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Friday, 30 December 2016

Dishonored 2.


Hey, quick reminder that there won't be a post tomorrow, owing to New Year's, but we'll be back on a normal schedule from Monday onwards.


Dishonored 2.



I've made precisely zero secret of how much I love Dishonored. It was a perfectly balanced stealth game with just the right level of difficulty (and a lot of anti-frustration measures) without being unfair, with a gorgeous and distinctive (if not actually unique, given how many aesthetic cues it took from Thief and the wider steampunk genre) aesthetic, some great voice actors (including Lena Headey!), and a rich, deep game lore.

Needless to say, I was pretty psyched at the announcement of Dishonored 2. A lot of people were, especially as a barrage of fake rumours every E3 had managed to single handedly kill any belief we might have had that a sequel was actually coming. Excitement only grew when it was revealed that you could play as an older Emily (or as Corvo, but who cares about that guy), and that Delilah of DLC fame would be the main villain.

Set ten years after the events of the first game, Dishonored 2 sees Emily forced off her throne when Delilah unexpectedly reappears, claiming to be Jessamine's half-sister and supported by a conspiracy originating in the southern city of Karnaca. Fleeing, Emily and/or Corvo must dispose of the members of Delilah's conspiracy, discover the secret to her immortality, and depose her. Along the way, s/he will receive help from mysterious ship's captain Meagan Foster and natural philosopher Anton Sokolov.

Sokolov is looking a bit older these days.

While it continues with the semi-painterly style of the first game, this game's graphics are vastly improved over the previous game's, and with the passage of ten years, the aesthetic has shifted from steampunk Victoriana to steampunk 1920s art deco, which combined with the Spain-inspired setting of the game and the familiar onset of ruin and decay that characterises Dishonored, creates something truly interesting to look at.

If you're wondering why I'm starting on waht the game looks like despite that usually being an afterthought, it's because the gameplay has actually not changed much at all since the first game. Dishonored's gameplay was pretty well put together anyway, so that's not necessarily a flaw -- there's no reason to attempt to drastically innovate on something that works -- but it does make it difficult to talk about.

(There is a level with a time-warping mechanic that plays significantly differently, but to be honest, while it's a potentially interesting mechanic, the result is a level that's actually a little bit boring.)

A Clockwork Soldier.

The main gameplay shift is that you can play as either Emily or Corvo, with different powersets between them. Corvo's powers are the same bag he got in the first game -- teleportation, rat summoning, wind blasts, time manipulation, and so on. Emily's powers are framed as much more neutral, with the potential to be either destructive or stealthy depending on how you upgrade and utilise them: A power that creates a shadowy tendril can be used to zip around like Corvo's blink, but it can be upgraded to snatch people up and slam them bodily into walls; a power that creates decoys to distract people can be changed to a power that creates proxies to assassinate people in your stead; other powers, like Domino, are neutral in a much simpler way, as the ability simply 'shares the fate' of multiple targets, allowing you to knock out or kill three or four people in one go.

Of course, the two-character system isn't perfect. From a gameplay standpoint, playing as Emily, with her entirely new powerset, is much more interesting than playing as Corvo, and it works better narratively, as well. There's very little narratively satisfying about Corvo, whose story fairly thoroughly ended, taking up his assassin's mask again to save Emily once more, from an enemy who he has no real connecton with. Emily, meanwhile, gets a whole character arc where she learns about her empire, and what it means to rule -- and in the bargain, gets the much more satisfying narrative of saving the man who once saved her, and vanquishing an enemy that may be one of the last family members she has, and whose life is a grim and twisted reflection of her own.

Instead of rats, this game has bloodflies. They are functionally the same, except they fly.

The only other gameplay shift of note is the removal of Tallboys, who are replaced with Clockwork Soldiers, an enemy that is much fairer for players to deal with regardless of if they're playing stealthily or violently, and which provides a challenge no matter what play style you're working with.

Like the first game, this one isn't really sure what to do with itself for an ending, and so just kind of winds its way to a slightly anticlimactic close, but the story is fascinating and fun to play through nonetheless. While I find myself somewhat preferring the first game, I think that could change as I play through the second one a few more times, as I do think it's the technically stronger of the two. Either way, it gets a fairly wholehearted recommendation from me.

Thursday, 29 December 2016

Final Fantasy XV.


Final Fantasy XV.



Ten and a half years. That's how long this game was in development for. For those keeping track, that's nearly as long as Duke Nukem Forever, but that game at least had the excuse of being juggled between multiple different developers, rather than a single company. But now that XV is here, it has significant expectations to live up to, especially when it's coming hot on the heels of the extremely protracted and very terrible XIII trilogy.

Thus we have an interesting situation where Final Fantasy XV is fighting one hell of an uphill battle to get good press, something reflected by the fact that several major review sites have given it middling (by their 6-10 standards) review scores, often even lower than the widely panned Final Fantasy XIII. Coming in the wake of a decade long development cycle, including a title change, and a nearly unremitting decade of terrible games from its franchise, people are rightly jaded, and rightly expect to see some pay-off for their very long emotional investment.

All of which is to say that I really, really like this game -- but I also recognise that that's not necessarily the same as audiences getting an appropriate pay-off for the time they've had to wait on this game, or the tumult of its development.

The game is, after all, not without issues, chief among them being an extremely anemic second half, purportedly the result of the development team simply running out of time on their contract, and closely followed by a story that started off strong and eventually veered into nonsensicality. Not the 'this has never made any sense and never will' nonsense of XIII either, but the shade of nonsense that suggests that you're missing about half the plot.

Altissia looks lovely though.

Set in the world of Eos, a modernised world that mingles present-day aesthetic with the franchise's distinctive brand of fantasy, Final Fantasy XV follows Noctis Lucis Caelum, the young prince of the nation of Lucis, whose trip to meet his bride-to-be is suddenly thrown askew when his father is murdered and his kingdom taken from him. Traveling through Lucis and eventually beyond, Noctis must gather the thirteen Royal Arms of his ancestors, and form covenants with the Six, the gods of his world, to take down the Empire, as well as finding his way to his bride, Oracle Lunafreya Nox Fleuret. But as the nights get longer, and fearsome monsters called daemons begin to encroach on civilisation, it begins to seem like there might be a worse crisis than the Empire to deal with.

Touching quickly on the technical aspects of the game, they are more or less strong across the board. Battle gameplay could definitely use some tweaking, but it's fast-paced and interesting to play, with both some hefty challenges provided to you and a massive arsenal of abilities -- many of which are awe-inspiring -- with which to deal with those challenges. If the battle gameplay has any critical flaw, it's that it can often become difficult to keep track of, turning a system that the game wants to be fast but strategic into an uncontrollable burly brawl where you're just desperately hacking at anything nearby and hoping for the best.

The system shines, then, in its boss battles, especially its boss battles with giant monsters. I've expressed before my hatred of the 'boss battle against a giant monster where you're basically just fighting its face and sometimes its hands,' and I'm actually really happy to say that in the games few battles with giant monsters -- of which there are two, and one optional one -- it handles them with a deftness I've not seen in any game since Shadow of the Colossus (which does, unfortunately, still have this game and indeed every game beaten on the giant monster battle front). Your battles with Titan, Leviathan, and the Adamantoise feel vast and sweeping and epic, and they feel like genuine battles against fully realised giant monsters.

What are they even fighting in this image? And before you say it's the big glowy
figures, they're at least nominally good guys.

So too does the game shine when doing its smaller scale, duel-esque bosses. The final battle is an understated duel where your opponent has all the same abilities you do (plus a few more), and it works brilliantly, and slightly more bombastic but equally small scale bosses like the daemonic form of Ravus are equally as fun to play.

The game is beautiful to look at, surprisingly low on glitches for a game of its size (although not free of them entirely), and is backed up by some rock solid voice acting (with the highlights being Darin de Paul as Ardyn Izunia, Amy Shiels as Lunafreya, and Robbie Daymond as Prompto), and an excellent soundtrack from Yoko Shimomura, who after her extensive work on the Kingdom Hearts franchise could probably be considered a staple of Square-Enix, along with easily being one of their best assets.

The story, meanwhile, is very far from the most original thing in video games or even in the franchise itself, but honestly after XIII's three attempts at striving for originality and failing miserably, I am happy to let that pass. The main draw of the narrative is not, in truth, the story itself anyway, but rather the bonds and banter between the four main characters (hopefully soon to be five, if the rumblings of patches to add ultimate bro Aranea Highwind as a party member proper are aught to go by), and in that respect the game does pretty well. None of the party characters are brimming with depth, but they are engaging and fun to be around.

If Square releases a DLC pack that gives Noctis some better clothes, I will buy that
DLC.

When the narrative falls apart, however, it falls apart hard, as the last five chapters of the game are an incoherent mess, as the game rushes to its conclusion, scaling down almost the entire last part of the story to a series of very brief set pieces (some of which are actually pretty terrible, but some of which, like the battle to defend the train from the Empire, are bordering on inspired) and one lengthy, survival horror esque dungeon. That dungeon is pretty widely hated, and I admit that while I myself found it enjoyable enough, I can see exactly why people hate it so much, and they're not wrong to do so.

Nor can I forgive the story for having a bizarre time skip just before the ending, and then a strange and whiplash-y sad ending. I've been thinking for a while about doing a post -- or maybe a video editorial, exciting -- on the anatomy of a tragedy, so I'll save my thoughts on the ending for that, but needless to say, I was very far from happy.

Still, this was a deeply enjoyable game for me, for the most part, and I'm very much looking forward to replaying the first eleven chapters and then pretending none of the rest of it exists. That should be pretty delightful, I think.

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Pokemon Sun and Moon.


Pokemon Sun and Moon.



Yes, I know, this game came out ages ago. In fairness, it took me a long time to finish it, and even now I've barely explored all the post-game content available for players. Like any Pokemon game, it's a sprawling, bustling world backed up by a fairly rich story, which means that it tends to be a little bit of a time sink.

Set in the Hawaii-based region of Alola, Sun and Moon follows a silent player character as they undertake the island challenge, a series of trials for aspiring trainers, set by a bevy of trial captains and kahunas. As they make their way through the islands and work on their trial challenge, however, they swiftly find themselves wrapped up in a conflict involving small-time punks Team Skull, large and wealthy conservationist group the Aether Foundation, and the mysterious and otherworldly Ultra Beasts.

In terms of core gameplay, Sun and Moon is not strikingly different from any other Pokemon game. As is always the case with these games, the gameplay has been streamlined and adjusted, but remains functionally the same, which is unsurprising, given that Nintendo has never been especially inclined to randomly reinvent a working formula.

The biggest gameplay changes are how HMs have been replaced with Ride Pokemon, and the addition of Z-Moves.

Presented without comment.

Ride Pokemon combine the functionality of HMs with the experience of riding a Gogoat from X and Y, and while it's an odd shift to get used to, it's not difficult to see the benefits --  largely that it removes the necessity for a HM slave on your team, while still keeping the environmental obstacles aspect of gameplay. It's even worked into the story somewhat, as a few NPCs will remark upon how HMs are illegal in Alola.

The other big change is that addition of Z-Moves, which function mostly like your standard RPG limit break moves and also somewhat like a replacement for Mega Evolutions. There's one Z-Move for every type, and so long as you have the stone for that type (gained in most cases by performing island trials) and a Pokemon who can hold said stone and knows a move of the same type, you can move the Z-Move. Simple, intuitive, and only made marginally more complicated by the addition of about a dozen Z-Moves that only specific Pokemon can use with specific moves.

In terms of story, I'm honestly kind of torn. In a lot of respects, Sun and Moon follows the tried and tested Pokemon formula, and I've never really had a problem with the games following that formula -- there's a degree of difference in that the story utilises island trials instead of gyms, but as island trials function very similarly to gyms, it's not exactly a huge departure. The biggest difference is that each island trial culminates in a battle with a Totem Pokemon, a kind of miniboss who is stronger than others of its species and surrounded with a defensive aura.

Lunala, the giant moon bat.

It feels odd to praise the series for taking a step that puts it more in line with its peers -- because island trials and Totem Pokemon are functionally indistinguishable from dungeons and bosses from other RPGs -- when Pokemon has always been somewhat ahead of the curve in terms of RPG mechanics, but Nintendo makes it work pretty well.

It's in the execution of the mandatory evil-team plotline that things fall apart a little, although really only a little. While the basic premise of a seemingly-good (but also blisteringly obviously evil, this is still Pokemon after all) conservationist group allying with a kind of (and intentionally, on the part of the writers) pathetic, more archetypal gang is a pretty solid one, the story starts to show its cracks when it involves the Ultra Beasts.

The Ultra Beasts are somewhat eldritch quasi-Pokemon who include among their numbers the game's mascots, Solgaleo and Lunala, and who form a critical part of the motivation of main villain Lusamine. They're a pretty interesting concept and they fit in well with the wider universe, which has always had a bit of fun playing with the idea of mysterious monsters that stretch the definition of a Pokemon, but they're sorely underused to the point where it feels like story material was cut. While the game sets you up to believe that they'll be essential to the story, really only two -- the game's mascot and a parasitic jellyfish called Nihilego -- ever feature into it in a meaningful way, and barely at that.

Solgaleo, the cutest legendary.

It's a minor quibble, but as is usually the case with Pokemon games, minor quibbles are all I have to offer. They are, after all, Pokemon games -- mechanically and even in terms of story, they're all pretty similar, and if you're buying one, chances are you know exactly what it is you're getting and you're buying them because you enjoy that kind of game. You can always basically chart out exactly what any individual game in the series will be like, and that's a large part of their appeal.

But also, the fact that each game in the series is so similar means that by now Nintendo has fine-tuned them down to something approaching perfection, both when it comes to the gameplay and when it comes to the more technical aspects of the story. That doesn't leave me with a lot to criticise -- hell, I wish more game developers would focus on fine-tuning, streamlining, and building upon their series' core gameplay instead of constantly attempting to reinvent the wheel.

Concluding briefly, I would definitely recommend this game to people who like the franchise, but I maybe wouldn't recommend it to newcomers, or at the very least would do so somewhat reluctantly -- and that's less to do with the game's quality and more because I do have a terrible anti-progress streak and rather think a newcomer should experience the standard gym system. That's really the only thing.

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans S2E13


Mobile Suit Gundam:
Iron-Blooded Orphans
Series 2, Episode 13
Hunter of Angels.



So, we've finished the first cour, and you know what that means! Yes, I am naturally talking about how we'll be getting a new opening two weeks from now (hopefully) which is, of course, the most important part of any anime series. Oh, and also, like, big sea changes to the series dynamic and formula and stuff, but that's all way less important, you know?

In this week's episode, Orga reveals to McMurdo how Mika dueled Hashmal in Barbatos, taking heavy damage but eventually managing to defeat the Mobile Armour. Back on Earth, McGillis explains how Iok was at fault for the Mobile Armour activating, causing Rustal to warn Iok not to become a problem. Julieta asks Rustal if she can be the test pilot for a new machine, prompting surprise and concern from Vidar. Back on Mars, Mika has lost the use of one side of his body, along with his legs, leaving him unable to move freely -- but to everybody's surprise, he's unconcerned about this, instead just become more fixated on piloting Barbatos.

So, I've been talking for a while about how the show is setting Mika up to not survive this war, as it keeps framing him as somebody who can't really exist outside of war, and this episode really hammers that in deep. Not because he now can't move, although the fact that he's lost the use of a leg, an arm, and an eye, and seems to only have partial movement in his other leg, definitely places obstacles in the way of him living a normal life -- but rather, it's hammered in by Mika's own actions, as he makes it clear that he doesn't expect or want a life outside of war.

The fight between Mika and Hashmal was very cool, though.

It's clear he thinks that way from pretty early on, when he seems only mildly disappointed that he won't be able to work on the farm any more -- remember, Atra and Kudelia were discussing a few episodes ago how Mika seemed really committed to the farm, and the farm was very much set up as the one glimmering chance Mika had for a normal life, only for this episode to clarify in no uncertain terms that it was never that important to Mika -- but it only becomes more overt when he outright says that this makes things simpler and easier for him, as he can now only be free while in Barbatos, so he may as well just keep fighting until he dies.

There were some people speculating that Mika would die this episode, but what we actually got was far more grim, not because of his injuries but rather because of what they reveal about Mika as a character. To really set up the tragedy that Tekkadan is playing out in abundantly clear terms, we also have Naze echo something Makanai said early in the series: That trying to achieve your goal as quickly as possible only leads to trouble. This time, however, it's squarely directed at Orga, giving Orga an opportunity to veer off the path of tragedy.

Which he doesn't take, because part of the anatomy of a tragedy is that the tragic hero -- which is what Orga is, since Mika, while he's the protagonist, really doesn't have enough agency to be the tragic hero of the story -- receives opportunities to avert tragedy, but can never take them. At this point, Iron-Blooded Orphans is almost a textbook tragedy, and it's fair to assume it might only become moreso from here.

The question of what McGillis' symbol is has been bothering me for a while now,
but I've been too lazy to go back and check. Luckily, this episode makes it very clear
that it's Fenrir.

Elsewhere, we get McGillis sending Isurugi to inquire after what happened to Gali-Gali's remains, with the rather suspicious response of 'his body was cremated and the Kimaris returned to the Bauduin family,' given that Vidar is very much not cremated and the Gundam Vidar is clearly just a rehauled Kimaris. This raises the question of whether the Bauduin family are in league with the Elion family and Kujan family, and if so, why they haven't gone to the other Seven Stars, since the three of them together, with an eyewitness account from Gali-Gali no less, would be all they need to ensure McGillis gets a swift execution.

And also that Iok and Rustal have Jormungandr and Hraesvelgr respectively.

When I asked about this, someone suggested that the three of them are involved in a power grab of their own, and honestly, that makes the most sense out of all the options.

McGillis going full villain, to nobody's surprise.

We also get Julieta putting herself forward to test pilot a new machine, but no hints as to what that machine is. I'm sure somebody knows exactly what machine the characters are referring to, but I admit, I'm completely in the dark here. It's apparently very risky, at least, since Vidar seemed surprised that Rustal would let Julieta pilot it.

It looks like the next episode is going to focus on Teiwaz, which given that Iok has apparently contacted Donomikols, makes it seem like the next arc will focus on Donomikols and his group trying to take down Tekkadan and Naze. I can't wait to see what barely customised factory mech Don will get into while yelling about he's unstoppable. 

Monday, 26 December 2016

Quick update.


Hey, guys, just a quick update to say that we're still on break for Christmas, but we'll be back tomorrow with Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans S2E13.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Rogue One.


Rogue One.



It's taken a while for me to get around to this one, I admit. Part of that has been because I've wanted to get various television shows out of the way, but part of it is just that it's taken a while to get all of my thoughts about this film in order. Usually when I say that it's because I hated something, but I actually did really like Rogue One -- maybe not as much as The Force Awakens, but definitely more than any of the original trilogy (and definitely more than any of the prequel trilogy).

It is, however, a very different film to the majority of Star Wars films, or really any other piece of Star Wars media in general, taking its cue more from World War II films than from the parts of canon that preceded it, and while that is certainly no bad thing, it does put me in an odd position when figuring out the details of what to say about it, as I have to balance my expectations for the franchise with my expectations for the genre and cinematic tradition the film firmly fits into.

Set just before A New Hope, Rogue One follows Jyn Erso, the daughter of an Imperial science officer forced to work on the Death Star, as she falls in with a ragtag band of rebels: Rebel intelligence officer Cassian Ando, repurposed Imperial droid K-2SO, former Imperial cargo pilot Bodhi Rook, former Guardian of the Whills Chirrut Imwe, and mercenary Baze Malbus. Following a message left behind by her father, Jyn and company attempt to steal the Death Star plans in order to expose a fatal flaw worked into its design, but quickly find themselves running up Director Orson Krennic, Grand Moff Tarkin, and Darth Vader himself.

Brilliant disguises.

What lowered this film beneath The Force Awakens in my estimations was that the pacing at the beginning was somewhat slow -- by the time the characters get to Jedha, towards the end of the film's first act, the pacing speeds up considerably, but in that first half an hour or so, it felt like a slow, ponderous story to me.

That is, of course, partly down to genre convention and tone: Rogue One has a much more somber and much grimmer tone than other Star Wars films, and so the typical flashy action set pieces that often do wonders for the pacing of a Star Wars film are absent here. I can't and won't call that a flaw, because honestly their inclusion would have irrevocably ruined the tone of the entire film, but it does hammer in why this isn't a genre that I, a very impatient person who needs a regular dose of flashy explosions to maintain interest in something, don't usually seek out.

(That tone, and keeping that tone consistent, is key to the film's success, since it winds its way to an undeniably tragic ending, and it would be easy for that to feel cheap if the film hadn't very thoroughly set up that ending in advance. As it is, while the ending is certainly very sad, it feels completely earned and completely consistent with the story so far, and even manages to recontextualise some of the events of the original trilogy in a way that feels natural, and which adds extra dimensions rather than taking away from them.)

But it's also partly down to a need to set up a lot of information in a short span of time: The film has to set up who Jyn is, who her father is, a fairly substantial supporting cast, who Orson is and what his deal is and why he doesn't get along with Tarkin, who Saw Gerrera is and what his significance to the plot is, and so on, and so forth. There's a lot of information to convey to the audience in a very limited amount of time, and the result is a first act that often feels more like an info dump than a story.

Imperial Star Destroyers are always terrifying.

Which is really the only flaw I can pinpoint with the film -- that its first act is heavy on information and relatively low on things happening. With the exception of that, I think it's fair to say that this is a film that borders on technical perfection. There are certainly some other things I would have liked to see -- I'd have liked Darth Vader to have a bigger role -- but they all come down less to flaws with the film and more to just things I personally would have liked.

There's a lot of other things I could praise the film for -- how it makes Darth Vader utterly terrifying again, its innovative and seamless use of CGI and archive footage to create new scenes with Peter Cushing as Tarkin -- but I do have a limited number of words, and if I were to start praising the film, I would be here all day, so instead I'm just going to give it the highest recommendation I can give. Go watch it if you haven't done already.

Incidentally, the theatre was more packed than I had ever seen it before when I went to watch it, so I guess that boycott is working out well, huh, Redditors. Yep.

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Bungou Stray Dogs S2


Bungou Stray Dogs
Series 2



I had the relative good fortune of only watching the first series a matter of weeks before the second one started airing, so I didn't have to wait long for the second series to show up -- which was pretty nice for me, since I'd enjoyed the first series a lot and was eager to see more of it, especially as it had, unfortunately, ended on a somewhat open and perhaps even somewhat lackluster note.

Set in modern day Yokohama in a world where superpowered people exist, each one bearing the name of a famous real world author and an ability named after their seminal works, Bungou Stray Dogs follows Atsushi Nakajima, a young man who has become an agent of a private detective agency in the city. As the Guild, a foreign organisation of powered people, invades the city, a three-way war begins, as the Armed Detective Agency, Port Mafia, and Guild all strive to take control of the city and eliminate their competition. 

The series actually starts with a four episode arc adapting one of the series' tie-in novels, Dazai and the Dark Era, following Port Mafia member Sakunosuke Oda several years before the beginning of the series. 

Tonally and structurally, this arc is very different from the one following it: It has a much grimmer and less comedic tone than the rest of the series, and while I wouldn't necessarily call it darker, it certainly does approach its subject matter in a much more poe-faced way than is usual for the show. Most of the comic relief characters, including Atsushi himself, are missing from this arc, and while its basic themes of redemption and finding a home for oneself are ones which run throughout the series, it approaches them from a different angle, with less emphasis on finding redemption and more on whether redemption is possible.

He's so pretty.

It's also a much more slowly paced arc. A lot of this is down to the material being adapted: While the Guild arc is a relatively long manga arc being adapted into nine episodes, and thus is condensed heavily with as much extraneous material as possible cut out, the Dark Era arc is adapting a single light novel into four episodes, and thus struggles somewhat with making that material stretch while also maintaining viewer interest. Round about the third episode of the arc, I began to lose patience with it, even though I was enjoying the story, because the pacing very often felt glacial.

It did have some definite strong points: Sakunosuke makes a much more interesting character to follow than Atsushi, as he has a far more engaging character conflict. While Atsushi's main conflict is feeling unworthy for reasons that are entirely not his fault (creating a rather Mary Sue-oid situation where Atsushi has a redemption arc but nothing to be redeemed for, as he has never done anything wrong in his life), Sakunosuke actually has blood on his hands, and his reasons for wanting redemption are at least somewhat self-serving. It makes him a much more compelling, and much more engaging, character than Atsushi.

He also has a much more interesting ability. Atsushi's ability, when you boil it down, is basically that he heals and hits things real hard, whereas Sakunosuke's actually has interesting storyline potential.

Bandage Guy and Cool Gravity Dude.

The remainder of the series, meanwhile, deals with the three-way war, and in all honesty if you enjoyed the first series, chances are you'll enjoy the latter nine episodes of the second series, and if you didn't enjoy the first series, you probably won't. There are a few key differences, in that the Guild arc is focused less on episodic stories or mini-arcs and more on one, action-focused arc, but for the most part it is more of the same, with the same balance of comedy to drama.

The only real difference is that, as mentioned before, there is a greater emphasis on action, as the powered individuals of the Armed Detective Agency (and sometimes the Port Mafia) go up against the Guild. Effort is made to give most of the Guild members time to shine, but a few -- such as Mark Twain and Louisa Alcott -- get left by the wayside, and for the most part each Guild member vanishes after their big action scene, making them feel more like disposable henchmen than anything else. The big exceptions are F. Scott Fitzgerald and HP Lovecraft, both of whom appear very frequently in the series, although for very different reasons: Fitzgerald is the Guild's leader and the main villain for this arc, while Lovecraft is set up as a strange and ominous mystery.

He's had a long day.

It's a fun romp, and worth watching if you have some free time, even if it does end on a rather underwhelming (and oddly Dragonball-oid) note, with the most interesting part of the final episode being the reveal of super-hacker Fyodor Dostoevsky. The fact that the series was left on a cliffhanger, and seems to have done pretty well ratings-wise, makes it likely that there'll be a third series, so I'll be keeping an eye out for that.

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Agents of SHIELD S4 (First Act)


Agents of SHIELD
Series 4 (First Act).



Agents of SHIELD is another show that's very much like Once Upon A Time: It probably should end soon, but it's still managing to be at least somewhat entertaining. Luckily, Agents is considerably better written, fresher, and more engaging than Once Upon A Time, and it's put in a pretty good showing with the first act of its fourth series.

In the first part of this year's series, a newly legitimised SHIELD has been re-ordered under a new director, Jeffrey Mace, who's shady and bureaucratic approach to running the organisation makes the team uneasy. When Skye happens upon a young mechanic, Robbie Reyes, who moonlights as a magical vigilante called the Ghost Rider, she gets drawn into a plot surrounding Reyes, his uncle, a group of ghostly scientists, and a book called the Darkhold. Meanwhile, Fitz and Radcliffe work on Aida, the first Life Model Decoy, an artificial intelligence that's meant to appear humanlike -- despite the Sokovia Accords banning artificial intelligence research.

I'm not a big Ghost Rider fan, and I've always found him more than a little naff as a concept, so I wasn't exactly flush with excitement over a Ghost Rider focused arc for Agents of SHIELD, nor was I especially looking forward to Skye being separated from the team for, it would seem, the majority of the arc.

Reyes is the Ghost Rider for you and me.

By the end of the arc, though, I -- I still actually didn't much care for Ghost Rider, and while Robbie Reyes was interesting enough as a character, I'm not exactly rushing out to buy Ghost Rider comics and see more of him. Nor did it much help that the arc's main villain, nefarious scientist Eli, who later gains the ability to create matter, wasn't especially interesting. Agents' best villain is still Hive, but Eli, whose motivations seemed to be no more complicated and interesting than 'world domination and/or respect,' and whose only real personal connection to the cast was to Robbie, didn't even measure up to the likes of Jiaying.

Where the story shines, then, is that it actually manages to create a sense of genuine menace. There's the pervasive feeling that Aida can't be trusted, which only becomes magnified the more she becomes integral to the plot; there's the recurring idea that any of the team could find themselves losing their minds; there's the sense that Mace can't be trusted, and the sense that there's something fishy going on that's entirely unrelated to the Ghost Rider plotline; and there's the sense that the spirit possessing Reyes may have agendas of his own.

When played off a lot of new character dynamics and some fairly tense situations, that makes for a very potent sense of foreboding throughout the series, and while a lot of that is never really delivered on, most of it is left open enough that it could very easily come into play in the series' second act.

Coulson really does look like a beagle.

The addition of magic into the series is not entirely without precedent, since Doctor Strange came out earlier this year, and since the alien tech of Thor definitely edges extremely close to being magic, but it still feels like an odd addition, especially as the characters never seem to really dwell on the fact that it's something entirely outside their experiences up to this point, and that all of them are effectively in the dark as to what magic is and what it can do. It feels even more strange and out of place when it seems like only this arc will have any real focus on it, with the next arc revolving around Aida and the LMDs, thus taking us to a very sci-fi and non-magical place with the plot.

(It also seems very likely that the mysterious Inhuman that Simmons briefly studied and talked to will factor into the story in a big way, although whether it's as an ally, antagonist, or victim remains to be seen.)

From a technical standpoint, this series is still very strong, with a nice, solid aesthetic, some great music, and good performances from all of its main characters. Episodes tend to be well-paced, and it actually does an okay job of juggling a multitude of plot threads.

Eli.

The act manages to end on a surprisingly shocking note, even taking into account that I think everyone saw Aida turning evil from a mile away, as she kills someone and then promptly reveals that May has been her prisoner since Mace delivered her to Radcliffe for treatment, and that the 'cured' May who has been with the team since is actually another Life Model Decoy. Apparently the show's second act will deal heavily with themes of trust, as nobody will be able to be sure who's real and who's a copy, which is an overdone plotline but does tend to be fairly interesting.

The series is due to return on the tenth of January, so it's not far off at all. The Christmas hiatus definitely seems a lot shorter this year, not just for Agents but across the board. Strange, that, but I'm not complaining.

Monday, 19 December 2016

Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans S2E12


Mobile Suit Gundam:
Iron-Blooded Orphans
Series 2, Episode 12
Battle for Chryse.



Huh, so it turns out next week's episode really is titled 'Angel Hunter.' Or 'Hunter of Angels,' depending on how you want to parse it. Surprising, but you know, not hugely important.

We're edging up on the end of the first cour of this show -- although the break between them is only going to be a one week break for New Year's, so we won't be without it for especially long -- which means we're also edging up on the end of the first act and with it, the conclusion of at least some plots. We will doubtless have a conclusion to the Hashmal plot, at the very least, but the end of the first cour can also potentially function as a way of fundamentally altering the dynamic of the show, so we might also see some big sea changes in how things function at Tekkadan.

I say this partly because the preview seems to show Mika without the use of his legs, so. There is that.

In this week's episode, as Hashmal heads towards Chryse, Tekkadan, McGillis' faction, and Julieta all scramble to take it down and claim glory for themselves, a task made more difficult by several failures on Tekkadan's part, and made far more complicated when they discover that the Gundams can't go near Hashmal without shutting down, the product of a conflict between the Gundams automatically releasing their limiters, and the pilot-protection limiters still being in place. As Tekkadan try to cut Hashmal off from its Plumas, Shino and Yamagi are sent out in the company's new Gundam, the Gundam Flauros.

Flauros-chan.

So, one interesting thing this episode gave us is that it clarifies -- implicitly, at least -- that while Gundams require pilots, they are intelligent to a certain degree, presumably via the same technology that drives Hashmal's artificial intelligence. They can choose to undo their own limiters, even if they can't do the same for the limiters that protect their pilots, and they're able to recognise and respond to the presence of a Mobile Armour. This was implied to some degree before, given that we'd seen Mika talking to Barbatos and treating it like a person, but it's always been easy to dismiss that as just Mika being kinda weird.

It adds an interesting extra dimension to the show, and while the idea of Gundams having some form of intelligence and will isn't new -- I remember Gundam Wing implying as much once or twice -- it's not really a plot detail that ever gets especially old.

Speaking of Barbatos, somebody elsewhere remarked that this episode ends in exactly the same way as the last one -- with Mika dramatically appearing to defend someone from being killed by Hashmal -- but that it's impossible to hate because the show pulls it off with such style and panache, and you know what, they're not wrong. In fact, until it was pointed out to me, I didn't even realise that this episode's ending was identical to episode eleven's.

Barbatos is very good at the dramatic glowy eye thing.

The fight between McGillis, Isurugi, and Vidar never really materialises, as Julieta angrily tells Vidar to come and help her babysit Iok before they get a chance to throw down, and he reluctantly agrees. That's a shame, but McGillis does at least know that Gali-Gali is alive now, so that will presumably influence his actions to one degree or another in the next few episodes.

We also got it confirmed that, no, McGillis definitely is the antagonist here, he is using Tekkadan, as he outright tells Isurugi that he's doing so. No surprises there, I don't think anybody was really expecting McGillis 'I Arranged For One Of My Best Friends To Die And I Murdered The Other And Also I Might Be A Paedophile' Fareed to actually be working for Tekkadan's benefit.

The big draw of this episode, however, was the appearance of the Flauros. We don't get to see it for very long, and in fact the scene it appears in seems to split its focus fairly evenly between 'showing off its transformation gimmick and railguns' and 'shippy subtext between Shino and Yamagi,' but we do get a glimpse of it, and hopefully it'll factor into the next episode in a slightly bigger role.

D'aww.

Speaking of shippy subtext, we get Atra nervously asking Kudelia if she likes Mika (and it's very clearly meant in the 'do you like-like Mika' sense) and having Kudelia confirm that she does, only to then say that she likes Atra, too, with Atra responding in kind. A lot of people are saying that this confirms the three of them as an OT3, but honestly, while it heavily suggests that Atra and Kudelia would both be down for that, we have very little indication that Mika even recognises that it's an option. Romance is barely on his radar, and the show has already clarified fairly thoroughly before that he doesn't really understand it.

Anyway, this was a really fun, fast-paced episode, which god knows we needed after a lot of slow paced ones. It looks like the next episode will wrap up the battle with Hashmal fairly quickly, and spend a lot of time focusing on the aftermath, which will be interesting, at least. Then again, we've been misled by previews before, so who can really say.

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Legends of Tomorrow S2 (First Act)


Legends of Tomorrow
Series 2
(First Act)



As we all know by now, all Arrowverse shows peak during their second series, so that they can then decline immediately afterwards. Usually, this comes part and parcel with a compelling and threatening villain, and a shift towards a slightly darker (but still not oppressively grimdark) tone. At the moment, it's difficult to say whether Legends of Tomorrow is following this pattern or not, but it's certainly improved over the last series.

In this year's series, the team is scattered after an encounter with a nuclear bomb, and must piece themselves back together and continue fixing the timeline under the command of Sara, with Rip missing and with two new team members: Historian Nate and Justice Society member Amara. As the team travel through time, however, they find themselves clashing against Eobard Thawne, who recruits Damien Darhk and Malcolm Merlyn as his accomplices in getting his hands on a mysterious and magical amulet. Meanwhile, Stein and Jax discover a message from the Barry Allen of the future, warning them of a coming war, and telling them not to trust him.

So, this series has had some pretty bad episodes. The entire feudal Japan episode was just skin-crawlingly bad, just to start -- and, actually, in general, any episode that focuses on Nate, who has the personality of cold oatmeal, tends to be pretty dull watching -- and even some of the better episodes tend to never achieve anything like greatness, in part due to how the show insists on trying to utilise very raw, visceral subject matter, but then pulls its punches in doing so.

The Justice Society.

That's, of course, partly down to tone concerns, to network and timeslot demands, and so on, but the writers know about all of those going in, and part of writing is being able to write around the requirements of the story you're writing for.

That having been said, this series is pretty fun. While Nate is dull as the colour beige, Amaya is actually pretty interesting, since she brings not only an entirely new perspective to the team, but also has an interesting subplot in the form of her desire to take revenge on Thawne. Unfortunately, she is vastly underused by the show, suffering the same fate as Kendra in the first series, in that she's often left back on the ship or otherwise sidelined by the plot.

Rip's absence is fairly keenly felt at times, as the crew encounters situations where having him around would lead to some genuinely interesting scenarios, but for the most part, the show functions pretty well without him, with his absence from the series allowing Sara to take a more central role as the group's leader. The last episode of the first act basically promises that he'll be returning soon, and it'll be nice to have him back, but kudos to the writers for sticking to their guns and having him actually stay missing for a decent chunk of the show.

Thawne, you look ridiculous.

We also have our new villains, who are a lot of fun. Matt Letscher's Thawne is Matt Letscher's Thawne, meaning that he barely resembles Tom Cavanaugh's Thawne in how he acts, instead coming across as a lot more psychotic and a lot less compelling, but he does at least add a decent physical threat to the show, since none of the others can keep up with him. Darhk and Merlyn, meanwhile, rather shine: Darhk was a terrible villain in Arrow, but in Legends he's a lot more interesting and compelling, not least because his cheerful wisecrackery gels a lot better with Legends' tone.

Having a team as the villains works a bit better than having a singular person, since this is, after all, an ensemble show. I imagine we might get one more person added to this Legion of Doom, but any more would probably be too many.

Where the show falters a little in its treatment of the villains, however, is that out of eight episodes, they only factor into four of them in any significant way, leading to them feeling not terribly important to overall story. This is the exact opposite problem that we had with Vandal Savage, where he was in so many episodes, and the team had so many fights with him, that he became old hat before the series was even half done. 

The human manifestation of plywood.

Incidentally, while we've not had any 'we have to kill him simultaneously in three time periods' shenanigans, we did have Ollie remark that he 'didn't have time to go time-traveling,' so rest assured that the writing team are still aliens who don't know how time works. 

So that's the first half of season two: A lot of fun, and a very enjoyable watch (although I am very glad indeed that I'm not doing it as an ongoing), but absolutely still the least compelling of the Arrowverse shows. It seems to have realised that its niche now is 'appealing to people who are already fans,' and it seems to be embracing that, which is certainly helping it somewhat. A little bit. Maybe.

The show will be returning in late January, so you can all look forward to that. Or dread it. Whatever your poison is.

Friday, 16 December 2016

Once Upon A Time S6 (First Act)


Once Upon A Time
Series 6
(First Act)



You know, I've compared Once Upon A Time to Supernatural before, and I think the comparison is still apt: Both are shows which are rooted heavily in Americana (albeit very differently), that were never great but then started to decline, that struggled both with rehashing old ground in its character arcs and in constantly trying to escalate the threat every series to more and more absurd levels. The two shows are practically mirror images of each other, except Once Upon A Time is still fun to watch.

Don't mistake me here, Once Upon A Time is terrible. It is badly written, its actors feel increasingly tired and uncommitted, it is lazy, poorly paced, unimaginatively directed, and overtly, painfully a Disney advertising vehicle -- but I do consistently enjoy watching it. Not in an ironic sense where I'm sitting in my chair going 'har har, I enjoy this because it is entertainingly terrible' but in an actual sense where I regularly tune in to watch it, and enjoy it despite its many flaws, and don't consider myself to have wasted forty minutes of my life in doing so.

It doesn't engage me like many shows do, I don't find myself especially inspired by it, nor does it occupy my thoughts for even a second after I'm done watching it, but it has something which Supernatural and its cohorts lack, which is a modicum of effort and a modicum of enthusiasm in its production. Not a lot, but what little it does have shows. So while I do think that the show needs to end, when it does I may, at least, mourn its passing for a few seconds, whereas Supernatural ending will be a welcome relief.

Damning with faint praise segment over, let's talk about this series, which represents a slight (very slight) uptick in quality over the last series.

Oh, yeah, this super important character who was never mentioned before shows up near
the end, too.

In the sixth series of Once Upon A Time, Hyde arrives in town with the rest of the inhabitants of the Land of Untold Stories, and soon finds himself in an alliance with the Evil Queen, Regina's dark half that she split off from herself. While the gang hurries to try and stop Hyde and the Queen's plans, Rumpelstiltskin becomes increasingly controlling and abusive when Belle decides that she won't let him see their son once he's born. Meanwhile, Emma starts to suffer from tremors and magic outages, as she's haunted by a vision of her future death at the hands of a cloaked figure -- a fate, we're told, that all Saviours face.

I do want to say more nice things about this series. I do. It's difficult, though, when every one of those plots is a plotline we've seen in an earlier series, just rejigged slightly. Two villains team up in an uneasy alliance and attempt to take over the town? Seen it. New arrivals to the town have trouble adjusting? Seen it. Rumpelstiltskin is controlling? Seen it. Emma and company are haunted by the inevitable? Seen it.

Towards the end of this act, the show even defaults to the old Evil Queen and Rumpelstiltskin team-up, which we've already seen in the first series -- except there it was noticeably more interesting, because both Regina and Rumpel were at cross-purposes, with Regina's goals being very straightforward and Rumpel's being much more mysterious. Here, they're not really at cross-purposes at all, because all the plans are the Queen's -- Rumpel could have been replaced with any character in the cast and you'd have functionally the same storyline, because he's only there because he extracted a promise of safety for Belle from the Queen. 

Jekyll is actually pronounced 'Jeek-yl' guys.

At least Hyde had an agenda of sorts that existed independent of the Queen, even if it wasn't a very original one.

The show does manage to eke out a bit of tension from Emma's visions of the future, although more in the form of wondering whether Emma will use some magic shears to sever her destiny and un-saviour herself -- an option that the show, to its credit, does explore as a genuine option, which does create a decent amount of suspense. Not a huge amount, but you can't have everything, I suppose.

Moreover, the reveal of who the cloaked figure is actually works pretty well. It links in with the storyline of the series in a way that makes a surprising amount of sense, and since it seems pretty obvious for most of the series that it's the Evil Queen, it actually does manage to come as at least something of a surprise.

You two look nothing alike.

It's not that there aren't things to like about this series, and like I said, I have enjoyed watching it -- it's just that it's not good. It'll probably never be good. It's entertaining watch-and-then-forget television, whereas I think the writers are aspiring for something a little more than that.

Still, a fun enough first half to the series. We're apparently being set up for a somewhat darker second half to the series, which will begin airing in March 2017, and it's looking increasingly likely that the show won't be renewed for a seventh series, which I honestly think is a good thing. If it can be anything, Supernatural can be a warning of what can happen if you let your series go on for too long.

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Teen Wolf S6E5: Radio Silence


Teen Wolf
Series 6, Episode 5
Radio Silence.



Honestly, I nearly forgot to do this review today, just because I'm so exhausted with this series of Teen Wolf -- more than I have been with any previous series of Teen Wolf -- and I think a big part of it is that it's so slow. This episode marks the point where we are officially a quarter of the way through the series, but I can count maybe two big plot developments in the series so far: Stiles being kidnapped, and Lydia learning that Claudia should be dead -- which doesn't get explored at all in this episode -- and that's it.

Teen Wolf has always had a pacing problem, in that it tries to be both episodic and serialised, and as a result fails at both, creating this confusing, slow-paced mess of a show -- but it's far worse in this series than it ever has been before, and you could (and should) be able to condense it massively. 

For instance, you could have easily condensed episode two and episode three into a single episode, having episode two see Mason, Liam and Cody finding the relic of that one guy early on, while Hayden talks to that girl, culminating in the party set piece at the end -- and cut out the 'Scott realises it would be impossible for him to have been bitten without Stiles' altogether, and instead have Lydia haunted by the name 'Stiles,' leading in to Scott, Lydia, and Malia visiting Elias.

That would have made for some tightly packed storytelling, and the pace may have even been a bit too fast, but it's better to have a fast-paced episode than a slow-paced one.

The slow pace has been compounded, of course, by Dylan O'Brien's relative unavailability, but honestly I do expect the writers to do a better job writing around that.

At least Peter has better hair now.

In this week's episode, Stiles awakens in an otherworldly train station, where he seems to be the only person who realises that anything is wrong. Discovering that Peter is also there, the two realise that the station is a waystation for the Ghost Riders where they keep the people they kidnapped. As Stiles and Peter attempt to contact the outside and figure out a way to leave, in the real world, Scott and the others discover Stiles' jeep, and Lydia and Malia end up arguing over whether Stiles ever existed. As Peter executes a daring plan to escape, Stiles manages to contact them, and directs them to go to Canaan.

In this instance, Canaan is apparently just some random town in America, not the Biblical country west of Jordan. Eh, it's not relevant to the episode, we shan't dwell on it.

Honestly, most of this episode is just build-up, which is part of the problem with pacing in this series. Rather than having Stiles just contact them on radio, or Peter leave the train station, the episode tries to build up suspense for these two plot points -- except it doesn't work. There's no tension there, because it never feels like the status quo is changing. 

Since the plot creeps along at such a lethargic pace, there's no chance for any kind of tension or suspense to build, because one of the things that builds suspense and tension is alternating your pacing -- this is one thing that horror films do very well, alternating sharp, fast-paced sections with much more slowly paced sections, and in so doing they create a situation in which the slower paced sections fill the audience with apprehension, because the audience knows that sooner or later, a fast-paced and usually violent section will start.

Improve your lighting. Jfc.

That doesn't work in Teen Wolf, because it's all slow-paced. All of it. In fact, by the end of the episode, we've really achieved nothing: The team are sent off to look for Canaan, but since it's never been mentioned before, that has no meaning for us. Peter is out of the train station, but it looks like he'll be dead soon, and moreover, his presence in the real world again doesn't seem to actually have any effects on the storyline. Stiles has contacted Lydia and Scott, but since they already knew about him anyway, nothing is gained from that.

Still, it was nice to see Stiles back for forty minutes or so. I couldn't help but notice that the apparent trade-off here was that Liam, Hayden, Cody, and Mason weren't in the episode before, which honestly, apart from Mason, isn't a loss.

So that was episode five. Ponderously slow just like every episode so far this series, nothing was really achieved, we got to see some old faces returning and not really doing much, and it's apparently leading in to an episode where the gang go to a nearby town and discover that there's nobody there, because the Ghost Riders took everyone.

Actually, come to think of it, if the Wild Hunt took Peter, then that means that the show has even less of a reason why Liam, Cody, Hayden, and Mason weren't taken. What a strange plot hole.