the guy who created the magical girls that flock to him. If he was just some kid who'd found the girls and the Lachryma (The bracelet that links them together) by total accident, that'd be better. That's a tale of a hero from humble origins, this is just contrivance.
Luchs and Charlotte, go to the local farm to get some vegetables, and they find the girl who runs the farm under attack by the same kinda enemies they fought earlier. Keep in mind, this is over an hour into the game, and this is the first time you're actually allowed to participate in the tactical combat of this tactical RPG. This is why I spent so much time harping on about the pacing of this game in the first impressions review, because this game spent about twenty minutes before you got to anything remotely interactive, and then it took almost an hour to get to the actual combat. You'd think that this is the kind of thing that they'd only do once, but it's not. They actually did it around five times, and that's just counting the long stretches of exposition bookended by opportunities to save. It's probably more times if you manage to count all the times they bookend the exposition with a little bit of combat. The final battle alone has fairly massive cutscenes before and after it.
Later on, they run into the second girl on the list, Beatrix, who (surprise) also has amnesia, but the kind that starts breaking down when she meets her sisters. They sort of explain this, but it doesn't make a lot of sense from my perspective, and it just seems like a massive contrivance so they can not explain the plot all at once, which I suppose I should be thankful for, since it keeps them from spending five straight on exposition.
I took a liking to Trixie, and since this game has a relationship system, I went ahead and decided to shoot for a relationship with her. So after Luchs met her, they went on a date in the city, where they met the third girl in the game, a German girl named Elfriede, also suffering from that convenient version of amnesia. She's a tinkerer, and generally one of the best characters in the game, since her primary attack has a rather large area of effect and a damn good damage count. This is where I think they ran out of ideas for unique character mechanics, since the first three girls are the best in combat, while the other four range from utterly useless to annoying, to actually being fairly useful. As for character traits, I'm not impressed. The only ones that seem to be decently characterized are the first three girls, with characterization getting a lot lighter as they're introduced. The last girl pretty much only serves as Addy Exposition, telling Luchs about the back-story of the other girls. Granted, I wasn't able to put any major time into relationships outside of like two, but that's more the games fault than mine. In Fire Emblem Awakening, you built relationships between units by pairing them together in combat. In this game, you build relationships at random points in the story by talking to one of the girls with a heart over their head. This also builds up their powers. You can see the problem here. Tying the characters attacks to their relationship with the main character isn't really a bad thing, per se. But since you're not allowed to build relationships with the girls outside of when the game lets you, this handicaps your party. And since you're only really allowed to go all the way with one girl per playthrough, this prevents you from unlocking all of the girls powers at once. So you might as well just stick with the girls you like in combat and just leave the others to the side until you want to play the game again. Yeah, like that's gonna happen.
From about the time the fourth girl is introduced onwards (With a little before falling into that spot), the writing just seems like it was slapped together on the fly, without much care for consistency. For one thing, check out the screenshot to the left. What Gewalt says there makes literally no sense in light of things we find out later on in the game. You see, he's actually the son of the main villain, who we don't actually meet until about the halfway point of the game. Waaaaay back in the past, the king, Kaiser, waged a war using the girls as his main weapons. They were being mind-controlled by Kaiser, but Gewalt acts like they were willing participants in the fight. It wasn't their fault, and Gewalt knows that, so what was he babbling about?
That's not the only thing which doesn't make a whole lot of sense. The war the girls were involved in? Nobody remembers it happening. But Kaiser, the guy behind it all and the main villain of the game, looks exactly the same now as he did back then, and the reason why isn't actually explained until almost the end of the game. Gewalt looks pretty young as well, and he's been around for hundreds of years too. They say that's because of the false Lachryma that Kaiser wears, but that doesn't explain how Gewalt is still alive, and they didn't really establish the Lachryma as something which prolongs life. Not to mention the false Lachryma is the excuse they give for why Kaiser doesn't just die one of the four times he's killed. But if the false one is keeping him alive, why didn't the real Lachryma keep Luch's ancestor, Edhuard alive when Kaiser killed him? Plus, they state that the true Lachryma is supposed to override the false one, and yet Kaiser was able to order the girls to kill Edhuard. That's just... Weird.
And they suggest that Kaiser survives his many deaths through just sheer force of will, when I'm pretty sure that's not how it works. I should know, I've dedicated most of my life towards studying human anatomy. I might not have a degree, but I think I know enough about the human body to say that getting shot with a magical crossbow, stabbed and slashed with a giant sword, shot some more with a Gatling gun, punched with metal gloves, blown up with grenades, dive-kicked and beaten up until you collapse isn't something you walk away from. Unless you're Deadpool, or Wolverine. But at least they've got the healing-factor going for them, whereas Kaiser just has the fact that he's the villain backing him up.
Kaiser seems to fall into the category of villains who show up late to the party, showing up for one vague scene and then barely being mentioned for about half the game. He also falls into the category of villains who don't really have a good reason to be doing what they're doing.
Kaiser's wife, Sarine died during childbirth, and his best-friend, Edhuard refuses to bring her back using his god-like powers. He gives some weak reason for why he's not doing it, but he just comes off as a bit of a dick. However, Kaiser's reaction to this is to kill Edhuard and try to take the power of the true Lachryma for himself. That sounds like a bit of a massive overreaction if you ask me, but he then one-ups himself by waging a freaking war against the world that seems largely unconnected to the dead queen storyline. And he doesn't react immediately once the Lachryma resurfaces, he takes a while to do anything. And even then, he doesn't do anything sensible. Nobody remembers the war Kaiser waged, not even the girls who were the main weapons of that war, and yet he keeps trying to kill Luchs. Luchs is a nice guy, Kaiser could just walk up to his house and ask him to bring back his wife! As obsessed as Luchs is with doing good deeds, he'd probably jump at the opportunity to help out a person in need. And this might just be me, but I've never really saw any problem with using any means necessary to bring back a dead loved-one or friend. You know, unless that's making a deal with literal a literal devil that also breaks up your marriage. And yes, I am still bitter about Spider Man: One More Day.
Over time, the story just falls apart as the plot-holes begin to intersect. For instance, two of the girls almost literally fall into your lap out of bloody nowhere, and while it starts to get a little stronger after you launch a rescue mission for the final girl, it rather quickly falls apart. The amnesia plot gets dropped fairly soon after Addy shows up, even though the girls don't really get all their memories back, and the game starts ripping off The Heroes Journey in the laziest way possible, since the girls leave Luchs in the middle of the night, and he's not even forced to deal with their absence during any relevant scenario. The girls leave him during the middle of a cutscene, and then rejoin him at the end of that same cutscene, and it's at that point you start to wonder if Addy might be a bad influence on the girls, not that you can actually do anything about that. What do you think this is, a role-playing game? Oh wait.
During the rescue-mission,  Luchs dies and comes back to life, after going through some judgement from the girls, and a little flashback sequence involving the character Sarine, showing him why she exists and why Kaiser is a villain, as shown above. It's rather heavily implied that Sarine helps bring Luchs back from the dead (somehow) and that she's going to be an ally from there on out, but just wait, the inconsistency of the game is about to strike yet again.
After all that's over with, you storm Kaiser's castle and try to kill him. Take a look at the screenshot to the left, and look at the battleground. The flowerbeds are the outer-limits of the battlefield, with invisible walls hampering movement outside of that area. That makes the whole battle a lot less fun, since this is a tiny freaking place for combat, especially with the amount of enemies that spawn on screen at once. Plus, even though Sarine is set up as an ally of Luchs and the girls, she actually aids Kaiser in combat in this section. Luchs and his team succeed in killing Kaicer, but he comes back, and his son (Who he apparently loathes for killing his queen, which doesn't make a whole load of sense.) Gewalt has to destroy his fathers false Lachryma and kill Kaiser before dying himself. And you'd think this would be the end of it, and it should have been, but you'd be wrong. Before we get to that, let's address Kaiser's hatred of his son, both of which have been around for centuries. This much is confirmed towards the end of the game by Gewalt, but if that's true, why haven't they buried the hatchet by now? I refuse to believe that these two human beings, who have been around for hundreds of years wouldn't possibly have gotten tired of all this fighting. And why is Kaiser still apparently in charge of the country? You'd think that someone would notice that the country has an immortal king eventually.
So, Luchs and Trix go to the party the town is throwing for them for saving the world, and Luchs gets beaten up by the revived Kaiser. This is the point where what's left of the story starts falling apart, since this entire last section of the game doesn't need to exist from a storytelling perspective.
However, I will give the game this. The fight with Kaiser right before the final showdown is a good idea, since you're forced to work without using Luchs or whichever of the girls you wound up choosing to be with, which forces you to rely on tactics and units that you wouldn't normally use in combat. It's pretty cool, and I actually liked it from a gameplay perspective. However, from a story perspective, it still doesn't make sense.
After you defeat him a third time, Kaiser spawns a whole bunch of Sarines and absorbs them into himself. After that, his skin turns black and he transforms into a giant robot. No, I'm not kidding. And no, this is never explained.
Check out the gif on the left, this is the final boss, and it might have been a decent fight if not for the fact that the free-roaming combat system is broken when it comes to larger units. The last couple hours of the game are where Lord of Magna's largest failings become glaringly obvious. You've got the bad AI, the tendency of mobs of enemies to restrict their own allies movement, and a new bug that I found where if you pin Frenzied Kaiser between two enemies or even a single enemy and stay just outside his reach, you can just take pot-shots at him until his health reaches zero, and I found this out on the second attempt. I wasn't even trying to find any exploits when I was playing this game, they just showed up.
The Frenzy fight is just bland. Frenzied Kaiser has way too much health, and he's way too hard to beat legitimately, which is why I wound up exploited his lack of movement. Up until that point, however, it was an okay fight. At least until he pulled out his ultimate finishing move five times in a freaking row! He only used it once in the first fight, but the second fight was downright unfair in the last half, for him and for me.
And after you kill Kaiser again, he still doesn't die! He comes back from the brink of death, again, and isn't going to stop, so Trix steps in and starts to stop him, possibly at the cost of her own life.
This is at the point where it super doesn't make any sense for him to still be alive, because he's been killed four separate times, and has pretty much used-up his entire life-force on massive attacks and spawning little helper enemies who don't actually help him out. This is the kinda situation that's utterly nonsensical, from both a gameplay perspective and from a storytelling perspective, since, by all rights, Kaiser should be dead at least four times over, not counting the amount of times that he should have died over the several centuries he's been alive.
The only way you can truly defeat Kaiser is by embracing Luch's god-powers. But once you do that, the game just ends. Cut to black, roll credits and start showing off sepia-toned screenshots from the game. Then they sort of try to explain why the game just stopped, but it's so incredibly weak that I can't take it seriously. Luchs just disappears and everyone's forgotten he exists except for his girlfriend. You're sort-of tricked into thinking there's any kind of legitimate post-game content, but it's really just a pointless trick that wastes the players time. Talk to everyone in the inn and then the credits keep rolling. Then the credits start pausing every now and again for dialogue.
And for some reason, everyone's sticking around after Luchs disappears, even though having no memory of him would remove any emotional attachment they have to him or his inn. Then all of a sudden, right before the rest of the credits roll, Luchs just shows up at the inn straight out of nowhere with absolutely no explanation as to why, just like how there's no explanation as to why everyone except for his girlfriend lost their memories of Luchs. Not his two best friends, not any of the townspeople he was a hero to, not most of the girls that he treated like part of his family, nobody except for literally one person. Like I said, no reason, no explanation, nothing.
After I finished the game, I started looking for details, and I couldn't find that many. I read some GameStop and Amazon reviews, and I looked around various Wikia wikis trying to find out if I'd maybe missed anything, but there's not really any actual documentation of the plot of this game. Not that I blame anyone for that, it's an incredibly boring story. The most I know now is that there are seven god-damn endings to this game to go along with the new-game+ mode. Presumably, this leads into some kind of true ending, but I'm not going for that.
I've sometimes wondered about making a game that pulls a fast one on the player, where the game is posed as something boring and generic, or maybe extremely bad, and then is revealed to be excellent later on, and I thought for a bit that this might be what this game is trying to do. But then I realized that if you did do that, you'd need to pull it off in (at most) the first hour of the game. Ideally speaking, you'd pull it in the first twenty minutes of the game. So even if this game was trying to pull a fast-one with the story, it failed. Even if the game magically gets better on the seventh playthrough, I'd be more willing to attribute that to Stockholm Syndrome than it actually getting better. Maybe you could call that "Pulling a slow one"
It took me forty hours of play spread across three straight weeks to get the ending I got, and I've got other games that need reviewing. And even if I didn't, I wouldn't want to. Like I've said before, this game has such a boring story that I utterly despise the time I've been forced to spend on it. Rather cunningly, the game has a speed-up button for the dialogue, but even if I were to use that, the rest of the game gets real dull real fast. The fact that it doesn't let you outright skip a cutscene by pressing Start is just odd. Plus, something I liked about Fire Emblem: Awakening was that you could press the R button and bring up a dialogue archive, which was useful if you accidentally skipped past something. Unfortunately, this game doesn't have any equivalent of that, and instead maps the dialogue-skip button to R, which led to me skipping some dialogue accidentally. (not like it mattered) Thankfully, you can turn that off. But once you've turned it off, you can't turn it back on again until you're back into an interactive section. And if you've turned it on, and switched it on during a cutscene, it keeps going in the next cutscene you see, instead of just resetting like it logically should, which has led to more than one accidental skipping. Industry standard is the Start button, why would you do anything else?
Then we get to all the technical problems. As we've covered before, the AI is dumb as bricks, and the game tends to slow down and freeze for a second or two when the AI is making decisions. What I've noticed since then is that the game suffers from enemy pop-in when a whole bunch are on one screen. Look at the screenshot and tell me that's not massively distracting.
Again, I don't know what the game could possibly doing under the hood that it can't render a bunch of teddy-bears and diamonds on screen without having pop-in or slowdown, since I've seen other, more complex games on the 3DS that don't suffer from these same issues. Plus, the game actually straight-up crashed on me twice in the same day. I spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out why that happened, but to no avail. It just crashed on me in the middle of combat and dialogue straight out of nowhere. That was last week, and it hasn't crashed on me since then. God only knows why it crashed, god only knows why it stopped crashing.
I know the slowdown wouldn't have been caused by the SD card I have the game installed on, since it's on a Class 10 card, not like it would do that anyways, media speed only affects the loading time of the game as far as I can tell, and all old3DS's are the same hardware-wise, so it's not like my CPU isn't fast enough or whatever. And I still don't have a New3DS to test it out on, not like that matters, since it's packaged and marketed as a game for the regular 3DS.
Over time, I noticed that they seemed to be married to the concept of the harem of magical maids being your combat party, because they're literally the only characters other than Luchs that you can use in combat, which stunts the game's potential to a rather large extent, since you can't just recruit other people to include in your combat team. If you could add Gewalt, Bart, Amelia, or literally anyone else to the party it'd liven up the combat a bit. Also, the limit of four party-members makes the game a little boring, since fights are an uphill battle unless you're massively leveled. I just prefer the tactical RPGs which allow you to have two massive armies going head-to-head.
The freeform combat system is a little hard to grasp, since only the movement range of a unit is shown when you point your cursor at it, and not the full threat-range. And there's no way to bring up a map of all possible enemy threat-range like you can in Fire Emblem: Awakening.
Then there's the movement on its own. Some enemies can move through each other, and some can't, but you can't move through your own allies, which is a little odd as far as I'm concerned. That, and the fact that a lot of enemies have massive mob-attacks breaks the old DnD adage of "don't split the party" since there are very few circumstances under which keeping the party together is actually beneficial, even when healing comes into the game, all you have to do is just walk your units a few paces towards Luchs and his AOE healing spells take care of the rest. That's literally the first thing I do when I start up a new combat scenario, I is spread all the characters across the map.
Then there are the one-way passages that you can sorta squeeze through one way, but not another. There are also times when the gap between two characters or enemies looks like it's big enough to walk through, but it's not, and also times when a gap looks too small to move through, but you somehow manage to squeeze through. I'm not sure how to react to that, since I can't figure out why that would even happen
The more I played this game, the more I began to believe my initial thoughts on the game were correct, that this was a tech-demo that was released as a full game, or at the very least an unfinished game.
Smarten up the AI a bit, polish the movement mechanics a bit more, and definitely fix up the story a whole freaking lot, and you'd have a good game. Hell, some of these glitches should have been fixed up in the international version. They list a debug team in the credits, but I can't possibly see how they managed to miss this much. Granted, the game and its release-date was announced in January of 2014 and saw an initial release in October of the same year in Japan, having been about half-done at the time of announcement. That's something you don't do. Bethesda and Valve have this down pat, you don't announce a game or its release date until it's finished, that way you're not rushing to meet the public deadline. That's not to say you don't need a deadline, you do. But you definitely don't announce a release-date before the game is about 80% finished.
The funny thing is that they list Japanese debug teams and American debug teams, when I can't see that they actually did anything. Or maybe they did, and the original version of the game was unplayable. You know, from what I've been able to see in a lot of Japanese games, the international version irons out a lot of bugs from the original version, but maybe the rather lukewarm sales of the game led to XSeed not putting in a whole lot of effort.
As the game is, I can't recommend it at the price it sells for new. This game is not worth forty bucks, at the most I'd say it's worth between ten and twenty. I'm sorry to say this, I really am. I don't go into any of these reviews looking to trash a game, or to ruin other peoples fun. Sometimes I just have to put my foot down and say "This game sucks"
However, I do have a few positive things to say about the game. For one thing, it's got a kick-ass soundtrack, despite it sounding more like it belongs in Perfect Dark than it does in a Japanese Fantasy game. I'd love to get the soundtrack for this game on CD. I wonder if I could convince XSeed to reuse the soundtrack in a better game than this.
Another good thing to mention is that the 2D art is very well-made and well-animated. They're out-of-place, but they're nice. This game almost feels like it would have been slightly better as a show, given how little it wants to involve the player in the actual story. Hell, they have dialogue choices that have only one option, for some reason.
Here's what I say you need to do to fix the story. Erase the character of Luchs and have us playing as Edhuard back in the time he was working with Kaiser. Then, instead of Kaiser killing Edhuard because his wife died and Edhuard wouldn't bring her back, maybe have Edhuard die in battle against some horrible foe, and have Kaiser gradually go insane over decades of fighting off the horrible enemy until they finally manage to seal it away for a few more centuries, and have him erase the memories of the girls to keep them from suffering from PTSD, but he then finds that he can't do that to himself because his powers prevent him from doing so. Then you skip a while and you play as Gewalt as the terrible enemy comes back later on in the game (Having Gewalt either being a descendant of Kaiser or Edhuard) and have him finding the girls, finding out about the previous events, and then have him confronting the avatar of the evil force, who will turn out to be Kaiser, having been corrupted over the centuries by the terrible thing. Maybe have Kaiser be visibly regretful about his role in this, to make him a tragic hero instead of a nonsensical villain.
But unfortunately, that's not the game we got. But hey, if XSeed wants to hire me on as a story-writer, you can consider the above paragraph my story pitch and audition.
All in all, I didn't have that good a time with Lord of Magna: Maiden Heaven. It was dull, repetitive, generic, and a whole lot of other synonyms for "not good"
In the end, I think this is a 1.4* game at most. And you know what, I'm not going to apologize for that. I didn't like the game in the end, and I don't really know how I could have liked it without making some fairly massive changes to it.

Game provided for review by XSeed. Screenshots taken by me. Cover image provided by XSeed, and edited by me.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Kickboxer (1989)

Jean-Claude Van Damme is one of those names that everyone just kinda knows. Even if you haven't seen any of his movies, even if you don't know who he is, his name is probably bouncing around in your head somewhere. Until this Friday, I hadn't even seen one of his movies. I guess he falls into that category of '80s and '90s stars that people just know of, even if they're not familiar with their work, alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger, Hulk Hogan, Steven Segal, Sylvester Stallone and Dolph Lundgren.
Van Damme has always been in the background of the slice of pop-culture I've had interest in. At different points in time I've been interested in seeing some of his movies, but I never got around to any of them. To be honest, I didn't pick Kickboxer up because it had Van Damme in it, it was because Stan Bush performed three songs on the soundtrack.
For those of you who don't know, Stan Bush is a melodic rock musician. Most of his well-known songs were featured in sound-tracks to movies in the 1980s, although he's done a few soundtrack songs since then. When you think of Stan Bush, you usually think of Transformers, thanks to what might be his most well-known song, The Touch, also known as the theme-song of Optimus Prime. Thanks to the use of The Touch in Transformers: The Movie, we also got another great Stan Bush song, Dare.
I'm a pretty big fan of Stan Bush, and I love to listen to his music during my workouts. They really get the blood pumping, and they serve to inspire me to push myself to my limits.
One of those songs I listen to is the theme-song of this movie, Never Surrender. I think it's safe to say that it's one of my favorite songs. Eventually, under the urging of one of my friends, I decided to watch Kickboxer. I had a little bit of free-time on Friday, I still haven't finished Lord of Magna, and I needed something straight-forward to enjoy.
Kickboxer might not necessarily be one of the greatest movies of all time, but it's well worth a watch if you're in the mood for a good action movie. It clocks in at around ninety-minutes, but unlike a lot of movies of that length, it actually feels like it was made to be as long as it is. I sometimes get the impression that some movies were cut down to reach their hour-and-a-half length, such as the first Men In Black, or The Pacifier, but thanks to a decent pacing, Kickboxer doesn't suffer from those issues. The start is a little rough, but it picks up pretty quickly, and I think it stays pretty good throughout.
For an action movie, Kickboxer is a little slower than you might expect, but I actually like that about the movie. For some reason, action movies these days feel the need to try and be as spectacular as they can be, packing in as much action as they can with nary a stop to take a breath. See The Expendables if you want a good example of a movie that has no idea how pacing works.
The calm moments in this movie serve to do a lot of showing, instead of telling, and what it does have to tell doesn't seem like it's entirely for the benefit of the audience.
Let me give you a quick synopsis of the plot, as spoiler-free as I can make it.
Eric Sloane (Played by actual kickboxing champion, Dannis Alexio) is the United States Kickboxing champion. After a winning-streak, he decides to travel to Thailand to challenge the also undefeated Thai Kickboxing champion, Tong Po. (Played by fellow kickboxer, former amateur Belgian boxing champion and good friend of Van Damme's, Michel Qissi)
Accompanying Eric is his cornerman and little brother, Kurt Sloane. (Played by Van Damme, whose martial-arts accomplishments are too numerous to count here, just check out his Wikipedia page if you want to see them)
Kurt is a decent kickboxer, but he doesn't have the same record as his brother. They get to Thailand and set up a match between Eric and Tong Po. Kurt is a little wary of the situation, but Eric shrugs it off and figures he can just power through the opposing style. You know, as opposed to fighting a few lesser kickboxers until he gets used to the local style and challenging the local champion when he's ready.
From here on, we move into spoiler territory.
Unfortunately for Eric, he gets knocked-out in the second round, and despite Kurt throwing in the towel, Tong Po keeps beating on him until he fractures Eric's spine and damages his spinal-cord.
This sets up the rest of the movie, which is Kurt's quest to take down Tong Po. He travels around Bangkok looking for a muay thai instructor who will help him hone his skills until he can take on Tong Po. He then spends the rest of the movie training to be the best he can be. Along the way we get some character development, (Though not a whole lot that you'd notice) some great action, and a lot of kickass music. Van Damme even gets to show off his dancing skills at one point in the movie.
While I've never seen Van Damme act in anything else, I think he did a decent job in this film. His character starts out as a nervous young man and ends up a confident martial-artist. There's a pretty massive change in Kurt Sloane's attitude over the course of the film, and there's no small amount of acting that goes into making that convincing. Van Damme's lawyer once said that he didn't get his roles based on acting ability, which may be true to a certain extent. But if you compare Van Damme to, say, pretty much the entire cast of Sharknado, he's freaking golden. What I'm saying is that you can do a hell of a lot worse, and at least Van Damme tries.
Even though you could make the argument that this is just a more hardcore version of The Karate Kid, I like Kickboxer a little more than I liked Karate Kid. Maybe it's the aesthetic, maybe it's the Stan Bush soundtrack. However it goes, Kickboxer has a significantly higher appeal to me than Karate Kid, and in the end, I think it's a good film. They don't make action-movies like they used to, I suppose.
You know what? It's nice to watch a nice straight-forward movie every now and again. It's a story I have a reason to care about, I can sympathize with the motivations of the main character, the love interest is actually a human-being, and do you know what the best part was? The villains were an actual threat. Not only is Tong Po a threatening villain, his associates are as well.
However, this brings me to the one small issue I had with the film. While the overall story and flow of the movie is pretty good, there's one thing that just sorta stuck out to me.
Towards the end of the movie, Tong Po rapes Mylee, Kurt's girlfriend. I don't have any direct criticism of the rape, personally. If they want to put that in there, they can. All I ask is that it do something. I'm not a direct follower of the Chekov's Gun school of storytelling, since I appreciate the idea of having red-herrings and little things that never get resolved, just like in real life.
However, I'd say that if the main villain of your movie is going to rape your protagonist's girlfriend, maybe you should have that do something. It barely affects Kurt, since he doesn't find out about it until the very end of the film, Mylee barely talks about it, and nobody really mentions it after it happens. You could cut it out entirely, change a couple lines of dialogue, and the movie wouldn't be changed in the slightest.
The only time it affects anything related to the story is when Tong Po brings it up during his final showdown with Kurt, who then asks his Mylee if it was true.
As it is, the rape-scene just goes to remind the audience that Tong Po is the villain. He's mobbed-up, he works for a warlord who regularly extorts money from the local townsfolk, and need I remind you, he paralyzed Kurt's brother. You didn't have to remind us why we hate him, he's pretty damn easy to hate.
Also, I thought that Never Surrender should have been playing during the end of Kurt's showdown with Tong Po, as opposed to after the fight was over. The music they play during the fight isn't bad, but I really would have preferred it if they had used Never Surrender when the fight turns in Kurt's favor.
Personally, I would have changed the ending slightly. Not a whole lot, just a little bit.
See, Tong Po's mob-connections kidnap Eric and hold him to ransom, telling Kurt that he needs to go the distance and throw the fight. Fortunately, Kurt's martial-arts instructor, and his friend Winston Taylor rescue Eric, and arrive at the fight to show Kurt that they've rescued his brother. That's the moment when Kurt knows he doesn't have to throw the fight to save his brother. After that, Kurt cuts off his arm-wrappings and beats down Tong Po. I'd have preferred it if the fight went on for all twelve (Or five, depending on the rules-set they're using) rounds, running right up to the end of the match. Let Kurt pull off a few good hits of his own and avoid some of the more grievous hits until the eleventh round, then in the beginning of the final round have Kurt get beaten almost to death. After that, have him see his brother in the crowd, cue Never Surrender, and then just have him wail on Tong Po. Maybe give Tong Po a little bit of a comeback before the end of the song kicks in, and then have Kurt knock him out. But hey, the ending was fine either way.
Even if you didn't completely change the ending like that, all you have to do to iron out the one real issue I had with the movie is cut out the rape-scene and change Tong Po's dialogue to him threatening to kill all of Kurt's friends and rape Mylee, and bam, you've just improved an already good movie.
All in all, I really liked Kickboxer. It's a straight-forward movie with a decent premise and some characters I actually have a reason to care about. In the end, I give it a 9.6* rating.
I was planning on going over the legacy of Kickboxer, but I'm running late on this article as it is, so I'm just going to finish up the review, and maybe cover the films legacy when it comes time to review the upcoming remake. I'll suffice to say that while I'm cautiously optimistic for Kickboxer: Vengeance, Kickboxer was already a good film, and it doesn't really need a remake. Also, if the remake doesn't have a significant number of Stan Bush songs on the soundtrack, I'll be most disappointed.

Image from Impawards.com

Monday, November 9, 2015

Lord of Magna: Maiden Heaven First Impressions

I know I said that the first review I was going to do this month was going to be Fire Emblem Awakening, but I haven't been able to put words to paper on that one yet, so I figured I'd give you guys my first impressions on this game from Marvelous and XSeed that I got in for review a while back.
I was hoping to have been done with The Princess' Heart by now, but apparently my PS3 controller doesn't want to work on my PC anymore, so until I get a new controller for my computer, I'll be sticking with console games for a while.
After I got done with Fire Emblem, I had a hankering to play another good tactical RPG, and since this was on my review schedule, I figured I'd bump it up the list a bit so I could try and get it done. Unfortunately, I don't think that was all that good a decision. While this is by no means a bad game, when you compare the two games, you get some pretty stark contrast. It's not quite on the level of comparing Alien Isolation to Slender, but it comes pretty close.
While Maiden Heaven is technically a tactical RPG, it's a lot closer to being The Legend of Heroes: Trails In The Sky than it is to being Fire Emblem Awakening. Not that that's a bad thing, necessarily, I liked what I've played of Trails In The Sky. But do you know what it had that this game doesn't? Characters I had a reason to care about. And a reasonably expedient opening sequence as well. Take a look at this screenshot.
The time-code on the first save-file is how long it took to get to the first part of the game that was remotely interactive. The time on the second file is how long it took to get to the action.
That's right, twenty minutes of opening sequence until you get to do anything, and then another twenty minutes to get to the combat of this tactical RPG. And that's not counting the length of the FMV that plays before the title-screen, and then plays again during the opening sequence of the game!
That wouldn't even have been that big a deal if I'd been at all interested by what was going on, but one of the major flaws I've been able to notice in this game is the fact that the plot is so bloody boring.
I wasn't able to find the writing credits for any of the three writers credited on the Wikipedia page, so I don't know if they've written anything other than this, but this is one of the most generic stories I've ever had the displeasure to experience.
The plot is that one anime harem plot. You know the one. Where the male lead has little to no personality, all of the girls are based on a single archetype apiece, and worst of all, all of the girls have amnesia. And it's that convenient kind of amnesia where those who suffer from it get their memories back over the course of the game.
See, the reason Fire Emblem Awakening got away with the amnesia plot was because the characters with amnesia never got their memories back. At all. Sorry to spoil that outside of the Fire Emblem Awakening reviews, but I had to bring it up to prove my point.
Amnesia as a plot-device has been done to death in games, movies, television, comics, books, etc. By now, everyone knows about amnesia plots, everyone's seen them done to death in everything we've seen. Hell, we've got an entire series of games called Amnesia for crying out loud. There was a game called Flashback made all the way back in the '90s which had an amnesia plot. Wikipedia has one-hundred and sixty-three articles on amnesia in fiction, and about forty on memory alteration and erasure in fiction. And you know what? I'm pretty sure there's a lot more than that. Episodes of otherwise sensible (To an extent) TV series with amnesia plots shoved into them during one season in an attempt to create mystique. Heroes did it, Ghost Whisperer did it, Lois and Clark did it, and I know others have done it. Amnesia has been done to death as the main driving force of the plot. If you want to use amnesia in your story, fine. Go ahead. But you need something else to drive the plot. Fire Emblem Awakening had the Days of Future Past/Terminator style goal of circumventing the apocalypse driving most of the story, with character interaction filling in the gaps, with the rest of the players time being filled with the combat. We'll be talking about that in a bit.
Comparing the first hour of this game to the first hour of Fire Emblem Awakening, from the moment you fire the game up to the moment you set it down an hour later, we see that FEA has an attract-mode FMV comprised entirely of original material, while LoM just re-uses the anime FMV that plays during the games credits-sequence.
Fire Emblem Awakening starts with gameplay, then introduces you to the characters, introduces the premise of the plot, shows you how to play the game when mechanics are introduced (And not before) and by the time you round out that hour, you'll know plenty about the story, the characters, and the world the story takes place in.
Then we come to Lord of Magna, which spends forty minutes talking and talking and talking until you're left wondering what the hell any of this needless blithering has to do with the story the narrator laid down earlier on. This is yet another Japanese RPG that starts out with a very interesting premise, and then goes on to tell a completely different story. Final Fantasy III did this, Final Fantasy VI did this, and for all it did right, Tides of Fate did that as well (Twice in fact. War of the Abyss did it as well).
It's fine if you go on to tell an interesting story, but if you don't follow it up with the same caliber of ideas you put into the setup, you'd be better off telling the story you laid down in your premise. You have to ask yourself when writing; "Is this the most interesting part of your whole story? And if not, why aren't we seeing that?"
The reason I replaced "Protagonist" with "Story" is because what passes for the main-character in this game is utterly bland. Yeah, he cares deeply about what he's doing, but we have no idea why he cares so deeply. Neither him nor us know much about the badass girls who start showing up in his path, but he treats them like part of his family. Yes, his father told him to treat his guests like family, but there's so little that's established about him, or his father, or anything really that the player has very little reason to give a damn about the story. And that's a rather massive failing for an RPG, since they're usually pretty heavily story-based.
And you know what? Before you even get to any form of combat, or even a combat tutorial you are shown the bathing,  shopping and relationship tutorials. Seriously, after the game gets done with the bizarre and unwanted maid-harem gimmick, it tosses up a bunch of one-page tutorial messages that jam a bunch of irrelevant information into your face. At this point, all I wanted to do was get down to some combat, but that was still about five-to-ten minutes away. That's almost an hour of the players time that gets wasted on a load of dialogue without any relevance to the plot.
And the worst part is that there was ample opportunity to stick a quick combat section in at the beginning of the game
Now, think back to the world-map from Fire Emblem Awakening. Can you name any landmarks? The volcano, the battle on the sea, all the spotpass areas, the arena, the snowy castle, the thieves hideout. So many cool areas that you can hardly name all of them, right?
Now, let's take a look at Lord of Magna's overworld. Keep in mind that this screenshot was taken before I unlocked a lot of the areas on the map, but I think it serves to demonstrate my point no matter what.
Oh dear lord, that's a lot of blueness. And as you can see, the continent lacks a lot of defining detail. The continent lacks texture, the ocean is just a massive dark-blue void, and the whole thing generally looks like it belongs on the title-screen of the Goldeneye remake. Not to mention the fact that the icons are incredibly generic. Plus, they get re-used numerous times around the map. Then we get to the fact that rather than allowing you to pan around the world as you wish, you have to select you destination from the menu on the left of the screen. This overworld would be more suited for a science-fiction game than a cartoony, colorful fantasy game such as this.
So if the story is bland and generic, what about the gameplay?
Well, like I mentioned before, the gameplay rather heavily resembles that of Trails In The Sky, but with a few major changes. Trails In The Sky had a rather rigid combat-system, where you could either move your characters freely, or attack enemies. If you attack an enemy in Trails In The Sky, you have to select each enemy in range without being allowed to roam around freely. Trails In The Sky's area-of-effect system functions similarly to that of LoM's, but Lord Of Magna focuses a lot more on busting up massive enemy hordes than Trails In The Sky does. For one thing, all enemies have the potential to inflict damage on their allies when they die. When mooks die, they fly a fairly long way away from their standing position, and have the capacity to either outright kill other mooks, or do some amount of damage to higher-level enemies. From what I can tell, it's like a turn-based Dynasty Warriors. I've wanted to get into Dynasty Warriors for a while now, and if it has the same focus on wanton mayhem that this does, I'd be interested in picking it up. Maybe I need to start saving up for that Wii U and pick up Hyrule Warriors. Or maybe I'll wait for the New3DS version, who knows.
Also, you can move freely around the map without using up your entire turn. And instead of mana, you get a "Tension" score after a certain point in the game. Your units accumulate Tension in combat by killing enemies.
Then we come to Action Points. As their name would suggest, they are a series of points which allow you to take certain actions, and units accumulate them by not taking any actions on their turn. I should mention that movement is not considered an action. As an avid player of Dungeons and Dragons, I would have liked the ability to exchange an action-point for more movement, or movement for another action.
Your combat-team consists of your avatar and up to three of the magical maids (Yes, seriously. This is one of the things the game spent forty minutes boring me to death with) who live in his inn. The default name of the lead-character is Luchs (Pronounced Lux) Edhuard, but since you can change his name, I decided to call him GalanDun.
As of writing, I've managed to unlock four of these magical amnesiac maids (Still not kidding) to take with me into combat. So far I've managed to identify which of the three are the most useful.
Guess which ones I like best? From left-to-right, top-to-bottom, Belatrix, Charlotte, and Elfriede. As you can tell in Gabriele's screenshot, she has very little range or field to her attack, and it does very little damage.
Then we get to her special-attack that she can perform when she has two action-points. Unlike the other three girls special attacks, it doesn't have any longer range to it, it doesn't have a wider field of attack, and it doesn't do a whole lot more damage than her normal attack. Since there are only three more magical maids to collect (Gotta catch 'em all!) I would hope that they're better in combat than Gabby is. I've already run into at least two of them, and they seem pretty damn competent. But since this is an RPG, they might get nerfed something ridiculous once they join the party.
Now we get to something which especially irked me. You see, the game is too easy on normal for my tastes. Having just come off of Fire Emblem Awakening, I wasn't expecting a game that was quite this easy. I know it's probably pretty unfair to compare the two, but this game just isn't all that challenging on the default difficulty, and it's rather unfortunate that you can't amp up the difficulty while in combat. And even on hard the game is a little too easy, made so by the fact that the AI seems to be, as we say in this business, pretty damn stupid. As long as you stay a decent distance away from large groups of enemies, they'll just stay put while you slaughter their allies.
Then there's their tendency to mob around each other and restrict their own movement enough for my squad to whip out their special-attacks and get ten or more kills per-attack. Or you could just let them restrict each other until you've managed to destroy enemy-spawners, heal your units, and boost up their stats.
Also, there's no unit perma-death, or even an option for it in the menu, so you wind up with the typical RPG issue of death being irrelevant, while restoring your units to full-health after the battle ends. So even if there's another battle right afterwards, they can still fight in it.
Another thing that makes the game a little easier than it probably should be is the fact that if you fail a mission, you keep all of the experience and items you gained while playing through the level. Unfortunately, this also means that any items you used during the mission are consumed forever. You can get around this by returning to the title-screen and reloading a save, but then you have to play through everything leading up to the point where you were, and I don't have enough patience to do that.
On the one hand, it allows you to gain strength and overcome the mission that's causing you problems while allowing you to grind in the level itself. But on the other hand, instead of forcing you to come up with a new strategy and approach to the situation at hand, it lets you keep throwing yourself at the problem until you manage to get to a high enough level that you can steamroll the program, even if you don't want to grind your levels up.
Once you retry a mission, your entire squad is locked-in, even if you chose them all by hand before the mission started, so you can't change them out for other members of your magical maiden army. Not that you'd necessarily want to in the first ten hours of the game, since I only had three that I liked.
That's another complaint I have. Ten hours in, and this game has a ton of dialogue, but very little that resembled a plot. In ten hours I could have finished Metal Gear Solid, and I probably would have had a lot more fun, because MGS actually has characters that are worth caring about, and a story that is actually interesting, original, and well-written.
Ten hours in this game leaves me just as perplexed as I was when the game started. This is something that tends to irritate me about a lot of RPGs, the fact that they seem to have a minimal amount of story that gets stretched across twenty to a hundred hours of gameplay.
In a lot of cases, the dialogue is anything from bland, to outright hilarious. Take a look at the gif to the left. That's some comedy gold, there. If I hadn't turned the irritating voice-acting off, it probably would have been even funnier to hear what they were saying.
That's the problem with voice-acting, if you don't have it spot-on, you're better off not using it at all. The random interjections of sounds and words, with the occasional use of full voice-over that usually comes straight out of nowhere.
Since we're discussing cutscenes right now, let's talk about the character portraits. They're beautifully drawn, and very well-animated. If characters shift from one pose to another, it's animated smoothly, rather than shifting from one pose frame to another the way games like Fire Emblem Awakening, Sonic Rush, Iron Man 2, and others do. It looks nice, and it's a nice touch. But the points it gains for that, it loses as soon as you look at the animation on the 3D models. Remember that comparison I made to Trails In The Sky earlier? Do you guys remember how smoothly animated the pre-rendered sprites they used for the characters and enemies were?
Well, all of the non-static models in this game have really choppy animation. Rather than moving smoothly from one pose to the next, the models tend to jump stiffly from pose to pose. Final Fantasy VII had better model rigging than this, and it's almost twenty years old!
And I don't buy for a second that it's because of any kind of technical limitations. The 3DS pulled off Ocarina of Time, Majora's Mask, Tales of the Abyss, Metal Gear Solid 3, Sonic Generations, and Resident Evil; Revelations, among other games with extremely smooth animation. Then you've got all of the games on the DS with smooth animation, so it's either a stylistic choice, or a product of bad animation. Either way, I don't care for it.
You remember how smooth the portrait animation is? Well, that carries over into the animated FMVs.
Unfortunately, the cinematics are few and far-between. I was under the impression that full-motion video was included in games to get around graphical limitations, but the FMVs in this game are at most around two seconds long.
I don't really understand this. Considering how bad the 3D animation is, you'd think that all of the cutscenes in the game would have been animated like this. But they're not. All they do is flash up a few seconds of animation before cutting back to the boring, chibi graphics.
This brings me to the chaotic nature of the battles. In most of the cutscenes, there's hardly anything on the screen. At most, you see at least four or five characters in the environment on one screen. During animated FMVs, the environment is usually a lot more detailed than it is in the game, and there are usually more characters present.
Then we get to the battles, where we can have upwards of fifty characters, NPCs and enemies at any one point in time. Sometimes this causes slowdown, sometimes the game freezes for a second or two, or sometimes nobody moves at all. I don't know if this is fixed on the New3DS, since I don't have one yet, but considering the nature of the graphics and environments, there shouldn't be all that much going on under the hood for it to slow down this badly. If slowdown is this bad, you should limit the amount of enemies that can spawn on the screen. As far as I can tell, the only limit the game has on the amount of enemies it can spawn is the amount it can fit onto any given map.
But, I will say this for the game. There are some awesome moments that can be had during combat, and it's pretty damn thrilling to fight out of a losing battle with only one character. It's somewhat diminished by the fact that the AI is a little dopey, but it's still a lot of fun in most cases.
So, what do I think of the game so far?
Well, all in all I like it so far. The story is pretty lame, and the AI is sometimes too stupid for its own good, but it's still fun. Here's hoping the story starts to get interesting later on in the game.
Thus concludes my review of the first ten-or-so hours of the game. Here's hoping I don't take three years to finish this game. Hopefully next weeks review will be on-time.

Game, cover image and a few screenshots provided by XSeed. Almost all of the screenshots were taken by me.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Kefir Studio: One Life Developer interview.

I was recently able to ask the developers of One Life, Kefir Studio, a few questions about their upcoming game.
For those of you who don't know what One Life is a multiplayer shooter where if the player dies once they are locked out of the game permanently. It's a rather novel, if controversial concept to say the least.
I meant to put this out yesterday, but I was in a bit of a rush all day and forgot to publish this.

Question #1)
Once the player has died, can they then uninstall the game and then reinstall it to start playing again?

Answer #1) No, they can’t. Their progress will be tied to their Steam account.

Question #2)
Since Steam has recently implemented a refund policy, would it then be possible to refund the game and buy it again, and keep playing, even if the answer to the first question is no?

Question #3)
As mentioned above, Steam has recently implemented a refund policy. Do you expect a lot of returns from unhappy customers?

Answers #2-3) As for your question on Steam refunds, right now we are waiting for the project to pass the Greenlight stage. After that, we are going to talk to Valve on the game and getting it on Steam.

Question #4) What kind of character customization are you planning to implement?

Answer #4) The player will be able to select character’s gender, change facial features,and stand out from the others with different equipment.

Question #5) Are you planning any microtransactions in the game?

Answer #5) Right now we are not considering this monetization model.

Question #6) Are you planning any kind of DLC for the game?

Answer #6) The release version of the game is not ready yet, so it’s pretty early to plan any DLC.

Question #7) Are you planning on any way for dead players to be allowed to keep playing the game?

Answer #7) When we talked to our fans, we heard a lot of interesting advice and unexpected suggestions. We will definitely consider all possible variants. However, we aren’t going to change the main concept.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Resident Evil: The Umbrella Conspiracy

Hello everyone, and welcome back to The 31 Days of Evil! Today, we're finishing off this year's Anniversary Month with the second Resident Evil novel. I was scheduled to do this last Sunday, but then I found out about Resident Evil: The Beginning last week, and I had to push Caliban Cove off 'till next year.
And yes, I know I promised this review last year, but I didn't have time to get to it then.
Before we crack open this weeks book, let's go over the history of it, shall we?
The author's name is Stephani Danelle Perry, and she's spent most of her career writing Star Trek, AvP and Aliens novels, with a few one-off adaptations like her Timecop, Wonder Woman and Xena: Warrior Princess novels. As well as an original novel titled The Summer Man. Not to mention the seven books in this series.
Personally, I'm not too familiar with her work. The only real experience I have is the Resident Evil novels she's written.
I might eventually pick up the Aliens and AvP omnibuses containing what she's written for the series, but given my current workload, I really don't have the time for it.
This book was originally published in 1998 in America, (Two years after the original game and one year after the first publication of Resident Evil: The Book) which was then published in Japanese in 2004, a total of six years later! That was after the series had actually ended in America! Just... Wow. That's amazing. Just goes to show that regional delays in publication swing both ways, I guess.
They then had a second edition English version of all of the  published in 2012, with new covers for all seven books, as well as a slightly larger page-count. Since I was only able to get ahold of the first edition through the local library system, I don't know if there were any differences between the two editions, and since I don't read a whole lot of Japanese, I can't review the Japanese version of the book and see what was changed in adaptation.
From what I've read, Perry was given a copy (Or at least an outline of characters and the basic plot) of Resident Evil: The Book and told to use it as the basis for this novel. It doesn't make the transition perfectly, but I still like this book anyways. I tell you, that last-minute review of Resident Evil: The Book was pretty informative.
So, with that out of the way, let's start the review. Because I'm not done taking inspiration from Linkara, I'm gonna go ahead and talk about this cover.
Starting at the top, we see a silvered version of the original Resident Evil logo, with a red glow behind it. The tagline reads "The terrifying novelization of the bestselling videogame" that sounds a bit presumptuous, certainly, but as we'll find out, this is actually a pretty damn good book.
The subtitle, The Umbrella Conspiracy is a bit up-front with the whole... Umbrella conspiracy, but considering the fact that this novel was released two years after the original game, and a year after Resident Evil: The Book, and since we're edging up on the twentieth anniversary of the original game, it's not really a spoiler at this point in time.
Then we get to three members of S.T.A.R.S. featured, Jill Valentine, Chris Redfield, and Barry Burton. For some reason, they're the only ones we can see, even though this presumably takes place after they touched down in the courtyard. Above them we see a Cerberus, a zombie, The Tyrant, and what looks like a giant eel. It can't be the Yawn, since the jaw is way too small, and its body is so much fatter than its head. But all in all, I think this is a pretty good cover.
The book starts out a little bit ambiguous, a bit like the opening of the original game. Except that it starts before Bravo Team has lifted off, as opposed to how the game started, which occurred after Bravo had vanished.
There's some hazy information about the background of the situation strewn throughout the opening. A few hints, here and there about the plot, which serve to intrigue the reader and draw them into the story.
The narration-style is third-person, and it begins from the perspective of Jill Valentine, as opposed to opening with narration from Chris, like how the game and The Book started.
They also expand upon Jill's character a bit, which isn't a bad thing. Save for the villains, and minor characters that we never actually see, the characters weren't really expanded upon inside the game.
The problem is that they've gotten a few things rather blatantly wrong.
In this version of the story, Jill Valentine is the daughter of a (presumably French) master-thief by the name of Richard Valentine. Jill was apparently his apprentice up until the point where her father was arrested and sent to prison, and she had recently moved to Raccoon City and joined S.T.A.R.S. to avoid following in his footsteps. Apparently the people in charge of S.T.A.R.S. don't care about your background, or where you got your qualifying skills.
Let's go ahead and deconstruct that, shall we? I know they didn't establish Jill as a former Delta Force operator until Resident Evil 3, but previous pieces of supplementary materiel had already established certain facts about the character.
For instance, before the game was even released, Jill had been established as the American-born daughter of a French/Japanese couple, which was why I mentioned Richard must be French earlier. Also, as established in the game itself, she and Chris Redfield had known each other for a fairly long time, as stated by Barry Burton in the beginning of Jill's story. Also as stated by Barry, he's known Jill for years too, as he says Chris is "our old partner".
Jill Valentine and Chris Redfield are about the same age, and are both presumably Raccoon City natives. This hasn't ever been established, but it makes perfect sense, because otherwise the formation of S.T.A.R.S. relies far too much on coincidence for it to be as small as it is.
I know that the canonical status of certain details in the original Resident Evil manual are either questionable or have been outright contradicted since then, but there are a few that still stand up, so please indulge me for now.
In the manual, Jill Valentine is stated to have been with S.T.A.R.S. long enough to have been able to save the lives of her team-mates on many an occasion. And then you've got the first novel, Resident Evil: The Book, which had Chris and Jill being good friends. Plus, as we've seen earlier this month, Jill Valentine was established as the Raccoon City S.T.A.R.S. team's explosives technician in the Marvel comic.
The summary on the back-cover mentions Barry Burton as the team deadeye, which the internet tells me is a term for an expert marksman. That's a perfectly fine assessment of his skills, but it doesn't mention anything about Chris Redfield's role as Alpha's sniper and sharpshooter, which is odd, since they mention it later in the book.
Also, Chris's background in the air-force is barely mentioned in this book, outside of Wesker acknowledging at one point that he's got a pilots license, and is a better pilot than Brad Vickers is. If they didn't mention it at all I could forgive leaving Barry out, but they out-right state that Chris has pictures of himself and his friends who served in the Air Force together.
Chris Redfield and Barry Burton served in the United States Air-Force together, until Barry retired, and Chris was discharged. The reasons for this aren't actually brought up in the games, but I like WildStorm's explanation, that he was kicked-out for disobeying orders on a secret mission and rescuing the crew of a crashed helicopter.
Then we get to Joseph Frost, who has quite a bit of dialogue in the book (Which is more than you can say for the games) but nary a mention of his background, role in the team, or accomplishments. Joseph Frost was Alpha's Omni-man and mechanic. He's an absolutely critical to keeping the teams weapons and vehicles up and running, as well as being a critical team-member in the field. Yeah, he died in the intro-sequence of both versions of the first game, but he was still a critical member of the team! And they don't even mention him in the blurb on the back cover.
Then we get to the novels mentions of when S.T.A.R.S. was founded. The prologue states that it was founded in New York in 1967, while the guidebook for Resident Evil Zero (And all future supplementary material) have stated that it was founded in Raccoon City in 1996, two years before the start of the first game. This is easily forgiven, since they probably hadn't established the specific year the team was founded by the time this novel was published. Honestly, I prefer the idea that S.T.A.R.S. was founded more than two years before the start of the game, it's a little more believable. However, the book specifically mentions cult-affiliated terrorism, as if the regular kind wasn't bad enough, they had to bring demons into it. Who wants to bet that Sparda was a member of the original S.T.A.R.S. team in this universe?
They also mention there being multiple S.T.A.R.S. units across the country, which is something I figured should exist anyways, since the general timeline of the series matches up to the rise in actual terrorism in the real world.
Another strange thing is the fact that S.T.A.R.S. appears to operate internationally as well, since Barry brings up a S.T.A.R.S. mission in Ecuador he was involved in. No, not an Air Force mission, a S.T.A.R.S. mission.

So, the book starts out with the always lovely Jill Valentine being late to the S.T.A.R.S. mission-briefing, while going over her back-story. She's carrying way too many files in her arms and drops a few of them. See, this is why I always make two trips, it takes less time than trying to pick up everything you dropped. One of the files contains pictures from a coroners report, and we're treated to a little bit of back-story that was lifted from Hiroyuki Ariga's Resident Evil: The Book, sans the part where Jill became the hero to Raccoon City's children.
You see, Jill thought life in Raccoon City was boring. and far too perfect to last, and she was planning on quitting S.T.A.R.S. and leaving town before Becky and Priscilla McGee showed up on her doorstep asking for help looking for their dog. Subsequently, Jill became almost a surrogate mother to the two girls. And then they got lost during a family picnic and were killed. Take your pick if it was a Cerberus, a Hunter, a Crimson Head or a regular old zombie that did it.
Seeing these pictures strengthens her resolve, and she speeds off in her car towards the RCPD building.
Meanwhile, at the hall of justice, Chris Redfield is having a conversation with another of his old friends, Forest Speyer. Forest is another character that had little to no dialogue, even in the game that was supposed to be about Bravo Team.
Forest in this continuity is from southern Alabama, and has a southern-twang. Then again, this could be true in the main universe, because we've never actually heard Forest speak, much less gotten much back-story.
Forest and the rest of Bravo are about to fly out to the forest and search for the perpetrators of the recent murders, Bravo having already been briefed on the situation at hand.
Chris then grabs a can of club soda from the vending-machine. I'm a Mountain Dew guy myself, but whatever you like I guess.
We then come to another aspect of The Book that carries over into this, and if Jill's back-story being completely different didn't tell you that these two books take place in different continuities, this pretty much seals the deal.
Chris starts thinking about his old friend, Billy Rabitson. As before, he worked for Umbrella, and wound up vanishing. Not declared dead, just gone missing.
Billy called him up and told him to meet him at the diner in town, rather than at the lake, like in The Book. But he never showed up. Chris didn't run into any monsters at the diner, he just waited there for a few hours with nothing happening.
Let me explain the mindset I was in when I originally read this book. I had just finished Resident Evil 2 and Resident Evil Zero a month or two before I got my hands on this novel. Naturally, I figured that the "Billy" Chris was talking about had to be Billy Coen, the Marine who was framed for mass-murder and sentenced to death before escaping captivity due to a Cerberus attack. Unfortunately, that wasn't the case. Apparently Billy was only conceived during the initial development of Resident Evil Zero for the N64.
The S.T.A.R.S. Alpha team spends some time talking about the Spencer Mansion, which was built by George Trevor, who was a hot-shot architect who built a lot of crazy buildings back in the sixties, before vanishing entirely after completing the Spencer Mansion.
You'll remember George Trevor as the guy who got cut from the final version of RE1, and who was later included again in Resident Evil on the GameCube.
This actually fits pretty well into modern Resident Evil canon. I wonder if Capcom actually had their ducks in a row on this, or if they just decided to copy something out of the novel.
I found Alpha's discussion of tactics, the team's Q&A, and their planning quite interesting. Gets you wondering how a Resident Evil tactical RPG would go down. Then again, I'm the guy who wants a tactical RPG spinoff of everything ever, so I'm a little biased.
A few minutes later, the team gets a static-filled call from Bravo, telling them that the chopper is crashing, and then cutting out. Wesker mobilizes Alpha Team immediately, and gets them armed for bear and ready for anything.
Then we get to Wesker's internal narration, which sets up a very different picture of the character than you would think given what we know about him now. It makes it seem like he's actually the commander of the team, as opposed being just an infiltrator and conspirator. Upon rereading this book, I started wondering if Perry had maybe been writing this book before Wesker had even been confirmed to be the villain, which would have had to been sometime in 1995.
A guy named Trent ambushes Jill in the S.T.A.R.S. locker-room and gives her a heavily-modified handheld computer, (It's amazing how specialized technology had to be before smartphones came to be.) telling her that he's a friend to the team, and that he's loaded the thing with documents pertaining to the case before vanishing like he's the god-damn Batman.
We get some more character development on the flight out to the forest, Barry thinking about his history with the members of Bravo, Chris thinking about a fatal helicopter crash he was party to while he was in the air-force, (Maybe the one that got him discharged) and Jill thinking about what Trent told her.
Again, Joseph doesn't get a whole lot of development, but he's got a bit of personality to him, which is more than you can say for the games portrayal of him, where he was essentially just fodder for the Cerberus'.
Something that's a little strange is that Chris mentions that Forest is the pilot in this continuity. Now, they never established who Bravo's pilot was in the original game, but Resident Evil 2 and 3 showed Kevin Dooley (Who was Bravo's pilot in Zero and the remake) posing with the S.T.A.R.S. team in a picture on the wall of their office. I don't know if he was established as such, or even given a name then, so I can forgive this for now.
But, as far as the original continuity is concerned, Edward Dewey was a pilot who served as rear-security on Bravo-team. It was never actually stated whether he was their pilot, but he played a rather pivotal role in the opening of the first game. It was his hand that Joseph found in the field. We'll get to that little tidbit of story in a paragraph or two here.
They see smoke coming up from the trees, and they wonder how the chopper could have caught fire, considering that S.T.A.R.S. helicopters are supposed to be pretty much foolproof.
They get to the smoking helicopter and find that aside from the oil-fire in the engine, the vehicle is essentially intact. Aside from their side-arms and regular equipment, most of their loadout is still in the chopper.
Jill thinks that this doesn't make a whole lot of sense, due to the fact that it's only been about fifteen minutes since they lost contact with Bravo. This is going to produce a bunch of plot-hiccups about the time the Resident Evil Zero adaptation rolls around, but that's something for a later date.
The team fans out to search the woods, and Joseph finds a severed-hand locked around the grip of a S.T.A.R.S.-issue Beretta. Jill and Wesker rush over towards him, since they didn't get a good look at what he found, but he's taken down by a pack of Cerberus' before they can get to him. Chris and Wesker unload their guns into the dogs, but they're too late to save Joseph.
They cease fire once they've killed the dogs, but are then set upon by the rest of the pack. Wesker orders them back to the chopper, almost as if he's got some actual concern for the lives of his team.
But, as it's gone in every. Single. Version of the story, Brad Vickers lives up to his nickname and chickens out, lifting up before Alpha can get in the chopper.
Alpha pours out hot-copper at the Cerberus pack until they manage to reach the Spencer Mansion and barricade the door.
For some reason, they mention that someone before them broke the lock before they got there. Mind you, they didn't break the deadbolt, just the regular latch. For some reason, Umbrella forgot to check the deadbolt. See, this lack of attention to detail is what caused the outbreak in the first place. At least if you're not counting Resident Evil Zero as canon.
Since we're actually getting into the meat of the game, we start seeing a lot of direct changes, as opposed to the indirect ones we've seen earlier. In order to get around the rather strange continuity issues of the original game, Perry combines the two stories, splitting the major events of the game between the two protagonists in some places, and combining them to make sure both characters experience the same thing in others.
Also, they completely ignore the fact that Chris doesn't have a gun in the game, and much for the better, because the games never actually provided a decent explanation, so why bother at all?
This is where the writing really comes into its own. Perry manages to capture the mechanics and general design of the game in such a manner that it actually out-performs the source-material in the atmosphere department. Aside from a few differences here and there, you'd almost think this was based on the 2002 remake. Even though they copy several lines of dialogue straight from the game, the horrible acting and direction doesn't carry over. Plus, a lot of the dialogue has been changed, except for some of the iconic lines.
And most of the time, whenever something strange is said, the narration of the characters mention that it's strange.
The little details are really what make this novel for me. The narration talks about the characters body-language, the intonation in their voice, and the way the character feels about the situation at-hand. The spirit of the story is kept, while removing things that would break the atmosphere. And they exploit George Trevor's eccentricity to explain not only the puzzles, but other aspects of the plot necessary to telling this kind of combined story. Since it's well-established within Resident Evil that George Trevor was pretty nuts, and that his employer, Oswell Spencer was equally eccentric when having his mansion designed, so this fits in pretty well with the canon as far as I'm concerned.
Chris investigates a crashing sound to the west of the foyer, and finds a zombie, who he then takes down with five shots, since it didn't go down too easily.
Naturally, Barry and Jill go off to investigate, leaving Wesker to stand guard in the foyer while he waits for backup, since they apparently don't have a radio on them. Never mind that there were decent radios handheld radios in the seventies, and that most police have decent radios on them at all times, apparently S.T.A.R.S. doesn't require radios as standard carry. For some reason.
Barry and Jill run into a zombie, which they kill, and the body of Kenneth Sullivan, who is depicted as having a missing arm in the book.
That's a little strange, to say the least, since his character model had both of its arms intact, even though he was missing his head. Also, I thought it was supposed to be Edward's arm they found in the courtyard, not Ken's. I mean, Ken is black, as the game shows, and the hand found in the opening FMV is obviously white, in all versions of the game. Then again, I like the fact that they found a way to tie up the loose-ends a bit, so let's just move on.
After they check all the doors and find them locked, they go back to the foyer and find that Wesker has vanished. They split up, and start searching the mansion.
Reading this for the first time, I thought that Wesker's motivations in this book were pretty decent, and looking at them for a second time, they're actually not bad. But he grabs the villain-ball a little too hard, and doesn't do things the logical way.
See, he vanishes without telling his team where he's going, and then takes a rather roundabout and bizarre approach to his end-goal.
See, Wesker was supposed to take the two S.T.A.R.S. teams into the mansion and blow it the hell up, and they weren't supposed to incur an casualties. Bravo's chopper going down was completely unplanned, as Wesker himself states.
But even now, there's no reason for him to abandon his team in this situation. He took stock of the situation, and determined that manipulating Barry Burton would help you out the most.
Or, you know. He could say that he found the master-key and code-list when you were searching the mansion. And you could explain your disappearance by saying you heard a scream coming from upstairs and went to investigate. That would easily work. His team trusts him. He could run around on his own, destroying all the evidence that attaches him to the mansion and laboratory. I mean, it's not like he doesn't have a decent amount of plausible deniability. It's not like this operation hasn't already gone belly-up, five of your team-mates are missing and possibly dead, you've been attacked by zombie dogs, and are now trapped inside a mansion designed by a lunatic. You can get away with a lot in this situation, especially considering the way S.T.A.R.S. works as both a unit, and in relation to the RCPD.
The way he brings this up to Barry is actually pretty dang stupid. Wesker's best two options in this situation would either be to stick with his team and not say anything while taking the initiative to getting ahold of evidence and destroying what points to him, or to go off on his own and destroy the evidence without raising the suspicions of his team and then make up an excuse as to where he went. Seriously. It doesn't make any sense.
Wesker takes such a bone-headed approach to this, that I wonder if someobody at Capcom said that he was being too nuanced, and needed to be more of a cackling "for the laughs" kind of villain. He could have kept his cover by looking for the key medallions himself, or by telling Barry that he'd found a note saying that there were medallion-keys scattered around the mansion and that he'd found a few keys labeled "master" and given one to Barry. And it's a shame, because I think that Wesker as a character has a lot of potential for interesting storytelling. At least in the game it was implied that Barry had found evidence linking Wesker to the crimes, and that Wesker had then blackmailed him into not saying anything about it, as opposed to just blowing his cover like that.
I've already covered the rest of the plot in previous reviews, so it'd just be redundant to go over it again. Instead, let's talk about some of my favorite moments from the book.
Thanks to this being a survival situation, the characters are forced to loot the corpses of their fallen comrades, and it's treated with the appropriate gravity. A moment that's stuck with me since I first read the book was when Chris found the eviscerated body of his best friend, Forest Speyer. You can practically feel him holding back tears upon seeing the body as he goes over how unjust the situation is, and you can practically feel the pain he's in as he's forced to scavenge equipment and ammunition from the corpse.
The book addresses a few logical flaws with the gameplay, using not just weapons to kill enemies, but brute-force as well, and not just working to solve the puzzles, but taking logical shortcuts that would make sense in real life. Yeah, it kinda ruins the pacing of the game, but it works better as a book this way.
The characters are pretty well developed over the course of the book, and I like what it does. Despite a few hiccups earlier in the story, it does actually manage to show that people lived and worked in the mansion before the outbreak. And they manage to give Wesker a few humanizing elements to his character as well. Not exactly enough to make him sympathetic, but enough that we know that he's got some kind of decent motivation. He's being paid to clean up this mess, and he wants to do as little work as possible. No, it's not exactly consistent with things he said earlier in the book, but it's at least something.
Something that I find a little strange is that the characters are a lot more foul-mouthed than they are in the games. Resident Evil was rated M, but this book came from the teen section of the library, with a teen age rating printed either on or in the book itself. I had to return the book, and I won't be able to get it back by the time this review needs to go live, so I'm just working off of notes I took last year that I'm unsure are entirely accurate.
Another odd thing is the fact that there are odd random typos spread throughout the book. As an officially licensed product based on the game that defined survival-horror, I'm sure Capcom would have wanted to take a little more care in proofreading it.
So, what did we gain from reading this book?
Well, we're introduced to an original character named Trent, who has a recurring role in the series, a few bastardized elements of Resident Evil: The Book and all in all a generally decent novel that does its job pretty well. It was a good read, and I highly recommend picking it up, if only because the flavor-text is brilliant. I would hope that the second edition fixed all the typos, but I don't know for sure whether it did or not. Wesker pretty much had no opening given in this book for him to come back to life, and the fact that he isn't killed by the Tyrant seems a bit anti-climactic, although he's still hoist by his own petard.
All in all, I liked it, and I'll probably read it again sometime. I'm gonna give it an 8.5* rating.

Thanks to everyone who's read my reviews for this years Thirty-One Days of Evil! I hope to see you again next year! Same bat-month, same bat-website!