Harley Quinn Review

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Last year DC debuted a new animated series simply titled “Harley Quinn”; a show full of violence, gore, swearing and irreverent humour. It caught my eye but I only got around to watching it recently, and with Season 2 getting a trailer I thought I’d give some thoughts on it, partly to create a base for a potential “In for the long haul” and partly because I really enjoyed it and want to talk about it.

After realising their relationship was entirely one sided, and having been left to rot in Arkham without rescue for a whole year, Harley Quinn breaks up with The Joker. The show follows her forging her new path through Gotham’s underworld with a new crew; trying to join the Legion of Doom and show everyone that she can make it without the Clown Prince of Crime. Assisting her is her aforementioned crew: Dr Psycho; a tiny, misogynistic telepath taken in after a massive PR disaster renders him unemployable to even the most vile criminals. King Shark; a friendly, optimistic shark man computer hacker whose positive nature doesn’t prevent him from biting massive chunks out of people when required. Clayface; classic, shape-shifting Batman villain here envisioned as the greatest role Matt Berry never played; an actor fond putting the emphasis on bizarre parts of words and determined to give everyone he shifts into an elaborate backstory. Finally, despite her insistence that she’s not in the crew, there’s Poison Ivy; the caring, straight-woman best friend to Harley and most consistently competent member of the team thanks to any plant life in the vicinity rendering her essentially unstoppable. The Gotham they inhabit is both contemporary and fantastical, with a warped core. Batman is present and competent but speaks almost entirely in brief, generic hero phrases, his Robin (Damien Wayne) has the voice of a small child, which amusingly removes the weight from literally everything he says, and Jim Gordon is a strung-out lunatic in a failing marriage who desperately wants Batman to provide emotional support that the Dark Knight is clearly incapable of. The villains all work out in the open and get regular, positive news coverage and The Justice League are rarely seen. The focus is very much on the underworld, and Harley’s moves within it. As both the top crim in Gotham and the main obstacle to Harley’s success and emotional stability, The Joker is the antagonist; here portrayed as a petty bitch constantly out to undermine Harley’s attempts to steal his spotlight/precious Batman time and bullying other members of the Bat’s rogues gallery into taking his side. He’s trying to pull Harley down into the mire while Poison Ivy attempts to pull her out towards a new, happier life, which provides much of the drama for season one’s runtime. Ivy is, in my opinion, the best character in the show. She’s headstrong and determined not to get wrapped up in the more outlandish aspects of Harley’s schemes, but loves and supports her, has her own stuff going on in the form of a romance and a scheme to destroy a paving company, and is more than happy to be involved in the series’ sense of humour. Her relationship with Harley, which isn’t currently romantic but apparently will be, is really sweet, as is the friendship the whole crew shares, which provides a source of conflict when Harley is tempted to return to Joker’s side.

Of course all of this falls apart if the titular character doesn’t work, which fortunately she does. Harley is driven and focused, skilled, smart and likeable. She’s funny, eccentric and violent, while also being emotionally vulnerable in relateable ways that she seeks help for, both through her friends and in hallucinatory talks with her psychiatrist past self. Beneath the jokes, violence and swearing is really solid character work for a character who deserves better than being shipped with her abusive, piece of shit boyfriend. I’m glad to see things like this, Birds of Prey and Injustice 2’s story mode having Harley get away from him and being met with success.

As well as all that serious stuff, the show is very funny. Not every joke is a home run but there aren’t any duds that I remember. The show has a wonderful sense of absurd, silly, often dark humour running through it; an episode where Clayface’s severed hand becomes a sentient being with whom Jim Gordon becomes best friends, complete with drinking/poker/motorbike and sidecar montage. Bane being an ineffectual loser with a parody of the Tom Hardy voice and half-heartedly threatening to blow up everything that even mildly annoys him. Harley accidentally heisting a pretend vault intended for someone’s Bar Mitzvah then trying to salvage the situation by holding up a “guard” and saying “Mazel tov!” before his shattered knee gives way and he collapses after she smashed it in with a bat so hard his bone is sticking out the skin. Poison Ivy’s landlord and later member of the crew being a CIA cleaner turned elderly, wheelchair-bound Jewish cyborg called Sy Borgman. Who can turn into a car. Messily. I won’t go on listing jokes, you get the point by now; it’s a mix of gory, dark humour and goofy stuff that works wonderfully.

I’m glad DC made a show like this, and it really paid off. Come for the swearing, violence and irreverent humour, stay for the strong character work and, well, the irreverent humour. Really looking forward to season two, which I’ll be doing an “In for the long haul” on.

By James Lambert
@jameslambert18

My Hero One’s Justice 2 Review

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Despite my love for the series on which it was based, I slept on the original One’s Justice. Not because I thought it’d be bad, I just never got around to playing it. Now the sequel’s rolled around and it focuses on the Overhaul arc, with new playable characters in addition to the previous game’s roster, and having caught up on Season 4 of the anime recently it seemed like a good idea to pick it up. Please note that the game assumes you’re familiar with the events of Seasons 3 and 4, and so I will be talking about it in a way that could be considered spoilery.

The story mode covers the anime (with still images from it) from All Might announcing his retirement after his final battle with All for One, through the Provisional License and Internship arcs, Overhaul and the Shie Hassaikai, and ending with 100% Full Cowling Deku vs body horror Kaiju Overhaul. Completing it unlocks a version from the Villains’ perspective, which ends with Shigaraki and Mr Compress mutilating the arrested Overhaul. The story mode does have the occasional in-engine cutscene, but the majority of it is told in still images that shake and bump into each other sometimes, with voice acting. Some missions are entirely cutscene based, but despite being called “Video” they’re slideshows of anime screen caps. It covers all the big fights, and does at least try to give everyone something to do, even if it often relies on generic goons to do so. The villain side suffers from this a lot; getting into scraps with lowest-tier members of Shie Hassaikai, and unfortunately Suneater’s big fight with the three “Trash” members of the Eight Bullets is one of these very same nameless goons instead. As story modes in anime games go, it’s fine. It’s clearly not the focus of the game, and it’s obviously not the best way to experience the story, but it conveys the events well and does the best with what it has. For the most part, when it’s dealing with big name characters fighting in arenas deemed important enough to be in the game, it works well. When it’s a big name character versus a nameless stand-in, in an arena that’s also acting as a stand-in for a location that didn’t make it, it’s not so good. There’s also an arcade mode, where you pick one of three paths per character and fight a linear sequence of opponents. Each fight ends with a brief exchange of dialogue between the two fighters, which is nice, and an arcade mode is always welcome in a fighting game. Personally I tend to go for free battle mode, which is this game’s term for a VS mode against the CPU or another player, but it’s nice to have the game pick a run of opponents for me. Finally there’s mission mode, where you buy characters to stock an agency that then engages in grid-based fights. The grid is stocked with opponents who destroy the area they’re in at varied speeds, you need to move around the grid one spot at a time and beat them all in one round fights.

So then, what’s it play like? Well, it’s a one-on-one, 3D arena fighter with two assist characters. There’s one button for melee attacks, two buttons for the character’s quirk (the MHA word for super powers) and moving the left analogue stick while pressing any of the three attack buttons acts as a modifier, usually a more directed or long-range attack. There’s a sprint button, which is useful given how slowly most of the characters move on the ground normally, a homing air dash thing on the same button, a dodge, a block and the aforementioned assists. There are three super attacks; a level one, a level two and a level three that is your character and their two assists all doing their level ones at once for massive damage. I prefer 2-D fighting games, and this 3-D arena take more common in anime games is varied in quality, but One’s Justice does it well for the most part. Combos are easy to pull off, unblockable attacks are useful but can just be avoided or countered with other attacks, movement is fluid and, most importantly, it’s fun to play. The only issue is that dodging and blocking aren’t easy to cancel into, and while there’s a quick recover button, it only works when you’re not under direct pressure. It’s not a big issue, but it is noticeable. The game’s best aspect is how well it implements the anime’s quirks into a fighting game environment. The obvious combat-focused characters like Deku, All Might, Bakugo and the like work as well as you’d expect, but more surprising is how fun characters like Jiro, Ashido and Toga are to play; while everyone controls the same, each character has their own spin on it. Kirisihima has super armour on his attacks, Shigaraki can create large patches of decaying energy, Jiro has long-range attacks based on her sound powers as well as solid hand-to-hand skills. Each character feels viable, even if their are ones who stand out as easier to use, or able to cause more damage quicker and easier.

Overall, One’s Justice 2 is a good time, particularly if you’re a fan of the anime and/or manga. The story mode does a decent job of adapting a large chunk of the anime, despite its reliance on screen caps and nameless goons, and the meat of the game; its fighting, is fun and implements each character’s quirk well. It’s not the best anime game I’ve played, but I enjoyed it, and if you’re a fan of My Hero Academia then it’s worth a look.

By James Lambert
@jameslambert18

Doom Eternal Review

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I never got around to reviewing 2016’s DOOM, but put simply: I loved it as much as everyone else did. The soundtrack and atmosphere, the fantastic characterisation of the Doom Slayer told entirely through his actions (and in first person, no less), the surprisingly good lore and backstory for the Slayer, and of course the intense, ultra-violent, fast-paced gameplay.

I had a bad start with Doom Eternal. If you follow me on twitter then you may well have seen an angry, drunken tweet I wrote decrying the game’s overly long, overwhelming fights, overabundance of platforming and refusal to give any context or explanation for what’s going on. Well, with the benefit of hindsight, and replaying the levels I had issue with (sober this time), I realise what’s happened. It didn’t take long for me to come around and realise how mistaken I was, as I’ll elaborate on as we go.

So my problem with the plot was that, even by the standards of Doom 2016’s full-on opening, it felt like proceedings were in a rush and not keen on being explained. Unlike its predecessor, the story here is far more relevant and personal to the Doom Slayer from the off, and given the speed with which you move from area to area, and codex entries being missable collectibles, it seemed like said personal story would be largely untold, or at least kept in the background. As it turns out, the opening sections are designed to tease future reveals and pique your interest, they all make sense and have added weight in context, and the story itself is surprisingly good. After being teleported to parts unknown by Dr Samuel Hayden, the Doom Slayer is now hanging out on a sort of flying space castle, enacting a plan to track down and kill three Hell Priests in order to stop a demonic invasion of Earth that’s about 60% complete. The Slayer requires technology from his old home of Argent D’Nur; an alien planet that fell to the demons in the past, and Hell seems to be allied with another race of supernatural beings that are linked to both the fallen planet and the Slayer himself. That’s all I can say to avoid spoilers, but through environmental story telling, lore and the odd third person cutscene, the game does a really good job of adding an extra layer of tragedy, determination and depth to the silent, ripping and tearing space marine; following on from the great work 2016 did. Elements of his past are revealed, everything ties together in a satisfying way and all of this is achieved without slowing anything down or stopping for exposition dumps, unless you count the codex entries. The excellent foundation laid in the previous game is built upon by a more personal story for the Doom Slayer, and despite how odd it may sound, it really works.

Of course the meat of the game is its combat, and while fights are long and overwhelming like I said, it quickly stops being an issue. As a base, the game still has the same core gameplay of fast, intense first person shooting mixed with melee glory kills and a chainsaw that provide a wealth of health and ammo pick ups respectively. Layered on top of that is a sort of tier system for enemies; lower level ones like imps, zombies and the like who can be killed with one pip of chainsaw fuel, which now regenerates over time, and are there both for supplies and to distract you from the bigger enemies. Big powerhouses like Barons of Hell, the returning Arch-Vile (who is now an absolute pain in the arse to fight) and Pain Elementals, who can soak up a lot of damage, and an in-between middle tier, most of which have this game’s USP of weak points. Weak points are usually the enemy’s weapon; the mounted turrets on the backs and shoulders of Arachnotrons and Revenants, the flamethrowers on a Mancubus, that sort of thing and can be removed either with enough damage or in one shot with certain weapon mods. The game teaches you early on to pick out these enemies in a crowd, quickly nerf their offensive capabilities and focus on the more prominent threats, and gradually ramps up over the course of the game. Ammo capacity is quite low but the chainsaw is almost always available, and the Slayer now has a Predator-style shoulder cannon that can launch freezing rounds, grenades or bursts of flame, the latter of which causes enemies to drop armour shards. There’s also a new rechargeable melee attack called “Blood Punch” which does immense damage, sends out a shock wave and can destroy weak points.  The game gives you the tools to constantly make a comeback as long as you’re good enough, and while it does feel like there’s a “Correct”, or at least better way to deal with threats, you don’t have to use them; demons still react to the super shotgun like a child being punched in the face by Mike Tyson. Two of the new enemies do require you to use one specific strategy however, and act as the two ends of the spectrum as far as combat goes. At the bottom, being a nuisance is the Doom Hunter; a reanimated corpse bolted onto a flying tank who hovers around pelting you with homing rockets until you lower his shield with the plasma rifle, damage him enough to separate him from said tank and then do enough subsequent damage to finally kill him. I never enjoyed fighting him, unlike my favourite enemy in the game, The Marauder; an undead, corrupted member of the Night Sentinels the Slayer once led, armed with an energy axe, super shotgun, shield and GHOST WOLF. There’s only one way to fight them, but it feels like a duel; he attacks and keeps his shield up, you dodge and wait for him to attack you, at which point you counterattack and punish. His introduction is one of the coolest moments in the game, too; he turns up through a portal and calls the Slayer out as a fraud as the big man silently circles him; his wary, focused gaze taking in every inch of his fallen comrade-turned-foe. The combat has more of a defined structure to it this time around, but if anything feels more intense because it knows that having taught you that structure it can throw all manner of grief your way and expect you to handle it. Finally, on the subject of platforming; it’s alright actually. It’s mostly air-dashing, double jumping and climbing walls and it all works as well as everything else really.

Also worth mentioning is the game’s gorgeous art design; having moved away from Mars to a bright, colourful Earth clad in neon signs, flesh walls and fused together damned souls. Argent D’Nur has a sort of Gears of War feeling to it; similar architecture and lots of grass, and what little time you spend in Hell itself is just a glorious mess of flesh and gore strewn about the place. The game looks great, and not spending the whole time on Mars is a big improvement. The monster designs are also top-notch, and every enemy now takes drastic locational damage when attacked; skin and muscle stripped away, leaving exposed bone.

As I say; I had a bad start with Doom Eternal, but it didn’t last. The story moves quickly but once you adjust it’s engaging and has surprising depth, as well as some awesome set pieces. It takes the groundwork laid by Doom 2016 and runs with it, and once again the Doom Slayer can do more with a stare, a hand movement and complete silence than some characters can do with entire monologues. The combat is a glorious ballet of gore and violence, and the more structured approach with the enemy tiers and weak points add an extra layer of depth on which to lay even more intensity. I won big fights and internally bellowed at the top of my lungs like Star Platinum. I ripped and teared until it was done. Doom Eternal is an exquisite first person shooter. Doom Eternal is a masterpiece.

By James Lambert
@jameslambert18

Cities on Flame – Thoughts on the Resident Evil 3 “Raccoon City Demo”

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Much like its predecessor, the upcoming Resident Evil 3 Remake has a demo out, although this one can be played as many times as you like. Having finished it three times and explored the area to a satisfactory degree, I have a few thoughts I want to share, though nothing so detailed as to reduce content in my review of the full game.

Combat

It plays a lot like the Resi 2 remake, but with a few key differences. Firstly, the knife and grenade escape items from that game are gone: grenades are now purely for throwing, and you have one knife that never breaks. Now when grabbed by a zombie you have to mash X to take less damage; succeed and Jill will take one bite and throw the zombie off; it feels like an updated, 3-D version of how escaping grabs worked in the PS1 games. The emergency dodge from the original game is no longer situational, apart from an upgraded version where Jill dives out the way in slow motion, spins around and aims at her attacker’s head. You can press the button at any time and make Jill duck out the way in any direction, but timing on the former is very specific, and the latter still leaves you vulnerable. I’ve been experimenting with it a bit, but I don’t know how well I’ll take to it, it feels like it’ll take a while for me to naturally integrate it into the Resi 2 remake combat system. The zombies are still hardy but seem a lot easier to put down, and ammo is in plentiful supply; the gunpowder system is still present, and that combined with pickups of actual handgun bullets meant I had more than I could carry. Finally there’s the no-longer titular big man himself; Nemesis. He makes an appearance near the end of the demo once you’ve obtained a key item and are backtracking to use it, and he’s also changed quite a lot. He can now alter zombies, giving them heads that grow long, whippy tentacles. He has a roar attack that makes Jill stop in her tracks and flinch, he can grab you with his tentacle and pull you towards him, and best of all his ability to run after you is now complimented by him now being able to launch himself forward and skid to a halt in front of you like he’s doing the Akira bike slide. He doesn’t, however, seem to have that bloody insta-kill grab move from the original, or at least he didn’t use it on me if he does have it, and in a move that I suppose shouldn’t surprise me; he can be put down a lot more easily, but he gets back up like remake Mr X. This is going to shake things up pretty massively I think; in the original game fighting him was time and resource-consuming, as well as generally difficult due to the aforementioned grab attack. Here it feels like choosing to put him down to give yourself room to breathe might be a valid option, especially given how much capable he is in combat compared to Mr X  storming after you at a brisk walking pace so he can get into punching range.

Story and characters

Only a brief section this, but there are some interesting tidbits.  Mikhail gets more dialogue and generally has more of a presence; he knows that Jill is a S.T.A.R.S member named Valentine, he doesn’t argue with her correct statement that this is all Umbrella’s fault, and he’s taking his apparent role of search and rescue seriously, with civilians present on the train UBCS intends to leave the city on, and asking for Jill’s help. Jill has absolutely no time for Umbrella or Carlos’ attempts to be friendly, joining up purely to help any survivors, and reacting to Carlos’ surprisingly good pun about her with a curt “Fuck you”. There’s not much here; it’s only a short section of the game, but it shows promise. The demo also has a new trailer at the end which shows, among other things, the return of both Marvin Branagh and gunshop owner Joseph Kendo.

Exploration and environment: 

Several streets worth of Raccoon City are on offer here, and despite a few familiar touches like that gem puzzle from the original, it all feels new. There are also a surprising amount of nooks and crannies to get into, even in this small section. There’s a safe puzzle to do that unlocks a dot sight for the handgun, there are doors with what look like padlocks that require a lockpick on them, and there are items hidden away around the place, often in those wooden, taped up boxes from Resi 7. The area feels both expansive and that particular Resi flavour of compact and detailed; it has that same sense of controlled chaos but on a larger scale than Resi 2’s R.P.D. The R.P.D does feature in the original, which I’m very much looking forward to in the remake, but it’s not in this demo. To summarise: it feels open and encouraging of exploration, but without sacrificing the detail and sense of place that the more contained areas in the series have.

So that’s the demo then. I’ll play it some more on the run up to the full game’s release and if I find anything of interest I’ll update this article. If not, see you in the full game.

By James Lambert
@jameslambert18

Netflix Castlevania Season 3 Review

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What’s a Castlevania series without Dracula? Really good, as it turns out. After two seasons dealing with Vlad Tepes’ quest for revenge against the human race for the death of his wife Lisa, the big man is dead and the key players have all moved on, for the most part. Sypha and Trevor (now a couple) have become travelling monster hunters and are, for now at least, staying in the town of Lindenfeld where a Scholar named Saint Germain is attempting to infiltrate a priory full of antsy, armed monks who worship Dracula after one of his creatures shared some kind of eldritch knowledge with them. Carmilla has taken the captured Hector to Styria where she rules with three other vampire women who she quickly convinces to militarily seize a huge corridor of land, lock it down and feed on its human denizens indefinitely. Isaac is making his way towards Styria to avenge Dracula after Hector and Carmilla’s unsuccessful betrayal and finally Alucard, having started to lose his mind due to living alone, takes on Japanese vampire hunters Sumi and Taka as students, forming a personal bond with them as well as bolstering their skills for when they return to rid their home country of vampires. Rather than separate stories that all convene on a single, unified finale, the stories are isolated from one another. This by no means a bad thing, as for the most part it gives each story room to breathe, allowing for some excellent character moments, particularly for the newcomers. Chief among them is Lenore; a member of Carmilla’s cabal who acts as a diplomat trying to win over Hector, and prides herself on a strictly give-and-take approach to negotiations which has some interesting, grim ramifications. Lance Reddick makes a brief appearance as a ship captain who gets Isaac to open up about his views on the human race and his place in Dracula’s plan to kill them all, reasoning with him that while humanity is complete shit, it’s not all bad and maybe wiping them all out isn’t the way forward. Isaac’s story has some nice introspective moments mixed in with the best action scene in the season, but it’s largely a transitional arc to get him into a confrontation with Carmilla’s group. I was pleasantly surprised to see how long Sypha and Trevor stay in Lindenfeld gradually dealing with the Priory with the help of Saint Germain’s sleuthing, leading to a pay off that, while slightly obvious, works really well, and both this and Isaac’s story have more appearances from game monsters, which is always a plus. Carmilla and her fellow rulers are largely in the background with Lenore taking centre stage, but it’s a role she absolutely deserves. It’s a slow burn over the course of the season, but it’s a good one. Unfortunately, Alucard’s story is the weak link. It’s not bad, but it wraps up a lot more suddenly than I expected, and while its climax doesn’t ruin what preceded it or anything drastic like that, it seems like a waste, and I would have liked to see it go on for longer, and do more with its potential

The writing and voice acting are as excellent as they have been in the last two seasons, though there seems to be less humour than before, maybe because Trevor and Alucard are apart. There also seems to be less gore, and less action in general, though the gradually unravelling plots, particularly in Trevor and Carmilla’s, are so engaging that you don’t notice, or at least I didn’t until it was over. Having set up a suite of supporting characters during the Dracula arc, the series is now focused on slowing down and developing said characters further while introducing new ones, which so far is working wonderfully. It’s due in large part to Warren Ellis; having taken a faithful adaptation of the series as a framework on which to lay his own approach to tone, dialogue and character development, resulting in a series that feels like both a Castlevania story and a Warren Ellis story, with unmistakable traits from both. While watching it I was thinking about how weird it would have sounded if I’d been told that Netflix was going to make a Castlevania anime full of English people, swearing, gore and humour, and that on top of that it’d be great, but here we are.

Overall, any worries about Netflix’s Castlevania series in a post-Dracula world are entirely assuaged by Season 3; taking its interesting characters and developing them in new situations while adding new ones that slot into the story wonderfully. Now I’m on the other side, the thought of keeping Vlad alive any longer seems like it would have spoilt things, and the show is all the better for having a dramatic, hectic journey to his end. Season 3 is confident in itself, rightly so, and the series shows no signs of slowing down. Despite the slight issues I have with it, it’s an excellent season and I look forward to whatever comes next.

By James Lambert
@jameslambert18