Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Toren Review

Toren is a game that someone like me probably should love. An aging manchild reading crusty old fantasy and sci-fi novels bought at a charity shop should be lapping this kind of shit up. But the problem is, as many wannabe creative types learn to their horror, what seems like a great idea on paper may have great difficulty translating to something that actually works in reality. This is the problem with Toren, as agonising to say that as it is, a strong concept and story can only carry you so far, and fun gameplay and smart level are needed to see you through.

Toren is the tale of a young girl destined to restore the moon to the sky, defeat an evil world rending dragon and save a doomed world, by scaling a babel-esque sky tower. That premise alone is enough to get the inner geek all worked up. But sadly some very generic puzzles and uninspired level design undermine it. And that's to say nothing of the camera that seems determined to sporadically change angles and jumping physics that catch you on minute bits of scenery. Being chased by the aforementioned dragon is presumably supposed to be terrifying, but it ends up being a frustrating bore as you trial and error your way from cover to cover trying to avoid his petrifying breath. Your character sometimes just refuses to snap to cover which not only frustrates, but ruins the etherial atmosphere the game tries to create.

But oh my, what an atmosphere. While the graphics certainly won't test most medium range graphics cards, the aesthetics and style of the visuals are just stunning and clearly come from some very accomplished concept art. The music blends in perfectly with the solitary and melancholy atmosphere of the girl's somber journey, and the story is magnificently told. This makes the immersion breaking moments even more jarring, and one is forced to question, if so much time was put into the story and setting, why wasn't at least as much time spent making the gameplay and puzzles interesting and fun, rather than dull puzzles that we've seen a hundred times before and some janky platforming? This wouldn't have been a tall order considering the game's rather brief duration.

It's all rather a shame, and as much as I would like to recommend Toren, I must say with a heavy heart it's just not a very fun game to play. Charm, story and strong character design can only see you so far, and if your fundamentals are lacking, your game is going to suffer. There is a great deal of potential here however, and I am very interested in what the developer plans to do next.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

10 Essential Proto Metal albums

Music is a strange beast. And in no time was it stranger, and in more of a state of change and transition, than in the late 60's and early 70s'. The 60's counterculture gave rise to ever weirder and more wonderful experimental types of music. Jazz continued to evolve and confound expectations. Early experiments in electronic music went from experiments in sound to something that was actually listenable. Progressive rock began to rear it's ugly head. And towards the mid 70's, the dread specter of Punk hung over the bloated and commercialized rock elite. 

Out of this primordial soup, to which just about every modern type of music can trace it's beginnings, came the first hints of something strange, something powerful and primal, that would change the lives of hundreds of music fans. It had its genesis with the raw power of Hendrix, and after heading the opening chords of Purple Haze, the world would never be the same. Something was there, something primal, something brutal. The legend goes that someone who heard Hendrix play described it as "like heavy metal falling from the sky". That story has long since passed into music myth and there is no way to know if it is true. But what is undeniable that Hendrix was one of the more well known progenitors of a style of rock that would later evolve into Heavy Metal.

Metal itself has evolved and mutated countless times, and now has more sub genres than you can shake a whammy bar at. And it has largely moved away from the Blues of Hendrix into a more Classical or Punk influenced style. But still, the roots run deep, and I'm going to explore some of those roots here with some of the albums which show the first beginnings of that infamous, loved and reviled style of music known as Heavy Metal.

Of course, anyone knows that bands such as Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin and the like pioneered the beginnings of the genre, but this article is dedicated to the less well known albums that pioneered the genre. Anyone can pick up a copy of Machine Head and listen to it, but there are other proto-metal albums that aren't as well know, but just as much worth your time. These are in no particular order and chosen according to my own personal preference.

MC5 - Kick Out the Jams (1969)

Everything about this album just exudes power, from the rallying cry of "Kick out the jams motherfucker!!" to the relentless buzz saw guitar. With song titles like "Ramblin Rose" and "I want you right now", you might mistake this album for another collection of hippy love songs. But this is as raw and as unpsychadelic as the 60s gets, with bite, aggression, and a healthy disregard for authority, law, and anything else that might get in the way of having a good fucking time. 

MC5 were a band out of their time, and their gigs are legendary for their chaos, drugs, sex, and lawlessness. And knowing full well that MC5 where at their chaotic best when playing for an live audience, the decision was made that their first album should be a live album. They weren't wrong. Punk easily owes as much to this album as Metal, with Rob Tyner's highly inflammatory rhetoric (remember, it was the 60's) and declarations that "this is the high society man!" A high energy classic that still sounds arresting and powerful to this day.

Uriah Heep - Salisbury (1970)

You only have to listen to the opening riff of "Bird of Prey" to know you are in the prescience of some raw heavy rock power here. A looming, ominous opener that grabs you by the scruff and forces you to pay attention. The next few tracks wind down the tempo a little, but the doomy "Time to Love" and haunting "High Priestess" keep things interesting until the barnstorming sixteen minute closer "Salisbury", which features a full choir and 24 peice orchestra and builds up into a full on sonic orgasm. It may have its head in the prog rock zone, but its heart is pure metal.

High Tide - Sea Shanties (1969)

It's hard to believe this album came out of the tail end of the sixties considering the deafening fuzz of the distortion and the peircing squeal of the electric violin that permeates this record. Far from a gimmick record, this is proto metal but with a heavy dose of violin, which makes me wonder why more folk-metal band's don't incorporate this kind of thing. As with many proto-metal it's sound is squarely rooted in blues, but where Sabbath lumbered and sludged their way through an album, High Tide roll and crash like a great tidal wave, lumbering and broiling through 6 folk tinged heavy blues songs. Unfortunately High Tide received little attention at the time, which is why it's all the more rewarding to find this buried treasure.

Atomic Rooster - Death Walks Behind You (1970)

Heavy Prog Rockers Atomic Rooster weren't messing around with this offering. The foreboding title track does it's best to create an atmosphere of dread and imminent disaster, and the rest of the album isn't short on great riffs and atmosphere. Although the heat comes off on some of the more quizzical and melancholy prog tracks and the hammond organ is doing quite whatever the fuck it wants (especially on the ending track Gershatzer, where every instrument gets it's own hugely self indulgent solo) there is no shortage of great solos and fucking great riffs to bang your head to here. Atomic Rooster were one of the early metal pioneers, and it shows.

Black Widow - Sacrifice (1970)

Though the name is pretty lame, it's not really "heavy" at all, and the cover looks like two humping goblins being harassed by two giant penises, this one gets a free pass because the lyrics are just pure fucking satanism. The stonking opening track, "In Ancient Days" sounds like a sermon by Alistair Crowley himself, retelling how he summoned demons to smite his foes. Though it's musically more like "The Doors" than anything related to metal, the subject matter is dark. And unlike Sabbath, who squarely portrayed Satan as someone to be feared, Black Widow are totally on board with our dark lord and master and all the gnarly shit he do. They even go so far as to include a song inviting the listener to "Come To the Sabbat" and incorporated mock sacrifices into their stage shows. Notable as the first true satanic record committed to vinyl.

Stackwaddy - Bugger Off! (1972)

Stackwaddy is a name that, as John Peel's wife pointed out in his awesome autobiography, even now will have certain people hyperventilating and reaching for the anti-panic pills. Stackwaddy are a dirty blues band that are notorious for their sweary live performances, screamy vocals and down low dirty style of playing. Though they play the blues their attitude is much more like a metal or punk group. And their antics, including pissing on the audience before an opening number, and shoving a promoter out of their speeding van on the M6, are enough to warrant their position here. As for the album, its deep and dirty southern blues, played with oodles of distortion. Stoner metal fans in particular will appreciate the hypnotic riffs and groovy bass lines.

Lucifer's Friend - Lucifer's Friend (1970)

Okay, first off, what the hell is up with that cover? Why is a bald midget and a giant standing next to some graffiti and blood which is clearly drawn on to the cover? . Perhaps it's a primitive effort to shock, or one up contemporaries such as Black Sabbath. Their name is also probably meant to grab attention, since their lyrics have pretty much nothing to do with Satan. Still, this is riff-tastic early heavy rock at it's finest and will have you nodding your head without even realizing it. 

German rockers that clearly listened to way too much Deep Purple, their  eponymous album opens with the stonking rocker "ride the sky", ushered in by screaming trumpets and a chugging galloping riff. The remainder of the album is very respectable heavy rock too, with "Toxic Shadows" and "In the Time of Job When Mammon Was a Yippie" (try saying that after a few pints) being particular highlights. Still not sure about that cover though.

Blue Cheer - Vincebus Eruptum (1968)

Blue Cheer are a psychedelic blues band that mostly played covers. One of which is "Summertime Blues", which at the time must have sounded like somebody smashing a amplifier shop with a bulldozer made of pure distortion. The sound of it is pretty powerful even today and it's no surprise that it's often cited as being one of the first examples of heavy metal, not to mention influencing punk, stoner rock, doom, and grunge. Named after a brand of laundry detergent which in turn had a type of LSD named after it, it sums up everything "heavy" about the 60s psychadelic movement, without any of the airy fairy, flower power, "we are all effing stardust" pretensions.

Budgie - Never Turn Your Back on a Friend (1973)

Who would have thought that the quaint Welsh valleys could produce such a din? These guys may have started the trend of having awesome artists draw your album covers (Rodger Dean, also responsible for many Yes covers) and also the trend of having singers that is hard to tell if they are male or female. Rocking with pure energy and a whole lot of heart too, Budgie are a pleasure to listen to from start to finish. One of the very heaviest of their day and a significant influence on the New Wave of British Heavy Metal.

Sir Lord Baltimore - Kingdom Come (1970)

The progenitors of stoner rock? One of the first printed uses of the term "heavy metal" to describe a musical genre? Rockers from Broklyn who imploded before reaching true success due to mismanagement and drug abuse? Sir Lord Baltimore are all of these. They also have an awesomely baffling name. In their day they supported the mighty Sabbath on their paranoid tour, which makes their failure to have made an impact and be recognized as rock gods in their own rights all more the tragic. The Ghostly ship of bones and skulls that adorns the cover is a fitting tone-setter for a raw and furious masterpiece, whose influence can be felt all the way to Metallica and Dio and beyond. Stoner doom fans will love the riff tastic "Master Heartache", where "Hard Rain Fallin" will excite even the most discriminating speed freaks. This is a lost classic that belongs in the collection of every fan of classic rock, metal, and music in general. Don't believe me though. Go listen to it. Right now. 

Monday, 11 May 2015

Incineration Festival 2015

Writing a gig review can be tricky, especially if, like me, you tend to consume lots of "liquid refreshment" during these events. While alcohol undoubtedly has the effect of enhancing the experience of live music, it also has the effect of both blurring sound judgement and clouding the memory. Also, putting on the "music journalist" hat does in some ways mean that you will be studying and analyzing the music for things to say, rather than simply enjoying it on a visceral and instinctive level. Nonetheless, and despite the fact that I consumed the weight of a small child in beverages and some of the later parts of the festival have blurred into one long fog of blast beats and overpriced lager, I shall be attempting some manner of review of Incineration festival.

I should preface this by saying that I wound my way around the various venues according to whim and how drunk I was at the time. The bands I saw at the festival were based on nothing except my own personal preference, and in some cases the recommendation of friends. I am in no way shape or form a music journalist, and make absolutely no pretenses towards being objective about anything!

Having arrived at the festival and been forced to stand in an enormous (and manditory) que for wristbands which stretched round the block, I was gasping for a beer. I swiftly infiltrated the Electric Ballroom for a drink, which was even more extortionately priced than I remember. As a result, I resolved to do as much drinking as possible outside the venue. Cue Aura Noir, to take the stage, who floored the audience with their relentless mix of thrash and black metal. In spite of their puzzlingly early slot in the timetable and relatively short set, they wasted no time in laying down some agressive, relentless, and yet surprisingly catchy riffs one after another. These were complemented by excellent vocals from Apollyon and Agressor, the latter particularly standing out, with a voice so raspy it sounds like a thousand fag choked ashtrays amplified through an angry wasps nest.

After Aura Noir blasted through their set, there was just about time to sneak off for a crafty beer before Finns Oranssi Pazuzu entered the fray with their own particular brand of Black Metal. Taking the trance like and ambient elements of Black Metal and combining them with progressive and psychedelic music, they captivated the audience with an atmospheric set, which sounded like the bastard offspring of Hawkwind and Dartkthrone. Their use of synthesizers was as accomplished as it is unusual in metal, and Oranssi Pazuzu were definitely among the standout bands of the festival.

Que a quick hop over to the Underworld to see Prostitute Disfugurement, who, If i'm totally honest, I went to see mostly based on their hilarious name. They nonetheless delivered an accomplished, if fairly standard death metal set, gradually gaining in strength and brutality as the set went on. Though I've never been a huge fan of the "cookie monster" style of vocal, they were good enough to stick around for an entire set- sticking around for one more song quickly turned into another, then another, until suddenly the whole thing was finished and I wondered where the time went.

After another refreshment break and meeting up with some friends down by the lock it was back to the Underworld to check out Centurion, who in spite of the criminally small number of people who turned out to see them, delivered and electric and energetic performance, with some very memorable and accomplished solos and infectious bouncy riffs which had me banging my head so hard that I almost fell on my arse several times.

Cue a gap in the bands I was interested in seeing, which was duly used to grab some unhealthy but rejuvenating fast food from the market. On the way we passed a scene of devastation... a huge section of the Camden Market flattened and demolished, including my favorite place to buy shitty Chinese food! I suppose all this is in aid of so-called "regeneration." Whatever they build there instead, it had better be fucking awesome. Like a brothel, pub, and video arcade rolled into one.

After choking down some delicious MSG laden food and sinking some more tins of the good stuff, we made our way to see Impaled Nazarine. If I had to give their music a label it would be "war metal." They definitely play Black Metal, but they play it fast, and with an aggression that is more befiting of a grindcore band. With a harsh and abrasive sound, it is the sort of music one might want to play to an army of barbarians in order to whip them up into a frenzy of bloodlust before unleashing them on an unsuspecting village to rape and pillage.

Necrophobic were up next, and being a legendary oldschool death metal band I was rather hoping they would play a lot of material off their first album. This was made even more promising since they had reunited with original vocalist Anders Strokirk. Though most of the set comprised of newer material they nonetheless delivered a stellar set of evil sounding Death Metal. Anders himself delivered threatening and growling vocals, grimacing and gurning his way around the stage like a man whose teeth were attempting to escape his skull. They finished with two legendary songs from their debut album which brought the set to a stunning close. 

In spite of the weight of beer now pressing down on my brain, I managed to work my way back across the street to catch shoegazing post-metallers Alcest. After hours of Death and Black Metal, it made a refreshing change to hear something a bit more mellow. Ethereal and subtle and weaving a dream like atmosphere, Alcest are a little unusual in the often super macho, testosterone fueled world of heavy metal. Their set was pretty captivating, their music seems to evoke a kind of vague nostalgic feeling that's hard to pin down into words. Nonetheless it was a fantastic and oddly fitting end to a day of carnage and heavy drinking. Not that the drinking ended there of course...

Aura Noir

Oranssi Pazuzu

Prostitute Disfigurement


Impaled Nazarine



Wednesday, 3 December 2014

10 Essential Prog Rock Albums

Progressive Rock is a genre that has got a bad rep over the years, and it's not hard to see why. Overblown and overlong, the worst prog rock resides at the absolute bottom of the bad music barrel, sitting alongside hotel lobby muzak as some of the most excruciatingly painful sounds ever to be commited to vinyl. However when prog is done right, it can be some of the best, most experimental and adventurous music out there. It's a diverse genre whose one common feature is the desire to push boundaries and create something new, different and thought provoking. Here (in no particular order) are some of the best examples of what this genre has to offer, at least in my own opinion.

1. Emerson, Lake and Palmer - Tarkus

A band once described by John Peel as "A complete waste of time, talent and electricity", Emerson, Lake and Palmer (or ELP as they are often known) came to represent all of the worst excesses of Progressive rock. Self indulgent compositions, pretentious lyrics, grotesquely bloated stage productions, and egos so huge that they needed a truck each just to transport them from one venue to another. But before ELP dissipated into the deepest recesses of self indulgence and vanity, it can't be denied that they made some bloody good records, and this is the final installment before they disappeared over the precipice of all that is pure progressive wank. Guitars wail, Hammond organs blare, synthesizers scream like air raid sirens, and this album just rocks. The first 20 minute self titled song is clearly the highlight, after which the album swings between swaggering blues rock, twee pop passages and jazzy intervals.  It may be pure style over substance, but by God what style. TARKUS!!!

See also; Emerson, Lake and Palmer - S/T

2.Rush - 2112

In the year 1976, Canuck Led Zeppelin wannabes Rush decided to trade in their perms and flares for some synthesizers and pulp sci-fi novels. The result is a barnstorming sci-fi concept album that details the story of a dystopian society threatened by the rediscovery of the power of music. Because as we all know, "the man" can't stand against the power of rock and roll. Like, totally man! The resulting Led Zep influence meeting up with sci-fi concepts leads to a hard-rock prog album that melds heavy riffing with some truly inspirational lyrics. Songs that manage to make monks tending great supercomputers on a isolated asteroid sound both grand and sinister demand the attention of even the most jaded sci fi fans. As with the previous entry the real star of the show is the epic opening track, and the rest is fairly standard rock-fare.

See also- Everything rush did before 1982.

3. Yes - Fragile

Like messrs Emmerson, Lake and Palmer, Yes also unfortunately came to represent some of the worst aspects of prog rock, including aimless, meandering and patience testing tripe. But before those dark times when unpretentious punk put a much needed shotgun shell into the back Old Yellers drooling rabid head, there was Roundabout. Long distance Runaround. South side of the sky. John Anderson's vocals are wonderfully expressive and heartfelt, and the whole thing feels incredibly earnest and sincere, worlds away from the pretentiousness that prog's critics often level at such bands. A stunning effort in terms of musical composition and pure feeling, Yes have an endearing optimism and naivete that only rarely gives way to musical indulgence. A classic.

See Also; Yes, The Yes Album

4. Jethro Tull - Thick as a Brick

Ian Anderson can play a mean flute. Apparently he picked up the instrument after seeing Eric Clapton play the guitar, and decided he couldn't compete. And it's just as well he did, because it gave Jethro Tull a unique sound which is at its most refined here, and Ian Anderson's acerbic wit is especially sharp on Thick as a Brick. Essentially a parody of concept albums, the lyrics are supposedly taken from an epic poem written by an 8 year old child prodigy named Gerald Bostock. Of course Bostock was a character creation of flutist and songwriter Anderson. But that didn't prevent him from giving the fictional Bostock joint songwriting credit on the album, a prank which still fools unsuspecting music fans to this day. Thick as a Brick is complex, compelling, funny, and with a sense of irony that often is missing from today's music.

See Also- Aqualung

Van Der Graaf Generator - The Least We Can Do Is Wave to Each Other

Named after the invention of scientist Robert J. Van de Graaff, and despite getting his name wrong these Mancunian rockers definitely live up to the name.  Angry sounding Saxophones and dreamy synths abound here. Resolutely uncompromising in their music, VDGG are one of the more overlooked bands of the genre, possibly because the hippy dippy types loathed their extreme mood swings between calmness and savageness. Unlike the gentler stylings of other prog contemporaries, VDGG swing violently between wistful melancholy to violent aggression. Only King Crimson could turn on a sixpence with greater speed, and this violence is reflected in some of the darker themes, such as the Spanish inquisition. This pessimism is tempered by a kind of stoic good naturedness. As the title quote says, "We're all awash in a sea of blood, and the least we can do is wave to each other."

See Also; Pawn Hearts, Godbluff

6. Yonin Bayashi - Isshoku Sokuhatsu

Japanese musicians living in a strange hippie commune, Yonin Bayashi were reluctant to release music at all, presumably content to simply drink tea and play to their own cadre of counter culture dropouts. Thank your stars that they did, because Isshoku Sokuhatsu is a masterpiece. Heavily influenced by Pink Floyd and the psychedelic rock of the day, Yonin Bayashi took those influences and did what the Japanese do best- combine them with an almost unhealthy level of virtuosity to produce a record that is absolutely stunning. Unknown by most prog rock fans, this album is a hidden treasure from the east that shines as brightly as any well known classic.

See Also; Osamu Kitajima - Benzaiten

7. Hawkwind - Space Ritual

Hawkwind are more of a phenomenon than a true band. A force of nature, coming out of a loose affiliation of 60's counter culture musicians and artists to blare stoner riffs and synth wails at you while reciting weird spoken word poetry, only for you to realize that the walls are melting and you've been spiked with LSD. They mutated time and time again into many different forms, however this album represents Hawkwind's heyday as space rock legends. Although they produced many fantastic albums, the true Hawkwind experience was in the frenetic energy of their live performances, and no album captures that better than Space Ritual. Lemmy is here with his chugging basslines, launching spaceship Hawkwind into orbit, so they can spin tales of psychic warfare, sonic attacks and the infinite blackness of the void.

See also; X in Search of Space, Doremi Fasol Latido, Warrior On The Edge Of Time

8. Popol Vuh - Hosianna Mantra

Popul Vuh's greatest claim to fame is that composed the sountrack to Werner Herzog's film, "Aguirre, The Wrath Of God", but that haunting and austere soundtrack is not as consistent and memorable as Hosianna Mantra. Not rightly a "rock" album at all, but combining progressive sounds with elements of world music and classical composition. As the name suggests is heavily influenced by spiritual and religious music, but it owes as much to Tibetan and Indian music as it does to Gregorian chants and church hymns. Magical music to cheer even the darkest of moods, even an atheist can't deny the uplifting spiritual quality of these compositions.

9. Pink Floyd - The Dark Side Of The Moon

Okay, we all knew we'd end up here eventually. Scarcely a conversation about progressive rock can finish without at least a mention of the legendary Floyd, standing like a behemoth above all other bands. And of course the album had to be Dark Side. Floyd had many other great albums, but none have the breadth, scope, consistency and bite of Dark Side. Meddle and Wish You Were Here come close, but lack its singular vision. And if anyone tells you The Wall is their greatest, you have my permission to kick them sqarely in the groinal area for being such a conceited wank. Concepts such as the the ever inevitable march towards death, the endless persuit of material wealth, and madness and mental decay are discussed here. Even bringing these subjects up in music will lead some music fans to accuse the songwriter of pretentiousness, but the music so perfectly complements the subject matter that such accusations dissolve away. The weight of the subjects is completely deserved and justified, and this album is one of those rare life affirming musical experiences that comes along so rarely that it should always be cherished and remembered. Overrated? Not on your life.

See Also: Wish You Were Here, Animals, Meddle, Piper At The Gates Of Dawn

10. King Crimson - In The Court Of The Crimson King

Well, now i'm really in trouble. Just how in the hell do I even talk about this album, or the band it came from? Nothing about them is normal. Strange, atonal chords, complex compositions and weird time signatures abound. In The Court Of The Crimson King is strange, savage, dreamlike, but always focused and never dull. Influenced by Jazz, modernist classical music and folk, the breadth of influences is to be expected for a band of this calibur, but the execution is something altogether different from the source and defies rigid categorization. Like the song 20th Century Schizoid Man, it seems to capture the horror of the modern age, swinging from serenity to chaos and violence with shocking speed. To this day, no one sounds like King Crimson, and no one ever will.

See also; In The Wake of Poseidon, Red, Starless and Bible Black, Discipline

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Gone Hollow- Why Dark Souls 2 is a brilliant failure.

"All who would cross the bridge of doom must answer me these questions three."

"Flawed masterpeice" is a term that can be applied to many a cult game. Killer 7, while being a gripping and arresting experience, absolutely failed to be accesable or marketable to anyone but a cult following. And Earthbound while having a archaic and dated battle system, transcended it's limitations with stunning presentation and writing.

The "Souls" series is a different beast, but just as singular in it's vision. An action RPG that is fiendishly difficult, but the difficulty was used as means to pull the player into the world. And that world is one of constant danger, overrun with demons and monsters. The sense of risk and danger serves to make the player feel vulnerable, even insignificant compared to the huge beasts running riot over the land. You feel a connection to the world through this sense of dread and danger, and the sense of accomplishment having overcome these obstacles is all the more palpable because of this. That enormous bloated monstrosity is dead. I killed it. And all I had was a longsword and my wits.

And of course, it has been said numerous times, but it is worth repeating here, that this vision was almost entirely down to Hidetaka Miyazaki, who has been at the helm of the Souls games from the start, but took a less involved roll in Dark Souls 2, in order to focus on a new game called Bloodborne.

The removal of his stewardship has the effect that many feared it would. Dark Souls 2 is in many ways, at least on the surface, a better game than the original Dark Souls. Gameplay mechanics are more self-explanatory and easy to understand. Information is easily available through menus. There is more variety in armor and weapons, and online play is improved significantly. And the game plays like a dream, in many ways the same deliberate, staccato combat that is the trademark of the series. Block. Counter. Dodge. Parry. Riposte.
"Just a flesh wound."

And yet, when you peer a little deeper, you realize all this is just surface. What really makes the Souls series special is much harder to pin down, and near impossible to replicate. Dark Souls is a game made up of moments. Wandering idly up a staircase to be confronted with a firebomb chucking zombie. Blindly walking through an archway to be ambushed by a machete wielding goat demon and his pet dogs. Watching in horror as your character is petrified by a cloud of noxious vapor, and then the redoubled horror at realizing your life bar has been cut in half.

These details require enormous effort and creativity to create. And it's the details which ultimately cause Dark Souls 2's downfall. Anor Londo, while empty in places, feels like a real place. It has beds, sleeping quarters, armories, and trophy halls. Drangleic castle feels like a series of empty hallways. It feels less like a place, and more like a gerbil run for the player to march through. Lordran was a masterclass in world design, with all of it's various locations looping around each other and interlocking like a mad jigsaw puzzle. Drangleic's locations, while atmospheric and well designed, lack the forethought and sense of history of Lordran. They fell less like real places, and more like game worlds. And DS2's reliance on recycling lore and characters from its predecessor means that it ultimately fails to carve out its own identity.

"Sir 'not appearing in this game'"

The creators of Dark Souls 2 clearly had a great deal of respect and admiration for the game that they were trying to recreate, but in trying to do so they failed to understand what it was that made Dark Souls (and Demon's Souls) special. It isn't difficulty just for its own sake. Difficulty was used to draw the player into the experience and give them a sense of progress and growth. Some specific bosses like the Smelter Demon and the infamous final boss are a perfect example of the opposite of this- a boss that constantly drains your health whenever you are near it just serves to frustrate the player and draw the battle out past it's normal length. It's very telling that once the player has learned Smelter's moves down pat, the fight is almost trivial, even with the constant HP drain.

Dark Souls 2 is still a good game. Its combat is fun, it has some great moments, great enemy designs, and some of the locations are just downright gorgeous. And despite a lousy ending, the journey itself is much more compelling then the destination. The downfall of Dark Souls 2 is it is in the company of greatness. Many of it's flaws would be completely overlooked if it did not have to meet such high expectations. While this does make Dark Souls 2 a disappointing game, it does not make it a bad one.

It might be just short of the lofty mantle of "masterpiece", but its greatest flaw is that it shares a name with one of the greatest games of the current generation. It fails at greatness, and manages to be merely, "good", which in itself is more than most other games can even dream of. And it will continue to be played by hundreds of players, many of whom are new to the Souls franchise, long after the rest of us have gone hollow.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Rock is dead...?

Really? I can almost hear you groaning. It seems like we don't go five minutes without some know-it-all music pundit declaring that rock is dead, or metal is dead, electronic music is dead, polka-tulk jazz-fusion is dead, (made that last one up) but anyone who knows a thing or two about music can see that for a long time, there has been a severe lack of invention in mainstream music.

Now, I should preface this by saying that i'm well aware that there is a very healthy music scene in the UK and elsewhere. There are plenty of interesting, innovative and challenging bands out there for those who have the inclination to look a bit deeper than the usual dross that rises to the surface. And also I am well aware that, shock-horror! There was bad music in the past too. Just look at the top singles chart for any random day in from the 60's and 70's and there is more than a fair share of saccharine pop music, novelty acts and uninspired rock ripoffs.

But, and here's the rub my freinds, in those decades, and even as recently as the 90's, there was also a decent amount of experimental and challenging music that managed to infiltrate the mainstream. Jimi Hendrix is a household name these days, but just *imagine* how his music must have sound when he first erupted on the scene! Guitars that wailed and roared like warring dinosaurs threatening to erupt from your very speakers, tearing your quaint and orderly world apart with its wildness and sheer brutality. 

The Mothers of Invention, Captain Beefhart, Velvet Underground , and countless other experimental or avant-garde records were released to mainstream audiences. Not all of them sold very well initially, (Velvet Underground being a key example) but the fact that these records even got released and found some real popular appeal shows a key difference in the attitudes of record companies at the time, a willingness to take risks and challenge audiences. A faith that those audiences would be able to understand and enjoy something different to the music they are accustomed to hearing. These records in turn influenced whole new generations of musicians to write their own music and changed the course of music history. 

Now, while there is a HUGE amount of this type of music being made nowadays, (in fact there is probably more music being made now than ever before, but that's another can of worms) none of it is released to a mainstream audience. 

The only music that makes it onto these chart shows and radio playlists is music that sounds a bit like the music people already like, but with different words/different beat/different melody, etc. This type of cynicism is insidious and pervades all aspects of art, film, and culture. Basically it comes down to marketers, shareholders and the like believing that you are stupid. You are an idiot that just wants more of what you already know, and anything different or challenging will simply cause your head to explode in anger and confusion. And since we already know what sells, why take a risk on something different?

Of course, anyone with an inkling of common sense knows that this attitude is self defeating, and even the most bovine of music lovers will eventually get bored of hearing the same sort of thing over and over, and the law of diminishing returns will kick in sooner or later. And at that point I assume they will move on to "The Next Big Thing™" and milk that to exhaustion too. But, to paraphrase the late great John Peel, mainstream audiences only want this dross because that is all they know. They have grown to enjoy a diet of mediocrity because they have not been given anything else. And perhaps if they were given something a little more adventurous once in a while, there would be a much more interesting and diverse library of music in our local HMV stores. And at the very least, we wouldn't have to hear the same Katie Perry and Amy Winehouse clones every time we turn on the Radio or walk into a high street shop.

The past, as they say, is a foreign country. And perhaps the pervading mood of anarchy, rebellion and "sticking it to the man" in the 60's and 70's is part of the reason so much weird and off-kilter music managed to infiltrate the mainstream. Modern audiences are not as accustomed to having their tastes challenged, but this makes it even more important that we do. We need to shake audiences out of their complacency and let them know that there is a whole wealth of music and culture out there ready to be enjoyed. Some will no doubt turn away in disgust, as some always will. But i'm sure many members of the public who might not have sought out the music by themselves, will be grateful for the variety and the chance to hear something different. And without a John Peel around to buck the trends and play some weird underground music before it becomes swallowed up by history, that may be more important than ever before.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Wii U launch, and why I'm not bothered

Today the Wii U launched in America, and aside from the usual shortages disappointing customers, and a few hardware issues, things appear to be going well for the fledgling console. Retailers everywhere are selling out and it seems people can't get enough of the new console. While I have never bough a console at launch, this would normally be a very exciting time for me. I have owned a Nintendo console in every console generation since the SNES. The day I first got a SNES, and the day I discovered I was going to own a Nintendo 64 were among the happiest of my childhood, the latter sending my childhood self into a rapturous headspin of surprise and joy. And although age has weathered my enthusiasm somewhat, I still looked forward to owning a Gamecube and a Wii. So why do I feel very little about the launch of the Wii U? Where there once would have been excitement, there is instead a calm disinterest. So what is to blame?

The truth is, nintendo has changed in many ways. Their refusal to get involved in the arms race of console power was a stroke of marketing genius, as was a controller that allows anyone to play simple games without having to master a complex set of controls. And the Wii had no shortage of inspired and brilliant titles, with Mario Galaxy and it's sequel ranking up there with the greatest games of the current generation. But Nintendo have lost a certain special magic that they once had. Nintendo games have always been quirky and odd, they celebrated the bizarre and the niche, and still managed to achieve mainstream success. This backfired horribly with the Gamecube, which failed to make a dent in the dominance of Playstation. Nintendo failed to produce a proper Mario game on launch, and as good as Luigi's Mansion was, staking a console launch on a game where Mario's kid brother sucks up ghosts with a vacuum cleaner was horribly misguided. If they had accompanied it with a true Mario platformer, it would have been seen as a great and quirky title to complement a strong launch title, but releasing it on it's own as the only first party title inspired the ire of many a gamer.

So where was Nintendo to go next? They decided to court a new audience, instead of the old gamers. And who can blame them? The gamers who grew up with the NES had mostly jumped ship and gone to Sony's Playstation, with it's stellar lineup of third party titles. The few gamers who stayed loyal and supported Nintendo's quirky titles were not enough to support the flagging Gamecube. It's the same story suffered by the Dreamcast- a console made for core gamers that attracted a loyal (some might even say fanatical) fanbase, but for gamers using the more grown up Playstation, it looked like nothing more than a stupid child's toy.

So they did the sensible thing, they made a console not just with mainstream appeal, but with appeal to people who normally wouldn't think twice about video games. The kind of people who might have played Pac Man and Pong in the 80's, and never bothered with the hobby since then. And it was a masterstroke, singlehandedly turning Nintendo from a slipping former giant, into an industry leader. But there was a price for this. Nintendo had to divide time between it's old stalwarts, Mario, Zelda, Starfox and the like, and it's new, casual friendly Mii based games. And while there were some great games on the console, as time wore on the release list began to look very dismal. Nintendo abandoned it's previously stringent quality controls, leading to a slew of terrible shovelware titles, like the dismal "I'm a celebrity, get me out of here", and the rancid "ninjabread man". There have always been bad games on nintendo consoles, but these games had the pure stink of no effort being put into them.

Even Nintendo's own stalwart franchises began to suffer, Metroid being the first casualty with Other M, which to me is so basic that it is barely a game, and that's not to mention the horribly misjudged portrayal of it's heroine Samus. Even Nintendo's crowning jewel, The Legend of Zelda, suffered a half arsed port from the Gamecube, and then the downright dull Skyward Sword. A game which I really wanted to like, but just couldn't get into. All this negativity towards the console might be seen by some as entitled whining, but the fact is that Nintendo have achieved big success in the industry, but at the cost of what made them special. That spark, that special inspiration that made Nintendo unique in a sea of violent and grotty "adult" games seems to have lost it's luster.

I wish Nintendo the best of luck in the future. And I hope that all of you that purchased a Wii U have a lot of fun with the console. I shall be watching the reviews and opinions closely to see what the consensus is on the new system. But for me, there is very little reason to buy it. Perhaps somewhere down the line I will be tempted by future Zelda games if they bring back the glory days, but for now, it's a future that I won't be taking part in.