Castlevania (season one) – Review

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Castlevania fans have had a hard time in recent years, as the venerable game series has been left to gather dust by owner Konami. Thus news of a Netflix-produced animated series stoked excitement, particularly once it became clear the show was intended for “mature” audiences and would not hold back on blood and gore. Castlevania’s subject matter has tried-and-tested appeal, and the successful blueprint for atmospheric gothic anime has been well-established by films like Vampire Hunter D. What could possibly go wrong?

First impressions are promising: Castlevania looks really, really good. The characters and settings are well-designed and animated, and if the aesthetic is somewhat hackneyed, that can be forgiven considering that it’s paying homage not just to a game series but to an entire genre. That said, much of the season’s four episodes are set in a generic medieval town, which is a bit disappointing considering that most Castlevania games are set in some version or other of Dracula’s castle. Indeed, apart from the names of the characters, and Trevor Belmont’s whip, I didn’t find there was much here to distinguish this as a Castlevania series: if they changed the names it would have been a pretty generic anime horror.

Having announced a Castlevania ‘series’, I think a few eyebrows were raised when the show was released and it turned out to be four episodes long, clocking in at about 100 minutes total. That’s really more the length of a movie, and the ‘episodic’ structure felt a bit phony. In particular, episodes two and three naturally segue into each other, and the ending of episode two felt rather abrupt. More problematic is that the ‘season’ finishes in an unsatisfying way, as the ‘conclusion’ is anything but and just sets the stage for future episodes. Netflix has inevitably announced that Castlevania has been ‘renewed’ for a second season, but it all feels completely pre-planned, and fundamentally cynical. If there was ever any doubt about a second season (clue: there wasn’t), it wouldn’t have ended as it did. Netflix knew there would be a lot of hype about the show because of the name alone, so they served up a laughably short first ‘season’, enabling them to spread a wafer-thin story over twelve episodes, when one feature-length movie would have sufficed.

But what really condemns Castlevania is its awful script. Set in a fictionalized C15th Europe, Dracula’s human wife is burnt as a witch by evil Christians, so he decides to wipe out the local population in retaliation. The only person who can stop him is Trevor Belmont, a cynical young outcast aristocrat and the last surviving member of the vampire-hunting Belmont clan. Trevor is an unappealing lead, not motivated by anything other than alcohol, and constantly complaining about having to rescue ungrateful peasants. Most of the inhabitants of Wallachia are portrayed unsympathetically, either as cringing cowards or as perverts who have sex with farm animals. It’s a singularly charmless script, and one that’s devoid of any humour, wit or passion.

This is made even worse by the voice acting, which ranges from indifferent to downright awful. More than one character suffers from dreadful mumbling, to the point that we had to turn on the subtitles to follow what people were saying. It’s not limited to one character, which suggests it was a technical problem or a production decision; if the latter, god knows what they were trying to achieve. Belmont’s voice acting is infuriating, as he rushes through sentences, fails to enunciate his words properly, and tails off inaudibly. But the worst of all is the villainous Bishop of Gresit. I don’t know what they were trying to achieve with his voice, but it doesn’t work at all. You can barely make out what he’s saying half the time. Considering how much work goes into creating the visuals for something like this, it beggars belief that the audio would be so incompetently directed and edited.

It used to be the case that licensed video games were guaranteed to be terrible. Cynical publishers would acquire a well-known license and use it to market a crap game, relying on name recognition to get people to buy a shitty product. Here that dynamic is reversed. Visuals aside, Castlevania is a pathetically lazy, cynical and low-effort attempt by Netflix to use a well-regarded video game franchise to generate interest among a certain demographic. Don’t encourage them. Do yourself a favour, and give it a miss.

3/10

Xenoblade Chronicles X (Wii U) – Review

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Xenoblade Chronicles X was released in the West at Christmas 2015. A spiritual successor to revered Wii JRPG Xenoblade Chronicles (but not a sequel – that’s coming to Switch later this year), X is a sprawling open-world sci-fi RPG set on the planet Mira. The game’s story quickly establishes that Earth has been destroyed by hostile alien races; because humanity had some advance warning, as many people as possible were sent into space on giant ark ships to try and stop us going extinct. The struggle to survive against the odds is a major theme throughout the story, and X tells an often inspiring and moving story, largely due to a strong script and a varied and likable cast of characters.

The player character, canonically known as Cross, exhibits that most convenient of storytelling devices – amnesia – and his introduction to the planet Mira serves for us as well. The humans on Mira all come from an ark known as the White Whale, which crashed on the planet with hostile aliens in pursuit. The stranded humans have set about establishing a colony which they’ve christened New Los Angeles. Fortunately, Mira is a miraculously Earth-like planet, and so humans can get by pretty well. The game is host to a vast array of flora and fauna, many of which are quite spectacular, and the game’s visual design is a real highlight. Although the character designs might not be the most sophisticated, the landscapes and vistas unfurled as you traverse Mira are often jaw-dropping. I really missed having a screenshot feature on the Wii U, as this is a game that was really made for such a function. The Wii U is not the most powerful games console, but X shows that design and artistry are more important than raw power. This is one of the most visually impressive games I’ve played.

The sound design is on a par with the game’s visuals, a testament to the passion that went into building the game. At first I was a bit put off by the soundtrack’s unusual nature and the fact that many of the songs feature vocals: most games prefer instrumental, ambient tracks, which are less likely to distract the player’s attention. However, after a while I really started to get into the music, and it won me over as one of the most enjoyable and memorable game soundtracks I’ve experienced. It reminded me of the excellent Kill La Kill soundtrack, which is no coincidence as it was composed by the same guy, Hiroyuki Sawano. There are several stand-out tracks I came to look forward to hearing, and some real earworms. That said, with over four hours of original music, there are inevitably a couple of tracks that will get on your nerves. Although the music is epic and very good, it’s not perfect.

X plays a bit like an MMORPG, even though it’s primarily a single-player game. It is possible to team up with other players online, but that’s not something that appeals to me these days. The main story is divided up into 12 ‘chapters’, some of which are quite short, so much of the story and context is filled out with a bewildering array of side missions. Some of these are picked up from a central mission board, and are often MMORPG staples like gathering or hunting missions, but there are also a huge amount of flavour missions you pick up from the denizens of New LA. The city expands considerably over the course of the game, but it can be a bit of a feast or famine situation as far as missions go. Some missions unlock a huge number of new side stories, and so completing the right missions at the right time is important to ensure you have a steady flow of content. If you go through the main story missions too quickly, you will soon find yourself under-leveled, and miss out on a lot of important content.

Gameplay revolves around exploration and combat. Once you initiate combat you can cast ranged and melee special attacks, buffs and debuffs, and can launch a high damage ‘overdrive’ mode if you build up enough ‘tension’ from your other attacks. You can also spend tension to perform more powerful attacks. Your teammates’ attacks can trigger combos to increase damage, restore health, and so on. You can also target enemy appendages to do increased damage and make them less threatening. I honestly found the combat to be a bit over-complicated, and this sort of gameplay is really better suited to a keyboard than a console controller, even a monster like the Wii U Gamepad.

Combat is more fun once you unlock Skells, giant mechs that reminded me a lot of Transformers. Skells also make it a lot easier to travel around Mira: while for the first 30 hours or so you have to go everywhere on foot – sneaking round powerful monsters that can kill you in one hit – Skells make getting around a lot easier. But even then, you’ll have to be careful not to aggro powerful beasts, as there is an abundance of elite and high-level monsters throughout Mira who can easily kill you even after you complete the game. It’s a bit frustrating, as replacing your Skell can become prohibitively expensive, so having it destroyed is not a trivial matter. The game only allows you one save file, so you need to ensure you save regularly, especially if you’re worried about replacing your Skell. The game doesn’t auto-save, and losing an hour or more of progress due to the game crashing (which happened to me more than once) is not fun.

X makes good use of the Wii U Gamepad, using the touchscreen to manage an interactive map, as well as your mining and exploration probes which generate revenue and resources. The whole game can also be played on the Gamepad screen, but it really benefits from being seen on a big screen.

This is a game that eschews holding the player’s hand and expects you to find out a lot on your own. There is an enormous variety of combat and exploration mechanics which are not thoroughly explained: there is a cumbersome in-game manual, but most people will end up relying on the internet for advice. I don’t think I’ve ever gone online as much while playing a game as I did during X, not just for help with quests and battles, but also for help understanding the myriad combat and leveling systems.

I’m all for complexity, but this game takes things too far with its obtuse systems, and seems contemptuous of the player’s time and convenience. The party management system is a case in point. You can have up to four characters in your party, but to add someone to your party you have to physically find them in New LA and talk to them – you can’t just switch them out using a menu. Moreover, to unlock character-based side quests (‘affinity missions’) you have to raise the affinity level between that character and your avatar, which takes ages and can only happen if they are in your party. The icing on the cake is that characters only gain experience if they are in your party, so you’re almost certain to have a host of squadmates who are seriously under-leveled and therefore useless in combat: which is a problem because fights can be very tough. It’s a shame because many of the side stories are really well-written, but getting to experience all the content with each of the fifteen or so party members is a massive chore.

Once you complete the game, there are a few repeatable missions you can do to raise your affinity a bit faster, but even then, it takes much longer than it should. Some missions are also just ludicrously difficult, and completely out of sync with the level requirements specified for the mission. Even after beating the game, and having played for over 100 hours, I finally gave up on trying to do everything when a level 37 mission featuring a level 46 boss repeatedly wiped my squad of level 55+ characters. Frustrating as it was, this wouldn’t have been such a problem were it not for the fact you can’t abandon missions once you start them. So, in order to do anything else I would have had to go and grind for hours to be able to complete the mission before I could move on. Then there are things like a character recruitment mission you have to be level 44 to begin, but at the end of said mission the character who joins is level 32 – guaranteeing they are at least 12 levels below you, and requiring you to grind for ages if you want them to be remotely useful.

The often disrespectful and sadistic nature of the gameplay is at odds with the positive tone of the story. It really is an inspiring tale which features a wonderful cast of characters, and both the main story and the side missions are a trove of joy and entertainment. X features some wonderfully-designed alien races, at times even giving something like Mass Effect a run for its money. Though it’s ostensibly set in a grimdark universe, X has an optimistic, light-hearted and childlike sincerity that you rarely see in a genre dominated by more cynical Western games, and it’s a refreshing and beautiful take on the space opera formula. The stand-out character is Elma, wonderfully voiced by Caitlin Glass, who is basically the protagonist of the main story and an inspirational lead in the Shepherd mould.

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Elma and Cross enjoying some down-time.

X is a long game, and the Western release contains additional content that was released as DLC in Japan, which stretches things out even further. If you’re looking for a hardcore RPG to play on the Wii U, this is probably your best bet, and it could last you for ages (I was playing it on and off for about six months). It’s just a shame that the game makes it so hard to experience everything it has to offer. Xenoblade Chronicles X could and should have been a great game, but it falls frustratingly short through fault of its own.

7/10

Vikings (season four, part two) – Review

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Fuck off, Ivar.

The ending of the first half of Vikings’ fourth season strongly hinted that the story was about to focus on Ivar the Boneless, one of the sons of Ragnar Lodbrok. Sure enough, Ivar is the dominant figure across these ten episodes, and the show suffers for it. That Ragnar had five sons should have meant there was lots of potential for different storylines showing them working together and competing for power and prestige. But this opportunity is wasted as most of the sons just serve as tools to put over Ivar in one of the most egregious cases of character shilling I’ve seen.

Ivar’s ingenuity and ruthlessness are constantly referred to by characters throughout the season, but his genius is largely an informed attribute. One of the golden rules of storytelling is show, don’t tell; but Viking’s writers apparently aren’t capable of showing us Ivar’s brilliance, and instead make people say it over and over in the hope that we’ll come to believe it. His ruthlessness is manifest only in temper tantrums and the kind of reckless violence that befits a pampered mummy’s boy, which is what he is. The idea that someone could get away with the kind of nonsense Ivar does in this season stretches credulity. As one of Ragnar’s sons, clearly Ivar would get a pass up to a point, but it’s tiresome to see him get away with murder (literally and figuratively) time and again simply because of his disability, when people would have queued up to kill an able-bodied person behaving the same way. The character is badly written, but it doesn’t help that the actor who portrays Ivar is dreadfully limited, capable only of a wretched smirk to communicate sneering sarcasm, or a sulky teenager’s teeth-grinding pout to show rage. Ivar is an awful character and his presence was enough to ruin my enjoyment of this season.

That said, the character of Ivar is really just symptomatic of a general decline in the quality of Viking’s script. This is an ambitious show but the writing hasn’t been able to keep pace with the broader horizons brought about by the viking expansion. These ten episodes take in Britain, France, and Spain as well as Scandinavia, and they cover some momentous events. The scale and sweep of the story makes up somewhat for the unsatisfying character drama, and the set pieces and battles are very impressive. But season four cashes out some pretty big characters to maintain your attention, in a way that is not sustainable, particularly considering how unappealing most of the new cast are.

Thankfully, Lagertha figures quite prominently in the series, which is a positive, although the writers have decided to make her bisexual in a charmless effort to sex things up. Her new lover, Astrid, endears herself to us by hitting on both Lagertha’s son Bjorn and her ex-husband Ragnar, and serves no discernible purpose beyond titillation. Other than Bjorn and Ivar, the sons of Ragnar are very generic, and the writers can’t think of anything for them to do other than all bonking the same slave-girl in between talking about how much they fear their youngest brother, Ivar. If they’re so scared of him why don’t they just kill him? He’s only a threat because they allow him to be. Meanwhile, Harald Finehair and his staring brother continue to loom large, devoid of any charisma or personality, plotting to become kings of Norway in a plot nobody cares about.

A particular low point for me across these episodes saw Helga “adopt” a teenaged Muslim girl following a Viking raid on Spain. It’s always irritating when writers turn a previously sensible character into a deluded idiot overnight. Helga’s absurd plan to raise the girl as her daughter fails to come across as the tragedy the writers probably intended, and instead just felt like a transparent and tasteless attempt at emotional manipulation.

I’m sorry to see Vikings reduced to this state, as the first few seasons were really good. But seeing the way things are poised at the end of season four, I have no interest in following the story any further,

5/10

 

Jurassic World (film) – Review

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Jurassic World is a bit of a strange film. The opening is oddly paced, and we’re introduced to the fully-operational eponymous theme park within a few minutes, without any establishing backstory or context – presumably the audience is expected to have absorbed that from earlier films and marketing. For the first five minutes I kept expecting the film to cut away and reveal that the beginning was just an in-universe advertisement for the new theme park, a la Paul Verhoeven. Indeed, with its dated values and its garish and weirdly cheap-feeling aesthetic, Jurassic World’s first sections kept reminding me of movies like Starship Troopers, Robocop, and Total Recall. But it is most definitely not a satire, and I can’t believe that those are the sort of comparisons the writers had in mind. What’s more likely is that the film itself hews frighteningly close to the kind of dystopian cultural product someone like Verhoeven would satirize.

We are introduced to Jurassic World through the eyes of a couple of appallingly generic Middle American kids who have been farmed off to their aunt Claire for a few days for unspecified reasons (it’s suggested their parents are getting a divorce). Claire, played by the gorgeous Bryce Dallas Howard, is actually the director of the park, and doesn’t have time to drop everything to look after her sister’s brats, instead leaving them in charge of her assistant (a dark-haired Keira Knightley lookalike) until she finishes work for the day. Cue horror and disbelief over her lack of motherly instincts. This is a major arc of the story as Claire is forced to adopt a more stereotypically feminine role over the course of the film.

In contrast, Claire’s love interest, the hero Owen (Chris Pratt), is an insufferably smug lead. At one point, while berating Claire for the fact the park has created a genetically enhanced super-dinosaur as its new attraction (admittedly a bad idea), he complains they haven’t tried to socialize it. For some reason Claire doesn’t give the obvious reply which is Well Owen, we did try to raise it alongside its sibling but she fucking ate it. The broader point she could have made is that in nature some animals live in packs while some are solitary and territorial. But Claire allows Owen’s lazy cod psychology to stand, and the exchange is typical of a sloppy and shallow script.

Jurassic Park is a classic film, and dinosaurs are awesome (and under-exposed generally), so Jurassic World was guaranteed to do fairly well. It’s quite action-packed, and moves along at a good enough clip that it will likely keep your attention across its two hours. It’s firmly in the guilty pleasure category, but a bit less guilt and a bit more pleasure would be nice. And I don’t see why it has to be so stupid. When the super-dino gets loose, why is the answer to release more dinosaurs? When the dinos are on the rampage, why doesn’t anyone go and hide indoors, in hotels or somewhere, instead of staying in the open where they’re easy prey? Why is there no way to get people off the island in an emergency? Why is the worst death in the movie reserved for a blameless minor character instead of the main villain? And for all that the film’s best moments are about the bond between humans and animals – some of which are genuinely moving – the film disturbingly shows that the main bad guy was right when he said dinosaurs should be used as weapons. Not sure what to make of that one. Speaking of the dinosaurs, they’re obviously the highlight of the film, but they didn’t look as good as I expected. Considering how good CGI is these days, the dinosaurs were lacking in physicality and menace.

If you’re looking for a movie to pass a couple of hours and be reasonably well-entertained, Jurassic World is a passable choice. Just don’t go expecting it to make the world a better place or anything.

5/10

Guns N’ Roses (London Stadium) – Review

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This concert has been a long time coming. I’ve been a fan of Guns N’ Roses for many years: they were the band that got me into heavy metal when I was a teenager, half my lifetime ago. But for all the countless concerts I’ve been to, I’ve never seen them live. I’ve always regretted the fact I was just a little kid during their heyday, and for one reason or another I never went to see the recent incarnations of the band, even though they gigged quite a lot during the Chinese Democracy years. I’ve always admired Axl’s musical ability and vision, but the acrimonious climate that surrounded the band all these years put me off seeing them.

So, like millions of others around the world, I was delighted last year when legendary guitarist Slash returned to GnR along with original bassist Duff McKagan for the ‘Not in This Lifetime Tour’ (named after a reply given by Axl some years ago when asked when a potential reunion might take place). The tour has been going for almost a year now, and at time of writing has grossed around a quarter of a billion dollars. The massive commercial success of the tour speaks to the enduring enthusiasm for the band’s classic albums, as well as the excitement generated among the band’s loyal fanbase at the prospect of seeing a reunion between Axl and Slash. In an ideal world, it would be nice to see guitarist Izzy Stradlin participating in the tour in some capacity, as well as former drummers Steve Adler and/or Matt Sorum. But the world we live in is so far from ideal that it feels churlish to get hung up about this. Just seeing Axl and Slash playing together is something few thought would ever happen again, and having Duff McKagan involved is the icing on the cake. In a world crying out for happiness and good news, I was determined to grab this with both hands, cynicism be damned. As far as I’m concerned Axl and Slash should be credited for putting their differences to one side for the sake of the fans, a gargantuan payday notwithstanding.

Tickets for the London date seemed to sell out as soon as they were released; but a second date the following day was announced within minutes, so T. and I eagerly snapped up a couple of standing tickets for £100 each. In all honesty, I would probably have paid significantly more if I’d needed to. It helped that the general vibe coming off the early tour shows in the States last year seemed to be overwhelmingly positive. Axl also received generally great reviews when he stood in for AC/DC last year, and the prevailing narrative seems to have changed a bit, with a lot of the engrained critical hostility towards the band, and Axl in particular, dissipating. Without wanting to disparage Chinese Democracy and all the work that went into that – and the work that Axl and other musicians have done to tour for GnR fans over the years – you can’t help but feel this tour was needed to eliminate a lot of the rancour, and restore Axl and the band’s reputation and legacy.

The concerts took place on consecutive days at the London Stadium in Stratford, East London – the only shows they played in the UK. According to the website the venue’s concert capacity is 80,000; the Saturday didn’t look sold out, but the crowd was still very respectable, and had a pretty good split of people from their early 20s to middle age. It also seemed pretty evenly divided between men and women: no surprise as the band has always appealed to both genders. The venue opened at 5pm, with a couple of support bands before GnR were scheduled to take the stage at 7.45pm. The band’s tardiness when hitting the stage back in the day is legendary, but a lot has changed since then, and this is a much more professional, mature, and sober operation. So, I wasn’t surprised when they started on time.

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The set opened with a couple of unarguable classics from Appetite, “It’s So Easy” and “Mr Brownstone”. I’d been looking forward to the concert a lot, obviously, but I wasn’t prepared for the rush of euphoria when it actually started. It wasn’t just me either: everyone around me basically went nuts, and I’ve never been at a concert where so many people were singing along to so many of the songs with such gusto. This concert seemed like a cathartic experience for a lot of people. Right from the get-go, the songs sounded just like they should, and that was a feature of the night in general. Axl’s voice is pretty much as good as ever, though I thought he seemed a little gassed at points during “It’s So Easy” – no surprise considering how much running around he was doing on stage. The guitar tone also sounded spot-on, which was particularly important during ballads like “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and “Estranged”. I don’t know whether this can entirely be attributed to Slash’s presence – most guitarists at this level should be able to get the right sound – but it certainly didn’t hurt.

The third song was “Chinese Democracy”, and there was a much more subdued reaction to it than the opening songs. I don’t think this was due to hostility so much as the fact a lot of people didn’t recognize it – I needed T. to tell me what the song was. I was actually a bit surprised to see them play it with Slash and Duff in the band, but I shouldn’t have been. The song actually sounded fine, as did fellow CD song “Better”, which they played after “Double Talkin’ Jive” and… “Welcome to the Jungle”.

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“Estranged” is my favourite Guns N’ Roses song and probably my favourite rock song, period. It’s even more special to me because it’s also my fiancee T.’s favourite Guns N’ Roses song. This is even more meaningful to us as it’s one of the band’s less popular ballads. So, we were hoping against hope they would play it, but weren’t sure they would (and had avoided seeing setlists ahead of time for fear of ‘spoilers’). Seeing them play it live in a perfect rendition was a singular experience, and I confess this was the first of several times the concert moved me to tears. It was an enormous emotional release, and I felt then (and still do) overwhelming gratitude to the performers and everyone associated with the concert for making it possible. I’ve been in bands, promoted shows, and attended hundreds of gigs, but live music has never come close to affecting me like that before.

“Estranged” was followed by “Live and Let Die”. The cover is one of the better songs on Use Your Illusion 1, and it was a really enjoyable number and a needed change of pace from the intensity of “Estranged”. It was followed by “Rocket Queen”, another one of my personal favourites off Appetite, and it was fucking awesome. Unfortunately they didn’t have anyone doing the sex sounds during the song, but a lot of people in the crowd tried to supply them anyway. “You Could Be Mine” followed, one of the best songs of UYI 2, rounding off the best hour of live music I’ve ever witnessed.

It has been uplifting to see Axl somewhat liberated over the last couple of years, and as a frontman he now does an extremely professional and engaging job. He didn’t spend too long chatting with the crowd but what he said was simple and sincere (and included an endearing reference to his pet cat). He still has arguably the best voice around, and delivered an engaging and entertaining performance, switching between about ten different outfits over the course of the near 3-hour set. Slash and Duff were on great form, and to do them credit, both of them looked in amazing shape. Slash looked jacked as hell and could have passed for someone 20 years younger, while Duff was something of a revelation, lean and muscular, looking like a heavy metal version of David Bowie. It was good to see him taking over vocals for a couple of covers in the middle of the set. The other band members, mainly holdovers from the Chinese Democracy tours, did a great job, and here’s hoping things hang together like this for a while.

Rose has got a lot of stick over the years, some of it justified, most of it not. For all that he hasn’t necessarily helped his public image much of the time, as an artist he remains misunderstood (sometimes willfully) by much of the musical fraternity. It’s also his misfortune to have been out of sync over the last couple of decades with the dominant smartass hive-mind that overtook a lot of musical culture, something he gives the impression he neither understands nor cares for. He’s continued to do his own thing, to the mixed amusement, bewilderment, and frustration of a lot of observers, but what has never been in doubt is his artistic vision. I’m starting to feel like he has been in the right a lot more than I and many others have given him credit for.

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The middle part of the set was a bit more subdued, with some comparative filler in the way of lesser-known covers and songs from UYI like “Civil War” and “Yesterdays”. They played “Coma” – apparently the song is a regular on this tour, the band having not played the song since 1993. It has always been one of my favourite songs off UYI 1, largely because of the intense and emphatic vocals, particularly towards the end. It didn’t quite have the oomph that I would have liked, but that could have been due to the venue’s sound (which wasn’t perfect) or just because it’s a long song that fell during a natural lull in the set. Still, it was nice to hear them play it at all.

“Coma” was followed by a Slash solo, which segued into a cover of the Godfather theme (apparently a staple of shows back in the day). This led into “Sweet Child O’ Mine”, probably the very first GnR song that caught my attention as a teenager. It was a joyful, lungbursting experience, followed by “Out Ta Get Me”. It’s probably one of the weaker songs off Appetite, and the one change I would have made to the setlist would probably have been to swap it for “Think About You”. A cover of “Wish You Were Here” led into “November Rain”, yet another high point in an evening full of them.

The sun had set by this point, which felt somehow appropriate. The mood started to get a bit more reflective, not least as we knew we were pulling towards the end of the marathon set. The band did a cover of the Soungarden song “Black Hole Sun”, a tribute to the late Chris Cornell, and the theme of paying tribute to departed friends and family continued with a heartwarming rendition of “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”. The cover is not one of my favourite songs off UYI 2, but it shone in the stadium setting with everyone singing along, not least with Axl explicitly connecting it to lost loved ones. The mood then lightened again somewhat with an explosive rendition of “Nightrain”, before moving into the encore.

“Don’t Cry” won a prize for most ironic title of the evening, as by this point a lot of people were really struggling to fight back the tears. The emotional rollercoaster continued with an uproariously upbeat cover of AC/DC’s “Whole Lotta Rosie”, which was very well-received indeed. It was an excellent version of the song; the association with AC/DC undoubtedly seems to have helped invigorate Axl. Inevitably, the set finished with “Paradise City”, which was one last opportunity for everyone to sing their hearts out. I’d completely given in to my emotions by this point, trying to make the most of a transcendent and once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Guns N’ Roses have long been one of my favourite bands. They were a gateway band for me – the band that got me into heavy metal – but they’re also much more than that. I discovered debut album Appetite for Destruction around the age of 16, and the energetic, masculine romanticism of the music as well as the lyrical themes themselves helped give me confidence as I entered adulthood. For better or worse, it helped shape the way I approached the world, and my personality. Aside from the great music and hellraising motifs of sex, drinking and drugs, one of the things that always appealed to me about the band was the emotional sincerity, and the surprising penchant for reflection that accompanied the bombast of Use Your Illusion. My disillusionment with GnR over the last decade or more has really hurt, and been like a loss; so this whole experience felt like a massive healing process. Who knows where the band will go from here, but the tour has already shown there’s reason to hope the future has more in store than bitterness and recrimination.

One of the ironies of Not in This Lifetime is that it might actually go a long way towards enhancing the reputation of the Chinese Democracy album. The album attained memetic status before internet memes were even a thing, becoming a byword for excess and self-deception. By the time it was released, an underwhelming reception was almost guaranteed due to the widely entrenched views about the band and Axl’s personality. I confess to having been completely biased and barely listened to it at all, dismissing it out of hand once the critical reviews confirmed my negative expectations. But now, having heard several songs played the other night, I was surprised to find they were actually pretty good. And having listened to the album four or five times since the concert finished, I’m astonished how good it really is. There may not be anything on the album to rival the iconic songs from Appetite or Use Your Illusion, but its an underrated gem with great vocals from Rose (naturally) but also some inspiring composition and guitar work. It definitely seems more consistent than UYI. Hopefully the album will get a bit more of a hearing now. It certainly will in this household.

10/10

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Blame! (film) – Review

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Maybe it’s just me, but I find Netflix’s rating system to be pretty useless. Lots of woeful content seems to inexplicably maintain a five-star rating, while really solid shows and movies get stuck with two or three stars. Blame! is the latest one to confuse me, the full-length anime movie debuting recently to a 2.5 star rating. I don’t know whether this is due to pissed-off hardcore fans, or low ratings from people who just hate anime, but I thought Blame! was pretty good.

Blame!: the movie is based on a 20-year-old manga, set in a (naturally) dystopian world dominated by a vast megastructure known as “The City”. The City was once controlled by technologically-advanced humans, but they eventually lost control, and humanity came to be viewed by the City as a disease which needed to be exterminated. The City therefore unleashed a variety of hi-tech entities, collectively known as The Safeguard, to wipe out the remaining humans (hints of The Terminator, then). With humans no longer in control, the City has expanded uncontrollably, and it’s hinted that the structure could have reached the size of a star. It’s an interesting concept with a great deal of potential, and Blame!’s setting is well brought to life by an impressive art style.

I’m a little surprised that they chose to make Blame! as a movie rather than a series, like fellow Netflix original Knights of Sidonia, as the scenario seems well-suited to the serial form. The movie’s plot covers the interaction between main character Killy, who is on an odyssey to find the “Net Terminal Gene” that could help regain control of the City, and a small community of humans known as the Electro-Fishers. The community is on the brink of starvation, and their immediate struggle to survive provides the kind of clear narrative hook needed for a film of this length. T. commented while we were watching it that Blame! does the same thing as Mad Max: Fury Road, using the silent loner character from a wider world to introduce a largely self-contained story. I found Killy to be a bit underdeveloped, but at least the supporting cast are varied; what’s more, characters you might expect to be completely useless actually end up contributing to the story, which kind of subverts your expectations. Blame! leaves you wanting to see more of its world, and I would certainly be interested in seeing a follow-up movie or, even better, anime series.

Visually, Blame! is really good, with solid animation and an appealing and coherent style. The art and animation reminded me a lot of Knights of Sidonia, and apparently they were made by the same people. I thought the sound effects were pretty good too, especially the satisfying clunkiness of the Electro-Fishers’ weapons and armour. The film’s main problem is probably its pacing: although it starts out very well – the opening sequences are breathtaking – its 106-minute run time is probably 15 minutes too long, and some sections could have been shortened or edited out. I found the repeated extreme close-ups of Killy to be somewhat naff, but fans of the source manga might be more tolerant of this.

Overall, then, Blame! is worth a watch for anime fans. It reminded me a lot of seeing Gantz: 0 a few months back – both times I went in knowing nothing about the source material, but was pleasantly surprised by the films and really enjoyed them. Here’s hoping we get to see more of Blame!’s unsettling world in the future.

7/10

Pokemon Sun/Moon (3DS) – Review

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2016 was the year of the Pokemon. Pokemon Go was one of the cultural phenomena of the year, the free-to-play mobile game generating an exceptional level of interest that briefly captured the public imagination. Of course, Pokemon Go was developed and published by Niantic, rather than Nintendo, but Nintendo still benefited from the massive exposure their franchise received. Pokemon Go’s runaway success undoubtedly helped sales of Pokemon Sun/Moon, the fully-fledged Pokemon RPG released for 3DS last year. Nintendo shipped over 12 million copies of Sun and Moon in 2016 (over 15 million at time of writing), making it the best-selling game of the year, two million clear of Fifa 17.

The Pokemon bug got me too. Before Sun, I hadn’t played a Pokemon game since the one that started it all, Pokemon Red/Blue, almost twenty years ago. Although the series is often associated with the famous catchphrase, “Gotta catch ’em all!”, there is more to Pokemon than an addictive compulsion to catch cute monsters. The Pokemon games – at least the main-series RPGs released on handhelds, if not necessarily all the spinoffs – have always been robust and well-crafted, even if (by all accounts) few have recaptured the perfect balance and pacing of the originals. Sun/Moon were generally well-received by critics, and with their cheery aesthetic and legions of cute monsters, this is a hard game to dislike. But while it reminded me why I have such fond memories of the franchise, it never quite lived up to my hopes.

Pokemon Sun/Moon are set in the archipelago Alola, a new, Hawaii-influenced setting for the series. This establishes a bright, sunny and colourful tone, likely to prove appealing to all but the most morbid of players. Alola also features quite some biodiversity, and there are about 300 monsters in the game. This means not all of the 800 or so creatures in the franchise are present, but there are still some new ones in addition to “Alolan” variants on familiar creatures. The quality of the monster design varies a little, and like many people I strongly favour the “original” Pokemon cast; but I suppose there needs to be some variation, otherwise I might as well have just played Red/Blue again. As a solo player, I was irritated to find some monsters won’t evolve without trading with another person. Believe it or not, as a man in his 30s I don’t know many people who play Pokemon, and I can’t rightly start hanging around outside schools asking people to trade. Thus I was never able to evolve the likes of Machoke and Kadabra into their final forms. I get that playing and trading with others is part of the game, and the developers want to get you interacting with other players in the world; but I just found it a shame not to be able to get the evolutions I wanted.

For a game as aesthetically cheerful and upbeat as Pokemon Sun/Moon – the closest thing to a holiday without actually taking one – the gameplay mechanics are surprisingly liable to frustrate. Wild monsters can summon a partner to help them in a fight, and you can’t throw a Pokeball to catch a monster unless it’s on its own. Monsters can also summon a partner on the same turn you take one of them out, leading to a near endless supply of reinforcements you have to eliminate (which can make you fell pretty bad, too, like you’re killing a bunch of wildlife for no reason). Of course, Pokemon can also break out of a Pokeball, and you often need to make several throws before a successful catch. This means random fights in the wild can go on for much longer than you would expect, at least if you are bothered with trying to catch new monsters (and who isn’t?) At the same time, the actual story progression for the first 20 or so hours is really easy – even boss fights feel trivial – and I didn’t find the artificial “challenge” derived from the frustrating and random catch system to be very rewarding.

As far as presentation goes, the music is chirpy but some themes can become a little grating. On the other hand, the graphics are impressive: as well as being bright, bold and full of colour, they’re surprisingly crisp and detailed. It’s a joy to see such a nice-looking game on a handheld, and it’s a tribute to Nintendo’s 3DS hardware. To get it running smoothly they’ve dispensed with 3D effects – a move in line with the recent release of the 2DS and 2DS XL. I still think the 3D effect is quite cool when it’s used, but Nintendo ditching it does encourage you to think of it as something of a gimmick. It’s funny now to read game reviews from five years ago which criticize inadequate or unimaginative use of 3D, when the Big N themselves seem to have abandoned it.

As for the 3DS’s other features, the bottom screen is mainly used for a world map, but it’s annoying that about half the screen is taken up with the googly eyes of Rotom Dex (the Pokemon who lives in your Pokedex). You can use the touch screen for selecting commands, or for stroking your monsters after battle to reward them, cure status ailments, and increase your affinity. I tended not to do that much just because it made me feel guilty for playing a game instead of bestowing affection on my actual cats. That said, the relationship between people and animals is at the heart of the Pokemon experience, and if the game helps nurture childish affection for animals, then that can only be a good thing. It’s also nice to think of children being able to spend time with Pokemon as surrogate pets if they’re not allowed or able to have real ones at home.

This is a game heavily marketed at young kids, of course, perhaps explaining the very low difficulty (a shame Nintendo didn’t adopt the same policy when I was a kid). Only towards the end do you have to deploy much in the way of strategy or grinding, and the rock-paper-scissors elemental system is quite straightforward. The main story is quite short and simple, clocking in at just over 30 hours. There’s a fair bit left to do in the post-game, but unless you’re really into context-less Pokemon battles and filling out your Pokedex, it’s unlikely to grab you. The game also has lots of little side mechanics – like developing little islands to house your Pokemon – but none feel very compelling, or are well-integrated into the core gameplay, meaning they’re easy to ignore.

I noticed a couple of other curious things as well. One was a literal way the game has of describing your actions after you acquire an item, explaining each and every time that you “pick up an item and put it away in the item pocket”. It soon felt like a bizarre pastiche of Hemingway. I was also put off by Team Skull, the rival faction you encounter over much of the game’s story. Team Skull are a bunch of generic ne’er do wells who are cruel to Pokemon and engage in various low-level crimes and disorder in Alola. They have a very “ghetto” style, wearing gangbanger outfits and using a rap music motif. The weird thing is, although Alola is an ethnically diverse place with lots of light- and dark-skinned people, every single person in Team Skull is white, giving it the profile of a racist gang. I don’t know whether this was conscious, and whether the developers were scared of being accused of racism if they had non-white members indulging in stereotypically “gangster” behaviour. It may just be an accident because the Team Skull “grunts” (as they’re called) all have the same character model.

In the end, Pokemon Sun/Moon is an enjoyable game with a good heart, and one that’s worth playing. 3DS owners are, of course, spoiled for choice when it comes to Japanese RPGs, and there are plenty of other games that can offer better and more sophisticated stories and gameplay. But there aren’t many that can show you more love.

7/10

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