Friday, 10 August 2012

Tales of the Abyss (3DS)

This review can also be found at The Yorker.

Namco Bandai are notoriously bad at releasing their titles in Europe. Localisations can be a lengthy and expensive process, but often many EU releases of all but the biggest titles are just the US release reworked to run on PAL systems. Yet inexplicably, when it comes to titles that could remotely be considered 'niche' - Japanese RPGs especially - a European release seems rarely on the cards.

The best example of this for Namco Bandai would be the original release of Tales of the Abyss on the PS2, back in 2006. It got a release in the US, and widely positive reviews, but Europe never saw it. 6 years later, they've decided to re-release it on the 3DS under their own publishing, and this release was apparently worthy of seeing our shores. But even though that the official release date was back in November 2011, very few copies were printed. it's only in the last 3 months that enough copies are printed that it's reasonable to obtain a copy.

So, a little context on the series itself. The Tales Of games have been around since the SNES, all of them solidly made Action RPGs, set in vaguely-but-not-significantly related worlds.

Tales of the Abyss is specifically set in the land of Aulderant, where magic and monsters reign supreme, two major kingdoms are in conflict, there is the threat of an all out war on the horizon and-- okay, none of the setting is particularly engaging; all that needs to be known is that Fantasy Politics are a major theme.

You play as Luke fon Fabre, son of the Duke of Lanvaldear. You are also a selfish, spoiled, and arrogant manchild. Due to your political importance you have not left the castle for the last 8 years; so a co-incidental accident that teleports you far from your estate is your first true breath of fresh air.

Likewise, the character role is refreshing. With the majority of Japanese RPG releases being rather derivative in terms of setting and character design; a protagonist so carefully designed to make the player loathe him is an interesting change from the norm. Fortunately, while he's a big focus for the main plot, you're not required to play as him in battle.

Battles strongly remind me of old arcade beat-em-ups, there's an emphasis on setting up combos with your team mates, dodging the bigger telegraphed attacks, and knowing the limited abilities of your character inside out. And since Tales of the Abyss is an RPG, if that all sounds like too much work for you, you can get enough levels to steamroller anything in your path.

Aesthetically, Tales of the Abyss is quite pretty. The models are clean and colourful, the voice acting is well performed (but with English-only voice acting, if that matters to you at all), and the music is composed by JRPG music veteran Motoi Sakuraba. Where the problems lie is in whether you have played any of the recent Tales Of titles before. While they all tell their own stories, they are all mechanically extremely similar, and aesthetically identical, right down to the music.

Whether this is a problem for you as a player largely depends on how you like to consume your media. If you're looking for a unique experience, Tales of the Abyss definitely does not provide that. If you own another Tales Of game, you own this one. However, it's still a lengthy and robust RPG for your 3DS, and if you can get a hold of a copy, it'll breathe at least 60 hours more life into your handheld.

Gym Class Heroes - The Papercut Chronicles II

This review can also be found at The Yorker.

I caught Gym Class Heroes with their second album, As Cruel as School Children, and it worked out well for my 15 year old self. It took a stance just on the fringe of what ANGSTY TEENS would listen to, kept a cool mix of rap and rock (because who didn't have that foolish dichotomy in high school?), and did a neat job of being relevant - though I can only chuckle at the references to My Space in 'New Friend Request'.

©Waner Brothers, Fueled by Ramen

Though since then, while Gym Class Heroes haven't exactly gotten worse, the image they portray has changed. The Papercut Chronicles II is in direct reference to their first album in 2005; but I don't quite feel like that callback is apt, this is the lead vocalist Travis fitting into his mainstream role.

Things start out strong - skipping over the intro track, 'Martyrial Girl$' has a guitar and drumline aggressiveness and tension that reminds me of the sound direction for No More Heroes; punchy with a bit of grit, but not about to drive off those who wouldn't be a fan of something too thrash-y.

The problem starts for me with the track, immediately following, 'Life Goes On'. All sense of aggressiveness is lost, and it all goes in the direction of a love ballad - but with none of the funkiness, they managed to give that concept in the past. Even worse is that the style is pretty much repeated with a later track in 'Ass Back Home, which feels incredibly weak.

Speaking of which, how did you feel about Maroon 5's 'Moves Like Jagger'? Did it make you cringe and despair like me? If so then you'll absolutely love 'Stereo Hearts', which features Adam Levine's once reasonable, but now grating crooning. The common theme between these three songs is the unnecessary guest artist. They all feel compromising, and the strength of these songs are considerably weakened as a result.

Indeed, 'Solo Discotheque' and 'Holy Horses**t, Batman!' are much closer to what I like about Gym Class Heroes, with 'Holy' being an amusing little ditty about scepticism over religion. Not exactly profound, but the funky bridge it has makes up for that.

'Lazarus, Ze Gitan' is the most hip-hop influenced, but the subject matter leaves a bad taste in my mouth. It's another one of those songs where the male singer is all jaded about relationships, because no one's ever good enough for them (but they're so lonely, damn it!). That, coupled with the previous track's Nil-Nil-Draw being a pouty break-up song ("But you're too dumb to understand; I could have any girl," says the chorus) makes Travis sound like a big jerk. And who knows, he may well be.

It's cliché to say that a new album has none of the flavour that you once loved in a previous work, but I don't know what else to say here. While I will come back to 'Martyrial Girl$', my love for Gym Class Heroes has remained firmly in 2006.

Chiddy Bang - Breakfast

This review can also be found at The Yorker (whoops, I overlooked mirroring this one...)

It's been a while since I listened to an album with honestly interesting sampling. One of the things I love about hip-hop (and music inspired by such) is beat-making in original ways. A lot of instrumental hip-hop goes heavy on the piano and brass samples, which are excellent, though not as common as it used to be.


Thankfully, Chiddy Bang's Breakfast, the duo's first full album after a mixtape in 2010, has funky and creative beats from the start. The intro is a cute little soundscape with piano backing that reminds me strongly of Nicolay's work. But that's contrasted hard with 'Breakfast', the punchiest discussion of a mealtime you'll ever hear with booming 808s and a solid demonstration of Chiddy's rap skills - clear and rhythmic without resorting to painful half-rhymes or hashtag rapping.

Beat-wise, 'Handclaps & Guitars' is what is says on the tin, with this weird Owl City-ish chorus, and 'Mind Your Manners' has an odd but catch voice sample from Icona Pop's 'Manners' (which may prove grating for some) and a sweet-as switch in the beat at 1:43.

'Ray Charles' was one of the Singles for this album; definitely a solid choice. It might be a bit of an unfortunate choice for Chiddy to compare himself to the famous jazz pianist based around just his shades-wearing habits and weed consumption - but the track as a whole sticks to its amusing and silly theme.

'Does She Love Me?' has its groove set firmly in a romantic sentiment from its opening bar, and it's by far my favourite track on the album. The the quiet synth chords and the ooohing chorus is an aural dream come true, juxtaposed by lyrics about romantic frustrations, just in case you were tempted to think Chiddy Bang has gone soft.

Things slow down a little after this point. The beat to 'Run it Back' struggles to compete with 'Does She Love Me?', although the chiptune aspects to it interesting (if outclassed by a later track I'll get to). Out 2 Space doesn't do it for me, alas. It's just lacks a catchy element, though the space-y feel is spot on.

There's a seemingly out-of-place Interlude for track 10, but its melody gels with the following track, 'Talking to Myself', which has a solid bassline groove coupled with violin plucks and a light piano, of all things. However, that pales in comparison to the penultimate track, 'Baby Roulette'.

It competes for the accolade of 'best track' with 'Does She Love Me?', losing out just slightly. It's slow, goofy beat is heavily chiptune based, and would find a happy home in an episode of Adventure Time, strangely paired with a rap about avoiding university pregnancy. The chorus cracks me up ("I hope you know that I'm for real / My love is super-sized, ain't no Happy Meal"), and the whole thing just puts a smile on my face. It's a shame then, that it's followed by one of the most boring tracks on the album, '4th Quarter'. It's loud and repetitive, and could have been removed entirely to give Breakfast a way stronger ending.

Chiddy Bang definitely impress with their fun sampling and use of chiptune, and Chiddy's rapping is well-crafted with a neat habit of staying in theme with the track's title. The general content doesn't go much further beyond discussing marijuana and sleeping with pretty ladies; but I can forgive that - not all hip-hop has to be politically inspired, and either way Breakfast is very refreshing. Consume it today.