Saturday, 29 December 2018

15 Best Movie Posters of 2018



If you've ready any of my movie reviews, you might have noticed that I always have a whole blurb at the start of the review critiquing the design of the film's poster. I really love a good movie poster, it's a piece of art unto itself. Films that treat their poster as more than just a piece of marketing deserve special recognition, so what better way to do that than a year-end countdown?

Also... man, it's hard to believe that the last time I did a movie posters best-of was 5 freaking years ago! I've always wanted to turn it into an annual thing, but it has never actually happened for whatever reason. Hell, I even had a folder with notable movie posters saved in 2015 or 2017, but the countdown just never materialized. So, with any luck, this will be commencement of the first annual IC2S Best Movie Poster countdown!

(Images come courtesy of the film poster database Internet Movie Poster Awards.)

Honourable Mention: The Predator
This poster deserves special mention just because of how weird it is. This is one of a series of stylized posters featuring the Predator living a "cool" lifestyle of playing basketball, skateboarding and break-dancing. It's such a bonkers design, made even weirder by the tongue-in-cheek "ALIEN" brand on their computer and basketball jersey. The neon graffiti aesthetic is also so at odds with Predator that this whole thing becomes really interesting. I mean, it's more respectful to the franchise than The Predator was at the very least.

Thursday, 27 December 2018

Ranking the Albums I Listened to in 2018

Hey, it's that time of year again! That's right, the time of year when I look back on the random-ass music I've listened to, most of which no one has heard of or cares about! If you're curious about last year's picks, you can read the list here. I decided to change up the title of these lists going forward because, while "Favourite Albums" is less wordy, by no means do I want people seeing some of the low-ranked crap on this list and thinking it was one of my favourite albums of the year.

Also, in February I had the pleasure of seeing In This Moment and P.O.D. in Detroit, along with opening acts New Year's Day and Ded! It was a fantastic time and I'm so glad that I got to see two of my favourite bands live. Was also a great experience to share with with my fiance, along with my longtime friend and fellow blogger at The M.


Alright, let's get to the rankings...!

Saturday, 22 December 2018

Love/Hate - Nioh

I'm going to do something slightly different here - normally I'd just be looking at the Dark Souls trilogy itself when doing a love/hate series, but I'm actually going to change it up slightly and include other games in this subgenre that I have played and which I feel could make for a strong comparison. As a result, I'm bringing you the Souls-like samurai game from Team Ninja, Nioh! Having gotten into Bloodborne and Dark Souls from my itching for a new Ninja Gaiden game, could Nioh live up to Team Ninja's reputation for rich and satisfying combat? Read on to find my thoughts...


Love
  • Amazing Combat System - I'll just come out and say that Nioh has the best combat system in any Souls-like game. Team Ninja really hits it out of the park, nailing a really precise combat system while the game's speed somewhere between Bloodborne and Ninja Gaiden. The result is a very fast-paced game that is deep, skillful and incredibly satisfying to master. There are also a couple of big innovations which help make Nioh's combat stand out so much:
    • Ki Pulse takes the stamina regeneration of Souls games and adds in an active-reload system which will allow you to replenish your stamina instantly if you do it correctly. This creates a balancing act where you can risk running out of stamina but get it back quickly in order to keep your attacks going longer. It takes a bit of practice, but once you get the timing down it becomes second-nature and allows you to be incredibly aggressive.
    • Weapon stances are also a huge addition in this game. All weapons can be held in high, mid, or low stance, which significantly changes the way the weapon performs. Each stance changes your combat and dodge speeds, and some enemies are best fought in different stances (for example, Yoki are susceptible to high stance sword strikes which will hit them in the head and stun them when they break their horns). While you might be tempted just to stick with one stance, learning to master stance chances makes a huge difference in combat and just further deepens the experience.
    • You can see your opponents' ki meters, meaning that stunning them becomes a reliable strategy should you choose to go for it. I liked using a heavy axe as my secondary weapon for this very reason, with only a single strong high-stance attack I could destroy most enemies' ki bars.
  • Addictive Loot System - Nioh features a Diablo-like loot system. Unlike Dark Souls where each piece of equipment has fixed properties (until you upgrade it anyway), all equipment in Nioh has randomized perks. You can spend ages in the blacksmith just reforging your armour and weapons to get the perfect perks which complement your build and playstyle. It can be addictive just collecting all the loot drops and looking for that one piece of armour or weapon that is better than the one you have already.
  • Spirit Guardians Are Cool - Even if it was just aesthetic, the idea of picking the spirit guardian that accompanies you on your journey is awesome (I went with the Paired Raiken, because having two lightning puppies with me is amazing). However, each guardian provides unique bonuses while they are with you which can further optimize your build, while also being able to help in a pinch. However, the trade-off is that when you die, your guardian spirit stays to protect your lost Amrita (this game's souls-equivalent) and no longer provides you with any bonuses unless you choose to sacrifice your lost Amrita. It makes for a pretty interesting trade-off and makes death just that much more tense.
  • Fun Side Content - Nioh's mission-based structure allows for the inclusion of various side content for players to enjoy. These are all pretty fun and provide you with more loot, from bite-sized side missions, to challenging duels, to the challenging-but-rewarding twilight missions. This side content allows you to get your equipment and levels upgraded without having to do repetitive level grinding and farming like other Souls-like games tend to.
  • Meaty DLC - Team Ninja did a good job with the DLC packs for Nioh, providing players with three expansions with plenty of new missions, weapons and challenging bosses to sink your teeth into. This extends the length of the base game by several hours per pack while also providing an epilogue to the main game's story. The bosses are also all consistently fun and challenging.
  • Builds on the Souls Formula - Nioh definitely cribs many elements from the formula of Dark Souls - stamina-based fighting system, clever level design emphasizing traps and exploration, shrines are this game's bonfires, etc. However, Nioh also adds plenty of its own elements and twists to the formula, which allows it to stand out on its own and not feel like a ripoff (unlike, say, Lords of the Fallen). Even something simple like the bloodspots in Souls games have been given cool twists - in Nioh, blood spots can be used to spawn revenants, which have the equipment of the player who was killed and which can provide you with amazing loot drops if you risk spawning them into your game.

Thursday, 20 December 2018

Love/Hate - Dark Souls 3


Love
  • Refined Game Engine - As groundbreaking as the Souls games are, they have always been incredibly janky and take some time to get used to how clunky they can be (not to mention the extremely poor performance that the first two games had across multiple platforms). Dark Souls 3 is built off of the Bloodborne engine and thankfully no longer has these issues. The game looks gorgeous and runs at a pretty stable 30fps on consoles. While 60fps would probably be ideal for a fast-paced action game, 30fps would have been a pipe dream for earlier games in the series, so I'll take what I can get at least.
  • Increased Combat and Game Speed - Dark Souls 3 takes some pages from Bloodborne in its design, one of which is the noticeably increased speed of the combat and enemy aggression. Your reflexes are certainly put to the test more often and it also helps that the game's animations have been made are far more fluid and responsive. As a result, simply playing Dark Souls 3 feels better than it has in previous entries in the series.
  • The Bosses Are Better Than Ever - I would go out on a limb and say that Dark Souls 3 has the best-designed bosses in the entire franchise. This is because basically every boss now has multiple stages when their health bars reach a certain point, meaning that you are no longer stuck repeating the same patterns to defeat a boss throughout the entire fight. Naturally, this makes the bosses harder, but I find them so much funner and satisfying, and it really makes the bosses in the previous games feel less challenging as a result. Particular highlights include The Abyss WatchersDancer of the Boreal Valleythe Twin Princes of LothricThe Nameless KingThe Demon in Pain and the Demon From Below (funnest gank fight since Ornstein & Smough in my opinion) and especially Slave Knight Gael (the funnest, most epic fight in all of Souls, hands-down).
  • The Game World is Hauntingly Gorgeous - Dark Souls 3's story is one of a world that is dying because the flame can no longer be sustained and the age of dark must finally come to pass. The game world really conveys this well, with some really well designed areas and imagery, such as the scores of dead pilgrims who collapsed from exhaustion outside the high wall of Lothric, the familiar characters you find long dead on our journey (the giant blacksmith was bad enough, but no, how could you kill The Fair Lady too?!), to the evocative image of the dark sun in the game's final areas.

Tuesday, 18 December 2018

Love/Hate - Bloodborne

While it isn't actually a part of the Souls series, Bloodborne is in a similar mold with some very key differences. In fact, FromSoftware would take inspiration from Bloodborne and carry it forward to the Souls-series proper. As a result, it's clearly worth lumping this game into this love/hate series and see how it relates with the main franchise.


Love
  • Fantastic Style and Aesthetic - Bloodborne's biggest asset is definitely its aesthetic. Whereas Dark Souls is somewhat stifled by its fairly generic western fantasy style, Bloodborne has a much more stylish aesthetic, mixing steampunk, Gothic architecture and eldritch horror elements together to create a stunning world which is just incredibly cool to inhabit. This also extends to the game's fantastic soundtrack, which further helps to sell the setting. Werewolves, religious fanatics and Lovecraftian horror in one package? Sign me the hell up!
  • Combat System is Really Fun - Despite appearing very similar on the surface to Dark Souls, Bloodborne's combat system is one of the main things that sets it apart:
    • Whereas Dark Souls emphasizes patience and defence, Bloodborne encourages aggression and speed. The speed of combat has been increased significantly through increased character fluidity, more aggressive enemies and the game's lack of viable shields, meaning that you have to dodge constantly if you want to be successful.
    • Contributing to the aggressiveness of this game is the Rally system, which allows you a couple seconds after taking a hit to regain lost health by damaging the foe. This can be the difference between life and death in a tight situation and can save you having to use a blood vial to heal if you're quick enough. Whole playstyles can be built around this system and it really does make you want to be more aggressive and risky while playing because you're rewarded for your efforts.
    • Also contributing to the fun combat system is that every weapon has a secondary function which changes their moveset in interesting ways. For example, the hunter's axe is a short-ranged slashing weapon, but can be extended to a two-handed weapon to give it increased range and sweeping attacks, whereas Ludwig's Holy Blade is a longsword that can be sheathed into a slow and heavy greatsword. These are just a couple examples, but it's a really cool system that makes all of the weapons far more interesting and fun to use. Plus these trick weapons actually make a noticeable difference in combat, some being more viable in certain situations.
  • Exploration is Very Rewarding - Bloodborne is arguably the Soulsborne game closest to recapturing the sense of exploration and interconnectedness of the first Dark Souls. It is considerably more linear and flat in comparison, but the game's world is more interconnected than Dark Souls' sequels. Also, perhaps most importantly, it rewards exploration with some fantastic and meaty hidden areas. Discovering the pathway to the haunted castle of Cainhurst was one of the moments that made me fall in love with this game in the first place.
  • Memorable Characters - I would argue that the cast of Bloodborne are at least as iconic and memorable, if not moreso, than the cast of Dark Souls. Eileen the Crow and Lady Maria in particular are unforgettable and have stuck with me to this day (to the point that I have posters of each of them). The game also has such interesting and complex characters as the Plain Doll, Gehrman or the imposter Iosefka, not to mention even the minor characters such as the Odeon Chapel Dweller and Arianna which are quite memorable in their own right.
  • Streamlined Mechanics - While Bloodborne uses a lot of the framework of Dark Souls, many of the more complex elements have been streamlined or removed. Some people feel like this makes Bloodborne a lesser experience, but I feel like it's just trimming the fat and focusing on pure enjoyment rather than busy work. For example, equipment load has been eliminated entirely (halle-freaking-lujah), meaning that you can focus your stats entirely on your actual preferred weapon loadout, rather than struggling to wear any kind of armour. Also, weapon upgrades are significantly easier, requiring only larger chunks of blood shards to increase your weapon's damage and slots that you can put various damage-altering runes into. Magic has also been streamlined to items that you can use which spend your blood bullet supply and are just based off of one stat.
  • Some Fantastic Bosses - Bloodborne has an array of fun bosses, nearly all of which are top notch. Father Gascoigne, the Bloodstarved Beast, Martyr Logarius, Vicar Amelia, and Rom the Vacuous Spider are all great fights in the main game. The DLC also knocks it out of the park with some unforgettable and difficult fights. Lady Maria of the Astral Clocktower in particular is the boss which made me fall in love with the sweet, sweet satisfaction of trying and retrying a boss until you have learned their patterns. Ludwig, Laurence and the Orphan of Kos are also extremely difficult bosses, providing some of the ultimate challenges for veterans and newbies of Souls games alike. Soloing all of these bosses recently on a NG+ playthrough was one of the most exhilarating experiences I've had playing a video game, especially Ludwig and the Orphan, both of whom felt impossible to beat when I first played.

Sunday, 16 December 2018

Love/Hate - Dark Souls 2


Love
  • Some Memorable Characters - Somewhat surprisingly, Dark Souls 2 has a lot of characters which hold up as well (or maybe even better) than the colourful cast from the original Dark Souls. Nearly all of the characters in Majula have their own memorable personalities, particularly The Emerald Herald (best waifu in the Dark Souls series, in my opinion). The NPCs you meet in the world are also pretty memorable, especially the very tragic Lucatiel of Mirrah, who is desperately fighting to hold onto her sense of self as the curse of the undead gnaws away at her memories. Even the bosses and their stories can be pretty interesting, especially King Vendrick's tragic fall from grace which forms the backbone of the game's narrative (and that's not even mentioning the very compelling stories told in each of the DLCs). While many of the characters aren't as important to the story as, say, Solaire of Astora or Lautrec, even minor NPCs such as Rosabeth of Melfia, Gavlan or the freaking ladder salesman Gilligan have their own interesting quirks that help you remember them long afterwards.
  • Best DLCs in the Franchise - The Three Crowns saga is straight-up the best, most generous package of DLC in the entire franchise. These three DLCs are by far the best content in Dark Souls 2, with some really fun areas to fight through and great boss fights (few fights in this series match the cinematic splendour of jumping into hell to fight the Burnt Ivory King). That said, each of these DLCs have at least one boss which is incredibly underwhelming and areas which are amongst the worst in the game, but thankfully these parts are all totally optional and intended as challenge areas.
  • UI and Mechanics are Refined and/or Simplified - Dark Souls 2 features a number of gameplay changes from Dark Souls, some of which are better than others:
    • Having most of the blacksmiths and shops in one central hub area is a great improvement in my opinion, having to scour the world to find smiths would definitely have been a pain in the ass if I had to do it two games in a row (you do have to find the boss soul traders and infusing blacksmith in the world though). Plus weapon upgrades have been significantly streamlined, so it's no longer such a pain in the ass to try to get your weapon to the maximum level.
    • Online PVP is much more viable than in Dark Souls because the servers have been significantly improved and there are more dedicated PVP/PVE areas. I don't tend to play much PVP, but the general consensus seems to be that Dark Souls 2 has the best PVP in the franchise in part because of this.
    • Dual-wielding has been significantly improved. It was technically possible in Dark Souls, but Dark Souls 2 changes up the mechanics to make it a much more viable and unique playstyle for players looking for a bit more risk.
    • Lots of small, but amazing changes, such as equipment load percentages being viewable on the equipment screen, the level up UI being more informative, being able to move while using estus, more ring slots hell yes, being able to use consumables without having your menu close, being able to respec your stats, etc.
  • Humanity System Makes More Sense - I really hated the humanity system in Dark Souls 2 when I first played, but now that I can see what FromSoftware were going for it makes way more sense to me, especially compared to the first Dark Souls. In Dark Souls 2, each time you die your HP max drops until you reach a 50% decrease. This is reversed by using a Human Effigy to restore your character's humanity (plus you can find a ring pretty early on which makes the maximum health drop cap at 75% rather than 50%). The result of this is that players are actually incentivized to stay human more often now, which encourages more co-op, invasions and other online interactions which you could just ignore in the first game because of how difficult it could be to remain human. Of course, you can still just play hollowed all the time (like me...), but the system does encourage interaction with the game's online component far more effectively than you would expect.
  • Bonfire Aesthetics - One of the cool additions to this game is the bonfire aesthetic item, which respawns enemies and bosses in an area, but at a higher difficulty. Have an area or a boss which you liked but don't want to replay the whole game to get back to it? Use a bonfire aesthetic! It's a great change which (spoiler alert) I really wish had carried on into future games.
  • New Game+ Changes - NG+ has received some much-needed changes which make it more enticing. First of all, Dark Souls 2 doesn't force you into NG+ as soon as the final boss is beaten, rather you get to choose when to go into it. In addition to tougher enemies and keeping your equipment, NG+ also features new enemy placements, making replays more interesting, surprising and challenging than simply replaying the exact same game. It doesn't change the game substantially, but it's a nice feature.
  • Some Truly Top-Tier Bosses - Dark Souls 2 features the most bosses in the entire franchise, and some of them are simply amazing (particularly the DLC bosses). The aforementioned Burnt Ivory King is one of the most visually spectacular bosses in the entire series, while Fume Knight is widely considered one of the best bosses in the entire series. Other really notable bosses in this game include Sir Alonne, Flexile SentrySmelter DemonVelstadtSinh, the Slumbering Dragon and Aava, the King's Pet. Considering how many of these bosses are from the DLC, it really shows you how high the quality was in those. In addition, even the worst bosses are still a fair bit more challenging than many of the bosses from the first Dark Souls, with far more attacks and animations (compare a relatively lame boss like the Dragonrider with the Asylum Demon and its very limited and exploitable animations - the Asylum Demon's a more memorable fight, but I'd argue that the Dragonrider is at least mechanically more interesting).

Friday, 14 December 2018

Love/Hate - Dark Souls

I recently began replaying Dark Souls, this time on PS4 with the remastered edition. Having played a ton of Soulsborne and Souls-like games in the past few years, it's fascinating going back to the game which really popularized the modern action game formula. I'm definitely enjoying myself, but that got me thinking about all the things I love and hate about this franchise and the subgenre it spawned... and wouldn't you know it, I have a series on this blog which is about just that! So without further ado, here's what I love and hate about the original Dark Souls!


Love
  • Amazing World Design - This is arguably the best part of Dark Souls, where it really shines and is still unmatched, even by its successors. I'm going to split this into a couple parts to cover it more thoroughly:
    • Dark Souls' world is designed sort of like layer cake. Each new area is connected to the others in an organic way, and it isn't uncommon to be exploring and to catch glimpses of other areas that you will soon be exploring or to discover a surprising shortcut to an area you previously visited (which is extra important because fast travel is unavailable for most of the game, and even then only in a limited capacity). Furthermore, the areas all stack on top of each other vertically, a very unique approach to an open world which is rarely attempted. The unique design with the shortcuts littered throughout give the entire world map a memorable interconnectedness that sticks with you long after your journey is complete.
    • The game is designed in a very non-linear fashion. There is an intended path for newer players which is evidenced by the difficulty of the enemies in each area, but there is technically nothing stopping players from risking going off this intended path into much more challenging areas for their level. In fact, the loot that you can acquire for doing so might make the challenge worthwhile, especially for veteran players. Furthermore, the game also has an optional starting item, the Master Key, for experienced players which makes the early game even more non-linear as it allows you to explore these higher-level challenges much sooner. To make this even better, the game actually has some special rewards for breaking the intended path, such as (SPOILER ALERT):
      • If you kill the sunlight maggots early enough, you will save Solaire of Astora from a tragic fate and allow him to be summoned for the final boss battle.
      • If you beat the Artorias of the Abyss DLC (end-game content in terms of difficulty, so that's no light feat) before fighting Sif, she will actually remember the player but fight to defend her master's honour anyway, giving the fight an even more melancholy air to it.
    • The vertical open world design even has thematic significance, as the homes of the (questionably moral) gods of light are found as you ascend the layer cake. In contrast, the darkest places are found as you descend, all the way down to the lowest point of the world in Ash Lake, where humanity itself and the Dark Soul was found. Considering that environmental storytelling is a crucial method in which the game's narrative is conveyed, this thematic significance is particularly brilliant.
  • Unique Character Designs - In addition to the amazing world design, FromSoftware also really nailed the art designs for the different characters and bosses in this game. This includes the NPCs, such as the instantly iconic designs of Solaire of Astora and Siegmeyer of Catarina. The bosses are also incredibly creative and have elements meant to symbolize their characters. Rather than just having a dragon, instead we get the Gaping Dragon, which has turned itself into a huge maw in order to consume more. Or what about Gravelord Nito, a being made up of piles of bones and whispy darkness. Hell, even extremely underwhelming bosses, such as Pinwheel, have incredibly well-thought out designs - in his case, he wears three masks because he's trying to resurrect his dead wife and child. FromSoftware just always puts this really creative spin on their creatures and it's part of the fun of discovering what sort of twisted abomination they're going to throw at you next.
  • Build Freedom is Insane - Perhaps the coolest thing about the Souls series in general is just how much freedom the player gets in determining their character build. You get two slots per hand, plus two magic rings and a handful of item slots to use however you see fit. You can run all manner of swords (short, long, greatswords, freaking ultra greatswords), axes, spears, bows, shields and various other exotic weapons, not to mention three varieties of magic with their own lengthy spell lists. Oh and did I mention that all of these weapons can be upgraded with elemental properties which wildly change their damage output? Hell, if you're insane, you can even choose to run around punching everything to death. And that's just the weapon options, you've also got tons of armour sets (from light, medium and heavy) and your stat distributions which can complement any playstyle, from clerics, to tanks, to melee fighters. Basically, if you can think it, it can be done and you can probably make it work. I like to play the melee glass cannon - minimal HP investment, but very high stamina and strength, running around with a claymore for heavy damage output. The way I see it, if I'm getting hit by more than a couple enemy attacks, I deserve to be killed.
  • Surprisingly Rich Story Told in an Unconventional Way - The Souls games are very unique for the manner in which they tell their stories. Rather than conveying narrative directly to the player, the story is told through the environment and item descriptions, which encourages the player to piece the story together themselves. While it is possible to entirely miss the point of everything that happens in the game because of this, it actually makes the game significantly more engaging and rewarding. Even then, the base mythology of the game is also very interesting and makes for a compellingly, strikingly bleak world.
  • Resource Management - I know that Demon's Souls was the basis for this idea, but Dark Souls really popularized the notion of strategic stamina regeneration and healing in modern action games. FromSoftware struck a perfect balance between the game's speed and the stamina regeneration, making it feel like an essential part of the game rather than a burden on the player.
  • Some Absolutely Amazing Bosses - The Souls games are renowned for their bosses, and Dark Souls has some of the biggest standouts in the whole series. So with that in mind, I'm going to shoutout some of the bosses which deserve special praise:
    • Artorias the Abysswalker is probably the funnest boss in the game. The funnest bosses in Souls games are often built off of Artorias' foundation - a large, single warrior duelling you with relentless, heavy attacks, leaving just enough openings to sneak in a hit if you're skilled. Every game in this franchise features at least one boss which is built in the mould of Artorias, and considering that they're almost always top-tier bosses, it should really show you just how good Artorias is. The nice thing about these kinds of duels is that they don't rely on gimmicks exclusive to the boss battle, rather you're testing your skill with the game's combat system.
    • Black Dragon Kalameet is one of the funnest dragon battles in the whole series, posing an exceptional challenge to the player while remaining totally fair. A lot of bosses this early into the Souls series feel less refined than later entries, but Kalameet is still a standout boss to this day.
    • Ornstein and Smough are probably the most iconic boss duo in the entire franchise; I was aware of their reputation years before I even faced them for the first time. The fight itself is exceptionally difficult, but manageable if you focus them down skilfully. They're also probably the best gank fight in the series, with their differing speeds and attack patterns not feeling like utter bullshit to fight. That feeling when you finally defeat Ornstein and Smough is one of the most satisfying moments in the entire franchise.
    • I also want to give some smaller shoutouts to Great Grey Wolf Sif, Chaos Witch Quelaag, the Bell Gargoyles and the Sanctuary Guardian.