What I Read in November 2020

I only managed two Le Carre books in November. I don’t know that I will ever get back to my pre-law school pace.

The Spy Who Came In From the Cold

John Le Carre

I think this, or maybe Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, is Le Carre’s most famous work. I see why this one is so well regarded. Alec Leamas is in charge of a spy ring in divided Germany. When his last active agent is killed, Leamas is called back to London. However, he is approached by higher ups at the Circus to take on one last mission, posing as a disaffected former agent and infiltrating the other side to take down a long-standing nemesis.

Leamas is an old operator who thinks he knows how amoral his business is, but he really doesn’t. He is contrasted with other characters who are either more idealistic than he is, or more pragmatic and amoral. Leamas’s actions are amoral, but he still believes in his cause. But as the mission goes on, he starts to doubt that. If his actions, and the actions of Control and the Circus, are the actions of the good guys, how good can they be. The whole thing comes in under 300 pages and packs a lot into it. It is really good and gives the reader a lot to chew on.

The Looking Glass War

John Le Carre

This one is brutal. It is a comedy of sorts, with a decrepit, failing spy organization bumbling into an apparent mission and having to activate the machinery of running a spy operation for the first time since WWII. The head of the organization is still caught up in an interagency rivalry with another British spy organization, the Circus of many Le Carre books, but seemingly unaware of how little his group can accomplish. The closest thing to a real protagonist is John Avery, a newcomer to the agency with no real skills or experience. They’ve had reports of Soviets amassing weapons in Germany, and the man they sent to retrieve pictures of the site has turned up dead. After a mission to retrieve his body doesn’t go well, they decide to activate a German speaking field agent from the war to go and take a look himself.

The whole thing is a comedy of errors. Everyone just wants one last, or first, chance at glory. There is no real evidence that the lead they are chasing is anything at all; it is all a waste. The first thing Leiser, the agent, does is kill someone, essentially ruining the mission as it starts. The whole thing is a mass of failure and incompetence from the jump. Yet still, Le Carre makes the reader feel something. You do start to care for Avery; he doesn’t really accomplish anything, but he is trying very hard. But he’s too green and too unskilled to recognize how futile everything is. When it gets to the end, your sympathies are with him as it all goes awry.

What I Watched in November 2020

Movies

Yes, God Yes – A really fascinating and accurate look at Christian youth groups and communities. Judgment instead of support and values as cudgels, even for people who really believe. ****

Holidate – I’ve got to be honest, I watched this near the start of the month and only remember largely disliking it. It just felt kind of sour and tired. *1/2

Back to the Future – Its great *****

Back to the Future Part 2 – It is also great. *****

Over the Moon – Netflix trying to do a Disney movie, directed by a veteran of the Disney animated renaissance. It didn’t quite work. It looks good, but the songs are painful and the jokes really don’t land. It’s just a bit of a miss. **1/2

Hillbilly Elegy – This is getting savaged, and that feels a little unfair to me. The book definitely has some problems with how it frames things, and some of that is carried over here, but it is a better made movie than it is getting credit for. I don’t know that it actually has much to say, though. It just appears to. **1/2

The Princess Switch, Switched Again – There is nothing here. It is an excuse for Vanessa Hudgens to play three different characters, but the actual switching is disappointingly brief. Otherwise, it is just a lot of Christmas nothing. **

Aladdin – I watched this with my brother, who hadn’t seen it. I actually still like it quite a bit. It is not the animated movie, and not nearly as good, but there is still fun to be had here. ***1/2

TV

Truth Seekers – I love Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. I don’t know if I would have given this show a shot had they not been involved. I liked it, though. It isn’t the best thing ever, but there is some pretty great supernatural spookiness in most of the episodes and it builds up well. This was a solid way to spend a few hours.

The Queen’s Gambit – This might be the best show of the year. It is a lot of really interesting stories. It is a sports story, a coming of age story, a story about addiction and about changing values in the 50s and 60s. At the center of everything is Anya Taylor-Joy’s Beth Harmon, a chess prodigy orphan. She learns chess from the janitor at the orphanage she spends her early years in. She also gets addicted to tranquilizers handed out to keep the kids docile. When she is adopted, it is by a troubled, stifled woman trapped in an unhappy marriage. Her personal life is constantly in turmoil, but her professional life flourishes. It is riveting to watch.

The Liberator – There is a lot that is really good about The Liberator, but I really didn’t care for how it was animated. It is a kind of traditional WWII story; it hit s all the beats you expect and there are some really gripping sequences. It builds to some true horror near the end. I constantly struggled with the look of the show, though.

Fargo S4 – I want to have a lot to say about this newest season of Fargo, just like I really wanted to like this newest season of Fargo. But I neither have much to say about nor liked it all that much. I expect both of those things might change with a rewatch, where I am paying closer attention to themes rather than just anticipating the plot. There is a lot here that I liked; on its own I liked basically every piece of this season. However, I am not sure it really coalesced into a coherent story. It was much looser than the previous three seasons. Even the somewhat (and wrongly, in my opinion) maligned Season 3 told a fairly tight story of one series of crimes. This is a broader, more expansive look at warring crime empires, but the stakes are never quite as clear as you would hope. I enjoyed watching Fargo S4, but so far I don’t think it will stick with my like the previous seasons did.

Now Playing November 2020

Finished

Mega Man X7 – I did not beat Mega Man X7. I beat a few levels of Mega Man X7 and realized that continuing with it would only lead to frustration. I don’t see any real reason to tear into this game here. It’s not good. It was an attempt to do the classic 2D Mega Man in 3D, at least partly. Mega Man Legends took the series into 3D, but it turned it into a Zelda-esque adventure game. MMX7 tried to do 3D while maintaining the style and feel of the older games. Honestly, that part is not particularly unsuccessful. It is the other stuff the game did, like the execrable driving stage and a generally uncooperative camera. It also does little stuff, like defaulting to no when the game asks questions, meaning if you are trying to hurry through repeated dialogue the game will frequently repeat it or send you back to the start. I just don’t need this in my life.

Super Mario Picross – This is on the Switch Nintendo online service. It is a Japanese only picross game. I blasted through it. It’s some good picross.

Ongoing

Atelier Ryza – Marginal progress. This game is just not quite clicking yet; I think it will at some point.

Tactics Ogre Knight of Lodis – Maybe it’s my recent replays of the Final Fantasy Tactics Advance games, but something made me want to replay this other GBA tactics game. I played through the first couple of battles. It is really setting something up. The Ogre Battle/Tactics Ogre games were always smarter than they get credit for. This one is setting up an interesting story about colonialism and religious hegemony that, if I remember correctly, actually goes somewhere. I hope the game remains as fun to play as I remember.

Pokemon Sword – I really needed something familiar and comfortable right now, and a Pokemon game really fit the bill. I have been almost completely disconnected from the mainstream gaming conversation for a while, but I get the feeling Sword/Shield didn’t go over all that well. There are some problems with the game I have had so far. It is a strange map, with a lot crammed into the one Wild Area, and the rest of it feeling a little empty. I like the general feel of it being a sporting event. That is an interesting way of framing things. I think the big problem people had was cutting down the available Pokemon, which I understand why that was an unpopular choice, but it doesn’t make a practical problem going through the main game. And since I never bother with any of the multiplayer, it doesn’t change much for me. I’ve had a lot of fun blasting through the first half of it.

Upcoming

Yakuza: Like A Dragon – I’m really looking forward to this, but didn’t manage to get it started in November. I hope that changes before the end of the year.

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.