Ministry – AmeriKKKant

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Ministry is extremely stupid. Al, if you’re reading this, I think you’re insanely talented. You crafted one of the most unique sounds in Industrial and left most Metal bands in the dust. At their average, they captured the rusty, nihilistic, borderline satirical tone that Industrial music always aimed for. You don’t need their best tracks to hear metal that does sound dangerous and threatening to destroy the world along with itself.

The Bush trilogy is stupid, but it was powerful. The lack of insight into politics or the stupidity didn’t stop tracks like “Gangreen” to have power in how much bile and hatred they express. “Worm”, a fantastic display of depression could only come from a political record that’s full of fear and paranoia. The last album in that trilogy was surprisingly good. If the Bush triloy lacked any insight, it was powerful in capturing the emotions of living in such constant fear and hatred of the government.

Oh, but how stupid is Ministry! They can’t write songs. They create loops which beat you over the head for five minutes. That’s why Ministry were always a Dance act more than a Metal act. Verses and choruses are alien creatures to their music. It’s all about the loop that can keep people dancing, but often that loop didn’t change. So Ministry’s songs tend to exhaust themselves after 2 minutes. Exhaustion is another central theme of Ministry’s later works, so overall perhaps it fits.

Seriously, though, how stupid can you get? How stupid can you get with such a fantastic talent and sound design? AmeriKKKant is a moronic album. I mean, look at the title. It still thinks it’s clever to spell ‘AmeriKKKa’. Al is definitely late to identity politics, but hey it might sell records! The songs still consist of endless loops of the same thing. This time, it works a little better – thanks to turning to sludge – only there are so many terrible ideas in between it’s easy to forget that pretty awesome guitar solo that closes the album.

Why oh why did we need “I Know Words”, which is Trump’s vocals scratched and chopped to some fiddling in the background? It sounds like a Nurse With Wound B-side, or at best a stolen section from one of his songs. As an intro, it’s too long. As a 3-minute experimental piece, it goes nowhere and has no reason to take up so much space. Later on we get another interlude with the wasted title of “TV 5/4Chan”, which juxtaposes right-wing vocals with some noise. What does it mean? I don’t know. Right-wingers are pretty bad and are on 4chan. Ministry writing a song about the idiots of 4chan would’ve been actually nice. Maybe someone should take an axe to that meme culture, but sadly Ministry missed their change.

As for songs, the first singles are the worst. “Antifa” has been beaten to the ground and it will never get old. The song chugs along with indifferent riffs. The chorus is Al roaring “We’re not snowflakes, we are the antifa” without any hint of passion or anger or fury or anything. Even in terms of pure sound the song is bad with how dry and hollow the production sounds. “Wargasm” isn’t as stupid and it has a chorus – rare in Ministry’s catalogue. Sadly the song also chugs along with little passion or fury. Al sounds tired. At least at their dumbest, Ministry was furious. “Wargasm” lacks all that. Shouldn’t he be excited to make something other than Thrash metal?

What makes all this more frustrating is that there are hints of a bright future for this band. Although the highlights don’t have Ministry’s fury in the Bush era, “Twilight Zone”, “Game Over” and the title-track are all borderline excellent. Moving to more sludgy metal, sampling like hell and DJ scratches all help to create a suffocating sense of apocalypse, paranoia and general depression from the end of the world. It separates itself from the Bush trilogy by having zero hope. If the Bush trilogy had a warlike spirit, a character to direct anger at this has none.

“Twilight Zone” would’ve been a closing track in past Ministry albums. Now it’s the first actual song. It doesn’t even have a proper riff, but a slow, crumbling sound design that plays like the apocalypse. Sure, Trump is sampled and make fun of, but it’s no longe the direct hatred of past albums. Everything is bad and there is no light. It is a direct sequel in spirit to “Worm” and “End of Days”, combining the depression and the apocalypse. Time will tell how strong it will stand, but it just might enter into Ministry’s greatest hits. “Game Over” and the title-track aren’t too different, but they do the job right and added some much-needed melody.

These are only 3 tracks out of 9. Then again, 2 of the 9 tracks are just interludes. So we’re left with an odd feeling of a very short album that runs for too long that has few ideas and not enough time to work on them. “Victims of a Clown” is a 4-minute catchy rocker that’s stretched for no reason for 8 minutes. The most telling track is “We’re Tired of It”, a return to Thrash that really does sound tired with a horrible, toothless production job. The walls of sound in “Rio Grande Bloode” were enough. This one has none.

People continue to beat Ministry for their stupidity and perhaps we should continue. Stupid ideas flood this album, from stretching “Victims of a Clown” to the interludes, to the first singles and the overall production job. Yet the solo at the end of the title-track and “Twilight Zone” prove Al still has talent in him and it’s a talent no one can capture. Most Industrial Metal bands either replicated KMFDM or Marilyn Manson and Ministry could continue with all the changing members because Al does have a unique vision. I only want him to finally be able to realize it without all the stupidity clogging up their albums. At least this gave me 3 tracks to add to the Industrial playlist.

2 k’s out of 5 k’s

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New Found Glory – Makes Me Sick

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New Found Glory exists currently for about 20 years. I know people who are younger than this band. This is so bizarre. Recently I sat with a friend and we reflected (or lamented, or celebrated) the fact we’re getting older. What makes this all the more bizarre is that New Found Glory works in the genre of youth. Even if you weren’t a teenager in the days of Punk Pop – I was, but was more of a Nu Metal kid – this still sounds like music for teenagers to get loud to. It was catchy, it was loud, it was angry and victorious at the same. For the 30-year-old man, a song like “My Friends Over You” means nothing. For a 16-year-old kid trying to convince himself that he’s not attached to a girl, this song means everything.

In a way, this album is an acknowledgement that these dudes are getting older. Whatever their previous albums sound like, “Party on Apocalypse” is the sound of an out-of-touch adult who remembers being young, yet realizes his youth has been replaced. In style it’s what you expect from a grown-up Punk-Pop band. The riffs are moved to mid-tempo and they discovered you can dance to something other than pounding drums, so you get a slightly funk rhythm. Musically it updates the genre for parties, and many bands went this way. Eventually we find our friends and want to chill with them.

The lyrics are different. Many heard about how the current generation is stupid. Just ask Socrates and how he hated writing. The lyrics are full of discorn, of venom towards the current generation. It doesn’t come from an adult perspective or reminisincing on better days. It’s just as suited for any 16-year-old today who’s confused about how to have fun.

The first verse immediately kicks off with how the ‘living for the weekend’ mentality is stupid. Coming from the band with that nasty tone, they sound like the ones who are actually having fun. All these people who pass out in parking lots and care so much about their image look ridiculous. The band doesn’t get angry over it, but confused and mocking. Later there’s even a slight at Social Justice. It’s the outsider perspective, how things look from the outside. All those people putting pictures on Facebook of them with beer bottles and all this identity politics thing, where people think their race or gender must be their whole meaning. Thankfully the chorus saves it from being just a song about being grumpy about waiting for all the trends to die. In the end it’s a party song about looking at the world from outside, thinkinkg it’s ridiculous and knowing you have more fun.

Two more other songs take this delusional approach – “Call Me Anti-Social” and “Your Jokes Aren’t Funny”. The latter is pretty obvious. Someone’s jokes lost their spark, like when you’re 22-years-old and memes about rape jokes just don’t do it for you and actually look offensive. “Call Me Anti-Social” continues from “Apocalypse” with being even more anti-social, but there’s something charming about it. Like the previous song it’s another response to a world where we’re surrounded by images of people being social (Which is not the same as actually being social). In this world, it’s far easier to feel isolated and alone. Unless you’re sticking your tongue out in Ibiza, you’re no fun. As an anthem of tiredness, it’s fantastic and exactly what I’d expect from a rock band who notices how different the rock landscape is now.

Everything else after that is just a retreat of Sticks & Stones. That’s okay, because New Found Glory have more charm than any band they influenced and overtake them. Anyone else would’ve ruined “Party On Apocalypse”, but it’s their everyman, ordinary people with loud guitars approach that makes it so charming. So when they talk about being used for sex (“The Cheapest Thrill”) or a weird unstoppable love (“Barbed Wire”) it’s cute.

It also lacks vigor. It lacks the authenticity of youth. I’m not saying they are pretending. I’m sure they really care about these songs and the only time a song is close to bad is because the melody is dull, like how uninspired “Blurred Vision” is with repeating a single phrase over and over. Yet what made their original material so powerful was how youthful it sounded, that it wasn’t a professional band knowing their genre but a bunch of dudes who had passion for romance and were really confused over being young. “Barbed Wire” is really cute and the lyrics are adorable, but I wonder what it would’ve been like if they played it 15 years ago. They do sound grown-up, which is excellent for some songs. When talking about broken hearts though, they’re just professionals going through the motions. It’s still good, but this isn’t the heart of Punk-Pop.

“Party On Apocalypse” is a fantastic and should be at the top of end-of-year lists talking about the best songs. It’s everything I want from New Found Glory now that they’re older. Someone should’ve expressed disillusionment and confusion over contemporary times and this nails it. Besides that, it’s just a rehash of old material without the same youthful energy. It’s fun, sure, but besides “Call Me Anti-Social” I can get everything here in better form in previous albums. Get these two tracks though.

I wish they would’ve used a better album title. What could be more generic?

2.5 apocalypses out of 5

The Crystal Method – Tweekend

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The Crystal Method has been written off as inferior carbon copies of Big Beat, and also that they did a ‘dumb, American version of it’. Snobbish people had to convince themselves that the Prodigy made profound music involving social commentary and existential questions when in reality they did nothing but really, really catchy noise. At first this label of the Crystal Method is a bit deserved. Their debut is a collection of cool Breaks with some funky Sci-Fi sounds. It had a cool sound, but few songs. Here, though, they truly come together and cement themselves as canonical in the electronic genre. Tweekend is one of the reasons why Big Beat remains EDM’s best genre.

Since by now every artist in the genre cemented their sound – Prodigy with their loud rocking, Fatboy Slim with his smoothness, Chemical Brothers with their genre-bending, Crystal Method had to find some kind of shtick that makes them unique. The whole ‘simple breaks and cool sounds’ was rendered irrelevant in ChemBros’ debut, where they converted it into some of music’s best 30 seconds. So they try to find a new, defining sound here – and they mostly succeed.

They still sound like newcomers, but not in the bad way. It’s obvious their sources of inspiration include the aforementioned artists, not just the genres influencing Big Beat. You get here a more clearer picture of what Big Beat is, and why every soda pop commercial wanted this kind of music. Whereas the Prodigy made Breakbeat fueled by guitar noise, Crystal Method seeked the specific kinetic energy that the genres happened to create. The originators were inspired by other genres. Here, Crystal Method are directly inspired by the originators.

That’s the main distinction between this album and their debut. Now they don’t just want to bang, but to make music that works like a martial arts scene or a car race. It’s music that was made for video games of that era, when violence was cartoonish, cars were fast (and possibly shot rockets) and everything was larger than life. It’s the end of the retro-future. Our image of the future and technological development wasn’t of peace but of combat and lasers, but boy do we like it. The album cover fits the atmosphere of it, watching a world becoming more technological and being okay with it.

At this point you can compare it to Electro-Industrial, and Big Beat always shared similar sounds and influence – and an ability to fit ideally most video games and movies. Oh, and yes, composers were stupid enough not to ask the dudes from Front Line Assembly to score The Matrix. Whereas the Industrial movement was scared of that future, this music jumps into it. It’s inevitable, so we might as well party.

That’s why it manages to have a fairly aggressive, macho sound without copying the Prodigy’s rebel punk antics. A funky bounce is underneath most of the songs, even the noise blast that is “Name of the Game”. There they let Ryu rap about how awesome he is over Morello’s riffing. Aside from being a fantastic idea for a song, the bass is deep and womping underneath all that noise. On some tracks the funk is more prominent – if you can sit still to “Roll It Up”, you may want to check things with your doctor.

It’s funny that they were branded as a dumber American dumbing down, since they actually play more with atmosphere than most Big Beat artists. In fact, they lead back to Progressive House than any other in the genre. “Roll It Up” and “Blowout” have a continous structure and a looping beat that threatens to last forver. There are few actual riffs here, sometimes appearing on songs like “Murder” and “PHD” but serving the beat rather than taking the center stage. Many of the sounds here surrounded and engulf the listener rather than pound into it.

What was seen as ‘dumb American’ is just the band getting the essence of Big Beat, if not exactly making the best album in the genre. Then again their competition includes ChemBros, so it’s by nature difficult. This album distills Big Beat from the outside influence, keeping what’s important – Hip-Hop breaks, a Funk bounce, Techno structures and the aggression of Rock. That still gives them a lot of room to move even if they never threaten to break away, but what great songs – “PHD” with its slower funk, “Roll It Up” in how spacey it sounds, “Murder” gives a badass melodic hook and “Over the Line” shows they can also be beautiful and more introspective. Being raised on albums like these made me wonder why EDM isn’t supposed to be an ‘album genre’. Even the weakest tracks like “The Winner” still bang. Perhaps you can cut a minute here and a minute there, but this is one of those “If you don’t like it, you’re no fun” albums.

3.5 murders out of 5

Sundays Without God (Kamisama no Inai Nichiyoubi)

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This is such a bizarre anime. I’ve seen anime and movies with trippy imagery. I’ve read stories with pages of gibberish, yet few works of fiction left me with a sense of culture shock like this. Such anime are so original it’s hard to make them truly terrible, since the novelty value is there. Creators also tend to be as confused as the viewer, so they rarely reach their full potential.

When you have a unique premise on your hands that doesn’t owe anything to any tradition, there are two ways to go about it. You can either go full retard, mine the premise for anything it has and throw the kitchen sink along with everything. Since you have no idea how your anime is supposed to work, all you can do is try everything and hope something sticks. There’s a famous anime who did this and it’s called Future Diary.

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The other route is the safer one. You let your story flow, but you never try too hard to understand it. You let characters interact and explore your world, but you refrain from anything too attention-grabbing. The anime will narrow its focus. Its structure will become almost RPG-like, giving the protagonist a basic objective to complete and finish it off.

Sundays Without God takes the latter route, but the result isn’t a complete failure. Despite not playing with the structure, its setting and premise are so weird that the feeling of culture shock is persistent. The stories that make up the anime are also good enough on their own and take advantage of the setting. You cannot tell them in any other context. Still, something feels off. It’s not completely weird, not completely normal and leans towards the weird without mining it too much. The result is anime that’s enjoyable like an ordinary anime while feeling weird.

The best thing about the anime is it unique setting and tone. It’s a perfect example of how you don’t need a lot of details to create a unique world. The world here is simple. God is gone, no one can get born and dead people don’t really die. It’s apocalypse in slow motion. We’ve had a lot of stories about what happens after the apocalypse and we tend to imagine it as something swift and fast. Here, the world is in the process of ending.

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Human beings are resilient things, though. Even if the sun will explode, we’ll most likely try to save something. Survival instinct is so strong that it defies rationality and free will. In this case, the world isn’t ending so much as life reaches its epilogue. Life isn’t bad, but it keeps moving in an ordinary pace towards its ending.

What do you do when you’re the last generation? The anime is essentially about this, but it seems so weirded out by its premise it doesn’t really explore it. The first stories deal directly with these themes – one character is about to be the last of the last generation, which is the worst isolation you can have. The city of the dead is an interesting expressions of the Metaphysical Rebellion – how we can rebel against our circumstances and reject them.

The structure doesn’t prevent exploration of these topics, since many shows used shorter length with depth. The method of storytelling gets in the way. There’s an objective to solve, and the characters spend more time trying to solve it. While the pacing isn’t thriller-like, it’s too fast for such a premise. It doesn’t slow down enough to show how characters exist outside the story.

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Characters’ existence outside the story is one of the best ways to convince us they’re real, to make us care about them and see their humanity. Stories are something humans create and we don’t live in just one. A focused storyteller shows snippets of other stories the characters can have, but then goes back to the main one. A master storyteller can imply these side-stories and connect them to the main plotline. The anime doesn’t do this. Its focus is too narrow.

It’s a shame, because the storytelling is quite excellent. The format is familiar – we have a good, well-meaning character visiting people and helping them. Ai isn’t just a vehicle to tell the stories of these people. Her personality and position is directly tied to her role. In a world where everyone’s ready to die or desperately fighting death, she’s a piece of light. She’s the youngest person alive, a possibility that there might be a future.

She’s not a lantern, though. When things go bad, Ai doesn’t say some nice things and the story ends. Often, she gives those pep talks but stumbles. The world is, after all, ending. Problems still exist and are hard to solve. Ai may be an optimist, but she’s a struggling optimist. We see her doubts, how much she tries to cling to her optimism despite everything.

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This is where the anime’s faults lay. Although this is an excellent usage of such a character, they don’t take it far enough. Ai struggles, but the creators put her so much in the role of problem-solver she doesn’t have time to ingest the struggling. There’s no time to see how the possible failures affect Ai’s psych. Stories don’t always end just like she wants them to, and that should influence her worldview. How do you stay optimistic when things don’t go as expected? Do you blind your own eyes? Do you become pessimistic, or do you accept things as they are? The anime never addresses these questions.

The themes of wishing does make its appearance, but the creators aren’t sure what to do with it. People wish for things. Sometimes they come true, sometimes they don’t and sometimes they come true but the result is painful. It speaks volumes when a messy anime like Big Order addresses these themes better. They’re present, but wishing is not a plot device here and there aren’t enough angles to explore this topic from. It’s just there.

The art style continues the weird nature of the quality. The character’s looks are distinct and memorable enough, but the art style itself isn’t. You can put these characters in a school anime and they wouldn’t feel out of place (except for the outfits). There’s variety in how everyone looks and the school arc lets them show off their designs, but nothing connects it. Characters shouldn’t just look distinct but there should be a style that connects them, quirks that make the design memorable and make you wonder what else you can do with it.

On the other hand, the color schemes and backgrounds are beautiful. The anime finally fulfills potential. The colors are balanced. Light and dark tones are mixed. A burning red or a cold blue is are the dominating colors, and they have just enough brightness to make the world seem normal. There’s also a little darkness in them that reminds you that the world is dying. It’s a balance that’s hard to get. You can easily find yourself in bland colors, but here they’re the perfect mix of darkness and lights that fit the weird tone of the series.

Sundays Without God is a flawed anime, but nevertheless an anime like no other. Its failures hold it back from greatness, and but their nature prevents them from being offensive. When it falls, it’s not because it does stupid things. Rather, it’s too afraid to play with its ideas. They stand on their own, and even as basic storytelling it’s good enough. Someone might one day run away with these and render this irrelevant, but until then it’s worth your time.

3.5 sundays out of 5

Megadeth – Dystopia

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For a long while, I thought metalheads were stupid.I read reviews in metal sites where bands were called unoriginal for mixing genres. Then they’d give five stars to a Thrash band that keeps it ‘true to their roots’. I really hoped I was just stereotyping because I was an idiot.

“Super Collider” is a great song. It’s ridiculous Stadium Rock that’s fun, melodic and would go well with a beer. Since it was ‘radio rock’ the fans got angry and so we get the obligatory back to basics album. There isn’t a single song here as fun or with as much personality as “Super Collider”.

Mustain is an old guy. He didn’t hide it on “Super Collider”. He sounded like an old guy celebrating rock music and the joys of making money off telling teenagers about how religion is bad. It sounded both honest and refreshing even if you never heard a
Megadeth song before.

Here, he’s just pulling cliches out of his ass. I already heard this record back when it was called Countdown to Extinction. It was just as overly serious then but the band sounded young. There was charm in how seriously they played their music.

You don’t hear this spark in this record. It sounds so calculated. Can you get more cliched than “Fatal Illusion” or “Death From Within”? These are the most hackneyed Thrash titles. There’s a tiredness all over the record, even though the band tries hard to hide it.

They still sound good. In fact, I’m sure many of these songs would work well live. The riffs are loud and the drums bang hard. Mustaine may sound old but he sure tries. Sometimes, he hits the spot like on “The Emperor” (which is the most lighthearted song here. That’s not a coincidence). It’s charming to see how they try hard to make something profound in “Poisonous Shadows”. We even get an instrumental track in “Conquer or Die”, which isn’t interesting but at least it’s not an acoustic interlude. Maybe it will work well in a movie.

It’s so serious though. Do people really enjoy listening to chugging riffs, squeaky solos while stroking their beard? Stupid lyrics can be a lot of fun, but not in this context. This is a very serious album. You may make a mistake it’s just fun thrashing, but then you get to “Post American World”. That’s the kind of brooding I expect from The Smiths or Joy Division. The thing is, sparse arrangements sound well when brooding. Shredding doesn’t brood.

I might have taken the whole ‘apocalypse’ theme seriously, but it’s been drilled to our heads already. The only apocalypse so far is an apocalypse in the arts. The theme of ‘apocalypse’ is now boring. Still, it could have been fine if it was fun. This is music for first-person shooters and action films. It’s all pounding drums and chugging riffs. The only way you can be apocalyptic with this music is by adding something, like how Ministry’s guitars sound like chainsaws.

Mustaine sounds grave though. He sounds worried about the upcoming dystopia (Which we’ve been warned about from time immemorial). There’s no fun to be had here. It’s not even the venting that Ministry had on their Bush albums. Mustaine sounds like he hopes to change the world using guitar solos. All he does is give people a reason to make fun of metal.

Or maybe he’s just tired. He wanted to sing anthems now that he’s got tons of money. The fans wanted tostroke their beards while thinking ‘this is deep. It’s not about girls’. So he gave us a record full of dull lyrics about how the thread is real.

It’s a shame because there’s talent here. There are some really good hooks and most of the record sounds energetic enough. The band doesn’t sound like they’re at the end, but more like they’re not interested in this type of music. “The Threat Is Real” would have been better if it was about telling people to fuck off.

Some have criticized Mustaine’s ‘conservative’ lyrics. The irony is bigger than Jupiter. There are hundreds of bands making songs against America. Bowie had a song called “I’m Afraid of Americans”. Mustaine says vaguely that he doesn’t trust a huge wave of immigrants and suddenly he’s xenophobic and racist. Okay, the lyrics to “Post American World” are stupid, but I’ve heard far worse xenophobia from oppressed groups.

It’s a fun record, but mostly pointless. It’s overly serious in a genre that’s not meant to be serious. “The Emperor” is great and so is a few other songs, but why go back to this? I can get the same effect by listening to Prong or Five Finger Death Punch or Superjoint Ritual or Texas Hippie Coalition, only without the bullshit lyrics and seriousness.

2 super colliders out of 5

Mirai Nikki (Future Diary): Redial

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The original series had a lot of great ideas that weren’t enough for 26 episodes. What a surprise that this OVA has more ideas that can fit in 30 minutes. Redial doesn’t feel like an epilogue. It feels like a sketch for the third season.

The obligatory beach section rears its head, but it’s not here for fanservice. Once again, the franchise takes a trope and plays by its own rules. The jokes and the focus is on the cast, which is as lively as ever. The ecchi moments don’t feel like tacked on but emerge organically. They involve only the characters who will deal with sexual confusion at that stage in life.

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The re-appearance of the diary holders has the same vivid characterization as the original. My theory was true. Each time a diary holder is allowed to do stuff, their personality comes alive. The 12th remains a hilarious, energetic presence. Everyone is crazy, but he’s so far out there that everyone else backs away.

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The 12th gets the most development, but others get some development. John Bacchus gets a few jokes of his own. The humor here stems from the characters themselves, rather than specific punchlines. Such comedy is more than funny, but builds the character. The impression these scenes leave is that Future Diary could develop a Slice of Life anime with its cast.

Things get fuzzier when Redial goes back in touch with the plot. It tries to develop the romance concept, but it ends up being confused on what it wants to say. The original was satirical about it. It presented an intense love, but showed its danger. Yuno’s obsession with Yuki isn’t healthy or productive, and the original knew that.

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The conclusion hints at a love-conquers-all message. The original always dealt with extremes, so a love that defeats such barriers isn’t out of place. It doesn’t align with the satire, though. As an exploration of Yuno’s psych, it’s too short.

The changes in the new world weren’t enough to change everyone completely. Rei still has a sadistic side to him. Expecting Yuno to be psych-healthy is ridiculous. Psychological problems often take time until they manifest. Give this a few episodes, and you could get a true psychological series. A psychological story doesn’t need a seriel killer. It’s enough just to follow a character, and this OVA hints they could do that.

Even Deus and Uryuu get some development in their brief appearances. 30 minutes aren’t enough to develop all of these ideas. It’s a nice addition and it’s great to see these characters in an alternative setting, but that’s it. There’s so much steam left in this franchise, it’s odd nothing else came out. Attack On Titan is getting so many spin-offs it might as well be a carousel. As good as that one was, it doesn’t have Future Diary‘s lively madness.

Hopefully, someone will pick this franchise again one day and give it a new spin.

3 blind men out of 5    

The Fallout Series

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To the west, you can see a natural light. For the first time in your life, you are looking at the outside world.

I was introduced to the Fallout series via Bethesda’s entry. If your exposure to RPG’s consist of their fantasy series and Dragon Age, you were probably a little shocked by the angry vitriol aimed at Fallout 3. The cries went beyond Bethesda’s changing the gameplay. The series wasn’t known for its fantastic turn-based combat that’s based on luck. Bethesda were criticized with ruining the original spirit of Fallout, and New Vegas was praised with reviving it.

Playing the original Fallout‘s failed to convince me Bethesda did a disservice to the series. It did the complete opposite. Although New Vegas had plenty of references to the old games, and a lot of characters made a comeback, Fallout 3 felt like an actual continuation of the series, at least continuing what begun in the first game. New Vegas continues Fallout 2 and how it turns the wasteland into a wacky, fantastical world. That wasn’t the heart of the series though. No amount of name-dropping things from previous entries will help you capture the old spirit.

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“The Unity will bring about the master race. Master! Master! One able to survive, or even thrive, in the wasteland. As long as there are differences, we will tear ourselves apart fighting each other. We need one race. Race! Race! One goal. Goal! Goal! One people . . . to move forward to our destiny. Destiny.”

The forums in RPGCodex define players as either storyfags or combatfags. I’m deep in the storyfag party. Combat in video games is mostly for easy fun, something to do while checking out the latest records and thinking how overrated the canon is. Perhaps one day I’ll see the beauty of a million algorithims that decide whether my character dies or becomes a banana octopus, but until then it’s the storytelling that’s much more exciting. Fallout didn’t have an interesting combat system either, but its strength was always in its storytelling.

In the first game, you are not born in the wasteland, unlike 2 or New Vegas. You emerge from the vault into a world that’s completely alien to you. It’s not just alien because it’s supposed to be the first Fallout experience. The wasteland reveals itself slowly. You do not immidiately hear about the booming center. You do not meet fantastic events in the beginning. The game begins with a small, unremarkable town. Later, the towns’ size increases, which turns your first encounter unique.

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The wasteland is neither depressive and gloomy nor a huge satire of humanity. It thrives on weirdness, but not weirdness for the sake of cheap amusement. The litany of absurd things – two-headed cows, an irradiated maniac with the name of an egyptian God and the various cults are here to show us the absurdity (and beauty) of still trying to make it through a wrecked world. It makes little sense to try to survive in the wasteland. Mutated animals, radiation, anarchy – the future doesn’t seem to exist, yet people are still trying to make it.

Fallout 3 continues in that vein. Worshipping an undetonated atomic bomb and people pretending to be superheroes makes perfect sense in the wasteland. It’s a place that will most likely break people down mentally, instead of keeping them normal. The gameplay and the actual fictional world are not the same thing. The gameplay always makes it easier to survive, but imagine if you were really there. The world that surrounds you is wrecked, most animals are distorted and you probably heard old tales of how bright the future could be. You might also be pretty lonely. Putting on a superhero suit makes sense in this setting. It will drive you crazy, and the suit might intimidate some people.

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New Vegas and Fallout 2 can’t keep this theme going. Fallout 2 actually starts fairly well, even if the tribes would have been more comfortable somewhere in Planescape (Unlike the cult in Megaton, Bright Brotherhood or the Unity Church, the tribes have little connection to the game’s themes). Broken Hills and Modoc are great places. The former is an experiment where the three races live together and the latter is a depressed, doomed community that the wasteland is bound to have hundreds of. Things start to get worse once you get to New Reno. The gang wars aren’t updated to fit the wasteland. This isn’t a case of taking an inspiration from something real and changing it to fit the wasteland. Instead, Black Isle lifted mafias with all their drama and visual style and just placed them in the wasteland. The bouncers wear fedoras. The families are powerful. The casinos are prospering. Later on, you’ll encounter a strange Chinese cult. Fallout 2 may be a frankenstein of sorts, consisting of parts from RPG’s buried in development hell.

New Vegas is slightly better, but it’s a western more than anything. Most of the people act like cowboys and ranchers. The whole look of the place relies on how we thing the wild west was. The Mojave is treated more as just a desert, instead of a wasteland. The general view of Fallout 3 is full of ruined buildings and dark skies. New Vegas has the great outdoors that are a common feature in country music. Again, we see here imagery lifted straight from an unrelated genre with little change to it. Obsidian did slightly more with the material they lifted up. This form of wild west does make sense in a post-apocalyptic world. Fallout‘s main source of inspiration, Mad Max, was a western in a post-apocalyptic setting. The people in the Mad Max films though were just as weird as those of the Fallout series, but they had their own culture and myth. New vegas’ culture is just a slightly altered western.

Fallout 2 and New Vegas are praised for their amount of choices, unlike Fallout 1&3. It’s a cool gameplay mechanic, but unless these choices are meaningful storywise, that’s all they end up. They become as meaningful as your choice between a shotgun or a submachine gun. Caesar’s Legion is a boring faction which consists of bad guys with no motive. At least the Enclave look like good guys as seen from their point of view. The NCR and Mr. House are much better, and represent ideas more complex than good and evil. New Vegas‘ plot doesn’t really develop these, though. There’s a point where you make your choice, and the main quest becomes a series of hoops to jump through in order to get to the big battle. At some point, the game stops delivering new informations about the factions. In Fallout 3, you keep learning about the wasteland throughout the various quests. It’s only the final one that is just one huge action scene. I won’t even start on Fallout 2. The terrible Scientology parody and the Chinese took me out, and I keep finding better games to play.

Video games are themselves all about choices. Something happens in a video game only if you choose to do it, even if it’s as dull as moving to the next level or keep hanging around this one. The choices mechanic in RPG’s is just an expansion of it. Good storytelling in video games doesn’t need choices, and choices only improve the storytelling if they help to develop more meaningful stories. The choices in Planescape: Torment are great not just because they add a bunch of different routes. These choices increase the number of meaningful and great stories that the game can tell, and that’s what increases the replay value. The choices in New Vegas don’t offer a particularly new story, and Fallout 2 is just a mess. It’s the first and the third just offer great stories, and if they have to be linear to do it then it’s a sacrifice worth making. They also both deal with the theme of race with more depth than most fiction, something I will elaborate on in a different post.

Pictures are taken from the Fallout Wiki