Category Archives: Thriller

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Future Diary – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Mirai Nikki

 

Similar: Deadman Wonderland

Death Note

Another

Eden of the East

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Psychological Supernatural Action Horror Thriller

Length: 26 episodes, 1 OVA

 

Positives:

  • Interesting premise.

Negatives:

  • No smart characters.
  • Alliance flip-flopping.
  • Inconsistent powers.
  • Yuno’s obsessiveness is weak.

(Request an anime for review here.)

Everyone knows of Mirai Nikki, or Future Diary in English, if not by name then by the yandere character of Yuno and her repeated pronouncements of “Yuki”. What I didn’t know, despite having heard of this series in 2011, was the premise of Future Diary. I always thought it was about an obsessive girl (Yuno) trying to kill the guy she loved. There is far more to the story than that, though not necessarily to its benefit.

Yuki has a cellphone diary that tells him the future, forewarning him of the many possible eventualities from his competitors in the battle royale. However, it doesn’t reveal his future unless tied to someone else. He teams up with his stalker Yuno, who also possesses a “future diary”, except hers only reports on Yuki’s status every ten minutes. When paired with his diary, it makes her the perfect guardian in this battle. What is the prize for victory? Godhood.

I was disappointed when they introduced the battle royale angle. I had hoped for a smaller scale story with the duo avoiding one fatality after the other, delaying the inevitable, akin to The Time Machine and Steins;Gate. The battle royale turned this into generic shounen horror, pointless ecchi included. Not that it couldn’t have succeeded, but the writer evidently could not handle the complexity of a story with so many possible outcomes and 12 time altering powers to track. Each diary is different and creates a 12-pointed rock-paper-scissors game.

Juggling all of these elements is Future Diary’s greatest failing. For one, the diaries for each character conveniently don’t forewarn of something or don’t function as they should when the plot needs a character to die. Comparing to the similar Death Note, the rules there are set and don’t waver, which makes it all the smarter when one player outsmarts the other. Bending the rules when convenient makes the audience lose trust in the author.

This also extends to the inherent supernatural abilities of some characters. A character can have the strength to break out of a bind one moment, and then be rendered useless the next in a similar situation. I’m not even sure if they are meant to have superpowers, but some characters defy human boundaries of ability.

Future Diary also has an overreliance on crazy over smarts. None of these contestants are smart. Instead, just about everyone is “lol I’m a crazy psycho, aren’t I interesting?” There’s little variety in the showdowns against the various competitors, lasting 2-3 episodes a kill, and it makes much of it feel like padding. Future Diary is like taking the Batman versus Joker story but with 11 different Jokers and one of them is on Batman’s side (sort of). The more copies of “the psycho” you include, the more it dilutes the strength of the individual. I thought that the battle royale direction would be about producing a variety of opponents with some clever trick to besting them. The only real difference between them is their diary’s ability, which even then isn’t that varied.

Then we have the allegiance switching every other episode. “You know these two allies? Let’s have them fight each other next episode.” “But, sir, that doesn’t make sen—” “Who cares – it will surprise the audience!” It reminds me of Pirates of the Caribbean 3, where Jack Sparrow and company flip-flopped allegiances every few minutes because the producers heard the audience liked Jack’s triple cross in the first movie. Future Diary does the same to generate dumb conflict.

Lastly, we come to the main couple, the one thing that gave Future Diary any popularity. Yuno’s obsession with Yuki doesn’t work for me. I don’t buy into her reason for being so possessive of him, even once the story provides an explanation later on. The best psychotic characters, as unhinged as they are, have a well-defined reason for their behaviour that we can understand, from their perspective, without agreeing with them. Yuno is just psychotic because that’s what the story needed.

And Yuki? You won’t remember him before the series is over.

I was rather bored with Future Diary for the most part. It doesn’t have that quality reminiscent of bad horror, where you can enjoy the silliness of the violence regardless of story quality (a bad story likely enhances the experience). The deaths needed to be more ridiculous like in Another, an anime that I didn’t find great either but had advantage of over the top deaths. It’s strange that Future Diary, so full of psychos, has such tame kills. I guess being generic shounen horror will do that to you.

Art – Medium

The visuals are rather good, though needs more atmosphere for this type of series. Scenes don’t feel as frightening as they should as a result.

Sound – Low

The Japanese and English acting is roughly the same. English Yuno is less annoying, but you may want her more psychotic Japanese counterpart. Regardless of language track, the writing sucks.

Story – Low

A boy with a mobile phone that tells the future enters a battle royale against others with similar devices, as a psycho chick protects him against everything except herself. Future Diary’s good idea crumbles under bad writing, incoherent storytelling, and shallow characters.

Overall Quality – Low

Recommendation: Skip it. Future Diary is too much of a mess for me to recommend and the deaths aren’t inventive or ridiculous enough to enjoy with friends.

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Awards: (hover over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive: None

Negative:

Incoherent

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Rainbow – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Rainbow: Nisha Rokubou no Shichinin

 

Similar: Tomorrow’s Joe

Gungrave

Grave of the Fireflies

 

Watched in: Japanese

Genre: Historical Drama Thriller

Length: 26 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Brutal depiction of post-war Japan.
  • Chemistry between the boys.
  • Sakuragi vs. prison guard dynamic.
  • Top-notch acting.
  • Unexpected outcomes.

Negatives:

  • Second half doesn’t tie together as well as it should.

(Request an anime for review here.)

Post-war Japan was a harsh place. For the poor, the abused, life was rough as the country tried to rebuild. In 1955, six teens find themselves on the wrong side of the law and sent to a correctional school, where they meet Sakuragi, their new cellmate. The events that follow will push them to the limits, punish them for daring to live, and test their resolve for survival until their sentences in hell are over.

Rainbow is brutal, not for the faint of heart. The production team warns you as much each episode with a disclaimer that the brutality, the depravity you will see is accurate of the time and it would be a disrespect to hide it. The first experience in prison is to have the doctor violate one of the boys in front of his friends. The doctor has a faux-gentle voice that makes one’s skin crawl. We witness a child rape not long after. It won’t be the last.

Rainbow never relents with either the characters or the audience. If you are to start this journey, know that peace never truly arrives.

Day one in the cell, Sakuragi beats the ego out of the other six to teach humility. Survival of the fittest is the only natural law that matters in this “school” and reckless bravado will get you killed. He becomes a role model to the others, uniting the group in friendship that even hell will have a tough time breaking. This chemistry between the boys not only makes Rainbow engaging but also loaded with emotion. When all of them put themselves on the line to allow Joe to see his little sister and save her from the rapist that adopted them, you feel a genuine bond tying these guys together.

Each brings something to the group with a distinct personality. The short but business savvy ‘Turtle’ has an endearing cockiness about him. ‘Cabbage’ is a friendly giant, ‘Soldier’ is disciplined, ‘Uncovered’ may be a bit of a prick but he’s got a plan to cover your back, and Mario is loyal to his own detriment. Every character in Rainbow is memorable thanks to a complete backstory and complex characteristics. It’s evident within an episode or two that the creator didn’t take any shortcuts when planning his characters.

As I watch these characters grow, I want nothing but the best for them. I want to protect these guys. I want them to be happy. Why can’t they catch a break? Why can’t they just be happy? It’s rare for a story to have me care so much for so many of its characters.

Their camaraderie evokes emotional moments. The most emotional scene for me doesn’t involve any violence or tragedy; it’s just everyone being there for one in the group when he needs them most.

The best arc in Rainbow belongs to Sakuragi, however, because of the conflict between him and the prison guard, a man who will stop at nothing to ruin his life. The guard tries to sow dissent among the friends, tortures the guys, and is complicit in the doctor’s vile acts as long as he can continue to torment Sakuragi. Their arc is fantastic and unexpected in direction. Rainbow as a whole makes several unexpected turns – not twists exactly. Rather, you don’t expect the outcomes of certain threads and events. The writer took bold decisions with the plot.

If I haven’t made it clear already, Rainbow is an anime worthy among the best. Yet, nothing is without fault and the major one with this anime is that the second half isn’t as strong as the first, owing to a lack of cohesion between arcs. The second half is closer to a series of short stories for each of the guys. While these stories are great, the writer didn’t weave them together. It would have been better to run several stories in unison, leaping frogging each other through interwoven events. For example, Joe’s story is about wishing to sing while Mario’s is about his boxing. There is no reason these couldn’t have had connected events and a little shared conflict. Weaving arcs together deepens the connection and raises stakes further when more characters have something on the line. Even so, Rainbow is still excellent throughout.

I don’t know how this anime stayed off my radar until requested for review. I had the horrid thought the other day that I may never have seen Rainbow if not for one dear reader… Even though I’m certain I have every great (or said to be great) anime on my list already, I am going to go through the databases again, just to be sure another Rainbow doesn’t slip past me. Such great anime deserves to be watched by all.

Art – High

The animation is only above average, but the visual style has atmosphere and the painterly stills during key moments are gorgeous, full of emotion.

Sound – Very High

You need great performances to pull off an anime of Rainbow’s weight, and they did it. I love the OP and ED, which stay the same throughout, unable to skip them each time they started. The only audio flaw is with some of the American characters likely played by expats in Japan with mixed acting expertise.

Story – Very High

Seven cellmates in a juvenile reform school cling to hope and friendship during a harsh post-war Japan. Rainbow’s uncompromising conflict will have you engaged and cheering for these boys to the end.

Overall Quality – Very High

Recommendation: A must watch unless you don’t like the brutal subject matter. Rainbow is a top tier anime that deserves a larger audience.

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Awards: (hover over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive: 

Deep NarrativeExtensive Character DevelopmentGreat OP or ED SequencePhenomenal VillainStellar Voice ActingStrong Lead CharactersStrong Support Characters

Negative: None

Puella Magi Madoka Magica – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Mahou Shoujo Madoka★Magica

 

Related: Puella Magi Madoka Magica the Movie 1 & 2 (alternate version)

Puella Magi Madoka Magica the Movie 3: Rebellion (sequel)

Similar: Steins;Gate

School-Live!

Princess Tutu

Neon Genesis Evangelion

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Supernatural Psychological Drama Thriller

Length: 12 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Relentless conflict against the characters.
  • Keeps getting better.
  • Superb development of the plot points.
  • Many beautiful art elements.

Negatives:

  • First two episodes are dull enough to turn people away.

(Request an anime for review here.)

“It’s a deconstruction of the genre – it’s so good!” Whenever I hear this word ‘deconstruction’ as praise for a series, I take it as a warning sign of incoming rubbish, for it’s often used as a blanket excuse to wave away the same mistakes from the genre it “deconstructs.” Throw in a moe style, and my hopes for Puella Magi Madoka Magica aren’t high going in. Let’s see what all the fuss is about.

My fears are realised in the first episode. Madoka Magica opens with an it-was-a-dream sequence – the worst opening type – and we soon meet a borderline Mary-Sue in the transfer student, Akemi (perfect at school, loved by all, etc.). Random psychedelic stuff happens suddenly to protagonist Madoka with no explanation, ending in an offer from a Digimon to become a magical girl.

Akemi turns out to be a magical girl. However, she wants to prevent the Digimon creature Kyuubey from contracting Madoka and her friend Sayaka to become magical girls. In exchange for service fighting evil witches, they would have any wish granted. What wish could these privileged girls want granted when they have never wanted for anything in their lives? Kind classmate Mami, also secretly a magical girl, takes them on a witch hunt to help them decide.

Episode two ends and I am still unimpressed. Studio SHAFT already wowed me with their visually superior Bakemonogatari, so the interesting world won’t keep me engaged alone (the giant moe heads don’t help). Seeing Mami summon rifles from under her skirt is…nifty (each girl has a different power), but where’s the hook snared in my brain to keep me until the end of the series?

And then episode three does something truly magical. It gives a third dimension to one of its characters. Mami says that being a magical girl is not fun, a lonely existence, and frightening. Something in her manner hints at the disturbing events to come.

From that moment on, Madoka Magica had me. The writers demonstrated they understood depth of character in that single scene, earning audience trust that we would not be lead into drudgery.

Despite Mami’s words and Akemi’s warnings, Madoka still wants to become the most wonderful of little girl superheroes because she feels it would give purpose to her bland life. She doesn’t seem to understand the terms of the contract – we do; the story makes sure of this. She must soon learn that being a magical girl isn’t a game.

Meanwhile, the promise of any wish granted looks tempting to her friend Sayaka when it can cure her hospitalised friend. He could walk and play music again. Will she feel he owes her love for what she has done for him? (I recently read a true story of a man who took a bullet for his long-time crush, causing irreparable damage to his spine. He feels she owes him love, even though he knows it’s wrong.)

With the approach of the all-powerful witch Walpurgis Nacht, the girls have to make a decision fast.

Madoka Magica improves so much that it manages to justify opening on a dream sequence and having Akemi approach Mary-Sue status. A rare feat, indeed. The twists and turns as we spiral down this story just keep getting better.

I still stand by my distaste of the first two episodes. I know Madoka Magica is supposed to start like any other magical girl story before it flips the table into a realm of trauma. Still they could have started better than the generic entries of the genre. Yes, the episodes that follow do lessen the impact of a weak opening, but better writing would have pieced out morsels of foreshadowing. The morsels would show us this isn’t like other magical girl anime, though we aren’t quite sure why…yet. Mami’s words in episode three is one such morsel.

Puella Magi Madoka Magica is not a happy anime full of wishful-thinking and fun times. It’s dark, disturbing, and – I cannot believe I am going to say this about a moe anime – receives my highest recommendation.

Art – High

I like the world – sterile, yet interesting in its space, almost like a dream world with so much infrastructure, yet so few people to populate it. Madoka’s bathroom for example, is gigantic and full of mirrors but in a house too small to fit it. At school, each classroom is a glass box, like the storage rooms in the Vatican library. That said, I am not a fan of characters with heads as wide as the shoulders, and the compositions aren’t what Studio SHAFT would achieve later in Bakemonogatari.

Sound – High

Fine acting – no fake squeaky voices! The Celtic music is a nice touch.

Story – Very High

A young girl is set to learn that the world of Magical Girls isn’t quite so magical. After it gets over the weak start, Madoka Magica dives into a world of psychological challenges, punishing conflict, and a beautifully meted out plot.

Overall Quality – Very High

Recommendation: A must watch. I don’t care if you hate moe or magical girls, you must watch Puella Magi Madoka Magica. I cannot guarantee you will like it, but I promise you it will be different.

(Request reviews here. Find out more about the rating system here.)

 

Awards: (hover over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive:

Deep NarrativeExtensive Character DevelopmentFluid AnimationHoly S***Strong Lead CharactersStrong Support Characters

Negative:

Terrible Start

Aoi Bungaku – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Aoi Bungaku

 

Similar: Monster

Ayakashi: Japanese Classic Horror

Box of Goblins

 

Watched in: Japanese

Genre: Psychological Historical Drama Thriller

Length: 12 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Something different.
  • Stories three and six.
  • Complex characters.
  • Dark and twisted imagery in some stories.

Negatives:

  • Stories two and four.
  • First story needs more episodes.

(Request an anime for review here.)

Aoi Bungaku is an adaptation of six Japanese literary classics, each sharing a facet of the authors’ lives and psychology. This makes the second short story collection I’ve reviewed recently, but where Diamond Daydreams is an easy viewing experience, Aoi Bungaku is intense, dark, and often twisted.

No Longer Human, the first story, follows the descent into darkness of a high school student after losing his way into drugs and abuse. This noir-esque tale shows his life at different stages in four episodes, each stage worse than the last. He sees a ghost of his former self in reflection, void of identity, a hollow shell with no purpose.

The most depressing story in the collection, scholars consider No Longer Human to be autobiographical, explaining why the author killed himself after its completion. This story most needed the extra space – likely a series of its own – out of all works presented, even though it receives the most episodes.

Too heavy for you? Well, In the Forest, Under Cherries in Full Bloom, changes gear with its comedic tone as it tells of a bandit and his love for a beautiful yet spoilt woman. She agrees to marry him if he fulfils her request, and in his blindness, he agrees to all she asks. Her requests keep getting more and more outlandish. She starts with a simple ride up the mountain, then it’s to kill his other wives without question, and she only demands worse from there on.

On paper, this story sounds brutal. However, the comedy gives the opposite result. There’s a talking boar, for example, trying to reason his way out of becoming dinner for the wives, one of whom speaks English, for some reason. Sudden chibi comedy bursts on the scene as well. Honestly, I’m not sure what the intent was with this one. It doesn’t work as a comedy nor as a dark tale – though one of the woman’s final requests is truly messed up. A weak story, in the end.

Kokoro, story three, takes us in yet another direction to deliver the best of the series. It explores the friendship between a scholar and a wanderer. The scholar begins to regret inviting his friend to use the spare room when he takes an interest in the landlady’s daughter, for whom the scholar has designs. In a single episode, we see a full character arc pass from friendship and trust to jealousy and egoism. We see more development here than some anime have in a season. And that’s not even Kokoro’s greatest strength.

The next episode goes back to the start of the tale, but this time shows everything from the wanderer’s perspective. It’s brilliant to see how versions of events differ and exemplifies the ‘Unreliable Narrator’ device. Kokoro handily wins best story in this anime.

Run, Melos! comes next, killing the momentum by being the weakest of the lot. It’s a contemporary take on a Greek classic, focusing on unwavering friendship no matter what life may throw. The story hasn’t much to it, no real turns or points of interest – the shortness doesn’t help.

The Spider’s Thread – story five – puts an assassin to the test in redemption at the end of his life. He lived a life without concern for anyone or anything but himself – he even kills a woman that fed him in kindness – and goes to Hell for his actions. However, he receives one final chance at redemption when a spider’s thread descends from Heaven.

The most psychedelic of the stories, The Spider’s Thread almost reaches greatness. I like its idea – reminds of Death Parade. Yet with most of the conflict occurring in his mind it lacks the weight, the impact, it could have had if he had faced other people as well.

Lastly, we end on Hell Screen. A lord commissions a famous artist to paint an epic depiction of ‘Buddhist Hell’ in all its facets. The artist’s superior skill stems from his ability to capture the emotion of reality like no other. The catch is that he must witness these emotions for himself, and the commission being one of hell, his research turns to madness. Life begins to imitate art as the lord’s people go mad.

This story recalls the Warhammer novel Fulgrim, where Slaanesh, Chaos God of Pleasure and Excess, corrupts a legion of Space Marines in their quest for perfection in art and battle. The corruption goes so far, drives the legion so mad that one artist paints his magnum opus from his own blood, sweat, and faeces – literally. Highly recommended book. Without giving anything away, the painter’s final masterpiece in Hell Screen is similar to that – twisted yet riveting.

Aoi Bungaku slips under the radar of most anime fans. I had never heard anyone mention it before unless I specifically searched for material on it. Those looking for a hidden gem may find it in Aoi Bungaku.

Art – High

Despite being low on animation, Aoi Bungaku has some great imagery and compositions in several stories. The art style changes for each story to match the tone – dark and grainy for the heaviness in No Longer Human, vibrant for In the Forest, Under Cherries in Full Bloom’s comedic angle, and so on. I liked Kokoro’s camerawork and framing most.

Sound – High

The protagonist in each story shares the same actor, who also plays host, and the acting is good overall. Music effectiveness seems to match story quality.

Story – High/Medium

A series of Japanese classics with a focus on character study get anime adaptations, succeeding to varying degrees. Stories three and six rise above, while two and four lack presence. The split rating is for the varying quality between stories.

Overall Quality – High/Medium

Recommendation: Watch Kokoro (episodes 7 & 8) and Hell Screen (episode 12) – give or take the rest. Even if interested in seeing all stories, Aoi Bungaku is only twelve episodes long and presents something new every few, so it won’t take much time to experience this distinct anime.

(Request reviews here. Find out more about the rating system here.)

 

Awards: (hover over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive:

Deep NarrativeStrong Lead Characters

Negative: None

Kaiji: Ultimate Survivor – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Gyakkyou Burai Kaiji: Ultimate Survivor

 

Related: Kaiji: Against All Rules (sequel – included in review)

Similar: Akagi

One Outs

No Game No Life

Death Note

 

Watched in: Japanese

Genre: Gambling Sports Psychological Thriller

Length: 26 episodes (season 1), 26 episodes (season 2)

 

Positives:

  • Intense gambling psychology.
  • Brutal challenges.
  • Clever strategies.
  • Great protagonist to cheer for while yelling at his naïveté.

Negatives:

  • Drags at times.

(Request an anime for review here.)

Akagi is one of my favourite hidden gems of anime, regardless of its flaws, so when going into Kaiji: Ultimate Survivor by the same creator, my expectations were high. And Kaiji delivers.

It follows Kaiji, a bum with no responsibilities in life and gambling as his only talent. His life goes to hell one day when a debt collector called Endou turns up at his door to collect on a loan Kaiji co-signed with a friend. This friend scarpered, so the repayment of 300,000 yen falls on Kaiji’s shoulders. Except, the debt now stands at 3,850,000 yen due to compound interest – the Yakuza are unfair like that. With not a yen to Kaiji’s name, Endou offers an alternative: play a game on our boat, win and clear your debt. Who knows, he may even leave with extra in his pocket. Tempted by Endou’s masterful baiting, Kaiji accepts.

The game isn’t a standard tournament of poker, blackjack, or mahjong, as one would expect. No, it’s rock-paper-scissors.

What?

You heard me. The twist is that players have limited uses of each symbol, meaning there are limited wins on the table. Each win allows a player to take a star from the opponent. To survive the night, a player must have at least three stars (they start with three), but also use up all their symbols. To complicate matters further, beforehand each player could borrow 1,000,000 or 10,000,000 yen at a rate of 1.5% per ten minutes in a four-hour tournament. All must be repaid before leaving the boat. Win an excess to the debt and you keep the difference. Players can sell extra stars at the end for exorbitant amounts of money. Why are the stars so valuable? Well, finish with less than three stars and you become a slave until the tournament next year.

The premise had me hooked. It reminds me of a gambling version of the Zero Escape game series (Virtue’s Last Reward is the best visual novel ever made). At first, Kaiji feels like every underdog gambling setup: bum guy forced to clear a friend’s debt. But no, Kaiji spirals into crazy territory only anime would attempt.

The games takes unexpected turns, even in something as simple as RPS. I get the impression the writer thought of the obvious first, discarded it, and said, “I don’t print until I find something better.”

Kaiji’s strength (and where it outshines Akagi) lies in the conflict between characters. The gambling is a mere device to bring the psyche of each contestant to bear. This is a depraved underworld where the rich put on these sick and twisted games for entertainment. With each subsequent game – for there are several throughout the series – the entertainment grows more and more twisted.

The central theme is trust and betrayal. Kaiji must survive in a world where people will do anything for survival, or worse, greed. He starts as a naïve, gullible fool. Several times, I found myself yelling, “Of course it’s a trick, you fool! How could you fall for that?” Unlike other shows, however, where a character (usually the villain) falls for a trick because the writer said so, Kaiji sells us on the decision first.

Kaiji himself elevates this anime above most other artworks of this nature, such as Danganronpa. He has complexity. He doesn’t simply cheat everyone nor does he go full goody-two-shoes. He struggles against his conscience between the requirements to win and the cost on his soul.

If I had to level a complaint, it would be the pacing. It drags at times. One scene of characters being indecisive with a single decision shouldn’t take an episode, let alone a few. There is also enough to be had within the first season; the second is more of the same but in different games. Then again, if you enjoyed the first, you’ll find it easy to keep going.

Kaiji is one hell of a tense ride.

Art – Medium

Kaiji sports the same art style as Akagi, and as with the latter, it’s either hit or miss with the audience. I like its eccentricity. It’s a notch above Akagi on a technical level.

Sound – High

The acting couldn’t have more tension if the actors tried, accentuated by equally tense music. The intense sports-like narrator is perfect.

Story – High

A debt-riddled bum agrees to risk it all in a chance at clearing his debts. The games are strange, the rules insane, and the tension high. A little long in parts.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: Try it. If you liked Akagi, you will like Kaiji: Ultimate Survivor. Outside the art, the tension is most likely to put people off. Yes, it’s so intense it may stress you too much.

(Request reviews here. Find out more about the rating system here.)

 

Awards: (hover mouse over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive:

StrategicStrong Lead Characters

Negative: None