Tales of Graces F: Some Thoughts on this Great JRPG . . .

I was initially planning on writing a review for Tales of Graces F but decided that what I had to say about the game fits a blog post more than a review since, well, I’m not particularly great at writing reviews. Anyway, here are my thoughts on the game after about 160 hours of playtime and two playthroughs.

As always, the skits add a lot to the overall experience

The story in JRPGs generally trend toward the cliché/cheesy and while Tales of Graces F doesn’t fit the latter, it certainly fits the former. While there are some heartwarming moments during the story, I definitely didn’t feel the plot itself was particularly compelling. However, I would say that I’m glad that I (with the help of a guide) saw all the skits in the game. I’ve always felt that the skits in the Tales series (which are ostensibly optional) were more interesting than the actual main plot and this is no different in Tales of Graces F. The skits range from whimsical to cute to serious to hilarious, but are never boring. In fact I would say that I felt far less desire to skip through the skits than I did through some of the story or side-quest dialogue (especially the voiceless dialogue which continues to be a thing in many JRPGs despite it being 2012 and the game being released on a Blu-Ray disc). The skits also bring color, humor, and a hint of romance into the mix as well (in fact, much of the romantic subplots in the game are really only elucidated in the skits). Still, despite my lack of enthusiasm about the main story, I still feel that it brings up some interesting themes that you don’t typically see in some other JRPGs.

Pascal is dumbfounded by how much I enjoyed this game...

Characters wise, aside from Asbel and Cheria (both of which irritated me throughout the game), the main cast is overall pretty great. My favorites of course have to be Pascal & Sophie. I won’t spoil anything, but Pascal just an amazing (amazingly hilarious that is) character while Sophie is just so darn likeable. Hubert & Malik aren’t bad either, each of them having interesting back stories of their own. I’m also quite impressed with the voice acting in the game, which is much better than some of the other JRPGs out there (though expectedly good for a Tales game).

Battles can definitely get quite chaotic...

As always, the main draw of Tales games is the combat, and I can say without reservation that the combat in Graces is the best that the Tales series has had to offer so far (with the exception of Xillia, which I have not played). Though the combat is still relatively simple, it has a surprisingly amount of variety and also requires smart tactics and quick reflexes on the harder difficulties. The combat isn't really tough for the most part, especially if you’ve leveled properly, but some of the boss battles can get quite tense, especially when they start busting out their Mystic Artes. Unfortunately the AI for your party members ranges from decent to terrible which means that depending on which characters you decide to use, you may need to step in and manually control some of your other three party members during some battles. In any case, the fantastic combat makes the grinding during later portions of the game (and post-game) actually enjoyable. Finally, the way the game incorporates titles into actual stat bonuses and skills for your characters instead of just as extras (as they were in some previous Tales games) is an interesting way of handling that aspect of the game. However, I have to say that it also means that if you want to acquire all the skills/abilities for all your characters, it’s gonna take a long time. In fact, if you feel like S-ranking this game, you're definitely in for the long haul.

I also felt that there was too much backtracking, which is a problem that plagues many JRPGs. This can be especially irksome since many of the game’s skits do not unlock until you progress past a certain portion of the main story, meaning you will often have to backtrack to previous towns, fields, and dungeons if you want to view all the skits (which as I mentioned previously, add a lot of flavor to the story). Of course, I played through the game with a guide in hand so I ended up not missing anything important, but I can imagine that it would be frustrating if you were just trying to find and do everything on your own. Then again, this is kind of par for the course when it comes to JRPGs and the Tales series in particular.

The Tales series of games has always utilized a more cartoonish, anime-like art style rather than aim for realism in its visuals. You could argue that for a PS3 game, Tales of Graces F looks distinctively last-generation (though considering it’s an upscale of a Wii game that shouldn’t be a surprise). But I’ve never had an issue with stylized visuals over realism, especially in the JRPG genre where it’s a much more common occurrence than other genres. Low-res textures aside, Tales of Graces F still looks pretty good with its colorful palette and impressive-looking spell effects. And though the skits consists basically consists of a series of anime-esque 2D stills, they are certainly well implemented. The few fully 2D animated anime cut scenes are also well implemented, though I kind of wish there were more of them. As previously mentioned, the voice acting is fantastic, and the music is also quite catchy (well as much as BGM can be anyway.) I even quite enjoyed the opening theme by BoA, though I would have liked an option to listen to the original Japanese version, especially since she sings both versions (as was offered in Tales of Vesperia)

Though it certainly has flaws, I can say right now that Tales of Graces F is my favorite game so far of 2012, and certainly one of the best JRPGs I’ve played in recent memory. It’s by no means a reinvention of the genre, but it’s not just a rehash either. It’s also a another great example of why production values aren’t as important as gameplay or storytelling. Let's hope that it sells enough copy here in North America so that Namco will release Tales of Xillia here as well.

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Yet Another Blog Post: My Top Ten Anime of 2011

So it's time again. That's right, it's time for yet another anime blog post. Usually I would post some sort of award list/blog but this year I didn't watch as much anime as I normally do. Not to mention, I really didn't want to do one. Instead, I'll post about my ten favorite anime of the year. Only anime that have finished airing in 2011 will qualify, (with one notable exception which I will mention during the top ten list). Note this is what I feel were the anime I enjoyed most this year, not necessarily the best or the highest quality series of the year. Also note that this isn't really a ranked list, with the exception of #1 which is my favorite anime of the year. Anyway, let's get on with it.

Nichijou (aka My Ordinary Life) is one of those love it or hate it shows, as is the case with many comedies. Its humor is a combination of puns, slapstick, satire, and at times, downright weirdness. However, I'm absolutely a fan of weird shows like this and Nichijou manages to deliver the goods pretty much every week. Whether it's Mai's constant trolling of Yuuko or the Professor's hilarious interactions with Nano, the show delivers humor that is both smart and endearing. I didn't laugh out loud as much as I would have expected but I enjoyed pretty much every episode. There's something that should be said for shows that aren't afraid to be as downright crazy or as ridiculous as Nichijou can be at times (and let me tell it can get pretty crazy) both when it comes to the situations depicted or the animation itself. Speaking of which, I have to give props to KyoAni for yet another excellent adaptation. I'm not sure another anime studio could have pulled this show off as well as KyoAni did, and for that I can almost forgive them for only having one show last year. ;)

There's nothing particular original or innovative about Infinite Stratos, but it's combination of intense mecha battles and high school romantic comedy is certainly effective. The show is, for the most part, a harem anime but while the various heroines follow typical anime tropes, each has a distinct personality and end up being quite likeable. Seeing them fight over the affections of denser than lead Ichika is more often hilarious than not and when combined with the action sequences, makes for some fun times. The strong voice cast, good (for the most part) animation and attractive character designs makes this a successful debut for 8-bit (at least as the primary production house). However, if you're looking purely for an action/mecha series, this is not for you as while the action itself is fine, there isn't really much plot development along those lines as the anime is, at heart, a romantic comedy and is character driven rather than story-driven (I do think however that there is plenty of good setup for possible sequels in the future)

Ao no Exorcist (aka Blue Exorcist) is another of those shows that doesn't try to be innovative or particularly original. It knows what it is (a shounen series) and it executes that very well. In many ways it's a throwback to the classic shounen of a bygone era. As a big fan of those shounen series, I really enjoyed my time with Ao no Exorcist and would really love to see a sequel in the future. The plot is pretty straightforward, the voice acting is solid, the action is well animated and the characters are quite likable. There really isn't much else that needs to be said. Though Ao no Exorcist certainly cannot stand up to a lot of the shows this year in terms of impact or creativity, it proves that traditional shounen series can still be entertaining in this day and age and that, ironically, is actually quite refreshing.

Almost completely in contrast to the previous entry, Mawaru Penguindrum is the definition of innovation and originality. A thought-provoking, fascinating, and truly unique series, Mawaru Penguindrum demonstrates what anime, as a storytelling medium, can accomplish. While the complex storytelling is far from perfect and ultimately does not conclude in a satisfying way (and is often difficult to follow), it has definitely given me a greater appreciation of what multi-faceted storytelling can bring to this medium. It's also a deeply symbolic series, so for those who can appreciate and follow the symbolic undercurrents of the series, there are a lot of things to think about and ponder over. However, symbolism is usually tough to pull of and while Penguindrum does it better than a lot of other shows, it can still be difficult to grasp, which is a shame because I felt that it really allowed me to appreciate the show on a much deeper level. Unfortunately, I didn't enjoy this show as much as I would have expected, but as with all high-concept series, Penguindrum is more meant to be appreciated than necessarily enjoyed simply as a piece of entertainment. Now, I'm usually the type of guy who cares more about a show's entertainment value than necessarily its critical or artistic merits, but I must admit that Penguindrum is definitely an exception and should not be missed for anyone who wants to see more out of this medium than tired character tropes or recycled plot premises. I've gotta give props to Brain's Base for once again creating something that few production houses could (hope to) deliver.

I will admit that I was not immediately drawn to GOSICK. It has an atypical and interesting premise and an unusual setting (for an anime at least) but has sort of slow burn in the initial few episodes. The plot however, definitely picks up and goes in directions that I certainly didn't expect (especially from what I thought was just a mystery series), and ended up becoming the show I looked forward to the most each week. What really impressed me about GOSICK was how well BONES nailed the setting. The world of GOSICK is utterly convincing, despite it taking place in a fictional country with a somewhat alternative take on history. The relationship between Victorique and Kazuya is also one of the best I've seen in recent history (though I will admit that it doesn't develop as well as I hoped by the end). GOSICK is as much a series about Victorique and Kazuya's growing relationship as it is a mystery/thriller with occult themes and historical undercurrents. The setting and the mystery elements are certainly very interesting, but It's the story and Victorique and Kazuya's relationship that ultimately makes the show so engaging from week to week, leading up to a touching, and emotionally resonant (though somewhat rushed) ending. The animation, artwork, and character designs were superb as well (not surprising for BONES) and the music is also fantastic. I just wish BONES had more episodes to flesh out the story and some of the minor characters as GOSICK definitely felt cramped within its 24-episodes, and that is really my only major gripe with the series.

Usagi Drop is unlike a lot of the other anime airing these days in that it’s not crazy, fan-service laden, action-packed, or a haremesque romcom, but a touching slice-of-life drama about a 30-something guy and his newly adopted daughter. There’s something to be said for a show that relies entirely on the strength of its story and characters rather than on some overused gimmick. I won’t argue about how “realistic” the show is because at the end of the day, it’s still fiction, and fiction is rarely realistic. However, Usagi Drop is one of the few shows in recent memory that just puts a smile on my face every time I sit down to watch it. It is slowly paced and because of its one-season run, a lot of plot threads are left hanging, and a lot of the minor characters are left undeveloped, but it still manages to leave a very memorable impression. There’s a purity here that few shows have, and emotional resonance that few shows can elicit. This is a shining example of the power of subtlety in storytelling, something that a lot of anime these days lack.

There’s been a lot of praise thrown up for Puella Magi Madoka Magica, and to a certain extent it’s worthy of that praise. It’s a show that turns the “magical girl” genre upside down. It’s a refreshing departure from what has become one of the most prolific anime tropes. SHAFT is not known for original stories, but it has crafted one here that is compelling, unorthodox, and also highly entertaining. It’s a show that leaves you at the edge of your seat week by week, enthralling you with each twist and turn in the story. This is also not a happy show either. There is no true “happy ending” in the world of Puella Magi Madoka Magica. The darker tone works wonders here and adds a great contrast to the show’s lighter moments. Ultimately the show’s greatest strength is its focus on the humanity of its heroines, rather than their fantastical alter egos. It’s as much an exploration of human nature as it is a show about ordinary high school girls who transform into mahou shoujo. Puella Magi Madoka Magica does a great job of demonstrating the somewhat cruel fate the heroines are thrust into as well as the consequences that result from committing to a life of fighting evil in the name of “justice.” Its reinvention of a genre is something that is sorely lacking in a lot of the anime that are being made these days and other studios can certainly learn from what SHAFT has managed to accomplish here.

Okay, technically speaking Fate/Zero has only aired half of its episodes, but since this series is being split into two seasons (similar to Code Geass or Gundam 00), I feel it’s justified include this in my 2011 top ten list. Anyway, with that caveat in mind, Fate/Zero managed to impress me week in and week out with fantastic animation, superb exposition, and compelling characters. What Ufotable has done with the animation, especially the exquisitely detailed action sequences, is commendable on its own and no doubt sets the bar very high for future anime TV series. But that’s not the real reason why Fate/Zero is such a compelling series. It’s the storytelling that really sets Fate/Zero apart from both its predecessor (Fate/Stay Night) as well other anime series. There is as much exposition in this series as there are action sequences and unlike say a show about a certain magical index, Fate/Zero manages to make its exposition interesting and informative. The show features many complex characters and an intricate plot that includes both political and historical intrigue all set in a world of mages and heroic spirits. It has an ensemble cast of characters that are interesting in their own ways. The relationships between the masters and their servants and between the servants themselves are handled exceptionally well. What I’m left with after its mid-season cliffhanger ending is a feeling of incredible anticipation: I can’t wait until April, when the series resumes once again.

AnoHana (aka We Still Don't Know the Name of the Flower We Saw That Day) is a show that is tough for me to criticize. On the one hand, it had an exceptional start with a premise that had incredible storytelling as well as psychological potential. Yet as the series progressed it ended up squandering a lot of that potential with some poor conceived plot devices, and story-telling kinks that turned what could have been a truly steller series into just a good series. This is not to say I didn’t enjoy it. I certainly did (hence its place on my top ten list), and it’s pretty clear that A-1 Pictures wasn’t trying to make that series. It was going for something simpler, and more straightforward. This is a show about friendship, about loss, about growing up and ultimately about life itself. By the end of the series, it’s pretty clear that that’s all the creators wanted the show to be. This is not meant to be a reimagining of the genre, nor a deep exploration of the human condition. Still, as much as I enjoyed this series, I can’t help but shake the feeling that this could have been much more than what it turned out to be. Is that a valid criticism? Perhaps so, perhaps not, but this had the potential to be the best series of the year and it’s a little unfortunate that A-1 didn’t seem to be ambitious enough to aim for such a high goal.

I really liked Steins;Gate. It’s again one of those shows that is not immediately compelling but grows on you week by week. It’s impressive both visually and intellectually and one of the best visual novel adaptations I’ve ever seen. Combining an outstanding visual presentation with some of the best writing I’ve seen in years, Steins;Gate is a great anime is pretty much every way. The writing staff in particular really did an outstanding job with the story and the dialogue, which was at times hilariously entertaining, and at times intellectually stimulating. Okabe is one of the best characters ever conceived and Mamaru Miyano portrays him perfectly with all of his eccentricities. The rest of the cast deserves praise as well but Miyano just nailed Okabe’s dark, insecure, egomaniacal inner self so well with arguably one of the best performances of the year. I must also commend White Fox for doing such a great job of adapting such a complex visual novel. Adapting visual novels is not an easy prospect and the fact that White Fox did it so well puts them in the same league as KyoAni and SHAFT, not bad for a relatively rookie production studio. There were a lot of shows that I enjoyed watching this year, but in the end Steins; Gate was the one that I not only enjoyed the most, but also felt the most complete. That said, some people might be turned off by the somewhat slow start in the first few episodes, but if you keep with it, you’ll be rewarded with one of the smartest and funniest anime series in a long time.

Honorable Mentions (aka the other list of ten):

  • Working'!! for showing us that despite the title, the employees of Wagnaria don't seem to do much work.
  • Shinryaku!? Ika Musume for bringing back our favorite squid girl
  • Kore wa Zombie Desu Ka? for perhaps the most amazing/disturbing transformation sequence in the history of anime
  • Shakugan no Shana Finale for making Shana awesome again (but unfortunately was not eligible for the list)
  • STAR DRIVER for being so damn fabulous
  • To Aru Majutsu no Index II for rivaling Penguindrum in its ability to be utterly incomprehensible
  • Hanasaku Iroha for giving us one of my favorite female protagonists in recent memory
  • Level E for the amazing sarcasm and endless trolling
  • Freezing for demonstrating that gratuitous fan service and quality anime are not mutually exclusive terms
  • Deadman's Wonderland for its refreshing demented characters and crazy premise/setting.

The winter 2012 anime season has already begun so here's to another great year of anime! And with that, this blog post comes to an end. I'll leave you with this:

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Games of 2011: My Personal Top Ten List

So now that I have the GOTY awards list out of the way, I can finally get down to some actual blogging. 2011 has been a pretty interesting year when it comes to video games. A lot of great games have come out this year and for the most part, I've had enough time to play everything I wanted to play (with the notable exception of Shadows of the Damned, which I ended up watching a bunch of video on Youtube for the GOTY list). This list isn't based on what I think are necessarily the best games of the year but more the games that I felt I had the most fun with and got the most joy out of. Really, I would rather have a top twenty list but you have to cut it off somewhere, so at the end I'll probably mention the other games I felt could have made the list if it were a different year. So enough babbling, here are my top ten games of 2011.

Well, Nathan Drake does strike a nice pose...

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves was one of my favorite action/adventure games and Naughty Dog's followup Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception is at least worthy of its predecessor, if not surpassing it. What Uncharted 3 does well is that not necessarily its story or gameplay (though both are competent enough not to distract you from the overall experience) but rather the action set pieces, the story telling, sharp writing, great voice acting, and some impressive tech to pull it all together (hint: the game looks damn good, though at times it feels like more of a tech showcase than it needs to be).

Uncharted 3 may be a polished gem of a game, but the consequence is a strict linearity that at times can feel almost too limiting. But, as much as I have said in this past that the game feels more like an interactive cinematic than a 3rd person shooter, there is something to be said for Naughty Dog's perfection of their craft. In fact, Uncharted 3 makes a pretty convincing case that games don't always have to rely on the strength of it's gameplay to be be entertaining. This is not to say that it's perfect, far from it, but you can tell that Naughty Dog wanted to send the Uncharted series out in style and that they definitely did. While I did feel frustrated by some of the gameplay sequences (a particular sequence right before the cruise ship is particularly annoying), the gameplay is as competent as it ever was, and can even be pretty fun in some situations. And while the game wasn't nearly as impressive or filled with surprising moments like Among Thieves, it was still one hell of a ride. Oh and that multiplayer is pretty good too.

Isaac does have a rather large head...

I love the first Dead Space. I loved it to death. And while I wasn't necessarily pumped when I heard about Visceral Games making a sequel, I knew that if it was anything like the first game, I would definitely enjoy it. Well, luckily Dead Space 2 is pretty much superior to its predecessor in almost every way. From the visuals, to the game play, to the expanded scope and environmental variety, Dead Space 2 captures the essence of survival horror while also maintaining its status as a premier 3rd person shooter. It's still a ton of fun to shoot the various "mining tools" that Isaac has in his disposal and stomping necromorphs while hearing Isaac "displeasure" at their existence is as satisfying as ever. The death sequences are still pretty good as well and is something that a lot of other games can definitely learn from. The sense of immersion is also better than ever before. Dead Space 2 just has this great lonely, eerie, desolate atmosphere punctuated by moments of adrenaline-pumping excitement. The expanded zero-G sequences are also well executed and definitely add variety. Playing it on the PC, the game also looks pretty fantastic while running at a very solid frame rate. Oh and that ending was pretty satisfying as well, though probably not a definitive as I would have liked (hey, EA needs room for a sequel).

Adam Jensen only walks in style...

As someone who has never touched another Deus Ex game, I didn’t really know what to expect from Deus Ex: Human Revolution. So I was in for a pleasant surprise when I saw that it was a combination of action/adventure and RPG elements rather than a straight-up action game. Human Evolution probably has the most well-realized and well-crafted world out of all the games I’ve played this year, so it's a good thing that it's world is probably the major draw. Its cities and environment are filled with dark and dirty alleyways, glistening buildings, and high technology that just spew cyber punk essence. I’m a big fan of cyber-punk in general so this is probably the perfect game for me.

I will admit that the game play is hit and miss (especially the stealth sequences which at times feels contrived) and the AI can sometimes be downright terrible, but there is so much fun to be had just exploring the world, hacking computers, talking to NPCs that the game play shortcoming don’t bother as much as it would in some other games. The upgrade system is also well designed, and eventually gave you access to some pretty awesome abilities and bonuses. It’s not the best looking game I’ve ever played but the PC version definitely has a striking look with some impressive technology behind it (the game has a full DX11 implementation including tessellation). It’s definitely game that I need to get back too as soon I have the time.

It's Batman! Again!

Batman: Arkham Asylum was one of my favorite games of 2009 and probably one of my favorite all time action adventure games. The fact that I S-ranked that game twice (the regular and GOTY edition) is a testament to its excellence. So with the arrival of Batman: Arkham City I was definitely ready to jump straight in. For the most part, Arkham City definitely improves upon what were already great gameplay elements: the awesome combat, the cool gadgets, and the great villains/boss fights. The open world environment perhaps isn’t as immersive or as atmospheric as the tightly controlled corridors of Arkham Asylum, but it’s still a ton of fun to traverse Arkham City, especially after getting the gliding upgrades. The expanded list of gadgets though is probably my favorite new addition and adds a lot of game play variety, especially with the hundreds of Riddler trophies that are now littered across the city.

Though I consider myself somewhat compulsive when it comes to in-game completion and collectibles, I have to say that it’ll probably be a while before I’m prepared to sink any serious amount of time into getting all the Riddler trophies or finishing all the challenges. But the game still has that great aesthetic that Arkham Asylum did and still has those great villains that only a Batman game could have. I guess my lack of excitement about the game is due in part to the somewhat lackluster PC version (it looks great, but the DX11 implementation was straight up busted on release before the patch) and the fact that I had just replayed Arkham City in its entirety a few weeks before the release of the game. In any case, it’s still one of my favorite games of the year, though I will agree with many others that I didn’t enjoy it as much as Arkham Asylum.

Chainsaw bayonets are back!

I’ve been a pretty big fan of Gears of War ever since the first game came out (it was the main reason I bought an Xbox 360 in the first place) but I felt after Gears of War 2 that Epic could be doing more with the franchise. Well they definitely delivered with Gears of War 3, not not only delivering a satisfying narrative conclusion to the trilogy but also giving us some meaningful additions both in the single player campaign and in the multiplayer modes. To be honest, several months before the game came out I was still somewhat skeptical. At one point I was ready to not buy the game on day one like I had the previous two games. I’m glad I changed my mind because as soon as I loaded up that campaign I realized just how much I enjoyed the game play of Gears. There is just a visceral feeling and a certain fidelity to the shooting in Gears of War 3 that I don’t feel with many other 3rd person shooters. Of course the chain saw kills and the newer melee moves like the bayonet rush are still plenty satisfying but there is something to be said about the shooting. I can’t really explain it in words—I suppose it’s one of those intangibles that Epic manages to accomplish with Gears that few other games do.

The campaign is also just much more interesting and varied than in the previous Gears games. I’ve always enjoyed the campaigns in Gears of War, but Gears of War 3 just has more emotional resonance and poignant moments than ever before. I’ve always felt a certain affection toward Delta Squad and some of the other characters in the Gears series but Gears of War 3 definitely brings all that to the forefront. And while the ending doesn’t answer all the questions we would have wanted (though maybe that’ll be addressed in the DLC), it does end in a satisfying and definitive way, which is more than I would have expected. The expanded Horde mode and the great Beast mode are also just tons and tons of fun. Playing 5-player Horde mode with friends is a coop experience unlike any other and the sense of satisfaction and relief after finishing wave 50 for the first time is a feeling that I rarely get when playing video games. Oh, and yes I ended up getting the season pass, but only because I’m a sucker and I probably would have bought all the DLC anyway, so why not right?

Apparently Geralt can stare you to death...

I loved the look and atmosphere of The Witcher, but I was never a fan of the game play and ended up giving up on it about a third of the way through. When I saw that The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings was coming out with improved visuals and a revamped combat system I was definitely intrigued. As it turns out, CD Projekt has not only revived my interest in the Witcher franchise but has also made one of the best RPGs I’ve ever played. Despite the improvements in the combat (as well as the high level of challenge, at least early on in the game) the story is definitely the focus of The Witcher 2 and it’s here where the game shines the brightest. The Witcher 2 is a game where your choices definitely matter and the impacts of your decisions were very evident both in the ways it changes the story, and the impacts they have on the world. Choice in video games is always a difficult mechanic to execute but I dare say that The Witcher 2 has definitely executed it well, and in some cases even brilliantly. By the end of the game, I was absolutely ready to go back and replay it, just to see how the other choices would end up changing the game. Combined with the great voice acting, storytelling and writing, The Witcher 2 is one of the best narrative experiences I’ve had all year.

It doesn’t hurt either that the games looks absolutely phenomenal. I remember the moments in Oblivion and in Fallout 3 when you step out of the dungeon/vault into the bright world outside. Well I had that exact moment in The Witcher 2 when you step outside of your tent after the first scene in the game. I spent a full half hour just running around the first camp admiring the great looking scenery. And it’s just not just technically impressive either. There is a great low-fantasy aesthetic to the game with some impressive artwork, great character designs and some nasty looking enemies. The combat does have a high learning curve and those first couple of battles can be punishing (though later patches address that issue) but the difficulty evens out later on and the combat becomes much more enjoyable. That insanity difficulty is pretty fun/frustrating/grueling as well (though the quick time events can make this mode irritating). Oh and if you’re wondering, I let all the trolls live; yeah I know, sentimentality.

The Darkest of Souls...

I had a love and hate relationship with Demon’s Souls. On one hand I loved the game’s tightly-executed combat, great atmosphere and awesome boss fights. On the other hand, I hated how easy it was to die in the game (falling to my death being the number one way to die for me) and how annoying it is to lose hours of progress in a single failed encounter. Dark Souls still has all of the above but has added some features that make it both more accessible, yet also more challenging in different ways. Traversing the world of Dark Souls is as dangerous as ever but the bonfires at least give you some amount of check pointing (versus starting at the beginning of a level in Demon’s Souls). The new open-world game play is also quite refreshing and gives a better sense of immersion in my opinion than the Nexus Hub did in Demon’s Souls. Unfortunately, some of the enemies have gotten tougher and will often employ deadly attacks, some of which are unblockable, that could kill you in a single hit. The dark, melancholy, desolate atmosphere is back and “better” than ever. Dark Souls is probably the most atmospheric and immersive game I’ve played all year (and that’s saying something if you consider what my personal GOTY is—see later on in the list). The combat is as good as ever, requiring precise timing, pattern recognition and of course, a lot of patience. Patience is really the key to being successful in Dark Souls and my lack of patience is often the reason why I often fell to my death or got one-shotted by a tough enemy.

One thing about Dark Souls is quite certain: Dark Souls hates you. It does everything it can to cause you misery, frustration, desperation, anger, and ultimately a sense of hopelessness. Turning a corner could lead to death, any ledge can become deadly, and every enemy encounter is a challenge. It's deeply challenging, often unfair, and in many cases tediously repetitive. But despite all this, I kept coming back. I kept playing knowing that I was one death away from throwing my controller at the TV. I kept playing because Dark Souls sucks you into its world and doesn't let you go. I just wish the frame rate was better, especially in Blighttown (a consequence of From Software overreaching a bit with their ambitiousness). Oh and the online is pretty good (there’s nothing more satisfying that beating an invading phantom into submission and then looting his blood stain afterwards) though still lacking any form of voice chat or matchmaking (which is understandable but can be annoying at times).

GLaDOS would like to remind you that you should play Portal 2...

The original Portal remains one of my most memorable gaming experiences. So I when I say without reservation that Portal 2 eclipses its predecessor in every way imaginable, I don’t say that lightly. With its sharp wit, unique visuals, incredible voice acting, and smartly laid out puzzle solving, Portal 2 is a uniquely well executed, well-polished, and just highly enjoyable game. Through its brilliant dialogue and excellent writing, Portal 2 makes us care about its characters, despite them, for the most part, being robots. From the very first moment when he (it?) first encounters Chell, to the end sequence when he’s floating in space contemplating his actions, Wheately is one of the best conceived characters in video game history. Then there’s the always sarcastic GLaDOS who continues to deliver lines in her great deadpan fashion and the wonderfully tongue-in-cheek Cave Johnson.

Then there are the puzzles themselves. What's great about the puzzles here, for the most part, is that they are not based upon memorization or impossibly strict timing but mainly about thinking outside of the box and being creative. Portal 2 forced me to creative in the way I play the game, which is quite an impressive achievement. There were a few times when I felt stumped by a puzzle but when I eventually figured out the solution, it wasn’t some elaborate exercise but rather just a matter of thinking beyond the obvious (though there are a few situations that do require some sharp timing and very specific sequence of events)

But ultimately it’s not the puzzle-solving that stands out in Portal 2. It’s the characters, the storytelling, and the humor that is infused within. Unfortunately, the strength of its storytelling also hurts it in a way in that there is little reason to replay Portal 2 unless you’re going for achievements or listening to the developer commentaries. Then there’s the co-op mode which has some great moments as well but isn’t much fun unless you’re playing with someone you know or is reliable. Still, Portal 2 is still a hell of a game that leaves an incredibly memorable impression that is unlikely to fade, whether it be seven months or even years later.

Welcome to Steelport...

I’ve always enjoyed the Saints Row games. The first Saints Row was a fun, though inconsequential GTA clone, while the second game went in a crazier, more outrageous, more ridiculous, though still very enjoyable direction. So when Saints Row: The Third rolled around, I knew I was going to like it, I just didn’t know how much. But let’s not mess around, Saints Row: The Third is pure, unadulterated, perverse, childish, outrageous, and absolutely addictive fun. It's a game that truly reflects the essence of the gaming medium: entertainment. If you want emotional resonance or realistic storytelling, you can go elsewhere (Rockstar certainly has) 'cause in Saints Row: The Third all you’ll get is a Penetrator to the face. Just about everything in the game is designed to be as over the top and as ridiculous as possible. From the weapons, to the characters, to the vehicles, to the environment, everything in Saints Row: The Third is about holding down the accelerator all the way and never letting go. I don’t think I had as much pure enjoyment out of any other game this year.

But for all of it's over the top shenanigans, this is also a very well-made open-world action game. With great voice-acting, good gunplay, fun and competent driving controls, and a striking visual presentation, Saints Row: The Third is also a good game even ignoring its outlandish content. The characters are unique and memorable, and the missions are for the most part well designed. A lot has been said about the http://deckers.die mission and yes indeed that is probably the pinnacle of game both story wise and gameplay wise but more than anything else Volition wants you to know that you’re playing a game, not a “cinematic experience” or a “realistic simulation.” This is why upgrades that make your invincible or give you infinite ammo don’t break the game but actually make it more enjoyable.

Volition has also done a great job with the side missions. While I did enjoy some of the more ridiculous distractions in Saints Row 2 (i.e. Ho-ing, Septic avengers, etc.), that was not the reason why I played the game for the most part. So I appreciate the fact that the side missions are not really required in Saints Row: The Third and the fact that they are overall less frustrating to accomplish then in the previous two incarnations. I also appreciate the lack of competitive multiplayer and the improved co-op mode which is tons of fun to play with friends. The Whored Mode isn’t bad either, though it’s more of a distraction than a main attraction. Finally, I have to give props to Volition for the well done PC port. After seeing the games running on the 360 and PS3 with a somewhat lackluster frame rate, I was glad that I’m able to play it on my PC with smooth frame rates while still enjoying the DX11 features. Good job Volition for finally making the game that it seems like you’ve always wanted to make. I’m definitely looking forward to seeing how you will follow this up. Oh and yes, I played as a pretty lady for most of the game.

And finally, my #1 game of 2011 is:


The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is a very familiar game. Its predecessor, Oblivion, arguably popularized Bethesda’s style of open-world RPG to the masses and in the following years fallow ups like Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas have cemented Bethesda’s ability to craft rich open world games that are also in their own ways a little bit broken. Skyrim fulfills its promise of being the next entry in the Elder Scrolls franchise. As a follow up to Oblivion, Skyrim is a definitive success. It improves upon Oblivion in pretty much every way imaginable. A better engine, an evolved skill/perk system, more varied and denser environments, a reinvented quest system, etc (the list goes on and on). But you don’t need to have enjoyed Oblivion to enjoy Skyrim. Skyrim can easily stand on its own, a game that is both more accessible yet arguably deeper than its predecessor. It is a massive game for sure, but it’s a game world that is ripe for exploration: the perfect game for the explorer in all of us. Skyrim sparks our curiosity, it immerses us in a world filled with lore, conflict, and most important of all dragons (of course).

Like some others, it’s difficult for me to pin down exactly what makes Skyrim such an immersive and addictive time-suck (aka game). Its narrative isn’t particularly compelling. Yes, Bethesda does a better job building up the main quest than it does in Oblivion, but the payoff is less than stellar. The other faction quests have their moments, but there’s nothing that truly stands out when it comes to storytelling, dialogue, or writing (again, competent in many cases but not stellar). Your choices don’t have much impact on the world, and your actions never really have much consequence. Despite having made over 200 hard saves in the game, I feel little desire to go back and relive any of my decisions in the game. Yet I kept playing, and playing, and playing. After 120 hours on the PC and 110 hours on the 360, where do I stand? Can I explain why I ended up playing this game for a combined 200+ hours?

What about the game play itself? Yes, it’s better than Oblivion, and there is a certain amount of satisfaction involved in the combat. The archery and magic in particular are actually well implemented. Destruction spells hit with definitive impact and it’s never been more fun to fill your hapless enemies full of arrows. The melee combat however, for the most part underwhelms. It’s certainly competent, but does not offer much variety or require much skill. I’m not expecting the type of finesse that Dark Souls offers but I can’t help but feel that Bethesda could have done something more here. Fortunately, the progression system is also much improved, combining the “level up the skills that you use” system in Oblivion with the leveled perk system from Fallout 3. This means that leveling up in Skyrim just makes intuitive sense and is free from a lot of the EXP contrivances in some other RPGs.

None of that is really of much consequence though. Ultimately, it’s not the combat that draws me to Skyrim, nor is it the story or even necessarily the characters (though there are a few standouts). Ultimately, it’s the world itself that draws me in. There aren’t many games where I would prefer not to fast travel. There aren’t a lot of games where I can just run in some random direction and still manage to find meaningful quests or locations. Yes, I did a lot of quests and I enjoyed doing most of those quests, but there’s something to be said about the amount of freedom you have in Skyrim of creating your own adventures. Whether it’s becoming an expert alchemist or blacksmith, hunting wildlife and selling the hides, or maybe just creating mayhem across the land (or even crazier, actually finding and completing in-game quest lines), Skyrim can accommodate you. I know this following statement is going to sound contrived and lame but I mean it whole-heartedly: Skyrim is not just a game, it’s an experience. After 200+ hours, I feel like I’ve experienced the world of Skyrim, not just played a game for 200+ hours. Sure it has its flaws and its share of bugs and glitches, but Skyrim manages to accomplish more than most games can even hope to accomplish and for that it's well deserving of my personal GOTY. (And as soon as I finish writing this and posting it, I’m going to go right back to experiencing Skyrim. Oh, here’s my quick comparison between the 360 and PC versions: get the PC version!)

So that just about does it for my 2011 top ten list. I do feel bad that some games could not make this list (I’m looking at you Battlefield 3, Bastion, Assassin’s Creed: Revelations and Dirt 3) but as I said, you have to cut it off somewhere.

EDIT: Yeah, still not sure if I'm gonna do a best of 2011 anime blog. I probably will but it'll probably just be a top ten, not an actual awards list.

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Yet Another 2011 GOTY Blog, I Guess . . .

So it’s that time of the year, where I attempt to crawl out of the depths of obscurity to write a blog about this past year of gaming. As always, while I can write pages upon pages on certain subjects, game criticism is, interestingly, not one of those subjects, so I will try to keep things relatively short and to the point. I went back and forth between whether or not I should write a few sentences justifying each choice but decided that I didn’t really have enough to say to make it worthwhile. Let’s just say it’s a combination of research and gut instinct. Anyways, onto the awards.

Part 1: Special Categories

Best Technical Graphics

Winner: Battlefield 3 (PC)

Runners up: Crysis 2 (PC), Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings

Best Artistic Graphics

Winner: Bastion

Runners up: Alice: Madness Returns, El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron

Best Looking Game Overall

Winner: Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings

Runner's up: Crysis 2 (PC), Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception

Best Sound Design

Winner: Battlefield 3

Runners up: Dead Space 2, Shadows of the Damned

Best Music

Winner: Bastion

Runners up: To the Moon, Shadows of the Damned

Best Story

Winner: Portal 2

Runners up: Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, To the Moon

Best Writing

Winner: Portal 2

Runners up: Bastion, To the Moon

Best New Character

Winner: Wheatly (Portal 2)

Runners up: Cave Johnson (Portal 2), Garcia Hotspur (Shadows of the Damned)

Best Voice Acting

Winner: Portal 2

Runners up: Saints Row the Third, Batman: Arkham City

Best Single Player Campaign

Winner: The Witcher 2: Assassin’s of Kings

Runners up: Gears of War 3, Portal 2

Best Multiplayer Game

Winner: Gears of War 3

Runners up: Battlefield 3, Saints Row the Third

Best Atmosphere

Winner: Dark Souls

Runners up: Dead Space 2, L.A. Noire

Funniest Game

Winner: Portal 2

Runners up: Shadows of the Damned, Saints Row the Third

Best New IP

Winner: Bastion

Runners up: Shadows of the Damned, L.A. Noire

Best Zombie Game

Winner: Dead Island

Runners up: Dead Rising 2: Off the Record, Dead Space 2

Most Disappointing Game

Winner: Brink

Runners up: Dragon Age II, Modern Warfare 3

Best Game That Nobody Played/Bought

Winner: Shadows of the Damned

Runners up: El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron, Rayman: Origins

Best Surprise

Winner: Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Runners up: Dead Island, Driver: San Francisco

Special Award: So Bad, It's Good That It’s Bad

Winner: Duke Nukem Forever

Special Award: Oops, I Targeted the Wrong Version (aka Press "Y" to Noclip)

Winner: Dead Island (PC)

Special Award: Most Epic Theme Song

Winner: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Special Award: Best Game that Most People Forgot About

Winner: Dead Space 2

Special Award: Most Ridiculous Game

Winner: Saints Row the Third

Part 2: Platform and Genre Awards, and GOTY

Best Shooter

Winner: Battlefield 3

Runners Up: Gears of War 3, Crysis 2

Best Action/Adventure

Winner: Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Runners Up: Batman: Arkham City, Saints Row the Third

Best RPG

Winner: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Runners up: Dark Souls, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings

Best Strategy

Winner: Total War: Shogun 2

Runners up: Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II – Retribution, Anno 2070

Best Puzzle Solving

Winner: Portal 2

Runners up: Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective, Catherine

Best Driving

Winner: Dirt 3

Runners up: Trackmania 2: Canyon, Forza Motorsport 4

Best 360 Only Game:

Winner: Gears of War 3

Runners up: Forza Motorsport 4, Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary

Best PS3 Only Game:

Winner: Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception

Runners up: Killzone 3, Resistance 3

Best PC Only Game:

Winner: Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings

Runners up: Shogun 2: Total War, Trackmania 2: Canyon

Best Multi-platform Game:

Winner: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Runners up: Saints Row the Third, Portal 2

GOTY 2011

Winner: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Runners up: Saints Row the Third, Portal 2

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Japan/China Trip 2011 Part 1: Hanzhou, Osaka, Kyoto, and Nara...

So this summer, my family decided that it was about time that we went to China again to vacation/visit relatives. This time around, we decided that we might as well spend a few days in Japan since I've always wanted to go. However, because of the recent quake and based on first hand reports from people I know who have recently returned from Japan, we decided not to visit the Tokyo area this time, and instead chose to stay within the Kansai region (we're only going to be spending about five days here anyway) which includes Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, and Kobe. 
 
Some side notes: 
  1. United Airlines/Continental didn't offer complementary lunch during our four-hour flight from Houston to San Fransisco, despite the fact that it was during lunch time (the flight departed at 12:25 pm). Instead they offered a variety of food for sale. As if I'm dumb enough to actually pay for airline food . . . <_<
  2. For some reason, I found it difficult to fall asleep during our 13-hour flight from San Francisco to Shanghai, a problem I haven't had on previous long flights from the US to China. So I basically felt hella tired during that entire flight.
  3. China always has this very distinctive smell that you catch a whiff of as soon as you step off the plane. It's a combination of cigarette smoke, air pollution, and whatever the "local flavor" is. Yes, everyone smokes in China.
Anyway, before heading off for Japan, we decided to spend a couple of days first in Hanzhou, one of the major cities in Southeast China (only about 2.5 hours from Shanghai by bus). Though I spent most of my time in the hotel (the hotel had like free 20mbps internet!), we did get around to doing some sight-seeing, mainly being led by my aunt and uncle, who are currently living in the city. I also got to see my cousin's newborn, which was kinda cool. Here are some random photos from Hanzhou:  
 
           
 
And of course, the most important of all: 
 
 It's not China unless there's a KFC...
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
So after spending a couple days in Hanzhou eating some great food and chilling in my hotel room, we head off to Shanghai Pudong international airport for the 2 hour or so flight to Kansai International. The thing I notice right away about Japan as soon as I stepped off the airport was how clean everything was, the bathrooms in particular. The next thing I realized was that the Japanese take security pretty seriously. While they don't have body scanners, they do pretty thorough searches of what's inside your carry-ons. (They even x-ray'd a package of granola bars we had in one of our suitcases . . . XD). In our case they also requested to do a body search. I wasn't very pleased about this, but I wasn't in a mood to make a fuss. Still I'm pretty sure we were the only ones who had to undergo a body search. (My guess is that it was because maybe they saw three Chinese people travelling from Shanghai with American passports to be suspicious? Not that I'm trying to imply bias of any sort . . .)
 
So soon after we buy a JR Express Kansai one-day pass (which apparently you can only buy once during your trip to Japan) and hop on a train to Kyoto. After checking into the Hyatt Regency, I released, to my dismay, that the broadband was not free and in fact costs ¥42 per minute (that about $0.50 USD/minute) or a flat rate of ¥1575 per day (about $19 USD). So I just went without internet for a couple of days (and believe me it wasn't easy) 
 
Anyway, on to Kyoto. Since we were only staying in Kyoto for two days, we pretty much had to skip a lot of the more minor locations (and even a couple of the major ones) to fit into our time table. To make things worse, the first day we went out, it rained all day long, which is a major bummer if you're looking to do some sight-seeing. Luckily, on the second day, there was only some small showers so it was a much more pleasant experience.  
 
So here are some photos from Kyoto: 
  
This is apparently the mascot of The 2011 National Cultural Festival in Kyoto (Mayumaro), and I saw this guy's face everywhere (including bus passes):  
  
 The King of Kyoto?
  
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Of course, what post could be complete without a mandatory shot of a Japanese toilet? This was the one at our hotel room at the Hyatt Regency Kyoto:  

A $500 toilet seat?
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Yes, I did mess around with the settings a bit. ;) 
 
Let's move on to the Kiyomizu-dera Temple:  
 
     

As you can probably tell, despite the rain, there was still a lot of people there.
 
Next. the Yasaka Shrine
  
     
 
Then, the Heian Shrine:
  
    
 
After this we had planned to visit the Kyoto Imperial Palace. Unfortunately, despite the amount of research we did on Kyoto, we neglected to find out that the Imperial Palace is not only closed on weekends (this was a Sunday) but also required permission beforehand before you were allowed to enter. So, the best I could do was take a picture of the outside grounds. Disappointing yes, but we already had a lot of places to visit so, it wasn't that big of a deal in the end.  
 
  
  
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
   
Next, we have the Ginkaku-ji Temple (aka Silver Pavilion)
 
       
  
Next is the Nishi hongan-ji
 
     
  
 And then we have Nijou Castle:
 
        
Next, the Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion):
 
   

Next, the Ninna-ji
   
      

Finally, the Tenryuu-ji and the Bamboo Forest 
 
       
   
  
So after two days in Kyoto, we head off to Osaka and then Nara, where we visited the parks there and also Kofuku-ji and Todai-ji temple (which includes the largest wooden structure in the world): 
 
        
 
After returning to Osaka, we went to a local restaurant where I had a nice dinner of okonomiyakitakoyaki, and barbeque beef (which I grilled myself). The okonomiyaki in particular was better than I had expected. 

Some photos of Osaka: 
 
      
 
So, after spending three days in Japan, here are some general thoughts that I have: 
 
  • The Japanese seem to be pretty damn diligent, especially the clerks. A good example of this was when I left my umbrella at the MK taxi station near Kyoto Station. When I went back there the next day to retrieve it, they had already had it labelled (with my name which they had matched to the log of time that I had left there) and asked for my ID in order to pick it up. Yes, diligent is a good word indeed.
  • It obviously rains a lot in Japan, and they are clearly more accustomed to it than most places I've lived in the US. i.e. nearly every store has an umbrella rack in front to store your umbrellas. Also, some stores even have little plastic covers that you can put over your umbrellas so that you can bring them into the store. The Hyatt Regency were I stayed in Kyoto even had umbrellas that you could borrow for the day. A word of advice if you're considering bringing your umbrella to Japan: make sure you bring a full-length one, it just makes things much easier.
  • Stuff is expensive in Japan, as expected but not as much so as I would have thought. Food prices are generally in the ¥600-1200 for you typical ramen, bento type food, which is comparable to the prices that you would see at a typical American chain restaurant. Some things like fruit or beef are MUCH more expensive than the US, but some other things (certain vegetables for instance and fish) are actually a little cheaper. One shopping tip that you're likely to get from locals is that after 5 pm or so, many of the food shops will start to give big discounts on their sushi, box lunches, etc. because those products won't stay fresh overnight. I saw a box lunch that usually sells for ¥800 discounted to ¥200 yen, another discounted to ¥50, etc. Stuff like clothing, home appliances, even electronics, etc. seemed to be pretty expensive though.
  • I'm not sure about how subway/train stations are like in the US, but the train system in Japan is pretty damn difficult to navigate, even if you can get past the language barrier. Basically, unless you're familiar with an area, figuring out which trains to take to get to your final destination can be a confusing, even frustrating experience. Another tip BTW: don't ride the local train if you are travelling between cities. The local trains will definitely get you say, from Kyoto to Umeda, but it'll take much, much longer than the faster Express trains.
  • One interesting thing I saw while riding the trains here is that some trains have a "women's only" section or "women's only" cars. They even have these pink signs on the ground that say "women's boarding only" and the train cars themselves are often a pinkish/reddish hue. While I understand why they would do something like this, it definitely is one of those things that make you go: "oh Japan . . ."
  • Contrary to what anime would like us to believe, I did not see a lot of woman with hair dyed blue, purple, green, etc. though a lot of the women (men as well, but fewer than women) that I saw did dye their hair brown, blonde, white or a strawberry/red-head hue. I'm guessing this is the influence of western culture, but personally I'm perfectly okay with black hair.
  • Many of the restaurants here have plastic replicas of their various dishes on display outside which makes it much easier to decide which restaurants you want to eat at and what types of items they have on the menu (see above for an example). I really hope this is something that gets implemented in the US in the future
That's about all I can think of at the moment. In any case, I've definitely been having fun here and am just starting to get a good feel of the flow of life in Japan, which feels very different from the US (though it seems like it's not a place I would want to live in for very long). In any case, that just about does it for this long (travel?) blog post. Part 2 will be posted in a few more days after I finish up my stay here in Osaka (and Kobe as well) and after a couple of days in Shanghai proper and also Nanjing.
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Turning my old PC into an HTPC (well, kind of anyway...)

So since I’ve recently built myself a new Sandy Bridge system, I figured I shouldn’t let my old components go to waste. I’ve always wanted to dabble into HTPCs but never wanted to use one as my primary system. Now that I have two computer available, it made sense for me to turn one into a dedicated multimedia machine. Now, this build isn’t a HTPC in the strictest sense since I’m not using a typical HTPC case or form factor. I don’t have an issue putting a mid tower close to my TV anyway so I figured it was a better idea to go for something that has decent airflow rather than a slim form factor. And considering I only had to buy two additional components for this build (case + power supply) I only ended up spending $120. Anyway, on to the components.

Chassis: Cooler Master HAF-912 (4x120mm fans, 1x200mm led fan, 1x140mm led fan) - $60

HAF 912 Midtower







The choice of the HAF-912 may seem like an odd one but after looking through several HTPC cases (including those with built-in remotes and LCD screens, etc) the HAF-912 ended up being my case of choice because of its size (a mid-tower that doesn’t take up a whole lot of room yet is big enough to fit pretty much anything), and airflow. While an HTPC case may be more aesthetically pleasing and easier to move around, at the end of the day, I prefer flexibility over aesthetics.

CPU: Intel Core 2 Quad Q6600 (3.2GHz @ 1.325 vcore)

My old Q6600 was getting a little slow for the latest games but for multimedia playback, it’s still plenty powerful, not overly power hungry and runs relatively cool. I have it at a lower OC than I used to since I don’t really need the extra speed. I may even back it down to 3.0 GHz @ 1.275 vcore or even the default speed to lower the power consumption.

CPU Heatsink: Thermaltake Frio with dual 120mm fans

Though the Frio can get loud with the fans at high speeds, it's pretty quiet when they are running at low to medium speeds. For my Q6600, even with the fans on low, I'm getting very good temperatures (19 ° C idle, 45 ° C at full load)

Motherboard: ASUS P5Q Deluxe

It's kind of ironic that my much older P5Q Deluxe has some features that the P8P67 Pro in my Sandy Bridge system does not (including dedicated reset buttons on the motherboard and dual gigabit lan).

Memory: 8GB (4x2GB) Corsair XMS2 DDR2-800 (1068MHz @ 5-5-5-18)

Yeah I was one of those crazy guys who had 8GB of memory way back in 2007, but hey it has definitely served me over the years.

GPU: eVGA GTX 260

 eVGA GTX 260






Not the most power efficient card to use for an HTPC, but the GTX 260 actually consumes very little power in 2D mode, supports CUDA for trans-coding/decoding, and more importantly can handle games if I ever feel the need to play games on this system (which is unlikely since I have a separate gaming rig)

Hard drive: 1 TB WD SATA II

A standard 7200RPM SATAII drive that I had used previously. It's still relatively unused so I opted not to buy a new hard drive since this machine will mainly be used for streaming.

Optical Drive: Samsung 20X DVD Burner

Decided not to buy a BluRay drive since if I wanted to watch BluRays I usually use my PS3. If I really wanted to run Blu-ray on this system, I'll probably just yank the BluRay burner from my primary PC and stick it into this one.

Other Components

Startech 2-Port USB 3.0 PCI-E X1 Card

In case I ever decide to plug in USB 3.0 hard drives into this system.

PSU: Antec BP550 Plus 550W Modular ($60)

 Antec BP550 Plus







A cheap, yet well built power supply which has plenty of juice for the components that I'm running. it even has 80+ rating meaning it should be relatively efficient.

Tuner: Avermedia AverTV Hybrid Volar Max USB 2.0

 Avermedia Volar Max






My old HDTV tuner still works great and gives good result from both over the air and QAM (cable) signals. It also has DVR capabilities which is useful at times. As for DVR software, I found that Windows Media Center has a great built in TV/DVR feature that's much easier to use than the media suite that Avermedia provides.

Audio: Integrated HD audio

Decided I didn't really need a dedicated sound card. The HD audio should be fine since I'll be outputting everything to my receiver anyway.

Receiver: Pioneer VSX-820K 5.1 (via optical out)

Pioneer VSX-820K





Got this on sale last year for $180 at Best Buy. This is a pretty good A/V that supports HDMI passthrough, 3D, and all the HD audio formats. I'll be running Optical/Toslink to it right now but I will probably use HDMI out if I decide to replace the graphics card. For most intents and purposes, outputting in optical is just fine since most of the content I'll be watching are encoded either in MP3 or Dolby Digital/DTS so I'm not really missing out by not having HDMI (anything that is not encoded in AC3/DTS will be encoded into 640kbps AC3 via ffdshow.) Obviously some quality loss is expected when rencoding non-DTS or AC3 formats into AC3 but I'm not that picky.

Speakers: 4 x Insignia 6.5” Bass Reflex Bookshelf Speakers; 1 x Pioneer SP-C21 5.25” Center Speaker; BIC V1020 10” Down-Firing Subwoofer  

 My 5.1 Speaker Setup





I put together this 5.1 setup last year for around $400 and I've been pretty satisfied with it. It definitely outperforms the various HTIB out there and while bookshelfs definitely take up more space, the much improved frequency response vs satellite speakers is definitely a big bonus. In most cases I don't even need to turn my subwoofer on (at 160W RMS and 350W Peak, the BIC V1020 is probably overkill for my relatively small living room).

So it didn't take me too long to put everything together. The HAF-912, despite being a budget midtower case, has a surprisingly amount of room as I fit everything including the huge Thermaltake Frio heatsink without any clearance issues. Cable management was a breeze as well, though it did end up being a little messier than my other system.

 Case Interior
 Case Exterior








Using my Scythe 4-channel fan controller to turn most of the fans to low speed makes the case pretty quiet while still maintaining good airflow (as the case as an enormous number of fan slots for a case in the $60 price range). Though adding a 200mm LED fan, two additional 120mm fans, and a 140mm LED fan did add another $50 to the price (not calculated since I already owned the fans in question) but I probably didn't need to fill out all the fan slots considering what I'm using this PC for. But hey, I had a bunch of left over fans from my previous case (a Thermaltake Armor) so might as well put them to good use.

Overall, I'm pretty happy with this build though there are few components that I may get in the future to make it more of an HTPC including a multifunction remote (I'm getting by just fine right now with a wireless keyboard and mouse) or a graphics card with HDMI audio output. For now though, this PC definitely does what I want it to and it's always nice to make good use of old components.

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My 2011 Sandy Bridge PC Build . . .

So it's been about three and a half years since I've built a computer for myself. Though I've upgraded certain components on a regular basis (video card, hard drives, etc), my core components haven't really changed. So I've basically been using a Core 2 Quad Q6600 system for the past three years and to be honest, the CPU was starting to show it's age, especially in a lot of the more recent games and even in regular OS usage. So I finally decided to build a new system now that the second gen i7 chips have become mainstream (and Ivy Bridge was still quite a ways off). I tried to keep the price of the new components reasonable so that I wouldn't have to spend more than around $1000 and I ended pretty close to that budget. Anyway, on to the components.

Processor: Intel Core i7-2600K ($316)

 Core i7-2600K








There are really only two choices here, the i7-2600K or the i5-2500K (since this is a Sandy Bridge build and I am planning on overclocking). My rationale for going with the 2600K is pretty straightforward. As someone who does a significant amount of music and video encoding as well as a lot of multitasking in addition to playing games, for me, the 2600K is definitely the better choice compared to the 2500K. And the $90 price difference wasn't major enough for me to sacrifice multi-threaded performance for a cheaper price. Besides, since I plan to keep the CPU for at least two years, it's better  to invest in the best CPU available.

Heatsink: Corsair H70 ($96)

 Corsair H70







For the heatsink there are of course a plethora of options available, but in terms of performance the clear winners out of the air coolers are the Noctua NH-D14 and the Thermalright Silver Arrow. Then for self contained water cooling, there was the Corsair H70. I ultimately chose the H70 because I wanted to have more space around the CPU socket so that I can have more flexibility to install another two sticks of RAM in the future as well as putting less stress on the motherboard itself. Not to mention that moving the case around would be much safer. And considering the H70 was only $6 more than the Noctua for only slightly lower performance (especially with the low-wattage Sandy Bridge procs), it was definitely a better choice for my needs.

Motherboard: ASUS P8P67 Pro ($190)

 ASUS P8P67 Pro






The motherboard was a much harder decision for me since there are a lot of high quality P67 boards out there including the Gigabyte UD4 and the MSI, all at a similar price point. Ultimately it came down to the Gigabyte UD4 vs the ASUS P8P67 Pro I went with the ASUS P8P67 Pro because the reviews I've read usually had the ASUS ahead in terms of overclocking ability and also my previous three boards had been ASUS boards and I've had nothing but good luck with them. The built-in bluetooth adapter is a pretty useful feature as well.

Memory: 8GB (2x4GB) G.Skill Ripjaws X DDR3-1600 CAS8 ($85)

G.Skill Ripjaws X 






This marks the first time since I started building my own PCs that I didn't use Corsair ram. The reasons I chose this particular kit is partly because of the sale that Newegg had for them and partly because I wanted lower latency ram at a lower base voltage (in this case 1.5v for the Ripjaws compared to 1.65v for the Corsair Dominators).

Hard Drives: 

  • Corsair Nova 128GB SSD SATA II (Internal)
  • WD Caviar Black 2 TB SATA III (Internal) - $170
  • Hitachi 2TB SATA II (Internal)
  • Hitachi 2TB eSATA    
  • Buffalo Drive Station 2TB USB 3.0
  • Seagate 1.5TB eSATA Green Drives x 2
  • WD Caviar Black 1TB eSATA

Out of the drives above, the only new drive I bought for this build was the WD Caviar Black 2TB Drive ($170). The Corsair Nova SSD is still plenty fast IMO and still has plenty left in it's life span so I had no desire to replace it just yet (though the OCZ Vertex 3 drives are pretty damn tempting) and of course the other drives I had weren't that old so I decided to keep them rather than replace them with newer drives.

Optical Drives

  • LG 8x Bluray Burner

  • Samsung 20X DVD Burner

Again, no need to buy new components here as both my drives still worked just fine. 

Chassis: Cooler Master HAF 932 Advanced ($155)

HAF 932 Advanced 








The case was probably the hardest decision to make since there are just so many high-quality cases out there, each with their own unique styles and features. I considered everything from the NZXT Phantom to the Corsair 600T to the Thermaltake V to the Cooler Master HAF 932, HAF X, and Storm Sniper. I even considered the Thermaltake Level 10 GT. Ultimately I decided I didn't want to spend over $150 for the case so I settled on the HAF 932. It's definitely not the newest or most feature-rich case available at it's price point but I liked it's size (I wanted a big case), excellent air flow and decent looks. It's also one of the few cases that comes with a USB front panel connectors using the P67 standard. Also the main short-coming of the case, the lack of air filters, was easily fixed with some aluminum screen door mesh that is easily bought rather cheaply from Home Depot.

Video Card: eVGA GTX 570 SC ($360)

eVGA GTX 570 SC 






Since I already owned this card, this was obviously a no brainer. But even if that wasn't the case I probably would still have chosen this card for several reasons. One, it's price: with a little bit of overclocking this card can perform just as well as a stock GTX 580, which still goes for around $500. Second, when comparing the HD 6970 with the GTX 570, CUDA and Physx IMO gives Nvidia the edge. ATI Stream hasn't had good adoption wheras CUDA has support in many apps including Photoshop and CoreAVC. Physx, while not an essential feature can be useful for games that support it. Finally, the HD 6970 seems to have poor overclocking potential (probably due to the fact that the core frequency is already pretty close to it's limit) whereas the GTX 570s can easily reach overclocks of +15-20%. I chose eVGA since all my previous nvidia cards have been from them and they've always had great customer service as well a good warranty.

Sound Card: Soundblaster X-Fi Platinum PCI

This the card that I've used for about six years and it still outperforms the integrated audio by a significant amount. The newer PCI-E cards don't improve enough upon the older PCI cards IMO for them to be worth a $100-$150 investment.

Power Supply: Corsair HX620 620W

Though I've had this PSU for a while now, it's still going strong and still has plenty of juice for my current system. I had considered upgrading to a Corsair HX750 or HX850 but decided that it would  be a waste of money since my system draws no where near that much wattage even at 100% full load.

Other Components:

Rosewill 2-Port eSATA II PCI-E card: 

I've had this card for a couple of years now due to the fact that I have about four eSATA drives that I use on a daily basis.

The total for the new components that I bought comes to about $1012 ($1372 if I include the graphics card which I already owned), which isn't bad for a Sandy Bridge based system. I definitely saved money by not upgrading components that still perfectly functional as otherwise the total cost could easily be close to $2000.

The build came together pretty easily. I haven't built a PC in a while but I've done it so often in the past that everything went smoothly (i.e. the PC posted without any issues the first time I booted the system up which is always a breath of relief). Since I hadn't bought a case since basically 2006, the newer features really made things much easier and I was able to get some decent cable management done without much effort at all:

 Case Exterior

 Case Interior








I basically kept the case as it is and didn't replace any of the fans (except for the H70 radio fans of course), and I also installed a 120mm fan in the GPU shroud and a second 120mm fan in the front to act as a second front intake and to also help cool the motherboard and RAM. Though the system is not completely silent, it barely makes any noise when idling.

One of the things that I definitely love about Sandy Bridge is the stupidly easy overclocking. A quick five minutes in the BIOS and I was able to get my CPU to 4.5 GHz at 1.28v:

 Easy overclocking








Though this chip could probably easily go higher, I figured I probably don't even need to run the chip at 4.5 GHz 24/7 since the performance of the CPU is pretty damn good even at the default 3.4GHz. Another great thing about Sandy Bridge is that when the computer is idle or using very little CPU, it runs at a mere 1.6 GHz, meaning very little power consumption when idling (great for me since I usually keep my PC on 24/7). Even at full load, my 2600K at 4.5 GHz and 1.28v still draws significantly less power than my Q6600 at 3.6 GHz 1.475v (~125W @ 4.5 GHz for the i7 vs ~200W for the Q6600 @ 3.6 GHz) Temperatures with the H70 were good as well with my CPU  idling at 30° C going to 60° C at full load. The GPU shroud also seems to help my GPU temps as my GTX 570 @ 900/2100 doesn't crack 67° C while running MSI Kombuster.

After having the system for about a month, I definitely feel that this is a significant upgrade from my Q6600 based system. A lot of games that had terrible minimum framerates before suddenly ran buttery smooth (Assassin's Creed Brotherhood is a great example as it sometimes went down to 30 FPS on my Q6600 while it pretty much stays at a constant 60 FPS on my 2600K, both running on the exact same GTX 570). As it turns out, a lot of games these days can still be pretty CPU limited and hence there end up being big disparities between systems performance wise even if the GPU is relatively high end on both systems. Aside from gaming, other apps feel snappier as well and obviously encoding is much faster.

For fun, I ran some quick Everest benches comparing my Q6600 @ 3.6 GHz vs. my Core i7-2600K @ 4.5 Ghz and, well, the numbers speak for themselves:


Anyway, I've droned on for long enough. In summary, I'm definitely very satisfied with my new system and while it was a tad costly ($1012 isn't cheap by any means) it was definitely worth it as this PC will probably last me for quite some time (the CPU/Motherboard/RAM at least, I'll probably be upgrading the GPU yearly as I have tended to so these past seven years or so)
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Looking back at a year in J-Pop . . . 2010 edition

It's about time for another random blog post and this time I figure I might as well write about something music-related (since I've already blogged about games and anime). Specifically of course I'm referring to my favorite J-Pop albums/singles that were released in 2010. Now obviously the J-Pop scene is as big as the music scene is in any country so my favorites are probably going to only represent a minuscule range of what's out there. Anyway, here we go . . . 
 

FLASH by Crystal Kay (EP)

  
 That's some impressive hair...
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Release date: June 16, 2010 
Number of tracks:
Top tracks: "FLASH", "I Pray", "Happy" 
 
FLASH
came as a pretty big surprise for me. Crystal Kay is definitely not a newcomer in the Japanese music industry (after all she just had her 10th anniversary tour recently) but FLASH has some stuff that I've never heard from her before. I enjoyed pretty much every song on this mini-album from the energetic/sexy "FLASH" to her somber cover of Michael Jackson's "Happy" (surprisingly one of the best songs I've heard her single in English). Also, as this is an EP, there is no chaff here so in that sense I probably enjoyed this album more than her full studio album Spin the Music (see below). 

Spin the Music by Crystal Kay (album)

  
 Not much spinning involved here...
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  

  

Release date: December 8, 2010 
Number of tracks: 12 
Top tracks: "After Love (First Boyfriend)", "FLASH", "I Pray", "Love or Game", "I'll Be There"
 
Spin the Music
is Crystal Kay's 10th studio album and while it does draw much of it's strength from singles (as well as songs from her FLASH mini-album), there are still some surprises here including "Love or Game" which maybe her most unique sounding song to date. There are also of course a good dose of ballads and R&B inspired songs on here as well and while those are well produced, it's not the strong suit of the album. Overall however, the album does seem somewhat of a mixed bag and while I enjoyed listening to it, I can't help but think that she could definitely have tried a little harder on some of the supporting tracks of the album.

LIFE by Angela Aki (album)

  
 Her album titles have always been just one word...
 
 
 
 
 
  

 
  

   

 
Release date: September 8, 2010 
Number of tracks: 13 
Top tracks: "Unbreakable", "Ai to Bansoukou", "Mad Scientist", "Remember Me", "What are the Roses For?"
 
LIFE
is probably my favorite album of the year, J-Pop or otherwise. I've probably played this album at least twenty five to thirty times in the past year. Surprisingly though I hadn't even heard of Angela Aki before I listened to this album but LIFE has definitely made me a big fan. There's just something about her voice, the arrangements, and the melodies that just draws you into the music. There's also something to be said about her approach of "less is more" (i.e. most of the arrangements are not overly complicated) There are also more English songs on this album that she's done in the past and while they aren't all interesting lyrics wise, they have a very clean, clear sound. Did I mentioned that Aki has a beautiful voice? This album has definitely encouraged me to go back and listen to her previous works.
 

GOLD by Jasmine (album)

  
 Yup, that's definitely a gold album cover...
 
 
 
 
 
 
  

 
 
  
 
Release date: July 21, 2010 
Number of tracks: 14 
Top tracks: "PRIDE", "sad to say", "Bad Girl", "Koi"

Jasmine's debut album is in one sense nothing new since most of the content here she has already released as singles. Still I greatly enjoyed this album and I can't think of a single song that I didn't like, which is not something I can say about most albums that have come out this year. Despite the fact that she's a relative newcomer, Jasmine can definitely sing and if GOLD is any indication, she definitely has a bright future ahead of her.
 

MIRAGE by Mell (album)

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  

 
Release date: October 27, 2010 
Number of tracks: 13 
Top tracks: "KILL", "Subaku no Yuki", "Proof", "RIDEBACK", "Red Fraction  -IO drive mix-"

MIRAGE is definitely not my favorite album of the year but it has enough standout tracks that it still ended being one that I really enjoyed. Mell's second album is a mix of trance, synth, and rock which gives here a interesting, if not necessarily unique sound. If you've never heard of MELL, she sung the opening theme song of Black Lagoon and in fact this album contains a remix of that song ("Red Fraction") which was used as the opening theme of the Black Lagoon OVAs. Given that I'm not exactly big fan of trance or synth I was pleasantly surprised at the sound of this album. Certainly the rock aspects of the album are what made is more enjoyable but this album has definitely made me more appreciative of the genre.
 

Holidays in the Sun by Yui (album)

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  

 
 
Release date: July 14, 2010 
Number of tracks: 13 
Top tracks: "again", "Kiss Me", "to Mother", "Parade", "GLORIA" 

Yui's 4th studio album, Holidays in the Sun is a surprisingly laid back and mellow album that's probably a good thing as she can sometimes come of as trying too hard at times. There are plenty of upbeat rock songs on here as well as some more melodic offerings. The result is that this album is just very pleasant to listen to. That may not seem like a great compliment but give her track record, it's definitely different from what we expect from her. In any case, it's nice to see Yui having some fun with her song writing and taking a step back from being overly dramatic like she tended to be in her previous outings.  
 

∞2 by Do As Infinity (single)

            
 This single is better than infinity?
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  

  


Release date: June 16, 2010 
Number of tracks:
Top tracks: all of them! 
 
This is Do As Infinity's 23rd single, and the second of three to be released before their latest studio album Eight (which was released in Japan on January 19th). I've always been a big DAI fan and this single proves why they remain one of my all-time favorite J-Pop bands. Every single song on this single is excellent (which is usually not the case with singles) from the uniquely arranged "1/100" to the upbeat "Everything will be all right" to the laid-back "HARUKA" and finally, the aggressive "Pile Driver". This is definitely DAI at the top of their game and I'm now more excited than ever about listening to Eight (which should be sometime soon now) 
 
Well, there you have it, some of my favorite albums/singles of 2010 (from the land of the rising sun). I'm definitely looking forward to see what 2011 has in store.
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Anime of Winter 2011, not as bad as I had feared . . .

So last year I posted up an early list of the anime that would be airing in the winter and from those descriptions, things didn't look to be very promising. Fortunately, after I had a chance to watch the new shows, it turns out that the winter season is turning out to be better than I had originally thought. Anyway, here are some of my thoughts on the new winter lineup: 
 

Beelzebub 

That's a cute baby! 
Premiere: Jan 9th

Production: Studio DEEN

Let’s make this clear from the onset: Beelzebub is a shounen comedy that’s in the vein of something like Gintama, but with a baby that happens to be the son of a demon king. That alone probably already means it’s sort of a love or hate type of show. If you like the type off-beat, wacky, sometimes nonsensical humor of Gintama, you’ll probably like this show. Otherwise, well you’ll probably hate it. Personally I found the first episode to be pretty damn funny at times though the problem with these shows is always maintaining the laughs throughout its run time. Even with Gintama, there were spurts were I kinda of got tired of the style of humor and had to take a break. Hopefully since Beelzebub is only slated for 12 episodes, we shouldn’t run into this type of problem. 


 

Dragon Crisis

The blond loli is a dragon... 

Premiere: Jan 10th

Production: Studio DEEN 
 
Ever seen Shakugan no Shana, Tora-dora!, Zero no Tsukaima? If you have then you basically know about Dragon Crisis as well--no, not the plot but rather, the loli. Yes Rose is a tsundere type loli and yes she is played by Rie Kugimiya (she's also a young red dragon, hence the reason for the title). And yes, the premise is a typical shounen one of a girl randomly falling into the male protagonist's lap with wacky highjinks ensuing. To Studio DEEN's credit (did I just say that?) though, the story of Dragon Crisis itself is at least somewhat interesting and the show is relatively fun to watch, but that's about it. There isn't really anything deep or profound to be found here and let's face, no one expected there to be. 
 

 

Fractale

 No, not a "fractal"

Premiere: Jan 14th

Production: A-1 Pictures, Ordet

Something about Fractale’s animation style and fantasy backdrop reminds me of Studio Ghibli’s past works. While this is definitely a plus in my book, the show itself, however, doesn’t quite deliver as I thought it might have in the previews--at least not yet. As you may or may not be aware, director Yutaka Yamamoto has said in the past that he was “putting his life on the line” to make this anime happen and from what I’ve seen of Fractale so far, it definitely doesn’t live up to that hype. Still, this is an original series (always a selling point in anime these days) by a director responsible for the likes of Haruhi Suzumiya and Kannagi so I’m definitely looking forward to the rest of the episodes (it’s only 11 episodes long). And hey, the story (which seems so far to be a futuristic fantasy) at least looks to be very promising. 


 

Gosick 

What the hell does "gosick" mean? 

Premiere: Jan 7th

Production: BONES

As a mystery series set in the early 20th century, Gosick certainly will attract some attention for it's non-typical setting as well as the fact that it's a mystery series (there aren't a lot of those around these days). Despite what can be considered a dull setting though, BONES isn't messing around when it comes to the storytelling as so far it's been fast-paced and to the point. This means that we should expect the narrative to be delivered quickly but it also means that there's somewhat of a lack of character development (so far at least). And as with any BONES series, the animation is well produced, despite the lack of any big action sequences. There's also some bits of wit and humor spread about as well, which is always nice to see in this type of show. I just hope that the mysteries in this series end up actually being mysteries, and not the type that you can see coming form a mile away.

  
 

Infinite Stratos 

 Strike Witches 3?
Premiere: Jan 7th

Production: 8-Bit

Infinite Stratos is one of those shows that on the surface sounds like just another generic seinen sci-fi series with harem overtones. The first couple of episode definitely showcases the show’s use of classic anime tropes (really, Ichika is the ONLY male in the world that can operate an IS, really?) as well as a questionable backstory, but despite these shortcomings, I still quite enjoyed the first two episodes. The character designs are attractive, the animation is competent, and the overall story has some promise, and while I don’t particularly care for the designs of the IS themselves, the action sequences are fairly well done. Also, I appreciate how the relationship between Ichika and Houki are being handled so far and that Houki isn’t being portrayed as just your typical tsundere heroine. 

 
 

Kimi ni Todoke 2nd Season  

 Sadako is back!

Premiere: Jan 4th

Production: Production I.G.

There’s not much that needs to be said about this series other than it’s basically a continuation of Kimi ni Todoke’s first season. Now to be honest, my feelings towards the first season were a little ambiguous. While I did enjoy the story and the characters, there were quite a few frustrating moments (mainly due to the pacing) that left me a little disappointed with the show. Still in the end, I did find the first season quite enjoyable to watch, I just hope Production I.G. paces the second season a little better than they did the first. 

 
  
 
 

Kore wa Zombie Desu ka? 

 It's a trap!

Premiere: Jan 11th

Production: Studio DEEN

I can't believe I'm saying this about a Studio DEEN series, but Kore wa Zombie Desu ka? may just be my favorite series of the season so far. Why? Well let's see, you've got yourself an undead protagonist who was resurrected by a loli necromancer (who doesn't talk but rather communicates with a notepad) and forced to become a "masou shoujo" after absorbing the magical powers of another masou shoujo (who also happens to be a loli). Oh and apparently, there's also a vampire ninja that's yet to show herself. To be fair, the reason why this series is so awesome is the same reason why it could be so terrible: it's nonsensical, inconsistently animated, poorly thought out, and filled with tired-out tropes. But the show is so damn hilarious that I could care less about the little, or even big, details. We're talking about Code Geass-level of "so bad, it's good" epicness. Also, Ayumu's "tranformation" sequence will probably haunt your dreams for weeks (it's a trap!). If Kore wa Zombie Desu ka? Can keep the level of momentum in the first episode for the rest of the series, then I don't see any other show beating it in terms of pure hilarity.
 

Level E  

 A bishounen alien prince?

Premiere: Jan 11th

Production: Studio Pierrot/David Production

Level E is a strange adaptation as it’s based on a 13-year-old manga from the well-known creator of Yu Yu Hakusho and Hunter X Hunter. It’s also clearly designed to be more of a sci-fi comedy than anything else. As such some supposedly-serious parts of the show need to be looked at with this in mind (i.e. the ending reveal in the first episode isn’t what you think). Also, given that this is a Studio Pierrot show (co-produced with David Production which has assisted with shows like Code Geass and Soul Eater), the animation and character designs are surprisingly good. Still, the dry humor is probably not to everyone’s liking and as such, I’m still not quite sold on this series yet. Like any comedy series, the main hurdle will be to maintain the laughs through its 13-episode run. 

 
 

Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica  

 Don't let the title fool you, this is SHAFT through and through...

Premiere: Jan 6th

Production: SHAFT

With SHAFT, you just know that a magical girl show isn't going to end up being a typical magical girl show.  And indeed everything from the character designs, the animation style, the crazy fight sequences, and awesome transformation sequences, this is definitely SHAFT being SHAFT. More surprising is that this is actually an original story, which makes the show even more impressive (since we've known for a while that SHAFT can adapt stories pretty damn well). I definitely enjoyed the first couple of episodes immensely and despite my lack of enthusiasm for the genre in genre, SHAFT manages to mix things up just enough to make it interesting. The change of tone for instance from the first to second episode is not something you would expect from a magical girl show. This definitely looks to be an out of the ordinary, fresh take on the magical girl genre, and a welcome one as well. 
 
 
 

Wolverine  

So you wanted more Marvel-Madhouse collaborations right? 

Premiere: Jan 7th 

Production: Madhouse

Wolverine is the second part of the four-part Marvel Anime project by Marvel and Madhouse. Wolverine was always one of my favorite comic book characters and with his background and skills, he’s probably one of the better fits as far as of anime inspired by western comic books goes. As such, I was somewhat looking forward to this series (despite Madhouse's disappointing Iron Man) and Madhouse didn’t let me down with the first episode. While I’m not a huge fan of the character designs (for the record, they are pretty typical Madhouse), the animation is pretty well done and the plot so far seems to be focused on Logan and his life before he joins the X-men. Also, so far we haven’t been given a heavy dose of backstory (I doubt many people watching anime don’t know who Wolverine is), though I expect that there will be some backstory told in the form of flashbacks at some point. But as enthusiastic as I am so far, I’m still keeping my expectations in check as a 12-episode series about Wolverine is probably going to run into a lot of backstory/pacing issues so we’ll have to see how Madhouse chooses to resolves this problem. 

 
  

Yumekui Merry  

 Merry is kawaii right?
Premiere: Jan 6th

Production: J.C. Staff 

About 30-seconds into the first episode, I said to myself: "Man, this is so J.C. Staff." Yes, indeed the animation is very typical of a J.C. Staff series (or better or for worse) and the story/premise has some intriguing elements to it (it’s certainly not your typical seinan premise) though not nearly enough is shown in the first episode for the viewer to gauge exactly what the hell is going on. Also, J.C. Staff is clearly being budget-conscientious with the production values, and as a result the animation can feel stiff (not a surprise to me as most of J.C. Staff’s efforts is probably still being put into Index) and unlively. Still, like I said the premise is not your typical seinan, Merry is a pretty kawaii character, and there were some pretty weird scenes involving cats so all and all my interest is peaked. 

  
 
 
Aside from the shows I mentioned above there are also some other notable shows such as FREEZING!, Hourou musuko, Mitsudomoe Zouryouchuu!, and Onii-chan no Koto Nanka Zenzen Suki Janain Dakara ne!! which I may or may not pick up later (and if so, probably not until later on in the season). Then there are OVAs like Black Lagoon: Roberta's Bloodtrail and Gundam Unicorn which will release their next installment during the winter season as well. Finally, there's the Madhouse adaptation of Supernatural (one of the most random shows to adapt right?) which is an interesting concept (also interesting is the fact that Madhouse is releasing the episodes straight to disc instead of airing them on TV), though I'm not sure how the end product will turn out. I was never a huge fan of Supernatural but I know it's a very popular show so I understand why Madhouse would be interested in it. Anyway, while the shows this season aren't exactly top-notch, it's not a bad way to start off a new year of anime.
48 Comments

My Windows Phone 7 experience thus far . . .

Since our (I'm still on a family plan with my parents at the moment) contract with Sprint expired two years ago, we finally decided to change carriers and decided on AT&T (I know not the best of decisions but they had the best deal when it comes to price). So when it came down to choosing a phone, I kinda had a dilemma on my hands. On the one hand, I really like Android, but there aren't really any good Android phones for AT&T. I considered iPhone 4 for a second, and, well, that was that. After seeing a lot about WP7 and watching the interface in action, it really intrigued me after after playing around with the Samsung Focus for a little bit in the AT&T store, I decided to go with the Focus and WP7. Here are some of my thoughts on the phone as well as the OS: 
 
First off, the Focus is a pretty damn good phone for the most part. The outside feels a little plasticky but also feels very sturdy. The super-amoled screen is as gorgeous as advertised and looks absolutely amazing. The quality of the camera and the phone calls themselves are also top notch (though the focus on the camera isn't the greatest around, the picture quality is excellent) and the sound quality when playing music or videos is pretty good as well. The touch screen is also very responsive and the on-screen keyboard is one of the best I've used (once you get used to it). The main gripe I have about the phone is that the adding a micro-SD card required me to reset the phone, meaning it wiped all the data including media and apps. Now this wasn't a big deal for me since I had only been using the phone for a couple of days before I added a 16GB card, but if I ever wanted to upgrade to a 32GB card, I'd have to re-sync all the data on the phone and re-download all my apps again. Not a huge hassle, but a definite pain. Battery life has been pretty good so far (it'll last a typical 8 hour work day if you don't spend too much time on the internet or watching videos), though it definitely needs to be plugged in and charged every night (especially since I'm using it for music as well as wifi).
 
As for the WP7 OS itself, overall it feels very good, though it obviously suffers from a lack of certain features like copy-paste for instance (some of which will be added with upcoming updates). One thing that stands out is the UI. The "tile" system it uses for the main screen is a little unconventional but also feels very fluid and is highly customizable. The app browser, while it can crash now and then, has a good-looking interface but browsing it can be somewhat of a hassle and the search function is also somewhat poorly implemented (though there are apps available to fix that). Also despite some people complaining about the lack of an "autoupdate" feature for apps, I don't see why this is a bad thing unless you're not much of a PC user. I never have Windows Update setting to "auto" on my PC nor do I use the autoupdate feature that many PC games have nowadays. But maybe that's just me. The media player also looks and feels very good, but I do wish it had some more advanced features (i.e. a "now playing" section would be nice, rather than just having a "history" section; and I'd also like to be able to view info about my music and videos). The built-in IE browser works well enough, though it doesn't support flash. Having Office applications like Word and Excel is also pretty neat (it has already proven very useful during some of my clinical rotations). The Xbox-live integration is also pretty neat, but the actual app itself can be a little laggy. Still, I definitely like the idea, so I'm hoping that Microsoft will add more features to it in the future. The apps themselves are somewhat of a mixed bag (as they always are) but given that the OS has only been out for a few months, it's not a big surprise. Still there are already some great apps available, and some, like the awesome Netflix app, are pretty good. It seems like Microsoft put a lot of focus on social-networking when they designed WP7 and features like the built-in Facebook integration show it. I'm personally not a huge facebook user, but being able to sync my Facebook profile right out of the box is a nice, if not necessary feature. 
 
It definitely seems like Microsoft wanted to veer away from the more tech-savy and geeky Android platform (i.e. blocking native code) and opted for a more user-friendly experience. And while I applaud them for opting for greater usability as opposed to a more advanced feature set, I would have liked to see some of the geekier features that Android OS has. Despite that however, I'm still pretty pleased with the phone an the OS as WP7 does seem to have a lot of untapped potential. The question is whether or not Microsoft will actively support the platform, especially when they decide to roll out WP8. 
  

 Apparently, Mio is a fan of WP7 . . .
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