Sunday, January 21, 2018

My Favorite Anime of 2017

I review anime over at Diabolical Plots and naturally watch a number of shows over the course of the year. In the final installment of my annual entertainment round-up, I'd like to cover the TV anime I watched in 2017. I decided to remove any sequels (since people generally don't jump in the middle), but allowed a single prequel since it does not require watching any prior material, rounding the number of series out to ten.

Anime listed are not ranked, but presented in the order I watched them. As before, my top three picks of the year are marked with an asterisk (*).

Saga of Tanya the Evil *

Saga of Tanya the Evil could have gone horribly in so many ways with a little girl soldier protagonist and all the German World War I imagery, but it actually works, hilariously so, to the point that I've decided to pick up the translations of the original novel series. Tanya remembers her former life as a cutthroat middle manager in corporate Japan and has no qualms about bringing all that knowledge to bear in her country's war. Her constant feuding with the higher power that condemned her to her new existence is a highlight of the show.

ACCA 13-Territory Inspection *

I wasn't sure what to expect of ACCA. It's definitely not going to be for everyone, but the slow burning intrigue and the ages of the cast are an anomaly in anime. If you love whispers of conspiracy without seeing evidence of the conspiracy itself, ACCA has a lot of that sort of atmosphere, where many characters are feeling each other out without any proof that there are enemies to be found. Jean Otis is a difficult to read protagonist, but it works in his favor, as his poker face is what allows him to play the role he's dealt.

KADO: The Right Answer

KADO is worth a watch for a peaceful first contact situation from a non-American perspective. For that, I'd recommend it. The alien is not as alien as he could be, but he comes in peace offering humanity wonders with no apparent strings attached. He compares it to giving food to a hungry person. If he has more than he can use, why wouldn't he give it away? KADO starts with excellent questions like those and I like that our viewpoint characters are mostly negotiators, but the series doesn't come together in the end and the climax is rather nonsensical, which is a shame since the premise was so good.

Classroom of the Elite

I watched Classroom of the Elite during a slow season when I otherwise would probably have skipped it. Kiyotaka appears to be nobody important, the sort of guy who fades into the background, but he's not, and the school he goes to isn't either. Rather it's a merciless competition between classrooms just for students to stay enrolled, but the graduates are supposedly set for life. There's some really good scheming sometimes, but as a whole there are better shows.

Chronos Ruler

This was also a slow season watch about an organization with powers to fight time eating monsters. If you liked D.Gray-man and need something to hold you over, it's worth a look because it wears its inspiration on its sleeve, but every time it comes up with some potentially devastating character development it manages to shoot itself in the foot with an easy solution. And that's a shame because it has some really good ideas that just don't get the showcase they deserve.

Fate/Zero

Fate/Zero was a retro-watch for me. It came out in 2011-2012 and is generally regarded as one of the best of the Fate series. I agree with that, but I didn't enjoy it as much as I'd been led to believe. Being a prequel, no prior knowledge of the Fate series is needed and in fact, people even suggest watching it before the ones later in the timeline in order to fully appreciate them. It has some really good modern day mage warring going on, but if you're a female viewer you're probably going to notice that the show tends to be excessively cruel to its women and girls, particularly as motivation for its men.

Pumpkin Scissors

This was another retro-watch from 2006-2007, and unlike Fate/Zero it really shows its age in the pacing and how it uses filler episodes. I think this could have been a lot better series since it covers the recovery effort after a war and the effects on the soldiers who served in it, but it has a lot of silliness and fluff. While I won't say there's no place for such things, I'm disappointed that we didn't get further into the conspiracy plot that's hinted at the end of the series and we never really learn the full history of the Invisible Nine and what happened to them (since survivors of those units seem few and far between).

Recovery of an MMO Junkie *

MMO Junkie is a delightful rom-com between a couple of gamer nerds that happens both in and out of game. The writers really know how online gaming works, so there are visual gags involving crafting, going afk, and so on, making the show feel like it could really be about the people the audience hangs out with online. The romance itself is a little contrived in that Moriko and Yuuta happen live so close together that they can have a meet cute outside of game, but aside from that it's a lot fun.

Juni Taisen: Zodiac War

Juni Taisen is a battle royale between twelve combatants themed after the Chinese zodiac who, for the most part, have super powers. It's fairly bloody and violent, though the worst parts are censored. Each episode typically covers a different character's personal history and reveals why they entered the tournament. Ideally because the POV keeps changing, preventing the development of a main protagonist, the winner should be a surprise, but it's fairly guessable if you know the zodiac, which most of the original Japanese audience will. It's not a bad watch as some of the fights get creative, but it's definitely about the journey more than the ending.

Code:Realize ~Guardian of Rebirth~

This was not as good an adaptation as I'd hoped, since Code:Realize was one of my favorite games in 2016. The adaptation works as its own stand alone, the plot is coherent and understandable, but it lost a lot of its heart along the way. Rather than shoot for a more general audience, the studio opted for a more conventional otome approach. There were some smart changes made to condense and adapt Lupin's route to the anime, and the show doesn't shy away from protagonist Cardia's ability to melt anything she touches, but a lot of the banter was removed so we get less of a feel for the characters. Cardia is also more passive than she is in the game, which is a shame since a lot of fans liked her specifically because she was more proactive than most otome heroines.

Monday, January 15, 2018

My Favorite Games of 2017

My gaming backlog is something impressive, as I typically buy a few more than I can play in any given year, and then those extras build up. The result is that I rarely play any game in its year of release unless it's a part of a favorite series, and even then, depending on how busy I am, a much anticipated game might get postponed.

But I'm not adverse to playing older games. As long as the gameplay is still there I generally don't care. Maybe that's the same for you?

These are the nine games I liked enough to finish for the first time in 2017, in the order I finished them. (I think there could have been more, but I blame Persona 5 for being so long.) As I did with my book roundup, the three games I tagged with an asterisk (*) were my favorites of the year and definitely worth playing.

Psycho-Pass: Mandatory Happiness * (PS Vita and Steam)

Fans of the anime series will get the most out of this dystopian cyberpunk visual novel. The player takes the role of one of two investigators tracking down a criminal that cannot be brought to justice in the way the system is intended to work. There are multiple endings based on the choices made, and a walkthrough will probably be needed to see them all. It's easily the best spin-off of the original (and better than the sequel anime) because it manages to be its own thing while playing within the rules of the first series, and it's good. It's not for series newcomers though. Even with a glossary it tends to assume players know the basics.

Attack on Titan (PS4, XB1, and Steam)

Having come out between the first and second season of the anime, it does a good job of extrapolating the story into three playable chapters; the battle for Trost, the Survey Corps expedition prior to being recalled, and the Female Titan arc. There is also an unlockable fourth chapter that vaguely covers the first half of season 2, but with minimal spoilers and a unique ending, so deaths and major plot revelations are withheld. The game does a remarkably good job of conveying the feel of using maneuvering gear and slaying titans is incredibly satisfying. One of the best media-based games I've ever played and even klutzes like me can beat it on Easy. The developers loved the property and it shows.

The Sims 2: Ultimate Collection (PC)

I'd forgotten that I downloaded this a while ago as part of a promotion on Origin. It's every expansion of the Sims 2 plus the base game, and despite the years since its original release, it's still really good and runs just fine even on a new computer with Windows 10. I'd played the base game years ago and this was a welcome trip down memory lane with some new content that I'd never played before (new jobs, university, vacations, oh my!). As always, the fun part for me is making a bunch of Sims based on characters I know (my characters, other people's characters) and seeing how they interact in the sandbox. One of the most hilarious things was Attack on Titan's Erwin Smith deciding that his life's dream was to become a World Class Ballet Dancer.

80 Days (Steam, iOS, and Android)

This came to me through a friend's recommendation. It's not something anyone's likely to play for hours on end, but as an afternoon time-waster it's pleasant enough. You play as Passepartout, the valet to Phineas Fogg from the Jules Verne novel Around the World in Eighty Days. As such you are constantly put upon to care for your master as all sorts of shenanigans occur on your trip around the globe. The player gets to pick the route, and there are some randomized events, so there is some replay value, but I found that two was enough to figure out how to succeed in less than 80 days. I ended up playing a third time though just because I wanted to check out how the same-sex romance was written versus the straight one. It's a fun, casual friendly game, but not something most players are likely to spend more than 4-5 hours on.

Persona 5 * (PS4 and PS3)

Persona 5 was my most anticipated game of the year. I've bought all the Persona games since the first installment (I'm old school) and placed my pre-order for the deluxe edition with all the trimmings. I was not disappointed as it continues the contemporary fantasy setting with a fresh layer of panache as the protagonists are now all phantom thieves. I've never seen heists integrated so well in a video game before, let alone an RPG, and the Persona-specific game systems involving the social aspects of getting through a year of high school are as good as ever. While I'm not sure if it will hold up against Persona 3 and 4 once I have more time and distance from it, at least at the moment it was one of the best games I played this year. If there's a fault I'd give it though, it's that it's extremely long, probably too long, even allowing for the fact the game has an in-game summary so you can catch up if you've been away for a while.

Collar x Malice (PS Vita)

Collar x Malice was my second most anticipated game of the year. It was giving me Zero Escape vibes (though sadly not the Zero Escape puzzles) with a female protagonist. Though this is technically an otome, it's not all fluff. Officer Ichika Hoshino spends as much time chasing a group of vigilante terrorists as she does potentially romancing various officers and ex-cops who are on the same case. It didn't reach the height that Code:Realize did for me, but the storytelling is more even between routes. Yanagi is route locked behind everyone else unfortunately, since his is the "real" route, which I wish Otomate would stop doing.

Plants vs Zombies: Game of the Year Edition (PC)

This came to me via one of the periodic freebies on Origin. I'd never played the original past the demo, but this landed in my lap at a time when I really wanted a puzzle game and it scratched the right itch. Being a puzzle game featuring cartoon zombies it's aged pretty well, though I was surprised when it forced my monitor down to a lower resolution. I didn't think it was that old. It's not too difficult by puzzle game standards and the game makes a point to introduce a new complication every few levels to keep things fresh. I think I only lost once, and that's because I was careless rather than being overwhelmed. I don't think I would have bought this normally though.

Dungeon Fighter Online * (PC)

This is a quirky online RPG that is like Diablo had a lovechild with your favorite side scrolling beat-'em-up game. It's 2D like Final Fight or Dungeons & Dragons: Shadow over Mystara, but it's an RPG designed for small parties or solo players. You can perform attacks fighting game style, but there are also equipment drops, skill trees, dungeons, pets, guilds, etc. It's free to play, and amazingly, you can get through the entire leveling experience without spending a cent, and more importantly, without seeing microtransaction ads thrown at you every other screen. The Korean to English translation is a bit janky in places, but if you like retro games, and have a fondness for old school JRPG music, this an excellent bet.

Digimon Story Cyber Sleuth

I actually started this last year, but got derailed about a third of the way through due to This War of Mine. This is probably the closest thing to having a playable Digimon anime series. The player-named protagonist has an online encounter with a mysterious entity that leaves her (or him, I played as a girl) in a weird half-digital body while her real one is comatose. As a result she can jump in and out of the computer networks Tron-style. The story moves at a relaxed pace sometimes, but really captures the feel of the anime. Together with her human friends and their combined Digimon companions they try to solve the mystery behind the origin of the Eaters, why people are being found comatose from EDEN syndrome, and what the corporation Kamishiro Enterprises has to do with all of this.

Monday, January 8, 2018

"Kite Dancer" Is Out In Galaxy's Edge

My latest short story "Kite Dancer" is now out in the January 2018 issue of Galaxy's Edge. You might have already heard if you follow me on Twitter or Facebook.

This is an alternate World War I with steampunk and wind magic, where China joins the Central Powers (which they did not do in real life). The protagonist Ke-feng used to be a kite dancer who commanded the wind for performances, but that was ruined when the Japanese invaded Tsingtau (which did happen in real life). Left with few options, she has signed up for the military in hopes of freeing her city, but the military has other plans for her.

"Kite Dancer" will be free to read until the end of February. It can also be purchased at any time as a digital or physical copy.

Monday, January 1, 2018

My Favorite Books of 2017

Happy New Year, everyone! It's time to start my 2017 entertainment round-ups, kicking off with the books I read last year.

For a while I was afraid that 2017 would be the year of sequels for me, as I continued reading older series that I'd already started, but I did get a number of stand alones novels in there and even started a new series.

That said, these are the twelve books I enjoyed enough to finish, and in the order I finished them. Maybe you'll want to check them out too. My top three picks of the year are marked with an asterisk (*), though there is a cheater in there since I also included an inseparable pair that cannot be read independently of each other.

Return of Souls by Andy Remic

This is a sequel to the A Song for No Man's Land dark fantasy WWI novella that I read last year. It is totally a middle installment, ending on a cliffhanger, and definitely a lot weirder as most of the story now takes place in the alternate world realm where all the monsters comes from. I wanted to see the skogsra from the end of the first book, but she doesn't turn up in this one.

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

I've heard that this one of the best modern Lovecraftian takes in recent years and it is. It's a retelling of "The Horror at Red Hook," but a version Lovecraft himself never could have written about an African American hustler in 1920s Harlem who crosses paths with all the eldritch weirdness that Lovecraft is known for. The work is really good at capturing what it must have been like as a second class citizen both from the perspective of the titular Black Tom and from the POV of the white detective Malone (Lovecraft's original protagonist) who doesn't really hate New York's racial minorities but accepts their lower status for what it is.

The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo *

The daughter of a failing merchant house is being pressured into a ghost marriage with the deceased son of the rich man her father owes money to, but unsurprisingly she's not interested. It doesn't helping that the ghost of the dead son is haunting her dreams, courting her like the worst of "nice guy" stalkers. He also might have been murdered. The story takes place in late 1800s Malaysia in the Chinese expat community and contains a smorgasbord of southern Chinese culture, particularly in regards to customs involving the dead. I consider it a huge plus that the author went with older, pre-pinyin spellings of names so that the regionalism of the different dialects comes through.

Spice and Wolf Vol 11: Side Colors II by Isuna Hasekura

Vol 11 is another short story volume containing two "lost" moments that take place early in Lawrence and Holo's journey and a novella about the side character Eve Bolan. "The Black Wolf's Cradle" is the clear winner of the three, as it follows the disenfranchised noblewoman Fleur and her transformation into the cunning merchant Eve. Fleur's naivete is heartbreaking, but her resolve is just as unyielding, making her a fantastic protagonist. And that ending! Wow, I did not expect it. It's very dark for this series, but perfectly in line for who Fleur becomes. Though I read Spice and Wolf for the fluff, it's nice to see Hasekura is capable of moving beyond it.

Iron Cast by Destiny Soria

Iron Cast was a whim purchase of mine and honestly I was afraid I would regret it, but I didn't! All I had to go on was one good review, but given the setup with a duo of young women doing skullduggery in the year 1919 through the use of their special powers, I was a easy fish to reel in. And it works! This story is really more YA given the ages of the characters and the themes, though it's told in third person which isn't de rigueur at the moment. The story is a little slow to get going, but Corinne and Ava are lovely and spirited protagonists, and all the building in the first half is rewarded by the second.

The Rogue Retrieval by Dan Koboldt

I volunteered to review this for the author so I persisted when I might not have otherwise, and it was a good thing since I was enjoying myself by the end. It's about a stage magician from Las Vegas who is pressed into a job where he needs to go to a medieval fantasy world and help a powerful corporation extract a researcher who has gone rogue. (Alas, the rogue retrieval does not involve capturing thieves.)

Baccano! Vol 2: 1931 The Grand Punk Railroad: Local by Ryohgo Narita *

Baccano continues to be a hot mess in the most entertaining fashion. Most of the cast is different from the last book, but Narita's affection for taking a multitude of colorful characters, trapping them in the same location, and then seeing how it all plays out is done to great effect. This time it's on a cross country train ride with cultists, mobsters, bootleggers, and of course Isaac and Maria, where everybody except the latter two has a different crime job in mind, all of it involving shenanigans on the train. The only flaw really is that it's a two-parter, but with good reason, as I'll get to in a moment.

Baccano! Vol 3: 1931 The Grand Punk Railroad: Express by Ryohgo Narita *

I read this immediately after Vol 2 because they're a duology within the greater series, but it's not in the conventional sense. The Local and Express parts of 1931 The Grand Punk Railroad cover approximately the same span of time, but are told from two different sets of POV characters. Local gives us what is happening on the surface and Express gives us the POV characters with something to hide. It answers the remaining mysteries of the previous book, including the truth about the Rail Tracer. One is not complete without the other, and for that reason I'm including the two volumes as a pair in my Top 3 of the year.

Attack on Titan: The Harsh Mistress of the City - Part 1 by Ryo Kawakami

I rarely go into a series so much that I follow spin-offs written by other people, but Attack on Titan is one of my favorite series and I picked up Harsh Mistress of the City mostly because it sounds like something I would like to have written had I the opportunity. Taking place immediately after the fall of Wall Maria (the first two episodes of the anime), we follow a young soldier, Rita Iglehaut, as her district is cut off from the rest of civilization by the man-eating Titans. Due to the loss of nearly all the Garrison soldiers, Rita becomes the highest ranking soldier left alive, and her childhood friend Mathias Kramer, who escaped the district, is now coming back to find her.

Attack on Titan: The Harsh Mistress of the City - Part 2 by Ryo Kawakami

After a six month time skip and a heck of a way to end the first volume, things have gone from bad to worse. As far as spin-offs go, if you like those that stick to canon and feel like they really could have happened in the main storyline, this is an excellent pick. Unfortunately the ending is a bit of a deus ex machina and the ultimate fates of our protagonists are left unknown. Kawakami does put his characters through some gut-punch worthy moments, but he's not as clever at getting them out of it.

The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson *

I came into this one with high expectations, and they were mostly met. Mind, it's not that it wasn't good, but I'd expected more economics and less time marching with an army that belonged to neither Baru's people nor their conquerors. Fortunately, there's a reason for all that, and the writing is good enough that I liked following Baru and the scheming of the various dukes of Ardwynn. Baru is a fantastic protagonist, who is willing to put absolutely everything (love, loyalty, life) through the meat grinder if necessary to save her people. My primary disappointment was finding out this book is the first in a series and the second isn't out yet.

Writers of the Future Volume 33 (anthology)

I almost always read the latest of these, since I know so many of the writers who end up in them. There's a wide variety so subgenres can jump drastically from story to story. This approach might not work for someone looking for a theme, but there's more than likely something that appeals. My favorite this year is "The Fox, the Wolf, and the Dove" by Ville Meriläinen, for leaving me sobbing at the end.