Sunday, 18 March 2007

On my to watch list

The anime line-up I currently have is as follows:

1. Ranma 1/2. I know it's something every Otaku should watch, but I just never got around to it. Soon though, soon.

2. Samurai Champloo. My friend recommended it to me. Based on his description, I don't have high hopes for it. It all sounds far too Quentin-Tarantino doing an anime.

3. Mushihi. Another that I have heard of pretty much on the many forums that I frequent. Don't really know a whole lot about it, but have been told it's great.

4. Hikaru no go. I have played Go on occasion, and an entire anime series based on it sounds fascinating.

5. Hajime no Ippo. Another one I'm not too sure about. Sports anime have never wowed me at all, but I've been told that this one is different.

Friday, 16 March 2007


My word what a legend this guy is. I know it's very cliche otaku behaviour to go on about him, but he is that talented.

What's brought this on, you ask? Earlier today I finally saw Porco Rosso. I ain't going to say much about it now, other than you should watch it if you get the chance. It's well worth it.

Why I like anime

A lot of people ask why anime in particular? There are a lot of western cartoons which are excellent. A straight answer would be: I don't really know, so I'm going to try and distill it into a few points.

1. Anime, as opposed to any western cartoon, has a plot, as opposed to just a premise. A cartoon premise is something like 'deadbeat delivery boy has wacky hijinks in the future' (Futurama, incidentally one of the few cartoons I actually like as much as most anime series). Anime on the other hand has a story to tell, and a number of episodes to tell it in. This means that it can tell you the story, and doesn't end up dragging on well past its sell-by-date *cough*Simpsons*cough*.

2. The animation in anime tends to be of higher quality. Just compare a typical cartoon with a typical anime series, looking particularly at things like light shadow, perspective, how the human form is drawn, how colour is applied. In all of these the Japanese are light-years ahead of us in terms of sophistication.

3. Anime represents a whole new culture to unlock. 4-Kids may not like having anything vaguely Japanese in the anime they translate, but I love it. I love coming across something I don't understand in anime, be it a particular phrase, maybe a cultural signifier, an example of japanese cuisine, manners, holidays, festivals, technology. I love then diving into the internet and finding out precisely what that might mean to a Japanese person.

4. Anime is far less afraid that most cartoons. Partly this is a viewer thing. Most viewers don't want real violence, real nudity or real issues in their cartoons unless they are handled in a non-serious manner, like in South Park. Anime in that sense is far more daring.

5. Anime tends to have excellent music. I know this is a very personal thing, but listen to the soundtrack of a cartoon. Bland? Uninspired? Boring? Pretty much. Anime, on the other hand, can have incredibly good music.

Well, those are just a few reasons. There are cartoons that I like as much as some of my favourite anime series. Well, a cartoon, the aforementioned Futurama. However, in almost every way anime tends to be better than western animation.

Memories of Final Fantasy

It's about a week until I get to play FFXII, and currently I'm salivating at the prospect. I have avoided all internet spoilers so that I will have no idea what is going to happen. What it is making me do, though, is reminisce about my experiences playing Final Fantasy.

Like a great deal of people, VII was my first exposure to the series. When I was about nine I was at a friend's house and he had just got a copy of it (it's hard to believe that it came out 10 years ago now.). Anyway, we did it co-op in a sense. We would work out all the puzzles together, and if there was a fight that one of us had trouble with, the other would take over. I remember that in one night we got as far as fighting Dyne (about midway through the first disk), which ain't a shabby achievement all things considered. However at that point, while I enjoyed playing it, it didn't wow me greatly. Partly that was because I was young and stupid(er), but mostly because at any given point I had only a limited idea what was going on. Try explaining the complicated and multi-faceted plot of that game to the typical nine-year-old and you'll know what I mean.

Anyway, after that it wasn't until I was 14 that I got really into the series. Another friend had the really rare PC edition of it, which I borrowed. I was hooked almost straight away. I think i still have his copy of it :S

After that I sought out the next one, FFVIII. I didn't enjoy it as much, but it was a sound game with some jaw-droppingly cool scenes in it (the Landing, anyone?).

Then I made the PS2 jump, gettting hold of FFX. I loved it. I have probably racked up more hours on that game than any other. Squaresoft have always been good at making immersive new worlds for you to play around in, but Spira was in a league of its own. The actual game wasn't as good as VII, but the graphics, the sound, the story and the characters really endeared the game to me.

After that I had that niggling moment that I think every FF fan gets if they play it for long enough, where you realised that the first game in the series you played was called VII for a reason. I managed to rent out the playstation double edition which contained I and II. I enjoyed I, principally because of the class-system they had. II, however, is my second favourite in the series so far. It was the first to introduce characters (the ones in I were faceless sword-carriers), had one of the best plots in the series, and I loved it's system of increasing your stats by using them. Use a spell lots? Its power goes up. Take a few knocks to the head? You gain HP. Smash something with an axe? Have a point of axe skill! It wasn't the first game to do such a thing, but I'm willing to guess that it was the first to do it so well. Well, I have since played all of them except III, which I don't think ever even got translated.

So yeah, Final Fantasy fan here. Just don't mention X-2 and we'll be fine, mmmkay?

Thursday, 15 March 2007

Manga: is it worth the money?

I'll preface this post saying that I buy a lot of manga. However, the problem is, as with most things, price. A volume of manga from tokyopop bought in Waterstones costs £7. I beleive Tanoshimi manga to be £6, not a whole lot cheaper. Bought online, you can still expect to pay at least £5.

Is it worth it? Now, depending on the style of manga, it takes me between twenty minutes and sixty minutes to read a manga volume. That's between 8p and 35p per minute of enjoyment. Compare that to the most recent book I bought, a new copy of Raymond Feist's 'Magician' (my old copy has literally disintegrated due to being read too much). I paid a whopping £9 for it. However, it takes me at least seven or eight hours to read it. That's a mere 1.9p/minute, about the cost of an average landline phone call, and over four times better value than the best value manga.

Of course, these statistice are horribly inaccurate, being as they don't take into account the fact that I tend to re-read everything, the fact that there is relative levels of enjoyment (some manga I enjoy a lot, other manga I continue reading literally because I don't want to leave it half-way through.)

Will this stop me buying manga? Don't be silly.

P.S: It seems like a huge difference in manga reading times. I'll just say here that the manga I read fastest tends to be things like Battle Royale, with it's huge panels, limited dialogue and abundence of double-page spreads. The manga that takes me the longest is probably Love Hina, with it's tiny panels, massive amounts of dialogue and virtually no DPSs.

Final Fantasy XII

Amazon just said that my copy has been dispatched, meaning it will arrive home a couple of days before I do. Man, I can't wait to play that game. Don't expect too many posts for a few days after that, and then one really long one about how the game is absolutely incredible but not as good as VII. What? I'm a VII fanboy, at least I admit it! That game is GOD.

Wednesday, 14 March 2007

DnD Campaign setting

I've recently been working on a campaign for DnD that I will start DMing hopefully some time this summer. I decided not to go with any of the pre-made worlds. Nothing against any of them in particular, but I prefer to have control over the World (and critically, I prefer that the players not know everything about it). I haven't yet given the World a name, indeed I don't know if I will, but It's been fleshed out quite nicely so far. The PCs start in the country of Cavin, which for twenty years has been at war on-and-off with it's neighbours. No side now has the capability to field the vast armies that they once did, and fighting has been reduced to skirmishs involving smaller groups.

The first three adventures are based in and around a military emcampment at Helga's Hollow, which guards a vital bridging point over a large river. These are very railroaded, mostly because several of the players won't have played DnD before and I'd like to give them a chance to get to grips with the mechanics before anything really complicated happens. However, after that, I hope to allow them greater choice, and so have in many places included alternative adventures that they could pursue.

I have also introduced a mechanic for nationality. Basically, the archipelago around which the entire campaign is set was colonised hundreds of years in the past, and this has prevented the nations being based around a particular race. They have their own languages, but it isn't sort of 'this nation is elves and this nation is dwarves'. For this reason everyone must also choose a nationality, which will effect how NPCs view them and also provide some bonuses and penalties.

I have also not included a pantheon of Gods. Usually in most settings people can worship a God, who is assumed to be in conflict or alliance with different Gods, much like the pantheons of ancient Greece and Rome. I took a slightly different route. There are five major religions, not all of which admit the existance of other religion's deities. Indeed, at least one of the major religions is basically atheistic, and another worships ancestors who are held to be Gods. Due to this, divine magic comes from faith, rather than definite theistic intervention. There is no mechanic to represent that, it's just one of the ways of working around the ubiquitous idea of pantheons (which I'm not fond of).

I don't actually know how the story will turn out, but I have it planned up until the point where the PCs will be level 9 or 10.

Monday, 12 March 2007

Review: Now and then, here and there

This is another series that I watched very recently (meaning the last couple of days). To be honest, I wasn't expecting much of it, given that 'boy falls into another world' plots usually turn out to be brainless action pieces. This one however, quickly shattered my preconceptions.

Plot: Matsutani Shuzo (Shu) is coming home from a kendo session in which he totally messed up in front of the girl he has a crush on. Climbing to his favourite contemplation spot on top of a chimney in an abandoned factory, he finds it taken by a mysterious girl. He only manages to get a name out of her, Lala Ru, before he is attacked by mysterious people in snake-like robots who are after this girl. Trying to stop them, he is pulled into another world with them. (It is never stated in the series to my knowledge, but the opening text of every episode basically tells you that it is Earth in ten billion years time.) He finds himself in a mysterious stronghold, Hellywood, populated by soldiers (mostly drafted children) and overseen by the insane and maniachal King Hamdo. Very quickly, he finds himself drafted into Hellywood's army, to fulfill Hamdo's wishes of world domination.

Review: This is an incredibly dark anime series. If you are watching for action, you'll get what you want, and a whole lot more besides. This is one of those series that tackles real issues head on and never flinches from showing you their horror. Children die, a girl is kept and raped over and over (although thankfully never onscreen), the horrors of war are shown in their totality. What is more, bullets kill people, knife-wounds kill people. This isn't the sort of series where characters can survive any injury because they are main characters. The best and nicest aren't necessarily the ones that live. People who deserve to die, live, and some who deserve to live, die. This could be used to make a really banal point along the lines of 'war bad, un-war good' but it combines showing the futility of war (a point really easy to make), with the self-sustaining nature of war (a much more subtle point). Don't watch if you are expecting a light action series. This series will depress you. However, it will also make you think very hard.

Characters: There are some very good characters. The main character, Shu, is one of those tireless optimists who never fail to try to do the right thing. Usually these annoy me, because directors shy away from making them suffer the consequences of their actions, and equally shy away from ever letting the audience know that they might be terrified underneath it all. This is not the case here. Shu suffers, and gets tortured mentally and physically, he almost gives in, but in the end wins through, and is an incredibly strong character for it. Equally fascinating is the teenage soldier Nabuca, who commands the squad of Hellywood soldiers that Shu is drafted into. He is a character who has sustained himself on the fantasy that one day it will be all over and he can return home, and does everything he can to convince himself that it is true. He follows Hamdo's orders, and does really terrible things, because he just wants to keep his head down and survive. His line, screamed at Shu for shielding some children from orders that they be killed, 'only killing people can end war' sums up both his character and the entire series. Equally interesting is the other boy from the same village as him, Tabool. Tabool is the way Nabuca could have gone, to start relishing in what he does, and allowing it to change him. Where Nabuca eventually deep down wants to be redeemed, Tabool doesn't anymore.

What I love is that almost every character's motivations can be understood, if not supported. Elamba, for example, is another character that does really bad things in his desire to stop Hamdo's machinations, but it is easy to see why he does it, and in his circumstances I would be tempted to do the exact same things.

Visuals: These are pretty good, although the character designs are very simple. The dark, twisting corridors of Hellywood and the open light airyness of Zari Bars are well animated.

Music: Excellent, really emphasises the mood of every scene.

Overall: Not an easy series to watch, this is nevertheless a series that every anime fan should watch at least once. Trust me when I say that few series come close to being as dark as this one.

8/10. Excellent, if difficult.

Review: The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya

So here it is, the long-awaited review of this most excellent series.

Plot: On his first day at high school Kyon is surprised when, during the mandatory introductions, the girl behind him announces that she has no interest in ordinary humans, and wishes only to meet aliens, time-travellers and espers. This turns most of the class off, but Kyon talks to her. At first her replies are bored and sarcastic, but a spur-of-the-moment comment gives her the idea to start her own club, with the intention of enlivening peoples' lives by finding the things she is looking for. Kyon is drafted, not entirely willingly, into this idea of hers. It soon turns out, however, that everyone in this club has a very good reason to be there.

Review: I love this anime. I'll say that straight off. It is a wacky, weird and wonderful anime series that balances side-splitting comedy with real drama. The plot is superb. Without giving away any spoilers, I will tell you that this anime plays fast and loose with timing, and the episodes are not aired in the order that they happen chronologically. This could have been used as a gimmick, or otherwise completely screwed around with how the anime flowed, but it does not. What it does allow is for us to gain a really good insight into the characters. It is also strange that, of the 14 episodes, only 6 are directly connected to the main plot-line. The rest are all side-stories that broaden our knowledge of various characters. Again, this works really well. I have to caution though, the first episode in the series is a wacky side-story that puts many people off the series altogether. I found it hilarious, and an apt way to begin such an eccentric series, but if you don't like it, don't worry. The entire series isn't like that.

Characters: Every character gets ample screentime, but they are all overshadowed by the main girl herself, Haruhi Suzumiya. I mentioned before how she fast became my favourite character. She is a character who, at first glimpse, seems like she is absolutely insane, with her cheerful misanthropy and desire to meet aliens. However, it soon becomes clear that there is a certain logic to everything she does. When you finally find out what makes her tick, everything falls into place. She doesn't boss people around because she is naturally bossy, she bosses them around because she beleives that they see things the way she does, that life is boring and that must be rectified. She isn't at all embarrased about dressing up in a bunny costume in front of the school gates because she simply doesn't see the point of wasting time with embarrasment. In her view, the crazy people are running the asylum, and she is the sanest of all. She isn't misanthropic and uninterested in humanity because of any flaw in herself or humanity, it's just humanity is generally so boring to her that she wants to meet any interesting speciman it has to offer, and can't be bothered with the rest. Usually in anime bossy, confident, self-obsessed characters are meant to be annoying, but Haruhi is the one exception, mostly because the things I have mentioned above.

While Haruhi is the centre of attention, the other characters deserve their mentions. Kyon, the deadpan narrator, works really well as a subdued, sarcastic foil to Haruhi. Yuki, the quiet, mysterious girl, was also an interesting character, and her revelation is the first genuine surprise in the anime. Mikuru is also pretty interesting, although shy, timid girls who end up in a variety of compromising positions are a staple in anime. Finally Itsuki tends to be a little annoying, although this is at least partly due to the fact his character is supposed to be an annoying suck-up to Haruhi.

Visuals: Superb all the way through. The lines were crisp, the colours were sharp but not gaudy.

Music: Good, but not outstanding. The music complemented the anime pretty well, but not enough that I would want to buy the soundtrack.

Overall: I love this anime. I love love love love love love love love love this anime. I'm forced to admit that most of this comes from the fact the Haruhi Suzumiya is the greatest anime character of all time. Ever. At all. None better. Whatsoever.
9.5/10 Top notch. If they had created a soundtrack that wasn't merely 'good' then I would give this series a perfect 10.

Sunday, 11 March 2007


There haven't been any posts today because I've was playing DnD all day (my monk died :'( and I'm real beat up about it. Oh well, characters come and go), and after that I went to Kendo practice. I got back in maybe an hour ago and just had supper.

Tomorrow I will post reviews of two series. One is 'The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya' and the other is a series I just watched yesterday and this morning called 'Now and then, here and there.' Both are worth watching if the opportunity arises.

Saturday, 10 March 2007

Warlord Tournament

I spent today at a tournament of the CCG Warlord: Saga of the Storm.

Mostly I utterly lost (partly because I've only been playing a few months but mostly because I suck), although a few games I won. You play a person in three games (best of three). My deck was a Deverenian deck based around Baron Bastein.

The first person I played was using a Nothrog deck based around Grantuk Rageblade. Two frontline fighter warlords, so we were pretty even. I won the first game quite convincingly. The second game I was dominating, until he used the spell card 'Chosen', the item card 'Gloves of Mercy', and the frontline fighter card 'Trugg' (who allows people behind him to make melee attacks from the second rank) and wiped my warlord out in one hit. So it comes down to the third game, which he won after a long slog.

The second person I played was using an Elf deck based around a warlord called Etra. Now, Etra's ability is that you can spend a druid in your army to move a character in your opponent's front rank back a rank. This can be used to great effect to create illegal ranks. (Basically, for those who are unaware, in Warlord you have battle lines. Any given rank cannot be bigger than the rank in front of it, or there is an illegal rank which must be rectified by moving characters into the next rank.) Since you spend when you fall forwards, this ability quickly spends your entire first and second rank. Then it stuns them. Finally your stunned characters have to start falling forwards. If a stunned character falls forwards it takes a wound. This means that the smaller characters who are there to soak up damage are quickly wiped out, and if your warlord has any health left then he will be pounced upon and torn to peices by your opponent's front rank. Needless to say I lost two fairly convincing games against that person.

Third round was against a Dwarf deck based around a warlord who I don't recall, which I lost narrowly to 2-1.

I was out at that point. The odd thing is, in the friendly games that went on around the competition, I won about 50% of my games, but under the pressure of the tournament I fell to pieces. Still, I have a few extra cards through trades and now I'm putting together a Free Kingdoms deck, which I hope will kick some serious behind.

Friday, 9 March 2007

The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya

I just finished this series (yeah, I watch an appaling amount of anime, you have a problem?). I will post a real review tomorrow, as I'm too tired to do it now.

Watch the series, that is all. Haruhi herself is, bar none, the greatest anime character ever created.

My Neighbour Totoro

So I just saw, for the first time, Hayao Miyazaki's 1988 film 'My Neighbour Totoro' (Tonari no Totoro) and I have to say I was gobsmacked. This isn't going to be a review, just some thoughts that sprang to mind as I watched it.

Firstly, if you want a film packed full of action, witty dialogue and evil bad guys, look elsewhere. Totoro is a slow, quiet film about a couple of young girls find nature spirits in the woods around their new home. I have little knowledge of Japanese culture, which is a shame as I'm betting such knowledge would have greatly enhanced the film's meaning. However, even I could guess that the spirits (headed by a lovely, gentle, bear-like creature called Totoro) represent elements of the Shinto religion. The cat-bus spirit was a great thing.

Another thing I noticed was that, although all the way through the film it seems light-hearted, like a child running and jumping after a butterfly (as indeed happens at some points), the viewer knows that there is something a little more menacing about it. We know that their mother in hospital might be suffering from something more severe than she told the girls. We know that money may be tight, which is why they have moved to a rickety old haunted shack in the country-side. These two sides are kept deliberately seperate. However, the film need only remind you of them, and the wall between them becomes thinner, the film darker. By maintaining a constant threat to do just that, the film succeeds in being both very dark, and incredibly light-hearted at the same time.

The characters are incredible. Miyazaki proves once again that he can define a character effortlessly with a few lines of dialogue, and then smack you down with a few more and completely re-define the way you think of that character.

That's all I'm going to say for now, but I strongly advise you to watch this film if you get the chance.

You know what bugs me?

I've been thinking about popular shounen anime series. By that I'm talking about series like Naruto, One Piece, Bleach, Dragonball Z. Any long-running butt-kickers where the heroes go from fight to fight.

Now, I have no problem admitting that I like watching them. They are fun, they don't require a massive knowledge of Japanese culture, you don't need to think. They get a lot of snobbery from the otaku community but in the end they get the job done without any pretensions.

However, they all commit the exact same error. See, in them the ability to win a battle is the only important thing, and the only way to win a battle is through strength. This means that if the writer wants to create tension he has to introduce an enemy who is stronger than the main characters. Since the only way to win battles in these series is by strength, that means that basically the heroes have to train until they win. Then, when the story continues, a new enemy is introduced and they have to be even stronger, requiring further training. DBZ was the most honest about this phenomenon, even introducing a numerical power level to let you know who was going to win. Goku starts off the series at power level 400 or so. Within a couple of volumes he is at power level 9000+. So the only thing the creator can do is introduce Frieza, with his base power level of 530,000. Let's continue DBZ as an example.

1. An enemy who is stronger than Goku arrives (Raditz). Goku and Piccolo team up and defeat him. Not too bad so far. However, Raditz warns them of the impending arrival of an even more powerful enemy, Vegeta.

2. They train. They beat Vegeta.

3. An even stronger enemy appears in the form of Frieza.

4. They train, they beat Frieza.

5. An even stronger enemy arrives in the form of those androids.

6. They train, they beat those androids.

There is no sense that battles can be won any other way. This produces some really wierd things. Frieza was supposed to be the most powerful being in the universe, yet by the end of the series dozens more people who are stronger than him have appeared.

Look at the same phenomenon in Naruto. The first major villain is a renegade ninja from the water country named Zabuza. Now, he is a jonin-level (high) ninja and, with his strong sidekick Haku, is a force to be reckoned with. So what do Naruto and his companions do after their first confrontation? They train. They fight again and eventually win.

Then in the next arc their enemies are genin-level (low) ninja, such as Gaara of the Sand and Hyuga Neji, and still they are more of a problem. So what happens? They train, they defeat them.

Now in fairness to Naruto there is at least one character who wins his battles on intelligence, which is what I would like to see more of. What I would really like is one of these long-running shows to have a hero who stayed at about the same level all the way through, and instead win their battles by outwitting their opponents. What this would mean is the opponents needn't necessarily be significantly stronger each time. It would also be more interesting to watch, and it would feel like the hero had earned their victories, instead of having them handed to them because their power level was higher than their opponents.

EDIT: I just realised the other reason why this bugs me. The main character tends to gain a lot of power much more quickly than anyone else. Look again at DBZ, where first Yamcha became irrelavent, then Tenshinhan, and then even Kulilin (my favourite character, btw) to an extent. In Naruto it's the same. There are twelve genins who could be said to be 'sidekicks', roughly equivalent to the Z senshi from DBZ, yet at this stage only Naruto, Sakura, Neji and Shikamaru actually DO anything. It's been far too long since we saw what Shino, or Hinata, or Tenten, or Ino could do! When you start to like certain characters, and then find that they basically get written out, it really gets annoying.

Thursday, 8 March 2007

Any ideas?

So I play DnD, which is pretty much high fantasy, although is very adaptable. I play Exalted a little, also a sort of high fantasy. I play WoD, which is pretty much gothic-punk, and I play Shadowrun, which is very cyberpunk.

Are there any good RPGs (table-top not computer or video games) set in a sorta Steampunk setting, or anything post-apocalyptic, that people can recommend? Both of those genres are favourites of mine, but I've never come across a good RPG based around either.

Does anyone know of any?

My top ten anime series

Here are the anime I like best. They aren't in strict order, but the ones towards the top are the ones I like more:

1. The Vision of Escflowne. I love this one, it's a series that keeps you guessing, and maintains a strong plot all the way through.
2. Trigun. This is hilarious and serious in a way that no other anime manages to my knowledge.
3. Fullmetal Alchemist. An excellent long-running series that contains some seriously cool fight scenes!
4. Paranoia Agent. The biggest mind-fuck I've ever seen! I love it!
5. Haibane Renmei. I only saw it the other day, and it's already on my top ten. All of the others I've seen at least twice.
6. Stellvia of the Universe. An excellent serious sci-fi. This one takes itself seriously, unlike a lot of sci-fi anime, and it is better for it.
7. Azumanga Daioh. Simply hilarious.
8. Grave of the Fireflies. I dare you to watch this and not cry.
9. Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. An excellent fantasy anime film. Superb.
10. Spirited Away. Well known, and fully deserving of its Oscar.

So, any here that you think are terrible? What would you have put on the list?

Review: Love Hina

This is a review of the manga, seeing as I haven't seen most of the anime. First the details: Love Hina was penned by Ken Akamatsu, who is also known for the manga 'A. I. Love You', which I haven't actually read, and Negima, which I have read 12 volumes of. Love Hina is 14 volumes long and available in English from Tokyopop.

Plot: Fifteen years ago the then-four-years-old Urashima Keitaro made a promise with a girl that they would meet up again at Tokyo University. Unfortunately he hasn't seen the girl since and he has since been rejected from the University two years running. After he decides to apply for a third time he is kicked out of his parents house, and goes to live in the inn owned by his elderly grandmother. He arrives, only to find that the inn has been converted into a dormintory for girls run by his aunt. Of course he doesn't find this out until the usual ecchi hijinks have ensued causing a huge amount of misunderstanding. After a few arguments he is allowed to stay at the dorm when his grandmother passes the title deed to the building to him by fax.

Review: Firstly, I want to go over what I thought of the plot. From the summary I've given you it would seem to be just another harem series. This is not the case. The narrative skillfully weaves several plotlines including Keitaro's desire to get into Tokyo University, his growing relationship with one of the girls in the dorm, and subplots involving most characters. The relationship that Keitaro develops with one of the girls throughout the series is actually rather well-founded. Most harem series tries to confuse you as to which girl the main character will end up with, resulting in a relationship out of nowhere towards the end. Akamatsu takes a different route. By the end of the first volume we can tell exactly which girl Keitaro will eventually get together with, which leaves Akamatsu the rest of the series to develop a believable relationship between them. Many people are put off by the traditional humourous violence that is inherent in the genre, but you have to look past it.

Art: I once read that Akamatsu-sensei used to draw hentai, and the skill with which he can draw the human form makes me inclined to believe it. Because most of the series is set in and around Hinata House (the girls dorm), backgrounds tend to be used again and again.

Characters: The main characters, Keitaro and Narusegawa Naru, are very well developed, although I find Keitaro a little annoying. The other characters start as very simple archetypes, such as the crazy foreigner (Koalla Su), the shy one with a juvenile crush (Maehara Shinobu), the reserved swordswoman who isn't sure how to deal with the opposite gender (Aoyama Motoko), and the money-loving gambling alcoholic prankster (Mitsune 'Kitsune' Konno). All of them are traditional archetypes for the genre (although the swordswoman isn't always a swordswoman, just somewhat reserved!), but the subplots which Akamatsu integrates into the manga mean that they rise above these simple stereotypes. The only exception to this is Kitsune, who is still the same character near the end as the beginning. To his credit, Akamatsu mentions this in the notes included at the end of one of the volumes, but that doens't make up for not giving her more to do. She is most often used to further the plot, often by accidentally revealing information. Again, to Akamatsu's credit, he has a character much like her in Negima who does get the screentime she so richly deserves.

Overall: This was one of my first manga series, so naturally I look back on it with some fondness. In fact, writing this review had made me more than a little nostalgic about it, so I will probably read it again when I get home from University. If, in a couple of weeks, you have a post here rubbishing it, that's why. However, until then, I have very few bad things to say about it. It takes the usual harem genre and completely subverts it and shows that it can be done really well.

8/10: Excellent series that everyone should read.

Wednesday, 7 March 2007

Thoughts on playing DnD

I love DnD, I really do. However, let's be honest, not a lot of roleplaying actually goes on in it. You roll up your character. Your class tells you how you kill monsters, and hence which attributes you use. If you're a Fighter, Barbarian or Paladin, you pummel them. If you're a Sorcerer or Wizard, you cast magic missile at them. If you're a rogue, you sneak up from behind and stick them with a knife. If you're a Ranger or Druid your animal companion rips their throat out. There are two support classes, Clerics to heal and Bards to buff. That's about it.

You then choose skills. There are about four skills you actually use. Spot/Move silently/Heal/Bluff. That is about it.

You then decide feats. Feats give you handy ways to increase your killing or surviving powers. Either you take a feat like Cleave, allowing you to kill another monster after this one, or a feat like Lightning Reflexes, allowing you to survive a trap.

You then fall into a pattern which goes something like this: Get plot hook, go to dungeon, empty first floor, loot corpse, kill monster, kill monster, find treasure, go to level two, kill slightly harder monster.................find dungeon boss, kill dungeon boss, go back to town, hand in dungeon boss's ear to plot hook giver, get new plot hook...repeat.

I'm kidding to an extent. I have played brilliantly scripted campaigns with exellent storylines and superb villains. However, a lot of them can still be broken down to this basic formula.

That said, put a D20 in my hand and tell me my attack bonus and damage, and that dice will be rolled before you can blink.

So, if you don't play DnD for the story, what do you play it for? Partly it's a social thing. Six or seven people sit around a table making endless jokes and snide comments for four hours. Roleplay happens, but in a jokey, lighthearted way. Partly it's as simple as the fact that many-sided dice are so incredibly fun to roll. A D20 is a lovely thing, and rolling it is almost a spiritual experience. One of the reasons why games like Neverwinter Nights can never match up to table-top is simply because of the lack of dice. Finally, DnD allows you to be nothing more than a fighter with a sword hacking his way through an endless swarm of goblins. We have always wanted to do that at some point.

Other systems are much better for roleplaying. Look at the World of Darkness Storyteller System, which encourages playing a role much more. However, none have quite the same effect on me as DnD. I don't know why that is.

Review: Stellvia of the Universe

Today I'm going to review a series I first saw almost a year ago. Stellvia of the Universe is an introspective sci-fi series that is really based around characters.

Plot: 189 years ago Earth was devestated by an electromagnetic shockwave caused by the explosion of a star 20 light years away, dying space an eerie green colour. Humanity rebuilt itself and has reached the stars again, and stands united against the threat of the Second Wave, consisting of the rubble of the star. There is a plan for the Great Mission to defend Earth against it. Against this background Katase has entered the Academy in one of the Foundations (Space stations orbiting various planets) named Stellvia to teach her to be part of the Great Mission.

Characters: All of the characters are good fun. They have well-defined personalities which are allowed to develop nicely and the series really tries hard to focus on secondary characters to prevent them from becoming mere plot points. The male protagonists (Otoyama Kouta) is annoying, but that is what his personality is supposed to be like. All characters do get at least some screen time. There are two characters in particular, who develop a very slow, very believable romance, which is finally announced in a beautiful scene in the closing moments of the final episode over a ships radio. Nothing I have said does this relationship justice. Oh, and it happens to be two girls, which puts the icing on the cake. :P

Plot: The main plot-point, dealing with the second wave, takes up only the first third of the series, after which the plot changes entirely. It really takes off, dealing with how humanity, which has been forced to unite in the face of an external threat for almost two centuries, starts to fall to pieces when that threat is removed. There are times when it really seems very close to war between the foundations. I really liked this aspect of the plot.

Visuals: The animation itself is medium-quality. The characters are well designed and there are few mistakes made. However, the space-ship designs are bland at best, and the CGI tends to be intrusive. The spaceship scenes would have been much better if they were animated in the same way as the rest of the series.

Music: The opening theme, a sort of J-Pop composition, is excellent, and the Background music tends to be very nice. However, there are times when the music doesn't quite fit. Nothing particularly out of place, but some of it could have been better thought out.

Overall: This is a good series, but not the best. The animation is not the best, and some of the characters can be annoying. The music is good, and the plot and setting are excellent. I would recommend it for anime fans of any stripe, and it even serves as a fairly good introduction to anime.

7.5/10 Very Good.

A few misconceptions about anime

So a friend of mine saw me watching anime the other night. Of course, he asked what it was, what it was about etc. He is one of the more open-minded ones. There is a lot of prejudice about anime that goes around, and a lot of misconceptions. My friend was nice enough to actually ask things about anime, many wouldn't, and would instead recite some spiel that they had 'read on the internet somewhere.' I'll try to clear a few of the false ideas up here. This list is by no means exhaustive.

1. Anime is for kids. This is one of the biggest and most common. I think it's actaully an understandable mistake. Anime is inevitably seen as Japanese 'cartoons', and cartoons are very much a thing for kids here. I think it doesn't help that the only well-known anime (outside of anime circles) in the west are kids shows that get put on. You know the drill, right? Naruto, Yu-Gi-Oh, Pokemon, DragonBall Z. I will admit that at one time or another I have had love affairs with all of these (except DBZ, which was broadcast before my time, leaving me to read the manga). However, there can be no doubt that the demographic they are aimed at (once they have been dubbed, edited and butchered by western distribution companies) is about 8-15. People seeing them will inevitably assume that all anime is for children.

2. All anime is violent or sexually explicit. This is the other end of the spectrum, and it comes from looking at the other sort of anime that is often translated. You see popular and well-known anime like Akira, Ghost in the Shell, Neon Genesis Evangelion. These are far more adult, they all contain at least some nudity and are all pretty violent. This mis-conception is less widespread than the first, but it is there. This misconception is also aided by the massive amount of hentai available over the interwebs at the click of a mouse button.

3. Anime can't be an art form. People who think this are taking misconception 1 to it's most logical conclusion I guess. However, it can be refuted with four words, Grave of the Fireflies. I dare anyone to watch that film and tell me that anime can't be art, can't provoke thought, can't showcase a range of human emotions.

4. Anime has only one style. Again, there are similarities in the style of many anime, especially the way that they are drawn. There is the whole big eyes thing (which is actually fairly limited), a lot of people are turned off by the typical, hyper-deformed reactions. You know what I mean? Where the characters go all chibi and throw hissy-fits. These are seen a lot in well-known anime. Many serious series, however, wouldn't touch them with a 10-foot stick.

5. Anime is a single genre. This misconception is not one that I understand. Anime covers so many different ideas, genres and styles that I honestly don't know how it came about. Right now for example, casting a cursory glance at my anime DVDs, I could watch a serious sci-fi character study (Stellvia of the Universe), a long fantasy/steampunk series (Fullmetal Alchemist), an absurd comedy about teenagers in high-school (Azumanga Daioh), a mecha-fantasy series with religious overtones (The Vision of Escaflowne), a thoughtfull series about the human condition with overtones of cyberpunk (Paranoia Agent), A plain fantasy series (Scrapped Princess) or an introspective mecha sci-fi series (Neon Genesis Evangelion). That represents maybe a quarter of my total collection of anime, and is just what I brought to university this term. However, it represents maybe 1% of the total genres out there, which range from light-hearted ecchi harem comedies like Love Hina, to deeply philosophical thought experiments such as Haibane Renmei.

Well, I won't go into any more detail now, principally as I can't be bothered, but also because I'm hungry. If you like what I said, post a comment. If you don't like what I said, tell me. If you have experienced misconceptions such as these, I'd love to hear about them.

Creating Characters

I don't know about you, my dear readers, but in my humble opinion the best part of playing any sort of tabletop roleplay is the creation of characters. So many stats to be decided, so many skills to purchase and abilities to consider. You start with the vaguest of concepts. For a recent Shadowrun character, for example, I started with solely with the idea of a an former motorbike-gang member. I imagined him/her doing really really cool things, like jumping on his bike off the roof of a high building, smashing through the window of an adjacent high building and laying into whatever was guarding the place with a shotgun in each hand. Of course, the characters you create never quite match up to those initial fantasies do they?

I'm sure every one of us can remember at least one time when they spent two hours looking through the Dungeons and Dragons PHB in an attempt to twink a character to do really cool things. Like you managed to create a Fighter who at level 20 could have an almighty seven attacks (plus Great Cleave, because naturally this fighter can kill ANYTHING in a single hit) a round. You envision him standing in a swarm of monsters smaking them down one after another. Of course, then the campaign starts and you get owned by a small badger in the first adventure. *Sigh* I love DnD.

I am not ashamed to say that I create about three characters a week. Understand that I will never use them at all, it's just nice to imagine how they will be used.

I think I'll treat you guys to a view of the Shadowrun character I was talking about earlier (yeah, I did create them in the end). However, that can wait until I find his character sheet!

Anyone else have any thoughts on the creation of characters? Am I the only one who takes extreme pleasure in making and never using them?

Tuesday, 6 March 2007

Review: Haibane Renmei

So I'm going to start this off by reviewing an anime I saw very recently, Haibane Renmai (Charcoal Feather Federation) By very recently, I actually mean earlier today, when I sat down and watch the whole thing in a single sitting. (Nerdy, I know, but who are you to comment?)

Plot: A girl dreams that she is falling through darkness. In the dream a crow is attempting to help her by pulling her upwards, but she tells it not to worry and flies off. When the girl awakens we find that she is in a cocoon, inside a building populated by strange humans with small, grey wings and halos called Haibane. When the girl hatches she finds that she to is a Haibane, as she soon sprouts wings like them. She is given the name Rakka (the infinitive: To fall) as all Haibane are named after the thing they dreamed about while in a cocoon. The Haibane live in and around a town called Glie, which is surrounded on all sides by huge walls, which the Haibane are not allowed to go near. They are only allowed to own second-hand items from the normal people who live in Glie with them (note: This isn't cruelty, it appears to be a rule that the Haibane have imposed on themselves) or things that they have made themselves. The Haibane live under the guidance of a council called the Haibane Renmei, which appears to look after the walls. I won't give any more away for now.

Review: So what did I think of this anime? First off, the characters: These are a mixed bag, Rakka, the main character, and Reki, another main character, are both incredibly well developed and defined. They are both complex, flawed, believable and ultimately human characters. However, in a show only 13 episodes in length, this meant that the development of other characters was a little stunted. There the bookish one, the tomboy, the happy optimistic one, and the somewhat introspective one. They are all good characters, but they fail to develop beyond archetypes.

Next, the plot: It's a very very complex mind-fu*k. The plot is one of those in which loose ends are purposefully left loose, and while I personally like that as it gives me a chance to tie them up for myself, but some people won't like it. While the main plotline is ultimately resolved, giving some sense of closure, what exactly is happening remains a mystery that the viewer is left to puzzle out for themselves. This means that otaku will love it, as it gives us an opportunity to argue endlessly in internet forums about what was up. Casual viewers should avoid this one until they have at least some knowlegde of anime. It really is rife with symbolism and hidden meaning. It's no coincidence that it comes from the pen of Yoshitoshi ABe, who also wrote the uber-symbolistic Serial Experiments: Lain.

The visuals: These were generally very good. The characters were all well drawn and the animation was top-notch. There was some CGI which looked a little out of place, but not so much that you want to smash your screen in.

The Music: Perfect. 10/10 without a shadow of a doubt. The lyric-less opening piece is one of the most beautiful and fitting that I have ever come across. The background music never fails to set the mood of the scene. This series eschews the fast-paced music that you find in many shows for gentle orchestral pieces that are a joy to listen to. I already have the OST on order.

Overall: This series is not for everyone. It moves at a slow, leisurely pace and unfolds the story in its own time. Surprisingly little happens in 13 episodes, and it is mostly a study of the two central characters, Rakka and Reki. However, if you give it a chance this series will delight you with its intricate, clever plot, its astounding music and its central themes of redemption and forgiveness.

9/10. Superb.

Otaku of Opportunity

So, if for some reason you've stumbled across this new blog, you're probably wanting to know a little about me. I'm an 18 year old student/avid geek/anime and manga otaku.

I even conform to the stereotype. You know the drill, right? Bookish, somewhat antisocial, overweight, obsessed with all things Japanese. I play all sorts of table-top roleplaying games. Principally Dungeons and Dragons but also Shadowrun, World of Darkness and a little bit of Exalted. I also play TCGs (and if you don't know what that stands for then what are you doing on the blog of this humble nerd?) such as Magic and Warlord: Saga of the Storm. I love computer games, have an active World of Warcraft account (although I tend to get to about level 20 and then start a new character), have about £500 worth of manga in book form and even more on my computer (although a lot of them are backup duplicates), have a similar amount of anime, and am trying to learn Japanese.

However, I don't know the last thing about computers, can't code, can't build a computer. So I'm not completely lost to nerditude!

I have also recently started learning Kendo, which is great fun indeed.

Yeah, that's all I'm saying about myself. Drop me a comment if you drop by.

As to what this blog is? Mostly it's about my geekiness. I will attempt to post at least once a day on topics close to me. Specifically, geek stuff. Anime, manga, my learning of japanese, RPGs, card games, that sort of thing.