Tuesday, April 24, 2007

VG Review: "Puzzle Quest"

D3, for the PlayStation Portable
rated E10+ (suggestive themes), $29.99.

If I ever have the opportunity to meet the creators of "Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords," I don't know if I'll hug them or hit them.

I'd hug them for taking two established video game genres and mashing them together into something thoroughly new and delightful.

I'd hit them for making a game that's completely addictive to the point of where an intervention might be necessary.

I'm being completely serious here. This game has me hooked to the point where any spare few seconds provides an excuse to pick it up. Waiting in line, eating breakfast, rebooting my computer: it's all fair game. Even as I write this review I keep stopping to pick up the game and play a few more rounds.

"Puzzle Quest" can best be described as "Bejeweled" meets "Dungeons and Dragons."

For those who haven't played the former, it's a "Tetris"-style game where you match up horizontal or vertical rows of jewels of matching color by swapping places with one of their adjoining neighbors.

The catch here is that the game is tied into to a large fantasy-styled world, with lots of rpg trappings.

After choosing what sort of character you'd like to play (druid, knight, etc.), you set off on a quest to save the kingdom from nefarious orcs, zombies, trolls and other nasty creatures.

The only thing is that instead of bopping them on the head with your weapon, you're matching up colored stones and other objects. Matching up three skulls, for example, deals damage to your opponent. Get their life down to zero and the battle is yours.

But hold on. Combining different colored stones increases your "mana levels," which in turn lets you cast devastating spells. And you can also increase your experience levels and bank account this way.

The puzzle conceit also extends to other aspects of the game. You match up stones to learn spells, train your mounts, lay siege to nearby towns and capture enemies.

Despite the repetitious nature of the game play, "Puzzle Quest" never gets boring. If anything, you find yourself constantly trying to find strategies and maneuvers to utilize. And the high challenge bar keeps the game from feeling like a cakewalk.

If you've got a yen for either casual puzzle games or rpgs, you owe it to yourself to check "Puzzle Quest" out. It's made my short list for the best games of 2007.

In the meantime, does anyone know of a good video game 12-step program?

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007


Monday, April 23, 2007

Graphic Lit: Death Note

A young man walking home from school discovers a small black notebook lying on the ground.

Taking it home, he quickly discovers that whoever’s name he writes in the book will die of a heart attack within 40 seconds, provided he’s seen that person’s face.

Emboldened by his discovery, he decides to begin a campaign against crime, doing away with dangerous evildoers and anyone else he considers unworthy, with the ultimate goal of creating a utopia on Earth — with him as supreme ruler of course.

That’s the basic premise behind “Death Note,” one of the most popular and ingenious Japanese manga currently being published in the West.

The comic, written by Tsugumi Ohba and drawn by Takeshi Obata (who also draws the popular series “Hikaru No Go”), has led to numerous cartoon and film adaptations in Japan and has developed a large following here in the U.S., only slightly behind media juggernauts like “Naruto” and “Bleach.”

The young man is Light Yagami, who is not only an ace student, but apparently one of the smartest people in Japan.

Indeed, he’s so smart he’s bored out of his mind, and the notebook’s discovery rejuvenates him with a sense of purpose. The fact that he slowly loses his soul along the way seems of minor consequence to him.

Of course, hundreds of convicted killers suddenly dying of heart attacks doesn’t go without notice, and very quickly an international police force is formed to catch the mysterious serial killer, dubbed “Kira” by the press.

A cat and mouse game quickly forms between Light and the leader of the police investigation, a mysterious, eccentric young man known only as “L.”

L turns out to be more than a worthy opponent to Light, and a further twist is added when Light ends up joining L’s investigation team, in effect attempting to catch himself.

The phrase “Hitchcockian” kept popping up in my mind while reading “Death Note,” in the way that Ohba and Obata keep the readers in constant suspense and even toy with their emotions to the point where they find themselves rooting for a serial killer.

In fact there’s a masterful sequence where Light must try to get rid of a young woman before she talks to the cops that the Master of Suspense might well have approved of.

Considering the high body count, the series is pretty bloodless, suitable for teenagers as well as adults. If anything “Death Note” is an extremely plot-heavy and excessively verbose comic, something uncharacteristic of most manga.

That it’s so readable is in large part due to Obata’s considerable artistic talents. He’s able to keep your eye moving across the page easily, so that even a sequence involving a lengthy discussion among a board of directors seems riveting.

The series is known for completely turning on a dime every two volumes or so, and indeed a major surprise event occurs in volume seven that alters your entire expectations.

Sadly, “Death Note” will be coming to a close soon. The 11th volume just hit stores last week, and the final, 12th volume will be out in July. The good news is Viz should be releasing the Anime adaptation of the manga in the near future.

“Death Note” at times becomes a bit dry, and the whole “He knows that I know that he knows that I know” mind games between Light and L can make your head spin.

In spite of that, “Death Note” remains one of the most consistently entertaining, even addictive manga I’ve read in recent years. It’s a cerebral thrill ride that any fan of the genre will enjoy. I can’t wait to see how it ends.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007


Thursday, April 19, 2007

VG Review: "Def Jam Icon"

Electronic Arts, for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360
rated M for Ma­ture (blood, strong lyrics, vio­lence), $59.99

I’ve wanted to slug rapper/producer Lil’ John (metaphorically speaking, of course) ever since he and that insufferable pimp cup of his first screeched onto the scene.

Thanks to “Def Jam Icon,” now I can.

The game is the third chapter in the ongoing “Def Jam” franchise, where big-name hip-hop stars battle it out because ... well, just because.

In “Icon,” you play an upcoming record mogul, assigned with finding, funding and otherwise helping artists like Paul Wall and T.I. Apparently, that entails beating lots of people to a bloody pulp, be they off-duty cops, crazed fans or other rappers.

As with most traditional fighting games, pressing the face buttons in “Icon” allows you to do some quick high and low jabs and kicks.

The real damage is dealt, however, using the right thumbstick. Pulling it back and then to the right, for example, can have you deal an impressive roundhouse kick to the head. Or you could just throw your opponent to the ground.

Adding nicely to the proceedings are the “DJ controls,” which allow you to manipulate the environment for extra damage.

The environment is tied into the sound track you see, so by pressing a button and rotating the right stick, can rewind the song and cause the sound to make the gas stations explode, lights fall out of the ceilings or a car spin 90 degrees into your opponent.

While that’s a nice feature, “Icon” is missing a lot of the elements that made its predecessor “Fight for New York” so much fun. You can’t use weapons, for example, and there aren’t as many over-the-top finishing moves.

The game looks impressive, but the number of fighting styles and venues is limited, making the experience feel repetitive after a few hours. In the end, I became more interested in dressing up my characters in fine suits and jewelry than I was in fighting.

Ultimately, “Def Jam Icon” is too single-minded and lacking in substance to maintain my interest for any lengthy period of time. As fun as it is to beat up Lil’ John, I need something more.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Graphic Lit: Killed Cartoons

Ask David Wallis to pontificate on the state of editorial cartooning in America and he’ll sum it up in one word.


“Not in terms of the quality level,” he quickly added from his office in New York City. “Dismal in terms of the dwindling opportunities for cartoonists to present their work to readers.”

Wallis ought to know. He’s the editor of “Killed Cartoons: Casualties From the War on Free Expression,” a collection of cartoons, illustrations and comic strips that, for a variety of editorial decisions, never made into the newspaper or magazine they were designed for.

Along the way it manages to touch on such hot-button issues as the Iraq war, the Mohammed cartoon incident, pedophile priests and abortion.

The book is a follow-up of sorts to Wallis’ 2004 collection, “Killed: Great Journalism Too Hot to Print.”

“I had originally wanted to include cartoons in that book,” he said. “There was such a wealth of material ... I realized it was a book in itself and deserved its own tome.”

A number of cartoonists known for pushing buttons — Garry Trudeau, Steve Brodner, Ted Rall — have work in “Killed,” but there are also a few names you wouldn’t expect to find, such as Al Hirschfeld and even Norman Rockwell.

“I tried to find cartoons that were killed for controversial reasons or for reasons of taste, which allowed me to explore different issues in our society,” Wallis said. “I focused on strong imagery that newspapers and magazines spiked because of the potential for controversy. That was pretty much the main criteria.”

In some cases it’s easy to see why a certain cartoon was pulled. No editor wants to be the one who allowed an image of an elephant sodomizing a donkey into the paper.

Others, however, seem completely baffling. A Time portrait of Ronald Reagan was nixed for being “not paternal enough.” TV Guide pulled a lightly mocking piece on “The X-Files,” because it was afraid of offending David Duchovny, the book says.

Perhaps more disturbing though, are the cartoons that were pulled simply because they didn’t jibe with an editor’s own beliefs.

“There is a lot of nervousness out there from cartoonists,” Wallis said. “In the post-9/11 era they tend to be progressive voices that have felt the boot from publishers.”

There’s also the harsh economic realities of the print world to deal with, too, Wallis notes.

“Newspapers and magazines have decided to cut editorial cartoonists from their staffs because they can get for much, much cheaper — without paying for health benefits — syndicated cartoons that don’t necessarily speak to the local community,” he said.

It’s gotten so bad that a number of cartoonists Wallis contacted refused to participate. Others initially agreed, but pulled their work from the book for fear of losing their jobs or worse.

Even “Killed Cartoons” faced its own bout of censorship. An editorial cartoon by Doug Marlette, entitled “What Would Mohammed Drive?” and featuring an Arab man driving a van packed with a nuclear warhead, was removed from the book by the publisher for what Wallis calls “fear of fatwa.”

“I think it was a mistake but I wasn’t going to walk away from the book because of one cartoon,” he said. “I had a duty to publish [the other cartoonists’] work.”

While the current situation for editorial cartoons might be bleak, a future might exist online. Wallis notes cartoonists such as Walt Handleman, Lee Judge and Bob Englehart have been experimenting with either Web animation or blogs that allow them to post their censored cartoons.

But whether online or in the daily paper, Wallis stresses that editorial cartoons serve a vital function in today’s media.

“When we open our op-ed pages in our papers, our eyes naturally are drawn to the cartoons. I think they hit us on a very primal level,” he said. “If you plunk down 50 cents and you can be made angry or feel something ... you’re getting your money’s worth.”

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007

Thursday, April 12, 2007

VG Review: F1 and Motorstorm

Sony, for the PlayStation 3
rated E for Everyone (mild lyrics), $59.99.

Sony, for the PlayStation 3
rated T for Teen, $59.99.

The racing genre is one of the most dependable in video games, sure to always find a ready-to-please audience.

So it's no surprise that the PlayStation 3, still in its infancy, recently saw the arrival of not one but two racing games -- "Formula One Championship Edition" and "MotorStorm."

"Formula One," is, as you'd imagine, a detailed look at the world of F1 racing. A little too detailed, actually, for my tastes.

The meat of the game is the "career" mode, where you can rise through the F1 ranks by winning races. A great deal of emphasis here is put upon tweaking your automobile, as well as mimicking the real-life races as closely as possible.

For example, before you start a race, you have to run a few practice laps to fine-tune your car's specs. Then you have to run a qualifying race to determine where you'll start. As a result, you'll spend more time running practice laps than actually racing.

You can skip a lot of these early trials, and the races can be fun, so long as you don't bump into anyone or anything, but ultimately, I'm not enough of a Formula One fan to geek out over all the minutiae that's so critical to enjoying the game.

"MotorStorm" is more my speed. And I do mean speed, because this is a dizzingly fast-paced game, with no understanding of basic auto mechanics necessary to play.

In this off-road racer, you pilot a number of different vehicles -- MX bikes, ATVs, rally cars, even big rigs -- across muddy, dusty, treacherous terrain in the American Southwest. There's some background nonsense about it all being part of some "Burning Man"-type festival, but that's easily forgotten.

The game shows off the processing power of the PS3. The levels are large, with a variety of paths to take. Big vehicles leave deep ruts behind, which can impede your progress.

What's more, the track is littered with objects that, once tumbled into, don't somehow miraculously reassemble the next time around the track but remain where you left them.

Speaking of crashes, you can expect to be doing a lot of that in "MotorStorm." In fact, watching your vehicle violently fly apart in full HD is part of the fun. Thankfully, you rejoin the fray with an identical vehicle seconds later.

It's worth mentioning that both titles have some nice online features, allowing you to race a number of other players without much hassle.

Ultimately, I prefer the arcade-style simplicity, not to mention the outright violence, of "MotorStorm" over the obsessive detail offered in "Formula One." There's just something about catapulting yourself hundreds of feet in the air along a narrow mesa to take the lead that "F1," for all its verisimilitude, doesn't have.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007


Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Graphic Lit: Five French Comics

Say what you will about the French (I certainly do), but there’s one thing you can’t dispute: they make some really great comics.

Take, for example, these notable recent releases:

“Mister I”
by Lewis Trondheim

NBM, 32 pages, $13.95.

All poor Mister I wants to do is get something to eat. Too bad just about every person, animal and force of nature seems designed to keep him from that goal, the end result frequently being a bloody, highly comical death for our protagonist.

Trondheim’s wordless series of strips (a sequel of sorts to the equally funny “Mister O”) really highlights the cartoonist’s razor-sharp sense of timing. Despite the high body count and frequent bloodletting (not to mention some toilet humor), “Mister I” owes more to Chuck Jones than to Freddy Krueger, and fans of that sort of cartoon slapstick would do well to check this book out.

“Glacial Period”
by Nicolas De Crecy

NBM, 80 pages, $14.95.

In the distant future, when Europe is covered by snow and ice, a group of archeologists uncover the Louvre and try to determine its significance. As you might guess, they get everything wrong, believing, for example, the place to be owned by one “E. Delalacroix.” And they’re completely flummoxed by the images of angels and cupids (“Levitation isn’t reserved solely to the newborn it seems” one scientist surmises).

Though filled with allusions to art history, “Glacial Period” never feels stuffy or obtuse. It’s a witty, smart reminder of not only the real impermanence of art (the Mona Lisa fades away to become a “white square on a white background”), but man’s inability to see beyond the narrow confines of his own culture.

“Aline and the Others”
by Guy Delisle
Drawn and Quarterly, 72 pages, $9.95.

Delisle is actually from Canada, but he lives in Paris now, so we’ll include him here. Unlike his recent travelogues “Shenzhen and “Pyongyang,” “Aline” is a looser, more playful work. Like “Mister I,” it’s a collection of wordless strips, this time focusing on a succession of female protagonists who twist and distort their bodies in a variety of bizarre attempts to garner love, social acceptance, or both.

Like “Mister I,” “Aline” has a current of black humor running through it that may disturb some readers. Delisle’s sharp sense of humor, however, is clever and hilarious enough to win over those who don’t worry about such things.

“The Yellow M”
by Edgar P. Jacobs

9th Cinebook, 72 pages, $14.95.

Another slight fudge: Jacobs was actually Belgian, and an assistant to Herge, creator of Tintin. His “Blake and Mortimer” series, however, was almost if not equally as popular with French audiences as Herge’s, when it ran in the 1950s and ’60s.

“Yellow” finds the upright British serviceman Blake and Scottish professor Mortimer trying to catch the wily master criminal known only as “The Yellow ‘M.’ ”

The story moves along at a brisk clip, but it’s a little too verbose, filled with lots of unnecessary exposition and narration. It’s also missing the high slapstick that made Herge’s adventures such a joy to follow. Still, it’s nice that U.S. Tintin fans like myself have the chance to read a series that until now had been more heard about than seen.

“The Professor’s Daughter”
by Joann Sfar and Emmanuel Guibert

First Second Books, 80 pages, $16.95.

A mummified pharaoh awakens from his sarcophagus, dons top hat and tails and sets about wooing the daughter of the 19th-century archaeologist that unearthed him in this charming, fanciful romance by the team that brought you “Sardine in Outer Space.”

As with that children’s series, Sfar and Guibert’s touch is light and delightfully goofy, an amazing feat considering the level of violence and number of supporting characters that get bumped off along the way.

Themes of family, unrealistic parental expectations and romantic longing all roll underneath the surface, but never rise to the point where, say, the pharaoh’s father, also a mummy, can’t kidnap Queen Victoria and throw her into the Thames. It’s a real gem of a book.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007


Monday, April 09, 2007

Graphic Lit: Anders Nilsen

The indie/art comics crowd has pretty much proved at this point that sequential art is capable of telling any sort of story, regardless of depth or genre.

Still, there seem to be a few weighty subjects — the death of a loved one, for example — that many cartoonists seem reluctant to explore, perhaps due to their relative youth.

Which brings me to Anders Nilsen. In the few years he’s been doing comics, Nilsen has shown a restless experimental streak in the pages of anthologies like “Mome” and “Kramers Ergot,” as well as his own stark, Beckett-like one-shot comic, “Dogs and Water.”

Now he’s come out with a pair of stunning books — “Don’t Go Where I Can’t Follow” and “The End.” Taken together, they provide a stark, devastating examination of loss and grief.

The first book, “Don’t Go Where I Can’t Follow,” chronicles the last year of Nilsen’s fiancé, Cheryl Weaver. Using letters, postcards, comics and other materials, Nilsen details ill-fated camping trips, vacations, silly declarations of love — the sort of things young couples looking forward to a lifetime together tend to do.

Then, within the space of a page, Weaver is ill with cancer. One page later and it’s spread to her liver. Then, just as suddenly, it’s her funeral, which Nilsen narrates to Weaver’s ghost (“I think you wouldn’t have liked this very much, to have been there. Everyone fussing over you.”).

Though slim, “Don’t Go” shows how our best-laid plans and expectations can be laid utterly to waste in no time at all.

“The End” (part of Fantagraphics Ignatz series) is a sequel of sorts to “Don’t Go,” though it’s a much more generalized book. Neither Weaver nor Nilsen is named outright, and the book often uses abstracted figures and images to tell its story. But it might be a more powerful and moving work for that very reason.

In one stark, overwhelming sequence, for example, Nilsen exclaims “Since you’ve been gone, I can do whatever I want, all the time,” and then shows himself “trying to hold it together on the train to France,” “crying while watching Letterman” and “screaming into a pillow.”

Later on, he provides a lengthy list of potential new roles for himself, as a silhouetted stick figure snakes out and forms a series of maze-like patterns.

“In my new life, I could be an electrician, a plumber, a financial analyst, a homeless ex-baseball player” he says, before concluding, “What I can’t be is me, with you.”

I’d like to tell you that you will never experience the sort of pain that Nilsen details in these books. But, of course, I would be lying. At some point you, dear reader, will be in the same situation, if you haven’t already.

And that is why Nilsen’s work is so rewarding and, ultimately, so life-affirming. It’s important that, when we are at our lowest and most despondent, we know we are not alone.

Other books by Nilsen

“Monologues for the Coming Plague” Fantagraphics Books, 260 pages, $18.95.

This is the sort of project that, upon description, sounds almost like a joke: A rambling, stream-of-consciousness series of loose sketches, each taking up a full page for almost $19? Yeah, right pal.

Yet “Monologues” is much more than a self-indulgent series of doodles. Funny, surreal and at times even disturbing, the book provides some new and original ways of thinking about comics. True, it might be for a small, select audience, but those readers will definitely get more out of it than a first glance would suggest.

“Big Questions” nine issues (so far), Drawn and Quarterly, $6.95 each.

This is Nilsen’s big, long-term project, centering on a group of birds that witness a plane crash and attempt to make sense of it. Was it a sign from God? Is the dazed pilot a friend or foe? What are we supposed to do now?

Though still uncompleted, the series is a surprisingly effective meditation on how we attempt to draw meaning from seemingly senseless events. You’ll certainly never look at birds the same way again.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007


Friday, April 06, 2007

VG review: God of War II

Sony, for PlayStation 2
rated M for Mature (blood and gore, in­tense violence, nudity, sexual themes, strong language), $49.99.

The first “God of War” was a gloriously epic, incredibly ultraviolent game that set the standard for every fast-paced action game since. Which begs the question, what can you possibly do to top yourself for the inevitable sequel?

Well, how about this: You’re engaged in a battle in the city of Rhodes when the 200-plus-foot statue that guards the city — the Colossus of Rhodes — comes to life and starts chasing you around the city.

As you try to avoid the massive fists and feet of the murderous statue, you climb up the massive monstrosity, cut his eyes out, then climb inside his body. From there you climb upward, slowly draining it of its mystical energy with a magic sword that you got from Zeus.

That’s not the final boss battle of the game. That’s the first.

It just gets better from there. “God of War II” pulls off what must be the most impressive hat trick of 2007. It’s more epic, more over-the-top and more bloody than the previous game without ever coming off as crass or hackneyed.

The plot follows closely on the heels of its predecessor. Having defeated the war god Ares in the first game, the pasty, perpetually ticked off warrior Kratos is now an official member of the Greek pantheon. Of course, Zeus and the rest of the gods aren’t too happy about having a pretender to the throne on board, and quickly boot him out of Olympus.

After literally climbing out of Hell, Kratos teams up with Earth mother Gaia and the Titans to get his revenge on Zeus.

Along the way, he’ll have to battle legends like Theseus and Perseus, slay dangerous monsters like Minotaurs and the Medusa, and solve tricky puzzles by moving around large blocks of stone.

There’s little that’s actually new about “God of War II.” So the game feels more at times like “God of War 1.5” than “God of War II.”

But if the basic hack and slash, button-mashing gameplay hasn’t been altered much, the sense of scale and drama has. Whether riding a flaming winged Pegasus, battling ice giants or running across giant chains in order to awaken a team of horses the size of Manhattan, Kratos is the ultimate stoner metal hero. Didn’t Ronnie James Dio write a song about this guy?

There also is an extraordinarily high level of violence in this game. Blood seems to spew from just about every orifice, and special, button-timed sequences seem designed to focus on creating as gruesome a kill as possible.

I didn’t really mind the gore, because it’s pretty clear that you’re attacking fantastical monsters and not, you know, real people. Still, consider yourself warned.

In fact, it seems silly to criticize the game on those merits because one of its goals is obviously to be as grandiose, as bombastic as possible, even in its violence. It works. Rather than seem ridiculous or gross, it’s a glorious invocation to the wonders of gaming.

While other games see fit to play things safe and stick to well-worn paths, “God of War II” goes for broke and succeeds beyond expectations. It makes you wonder what they’ll dream up for the next sequel.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007