Ia! Ia! Ego Fhatgn! : Why Guardians 2 is a cosmic horror story

SPOILERS FOLLOW FOR GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOLUME 2

 

 

So I watched Guardians 2, and was surprised with exactly what I was met with. I expected the jokes and shenanigans present in the film’s first act, in which Peter Quill and friends nick something important to the very people who hired them to kill a giant monster. What I wasn’t expecting was where the film went next, and how it would colour my view of the film as a whole once it has finished and I’d considered it at length. It’s my opinion that Guardians 2 is a horror film. Cosmic horror, specifically; the kind HP Lovecraft brought into popular culture, in which the gods are all aliens who either don’t give a shit about you or actively mean you harm.

At the centre of this is Kurt Russell’s Ego; Quill’s long lost and sought after Father; he tracks Quill and co down, and takes the majority of them back to “his” planet, only to reveal that he IS the planet. Now that’s not much of a surprise, his comic book counterpart IS called “Ego The Living Planet” after all. His backstory is that he suddenly came to be in space, and given how crushingly alone he felt, he decided to seek out life, happening upon Peter’s mother Meredith, with whom he fell in love. What a good bloke. Then it’s revealed that Ego’s desire to discover other life resulted in him realising he’s better off killing off all life on the universe, and replacing it with extensions of himself. Worse still, he has a room full of the skeletons of his children, whom he killed because they didn’t exhibit his powers. Quill is the first one to do so. So that’s his motivation in place, what about his methods? Well, he murdered Quill’s Mother with a brain tumour because his genuine love for her interrupted his plan, attacks the Guardians with tentacles and environment manipulation (given that he is the planet they’re standing on) and intends to use Peter as a thousand-year battery once his objections to Eho’s plan are made evident.

Guardians 2 has other sub plots, some of them inviting humour; Drax retains his entirely literal response to any and all stimuli, Rocket and Gamora haven’t changed as characters, Baby Groot is comic relief, and while Yondu has some genuinely emotional moments, he doesn’t have a large part in what I consider to be the film’s main plot: this is cosmic horror. The main villain in the first film was some dickhead with a hammer and a chip on his shoulder. The villain this time around is a SENTIENT PLANET THAT PLANS TO WIPE OUT ALL LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE. The only reason he’s defeated in the end is Quill, as his son, has the power to keep him busy while a bomb placed on Ego’s giant brain at the centre of the planet has time to go off. Even with his new found power Peter doesn’t and seemingly can’t defeat Ego; he outright states that he’s immortal at one point. So what if he killed Peter, or if they never met? At the start of the final battle Ego unleashes a sludge monster on the people of Earth, which seemingly no one can stop, with it only halting when Ego is finally killed. So Ego is an actual god (“small g, son” in his own words); a sentient planet that has the will and method to wipe out all life in the universe; a hateful, egotistical, cosmic monster that hates humanity. Pure Lovecraft. That why after watching the film the while cosmic horror angle is what sticks with me.

Also, to really hammer home the Lovecraft comparison: if Ego is a “a small g” god, what are the capital G Gods like? With the death of Ego, Peter Quill has lost his eldritch, elder-god powers, so who could possibly stand in their way?

By James Lambert

@jameslambert18

Prey Review

Prey is a game of many influences, though ironically none of them are the original game baring its name. Whereas that was essentially Quake with a Native American protagonist, this completely unrelated game is Bioshock in space (I’m aware that’s called System Shock, but I never played either of those), mixed with Deus Ex: Mankind Divided and presented in the style of Dishonored (same developer, also). It’s a big ol’ play-it-your-way horror RPG in space, but does it fill the void left by the games it emulates?

You are Dr Morgan Yu, Brother/Sister (determined by player choice, I picked the lady version so female pronouns from here on out) to Alex Yu, head of the space station Talos 1, which as it turns out is currently undergoing a flimsily hidden alien invasion by a race called the Typhon. Morgan’s been repeating the same day over and over, undertaking a series of tests used to assess the effects of an experiment on her that wiped a large chunk of her memory, and a previously-recorded video of herself informs Morgan that she needs to destroy the station and every lifeform currently on board. Suffice to say, there’s more going on, a greater game afoot and all that jazz, but that’s all I can talk about without spoiling what for most of the game seems to be a sparse but enjoyable plot largely there to frame the gameplay, but is put into a greater context by a post-credit scene. When all is said and done I think Prey’s story is very good, and I’ve been rolling it around my mind since I finished the game, but I can’t really say why, just that taken as a whole it’s an interesting experience. The game keeps you moving with breadcrumbs in the form of potentially filling the gaps in Morgan’s memory and the exact nature of the relationship Talos 1 has to the aliens currently overrunning it, but for the most part it’s all about what you’re doing, not why you’re doing it. What few characters you meet are decent, with the standouts being Morgan’s ex-girlfriend Mikhaila and brother Alex, who spends most of the game out of reach, manipulating events.

Forutnately the meat of the game lies in its actual gameplay, which I can talk about without restriction. The Bioshock/System Shock comparison has been widely noted and would be hard to argue against, but for me it bares a striking resemblance to Deus Ex Mankind Divided. Like that game, Prey eschews experience points in favour of a finite, dedicated item exchanged for skills and buffs tied to different skill trees; ranging from the mundane, like more health, increased lifting strength and the ability to fix things, to more exotic and elaborate skills tied to alien physiology, such as telekinesis, an energy blast, or the Typhon’s ability to mimic objects. “Mimics”, as they are colloquially known, are one of the game’s main threats, and easily the most interesting of the enemies you face; shadowy spider-like creatures that can mimic things in the environment. They’ll ambush you, team up and run away to blend in again out of sight, and they move erratically. What really hammered home the Deus Ex comparison was the flow of the game, particualrly the early stages: exploring areas, rifling through items and lore, negotiating obstacles with your variety of chosen upgrades, with each one feeling useful and relevant. Talos 1 feels like a place that existed before the invasion and the subsequent events of the game; part Art Deco, alternate history space living space with a “Mad Men in space” theme, part expansive, scientific industrial space, it feels like whatever path you take is valid. At least for the most part, as I’ll elaborate on shortly. The sense of exploration is helped partly by the ability to explore the different areas and complete side missions, and largely by the GLOO cannon; a weapon that launches blobs of foam that then instantly harden. Its primary function is to stop enemies in their tracks to make fights easier, but can also be used to block electrical currents, put out fires and create platforms for scaling walls, which I ended up using a lot. It scratched the itch caused by a noticeable lack of any power equivalent to Dishonored’s “Blink” (which would have been out of place, admittedly), and my desire to stealthily take the high ground. The game also features a crafting system (because of course it does), but it actually works quite well, given the breadth of items you can make, items being made from materials gained from recycling literally anything you can pick up, and the machines involved making sense in the setting: a recycling machine fits the space station setting.

Unfortunately, the game has one major stumbling point, and it’s an over-reliance on combat situations. The game is at its best when you’re exploring the ship, finding items and paranoid that innocuous tat in the environment might come alive and ruin your day. The game starts to introduce a series of tougher, more combat-focused enemies, and fighting them is rarely fun. The intermediate foe, humanoid creatures called “Phantoms”, are fine- they offer a decent challenge and be easily taken out with bullets. But when the game drops in floating aliens that can control machines and unleash a variety of punishing psychic attacks (one of which not only damages you but actually knocks you off course, which doesn’t help if you’re just trying to run away), it quickly becomes annoying. The game doesn’t help matters when the HUD indicator for a mission objective takes you directly into the path of several enemies that’ll wreck your shit, which happens all too often.

Overall, I really enjoyed Prey. It does have an unfortunate habit once relying on annoying, resource-draining fights with tough enemies, but when it’s letting you make your own way throwing well-designed, visually interesting environments and dealing with enemies on your own terms, it’s excellent. If you’re after a new Bioshock, this’ll do the trick, and if like me you’d like to see the core mechanic of Deus Ex Mankind Divided tried out in other settings and complimented by other gameplay mechanics, this is definitely worth a look.

By James Lambert

@jameslambert18

Souls Do Not Harvest Themselves : Thoughts on the Far Cry 5 Reveal

After teasing the new Far Cry game with brief vignettes and the above image promising a heavily-armed religious cult in the rural United States, Ubisoft dropped an official reveal trailer earlier today. More than one, actually: each of the three supporting characters got one too (more on them in a a minute), but I’ll be focusing on the main trailer, and what I think of the game at this early stage (it’s out early next year). I’m generally a fan of the series, though the only installment I enjoyed without serious complaints was 4. Far Cry games nail a big open world that’s enjoyable to traverse and managed to make a hunting minigame genuinely worth doing, but they seriously stumble when it comes to story and character. Make a great, charismatic lead villain, slap him on the box and don’t tell anyone that he’s only in the game for fifteen minutes, that’s been the running theme since 3.

The villain this time around is Joseph, running the aforementioned cult in Hope County Montana; the trailer shows that he expects the whole county to accept his “loving” embrace, and those who don’t are threatened, kidnapped and roughed up. “We want you, accept you, and we will take you, willingly or not”, Joseph states. They seem to have the run of the place, driving around in jeeps with mounted guns, patrolling the streets with assault weapons and doing so unopposed by the looks of it. Not seen in the trailer is the player character, who is reportedly A) a deputy sent to arrest Joseph and B) created by the player, which I generally consider a plus, I’m a fan of create-a-characters. Now why they send one person (and not even a sheriff) to arrest the head of what is essentially a private army is beyond me, but they do have help. The three characters given their own trailers are commercial pilot Nick, bar owner Mary and priest Jerome, all sick of the cult and its grip on their home, and all packing heat. Jerome actually kills two cultists in the trailer off-screen, and Mary runs into trouble at her bar. Also of note is a shirtless man with what appear to be the names of the seven deadly sins carved into his flesh, presumably a higher-up in the cult. The trailer emphasises that the freedom, fun and bombast that define the series’ gameplay is here in full; quad bikes, dolled-up big rigs and Nick’s plane, explosions, angry bears and enough guns to arm an uprising make it look like taking down Joseph’s cult will be a good time. The name of this article: “Souls do not harvest themselves” is written on a board outside Joseph’s church message-of-the-day style, so the game clearly has a sense of humour. On the strength of the trailer, I’m really looking forward to Far Cry 5. The setting, villains, the characters they’ve shown and the story of one lone cop banding together with decent locals to take on a bloodthirsty religious cult sounds fantastic. If they handle it right, I can see it being on my game of the year list next year. It’s right up my street. On a more cynical note, however, I can’t overlook the fact that this is a Far Cry game and could well suffer from the problems of its predecessors, namely the important, named villains getting little screen time and the player character being annoying. That said, I am hopeful that it’ll dodge those potential pitfalls, and what they’ve shown off so far makes me confident it’ll be enjoyable if nothing else. I’ll write about new trailers and gameplay footage as it’s released, and fingers crossed it continues to look this good.

By James Lambert

@jameslambert18

Nioh Review

I was wrong about Nioh, I’ll fully admit it. Playing the various alpha and beta tests released to the public for a limited time, it struck me as all the difficulty of Dark Souls with none of the creative design. Something to maybe pick up cheap later in the year, and certainly not something on par with the series it’s so clearly inspired by. Having finally finished it (main story and most of the side missions, but not the epilogue. At the time of writing I’ve just got to the epilogue’s boss), I feel like it’s something worth talking about, as not only a good Souls-clone (which as I’ll elaborate on is reductive in this case) but one of the best games I’ve played this year, and indeed for some time.

Very loosely based on historical events, Nioh tells the story of William, a real life English sailor who travelled to Japan and eventually became the first White, Western Samurai. In this game he’s an Irish Pirate who travels to Japan to rescue his “Guardian Spirit” (seen in the picture above) and ends up on one side of a real life Civil War going on in 1600, with an evil English sorcerer on the opposite side. At first the change in nationality irked me, given our limited representation in videogames, but given how skewed Nioh’s approach to history is it quickly stopped being a problem. The game is split into levels, with often brief cutscenes at the beginning and end in which William and one of his two new Japanese mates will meet with someone, with it really just acting as an excuse to navigate feudal Japanese locations hacking up Yokai (an umbrella term for the supernatural; in this case a variety of demons and monsters) before fighting a tough boss. The story itself is largely forgettable but as I said, it’s primarily there to frame the gameplay. The characters themselves are the stand-outs; particularly Hattori Hanzo, an expert Ninja who carries a cat around in his coat to use as a clock and endearingly speaks English to William with a thick Japanese accent, and Okatsu; a young female ninja who is ostensibly William’s love interest but acts more as her own agent with goals and feelings separate to him. Elsewhere Oda Nobunaga turns up because of course he does, and then there’s my personal favourite: Yaskue, “The Obsidian Samurai”- a real life African man freed from slavery by Nobunaga who then became the first Black Samurai. He only turns up for a boss fight, but he made the biggest impact on me.

On the gameplay side of things, it’s hard to avoid talking about the Dark Souls influence. Even lowly enemies can deal heavy damage, groups can be punishing and level-up currency must be retrieved from the spot you fell upon death. Shrines take the place of bonfires, clothing and armour all have weight that must be balanced efficiently and combat is easy to learn, difficult to master, especially given the precise timing involved. It is not, however, merely a Dark Souls clone. For my money Nioh plays like a mixture of Bloodborne and a character action game; developer Team Ninja previously worked on Ninja Gaiden and it shows. William is swift on his feet even in heavy armour (unless you go over the weight limit), blocking and dodging are mostly equally reliable, and each weapon can be used in three stances: low (fast, nimble, low damage), medium (good defence, moderate speed and damage) and high (slower, high damage but leaves you open). New skills can be learned, ranged weapons are an important part of your arsenal and you generally feel more capable and lethal, particualrly as the game goes on. Imagine a character from a character action game, like Devil May Cry or God of War filtered through a Dark Souls template and that’s basically what Nioh is: you’re an absolute badass, but getting clobbered with a Katana and/or a big demon’s fist hurts like hell. Enemy variety is somewhat lacking, but it builds up a sense of familiarity as you learn the best way to dispatch threats over the course of the game rather than constantly having to learn how to fight a whole new set of foes who blind side you and drain your health in two hits. The game largely avoids cheap deaths, too, which was a genuine and pleasant surprise. This is exemplified in the game’s stamina system; here called “Ki”, which depletes when hit by enemies (it’s technically your fighting spirit, not your actual stamina, so it does make sense). That might sound unfair, but enemies are affected in the exact same way, and a completely depleted Ki meter on you or your assailant allows for a high-damage finishing move type deal. Adding an extra layer to this is the “Ki pulse”, and I’ll just call it what it is: it’s a stamina Active Reload. Tapping R1 at the right moment not only speeds up Ki recovery but also purges the “Yokai Realm”- pocket dimensions created by enemies that boost their Ki and stop yours recovering. Add in the aforementioned Guardian Spirits that offer various stat bonuses “living weapon” modes in which you invincibly wail on an enemy for a limited time and you’re more than capable of tackling everything the game throws at you.

The game has its problems though. The most egregious is the occasional padding with recycled enemies; the final story level (not counting the epilogue) has seven bosses, and four of them are bosses already fought in previous levels. This isn’t so bad in side missions, but this was a mandatory fight required to finish the game. One of the bosses original to that level returns in the epilogue in the room before the final boss; this time there are three of them. In one room. They can kill you in two hits. While not as much of a problem the game doesn’t have the variety or detail in its environments and enemies that Dark Souls and Bloodborne do. It does have enough variety to get by but you better get used to feudal Japanese villages and caves. Despite largely averting cheap deaths it does have the occasional blindside, overpowered attack and dodgy hitbox, though these are often amplified by their infrequency.

Overal Nioh is a pleasant surprise. Initially I expected a Dark Souls clone set in Feudal Japan. What I got was a game that used Dark Souls as a framework and built on it with excellent results. The combat is engaging and satisfying, it feels like a fair challenge and arguably understands the importance of a player having fun more than Fromsoft’s games do. If you’re a fan of Dark Souls and Bloodborne, this is a good one to move on to. If you’re new to all this, I’d say this is a good place to start: the difficulty and measured approach of Dark Souls with the speed, violence and elaborate fighting of a character action game.

By James Lambert

@jameslambert18

 

 

Outlast 2 Review

Outlast 2 pretty much had an open goal. The sequel to the best of the first person run-and-hide brand of horror games, with a new setting of a Jonestown-style religious cult out in the desert; I’ve been looking forward to this for ages. Unfortunately they somehow managed to blast it over the bar because Outlast 2 is a mess of decent ideas mired by crass one-upping and half-baked characters. It’s not a total write-off, but it’s certainly got problems. Though I’ll be avoiding specific spoilers for the most part, I will be discussing plot points in a way that could be considered spoilery, so bear that in mind from this point on.

You are Blake Langermann; documentarian and cameraman who, along with his wife Lynn is investigating the death of a young woman tied to the Temple Gate cult, based out in the Arizona desert. It starts well; the cult follows the violent, deranged teachings of founder Sullivan Knoth, whose primary doctrine is murdering literally every child he sires (which is a lot) just in case they’re the Antichrist. He encourages his followers to do the same. No condoms in the desert, apparently. Now obviously this is a pretty heavy premise for a videogame, but just as it establishes this grim plot it spoils it by having everyone involved be really aroused by the whole thing. This is where the aforementioned one-upping begins. “What’s scarier than a religious cult murdering all its children?” “What if they’re all really bloody horny while they do it?” (They high-five). The whole plot involving the cult is one-upped by repeated and entirely tedious flashback hallucinations to (BIG SPOILER) Blake’s childhood friend being murdered by a pedophile priest (END OF SPOILER), something that in practical terms has no relevance or bearing on the plot – it’s just there for flavour but takes up far too much of the run time and doesn’t have any kind of satisfying ending. Despite being the most potentially interesting part of the game Knoth and his flock are barely in it. The game moves through several sub-groups of the Temple Gate cult and doesn’t bother developing any of them. It strikes oil with a group of poor sods riddled with some body-rotting disease and forced to live out in the woods, but spoils it by having them be led by Master Blaster of all bloody people (for those of you unaware of who Master Blaster is, it’s a big, mentally challenged man with a tiny man riding on his shoulders). Elsewhere a character who’s essentially Tilda Swinton playing rapist David Bowie has a promising introduction only to chase you around a pitch-black mine where you do nothing of interest until the game decides you’ve been down there enough. The flashbacks I mentioned earlier are all set in a catholic school- the same environment in which you run around waiting for the game to drip-feed you plot and send you back to what the story is ostensibly about: the cult. The game has good ideas: Jonestown cult, culling children, sick cult members forced to live in the woods, but it fumbles them so badly with poor execution, not bothering with character development and spending so much time in the school flashbacks.

Gameplay wise it’s very similar to the original game, but decidedly worse. You run from enemies who can’t be killed, hide from them in a variety of spots and use a night vision camera to both spy on enemies stealthily and navigate dark environments. The big change here is the enemy A.I, which is now bordering on broken, with one odd exception. This game’s equivalent of Chris Trager is Marta; a tall, lightning fast woman with that beastly looking pick-axe pictured above. As I eventually worked out the way to deal with her is run away as far as you and then hide. Wait for her to approach and move past, then leg it to a different hiding spot and repeat until you reach your goal. If you don’t do that, she will home in on your exact location: seeing you through walls, in the dark from a mile away. Does’t matter where you are, if you don’t trigger her then run away she will find you without fail even when she absolutely should not be able to. It’s ridiculous. Other enemies share this eerie, ESP-esque ability to find you to a lesser extent, though for the most part you’ll be running past them rather than hiding while trying to, say, find a switch or something. Notes are now videos recorded by Blake with him commenting over them, or photos taken of written notes you find. Batteries are kept in your pockets (which you check to see how many you have left), as are the newly added bandages because there’s a healing system now, which is completely unnecessary and looks odd when, like Joel in The Last of Us, Blake heals every wound by wrapping one bandage around his left forearm. None of the encounters in this one are particualrly memorable, none of them stand out in the way that Doctor Trager and Eddie Gluskin did. It’s just a slog through the desert that’s often annoying and occasionally interrupted by people who threaten to be interesting.

I’ve ragged on Outlast 2 a lot there, but it’s not completely awful. There are good ideas here, it’s just a shame they’re poorly developed and the game lacks hooks that really draw you in. If you enjoyed the previous game and its DLC then you’ll get something out of this at least, and I am planning to play through it a second time, but the original is by far the better game, and my experience with this has been disappointing at best.

By James Lambert

@jameslambert18

Yakuza 0 Review

Yakuza as a series is the antithesis of the kind of game EA puts out; rather than being homogenised to appeal to a “mass appeal” wider audience that won’t care about it anyway (see Dead Space 3, Resident Evil 6 and every modern military shooter that isn’t Call of Duty or Battlefield), Yakuza does its own thing, and you can get on board or piss off. Fortunately, in my opinion at least, what Yakuza does is easy to get on board with: part serious, sweeping crime drama about loyalty, power struggles and personal codes of honour being tested, part beating the ever-loving shit out of people and part being really weird and surprisingly light-hearted. This is a series where you can smash someone over the head with a bicycle, stamp on his mate’s face, then go have a drink, play a UFO grabber and take part in a karaoke mini game that the character takes incredibly seriously. It’s a fantastic series, and its continued localisation and acceptance in the West makes me genuinely happy in a way few things do.

Five years before the events of the original Yakuza, series hero and strongest man in Japan Kazuma Kiryu is framed for the murder of a civilian and after punching his way out of the Dojima crime family becomes a real estate agent, of all things. He still gets to beat people up though, because the group he joins is basically a crime syndicate in all but name, and is powerful and violent enough to compete against the Yakuza Tojo Clan, who runs the game’s setting of Kamurocho. Meanwhile after disobeying his boss and losing his eye series mainstay and madman Goro Majima is being forced by the gang he’s a member of (the Shimano family) to run a cabaret in a small town in Osaka. Despite being really good at his new job and making money hand-over-fist he’s desperate to return to a life of organised crime, the price of which is assassinating a young blind woman, for reasons unknown to both her and Majima. Two-thirds or so into the game the two halves of the story link up, and while the story overall is very good, it’s definitely skewed towards Majima’s half. Kiryu, as always, is enjoyable; for those new to the series he’s stoic and deadpan to an almost ludicrous degree, in a way that actually makes him quite endearing. When he’s dealing with the serious elements of the story it’s suited, when he’s involved in something goofy it’s rather funny. Either way it works, is my point, and I’ll always love Kiryu. No, the problem here is that his role in the story is largely helping one very important character meet up with another one, a plan slowly enacted over the course of about 80% of the story. What he does in the meantime is be chased around by swarms of Dojima Family gangsters who never seem to understand that Kiryu is the strongest man in Japan and cannot be beaten by any of them. It all feels somewhat redundant when you consider that, as is this is a prequel, it’s already established that all this will blow over and Kiryu’ll end up back in the Dojima family. Majima, conversely, is shown in a completely different light to his other appearances; turns out the whole “Mad Dog Majima” thing is an act, and he’s actually a rather noble, nuanced man capable of real kindness. It’s this version of Majima that makes the story so engaging; his struggle with his own sense of ethics in regards to his task, the potential prize of a return to the Yakuza and the odds he’s prepared to face. Kiryu’s story does have its merits though, chief among them being his relationship with sworn brother Akira Nishkiyama, tinged with an air of tragedy given the events of later games. The new characters are uniformly solid, with standouts being Majima’s target Makoto (the emotional heart of the piece) and Dojima family captain Kuze, a man willing to drop everything else he’s doing to challenge Kiryu to a boss fight, which happens several times because he has no idea when to quit. One of said fights begins with him shirtless on a motorbike gunning it towards Kiryu in a sewer. I won’t go into the story more for fear of spoilers, but I will say that of the Yakuza games I’ve played this one has the most engaging, succinct plot, and given the amount of story on display in the form of cutscenes and dialogue it never gets boring and maintains a decent pace throughout.

Gameplay wise, it’s oddly more extensive and yet redacted. Kiryu and Majima now have three different fighting styles each- a fast one that does bugger all damage, a slow one that does absurd damage, and an in-betweeny one that offers a bit more control. The actual fighting itself has fewer moves and less depth than in previous games. For example: in Yakzua 3 the standard Heat (a bar that, when filled, offers increased poise and high-damage attacks with weapons and the environment) move on a downed enemy was to stamp on their face. Upgrade it once and it added a QTE to follow the stamp with a jumping two-footed stamp. Upgrade it again and the two-footed stamp is followed by an elbow drop on the poor bastard’s face. It fuelled the over-the-top nature of the combat; the fighting in these games are, in terms of scale, are massive even when you’re fighting one of the small pockets of thugs that randomly accost you in the street. This time around Heat moves are quite limited, and a lot less elaborate- there’s nothing as outlandish as what I just described. Also while the different styles do have their own advantages you can get through the game no problem just sticking with the slow, strong one; Majima’s involves the use of a metal bat, which turns every fight into that bit from The Raid 2. The game is also surprisingly easy on normal difficulty, despite a few tough fights that come out of nowhere. On the minigame side of things it’s as good as it’s always been; the karaoke game is great, the new dancing game and playable Outrun and Space Harrier are nice additions, and the side quests offer nice distractions from the main plot, and are often over quite quickly. The primary sideplots are Kiryu trying to buy to the entirety of Kamurocho (by standing outside the building he wants to buy and dramatically opening a big briefcase full of money) and Majima trying to get a failing cabaret club off the ground. While these are a decent addition it’s clear that their inclusion is to free the two leads from their primary attachments: Kiryu no longer has to deal with the real estate firm he ostensibly works for (he buys up property for a new enterprise someone starts for him) and Majima can abandon the successful cabaret he’s a manager of.

Overall Yakuza 0 is a good time. The combat feels sparse compared to previous installments but is still visceral and satisfying, the story is gripping from start to finish despite Kiryu not having much of real importance to do for a while, and between its place in the chronology and approachable nature it’s the best place to start if you’re new to the series.

By James Lambert

@jameslambert18

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.

Episode 5: Spirit Realm

The spike in consistent quality seen last episode continues here, with the whole runtime dedicated to exposition and preparing for the upcoming troll fight. Guts finally meets someone who can tell him about the Brand of Sacrifice he and Casca have been saddled with following The Eclipse. It’s a relief to see the two of them find an ally who can provide them serious help; Schierke and her Mistress can mask the Brand to keep Guts and Casca safe for a while, they provide Isidro and Serpico with magical weapons, and they give more insight into the whole “demons coming out the woodwork at night” situation. As much as I enjoy the action scenes in Berserk, I do appreciate the moments when it slows down and lets the audience soak up the atmosphere and character. Admittedly you have more time to do so in the manga, in which you’ve spent ages with Guts and literally any chance for him to catch his breath is a huge relief, and it takes its time showing you just how awful the world they live in really is, but it’s still noteworthy in this adaptation. Seeing who Guts is when he isn’t cutting people and monsters in half, remembering what he’s been through and seeing that despite what’s happened he’s still capable, deep down, of trusting people is an integral part of the story. It’s admittedly dampened here because it left out the scenes early in his Black Swordsman career when he went out of his way to be a cold-hearted dick because he couldn’t bare to get close to anyone after what Griffith did to him. But for those who saw the three preceding films adapting the Golden Age arc need to see that everything that happened didn’t crush Guts’ spirit completely. That hope still exists in a world this bleak. That why episodes like this one work.

Episode 6: Fight for Survival Against the Demonic Legion

The janky animation came back for Guts’ big moment against the Trolls, but that’s my only real complaint. I quite like the Magnificent 7 feel to this episode; the first real test for Guts’ New Party is saving a town from a horde of malicious creatures. I like the little touches before the fight like certain townspeople not trusting them (but they have to admit that Guts looks pretty tasty), Isidro’s guarded heart-to-heart with Morgan about his future and exactly why he follows Guts, and Guts’ little moment with Schierke. “Doing something you don’t want to do, because you’re told to is weak” is a good line, and it suits his character, especially after all that business with Mozgus and the Holy See. The fight itself was solid- everyone works together well, and it’s nice to see Farnese start moving towards the more useful character she becomes later on. As much as I love the character developing moments in this series and insist they get their time in the sun, I do have a soft spot for Guts facing dreadful odds and cutting them in half.  Overall it’s continuing on in positive fashion, and as long as we stick with Guts’ New Party for the time being its all good. It’s also slowed down slightly now it’s adapting Schierke, Flora and all they bring with them; it was presumably rushing to this point like Season 1 rushed to Guts’ confrontation with Mozgus. Still, it remains enjoyable.

Episode 7: The Arcana of Invocation

Part 2 of The Magnificent 7 story; Guts and friends drive off the remaining creatures and save the town. Joining the fray is a massive Ogre for Guts to tangle with and a Kelpie, which can only be described as a Frog-Horse (and indeed is described as such in the episode) with the power of water magic. Serpico gets that scrap because it’s more his speed, even though it nearly kills him. This episode was almost entirely action, but it works after the solid set-up last episode. It took the time to explore Schierke’s powers, mindset and relationship with Flora (as seen in a flashback to her explaining how to recover from being consumed by magical power) as well as Guts’ burgeoning trust and faith in her (lovely moment when he calls her “Commander” as he sets out to fight the Ogre and buy her some time). Overall a solid episode and continuation of Guts’ journey and willingness to trust people while carving up huge monsters. The preview for the next episode showed Guts finally meeting Slan, so it’s going to be a big one.

Episode 8: The Corruption of Qliphoth

There’s quite a bit to unpack with this episode, but I’ll start by saying that it’s easily the best episode so far this season, and I have no complaints about it. It starts off bleak and horrible, with the traumatic, dire situation the captured women and children of Enoch find themselves in. Then it quickly becomes triumphant with Guts cutting down Trolls left and right with the repeater crossbow, starts to move into almost feel-good territory when Farnese, Isidro (both starting to realise their full potential) assist Schierke in rescuing the townspeople and Guts seemingly kills a member of the God Hand and ends on the genuinely beautiful realisation by Guts that he’s finally found new comrades with whom he feels at ease, and trusts. It was all great, and reminded me why I love Berserk so much; on top of a likeable group of characters, drama and people and monsters being cleaved in half by the baddest man on the planet with a heart of gold you have Miura’s excellent, nightmarish creature design. The episode takes places almost entirely in the titular Qliphoth- a dark realm hidden in the woods populated by things Junji Ito would have nightmares about and seemingly powered by the evil emulating from Slan, the female God Hand member. I always found it somewhat odd (and quite a surprise) that Guts runs into one of the God Hand in the woods and seemingly kills them (with the manga’s classic combo of cannon arm and Dragonslayer), but given her last words to Guts that they’ll meet again coming after she “dies” I’m not sure she’s gone for good. Regardless, it’s still a win, and Guts so rarely gets real wins.  Apart from putting down Mozgus (who was an obstacle really) and rescuing Casca, everything from the Eclipse on has been pretty grim. Also, Skull Knight makes an appearance, and Skull Knight is the best. Now he has a sword made of Behelits that can slice portals into space, and rescues Guts once again. Now, when I say I have no complaints about the episode, I do have one small one: when Guts reminisces about The Band of the Hawk at the end, Casca’s White, then back in the present she’s Black. I think it’s because in the films she was white and this anime is a continuation of those (which I’ll elaborate on in my piece about season 1), but it still seems weird, and it’s always annoying when they white wash Casca, who really is supposed to be Black. Still, the ending is a beautiful moment all the same, and I definitely didn’t well up. Shut up, you did. Ahem. Next episode is a big one.

Episode 9: The Berserker Armour

I have defended and will continue to defend this anime adaptation of Berserk; yes the animation isn’t all that, yes it rushes through the story and yes all things considered this isn’t the anime adaptation Black Swordsman Guts deserves, but I still genuinely enjoy it. Maybe I’m just a big Berserk mark, maybe I’m just easily pleased and will take whatever adaptation of my favourite manga I can get, but I will stand up for this adaptation. Having said that, I do have my limits, and I’ve reached them with this episode. As the name implies Guts finally gets the Berserker Armour, the iconic gear that stops him feeling pain and stitches his wounded body back together at the expense of leaving Guts covered in wounds and in constant agony when he isn’t wearing the armour. He gets it right at the end of the episode, squaring up to Apostle opponent Grunbeld as Skull Knight and Zodd look on and “Ash Crow” plays on the soundtrack. Everything leading up to that looks abysmal, because apparently they completely ran out of money. Highlights include Isidro rolling around like Sonic the Hedgehog with several frames seemingly removed from his animation, Guts “walking” away by awkwardly shuffling from side to side (I retweeted a gif of it on my Twitter account- it really must be seen to be believed), janky, awkward movement and characters talking without moving their mouths. The episode also has a penchant for almost-still images; well-drawn but with barely any animation in a manner reminiscent of the original Berserk anime’s fondness for actually still images, though there it was charming and added emphasis to certain scenes. What makes this really sting is that the show has been barrelling towards this very moment; the armour was shown right at the end of season 1, its mission statement as an adaptation is clearly to get Guts into the suit, and when they finally get to it it looks like this. Did they not plan for this moment? I knew this episode had problems going in, but it was worse than I imagined. I did manage to squeeze some enjoyment out of it; Schierke’s tearful breakdown over the death of her Mistress, Skull Knight being Skull Knight and of course the ending with the Armour itself, but they’re mired by woeful execution. Next episode is a recap of the season so far, presumably to re-group and ensure that when Guts finally fights Grunbeld it won’t look like this. This episode wasn’t enough to put me off the season, but it’s easily the worst of the season so far.

Episode 9.5: Recollections of the Witch

This is a recap episode. That’s not a big deal, that happens in anime sometimes, but somehow they managed to do a terrible job of it. Firstly, they interrupted the flow of the series by sticking this in here; last episode ended on Guts donning the Berserker armour and it shifting to reflect the visage of the Beast of Darkness- that’s a big scene. Instead of seeing him fight Grunbeld I have to wait two weeks, with a recap inbetween. There’s a preview of the next episode and the animation shown looks decent, which leads me to the following question: if they can alter the animation between episodes so drastically, and their schedule allows for changes like that from episode to episode (and haven’t got the whole series prepared) why didn’t they have the recap between episodes 8 and 9? That would fit the flow of the narrative far better, wouldn’t interrupt the important Berserker Armour reveal and maybe episode 9 wouldn’t look so bad. I don’t know the ins and outs of anime and its scheduling, I just find it odd that two episodes can look so drastically different, and wonder why the recap was placed where it is. As a recap, it’s weak; short, disjointed clips from season 1, extended clips of season 2 (the bulk of the runtime), showing that Guts, Griffith and the Bakiraka exist, but not who they are, what they’re about and how they know each other. No new footage, no narration thing anything together, no real context, and not even a framing device (the title does not reflect the contents of the episode). Just clips of stuff you’ve already seen.

Episode 10: A Journey Begins in Flames

So for all intents and purposes, this is the real Berserker Armour episode. After an episode of almost farcical animation struggling to adapt one of the most dramatic, iconic moments in the entire series and a context-free recap of things you’ve already seen, it’s finally time to continue the story. You know what? It’s definitely improved. The animation is still really patchy at times; people running looks pretty janky, and the blood spurting out of the Armour as it patches Guts back together is so goofy it almost derails any scene it’s in. Of particular note is when Guts uses his cannon arm, shown here as a small, slightly raised ring in the palm of his prosthetic hand, rather than the hand folding down as is usual. But for the most part it’s decent: Guts flips around in a way that holds together fine, Grunbeld barely moves but it doesn’t look as stagnant as you might expect, and the rest of Guts’ party is wisely relegated to occasionally commenting on what’s happening. The episode does have moments I really enjoyed; the uneasy, disbelieving tone Isidro uses when commenting on Guts’ rapidly diminishing humanity, as the latter kills an apostle by crushing it with his helmet’s teeth, like a dog who’s grabbed an animal by the neck. I like the beginnings of Schierke’s more active role, as she delves into Guts’ mind to snap him out of his blind, murderous rage, and the subsequent scene in which he swiftly and fluidly saves his entire party. I like the reveal of Guts’ white streak of hair, wisely left up to still images, which have consistently been of higher quality in this series. I was also surprised how decent the broken arm scene is, in which Guts’ arm is snapped to the point it’s facing the wrong way, only for the Armour to literally force it back into place. For you see, the Berserker Armour doesn’t heal Guts, it just keeps him able to fight for as long as he can keep going, and takes a serious toll on his body, as we’ll see later on. The episode also debuts the Kushan-controlled Crocodile Men, who I knew I remembered, but incorrectly placed in episode 7, and the first rumblings of an anti-Kushan resistance that will end up allied with (ugh) Griffith. I felt like this whole scene was sloppy, the series as a whole doesn’t handle the non-Guts scenes very well for the most part. It all ends on an oddly upbeat note with one of my favourite panels – Guts handing Schierke her hat after it’s knocked off by the wind – and a hopeful “At least we’re all alright for now” tone quite alien to Berserk. Overall a solid episode; the animation is still bad at times, but enough of it worked that it didn’t matter so much to me.

Episode 11: Proclaimed Omens

Oof, this one was rough. Once again I’m in awe of how the budget is distributed in this show; once again the series gets to a big scene involving the Berserker Armour, only to have Guts fight something that looks like a boss from a low-end Ps2 game. Also of note is Guts awkwardly moving his prosthetic arm around, a scene in which Guts and Schierke talk to Skull Knight while a picture of Puck’s face appears on screen and increases in size, and what seemed to be a massive frame rate issue going on in the background of one scene. It’s not all bad though, some of the animation in the fight scenes was pretty decent, and I really liked the ending, in which Guts succumbs to the Berserker Armour and advancing on his friends, with Schierke rescuing his mind at the last moment. Guts’ struggle with the Armour is a key emotional focal point in the series, tying into the ideas of what Guts has been through, and what he’s willing to go through to protect Casca and murder Griffith. So it’s nice to see them at least try and give it some weight, even if the animation does let it down sometimes. Elsewhere Guts and Schierke build their friendship, the first hint of Schierke fancying Guts comes up, and Skull Knight informs Guts that A) The Beserker Armour is real bad news and B) Casca’s mind can be fixed, by it might not be what she wants. Big news, that, though don’t expect to see its, because the manga has just gotten to the process, which let me tell you, is harrowing. Anyway, decent episode for the most part, it’s just a shame parts of it looked so bad.

By James Lambert

@jameslambert18

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.

Episode 5: Historia

The start of this episode is slightly different to the manga, in that Eren, Mikasa and friends have been added to the flashback. When I read this scene I thought it was a moment unique to Krista and Ymir before they joined the military, but as it turns out it was a training excercise. Said moment sets up two key plot points briefly touched on at he end of last episode: Ymir is a Titan-Shifter, and Krista’s real name is something else. It’ll be more important and relevant in later episodes, but for now it’s revealed that Krista’s real name is Historia, and it’s implied she’s someone important. On a lighter note the new scene of Ymir throwing Krista down the snowy hill made me think that, in accordance with the romantic nature of their relationship Ymir was just trying to tell Krista she fancied her and has no idea how to convey that rationally. There wasn’t a whole lot else going on this episode- Ymir fighting off the Titans was cool, but really this was capping off the Utgard Castle arc. Next episode is going to be huge, and I’ll have a lot say about that. For this one I’ll end by saying that I like Krista and Ymir’s relationship- it’s the only romantic one I can think of in the whole series, actually (unless you think Mikasa is in love with Eren, which is debatable). The Romantic aspect of it is very understated, which makes sense given the world they live in and the events they’re currently dealing with. It’s not a forced lovey-dovey thing, just two people with a connection.

Episode 6: Warrior

This is a big one. Having read the manga I’ve been anticipating this revelation, and the ramifications of it going forward. Reiner Braun is the Armoured Titan. Bertolt Hoover is the Colossal Titan. This sets up a whole new dimension to Reiner’s character that will be explored in coming episodes, but for now I’ll focus on what actually happened this episode, which was glorious. The tension as everyone begins to leave while Reiner reveals his secret to Eren, the rain and grey sky, the revelation that Hange, Mikasa and Armin are aware of the possibility that Reiner and Bertolt are Titans; it all adds to the build up. This and the transformation scene are another example of scenes from the manga benefiting from the addition of sound and movement: the swelling music and blinding light as Reiner and Bertolt make their move; playing their hand and making a decision they can never come back from. It also demonstrates Mikasa’s superhuman speed as she cuts down Bertolt (who goes down choking on his own blood) and almost takes Reiner. Story-wise I love how events look like they’re beginning to calm down after the hectic slog through all the trauma leading to this point, and the moment of almost unnatural, eerie calm is interrupted by the plot smashing the Survey Corps over the head with a sledgehammer (something of a theme, that, and it doesn’t stop any time soon). It ends on a stirring shot of Eren transforming for a scrap with Armoured Reiner; the eerie calm has been violently ripped apart and replaced with the constant struggle of combat humanity has forcibly become used to. It’s an excellent episode and I can’t wait to discuss what this means for Reiner in particular; this “Clash of the Titans” arc is a highlight of the story as a whole.

Episode 7: Close Combat

Another fine example of AoT wringing excitement and high stakes out of small-scale conflicts; Eren vs Reiner, Attack Titan Vs Armoured Titan in the best Titan fight of the series up to this point. First though, some non-grudge match goodness: the animation of Hange leading a small gang of troops straight at the Colossal Titan was great, in particular the shots of them swooping around his arms and dodging him with ease only to run into his inpentrable wall of steam (mere seconds after I thought to myself “Watch out for the steam though, lads”). Conny’s plea for another soldier to save Reiner and Bertolt, unaware of their dark truth was suitably haunting, and I love the scene where, upon hearing Eren in Titan Form respond to Them, Hange goes completely weak at the knees for a minute in pure amazement. It’s adorable, and considering They’re my joint favourite character it’s always nice to see the series lean into Their weirder aspects. As for the fight itself, it’s well-done, with the interesting angle of Eren having to employ BJJ-style joint locks to get around Reiner’s armour adding an extra dimension to proceedings. It’s a nice touch also to have a flashback involving Annie and Mikasa squaring up to each other end with Eren wondering who won before deciding that it’s not important and he no longer cares. The fact that they have a whole episode about two Titans firing and manage to make the whole thing interesting and exciting despite the fight only take up a portion of the runtime speaks volumes as to just how good this series is, both the source material manga and this adaptation. It all ends on Bertolt launching his Colossal Titan form off the wall towards Eren and Reiner, Eren looking up at the last second to see a massive skull locked in a silent scream barrelling towards him. Fantastic episode, by the looks of things the end of the Clash of the Titans arc will mark the end of the season, so we’re all in for a good time from here on out. Things get hectic.

Episode 8: The Hunters

This is a stalling for time episode, really. Not a bad one, but still padding. Eccentric lush Dot Pixis is back for a cameo, Erwin finally arrives to take charge of the situation and most of the episode is anime-original content dedicated to reminiscing about how cool Eren is (their thoughts, not mine). It’s an entertaining episode that sees a return to the surprisingly goofy sense of humour that rears its head from time-to-time; young Eren confronting bullies in a flashback quickly snowballs into Mikasa grabbing one of them and corkscrewing him through the air, Hannes and his drunken mates cheering the whole thing on and finally Hannes himself getting into a fight with a stall owner. This culminates in Hannes back in the present insisting to Mikasa and Armin that Eren will be fine, because though he sucks at fighting and Hannes has never seen him win, he never gives up either. All of this is fine from a character point of view, Eren’s determination in the face of unbeatable odds is representative of Humanity as a whole, but this is well-trodden ground, and Eren really isn’t that interesting as a character, particualrly given the rest of the cast, some of whom had a spotlight shone on them earlier this season. The best thing about this episode was the ending, which confirmed that all that interesting stuff involving Reiner is coming next episode, as Erwin leads a search party who set out to find Eren, Ymir and their captors. So next episode the story gets properly back on track, and this episode was largely a comedic diversion, possibly as a breather after what happened last episode? In the Manga a breather wasn’t necessary- it got straight into the good stuff. Overall a solid watch (AoT doesn’t do bad episodes) but the runtime could have been better used on other things.

Episode 9: Opening

Okay, we’re back on track. I can finally elaborate on those interesting (and haunting) Reiner-based plot points with this episode, so let’s get right into it. Despite being a firm believer in the cause he and his “Warrior” colleagues fight for, a mixture of harrowing guilt and genuine affection for his military friends has lead to Reiner’s mind breaking and effectively splitting into two halves. When he’s acting as Team Dad to the rest of the 104th Training Corps he’s being completely genuine, as he also is when he’s acting as an agent bent on the destruction of humanity; two equal personalities. The effect this has on him and Bertolt is genuinely upsetting, not to mention bleak. Thankfully for the feint of heart the flashback to Marco’s death was frustratingly cut down significantly from what’s shown in the manga: there after Marco overhears Reiner and Bertolt discussing their true nature, they grab him, strip him of his 3-D manoeuvre gear (all while Marco is so stunned he vocally has no idea what’s happening) and leave him to be eaten by a Titan. Topping it off is Reiner’s reaction: he has no idea what’s just happened to Marco, and weeps for his dying friend as Bertolt and Annie weep at their friend’s fractured mental state. It’s heavy stuff, made even worse when you consider that when they first attacked the wall and gave Humanity that “Grim Reminder” as the Armoured and Colossal they were ten years old. Imagine the effect that would have, no wonder Reiner’s mind couldn’t cope with something so devastatingly horrific. Bertolt spends most of this episode hammering all this home by silently sitting above Reiner looking thoroughly miserable, as he has never waivered in his commitment to the “Warriors” and, as you’d expect, finds all this troubling to say the least. This revelation of the toll Reiner’s true mission has on him and a probable link to the Beast Titan sets up the key conflict in the story going forward, and several Earth-shattering revelations that I’m interested to see the anime tackle. For now though, the Clash of the Titans arc is moving forward strong as ever; I’d say this is easily one of the best episodes this season, alongside “Beast Titan”, “Warrior” and to a slightly lesser extent “Close Combat”, and as an adaptation of the manga it continues to be superb.

Episode 10: Children

So this episode revealed a huge plot point from late-on in the manga (which isn’t the first time; the ending credits are filled with references to important things that haven’t been revealed yet), and I don’t want to discuss it for fear of spoilers, so I’ll say is that Ymir’s backstory, told through flashback partway-through the episode, is important. As are the things Reiner, Ymir and Bertolt were discussing, though those I can elaborate on to a point: “The Coodinate” and Christa’s importance to the Warrior cause are coming up soon, but for now things are moving towards the big, season-concluding scrap over the next two episodes. Taking the time to complete Ymir’s backstory at this point is smart, as once this arc ends the story moves on quickly, with Christa as a focal point. There’s not much more I can say about this one: it’s mostly set-up and important, spoilery plot points. Looking forward to the last two episodes though, and being able to talk about where the series goes next.

Episode 11: Charge

In which Erwin Smith shows why he’s commander of the Survey Corps. I’m actually surprised how much of this arc’s final battle they put into this episode, but the scene they used for the cliffhanger was an excellent choice. Anyway, some good stuff to get into this episode; the main focus for me is Erwin’s big moment: being snatched up by a Titan and as he’s carried away, his arm in its teeth, yelling to his assembled troops to “ADVAAAAAAAAANCE!” (the manga translation I read used the word “forward”, which I prefer, but this is still good); his almost inhuman fortitude and dedication on full display, and again later when he cuts Eren free from Bertolt with his now one arm. What a badass, you can see why Levi answers to him. Also of note are Mikasa’s crazy eyes, staring unblinking, psychotic daggers at Bertolt through the gap in Reiner’s armoured fingers, and Armin’s harrowing grin (doing the manga panel justice) as he gleefully lies about Annie being tortured to make Bertolt lose his cool and drop his goal. It’s interesting seeing Armin’s intellect and quick thinking being used for something far more grim than usual. Surprisingly amusing, also, whenever the Military Police show up, seemingly just to be killed in ways that show off their immense incompetence. The aforementioned cliffhanger of Mikasa and Eren staring in sheer horror as the Titan that killed their Mother (adopted mother in Mikasa’s case) looms over them in the mist. Finally it’s once again nice to see Christa and Ymir’s relationship and the lengths they’ll go to for each other, and that Ymir’s response to Christa pointing out that Titans want to eat her is “Everyone has one or two faults.” Season finale next, with some big reveals and set up for one of the more unusual arcs of the manga.

Episode 12 (Season Finale): Scream

Let me start by saying that, controversially, I’ve never been a big fan of Mikasa’s character, specifically her attachment to Eren and how it makes up almost the entirety of her character. Don’t get me wrong, it makes sense she’s so fond of him given their backstory, but it’s never sat right with me that everything she does is about Eren. Her tearful, almost admission of feelings was better in the manga, where it felt more natural, and like she was just going to express her love for him in a general way. Here it was just creepy and saccharine, and almost felt out of character. Having said that, Eren’s Walter White-style hysterical cry-laugh was pretty powerful, as was Hannes almost tired eye-closing as he’s bitten in half by the Titan that killed Eren’s mother way back in the very first episode. Eren showing off the Coodinate; the power to control Titans was the big, fist-pumping action set piece for the episode, as are what this potentially means going forward, especially considering Reiner and Bertolt have to go back to their hometown empty-handed. It all ends on a rather bleak, harrowing revelation: Titans are humans. This was the best place to end the season, in my opinion; it’s been mostly action this season but with some real heavy-hitters in terms of plot reveals and snippets of lore, and ending on a quiet moment with a painful truth works wonderfully. Good episode, good season finale.

(Phoenix Wright voice) HOLD IT!

But wait, what’s this? Who’s this mysterious figure with shiny glasses and all facial features just out of focus? Is he…the Beast Titan’s pilot? I must admit this scene genuinely made me a bit giddy, even though it’s a bit naughty having it so early, as this particular reveal happens much later in the manga (as lampshaded in the cheeky, fourth wall-breaking “Not yet, eh?” line). No spoilers, but yes, that’s the Beast Titan’s pilot. He’s very important to the plot, and to say anything more would would be a spoiler, so I’ll leave it there.

In Conclusion:

An excellent season overall, with the only weak episode being eight, with its buying for time and focus on some of the series’ least interesting characters. It’s been a good mix of action (some of which in the established, large-scale form the series is known for, some of it much smaller-scale and intimate in nature) and good character development, with key plot points introduced smartly and with maximum impact. Certain things didn’t agree with the adaptation process, admittedly, the big ones for me being the flashback to Marco’s death, and that Mikasa scene from the finale, but for the most part it’s been adapted well; the reveal of Reiner and Bertolt’s true nature was fantastic, as is everything involving the Beast Titan. I was surprised after reading the season would deviate from the manga, when in actual fact only small changes have been made (with the exception of one massive plot point in episode ten), though personally I’m fine with a mostly straight adaptation of the manga. Speaking of which, the next main story arc is an interesting one, but I feel like it might divide people. I’ll talk about that when details for season 3 (airing next year) surface, but for now I’ll say that season two of Attack on Titan has been fantastic, and I look forward to season 3.

By James Lambert

@jameslambert18

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 episodes have painted it 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 made 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 home 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 an 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 fares 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 particularly 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