Puppeteer Review

Puppeteer

Puppeteer deserves credit for having honest intentions. It’s nothing if not an attempt to bring some color and whimsy to the Playstation brand, which is more renowned for the likes of Nathan Drake and Kratos. It’s a torch that has, for a while, been held solely by LittleBigPlanet, but Puppeteer looks to give Sackboy some company in the family-friendly department. Unfortunately, honest intentions cannot make up for a disappointing execution.

The presentation and story are charmers. Using the aesthetics of a puppet show, Puppeteer tells of a Moon Goddess who was overthrown by her subject, Little Bear, who became the Moon Bear King after stealing a magic stone. The Moon Bear King then takes on the hobby of spiriting children away from Earth, turning them into puppets, and eating their heads. One such child is Kutaro, whom the player controls. With his head gone, Kutaro is joined by the Moon Goddess’ cat, who shows Kutaro the ability to use different heads found throughout the journey, as well as helping him steal a pair of magic scissors, which become Kutaro’s weapon against the Moon Bear King’s forces on his quest to find the pieces of the magic stone, save the Moon Goddess and return to Earth (head intact).Puppeteer

The story often invokes a sense of childlike glee, though some of its more cutesy elements come off a bit forced. The puppet show motif works as a great setup, however, as this is a 2D platformer whose stages work in segments (think every segment as a new scene in a puppet show), and the aesthetics are perfectly complimented by the PS3 hardware. Puppeteer is simply a gorgeous game.

The downside is that, in terms of gameplay, Puppeteer just isn’t very fun. It’s ideas are inspired, but an awkward, sluggish sense of control brings them down. Kutaro’s jumping abilities may feel even more weighted than that of the Sackboys who inspired him, which makes the platforming lack fluidity. Using the magic scissors to cut down the environment as well as enemies is a fun trick – which also helps the puppet aesthetics mesh into the gameplay – but its uses are too simple and restrained, preventing what could have been a compelling gameplay mechanic from meeting its potential.

PuppeteerAnother missed opportunity is Kutaro’s ability to perform different actions through the different heads he stumbles across. Kutaro can store up to three heads at a given time, but they end up feeling more like extra health than they do power-ups (lose all three heads and it’s back to the last check point). The abilities the heads grant Kutaro seem limited to specific environmental situations – again preventing them from feeling like full-fledged game-changers – and like the scissors, they never seem to reach their potential.

A two player mode is present, with a second player having the ability to help Kutaro out by pointing out objects and finding items. It’s nothing extravagant, but should a less experienced player want to join in on the fun it provides them with the opportunity. On the downside, the second character is still present in single player, with Kutaro and his sidekick’s actions being controlled with separate analogue sticks on the same controller. It’s a setup that might work with the proper execution, but with Kutaro’s movements already feeling a bit on the clunky side, the two-characters-on-one-controller approach just makes the sense of control feel even more awkward.

I do not want to write off Puppeteer entirely. It is an appealing game that combines a great visual style with a charming, folktale-like narrative to make a game with an attitude that stands out among most of its Playstation brethren. But while Sackboy’s less-than-stellar platforming had a terrific level editor to fallback on, Kutaro is not so lucky. For everything Puppeteer does right with its presentation, it muddles just as much in the platforming department. It’s not broken, but it’s not desirable either.

Perhaps Kutaro deserves another round to take the ideas he’s been given, and fine-tune them into something great. For now, Puppeteer is a game of great style, ambition and whimsy. But one that lacks the polish it needs to send its ideas straight to the moon.

5

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The Croods Review

The Croods

The Croods is a more appealing movie than its bland title might suggest. But it also won’t be ranked alongside Dreamworks’ best work. It’s ambitious in scale and filled with colorful character designs, but it’s also restrained when it comes to narrative. The Croods is a solid entry in the Dreamworks canon, but one that won’t exactly win over those who claim they prefer style over substance.

The film stars a family of cavemen, the titular Croods. At the head of the family is the patriarch, Grug (Nicholas Cage), who dedicates himself to his family’s survival in the hostile prehistoric environment. He’s well-meaning enough, but a bit paranoid of the world, which leads him to often butt heads with his rebellious daughter Eep (Emma Stone), who wants nothing more than to go out and see the world. The rest of the family gets considerably less screen time, but they include the mother Ugga, the brother Thunk, and baby sister Sandy, as well as Grug’s mother-in-law Gran. They’re a fun lot of characters when they need to be, though they do feel a bit archetypal.

The CroodsEvery day is the same in the Crood household (cavehold?), they wake up, scavenge for food, and avoid being eaten by sabertoothed cats and other such creatures, only to return to the cave to hide until the next morning. But their world is turned upside down when Eep meets a guy named Guy (Ryan Reynolds), who informs her that the end of the world is coming, and that he’s heading for the land of “Tomorrow” which is safe from the impending apocalypse. It isn’t long before the Croods’ home is destroyed in the ensuing chaos, and they seek help from Guy to find a safe home in tomorrow. Along the way, the Croods (specifically Grug) may learn a thing or two about opening up to the world and having unique ideas outside the status quo.

It’s a simple enough story, livened up by some smart writing and humorous running gags, as well as some solid voice work. There is a bit of a downside in that the movie has more characters than it knows what to do with (you may wonder why the story even needed Eep’s siblings), and the story is a bit on the predictable side, with the messages – simple truths that they may be – feeling a tad ham-fisted.

The CroodsBut it’s all made more enjoyable by the film’s real highlight: The animation. The Croods showcases some of Dreamworks’ best visuals, with just about every scene being a display of color and detail. Best of all are the character designs for all the prehistoric beasts the Croods run across. The creatures in The Croods feel more inspired by prehistoric animals than based off them, which allowed Dreamworks to get creative with the character designs. Among these creatures are quadrupedal whales and swarms of piranha-birds. The strange creatures littered throughout The Croods help give the film some imaginative spark.

The animation and designs are where The Croods’ creativity shines. It’s just unfortunate that the story, while technically sound, is so much less creative. The characters and their relationships all fit neatly into the exact roles you expect them to, and it’s only in the last fifteen or so minutes that it gets any real emotional oomph.

It may not reinvent the wheel, but The Croods has a fun time with the tools it has at its disposal. If Dreamworks isn’t your cup of tea, The Croods isn’t about to change that. But for the initiated, it’s a fun, and ever so colorful ride.

 

6

Hyrule Warriors Review

Hyrule Warriors

There was a moment at the very end of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword which pitted Link against army after army of monsters in order to reach the big bad (and the captured Princess Zelda) at the end. It was a barrage of action and spectacle, akin to being the Nintendo equivalent of the Battle of Helm’s Deep. If that moment left you wondering what an entire Zelda game built around such moments would be like, then Hyrule Warriors gives you a bit of an idea, if maybe not entirely fulfilling on its promise.

While Mario and friends regular deviate from their core series for some karting and a few rounds of tennis, Zelda rarely takes the opportunity to shy away from the series’ primary timeline for the sake of a fun little deviation. But Hyrule Warriors basks in the opportunity to tell its own side story in the series, throwing in as many references to past entries as possible without worry about how it might effect the series’ canon.

Primary and supporting characters from the Zelda series make a return, with the likes of Link and Zelda being joined by Impa, Midna and Darunia, among other familiar faces from the series. Some original characters also make the playable roster, but they feel a tad misplaced and don’t mesh well with the established characters. The new editions end up feeling more like anime cliches than members of the Zelda cast.

Hyrule WarriorsIt’s not just the characters, but the world, story and scenarios of Hyrule Warriors are all swimming in Zelda fanservice. The story tells of an ancient witch who watches over the Triforce, until she gets possessed by the spirit of Ganon (who else?), corrupting her heart and mind. She then uses the Triforce’s power to open portals throughout time to search for the fragmented pieces of Ganon’s soul, which have been scattered throughout time.

Of course, this plot really is little more than an excuse to cram all the aforementioned characters together, and to recreate some of the series’ iconic moments. But it works for what it is, and who am I to argue about something that’s basically a love letter to one of gaming’s most revered legacies?

But alas, the fanservice is all this game has to connect it to that legacy. The game is titled Hyrule Warriors for a reason. While the game is a loving tribute to the Zelda series, as a game it is, first and foremost, a Dynasty Warriors title. And while this Dynasty Warriors gameplay can be fun, it’s best played in short bursts, as longer play sessions reveal Hyrule Warriors to be a repetitious affair, lacking the depth of design that Zelda is known for.

Hacking and slashing through hundreds of enemies at a time is thrilling, and gives you plenty of opportunities to try out the various combos you’ll learn as you level up, but every character -despite having aesthetic differences – all play the same, and they all get the same bonuses as they gain experience, and the enemies similarly lack variety. A little bit of life is added to the equation by some light strategic elements, such as overtaking enemy outposts and making sure your own bases don’t become overrun, but even these strategies end up being performed by the same hacking and slashing of enemies.

Hyrule WarriorsThere is a good deal of content to the package, however. There are numerous secrets and bonus objectives to be found on any given stage, and the plethora of playable characters means the game has a bit more replayability than it might otherwise have should you wish to level all of them up. Additionally, an aptly-named Adventure Mode provides a different experience, not to mention retro charm.

In Adventure Mode, players guide an 8-bit Link through a grid-like map, where each square is a mission where Link has the opportunity to win items and unlock new areas on the map. The Adventure Mode and the game’s various challenges add an addictive nature to the game, but none of them individually provide the depth to make Hyrule Warriors a truly compelling gaming experience.

As a love letter to The Legend of Zelda, Hyrule Warriors gets top marks: It reintroduces us to many beloved characters, recreates some epic scenarios from the past, and includes some top-notch remixes of classic tunes. The aesthetics inspired by Ocarina of Time, Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword make this a kingly piece of Zelda fanservice (though being the Wind Waker fan that I am, I can’t help but feel left out of the loop).

But in terms of it own merits, the fun of Hyrule Warriors is hampered by repetitious gameplay and an overall shallow experience, not to mention some technical issues like long load times and an inconsistent frame rate (somewhat forgiveble, given the sheer number of characters on-screen at any given time).

Hyrule Warriors captures the spectacle of that climactic moment of Skyward Sword, but it’s entirety lacks the heart and emotion of that single moment. Is Hyrule Warriors fun? Yes. But it’s no legend.

6

Turbo Review

Turbo

It’s often said that Dreanworks has an inconsistent track record with their animated features. They’ll pop out some really good ones when they want to, but then they seem to toss in some less-than memorable ones in between. Some claim this inconsistency is due to Dreamworks trying too hard to one-up the competition, leaving them to often feel more excessive than genuine. While these complaints aren’t always warranted, consider Turbo to be one of the reasons they’re still brought up.

 

Turbo tells the story of a snail named Theo (Ryan Reynolds), who dreams of being a famous race car driver like the ones he watches on TV. His brother Chet (Paul Giamatti) tells him to get his head out of the clouds, but a freak accident ends up fusing Theo’s DNA with nitrous oxide, giving him super speed and car-like abilities, and he is renamed ‘Turbo’. This leads to a series of events that ultimately leads Theo and Chet in the company of a group of humans and a small parade of fellow snail characters, who help Turbo enter the Indy 500.

 

The preposterous premise helps make the film a little more entertaining than it might otherwise be. Unfortunately this premise seems like a very thin guise for Dreamworks to capitalize on the popularity of Pixar’s Cars franchise (the snail characters themselves might bring to mind Lightning McQueen and friends transformed into mollusks).

The story feels like your typical “follow your dreams” plotline that accompanies the majority of animated movies, with Turbo having little to no other defining character traits than his desire to be a racer. Chet is your atypical stick in the mud, while the other snails seem defined solely by their running gags, and the humans by their racial stereotypes.

TurboWhat gets these characters from point A to point B has a tendency to be exactly what you think it would be. The movie offers nothing in the realm of surprises, but at the very least, it does have some funny moments when it wants to (though an insistence on humor based around social media and autotuned remixes in the second half feels a bit cheap).

To its credit, Turbo does include a quality voice cast, with Reynolds and Giammatti being joined by a small army of celebrity voices that give the movie some energy as well as credibility. And it boasts some lively, colorful animation.

The problem is that Turbo’s tank is running on empty when it comes to storytelling. It follows just about every cliche in the book without a second thought. It’s telling when the movie’s very best moments feel like its siphoning the creative gases of other films, never bearing the same results as its inspirations.

It may have a fresh coat of paint, but there’s nothing under turbo’s hood.

 

4

Shrek Forever After Review

Shrek Forever After

When Shrek Forever After was released in 2010, it had two goals in mind: The first was to redeem the series after it lost its groove with Shrek the Third. The second was to bring the series to a close. The good news is that it partially succeeded in these goals. The bad news is that, in the end, it’s still in the shadows of the first two entries in the Shrek series.

Shrek Forever After sees Shrek in the midst of a mid-life crisis. Family life is stressful for the once-curmudgeonly ogre, and (in perhaps a bit of a commentary on the nature of the third film) his new celebrity status has made him feel less like the ogre he once was.

Shrek Forever AfterAfter a spat with his wife Fiona, Shrek stumbles upon one Rumplestiltskin, who makes a deal with Shrek to give him one day to feel like an ogre again, in exchange for one day from Shrek’s past. Rumplestiltskin, having evil motivation, takes away the day Shrek was born, which sends Shrek into a parallel universe where he never rescued Fiona, Donkey is a vagabond, Puss in Boots is overweight and Rumplestiltskin has taken over the kingdom of Far Far Away. Think of it as Shrek’s take on It’s a Wonderful Life.

The story may not stack up to those of the first two Shrek’s, but it is far more focused and better structured than the clunky, disjointed plots of Shrek the Third. And it has some honest goes at some emotion, which were also lacking from the third film.

It’s the writing and humor that aren’t up to par with Shrek or Shrek 2. The jokes here are less witty, sometimes relying on callbacks to the first two entries instead of springing the originality that made those films such a joy. There are still some fun jokes to be had, but they’re lightly spread out in between more bland and uninspired gags. Even Shrek himself seems a little worn out with all the fairy tale parodies and pop culture references.

Another downside is that Rumplestiltskin is the weakest villain of the series. He lacks the conniving charm of Lord Farquaad, and is never as entertaining as Fairy Godmother or Prince Charming. Audiences may even find they dislike him more for being annoying than for being a villain.

Shrek Forever AfterHowever, Shrek Forever After does benefit for keeping the story focused on Shrek and his journey to end Rumple’s curse and set things right. Some new characters – like a parade of ogre freedom fighters- are introduced, but the movie wisely keeps them in minor roles. Rumplestiltskin is the only major new player, otherwise it’s only the core Shrek characters who have major parts in the story. After Shrek the Third sidetracked with characters like Artie and Merlin (who, not surprisingly, don’t return here), this is all the more refreshing.

The voice work remains consistent, with Mike Meyers, Cameron Diaz, Eddie Murphy and Antonio Banderas still giving the movie some energy, but the animation looks like it’s still running on Shrek 2’s character models, which is more than a little noticeable given the six-year gap between the two movies.

In some ways, Shrek Forever After has a lot going for it: It, unlike its predecessor, knows a thing or two about storytelling. It has good intentions and even a little bit of heart. But it’s also a movie that looks more dated than it should, and one that lacks the smarts and creativity in writing that its forebears exuded.

Shrek Forever After may not be the satisfying ending the series deserved, but it does get an A for effort. And effort is more than you could say about Shrek the Third.

 

5

Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return Review

Legends of Oz

The Wizard of Oz is one of the most beloved films of all time, and has captured the imaginations of audiences for generations. Set in a world of talking scarecrows, flying monkeys and wicked witches, an animated offshoot of The Wizard of Oz doesn’t seem like such a bad idea. That is unless said animated offshoot seems constructed out of bad ideas. Enter Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return.

The movie is as uninspired as its title. An evil Jester – who happens to be the younger brother of the late Wicked Witch – has taken control of the Emerald City, leaving the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Formerly-Cowardly Lion to summon Dorothy back to Oz to save the day. That’s about the size of it.

Should you actually wanted to see more of the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion, Return to Oz  is sure to give them a backseat in the story. They spend the majority of the movie trapped in Emerald City. Instead, Dorothy and Toto are joined by a quartet of forgettable characters: A rotund owl named Wiser, a marshmallow man named Marshal Mallow, a porcelain doll princess, and a talking tree who allows Dorothy and friends to make him into a boat. To call them Oz’s B-team would be more than generous.

The bland story and forgettable cast are ‘complimented’ by a number of musical numbers that range from insipid to irritating. All of them ooze a ‘written-on-a-napkin’ quality. At the very least, their sheer forgettability will likely prevent them from getting stuck in your head.

Just in case the movie wasn’t cardboard enough, the animation looks more along the lines of a 2001 direct-to-video release than a 2014 theatrical animated feature. The character designs also showcase a lack of inspiration. The entire visual look of Legends of Oz is aged and boring.

If there’s anything of merit to be found here, it’s probably in the movie’s opening moments, which shows the devastation caused to Dorothy’s hometown in Kansas from the iconic twister that sent her to Oz in the first place. It’s nothing emotional (and even it gets ruined by one of the aforementioned songs), but it’s somewhat interesting to see the ‘Oz tornado’ treated as a disaster and not just a transport to another world.

But that’s really searching hard for a redeeming quality, isn’t it? The long and the short of it is that Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return is a bad movie. It feels entirely thrown together, rushed, and creatively empty. Within minutes you may find yourself wishing you had a pair of ruby slippers so you could click them together and whisk you away from this movie.

 

2

Super Mario 3D World Review

Super Mario 3D World

At first glance, Super Mario 3D World may simply look like Super Mario 3D Land got a Wii U makeover and added multiplayer to the equation. The game’s first world is largely that, an expansion of the concepts Nintendo’s Tokyo studios came up with for their 3DS Mario effort. It uses similar mechanics and level structure to 3D Land, but brought up to a larger scale to fit its home console and allow three additional players to join in the fun. This time, in addition to Mario, players can also select Luigi, Princess Peach and Toad, who regain their abilities from Super Mario Bros. 2 back on the NES (Luigi jumps high, Peach floats, Toad runs fastest).

But it doesn’t take long for the guise of familiarity to melt away. What starts as a continuation of 3D Land’s design quickly begins reconstructing itself with idea after idea that are all their own.

Super Mario 3D WorldThe initial changes are the most obvious. The Cat Suit – which is so prominently featured on the box art and advertisements – gives Mario and company the ability to scamper up walls and strike enemies with a scratch attack. The Cat Suit joins the ranks of the greatest Mario power-ups for its sheer versatility. The variety of uses for the Cat Suit is a testament to the creativity at work at Nintendo’s Tokyo Studios.

Joining the Cat Suit is the “Double Cherry,” a power-up that creates clones of the character who grabs it. The Double Cherry is notable for being a power-up that not only stacks up with itself (the more cherries you grab, the more your clones multiply), but also stacks with other power-ups as well (small armies of fire Marios or cat Luigis come into play soon after the Cherrie’s introduction). It can get a little tricky to control multiple clones, but if anything, its a delightful chaos that ensues.

The new power-ups are joined by returning favorites (Fire Flower, Boomerang Suit, Mega Mario, etc.), but the new power-ups aren’t all that 3D World has going for it. It’s the level design that deserves the most praise. Although some will cry foul at the more linear structure carried over from 3D Land as opposed to the wide open worlds of Super Mario 64 and Sunshine, the majority of 3D World’s stages boast the same creative spark as the very best Mario games.

Super Mario 3D World3D World’s levels are comprised of one-off ideas and rapid-fire concepts. Rarely will you be doing the same thing twice, and even when a concept does repeat itself, it finds a way to rearrange itself to make it feel fresh all over again. One moment you’ll be riding across a river on the back of a dinosaur, the next you’ll be jumping across platforms that materialize in accordance to the stage’s music, and then Mario will be wearing a canon on his head, fighting his way through an armada of Koopas and Bob-ombs. And this isn’t even taking into account the Captain Toad stages, in which you guide a Toad through a single-screen obstacle course without the ability to jump, or the Mystery Houses, which see Mario and friends face a barrage of quick, singular challenges.

The ideas just keep coming. Even when 3D World is playing up the nostalgia with nods to Mario’s past (and boy does this game enjoy doing just that), it finds ways to make these retro concepts feel like its own creations. It’s this kind of inventiveness that has helped the Mario series remain relevant since its inception, and it shines all over 3D World’s level design.

A notable exception comes in the form of the game’s boss fights. 3D World’s bosses are fun (the final battle with Bowser in particular is so full of energy it feels like something out of a Platinum title), but each of the game’s eight standard worlds contains only one or two boss fights – with many of the bosses being repeat encounters – and only a select few provide any real challenge. Perhaps this wouldn’t be so noticeable, if 3D World weren’t following-up Galaxy 2 on the home console front. After Galaxy 2’s insistence on introducing a new and engaging boss fight at just about every other turn, 3D World seems restrained by comparison.

The gameplay is as fun as ever, and now that we have a 3D Mario that’s up to four players, you can either play a more relaxed-yet-challenging single player campaign, or experience the sheer insanity of a multiplayer adventure.

Super Mario 3D WorldOn the visual front, Mario has never looked better. Sure, New Super Mario Bros. U gave Mario the jump to HD over a year beforehand, but its aesthetics and style kept very close to what we’ve seen in the past. For all intents and purposes, 3D World is Mario’s proper introduction to HD. From the sheen of a Bullet Bill to the rain striking against the camera in the game’s later stages, Super Mario 3D World oozes a fine attention to detail in its visuals. Sure, the world of 3D World may stick to simpler shapes in its platforms than the whimsical oddities of the Galaxy series (no worm bridges across space apples this time), but while the environments are simpler the style remains just as intricate. It’s gorgeous.

A stellar soundtrack adds to 3D World’s personality. Much like the Galaxy series, 3D World’s score is comprised of live band instruments and orchestras. If compared to the music of Galaxy, one could say 3D World’s score is more fun, but less beautiful. Equally catchy all the same.

3D World also finds some fun (albeit small) uses of the Wii U’s Gamepad. Certain levels will require touch screen actions in order to help Mario and friends out, while blowing into the Gamepad’s mic will reveal hidden objects and levitate certain platforms (in addition to making the player look like the best kind of idiot). It’s not exactly extensive usage of the Wii U’s capabilities, but they still bring some fun ideas to the table.

Super Mario 3D World brings out pretty much everything we’ve come to love about the Mario series through the years, all while weaving together its own style. It’s the most literal translation of Mario’s 2D roots into a 3D environment yet, and it contains bits and pieces of Mario’s history brought together and made anew. And for those seeking an extra challenge, 3D World contains three hidden Green Stars in every stage, as well as a hidden stamp that can later be used on Miiverse. Finding everything will ensure that the fun continues long after Bowser has been defeated. A large amount of post-game content also helps give the game lasting appeal.

Admittedly, for all its fun and creativity, 3D World never quite reaches the same heights as the Galaxy series, though it is the best entry in the Mario series since the galactic duo. But not being as good as Mario Galaxy is certainly no unforgivable sin, and despite just a few small hiccups in boss fights, Super Mario 3D World does an excellent job for itself. It’s some of the most fun to be had in gaming in years, and one of the best games on the Wii U.

Just be warned, if your friends start throwing you in harm’s way and cost you your cat suit, you may never want to speak to them again.

8