Runner 2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien review


 

Bit.Trip cut its teeth on grueling retro-style games, so it’s no surprise to see the developer return to its roots with a new adventure chock-full of old-school goodness. The result is Runner 2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien, a fantastically bizarre take on endless running. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though. The basic controls focus on expert timing and focus, and the game is a conflicting mix of wonder and frustration.

The setup is terrifically crazy. The game opens with a hilarious commentator (voiced by Charles Martinet, the voice of Mario) recapping the events of the previous games–complete with wacky “brought to you by…” commercial sponsors–which sets up the latest adventure of Commander Video. As the game starts, Video’s nemesis, the Nefarious Timbletot, has unleashed a reality-collapsing plot of revenge. Bit.Trip’s stalwart hero is sucked through a time-space vortex into a dimension of side-scrolling mayhem.

 

 

“The game is a conflicting mix of wonder and frustration.”

Like Bit.Trip’s other releases, frustration is a major part of the overall Runner 2 experience. The primary focus of the game is perfecting a run through each of the short levels, relying heavily on trial-and-error to get you by. For those who revel in mind-numbing difficulty levels and replaying levels over and over until they reach perfection, Runner 2 is superbly satisfying. Thankfully, there is an easier difficulty setting for non-sadists, and the inclusion of optional checkpoints makes things much more manageable.

For a downloadable game, Runner 2 certainly offers plenty of gameplay. Players must master 125 levels of constant running, jumping, sliding, kicking, and other actions across gorgeous side-scrolling landscapes. After a while, the buttons to keep track of amidst the hectic pace can become more than a little overwhelming. The response time of the controls also never feels dead-on precise. This forces the player to predictively react to the next obstacle more than instantly react, leading to more frustration.

Those looking for an even greater challenge can also pursue high scores by collecting gold bars and red cross icons that are scattered throughout levels. Comprehensive leaderboards round out this process. Further, each of the five worlds includes a boss to conquer at the end and secret levels to unlock.

 

 

“The beautiful graphics and quirky charm make it easy to fall in the love with Runner 2, even when playing through the same level 50 times.”

The graphics are sharp and well-animated, making the wonderfully weird and detailed landscapes and characters even more enjoyable than previous games in the series. The character design–including a host of unlockable playable characters–is terrific and the worlds are just full of eye candy, with kooky creatures, scenic views, and strange activity always in the background. The game masterfully uses its soundtrack to punctuate successful moves. A flawless run equates to a smooth and nearly hypnotic trippy techno groove and there’s an addictive sense of satisfaction in creating a perfect score–both musically and numerically.

The beautiful graphics and quirky charm make it easy to fall in the love with Runner 2, even when playing through the same level 50 times. The frustration level here is undeniable, yet Runner 2 still inevitably forces the player to take on just one more level. It’s an insane retro-dripped trip worth taking.

This game was reviewed on the Wii U.

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Indiana Jones and the Staff of Kings


 

To describe Staff of Kings as a game seems a bit disingenuous – this is a collection of smaller sub-games, similar to Disaster: Day of Crisis. There are puzzley platform bits, typically involving copious whip-cracking; there’s brilliant environmental combat, which lets you hurl pool balls at bad guys, shove enemies into aquariums or whack them in the head with garden tools. On-rails gun battles will also occasionally break out, dumping Indy behind cover and letting you peek out and aim at enemies.

If you were hoping for a robust plot to hold these elements together, expect to be disappointed. Indy has his passport stamped everywhere from San Francisco to Istanbul, but cutscenes are so stilted and awkward it’s difficult to be entirely sure why. He’s searching for the legendary Staff of Moses, we know that much for certain, and, as ever, heaps of Nazis are right on his tail.

Previous Indy games The Emperor’s Tomb and The Infernal Machine translated the license into Tomb Raider-style exploratory platform outings, but aside from similar pastimes Indy has very little in common with Lara Croft. This series has always been more at home with spectacular action sequences than precision acrobatics or slowly dragging a box across a room. With a focus on the action, Staff of Kings is probably the closest a game has ever come to recreating the spirit of the movies, even if it does fudge the execution quite a bit.

You do get to trudge around ancient environments, but stages are limited in size and not that interactive – you can only use your whip to climb walls, topple structures or swing across gaps at particular moments, and never at your discretion. “Exploration” soon comes to mean “running around, triggering occasional quicktime events.” As such, the platforming’s never particularly exciting, but as the glue that holds the superior combat and puzzle sections together it suffices.

Indy’s all about the set piece, you see, and there are some genuinely impressive moments here. Puzzles are typically of the block-pushing variety, but some – including one based on Mayan football – are inspired. On your travels you’ll happen upon a pirate ship that was somehow moored under San Francisco, ride an elephant through the streets of Istanbul, and stumble into messy bar fights with Chinese hardmen. It’s all terribly Indiana Jones.

The combat also embodies the spirit of the films, and for the most part involves highly enjoyable man-punching, with the ability to pick up tools and make use of your surroundings. You can dish out jabs and hooks, dodge blows, grapple and throw people, and chuck anything littering the environment at enemies’ heads. Your trusty whip will also bring bookcases and the like down on enemy heads, offing them in one crushing swoop. It’s great fun, reminiscent of a number of fights from the films.

Still, brawling’s only part of the package. The on-rails gunfights can be mediocre in comparison, while the (blessedly) few minigames are never less than soul destroying. The combat may be a triumph, but as it’s dumped on you in huge chunks – rather than integrated properly into the flow of the game – it soon becomes a tad repetitive.

As with a deep-fried Mars bar, Staff of Kings’ disparate elements shouldn’t work in combination – and, indeed, they don’t quite – but the individual ingredients are right tasty. It’s an enjoyable game, but so bitty and shallow it’s difficult to recommend.

God of War: Ascension review


 
 

 

A few hours into God of War: Ascension, you’ll find yourself running atop a massive, mechanical snake battling waves of monstrous goat men. It’s marvelous and immense, with gold and blue scales that glisten in the sun, as the serpent’s metallic body twists and bends during its ascent through beautiful mountains, garnished with remarkable stone architecture. Slowly, the camera pulls back, revealing the absurd scale of the environment as Kratos becomes smaller and smaller, continuing to tear apart his enemies in a rock opera of blood. It’s here, during this unforgettable, awe-inspiring set piece encounter, that you’ll realize you have absolutely no idea what’s going on.

And for a majority of the game, you won’t mind. You’ll be too busy slashing at enemies with the Blades of Chaos and taking part in some of the most breathtaking cinematic moments in gaming’s history. You’ll be sliding down ice-covered corridors at breakneck speeds and leaping between crumbling buildings. The action is unrelenting, keeping you distracted with constant movement instead of relatable motivation or, really, any motivation at all.

“The action is unrelenting…”

Kratos battles some of the most impressive foes he’s ever fought during Ascension’s eight-hour campaign. Though few actually pull from the Greek pantheon (since those mythical figures need to be alive for Kratos to kill in the sequels, after all), they’re absolutely thrilling, punctuated by the series’ signature quick-time events that conclude in grandiose displays of violence and brutality. Ascension also introduces a welcome new addition, sidelining QTEs in favor of action-based finishing moves, turning tearing an enemy apart into a mini-game. These scenes are amplified by Ascension’s incredible visuals, which are not only the best the franchise has seen, but some of the most impressive on the PlayStation 3. Your attention will be pulled away from the substanceless story and uninteresting characters by big, shiny encounters.

You won’t care about the story, and, usually, you won’t care that you don’t care about the story. But eventually, through attrition and repetition, you’ll start to feel like something is off with Ascension’s tone. Taking place mere months after Kratos was tricked into murdering his family by Ares, the game provides a glimpse at the Ghost of Sparta before he was consumed by rage. He’s a more human protagonist, spending a lot less time bellowing at his enemies about how he’s been betrayed and how he’s going to get revenge and how much he’s going to kill them.

 

 

“You won’t care about the story, and, usually, you won’t care that you don’t care about the story.” 

Kratos’ anger has been removed, as promised, but it wasn’t really replaced with anything. Ascension feels hollow and motiveless, and it’s hard to get excited when the hero himself isn’t capable of mustering up any enthusiasm. You’ll be dragged from remarkable location to remarkable location, never knowing why you’re there or what you’re supposed to do. Ascension doesn’t flesh out Kratos’ life or give you better insight into why he becomes the ferocious avatar of anger. Instead, it just happens. Kratos isn’t deeper for it, he’s still just a blender–an excuse for you to spin around and act as a whirlwind of chains and blood and meat. 

God of War’s combat hasn’t changed all that much over the past decade because it didn’t need to. Slicing apart foes is infinitely rewarding, fulfilling your deepest power fantasies. Ripping the wings off of harpies and snapping off minotaur horns is brutal, but the lack of new, interesting weapons is a disappointment. Kratos can empower his blades with different elemental types aligned to the different gods, but these are hardly a replacement for finding new toys to play with.

 

 

“Kratos’ anger has been removed… but it wasn’t really replaced with anything.”

The only other actual weapons you can equip besides the Blades of Chaos are swords, hammers, and javelin scattered around the world, but the fact that they only last for a few attacks limits their use. It’s well-paced, for the most part, save for a few difficulty spikes that’ll test your patience, rather than your skills–including one that’s easily the most difficult section in any God of War game to date, for all the wrong reasons. 

Kratos spends nearly as much time killing as he does pushing crates, pulling levers, and climbing through intricate and well-designed levels. Each location is a puzzle within itself, enhanced by the addition of the Amulet of Uroborus, a tool that allows you to either give life to or decay an object. Rebuilding destroyed bridges is visually enthralling, but you’ll never feel all that challenged–or rewarded–by Ascension’s puzzles. In the rare event that they’re more complicated than climbing a ladder and pushing the button, the solution is spoiled by a go-this-way-you-idiot camera pan. Sometimes, puzzle solutions don’t really make much sense, and you’ll feel more annoyed than satisfied when you figure out how to open the locked door that’s been preventing your progress for 30 minutes.

 

 

“Sometimes, puzzle solutions don’t really make much sense…” 

Also somewhat disappointing are the newly added multiplayer features, which are held up by clever level design and strong game modes, but smacked down by uninteresting gameplay. It sounds great in theory, but in practice it turns out there’s nothing less fun than being beat up by someone as powerful as Kratos. God of War’s combat is at its best when you’re battling many things smaller than you or few things bigger than you; fighting enemies that are just as strong as you isn’t all that engaging. The exception is Trial of the Gods, a two-player cooperative mode that teams up warriors to take down waves of enemies, but even then it’s not going to hold your attention for too long.

God of War: Ascension is confident, executing the franchise tropes flawlessly with an amount of self-awareness not often seen in gaming. It knows it’s good–it knows it doesn’t have to try hard to be good–but it struggles to be anything more than that. While it’s worth experiencing for the massive battles, remarkable cinematic moments, and strong combat, it doesn’t feel like a necessary chapter in the God of War franchise. As it would turn out, the God of War isn’t worth much as a mere mortal.

City Baby-Review


 

 

Aspiring actresses and aging rockers figure prominently in David F. Morgan’s Portland-set feature debut.

If coming-of-age stories used to be about teenagers, today’s culture of twentysomethings stuck in a perpetual sexed-up adolescence mandates something on the order of City BabyDavid F. Morgan’s feature debut that recently received its world premiere at Cinequest. This pungent, Portland, Oregon-set tale features a striking performance by Cora Benesh as Cloey, a 25-year-old aspiring actress facing a turning point in her life.

Freewheeling party girl Cloey is comfortably living off her daddy’s (Daniel Baldwin) money, ignoring his entreaties to get a job and pursuing her acting career while living with her aging rocker boyfriend Jesse (Andrew Harris). She’s just landed a role in a new play, as a gay teenage boy.

“It’s a comment on gender and sexuality,” she half-heartedly explains.

REVIEW: Here I Learned to Love

When Jesse fails to even show up on opening night, the dejected Cloey follows through on a flirtation with Michael (Richard Keith), a yuppie ad exec who’s been wooing her ever since she auditioned for a commercial. Meanwhile, her best friend Paige (a very effective Jillian Leigh) is planning to move to New York City to pursue a fashion career, and implores Cloey to join her.

While the romantic triangle plot line is fairly mundane, the film co-written by Morgan and Benesh fully succeeds in evoking its hipster milieu. Taking full advantage of its extensive Portland locations—“I love being damp 250 days a year,” one character bitterly observes—it also effectively captures the city’s independent rock scene via performances from several of its notable bands and an amusing cameo by Stephen Malkmus of Pavement.

Commenting on his landmark band’s heralded reunion tour, Malkmus cynically observes that he’s “trying to cash in on what once was…maybe buy a Jag.”

Not to be too cynical about it either, the film’s commercial prospects are bound to be enhanced by the copious doses of nudity sprinkled throughout, not to mention a steamy tryst between the sexy Cloey and a female photographer who entices her to shed her clothes during a photo shoot.

Venue: Cinequest

Production: Salad Days Productions

Cast: Cora Benesh, Jillian Leigh, Andrew Harris, Richard Keith, Dustin Rush, Daniel Baldwin

Director/editor: David F. Morgan

Screenwriters: David F. Morgan, Cora Benesh

Producers: Steven Arychuk, Cora Benesh, Dennis Fitzgerald, Tara Johnson-Medinger, David F. Morgan, Mark Roush, Tim Whitcomb

Director of photography: Bryce Fortner

Production designer: Micaela Works

Costume designer: Monika Schmidt

Not rated, 98 min.

Jack the Giant Slayer: Film Review


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Simply in terms of storytelling, logistics and viewer engagement, “Jack” is markedly superior to the recent “Hobbit.”

When will all the dead-serious $200 million battle-centered giant-infested similarly cast rousingly scored fabulously rendered 3D fairy-tale reimaginings all finally merge together into one enormous Anglophilic fantasmagoria of monarchical order and virtue so we can all be done with this for the time being?

Is The Hobbit: There and Back Again next summer too soon to hope for it? In fact, the latest example of this syndrome, Jack the Giant Slayer, isn’t bad in and of itself; it’s well made, attractively cast and has some lively as well as ghoulish moments. But a castle fit for a king to anyone who can find an original or singular element to this handsome reupholstering of the English folk tale, a version notable for its fine visual effects and vastly multiplied population of giants. Postponed from its original summer 2012 opening date, this Warner Bros. release, with just a week to itself before Oz flies up against it, looks to perform reasonably well — but maybe not well enough, at least domestically, given its Brobdingnagian budget.

Even though the script by Darren Lemke (co-writer of Shrek Forever After), Christopher McQuarrie and Dan Studney (Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical) elaborates enormously on theJack and the Beanstalk tale that inspired it, all the elements here remain familiar: The poor commoner who makes his mark among the royals, the princess anxious for a taste of life outside the castle, an ancient enemy unleashed after many dormant years, the royal aide-de-camp with treacherous intent, a king worthy of his throne and beastly ogres with bad table manners and no regard for hygiene. It’s the same old recipe, nicely prepared under Bryan Singer‘s direction, but awfully familiar.

PHOTOS: Award Season Roundtable Series: Animation

Princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson), who’s already pledged to the foppishly sinister nobleman Roderick (Stanley Tucci, in wild hair and whiskers that make him resemble Tim Burton), yearns for a way out of this engagement as well as to experience “an adventure of my own.” She might get both prayers answered by the inadvertent arrival in her life of laddishly handsome 18-year-old Jack (Nicholas Hoult), an orphan farm boy who first intervenes on her behalf during a public altercation and then, more crucially, when she gets sent skyward atop an enormous, twisty stalk that instantaneously sprouts from an errantly planted special bean.

To rescue Isabelle from her peril on this vegetable Tower of Babel and return her to her proper realm in a Camelot-like castle called Cloister, the boldest knights spring into action, led by the imperturbable Elmont (Ewan McGregor) and Roderick. Jack is allowed to join in on the perilous climb through mists and clouds to a land that, marked as it is by the presence of menacing rock statuary and outsized creatures, bears an unavoidable resemblance to King Kong‘s Skull Island.

Residing there is not just one giant but a whole tribe of them, seemingly males only perhaps 40 or 50 feet tall who snack on the first humans they see and have been waiting donkey’s years for the chance at revenge for having been driven off Earth in their last encounter. They’re all loathsome beings who look like cousins to the trio of hungry trolls in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and are led by a general (an essentially unrecognizable Bill Nighy) who has the distinctive advantage of having his own built-in yes-man in the form of a second, somewhat smaller head on his shoulder (John Kassir).

While Roderick pulls his mischief on the side, the rescue party tries to pry Isabelle away from the giants but sees its numbers rapidly diminish in the process. But just when you think things might be heading for an early happy ending with the remaining humans’ spectacular escape from the giants’ celestial habitat and the collapse of the stalks, the big guys manage an invasion of their own that sets the stage for a colossal final battle in hyper-medieval style, complete with a moat, boiling oil and very large objects indeed launched through the air.

STORY: Big-Budget ‘Jack the Giant Slayer’ Faces Soft Tracking

Working on at least as big a scale as he has on his X-Men and Superman films, Singer confidently handles the combat and big action scenes in what plays as an energetic, robust, old-fashioned romantic adventure yarn; simply in terms of efficient storytelling, clear logistics and consistent viewer engagement, Jack is markedly superior to the recent Hobbit.

The approach here is very straightforward, with a light modern feminist and egalitarian slant applied to the question of a princess’s lot in life and her availability to a red rather than blue-blooded young man, but no ideas that weren’t advanced in Errol Flynn films 75 years ago. At the same time, there’s little facetious comedy a la the Pirates of the Caribbean series. It’s all traditional stuff, done well but without an original spark.

The easy-to-look-at Hoult and Tomlinson match up well and acquit themselves handily, as do stalwart pros Tucci, McGregor and Ian McShane, the latter for once not playing a villain but the concerned king. The 3D is approached discreetly, almost even as an afterthought, so inconspicuous are the effects. Production values are stellar, including Gavin Bocquet‘s production design and Joanna Johnston‘s costumes (even if Hoult’s pants and hoodie could pass as contemporary clothing) and the contributions of usual Singer collaborators Newton Thomas Sigel on camera and John Ottmanas composer and co-editor (with Bob Ducsay).

The Last Exorcism Part II (2013)


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New Orleans is a really spooky place. It’s a strange mix of buttoned up Christianity, hidden superstitions and nighttime sin. It has its own pace, its own bilingual history and its own demons. In many ways, it’s the perfect setting for a horror movie interested in creepy and off-putting visuals and/ or backstories involving slavery, vampires and old mansions that have fallen into disrepair. 

At times, The Last Exorcism really seems to understand the potential in its location. It cuts to creepers in Mardi Gras masks and disturbing painted street performers. It even throws in some voodoo-like rituals, but none of it is enough to save a flat exorcism story arc that few of us asked for and even fewer will enjoy. 

Even casual horror fans have probably seen at least one young woman’s body twisted, contorted and raised into the air. If not, they’ve at least seen one member of a weird cult or religious organization get called out of the bullpen to try his home spun remedies on a protagonist slowly losing his or her mind. That’s why exorcism movies have to be about the characters now, as as characters go, The Last Exorcism is short on good ones. 

After the de-possession story of the first The Last Exorcism, Nell Sweetzer (Ashley Bell) is discovered in the woods and brought to live in a group home for troubled young girls. After repeatedly being told the demon who possessed her, Abalam, isn’t real, she starts to make a real life for herself. There’s a potential boyfriend (Spencer Treat Clark) to awkwardly go to the zoo with, a gaggle of girlfriends to talk about it with, and a job as a maid in a local hotel, but alas, we all know that bliss can’t last in an exorcism movie. Abalam reappears in various forms to sometimes torture her, sometimes woo her and consistently confuse the hell out of any viewers with common sense. 

There’s a difference between a genre movie not answering every possible question a viewer might have and a horror movie straight up not making sense, and The Last Exorcism 2 is on the wrong side of that unforgiving line. We’re told Abalam is powerless without Nell; yet, he’s apparently capable of inhabiting people’s bodies and committing a boatload of felonies with only a marginal bit of effort. Sometimes we’re given evidence to believe certain characters and certain behaviors are figments of people’s imaginations, and sometimes we’re given evidence to believe certain characters and certain behaviors are actually happening. It’s a big jumbled, needlessly complicated mess. 

The Last Exorcism worked because it made clever use of a skeptic, got a great performance from its lead actress and offered just enough genuine scares. The Last Exorcism 2 gets that same great performance from Bell, but beyond that, it doesn’t offer much more than confusion and the occasional New Orleans shoutout. Unlike its predecessor, this one isn’t destined for good word of mouth, and if we’re in luck, it won’t be destined for another sequel either.

Brain Age: Concentration Training review


 

Brain Age was one of the DS’s more unlikely hits, a mass-appeal edutainment game inspired by the research of preeminent neuroscientist Dr. Ryuta Kawashima. The latest title, Brain Age: Concentration Training, takes the foundation laid down by the DS game and expands it with a handful of challenging new exercises and features, making it the best installment in the series yet, and a must-have for fans of puzzle games.

The object of Brain Age is to sharpen your mental facilities by doing a series of brief brain-teasing exercises, which can range from simple calculations (albeit at a rapid-fire pace) to memorizing images. Concentration Training differs a bit from previous Brain Age titles in that it focuses more on improving your working memory than on decreasing your mental age. However, the core gameplay remains largely the same, with minigames that are gradually doled out to you as you complete your training.

 

 

“Concentration Training differs a bit from previous Brain Age titles in that it focuses more on improving your working memory than on decreasing your mental age.”

Fortunately, this gameplay is still a lot fun, and it’s wrapped up in a much nicer coat of paint this time around. While the original Brain Age felt very sterile thanks to its minimalist presentation and its low budget, Concentration Training is much more inviting; Dr. Kawashima’s lectures are accompanied by charming illustrations and diagrams, and the doc himself is fully voiced, explaining the rules of each exercise and commenting on your progress. The game even keeps a record of your achievements as you improve your scores, giving you tangible goals to strive for each time you play. Together, these tweaks go a long way in making the game a fuller and more personal experience than the Brain Age titles before it.

The most notable addition to Concentration Training are the new “devilish” exercises, a series of fiendishly tricky minigames designed to test the limits of your memory. Unlike regular exercises, each devilish game lasts for a full five minutes and is constantly adjusted based on your progress. Meet or exceed a certain percentage and the difficulty will increase accordingly, but fail and you’ll be bumped back down to an easier level. As you’d expect, these exercises become challenging very quickly, but they’re all nevertheless satisfying to play, especially when you see yourself improving with each session. These exercises are also complemented by a handful of other minigames designed to keep your brain active (some of which have been recycled from the previous two installments), as well as several light “relaxation” games for when you need a breather from your training. Players of all stripes will have plenty to enjoy in the title.

 

 

“If you enjoyed either of the previous Brain Age titles, or are genuinely interested in toning your brain muscles, then you’ll certainly love Brain Age: Concentration Training.”

Unfortunately, a few mechanical issues do crop up in Concentration Training. The handwriting recognition, while generally spot-on, can be a little wonky at times. It’s never bad enough to impede the gameplay, but in certain exercises like Word Attack, which has you memorizing a word and writing it out as quickly as you can, having to rewrite a letter because the game misinterpreted it will add precious seconds to your score time. Likewise, the voice recognition, while generally pretty accurate, can also be a bit finicky at times. There will be instances, particularly during Devilish Words (an exercise that has you reading sentences aloud), when your voice won’t immediately register, forcing you to read the selection again. It’s certainly not a major issue, but it is an annoyance nonetheless.

If you enjoyed either of the previous Brain Age titles, or are genuinely interested in toning your brain muscles, then you’ll certainly love Brain Age: Concentration Training. The game features a nice array of fun and challenging mental exercises that will push your working memory to its limits, and its improved presentation makes the whole experience much more personal. It may still resemble more of a utility app than a proper game, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t still a lot of fun in its own right.