Hardcore Henry

Who needs plot when you have guns

Also known as Every Shooter Ever: the Movie.

*SPOILERS AHEAD*

I don’t remember when I first came upon Hardcore Henry. I want to say 2012, but the first teaser I can find is from 2014. Regardless, I remember this scene quite clearly, and was very interested in the first person perspective. Back then, it was titled Hardcore; the “Henry” wasn’t added until the movie’s first full-length trailer.

Anyway, Hardcore Henry is a fresh take on the action movie genre. There’s quite honestly very little in the way of drama or dialogue or any of that boring character development stuff; Henry has blood on his hands (literally) pretty much in the first ten minutes, and it stays there until the credits roll.

More than that, though, is the first person perspective. Those who know me know that I’m primarily a shooter player; I usually put about fifty hours into the annual Call of Duty and a smattering of other titles here and there. As a result, Hardcore Henry‘s unique camera angle intrigued me. After the film came out, I remember dismissing reviews saying how the first person camera was confusing and nauseating; after all, I assumed that these reviewers simply never played a shooter.

I quickly realized that the reviewers were right, though. One thing that a lot of gamers (myself included) take for granted is view stabilization. Our brains automatically stabilize our views when running (or moving at all), and game developers replicate that in-engine. However, strapping a GoPro to a bobbing head means that the camera picks up everything, including the aforementioned view bobbing. Of course, when the actor is running this is further exacerbated, and at full sprint it becomes hard to see anything at all. I like to think I play a lot of FPS games, and yet the view bob was almost too much for me, often devolving into random streaks of color intertwined with bloody squishes and gunshots.

That being said, the movie was still a fun watch. The characters may have been boring and the view a little hard to handle at times, but the near-constant flow of gore, action, and slapstick comedy made the journey enjoyable nonetheless (quite memorable is the wrong drawer scene in the strip club). I particularly liked the music usage, especially with the random Magnificent Seven soundtrack and the last killing spree set to “Don’t Stop Me Now”.

Hardcore Henry isn’t for everyone. It’s gory, it’s bloody, it’s ridiculous, and it could legitimately incite motion sickness. But for those that can handle it, it’s an enjoyable mess of fighting and action, with few things as mundane as plot or writing or romance. Gamers will appreciate the references and elements taken from shooters, and even non-gamers who like a gory mess will still find fun.

Quantum Break

Literally running out of time.

*SPOILERS AHEAD*

When Quantum Break first came out, I heard some iffy things about its technical difficulties and it kind of dropped off my radar, especially because at first I thought the main character was just some unassuming middle-aged white dude (I mean, I did get two of those three correct). I didn’t really look into it too much; all I knew about it was that it had something to do with time, and that its PAX East 2016 exhibit was pretty cool.

But a few months ago, Target had a buy two, get one free deal on games so I decided to pick it up on a whim; and I’m glad I did.

Because Quantum Break has one of the most gripping narratives I’ve experienced in a long time. Its focus on time travel and loops – specifically, causal loops and Novikov’s self-consistency – helps in telling a story about sacrifice and hope. It departs from a lot of major shooter titles in its protagonist/antagonist structure; whereas something like Call of Duty might have some I-want-to-kill-everyone-to-make-a-statement guy, one can’t help but sympathize with Paul Serene, and even make you wonder whether or not Jack Joyce is really the bad guy. The way that gameplay elements would interact with the included (ish) live-action show was a breath of fresh air in the way media is handled, and the way that the game explains and deals with causal loops (albeit without referring to them explicitly by name) was simple enough in my opinion, and the way the game closed every single loop without creating any paradoxes for the sake of a happy ending appealed to my inner nerd. I particularly liked how much of the narrative was hidden throughout the world (though I hate collectibles in general), allowing for an entirely missable layer of background and lore yet still allowing the main story to come through. As Microsoft’s new IP, it was also very amusing to spot all of the Windows products in the live-action show (Windows Phone, Surface, etc.).

Gameplay, initially, was interesting enough. You’re in a normal-enough third-person shooter, but Jack Joyce has temporal manipulation powers that grant him an edge. This somewhat addresses the ever-present problem of ludonarrative dissonance, and justifies Jack’s superiority over hundreds of well-trained, elite Monarch soldiers.

By the way, can we talk about “Monarch Solutions”? C’mon, couldn’t you have picked a less villain-y company name? Jeez.

Anyway. That being said, by early to mid-game the shooting sequences started becoming stale, both in gameplay and in narrative. The introduction of soldiers equipped with chronon harnesses made the actual usage of powers a little more tempered, and made one wonder how Jack ever bested them (though, to the game’s credit, it does appear that such soldiers have less of a grasp on time than Jack does). The combat arenas had little functional differences between them, and save for introducing new enemies it felt as if once you learned how to deal with a group of enemies you could just rinse and repeat.

Which leads me to the final battle against Paul Serene. I have a love/hate relationship with this battle. On one hand, Paul himself is perhaps the most boring enemy in the game. After his display of power early in Act One you’d expect some sort of epic hand-to-hand showdown across time, but all he does is stand in two different places and have AOE attacks that are pretty easily avoided once you get the hang of them.

On the other hand, though, his instakill AOE attacks force you to move around the map, and in doing so makes at least the final battle somewhat different from every other encounter. It’s not a great mechanic when compared against other boss battles, but at least it’s different within the scope of Quantum Break.

Honestly, as a game I’m not a huge fan of how the shooter mechanics tied into the game. It’s undoubtedly a gripping narrative, and its fluid/broken timeline lends itself well to some really gorgeous moments onscreen, but I felt that if would have worked better as solely a live-action show. Yes, the way the game interacted with said show was unique and interesting; but I wonder if Quantum Break would have benefited more from a more focused TV perspective.

One final point I want to bring up: according to my Xbox, I’ve spent 9.5 hours in this game. Of those, some 90 minutes were spent watching the live-action sequences. I can’t remember exactly, but I spent between $30 and $60 on this game. Regardless of how much I did spend, that raises a question of how much value I got out of this game. In general, I start off with saying that $2/hr is a good value for a video game, then adjust that rate depending on my opinions on the specific title. Going by this benchmark alone, I’m already spending more money per hour spent in the game, and if I want to consider this a well-valued game, I’ll have to come up with some reason that justifies its price point.

The problem is, I can’t. At the same time, I can’t not. This is one of those titles where I can’t decide whether or not it was a good game for its value. Was it pretty? Yes. Did it work? Sure, apart from the annoying long load times. Was it a good game? …I don’t know. I loved its narrative. I loved its show. But I disliked the way that the actual gameplay mechanics felt a little like an afterthought, despite them being slick and intuitive. I’m not entirely sure why I feel this way, but regardless this makes Quantum Break not feel like a good game; more like a dressed-up, interactive TV show. In that sense, is it worth $60? $50? $40? I don’t know. Now maybe if I were to go back and choose other Junctions, or finish the collectibles, I’d change my tune as my price/hour ratio went down. But I don’t really see an incentive to do so, mainly because – in the theme of closed loops – I know that all choices only bend the story, not change it completely. And, as I stated earlier, I hate collectibles. So I don’t have any reason to go back and play more, meaning that I’m stuck with thinking about whether or not this game was worth my money. I might write something about this issue later, but for now it’s just something to think about.

Kindred Spirits on the Roof: Another Yuritopia

More fluffy yuri.

People who know me know about my obsession with this series. It’s fluffy, it’s cute, it’s real, it’s meaningful, it’s enticing, it’s emotional – as I’ve said before, there’s something about the series that stays with you long after finishing it.

But enough about that; I’ve written enough about all those aspects. The reason I’m writing about it again is because yesterday I finally received the official manga sequel, titled Another Yuritopia. And really…there’s not much to say about it. It’s pretty much exactly what you’d expect a KSotR manga to be, with all of the same elements that made the visual novel so adorable. The book itself comes with two new stories set in the world, and both take cues from the visual novel in their own distinct art styles (with single-page drawings from Peg, who did all of the art for the game). I particularly like all the appearances/references to all of the characters in the game; Side A, set just one year after the visual novel, is the direct sequel (Aki’s a guitarist now!), while I believe Side B to be set one more  year after that.

Side note, the two main characters in Side B appear to be character reincarnations of Sachi and Megumi based on their personalities. This is also strengthened further by their similar physical appearances.

Anyway, I won’t talk about the stories, because you really won’t care unless you’ve actually played through the visual novel. But it is out there if, for some reason, you’re as obsessed as I am and just want to continue Yuritopia.

Crypt of the Necrodancer

An innovative experience with a kickass soundtrack

Crypt of the Necrodancer may be one of the best games I’ve played in a long time.

It’s a fairly simple concept. It’s a roguelike dungeon crawler, except all game mechanics are rhythm-based: movement, combat, item usage, etc. You’re rewarded for continuous movement and staying on the beat, and you’re punished for being off-tempo or off-time.

It is through this singular gameplay mechanic that the game’s charm comes through. Right off the bat, it teaches you to identify and memorize enemies’ patterns; you have to, because the turn-based real time (for lack of a better phrase) is not conducive to random enemies like one might find in Call of Duty or any other sort of reaction-based game.

However, these patterns don’t necessarily slow down the game’s pacing; rather, in a way it actually intensifies the experience. Theoretically, you could clear a room of enemies, find a safe corner, and take your hands off the keyboard. The track continues regardless of your actions, and though enemies will still take their actions not many are actually able to break through walls. When the track ends, you’re dropped to the next level, albeit without your coin multiplier. In other words, you don’t actually need to take the risks to find the stairs; staying still is a surefire way of getting to the next level without really making any mistakes.

That being said, the game rewards you greatly for taking risks. There are secret shops on every floor (as far as I remember), and you receive many benefits for going out and exploring the unmapped areas: potentially beneficial shrines, item chests, or good stock in the shop. Killing enemies without taking damage and travelling without missing a beat continues your coin multiplier, which can help you buy the more powerful items from the shops. Considering that every zone ends in a boss, it’s not a bad idea to spend the three sub-levels stocking up and gearing up.

Those who know me know my fascination with music – particularly when part of a video game (though I’m certainly not limited to such). Previously, I’ve looked at soundtracks to a visual novel and two anime productions, but in all cases the music served as an enhancement of the experience; that is to say, while it made its respective media better it was in no way the foreground. In Crypt, that is obviously not the case. The music is not only the driving force; it also simultaneously guides and follows the story. Every zone’s music has some sort of rough theme to it, and every subsequent track increases slightly in tempo, adhering to the story while making the game progressively harder. I particularly like the Necrodancer’s battle and how the music switches for his second phase, adding a sense of desperation and chaos in the last fight.

In summary, Crypt of the Necrodancer is a refreshing dungeon crawling title. The music, while catchy on its own, is also effective in driving the pace and forcing the player to think quickly even in a turn-based setting. It’s an easy game to pick up, but a fairly difficult game to master. Its pattern-based enemies means that the game is mostly skill-based, with randomness appearing only in enemy and floor composition.

I am far from done with this game; at the time of writing, I have only finished Cadence’s and Melody’s lines, and I am kicking my own ass at trying to beat Zone 4 with Aria. If you’re looking for an enjoyable challenge, I highly recommend this game.

“Watashi no Uso” analysis

How the music reflects the character

As per request, this is an analysis of “Watashi no Uso” from the anime Shigatsu wa Kimi no Uso, otherwise known as Your Lie in April and henceforth referred to as Shigatsu. Now as I’ve covered before, Shigatsu is quite sad. If you were to take the story sans writing – that is, consider only the plot without the slapstick comedy – it becomes a fairly depressing – if fulfilling – story about a boy trying to discover what it means to play music from the heart rather than from the brain. As one character remarks, Kousei appears to only make musical progress through personal loss; at the same time, Kaori has her own personal struggles of her illness and impending death, as well as her own admiration and affection of Kousei and the knowledge or premonition that she may never be able to explore that bond properly.

This track, then, represents all that. Its title translates to “My Lie”, but the “I” used is feminine. In other words, this is effectively Kaori’s personal track. It’s delicate, sensitive, and ultimately unfulfilling yet resolute. In a way, it acts as a sort of melancholic waltz – in fact, one character (I don’t remember which) said to the other something along the lines of “I want to waltz with you”. Now yes, I realize that not everything in ¾ time is a waltz, but there is still something floaty and active about the way the piece plays. That being said, it’s also not a piece that two people would dance to; rather, it is something for Kaori and Kaori alone.

With that, let’s move into the analysis itself.

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*I realize that I mix syntax a little bit in my scores, but hopefully it all makes sense.

The first thing we have is a setup of the main theme, accompanied with chords moving ever so slightly down from F to Em. The circled note in the melody is the main chord tone, while the turn in the right hand emphasizes it, briefly tonicizing it by going down to the C#.

In the next section, we move up from Dm7 diatonically through to the chord in measure 7. Now I wasn’t really sure what this chord was. As you can see in my writing, on paper it can be either an F function or a C function. Listening to this composition did not yield any definitive results; I could hear it as both, especially because the next chord sits on an F in the bass until the end of the section. That, and there aren’t really any other chord tones apart from F and C; this is a main feature of this piece, where the function of the chords is more heard than it is seen on paper. As a result, all the chord written on the score are what I think they function as based on my own personal interpretation. You’ll notice I circled the C in the right hand. This note I determined to be the main focus of the repeated descending line, though I’ve also circled some melody notes later on. The repeated descending line is also not consistent; it makes three different variations, breaking expectations and making the timing feel uncertain. In fact, some piano scores I’ve seen have this part written in a different time signature. At the end of the section we play on the tonic and dominant scale degrees of G while sitting on an F in the bass, making this section feel open and inconclusive.

The next section goes until measure 25. This quieter section is introspective and reflective, the large intervals between the bass and melody creating beautifully resonant harmonies. It provides a break from the musical themes thus far, letting the next section be far more impactful.

Which it does, centering on an Em chord with moving lines and massive leaps. The shift from quarter notes and dotted half notes in the previous section to eighth notes here creates a sense of urgency and movement, and we finish the section outlining an Em7, harkening back to the end of the previous section.

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From here, we repeat the main theme. It’s busier and more passionate, the momentum driven by the quarter note pattern in the left hand. The chords are fleshed out more, adding an additional layer of fullness and intensity. The descending line seen at the beginning of the piece is hinted at with a new, similar three-note descending line, but instead of fading away from this section we dig into it anew, as the inverted E7 tonicizes Am, the ascending chords taking us higher and higher as the music seems to scream louder and louder, until we hit one final, cathartic repetition of the theme, with even fuller chords and in a higher octave. From here, we pull back a little, as the additional voices drop out and the rhythm becomes similar, until we end on a lone C in the melody. This is the first time we actually find the tonic of the piece; all throughout, the chords seem to dance around it, yet every time the melody goes to the C it seems to be voiced with an Am that never seems fulfilling. This C, in measure 64, is the first, true tonic chord. It represents a sense of acceptance of the turmoil that this piece represented up until now, and as the embers die down we finish on variants of Bb major.

As stated above, this piece is entirely Kaori’s. In the final episode, it is revealed that Kaori was aware of her limited time left, that her lifelong wish was to have Kousei accompany her, and that she faked liking Watari to get closer to him. In a way, “Watashi no Uso” is a summary of her life. The main theme becomes more agonized each time through additional voicings and use of a higher register, while the sections in between move from retrospective to desperate and pained. In fact, though the show focuses on Kousei’s own struggles with loss and what it means to play music, it may have been Kaori in a comparable amount of pain: knowing of her early death, being so close to Kousei yet too shy to approach him, and even after getting close to him discovering his inability to play piano. Kaori’s wish, unfortunately, never fully comes true; she is only able to play a partial duet on top of Kousei’s final Chopin performance, and even then did not truly perform to a full audience. Despite this, her dream self appears to be happy with this arrangement, apparently content with Kousei’s rediscovery of himself. This is perhaps reflected in “Watashi no Uso”, as the piece concludes with an open and reconciled Bb.

“Watashi no Uso”, then, is a reflection of Kaori’s turmoil that is never quite in the limelight. We see hints of her troubles throughout the second half of the show as Kousei is slowly made aware of her growing despair, but we see very little of her life before middle school. It is only through inferences and the letter in the last episode that we realize how Kaori felt all throughout her life. “Watashi no Uso” may refer to the lie that sets the entire show into motion, but the track is a representation of her entire life. On the surface, it’s quaint and melancholic if fairly simplistic, but a little more reading into it reveals a level of hidden complexity – and really, that’s what music is.

Your Lie in April

Music is emotion. Emotion is human.

What a beautifully done show. As I write this I finished the last episode some ten, fifteen minutes ago, and I watched the first episode little over 24 hours ago. My eyes are killing me, staring at a computer screen now without bias lighting, but I’d like to finish this while the memories are still fresh.

*SPOILERS AHEAD.*

Your Lie in April was recommended to me by a friend about a year and a half ago; in fact, it may have been one of our first conversation topics ever. She calls it Shigatsu, which is how I will refer to it here on out. Its premise is sweet, poignant, and…sad. It is entirely an emotional show, using music as a way to enhance its story and ways of conveying different feelings. In fact, it’s emotional on both sides of the spectrum; there are many uses of slapstick, physical comedy, likely as a foil to the dark and deep themes explored by the show and to prevent everything from becoming too depressing.

For the show is quite depressing. It is, at its core, a love story. Specifically, two love stories. The overarching tale of Kousei and Kaori exploring their love/hate, uniquely close, pestering relationship with each other is present throughout the entire series, but I believe the familial love through loss and suffering present throughout the first half of the series to be more powerful. I will admit, Kousei’s farewell performance to his mother moved me to tears, exacerbated and immensely supported by the masterful matching of poignant scenes to climaxes in the music. Every single performance in the show meant something, and every single performance was – at its core – a love letter. The gorgeous art style, reminiscent to me of the beauty in your name. (I saw your name. before Shigatsu; sue me), was instrumental in really evoking those feelings of pain, suffering, love, and resolution, and the brilliant color pallet allowed the audience to see the world in color.

Shigatsu‘s strongest part, though, in my opinion, must be the entire Kousei-Kaori dynamic developed throughout the show’s runtime, even past the love story and even when the characters are separated. We hear from multiple characters how Kousei’s first performance onstage inspired them to start music, creating friends/rivals for life, yet for much of the 22 episodes we see Kaori being a leader figure to Kousei, drawing him out from his self-loathing and out from his mother’s shadow, allowing him to feel the music instead of merely playing it. We see Kaori’s outward strength hiding an inner desire of being remembered, and of Kousei’s development into an emotional musician, drawing on his memories – good and bad – to perform sincerely straight from the heart. We see how both characters rely on each other for support – sometimes physically, sometimes emotionally – and how both develop into strong individuals, yet with parts of each other permanently inside them. The development is painful, but at the end of the show both shine brightly, as Chopin’s Ballad no. 1 plays while Kousei performs one final, farewell duet with an apparition of Kaori. I believe this is the real moment the show truly ends, even though Kousei converses with Kaori’s memory in the second half of the final episode. I think this dream-like performance is Kousei’s true goodbye to Kaori, acknowledging the growth they shared together.

Of course, in being emotional such a show needs to take things at the right pace. Sometimes that means getting down and specific with details, allowing the character to grow and flourish. Unfortunately, this sometimes has the somewhat negative effect of bogging down the pacing. Shigatsu, in trying to drive home Kousei’s self-tormenting in reliving the worst memories with his mother – and later finding support in repeating all of Kaori’s good ones – is fairly heavy-handed with recaps and memories, even jumping all over the timeline if it means expanding on a character’s backstory. Perhaps such an effect was intended, allowing us to stand in Kousei’s shoes as his story went on, but there were times where I felt the emotional impact was marred slightly by this redundancy.

Ultimately, though, such times were short-lived (though the ~5-episode long piano competition in the middle really could have been shorter), and the show ended gorgeously, as Kousei and Kaori perform their first – and last – proper duet together, in a scene of great beauty, resolved to the pain of death and loss even as all that emotion is poured into one final, soulful performance. I notice how the show effectively ends there, despite having ten more minutes or so, with Kousei freely crying at the end of his farewell onstage. Emi and Takeshi do not make a final appearance, the competition results are not revealed, and nothing is mentioned of the middle schoolers’ futures. We don’t even get to see the audience’s reaction. I take this to mean that such trivial things are unimportant; the lifeblood of Shigatsu is emotion, and Kousei’s final performance was cathartic as he processed his own, performing for the people that mean everything to him.

For music is emotion. Music is the universal language, for it does not need to be translated to be understood. Music transcends human speech, connecting two human hearts directly through the instinctive understanding of emotion conveyed through melody and harmony. Music is emotion.

And emotion is human.