In For the Long Haul: Berserk Season 2

Okay so before I take a look at Season 2, a brief word on Season 1. I’m planning to do a “Thoughts on…” piece (bit late for a review, given that season 2’s airing) on the first season, but for now I’ll sum up my thoughts on it thusly: I agree with the two main issues people tend to have with it, but I still really enjoyed it and will happily defend it. Berserk is one of my very favourite things in the world, but it’s been years since I read any parts of the manga that weren’t the current chapters, so until I’ve re-read it (which I plan to soon) my recollection will primarily be broad strokes.

Episode 1: The Rent World

Is the bit at the start a reference to the “Lost Children” arc? Can they adapt that please? I really like the part where Guts hangs a child on the end of The Dragonslayer to use as live bait. Anyway the bulk of the episode is about Guts returning to Godot’s cabin, finding that absolute bastard Griffith has arrived to see Rickert, and then fighting Nosferatu Zodd in an attempt to get to Griffith and murder him. I felt the fight with Zodd got a bit silly at times- the effect of them both swinging their swords really fast looked odd and really didn’t match the intense rage Guts is meant to be feeling. If you’re unfamiliar with Griffith because you only watched the first season of this anine: he’s responsible for Casca’s current mental state, her and Guts’ brands, the deaths of all of Guts’ friends and indirectly responsible for Gut’s missing eye and arm. Guts’ hatred for him burns so bright it threatens to consume his entire being, as we’ll see later. So the scene of Guts trying to reach him was fine, but lacked punch. I like the quieter scenes of character development- one of my favourite scenes from season 1 was Guts sitting with Godot on his death bed- and the short moments of that here are nice. What I’m not into is the sudden cut at the end to a montage of the Kushan-Midland war that’s going on. I know it’s an important part of the story and leads to crucial plot points later on but this should have just been about the Band of the Hawk.

New opening credits are good, I like that it’s more general scenes of things to come and not a play-by-play of previous events like the first OP was (more on that in my season 1 article), and the animation is bloody lovely. The animation in the episode proper shares the issues season 1 had, so I won’t touch on them here. Overall though it’s a good episode, and it’s nice to have Berserk back so soon.

Episode 2: The Winter’s Journey

Oh hey, they made the Hellhound scene a lot less rapey than in the manga- oh. Oh wait.

The bulk of this episode is given to Farnese and Serpico’s backstory; she was horrible and out of her mind, he put up with it. I’m not a fan of Farnese and Serpico at this point in the story, I think they get better later on. I am glad they’re fleshed out though, particularly given their importance later. The best scenes were the ones involving Guts dealing with his inner darkness; a beastly black hound with glowing red eyes known colloquially as “The Hellhound” (0r if you want to be more formal, “The Beast of Darkness”)- a monster trying to convince Guts to murder Casca and dedicate himself completely to killing Griffith, and at one point almost makes Guts rape Casca. The biggest problem this episode was its wildly shifting tone: the aforementioned Guts scenes are as brutal and uncomfortable as they were in the manga, but because this show is in such a rush about a minute after Guts assaulting Casca and almost raping her it’s onto Isidro-based comic relief and suddenly Serpico and Farnese have arrived to join Guts’ journey. The content here is all excellent I just wish it would take its time more. I really like how when the Hellhound first appears to Guts in a nightmare it seemingly gets bigger and more powerful the longer Guts lets it talk, and how the demons drawn to Guts’ brand are dispelled by dawn breaking seemingly due to a stronger demon (the Hound) and Guts managing to overpower it. Nice cameo by Schierke too, I’m very much looking forward to her becoming a regular.

Overall a good episode, but it could really do with slowing down.

Episode 3: Banner of the Flying Sword

Ugh, it’s a Griffith episode. They introduced the new Band of the Hawk- Grunbeld the big dude, Locus the archer and Nosferatu Zodd (whose allegiance to Griffith has never sat right with me though it does make sense) are the top men in an army of Midlanders and Kushan prisoners led by the newly returned Griffith. It’s here where the anime takes the same turn the manga did: making me sit through scenes of people fawning over and pledging allegiance to a character I utterly despise. But still, despite my hatred for Griffith I can’t deny they did a decent job establishing him as a supernatural being that people who don’t know the full story could conceivably rally around.  It’s nice to see Zodd again, Grunbeld is important to an iconic scene the show is barrleing towards with reckless abandon and it’s important to show the odds that Guts will eventually go up against (presumably) but bloody hell do I hate Griffith. I hate him so much.

Only two scenes of Guts’ new party- Farnese and Serpico joining up (nice cut to Casca sitting, hood up behind a tree when Isidro brings up what Farnese did to her, as a callback to what Guts did) and a nice closing scene of the group preparing for an imminent attack. Guts and his new group are what make Berserk for me so it’s nice to have some time with them, but with the preview showing them arriving at  the Mansion of the Spirit Tree I’m worried character development for the group will be eschewed in favour of building up Griffith’s support. The show is already light on character development most of the time, and rushing into more action scenes doesn’t help. But for now I remain cautiously optimistic.

Episode 4: Forest of Demonic Beasts

This episode was a lot better; no Griffith, no one fawning over the new Band of the Hawk, minimal action actually. Just an episode about Guts’ new party getting to know each other and moving towards some vague destination, which is conveniently replaced with “Wherever that Witch girl came from”. Said Witch girl is Schierke, and she’s awesome, particualrly as the story goes on and, with her extensive and varied magic powers, becomes an important part of the team. As much as I love Shierke however, it’s too early for her to be in the group. This is the first time Guts, Isidro, Puck, Serpico, Farnese and Casca have been together, and they get about fifteen minutes before the story gets back to powering through ten chapters an episode. Still, what little time they get I thought was very good; Guts training Isidro, Serpico handling all the survivalism tasks in the way a butler might, and Farnese realising how fallible she is, and how her life in the Holy See has left her woefully unprepared for the world. This is where her character becomes far more interesting, as she comes to terms with her shortcomings and grows as a person. Guts’ New Party are our heroes going forward, against a monstrous villain that even I despise. They need time to develop and grow on the audience. Hopefully once Guts has the Berserker armour and Shierke and Ivalera join the group they’ll have more time dedicated to them.

By James Lambert

In For the Long Haul: Attack on Titan Season 2

As I wrote in a sort of mission statement recently, I’m debuting a new series of articles I call “In for the long haul”, in which I give thoughts on a new anime or tv series an episode at a time leading up to a full review once said series has finished. First up, Attack on Titan Season 2, which I’ve been looking forward to for what feels like a lifetime.

Episode 1: Beast Titan

It’s back! New opening credits are very good- standout moments include; Mikasa catching Eren by the hand in mid-air and hurling him towards the Armoured Titan for a brawl, a nice contrast between shots of the Survey Corps gearing up and striding purposefully towards a bright light, and shots of Titans lumbering around a collapsing city and swarming the walls, and the Colossal Titan smashing his hand through a mountain to launch debris at an advancing Survey Corps. There’s also an interesting theme in the form of glowing hearts shown inside Humans, Animals and Titans, suggesting the Titans are a force of nature, and as seen in the ending credits, potentially ancient. Said ending credits are eery, cheerful nightmare fuel, and I’m pretty sure Attack on Titan has crossed over into Cosmic Horror. More on that in a minute.

The episode itself is excellent- now that the fighting has died down in the wake of Annie’s capture it’s turned into a nightmarish mystery story involving a Titan trapped in Wall Sina that a priest insists must not be exposed to sunlight, and the titular Beast Titan. This is where things get darker and more horrifying than before, and where my Cosmic Horror theory comes in. The Beast Titan is like a giant Orangutan with a Wolfman face and arms almost the length of its entire body. It’s smart, it can speak fluently and eloquently in the characters’ Human language (which in-universe is most likely German given the character names, but for the purposes of the anime it’s Japanese) and can control other Titans through speech. He orders three of them to rip some poor bastard apart after he’s gently and dexterously taken his 3-D Manoeuvre Gear, having expressed and vocalised an interest in it. As for my Cosmic Horror theory it boils down to this: given the different types of Titans- and this thing, whatever the hell it is- and them clearly being around for a very long time with no one really knowing their motives or origin, they fit the whole “What are these all-powerful entities, where did they come from, are we as humans meant to know and could we even comprehend it?” theme that is the hallmark of the genre. Plus, I feel like when we do find out, it’s just going to make things worse for everyone involved. Season 2 is off to a great start; I love the mystery set-up, they’ve ramped up the nightmare fuel and I can’t wait for the next episode.

FULL DISCLOSURE: After watching the first episode I decided I couldn’t wait a week and so I caught up on the manga instead. From here on out I’ll be sticking to general thoughts on the episodes and at times how well I think they adapt the manga (or otherwise) and won’t be speculating on future events, because I know everything that’s coming and I don’t want to accidentally spoil it. I do fully recommend the manga though- up to the current chapter (92) it’s maintained the same excellent level of quality and moves at such a blistering pace that important reveals come quickly and often but still have adequate time to sink in and be properly explained. Anyway with that out the way, on to the next episode.

Episode 2: I’m Home 

Potato Girl’s big break- a whole episode dedicated to Sasha being a massive badass. Apart from brief appearances from more important players like Levi, Eren, Mikasa and the like (and a brief scene with Connie to set up next episode) this is very much Sasha’s story. It’s nice to take a step back and focus on  A) Individual characters and B) Characters other than Eren because Eren is the weak link in this story and I don’t care who knows that I think that. It’s also nice to see a continuation of more focused, smaller-scale horror: last week it was the Beast Titan feeding that poor bastard to Titans, this week it’s a Titan holding a woman in place while he bites chunks out of her thigh and said woman’s daughter stares at the wall in a catatonic state. It’s grim, and much like the aforementioned Beast Titan scene the sound effects make it much worse than in the manga, so top marks for that. The aforementioned badassery is down to the reveal that Sasha is an accomplished bow hunter, skills she uses to blind the pursuing Titan in one eye before leaping in with her last arrow to manually blind the other and Palm-strike her way free. All this to save the little girl, which has the added benefit of making her Dad well proud. Job’s a good’un.

Overall good episode: the tighter focus on one character but with the same gut-wrenching horror and air-punching heroics of previous, more elaborate scenes makes it fantastic.

Episode 3: Southwestward

Episode 3: Eren bumps into Sasha at full speed, knocks her down and doesn’t even apologise. What a hero. This episode was largely set-up for the big fight at Utgard Castle next episode, parts of which I thought they’d skipped for time. Fortunately that isn’t the case, going by he next episode preview. The moment with the “Welcome Home” Titan was nicely creepy, made even worse with the addition of voice acting. The revelation that the wall is made out of hardened Titan bodies sets off the series of reveals and further mysteries of the story arcs to come, and the way it’s built tension over these first three episodes with little vignettes of different characters in different places dealing with the apparent breach of Wall Rose is well done. The highlight of the episode was its ending though: the song “Attack on Titan” blares as three things happen: geared up Survey Corps soldiers launch themselves at Titans attacking un-prepared 104th Training Corps members, Hange leads Eren et al in an assault and the Beast Titan saunters over to and climbs the wall: all of these events leading to a battle next episode. Not a whole lot to say for this one, as it’s mainly wrapping up in the initial intrigue and setting up the big scrap, but it was a good episode as always, and it did its transitional job nicely.

Episode 4: Soldier

In which Reiner Braun hits a Titan with a goddamn Fireman’s Carry. It’s remarkable how AoT can make even small-scale action scenes feel as huge, important and weighty as the massive, multi-episode battles of Season 1. Compared to Eren sealing the wall this is small-fry; four geared-up soldiers fight off Titans attacking Utgard Castle, more story-crucial characters stay inside the tower and fight off two Titans that slip in. Simple, but it’s handled so well that it feels just as impactful as any other right in this series, and with the same stirring, emotional moments and character development peppered throughout it. There’s a lovely moment between Bertolt and Reiner, too, which I can’t elaborate on for spoiler reasons but trust me when I say that Reiner in particular has some interesting developments ahead. The deaths of the four armed soldiers were suitably grim, as is tradition, and the ending revelation that Ymir is a Titan-Shifter is a nice set-up for the next episode, which will focus on character and more concrete plot points to move the whole thing along. Shout out to the Beast Titan also, who continues to be the best. Attack on Titan continues to be brilliant both in general and as an adaptation of the manga.

By James Lambert

Netflix Iron Fist Review

Iron Fist is the final member of upcoming Marvel team The Defenders to have his own series. Said series has been steeped in controversy centring on accusations of whitewashing and reviews of the first six episode have painted is as, in a word, bobbins. As my first review of something other than a videogame on this blog I’m taking a look at it, having finally making myself finish it earlier today. For the record I know nothing about the comic on which it’s based, but I loved the previous three Defender series Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage.

The series focuses on Danny Rand, basically Bruce Wayne but with magic powers, who after spending the fifteen years prior to the story learning martial arts in a hidden city called K’un L’un returns to take over his Father’s company. Danny has been declared legally dead however, thought to have been killed in the plane crash that killed his parents. The result of which is said company is now run by his childhood friends; Ward Meechum, a sweaty man with a drug problem channeling the villain from 80s straight-to-video PSA about workplace conduct and his sister Joy, a straightwoman of sorts who believes and supports whomever the script needs her to. Herein lies the first major problem with Iron Fist: the dreadful, thinly-spread “Mr Robot”-lite corporate intrigue. See, Danny wants to take over his company and fulfill his identity as Danny Rand, head of Rand enterprises. He apparently wants this so much that it interferes with his destiny (a destiny he spent years working towards and fought for) as the Iron Fist- defender of K’un L’un. He even abandoned his post for it. So you may be surprised that apart from a few brief appearances early on once he regains control of the company he completely ignores it. Its primary function is to give Ward and Joy something to do, largely cleaning up the mess made by Danny when he decides Rand should focus on helping people over profits (this lasts a few episodes before being unceremoniously dumped) and to give Danny Intel on The Hand, who are using Rand as a front for heroin distribution. The Hand, last seen in Daredevil Season 2, are an evil ninja group who Danny, as the Iron Fist, is the sworn enemy of and has been trained to destroy. They also have a potentially interesting subplot involving a sect of The Hand apparently working for the betterment of New York and battling the more malevolent main group, but this goes literally nowhere when the very next episode it’s revealed that they’re just as evil. Plot holes and muddy characterisation abound, especially with whom the final villain turns out to be, and worst of all the times when Danny either doesn’t use his martial arts skills or, worse still, does use them and gets knocked flat on his arse.   It’s compounded by often poor writing, with characters boldly claiming something along the lines of “No wonder [plot point]” when another character needs to know something. At one point when asked to form a team of warriors to fight evil, Danny replies “C’mon, I’m a billionaire!” despite having spent the previous nine episodes telling everyone he meets that he’s “The Iron Fist, sworn enemy of The Hand/defender of K’un L’un”.

The other main problem is the baffling lack of fight scenes, and the general poor quality of them when they do turn up. The titular Iron Fist is a weapon formed by Danny channeling his Ki into his fist, causing it to glow and become super strong for one hit, whether it be something hitting said fist (a bullet or melee weapon, for example) or Danny punching something. He barely uses it, and when he does its impact is on par with Luke Cage’s skin, but only for a split second. The rest of the time he relies on wushu mixed with various animal style stances, which mainly comes across as impractical compared to say, Daredevil, who brings out flips and spinkicks as finishing moves and when he needs extra power, and leads with more practical punches, knees, throws and the like. It also only works some of the time, as best exemplified by a fighting tournament Danny enters with a swaggering confidence that is almost immediately knocked out of him, only bringing it back at the end after stumbling through two fights he barely wins. Finn Jones handles himself fine, but does look a tad unnatural when compared to Jessica Henwick as Coleen Wing, whose fights have a lot more weight to them. Also it becomes increasingly obvious as it goes on that fights take place in dark locations to hide Finn Jones’ Stuntman/men. Occasional fun fight scenes like the one against a bodyguard proficient in Drunken Fist shine brighter still when contrasted against the usual fight scene structure of Danny versus a goon or two, after half an hour of corporate shenanigans.

It’s not all bad though. Wai Ching Ho’s Madame Gao plays a prominent role in the series, taking the main villain role until the very end when a far inferior option takes her place for a woefully bland finale. Ahem. Sorry, back to positivity. Gao is easily the best thing about Iron Fist, running rings around far less intelligent, less prepared characters with a sinister, reserved confidence. The change in tone from Daredevil works surprisingly well in her case, as if she understands she’s in a different world and adapts so as to better get inside people’s heads. Jessica Henwick is solid as Coleen Wing, Rosario Dawson is always good as Claire but her character transitions less easily than Gao, and it’s clear this material isn’t nearly as good as the previous Defenders series. Finn Jones does a decent job as Danny, but of all the characters hampered by the writing he arguably fairs the worst due to being the protagonist.

Overall Iron Fist is really rather bad. It has its moments, and Madame Gao saves every scene she’s in, but all the corporate intrigue involving Rand enterprises, Joy and Ward is a pointless, boring waste developing characters I don’t care about, and Danny’s character is in a tug-of-war between business man and martial artist that results in him doing little of either, with not a lot of that being particualrly interesting. The worst of the four Defenders and a big misstep for Marvel, it’s unfortunate that the best thing about Iron Fist is what it does to build on Season 2 and set up Season 3 of Daredevil, and not anything it does for its own character.

By James Lambert

@jameslambert18

The Reviewing Floor is changing

For the better, I like to think. Depends on your viewpoint. Ahem. Anyway to the point: unfortunately Reuben’s parted ways with the blog to pursue his own writing opportunities and I wish him all the best, obviously. That’s not the change for the better. What is changing for the better is that now I’m the sole provider of written content I can write about whatever I feel like, and in short: I’m expanding The Reviewing Floor’s coverage to include Anime, TV Series and Films. Possibly comics and manga, I’ll consider it later in the year. For TV shows I’m starting a new series I’m calling “In for the long haul”, in which I have an open article on here with opinions on each episode as they’re released, followed by a review of the whole season. I’ll be doing that for Attack on Titan Season 2 and Berserk Season 2 when they start. On the review side first up in this new scheme is Iron Fist sometime over the next few days, as well as a “Thoughts on…” piece about the first season of the new Berserk anime. I’ll also be reviewing the Netflix Death Note film, but that’s not out until August. Hopefully this will all fit into the current scheme nicely, and it’ll be fun to write about things I enjoy other than video games. Video games will still be the focus, but will be talking a break for a while because I currently don’t have the money to buy them. But I will be reviewing Mass Effect Andromeda, Nioh, Nier Automata and Horizon Zero Dawn at some point this year, hopefully sooner rather than later.

By James Lambert

@jameslambert18

DLC Review: Resident Evil 7 Banned Footage Volumes 1 and 2

DLC time once again, kids. This time it’s Resident Evil 7 with two collections of mini games and story parts Capcom are charging for on the run up to its big, free story DLC “Not a Hero”. Broken into two packs of three it contains Bedroom- an escape the room puzzle featuring Marguerite, Nightmare- a wave-based survival mode against Molded and Jack, Ethan Must Die- a remixed area of the game with ramped up difficulty and very limited items, 21- a surprisingly violent game of blackjack featuring Lucas, Daughters- a prequel story about the night the Bakers turned bad and Jack’s 55th Birthday- a fun breather mini game in which Mia has to run around grabbing food to give Jack.

Given the amount of variety in the modes it might not come as a surprise that it’s a mixed bag, though it skews differently to my expectations. Daughters, the one piece that’s definitely canon story DLC has some promise but squanders it in frankly spectacular fashion. It shows what happened when Evie first turned up at the house and turned the Baker family into murderous cannibals, which sounds like a winner but unfortunately buggers it by having them IMMEDIATELY turn and then the whole thing is over in about twenty minutes. What should have been a tense, drawn-out experience with time jumps like Firewatch, as Jack and Marguerite slowly but surely grow more unhinged and hostile until you have to escape is instead about a minute of them being nice, friendly people then BAM! They’re evil now, run away from them and escape but not really. It does have one of my new favourite Resi lines: Jack trying to kill Zoe because in his words “When I ask for rope I expect to get rope!”. If nothing else it’s more Jack Baker and that’s always a good thing, it’s just a shame it’s so rushed and lacks any sort of punch. Well there is a brief line from Jack pre-possession about how he always wanted to run a B’n’B, but that’s about it. Ethan Must Die might well be good if you’re into that sort of thing, I can only get a few minutes into it before dying and as such have made very little progress. You start with no weapons in a hellish dimension with a red sky and have to go through the main house and towards a fight with Margeuerite in the greenhouse. Weapons/items and their locations are random and enemies kill you in two hits. That’s about it really. Moving on.

Nightmare is a surprising standout: a wave-based survival mode in which Clancy Javis (he of “Derelict House” and “Happy Birthday” fame) is trapped in the basement of the main house and using a steady, replenishing source of scrap from three machines in the map can buy weapons and set traps to kill a whole load of Molded and two incarnations of Jack. It’s quite tough, but despite just being a fight against waves of enemies it’s really enjoyable, particularly as you unlock new weapons with increasingly high scores and, learning how best to use resources deal with everything efficiently and feel like a badass. Similarly of high quality and starring Clancy is “Bedroom”: Marguerite has you handcuffed to a bed in the bedroom directly off the balcony in the main house, you have to solve a load of inventory puzzles to escape from said bedroom, and at multiple scripted points Marguerite will return to check on you, and you need to put everything back where it was or she’ll attack you. Bedroom is easily the best part of the DLC; its puzzles are cool and make excellent use of the limited space and the atmosphere is tense to the point where on my first attempt I got out of bed and almost immediately returned because I was scared Marguerite would come back. Jack’s 55th Birthday is fun but largely throwaway: you’re against the clock and have to run around small areas finding food to give to Jack and fill a hunger bar until he’s full. Shooting Molded stops the clock for durations dependent on where you hit them, and the whole thing is decent but didn’t particualrly draw me in. Last but not least is 21- a surprisingly grim and gory game of blackjack in which Lucas forces Clancy and another man to bet fingers, electric shocks and finally the threat of a sawblade made of kitchen knives being rammed into their faces. There’s not much to say for this one- it’s blackjack. If you like blackjack you’ll enjoy it, I thought the blackjack combined with the dark tone, gore and Lucas being Lucas made it rather good.

Overall Banned Footage is excellent, though it does stumble at times. Daughters is far too rushed, Jack’s 55th Birthday is fun but throwaway and Ethan Must Die is, for me at least, depriving potentially better content of a place in the DLC, but Bedroom, 21, Nightmare are all great, I’m keeping with the high standard Capcom set with the main game. It’s a shame the content is mixed and has a good/bad blend over the two packs, otherwise I’d recommend the one with the good DLC. As it stands I recommend both: if you enjoyed Resi 7 this is a no-brainer.

By James Lambert

@jameslambert18

Staying for dinner : further thoughts on Resi 7

This is the start of a piece I’ll be updating throughout the year or at least as long as it’s relevant: after finishing the game twice and currently embarking on a tour of “Madhouse” difficulty I’ve had time to ruminate on what I saw the first time around in Resident Evil 7, as well as some new things that have had an impact on my views as a whole. My opinion as stated in my review, that it’s a good game with a weak last act, stands, but this may well effect whether or not it makes my top five list at the end of the year.

Firstly, Jack Baker cut my leg off. It wasn’t a scripted thing, I actually completely missed it first time, but on my second playthrough after being attacked one time too many Jack cut my leg off with a shovel. What’s interesting is what happened next: he walked away from me, placed a strong health med on the floor, knelt down and mockingly told me I could fix my leg. So I picked up my leg, crawled over and poured health med on my foot and stump until it reattached. Things like this are what stand out far more than the actual story for me. As I saw in Jim Sterling’s video and as attested to by a friend of mine to whom it also happened; during the garage fight Jack can pull Ethan out of the car and use it as a weapon instead of you, driving around the garage trying to clobber you. It has to be seen for the full effect; this wonderful, camp dark humour of a homocidal swamp rat who was just slicing you up for not eating raw intestines and is now driving around a garage in a car with no roof, cackling to himself and happy as a bloodthirsty clam.

Okay so the crux of the matter; Madhouse mode. I haven’t made it too far, but I’ve seen enough to be getting on with. Firstly and least interestingly it is, as the name implies, bastard hard. The first encounter with Jack in which you have to dodge him in a hallway and get a key killed me upwards of five times. My normal tactics of dodging and blocking resulted in being battered, and it was made worse by the fact that Jack now sprints after you. So I had to hide, which turned it into Outlast briefly. More importantly are the gameplay changes: new bird houses with new items, the scorpion key is now locked in one, but inside the main house. Ammo is scarce, enemies appear in different places at different times, and certain items have been moved around. The biggest change is the save system though, and that it now requires a one use item of which there is a finite number in the game, like a real classic Resi game. I really like this mode so far, but personally I wish you could have all the changes but pick a difficulty, because it really is bloody hard.

Right so that’s it for now, I’ll update this with more on Madhouse mode as I play it, and first impressions on the DLC before potentially reviewing it.

Update 1: When I ask for rope, I expect to get rope

I’ve bought the game’s two DLC packs; Banned Footage Volume 1 and 2, and played three of the new offerings so far. They are Bedroom; an excellent escape-the-room puzzle in which Clancy Javis from the “Happy Birthday” VHS must escape from the main bedroom of the main house, stopping and ensuring everything he moved his back in place when Marguerite returns to check on him. Jack’s 55th birthday; a jokey mini game in which Mia has to run around grabbing food for Jack and shooting Molded for time bonuses, and Daughters, which is rather disappointing, and the only piece of definite story DLC I’ve played. I’ll be writing a full review of the DLC soon, but for now I’ll say that it’s about the Baker family’s last night as normal human beings, it can be beaten in about five minutes if you know what you’re doing, and apart from a few great lines (this update’s title being one of them) it’s a wasted opportunity. So for now Bedroom is ace, Jack’s birthday is decent and Daughters is pretty weak  . Next update will be the rest of the DLC.

By James Lambert

@jameslambert18

Resident Evil 7: Biohazard Review

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Resident Evil is a series that, much like the undead themselves, refuses to die. It’s a series with a lot of baggage- for every amazing game with memorable characters, enemies and a decent story there are several titles that vary from bland with forgettable cardboard cutout casts or absolute dreck best forgotten, and yet so much of it is canon. Until last year I maintained that it needed to be rebooted or killed off for good. Capcom instead released a P.T-esque free trial that updated with new content over time, and announced Resident Evil 7.

Resident Evil 7 Biohazard, or “Resident EVII. biohazard” as it calls itself has been heralded by many as a return to the series’ old school survival horror roots. People said that about The Evil Within too though, so I was skeptical of this whole enterprise. For those unaware of Resi’s trajectory it started off with limited ammo, lots of puzzles and tank controls, moved on to horror action with Resi 4, then became far too actiony and completely fell apart. In short it would take something huge to get things back on track. Does it pay off? Or is it the final nail in the coffin?

You are Ethan Winters, faceless white man and a hardline opponent to the classic “Don’t go in there/touch that” school of horror thought, who after thinking his wife Mia has been dead for three years receives an email (a lot less flowery than the letter James Sunderland got) telling him to go get her from a farm in rural Louisiana. Turns out that was a bad move, and he ends up deep in True Detective country and at the mercy of the violent, cannibalistic and seemingly invincible Baker family, who are really annoyed at him not eating the plate of guts they made specially. Giving any further details on the story would spoil it, though I can say that everything in the plot that isn’t Ethan, Mia and the Bakers is weak. Not terrible, but boring, a tad cliched and generally not as good as the core dynamic between mad Hillbilly and captive; the third act sticks out like a sore thumb and has you running around a new area for about an hour learning a bit about the plot only for the game to tell you that now it’s time to go back to the Baker mansion and fight the final boss, who I actually quite like, so at least it ends well. The game makes good use of its influences and inspirations; the Texas Chainsaw Massacre connection is well established, but I was surprised how much parts of the game felt like the first two Evil Dead films (much to the game’s benefit- the opening twenty minutes or so make up the best Evil Dead game ever made), and the game has a touch of True Detective about it- in particular the opening shot of Ethan driving past a huge swamp, showing that Louisiana is a beautiful place with a whole lot of room for horrible people to do horrible things and never be found.

As I said earlier people have touted Resi 7 as a return to its roots, and I can confirm that for the most part that is accurate. Themed keys, puzzles based on eccentric architecture (The Bakers are fond of doora that are opened with shadows, of all things), enemies that are often better avoided than fought and limited inventory space return. The first person view definitely makes the game more tense, but personally I didn’t find it particularly scary at all, though not for lack of trying, and the horror here is strong. Fears that it would play like Outlast and Alien Isolation are assuaged; there are no hiding spots, and running from enemies is a strategic manoeuvre rather than your only survival option, and you’ll often be running past them rather than away from them. For the most part it really does feel like classic Resi, particularly the Baker estate’s main house and the dilapidated “Old House” which are reminiscent of REmake’s Spencer mansion and residence. You can defend yourself but sometimes it’s best to run. There are puzzles and exploration, and boss fights that for the most part are really rather good, apart from one later on that’s a pain in the arse. The improved combat makes it feel like Resi 4 through the lens of REmake. The shooting is solid and fighting off the Bakers is fun, but attention must be drawn to the games more expendable enemy: The Moulded. Simply put The Moulded are sludge monsters. They shamble like the Regeneradors from Resi 4, they look a bit like the leech man from Resi Outbreak, and apart from their initial appearance in the main house they’re boring and fighting them is no fun. Personally I would have preferred zombies or something similar, but things certainly could have been worse, and there are aspects of The Moulded I like; their ability to suddenly materialise from ooze covering the walls is both thematically relevant to where they come from and makes it seem like they’re almost a virus infecting the house itself, one that the Bakers aren’t aware of or don’t care about.

It’s quite a short game; it took me just over six and a half hours to beat on normal difficulty, and unfortunately due to the weak third act it feels like all the great stuff rushes by and just as you realise it you’re stuck with mediocrity and sludge monsters, pottering about until the admittedly good final boss and an ending revelation tied into the series as a whole that I would like if this was a reboot but apparently it’s set after Resi 6, so it’ll need some explaining. Fortunately as the game advertised just after its own ending credits there’s FREE ADDITIONAL CONTENT COMING SOON so that should clear things up.

Overall Resident Evil 7 is a treat. It’s quite a short journey and the third act feels like it belongs in a different, much less interesting Resi game but the majority of it is genuinely fantastic, and as a whole it’s the best game in the series since Resi 4, which came out twelve years ago. Somehow, miraculously Capcom managed to save the series, making a game that’s part Texas Chainsaw Massacre, part Evil Dead and a whole lot of classic, good Resi. A proper return to form for the series and a great way to start 2017.

By James Lambert

@jameslambert18

You Died or: How I stopped worrying and learned to praise the sun

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Pictured: Bastards

I was wrong about Dark Souls. To a degree, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. In my review of Dark Souls 3 and its honourable mentions entry in my Game of the Year 2016 list I stated that it is the only good Dark Souls game. Well, I’m here to correct myself, for the record if nothing else. For the record: the original Dark Souls is excellent, but it still has problems. Obviously I’m not going to do a review of Dark Souls at this point, but I am going to give some thoughts on it both good and bad, because it does still have problems, and I can’t ignore them. Let the meeting halfway begin!

First of all I’m going to talk about difficulty. Yeah, Dark Souls and Bloodborne are hard, I’m not talking about that, everyone knows that already and general difficulty has never been my problem with these games. My problem is when it gets cheap, and regardless of what the Git Gud crowd well tell you this game can be incredibly cheap. Attacks that go through walls, bizarre hit boxes, making you drop into boss arenas and take damage even though there’s literally no other way down, these things are a problem. Having now finished the original game I have finally killed Fatman and Little Boy (seen in the picture above, real names (from right to left) Dragonslayer Ornstein and Executioner Smough)- a boss that stopped progress dead on every one of my previous playthroughs. Maybe it’s because I insist on playing the game by myself with only NPC summons but that should be a viable way to play the game, and indeed it is on every other part of the game. Also, to briefly stray off topic the one time I did try to beat OnS online I was invaded by another player and killed, therefore losing the limited item I required to summon NPCs. Personally I think if you’re going to invade and be invaded you should give permission or be on a separate server, or at least have an offline/online option on the main menu like in Bloodborne. Anyway to return to my previous point there are bosses and fights that aren’t fair in a way that goes deeper than “your sword takes a second or two to start swinging”. Ornstein and Smough are bullshit- it’s two on one, that’s the very definition of an unfair fight, and you have to fight a super powered one of whichever you don’t kill first. The Bed of Chaos, a later boss, is borderline broken- a platforming boss in a game with shit platforming controls. My point is the game isn’t the perfect, “every death is your fault” masterpiece people say it is, but that’s okay. This may seem like a redundant point but it matters to me; when I started the game for the first time I was one of the people that spouted the “every death is your fault” (which I’ll be referring to as EDIYF from now on) line because I was scared to criticise the game, then had an epiphany and went aggressively in the other direction. Now I’ve found a pleasant middle ground- Dark Souls is fantastic and I love it; Solaire, Siegmeyer and Sieglinde, New Londo; a bleak, flooded nightmare vault filled with Darkwraiths, ghosts and the Four Kings. Blight Town, Quelaag and The Fair Lady and the haunting, ash desert of The Kiln of the First Flame. Knight Artorias, Manus in the world’s most nightmarish archeological site, and Sif the Great Grey Wolf; these are all things that will stay with me- these are a what make the game great. It’s just that for all of those there’s two re-skins of the tutorial boss, the Bed of Chaos, curse build-up, getting magic’d through the wall by Dark Sun Gwyndolin, sniped off the ledge by the Anor Londo archers and killed by something that brushed gently past you because it counts as you taking an attack. New Londo and The Kiln are good, but the Demon Ruins and Lost Izalith are slogs through shit bosses, eye-ruiningly bright lava and boring enemies. The pleasant middle ground I mentioned is that I love the game, but acknowledge that it has problems- it’s flawed but still good. I’ve beaten the game twice now, killed all the bosses and done the DLC. So to sum this whole thing up I’ve made a transition: from bootlicking hyperbole to disdain, to a middle ground when I can admit that I was wrong and that it is a very good game but with flaws. You have to discover things on your own terms, as I’ve become increasingly aware of. Anyway, as I said this is more for the record than anything. I’m away. Don’t you dare go hollow.

By James Lambert

@jameslambert18

Death is no Disgrace : Thoughts on Call of Duty Infinite Warfare

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I love Call of Duty. Apparently I’m some kind of freakish anomaly though, because I literally only play them for the campaign, but I do love me a COD campaign. Since the original Modern Warfare I’ve beaten them all with the exception of World at War and Black Ops 3- I point this to give context to what I’m about to write, and so you know that I know a thing or two about these games. When Infinite Warfare was announced I wasn’t particualrly interested, but I didn’t get all the flak it was taking. Sure, Battlefield 1 looked better but this looked fine, certainly better than Ghosts, which of the ones I’ve played remains the absolute worst by a considerable margin. I played and finished IW’s campaign over Christmas, and while I don’t feel like I can review a COD game without playing the multiplayer, I do want to talk about the campaign. Spoilers to follow

The Cast

Apart from the player character being voiced and portrayed by Brian Bloom (BJ Blazkowicz and Kane from Kane and Lynch) the cast is nicely diverse. A Black, English Staff  Sergeant and his Irish and Canadian marines accompany you on most missions, and the player character’s closest friend and colleague is a Female Lebanese Lieutenant, who does everything you do and more. The characters never reach the heights of say, Soap, Price and Gaz/Ghost but they’re a likeable bunch, and player character Nick Reyes is full voiced and gets to have a personality both during and inbetween missions. The primary conflict from a character point of view is Reyes’ overly close attachment to his men and women- he’s made Commander and Captain of the Space Ship hub level you inhabit early on in the game and so has to put people in harm’s way when that’s the last thing he wants to do. But it has to be done, because…

The Villains

…the enemies this time around are a hardcore death cult based on Mars that force twelve year old boys to undergo fifteen years of military service, consider sucide missions part of the job and treat the very act of not handing yourself over to them for execution baffling. Kit Harrington’s character Admirial Salen Kotch (pictured above) is in the game for about two minutes before he shoots one of his own men just to show that he’s completely unattached and therefore has the resolve to win. This article’s name; “Death is no Disgrace” is his catchphrase, and in context is basically means “let us execute you, it’s no big deal.” What’s weird is despite using tactics that make them look like some desperate, last-gasp resistance they outnumber the protagonists’ faction by a considerable margin, and are basically the empire to your revel alliance. Reyes and co are part of the UN and represent Earth as a whole, whereas the Settlement Defence Force hate everything even tangentially related to Earth and actively seek to destroy it, being based on Mars in an undisclosed year where travelling through and living in space and on different planets is commonplace.

Space

This is the aspect most people seemed worried about or disdainful about on the run up to its release, but for me Infinity Ward pulled it off, especially when you compare it to the missions in Ghosts where you went into space. It’s much less cluttered, enemies are clearly marked on your HUD, and the way you actually move through space is smooth and easy. A combination of boosting up and down with we free 3-D movement, a grappling hook used for both quickly travelling directly to a single point or CQC killing enemies and the ability to spin your entire body left or right for a different angle of fire make being in Space enjoyable, which is good because you spend a fair bit of time there. The missions set on planets are largely standard COD fare but there are unique standouts, like one where you have to stay out of direct sunlight, as its proximity powers the killer robots you’re trapped with, and will cook you to death. There’s also a fair bit of spaceship combat, in which you stay in one area and manoeuvre around it shooting small fighters and big warships. It’s fine, but nothing special at all.

Sidemissions and load outs

With the exception of one mission, every mission once Reyes is Captain of The Retribution lets you pick what weapons and gear you take in with you, which hasn’t happened since Black Ops 2. It might not seem like much but it adds a personal layer to every mission, which I always like. Also it has side missions worth playing. Unlike the out of place tower defence shite in Black Ops 2 that were directly linked to important story events that would change if you failed them, these side missions focus on the almost pirate-esque, guerrilla raids conducted by the UNSA- sneak aboard an SDF ship, kill high value targets/rescue hostages/steal a weapon or piece of tech and get the hell out again, blowing up the ship behind you if possible. Only one of these missions is mandatory (as in doing one is mandatory, not one specific mission), but with the exception of the ones centred on space combat I gladly did them all.

The Conflict

SDF outnumber the UNSA and use sucide tactics, USNA have to stoop to their tactics.

The guerrilla tactics play into the larger conflict depicted in the story; you are the underdogs, and the Goliath you’re fighting is more than happy to send waves of waves of themselves at you on sucide missions with batting an eye, because that’s just how they fight. It all comes to a head during the game’s final mission, when almost the entire named cast dies in a suicide mission of your own, because as far as they’re concerned that’s the only way you can win. At one point the super weapon you’ve commandeered to destroy the AA guns protecting the SDF’s base stops working, and the fighter pilot you order to destroy the final gun tells you he’s out of ammo. So Commander Reyes tells him that it’s really important that gun go away, so the fighter pilot kamikazes into it. The very last thing to happen to Reyes is being blown out a window and, as his helmet breaks, dying in the cold, heartless vacuum of space. Now, killing the protagonists of Call of Duty games is nothing new- Infinity Ward use it a lot in the CODs they helm, but the way it happens here is emblematic of the tone and narrative in this game, and what marks it as an evolutionary step for the series. Whereas in, for example, Modern Warfare 2 you play as a voiceless, faceless soldier named Gary “Roach” Sanderson who dies to reveal the twist identity of a hitherto unknown villain, Commander Nick Reyes spends the whole game with a prominently displayed voice and face, doing everything he can to prevent as many deaths and injuries to his subordinates as he can until, in his mind at least, he has no choice other than to send the majority of them to their deaths and die himself.

For or better or worse (entirely dependent on personal opinion) Infinite Warfare’s campaign is a big step forward into new territory for this series. Ever since Modern Warfare 3 Infinity Ward’s been floundering while Treyarch and newcomers Sledgehammer have made solid games that kept the fire alight without doing anything particualrly spectacular or new. It makes sense Infinity Ward bundled this with Modern Warfare because they’ve had a similar effect on the series. It’s just a shame they had to hold it ransome in what will always be an incredibly scummy business decision. Infinite Warfare’s really good though, and I do recommend it. Well, the campaign at least.

By James Lambert

@jameslambert18

Game of the Year 2016

2016 was a good year for games, which is nice considering how shite it was for everything else. As a slight tweak to the formula I’ve picked five and only five games for my GOTY list this year, but as per usual the list will only consist of games I’ve reviewed. With that in mind, I do also have two quick honourable mentions, one of which I didn’t review. Alright, now we understand each other, let’s do this thing.

Honourable mention #1: DOOM

DOOM was one I didn’t get around to reviewing, but can’t let escape the year un-praised. Immensely satisfying combat with just the right pace, weight and level of gore, an excellent soundtrack and a surprisingly good story and characters; DOOM is a first person shooting masterpiece. Everything about it works, the simple gameplay of moving, shooting and glory killing never gets tiresome and the new, deeper story elements Bethesda has layered on top of the original Doom’s base is genuinely engaging. As for the Doom marine himself; he’s The Doom Slayer now, and all of Hell quiver at the thought of him. I loved it to bits and I can’t wait to see what they do next.

Honourable mention #2: Dark Souls 3

I did review this one, where I made the controversial statement that this is the only good Dark Souls game. I’m still playing it now actually (third playthrough), but its various niggles kept it from the list, one of the worst being the Irithyll Jailers- enemies that cause your health bar to shrink by looking at you, run over and stun you then grind you into the dirt, to death. Ahem. Anyway to move back to positives it takes its cues from Bloodborne in that it’s faster, fairer and generally more engaging. Characters are more interesting and generally easier to find, fast travelling from the start and a central hub to return to frequently allows the player a sense of comforting familiarity rather than just being constantly beaten over the head and abandoned in the wilderness. Plus parts of it are legitimately amazing in terms of level design, lore and boss. The stand outs for me are Irithyll and Sulyvahn, The Cathedral of the Deep, the Twin Princes, The Untended Graves and Champion Gundyr and the Kiln of The First Flame and the Soul of Cinder.

Right then, on to the list proper, in reverse order.

5. JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure Eyes of Heaven

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I had expected this to place higher, until I played it. As a JoJo adaptation it’s impeccable, as was previous title All Star Battle, but as an actual game it has real problems. The new 3-D 2v2 brawler style of play makes things a tad messy, and fights can go on for a long time depending on who’s involved. Stand users without combat focused stands have more room to manoeuvre and are generally more viable but combat focused characters still have the advantage. Also the game’s original story is like bad Jotaro fan fiction with a new stand that’s ridiculously OP and is beaten by an almighty arse pull, and it feels artificially lengthened at times. So why is it on the list then? Well it’s fun, the unlock system for costumes and such is vastly improved, and if you’re a JoJo fan, which I most assuredly am, it’s so faithful that a lot of its issues melt away when playing it.

4. Deus Ex Mankind Divided

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Mankind Divided was an improvement on the already solid Human Revolution in every way. It managed to make cardboard cut-out professional dickhead Adam Jensen into a more nuanced, likeable character, its version of the future was more well-realised than HR (even if its impact was slightly reduced by putting you in the shoes of a literal killing machine) and the story had real stand-outs that were all linked to characters. The train station attack and how it affects Adam, infiltrating the apartment building occupied by a machine cult, obtaining a pass for one civilian in dire need of it, literally everything that happens during your infiltration of the massive Augs-only slum city. The gameplay was uniformly good- stealth, combat and social interactions all intermingling which, when combined with the upgrades on offer made it feel like you worked out a plan for each mission yourself, and did it your way, but every other way was just as viable. Also, you’re basically a Cyborg detective.

3. HITMAN

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It might seem surprising that this isn’t higher on the list, or indeed my game of the year. Back when Sapienza came out I full expected this to be my number one; its core gameplay is the best the series has ever been, the challenges are wonderfully done and tied directly into rewards that are all useful and actually pertinent to the game at large, and the story, while not brilliant, was fine, and wisely relegated to between mission cutscenes instead of taking centre stage like in Absolution. My main problems with it were a lack of meaningful consequences and a score attack, number-based rating system, and the levels are of frustratingly inconsistent quality. France and Thailand are good, Italy is great, Morocco and Japan are alright and America is bloody awful. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an excellent game overall and I enjoyed my time with it, but we’re still not back to the former glory of  Blood Money. Still, it’s a massive, triumphant step in the right direction and absolutely deserving of a place on this list.

2. Mother Russia Bleeds

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A recently released (on Ps4 anyway) and reviewed, but anticipated game on my part, Mother Russia Bleeds is the grimiest, probably most violent game I’ve ever played and I loved every second of it. A side scrolling beat ’em up about four Roma pumping themselves full of Krokodil cut with the super soldier serum from Captain America and battering their way through an alternate history version of 80s USSR where the Mafiya control everything and literally everything is awful. The gameplay is simple but immensely satisfying, the soundtrack is fantastic, the graphics are lovingly re-created retro and it stays a crazy, over-the-top, nightmarish slog of punching, hallucinations, vomiting, and acting like a cocky arsehole from start to brutal finish. At one point you’re trapped in an arena and fight a bear that’s wearing a metal mask with what looks like a mohawk on it. That’s not even the most outlandish thing that happens. I love this game so much.

1. Mafia 3

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Mafia 3 is my game of the year. I was looking forward to it since it was first announced, and it certainly didn’t disappoint. I love Lincoln Clay. I love playing as Lincoln Clay; I love tearing around 60s New Orleans listening to the frankly vast amount of great licensed music, murdering racists and criminals by the truck load like a politically motivated, Black version of The Punisher. Its core gameplay of clearing out dudes with stealth and/or combat and destroying their criminal operations to move your way up the ladder to get at the Kingpins who run New Bordeuax, Louisiana never really  changes but never ceased to be entertaining and engaging. Its story of family, loyalty and one man slowly walking down a path he may never come back from but is walking for the right reasons is a good one, and peppered with interesting characters. It’s all wrapped up in a smart framing device, and with its USP of dividing territory between three underbosses offering different incentives, a well-realised setting and the aforementioned terrific soundtrack of both licensed and original music its clear to me that Mafia 3 is the best game I’ve played in 2016.

So then, that’s 2016 over and done with, and for the first time in three years I’ve actually got this list done on time. 2016 was a good year with a lot of contenders for this list, so consider the five that made it very good indeed. Anyway, first proper review of 2017 will be Resident Evil 7, but before that is a “thoughts on…” piece coming tomorrow. See you then.

By James Lambert

@jameslambert18