Triforce Quartet Interview

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Triforce Quartet is a classical string quartet from Washington DC that performs covers of classic and contemporary games; everything from classics like the Super Mario World theme to some deeper cuts like the Spark Mandrill theme from Megaman X. They’ve played at video game conventions such as MAG Fest, and can be seen playing at PAX in Seattle this Friday. I sat down to talk to them about games, music, and who is the best at Smash Brothers. Members include Chad Schwartz (cello and arrangements), Chris Ferrara (violin), Jacob Roege (second violin), and Stanley Beckwith (viola) who unfortunately, could not be here for this interview.

Nick Walge: How did this come about?

CS: This stated somewhere in 2006. I always liked video game music. There’s a Zelda medley played by Hyrule Symphony that I found on Napster, I think…
CF: Maybe Kazaa?
CS: Maybe Kazaa.
JR: Limewire.
CS: Maybe Limewire. It was a long time ago. Whatever legal torrent… It was a really awesome. I was a senior in college, and thought, “Yeah, I’m going to find a way to do this for my senior recital.”
JR: We all went to JMU [James Madison University]. 
CS: Yeah, we all went to JMU. So over the summer, I listened to the Hyrule Symphony, and painstakingly figured out every part, wrote down every part, for all four instruments. And there were something’s I didn’t like, so I changed that around a little bit. That was the original Zelda Medley. I played that, at the time Chris played, and a few other members, unfortunately Jake wasn’t with us then- and we played that as an encore at my senior recital. My teacher was really angry. Fun side story, I actually got in trouble for it. If you look at the video online, you can actually hear him storming out of the door about an eighth in. You hear the door slam, and he waited for me backstage to chew me out. He docked me a full letter grade. So what happened that summer, this is before people really played video game music and there wasn’t that much online. So I put it up on YouTube, and then one week it just exploded. And Kontaku and a bunch of other video game websites found it and put it up on their website. Iwetn from having about 100 views to 90,000 views in a week, and eventually got over a million views. It’s really old, and honestly, I can’t even listen to it anymore. Everything’s out of tune, I don’t know, I just can’t listen to it anymore. It doesn’t get a lot of views anymore, it’s just sitting at like 1.3 million views I think. 


NW: You’ve done a lot of videos since then, and I was surprised to see a lot of more contemporary stuff. You’ve done pieces from the Halo 3 soundtrack…

CS: After I did the Zelda medley, there were a lot of themes that I really liked. So I just kept adding to it, adding themes that I liked. And where it started out at about five minutes, we’ve just added to it so you can barely recognize the orignal Hyrule Symphony anymore. SO then, I did a Final Fantasy medley and a Mario Medley. I started a fraternity at JMU, and they were getting their…
JR: Charter.
CS: Charter, thank you. I can’t remember, [laughs]. And I was already out of school, and I was just using it as an excuse to keep playing video game music. And that’s when Jake played. And then we played a concert with the Zelda medley, the Final Fantasy medley, the Mario medley, and the Halo 3 medley, which you are talking about, as an encore. And later on, we added more to that one. You can’t hear it in that video, but later on we added on to it, themes from Halo 4. 
JR: Yeah, over the years as stuff has come out, we’ve just added to them. 
CS: Every performance, you know, we’d have another flap of music. Like, two days before I’d be like, “Oh, so I have another theme…”
CF: I think it’s finalized now. 
CS: Yeah, I don’t think I can add anymore.

NW: When you’re doing something like that, something that has been composed for a full symphony, do you find that easier to arrange than the old MIDI music?

CS: It’s actually the opposite. And the reason for that is, say,  Final Fantasy was the hardest one to do because it’s such a rich orchestration, it’s so difficult to take something that was written for eighty instruments and bring it down to four and have it still sound right. A lot of people say “Oh, why don’t you have the Final Fantasy VII final boss theme, with Sephiroth. You know, it’s one of the most famous themes, and I say it’s because it’s such a rich orchestration, it just wouldn’t work.
CF: The texture just wouldn’t work. You’d need drums, you’d need a tambourine.
JR: A triangle.
CS: It just wouldn’t sound good. 
CF: You’d need a full chorus.
CS: You would. MIDI stuff is usually like three or four tracks, so I just make those our parts. And we sit around and you know, make sure it works. So those are a lot easier.

NW: As I was looking over the videos from MAGFest, and usually when I think of a string quartet, it’s a very quiet thing, everyone’s sitting down, and everyone’s very polite. What’s it like playing for an audience that gets so engaged when they hear their favorite theme? Is that distracting considering what you’re used to?

CS: No, I think it motivates you, it gives you energy. It’s the same thing when people are playing rock music, there’s just so much energy from the audience.
CF: You feed off of them. 
CS: Yeah, you feed off of them. I think we somewhat bridge the gap between classical music and rock music, or whatever it is, you know, we have a lot of people that don’t normally listen to classical come see us. And we don’t want to look old fashioned or feel old fashioned. We don’t want people to come in and feel uncomfortable. And that’s I think a problem with a lot of classical music, you don’t have a lot of audience interaction, not that you need it, because it’s that kind of environment. But we don’t have to do that, we can do whatever we want. 
CF: And we’re miked. Normally, if you’re listening to Beethoven or whatever, there’s so much going on that you wouldn’t want to be distracted by that. But we can be as loud as we want.


NW: Do you ever see anyone move from one environment to the other? Is there anyone who has listened to you and thought, “Oh, maybe I should give classical music a shot.”

CS: That’s a good question. I’d like to think so, but I’m not sure.
CF: Actually, yeah.  So I hold this Chamber Music festival in my own hometown of Norfolk, VA, and basically, there were people that came to it that had only heard about the Triforce thing, then they heard about the Chamber music thing and came out based on what they’d heard and listened to Bach, and loved it. 
CS: Some people don’t realize how similar a lot of video game music is to a lot of classical music. Nobou Nomeatsu, for example, he’s a classical, romantic composer. If you like him, you’re going to like a lot of music from that era.
CF: And people don’t really know chamber music. They think classical music and they think full symphony, they don’t think of quartets, quintets, piano trios, and then they hear it, and they’re like “Oh my god.”
What is everyone’s all-time favorite music soundtrack.
JR: Final Fantasy VIII.
CF: Wow, he was ready for that.

NW: Quick on the gun. Laughs.

CS: Yeah, there’s a lot of Final Fantasy soundtracks that are really great. Final Fantasy VI is probably my favorite, although Chrono Trigger is way up there.
CF: I’m going to be the odd man out, I’m going to say StarCraft 2.
JR and CS: Whoa!
CF: StarCraft 2 has amazing music. All of those Blizzard games, Warcraft, and Diablo. So Blizzard games for me, in general.
JR: Yeah, Final Fantasy VIII was one of the first games that really got me into video games, so there’s something special for me there.
CS: I have this theory, that everyone has a favorite Final Fantasy, and it’s the first one they ever played. You know, VI was the one I played through first, and my little brother, his first one was IX, and that’s his favorite. You know, I think IX is better than some of the others, but it’s not the best.

NW: Did your teacher at JMU ever come around?

CS: I don’t think so. It was really awkward, afterwards.
CF: I talked to him a couple years ago, actually, and mentioned you. I visited JMU, and saw him in the hallway, and he’s like, “Oh, what are you doing?” And I was like “Oh, I’m doing, you know, Chad’s thing.” And he says, “Oh, that thing.” 
CS: And yeah, I stayed in that area for a while, and I would talk to people over at JMU who were walking around with instruments, and trying to figure out if they knew about the video without actually asking them about it. And you would get people who would see that video online, and be like “Well, I want to go there now, if they’re doing things like that.”

NW: What tracks haven’t you done, that you’d like to do. Is Green Hill Zone in that list?

CS: It’s funny that you should say that because we do have a Sonic Medley, and Green Hill Zone is in there. I arranged it about a month ago, and we played it at VGU a few weeks ago. With Taiko drummers. 
CF: Yeah, he played the Sonic theme with us, then we played the Game of Thrones theme, which was awesome. I would really like to do Kirby.
CS: Yeah, I kind of base it on that, you know, I did the Sonic thing because Chris was really pushing for it.
CF: Yeah, but look how popular it is. He even asked, like, Green Hill Zone, people know about it.
JR: I think the Final Fantasy Boss Medley is something I’m really excited about. That’s premiering [at PAX], with boss themes from Final Fantasy IV, VI, VII, and VIII. 
CS: That’ll be the premiere thing tomorrow. And it’s impossibly hard, and I don’t know how they do it. 
JR: Bravely Default, I’d really like to do that.
CF: Contra, I think that’d be good to do.
CS: Yeah, we could probably do the first level. I know a lot of people want to do Chrono Trigger, so we will probably do that. And what’s the other one that we always get requests to do… The one everyone plays…
CF: Skyrim?
CS: Skyrim, yeah. But that’s one that it would be good to have that Taiko drummer for. But it’s another one that has a very rich orchestration, and would be very difficult to do.
CF: Plus, a lot of the new games, their music is a lot more for texture, or atmospheric effect, it’s going for an emotion. So it’s not like in Final Fantasy where Aeris comes out and her theme plays, or when Mario comes out, and his theme plays.
CF: Yeah, it’s, like I said, very atmospheric. Very filmy. It sounds like you’re at a theater, and you know, you have tension music…
JR: Yeah, there’s no real melodies to it.
CF: No real melodies, no real themes. So it’s hard. 

NW: I saw that you guys did a cover of the Super Smash Bros. theme. Which one among 
you smashes the best?

JR: I think I usually win, actually.
CS: Really? I don’t think so.
JR: With Lucas, I usually win.
CF: You’re pretty annoying with Lucas.
JR: P.K. FIRE!
CS: Yeah, that’s a pretty good question, I think we’ll have to throw down later.
JR: Best two out of three. 

Follow the Triforce Quartet on Twitter, like them on Facebook, and look out for them on Louder, iTunes, Spotify or the Google Play Store. Also, if you’re at PAX in Seattle, check them out on the show floor this Friday! If you’re not at PAX, then you can still watch their performance on http://www.twitch.tv/pax. Album is available do download here

Interview by: Nick Walge
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Robocraft Impressions

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There are many pre-release games out there and almost all of them require that you buy before you try. Not many games can survive on a free-to-play business model while the developers are still working on how the game should play and develop – but as an example of a game that used this beautifully you don’t need to look any further than World of Tanks and now Robocraft.

Robocraft is a game that allows a player to create a vehicle, one of three types, and then ride their customized chariot into battle. There’s not really a whole lot of strategy involved in the game so far as most of the time you will see yourself back in the garage within five minutes rather than riding out the entire round to victory (or bitter defeat). The game will require more strategic thinking as you progress in player levels and vehicle tiers, but there’s little in the way of communicating with other players in the game. Most people are happy running out and getting blown to small robo-pieces rather than actually trying to win a match. Because you know, winning is hard! Fighting in a platoon of three players, four if you have purchased premium time, will be a huge advantage to players who can use a VoIP such as Teamspeak to coordinate your efforts. Many players do not return to the base to defend or attack the enemy capture point because they are too focused on killing the enemy rather than winning the game. One player distracting the enemy team while you and the rest of your team captures the base is a very viable strategy.


While comparing the early Robocraft gameplay to that of World of Tanks, there are no shortcut keys to ask for assistance and the chat box is not scrollable, meaning you are confined to what the last five players have said. There’s no pinging the map to report locations enabled yet – but they have recently added a spotting key “Q” to report an enemy using the same system as the Battlefield games. If you miss tagging an enemy, you must wait five seconds before you can tag again to prevent tagging spam. While helpful, your radar is only visible to you and of limited function if they are using a radar jammer. You will find that not many players are willing to tag enemy units and you have to guess where the enemies are by the disappearing blue dots on the mini-map. All that aside, the actual meat of the game resides in the garage. It’s here than you will spend up to your allowed level of CPU pFLOPS which is a way to restrict bigger builds until you have played a significant number of battles. Tier also restricts you. A bar on the bottom of the screen moves from the left to the right as you add more and more pieces with higher-ranking attributes. The higher your vehicle’s rating, the more advanced the other players robots are too. The difficulty is trying to outfit your robo-vehicle with enough high-powered pieces that you still fit right in under the bar for the next tier. Going into a higher tier battle with the equipment from the last tier is a good way to guarantee that you won’t make it out of the match alive.


Taking all of that into consideration, you will find that some players will “cheese” up their build by taking parts such as a high powered weapon and taking them into much lower tiered matches. It’s a good way to rack up kills, but a poor way to make friends.

Pros:
 Three different methods of movement – wheels, hover, or flying.
 There is huge developer interaction with the community and they constantly givecodes for free premium time.
 You have the ability to create just about anything you can imagine on a battlefield short of a mech or anything with legs.
 There are three different types of weapons so you can choose which style of play suits you best – sniper, gunner, or bomber.

Cons:
 The game is free-to-play so you will see a LOT of people who are just in the game to troll.
 Expect to get frustrated by the players in the beginning of the game in the low tiers.
 The weapon balance is better suited to higher tier play. Early in the game in the lower tiers you can expect to be taken out in one shot by someone using a weapon much more advanced than your battle tier (even if that does restrict the amount of points they have to use for vehicle construction).
 You will lose hours, days, or even weeks in this game. I have spent countless hours tweaking and refining a vehicle only to take it apart later to start over.

The game is currently in early alpha and you can get it for free on Steam now. When signing up for an account for Robocraft, use the code STEAMLAUNCH1000RP for a little boost to your starting funds. Hope to see you on the battlefield!

Article by: Mark Brenner | Tested on: PC (Steam)
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Sacred 3 Review

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"Unfortunately, the final product does not quite reach the humor of the former nor the button mashing fun of the latter."

Sacred 3 is a traditional hack and slash action RPG from publisher Deep Silver that doesn't take itself too seriously, something of a cross between The Bard’s Tale and the Gauntlet franchise. Unfortunately, the final product does not quite reach the humor of the former nor the button mashing fun of the latter, and while it does have its charms, players should think long and hard before settling into this colorful adventure.  

The gameplay in Sacred 3 is very straightforward. You pick one of four heroes: a paladin, a lancer, a barbarian or an archer, and progress through a series of story-based and side missions that revolve around laying waste to hordes of enemies while completing the same three or four objectives and tackling massive bosses. Each character has a basic attack, a bash attack, and two special abilities at their disposal, and players can upgrade their characters by upgrades to their weapons, armor, and special moves. Characters also can equip Weapon Spirits, which are unlocked pretty arbitrarily as player’s progress through the games storyline, and grant specific buffs to the player and their party. Unfortunately, most of the characters play very similarly, with only the archer breaking up the “attack-and-evade” pattern that worked for everyone else quite efficiently.


"The missions are very linear, and contain very few branching paths or secret areas."

Playing with a group is very much encouraged here, and dropping in with a buddy either online or locally is a breeze. Having four players on the screen with you at one time, however, does make it a little tougher to follow the action, as the colorful animations and large number of on-screen opponents can make certain sections more cluttered than one would like. The missions are very linear, and contain very few branching paths or secret areas. Instead, extra items and buffs can be found in the side missions, which are immediately available from the level select screen. This keeps the pace of the story missions steady, as you don’t have to invest in finding these things on your own, but it does imply that your gameplay experience is going to be the same as everyone else’s. 

The visuals in Sacred 3 are top notch. From the pre-rendered cinematic cut scenes, to the digital artwork that breaks up the missions in between, to the character and level designs; everything looks fresh, bright, and colorful. It was a wise move on the developer's part to discard a lot of the more traditional fantasy tropes in favor of the more eclectic selection of heroes on display here. Playing a knight in shining armor for the thousandth time could have gone over just fine, but playing as Claire, the blonde paladin with a pair of luminescent wings sprouting from her back is even better. Similarly, the developer should be applauded for its gorgeous level designs, which inject enough color and detail into the games 30 or so levels to make even such well-trodden venues as the sewer seem like they are being seen for the first time.


"Some of the chatter is so bad that you might find yourself choosing which Spirit to use based on who says the least."

Unfortunately, it is in the voiceover where the presentation begins to go off of the rails. While I can appreciate a game taking a more tongue-in-cheek approach, much of the humor falls flat at first, then descends into repetitive annoyances. The Weapon Spirits are the worst offenders, as each one is designed with some goofy archetype in mind. The Dryad, for example, is the peace-loving hippie, while the elven Bard sings most of her comments in the style of a Mickey Mouse Club pop-star, etc.,) and boy do they ever have a lot to say about your progress. Some of the chatter is so bad that you might find yourself choosing which Spirit to use based on who says the least-- that being the Gladiator in my experience, whose one word utterances of "Violence!" and "Dying!" cause the fewest distractions.

There is a lot to like about Sacred 3. The unique setting is a refreshing take on typical fantasy games, and the army-crushing combat is satisfying for quite some time. But unless you are able to look past the groan-inducing caricatures, misplaced humor, and somewhat repetitive gameplay, there are other titles on the market that are far more satisfying, whether you’re looking for a lighter arcade experience or a deeper, more involved RPG.

Review by: Nick Walge | Reviewed on: Playstation 3

6
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Metro Redux Review

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"For those new to the dreary and dark world of Metro, know this…Redux may be the best sixty bucks you’ll spend all year."

As far as HD remakes go, 4A Games and Deep Silver are the new kings on the block. Metro Redux is not only one of the best new-gen titles on PS4 and Xbox ONE at the moment, it’s a wonderful reminder that some developers and publishers still genuinely care about their fan base. If there’s one HD remake that truly deserves the “ultimate” or “definitive” subtitle, it’s Metro. Metro Redux brings not only a fresh coat of paint to an already graphically impressive series; it improves major gameplay elements to make the journey through both titles a more cohesive and immersive experience. Even if you’re a franchise veteran, there are enough improvements and changes here that warrant another purchase. And for those new to the dreary and dark world of Metro, know this…Redux may be the best sixty bucks you’ll spend all year.

I’ve always been a big Metro fan, but one of my main complaints was the fact that both games felt like pieces of something bigger. Metro 2033 had superb atmosphere and horror elements but suffered in the gameplay department whereas Last Light improved shooting and stealth mechanics yet lacked the original’s tension. With Metro Redux, 4A Games has managed to merge the best elements of both titles into one seamless experience that ultimately changes both pacing and perception of Metro’s narrative. Everything feels more unified now. While the two titles are still divided on the main menu, playing through both upgraded versions sequentially feels like one massive haunted house ride through hell. 


"Graphically, both titles look absolutely stunning. Metro 2033 now uses Last Light’s engine and looks as sharp as the PC version on high settings."

Metro 2033 has seen the biggest improvements. The enhanced UI, shooting mechanics and more realistic stealth segments have all been brought over from Last Light, making 2033 an entirely different experience from its original release in 2010. While the enemy AI is still buggy at times (enemies can spot you from miles away or ignore you when you’re standing right next to them), being able to stealthily make your way through entire sections without triggering the alarm is indescribably satisfying. Both “Spartan” and “Survival” modes are now selectable when starting each title.  Survival offers a slower, stealthier approach with limited ammo and health packs (more akin to the original Metro 2033) while Spartan emphases a run-n-gun approach similar to the more action-heavy Last Light. Both modes provide completely different experiences…and those looking for a real challenge can now select “Ranger Mode” which strips the UI and makes each and every encounter absurdly challenging.  


"Metro Redux is hands down one of the best HD remakes to date. It will be difficult for anyone to top this package both in terms of value and quality."

Graphically, both titles look absolutely stunning. Metro 2033 now uses Last Light’s engine and looks as sharp as the PC version on high settings. The lighting has received a drastic overhaul with more realistic reflections illuminating the dark corridors and the character animations are more fluid and lifelike. Textures are noticeably crisper and the framerate remains locked at 60fps no matter how hectic the action gets. The beginning and ending movies are still compressed low-res clips, but luckily it doesn’t happen throughout the actual game. If there’s one thing I still have a problem with, it’s the English voice acting. It is still as horrible and distracting as before. There are times when it completely ruins the immersion, especially when the little kids are talking, which is very unfortunate considering how polished the rest of the game is. Switching to the original Russian dialogue helps tremendously, but makes reading subtitles somewhat difficult when you’re in the heat of a battle. But none of these little shortcomings really matter. As a whole, Metro Redux is a technical masterpiece and I cannot wait to see what the developers have in store for us with their upcoming new IP.

Metro Redux is hands down one of the best HD remakes to date. It will be difficult for anyone to top this package both in terms of value and quality. 4A Games and Deep Silver have once again proven that they take their fan feedback very seriously and I applaud them for going the extra mile. If you really want to see what your new shiny Playstation 4 and Xbox ONE systems are capable of, look no further. Metro Redux is a gorgeous, terrifying and incredibly immersive survival-horror action hybrid that every serious gamer needs in their collection.

Review by: Tin Salamunic | Reviewed on: Playstation 4

9
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Sengoku Collection Review

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Let me just start off by saying I had no idea what to expect from Sengoku. Just by looking at the cover I suspected a slice of life genre… and in a way, I was partially correct. But despite the lack of a true underlying plot, Sengoku certainly held my attention throughout and it wasn’t until the last few episodes that I truly appreciated what the series had to offer. It’s a mixture of slice of life, shoujo-ai, light fan service and randomness all delivered in one package.

Storyline
Sengoku’s barren plot is just enough to tie the episodes together. Summed up, the entire concept revolves around warring state generals from an alternate universe arriving on our world. Better known as “Samurai” in our world, the entire show focuses on their adjustment to daily life. One of the generals, a girl by the name of Nobunaga, goes around collecting what are called “Secret Treasures” from each of the generals. She needs these treasures in order to help her return to her own universe. The anime is a collection of small stories with each episode dedicated to one Samurai in particular. Randomness ensues as the anime leaps back and forth between each one. It’s hard to understand what is going on after watching the first few episodes. At first I kept wondering what the underlying narrative even was. It was only after about the fifth episode I realized this was the entire concept of the anime. While the plot is there the concept was to focus on the characters themselves.


Each episode in the series comes complete with its own storyline. This is both a curse and a blessing for the anime. The stories range from achingly sweet to tragic as the series progresses.  At the same time though this creates confusion since the anime doesn’t explain what’s going in between each episode. I even had a hard time following the little hints at the plot they tossed into the anime. It was like trying to put together a puzzle with several of the key pieces missing.

Characters

There is such a huge cast of characters to choose from. I could not even begin to list them in any proper order for anyone to understand. Through all twenty-six episodes Sengoku managers to not only paint believable characters within twenty minutes but a story for each individual character as well. For each episode there is probably going to be a character someone doesn’t like. On the plus side you will never see that particular character again. There’s good chance a favorite will certainly be picked out. What sucks is you’ll never see your favorite character again except perhaps in passing in another episode.   There is a heavy dose of shoujo-ai in the show as well. Throughout the entire anime there is a majority of female characters. Which is definitely a nice change from the usually muscly men based anime I watch myself. While there is some fan service sprinkled in the series for taste it’s never in your face. In fact, the anime uses this to its advantage by showcasing some of most well rounded characters in this fashion. While cleavage is shown it’s usually followed by them kicking ass in the next scene.

Animation
The action scenes are not the main basis of this anime. In some cases it was pulled off rather well when the storyline became dark. At other times when the characters fought each other I found the action sequences cliché and stiff. It was as if the creators had done a rush job in order to just fill a time slot in certain parts of the anime. Thankfully, the action was not one of the main aspects of the anime. Artwork for the series itself is actually quite beautiful. The characters themselves are drawn rather well. With their own features and unique outfits which makes them easily recognizable on sight. Even if I couldn’t remember the name of each character I can identify each one alone by their outfit. From a common maid outfit to what appeared to be the robes of made for an angel I appreciated this attention to detail. Even the environments had special care be it a moon in the windowsill or a tear in the couch. I rather enjoyed the style Sengoku had been written in. I believe it boils down to personal taste how good the anime is. If you enjoy a collection of small stories this anime is definitely a good fit. It even left me with a few things to consider at the end of some of the episodes. Other episodes they were so ridiculous I could not help but roll my eyes wondering if the creator had been taking narcotics.


There are only a few small downfalls. For one, the anime does not explain what is truly going on till the end. While I felt the ending was fine, it didn’t feel as rewarding as it could. A sorry way to conclude what I felt had been an interesting experience for a 26 episode series. Sengoku is certainly worth trying if you’re looking for a change of pace, but don’t expect any intricate storylines or complex plots to hold your attention. Sengoku’s saving grace lays in its strong characters and its ability to tell a story in a short amount of time. 

Review by: Shezka Foxe | Review Format: DVD | Running Time: 650 Minutes

B-
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Lost Universe Series Review

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I rarely watch science fiction shows. I avoid the genre like a bird avoids a canary hungry kitty cat. Yet, the entire time watching this series I was glued to the screen. Staying up far later then I was supposed in order to just watch one more episode. Hopefully, I can find the words to describe how amazing this anime is. It certainly gave me a memorable ride.

Storyline
Lost Universe takes place in…well, the universe. One of the main characters is a young lady by the name of Millie Nocturne. Through a misadventure she becomes friends with a psi-blade wielding young man called Kane Blueriver. There is also the computer hologram of his spaceship, Swordbreaker, a young lady who goes by the name of Canal. Together this trio explores the universe solving crimes and defeating bad guys. A main aspect of the anime is the legend of Lost Ships.  These ships are from a lost time with technology which rivals even the present time. At first Kane believes he is the only person to own one such ship, the Swordbreaker. These ships are powered by “psi energy”.  Psi Energy is psychic energy given off by human minds. This energy can also transform into various weapons such as Kane’s psi blade. Glowing swords which can be summoned at will which strongly resembles a light saber. There is also secret organization called Nightmare who owns half the universe. Their goal is to rule the entire universe and bring it back to an age of darkness. As Kane, Millie, and Canal, eventually figure this out they are framed for the murder of an entire fleet of Universal Guardians. An intergalactic police force meant to protect the general populace of the galaxy. Forcing the entire crew of Swordbreaker go into hiding to avoid capture. This forces Millie, Kane, and Canal into a quest to defeat Nightmare once and for all.

Characters
For an anime with twenty-six episodes, Lost Universe has a small cast of characters. The main focus is on Kane, Millie, and Canal. Millie is a sharp shooter with any firearm. She is able to get herself out of tough situations despite being a klutz. She also enjoys cooking but has a bad habit of making the oven explode. Kane Blueriver is the main antagonist of the entire anime. He inherited Swordbreaker from his grandmother. He’s a troubleshooter, a mercenary of the universe, who accepts jobs. Once he completes a job he is paid and moves on to the next one. He can usually seem a bit clueless at times but always follows through on his promises. His feelings for Millie begin to show when he becomes concerned about her safety during upcoming battles. Not once, but twice attempting to leave her behind in order to protect her.


Canal is the hologram of Swordbreaker. She is the mainframe of the entire ship with a strong intelligence. Canal is the one who handles information and finds jobs for Kane to accept. Her greatest love is getting new weapons for the ship whenever she docks. She also oversees the general repair of the ship and aids Kane in most of his assignments. Several times providing back-up to him and Millie in times of emergency to provide a fast escape.

Animation
Lost Universe is not a new anime. It originally aired in 1998 for one summer on TV Tokyo. So the quality of the picture is a bit dated. While watching the DVDs sometimes the picture of the anime would split into lines. This happens a lot during intense action sequences. While this is a minor problem and didn’t take away from the anime itself I do find it distracting. I’m so absorbed in the show I was a put off when the lines would appear. A major saving grace for this anime is its action sequences. They are hands down amazing! Despite its age the anime does a good job of pulling off action. Kane launches into battle wielding his psi blade. He issues a battle cry before he begins to cut down his foes with relative ease. Even Millie shares in the action by escaping a group of bikers in a high speed chase down a freeway. While not even looking Millie holds a gun over her shoulder and begins shooting.

Did I also mention the space battles? When Swordbreaker enters into a battle it can only be described as epic. The fights take place in space which left me cheering for Canal to win the fight. Spaceships flying through the black void of the universe shooting lasers at each other cooler to me then sliced bread. The CGI of the ships in some parts is a bit iffy, but still communicates a galactic battle well in the show. Managing to dazzle the viewer with sharp colors as a ship explodes in a ball of fire. I have to admit Lost Universe is a gem of an anime. I did not expect it to be as good as it was. There were parts of the anime I came close to tears. Not only does the show have comedy with the antics of the characters, but it also has an emotional depth. One of the more touching moments is when Kane has flashbacks of his grandmother. Remembering her when he was a child and growing up to wanting to be just like her. Throughout the anime he even quotes her in order to motivate himself.


Lost Universe does an excellent job of sticking to its plot. It starts out slow, but begins to build up gradually with each episode. The anime even manages to get a few life lessons across with a handful of morals thrown in for flavor. With Kane it’s never giving up despite the odds and making your own destiny. With Millie the lesson is it doesn’t matter how you started out in life. If you go down the unbeaten path it’s possible to find happiness. Even Canal left me in tears when she made the ultimate sacrifice in favor of helping her friends. 
Despite the picture quality at certain times this anime is absolutely perfect. There is a bit of everything for a person to enjoy. There’s romance, intense actions, character building, crazy antics, and epic galactic battle sequences. If you’re looking for a good anime to watch for a few hours definitely go with Lost Universe. You won’t regret it.

Review by: Shezka Foxe | Review Format: DVD | Running Time: 650 Minutes 

A-
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Knights of Sidonia Series Review

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"In something of a first (as far as anime is concerned), Knights of Sidonia is a Netflix exclusive series."

The Netflix exclusive Knights of Sidonia is a mecha/science fiction anime that successfully navigates through many of the potential narrative pitfalls encountered by similar series in the past, while also presenting an engrossing (albeit dystopian) vision of the future that encourages the “binge-watching” Netflix has recently become known for.

Knights of Sidonia, based on the manga of the same name by Tsutomu Nihei (and the first of his works to be animated), chronicles the journey of the eponymous star ship, one of many such ”seed ships” that fled the Sol system following Earth’s destruction at the hands of the extraterrestrial Gauna. Generations upon generations of human beings are born, live their lives, and die aboard Sidonia; a select few join the military and pilot humanoid battle suits called Gardes, tasked with protecting Sidonia from predatory Gauna, scouring space for what remains of the human race. Nagate Tanikaze , a youth raised in the “underground” of the city/ship and trained since birth to pilot the legendary Gardes unit known as Tsugumori, is recruited by the captain of Sidonia personally, and initiates a sequence of events that considerably alters mankind’s understanding of, and connections to, the Gauna.

In something of a first (as far as anime is concerned), Knights of Sidonia is a Netflix exclusive series. Sidonia’s description as a “Netflix Original Series” is something of a misnomer, however, as Netflix did not provide any funding or direction for the series, but rather acquired Sidonia’s North American license, much like Funimation or the now-defunct ADV Films would acquire rights to anime, and release them via DVD or Blu-ray stateside. While Netflix should be lauded for venturing into this new territory, the firm’s relative unfamiliarity with the medium is noticeable, particularly when it comes to subtitles – often, when a character is off-screen (and even when they are not) their name is placed as a heading before the subtitles of their dialogue, and while this may not sound like a problem, it becomes surprisingly confusing. A veteran subtitle-reader knows how to differentiate between who is speaking to whom, true enough – but we also automatically and instinctively read what appears on screen, and reading names alongside dialogue unintentionally creates some confusion between who is speaking, and who is being spoken to.


"While the CG may (or may not) irk some viewers, the closeness, visually, to Nihei’s original manga cannot be disputed."

Knights of Sidonia is computer-animated, as are a majority (if not all) of anime today – the days of hand-animated cels and dougas are long-gone. Sidonia’s animation, while clear and of evidently high quality, at times however resembles less a traditional, cel-drawn anime (something many CG shows attempt to mimic) and more so cut-scenes from a video game – this is not a question of quality, but rather of personal aesthetics, and the noticeable difference in composition may irritate some longtime anime enthusiasts. While the CG may (or may not) irk some viewers, the closeness, visually, to Nihei’s original manga cannot be disputed; Sidonia is one of the best examples of an anime staying true to the manga-ka’s original character and structural designs.

Narratively-speaking, Sidonia moves along at a good stride, and owing to the brevity that inevitably comes with a 12-episode season, does not suffer from many of the cliché tropes found in many mecha anime – the predictable plotlines regarding the protagonist’s losing faith in his abilities for an episode or two, or the abandoning of his mecha during a bout with self-angst, etc. In fact, Nagate Tanikaze differs, thankfully, from many established mecha pilots – unlike Shinji Ikari (Neon Genesis Evangelion), Amuro Ray (Mobile Suit Gundam) or scores of other pilots, Nagate actually wants to pilot the Tsugumori from the start and continues to do so, recognizing an obligation to his grandfather (who trained him in his youth, for reasons revealed as the series progresses), his new friends and fellow pilots, and himself. Sidonia’s story encompasses several layers of mysteries and machinations – while some ambiguities are explained by season’s end, enough are left open to speculation and postulating, generating expectations on the viewer’s part regarding the upcoming second season, due to air (in Japan) in the fall of 2014.


"Sidonia moves along at a good stride, and owing to the brevity that inevitably comes with a 12-episode season, does not suffer from many of the cliché tropes found in many mecha anime."

Knights of Sidonia is a well-written, well-plotted modern science fiction anime, with its only real shortcomings being largely determined by each viewer’s personal preferences as they relate to animation and subtitle stylings; a unique and engaging combination of sf and secrecies, Knights of Sidonia is a welcome addition to the mecha genre, a field which is all too often susceptible to repetitiveness and unoriginality. 

Review by: Nathan Madison | Review Format: Netflix Streaming

A-
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Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft Review

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"Hearthstone reminded me of a simplified version of the card game Yu-Gi-Oh! "

I recently had the opportunity to venture through Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft. There was a special offer being made at the time; If I managed to win three games in Play Mode then I could win a special Hearth Mount in World of Warcraft. I started playing and I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. The game starts out with the player fighting against the heroes of Warcraft. When I began playing through the tutorial I had no idea I was doing so. Through a series of games a player is given the basic run down of the game. You are able to summon monsters by spending mana, casting spells, and using this special ability called “Hero Power” which you can use once per turn.

I have to admit Hearthstone reminded me of a simplified version of the card game Yu-Gi-Oh! By playing you earn gold from daily quests to buy Expert Packs from the in-game store. While real world money can be spent to buy more card packs, I preferred the gold route as it made the game more interesting and rewarding.

The Hearthstone gameplay is relaxing. At most it would take a person no longer than an hour to catch on how to play. The rules are simple. There are spells and abilities accompanying the “minions” you can summon. Everything from murlocs to wolf riders, the game always manages to introduce something new while also sticking to the simple rules it has set for itself. While I can’t claim to be a pro, the game does a good job of slowly presenting the player with each aspect of the game, moving on only when you’ve fully understood what each move does.


"It’s a nice little add-on to the entire World of Warcraft franchise. I found myself playing the game for almost two hours at one point."

Another aspect of the game I found interesting is the characters themselves. Similar to World of Warcraft you can choose which class you play with. They have all the originals such as Mage, Hunter, Paladin, etc. Each character has their own special “move” that gives them a boost in the game. They also come with unique cards which can only be used by them. Despite all this the game never quite becomes complicated, but in-depth enough it keeps the player’s interest. The combinations of cards and strategies that can be used are endless.
While the game comes along with a prebuilt deck the player also has the option of building their own. These decks are referred to as “Custom” decks within the game. I myself stuck with my mage, but I also became attracted to playing either a hunter or paladin as well. Of course, each class has its downfalls and strengths. The overall gameplay however stays pretty much the same. I myself enjoyed the customization the game offered when it came to the decks. If I felt I needed weaker monsters for faster summoning I could add them to my deck. If I want to test out a new strategy I can play the Innkeeper to see how well my deck works.

Hearthstone does lack a few elements for a card game. For one, the game does not hold a person’s interest for long. I’ve talked to other people who have played the game and they admit the same thing. After about an hour they begin to grow tired of the game. The gameplay becomes tedious, repetitive, and they soon have to quit. The game makes up for this by being so familiar though. I can usually log in for an hour or two to play before going back to my normal routine. Hearthstone serves as a nice refresher for the day that allows my brain to rest. Even the player versus player element is easy. It’s easy to get a win every other game which is a nice mood booster.

Hearthstone is a simple strategy game. It is one of the easier ones in my opinion. It’s a nice little add-on to the entire World of Warcraft franchise. I found myself playing the game for almost two hours at one point. I loved playing this game. Anyone who is a fan of World of Warcraft should definitely try this game out for a bit of fun.

Review by: Shezka Foxe | Review Platform: PC

7
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Grid Autosport Review

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"Luckily, Codemasters is a developer with a vocal following and their latest offering is a near perfect recovery."

Grid Autosport is Codemaster’s long-awaited return to hardcore racing. Despite being the third Grid entry, Codemaster’s new racer is more akin to the classic TOCA franchise first seen on the Playstation in 1997. While the original Grid carried TOCA’s fundamental driving genes, the 2012 sequel was a disappointing attempt at mainstreaming gameplay elements and pushing the franchise too hard towards an unwelcoming arcade route. Luckily, Codemasters is a developer with a vocal following and their latest offering is a near perfect recovery. Aside from hollow career progression and a lack of customization options, racing fans will relish in Autosport’s flawless handling and unforgiving AI. It’s just a shame there are no PS4 or Xbox ONE versions with updated visuals.

If there’s one thing Grid Autosport does wrong from the get go, it’s the career mode structure. While I’m all for clean, simple and cluster-free menu designs and campaign progression, Autosport is completely void of any frills that embrace the racing culture and tournaments. Instead, we’re treated to boring low-resolution videos narrated by a disinterested announcer and morbid menus hungry for diversity. You can’t even select vehicles for races anymore; rather each tournament assigns specific cars with only two sponsors to choose from before each race. While Grid 2 felt too much like a bloated advertisement filled with clichéd TV clips and over-the-top menu designs, Grid Autosport is like a desolate dark cave. Luckily, all is forgiven and forgotten once the engines start revving. Once surrounded by tons of grinding metal, the adrenalin rush will diminish any thoughts of presentational shortcomings.


"The result is a satisfying sim/arcade mix that reminds us what made the original Grid so excellent."

Grid Autosport is divided into five disciplines: Touring, Open Wheel, Street, Endurance and Tuner. Only one discipline can be raced per season and each tournament follows a linear progression system. Upgrades are automatically installed and there’s little need for tuning considering each race offers a very specific vehicle to use. Autosport has a rather bizarre starting-lane position mechanic where winning races places drivers in the back during round two and vice versa. It’s a little odd to be punished for winning races, but I suppose it keeps the challenge high if you’re doing extremely well.


"Grid Autosport places absolute emphasis on racing and succeeds on nearly every turn."

The handling within each discipline is simply brilliant. Gone is the predecessor’s frustrating drifting mechanic yet the game still carries a subtle arcade-like foundation. The result is a satisfying sim/arcade mix that reminds us what made the original Grid so excellent. Every car handles differently, yet you’ll never find yourself fussing around too much when switching from vehicle to vehicle. While the AI is brutally difficult, every loss feels like a result of player negligence, which makes skilled and careful driving extremely rewarding. Grid Autosport places absolute emphasis on racing and succeeds on nearly every turn. The track selection is diverse and makes each discipline feel refreshing, the AI is consistently challenging and smart and the career mode can take weeks to complete. On the downside, there’s little to do outside of the races. The reward system is very automatic and you can’t really collect cars the way you can in other racers. This may disappoint simulation enthusiasts but those looking for a hassle-free adrenaline rush will love Autosport’s structural simplicity.


"It’s somewhat shocking that Codemasters hasn’t decided to make a new-gen version, especially considering the lack of racing games on both platforms."

Graphically, Grid Autosport does little to raise…or even meet technical standards. Its visuals are serviceable, even pretty during some of the city races, but the entire package feels underwhelming. The PC version is vastly superior and undoubtedly the best choice. Both the Xbox 360 and PS3 have steady framerates and a few highlights here and there…but they’re clearly struggling behind. It’s somewhat shocking that Codemasters hasn’t decided to make a new-gen version, especially considering the lack of racing games on both platforms.

Ultimately, Grid Autosport is a must buy for Grid and genre-fans looking for a serious challenge. Despite the game’s shallow presentation, the racing is really where the title shines and there are very few games out there that can match Codemasters’ racing expertise. If this is any indication of where the series is headed from now on…it can only get better!

Review by: Tin Salamunic | Reviewed on: Xbox 360

8
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Blue Seed Series Review

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"Even now, Blue Seed still ranks alongside the aforementioned titles as a classic of the era."

While 2015 will witness the twentieth anniversary of many of the most popular anime series of the 1990s (Neon Genesis Evangelion, New Mobile Report Gundam Wing, Slayers, and Ghost in the Shell, to name a few) 2014 happens to mark two decades since the debut of Blue Seed, a science-fiction/ Japanese mythology amalgam that was among the most popular series of the decade and, even now, still ranks alongside the aforementioned titles as a classic of the era.

Blue Seed follows the exploits of the T.A.C. (Terrestrial Administration Center), and their newest recruit, 15-year old Momiji Fujimiya, who has a unique and mystical connection to the Aragami, a species of plant-based monsters that have recently begun rampaging across Japan. Momiji is the latest in a protracted line of Kushinadas, women whose lifeforce hold the power of the Aragami in check, and have done so for centuries; with the splitting of the bloodline following the birth of Momiji and her twin sister, Kaede, the Aragami have reawakened after years of slumber, and both the T.A.C. and the Aragami are attempting to harness the Kushinada’s power for their own purposes – one to protect humanity, the other to destroy it.

The original two-volume manga upon which Blue Seed is based was written and illustrated by Yuzo Takada, whose debut manga, 3x3 Eyes, was also subsequently made into an anime; later, he oversaw the animated adaption of another of his comic-creations, All-Purpose Cultural Cat Girl Nuku Nuku. Takada’s rather distinctive character designs show through from time to time, but a majority of the character designs do not differ significantly from many other series. Visually, unlike many anime from the 90s, Blue Seed thankfully lacks significant instances wherein animation quality is noticeably lessened, whether due to budget constraints or changes in lead animator; while the animation may not be the best that the era produced, it is at the very least consistent, and most of the action/fighting scenes are rendered quite well.


"In my opinion, the intermingling of sf and Shinto elements is where Blue Seed truly shines; two genres with questionable compatibility combine to create a unique, and engaging, whole."

The narrative advances at a steady pace, although some episodes, particularly at the onset, do have a “monster of the week” feel to them; as the series progresses, however, the purposes and motives behind the Aragami’s actions become clearer, as do the backgrounds and motivations behind the various supporting characters. As with Takada’s other works, characterization is one of Blue Seed’s stronger suits; very early on, personalities and traits are well-established. A downside of this, however, is that at times the relationship issues between several characters (such as Momiji’s stereotypical and often-clichéd, “clumsy-anime-girl” reactions to signs of affection, or lack thereof, from Kusanagi) seems to overshadow the (supposed) seriousness of the situation, i.e. the possible destruction of humanity; further, Blue Seed failed to escape 90s anime’s odd fascination with “fan service,” and this (of which there is a sizable amount) too detracts somewhat from the gravity of what is, purportedly, a battle for mankind’s survival. In my opinion, the intermingling of sf and Shinto elements is where Blue Seed truly shines; two genres with questionable compatibility (one largely Western, the other intrinsically Eastern) combine to create a unique, and engaging, whole. While a mixture of two such diverse influences is interesting enough (particularly when it works), I believe it had a stronger impact for American audiences at the time of its debut, than now – in the late 90s, when Suncoast stores across America were beginning to expand their VHS anime selection from one, to two, to three shelves, Blue Seed was one of the better introductions for American audiences, in the early years of the late 90s anime explosion, to Japanese mythology, spirituality and, on some level, even modern Japanese nationalism.


"Blue Seed, while perhaps not as well-known as many of its contemporaries from the period is, nonetheless, an entertaining and, by the end, an engaging part of what many fans feel could be considered a golden age of anime production, storytelling, and quality."

Similarly to another of A.D.V.’s prominent titles at the time, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Blue Seed was among the company’s higher-quality English dubs; Blue Seed also utilized many of the same voice actors as Evangelion. Amanda Winn voiced protagonist Momji Fujimiya (just as she did Eva’s Rei Ayanami – both characters, interestingly enough, voiced by the same Japanese seiyu as well, Megumi Hayashibara), and Tiffany Grant (best known for depicting Asuka Langley Soryu) portrayed Blue Seed’s red-haired, combat-crazy Kome Sawaguchi. In both series, A.D.V.’s voice staff matched, not only the original Japanese voice-actors, but also the characters themselves, to the point that, even with years having passed since last watching Blue Seed dubbed, I still hear the characters’ voices in English, as opposed to Japanese.

Nearly two decades after its initial stateside release, Blue Seed currently resides in something of a limbo, accompanied by many other titles following the 2009 dissolution of A.D.V.; the last official release was in 2008, in the form of a thinpack boxed set of the entire series. Despite that being the case, the entire series can be found relatively easily online, a purchase I would recommend – Blue Seed, while perhaps not as well-known (or, in some cases, as good) as many of its contemporaries from the period is, nonetheless, an entertaining and, by the end, an engaging part of what many fans (myself included) feel could be considered a golden age of anime production, storytelling, and quality.

Review by: Nathan Madison

B+
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