Tuesday, January 31, 2006

VG REVIEW: Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones

Ubisoft, for PlayStation 2, Xbox and GameCube
rated M for Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, nudity), $49.99

The first Prince of Persia game, "Sands of Time," won over critics, but not many people bought it. Developer Ubisoft tried to fix that problem in the sequel, "Warrior Within," with a focus-group approach, taking the swashbuckling prince and drowning him in a sea of Goth trappings and introducing horrendous nu metal music.

But the new look left a decidedly bad taste with those who had enjoyed the original game.

Thankfully, Ubisoft seems to have listened to the complaints as the third game in the series, "Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones," rectifies a lot of the aesthetic damage that "Warrior Within" wrought. While it keeps some of the technical improvements of the second game, it brings back a lot of the humor, warmth and excitement that made the first so memorable.

Having conquered the Empress of Time and avoided an early grave, "Two Thrones" finds our titular prince heading back to his Babylonian kingdom, only to find it under attack by a malevolent army under the command of the evil vizier, last seen in "Sands of Time." Your job then is to sneak back into Babylon, destroy the vizier and take back your kingdom.

As before, the prince can do all sorts of impressive acrobatic feats, including running up and along walls, vaulting over chasms and backflipping over enemies. Once you get hold of the precious Sands of Time, you can even slow time down and rewind events should you accidentally miss that last precarious jump.

There’s a nasty catch, however. It seems as though prolonged exposure to the Sands of Time has given the prince a bit of a split personality. When the situation calls for it, our dashing hero will quickly turn into the "Dark Prince," a rather ruthless alter ego who carries a razor-sharp metal whip with which to dole out punishment.

While the Dark Prince might seem a bit too powerful at first, he loses health very quickly, and you’ll frequently have to rush through a particular level in order to get to the end without collapsing. Thankfully, these sequences don’t dominate the game but crop up just enough to add variety to the experience.

The other notable addition is the appearance of "speed kills": By sneaking up behind (or above) an enemy, you have the ability to take it out with a few carefully timed button presses. These Simon-says-like sequences require careful concentration to speed the game along and make tackling a room full of monsters a little easier.

As with the past Prince games, the pleasure comes not so much from making hash of "Arabian Nights"-garbed evildoers as from exploring an area and figuring out how to get from A to seemingly unreachable B.

"Two Thrones" is a solid package in just about every respect. The voice acting and dialogue, for example, are well done, and it’s entertaining to hear the prince squabble with his darker side.

The only gripe I have is that the developers were more than a little stingy in their save spots. Allowing players to save their game more often than every 20-30 minutes wouldn’t have hurt.

That aside, "The Two Thrones" is a delightful return to form. In ditching all the dour trappings (if not the violence), Ubisoft has created a fun, fast-paced action title that fans of the series are sure to love.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Monday, January 30, 2006


Last month, authors Heather Chaplin and Aaron Ruby did me the distinct pleasure of letting me interview them about their fantastic new book "Smartbomb: The Quest for Art, Entertainment, and Big Bucks in the Videogame Revolution." The article finally saw print last Sunday, which means I can now post it to the blog for your enjoyment. Hopefully it will spur you to pick up a copy of the book, which is really one of the best looks at the video game industry I've read in a long time.

My sincere thanks to Heather and Aaron for their time.


It all started when Aaron Ruby did the unthinkable.

He bought a PlayStation 2.

A former gamer turned graduate student, Ruby was interested in the new, next-generation games he saw his fellow students playing and decided to sneak a console into the home he shared with his new wife, Heather Chaplin.

Chaplin was less than amused. In fact, she had not been exposed to video games as a child, and her reaction was closer to horror.

But as Ruby slowly exposed Chaplin to more games and the gaming culture, she be­came intrigued. A business re­porter who had written for The New York Times and Fortune, Chaplin realized the subject was a rich and un­mined topic.

That’s when the couple came up with a proposal: Why not work together on a book about games, an unobjective look at the hobby and the peo­ple who help shape it?

Ruby and Chaplin spent the next four years attending con­ferences, hobnobbing with folks like Will Wright, creator of "The Sims," and exploring the niches and offshoots that make up the video game world.

The end result, "Smart­bomb," is an engaging, fasci­nating look at the current state of the video game indus­try. "The Quest for Art, Enter­tainment, and Big Bucks in the Videogame Revolution" looks at how quickly the gaming culture has grown and where it might be headed.

Rather than focus on tech­nobabble or try to provide an all-inclusive history (though some back story is included), "Smartbomb" gives us glimpses into personalities be­hind games like "Doom" and "Star Wars Galaxies"

It follows "Unreal" creator CliffyB as he nervously at­tends one E3 conference after another. It talks to "Sims" mastermind Wright as he talks about his vision for the ultimate video game. It looks at how the military is using games to train its troops. And it takes a look at the world of MMORPGs like "Galaxies" and how friendships and even entire communities are creat­ed through these virtual worlds.

In researching the book, Ruby and Chaplin were sur­prised at how willing to talk most developers were.

"Most game designers were really open," Chaplin said during a recent phone inter­view. "You didn’t have to go through people’s PR."

"We really wanted to get certain people come hell or high water," Ruby added.

The writing chores were di­vided evenly between the couple. Ruby talked to gamers and handled some of the more technical discussions while Chaplin talked to people like Wright and Id Software founder John Carmack.

The pair, who live in Brook­lyn, N.Y., were married six months before they started the book, and working on it together caused a bit of mari­tal strife at times. There was a lot of "throwing furniture around at each other," accord­ing to Chaplin.

The smashed chairs were worth it, though, because the book provides a stunning look at just how popular and influ­ential the video game industry has become, to the point where the military courts de­velopers and some creators are seen taking on celebrity roles.

"I was taken off-guard by the magnitude of the indus­try," Chaplain said. "How cor­porate it had become so quickly. It has gone corporate faster than any other medium."

Chaplin also was surprised at the intelligence of the game community.

"I was not expecting to find games creative or intelligent. These [developers] really are the greatest minds of our generation," she said.

To some, "Smartbomb" will disturb and confirm the fears of those who see video games as a tool of Satan. Others will regard it as confirmation that their favorite hobby is more than just a time-waster.

Such viewpoints are not be surprising to Ruby and Chap­lin, who say their main goal was to recognize that the ex­perience you have with a game is real, authentic and equal to that you have with a book or movie.

The pair have created a blog at smartbomb.us and have other books planned, including a guide for parents on how to look at and evalu­ate games.

Plus, there’s all that materi­al that didn’t make it into "Smartbomb"

"There’s an entire cabinet of stories that never made it into the book," Ruby said.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Friday, January 27, 2006

I am so shocked

In a move that surprised absolutely no one, Nintendo revealed yesterday that it is in fact working on a streamlined version of its popular DS handheld console. Entitled the DS Lite, the newer version will be smaller, thinner and lighter and will feature ... oh I just can't work up the enthusiasm to go into all the niggling little specs. You can read all about it here.

Honestly, I'm torn about the whole thing. On the one hand there's no question that the original DS is way too bulky and was in need of a face-lift. And I like the general look of the thing despite the fact that Nintendo is obviously stealing more than one page from Apple's design book.

On the other hand, releasing this only a year or so after the first edition came out is a real slap in the face to early adopters, not to mention everyone who got the device as a present over the holidays. Are we going to have to adopt a wait and see approach with every piece of hardware from now on? How many variations on a theme can Nintendo pump out before consumers get annoyed?

Of course I'll probably still get one all the same.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Solid Snake comics for your PSP

Here's something interesting (well, at least I think it's interesting). Konami unveiled their line-up for the coming year yesterday, and midst all the sequels, handheld knock-offs, DDR titles and whatnot was the announcement for a new, interactive Metal Gear Solid comic for the PSP.

Art chores will be handled by Ashley Wood, who has done art for "Spawn" and the Metal Gear Solid comic book adaptations. No street date or price has been announced for this title yet, which is tentatively being called "Metal Gear Solid Digital Comic" (catchy). Nor is there any information on whether this will be an all-new story or just a rehash of the IDW titles.

I have serious doubts about just how "interactive" this "comic" will be, but MGS mastermind Kojima seems full-steam behind it, so it could turn out to be pretty interesting (emphasis on could).

GameSpot has more details about the comic here.

Real smooth there Snakey-boy.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Graphic Lit -- 1/22

These reviews ran in last Sunday's edition of The Patriot-News.

"Black Hole"
by Charles Burns
Pantheon, 368 pages, $24.95.

Charles Burns has long been regarded in comic book circles as one of the masters of horror, or at least the decidedly eerie, although the bulk of his work has often leaned toward the cartoonish or surreal.

"Black Hole" marks a step away from all that, with its focus on a character-driven plot and real-world setting. The story centers on a sexually transmitted plague that sweeps through a Seattle high school in the 1970s, turning teens into grotesque monsters.

As some victims attempt to hide their deformities, others camp out in the woods, shunned by "normal" society. And that’s about when the murders start.

It sounds like the setup for a slasher film, but Burns is going for something a lot more thoughtful and rewarding than that.

Rather than become a thriller, the teen plague becomes a powerful metaphor for the pains of puberty. His dialogue perfectly captures adolescent angst and alienation, while his inky panels hint at horrors that lie far below the occasional webbed finger or odd growth.

"Black Hole" is Burns’ most humane and powerful work to date. It’s also one of the best graphic novels of last year.

by Aaron Renier
Top Shelf Productions, 184 pages, $14.95.

Renier’s debut graphic novel imagines a charming town of anthropomorphic creatures where little dogs can build submarines and a secret underground newspaper gets the dope on everything via a network of hidden doors and tunnels.

The plot centers on a shy, young elephant who discovers an aptitude for sculpture, a rabbit that badly wants to be an investigative reporter, and a mystery surrounding the eerie lake in the center of town. Filled with lots of charming details, Renier’s pages are a tad busy at times, but the book overall is crammed with plenty of moments that will bring a smile to your face. In short, it’s a perfect book for comic-loving parents to share with their kids.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

I like stuff

Linkblog time again.

*It's been mentioned several times already, but in case you haven't heard, Buenaventura Press will co-publish the 6th issue of Kramer's Ergot, the massive, avant-garde anthology read by hip comics cognisenti everywhere. You can see preview pages and the cover here (warning: some images not work safe). If past issues are any indication, this will easily be the most important and breathtaking anthology published this year.

Beunaventura Press also has a list of other upcoming projects on the news section of their site, which includes a new issue of Comic Art magazine, new books by Vanessa Davis and Dan Zettwoch, "Comic Book Holocaust," a collection of Johnny Ryan's raunchy parody strips, and "Elvis Road," a 30-foot narrative drawing by the duo known as Elvis Studio. I got a sneak peek at this last book at last year's SPX, and it's pretty damned impressive.

* Joe Sacco did an 8-page strip for The Guardian on torture that you can read here.

* Um, I don't think you're supposed to put a PlayStation controller there (nsfw).

*Finally, the Comic Bloggers Poll is tallied and posted. You can read the final results here. I won't get too much into the final results, as much of it might sound like sour grapes because "my horse" didn't win. I did want to make a few quick notes however:

1) On his blog Crisis/Boring Change, Poll creator Chris Tamarri and Low Road blogger Ed Cunard note that few people who say voted for Love and Rockets as best ongoing series, nominated Jaime or Gilbert Hernandez under the best artist or best writer categories.

There's a reason for that. I don't most folks think of the Hernandez brothers or any of the other number of cartooning folk that handle both word/picture chores solely as artists or writers. I know I don't. Jaime's layout, his page design and staging are all integral components of his storytelling skills. I can't separate his talent into 2 different compartments. When I think of "comics writer" I think of someone like Grant Morrison, ie. someone who is known solely as a wordsmith. Same thing for best artist; I don't think of someone like Chris Ware, I think of someone who's fame rests solely on their ability to draw, and not necessarily tell stories. Since the folks who do specialize thusly mainly work in the mainstream Marvel/DC milieu, it's no surprise that Marvel/DC books tend to take the top spot in these types of polls. I think that Chris' idea to include a "best cartoonist" category next year is a good one.

2) One of the problems with polls like these is that everything tends to skew to the middle. You may have liked Godland best. I may have preferred Love and Rockets. But by gum, we both liked All-Star Superman! And thus the accumilation of points pushes that to the top. I mean, I liked Top 10: The 49ers, really I did. But best original graphic novel? Not even close.

Gad, there I go again with the sour grapes. Sorry. Watch it turn out that I gave that book 10 points and promptly forgot.

3) I really need to do a better job keeping track of what comes out in a given year. There were a ton of books that I completely forgot about.

Despite my griping, this was a fun exercise. My sincere thanks to Chris for letting me particpate.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Naughty Leela Corman

No video game reviews this week -- didn't have time to write any last week so we ran an AP review of "Dead or Alive 4" instead. New reviews will return next week though, and I'll run some older reviews on Wednesday to make up for the lack of new material.

In the meantime though, I wanted to pass along some news regarding alt-cartoonist Leela Corman ("Queen's Day," "Subway Series"). One of the things I'd like to do with the comics portion of this blog is alert folks to odd/interesting side projects by assorted cartoonists of note. Since we get a lot of review copies of new books at the paper, I constantly see artists whose work I like or at least am familiar with turn up in interesting places.

Which brings me back to Ms. Corman, who has provided a bevy of saucy drawings for the new book "Sex for Busy People" by one Emily Dubberley (who has her own blog here). Subtitled "The Art of the Quickie for Lovers on the Go,"it's chock full of naughty but mostly r-rated pictures of people getting it on in what seems to me like rather uncomforable places. I've scanned in a few, somewhat safe for work samples for the curious below. And, of course, you can learn more by clicking on any of the links above.


Thursday, January 19, 2006

Graphic Lit -- 1/15 and more

The first two reviews ran in the Patriot-News this past Sunday. Everything else ran way back on March 6th of last year.

"Wimbledon Green"
by Seth
Drawn and Quarterly, 128 pages, $19.95.

Seth’s masterful graphic novella about the "greatest comic book collector" imagines a world where golden-age funny books sell for small fortunes and collectors have their own private staff and personal transportation, all devoted to tracking down rare comics.

Seth displays a looser, rougher art style here and uses smaller panels and lots of dialogue to convey the story. Characters often expound upon the mysterious Green in a head-on documentary-style fashion.

My description makes the book sound like a bore, but the result is a warm, funny and surprisingly moving look at not just comics, but the collector mentality in general. Seth has produced works with deeper emotional resonance, but he’s never been as much fun as he is here.

"Kamikaze Kaito Jeanne Vol. 1"
by Arina Tanemura
CMX, 176 pages, $9.99.

OK, let’s see if I can get this straight. A teenage girl, who happens to be the reincarnation of Joan of Arc, spends her days cracking books and her nights hunting down demons, which for some reason like to hide in paintings.

Did I mention she has a little fairy familiar? Or that her school chum moonlights as a detective dedicated to bringing her alter ego to justice?

This breezy, bizarre manga plays things surprisingly straight, with an emphasis on romance and melodrama. It’s not bad, but you wish the author had taken more chances with its incredibly goofball premise. The initial concept is silly enough to create a truly inspired work, but this one is just mundane.

"Kramer's Ergot 5"
by various
Gingko Press, 320 pages, $32.95.

Even more massive than the previous edition, this oversize anthology features an impressive array of avant-garde and up-and-coming cartoonists. Readers might recognize a few notable names like Chris Ware and Gary Panter, but for the most part the submissions here are from artists working on the fringes, creating work that varies from strikingly bizarre to psychedelic to emotionally resonant and heartfelt.

The work is stunning and inspiring. It's doubtful you'll find a better comics anthology anytime soon. Leave this book out on your coffee table, and you'll not only have a collection of some of the best young cartoonists out right now, but your hip quotient will improve considerably.

"Princess Mermaid"
by Junko Mizuno
Viz, 144 pages, $15.95.

Mizuno's style can best be described as a cross between Hello Kitty and Rob Zombie. Her comic fairy tales are full of cutesy-wootsy characters engaging in horrible, grotesque behavior. This latest story is a warping of sorts of The Little Mermaid and includes heaping amounts of sex and violence, not to mention a dour, bitter tone.

That description might make Mizuno seem like a one-trick pony, but she is able to weave an intriguing enough story, using a minimum of dialogue, to keep the reader's attention. Mizuno's work might seem bizarre to some, but in an ocean full of copycat manga, her comics are idiosyncratic enough to be welcomed wholeheartedly.

"Astronauts of the Future"
by Lewis Trondheim and Manu Larcenet
NBM, 46 pages, $14.95.

Kid geniuses Gilbert and Martina are convinced that the world has been surreptitiously taken over by robots or aliens. What starts as a humorous look at childhood quickly takes a sharp turn into fantasy when it turns out the kids' conspiracy theories might be more accurate than they thought.

The book is infused with Trondheim's trademark wit and ingenuity, with Larcenet's cartoonish visuals complementing the text quite nicely. "Astronauts" is a thrilling all-ages book that kids --especially tween boys -- will enjoy as much as adults. Let's hope a second volume is on the way as well.

"Hutch Owen: Unmarketable"
by Tom Hart
Top Shelf Productions, 192 pages, $14.95.

Hart's surly, anti-establishment, lovable drop-out returns in this collection of stories. Hart expertly skewers corporate greed and rampant consumerism. He's especially good when mocking marketing babble that too often gets taken for gospel.

Hart refuses, however, to simply throw stones at straw men, and is more than happy to question Hutch's hard-line stance and its effectiveness. It's this refusal to seek simple answers, combined with his sharp wit, that makes Hart's work so pleasurable.

"Bone: Out From Boneville"
by Jeff Smith
Graphix, 140 pages, $18.95.

Jeff Smith's delightful, enchanting all-ages comic has just been rereleased by Scholastic Press as part of their new comics line --and in hardcover and full color no less!

Actually, I tend to prefer the original, black and white version, as it provides a better chance to admire Smith's fine pen-and-ink work, but the colorization is well-done, and newcomers will hardly mind the "improvements." If you can't locate a copy of the massive, all-in-one edition at your local store (and chances are you can't), then definitely pick up these volumes. Your kids will thank you for it.

"WarCraft: the Sunwell Trilogy: Dragon Hunt"
by Richard A. Knaak and Jae-Hwan Kim
TokyoPop, 192 pages, $9.99.

Fans of the popular video game series should enjoy this Dungeons and Dragons-style romp with manga trappings. The plot involves the usual cast of characters trying to recover some long-lost artifact that will save the universe or whatnot. Yes, it's cliched, but it's a pleasant diversion and goes down smoothly enough to be enjoyed over milk and cookies before you move on to some more emotionally rewarding literature.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Wednesday, January 18, 2006


Very busy week, which is why there were no new posts yesterday. Today, however, let there be reviews!

for the PlayStation Porta­ble
rated E for Everyone (fantasy violence), $39.99

Up to this point, there haven’t been any notable role-playing games for the Sony PlayStation Portable. With the arrival of "PoPoLoCrois," there still aren’t any.

Despite it’s rather flavorful name, "PoPoLoCrois" is a decidedly dull rpg; competent, but more than happy to follow in the paths formed by similar games without offering anything to distinguish itself.

The story involves a young (and I mean young — this kid isn’t out of grade school yet) prince who sets out to free his mother’s soul and defeat a demon threatening his kingdom. Naturally, along the way he encounters a number of colorful characters, fantastic lands and fearsome villains.

Combat is turn-based, with the characters fighting battles on grid reminiscent of most strategy games. Little strategy is required for the bulk of these battles, however. Most enemies can be beaten without working up a sweat, making the random battles that pop up every few seconds a real annoyance.

The one thing going for the game is that it looks lovely. Adopting a children’s book aesthetic, "PoPoLoCrois" is a colorful and highly detailed game with some amusing animation and anime cut scenes that flesh out the story.

But getting to those cut scenes can be irksome. The game is frequently interrupted by long loading times, which drag things down considerably. What’s more, the frames become jittery when your characters run across the landscape, resulting in eyestrain and more than a little nausea on my part.

"PoPoLoCrois" could be a fine rpg for kids. If you’re about as young as the game’s protagonist, you’ll probably get a kick out of it. Older gamers, especially those who’ve played more than one rpg before, will find the title too shallow and simple to be worth their time.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Monday, January 16, 2006

VG REVIEW: Castlevania

January is always a good time to sift through the enormous pile of games from last year that you never got the chance to look at. Here then is a review of 2 Castlevania games that came out a few months ago. Bon Appetit.

Konami, for the Nintendo DS
rated T for Teen (blood and gore, fantasy violence), $34.99.

Konami, for the PlayStation 2 and Xbox
rated M for Mature (blood, violence), $49.99.

Ah, good old "Castlevania." If ever there was a series that could be consistently relied upon for sheer, solid gaming entertainment, this is surely it.

Unless, of course, you’re talking about the various attempts to bring the franchise into 3-D, in which case the opposite is true. Rarely has a well-established series attempted to make the leap to three dimensions so frequently and fallen on its face each time.

Two new "Castlevania" games continue that tradition.

"Dawn of Sorrow" the series’ first game for the Nintendo DS, is a fun, smart game in the "Castlevania" tradition. "Curse of Darkness," however, is a dull mess, a by-the-numbers button-masher that carries over little of the magic from the games that made the series famous.

Let’s stick to the good stuff first. "Dawn of Sorrow" is a sequel of sorts to 2003’s "Aria of Sorrow." As in that game, you play Soma Cruz, a man with the ability to absorb the souls of monsters and generally cause trouble for the forces of evil.

As in "Aria," Soma finds himself entering another spooky castle filled with nefarious and gruesome creatures. A lot of the classic "Castlevania" staples can be found here, and anyone familiar with previous games will feel instantly at home.

You can almost keep a checklist in your head while you play. Gothic, ornate design? Check. Rpg-style interface? Check. Big bosses that fill up the screen? Check. Lots of backtracking? Double-check.

With "Sorrow" being made for the DS, there are a few attempts at utilizing the console’s touch-screen abilities. You’ll have to use the stylus to blast away little blue blocks at various points, and each boss battle must be completed by tracing a magic symbol on the screen.

Neither of these additions bring much to the game — if anything they feel like needless distractions. But if they aren’t welcome they don’t hurt the game either, and fans will find that "Dawn of Sorrow" is like settling back into your favorite comfy chair.

"Curse of Darkness," however, is more like that uncomfortable fold-out you bought when you moved into your new apartment. It’s functional, but not very friendly.

As in "Sorrow," "Curse" also has you exploring dark, monster-filled castles, this time as "devil forgemaster" Hector.

It seems Hector is out for revenge against his former partner in crime, Isaac, who killed Hector’s girlfriend and has to be one of the most flamboyant, effeminate characters ever to appear in a video game. Entire treatises could be written on the homoerotic subtext of the Castlevania games, but Isaac and his mesh shirts must win some sort of prize.

The game follows a pretty basic formula: walk into a room, hack at the monsters by pressing the same button over and over again, go to the next room. Compounding the problem is that most of the levels are dull, drab affairs, lacking the colorful, ornate style found in games like "Sorrow."

Along the way, you’ll pick up little demon helpers that can do things like raise your health or help you beat up the enemies. It’s a nice idea, but these creatures tend to take some of the challenge out of the game. Why waste time slaying zombies when I can have my lava monster do it for me?

"Darkness" isn’t as bad as some of the past 3-D "Castlevania" games, but it is incredibly monotonous. By the end of the first level, most fans will no doubt be heading back to the safety of their 2-D titles, ever more confident that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2005

Friday, January 13, 2006

FROM THE VAULT: Resident Evil 4

It's a slow day here at P&P, so let's use the time to take a look back at a review I wrote of a game that topped a lot of best-of lists this year, Resident Evil 4.

Capcom, for GameCube
rated M for Mature (blood and gore, intense violence), $49.99.


At long last, and after countless games, they finally got "Resident Evil" right.

Though extremely popular, the zombie horror series never held much stock with me. Besides the fact that I am a big fraidy cat, I never warmed to its rather cumbersome gameplay staples.
The fixed camera angles that forced me to reorient myself each time I walked into a new room, the nonsensical puzzles and the horrific controls that made me feel like I was controlling a tank all served to sour my experience.

But lo and behold, here comes "Resident Evil 4," offering a completely revamped take on the franchise.

Gone are the artsy fly-on-the-wall perspectives. Now, the camera stays decidedly behind the back of the main character, who, for once, moves like every other video game character and not like a remote-controlled Frankenstein monster. Push the analog stick forward and he moves forward. Turn left and he goes left.

Gone also is the cumbersome item management, excessive backtracking and the zombies. One might think the franchise would suffer unduly without gore-dripping presence, but that's far from the case.

In "RE 4" you play Leon Kennedy, a former cop last seen defending Raccoon City in "Resident Evil 2." Now a special operative, he's sent to an obscure Spanish village to find the president's missing daughter.

The natives, however, are less than happy to see Leon. In fact, they're downright homicidal, and they all have a weird reddish glint in their eyes.

Immediately upon entering the village -- in what is easily one of the best opening video game sequences ever -- Leon finds himself surrounded by a mob wielding pitchforks and knives and closing infast. Safety means running into a nearby house and barricading the door. Wait, what's that sound on the roof? And is that a chain saw that the guy climbing in the window is carrying?

These maniacal villagers are decidedly smarter than the loping zombies of earlier games. They will duck your shots, call for backup and pursue you with relentless authority until you manage to splatter their heads like an overripe casaba melon.

Which is not to say that nasty backwoodsmen are the only enemies you'll face in the game. There are plenty of monsters lurking in the game, just waiting to take you apart.

The other significant gameplay change is the addition of "action buttons." Frequently during cut scenes you'll have to press a sequence of buttons (a la "Shenmue") in order to avoid instant death. It's a nice way to liven up the lengthy plot scenes.

What really sets this latest rendition apart from past "Resident Evil" games is that it evokes a sense of desperate dread rather than the "boo!" fun-house scares the series has been known for.
A word must be said about the graphics in this game, which are nothing short of stunning. This is easily the best-looking title the GameCube has ever seen. But the superlatives don't just end with the game's look. The soundtrack, gameplay mechanics, the whole package is superbly designed to keep you on edge and freak the bejeebus out of you.

"Resident Evil 4" isn't perfect. The game peaks early, and the plot is nonsense. But if your idea of a good time is being trapped in an abandoned farmhouse, surrounded by maniacal killers closing in on you, this is one of the best games you'll play all year.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2005

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Graphic Lit -- 1/8 and more

Only two comic reviews ran last Sunday, so I thought I'd pad things out with a bunch of reviews that ran last year (hence the dated "Epileptic" reference in the "Babel" review). Enjoy.

“Girls Bravo Vol. 1”
by Mario Kaneda
Tokyopop, 192 pages, $9.95.

High school student Yukinari Sasaki breaks into hives whenever he comes near a girl. So, of course, he ends up befriending a cute female from another world who’s unclear with the concept of “personal space.” Hilarity ensues, or at least it would if anything funny happened. The story is little more than an excuse to show drawings of pretty girls in provocative clothes. If this sort of PG-13 titillation is your bag, then by all means chow down.

“Steady Beat Vol. 1”

by Rivkah

Tokyopop, 192 pages, $9.99.

A young girl suspects her older sister might be a lesbian after discovering a revealing love letter. How she deals with this information, as well as her own budding love life, makes up the bulk of “Beat.” It’s a great idea for a story; where Rivkah slips up is in the execution. Relying too much upon tired manga tropes, the book is all over the top, a soap opera melodrama, where some subtlety would have resulted in a richer and more rewarding work. Basically this reads like the first book from a young artist, and it’s too early to tell whether she’ll grow out of the overwrought hole she’s dug herself in.

"Fred the Clown"
by Roger Langridge

Fantagraphics Books, 192 pages, $16.95.

Roger Langridge is a cartoonist's cartoonist; which means that he'san exceptional draftsman and humorist who, for whatever reason, never gets his full due.

This new collection, which focuses on the antics of an exceedingly dim, socially inept clown, might change all that. By turns heartbreaking and hilarious, Langridge shows off his immense skill at trying on graphic styles and formats, as well as his restless need to experiment. Combine this with the fact that he's one of the funniest cartoonists working today, and you have a winning package that will be embraced by comics fans everywhere.

by David B.

Drawn & Quarterly, 32 pages, $9.95.

David B.'s magnum opus, the stunning "Epileptic," just came out in stores this month, but you can get a small taste of this French artist's genius through this slim yet utterly engrossing story.

In "Babel," David B. effortlessly segues from autobiography to dream psychology to the 1968 war in Biafra without missing a step, thus turning an intimate tale of youth into a more epic look at the way images and outside forces affect our choices. It's a near-perfect introduction to an artist that comics fans will be hearing a lot about.

"A Fine Mess 2"
by Matt Madden

Alternative Comics, 32 pages, $3.50.

Matt Madden is comics' most fearless explorer, endlessly playing formal games with pen and ink in an attempt to exhibit the art form's potential. The latest issue of his ongoing series, for
example, contains an alphabet strip, where each panel focuses on a different letter, and a comics "sestina," where panels are repeated in an ever-increasing fashion. Formulists might get more of a kick out of these kinds of comics than others, but it's nice to see someone playing with the format as intricately as Madden does.

"When I'm Old and Other Stories"
by Gabrielle Bell

Alternative Books, 128 pages, $12.95.

This collection of short stories showcases Gabrielle Bell's talent for dark, deadpan humor and literate story telling. Although many of her early tales seem rough and unstructured at times, she has a self-assuredness in her artwork that many young cartoonists would kill for. "When I'm Old" makes you want to see what Bell does next.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Wednesday, January 11, 2006


If you're not one of those folks who read the comments section I should point out 2 considerable errors to yesterday's post. First of all, the Mike Oeming signing is next Saturday, the 21st, not this coming Saturday. Secondly, the press release had the times wrong. Mssr. Oeming will be at the York Comix Connection from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and at the Mechanicsburg store from 3 to 6 p.m. and not the other way around.

What's that I do for a living again? Oh that's right, I'm a copy editor ...

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Comic signing alert

If you happen to live near or will be in the vicinity of the Harrisburg/York/Lancaster area (i.e. my stomping grounds) this Saturday, you should know that Michael Avon Oeming, artist for the popular "Powers" series, will be signing books at two area stores.

Press release is below. I won't be going (prior committments and all), but if you're a fan of Oeming's work you'll probably want to check this out.

The artist and co-creator of Image Comics' Powers, Michael Avon Oeming, will be visiting Comix Connection-Mechanicsburg, 6200 Carlisle Pike, on Saturday, Jan. 21, from 10:00 AM to 1:00 PM and Comix Connection-York. West Manchester Mall, from 3:00 PM to 6:00 PM to autograph his comics, show off his work and chat with fans.

"This will be a great event, showcasing the talent of Michael Avon Oeming," said Ken Ketterer, manager of Comix Connection. "I just love this kind of thing, and so do the fans! Powers is on all of our top 10 lists of great comics."

Mike Oeming is the artist and co-creator of the Eisner-award nominated series, "Powers" with writer Brian Michael Bendis. Mike has also done "Hammer of the Gods," and "Bastard Samurai" series. His current comic work includes writing duties on "Thor: Blood Oath" and "Ares" both from Marvel Comics, "Red Sonja" from Dynamite Entertainment, and "Blood River" from Image Comics in addition to his art chores on "Powers".

Oeming started his career at the tender age of 14 inking books for Innovation Comics. He then went on to ink titles like "Avengers" and "Daredevil" for Marvel Comics.

"When you visit Comix Connection on January 21 you will get to meet and chat with Mike and get a first hand look at his work. Issues of his latest work will be available to have autographed or you can bring your own comics. Don't miss it!"

Call 717-591-2727 (Mechanicsburg) or 717-767-4871 (York) for more

Monday, January 09, 2006

VG REVIEW: Animal Crossing: Wild World

Nintendo, for Nintendo DS
rated E for Everyone, $34.99

It’s "Animal Crossing!" For the DS! What are you waiting for?

OK, that might have been a bit too succinct a review. Let me elucidate a little.

"Animal Crossing: Wild World" is essentially a handheld version of the popular 2002 GameCube title.

Hard-core AC fans hoping for more features and additions will no doubt be somewhat disappointed, but the core game is strong enough to make a second round worthwhile, especially on the DS.

As in the first AC game, "Wild World" plops you down in a tiny village populated by anthropomorphic animals that speak in cutesy gibberish.

There’s no real plot or ultimate goal to speak of. Instead, your job is to make friends with the locals, beautify your home and engage in the variety of activities offered.

You can, for example, go fishing, plant flowers, dig for fossils and other treasures, design your own clothing and hunt for bugs.

It sounds rather dull fare compared with more adrenaline-pumping games like "Doom 3," but "Wild World" manages to be consistently engaging because of its cute sense of humor, colorful design and high degree of interactivity.

Events in the game happen in real time, meaning that you’ll have to check in on Sunday, say, if you want to take part in the fishing tournament. You’ll also be able to buy Christmas trees and make snowmen in December and light off fireworks in the summer.

As you might have guessed, "Animal Crossing" is a game best played in short bursts at various points of the day. This reason makes it ideal for translation onto a smaller, portable console. Adding to the good news is that the DS’ touch screen controls are much more intuitive and fluid than in the GameCube version.

The one notable addition in this version is the ability to take the game online. Using a wireless connection, you can link up with your friends and visit their towns or have them come and visit yours.

This feature offers more than simple sightseeing, however, as visiting other villages gives you the chance to pick up other items and decorations that you won’t be able to find in your own town.

For those familiar with the AC universe, "Wild World" doesn’t have the same freshness or spark of originality that the first game did. All the same, it’s a game that seems tailor-made for the DS, and the inclusion of Internet play adds a new level of fun.

"Animal Crossing: Wild World" is that rarest of rarities: a family-friendly game that adults won’t feel foolish playing. Or to put it another way:

It’s "Animal Crossing!" For the DS! What are you waiting for?

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2005

Friday, January 06, 2006

Now It Can Be Read: Life's A Bitch review

I originally wrote this review for our paper's books page. Upon further reflection I realized that fequent use of the word "bitch" in a family newspaper probably wasn't a very good idea. My editor did little to dissuade me from that notion. On the Internet, of course, you can swear as much as you like!

"Life’s A Bitch"
by Roberta Gregory
Fantagraphics, 272 pages, $16.95.

Madge, aka Bitchy Bitch (yes, that’s really what she’s called), has got to be one of the greatest comic (by which I mean humorous) characters of the past 20 years or so. Perpetually ticked off, deeply lustful, plagued by every sort of "female problem" you could name, and filled with dark thoughts, Bitchy no doubt strikes an inner chord for a lot of modern women.

Gregory is certainly not afraid to put Bitchey through the paces and this volume of stories from the recently-concluded "Naughty Bits" series finds the character dealing with jerks at work in adulthood, unwanted pregnancy in her teens and sexual abuse in her childhood. That much of this material can even be remotely funny as well as touching goes a long way toward what an inspired character Bitchy is and how deft Gregory is in handling her.

Where the book falls apart, unfortunately, is in the rest of the cast. Every other person in Bitchy’s life tends to be some sort of broad and rather flat stereotype (Bitchy’s parents in particular seem to suffer in this regard). Had Gregory added more nuance to the rest of her cast, these stories would be inspired instead of merely decent.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

The Best Comics of 2005 or gad this made me tired

Gloryoski but this was a good year for comics. An amazing amount of quality work came out in a variety of genres. So much so that I had serious trouble narrowing it down to 10. Anyone who's read this blog over the past few years shouldn't be too surprised that my picks skew to the "artsy-fartsy"/alternative milieu, with Pantheon taking up the top three slots. In any other year many of the books that got booted off would have easily garnered a top spot, however.

All that being said, here are my 10 favorite books of 2005. At least for now.

10. Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World by Bryan Lee O'Malley. I'm always a little wary when large groups of people start exclaiming any particular creative work as the bee's knees. Everyone and their aunt was saying that Scott Pilgrim was greater than great, so I figured there was no way it could actually be that good. It's nice to be wrong once in awhile.

9. Tales Designed to Thrizzle by Michael Kupperman. Any year which sees the debut of a new, ongoing series by Kupperman has to be a good one for comics.

8. Cromartie High School by Eiji Nonaka. In many ways Kupperman and Nonaka share similar comedic sensibilities, so it's only natural that they'd be back to back on this list. Plus, this was my favorite manga of the year.

7. Walt and Skeezix by Frank King. While I wasn't too crazy about Chris Ware's cover design for this first volume, the loving devotion shown to the strips inside, as well as the wealth of background material on King make this the best collection of a classic comic strip in a year that saw some pretty heavy competition. It doesn't hurt that King's strip itself is delightful, capturing a time and place that has long since faded from public conciousness.

6. Pyongyang by Guy Delisle. Whereas most travel books (and comics, duh) provide you with a taste of a particular culture, country or way of life, Delisle book gives you the opposite: a country so closed off, so totalitarian that even the author cannot even access it when visiting it. It's a chilling reminder that there are places in the world where "1984" is not science-fiction.

5. Wimbledon Green by Seth. Seth has produced work of greater emotional weight and impact, but he's never been as funny or as much fun as he is here.

4. 676 Apparitions of Killoffer by Killoffer. Now here's a fellow how makes Ivan Brunetti look like Norman Vincent Peale. Self-loathing has rarely been so artfully rendered or as brilliantly laid out as it is here. The cartoonists of tomorrow will mine this book for ideas (if they're smart that is).

3. The Rabbi's Cat by Joann Sfar. Sfar tackles subjects that no one else in comics seems to have the guts to, namely religion, tradition, family and the purpose of life itself. That he does so with such warmth, good humor and effortlessness only makes the feat that much more stunning.

2. Black Hole by Charles Burns. Anyone who has been following the serialized version of this story knows how good it is. To the rest of you, I submit Charles Burns' masterpiece, an eerie, humane and often heartbreaking look at adolescence as seen through a horror film filter.

1. Epileptic by David B. It's hard for me to talk about this book without lapsing into fanboyish enthusiasm. Suffice it to say that David B's memoir of how his family was all but driven apart by his brother's severe epilepsy is a cathartic work; an unsparing look at illness and disintegration that takes no prisoners and asks for little sympathy, though much understanding. To watch the author's fluid, dark images snake across the page is to know you are in the hand of a master.

Books that almost beat out Scott Pilgrim for that No. 10 spot (and may yet if I start feeling cheeky):
Yotsuba by Kiyohiko Azuma
Dennis the Menace Vol. 1 by Hank Ketcham
Or Else by Kevin Huizenga
The Secret Voice by Zack Soto
Sleeper: The Road Home by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips
Embroideries by Marjane Satrapi

The Best of the Rest:
The Quitter
Top 10: The 49ers
The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck
Seven Soldiers
Dr. Slump
Love and Rockets
Burying Sandwiches

Books that probably would have made my best of list had I actually gotten around to reading them:
The Push Man
Night Fisher
Spiral Bound
Sexy Voice and Robo
We All Die Alone
Salamander Dream
Why Are You Doing This?
BJ & Da Dogs
Worn Tuff Elbow
Acme Novelty Library Report to Shareholders
Acme Novelty Library #16

Don't like my list? That's OK, there's plenty more where that came from.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Graphic Lit -- 1/1

It's about time for a best comics of 2005 list don't you think? Well, not today as I'm still compliling and editing my list of favorites. Perhaps tomorrow or Thursday though. In the meantime, here's the lastest roundup of comic reviews for your enjoyment:

"Watchmen: Absolute Edition"
by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
DC Comics, 464 pages, $75.

Assuming you still have a present or two to purchase, consider buying this hefty coffee-table edition of what is easily one of the most influential comics of the past 25 years. The good news is that Moore and Gibbons’ seminal work still packs quite the wallop. The appendix of preliminary sketches and script notes by Moore only sweetens the deal. Even if you’ve already got the original issues stashed away, this is a hard collection to pass up.

by Buronson and Kentaro Miura
Dark Horse, 216 pages, $12.95.

A burly yakuza thug, a winsome TV reporter and a group of feckless students find themselves thrust into a post-apocalyptic future, where the Japanese live as refugees, forced into slave labor or worse by a European dictatorship. Enraged, the yakuza and his friends decide to fight the power and form a new country "where human beings are free to live like human beings."

If this book were about America, it would be dismissed as a piece of jingoistic drivel. Being about Japan, it’s still a piece of jingoistic drivel. As an action book, its fairly engaging. As propaganda or political thinkpiece, it’s more than a wee bit silly.

by Katsuhiro Otomo, illustrated by Shinji Kimura
Dark Horse Press, $13.95.

Otomo, best known for the widely influential "Akira," collaborated with Kimura on this children’s book about a little boy vampire who lives in a village full of vampires where it’s always night and ... you get the idea.

Kimura’s art owes a great deal to Tim Burton but is charming despite its obvious influences. The stories, however, come across as awkward and stilted. Part of that may be due to poor translation. It may also be due to the author’s inexperience with penning material for young children. I tend to think it’s a little bit of both.

"The King"
by Rich Koslowski
Top Shelf Productions, 264 pages, $19.95.

A mysterious gold-helmeted Elvis impersonator claims to be the real deal and has attracted a following that seems to think so as well. Is he truly The King or a very good impostor? A former tabloid reporter, now working for Time, seeks to find out in this new graphic novel by the author of "Three Fingers."

Koslowski has solid artistic chops, and there are some nice moments here, but the book is burdened by its own ham-fistedness and some strong lapses in logic. I didn’t buy the villain’s motivation at the end, nor did I agree with Koslowski’s theme, which seems to be that belief in something, be it God or Elvis, is more important than the truth. I’m sure there are a lot of Creationists out there who will be happy to hear that message.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2005

Monday, January 02, 2006

Gazing into the crystal ball

Hope everyone had a good time ringing in the new year and didn't wake up the next day regretting anything, at least not too much.

For the 1/1 Sunday's Arts section, my editor wanted to put together a "what to expect in 2006" feature. Thus the article below, where I read the tea leaves and try to figure out what everyone's gonna be buzzing about in 06. As you might imagine, my picks are pretty obvious.

Happy 2006 everybody.

What awaits the world of video games this year? Oh, just a little device called the PlayStation 3.

Sony will release its new, next-generation console. Sony is saying spring, but I’m guessing it won’t hit stores until late summer.

Official release date aside, the arrival of the PS3 will easily be the most significant gaming event of this year. Many consumers are no doubt foregoing a purchase of the Xbox 360 to see what this system has in store. It will be interesting to watch how the two industry giants, Microsoft and Sony, slug it out to garner the top spot in the console food chain.

But that’s not all. Nintendo also plans on releasing its next-gen system, being billed as Revolution, later this year.

Eschewing Microsoft’s and Sony’s high-tech approach for a path less taken, Revolution features a wireless controller shaped like a TV remote that responds directly to your wrist and hand movements. Move your wrist from left to right and the game you’re playing responds accordingly.

Such a design seems filled with heretofore unimagined possibilities. But will such a unique console catch the imagination of the nongaming public as Nintendo hopes? If the company can garner enough solid software, not only from its developers but also from respected third parties, then the Revolution might surprise everyone in the same way that the DS did.

On the political front, expect to see more and more anti-game legislation appear on the books. Laws such as the ones in California and Illinois are just the tip of the iceberg. And don’t be surprised if the federal government decides to get in on the act with such senators as Hillary Clinton and Joe Lieberman jumping on the bandwagon. It remains to be seen if the industry can adequately defend itself.

Of course, there will also be games. Lots and lots of games. Some notable titles are:

"Electroplankton" — This rather unusual game for the Nintendo DS has players making music by interacting with a variety of virtual fish. It’s certainly untraditional, but early reports suggest it is quite addictive.

"Starcraft: Ghost" — Finally, after years of delays, the action/stealth spin-off of the popular strategy game is expected to arrive in February.

"Gears of War" — This futuristic action/horror game from the creators of the "Unreal" series could possibly be the system seller for Xbox 360...

"Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion" — ... unless this epic, huger than huge role-playing game decides to take that title instead.

"Marc Ecko’s Getting Up: Contents Under Pressure" — Despite the lengthy title, this graffiti-focused game, where you play a tagger spraying paint in a totalitarian city, shows a good deal of promise.

"The Godfather: The Game" and "Scarface: The World Is Yours" — Can these two titles, based on classic, highly revered films, succeed enough to be held in high regard on their own merit and not endure unwieldy comparisons to their source material? I wouldn’t bet the farm on it, but you never know.

"Okami" — Taking a cue from Japanese folk tales, "Okami" puts you in charge of a mythic wolf given the task to restore color to the world. Screenshots suggest a painterly, almost calligraphic look unlike any game out there right now.

"Bully" — In what is likely to be the most controversial game of the year, you play a reform school student who must intimidate or be intimidated. Expect lots of swirlies and Indian burns.

"Final Fantasy XII" — Probably one of the most anticipated sequels of 2006, FFXII features some marked differences from previous games in the series. Whether or not that’s a good thing depends upon how big a fan of the previous games you are.

"The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess" — Also known as the GameCube’s swan song, "Princess" forgoes the cartoonish art style of the last Zelda game in favor of a more realistic design. Fans can expect the same high quality of game play, though.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006