What I Read October 2020

I bought myself a John Le Carre collection for my birthday; expect to see a lot of him in the coming months. Plus, a Brandon Sanderson book is coming out. And there are some half finished things on my kindle. I hope to meet my reading goal this year.

Call for the Dead

John Le Carre

Le Carre’s first book is mostly a murder mystery, and his eventual spymaster George Smiley is introduced as a low key detective. This gives him all the hallmarks of the literary detective, right down to the sidekick in Mendel, who helps him with this case. Then about halfway through it gets into the spy stuff a little more. It is still a murder mystery, but the mystery starts to tie in more closely with Smiley’s spying history.

Smiley had cleared a suspected spy after someone sent a letter accusing him of covert activities. The man the apparently committed suicide. Smiley is stunned, because of him clearing him. The more he looks into it, the more it seems like there was something to the accusations that Smiley cleared him of. So Smiley keeps digging, and doesn’t particularly like what he finds. It is a solid mystery, with some hints of Le Carre’s future work writing spy fiction.

The Constant Rabbit

Jasper Fforde

Sometimes subtlety is overrated. The Constant Rabbit is a satire of current immigration and refugee debates. About fifty years before the start of the story, a mysterious event in the world of the novel caused 18 rabbits, as well as a handful of other creatures, to anthropomorphize. While at first a lot of effort was put into integrating the rabbits with human society, a new political orthodoxy is in power, an expressly anti-rabbit one.

This climate is the one that protagonist Peter Knox finds himself in. Peter seems to think of himself as a good and not prejudiced person. However, he works for the Rabbit Compliance Taskforce as a “rabbit spotter,” one of the few humans who can tell rabbits apart. His boss is one of the foxes anthropomorphized with the rabbits; the foxes have generally integrated better by being incredibly sleazy. When a rabbit family moves in next door to Peter and his daughter Pippa, Peter has to take stock of what he really believes in. He might not be overtly prejudiced like some of his neighbors or coworkers, but he is complicit with the system; he does nothing to fight against injustice.

Still, he wants to do better and he tries to do his best to help. He gets more and more involved as the book proceeds and has to choose where he stands. It is a heightened look at issues, but it is one that is very relevant to the current day. The more the book shows of the system, the more it is apparent that everything is stacked against the rabbits. It reminded me a lot of reading The Color of Law earlier this year.

The Constant Rabbit is not subtle; it is a bludgeon of a story. But subtlety can be misinterpreted, and there is no room to misinterpret this. It is one of the best books I’ve read in some time.

A Murder of Quality

John Le Carre

This feels like the path not taken. The second Smiley book is a full-on mystery. His history as a spy plays a big part in Smiley getting involved in the murder of the wife of a teacher at a public school, since his wartime connections is what brings him in, but the mystery is all about the community around this school and the history of the victim and the other teachers. There is plenty of social satire here, like with a lot of good mysteries. It is a slight story, but I like it a whole lot.

What I Watched October 2020

Movies

Fargo – One of the Coen Brothers’ best movies. It just felt right to give it a watch, what with the new season of the show starting up. The movie remains a complete classic. *****

The Addams Family – This comes on a lot near Halloween, even if there really isn’t anything Halloween related about it. It is one of my favorite movies from the early 90’s. It does just about everything right and is a ton of fun. Christopher Lloyd, Angelica Huston, and Raul Julia are all great. *****

Addams Family Values – The sequel to Addams Family is even better than the first. This is just a great movie. I love everything about it. It is perfect. *****

Hubie Halloween – A surprisingly charming effort from Adam Sandler. It isn’t anything particularly great or particularly funny, but it is amusing enough and overall kind of charming. It is fine. **1/2

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – I really enjoy this movie. It is so quiet and leaves so much for the viewer to suss out on their own. Every time I watch it I find something new. It makes me want to keep watching it. *****

Trial of the Chicago 7 – This was pretty entertaining. I have some problems with some liberties this took with the true story, but as a movie it is pretty entertaining. Good performances, some great dialogue. It is missing something that brings it all together as something better than the sum of its parts. Still, it is a good movie. ***1/2

Moneyball – Pretty solid. I don’t know that I like it as much as some people, but it is really entertaining and an interesting and unique take on a sports movie. Brad Pitts is great. Just a well made movie. ****1/2

Back to the Future Part 3 – Yup, I still like the last part of this trilogy. ****1/2

Rebecca – This is a remake of a Hitchcock classic, or more accurately another adaptation of the Daphne du Maurier novel of the same name. It is gorgeous and mostly well made, but kind of feels a little like the production doesn’t match the story. This is a dark, gothic story, but it is mostly shot as bright and beautiful; it does not really match. Still, the movie is largely entertaining. ***1/2

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm – I’m not the biggest Borat fan, and I really didn’t think he needed to come back. But this movie was shocking and shockingly funny. Sacha Baron Cohen is still among the best at what he does, and this time Maria Bakalova, playing his daughter, is there to keep up with him. It gets into politics, which would be better if the people it was shaming were capable of being shamed. ****1/2

The Witches (2020) – This is a weird one; it is based on a Roald Dahl book so I guess that goes without saying. Still, it is an incredibly dark kids movie about a few kids trying to stop a coven of witches who hate kids. The kids all get turned into mice and have to turn the witches transformational formula against them. Anne Hathaway plays the lead witch and really gets into the role. It leans a little too hard on the special effects and not so much on the plot, but it is still decently entertaining. ***

John Bronco – An interesting mockumentary about a fake spokesman for the Ford Bronco that is actually a commercial for the new Bronco. It is pretty entertaining, in large part thanks to Walton Goggins in the title role. It is fine.

Justice League – My brother hadn’t seen this. It is still a mess, and one that I don’t think the Snyder Cut is going to fix, and maybe not even improve. ***

TV

Schitt’s Creek S6 – This last season brought everything to a close excellently. I don’t know what else to say. This was always a low key show that was just easy to watch and generally incredibly funny. It remained that in the last season and got to go out on a high note. This was a very good show and I expect it to remain in my rewatch rotation for years to come.

The Boys S2 – This actually brought it home in the last episode, aside from one sour note it hit right at the end. The show managed to go deeper with its characters and mostly make its satire smarter and more focused. This show is despicable and it revels in its depravity, but there is just enough heart around it to keep the viewer caring.

Carmen Sandiego S3 – This was a short batch of episodes, but they were good. I generally really enjoy this show, and it feels like it is getting more confident in its characters and storytelling. This was a fun block of episodes.

Now Playing October 2020

Beaten

Final Fantasy Tactics A2 – Post coming soon.

SteamWorld Quest: Hand of Gilgamech – I love the SteamWorld games. SteamWorld Dig, Dig 2, and Heist were all a lot of fun. Hearing they were doing a full on RPG sounded great; then I learned it was a card based rpg. I don’t like card based rpgs. They always seem like they are adding something that actively makes the game worse. That holds true here. The game assembles a fun cast and gives them some interesting ways of interacting in battle, but ties it all to a deck building component that is just not fun. Then in battle, drawing cards is completely random. But hey, there is a fun world, a peppy but not completely weightless story, and some really good characters to explore them with. If you like, or are even neutral on, card games then this game might be for you. Even not liking its central mechanic, I enjoyed this game well enough.

Blaster Master Zero 2 – This game really expects the player to come in experienced from the first Blaster Master Zero. If there has been a significant time lapse between them, like I had, there is going to be some difficulty getting acclimated. This time, the metroidvania action is spread around a multitude of small planets. It is still a lot of fun to explore. You have sides scrolling sections mostly in the tank, and then top down sections on foot. The game does a good job of spreading the action across the two styles. The same can be too hard for me, some of the bosses are just not fun, but for the most part is a really good throwback action game. I hope they keep making these.

Ongoing

Atelier Ryza – I am still trying to really get going in this game. I have spent a little time with this on several evenings, but I haven’t really hit the point where I start making real progress. I like it so far.

Upcoming

Mega Man X series – I have the collections for this series and I have never really played X6, X7 or X8. Or much of X2 or X3 for that matter. This feels like the time.

Tactics Ogre: Knight of Lodis – For some reason, I’ve been having a hankering to play this GBA game. It was one of the games that got me to buy a GBA. I was big into the second half of this series, falling in love with Ogre Battle 64 and keeping it going with this Tactics Ogre. I never managed to track down the earlier games and have barely touched these two in the last decade or so. I kind of want to see if I still like it.

What I Read September 2020

I don’t have a preamble. I read some books. Here they are.

Piranesi

Susanna Clarke

This is a treat. I loved Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, so finally getting another book from Clarke all these years later was great by itself. Piranesi is really nothing like Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell; the first book was a haft tome, Piranesi is some more ephemeral and insubstantial. It still has the same attention to detail.

Piranesi begins with the titular character explaining his labyrinthine world. He is cataloguing the rooms and corridors of his dream-like world, as well as his fellow inhabitants who mostly seem to be dead. He is occasionally visited by another man, The Other, who seeks his help with experiments. It soon becomes apparent that things are not quite what they appear to be. The more Piranesi keeps explaining things, the more the terrible picture becomes clear. Piranesi is a very hard book to forget; it does tone and mood better than just about anything I’ve read. I loved it.

Starsight

Brandon Sanderson

This is the second book in Sanderson’s young adult science fiction series. The first book had humanity confined to a wrecked planet, barely able to fend off attacks from a faceless alien menace. Now that humanity, thanks to protagonist Spensa, have started to win their fight, the aliens change tactics. Soon, a crash landing ship unlike any they have ever seen arrives and gives Spensa an incredible opportunity: to go undercover with the aliens as a new recruit.

This allows the series to flesh out the enemies and for the reader to find out a lot about Sanderson science fiction universe. It makes for a tense read. Spensa meets a whole lot of strange and interesting aliens, and there are cracks showing in the foundations of humanities enemies. Spensa, undercover, has to navigate those cracks, while also keeping her identity secret. Spensa continues to refine her understanding of the universe and the conflict that humanity is stuck in. It is definitely a young adult series; there is nothing incredibly complex going on here. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t tense or action packed or interesting.

The Duke Who Didn’t

Courtney Milan

I occasionally read romance novels, but I don’t usually list them among my reading lists. But that is supid; why should I be ashamed of reading anything? So starting now I am going to list romances when I read them. This one is interesting, but it wasn’t one of my favorites.

The Duke Who Didn’t follows Chloe Fong, who spends her time trying to help her dad perfect his new sauce. Her plan to unveil it at the local celebration, the Wedgeford Trials, is somewhat disrupted by the return of Duke Jeremy Wentworth, who she loves but who disappeared three years ago.

My problem with this book is that there really isn’t anything standing between the protagonists. They meet back up and get along. They slowly work at reestablishing their relationship, but there isn’t a lot of drama to it; it is all basically waiting for things to work out, which they do. Still, they are fun characters and the community of Wedgeford is an interesting one. The book is fine.

Super Sons Vol. 1: The Polarshield Project

Ridley Pearson and Ile Gonzales

A story about the kids of Superman and Batman, set in the near future when global warming has really started wreaking havoc on the world. It is solidly fun. There is an illness affecting people and Batman and Superman are either missing or busy. So it is up to their mismatched kids to get to the bottom of things. Jon and Damian don’t really get along at first, but they work well together.

It is a strange, slightly off version of the DC Universe, but it all works pretty well. These are the characters you know, but they are not quite the same as you know them. I think I prefer the in continuity version of this pairing, but I would. The art is crisp; clean and light and not all superhero art. It looks really good. And the writing is very good at establishing its tone. I’ll have to check out the following volumes.

What I Watched September 2020

Movies

Psycho – Peacock has a collection of Hitchcock movies and I am trying to eat my movie vegetables and watch them. Of course, watching Hitchcock doesn’t really feel like eating my vegetables at all. I’d never seen Psycho, but I knew most of it through cultural osmosis. It is really good and entertaining. *****

Marnie – I found this to be significantly less good than Psycho. I like Connery and Hedren, but large parts of this come off as amazingly sexist and the psychological explanations are simplistic. ***

Draft Day – I ignored this movie when it came out, but thanks to some persistent talking up on the podcast FThisMovie and a desire for both some sports related content and Chadwick Boseman performances, I gave this a shot. It is tremendously entertaining. Boseman is great in a small role, Costner is great in the lead. ****

Mr. Right – This sounded like it should be good; I like Anna Kendrick and Sam Rockwell and the concept sounded good. But almost none of it works. It is just miserable. *1/2

Don Verdean – Another movie I wanted to like, but it just didn’t work for me. There is a lot of fertile ground for comedy here, and a lot of talented people trying to find it, but it just kind of doesn’t work. **

Love, Wedding Repeat – A romantic comedy that plays what if with the seating arrangements and hijinks at a wedding, show several variations of the same basic scenario. There is a really good idea here, but this movie executes it competently at best. I just never found anything to really latch onto as these scenarios played out. **

The Babysitter: Killer Queen – I liked the first Babysitter; I thought it was a clever premise, kind of a reverse slasher, that was presented in a fun, exciting way. The sequel tries to run it back, with a new group of cultists and returning nearly every character from the first. There are parts that work, but it mostly feels like a tired retread of the first. **

Molly’s Game – There is a lot of well written dialogue, but I don’t know that it comes together all that well. It is close, but not quite there. Worth watching, but not all that memorable. **1/2

Sergio – A biopic about UN diplomat and humanitarian Segio Viera de Mello, who died in a bombing in Iraq in 2003. It’s fine. ***1/2

Bill & Ted Face the Music – read review here. ****1/2

Onward – I didn’t hear great things about this movie when it came out, but I liked it a whole lot. It might not rank in that pure top echelon of Pixar movies, but it does land squarely in the middle, being equally enjoyable and affecting. It is just a really good movie. ****

The Italian Job – This is the most 2003 movie I can think of. Just everything about it, from all the Napster jokes to the uncritical sexism. I loved this movie when it came out and still mostly enjoy it, if only because it is the movie that introduced me to Charlize Theron, Jason Statham and Mos Def. ***

American Assassin – Just kind of dull. It doesn’t do anything particularly well, and the politics of the story are kind of gross. *1/2

Cuties – There was a lot of hubbub about this movie supposedly promoting pedophelia, but what it really is is a heartfelt look at the difficulties of growing up, with forces encouraging young girls to act more adult than they are and the struggles of immigrants to adjust to life in a new place. ****

Tombstone – This movie is fantastic. Just a who’s who of ‘that guys’ in the cast, anchored by a thoroughly badass Kurt Russell and an out of his mind Val Kilmer. It is just so much fun. ****

Desperados – The cast tries hard, but there really isn’t anything new or interesting here. It feels tired before it starts. **

I Am Thinking of Ending Things – A very weird movie, with a pov that shits constantly and is just deliberately unsettling throughout. I think I liked it, but ***1/2

Enola Holmes – This was pretty delightful. Millie Bobbie Brown plays Sherlock Holmes’ younger sister, who attempts to solve the mystery of the disappearance of their mother. Which gets her tangled in another mystery. It isn’t particularly deep, but it is a lot of fun. ****

The Devil All The Time – Its a movie about how people corrupt religion, or about how people are corrupt in spite of religion. I thought it mostly worked, with good performances all around. ***1/2

American Murder The Family Next Door – A woman and her children disappear and the husband and father is soon pinpointed at the culprit. This whole documentary is constructed out of social media posts, telephone messages and videos taken from police and the court. The fact they can construct a complete story out this is a little distressing. ****

TV

The Great Pretender – A really solid anime about a group of conmen. It starts with its protagonist, a small-time japanese crook, getting taken/recruited by the team and then they do several other heists by tricking other crooks. It is just a lot of fun that looks and sounds great.

Young Wallander – An okay cop show, following Detective Wallander, played by Kenneth Branagh on the previous tv series, on his first case as a detective. It deals with a lot of current political topics, though focused on Sweden, and is pretty well done, but nothing particularly spectacular.

Peaky Blinders S1 – This is fun. I’ve said it before, but the between the world war setting is one of my favorites, and this is just really well done. I want to watch more, and then maybe I’ll have more to say.

Star Trek: Deep Space 9 S4 – Season 4 of Deep Space 9 brings Worf onto the station. This show keeps getting better; it keeps getting deeper. I was kind of ambivalent about the first couple of seasons, but I really liked S3&4. I hope the upward trajectory continues.

The Boys S2 – Most of this season aired in September. The second season of this show seems more focused than the first; it knows what it is and is more confident. It also doesn’t really need to explain its characters much any more. It can still be a bit on the nose, like having its neo-nazi character use the name Stormfront, but it mostly uses its sledgehammer satire to smash things that could do with smashing.

Narcos Mexico S1 – Knowing how this ends doesn’t really make it any easier to watch as it gets to that end. Michael Pena is great. The show also does an excellent job of establishing a setting, in this case 1980’s Mexico, and just kind of letting the viewer live in it. I need to get to the second season sooner rather than later.

Challenger: The Final Flight – This is a solid look at the institutional failures that lead to the Challenger disaster. It explores just how it could happen. What’s more shocking are the people who defend the failures that led to the Challenger disaster. This is just well done all around.

Now Playing September 2020

BEATEN

Nothing. I had a lot of things going on in September, and playing video games was not really high on the list of priorities.

ONGOING

Final Fantasy Tactics A2 – I got most of the way through this during September and should have a full post up before too long. I remember liking this game a whole lot when it was first released and I eventually really enjoyed this second playthrough. Though flawed in a lot of ways, more on that in a full write up, the game does an admirable job of blending the slightly different flavors of its Ivalice predecessors together into a game that seems to continue all of them. Too bad about the Bazaar system and the actions, which take up time and detract from actually being able to teach characters skills.

Atelier Ryza – I put another hour or so into this. Ryza feels like a game that I will be playing in small chunks for a long time until one weekend it just grabs me and I speed through the rest of it. Or I just lose interest after a few months.

Super Mario Sunshine – I was eagerly awaiting the Super Mario 3D All-Stars collection, and the first one I tried out was the one I have never managed to complete in its original form. Fully acknowledging that I did not really give the game enough time to make a fair assessment of it, Sunshine feels like it is trying too hard; as though the developers were aware that they were following up a seminal game and felt pressure to live up to it. So it does a lot and how much it works is debatable. Though the first third or so of the game, I am going to say it doesn’t really work. FLUDD is a little fiddly and something of a crutch. The stages are interesting, but the tropical themeing gets repetitive. The FLUDD-less stages feel like they control sloppily in a way that other Mario games do not. I know all I’ve done is complain about Sunshine, but I still think it is a good game, just not a timeless masterpiece like many Mario games.

Fire Emblem Three Houses – I’ve already written about this. I started a new run through as the Blue Lions. I didn’t make it far before deciding to give it a break for a while, but I’ll get back to it soon. I do like how even this early in the game following a new group kind of recontextualizes things. I can’t wait to see how it looks from the other perspectives.

UPCOMING

Yakuza 5 – I meant to get to this in September, but I never actually turned on my PS4. I hope October goes better for me, in a lot of ways.

Blaster Master Zero 2 – This was on sale and it looked really appealing. I will give it a go. I liked the first Blaster Master Zero, hopefully this scratches that same itch.

Final Fantasies – Still working on this project. FFVII is on my PS4, if I manage to turn it on this month, FFIX is still waiting on my Switch. I’ve also got games for other systems I am eager to get to, from DS to Wii to PS3. We’ll see what I actually get to.

Fire Emblem Three Houses

I have been a big fan of the Fire Emblem series since it first came to the west. Like what I assume are millions of people, I first became aware of the series with the inclusion of Marth and Roy in Super Smash Brothers Melee. I couldn’t find a copy of Fire Emblem for GBA when it was released, but I did with its follow up, The Sacred Stones, and then went back to play the earlier game. I’ve played every subsequent game. I miss the stylings and tone of the first few of the series’ games I played, but Nintendo and Intelligent Systems know where their bread is buttered. Fire Emblem Awakening saved the series and as far as I can tell, Fire Emblem Three Houses is a true breakthrough.

Three Houses is an interesting game. It brings together different thematic emphases from earlier games. Like its immediate predecessor Fates, there is a lot of focus on big, story defining choices. Like in Fates, a choice early in the game sends the player down a different path and the story plays out differently. Here, the choice is between rival states that all send their best and brightest to the same school for education and military training. Depending on who the protagonist aligns themselves with, the story takes different routes. Like Awakening, the game also plays with time. In Three Houses this comes in by the way of a time jump during the game, and seeing how things change from one time period to another. That it manages to synthesize these into one game, along with plenty of new considerations, is impressive.

The big new thing added to this game is a time management school sim element. It has shades of the Persona series and Harry Potter books. Spending time at Garreg Monastery creates an in-game world for the player to pursue the sorts of team and character building stuff that usually makes up a big part of Fire Emblem games. At the Monastery, the player can pursue support conversations or various gift giving activities to raise support levels. Then there are the educational parts of the Monastery, which is like the time management parts of Persona, where the player has to choose from stat building, time using activities that are then used to open up character classes or to help raise similar stats of your students. There are also shops and a few mini-games scattered around.

I am mixed on Garreg Monastery. I understand how it works to create immersion for people. You directly control the protagonist as they run around doing all this between battles stuff. In older games that stuff was all cutscenes and menus. The games focused almost completely on the battles and presented everything else as simply as possible. Three Houses tries to make it more of a game. If that is what the player is looking for, I guess it is a big plus. I want to get to the battles, to the maps and spend most of my time there. I like the support conversations, I liked doing other skits and interactions with the characters, I generally enjoy the stories of these games as fantasy fluff. Running around the Monastery always felt to me like it was keeping me from the parts of the game I really wanted to spend my time with. That changed when I realized that all the shopping stuff could be done in menu before the battle, just like in earlier games. You don’t have to engage much with the time consuming aspects of Garreg Monastery if you don’t want to. And I didn’t.

The school aspects work as character building stuff. It is more control than the series usually gives the player, but also not an especially robust development toolset. Characters are pretty well set in their roles. You can nudge them to a related class or one of two or three different advanced classes, but unless you start the game with a strong idea that you want to turn a character away from their original role and work very hard from start to force them into a new role, that change will never happen.

I have only cleared one and a half of the game’s four paths, so I can’t speak to all of the story developments and map designs, but on the path I did take was pretty solid. The maps are not the most complex, and there aren’t a ton of different win scenarios. The objectives are mostly rout the enemy or defeat the boss. There is at least one map where you are tasked with protecting civilians, but I do not remember any survive or escape maps. That said, the combat is good. The maps are generally well designed, with obvious paths to assaults along with more difficult, possibly more rewarding terrain. You can find choke points to set up armored units and open fields for hit and run tactics with mounted units. In all, it is some satisfying tactical combat. The new skill system is the best version of that in the series. They are not overpowering, but they are effective in the right situations and eat up weapon durability to keep the player from being too reliant on them. I am less sure about the battalions, but they don’t end up making that much of a difference in the game, so they didn’t really bother me. The game is just some good Fire Emblem.

The hook that I think made Three Houses a breakthrough for the series is how it has players choose a faction, but allows the player to recruit just about anyone else if they so desire. Each group feels unique, but it also allows the player to fit the group to their liking. People love that “Harry Potter choose your house” shit, and Three Houses effectively co-opts that. Especially because the story turns whatever group you chose into the good guys.

I’ll write more about the story after I beat another run or two of this game. I played through with the Black Eagles, I want to see how the others stack up and how their stories play out before I comment much more on that. Fortunately, the game is enjoyable enough to make me want to clear it multiple times to see all that it has to offer. It just might take me awhile to do so.

Final Fantasy Tactics Advance

I am apparently doing my expansive Final Fantasy series replay in an order that only relies on current availability or convenience for me and not any kind of rational order. So following up the original Final Fantasy, I beat Final Fantasy Tactics Advance.

Outside of anything about how it plays, FFTA is an interesting game from a historical perspective. Not only did it mark Squaresoft’s return to Nintendo platforms after a nearly 8 year long absence, it was also one of the final games released before Squaresoft became SquareEnix. There is a lot there, and the above is all I am going to write about it.

FFTA was kind of positioned to fail. It was the follow up to a beloved and for many players unique game; but nearly everything about FFTA seems designed to disappoint people who wanted more FFT. For starters, it was a follow up on a significantly weaker system; so despite being a follow up it was always destined to look and sound like something of a downgrade. That is not the only thing seemingly designed to disappoint. Final Fantasy Tactics was loved for its intricate, labyrinthine plot and its deep, highly customizable job system. The first was thrown out entirely for the follow up, and the other was modified just enough to make it somewhat unsatisfying. Using the original as the standard, there are measurable ways that FFTA does not measure up. But who is to say that the choices made by FFT are superior to FFTA. FFTA is a different game, made for a different platform and with different goals.

The story of FFTA is a frequent source of complaint. People either hate how ‘dumbed down’ it is, or trot out the tired take that protagonist Marche is actually the villain. The first one is a fair complaint, even if I presented it in a skewed way. FFT’s plot was complex and labyrinthine, with dozens of characters whose stories proceeded often with little connection to Ramza’s. FFTA’s plot, on the other hand, appears to be about as simple as possible, at least on first glance. There are only a handful of named characters, with seemingly simple motivations. A group of children are sucked into a storybook world that seemingly grants all of their wishes. The game has much more depth than immediately apparent. It is about how having all your wishes immediately granted can be infantilizing. There might be some lessons to be learned in the fantasy world of Ivalice, but at some point the characters have to go home and face their problems. That is where the second complaint comes in. Upon finding himself in the fantasy land of Ivalice, Marche sets out figuring out exactly how he got there. Then, he starts trying to find his way back, which involves destroying the fantasy world. This eventually puts him into conflict with the other characters trapped in the world with him, primarily his friends Ritz and Mewt. All of them have been given what they want being transferred to this world. New kid Marche gets quickly adopted into a clan and quickly becomes popular. Ritz, embarrassed by her ‘odd’ white hair, has her hair color changed in the new world. Mewt gets the most, his dead mother is not only alive, but queen, and his drunken father is now the most respected judge in the land. Unlike Marche, the others do not want to go back to the real world, happy to stay in Ivalice. Marche working to take things away from them has given rise to the facile reading of the game that Marche is actually the villain, destroying the other’s lives. This ignores several things to make any kind of sense. It requires a rejection of the very idea of personal growth. In Ivalice the characters are simply given the answers to their problems, at no point do they have to learn or change. It proves infantilizing, especially in the case of Mewt. Marche is freed from his familial responsibilities and has all the friends he wants, but he realizes he needs to go home and deal with his problems. Mewt pulls closer and closer to his fake mother, his every wish granted and no troubles facing him. The other thing that must be ignored is more subtle and only really shows up near the end of the game, and that is the fact that this fantasy world is draining the life out of people it has sucked in, feeding off them. A lot of that was apparently lost in the translation, but hints of it show up near the end. So not only is the world a stultifying fiction, it is also deadly. But somehow Marche forcing everyone to reject the fantasy and embrace reality is the villain.

As far as the gameplay goes, there are bigger reasons to be annoyed at the changes. While FFTA uses the job system, the way it is implemented is very different from FFT. Gone is the free form experimentation, with every job and ability there if only you have the job points to unlock it. FFTA gates things behind equipment, with some abilities not available until late in the game because the weapon that unlocks them is not available. It makes it easier for the developers to control the difficulty curve, but it also severely limits players’ freedom. I think the FFT system is better, but the FFTA one works just fine. It also adds something that would become a staple of Ivalice games: different races. This feels a little like bringing everything closer to Dungeons and Dragons. The designs for the different races are good, though it can be annoying trying to figure out class requirements for five different class sets.

The most controversial, and ultimately least consequential, addition to the game is the law system. Each battle sets up a few ‘laws’ that forbid a certain kind of action. It can be frustrating if you get a particularly onerous law early on, but the game quickly gives the player the ability to negate laws and with even the smallest effort to work with the system the laws become an afterthought for the last three quarters of the game. The laws are an interesting idea, forcing the player to be flexible in developing strategies, but the combination of frustration and being inconsequential make it a not particularly well integrated change.

All these changes serve to make FFTA feel much smaller than the original FFT, but they also serve its handheld nature well. They largely work together to make a game feel natural to pick up for one or two battles, face a few new challenges and then put it down. While I played this game a lot back in the day, this play through is the first time I’ve beaten it. It largely holds up. The only problem that stands out when examining the game strictly on its own merits is that it can be kind of slow. There is simply a lot of waiting during battles, as enemies can take a long time to make their move and little you can do while waiting. A small concern in an otherwise excellent game.

Bill & Ted Face the Music

I loved this movie. Probably more than it deserved, but I don’t care. It is easily one of my favorites of the year and I am glad to set it next to its excellent predecessors.

It is something of a miracle that this kind of late come sequel actually manages to stand alongside the originals. Most of the time, a late coming sequel like this, especially to a comedy, is a recipe for disaster. Look at Dumb and Dumber to, Blues Brothers 2000, or Zoolander 2. Whether the people behind them were returning for money or if they wanted to return to some of their most loved characters, these movies haven’t really worked at all. Bill & Ted Face the Music, despite being even further removed from the heyday of the originals, doesn’t have this problem. For lack of a better word, Face the Music bucks that trend by just being incredibly genuine. Yeah, it has been nearly thirty years since Bogus Journey, but Face the Music feels like a natural extension of the previous movies.

Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves step right back into the shoes of these characters and it just feels right. Winter does a better job than Reeves of feeling like his younger self; Reeves seems a bit too thoughtful to slip seamlessly back into the shoes of the dopey Ted. For the most part, though, they feel like the same dim but positive buddies you know and love. Death returns, and William Sadler is as much fun as he was in Bogus Journey. As far as new additions go, Samara Weaving and Brigette Lundy-Paine are great as Thea and Billie, Bill and Ted’s doppelganger daughters. Those two do an excellent job of echoing their parents without seeming like they are doing caricature.

The plot manages a similar balancing job; feeling like an echo of the first two movies without being a carbon copy. At the start of the movie, Bill and Ted have fallen pretty far from the fame they rose to during the credits of Bogus Journey. They have started to crack under the pressure of creating the song that will unite humanity. Even their wives, princesses from Medieval England, are growing concerned. Then they are whisked to the future and told that they have to have the song in a few hours. The duo gets the bright idea to nab the time machine and go to the future, where they have already written the song. That sets them meeting up with increasingly farcical future versions of themselves as they get more and more desperate. At the same time, Billie and Thea travel backwards in time on their own mission to help their fathers, a mission that is highly reminiscent of the first movie.

There are some flaws. The movie feels rushed at times. It comes in a brisk 90 minutes and feels like there is another 30 that were cut. Splitting time, somewhat, between Bill and Ted and Billie and Thea means that at least one of those stories doesn’t get quite enough time. There is a third prong with the wives that is barely worth a mention. The movie also looks kind of cheap. It feels more charming than anything, but there really isn’t hiding it in some situations.

That said, Bill and Ted traveling through time meeting different versions of themselves is absolutely delightful. Winter and Reeves appear to be having a great time with these variations on the characters and most of the jokes land.

Bill & Ted Face the Music is about as much fun as I remember having with a movie in ages. It is just heart warming and joyous. Most of these late coming sequels reek of sweaty desperation; Face the Music feels like the intended culmination of a long journey.

****1/2

Yakuza 4

I beat this game the first time while doing this blog, and I looked back to see what I wrote about it a few years ago. It turns out, I only wrote about it in my monthly catch-up post and while I liked it, I didn’t have much to say about it. I have that same problem after beating it again.

Most of what I am going to say is going to be about the narrative and structure of Yakuza 4. As far as gameplay goes, it is a modest evolution from the previous game. The combat expands by having 4 playable characters who all have distinct fighting styles. It makes some difference, but the core of how the system works doesn’t change. There are a myriad of quality of life improvements; the game just plays smoother than the previous one. It looks better. But those are all just incremental improvements. It looks and plays better than any Yakuza game that came before it, but outside of the playable characters, there are no fundamental changes.

The story is the game’s biggest swing, and while it is compelling while it plays out, the game does not manage to bring things home. Yakuza 3 ended on an ambiguous note, series hero Kazuma Kiryu, stabbed in the gut, lay bleeding out on the streets of Kamurocho. Yakuza 4 does not pick up on that, but instead widens the scope on what until this point had been the Legend of Kiryu. It picks up in the familiar confines of Kamurocho, with the player controlling louche loan shark Shun Akiyama. The game then progresses to taciturn, regretful hitman Taiga Saejima and then to committed and benignly corrupt cop Masayoshi Tanimura. Finally, the game concludes with a handful of chapters for Kiryu.

The Kiryu chapters at the end feel a little like the game chickening out. It seems to want to move on from Kiryu, but can’t quite bring itself to do so. It decenters him in the narrative, but then uses him as the anchor in this protagonist relay. It is the wrong choice. Kiryu is the character the player, assuming the player is a veteran of the series, has the greatest connection with. However, he is the character that has the least connection to the plot. He doesn’t really have a reason to be there. It almost feels like the development team wanted to replace him completely, but then did not have the courage to do so, leading to his late game appearance and prominence. His appearance is the right choice, though. As much as I want, from a story perspective, for Kiryu to be allowed to walk away to his happy ending, I also really like playing as him.

The other protagonists feel like they are auditioning to take over the position full time. Looked at that way, there are two viable candidates. The one that doesn’t quite make the grade is Tanimura. That is a bit harsh, but it is hard to imagine more stories with him after Yakuza 4. His story is the one most tied to one aspect of the plot. He is on the lookout for the man who killed his father. His story is tied to corruption within the Tokyo police. That story comes to the fore with Tanimura’s part of the story and is a big part of the machinations that drive the plot of this game, but it is resolved at the end. Unless they were looking to change the direction of the series entirely, he is not really a viable choice going forward. Plus, he is not the most interesting new character. There just doesn’t seem to be a lot there.

Akiyama and Saejima, meanwhile, seem to split aspects of Kiryu into new characters and fill in the rest with different answers. Saejima is the tortured Yakuza legend. Like Kiryu he was in prison for murder. Unlike Kiryu, he actually did it. He did it because he bought in fully to the Yakuza ideal. He did it for his Patriarch. Unlike Kiryu, Saejima wants to get back into the Tojo Clan. He is quiet and brooding, just a big scary mountain of a man. He feels credible in the role as Yakuza heavy in a way that Kiryu always seemed too genuinely good to be. But that also makes him less compelling than Kiryu. He actively wants the criminal life; he is not seeking to break free of it. Also, there is a scene that suggests a close attempt at a sexual assault against Haruka that really does not endear the player to Saejima. Akiyama, on the other hand, is the Kiryu that gets embroiled in weirdo nonsense. He is also the outsider that, for some reason, has the respect of some Yakuza family. Unlike Kiryu, Akiyama faces the weirdness, especially when it gets smutty, with more than a little enthusiasm. Kiryu is this blank slate that takes all the strangeness in stride, Akiyama actively leans into it. He is also just genuinely charming, with a roguish air. Honestly, if one of these three were to be the new protagonist, I would have voted for Akiyama.

The story starts strong. Akiyama meets with Lily, a woman who wants to borrow an obscene amount of money for an unknown reason. He tests her before agreeing to loan the money. Simultaneously, he gets embroiled with some strange goings on with Kanemura Enterprises, a local small time Yakuza family. When his friend Arai apparently kills a member of a rival family, things get serious. Akiyama falls in love with Lily, but he also learns of a few more murders. The story then switches to Saejima, and it is revealed that Lily is actually his sister. In order to find out what went wrong that landed him in prison 25 years ago, which is somehow connected to Akiyama’s story. As Saejima starts to get his answers, it switches to Tanimura, who is looking for the man who betrayed and murdered his father, 25 years ago. It is all connected. Then finally, it moves to Kiryu, who is now with Lily and has found a connection to the pile of cash the Tojo Clan had on hand in Yakuza 1.

The game builds an intricate web of deceptions and double crosses, with interesting characters and slowly unfolding mysteries. Then it gets to the end, and there is no ending. The finale is four consecutive boss battles, one for each playable character, that make varying levels of sense. But there is no final reveal that really ties it all together, and since you spend the last section playing as Kiryu, all the final revelations that exist happen to a largely unconcerned interloper. It is a lot of fun while playing through it, but the ending is just deflating. It mostly feels like the developers watched Infernal Affairs, or The Departed, and tried to replicate that in a video game, only to completely lose track of their plot and just have the player fight everybody at the end.

Yakuza games are generally games more for moments than overall coherence, but the ending here just misses completely, making the ways it doesn’t fit stand out more than a game that builds to something satisfying.

This is still not my favorite Yakuza game, but I am glad that the one that holds the place in my memory is up next. Hopefully I can get it done before Like A Dragon hits. Maybe I’ll track down the Miike movie as well.