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Monday, 30 November 2015

Once Upon A Time Series 5 (First Half)


EDITOR'S NOTE: So, Once Upon A Time has not, in fact, finished its first half yet, I jumped the gun a bit on that one - there's still one more episode to go. This happened around this time last year too (not with OUAT, with something else), and will probably happen again next year.

So, with that in mind, while I'm leaving this review up and intact, it's worth taking it with a pinch of salt.


Once Upon A Time
Series 5 (First Half).




I rolled my eyes a bit when this series was starting, because the whole thing about the Darkness, a force sealed in a person-vessel, was so tired and cliche that another series had literally come up with the exact same plot twist at the exact same time. But despite having said that, I did have a little bit of excitement going into this series: Previews showed Emma as a new Dark One, fully evil and acting as an antagonist, and if the show was willing to sustain that over an entire half of the series, I suspected that would lead to some interesting things.

Picking up several months after Emma became the new Dark One, Once Upon A Time's fifth series sees Regina, Hook, Robin, Henry, the Charmings, and Zelena travelling to Camelot in pursuit of her. All does not go well, however, as shortly after entering Camelot they wake up in Storybrooke, months later, with none of their memories of what happened and Emma as a fully realised Dark One with a dangerous plan and a grudge against all of them. Worse still, all of Camelot's people have been transported to Storybrooke, and King Arthur has his own sinister plans for Emma.

I'll say this now: This is the best that Once Upon A Time has been for years - definitely since the end of the second series, and quite possibly since the end of the first.

'Dark' in this instance often translates to 'white hair with a lot of black leather,
but worn very tastefully and stylishly.'

That doesn't mean it's even close to flawless, and there are some of the hallmark problems of the third and fourth series: Every appearance that Merida (she's not even a fairytale character, guys) makes is cringeworthy in how cosplay-ish it is, calling to mind that equally cringeworthy and embarrassing Frozen arc of the fourth series. Every time you think she's gone, she comes back, too, getting several focus episodes all to herself - which is odd, because those focus episodes are almost invariably unwelcome breaks from a much more interesting plot. 

The most egregious example of this is when, shortly after several big plot twists leading towards the midseason finale, the show abruptly decides to instead have a side story about Merida and Mulan (who's also not a fairytale character, guys). 

It's also plagued by some of the issues that have afflicted the show throughout its entire run: Plots that hinge on macguffins and spells that have never been referenced before, making magic essentially seem like a catch-all to do pretty much anything with pretty much anything; a very liberal interpretation as to what constitutes a fairytale (Merida, Mulan, Hook, anyone from the King Arthur stories, and anyone from the Robin Hood stories are not fairytale characters); moderate amounts of melodrama; and so on.

Merlin is a little long-suffering.

In spite of those things, this was still a genuinely enjoyable series to watch. Making Emma the antagonist was a great move for the show, and the showrunners actually did follow through and have her be the antagonist for the entire first half of the series, making Regina and Hook the protagonists and only starting to move Emma back into a protagonist role in the finale. They do mitigate that by having her still be good in the many flashback sections that slowly fill in the mystery of what happened at Camelot, but she's very much sharing that role with Regina.

The new dynamic is a breath of fresh air, giving the show new life, and it uses that to its utmost potential, giving the audience a mystery that unfolds slowly over the course of ten episodes, while also giving us some fairly strong episodic plots (mostly of the 'Emma throws something evil at Storybrooke' variety), and some actually quite solid character arcs. 

I'm thinking mostly about Rumpelstiltskin here, who despite being out of commission for the first couple of episodes, gets a good character arc about taking the last few steps towards becoming a heroic character and staying that way. It feels, for what may be the first time in several series' worth of the show, like real and lasting character development.

Oh, right, and the Zelena-Robin pregnancy thing is still a thing, that's - a thing.

After spending quite some time building up the importance of Merlin's character, the show actually does quite well when he's introduced, too. Gratifyingly, they've resisted the urge to make him American, instead casting Elliot Knight, a London actor who lends Merlin a quiet, wry gravitas. Knight does an excellent job, and while I could have guessed that Merlin wouldn't be around for long, it was still a shame to see him go as quickly as he did.

Other Camelotian characters are not quite as well-cast - Guinevere is fine, and Lancelot would be fine were he not played by an American (stop casting Americans, guys - in anything, but especially not for British characters), but King Arthur, played by Liam Garrigan, comes off less as a king and more as a slightly irate human resources manager at an IT company. 

Long suffering sigh.

Still, this was a good half-a-series, and I actually am excited for the second half, which promises us a whole horde of Dark Ones. I do think, however, that this is the end of the line for Once Upon A Time: The Dark One, usually in the form of Rumpelstiltskin, has been the threat looming over the show since the first episode, its main villain - with this being a series entirely focused on the Dark Ones, and Rumpelstiltskin having completed his character development, it would feel like a cop-out if the show didn't end after the Dark Ones had been defeated.

(This applies doubly when you consider that, actually, Regina's character arc doesn't have anywhere left to go either, and Emma's and Hook's arcs feel like they're due to draw to a close soon as well.)

But, you know, it ending in ten to twelve episodes time wouldn't be a bad thing. It would ensure, at least, that the show is going out on a bang, rather than the measly whimper that Supernatural will inevitably go out with when it finally limps to its inevitable conclusion ten years from now.

Saturday, 28 November 2015

Editorial: Four More Potential Fallout Settings.


Editorial: Four More Potential
Fallout Settings.



A while ago, after Fallout 4's setting was announced, I did a list of four potential settings for a Fallout 5, and now that the game has actually been released, it's time to do another one. After all, I did a 'four great Assassin's Creed settings' for the Assassin's Creed: Syndicate release, and what are these Fallout editorials if not more or less the same principle, only in reverse.

So here's four more potential Fallout settings, all of which involve mutant fish people, because of course they do.


New Orleans.



New Orleans is my go-to American city for settings, just because it's about twenty times more unique than any other American city: Known for its cross-cultural heritage and interesting blend of architectural styles, New Orleans is visually and culturally distinctive, and its position near both the Mississippi River Delta means that players could enjoy visiting the coast (for mutant fish-monsters) or venturing out into the Bayou (for mutant crocodile monsters).

The plot possibilities are rife as well. Maybe during the game there's a war brewing between a tyrannical and hyper-fervent future-Catholic sect and a looser, less controlling Louisana Voodoo sect. Maybe New Orleans is still a centre of trade even in the Falloutverse, and that's causing its own problems. Maybe New Orleans' vibrant theatre scene has resulted in a sinister cult of tragedians who commit elaborate, melodramatic murders. Maybe the mutant crocodiles and the mutant fish have teamed up.

Endless possibilities, I tell you.


Venice.



Venice is a city of nearly unparalleled beauty, instantly recognisable for its colourful and distinctive architecture, many waterways with boats drifting serenely by, and bustling commercial and tourist scene. It's also situated out in an ocean bay, which means that mutant fish monsters are also a possibility here.

While the most likely outcome of nuclear war is that Venice would sink beneath the waves like a Venetian Gothic Atlantis, there's always the slim possibility that it would survive as some kind of floating community of mask-wearing lunatics, which would be a delightful and sinister change from the usual Americana settings of the Fallout games.

On its own, Venice could not be an entire setting, as it's a pretty small city housing only about sixty thousand people (with about a hundred and seventy thousand more people living on the mainland near it), but combined with the rest of the Padua-Treviso-Venice Metropolitan Area, you'd have a pretty decently sized world to roam about in.


Seoul.



Seoul is both a glimmering city of modernity filled with skyscrapers and packed with people, along with being an economic powerhouse; and an ancient fortress city, two-thousand years old, surrounded by mountains.

That fusion of modernity and ancient history could only lead to interesting things in a post-apocalyptic setting. Maybe the bad guys are holed up in Hwaeseong Fortress, a massive centuries-old fort, and you have to besiege it. Maybe you have to venture down into the Royal Tombs of Joseon, or infiltrate Changdeokgung Palace. 

Or maybe you find a secret community living out of Lotte World, the world's largest amusement park; maybe you have to retake North Seoul Tower, a communications and observatory tower that was the first radio wave producing tower in Korea, built in 1971; or maybe your hub town is the remains of the hyper-modern Dongdaemun Design Plaza.

Also, it's coastal, so there will be mutant fish people.


New York.



New York is a tremendous cliche, and I actually had to check that there weren't any Fallout games already set in it (I'm still not entirely sure that there aren't), but it is also one of the most recognisable metropolises in the world, even if that is at least partly down to constant cultural oversaturation.

The big advantage to using New York is that you can guarantee that nearly everybody will recognise the major landmarks you send them to, even if they have never been to the city itself before. As a true global city, you could justify New York as being a centre for post-apocalyptic trade and international cooperation, too, which could lead to some pretty interesting storyline.

Also, it's very coastal, like all of the cities on this list, and you all know why that's a boon.

Friday, 27 November 2015

Vixen.


Vixen.



You know, I really expected this to be longer. I'd heard that it was a six episode miniseries, but I thought that meant six twenty minute episodes, not six five minute episodes. As it is, this is less of a series as it is just a single episode broken up into six chunks, and to be honest, I'm kind of disappointed by that. Vixen is a superhero with some great potential, and my only hope right now is that this is either leading into a proper animated series, or to her getting a live-action series on the CW.

Set in an indistinct time in the universe of the CW's DC Universe shows Arrow and The Flash, Vixen follows Mari McCabe, a young aspiring fashion designer whose talisman - the only possession she has from her birth mother - allows her to gain the greatest strengths of any animal in the animal kingdom. As she discovers her powers, she draws the attention of her sister, Kuasa, who desires the talisman for herself; along with the attentions of the Arrow and the Flash themselves.

So, yes, in general, this is a good series. It's beautifully animated, in a way that's very similar to the pre-New 52 DC Animated films, whose simple but elegant and sharp animation I've praised repeatedly on this blog. Which is no surprise, really, because like those films, it's animated by Warner Bros Animation. The animation looks beautiful in almost any situation, except when it has to render characters we've already seen in live-action series. Barry, Ollie, and Cisco all show up and all look absolutely absurd, barely resembling the actors who play them and often having slightly odd, easily avoided changes (Barry is a bit too brawny, Ollie's stubble is literally green, etc), and it's actually quite bizarre to hear the actors' voices come out of those mouths.

Arrow-catching: The best way to show that you're a badass.

In general, it's the actors from the live-action shows that let down the voice-acting too. Emily Bett Rickards is fine in her brief work as Felicity, but Grant Gustin, Steven Amell, and Carlos Valdes are all terrible. Valdes mercifully only has a couple of lines, but Gustin and Amell show up in several episodes and are always just painful to listen to, as they alternate between barely emoting at all and hamming it up.

The rest of the voice cast is fine. Good, even: Megalyn Echikunwoke does a great job as main character Mari McCabe, and Anika Noni Rose steals the show as Kuasa, even though she regrettably only shows up in a few episodes.

The action scenes are fast-paced and exciting, the slower scenes manage to feed us enough information and exposition to remain interesting, and the whole thing has a great soundtrack, composed by Blake Neely (who also composes for Arrow and The Flash) and cleverly incorporating strains of both those series soundtracks for whenever Ollie and Barry show up. It's a genuinely good production.

Oh, hey, it's these guys.

But by jove, the length. This isn't a series, this is an opening episode, cut down into five minute chunks, and that in and of itself makes me question the point of it. If it's testing the waters for a longer series, then that's fine, but as a standalone, it just does not work, providing enough of a taste of Vixen and the world she inhabits to get us interested, but giving us no real meat to work with. In a way, it would have worked better as one coherent mass, a pilot episode for a longer series, instead of awkwardly breaking it down into miniscule chunks, forcing it to have rather clumsily shoehorned in beginning and ending moments.

So, while there's a lot of good things I can say about this, I ultimately can't recommend it. It's bafflingly short, doesn't feel like a complete product, and that on its own left me kind of disappointed. I do hope this pans out into a longer series, or at least some appearances on Arrow or The Flash, but for the moment, colour me just rather underwhelmed. Still, it was a nice stop-gap to tide me over this week, since neither of the CW's DC shows have episodes this week.

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Editorial: The 5 Best Star Wars Characters.


Editorial: The 5 Best Star Wars
Characters.


'Tis, apparently, Star Wars season, with Star Wars: Battlefront having just been released, The Force Awakens coming out in just a few weeks, and Star Wars: Rebels currently in the midst of airing its second series.

In celebration of that, here's a list of the five best Star Wars characters, in my opinion - which, as we all know, is the best opinion. Spoilers here for various Expanded Universe things. 


5. Myn Donos, Wraith Squadron books. 

I know, he looks like David Mitchell.

A character from the Wraith Squadron books, Myn is a former rising star of the New Republic military who is left traumatised after his entire squadron is killed, and ends up shunted into Wedge Antilles' and Wes Janson's titular squad of pilot-commandos who can't get an assignment anywhere else.

Myn's ongoing struggle with his PTSD is one of the principle story arcs of the Wraith Squadron books, and it's handled with a surprising amount of delicacy, with Myn being one of the most engaging characters in the ragtag group - certainly more engaging than viewpoint-character Kell, at least. 

Like most of the Wraith Squadron characters, Myn stopped being used almost at all after the series ended, but there were brief mentions of him and his love interest setting up a transport company in later stories, so that's nice.


4. Kreia, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II.



Kreia, an elderly blind woman who's a big fan of Ayn Rand audiobooks, is probably the oddest party companion to ever show up in a Western RPG. She's one of the earliest companions you get in Knights of the Old Republic II, and while nobody really likes her, everybody's interested in her.

For starters, Kreia is a nigh-unpleasable hardline objectivist who wastes no time in deciding to turn you, a poor beleaguered war criminal, into her own personal model of the perfect Jedi/Sith/weapon to murder the Force with. As the game goes on, you are treated to more and more of Kreia's antics, as she manipulates your companions into arguing with each other, guides your old friends down the path to the Dark Side, and plays the villains like a fiddle - all totally unbeknownst to your actual character, meaning that there isn't really anything you can do about it.

Much of Kreia's character, such as what on earth prompted her to try to kill the Force (she'll explain, at length, but without really saying anything), why she's search a massive racist, and most of the details about her backstory, would be left unclear by the end of the - admittedly horribly incomplete - game, but that only serves to make Kreia more fascinating. Who are you, Kreia? What did(n't) you see?


3. Scorch, Star Wars: Republic Commando.

Scorch is on the far right.

Republic Commando is a slightly bland squad-based FPS game that puts you in the shows of a clone special forces unit during that whole civil war thing that's going on in the prequels, along with your loyal squad, who are pretty much always providing background chatter on your shared communications channel.

One of those squadmates is Scorch, played by Raphael Sbarge (who shows up elsewhere in Star Wars videogamedom as Carth Onasi in Knights of the Old Republic) your wise-cracking, childish demolitions expert. While Scorch is just generally a fun character, bringing comedy into what could otherwise have been a very boring game indeed, it's his development over the course of the game that stands out.

You know what they say, if you have to break down one of your core cast and turn them into an angry, resentful ball of issues, it may as well be the most happy one of the lot - which is exactly what happens to Scorch, as he starts off as a happy-go-lucky scamp before the Republic's unfortunate attitudes towards clones, the horrors of war, and having to abandon his brother and squad-mate Sev all lead his character to take a much darker turn.

He eventually goes on to become an Imperial stormtrooper in the 501st Legion, which watchful players will recall is Darth Vader's personal legion, and which gets mostly wiped out at a later date.


2. Wes Janson, Rogue Squadron & Wraith Squadron books/comics.



Wes Janson does show up in the films for about three seconds, but he's probably best known for his appearances in the Rogue Squadron and Wraith Squadron stories, penned variously by Michael Stackpole and Aaron Allston. 

Wedge Antilles' right hand man, Wes is a clown who would rather tell terrible jokes than get into any kind of fight, with a hidden ruthless streak a mile wide - which is basically my favourite type of character. He's popular enough that, along with Wedge himself, he's been in nearly every Rogue and Wraith story.

While he's appeared in later books, as an old yet sprightly man in the Allston-penned Legacy novels, it seems he's mostly been retired as a character now - which given that the Star Wars expanded universe is slowly dying a death and probably all getting retconned anyway, may be no bad thing.


1. Darth Vader, Pretty Much Everything.



Of course Darth Vader was going to end up at the top of this list. The guy is the most iconic Star Wars character ever created, and probably about fifty percent of the reason the original films were even successful.

While the less said about Anakin Skywalker - who's so different to Vader that they really do come off like two entirely separate characters - the better, Vader is an ominous and intimidating villain, and a surprisingly layered one at that, with writers on the Expanded Universe taking what we're shown of him in the films and working with it, building on his internal conflict, his treatment of his men, and his views on Palpatine.

It's probably safe to say that, unlike most of the characters on this list, Darth Vader will never wane in popularity - which might be a problem, because it is definitely possible to have too much of a good thing.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Project Zero


Project Zero.



The title 'Project Zero' does not bring to mind young women with magical cameras fighting ghost crime with their photography skills - if anything, it's the title I would expect to see on something to do with giant robots, which is a fair ways from this particular video game.

A survival horror set in an old and haunted mansion/shrine, Project Zero (titled Fatal Frame in America and zero in Japan) follows Miku, a young woman who has come looking for her missing brother, armed only with a mysterious camera that can capture ghosts inside it. As Miku traverses the mansion over four nights, she learns more about the violent and tragic events that led to its being haunted.

(Obviously, as is always the case with survival horror games that aren't Alan Wake, I didn't play this game, seeing as I am a tremendous coward. Instead, I enlisted a colleague to play it for me, while I watched and took notes, which is definitely almost as good.)

To be honest, while both I and my colleague loved Project Zero, singing the praises of its simple but unique gameplay concept; its elegant but layered and genuinely quite scary plot; the way it effectively built tension up towards major scares; its excellent use of 'found text' and 'found audio' in puzzles, worldbuilding, and storytelling; and its (admittedly dated but nevertheless) good graphics - I can understand why somebody would hate it.

There's a certain amount of awkwardness in the playing of it: The sections where you hunt around for clues are never impossible, but they can get somewhat frustrating, especially when the clues are well hidden, and you very frequently have to backtrack to find them; and the sections where you fight ghosts can become incredibly tense even when it's just a run-of-the-mill wandering ghost, since when you're attacking, you can hardly move and have almost no field of vision, putting you at a clear disadvantage against enemies which are often fast and/or can teleport.

That's not to everybody's taste, even in the survival horror genre. For a lot of people, that can push what would be a scary experience into 'just too frustrated to be scared of this at all' territory. It didn't for my colleague and I, though, not least because while certain sections would often be difficult, they never came across as impossible. In general, it never took more than three or four attempts to get past any ghost. 

It helps that the game has a great storyline. It's well-paced, a good length, often quite scary and shocking without ever having to be overtly gory or grimdark, and it has an intriguing slow-burn mystery that it builds up steadily over the course of the game. It keeps you guessing until nearly the end of the game, which is more than can be said for most mysteries.

Some of the voice-acting is bizarre: Miku, a woman at university, sounds like a six year old girl, for example, which makes for a jarring moment whenever she talks. The graphics, too, while generally pretty good, show their age when it comes to character models, and especially character animations. 

In many respects, Project Zero epitomises the early-2000s survival horror boom in video games, taking all of the features commonly found in those games and magnifying them to their logical extremes. A sense of helplessness against enemies? Here's Project Zero, where in order to attack you must become nearly stationary with a narrow field of vision. Isolation in a hostile environment? In Project Zero, you are the only living person around, with the possible exception of Miku's brother, who you can't interact with until almost the very end of the game. A compact environment with a distinct and coherent aesthetic? You're spending all your time in a single mansion/shrine, you can't get much more compact and coherent than that. 

All in all, a slightly odd but very competently made and fun to play survival horror game, and while it definitely shows its age, that's actually somewhat charming. I was actually expecting to find, when I went to look for information on sequels to the game, that the series had died a death along with the rest of the many, many survival horror franchises of the early 2000s, but apparently it hasn't: The fifth main series title was released worldwide on the Wii U just last year to mostly positive reviews. 

If you're a fan of survival horror games or you're just trying to collect all of the many Playstation 2 classics, then you should definitely pick this game up and check it out, if you haven't already. It's a fun and often gripping game that can be completed easily in a night or two. 

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Digimon Adventure Tri: Reunion.


Digimon Adventure Tri:
Reunion.



Okay, I admit, I was slightly apprehensive. Toei has not had a good track record with anniversaries of late, what with Sailor Moon Crystal, Saint Seiya: Soul of Gold and Dragon Ball Super - in fact, the best thing that can be said about those three is that the latter two at least prove that their horrible treatment of Sailor Moon isn't motivated by misogyny. But yes, I was nervous about Tri - it is a continuation of one of my most beloved childhood series, after all, and its development was at least a little troubled.

But now it's out, and thanks to various streaming deals, out pretty much everywhere! I watched it immediately.

For reference purposes, while I am most familiar with the dub, I will be using original Japanese names and terms for this review, entirely because I was watching a subbed version, and a dubbed version hasn't even been announced yet.

The Digi-Husbands.

In this first arc (and I say 'arc', because on the version I watched, at least, the opening and ending credits between episodes had been left in, making it very visibly Not A Film), the Chosen Children reunite with their Digimon once again when spatial distortions open in the Real World, allowing so-called 'Infected' Digimon to wreak havoc. As Taichi struggles with the realisation that the battles between Digimon could cause injury or even death to bystanders, and a rising conflict with Yamato over it, the team attempts to deal with the new threat, and end up battling Alphamon, a Royal Knight and the seeming leader of the Infected, who is chasing down Meicoomon, the partner of a mysterious new Chosen Child.

So, long story, short: This is really, really good. I mean, I suppose it's not difficult to understand why Toei would lavish more time, attention, and money on it, Digimon being, as a worldwide franchise, more popular than Sailor Moon, Saint Seiya, and Dragon Ball put together, but it's still a pleasant surprise just how excellent Tri was.

Is Yamato's band actually different, or did they just rename themselves?

A large part of that is that it builds on the themes of its predecessors while still remaining true to them, and it's clear that the writers and animators - while they aren't the original writers or animators for either Adventure or Adventure 02 - are familiar with, and perhaps even fans of, the original source material. Whether they're fans or not, they're certainly treating it with a lot of respect, and that's quite charming to see. It isn't just that the arc/film builds on the bigger themes of the first two Adventure series, and incorporates its theme of growing up and the big-scary world of adulthood into them, but also that it's filled with little nods those series. Things like career-advisor-and-secret-agent Nishijima suggesting to Taichi that he should look into studying languages and the jobs that would open up to him, referencing Taichi's apparent future as a diplomat; or Yamato's pernicketyness over food and cooking subtly referencing food being a sore spot for him in 02; or a short shot of Koushiro's parents being as doting but slightly bewildered as they were when we first saw them.

It's nice. But on it's own, it would just be nice and nothing else: The series(/films ugh this is going to get awkward) has to be able to stand on its own.

Which it does. It's beautifully animated, some of the most gorgeous work I've seen on an anime, and every shot is perfectly composed and beautiful to look at. Action scenes especially are stunning to watch. The voice work is perfect, the pacing is solid (although in episode three in particular it slows down a bit), and the soundtrack is lovely and full of both earworms and reworked versions of old Digimon classics.

Ah, Alphamon. I remember when you were a protagonist.

In terms of plotting, Reunion also is a fine example of how to do something that's mature, but not dark, and definitely not gory. Mature subject matter is dealt with constantly, from Taichi's terror over the possibility that he might accidentally kill someone, to Koushiro's social anxiety, to Jyou's stress at failing his final year exams, to the role of the media in creating and propagating panic after a disaster, and it's all dealt with remarkably deftly. Startlingly deftly, actually, because some of these things, especially that last, are quite delicate subjects to be handling. But they're handled well, and it's done so without melodrama, gore, ultraviolence, or aught like that. 

The most violent scene comes near the beginning when the Chosen Children of 02 are being brutalised, and even that is a totally bloodless affair: Lighting, colour, shadows, and stark images like Miyako's broken glasses do the business of conveying the brutality of the situation instead. You could take a five year old to see this, and while they might end up slightly bored during episode three, which is undeniably the slowest of the lot, there wouldn't be anything there that's unsuitable for them. At the same time, though, people in their teens, twenties, and upwards can enjoy some pretty well thought through subject matter.

New Chosen Child Meiko is either a cinnamon roll or pure evil, and I have no idea
which one she'll eventually turn out to be.

The writing isn't just strong when it's being serious, either: There are some brilliant comedic beats in these four episodes, from Taichi's expression of absolute disgust as he realises that his football team are trying to impress Hikari to literally every scene that Mimi is in. Literally every one, she has become a wonderful troll.

I could go on for another thousand words, I think, but I will spare you. The long and short of it is that I'm pretty happy, and I'm looking forward to the next four episodes, titled Determination, which will apparently include more Jyou and Mimi stuff.

Also, people need to stop saying there was a love triangle.

Monday, 23 November 2015

Doctor Who S35E10: Face The Raven.


Doctor Who
Series 35, Episode 10
Face The Raven.



So, here's an episode that had some potential to be a mixed bag: It had Rigsy, from my favourite episode of the last series, and a Gaiman-ish alien rookery; but on the other hand, it also had Maisie Williams, whose performances this series have all been very poor, and the trailer had Clara mumbling cryptic words, which is never a positive sign. So I was perhaps a shade apprehensive and a shade excited for this episode.

The Doctor and Clara are called to modern day London when Rigsy calls them to tell them he has a mysterious tattoo of a number on the back of his neck - and it's counting down. Setting out to find the cause of it, the three end up in a hidden London street that acts as a refugee camp for aliens, led by Ashildr (who I refuse to call Me, that's a silly name). Rigsy has been accused of murdering one of the aliens, and the number on his neck is a death sentence - when it runs down, a quantum shade in the form of a raven will kill him. As the three attempt to prove Rigsy's innocence, they stumble on a much more sinister plan of Ashildr's - and Clara attempts a daring plan to save Rigsy.

Okay, I actually loved this episode. It had some elements I didn't like, such as long and tortured conversations about the nature of the Doctor, but by and large, I think it's not only the best episode of this series, but the best episode since I started doing these reviews.

Even the BBC are still calling her Ashildr.

A large part of that is that it has a genuinely interesting and tension-fraught subject. Until quite near the end, it's left deliberately vague as to whether Rigsy did actually commit the crime he's accused of - he doesn't remember any of it, and he himself raises the possibility that he might have reacted poorly to seeing an out and out alien - but moreover, it plays with ideas of mob justice and community cohesion, that whether Rigsy committed the crime or not was irrelevant, because the people of the street need him to have done so if they want to retain their fragile community and, thus, their sanctuary. It makes for an interesting interplay of ideas, helped along by the fact that the alien street is one of the most genuinely fascinating settings I've seen in recent Doctor Who.

The use of Ashildr as the villain - and she does take a definitely villainous role in this one - is also interesting. In her previous appearances, she's been either an out-and-out good guy or a reluctant antihero who quickly came back to being a good guy, but in this episode, she is most definitely villainous, abusing her power and manipulating the situation as part of a plot to fulfill several deals with dark forces. Maisie Williams also, in a pleasant surprise, absolutely kills it in this episode, managing to find the perfect balance of coolly sinister and calmly reasonable. There are a few slightly off moments as far as her acting goes, but in general, she does a really good job in this episode.

Ashildr and Rigsy, in varying states of alarm.

It was also charmingly free of any kind of social commentary whatsoever. I was a little concerned when they mentioned refugee camps, because frankly that is kind of a hot button issue for whatever reason lately and god knows I don't trust Moffat's writing team to handle it well after the repulsive horror that was the Zygon two-parter, but the episode handily killed any chance of it being social commentary dead about six seconds after that, and I am endlessly appreciative of that. Thank you, Sarah Dollard. Thank you for not trying to push any social commentary. I really mean that.

Of course, the elephant in the room here is that Clara dies at the end of the episode, although in all likelihood not permanently, as part of her daring plan to save Rigsy. It was a very effective death scene actually, for all that it was preceded by some slightly turgid monologues, but I don't believe it'll actually last - and yes, I know Jenna Coleman is leaving the show, but I still don't buy it. Still, they played up the tension and tragedy of it well, and it's definitely one of the better death scenes I've seen recently, so I'm not complaining.

These guys again, who pretty much only show up as extras.

This was a really good episode, and I'm hoping that the show can keep that momentum up into the final two episodes of the series. I'm not necessarily going to bet money on it doing so: Steven Moffat's writing those last two episodes, after all, and he is not a good writer - but I do hope that they'll be good. The first one seems to involve some kind of medieval castle, so that's - a thing. Sorry, what is the overarching plot of this series, I'm still very confused over that?

Saturday, 21 November 2015

Kamen Rider Ghost E5+E6


Kamen Rider Ghost
Episode 5 + Episode 6



Gosh, it feels like ages since I've done one of these. Mostly because golf was on instead of Ghost one week, so it's been three weeks instead of a fortnight.

In episode five, Takeru is chasing down a gunman Ganma when he encounters Fukami Makoto, Kamen Rider Specter, the Rider who stole the Nobunaga Eyecon. Ending up fighting Specter, he finds himself soundly beaten, and loses his Edison Eyecon. In episode six, both Takeru and Makoto are on the trail of the Beethoven Eyecon, and find themselves clashing against both each other and a musical Ganma who has the ability to mute the area around him.

So, there's obviously one big thing to talk about in these episodes, and that's the introduction of Kamen Rider Specter. To be honest, while I like Makoto, I am growing a shade weary of broody grim rival Riders in leather who show up at inopportune times and end up fighting the main character. That was Chase's schtick for about a third of Drive, and it really taxed on my patience there - and it was Ryu's schtick in Double for a decent chunk of time. Hell, take out the mention of leather, and I could very easily also be describing Kaito from Gaim. 

More Ryu than Chase, on balance.

Makoto's saving grace here is that we know that he's not going to be like this for very long, since we've already gotten previews for the Ghost and Drive crossover film that shows him seemingly quite happily working alongside Takeru - and even if that's just a 'I'll help you this once but then we're rivals again' deal, it never takes a secondary Rider all that long to go from 'I'll help you this once' to 'I'll help you all the time.' It's a slippery slope.

A really slippery slope, since we've already gotten the 'I'll let you go this time' and 'watching the hero achieve something from afar and not doing anything to stop him' tropes in the space of two episodes, which are usually fairly solid indicators that an antagonistic Rider is going to stop being even remotely antagonistic quite soon.

He also injects a much needed change of pace into what was becoming a slightly formulaic show. Time will tell if it just settles into a new formula, but I'm hoping it won't - there's a reason why Kamen Rider shows often improve drastically after the introduction of their secondary Riders. Even Drive improved after Gou was introduced! Sort of. For about five episodes before it became terrible again.

Music Ghost.

In terms of the Rider himself, I'm not overly keen on his design. Different colours aside, he looks close enough to Ghost that if they were both wearing similar colours (I dunno, maybe Takeru's got his Newton form equipped) and it was a sufficiently fast-paced fight scene, there would probably be potential there for things to get confusing. I'm also not sure what the reasoning was behind his weapon being a giant hand. Is it because hands, like eyes, are the scariest body parts? Is it just because 'ghostly disembodied hands' are kind of a thing? I'm not sure. Probably.

The other big thing we got introduced was the Beethoven Eyecon, which I see being used maybe two or three times more in the rest of the series, tops. It didn't even get its own finisher, that's how little the writers seem to care about it - if ever there was a form that screamed 'unimportant auxiliary form' it's the 'waving your arms and throwing musical notes at people' form. It does look nice, though, I like the little piano collar thing they've got going on.

Apart from those two big things, I've not got a lot to say. These episodes were fine - I think episode five might be the best episode we've gotten this series, and episode six was fun enough to watch. They were both paced well, the action scenes were fun and enjoyable, and I'm really liking the dynamic between Takeru, Akari, and Onari. We're about an eighth of our way into the series now, and while I wouldn't call it an amazing show, it's certainly solid and enjoyable to watch, and I don't really have a massive amount of complaints about it.

Very ostentatious.

Apparently coming up next we have Takeru getting his hands on the Billy the Kid Eyecon - we're kind of stretching the definition of 'heroic' here, but then I suppose that was true of Edison as well, if to a rather lesser extent - which will presumably be his new gunslinger form until he gets the Edison Eyecon back (which, of course, he will). It also looks like we'll be learning more about Makoto and what's up with him and his seemingly dead and/or Eyecon'd sister. Presumably, at some point reasonably soon, we'll be seeing our third Rider, Kamen Rider Necron, as well - we got toy scans for him or her (please let it be her) ages ago, so it can't be all that long until they appear.

So there's a lot to look forward to.

Also, really, guys? You're going to give Tutankhamun a sickle? That's just tacky, guys.

Friday, 20 November 2015

How To Get Away With Murder S2 (First Half)


How To Get Away With Murder
Series 2 (First Half)



It always feels a bit weird describing the first section of a How To Get Away With Murder series as the 'first half', because despite the whole split series idea being designed so that series end up in two roughly equal parts, it's really more like the first two thirds in How To Get Away With Murder's case.

Picking up almost immediately after the end of the first series, Annalise is faced with several brand new problems: Her assistant, Bonnie, has been revealed as Rebecca's murder, forcing Annalise to cover the crime up - something made all the more difficult by Wes, Nate, and volatile foster brother of Rebecca Levi, who are attempting to find out what happened to her. Complicating matters further is the team's new case: Defending two wealthy siblings accused of murdering their parents. Meanwhile, Asher is approached by Sinclair, who wants to use him as a mole.

If I'm being honest, I don't really know what to say about this series. In many respects, it's more of the same as the first series, and the writers have only really built on that concept by introducing a more tangled (and occasionally confusing) plot - which works well enough, but towards the close of these nine episodes, I was starting to feel a little bored of it.

Michaela gets no less than two romance subplots this series, one with this guy,
who might be a murderer.

There are some things that I liked: The acting is still very good. The pacing is on point. The writers quickly work around the rather unpleasant and actually quite distasteful 'Oliver has HIV' plotline, in a way that doesn't feel rushed (although I do think they miscalculated with that plotline, and I think they realised that) but does get it over and done with quickly. Possibly that shouldn't be something I'm praising, since it diminishes the importance of something which has a vast, terrible, and lifelong impact on people in real life, but if I'm being honest, I was just glad that that whole plot was gone. 

Connor and Oliver remain a joy to watch, and having Michaela be their new BFF was an odd move (because while she and Connor got along better than the others, and she clearly liked Oliver, she wasn't really friends with either of them in the first series) but did also give us some of the funnest, warmest moments in a series which was often sorely lacking them.

In a way, those three, along with Asher, have grown to eclipse the other cast members. While Wes was indisputably the main character of the first series, and the show does its very best to push a 'Wes and Annalise have a connection' vibe in this series, his role is clearly a reduced one, and he no longer feels like a viewpoint character, or even a character of particular, striking importance. Laurel suffers from this even worse, becoming very nearly a supporting character. 

Michaela's other love interest, who weirdly looks ten years older than he is
in this shot.

It's odd to have to say that, because I'm not sure anybody's screentime has actually been reduced, it's just that their relative involvements in the plot have shifted. While Wes was the one with the personal stake in the Rebecca plotline, now Michaela has a personal stake in it; while Connor and Oliver's relationship was a subplot meant to show how the stress and terror in Connor's life was negatively affecting him, it's now an important part of the Hapstall plot.

Which is not even getting started on Asher, who has his own massive plotline that actually feels - unnecessary, to be honest. Asher's whole deal was that he was an innocent, good person who wasn't aware of what the rest of the Keating Five were doing, which allowed him to function as both comic relief and a humanising influence on the rest of the cast. Maybe if his plotline was especially interesting, I'd feel better about it, but more than anything, I was just frustrated by it: It consisted mostly of Asher flip-flopping between helping Sinclair and not helping her, while loudly insisting that he was blameless for everything, and that was just annoying more than anything.

Famke Janssen plays this role identically to how she plays Jean Grey.

Actually, 'frustrating' could be used to describe a lot of this series so far: Almost all of the plotlines involving Nate, most of the stuff with Famke Janssen (I honestly can't figure out if Janssen is a good or a bad actor), pretty much anything involving Laurel and Frank (I still do not like Frank one bit). 

I'll see what the latter half (/about a third) of the series I like, but I wonder if perhaps that might end up being when I stop watching. Because while I enjoy How To Get Away With Murder, it does increasingly feel like it's just circling the same basic plotlines in increasingly convoluted way - and if I'm thinking that now, how bad will it be when series three rolls around?

Nice soundtrack, though. No complaints about the soundtrack.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

The Flash S2E7: Gorilla Warfare.


The Flash
Series 2, Episode 7
Gorilla Warfare.



Can we just get Legends of Tomorrow out of the way? I actually am really looking forward to it, and it'll probably be great fun, but both Arrow and The Flash have seemed to desperately want to promote it with often quite awkward and clunky 'set-up' moments (and sometimes set-up-entire-episodes, hello Fury of Firestorm) and it's murdering both series to death. Neither of this week's episodes are particularly bad for that - although both of them have Legends of Tomorrow set-up subplots - but I've seen the preview for the two episode Arrow/Flash crossover Legends of Today and Legends of Yesterday and I may have screamed quietly into a pillow for a few hours.

For people wondering how this will affect reviews when that rolls around, I'll probably review both as if they were a single Flash episode.

In this week's episode, Barry, still recovering from Zoom breaking his back, is faced with trouble when Caitlin is kidnapped by Grodd, who has grown more intelligent and who wants to create other super-intelligent, telepathic great apes. As Henry Allen returns to Central City to give Barry a pep talk, Harrison Wells must don his Earth-1 counterpart's Reverse-Flash suit in order to convince Grodd that he's Eobard Thawne, the one person who Grodd will obey.

I'm a little bit torn on this episode, actually. In the main, I did enjoy it - there hasn't actually been a Flash episode yet that I haven't enjoyed - but gosh, there were a few things that rankled me about it.

WILL SOMEBODY PLEASE JUST TELL PATTY WHAT'S GOING ON.

For starters, as I mentioned last week, I don't really like Grodd much as a villain. He's just not all that interesting to me, which is a bit of a shame, because he does actually have a fairly interesting power set and motivation, but I'm just not really feeling it. He doesn't raise the tension for me, I'm not engaged in his personality or goals, and when the show casually throws in things like anti-mind-control earbuds, it just spoils any mileage they'd get out of his powers.

I also don't like Henry Allen, so seeing him back this episode to give Barry a pep talk and then leave was a bit annoying. To be honest, it rankled me because he left in such an awful way, basically telling Barry that it was because of him that he had to leave, so for him to come back and for nobody to acknowledge that that was an awful thing to do really got on my nerves.

Also, I don't like the Cisco/Kendra romance. I'm throwing that one out there, I'm just not keen on it. I like Cisco, and I like Kendra (and Hawkgirl is one of my favourite DC characters), and I even think that they'd make really fun friends, but the romance subplot there is just boring. Also, is Kendra from Earth-2? Because Cisco's vibed off her twice now, and I am increasingly muddled about how his powers actually work: Sometimes he sees events currently happening to metahumans from Earth-2; sometimes he sees events currently or previously happening to people that people from Earth-2 know; and now he's apparently seeing Kendra's ... future? Recent past? Earth-2 Kendra? I have no idea.

The yellow suit remains awkward as hell to look at.

Of course, all of the Cisco/Kendra stuff is just to build her up for Legends of Tomorrow, and as we have already established, I'm just not down with that.

Also, Barry recovering the use of his legs and his speed within a single episode. Look, I'm not asking for those injuries to be permanent, but it would have been nice to have an episode where Barry genuinely can't help with his speed, and the rest of the team has to do their best in his stead. It could have been incredibly interesting to have a Flash episode with no Flash, and it'd hammer in the danger that Zoom poses.

But there were several things about this episode I did like: I loved the idea of Wells pretending to be Earth-1 Wells to trick Grodd, and I'd like to have seen them make more of it, because it led to an absolutely brilliant scene, and a triumph of acting for both Carlos Valdes and Tom Cavanaugh. Valdes in particular gets credit for a pretty subtle, nuanced performance as Cisco and Wells rehearse what was basically the most horrible personal betrayal in Cisco's life.

That's a plot thread that gets dropped surprisingly quickly, which really is a shame, because you could spin an entire episode out of Wells pretending to be the other Wells.

God, there are probably people who ship Caitlin and Grodd, aren't there. That's horrible.
That's just horrible.

I also, admittedly, really liked the brief shot we had of Gorilla City in Earth-2. Gorilla City might be one of the silliest ideas in DC Comics, but it fits in perfectly with Earth-2, which seems to be a sillier, more comic-y reality than Earth-1. Its mention made me wonder if this series is going to end with Earth-1 and Earth-2 being fused together into a single world, actually, because if not it'd be difficult to bring Grodd back, and you know they'll want to.

All in all, this was a solid, fun episode, but really not one of the best the show has come out with, and definitely one that I had more than a couple of problems with. It looks like there isn't an episode next week, but the week after we're getting a crossover, so that will presumably be fun. Hopefully. I liked the crossovers last year, after all.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Telltale Games' Game of Thrones E6: The Ice Dragon


Telltale Games'
Game of Thrones
Episode 6: The Ice Dragon.



I had such high hopes too, I really did. The Asher or Rodrik choice seemed like one with real weight, and even throughout the game, the choices you were given often seemed weighty, like they had the potential to lead to a genuine branching storyline with distinctly different endings. In a way, I am left in an odd position of loving the story of this episode, but hating it as a video game, for reasons I will talk about shortly.

In this episode, Asher or Rodrik rallies the Forrester forces to take back Ironrath, but the house quickly finds itself under siege by the Whitehill army, who offers the young lord (of your choice) a deal: Surrender and become Whitehill bannermen, or face destruction. In King's Landing, Mira finds herself in deep trouble with Margaery, and even deeper trouble when she's arrested for the murder of a Lannister guard, and finds herself presented with her own terrible deal. Meanwhile, in the North, Gared finds the North Grove - and in it, an army of blood-magic enhanced warriors led by Gregor Forrester's two bastard children.

So, let's get one thing out of the way, almost none of your choices - including the one you made in the previous episode as far as who now rules House Forrester - have any meaning whatsoever. House Forrester will fall whatever you do, almost every character will die, and the only real changes to the ending are that Mira can either be executed or become the wife of a conning lord; Gared and the bastards can either stay in the North or go South; and that's it. 

Bear with me, or this review might become unbearable.

The choices feel plenty weighty when you're making them, but it takes only a cursory probing in a replay to show that they're actually really not. Which, if I'm being honest, makes me wonder if Telltale Games should be making games: Don't get me wrong, they can spin a good story, I'm not going to say that they can't. But it feels cruel to make them keep doing a 'your choices matter' gimmick when it's become extremely obvious to everyone involved that your choices don't matter.

And that's - sad, in a way. I want these games to have genuine branching storylines, genuine multiple endings, genuine weightiness. I want them to be everything that Telltale keeps promising - and I don't really want to be fobbed off with one of about three nearly identical endings and a little screen that says I played with nobility, or whatever.

Beyond that - tremendous, game-breaking flaw that can't really be gotten around, the game's alright. Well, the story is alright. Sort of. It's a 'rocks fall and everyone dies' story with a little hope left at the end for sequel purposes - in a TV series or a film, I'd actually be fine with that, because it fits with the tone of the story. In a video game, I'm a lot less enamoured with it, because I think the charm of an inescapably tragic ending dries out a lot faster when you're the one putting effort into making it not bad.

I really don't like the Lannister guards' helmets.

But in a film or a television show, I'd actually be okay with this ending. It's a grim, brutal cliffhanger, but there is some hope left for the future, and it carries a lot of pathos and gravitas. While there's not really much difference between Asher and Rodrik's storylines, they're both engaging and charismatic protagonists, and depending on how you play her, Mira can also really come into her own too, facing off against a villain who is conniving and genuinely interesting - and who, given that either of the choices he gives her are pretty horrible, feels like he presents a real threat.

(Incidentally, if you pick Mira getting executed, it really seems like she's about to be saved - by Cersei or Margaery - at the last second. That's some effective building of tension right there.)

Even the viewpoints that I usually don't like, such as Gared's, were fun to watch, not least because the North Grove twins are genuinely compelling, interesting characters who it's surprisingly easy to warm to, despite the fact that they're clearly both flawed and equally clearly dabbling in some highly shady stuff - blood magic chief among them. 

It is vitally important that we try not to address the Forrester lord by name whenever possible.

But at the end of the day, this isn't a television show or a film - it's a video game, and the expectations placed on it are entirely different, and even by the standards of Telltale fare, this does not live up to those expectations. When you combine that with a frankly terrible start and some fairly lacklustre moments strewn around nearly every episode, you end up with what might be Telltale Games' worst series yet, and that's a real shame, actually. I was really looking forward to this one, almost as soon as I'd heard about it.

I think it'll be quite difficult for Telltale Games to do a sequel, but I'd like to see them try. As much as this game was a bit of a disappointment (okay, a lot of a disappointment), I am genuinely interested to see where the series goes next. Sorry, that's probably not the takeaway I should be giving you at the end of a predominantly negative review, but it is.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Editorial: The Problem With Yearly Releases.


Editorial: The Problem With Yearly Releases.



Call of Duty: Black Ops III just came out, along with Assassin's Creed: Syndicate, Arkham Knight (itself not quite a yearly release - more like a year and halfly release), a small flock of sports games, and at least one Lego game. For a lot of games, yearly releases - which almost always involve beginning development on one game before you're even done developing the one before it - are a fact of life, despite the fact that more or less nobody enjoys them.

In the worst of cases, such as when Ubisoft released two main console Assassin's Creed titles plus a couple of handheld offerings in a single year, or those few times Call of Duty released multiple titles in a year, it can end up being less 'yearly' and more 'quarterly.' That should be great, right? If you enjoy a game, more of it is always better, right?

Well, no.

Let's dip into a random grab-bag of some of my favourite games: Bravely Default, Vanquish, and Okami. I adore all of these games deeply, but I couldn't play them - or games like them - every year, and if I did it would slowly murder all of the love I had for them. It wouldn't be necessarily indicative of their quality, either: They could each one be beautifully crafted, wonderful titles, and I would still find them taxing on my willpower.

Stylin'.

Part of that is that what I adore about these games is their uniqueness.

Vanquish has a frenetic energy and a lightning fast, chaotic bullet hell dynamic that is exhilarating, but the exhilaration would quickly fade away by the tenth Vanquish in as many years - without the extra development time to let technology change and build, and to put more effort into making every title concretely different, and without the time for me play around with other things for a while, Vanquish would lose its uniqueness.

Bravely Default cleverly plays with the Final Fantasy III dynamic and the technology available to it, and gives you a massive range of job classes, as well as having a compelling, fourth wall breaking volume. But if that technology doesn't have time to markedly change, Bravely Default will just be circling the same pieces of tech. If it releases a dozen games in a dozen years, it's going to eventually run out of new job ideas and new ways to use the fourth wall dynamic.

Okami is beautiful, artistic, and touching - but it'd be a lot less so if I never got a break from it.

Less stylin'.

Here is the thing: Familiarity breeds contempt, and it also breeds boredom. You can be making the best games in the world - and let's face it, if you're releasing yearly, then they are not all going to any good - but if they're all the same game with a few extra gimmicks and a slightly different skin on them, then they're all going to blur together into a gloopy grey blur.

(Sports games get a bit of a free pass on this, since what they're mostly doing is updating their roster.)

And that is very closely tied to frequency. Take Legend of Zelda games: The console releases are quite formulaic, with basically the same gameplay, very similar worlds, and often quite similar plots, with the main difference being one big, key gameplay change put in - shapeshifting for Twilight Princess, flight for Skyward Sword, and so on - and yet each one feels fresh and new every time.

Compare and contrast with Assassin's Creed, which usually has the same gameplay and similar plots, but mix it up with new characters and drastically different settings, as well as implementing several new gameplay changes, but they still feel bland. Same-y. Like an endless parade of the same greyed, withered game, screaming desperately for you to love it.

More stylin'.


Compare and contrast again with Call of Duty, which is not only a yearly release that innovates very little (although I should note that it does innovate a little - for all of its reputation for being mindless, the Call of Duty writers do put effort into their stories; and it's clearly taking accusations of being racist and creepily propaganda-ish - criticisms that I myself have made before - to heart and made efforts to improve on them; along with constantly refining and working on its basic gameplay), but must also contend with a sea of Call of Duty clones, such as Medal of Honor, making it even more generic.

Long story short: Don't release your games yearly. If you have a video game franchise, then give it room to breathe - too many games in too short a time is a recipe for your audience to grow exhausted with you, especially since if you're able to churn out games that quickly, then you're probably not putting much effort into making them unique and different.