Marvel Comics Final Thoughts – X-23: Target X

With Marvel’s popular and successful foray into films with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I’ve finally decided to get back into comics. I grew up a big fan of X-Men and other superheroes but haven’t really kept up since the 90s. Thus begins my grand catching-up of the last ten years of Marvel comics, events and stories.

Thanks in large part to trade paperbacks and the digital convenience of Marvel Unlimited I can make relatively quick progress, and I’ll write down my Final Thoughts for each collection here on my blog. Like my gaming Final Thoughts, this will be full of spoilers. You’ve been warned!

x-23 target xWriters: Craig Kyle, Chris Yost

Artist: Michael Choi

Issues: X-23: Target X #1-6

Laura Kinney was made from the modified DNA of the original Weapon X, Wolverine. The organization could only duplicate the X chromosome and so doubled it, essentially creating a cloned daughter of Weapon X. A geneticist named Sarah Kinney, newly brought on to the program, offered to carry the child, and when born she was immediately conditioned to be an emotionless assassin, as the mother struggled with her duties to science and her job and basic human empathy with her daughter.

That whole story is told in the amazing limited series X-23: Innocence Lost, which details her birth and childhood at the Weapon X facility, training as a brutal killing machine and eventual escape. X-23’s first appearance was actually in the animated series X-Men: Evolution and has since become a popular comic book character, not unlike DC Comic’s Harley Quinn.

I skipped writing about Innocence Lost as I was in the middle of lots of other comics at the time, but I definitely want to give special mention to Target X, as I was blown away by just how gripping the story was and the fantastic art style.

The story picks up right where Innocence Lost left off – Laura has murdered her mother after she was exposed to the trigger scent that causes her to kill with mindless ferocity, just after escaping and destroying the facility that was her horrifying home throughout her childhood. Reinforcements show up to try and apprehend her, but she kills them, and buries Kimura (X-23’s sadistic and indestructible handler) under an avalanche of snow.

Laura goes to the only place she knows of outside of the facility: her Aunt’s family in San Francisco. During the events of Innocence Lost, Laura had saved her little cousin Megan from a child predator, and the memory drives her to find sanctuary there.

x-23 target x #2Megan is now a young teenager and a troubled one – she’s haunted by memories of the abduction, dressing in a goth-style and generally acting sullen and moody. Her relationship with her parents is strained, but Laura’s sudden arrival helps her out of her mental shell and the two become friends – as friendly as an emotionally damaged young woman and a trained killer can be. Their relationship is a nice focus of the middle of the story, and there’s some funny bits as Laura proves her frightening real world knowledge of languages, anatomy and military structure to her horrified teachers at school.

Pretending to be a somewhat normal teenager is destined to fail, and the organization that created X-23 aren’t about to give up on her. Turns out that Megan’s mom and Laura’s aunt’s boyfriend Desmond is an undercover operative, and he plans to use the trigger scent to make X-23 kill them. It doesn’t go exactly as planned: he drug’s the aunt’s tea but it also gets splashed on himself when Megan and Laura come home. X-23’s eyes go red and she brutally kills him, while Megan grabs her mom and rushes to the shower in one of the tensest scenes I’ve ever thumbed through in a comic.

x-23 target x #5Having Laura’s major weakness as a chemical that turns her into a mindless killing machine is both terrifying and intriguing. She can never fully trust herself and knows she’s a danger to others. After defeating waves of soldiers and the return of Kimura, Laura escapes with Megan and her mom, getting them across the Canadian border before they have to say their tearful goodbyes. Laura’s emotions are often stunted and she rarely speaks, but in this rain-soaked scene she emotes with gut-wrenching pain, regret and sacrifice as she says her goodbyes to the only people that ever cared about her (minus her mom I guess, though that was complicated).

The story wraps up after five issues but a final epilogue in the sixth has X-23 confront Wolverine, the reason for existence, outside of the mansion. Since it’s a comic book they immediately fight, and X-23 mostly kicks his ass in a spectacularly well-constructed fight scene (to be fair, Logan doesn’t really want to fight her). Turns out Wolverine knows all about her story, as her mom sent him a letter of her confession detailing the events at the facility. He suggests she join Xavier’s as a place she’ll be both safe (ha) and happy (eh).

The invitation is cut short when SHIELD arrives and Captain America personally captures her while Wolverine tries to draw them off. The entire series is written as Laura telling these events to Steve Rogers and Matt Murdock (Daredevil, as her counsel) as they grill her about what happened, and more importantly if she takes responsibility for the countless lives she’s taken. It’s a fun way to frame the story, and eventually Rogers and Murdock fight about what to do with this young killer.

Ultimately Captain America decides to hand her over to SHIELD, and Laura goes willingly. On the way he realizes that SHIELD will most likely use her as the weapon she was designed to be, and decides to let her go. Bit of a risky move considering she is deadly and lacks basic human moral fiber, but Target X does do a great job giving her a bit of humanity and making it impossible not to cheer for her.

x-23 target x #6

By filling in the gaps between Innocence Lost and when Laura joins the New X-Men, we get an entertaining and informative glimpse into who she is. Michael Choi’s art is phenomenal, particularly how he draws faces and soulful eyes. Steve Rogers has never looked so thoughtful. I’m beginning to really enjoy these limited series, with their well-paced storylines and intriguing character focus (see also Son of M and X-Men: Deadly Genesis). If you’re at all interested in learning more about X-23, I highly recommend X-23: Target X, though you may want to start with X-23: Innocence Lost so you’re not lost on previous events.

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Marvel Comics Final Thoughts – New X-Men: Childhood’s End, Vol. 3-4

With Marvel’s popular and successful foray into films with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I’ve finally decided to get back into comics. I grew up a big fan of X-Men and other superheroes but haven’t really kept up since the 90s. Thus begins my grand catching-up of the last ten years of Marvel comics, events and stories.

Thanks in large part to trade paperbacks and the digital convenience of Marvel Unlimited I can make relatively quick progress, and I’ll write down my Final Thoughts for each collection here on my blog. Like my gaming Final Thoughts, this will be full of spoilers. You’ve been warned!

new x-men #28 coverWriters: Craig Kyle, Chris Yost

Artist: Paco Medina

Issues: New X-Men (2004-2008) #28-36

There were two important loose threads left dangling after the catastrophic events of New X-Men’s previous arc, when William Stryker led his Purifiers on an all out assault on Xavier’s School.

The first is that while Stryker himself perished at the hands of Elixir, his Purifier’s live on, led by one of his disciples. They would lick their wounds and take a backseat as the second would take center stage – Nimrod, the time-traveling mutant-hunting sentinel from the future, had escaped his imprisonment.

Stryker had used Nimrod’s memory banks to predict the future and form his cult, but Nimrod held no love for the fanatics, escaping and heading to Dallas, Texas to force his original builder, Forge, to repair him. The New X-Men are on the case as the older veterans basically blow them off, dismissing Nimrod and telling them to stay put, which always works great with teenagers. Our young heroes launch their own secret mission to rescue Forge after he contacts Nori (Surge) using the gauntlets he built her, and we get a chance to see our burgeoning team on their own for the first time.

“Nimrod” is short and sweet with a simple set-up that leads our heroes into a fun battle with Nimrod and a small army of mini-sentinels. It was awesome seeing them coordinate their abilities and strengths, especially in the final battle against Nimrod, requiring Mercury to peel open his chest while Surge overloads his time-traveling matrix to send him into another time line.

new x-men #30

In the battle Laura (X-23) is grievously wounded and she’s not healing (which isn’t quite explained), so Hellion grabs her and attempts to fly all the way back across the country. Emma Frost touches Hellion’s mind and unlocks his full telekinetic powers, letting him get back to the base while hinting at the huge potential of his powers. Elixir is able to heal her, which also snaps him out of his funk after murdering Stryker. Laura then begins falling for Hellion in her own adorably awkward, sociopathic way, which leads directly to the next story arc, “Mercury Falling.”

If I may digress for a moment, one of my favorite scenes happens early in issue #28 (which occurs in the middle of Civil War), when Iron Man and Ms. Marvel show up at the X-Mansion and not so tactfully ask the X-Men to register with the new Superhuman Registration Act. Emma Frost, whom I kind of hated in the previous two volumes of New X-Men due to her outright hatred and loathing of X-23 (whom I love), has an amazing monologue response that essentially boils down to “Where the hell were the Avengers when they were invading our home and murdering our children? Get the fuck out.” It’s one of those fist-pumping moments and Frost completely won me over, even more so with her actions in the epilogue of the next story.

“Mercury Falling” starts with Cessily (Mercury) taking Laura out for coffee in a nicely normal teenage manner – Cess had correctly seen that Laura had feelings for Hellion and wanted to talk to her about it. Of course this being a comic book and them being mutants it doesn’t end well, as the same organization that bred, tortured and crafted X-23 attack them. The two girls fight them off as best they can, but Laura learns the hard way that they’re not after her – they’re after Mercury.

Mercury is captured while Laura escapes. She immediately grabs her things to go hunt her down when Hellion finds her and insists on helping. His flight power comes in really handy so she quickly acquiesces, and much of the story becomes about their hunt for the organization.

new x-men #35If you’re already preparing your eye rolls in anticipation of this turning into a sappy teenage love story, fear not. The pair are quite focused on the mission at hand, and we get to explore a bit more of their personalities. Namely that Laura has zero compunctions about straight up killing anyone in their way – even executing criminals after they give up the information they need. Hellion is horrified and tries to explain that killing people is wrong, reminding me of John Connor trying to explain the same concept to The Terminator.

Eventually the powerful duo make it to the facility, and begin kicking people’s asses left and right. Kimura, an assassin with indestructible skin and X-23’s former handler and arch-nemesis, is able to subdue Laura, but Hellion responds by blasting her about 20 miles away, heh. The organization reveal their plan after torturing poor Mercury over the last few issues – stealing her liquid metal skin and bonding it to monstrous, mutant-hunting beasts.

Luckily the rest of the New X-Men show up along with the Astonishing X-Men team and are able to defeat most of the Predator X beasts (one of them escapes to create another dangling plot thread). Mercury is haunted by the events and Laura feels ashamed and guilty, heart-breakingly telling Emma Frost that she was right – she should never have come to the mansion.

In the epilogue Emma approaches Kimura just as her sniper’s gun is trained on Laura being hugged by Cessily. She shuts down her body mentally, then cruelly removes the only good memory she has (her grandmother), and finally forces Kimura to help X-23 instead of hinder her every step of the way. Essentially she gets her super villain on to completely dominate another, and it is freaking awesome. Another fist-pumping moment for the former White Queen.

Both “Nimrod” and “Mercury Falling” are fun little four part stories (Issue #32 is a one-off) that show off a ton of fun action-adventure sequences and do a great job showcasing our heroes in dangerous situations. It’s a bit of a bummer that “Mercury Falling” focuses almost solely on Hellion and X-23, as I’d prefer to see the whole team work together again, but I adore X-23’s character and it’s hard to complain when she takes center stage.

Apparently Issue #32 acts as a big plot hook that affects the X-Men three years in the future, with the X-Necrosha story line (in fact, that issue is included in the X-Necrosha trade paperback). Talk about your dangling plot threads! It reveals what happened to Whither, a student that fled the mansion back when I first jumped on to New X-Men in issue #20, as he meets up with a mysterious woman who’s also all about death. It’s not terribly interesting on its own but I imagine becomes quite interesting once I finally get to that story.

new x-men #31

New X-Men continues to be one of my favorite series. Paco Medina’s art shows off a crisp, bright look that meshes well with the youthful tone. I’m continually impressed with how writers Chris Kyle and Craig Yost don’t rely on simple teenage drama, instead sending the new heroes on their own adventures and finding their way with their own story lines, while somehow remaining grounded in current Marvel events and situations.

Gaming Backlog Final Thoughts – Call of Juarez: Gunslinger

I have finished another backlogged game via Rogue’s Adventures. You can read my latest Final Thoughts below and also on my gaming blog on Game Informer.

Developer: Techland

Publisher: Ubisoft

Release Date: May 21, 2013

I’ve always had a soft spot for Westerns. One of my all time favorite films remains one of my childhood favorites – 1993’s Tombstone. The gunfights, the one-liners, the larger than life characters all created an indelible interest in a genre that had long since waned from mainstream appeal. Indeed to be a big fan of Westerns necessitates being a fan of classic cinema, and as a film student in college I was afforded lots of opportunities to dive into the worlds of Sergio Leone and John Wayne.

Despite a brief resurgence in the late 80s and early 90s, Westerns have become a rare breed, and rarer still among gaming. You can probably count the number of Western-setting games made in the last ten years on one or two hands, making magnum opus’ like Red Dead Redemption all the more special (Side Note: Red Dead Redemption might be my favorite game of the last 15 years).

Part of the problem with those few Western games is that they are almost all exclusively shooters, and the guns of the era don’t lend themselves to a whole lot of variety. I’m personally not crazy about first person shooters in general; I enjoy the BioShock series much more for the story-telling than the gameplay, and I stopped trying to keep up with most competitive shooters years ago (I do enjoy the occasional cooperative romp, like Evolve).

Thus I’d never given the Call of Juarez series a chance, and even less so when the previous entry abandoned its Western setting for a modern one (yawn). Gunslinger was released in 2013 as a shorter spin-off and was lauded for its polished gameplay and humorously unreliable narrator. I was intrigued at the low cost of entry, both the literal cost and the relatively short length, and wanted to give it a try.

Gunslinger tells the story of Silas Greaves, an old bounty hunter that regales his tales of adventure (and mass murder) to a table of bar patrons. Silas reveals that he and his brothers were left for dead by a gang of outlaws, and as the sole survivor he went down a dark path of vengeance and blood – which pretty much sounds like the story hook of most Westerns and video games in general.

Silas’ adventures take him to just about every classic Western location you could think of – from Apache-filled canyons to trains, steamboats, mountain passes, dynamite-filled caves and of course, classic small town shoot-outs. Each level offers a fun new location and while the graphics engine isn’t necessarily the prettiest, developer Techland gets a lot of mileage out of the vast expanses and gorgeous vistas that dominate most backdrops.

Missions are short and sweet, mostly clocking in at maybe 30 minutes. Exploration is minimal and most of the time is spent simply following the obvious paths laid about before you, dispatching waves of gun-toting outlaws and bandits. Gameplay is very similar to those on-rails light gun arcade games as enemies pop up out of cover. A concentration bar can be used to slow down the action in a classic ‘bullet time’ effect, painting targets red and making many of the more chaotic sections much more bearable.

Silas is limited to carrying his revolvers and either a shotgun or rifle. Variety in guns is not a strong suit for most Western games (though Red Dead Redemption performed admirably). Revolvers come in three varieties, letting you choose whether you prefer range, accuracy or rate of fire, while I found the rifle vastly superior to the 2-barrel shotgun in nearly every situation.

Since every game has to have some sort of RPG-like progression system, Gunslinger lets you level up and put skill points into three separate trees (with two paths each), focusing on either revolvers, rifles or shotguns. New custom guns can be unlocked and many skills help rack up the combo points as well as enable perks like carrying more ammo and reloading faster. I went with the rifle skills first as long range combat seemed like the best way to go most of the time (other than occasionally spelunking in caves).

Even on Normal mode Silas can’t take a whole lot of hits, and goes down pretty quick. I had to replay quite a few sections, and some multiple times just to survive. Many climactic moments have you surrounded by a dozen or more enemies and missing a shot or two can be fatal. A few gatling gun boss sections also leave little room for error. Thankfully checkpoints are frequent and easy; I never had any complaints after dying and starting almost right where I died.

One of my favorite features were in the collectibles. Silas can find Nuggets of Truth hidden around the world, and since each level is fairly linear finding them is pretty easy. These Secrets reveal little three or four page stories on various famous historical figures, gangs and places that Silas runs into during his storied adventures. I stopped and read every single one of them. Hats off to the developer, as they were fun and informative addition.

Of course our anti-hero ends up running into just about every famous Western hero and outlaw you’ve ever heard of. His career as a bounty hunter tasks him with taking on the Cowboys and Johnny Ringo, the Jesse James gang, the Dalton Brothers and even a climatic Mexican standoff with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Gunslinger could’ve easily painted a contrived story inserting all these famous characters and narratives willy-nilly, but I found it maintained a nice balance of homage and loving respect for the genre, and built upon the real world stories to insert Silas into them in clever and not entirely reality-breaking ways. Kind of how Forrest Gump ended up at a lot of famous events – Silas Greaves is the Forrest Gump of Western heroes.

The concept of an unreliable narrator isn’t new, but it’s used in some fun ways, including the classic “I just wanted to see if you were paying attention” moment. Silas’ stories get a little too outlandish for our bar patrons, and when they call him out he sometimes recants, and things magically change before your eyes. It’s also used to occasionally hinder or provide progress (“Suddenly, I spotted a ladder”). It’s a lot of fun thanks to some great voice acting, and Silas is a surprisingly deep character.

Call of Juarez Gunslinger is only about six hours long, and even then you could easily finish faster if you are good at first person shooters and didn’t care about collecting the Nuggets of Truth. With gameplay that’s little more involved than a light gun arcade game the real strengths lie in the Western theme, which permeates every facet of the game, from the famous characters to the tired tropes to the wonderfully varied but still thematically appropriate level design. Gunslinger could be a tougher game to recommend if you don’t know your spaghetti Westerns from your John Wayne flicks, but for Western fans and those that enjoy a more narrative-focused shooter it’s a surprisingly rewarding treat.

Pros

  • Western themes are used to their utmost potential
  • Silas’ narration is fun, funny and a neat way to anchor the story
  • Collectibles offer rewarding and fun historical lessons and stories
  • Short length and frequent location changes helps keep the limited gameplay fresh

Cons

  • Basic gameplay doesn’t evolve that much over the course of the game
  • Shotguns seem woefully inept next to rifles

 

Final Say: A short and sweet shooter that takes full advantage of its fantastic Western theming.

Marvel Comics Final Thoughts – Deadpool & Cable Ultimate Collection, Book 2

Thanks to Marvel’s popular and successful foray into films with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I’ve finally decided to get back into comics. I grew up a big fan of X-Men and other superheroes but haven’t really kept up since the 90s. Thus begins my grand catching-up of the last ten years of Marvel comics, events and stories.

Thanks in large part to trade paperbacks and the digital convenience of Marvel Unlimited I can make relatively quick progress, and I’ll write down my Final Thoughts for each collection here on my blog. Like my gaming Final Thoughts, this will be full of spoilers. You’ve been warned!

Deadpool and Cable ultimate collection book 2Writer: Fabian Nicieza

Artists: Patrick Zircher, Lan Medina, Reilly Brown

Issues: Cable & Deadpool #19-35

The second massive volume of everyone’s favorite Marvel odd couple, Cable & Deadpool is going to be one of the harder Final Thoughts for me to recount, simply because I read it over the whole last month.

It starts with Issue #19, an epilogue of sorts to their House of M ordeal (which I find weird wasn’t included with the House of M tie-in’s in the first Book), while Issues #28-32 tie in to Civil War. I’m attempting to get better about starting and finishing at least whole story arcs before picking up more series, but some of these long collected volumes are a bit tricky – especially in this case where the stories are more about fun and humor than actually telling a coherent story.

Most major series have at least one major branching story line to along with minor vignettes along the way, but Cable & Deadpool is pretty much only the latter style in this second volume. Ironically my favorite issues were the nearly self-contained one-shots. Issue #19 stars Deadpool taking care of a rapidly re-aging Cable after his dimensional-hopping adventures. This mostly constitutes going to a bar and drinking together, but also includes some surprisingly poignant and rare revelations about Deadpool’s tragic past.

Issue #24 involves a fun match between Deadpool and Spider-Man, with all the verbal smack-talk slinging you can imagine. Issue #25 has Captain America infiltrate Cable’s little utopian project of Providence as a normal citizen, and becomes delighted with what Cable’s built and how he runs things (leading to a nicely logical reason why Cable helps support Cap in Civil War). We also get some fun glimpses into Cable’s dark future, where he wielded Cap’s iconic shield to inspire his own soldiers in the war against Apocalypse.

The other stories are varying degrees of quality, with the only notable importance to the series continuity being Deadpool stealing technology that allows Cable to simulate his lost telekinesis and telepathy. It leads Deadpool to a fun fight against Luke Cage, Iron Fist and the B.A.D. Girls.

Deadpool-versus-Avengers

With Cable’s ties to Apocalypse, it makes sense that he’d be involved in the “Blood of Apocalypse” storyline that hits the X-Men book around the same time. Issues #26-27, “Born Again,” act as a spiffy, if cheesy prologue to those events as Cable witnesses Pocky Lips’ premature resurrection and we got tons of backstory involving a mullet sporting Cable wielding a sword. It’s alright, and certainly leagues better than the ill-conceived X-Men story.

Unfortunately both the story telling and art gradually start to decline in the later issues. Domino, Cable’s ex-lover and former X-Force compatriot takes center stage in a few issues involving a coup in a made up Eastern European country. She’s not particularly interesting and her character doesn’t seem to have much to do outside of complaining about Cable.

Cable & Deadpool #30The Civil War tie-ins are also profoundly disappointing. I was hoping to shed some insight in how Cable joins the resistance, but instead I get some pithy fights between Deadpool and the Anti-Reg team. Cable then goes on a round-about way to show Deadpool how wrong he is for the side he’s chosen. That story bleeds over into the next, involving the lame Six-Pack team that showed up in the previous Book attacking Cable’s newly liberated country of Rumekistan and Providence. Cable of course swiftly kicks all their asses.

I still enjoy my time with the dysfunctional duo. Fabian Nicieza’s writing remains funny and enjoyable throughout, and Deadpool is still delightfully hilarious. It’s a shame the series starts turning over artists as it’s definitely not for the better, and I’m hoping Nicieza can find his footing again with telling some more interesting stories.

 

Marvel Comics Final Thoughts – X-Factor: The Complete Collection Vol. 1

Thanks to Marvel’s popular and successful foray into films with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I’ve finally decided to get back into comics. I grew up a big fan of X-Men and other superheroes but haven’t really kept up since the 90s. Thus begins my grand catching-up of the last ten years of Marvel comics, events and stories.

Thanks in large part to trade paperbacks and the digital convenience of Marvel Unlimited I can make relatively quick progress, and I’ll write down my Final Thoughts for each collection here on my blog. Like my gaming Final Thoughts, this will be full of spoilers. You’ve been warned!

X-Factor #1 coverWriter: Peter David

Artists: Pablo Raimondi (Madrox), Ryan Sook, Dennis Calero, Ariel Olivetti, Renato Arlem

Issues: Madrox #1-5, X-Factor (2005) #1-12

One of the many new excellent series to premiere in the wake of House of M was a new version of X-Factor. Essentially Jamie Madrox, AKA Multiple Man, sets up a detective agency in Mutant Town and gathers together some of his old friends (along with a few new ones) to help mutants with various problems.

What could have easily turned into X-Men with lesser characters quickly carved out its own unique series thanks to an amazing noir style that permeated both the writing and awesome shadowy art, as well as loving attention paid to each character and their own personal dramas and interpersonal relationships. After reading the Volume 1 trade paperback, X-Factor has become one of my favorite ‘new’ series.

While this new version of X-Factor started in late 2005/early 2006, it was actually preceded by a limited mini-series, simply titled Madrox. Madrox nicely laid the seeds for the series a year beforehand by sprinkling in a classic noir story involving a murder mystery and a mysterious woman, and introduced us to some of the supporting cast (namely Rahne and Guido). While it’s definitely more of a solo series than the ensemble cast that X-Factor becomes, Madrox is an absolutely fantastic self-contained story.

Jamie is a fascinatingly complex character as his unique cloning powers are brought to the forefront of just about every encounter and story. His dupes (as he calls them) are created whenever he’s hit – so while he can generate them by slamming his fist on the ground, they also comically shoot out whenever he’s shoved or punched. Each dupe takes a separate personality cue from Madrox, and he never knows which is going to show up. One might be sweet and sensitive, another aggressive and sociopathic; this concept is used in endlessly entertaining ways, including an amazing revelation during the climactic moments of issue #12.

X-factor #7Jamie is the leader of the group even though he’s technically the weakest (he was able to afford the new business venture thanks to one of his dupes winning Who Wants to Be a Millionaire). Thanks to letting his dupes loose in the wild for years at a time, he can reabsorb them and instantly gain all their knowledge, giving him more street-smarts and book smarts than any normal human could learn in a single lifetime – another cool character trait. Of course if a dupe dies he feels the pain and trauma, and it makes a wonderful story hook for the series when a bloody dupe comes stumbling in and collapses in front of him.

The rest of the team consists of former X-Factor teammates (former being their original team from the 90s) Rahne Sinclair AKA Wolfsbane (a fiery Irish Catholic werewolf), Guido Carosella AKA Strong Guy (the resident muscle that turns energy into strength, also the comic relief) and Rictor (now dealing with being depowered from House of M – the first issue is about Madrox trying to stop his suicide attempt). They’re joined by new members Monet St. Croix AKA M (who has a whole paragraph of powers but acts mainly as the team’s telepath), Theresa Cassidy AKA Siryn (daughter of on-again off-again X-Man Banshee, with the same sonic scream powers) and finally Layla Miller, the mysterious young mutant that first appeared in House of M, and along with Wolverine was the only one that knew the truth behind that altered world. Her odd powers of nonchalant foresight and knowledge of future events are played up to great effect – particularly the running gag about her and Jamie being married one day.

The whole team works remarkably well together, and reminds me of some of the best teams that the X-Men have put out over the years. Everyone has distinct personalities and are wonderfully diverse: Siryn’s Irish-Catholic, Rahne is Scottish, Guido is Italian-American, Rictor is Mexican and Monet is Muslim. Their powers all come in handy in various ways as the plot weaves in some fun murder mysteries, an evil corporation and the general chaos created by the Decimation.

X-Factor #9

While X-Factor acknowledges the big events happening in the Marvel Universe they are always tangential to their own ongoing stories and struggles, much to the benefit of the series. Their Civil War tie-ins, for example, mostly consist of Quicksilver returning to town after his events in Son of M, and the team learning the truth behind the House of M from the X-Men. Things then go back to normal as the giant plot Peter David’s been building to, involving a sinister corporation and a CEO that was directly involved in the death of Madrox’s parents as a child, comes to an awesome conclusion in the three pat arc “Multiple Disclosure.”

If you like a comic book series with fun, interesting non-X-Men mutants and darker, stylistic art than I can’t recommend X-Factor enough. The Madrox series is a great set-up, and while not necessary reading to the series it’s just as good as the main series and thankfully included in the Volume 1 Complete Collection trade. This run of X-Factor would actually end up being one of Marvel’s most successful launches from that era, lasting for an astonishing eight years and over 100 issues – and Peter David wrote every single one of them. I fully expect to read them all in the coming months.

Marvel Comics Final Thoughts – Wolverine: Origins, Vol. 1-3

Thanks to Marvel’s popular and successful foray into films with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I’ve finally decided to get back into comics. I grew up a big fan of X-Men and other superheroes but haven’t really kept up since the 90s. Thus begins my grand catching-up of the last ten years of Marvel comics, events and stories.

Thanks in large part to trade paperbacks and the digital convenience of Marvel Unlimited I can make relatively quick progress, and I’ll write down my Final Thoughts for each collection here on my blog. Like my gaming Final Thoughts, this will be full of spoilers. You’ve been warned!

born in bloodWriter: Daniel Way

Artist: Steve Dillon

Issues: Wolverine: Origins #1-15

Just about the only positive thing to come out of House of M for our poor beleaguered mutants was that Wolverine suddenly got all his memories back. For a dude that’s over 100 years old that’s quite a lot to process, and Marvel responded by giving Wolverine an additional solo series called Wolverine: Origins, which launched in the Summer of 2006 and went on to run for four years and 50 issues. At the time Wolverine was also a New Avenger, part of at least one X-Men team and had his own solo series – this is the time of Wolverine overload that would last for years.

But I happen to love that furry Canadian so I wanted to give this series a try. The first volume (#1-6), “Born in Blood,” is a terrible start as Wolverine starts to carve a bloody path against those that wronged him – specifically the shadowy organization that used him as a brain-washable assassin.

One of his first steps is to attack the White House looking for a secretary with ties to the group, which immediately makes him a wanted man by SHIELD (which makes no sense in regards to other Marvel continuity). Eventually they send another reprogrammed soldier after him: Nuke, a G.I. Joe reject Logan tussled with in Vietnam. Soon Captain America and the Astonishing X-Men show up to bring Logan down and it ends in a fairly lame fight thanks to some of the worst artwork I’ve ever seen in a comic book.

Normally when I don’t like the art I chalk it up to style preference. I know what I like and don’t like, and certain styles I really enjoy while others can cause me to completely skip an arc or even a series. The latter nearly happened here as Steve Diilon’s art looks like it was made with clipart from Photoshop and MS Paint. Every character looks horrible and it meshes terribly with the bloody, serious tone of the story.

wolverine origins #10Things do get a little better (writing wise anyway) in the second story arc, “Savior” (#7-10). At the end of the last fight Emma Frost dropped a bomb – Wolverine has a son who’s being manipulated by the same people Logan is after. SHIELD is still chasing him (lead by Dum Dum Dugan) as he makes his way to Europe to obtain some Carbonadium – a special synthetic that slows down his healing factor (thinking he’ll need it to subdue his son). There’s some fun guest stars here, including Omega Red, Black Widow and a now powerless Jubilee, and we get more glimpses into Logan’s terribly dark and violent past.

Wolverine is forced to surrender to SHIELD when Jubilee is hurt in a fight with Omega Red, and we get our first glimpse of Daken, his son, as he walks up to his shackled father, disembowels him, and walks away. Logan’s hunt for his son finally becomes the focus of the third volume, “Swift and Terrible,” (#11-15) and we actually get a decent amount of scenes and background on Daken.

If Daken’s supposed to be completely despicable then Way has succeeded. Daken is tattooed, mohawk’d and sporting some black fingernail polish – he just screams ‘trying too hard.’ His dialogue and attitude is super angsty, immature and just plain cruel. If he’s supposed to be Logan without any moral compunction or friends they went a little overboard. At least his claw designs, like X-23’s (Logan’s cloned daughter and a vastly superior character) are slightly different with two claws on top of the hand and the third under the palm.

They meet up again at the bank vault where Logan has tracked the Carbonadium, but their initial fight (which Daken very much kicks his father’s ass) is interrupted by Cyber, a resurrected Wolverine villain that’s given quite a bit of backstory and screentime in the story arc before he drops in to enact some revenge of his own.

swift and terrible
If only the inner artwork looked anything like the covers.

Daken runs off while Logan is able to subdue Cyber and force him to help find his son again. What once started as an interesting tale on revenge and Logan’s crazy backstory has devolved a bit into an awkward father-son re-connection with a wholly unlikable character. From glancing at future covers it looks like Daken takes a backseat for awhile and we go back to tracing more of Logan’s past. I’ll stick with it, but frankly I’m more looking forward to when the primary artist changes at issue #25.

As for these first three volumes, I just can’t recommend them except for the most die-hard fans of Wolverine, or if you’re just insanely curious about when Daken is introduced (who does become a semi-major player in future events). With good, or at least halfway decent art work the second volume would be pretty spiffy, but as is it’s a slog to get through all these issues. Wolverine, you deserved better and Daken, you deserved nothing at all.

 

 

Gaming Backlog Final Thoughts – Cthulhu Saves the World

I have finished another backlogged game via Rogue’s Adventures. You can read my latest Final Thoughts below and also on my gaming blog on Game Informer.

cth1

 

 

Developer: Zeboyd Games

Publisher: Zeboyd Games

Release Date: July 13, 2011 (PC), December 30, 2010 (XBLA)

My Cthulhu knowledge is rather limited. I’ve never read a Lovecraft novel nor played any of the other games. I do play and enjoy the Elder Sign board game, which is a streamlined, dice-based version of Arkham Horror, and contains all the elder gods as well as thematically dark, poetic writing and artwork.

No prior knowledge is necessary to enjoy Cthulhu Saves the World, a lovingly styled retro-RPG created to emulate the style of old console RPGs. Zeboyd Games has carved out a fun niche combining humorous, self-aware writing with 16-bit styles. I’ve previously played their later games, Penny Arcade’s On the Rain Slick Precipice of Darkness 3 and 4 and based on the fun I had with them, backed Cosmic Star Heroine on Kickstarter. CSH is now one of my Most Anticipated Games of the Year, and I wanted to dive a bit into their back catalog with Cthulhu Saves the World.

This is definitely a developer that has iterated and built upon each of their releases; each game has gotten progressively better with more features, options, content and animations. Unfortunately this makes the older Cthulhu slightly worse than the Penny Arcade games in just about every way.

Cthulhu uses a pixelated overland map to walk around. You start off controlling the former elder god as he washes ashore on a beach, having all his cosmic powers drained. The disembodied narrator gently informs our hero that he must save the world and prove himself a true hero in order to be admitted back to Mount Olympus (Err sorry, that’s Disney’s Hercules).

The story and plot are mostly unimportant as Cthulhu follows a familiar path of dungeon – town, dungeon – town, picking up a colorful cast of allies along the way. Towns offer some funny dialogue and a place to rest and buy better equipment, but otherwise they’re devoid of any personality, quests or content.

The real meat of the game comes in the dungeons and the combat. Combat resembles the old NES Final Fantasy games as your party of up to four takes on brightly pixelated foes. There’s very little animation during combat and you don’t even get to see your own party on the screen, so it mostly relies on the dialogue box to move things along.

Like all their titles, Zeboyd wasn’t content to simply recreate the old JRPG systems of combat and really innovated and streamlined many aspects, such as enemies getting stronger with each subsequent round, fully healing at the end of each fight and full details on exact damage numbers for the power of your abilities and the health of your enemies. Combat’s designed to be extremely quick and extremely deadly, which plays well into the limitations of the engine – though on Normal mode in the latter stages of the game I could blaze through most fights in two to three turns, making them more of a minor annoyance than a challenge.

I found the very first dungeon to be the most challenging as I was still learning the new and interesting concepts behind the combat. HP fully heals between battles but MP does not, so you still need to regulate your powers and balance defeating your foes as efficiently as possible while still holding back if you can. A little MP regenerates depending on how quickly you win the encounter, and thankfully there are save points sprinkled at the end of dungeons (and sometimes in the middle) that fully restore your MP. Oh and you can also save anywhere (YAY!) and teleport to any previous towns at any time (woo!). Options like these prove that Zeboyd is both lovingly nostalgic about retro JRPGs while still willing to add modern conveniences that makes a return to this style much more fun than frustrating.

The majority of the game is spent crawling in dungeons. Dungeons have a nicely diverse range from haunted forests to volcanoes and even a spaceship. The level designs are mostly just giant mazes, but thankfully you rarely reach a dead end as most paths lead to either treasure chests or the exit.

Still, some of the later dungeons are just way too big – an issue they freely admit on the nifty developer commentaries sprinkled throughout. I also enjoyed the fact that each area has a limited number of random battles – once you hit it (anywhere from 20 to 50) you can explore at your leisure without running into monsters. You can still select Fight on the menu, but I never once felt the need to grind.

Enemy types are varied but for the most part didn’t seem all that different when it came to actual attacks. Your party on the other hand is nicely diverse, including a meaty talking sword, a gothy necromancer, a crazy old man healer and even a fire dragon at the end that lets you fly around the world map like an airship. Picking the right combination to maximize your abilities is a fun tool to play with throughout the adventure.

Cutscenes help flesh out the action and the writing stays fun and funny throughout, but all the action takes place in stock pictures overlayed on a black screen. Cthulhu Saves the World wears its indie budget proudly on its sleeve and while charming, I can’t wait to see what they can do with a bigger budget and several more years worth of gameplay design under their belts.

Pros

  • Funny writing that made me laugh out loud several times
  • Tons of skills and options in combat, including Tech, Magic and Unite attacks
  • Lots of varied areas and dungeon types
  • Perfect length

Cons

  • Combat is mostly crunching numbers
  • Reverse difficulty curve; difficult in the beginning, fairly easy at the end
  • Side content is limited to a few optional dungeons

Final Say: A cleverly written, lovingly retro-styled JRPG starring everyone’s favorite elder god.