The Infinite Zenith

Victory costs. Every time, you pay a little more.

Wolfenstein: The New Order First Impressions

“In my dream, I smell a barbecue, I hear children, a dog, and I see someone…I think I see someone. These things, none of it for me. I move by roaring engines, among warriors. We come from the night.” —William Blazkowicz

It’s July 1946, and with their advanced technologies, the Third Reich began tuning the tide against the Allied forces. With the aim of stopping the war, the US Special forces launch a desperate raid against General Wilhelm “Deathshead” Strasse’s fortress. After his aircraft is shot down, Blazkowicz manages to regroup with his forces and infiltrates the castle, but before they can find Strasse, they are captured. Blazkowicz manages to escape, but shrapnel pierces his skull, rendering him unconconscious. This is the prologue of Wolfenstein: The New Order, but despite being a first person shooter enthusiast, initially, I had little interest in this title; I am not particularly familiar with the Wolfenstein universe, and prior to The New Order, the only classic shooters I had finished were Doom and Doom 2. However, checking out the gameplay footage, I was soon persuaded to reconsider and pick this title up for myself, to try my hand at helping the Resistance in a world where the Third Reich has achieved total power. What changed my mind? The realisation that Wolfenstein: The New Order featured an incredibly diverse set of locales for Blazkowicz to fight in, which, amongst other locations, includes combat inside of a cutting-edge lunar research facility.

The first mission acts as a prologue that sets the stage for what is to happen, and admittedly, it feels quite similar to most of the modern military shooters out there. However, all of this changes once Blazkowicz leaves the trenches and enters Deathshead’s castle itself; by this point in the game, Wolfenstein: The New Order screams “classic arcade shooter”, featuring the ability to fashion armour from helmets and metal plates in the environment, a lack of fully regenerating health that forces players to find health pick-ups in the levels, the capacity to carry a full arsenal of awesome weapons and the power to dual-wield almost any weapon in the game for twice the firepower (and double the reload time, with a slightly reduced accuracy). These old-school mechanics bring back gameplay mechanics from earlier shooters: I’ve been playing first person shooters since GoldenEye 64 was released, and callbacks to shooters of this age (most noticeably, the dual-wielding and vast array of weapons players could access) complement the modern generation visuals quite nicely; having played games like Halo, Crysis and Battlefield, it can be restricting at times to only carry two weapons around if ammunition for them are scarce: having access to everything plus the kitchen sink really allows players to approach a situation from the manner of their choosing, whether it be to quietly take out enemies one at a time with the knife and silenced pistol, methodically pick them off from a distance or charge into an enemy emplacement with grenades and both guns blazing.

Screenshots and Commentary

  • Wolfenstein: The New Order is a game that defies the conventions set by modern military shooters. Gone is the notion of fully regenerating health, omni-present military jargon, doors that only squadmates can open and so on; instead, players are immersed a world that saw the Third Reich winning the Second World War. The pilot here is Fergus Reid, a Scottish airman who worked at a shipyard before joining the air force.

  • The opening mission actually does take after games like the Battlefield and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare franchises; Blazkowicz is ordered to carry out several tasks in a very linear fashion, such as manning a gun to down enemy fighters. However, even this sense of familiarity is dwarfed by the inclusion of fantastical elements, such as the Horten Ho 229 jet fighter: towards the end of the Second World War, the Third Reich began diverting more resources into the development of Wunderwaffe in a desperate bid to turn the tides back in their favour against the Allied forces.

  • Historically, this effort was too little too late, and for their ingenuity, superior German weapons were overwhelmed by simpler, more numerous Allied weapons. In Wolfenstein: The New Order, this is not the case, as the Third Reich was able to develop exceptionally advanced weapons that outmatched anything the Allies had. This first mission is intended at infiltrating the central research centre with the intent of taking out Deathshead and ending the war.

  • I’ll dispense with the sub-machine gun in favour of the 1946 Assault Rifle, the mainstay of the Wehrmacht. With a thirty-round magazine, this weapon hits hard but also has a substantial amount of vertical recoil that can be controlled by firing in short bursts. After the first automatic machine gun nest is destroyed, Blazkowicz enters the trenches surrounding Deathshead’s compound.

  • I’m not sure if there’s an upper limit to how much health can be picked up: the overcharge mechanic is a simple but brilliant addition to Wolfenstein, where health packs will boost Blazkowicz’s health past 100 if he’s already at full health. Unlike most shooters that cap the player’s health and forcing them to leave additional health packs on the map, this mechanic allows extra health packs to become useful even if a player already has full health.

  • I have not properly dual-wielded weapons since the days of Halo 2. The dual-wielding system in Wolfenstein: The New Order is not as versatile as the one in Halo 2 and in fact, is quite similar to that of GoldenEye 64, which allowed players to dual-wield any weapon in the game, from pistols and assault rifles to even rocket launchers and laser rifles. The New Order brings this back, and at the expense of accuracy, doubles Blazkowicz’s firepower.

  • Compared to most shooters, where pistols remain as sidearms or weaker weapons to be switched out when better weapons are acquired, the pistols of Wolfenstein: The New Order are remarkably powerful and can down most basic enemies with a headshot. Moreover, attaching a suppressor does not appear to limit their damage output or bullet velocity, increasing their usefulness as an excellent ranged stealth ewapon.

  • One of the best aspects about Wolfenstein: The New Order is the sheer presence of Nazi Architecture, a style that incorporates Neoclassicism and Art Deco elements in mimicry of the Roman Empire to signify the strength of a Thousand-Year Reich. The liberal application of concrete and spartan environments in more utilitarian structures can be seen here, and in fact, many of the interiors of Wolfenstein: The New Order resemble the interior of the Berlin Flak towers.

  • Über Concrete is a special building material whose merits as a construction material far surpasses anything that we presently possess, and is the reason why the Third Reich is able to construct their cities and facilities so aggressively to build the structures later seen in the game. The last time I did any sort of architecture-related talk was for Puella Magi Madoka Magica and Tari Tari.

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  • I’ve always wanted to fire a FlaK 40 cannon: designed as an anti-aircraft gun, these weapons were large and produced only in limited numbers, being mainly used for the Flak towers of Berlin. It’s the only weapon powerful enough to destroy the Baltisches Auge (Baltic Eye, or Stomper), an early robotic weapon that Deathshead developed.

  • Blazkowicz must take out the operators of two FlaK 40 cannons, before making use of the second one to clear the debris off a cliffside. It took me quite a bit of time to figure this out, and I tried to power-slide underneath the flaming wreckage first, before realising that the weapon was what was needed to progress further.

  • After Blazkowicz rendezvous with his squad, they begin the ascent up Deathshead’s castle. From here on out, the game feels less like a modern military shooter and more like a classic shooter of the Wolfenstein 3D and DOOM era. He accompanies Private Probst Wyatt III, a naive and green soldier who nonetheless holds a strong sense of duty.

  • The game will automatically inform players how close by the enemy commanders are. Taking them out will prevent them from summoning reinforcements, and to close the distance, making use of stealth kills is the easiest way of getting close enough to them to dispatch them. If the enemy commanders are alerted to Blazkowicz’s presence, stealth will disappear out the window on very short order.

  • There are secret passages and collectible items scattered throughout many of the levels, encouraging players to explore and allow themselves to be immerse in a world filled with richly-crafted lore. Things such as this is rare in most modern titles set in our own world, so developers that take the time to build a world for players to explore are to be commended for daring to dream.

  • I picked up Wolfenstein: The New Order the day I finished my multi-agent systems oral exam, and even on a connection as fast as mine, it still took a few hours to download. Spent from giving the oral exam my best performance, I opened The New Order the next day and played through this mission. I reached this point when a friend showed up with an early Birthday gift: the HGUC Stark Jegan. I’ll build that later during the summer closer to my birthday.

  • Besides health packs, bread, plates of sausage and potatoes, and even dog food can be collected to restore Blazkowicz’s health. A week ago, I was out to a pub near campus to celebrate one of my friend’s birthday, and it was also game night. This marked the first time that I’ve been in a pub for a NHL playoff game, and while our team fell behind 3-0, by the time my bacon-wrapped wild boar with fried onions and demi-glace mushrooms came, we’d caught up. We won the game later that evening 7-4.

  • Of course, the current team we’re playing against is a powerhouse, and the team I’m cheering on will need to be as determined and resourceful as Blazkowicz if we’re to win. Back in Wolfenstein: The New Order, I use a mounted MG46 to clear out hordes of Nazi soldiers. This is the equivalent of the chain gun seen in DOOM and Wolfenstein 3D, but for its firepower, it also reduces Blazkowicz’s mobility.

  • The mission goes south when Blazkowicz and his squad are knocked out by falling rubble and reawaken in one of Deathshead’s human experimentation labs, where horrific experiments are conducted on captured individuals. Features such as drainage implements and a built-in incinerator suggests the frequency and efficiency at which these experiments are conducted, contributing to the unsettling nature inside Deathshead’s facility.

  • The early supersoldiers are crude, but still remarkably powerful. Lacking any other effective weapons here, the best way to dispatch them is using dual assault rifles: at such close ranges, the loss of accuracy does not matter. However, the increased reload time may be a problem; it’s a good idea to back pedal and strafe while reloading to avoid being destroyed by the supersoldier.

  • Trapped in a shrinking room, Deathshead leers at the player before everything goes black. When Blazkowicz comes to, Deathshead forces him to choose between Fergus or Wyatt. This decision affects the story to a limited extent, but otherwise does not affect gameplay or event progression, but the choice is a difficult one, forcing players to make a cruel decision that mirrors the worst aspects inherent in warfare.

Moving forwards, I am looking forwards most to exploring Machine Games’ interpretation of a world where the Third Reich has won. This is one of the aspects that I look for in a game: how well can a studio build their world so that it can immerse the players? A sufficiently good amount of world-building will be able bring out the weight of Blazkowicz’s fight against the New Order, in turn giving players a reason to be excited about seeing what happens to him next. I’ve gotten just far enough to see the cinematics for Blazkowicz’s fourteen years in a Polish institution, and knifed the first Nazi officer in 1960. It’s time to go exploring and see how much of the game’s perks, collectables and Enigma code pieces I can collect, all the while shooting everything that moves and contributing to the resistance’s efforts to undermine the Third Reich.

The Disappearance of Nagato Yuki-chan: Review and Reflection after five

“Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.” —Confucius

Five episodes is now in the books for The Disappearance of Nagato Yuki-chan, and insofar, the anime has remained quite close to the story presented in the manga. After the first episode, Yuki and Kyon prepare for their Christmas party in the Literature Club’s room. Haruhi herself makes an appearance, and together with Itsuki Koizumi, declare themselves honourary members of the Literature Club, livening the club’s mood up considerably. Valentines’ Day follows, and despite a rough start, Yuki manages to summon the courage to give Kyon some homemade Valentins’ Day chocolate, but Tsuruya intervenes before she can confess her love to him. This summary constitutes the first two volumes of the The Disappearance of Nagato Yuki-chan manga; the first two volumes are quite uneventful, and even nostalgic in nature as Kyon and Nagato’s friendship grows, aided by Ryouko, Tsuruya, Mikuru and Haruhi herself. The anime is able to bring these dynamics to life, and consequently, is able to convey things through audio and visual cues that would not have been possible through the manga. Subtle hints about Yuki and Kyon’s growing relationship, as well as how Haruhi feels about all of this was already writen well within the manga, but the additional dimensions offered in the anime enable for the character’s feelings to be interpreted more readily.

While this anime might be called The Disappearance of Nagato Yuki-chan, Haruhi Suzumiya nonetheless figures greatly within the show, reintroducing the high-energy pacing that the original series had been known for. Quite similar to The Disappearance of Suzumiya Haruhi film, a world where there is only Yuki and Kyon is one that is very peaceful, to the point of being mundane: there is no denying the impact that Haruhi has on her environment, and following her introduction, the atmosphere around The Disappearance of Nagato Yuki-chan becomes one reminiscent of that seen in the original series. However, Haruhi’s incarnation here is one that is immediately more amicable compared to her presence in the original, and consequently, she fits right into the more casual pacing within The Disappearance of Nagato Yuki-chan. With the entire cast now assembled, the stage is set for additional developments in the relationship between Kyon and Yuki, and given my a priori knowledge about the plot, I guarantee that those complaining about the lack of anything substantial thus far will be eating their words.

Screenshots and Commentary

  • We’ll open this post by picking up where we left off last time: the Christmas party is under way in full force, and the preparations appear to be well-worth it: Yuki expresses pure joy at the turkey and proceeds to enjoy it. The choice of time in which to start this series likely was in reference to the fact that the events of The Disappearance of Suzumiya Haruhi was set near Christmas, as well.

  • The sort of fanservice present in The Disappearance of Nagato Yuki-chan has been disciplined thus far and has only been limited to one or two ill-scripted moments: on the whole, a commendable observation. I believe this is the third anime I’ve watched that is set during the Christmas season, but was watched during any time of year outside of the winter anime season.

  • The second episode’s Christmas party is interspersed with flashbacks regarding Yuki’s bid to restart the literature club, and how she met Haruhi. While the manner differs from that of the original series, the net outcome is the same, with Haruhi entering the picture by episode three. This other angle of Yuki’s living room exemplifies the relatively minimalistic layout of her apartment, but compared to that seen in the movie, the lighting here is warmer and more inviting.

  • Thanks to Haruhi’s words, Yuki summons up the courage to ask Kyon to join the literature club, and he accepts. This is presumably set somewhere after Kyon helps Yuki obtain her library card.

  • Yuki and Kyon share a peaceful but somewhat awkward moment with one another on account of the cold winter air. I believe this is the first of Yuki’s many attempts to make her feelings known to Kyon, but as part of the comedic aspect (less comedic for the viewers who desire to see some progress, or for those who’ve actually experienced this for themselves), Yuki’s circumstances always lead her to become interrupted.

  • Curious to know whether or not Kyon and Yuki are a couple, Haruhi’s question leads an embarrassed Yuki to reply that they’re “total strangers”, and Kyon in turn feels mildly stung, noting that his relationship with Yuki is that of a friend. Haruhi remarks that it would have been somewhat awkward if Yuki and Kyon had been dating. While Haruhi is still eccentric and interested in hunting for aliens, time travelers and espers, she also exercises more self-restraint relative to her incarnation in the original series.

  • Kyon’s gentle, kinder side vanishes quite quickly with Haruhi, and he openly engages her in debate about Santa Claus’ existence. Some aspects from the old series, such as Kyon’s asides, make a return in a modest fashion. While providing a modicum of insight into Kyon’s character, most fans are dissatisfied with their reduced presence here. I contend that Kyon’s mannerisms here are well-suited for this particular universe, allowing him to focus his interactions on the characters, rather than the audience.

  • After helping Ryouko clean up the club room following their Christmas party, Yuki wishes Kyon a happy new year. The passage of time in The Disappearance of Nagato Yuki-chan is somewhat variable: the anime and manga both choose to depict specific moments, reflecting on Cesare Pavese’s quote that moments, rather than days, are what people tend to remember. I find this to be true, provided that I tend to remember my summers quite well based on their highest points.

  • Ryouko agrees consents for Haruhi to join the literature club. She’s seen sporting a ponytail as per Kyon’s request from earlier, and although Yuki wonders if she should grow her hair out, Kyon remarks that Yuki is fine as she is.

  • Haruhi is to The Disappearance of Nagato Yuki as Karen is to Kiniro Mosaic in that both characters have a very boisterous, energetic presence that contributes substantially towards the atmospherics in their respective anime. It’s been almost ten years since The Melancholy of Suzumiya Haruhi aired, and in that time, Aya Hirano has had little difficulty delivering Haruhi’s lines.

  • Under Ryouko’s watchful eye, Yuki prepares homemade chocolates for Kyon in preparation for Valentines’ Day. While the process itself is simple enough (gently melting conventional chocolate, remolding it into a new shape and adding sprinkles on), Yuki seems quite unable to carry even this out on her own; Yuki’s limited skills and resolve have led some to surmise that the other characters, especially Ryouko, to be (and I quote) “stealing the show”. I hardly agree: it is the unique combination of characters that lends to the dynamics seen in The Disappearance of Nagato Yuki-chan, and consequently, Ryouko’s presence would not be substantial in Yuki’s absence.

  • While on the hunt for the kappa, Haruhi slips and nearly falls into the river, but Kyon saves her at the last second. Those unfamiliar with the manga might immediately be inclined to think that Haurhi and Kyon are a possibility with respect to being a couple, and some have even claimed (erroneously) that Yuki and Kyon do not seem to be compatible as a couple, although given that this is from the forums at tango-victor-tango, it’s unsurprising that those throwing these claims around cannot adequately support their own positions.

  • Whenever she gets nervous, Yuki tends to pick up her handheld gaming device (either a PlayStation Portable or PlayStation Vita) and promptly loses track of time. This here moment is one instance of where chibi characters occupy the same scene as ordinary characters to decisively illustrate that this is a romance comedy. From a personal perspective, I always keep my eye on the clock when gaming, and usually, I’ll call it quits after a fixed amount of time, I finish a section of the game, or die too frequently.

  • Mikuru and Yuki share a few moments together at lunch, discussing Valentines’ Day and the prospect of giving/receiving chocolate from someone special. Things are initially awkward, as the two eat in silence: Yuki is used to such and has no trouble, while Mikuru is accustomed to conversation. I’m quite okay with either, and although I spend most of my lunch hours at my desk, I do occasionally eat out and spend lunch with friends.

  • The pacing in The Disappearance of Nagato Yuki-chan is somewhat erratic in the fifth episode, contrasting the solid pacing of the previous episodes. After leaving in haste when seeing Haruhi hand chocolate to Kyon, Ryouko jumps to conclusions and spends a fair portion of the episode’s opening yelling at Haruhi before bursting into tears. Drama aspects are present, and the emotions that were conveyed here do a better job than the manga did.

  • The misunderstanding is soon cleared up, and Yuki appears to be quite unawares that she’d dropped her chocolates for Kyon. Ryouko and Haruhi set off to allow Nagato some privacy to give her chocolates (and also expect a confession to occur) shortly after. I’ve opted to go with a “after five” approach, since there isn’t much that I can discuss for a series with sixteen episodes: I believe that twenty screenshots will be sufficient for discussions.

  • Kyon’s predisposition to humour means that, like everyone else, I find that his incarnation in this universe to be superior to his original characterisation. He supposes that Yuki’s embarrassment must stem from the presence of a “fixed” chocolate amongst her chocolates, and is expecting something spicy. When it’s clear that this isn’t the case, he mentions that the chocolates are quite good, to Yuki’s relief.

  • While Yuki overheats from embarrassment at the prospect of her next move of confessing her love Kyon, the episode’s release on Friday was in conjunction with my finally succeeding in setting up the lab’s mid-2009 Mac Pro to work with the Unreal Engine editor: over the past week, I’ve been quite busy with configuring my new workstation, replacing its Quadro FX 4800 with an ATI 5870. From a performance perspective, it’s got more than enough hardware to properly run Unreal, but nonetheless was averaging only 10 FPS. It turns out that Mac OS X is intrinsically unsuited for running Unreal, so I picked up a copy of Windows 8.1 and set the machine up for dual-booting. After this was done, I spent the remainder of the morning introducing the new undergraduate researchers to the lab, and attended a seminar a friend was presenting.

  • As the fifth episode draws to a close, Haruhi reminisces about the time when she’d first met someone called John Smith, not realising it was Kyon and under skies that evoke memories of “Bouken Desho Desho?”, one of my favourite opening songs of all time, which also includes Angel Beats‘ “My Soul, Your Beats” and Glasslip‘s “Natsu no Hi to Kimi no Koe”.

  • That’s pretty much it for this post: I’ll be returning to The Disappearance of Nagato Yuki-chan in June after the tenth episode has aired. For now, a slew of posts, including a talk on Gundam Build Fighters Try‘s finale, Deer Hunter 2014‘s brand-new regions, Terror in Resonance and RWBY, await. These will come after my initial impressions of Wolfenstein: The New Order.

Looking ahead, the next five episodes will deal predominantly with volumes three and four (maybe five, as well). This arc will follow Yuki and company as they study for exams, visit the beach, and deal with some rather unexpected events (which I will not spoil for those who’ve not read the manga). The last arc will disrupt the status quo to some extent, and given that the events following up to it are relatively uneventful, this could come as quite a surprise to some viewers. It will be here that The Disappearance of Nagato Yuki-chan differentiates itself from the episodes thus far, and with the additional dimensions conferred by having audio and visual elements, I look forwards to seeing how these arcs will be adapted: there could be details that really become apparent with the inclusion of components unavailable to print media, which would in turn amplify the emotional tenor present as Yuki and Kyon come to turns with their feelings for one another.

Hibike! Euphonium: Reflection and review after three

“You know, if I can survive marching band, I can survive anything.” —Nellie McKay

Hibike! Euphonium, or Sound! Euphonium, is Kyoto Animation’s anime of this season, structured around Kitauji high school’s concert band who once participated in competitions at the national level. However, they’d declined dramatically and since then, have not made it past the qualifiers. This changes when Noboru Taki , a new music advisor is appointed, and under his instruction, the concert band begins its journey to restructure and perform as well as it once did. Kumiko Oumae joins Kitauji’s concert band with Hazuki Katou and Sapphire “Midori” Kawashima, and is once again persuaded to take up playing the euphonium. However, the journey to a recovery is not an easy one, and already, a divide has formed, with some of the concert band’s members not pulling their weight adequately. This does not go unnoticed by Noboru: despite his laid-back and calm demeanour, as well as his value on allowing the music students to grow independently, he is also very forward about what he thinks of their performance. This sort of attitude is precisely what shakes people out of their apathy and complacency; from a literary perspective, he is the preson who disrupts the status quo and will set in motion what’s to come. Coupled with the emphasis on the smaller details, such as breathing from the diaphragm and training up the embrasure, Hibike! Euphonium immediately lets the audience knows that this is going to be a series that is about music, and the sort of commitment that one must take to improve sufficiently such that they can realise their aspirations.

At the time of writing, it’s been nine years since I last picked up a clarinet or trumpet. In previous posts, I’ve alluded to being a reasonably proficient player with both instruments; I was once a part of my junior high’s concert band, and picked the clarinet as my first instrument. Why the clarinet? There’s nothing particularly deep here in my case: I chose the clarinet becuase it was the only instrument that I could initially get a sound from, and within a year, I became reasonably proficient. My grades in concert band were always quite good, and I spent countless hours a week practising, both the music in the practise books, music for school performances and competitions and playing music by ear for the sake of it. I intrinsically have no musical talent, and spent my time doing martial arts and reading in place of piano and violin lessons as my peers were wont to sign up for. Nonetheless, being a part of a concert band was, for the lack of another word, fun: I loved practising with the entire band, and although I was infamous for playing my parts too quickly when I’d started, eventually, I managed to synchronise with everyone else. Our band won several competitions, as well, and in my final year, I played trumpet for the jazz band, having taught myself how to play during the summer. Looking back, I find it to be somewhat surprising that I managed to participate in music and perform well on the virtue of just practise alone, and consequently, if someone with no musical background can do this, I anticipate that the characters in Hibike! Euphonium will naturally realise the scope and implications of their intentions to compete at the national level, and above all, understand the joys associated with succeeding, having cultivated such a strong commitment to something they genuinely wish to contribute to.

Screenshots and Commentary

  • As the central character, much of the events in Hibike! Euphonium is told around Kumiko Oumae, a pragmatic, yet indecisive first year. Kumiko is to Hibike! Emphonium‘s what Yui Hirasawa was to K-On!, although Kumiko is presented being quite similar to Girls und Panzer‘s Miho Nishizumi; both girls are seeking a fresh start in high school and their actions suggest a reason for desiring to distance themselves from something they once did.

  • Sapphire Kawashima has a timid disposition and is embarassed by her given name, preferring to be called Midori instead. She is a contrabass player and comes from a wealthy background. From the typographical perspective, I’ll refer to her as Midori because that’s far easier to type.

  • Hazuki Katou is one of Kumiko’s friends: easy-going and spirited, she winds up playing the tuba despite an initial interest in playing the trumpet because she inadvertently purchased a mouthpiece for a tuba.

  • Kumiko and her newfound friends react in shock when Asuka Tanaka, a third-year euphonium player, welcomes them to watch their concert band perform.

  • Shuuichi Tsukamoto and Kumiko are childhood friends who’d since become more distant towards one another after he made an unflattering remark about her in their final year of junior high. Despite this, they still converse with one another in more casual manners, and quite possibly, one of the things I’m going to be looking out for will be whether or not the two can reconcile; no love story is necessary, but to see two formerly close friends rediscover their friendship through music would be a nice (if somewhat cliched) addition to this anime. Shuuichi later informs Kumiko of a schism that led half of the more dedicated students to drop the concert band club the year before they arrived.

  • Kumiko and her older sister, Mamiko, don’t share a particularly cordial relationship. The use of camera angles and spaces to emphasise this distance contributes to this feeling, but their dialogues also serves a minor role, and consequently, both suggest that there might be something that merits further exploration in future episodes.

  • Why is it that the protagonists always sit near the windows of their classrooms? The practical answer is that it simplifies the animation process: by placing a character near the window, other students need not be drawn and animated. Some have speculated that this has some sort of literary significance, but this is done purely for ease of animation: anything the characters subsequently do (such as looking longingly out the window) is a bonus attributed to their spot in the classroom.

  • It will have been almost ten years since I picked up a trumpet for the first time, and for my first week of self-study, I practised on the mouthpiece alone until I could play a few rudimentary tunes by vibrating my lips at different frequencies. I personally think it’s a nontrival feat that I was able to, over the space of two months, attain a sufficient level of skill to keep up with other members of the jazz band, who had two more years of trumpet skills compared to myself.

  • Insofar, Midori, Kumiko and Hazuki do not appear to fit in with the K-On! archetypes, which defies initial predictions that Hibike! Euphonium is a moe anime that will play out like K-On!. The comparisons between the two are inapplicable, since the atmospherics and setups are inherently different, and while I disagree with anyone who would argue that there are similarities, the fact that such a comparison exists suggests that K-On! is still relevant, even five years after the TV series ended.

  • As the brass section’s leader, Asuka plays the euphonium and is the vice president of the concert band club. She’s very forwards and mischievous, unnerving some of the first years with her mannerisms, and oftentimes finds herself being reigned in by Haruka Ogasawara, the concert band’s president.

  • The euphonium is a baritone brass instrument that is used predominantly in concert bands, rather than orchestras, and play a large role in marches. The amount of detail Kyoto Animation breathes into the valves and other structures on the euphonium, and other brass instruments, is nothing short of impressive. It is quite possible that the technology, techniques or tools required to construct a satisfactory-looking instrument to Kyoto Animation might not have existed earlier, hence the preference for instruments with a simpler design.

  • As Hazuki discovers, the trumpet requires a certain skill to use: with the highest register amongst the brass instruments, it’s widely used in concert bands to provide the melody.

  • Noboru’s physical appearance is not unlike that of Cillian Murphy’s portrayal of Batman Begins‘ Dr. Crane, although thankfully, rather than trying to spread a fear toxin throughout Kansai, Noboru’s only objective is to cultivate a sense of independence and drive to perform well, and harsh his words may be, this is probably precisely what Kitauji’s band needs to pull itself back up.

  • Kumiko expresses a degree of stress about her situation with Reina; whereas she was content to have achieved a ‘dud’ gold (where a band wins a gold but does not advance to the next level) back in junior high, the latter was dissatisfied. Consequently, Kumiko finds it difficult to talk to her, with the aim of expressing that in spite of what’s happened, losing is not the end of the world.

  • Aoi Satou is two years Kumiko’s senior and plays the tenor saxophone: she remarks to Kumiko that the latter ought to make the most of her three years of high school, since this time will pass by in the blink of an eye.

  • Kyoto Animation’s craft has always been impressive, but the artwork and level of detail in Hibike! Euphonium appears to be even more impressive than their previous works. I’ve previously mentioned that this attention to the visual component is one of the reasons why their adaptation of Haruhi Suzumiya was so successful; Satelight’s interpretation of The Disappearance of Nagato Yuki-chan feels far more minimalist by comparison.

  • Aside from all of the merits that are already present in Hibike! Euphonium, I add to the list sort of humour that can only stem from concert band-related topics, such as over-exerting oneself during breathing training. From the looks of things, Hibike! Euphonium will be able to maintain a good balance between the story component, and the humour component to really bring out a story that viewers can relate to.

  • There’s no point in doing something if one isn’t giving it with their fullest effort. This forms the foundations for why I do things the way that I do; if we journey further back in time, to when I was in primary school, my earliest years were characterised by instructors citing that I lacked focus, and couldn’t pay attention to classes. At some point, I realised that it would be more meaningful if I tried to do a good job, regardless of whether or not I liked the topic or assignment.

  • Thus, we fast forward back to the present, and looking back, I’d think that for the amount of trouble I caused my primary school instructors, I turned out alright. Coming up next will be a talk on my initial impressions for Wolfenstein: The New Order, followed by Terror in Resonance and RWBY. The latter two are by request from readers, and I do occasionally take up anime if requested.

  • I waited until the very end to feature an image of Reina Kousaka, one of Kumiko’s classmates who was also at her junior high’s concert band and an excellent trumpet player. Distraught that Kumiko was not particularly worried about losing, their relationship has been rocky. This scene reminds me of Rio playing the trumpet for Kanata in Sora no Woto, and looking forwards, I imagine that Hibike! Euphonium will also follow the reconciliation that Kumiko and Reina must undertake before Kitauji’s concert band club can truly succeed.

Hibike! Euphonium stands to become a solid anime for the same reason that Girls und Panzer was enjoyable: both anime feature a formerly top-tier club that had fallen by the wayside. In Girls und Panzer, twelve episodes was all it took to tell an immensely thrilling and meaningful story, and though it might’ve been troubled by some production issues, the series was by all means exceptional. However, with Kyoto Animation at the helm, and the fact that I can relate to the story immediately, I foresee that Hibike! Euphonium will probably be one of Kyoto Animation’s better anime. The story is already highly engaging and relatable, but Kyoto Animation appears to have stepped up their craft further. The sound is fantastic, and though I’ve not picked up a clarinet or played in a concert band in over nine years, Kyoto Animation is able to portray both the excellent and inexperienced bands: in Kitauji’s performances, I can hear individual clarinets squeaking. Different sections going off-tempo and off-tune can also be discerned, illustrating the sound quality that’s gone into production. The visuals have also taken off: the amount of detail that is present in the individual instruments (and in particular, lighting effedcts) is absolutely amazing, and the landscapes themselves are detailed enough to challenge even Makoto Shinkai’s. Three episodes in, I cannot find any substantial faults with Hibike! Euphonium, and would easily recommend this anime- a fantastic voyage doubtlessly awaits, and I look forwards to seeing what happens with Kitauji’s concert band as they improve and spend more time with one another.

Hello! Kiniro Mosaic: Reflection and review after three

“Good teachers know how to bring out the best in students.” —Charles Kuralt

The sequel to Kiniro Mosaic, Hello! Kiniro Mosaic marks a welcome return to the gentle, slow-paced humour that characterised the first season, which saw Alice and Shinobu resume their friendship after the latter’s homestay in England five years prior to the present. When the first season ended, Alice and Shinobu were advancing into their second year of high school, but were separated on virtue of being in different classes. The second season picks up right where the first left off; Aya, Shinobu and Karen have Akari Kuzehashi as their homeroom instructor, and owing to her strict, intimidating presence, are having a difficult time adjusting. Karen’s efforts eventually leads Akari to open up somewhat, and by episode three, Hello! Kiniro Mosaic has settled right with the pace of things, with Yoko’s younger siblings making an appearance and Alice expressing a desire to be with Poppy, her pet dog.

For most viewers familiar with Kiniro Mosaic, the first season concluded nearly two years ago, and it was only a few months ago where a second season had been given the go-ahead and announced. On my end, it’s only been two months since I finished the first season. Consequently, I still recall vividly what the first season was like; the second season is off to an exceptionally strong start, offering incredibly amusing situations that allow the characters to bounce off one another. It is quite reminiscent of Bill Waterson’s Calvin and Hobbes, where the jokes became consistently better as Waterson continued to tune his craft. Hello! Kiniro Mosaic does just this: all of the sheer ridiculousness of some of the situations, whether it’s Karen’s determination to befriend Akari, the antics that ensue when everyone tries to reproduce an authentic English High Tea experience or Alice’s desire for a pet indicate moments that were are well-polished, intended to be accessible for new viewers, while simultaneously reacquainting those familiar with the show through some of the more subtle moments that allow the audience to learn more about the characters.

Screenshots and Commentary

  • Alright, we’re back to Kiniro Mosaic, and I’m commentating this while I watch, picking up where I left off, let’s do this. I’m feeling magical; I can complete this review…in roughly thirty seconds. For newcomers, Hello! Kiniro Mosaic is quite accessible, although watching the first season is recommended, since there are subtle call-backs to the first season that make the second season doubly enjoyable to watch.

  • The first few episodes deal predominantly with Akari, a new character who is the home economics instructor and also Aya, Karen and Shinobu’s homeroom instructor. Much of the humour in the episodes is dramatic in nature, with Karen mentioning Akari in a moderately unflattering light and subsequently learning that Akari happens to be standing right behind her.

  • While she’s actually quite kind-hearted and enjoys working with her students, Akari’s intimidating appearance causes her students to become quite distant as a result. Karen sees her as a tiger for her ferocity, and speculates that she’s even eaten students.

  • It comes across as somewhat unnerving in reality, and Kiniro Mosaic manages to turn Alice’s recording observations of Shinobu into something that’s endearing and entertaining. Not every anime can pull this off, but in the remarkably relaxed, carefree world that is Kiniro Mosaic, something like this is not unplausible.

  • Karen somehow manages to acquire a Sherlock-esque garb in her investigation to figure out Akari, and in the process, learns that Shinobu is also quite mysterious, as well. Together with Aya, Yoko and Alice, they follow Shinobu around to no avail, and later, Shinobu reveals that her wish to learn English and become an interpreter was brought on by a memory from her childhood, where she saw someone converse with a native English speaker.

  • While Karen is rather rambunctious, she’s also kind-hearted and is quick to befriend others. Her determination to get on good terms with Akari is quite endearing, and in fact, brings back memories of when I was an assistant instructor for kindergarten-aged children at a Chinese language school. It was there I realised the joys of piquing students’ enthusiasm for learning things.

  • Upon hearing Sakura’s suggestion about “squeezing something cute”, Yoko and even Aya gets in on it. Kiniro Mosaic is remarkably similar to GochiUsa with respect to atmospherics and pacing, despite their respective manga’s different authors. The time difference between Kiniro Mosaic‘s first and second seasons’ start points is 21 months, so assuming this trend to hold, GochiUsa‘s second season will probably air during Winter 2016.

  • Shinobu proposes that everyone gets together for afternoon tea, and after spending an afternoon just making the scones and biscuits, they’re forced to reschedule it. Afternoon tea has its origins in the 1840s amongst the British upper classes, and thus, can be said to be a relatively recent custom. A direct translation into my native tongue yields “yum cha” (飲茶), although rather than British staples, such as pastries and crumpets, dim sum is served instead. It’s one of my favourite events, and I’m especially fond of har gow.

  • Karen decides to give some of the additional cookies she’d made with the others to her classmates as thanks for offering her sweets previously. Karen’s ever-lively personality and openness lends Kiniro Mosaic a very energetic feel: prior to her arrival in the series, things felt much slower, more laid-back in pacing. Something similar is happening in The Disappearance of Nagato Yuki-chan: now that Haruhi’s back, the show feels like it’s really picked up.

  • Despite knowing that happi coats don’t require measurements, Aya takes Yoko’s measurements anyways. Read directly in Chinese, 法被 has no meaning in Hanzi, but refer to the happi coats in Japanese kanji; these are typically worn during festivals and its phonetic similarity has led them to be referred to as “happy coats”, which Akari tries to make a joke out of.

  • While Shinobu may be under-performing as a student, her love of clothing means that she’s quite a seamstress, impressing Akari with her craftsmanship. On my edge, I tend to be similarly impressed with students who submit exceptionally well-done programs that satisfy the assignment criteria. These assignments are the easiest to mark, and I typically begin the marking procedure by separating assignments into two piles: the pile that outright works, and the pile where I give the assignment a closer look so they can be fairly evaluated.

  • After a conversation with Sakura, Akari gradually figures out how to interact with her students without scaring them. One of the things that students look for in an instructor is their approachability: ever since I took the position of being a TA, I strive to present myself as being available to help the students to the best of my ability. While this means my inbox typically fills up (even with emails from students in other sections), it is immensely rewarding to see students learn and grasp the material.

  • Naturally, I do not intimidate my students quite to the same extent that Akari does, and while I remind my students of important dates, since said students are undergraduates and adults, I expect that they are able to manage their own schedules and become aware of the deadlines.

  • This year for April Fools’ Day, I changed my relationship status on Facebook from what it normally is to “In a Relationship”. It was a remarkably effective prank, since numerous of my friends did in fact fall for it, but those who know me quite well would know that it’s unlikely that such a thing would happen on such short notice. I thought it was fairly amusing, until I found out about Matimi0’s April Fools’ joke, which deceived even me.

  • In fact, I would argue that those who read my blog and the accompanying image captions for each post would probably know me better than those who see my news feed on Facebook. This blog does act as an electronic diary of sorts, even if it is not quite as detailed as other online diaries. Apparently, dogs do not get along with Shinobu and bark in her presence.

  • Last season, we had Alice bursting into tears after a New Year’s Dream near the series’ end, although this time around, the wait for such a reaction was not quite so long. My posting schedule’s been thrown off by the fact that I’ve been remarkably busy over the past while: on Sunday, I attended brunch with my professor for multi-agent systems and classmates; the morning had been quite gloomy when I drove there. As I sat down to plates of scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, hash browns, a freshly made omelette, honey glazed ham, mini-steaks and chicken quesadillas, discussion turned to applications of multi-agent systems in real-world scenarios.

  • Discussions feel much more informal outside of the classroom, and after I finished cheesecake some time later, the weather had cleared out completely, leaving skies of blue and sunshine.  I spent the remainder of the day grading assignments. Back in Kiniro Mosaic, Alice has fallen from a strong desire to pet and play with Poppy again. Such visuals add a great deal of humour to the scenario.

  • Despite suggestions to pet Yoko in Poppy’s stead, Alice remarks that it’s different. Akari remarks that the students feel more similar to primary school students, and to an external observer, this is quite true. It’s only in anime where characters are able to act much younger than their ages would otherwise suggest, and the unique environment here allows this to be executed quite well.

  • Sakura goes to extreme lengths to help her students, even managing to mimick Poppy’s barking to resuscitate Alice. Today marked the end of my first year in graduate studies; I completed an oral exam for the multi-agent systems course and summarily received my grade to continue my perfect streak. Now that the summer’s practically here, I finally picked up the Wolfenstein bundle (The New Order and The Old Blood) and will be starting on that quite soon. As well, I’ll be concluding April with a post on Hibike! Euphonium and my impressions of the finale to Gundam Build Fighters Try.

  • Shinobu later makes a robotic dog for Alice to keep her company until she returns to England and sees Poppy again. Whatever lies ahead for Hello! Kiniro Mosaic will be something that I look forwards to seeing, as the academic term gives way to the summer. I anticipate that having humour of this calibre will be particularly helpful as I gear up to learn the Unreal Engine and begin my thesis in earnest.

Moving forwards, it appears that several new characters will be added to the line-up, offering the possibility of pushing new adventures and humour forwards. The second season’s off to a fine start: the first season was quite enjoyable to watch, but here, the situations seem to segue into one another very neatly, making each moment more enjoyable. If this trend holds for the remainder of the season, audiences will be left with a fantastic comedy that is sure to entertain in every moment. It’s been a while since I’ve watched a well-executed comedy; insofar, Hello! Kiniro Mosaic is something that’s very easy to recommend, and while this second season can be watched without having watched the first, there are some nuances that can only be understood if one’s watched the first season. We are still reasonably early into Hello! Kiniro Mosaic, so catching up before the fourth episode is not a particularly momentous undertaking.

Valkyria Chronicles: Initial Impressions and Review

“Uhh, y’know, I’m into games that, you know, take some skill, I guess. Like FPS…first person shooters… CS-Source…” —FPS_Doug, Pure Pwnage

I picked up the animated adaptation of Valkyria Chronicles nearly two years ago, and while the anime itself was quite entertaining, I was quite interested in trying the game out for myself. Back then, Valkyria Chronicles was only available on the Playstation 3, and being a PC gamer through and through, my interest in the game was not about to shell out whatever the cost of a PS3. Fast forwards to October 2014, and the announcement was made that Valkyria Chronicles would be ported for PC, available on the Steam Store. This changed things quite dramatically, and so, I picked up my copy during the Winter 2014 Steam sale right before heading to Taiwan. I started the game last month, and immediately, I am welcomed with a very familiar world: it’s the same as the anime, placing the player in command of Gallian forces against the Imperial forces as the latter begin their conquest of Europa (a fictional content, rather than Jupiter’s moon) to take control of its ragnite reserves. However, rather than sitting idly back and allowing the characters to do their thing, Valkyria Chronicles plays out as a turn-based strategy game with RPG, third-person shooter and visual novel elements. In practise, these uniquely styled factors come together to yield a game that is absolutely solid with respect to world-building, and remarkably cathartic relative to things like Battlefield 3.

  • This collection of screenshots come from my first bit of playing the game: the campaign starts out in Bruhl, a small, peaceful town under Imperial invasion. The start of the game is a slow-paced environment that allows players to get familiar with the gameplay mechanics, which are very smooth. The CANVAS engine allows for some nice graphics that, while far from being the triple-A level content found in what I usually play, nonetheless does a superb job of setting up the game’s atmosphere.

  • Valkyria Chronicles is able to satisfy the one-hour test of a game: this rule specifies that within an hour, players will have a reasonable assessment as to whether or not they will continue playing the game or not. Valkyria Chronicles‘ only limitation is its menu system, which is quite unintuitive, but other than that, the gameplay mechanics and the world-building is nothing short of impressive.

  • It’s relatively easy to see why Valkyria Chronicles’ game incarnation is better received than the anime: Alicia is much friendlier, much more accepting of Welkin and has no tsundere tendencies as within the anime. Alicia plays as a scout in the game, a class with high mobility, low health and weaker weapons. Later missions will allow additional classes to be wielded, each with their own strengths and caveats.

  • The relaxing mood in Valkyria Chronicles stems from the fact that I’m used to highly paced shooters where there are more than ten enemies firing on me: by being able to move my units to strategic points on the map, have them fire off their shots and then retreat or duck for cover, I can plan things out one step at a time. Thus, while it’s nothing like the sort of game that demands über-micro, Valkyria Chronicles does require some thinking for one to pwn.

  • Headshots are possible in Valkyria Chronicles, allowing for some enemy units to be downed in a single shot. Unlike a typical first-person shooter, the accuracy of one’s shots are a statistic driven by luck rather than über-micro, but this can be improved by upgrading one’s units later on. The RPG-style experience and weapons upgrades, plus squad configurations, take a little getting used to, but it also confers a great deal of flexibility in optimising one’s squad for the environments they fight in.

  • The enemies in Valkyria Chronicles are fairly deterministic in terms of AI, allowing for a near-optimal solution for every map to be found with enough experience. Tanks make an appearance early on, and although grenades are useful in slowing them down, later, the player will have access their own MBT, the Edelweiss, and the Lancer anti-tank class. Tanks will take several hits to be destroyed, but they also have a radiator (a glowing blue element) that can be shot at, taking out any tank with one shot. To accomplish this, one will need to flank the tank.

  • Lectures have largely ended now, but that means grading the remainder of the computer science assignments in my drop box, and preparing for an oral examination in multi-agent systems. During the course of the term, I had worked with a team to design cooperative agents for a rescue simulator, and our team’s agents performed the most effectively: on twenty-nine worlds, we saw fifteen wins (the second team had ten wins, and the third team had four wins). The outcome of winning is an A grade on the implementation of the course, and brunch for the winning team with the instructor.

  • Said brunch will take place this Sunday, but today, I spent much of the day with my supervisor: we attended a seminar on software analytics in video games (games mentioned include Halo Reach and Forza Motorsports), where statistical methods were explored in improving the former’s matchmaking mechanism (by predicting player skill changes based on their play time) and deciding how visible to make the options for assisting vehicle operation.

  • This was a thrilling talk, and after it ended, I was able to pick up a newer Mac Pro (my original model was from 2008, and this one is from 2009) as originally planned: the original Mac Pro I had was unable to run Unreal 4. This new system, in conjunction with the spare ATI 5870 our lab had, should be able to allow me to continue with my research, and presently, I’m in the process of setting it up. The weather today was also quite nice, and the food trucks were on campus, so I enjoyed this year’s first fried chicken poutine from Waffles and Chix under sunshine and a thought-provoking discussion on the future of games with my supervisor: it turns out I prefer my fried chicken poutine with hot sauce after all.

  • Tomorrow, I will direct my efforts at making reasonable headway in my grading, and get the computer’s basic setup completed. Even though things’ve been quite busy, I anticipate being able to find a few moments to continue in Valkyria Chronicles: this is a fantastic game, and I project that I’ll make it in about halfway before Wolfenstein: The Old Blood comes out. The plan will be to finish both it and The New Order by late July to early August, and then resume playing Valkyria Chronicles from there.

I’ve amassed around four hours of gameplay now, and Valkyria Chronicles has proven to be a superb game: this is how visual novel elements ought to be incorporated into a game: the moments where one can sit back and relax as the story unfolds are well-balanced with the combat segments of a chapter, which is where players have the opportunity to put boots on the ground and turn back the Imperial forces. Beyond this, players also have a large degree of flexibility in rearranging their squad to best fight together in different environments and upgrading their performance and equipment, giving them a sense of investment into the game’s large cast of characters. Coupled with the relatively minimal violence compared to most shooters, Valkyria Chronicles is superbly relaxing and simultaneously engaging to play through: this is a combination that isn’t particularly common in the titles I frequent, and consequently, Valkyria Chronicles represents a change of pace from my usual shooters done correctly. I’ll progress through this one at an equally relaxed pacing to savour the chapters that lie ahead.