Anime! – Knights of Sidonia

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Recently, I’ve gotten back into anime, as a means of improving my Japanese vocabulary. Without realizing it, I’ve fallen down a rabbit-hole of Shoujo, space travel and spiky hair.

With the rise in popularity in titles like Attack on Titan and the soon to be cult-cancelled, Legend of Korra some great titles are coming out of the woodwork and bringing anime back into the media mainstream for the first time since Spirited Away picked up an Academy Award.

One title in particular, that shows just how far anime has risen in the West is Netflix exclusive, Knights of Sidonia.

Based on the Tsutomu Nihei, Knights of Sidonia is a story of friendship, perseverance and salvation. It tells the story of a boy who, after spending his entire life underground, playing a flight simulator and emerges into a dystopian After-Earth space colony called Sidonia to be selected as one of its guardians.

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Sidonia itself is one of the last bastions of human existence and the artwork in creating a surviving, futuristic, but still melancholic setting is something to be applauded. They clearly know this too, and the series is regularly cut up with brief, frozen art-cards, showing the many sides of Sidonia and its residents.

The series combines all of the core elements of a good Seinen manga; combining mecha, sci-fi, deadly parasites and the occasional dose of avant-garde to create a thoughtful and moving series that dispatches monsters, asks philosophical questions and cheers for an underdog.

Artistically, it covers all of the modern bases, with lens-flares and shaking “cameras” galore; granting an almost documentary-like feel to the animation. In addition, it would appear that for some scenes, particularly those in space, the 2D characters have been drawn over 3D models, which makes for some breathtaking pans and immersive battle scenes.

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I’ve been out of the scene for a while and I’m only just warming to it again, but can really see KoS becoming a favorite of mine. It’s paced well and, despite all of the action, maintains a relaxed approach to storytelling, meaning it can be watched over and over, quite casually, without feeling too beaten down by it.

Whether you’re new to anime or so deep into it that you need to take a break, Knights of Sidonia is a great entryway. It’s not overly deep, but likewise provides more than enough to let you create an investment with each character.

I’m yet to check out the Manga, but already get a feeling that there’s much more to see in Sidonia than what lies on the surface.

The second series is currently under production, following a warm reception of the debut, so hopefully we wont have to wait too long before seeing Nagate piloting another Guardian.

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Expansion Review – Hearthstone: Curse of Naxxramas

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At long last, the game mode that Hearthstone fans have all been waiting for – Curse of Naxxramas is finally here! Hearthstone has taken the gaming world by storm, bridging the gap for everyday gamers to engage in competitive card gaming and pave the way for a more casual CCG option. Until Hearthstone launched, the majority of competitive card games were viewed, from the outside, as being complex and difficult, with wave after wave of convoluted game mechanics, meta-rules and procedures that, for many, created a barrier to learning the game properly. Titles like Magic: The Gathering and Duel of Champions have done extremely well, but over the course of Hearthstones launch week, it quickly stomped over its competition, creating an eSports following, fansites, deckbuilder apps and all sorts; it truly solved the CCG problem.

One thing, however, was missing. Most competitive card games teach players the general rules through a story mode, or a campaign, that lets you ease yourself in and enjoy the game, with the pleasant distraction of a plot, to break the game into more digestible chunks. Despite Hearthstone’s ease of access, you really didnt have much choice when it came to how you player the game – play the computer, or play the community, in exactly the same manner. Or, at best, play “Arena”, which has a few minor differences, plus the added thrill of pseudo-gambling, but it really wasn’t a far cry from the standard game mode. That’s where Curse of Naxxramas came in, promising to give the World of Warcraft themed game some lore unto its own, a plot and some substance, for players to get stuck into.

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After playing the trial for most of its launch day, I was disappointed, and have remained underwhelmed by it ever since. Naxxramas, admittedly comes with a bunch of new stuff and the new cards are a refreshing addition to the game, but was the campaign itself all that it had been played up to be? Not a chance. Other CCG videogames take you on vast adventures across maps; creating rivalries, telling stories and giving hour after hour of enjoyment, as you lead your card-wielding protagonist through a labyrinth of tests.

Hearthstone: Curse of Naxxramas, by comparison, was a straight line. You are introduced to very few new characters, a couple of slightly tweaked mechanics and literally no plot at all, besides a cursory speech bubble at the start and end of each battle. Within a day I had grown bored and, even with all of the new cards and combos to experiment with, got the feeling that the other pay-to-play chapters of the game would be left to gather dust for some time.

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On the plus side, there are a couple of nice features, such as the “home advantage” given to your opponents and the challengin Heroic mode, which will teach you a thing or two about deck building along the way, as you regroup, in search of its coveted, new card-back. The new content is nice, especially since it’s free, but the $6.99 expansions are less than attractive right now and, from a competitive perspective, the time in the Naxxramas Necropolis feels like it could have been better spent in the Arena or in Ranked.

The second wing of the Curse of Naxxramas expansion goes Live tomorrow, and you can still get the first part for free, but, be sure to try it before sinking money on the sequels.

Book Review – Orange Is The New Black

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I’ve been a huge fan of the Orange Is The New Black TV series. Frankly, it’s the only reason I have a Netflix membership. The TV series has sailed a perfect line between grit and humor, all with some great, distinguishable characters that make you watch episode to episode. The hashtag #OITNB is almost synonymous with the new, digital-era craze of binge watching.

With this in mind, I was really happy to see Piper Kerman’s real-life memoir appear in my reading list on Amazon and delved in headfirst; keen to read the true tales of a middle-class prison inmate.

For anyone who’s missed out on the whirlwind success of OITNB; it’s based on the real-life events of Piper Kerman – a middle class woman who dabbled in drug-muling in college, for fun, and was convicted 10 years later, after straightening up, finding a good job, a fiance and a normal life. The rug is pulled from underneath her and she finds herself in a minimum security prison for a brief stint of justice and self discovery.

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Typically, with a “New York Times best seller”, I’m wary, but held faith in Orange Is The New Black, simply due to the standard of the TV series.

The book is a memoir, and despite most memoirs being, in some way, exaggerated, for entertainment value (James Frey, anyone?), the Orange Is The New Black book is incredibly underwhelming.

I’d recommend the book to any fan of the Netflix exclusive, simply so you can draw parallels and read the true accounts. It is, however, disappointingly uneventful by comparison…and even then, it comes across as embellished.

It should have been obvious, but a middle class account of life in prison is…well…middle class. Kerman’s brief, eventless stay in minimum security featured a significantly large pile of books, exercise routines and the middle-class past-time of trading favors and using others to her advantage. Her lectures on the virtues of yoga and how to choose a good pedicurist while in the clink are painful to read, as are her attempts to roughen her edges by discussing a newfound love of rap (with lyrics) and recounting that one time she kind-of almost shouted at another inmate. The most vanilla of moments are dragged out and often chapters are built up to crescendo-less endings.

Unlike the TV series, there are little to no conflicts, no controversy and no excitement. Piper romanticizes her crime and seemingly coasts through her time in prison, frequently drawing attention to the fact the inmates and wardens alike thought she shouldn’t have even been there. All the book does is highlight that she felt no consequence to her actions, other than the mild inconvenience of having to find a new hairdresser and tailor.

What’s interesting, is reading the revelations of just how broken the “system” is, particularly from a female perspective, and these moments are frequent, insightful and unbiased. I’d go so far as to say they’re a redeeming quality of the book, since the biographical elements, unless you too are a middle class woman are aggravatingly fruitless.

In conclusion, reading the book makes you really appreciate the fact that it was made into a TV series, since the prose itself makes a very poor argument. If you’re a fan of the TV series, it’s nice to read as a comparison piece and to achieve a little more depth, but if you’re on the outside looking in; it’s really nothing special.