Monthly Archives: July 2016

Assassination Classroom

The students in class 3-E are the outcasts, the rejects, the troublemakers. No one expects them to succeed. Which is why it’s all the more puzzling when an alien creature who blew a huge hole through the moon insists on teaching their class. The creature further claims he’ll destroy the earth in exactly a year—so this year’s classroom, in addition to the usual subjects, is secretly and intensely focusing on a single goal: kill the teacher.

To be honest, although I’d heard a lot of people reviewing this series positively, it took a while for it to grab me. The early episodes feel like they’re all over the place. For a show that’s supposed to be about class 3-E, the beginning spends a lot of time on teachers, outside assassins, and so on that has little to do with the students. And the students are so beaten down by their position that even this highly unusual assignment can fail to make them interesting. The way episodes were often two different stories each told in about ten minutes didn’t help keep my interest. Also, the show would tend to really emphasize something, like the split between class E and the other four classes, then totally forget about it for quite a few episodes, which gave the early pacing especially a jerky feel.

But I kept going because it was okay, if not an instant favorite, and was very pleased with how everything turns out. The long arcs that comprise the end of the first season and the end of the series were much more what I had been hoping to see, as the class pushes themselves to use all their newfound skills in serious situations. I also liked some of the smaller moments scattered around, such as the baseball game, Nagisa’s trick against his new PE teacher, and the Nagisa-versus-Karma fight (well, the whole paintball episode was amusing, but that fight made it one of my favorites).

For the characters, the demure and girlish Nagisa, who narrates much of the story, ties with Karma for my favorites. Nagisa’s not one to stand out most of the time. He’s average at most things, but where other students start showing talents for brawling or sharpshooting, he’s got talents much more in line with actual assassins. He can read situations and react appropriately, which is often creatively. And when he goes for the kill, he goes for the throat. Yet he is still a kid, and sometimes despite having the right instincts, he’s just up against someone too good for him. His backstory was also extremely good, surprising me with reasons for things like his long hair and his personality.

But Nagisa tends to be highly entertaining or drawing in short bursts. Karma is the series-long selling point for me.

Karma is the kid who, when told on his suspension about the new teacher, remarks: “Oh? I’ve always wanted to kill a teacher.” He’s unflappable, smart, and always smiling—usually while doing some vicious prank or needling with words designed to provoke a fight. The uses he finds for wasabi had me in tears because I was laughing so hard. I’m not sure how this goes in English, because I have a sub-only subscription, but this show is worth watching in Japanese to get the full context of how he’ll use English against English-speakers to taunt them. Basically, whenever Karma gets a particularly devilish smile, I knew I was in for a good time.

The other class members get a fair amount of focus, as do the other teachers. I liked what happened with Asano from the main campus, and how stereotypes don’t control more minor characters like him. (It’s also funny how his basic arrogance hasn’t really changed, despite everything . . . and I wish there was some bonus content showcasing him and Karma going head-to-head when they’re older.)

I really liked the ending. It’s a solid ending that ties up everything for the students and the teachers. After all the drama, we get to see the graduation, and even a bit of what happens next. And although it closes many things, it’s the openness that’s really appealing. You can see these students are now people living out their dreams to the full—taking everything they’ve learned in sometimes surprising ways to tackle the challenge of an adult world. Although I’d LOVE for Nagisa to have a bonus half-episode or so going into more detail, because his looks the most amusing, his final visual is a powerful statement of how much what he learned shaped who he is.

All in all, even though I didn’t care for everything about how the story was told, I overall had a blast. The story has its laughs, but also its heartaches, and it ends as a love letter to the teachers and mentors who have had an unforgettable impact on their students’ lives. I rate this series Highly Recommended.

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Lost Odyssey (XBox 360)

Story: Kaim Arganor has been alive longer than he can remember. An immortal wandering the world of mortal men, he’s seen too much of life and death to care much about the machinations of any one nation. But when he’s sent on a mission to investigate a facility that generates magical energy, the past he can’t remember becomes vital to stopping an ominous future slowly unfolding. Mortal nations rise and fall, but when an immortal goes rogue, it will take someone with Kaim’s experience to stop him.

The story does a generally excellent job of avoiding too many cliche elements. I was especially impressed with how well the rift between mortal and immortal was highlighted, particularly through the various dreams you can unlock throughout a playthrough. These vignettes are snapshots into Kaim’s past, showcasing various aspects of life and death he’s lived through in his long wanderings. These short stories have textual effects to accent the words, like slowly fading in or bouncing around.

The characters, too, were great for the most part. Jansen was the biggest surprise. I didn’t really care for him at first, but his consistently humorous quips soon had me laughing almost every time he opened his mouth. (Listening to him mock the final boss was also hysterical.)

Gameplay: Lost Odyssey is a turn-based RPG, although turn order depends on what you’re doing in a given turn. Characters have a base attack speed that applies to physical attacks, but skills use a different speed stat (and also can depend on the skill you’re trying to activate), and each magic spell has its own casting speed.

Enemies are encountered randomly on the map, and although the random encounter rate was generally good, I did really want a way to tweak it to make it easier to grind for SP (eg, getting a late-game character who has loads of skills to make up on) or avoid battles (TEMPLE OF ENLIGHTENMENT, I am looking at YOU). The battle load time was rather bad, with several long background and character pans before the enemy is ready to fight, although some of that may have been because I did not install the game to the hard drive.

Attacks are modified by rings. I remain confused on how to visually tell the difference between a Perfect and Good ring, but I eventually got the hang of timing it to be able to get at least a Good every time. My eyesight isn’t great, and the ring is a small white ring around a smaller black ring, which on some backgrounds (most notably the last boss fight which has a bright light behind the boss) can make it nearly impossible to tell where you’re striking. However, the additional effects mostly just speed up your battles. A small hint: the most effective rings are the type-targeting ones, followed by the elemental, followed by the generic damage increases (I wasn’t good enough at Perfects to get much of an increased Critical chance even on the best Critical-enhancing rings). Status effect rings are virtually useless since with rare exceptions any fight that takes long enough for a status effect to be useful is a boss immune to all of them. Rings can be crafted fairly easily, although late-game rings have much more annoying requirements, but it’s perfectly possible to play through endgame with only the level 2 rings, which can be crafted through buyable items. Also, on the plus side, rings can be changed on the fly in battle, so it’s easy to swap things around for maximum damage on any given foe.

The main frustration I had with the gameplay is that enemies will only ever give you one item. Since an enemy can have a common steal, a rare steal, and four drop items if it’s fully loaded out, getting what you want can be a real hassle. If you steal either of the items, the enemy won’t drop anything. And there’s no way to increase drop rate or influence which drop you get, either, so if you need a particular item, it’s best to look for something you can steal it from, and then try to get lucky finding it in random encounters. I usually like to max out my endgame gear, but in this particular game decided it just wasn’t worth the effort.

Overall this is a great game, with solid visuals and excellent music backing up a strong story. I beat the game in roughly 70 hours and did 100% of the available content and learned all the skills (though I didn’t bother to platinum the game due to one particular fight sequence that is designed to make getting the treasure trophy next to impossible). There isn’t much benefit in the New Game+ offered, so I doubt I’ll replay it anytime soon, but it was a lot of fun going through the first time. I rate this game Highly Recommended.

 

The Twin Powers

Title: The Twin Powers

Author: Robert Lipsyte

(This is a sequel to The Twinning Project)

Half-alien twins Eddie and Tom live on parallel Earths, one in 1958 and one in 2012. But life hasn’t changed much after their brief adventures . . . until a new alien shows up at school, and the boys discover the Primary Race which monitors them and the planets plans to destroy the Earths. Now they must master their powers and find the answers before it’s too late.

I liked the first book despite some big problems in worldbuilding. This one takes more care over its prose, but the plot takes a nosedive and the already shaky setting pretty much gives up in favor of dialing everything up to 11.

So: boys back in their own times, on their own Earths, having done pretty much nothing since the close of the last book, then run into Hercules, who humiliates them and tells them to learn how to use their powers. This part isn’t so bad—it’s what I wanted to happen after the teases in the previous book. The actual powers are not very well explained, other than “whatever I want to happen, within some limits,” so it’s not clear how they actually work (psionics, mostly, but then there are a number of places where they manipulate light or otherwise make material changes, so who knows).

Then . . . we’ve apparently forgotten about poverty and hunger as issues in favor of climate change and nukes being the big scary forces out to destroy the earth. And the Tech-Off Day/Week has now gotten so big Eddie is repeatedly on television about it and even goes to Washington (when in real life I think a small subset of people might really appreciate it and most of the rest of the world would just laugh at him or shrug him off and continue their lives). And then we get the government goonies who have somehow figured out aliens are involved in all this and start making trouble for everyone.

And that was pretty much where the plot completely lost me. The federal agents are, of course, officially government sanctioned and have no problem with kidnapping and torturing 13-year-old kids, grilling them for information about aliens. I pretty much started laughing when said agency then decides to throw non-astronauts on a rocket launching to meet a mysterious spaceship that presumably belongs to aliens (there is so much wrong with this picture I can’t begin to start or I’ll go off for pages). Or when the alien planet is apparently so close that a shuttle can get there in a few hours. (Bonus: What force destroyed the alien planet? Climate change! *headdesk*)

And then how everyone fixed the problem by stopping a particular test in the desert . . . The time frame is all wrong, for one. Nuclear bombs had already been used in WWII, and this is 1958. If they truly wanted to stop nuclear power they’re a few decades late to the party. Although that still bases everything on the assumption that the second, supposedly separate Earth is actually a mirror of the primary Earth (which given the explanation of how it was created, still makes no sense).

Anyway. I was hoping for something I could laugh at even if it didn’t hold up well to a closer inspection, but the only laughter I could summon was in disbelief. I rate this book Not Recommended.

The Twinning Project

Title: The Twinning Project

Author: Robert Lipsyte

Tom and Eddie are twins separated by 50 years and different planets. Tom’s life in 2011 is one of getting kicked out of multiple middle schools for being difficult. He plays the violin well and loves neat little techie gadgets—especially if they explode. Eddie is his complete opposite: a sports player, friendly to a fault, focused on teamwork. But when an alien plot threatens them both, they’ll have to learn to live in each other’s worlds.

I liked this, but the plot could at times be a bit of a mess. Tom amused me. He’s got a way of saying things that sets people off, refuses to follow stupid orders, and has a well-earned reputation as a troublemaker. His stockpile of little gadgets in particular was excellent (although I was confused by the invisibility cloak—this IS 2011 and not some future time, and as far as I know that’s still future tech, which Tom appears to have ordered online and not built himself). Eddie I can respect, although his willingness to believe the best of people lets others take advantage of him.

I was confused at why they had to switch places, though. Tom’s got no purpose in the past. Eddie’s stunt with the no-tech day in the future felt way overblown. Putting him on TV? Seriously? And what, exactly, are they supposed to be rebels against? It feels like the real villain is set up to be global warming, poverty, and hunger (although I do not argue against the last two, I roll my eyes that global warming is ranked as a crisis. But thankfully it’s just mentioned in passing and not a major plot driver). Why the aliens are so keen on getting the person they’re after is brushed off as “He’s a rebel.” It would’ve been really nice to get at least a hint at what he actually did, other than disagreeing about the plan to destroy the Earths (because he never says the government is totalitarian enough to make disagreement a crime).

The more interesting things about the actual aliens creating planets and so forth doesn’t get fleshed out at all. Presumably this will be handled in sequels, although I don’t expect them to explain why both Earths are identical except for the fifty-year gap. The hint at greater powers to come is nice, too.

All and all this is a fun and very quick read, if you don’t mind some sloppiness around the edges. I rate this book Neutral.

The Eye of the Warlock (Further Tales #3)

Title: The Eye of the Warlock

Author: P. W. Catanese

Series: Further Tales #3

Rudi is the son of a woodcutter, and distant cousins to the famous Hansel and Gretel. He even lives in their old house. But when a stranger comes, hunting for the rest of the treasure supposedly left at the witch’s house, Rudi ends up hunting for the origin of those stories. If he can find treasure, he can leave home, and take the two girls living with their family with him, away from the cruelty of his stepmother. The legends, though, hide a sinister reality . . .

I liked what this did with the story of Hansel and Gretel, from what it kept, to what it twisted somewhat, to what storytellers added on to embellish. The gingerbread house, for example, was an ordinary house enchanted with an illusion of sweets to put the children at ease before they were lured into captivity. It feels a lot more solid this way.

Another strength of the book is strong characters. From Marusch and her solitary existence to Hansel and what became of him, the characters feel like real people, struggling with real issues. Hansel and the cottage, for one. He’s bold enough setting the whole thing up, but when confronted with a place where he was once captured and expected to die, he’s assaulted by flashbacks and can barely follow through.

Overall this is an interesting look at what came next. Once again, readers of the Happenstance books are likely to recognize a few things (and will probably find Umber’s tiny role much more amusing). I rate this book Recommended.

The Brave Apprentice (Further Tales #2)

Title: The Brave Apprentice

Author: P. W. Catanese

Series: Further Tales #2

Patch Ridling is a tailor’s apprentice who lucks into killing an old, sickly troll, and subsequently has to deal with far more fame than he ever imagined. Like the brave little tailor before him, whose exploits of “killing seven with one blow” led him to face off against a giant, Patch finds himself in the middle of an invasion of trolls. Can he find a way to subdue the rest of them? If not, he’s not going to have much of a kingdom to live in anymore . . .

I like these better than the current trend of retelling fairy tales, as they aren’t constrained by their origin stories but rather go beyond them. It’s always interesting to see the stories as part of the history, and how life has gone on from there.

Patch likely has much in common with Will, the man who had been known as the brave little tailor before him. He shares a profession, as well as quick legs and a quick mind. And the trolls are formidable foes, with impenetrable skin, massive size, and bad tempers. The riddle of their weakness might be picked up by an astute reader before Patch figures it out, but the clues are both telling and vague enough to make his struggle to comprehend work well.

And besides, drowning trolls works too.

So this was a short but fun read; not one I’m likely to remember well long-term, but enjoyable as I read through it. There’s a nod to Umber, which amused me (although I believe this book was written first). I rate this book Recommended.

The Bell Between Worlds (The Mirror Chronicles #1)

Title: The Bell Between Worlds

Author: Ian Johnstone

Series: The Mirror Chronicles #1

Sylas Tate lives with his uncle, escaping his circumstances through elaborate daydreams. But when he enters a mysterious Shop of Things while running an errand, he’s thrown into a reality far stranger than any of his dreams. A bell tolls, but only he can hear. Monsters pursue him across worlds, and in this Other world he needs to find the answers to the questions he left behind in his own. Doing so may save both realities . . .

I loved this. The evocative language fleshes out both characters and world. I love the way Sylas notices beauty, particularly in nature, and how he experiences the magic that is the connections between living things. I loved the multiple forms of magic, and the different ways they work; the worlds and their connection; the Egyptian-hybrid feel to much of the setting in the Other. Thoth as a villain at first made me laugh (since I was still picturing the Egyptian namesake), but the actual character is suitably creepy, and it will be interesting to get some kind of an origin story in future books (at least, I hope one is forthcoming, as Thoth is one of the oddest of a cast of very odd characters).

I also adored the characters. Sylas is a dreamer, and capable of great things because of those dreams, but he never loses the feeling of being a somewhat ordinary boy still surprised at everything he’s stumbled into. I liked how the beginning scene with him and his kites echoed throughout the story, and how he struggles to follow the path he’s chosen even though logic suggests he ought to go back to his own world and try to solve everything from there. And I really liked his attitude towards his own power, especially the bit where he insists on digging a firepit by hand precisely because he’s just come off working a very strong spell. He hasn’t quite figured out what his limits are, or what the limits of this power might be, but he’s got a lot of good sense.

And surrounding Sylas are a number of other fascinating characters. Ash was easily my favorite. A bit of a prankster, he’s usually saying or doing something that has someone wanting to hit him. And I will be very interested to see if Ash’s stance on using two forms of magic actually bears out. It’s easy to see why the Suhl in general despite the three schools not their own, but the story itself hasn’t shown that the magic, not the users, are to blame. So I wonder if Ash and his love of Kimiyya might find a way to redeem some of what that branch can do.

All in all this was a very solid fantasy adventure, and I very much look forward to tracking down the sequels. I rate this book Highly Recommended.