Sonic Forces Review

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Sonic the Hedgehog is one of the biggest names in the video game industry. Back in the 90s when SEGA still made consoles, the Blue Blur was a rival to Super Mario. It’s unfortunate that quite a few of his later games were mediocre. Secret Rings, Unleashed, and more recently Boom, all helped to sour the name of Sonic when it came to quality platforming. This year looked to reverse the trend. Sonic Mania, a throwback to classic Sonic side-scrolling, released to positive reviews. Of course, the time was right for a new 3D installment as well. Sonic Forces released this past week and is the first “big” game in awhile. It brought back familiar faces and was to feature a grand storyline. Combine that with fast-paced 3D and 2D gameplay, and we have what should be a platformer resurgence for the franchise. Sadly, the concept of Forces is better than the actual product. It’s a fun game, but lacks in some key areas.

The story begins when Sonic is called in to stop Dr. Eggman once again. The hero races through Green Hill and arrives in the city. Unfortunately, Eggman seems to have recruited Chaos, Zavok, Metal Sonic and Shadow. There’s also a new villain called Infinite working alongside the doctor. Sonic is defeated, and fast forward 6 months, Dr. Eggman has taken over the world. The resistance, led by Knuckles, has to somehow win the day. Though with Sonic seemingly gone, this could get hard.

Let’s discuss the story, arguably one of the game’s primary selling points. The concept of Dr. Eggman finally winning and taking over sounds awesome. The opening scene is filled with tension as Sonic is struck by his old enemies, and also a new powerful villain that Tails says is even faster. After this, the screen goes black with the text, “With Sonic defeated, Eggman’s army quickly took over. Within months, all but a few isolated areas in the world were under their control.” …What? Instead of telling me that happened, show me. The game is incredibly short, only a little over three hours long. This is due in part to the story taking shortcuts. According to the dialogue, Sonic was captured and tortured for months. Once again, don’t tell me, show me. Later in the game, Infinite traps Sonic and the Avatar in “Null Space.” Some time should have been spent in there, but the two heroes escape a few seconds later!

As one can see, the story seems to rush itself for no reason. Back in the early 2000s, the Sonic games had excellent, well-paced stories. Adventure 2 still stands above the rest when it comes to quality storytelling with actual emotion. Forces often lacks that emotional punch (Sonic was tortured for months, but when we find him, he has no bruises and gives no indication that he endured hardship) and has rushed pacing. Also, Sonic’s old enemies returning ended up being a massive disappointment – almost false advertising even. The story is still fun, but it’s a shame to think about what could have been. Infinite gets quality dialogue and is an interesting character. His last scene was anti-climatic sadly; he should have come back and be the true final boss.

The gameplay is another primary reason why one would pick up this game. The main Sonic gameplay uses a refined engine from Sonic Unleashed. This is sometimes a good thing, and a bad thing. It’s fun to blast through levels, but I can’t say there’s quality level design at work here when it comes to the main Sonic’s gameplay. The problem isn’t really in the levels themselves: the problem is the length. Just about every level you can beat in under two minutes. So, it’s hard to enjoy a level because it’s over incredibly quick. Ironically, the boost mechanic ends up almost being a negative, because it speeds up already short levels. (You can almost blast through Mystic Jungle completely with boost.) Why were the levels so short? It’s baffling.

Classic Sonic returns for retro gameplay. Again, the levels are too short. It’s a shame, because there is some quality design here. Iron Fortress late in the game was genuinely challenging, and even featured a nice auto-scrolling section. Just when I’m really enjoying the platforming, the level ends. This could have been better if each level had a second act, but that isn’t the case. There is a third type of gameplay, and that’s the “Avatar’s.” For some reason, Sonic Team thought fans would want to create their own character. To be fair, the Avatar’s gameplay isn’t bad. Personally, I would have rather been playing as Sonic but the Avatar’s levels were solid. (They are also sadly short as well.) The ability to customize Avatar’s weapon is a nice feature.

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Sonic Adventure 2 still features the best platforming of all the 3D Sonic games, and that came out over 15 years ago. The gameplay was fast, but not too fast where you’re zooming through the entire stage. The stages were of great length and memorable. (We all still remember City Escape and Metal Harbor.) You won’t be remembering many, if any, stages in Forces because they’re over before they get really good. Also, the gameplay mechanics didn’t seem very tight at times. Classic Sonic and Avatar in his/her 2D sections seemed loose, thus making some simple jumps seem almost risky.

One consistently strong aspect of the game is the soundtrack. From the heroic ‘Fist Bump’ to the villainous theme of Infinite, the music is one of the best in the franchise. That’s another reason why it’s too bad the levels are short: the music ends along with them. I wanted to keep listening to the amazing ‘Guardian Rock’ and ‘Aqua Road’ songs. The boss battles are solid. The Death Crab battle is well done and intense. It was lazy, however, for the big Infinite battle to be a re-skin of the earlier fight with Metal Sonic.

Overall, Sonic Forces is a missed opportunity for something truly great. I had fun playing through it – the gameplay and music is a pleasure. Some of the levels have thematic quality (the Death Egg robots in the background of Ghost Town is one such example) and surprisingly the Avatar’s gameplay is interesting. Sadly, the levels are too short to enjoy. The game is probably the shortest Sonic 3D game, clocking in at a little over 3 hours, which is criminally short. Even the story is disappointing. There’s some great cutscenes, but too much untapped potential and often lack of emotion to be invested if you don’t care about the characters. One can mock Sonic 06’s romance, but the plot there was engaging and well paced. Forces comes off as a rushed gameplay experience.

6/10

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Thor: Ragnarok Review

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On August of 1962, Journey Into Mystery #83 released on the newsstands. That issue is legendary because, according to the cover, it stars “the most exciting super-hero of all time!” That hero is the mighty Thor. From that issue, Thor would become one of Marvel’s biggest characters, appearing in his own ongoing series and as a founding member of the Avengers. Thor was well known to comic fans, but not very well known with the general public, as with other Marvel characters that weren’t Spider-Man or Hulk. That changed when the Marvel Cinematic Universe began, making Iron Man a household name and eventually Thor as well in 2011.

The God of Thunder now joins Iron Man and Captain America with a third film. The Thor films are fun, but not examples of quality storytelling. (I’m still wondering what the thought process was with Erik Selvig in The Dark World.) So it wouldn’t be hard for Ragnarok to pass its predecessors. It goes far beyond that however: Ragnarok is an immensely entertaining film. Director Taika Waititi delivers one of the best Marvel movies to date.

The film opens up with narration from the God of Thunder himself as he’s tied up. It turns out he let himself be captured so he can get to the fire demon known as Surtur. This opening sequence defines the MCU in a nutshell: good fun. That can be a negative thing when taken to the extreme. (That was the case in this year’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.) But Ragnarok rarely takes its lighthearted nature too far. The opening scene felt like something straight out of a comic book. It’s a treat to see Thor do battle with Surtur, the demon’s minions, and eventually a dragon. The story continues when Thor finds out Loki has been impersonating Odin. It turns out Odin is on Earth, and with a little help from Dr. Strange (the entire sequence with Strange was short, but very memorable) the brothers find their father. Sadly, Hela, the Goddess of Death, emerges soon after.

Hela’s arrival was exciting, and that’s mainly thanks to the atmosphere, costume design, and of course Cate Blanchett’s portrayal of the character. Hela’s much marketed scene of her breaking Mjolnir was a game changer and cemented her as a menace like no other. Loki calls for a bridge escape and Hela follows, causing things to go out of whack. Thor lands on a planet named Sakaar while Hela looks to take over Asgard.

Let’s talk about Thor’s time at Sakaar, which comprises the middle act of the film. The gladiator setting was unique and had quite a few memorable characters. Valkyrie’s plotline was one of the most engaging. It’s an interesting development when Thor realizes she’s Asgardian, and later when Loki forces her to remember her past of Hela killing her comrades. Jeff Goldblum’s portrayal of the Grandmaster has charismatic flare, such as in the scene when he vaporized his own cousin. (As gross as it was, Thor’s reaction was a little hard to believe however.) Finally, Korg was fun, and he thankfully got to appear in the climax.

Chris Hemsworth’s Thor has come a long way since 2011. In this film he talks about being a hero quite often. I wasn’t sold on Hemsworth in previous films, but here he’s excellent. What’s interesting is that a major part of his development is how he fights without his hammer in the climax. It’s always an interesting concept when a character’s primary weapon is destroyed/taken away. Next, as seen heavily in the marketing, the Hulk is featured as a major character. Mark Ruffalo took on the role starting in The Avengers, where he was excellent. Since then, Marvel has pushed a character arc on Bruce Banner/the Hulk, starting in Avengers: Age of Ultron, which hasn’t worked.

Bruce Banner was a man sure of himself and in control of the Hulk in The Avengers. Then for some unexplained reason in the sequel, that development went away and Hulk was back to being uncontrollable. In Ragnarok, Banner isn’t in control when Hulk appears. Hulk’s mind is small compared to Banner’s, and as a result, Hulk comes off as childlike. This leads to some funny scenes, but Hulk isn’t too engaging as a character. (It would have been more interesting to see a Hulk more like from the show Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.) This is not to say the Hulk wasn’t fun to have around. The gladiator battle sequence against Thor was one of the film’s highlights. Bruce Banner also appears, and has a few humorous scenes. But like in Age of Ultron, he isn’t as engaging as his appearance in the first Avengers.

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The Marvel films are typically good, but the antagonists can sometimes be mediocre. Examples include Darren Cross from Ant-Man, Malekith from The Dark World, among others. Hela is one of the Marvel villains that can thankfully be called “great.” As already stated earlier, her emergence is genuinely menacing. Cate Blanchett brings grandeur to her portrayal as she tells Thor and Loki to kneel before their queen. Hela continues to be a highlight, as she arrives in Asgard and begins to take over. Her backstory is fascinating. In fact, it’s so fascinating, that it was a missed opportunity to not show some of it in flashback. This could have been useful in the late middle act. There’s this long stretch with Thor on Sakaar with no scenes of Hela that could have benefited with a flashback showing her time with Odin.

As for other characters, Tom Hiddleston’s Loki is once again a lot of fun. One never 100% knows which side he’s on. He and Thor work really well together, such as when they team up late in the middle act. Odin doesn’t appear too much, but when he does, one can expect a scene of authority. Viewers learn intriguing backstory about Odin’s past with Hela, giving more dimension to his character. (It’s truly a shame there wasn’t a big flashback sequence.) Skurge goes through a character arc as he becomes the reluctant Executioner for Hela. It’s easy to see what the film was going for, but Scurge never came off as sympathetic or engaging.

One of the best aspects of this film is its pacing. The film never hits a boring moment, which is thanks to the excellent action and fun characters. From the opening sequence to the showdown with Hela, the film has quite a few exciting action pieces. I’ve already mentioned Hulk versus Thor in the ring, but it deserves a second shout out for being a particularly fun sequence. The soundtrack is Marvel’s strongest since the first Guardians of the Galaxy. Ragnarok’s music is stylistic and makes excellent use of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Immigrant Song.’

Overall, Thor: Ragnarok is one of the most entertaining Marvel movies to date. It never slows down and the storyline is engaging. This is thanks in large part to Cate Blanchett’s portrayal of Hela. The Goddess of Death commands the scene every time she’s on screen. Thor is also great. His mission is to get back to Asgard, but he’s stranded on an unknown planet. This makes for an interesting middle act. Hulk is a fun inclusion that never steals the show away from the title character. As a whole, most of the characters bring something to the table. Ragnarok is an exciting film.

9/10

Super Mario Odyssey Review

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Super Mario. Those two words mean a lot of things for many people. For some, it references the nostalgic days of playing Super Mario Bros. on the NES in the 80s. For others, it’s about modern installments such as going through the new arrivals list in Super Mario Maker. And then for the rest, it’s a constant reminder of what quality platforming looks like. Super Mario Bros. was not the first video game, but it set the standard of what a quality platforming adventure is all about. In fact, Mario has been in the business of setting standards in the video game industry. First with Super Mario Bros., then with Super Mario 64 which defined 3D platforming going forward. This year marks a special time for Nintendo. The company released its latest console, the Switch, in March. Just as with any Nintendo home console, a new main Mario game was announced. That game was Super Mario Odyssey.

When Mario was jumping over barrels in 8-bit form while Mayor Pauline sang the now iconic ‘Jump Up, Superstar!’ at New Donk City, it was at that moment I knew that Super Mario Odyssey was a revolution. Not only was it a revolution, it was a celebration of what has made Super Mario the face of video gaming as a whole. It takes the concept of previous platformers, specifically Super Mario Sunshine and Super Mario 64, and delivers an exciting experience for the current generation. As you walk up the stairs of the dark Ruined Kingdom, and later rush into the wedding hall for the final showdown, you know that Odyssey will go down as a legend.

“In the skies above Peach’s castle…” the text says as you start a new game. We’re then shown as exciting  sequence of Mario doing battle with Bowser atop the latter’s airship as Princess Peach hangs in the balance. Bowser in his new wedding tuxedo manages to hit Mario with his top hat, and the hero falls a great distance. Mario’s hat is shredded by the airship’s propeller, and soon we meet Cappy. The opening isn’t quite as thematic as the intro to the first Super Mario Galaxy, but it still nicely sets up the story. So, Mario meets a little ghost whom can transform into different hats and “possess” other characters. It turns out that Bowser also kidnapped Cappy’s sister, so he and Mario have a common goal: stop Bowser’s wedding with Peach. Cap Kingdom serves as a great tutorial area as the player gets to know Mario’s controls (anyone who has played Super Mario 64 will feel right at home) and how Cappy works. Let’s discuss Cappy for a bit.

Some part of me was worried that the game would rely too much on Cappy’s “capture” ability. This ability was heavily featured in marketing. It looked fun, but at the same time, if the game relied too much on the gimmick, some of the quality platforming could be lost. This is not the case. Cappy is used to enhance the experience and provide unique ways to go through the levels. From Mario becoming a frog in Cap Kingdom, to becoming a Banzai Bill to break through stone blocks, Cappy is smartly utilized. I haven’t mentioned how thrilling it is to become a Tyrannosaurus Rex or to swim through the water as a Cheep Cheep. Cappy is also utilized greatly in the boss fights, such as possessing a Gushen to blast water at Mollusque-Lanceur, and having Madame Broode’s golden Chain Chomp ram into her. Also, there’s almost nothing as satisfying as reigning down blows on Bowser with the Koopa King’s own hat.

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The boss battles are well designed and a lot of fun. Who can forget taking control of Knucklotec’s fist and then ramming it into his face? How about using a tank to blast away the MechaWiggler that’s wreaking havoc in the Metro Kingdom? I’ll never forget those, but perhaps the most epic was the fight against the Lord of Lightning atop the Ruined Kingdom. This was an example of showing how realistic graphics can exist in a Mario game. The Broodal fights are simplistic, but fun. Typically, the boss battles aren’t too difficult. This is understandable because the Mario series has been known for being accessible for all ages. Whereas a game like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild might attract older players, the Mario series attracts audiences of all ages. The boss fights, while not too difficult, are unique and provide a memorable experience. The final Bowser battle provides some good challenge and patterns to memorize.

As with previous Mario games, the worlds in Super Mario Odyessey are incredible. Whereas Sunshine and Galaxy are limited by theme, Odyssey holds no limitations. We have the standard grassland in the form of Cascade Kingdom, the frosty Snow Kingdom, the food-themed Luncheon Kingdom, the New York City-inspired Metro Kingdom, among other fantastic worlds. These worlds are a nice size. They are not too big where players feel like they’ll never get all the moons. (None of the worlds are as annoyingly daunting as Hazy Maze Cave from Super Mario 64.) A fantastic soundtrack accompanies the kingdoms. From the soft Lake Kingdom theme to the intense Lost Kingdom theme, the music is a treat. And of course, ‘Jump Up, Superstar!’ is an absolute masterpiece. As a whole, the soundtrack might not be as strong as the Mario Galaxies’, but it’s still fantastic.

Finally, Odyssey is full of special surprises. I had a blast going through the short 8-bit sequences, which are an incredible throwback to Super Mario Bros., reminding the player when Super Mario began. I already mentioned the incredible sequence with 8-bit Mario jumping over barrels and eventually defeating DK as a homage to Mario’s first ever appearance in the arcade game, Donkey Kong. There is also this atmosphere of grand gameplay never before seen in the franchise. No one will forget when Mario turned into Lord of the Rings as the player faced a dragon at the Ruined Kingdom. Maybe even more epic was the Moon Kingdom, doing an even better job at putting Mario in space than the Galaxies. (The ominous wedding bells were excellent.)

It’s here in the Moon Kingdom when the game features a Metroid-like escape climax. As the characters break through blocks to escape as the beautiful song ‘Honeylune Ridge: Escape’ plays, it’s at this moment when the player realizes this might not just be the greatest Mario game, it might be the greatest game ever made. That’s why the final scene is a letdown. To really finalize the epic experience, the game should have had Mario tie the knot with Peach. The game plays around with that idea, but then it doesn’t happen. It’s a shame and insulting to over 30 years of the characters’ relationship. After such an epic climax, it’s too bad the game ended on a comedic note.

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Overall, Super Mario Odyssey should be remembered as one of the greatest games of this generation. The kingdom designs are diverse and engaging. You will not want to put down the controller. Cappy is the new F.L.U.D.D., and he’s just as smartly utilized as the water hose. There’s so much else to love about this game. It’s inviting and enthralling, not to mention epic. The callbacks to older games is an awesome touch for players who have grown up with the series. Aspects, like the hats/outfits and 8-bit sequences, enhance the experience. The soundtrack is a treat, and features two well done lyrical songs. Replay value is high, because there are over 800 Power Moons to collect. The game ended on a disappointing note, but the worlds, level design and just about everything works together so perfectly that I can’t hold back the perfect score. Super Mario Odyssey joins The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild as one of the finest games Nintendo has ever made.

10/10

Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle Review

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The Mario franchise is no stranger to different genres. Platforming is what the series is known for, but there have been many different types of games. There have been sports, RPGs, and even a dancing game on one occasion. Despite all this however, I don’t think many expected Mario to feature in an XCOM-style adventure. That’s the case with Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle. This game was a surprise when it was first announced. Not only is it the hero’s first foray with this kind of battle style, it’s also Mario’s first new game on Nintendo’s latest console, the Switch. Kingdom Battle delivers something special. It’s a unique, fun and sometimes quite challenging game that brings the heavily strategy-based XCOM gameplay into the colorful worlds of Mario and the Rabbids.

The story begins with the Rabbids warping into a human girl’s home. It’s a shame the story never went back there because she being a Mario fan was quite meta. Anyways, the Rabbids eventually warp to the Mushroom Kingdom. Because of one Rabbid’s fiddling of a helmet capable of merging, the Kingdom is now out of whack. Now Mario, the Rabbids and a few other Mushroom heroes go through four worlds to fix the Kingdom. The story is fun and engages the viewer from the start. Of course, part of that enjoyment is going to hinge on the Rabbids. Kids will probably like them, but for older players they can become jarring. Thankfully, the Rabbids never become overbearing. (I’m still wondering why we didn’t get Mario + Rayman instead.)

As fun as the story is, the gameplay is the primary winner here. Chances are if you’ve never played XCOM before, Kingdom Battle might look complex. Kingdom Battle’s gameplay however is quickly understood. By the end of World 1, the player is confident to press on. What makes this style of gameplay truly great is the amount of strategy it requires of the player. Players must make decisions on which weapons to use, which special abilities to implement, (should I heal my guys or make their weapons stronger?) which skills to upgrade, and how to use the environment to their advantage. One example is a battle that featured a Chain Chomp stage hazard. Eventually I figured out that I should use the Chain Chomp to my advantage. Another example of careful strategic planning is a battle that features an environment that circles around. The enemies featured here are mostly powerful Smashers, which do a large amount of damage. They however do not move very far; so players have to carefully maneuver and then attack them.

As one can see, there’s quality strategic play at work in this game. Sadly, quite a few battles are on the easier side. It’s understandable that Kingdom Battle works as an accessible point into the XCOM world, but more battles could have been given a slightly harder push. With that said, the game does feature quite a few genuine challenges that forces players to carefully evaluate their losses and come up with new strategies. When it’s hard, Kingdom Battle is a masterpiece when it comes to strategic play. The final boss heals himself twice, and makes the player ask the questions, “Should I concentrate on the minions and then focus on the boss, or focus all firepower on the boss? Can I do both?” The boss battles are diverse, from Rabbid Kong’s shockwaves to having to turn off the spotlight on Phantom of the Bwahpera.

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To switch things up, the gameplay sometimes features “get to the goal” battles. Instead of fighting enemies, the objective is to get to the appointed yellow area. These were a nice change of pace. It especially gets interesting when you have to escort a non-fighter, such as Toad, to the goal without that character being depleted of his/her health.  While battles are the primary part of the game, you will spend a good amount of time exploring the maps. Here Mario and friends go from level to level often looking for secret areas that can yield artwork, new weapons, and other nifty things. You will also solve puzzles of varying difficulty. They are not a bad way to keep that strategic thinking going between battles.

The soundtrack is wonderfully orchestrated. From the tension-filled ‘Into the Pit’ to the epic ‘Bowser Returns,’ the music in this game is well done. It’s a shame there weren’t many Mario remixes, but since this is a crossover game, it makes sense the soundtrack wouldn’t be 100% focused on delivering Mario-specific themes. There are four worlds to trek through. That sounds like a small number, but each world has nine main sections, and they usually are not short. There are many collectibles to find for completionists. As for multiplayer, there are co-op challenges. That’s fine, but it’s shocking that there isn’t a versus mode. How fun would it be to challenge a sibling or friend whom has come over for some strategic play? Ubisoft made a mistake not implementing a competitive mode.

Overall, Mario + Rabbids is an unexpectedly great crossover. The amount of depth to the gameplay is amazing. Many battles you’ll think up different strategies as you see how far an enemy can move. You’ll use the environment to your advantage (while the computers do the same). The characters have diverse weapons and abilities. I personally liked Rabbid Peach’s heal ability and had her on my team. Maybe you will like Rabbid Yoshi’s Gatling gun-type weapon. There are other things to consider, such as skill points, further adding to the depth. More battles with higher difficultly would have been welcome however, and a lack of competitive multiplayer is almost a crime. Despite those things, Kingdom Battle is definitely worth a look, whether or not you’re familiar with XCOM. If you’re not familiar, this game will give you an appreciation for it.

8.5/10

My Little Pony: The Movie Review

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On October 10, 2010, the world of pop culture was forever changed when a show called My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic premiered on The Hub/Discovery Family. This show began the fourth generation of the My Little Pony franchise. It was different than previous incarnations. The character designs were unique and it attracted a fan-base of both men and women of all ages. Seven years later, and that fan-base has grown to amazing proportions. The series has aired over a hundred episodes and shows no signs of finishing anytime soon. Essays can be written on why the show is appealing, but I’ll sum it up in one sentence: In a time when animated shows are devoid of substance, My Little Pony offers genuinely good writing, developed characters, and moral-filled messages. The show must obviously be doing something right, because this year marks its first wide release theatrical film.

Granted, the series had a couple of spin-off films (Equestria Girls) appear in the theater, but those were limited releases. The Movie is the first “true” theatrical experience. Director Jayson Thiessen has been with the series for awhile. He does the show justice with the film. It’s an exciting adventure for both longtime fans and those looking to see for the first time why Pony is a pop culture phenomenon. Though it’s not perfect (a weak climax for one thing), The Movie is well worth the price of admission.

The opening scene features a beautiful overview of Canterlot. The show has been known for its sharp animation, and the movie multiplies its unique look: the animation is gorgeous. Soon we’re shown our main character: Twilight Sparkle, the Princess of Friendship. In typical Twilight fashion, we’re shown a character whom easily becomes a nervous wreck when it comes to planning something big. The Friendship Festival is a solid way to start the film, as it introduces viewers to each of the main ponies. Rarity’s attention to detail when designing the ribbons for the stage, and Rainbow Dash’s brashness in decorating the place in the blink of an eye (with no attention to detail) much to Rarity’s dismay was classic. Right before the festival can kick off with a song from Songbird Serenade, the conflict makes itself known.

The arrival of the Storm King’s ship was handled brilliantly. The sky grows dark and the music changes as the ship draws closer to the ground. We’re not introduced to the eponymous villain yet however. Instead, a little creature named Grubber announces they’re here by order of the Storm King and proceeds to introduce Commander Tempest. Voiced by Emily Blunt, Tempest makes herself known by requesting the immediate surrender of all four princesses. Blunt does a fantastic job here and the rest of the film as Tempest. There’s a genuine menace to her voice, and also gives the impression that Tempest genuinely hates friendship. Back to the raid, naturally the princesses don’t surrender and this leads to an exciting sequence as Tempest turns Princess Celestia, Luna, and Cadance all to stone. It’s mayhem as the Storm King’s troops attack as the pony civilians run in fear. There is however something that needs to be noted about the entire sequence.

Viewers of the show know that Twilight Sparkle is one of the most powerful magic users in Equestria. However, she’s useless during the raid. She doesn’t teleport away as the orb approaches her. She almost doesn’t fight back at all when really she could easily beat Tempest. That’s a problem for almost the rest of the movie: Twilight seems to be genuinely scared of Tempest, despite the fact that she (Twilight) battled a demonic overlord all by herself in the past. That’s why the raid sequence was a little hard to believe. If someone however has never seen the show, this wouldn’t be a big deal.

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Next, the core part of the movie begins: Twilight and her friends’ journey to finding the Queen of the “Hippos.” It’s an adventure story at its finest; the ponies travel to a shady western-like town, a pirate airship, a mermaid-like place, and finally back to the castle. The new settings have memorable characters. Capper is a charismatic cat brilliantly voiced by Taye Diggs. Captain Celaeno is a great pirate character. This is one case though where the film could have benefited from being a bit longer. We’re shown that she and her band of pirates are forced to do the Storm King’s bidding. Rainbow Dash gives her a speech on being awesome again: she doesn’t have to follow the Storm King. Dash’s speech is well done, but some additional minutes would have been useful in developing Celaeno’s character progression. In the mermaid, or rather seapony place, Princess Skystar is another great character. We’re shown her genuine longing for friends, especially with not having interacted with the outside world for awhile.

Before we move on to the climax, let’s discuss the main ponies themselves. Each of their diverse personalities are nicely displayed. It’s fun seeing their different reactions, from Rarity saying how her mane is worth more than a character was willing to pay for it, to Pinkie’s bubbly reaction to a certain character’s real name. Now, unfortunately some of the ponies don’t technically get to do much. Fluttershy, Applejack, and Rarity have few notable scenes. At least Fluttershy had one memorable scene when she “battled” a Storm King trooper – I can’t say the same for Applejack or Rarity. Other than Twilight, Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie seem to be the show’s most popular characters. That’s probably the reason why those two were given more prominence in the film.

Pinkie Pie was one of the highlights. The show can have a hard time balancing her comedic relief persona and being an engaging character. The film balances that perfectly, and even goes further toward the climax when she and Twilight discuss a controversial matter. It was one of the most emotional scenes in the entire franchise. It’s amazing how much emotion can be shown in the characters’ eyes. This was also helped by the superb voices of Tara Strong and Andrea Libman. Spike is given a good role as well. His fire-breathing is put to excellent use.

Now we come to the climax and the Storm King. Storm King steals the show in the few scenes he’s in. Liev Schreiber does a fantastic job voicing the villain with comedic flare. Storm King is a character whom likes to have fun as he’s ruling over the masses, and it shows. Unfortunately, the climax doesn’t do him full justice. Now, him mainly appearing in the climax as build-up can be a good thing  – if the film delivers something exciting. We do get some good dialogue from the King, and the obligatory ponies-uniting scene to put an end to his reign. But there’s no real battle. There’s virtually no showdown with the antagonist. The show has had better climaxes. In “Twilight’s Kingdom – Part 2,” Twilight battles Tirek; magical beams are shot and Twilight is thrown into a mountain. Keep in mind, that “Twilight’s Kingdom” was aired as TV-Y. The Movie has a film budget and a PG rating, and yet has a mediocre climax in comparison. It’s not terrible, but with how little the Storm King appears, more was needed. (I recommend reading the prequel graphic novel; it shows more of Storm King’s character and motivation which you won’t really find in the film.)

One of the greatest aspects of the show is its emphasis on quality music. You’ll find many amazingly written tunes in the film as well. As an example, part of the lyrics of the song, “We Got This Together” is: “I am the princess of friendship – But that is more than just a crown.” This speaks volumes on the type of character Twilight is, and the responsibly she carries. Daniel Ingram has been composing heartfelt songs for the show for years. He continues that quality work in the film, along with every other artist who worked on the soundtrack. Tempest also has a song as she explains her emotional backstory on how her horn became broken. The background themes are also great. The soundtrack overall is an A+.

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Overall, My Little Pony: The Movie does the show justice. It features all the great characters longtime fans have come to love throughout the years. The story is a classic adventure filled with memorable new characters. Tempest is a highlight, and no one will soon be forgetting the laughs they had while watching Capper. Like the show, the film  deals with different themes. It deals with the power of friendship, losing faith in friendship, broken friendships, and of course the fight against evil. Quality writing is abound. There are a few gripes. Twilight is portrayed as severely weak throughout the film. The climax was more on the mediocre side, and the Storm King, though a great character, was given too little screen time and not enough payoff. These things shouldn’t wreck your enjoyment of the film however. My Little Pony has become a brand associated with quality. The Movie is a story filled with the quality message of friendship.

8.5/10

Barakamon Review

Barakamon

There are slice-of-life shows like Spongebob Squarepants where episode order doesn’t really matter most of the time. The opposite of that is a show like Young Justice – a show that features an ongoing storyline. Combining these two ideas, ‘slice-of-life’ and ‘plot driven,’ can be tricky. The rewards are high however, as this kind of show can deliver a unique, down-to-earth experience while also showing quality character development. That perfectly defines Barakamon, a great anime with memorable characters.

Barakmon follows Seishū Handa, a calligrapher whom is sent to an island after punching an exhibition curator for criticizing Handa’s work. On this island Handa looks to improve his calligraphy, and unexpectedly develops genuine friendships.

From the onset, Handa is a unique character. We’re shown his anger in that first episode when he punches the curator for insulting his “textbook” work. By the end of that episode, Handa begins to develop his own unique style for calligraphy by not sticking to the rigid ruleset he had been using. A lot is accomplished in that first episode, and things get even more interesting in Episode 2, which introduces more characters. Hiroshi is inspired by Handa to do better in school, which shows great development on Handa’s part. And that’s just Episode 2.

One more note about the second episode – the entire sequence with the senior patient (ghost?) talking to Handa was excellent. So, moving on to the main focus of the show other than Handa: a little girl by the name of Naru. She quickly befriends Handa, and Handa grows to care about her. Her character is one of great, genuine cheerfulness. Her child-like wonder, but having a special wisdom, is well done and serves as one of the catalysts to Handa’s changing as a calligrapher, and a person.

The characters all bring something to the table. Miwa and Tamako are fun to have around. Miwa’s outgoing personality and Tamako’s love of manga never gets old. Naru’s friendship with Hina is sweet, and Takao’s interactions with Handa are always fantastic. Characters in a slice-of-life-like story are very important, and Barakamon doesn’t fail there. It’s truly amazing what is accomplished throughout the 12 episodes. By the final episode, the viewer has grown attached to Handa’s inner journey and the people on the island. The phone call near the end was well done, and the viewer understands Handa’s wanting to go back to the island – because that’s where he met so many genuine friends and began his true work as a calligrapher.

This review is a bit shorter than usual, but I think I got the message across: Barakamon is a great anime with an inspirational message. Sure, some of the comedic scenes might go on a little too long, but that’s really just a minor thing in the long run. Handa’s journey from disgruntled calligrapher to a changed individual with his own style of work is amazingly done. The characters, especially Naru, are well developed and a lot of fun to have around. Oh, and the opening theme is one of the best.

9/10

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Sonic Mania Review

Sonic Mania

In recent years, Sonic as a franchise has been out of its prime. The last main game was Sonic Lost World, which wasn’t that great. To makes things worse, SEGA then released a new version of the series called Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric, which was critically panned. Things started to look up last year in July when two new Sonic titles were announced. One of those titles was Sonic Mania. Similar to the underrated Sonic the Hedgehog 4, Mania was going to bring Sonic back to his Genesis roots. Mania took it one step further than Sonic 4, using the retro art style and sprites. The game saw release this year, and it ended up being a nice nostalgic trip reminding players why they fell in love with the franchise in the first place.

Mania has an impressive 13 zones. Eight of those are remastered while five are new. First, it was an interesting idea to remake old zones and even remix the themes. It’s nice to hop right back into Green Hill Zone and Flying Battery Zone. Stardust Speedway is iconic, but like in Sonic CD, it’s still a little uneven. Oil Ocean was intense, as it forces Sonic to watch out for the smoggy atmosphere that takes over the screen. So, it’s fun seeing some of the old zones back. At the same time however, it would have been great to see more original zones. In a new game, there should have been more original zones. Generations already had the idea of bringing back older zones. But, this isn’t a make it or break it deal as the old zones are still fun to play through, and the new ones are well made. Mirage Saloon Zone is a highlight.

Like the Genesis games, Mania puts an emphasis on speed. The player will be blasting through at many parts, but there’s also careful platforming. Getting squished is easy if one isn’t careful. The last zone, (not counting the secret final zone) Titanic Monarch, has plenty of platforming, forcing the player to slow down and carefully navigate the area. It’s a tough balance the Sonic games have to maintain, because on one hand the player wants to zoom through as the fastest video game character alive. On the other hand, just blasting through would make the game easy and quick. Mania nicely balances sonic-speed gameplay and platforming.

Boss battles in the Sonic series have been more on the challenging side. (Who could forget the Death Egg Robot at the end of Sonic the Hedgehog 2?) It’s the same with Mania; each boss is well designed and provides a quality challenge. One highlight is the encounter with Metal Sonic at the end of Stardust Speedway. It’s fast paced and intense, especially if you’re not able to hold on to your rings. Another highlight is Heavy Magician at the end of Mirage Saloon, where it impersonates classic Sonic characters Fang, Bean, and Bark. Oh, one can’t forget playing a round of Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine against Eggman himself at the end of Chemical Plant Zone. Multiplayer is a nice feature, and Mania also has a competition mode, which is always welcome. The soundtrack is fantastic, from the remastered themes to the original ones.

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Overall, Sonic Mania does a stellar job bringing back the original Sonic style of gameplay. It looks and plays like a Genesis title. It’s evident from the start that the developers care a great deal about the franchise. Though there’s too many old zones in comparison to new ones, they are almost all a blast to run through. Acquiring the Chaos Emeralds is a hard endeavor, so those wanting to get the true ending are in for a genuine challenge. If you’ve been absent from the series for awhile or just want some classic Sonic, Mania is worth the purchase. Sonic is finally back with a title worthy of his 25th anniversary, which looks to continue later this year with Sonic Forces.

8.5/10