Now Playing May 2020

Beaten

Valkyria Chronicles 4 – Read post here.

Dragon Quest XI – Read post here.

Final Fantasy 1 – Read post here.

Super Mario Odyssey – Read post here.

Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle Read post here.

Ongoing

Tales of Vesperia – I am back on the seesaw of the Tales of series. This one is finding new ways for me to love and hate it. The characteristic effort has been put into the characters, and with better effect than in Tales of the Abyss. I actually like playing the game with this group. The plot, so far, is shockingly low key. I am more than ten hours in, but it still feels like I am stuck in that early game quest that opens up the world for the real main quest. It is too late in the game to be doing that kind of thing. Maybe it’s just been too long since I’ve played one of these things, but the battles are not really working for me. This game seems inordinately hard. Too often it separates the protagonist from the rest of the party and forces him to fight a group of enemies. I still have not figured out how to string attacks together; every sequence of attacks leaves me wide open for counterattacks. Maybe this will all make sense eventually, but right now it makes the game a bit of slog. If that evened out, I think I would be really loving this game.

SteamWorld Quest – I have loved the previous SteamWorld games; I love rpgs. SteamWorld Quest should be right up my alley. But it uses a card based system, which made me pause for a long while before trying it out. I have not played a game that uses cards in its battle system that would not have been improved without that system. Nothing in the first third or so of SteamWorld has changed my mind. I like the setting and the characters; it is just generally a fun world to be in for a few hours. But the battles are, at best, tolerable. Since you only choose 8 cards worth of attacks for each character, you are either limited on reliability or variety. You can use a lot of the same few cards, so you know what you’ll get, or spread out so you can do a lot of things. That is not a bad way to set up trade-offs. But any battle where having a certain element basically means you either have to know what is coming, or be willing to get into an unwinnable battle before starting over. Because once that battle starts, your card choices are locked in. It is a frustrating fly in the ointment of an otherwise excellent game.

Final Fantasy VII – Inspired by playing Final Fantasy VII Remake, I played through the Midgar section of the original Final Fantasy VII. Well, the PS4 release of the PC port of the original FFVII. In large part, Remake is shockingly faithful to the original. Pretty much every moment present in the original game’s Midgar segment is also present in the Remake. As a statement of purpose for a game, Midgar is pretty much unparalleled. It is so unlike everything else in the series that came before it, and unlike the rest of the game that follows it. It is such a powerful and interesting setting; the game spends enough time there to explore it, while also priming the player to see the world outside the dystopia of Midgar.

Upcoming

Final Fantasy II – I’ve never made much progress in this game, but I am forcing myself to give it a real go as I replay every* Final Fantasy game. This is honestly the make or break point for a Final Fantasy replay project. I don’t really like this game, so if I can get through it, I can get through any of them.

Jake Hunter Detective Story: Ghosts of the Dusk – I picked this up for the 3DS for a few dollars recently. I’ve been interested in this series since I read about the not especially well received DS game a while ago. I’ve heard better things about this one.

Shantae and the Seven Sirens – This came out a week later than I thought it did, so I did not get a chance to play it in May. But I’ve got it lined up for early June.

Dragon Quest XI

I played most of Dragon Quest XI between Final Fantasy XV and Final Fantasy VII Remake. I did put it down near the end of the second act to play FFVIIR before coming back to finish off the main game and the deceptively important “post-game.” Playing it between the two most recent mainline Final Fantasy games colored how I think of the game. The usual comparison of the two series with Final Fantasy being the experimental one and Dragon Quest being the stodgy one is not really accurate, but that does feel accurate when comparing Dragon Quest XI with its contemporaries.

Despite its reputation, the only area where Dragon Quest does not innovate is the battle system. Those classic battles have been pretty much the same since the first or second game of the series. The Dragon Quest series has long been very experimental when it comes to narrative structure. From Dragon Quest IV’s series of chapters centered around different small casts that eventually come together into one big party to Dragon Quest V’s following the life of the protagonist from childhood through fatherhood. Dragon Quest XI does some interesting things with its narrative structure. For the first thirty or forty hours, it plays out pretty much like a classic jrpg. You start with a hero and a quest and gradually build up a party of supporters. Each new area has new troubles, and a growing threat is hiding just out of sight. The shocking twist at the midway point is not especially shocking, many games have done similar things. Final Fantasy VI comes to mind. The second act feels a little truncated, it is a getting the band back together tour of the world that has surprisingly little new to see. It culminates in the defeat of the villain but notably leaves a lot of unanswered questions. That leaves things for the post-game third act, which feels oddly essential for something coming after the credits roll.

Dragon Quest XI’s story structure is more interesting than good, I think. It seems to be an effort to disguise how surprisingly small the world for this eighty hour adventure actually is. It is effective, because the game seems massive. It also helps that it rests on an incredibly good core game. It looks excellent, plays well and features a delightful cast. I didn’t mind exploring the world three times because I liked exploring this world.

Despite its HD graphics and interesting narrative experiments, Dragon Quest XI still feels like something of a throwback. That is largely because full-blooded, turn-based, classic jrpgs almost do not exist on modern consoles. Most have gone with some kind of action rpg, like most Final Fantasy games. Others package things with another sort of gimmick, like a focus on crafting or being a graphical 16-bit throwback. I guess Persona 5 would count, but even that game is entirely bereft of exploration. Dragon Quest XI stands alone. For all intents and purposes, Dragon Quest XI is the same game as Dragon Quest IV or V from the early 1990s. There are some different character building systems, but nothing that would have been too far beyond what those games offered.

I really enjoyed Final Fantasy XV. As strange and as broken as it was in places, I can honestly say I have never played a game quite like it. And I loved Final Fantasy VII Remake; it took a game from my youth and both radically reimagined and perfectly translated it to modern sensibilities. Both games were new and interesting in their own ways. That said, I loved playing Dragon Quest XI as a kind of antidote to those games. I grew up playing turn based jrpgs, games from the Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest series, as well as plenty of others. The last time I remember getting just a straight up jrpg like this is honestly Dragon Quest 8 fifteen years ago. I am sure there are games that fit the mold in between, but that is the last one to really leave an impression on me. This is an amazing game.

As is usual with Dragon Quest games, the overarching plot is nothing special. Some evil is active in the world, and the protagonist is the chosen one who can defeat that evil. There is nothing to it that anyone who has played more than a half dozen games hasn’t seen before. The strength of the game is in the scenarios that arise in each town along the journey. Every town has a problem to solve, and it plays out as a story vignette that is largely wrapped up by the time the player leaves the town. This is how most Dragon Quest games work, and it is a very effective way to tell a story. You end up with more memorable characters in each place than most games have.

Speaking of characters, this game also largely shines with its party. While the characters start with simple to describe archetypes, the game mostly gives them room to grow. Some, like Erik, seem to get a little lost as the game goes on, but each member of the crew is a memorable personality. Rab is kind of a typical old man party member, weary and experienced, though not without his foibles. Erik is the brash thief, Jade the stoic martial artist, the spoilerific final party member the duty bound knight. Serena and Veronica fit broadly into caster/healer archetypes. The one I’ve avoided mentioning is maybe the game’s best character, or maybe its worst. Sylvando is an erstwhile knight who instead acts as a jester. He also is a flamboyant gay stereotype. I can’t tell if it is intended to be a mean spirited joke, or a genuine attempt at inclusion. At best, it feels like Barret from Final Fantasy VII, who was a cool character and was also something of a stereotype. I chose to take Sylvando positively and treated him as though Freddie Mercury chose to join my party. I can definitely see other interpretations, though.

Overall, there is just something comforting about Dragon Quest XI. It strikes some reliable nostalgic notes; playing like you expected games would play in the future 25 years ago. Sometimes that is just the kind of game you want to play.

Revisiting Final Fantasy

Playing through Final Fantasy XV and Final Fantasy VII Remake made me nostalgic for the whole series, so I did the sensible thing and planned a big project to replay or play for the first time something like 25 Final Fantasy games. You know, like one does when they are crumbling under the weight of other more important obligations. So, Final Fantasy 1.

I have written about Final Fantasy before. (Oh God, that was 9 years ago!) I stand by that post, other than the typos. I decided to change things up from the NES version, which I know fairly well, for the Dawn of Souls version. I have played this version before, but not to completion. When it came out I wasn’t really in the right headspace to enjoy the remake for what it was. It didn’t give me my nostalgia for the NES game. For better or worse, the Dawn of Souls version of the game is rather toothless.

That toothlessness works for it at times. Honestly, a lot of the NES version’s difficulty is unfair and seemingly unintentional. This version swings far in the other way. A lot of it is strictly improvement, like getting rid of the ineffective rule or letting you save anywhere on the world map. Otherwise, the battles are largely speed bumps. Late game enemies still have the ability to wreck you, and the bosses remain tough, but making it through is a lot easier than it used to be.

Getting rid of the battle difficulty lets the real star of the game shine, though. That star is the quest itself. Unlike pretty much every other game in the series, Final Fantasy is about exploration. Considering the game’s vintage, Final Fantasy has a pretty involved quest. Those who cut their teeth on 16-bit JRPGs seem to have some trouble adjusting to Final Fantasy. The game just kind of plunks the player down in the world and expects the player to figure things out on their own. And the answers are not all that straightforward. In the back half of the game, the whole thing becomes a twisted nest of interlocking quests, where the player has to put together vague clues from townsfolk to know where to look for hidden treasures to unlock the next part of the quest.

What stuck out to most on this playthrough was the music. Yes, the GBA sound is scratchy and kind of bad, but the arrangements, which I believe are the same as those from the Origins release, are excellent. For me the standout is the Town music, which sounds perfectly peaceful and wistful. In a world that is full of dangers and monsters, the towns are small oases of respite, and this music conveys that perfectly.

Valkyria Chronicles 4

I heaped praise on the original Valkyria Chronicles a few years ago; I had praise for all aspects of the game. Including the story. Other than the parts about how Valkyria Chronicles was unique (I played the game in 2014 and really thought the series had gone the way of the dodo), I’ll echo that praise. Except for the praise for the story. Honestly, I can’t remember the last time I felt the equivalent moral outrage playing a game. More on that later.

By and large, the game plays like the 2010 original. There are certainly some changes, including a new class, but the basics are largely the same. It is a turn based strategy game with action oriented turns. So each unit moves as though it is a third person shooter. The variety of classes and weapons create for some really fun strategic thinking, where you have to adjust your approach on the fly and are constantly reacting to things happening on the battlefield. The unit diversity is great. You have Scouts, who combine the ability to move great distances with really solid counterattack abilities. Then there are the Shocktroopers, who can’t move as far, but carry heavier weapons and (eventually) flamethrowers. Snipers have poor movement, but do carry long range, high-powered rifles. Then you have the more specialized units. Lancer’s carry essentially rocket launchers and are pretty much exclusively tank killers. They are not always necessary, but no one does what they do better. New, from one of the psp games I think, are grenadier. They carry mortars and are great at striking from a distance with explosives. They are excellent defensive units, being able to attack on enemies turns, and depending on which kind of mortar they are equipped with can take out either tanks or personnel. Lastly, there are the engineers. They are the support class. They don’t move or see as far as Scouts, but they can remove mines, repair things such as tanks and barricades, and dispense healing. You generally need one, but you don’t tend to need more than one. Finally, this game gives the player three separate vehicles: two tanks and an APC. Knowing how to use all these tools is where the game really shines.

For the most part, maps give players some freedom to devise their own strategies. It is unfortunate that the grading is done entirely on the number of turns it takes to complete the mission, but that is really immaterial the first time through the game. The game lets you decide if you want to use your tank as a battering ram to clear a path for your Shocktroopers to come through and clean up or if you want to take your Scouts around the outside of the map to catch the enemy from behind. Both can be effective. A new feature, or at least one I never utilized before, allows a leader unit to form a squad with two other units and move as a group. This is really effective at getting Lancers and Snipers into position by having them follow a Scout much further than they could get on their own.

Where this falters is with the game’s overreliance on special enemies. The later half of this game is filled with enemy units that are story characters that have essentially superhuman abilities. The squad is chased by a super tank that does not have the usual tank weakness. There are a pair of little girls that are super strong, nearly impossible to hit, take very little damage when you do manage to hit them, and if you manage to take them out tend to respawn the next turn. And there is a super-powered Valkyria. This problem might have been present in the original game; I recall them using this sort of stuff more sparingly. I expected some of it, but stuff like that becomes the focus of most of the maps in the second half of the game. I also had some problems with controls. I do remember this from the first game, but it seemed worse here. The game seems incredibly slow in getting characters into their shooting stance. It is so bad that I thought my R button might be faulty. I never did figure out the mechanics of how it works exactly, all I know is that my squad took a lot of bullets instead of pulling up their rifles to shoot back.

The story is where it really fell apart for me. It is entirely possible that I would not echo the praise I had for the original game’s story for being truly mature today. I recall precious few of the details. I know I was not as actively disgusted by what I saw than I was with Valkyria Chronicles 4. The game starts well enough, with a solid central cast of squadmates. A group from the same village who have grown up since the start of the war and have ended up back together serving in the military of a foreign state, since their homeland is occupied by fake-Nazi-Soviets. Each character’s personality roughly fits their class and are interesting enough. Then you get into the meat of the story, finding out why Kai is impersonating her missing brother and other revelations. Each one makes the squad less likeable.

SPOILERS.

The cascading revelations about the ship the squad is on for their secret mission becomes more and more awful as it goes. The game tries its best to keep the player on the team’s side, but it lost me pretty early and lost me hard. The Centurion, this technological marvel of a ship, is essentially powered by magical child slavery. That revelation is bad enough as it is. Then comes the revelation that the team’s mission is to detonate this child slavery engineer in the enemies capitol city. It ends with a debate about whether or not to go through with it (which to be clear the protagonist was because those were his orders) or not after a ceasefire had been called. There are story threads worth pulling, about how war can make a monster out of anybody. There are obvious parallels to the US dropping atomic bombs on Japan at the end of WW2. I would be okay with a game that wrestled with those issues. That is not what this is. This is the game justifying exploiting a child because she signed a contract to do it. That is an excuse the team buys, even though children cannot sign binding contracts and that it is clear she did not know what she was signing up for (see ‘children cannot sign binding contracts’). But she wants to help, so there is nothing they can do but go on. It wasn’t far past the midway point of the game when I was actively rooting against my team.

It is hard to recommend the game when I found the story so incredibly distasteful. The game still plays well; it is likely the best war crime simulator you can get for under $20. Maybe Valkyria Chronicles should have remained unique.

What I Read May 2020

Only two books in May (I had finals), one of which was quite long. I am actually pretty happy with the reading I did in May. I have a couple of unfinished books that should get done in June and nothing quite like the doorstop that was the first book here.

A World Undone

GJ Meyer

I hesitate to call this book comprehensive, because the first world war is a huge subject that really cannot be contained in one book. But A World Undone is about as comprehensive as a single book could be on this subject. It is a comprehensive look at the war in Europe. Asia gets mentioned, but not in the detail that events in France and the Balkans do. It starts by laying the groundwork, detailing the political state of the Balkans and the Austo-Hungarian Empire just before the war. It does a good job of showing how the war became inevitable, and how it became the giant mess it was.

What it does best illustrating is just how incompetent and entrenched in their thinking the leaders of nearly every country involved were. The French continued to be sure that one more offensive push was going to break the Germans, even as casualties mounted and each offensive gained them nothing. The British weren’t any better, but at least they had the freedom to try to take the fight away from the stalemate in France. That, for a variety of reasons, they bungled things in Gallipoli and Greece is just part of what makes the war so frustrating. The worst part of everything is how the soldiers were treated as expendable by their superiors. Numbers were necessary, and deaths were inevitable, but I can’t think of a time in history when so many people died for so little reason. It is no surprise that the governments of many of the chief participants toppled, like Russia, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Ottoman Empire, but that any government made it through after the complete disdain they showed for their populace.

Something that comes through that has always interested me is how WW1 featured such a rapid growth in technology. Tanks and airplanes were first used in war in WW1. But there were also still cavalry and tactics from the wars of the previous century. It is a horrifying and fascinating look at the meeting of two different worlds. A World Undone does a great job illustrating this aspect of the war.

I do have some complaints. One is how this book refers to women. It does not come up often, but Meyer still found a space to reduce one woman to “a juicy Hapsburg Princess” and seems to have no space for nuance in dealing with Empress Alexandra of Russia. This is not to suggest Meyer’s judgment of her is necessarily incorrect, but nearly every other figure in the book received a more considered approach.

The Man Who Knew Too Much

G.K. Chesterton

This is a collection of short mysteries about a sort of detective, Horne Fisher. Fisher is highly connected in the upper levels of the British government and high society. So he has personal knowledge of their foibles. He ends up solving a lot of mysteries where his personal knowledge is needed to unravel tangled webs of lies. Unfortunately, time and time again he gets to the bottom of things, only to have to watch as the perpetrator, thanks to their station, is allowed to get away with the crime.

It is a very strong mix of social commentary and great detective stories. By the end, you are kind of fed up with Fisher. What good is his ability to get the truth if he is going to let that truth go untold. It is for the good of the nation, but is it really? Horne Fisher knows too much, but he does too little. His pain is knowing that he cannot do anything to fix the problems he knows. But he doesn’t really try.

What I Watched May 2020

Movies

Dangerous Lies – A thriller about a young couple who inherit a home from an old man that the wife had been a nurse for. There is a lot that is strange going on, and the couple has secrets to keep, since the husband was also secretly working for the old man as a gardener. It is a largely competent movie, but I largely forgot about it as soon as it ended. **1/2

Turbo Kid – Still a delightful romp. I am still a little grossed out by the excess fake blood, but otherwise this movie is just great. ****1/2

Wrong Missy – Lauren Lapkus is giving it her all in this movie, which isn’t quite as bad as many Habby Madison releases. It still feels like a movie where they hit on a premise, that a man goes on dates with two women of the same name and accidentally invites the wrong one on a trip, and then just sort of stopped instead of actually writing some jokes. It just feels like a huge missed opportunity. **

The Lovebirds – This is a pretty fun rom-com. Or maybe it’s not a rom-com; maybe some kind of action comedy. Except there really isn’t any action. The two lovebirds are in a relationship that has gotten stale. On their way to a party, they end up embroiled in some kind murder conspiracy involving fake cops. The titular lovebirds, Kumail Nanjiani and Issa Rae, feel like they can’t go to the police until they clear their name, so they set about trying to get to the bottom of the murder using the killer’s phone, which they have. Hijinks ensue. The movie largely succeeds on the charm of its two stars, who really work well together. It doesn’t quite reach the heights it could; some segments fall a little flat, but for the most part it is enjoyable. ***1/2

Back to the Future – Still great. Just a fantastic movie. *****

The Death of Stalin – Another rewatch. This movie is still fantastic. *****

TV

Hollywood – For the most part, this is a pretty enjoyable show. Just really easy to watch and largely entertaining. It also feels like the show is taking a victory lap for a race it lost in real life. This is celebrating diversity and inclusivity in Hollywood that to this day does not exist in its output. I get that this is part of the point of the show, but something doesn’t sit right. Still, as just a little fantasy show it is pretty entertaining.

The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Kimmy vs The Reverend – This is another of Netflix’s choose your own adventure specials and I still really like them. None have been as ambitious as The Black Mirror’s Bandersnatch, but Kimmy Schmidt uses the format to really have some fun with its story. This plays like an extended episode of the show. While I have not explored every nook and cranny of this special, what I have seen kind of forces it to follow one primary shape. There are right and wrong answers, not always obvious one, and the show will gently nudge you back to the right one after you see the wrong one. Still, it is more Kimmy Schmidt and a lot of fun to ‘play.’

Never Have I Ever – Really solid. A coming of age show about a young Indian-American girl. She has to deal with the differences in the two cultures she is growing up with, as well as deal with the recent death of her father. It is a struggle for her. Despite her experience being nothing like mine, the show works. It manages to turn some really difficult personal problems into solid comedy fodder. It nails both the humor and the drama.

Tales from the Loop – A powerful aesthetic in search of a show. It looks good and a few of its episodes are moving, but for the most part this show failed to engage me. I am sure some people really loved this show, but I was mostly just kind of disinterested.

Outlander S5 – I am feeling less and less enthused by this show. They are getting further and further from the books, which is fine, but that also means that following the books is no longer an excuse for some of the more troubling storytelling choices. So while there is still a lot to like about this show, at lot it does really well, the warts are growing more prominent. The prevalence of rape as a story motivator is getting tiresome. It doesn’t seem to be as big a factor when spread out across 800 page books, but it often becomes the focal point of the show. I am still in for the next season, but this show is feeling a bit long in the tooth.

Batwoman – The first season is done and with the announcement that Ruby Rose is not returning to the show, pretty much anything I had to say is immaterial. There was stuff to like with this show, much of it was related to Rose as the title character. Honestly, the show bungled much of the rest of it. I liked Alice, but they pushed her too far, so that there was nothing redeemable about her. By the bid midseason stopping point, there was no hope that Kate would be able to save her sister. That hope is a strong part of the comics, but for the show it would need her to somehow not be responsible for the most heinous acts. I guess the show could be applauded for not following that route of making it easy, but the show spends a whole lot of time with a character that is impossible to like. There is little nuance possible; she is a killer. It also has the problem of Kate’s dad running a privatized police organization, basically a private army, in the city. The show seems to want to frame them as good guys, when the very existence of the Crows is an evil thing. It can’t seem to bring itself to condemn them, though. Since the whole show has to be pretty much rebooted, I would keep Luke and Mary and dump the rest of the show.

The Flash S6 – a middling season of the show. I liked that they split the season between two villains, since they haven’t really nailed the season long arc since the first season. The second half of the season didn’t quite work, but some of that might be on getting cut short. I did like everything with Elongated Man; hopefully there is more of him and Sue next season.  (Holy shit, I wrote this a couple of weeks ago and I did not foresee the revelations about that actor coming.)  Hopefully they recast him and continue that story.

Supergirl S5 – I think this one mostly brought the Lena story home. I’ve got to be honest; I sort of lost track with this show. I enjoy it week to week, and the more the show features Lex Luthor, the better it seems to be. This season was solid.

Homecoming S2 – There is a lot to like about the second season of Homecoming. It is well written, excellently acted, and beautifully shot. That makes it kind of disappointing that it plays like a strange coda to the first season instead of its own thing. It feels a bit like watching someone solve a mystery a second time; the spark just isn’t quite there. Homecoming S2 doesn’t feel like it is expanding on the first season, merely replicating it. Still, it’s only about three hours long and it is really well made. I feel some disappointment from wanting more, but this is far from bad.

Columbo S4 – I will try to write a full post on this series once I finish watching it. Season 4 of Columbo has a handful more really well done mysteries. This is just an all-time great show.

The Great British Baking Show – I gave this a shot and just kind of fell in love with it. I am very annoyed with how Netflix has arranged the series for streaming, but there is just something comforting and relaxing about watching this show. I don’t have much to say, other than I now kind of wish I could bake.

Trial By Media – This was a real disappointment. There is a lot of good material here, but the show doesn’t seem to know what it is saying. There is no thesis to draw from these six stories. It is just six different times that media reporting on a story has affected the ability to get justice. One is a pure creation of the media, as a murder occured after a confrontation on the Jenny Jones show. One shows a man cynically manipulating the media to achieve his ends. The sheer variety of ways that the media affects these cases makes it impossible for something coherent to come out of this series. Other than the idea that the media report on cases can change how those cases are perceived and whether and how justice is achieved.

She-Ra and the Princesses of Power S5 – This has the usual problems that Netflix shows seem to, even when coming to their intended end. She-Ra S5 is 13 episodes long, but feels like 18 episodes worth of content. It just feels incredibly rushed at the end. Still, these are 13 really good episodes and it does seem like it told the whole story with few compromises. This has been a good show the whole time it has been airing; a show that started with a clear vision for what it wanted to be and largely succeeded in realizing that vision. I am going to miss it.

Bosch S6 – I like mysteries and procedurals. This show continues to be what it has long been, a perfectly serviceable cop show. I am not currently interested in writing about a cop show.

Super Mario Odyssey

This is going to be a short one. I don’t have a lot to say about Super Mario Odyssey that isn’t unrestrained gushing about how much I loved it. Because I did love it. The Mario series has more stone cold classics than disappointments. And even the disappointments are only disappointments in comparison to those classics. While it might be a little early to judge, Super Mario Odyssey seems to be squarely in the classic category.

There are two games that most prominently come to mind when playing Super Mario Odyssey: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Super Mario 64. Like Breath of the Wild, Super Mario Odyssey shows Nintendo looking backwards and finding a new path forward. Super Mario 64 is the game that Super Mario Odyssey is clearly looking backwards to. Breath of the Wild turned away from decades of increasingly restrictive Zelda titles to find something that strongly reflected the exploratory origins of the series. The original Legend of Zelda was a game that dropped the player down in the middle of a relatively large world and let the player explore at their own pace. Breath of the Wild does the same thing, but without bringing along many of the good things the series had done in the intervening years. (This is not the place for this argument, but I would say the moment to moment gameplay of Breath of the Wild is very similar to Skyward Sword.) Super Mario Odyssey does something similar. It eschews the more limited levels of the last couple of decades and deliberately fashions its game after its earliest 3D adventure.

While this might be interpreted as a jab at Super Mario Galaxy and Super Mario 3D World, I don’t think that is accurate. Super Mario Odyssey is very much a product of that lineage. Super Mario 64 burst onto the scene with this big, immersive playgrounds, but Galaxy its successors honed those into smaller, more focused levels. They also honed things like the controls, the moveset and the challenge structure. Super Mario Odyssey takes all of those things, and brings back the more expansive levels. There are only a dozen and a half stages here, but each one is big and varied. Each one is a world of itself, and provides a broad and interesting set of challenges. Each of these stages is beautifully realized. There are classics like the ice world, the water world and the fire world, but even those are done in an interesting way. The fire world, for example, is set up as a cooking world, and the lava is fire beneath the pot. The rest are highly inventive, from the prehistoric world to the slightly unsettling New Donk City.

Super Mario Odyssey is, in pretty much every way, the realization of everything that Super Mario 64 tried to be. Super Mario 64 is the first great 3D platformer. Super Mario Odyssey is the latest and greatest such game. I have nothing to criticize; not the way it looks, not the way it sounds, not the way it plays, nothing. I am sure there is more to say about this game, but I am still too overwhelmed to say it.

Mario + Rabbids

Of all the games I thought to buy when I got a Switch, Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle was not one that came to mind. Even ignoring the WiiU ports, which as one of the few owners of the WiiU I had already played most of them, there were still quite a few games to get me started. The new Pokemon, Super Mario Odyssey, and Fire Emblem Three Houses just for a start. But those games are still full price, while I was able to get Mario + Rabbids for song. I like Mario and I like strategy games, so I thought I’d give it a try.

Mario + Rabbids is a strange game. I mean, from conception it is odd. There is not a lot of overlap in sensibility between the Mario games and the Rabbids. Mario is Mario. The Raving Rabbids were kind of a proto-Minions that spun out of the Rayman series all the way back in the early days of the Wii/fading days of the PS2. They starred in a series of chaotic mini-game collections, starting something of a craze that lasted for a while, but by the time of the Switch launch they had largely been banished to mobile for half a decade. Still, it wasn’t much of a surprise to see Ubisoft try to resurrect them with a new game for a new system. I think its says a lot about where Nintendo was after the failure of the WiiU that Ubisoft was given the keys to Mario Kingdom to help relaunch these characters.

On top of the weirdness of mixing the two franchises is the genre of game that Mario + Rabbids is. It is not a reflection of either Mario or the Rabbids, both of whom at their hearts come from platformers. Mario is known for showing up in absolutely anything; he’s been in sports games, racing games, rpgs, you name it. The Rabbids have mostly been in party games and mini-game collections. So, of course, Ubisoft went with a strategy game. And while it never stops being weird, it mostly works.

The game has got a good mix of characters with some real tactical choices to make once you get a full party. The game eventually gives you the central Mario crew: Mario, Luigi, Peach, and Yoshi. They are joined by Rabbids versions of each of the four. You start with just Mario, Rabbid Peach and Rabbid Luigi, and the others join one or two per chapter. Each version of each four characters fill similar roles, but each of the eight characters is pretty different. Mario is forced on the player for every battle, but fortunately he is good enough that you will likely want to use anyway. He is the all around character. The others have more specialized roles. Rabbid Peach has an actual healing ability; regular Peach has a defensive boost, a shotgun and a healing ability tied to her jump ability. Rabbid Luigi is a pure support character, great at weakening and giving status effects to enemies. Regular Luigi is the team’s sniper. Every character has maps where they shine, where their skills are absolutely essential.

 

 

 

For the most part the game works. Where I thought it kind of fell flat was how it tried to integrate Mario’s platformer roots into the tactical battles. Each character can move a certain number of squares on the grid map, but instead of actually being able to only move, for instance, 6 squares, the game gives a character a range of 6 squares. This makes for some weird choices with the available movement attacks. Each character can perform at least one run by melee attack per turn, but since your movement is based on range, your best choice is generally to run around bumping into every enemy near you before settling in where you want to shoot from. Then there are the warp pipes; these reset a character’s range to a specified number of squares, for some characters nearly the same as their initial movement range. In maps with a lot of pipes, some characters can pretty much go anywhere. It makes things very unpredictable if you don’t know exactly how far enemies can move, both pre and post pipe.

 

 

 

Also kind of awkward and unsatisfying are the parts in between battles where you find chests and solve simplistic puzzles. They feel vaguely in the Mario vein, but mostly end up feeling like padding. I guess there needed to be some connective tissue between stages but these puzzles mostly feel like they are just taking up your time.  It does nail the tone of the Mario series. I am far from an expert when it comes to the Rabbids, but the Mario characters feel about like they would in a Nintendo developed game. I would say I can’t imagine seeing Mario wielding a gun in a Nintendo game, but Smash Bros exists. Mario is the can-do hero, Peach alternates between being sidelined and wanting to get in on the action. There are various goofy Toads. Luigi is the weird schlub also-ran to Mario. Bowser doesn’t make an appearance until late, but he is on brand and honestly this is about as enjoyable as Bowser Jr. has ever been. The highlight is the opera ghost boss, who opens with a song.

 

 

 

Mario + Rabbids is just a strange enjoyable little game. Its creation reeks of desperation on both companies behind it, but the result is a good time.

Final Fantasy VII Remake

Final Fantasy VII Remake should not be as good as it is. I mean, nothing in the last decade or so from SquareEnix suggests that they were capable of this kind of big, cohesive game. I’ve enjoyed the last few Final Fantasy games, but it is fair to say that they have gotten mixed reactions. Final Fantasy VII Remake, which despite being a remake is essentially the next game in the series, has followed a pattern not unlike previous games, with the protracted development and all. But somehow, this game turned out amazing.

I am kind of surprised at how hyped I was for this game. I have never been a huge fan of Final Fantasy VII. I like it well enough, and I’ve really come around on it in the last half decade or so, but for a long time I was kind of resentful of the game. I did not get a Playstation until the redesign in 2000. I missed out on the initial wave of adoration for the game. While that was going on, I was still exploring Final Fantasy III and Chrono Trigger. I eventually played the PC port of the game, but not to completion and that is not really the best way to experience the game. And by then, Final Fantasy VIII, as well as plenty of other much better looking rpgs were out. To me, Final Fantasy VII was the ugly little game that sucked all the attention away from better games that came before and after. I was more than happy to leave it in the past.

The thing is, even before I played it, I knew a lot about the game. It was pretty much impossible to be into video games in the late 90s, into jrpgs especially, and not know at least a few Final Fantasy VII spoilers just by osmosis. This game was a seminal moment for the Playstation. Every game was compared to Final Fantasy VII; even I did it based on my limited play time with the PC version. Many people found other games wanting; I was determined to do the same for FFVII. I finally played it years later and really came around on it. It is a great game. The graphics are rough and I can’t fault anyone for not being able to find the charm in its clumsy polygons. But in every other way it is an achievement. I still like FFIII better; but I get why people feel the opposite way.

Even with me coming around to being a fan of Final Fantasy VII doesn’t really explain why I was excited for Final Fantasy VII Remake. I mean, Square Enix put out a lot of Final Fantasy VII material about 15 years ago and most of it was junk. At least, that is how I remember it. The only thing worthwhile to come out of the Compilation of FFVII was Crisis Core. That stuff should not be any indication that Square Enix knew what to do with a follow up or return to this game. Still, as the release drew nearer, I did get pretty excited. The game turned out to be pretty much the best case scenario for this sort of thing.

I remain incredibly impressed with Final Fantasy VII Remake. It is a game that takes the first quarter or so of the original game and extends it out to the full length of the original game, treating the old Midgar section as something like an outline or a rough draft. It manages to not feel natural, to not feel bloated or padded. Instead, it merely feels fully realized. What works best, storywise, is that the game shows a better understanding of what made the original FF7 effective than whatever they did with the Compilation stuff. Something that often seems to get lost when FF7 characters appear elsewhere is that Aerith and Tifa are kind of the opposites of what their character designs would suggest. The short-skirted martial artist Tifa is actually the quiet, traditional girl. The prim looking healer Aerith is actually the rough and tumble tomboy. The game absolutely nails that dynamic. Tifa is the one who often looks sad; she is uncomfortable with the militancy of Avalanche and unsure what has happened to Cloud in their years apart. Meanwhile Aerith takes nearly everything with a sly grin and a devil may care attitude. She actively wants to be involved in the adventures in ways that neither Tifa nor Cloud seem to understand. Cloud is also incredibly well realized here, with his cold reticence very evidently more a product of insecurity and awkwardness rather than genuine aloofness. And Barret is still a cartoon. A cartoon that is much more incongruous with his surroundings in this more realistically styled world.

Honest, his cartoonish is another thing that shows that the developers really understood what made the original great. The juxtaposition of strange and ambitious elements is a large part of what kept people coming back. The game manages to be super serious, even dour, at times but also include a lot of (usually) well integrated levity.

What the remake adds, generally, is depth. Take Jessie, Biggs and Wedge. The Avalanche crew were pretty minor characters in the original. Sure, it was affecting when they died, but you kind of knew it was coming. In the remake, the game takes the time to flesh them out as characters, gives them pasts and hopeful futures. So when the big moment comes, it is that much more crushing. It does without, aside from a few very intentional exceptions, contradicting anything from the original game. The game does play with the idea of this being the second iteration of this story, but I’ll reserve judgment on that part for now.

The biggest change, aside from the visuals, is how it plays. They kept the materia system and it is largely unchanged. However, everything else is pretty different. Yow now level up weapons with different skills. This allows the developers to limit the player to just a handful of weapons, but also give the player a lot of choice in how to approach the game and different challenges. While some weapons are pretty clearly better than others, all of them have their uses. The battles are now a pure action rpg rather than turn based. While I mourn the death of turn based battles, FFVII Remake’s battles are a lot of fun. It manages to maintain a lot of the feel of the active time battle system despite playing completely differently. It’s not perfect; it can often be hard to tell what is going on with the battle, especially when it comes to spells, but for the most part it is pretty smooth.

The nostalgia bug hit me really hard with this, and maybe things worked better for me than they might have if I did not have long standing memories of this game and this series. This game presents the first part of Final Fantasy VII the way I always imagined the game. It isn’t necessarily the way it used to be, but it doesn’t clash with rose-tinted memories.

What I Watched April 2020

Movies

Uncorked – A largely enjoyable movie about a man who wants to be a sommelier, but his dad wants him to take over the family’s BBQ restaurant. It is mostly about a father and son struggling to connect, that the son does not really want to follow in his father’s footsteps. It is solid. ***

Coffee & Kareem – Ed Helms gives it his all, but this movie just isn’t funny. The concept is solid, a buddy cop movie with the buddies being a cop and his girlfriend’s son, who hates him. The elements are all there, it’s sad that so much of the humor falls flat.**

Wayne’s World – I tend to forget how enjoyable this movie is between viewings. I remember the Bohemian Rhapsody scene and the Scooby-Doo ending, but this is a really solid comedy. Mike Myers has always had a way of creating very strong comic characters, and Wayne is no exception. He is both something of a straight man and a source of humor. It is a fairly referential movie, but somehow doesn’t feel dated despite being about 30 years old. In fact, Wayne’s basement shot tv show still seems pretty relevant in a time when everyone has a youtube channel. *****

The Willoughbys – This animated movie is about a group of siblings having to deal with their awful parents. It is unsettling how little of reason is given for their neglect, but it makes you side with the kids as they plot to remove their parents from the equation and their efforts to find a life without them. For the most part, it works. ***

Extraction – Chris Hemsworth stars in a John Wick like action movie. It tries really hard, and Hemsworth is pretty great, but the story varies from non-existent to bad. The action is good, at least. This movie just didn’t do anything for me. **1/2

A Secret Love – A sweet and interesting documentary about two women who have been together for sixty or so years. One of them even played for the women’s baseball league seen in A League of Their Own. I don’t know that it quite pulls everything together as well as it could, but it is solid. ***1/2

TV

Star Trek TNG 3-7 – I’ve watched this show before, and the current situation felt like the time for a rewatch. I didn’t really consciously choose to skip the first two seasons, my Netflix was left at the season 2 finale and I just started watching from there. I underestimated how much I like this show. I mean, I would tell I like The Next Generation, but I didn’t realize how easy it is to just put on and let play. I also underestimated how many episodes that I just completely forgot about. I last watched the show half a decade or so ago on Netflix, generally as I went to sleep. So there were quite a few episodes that I remembered the opening of, but not how it ended. There are a lot of ways this show shows its age, but for the most part it is still really good.

Star Trek Deep Space 9 Season 1 – I have not watched DS9 before, at least not more than a couple of isolated episodes. I know these shows take some time to find their footing generally, but I don’t know that Deep Space 9 is doing it for me. That isn’t to say I am not liking it; it is just that the cast is taking some time for me to connect with. Maybe it is just that this show was hyped up to me by friends as the best Trek show, but it just isn’t working as well as it could for me. Even this early it is noticeably darker than other Star Trek shows. (I am given to understand that this aspect gets more prominent as the show goes.) There is a lot of potential here, but I do not think the show reaches it in the first season.

The Innocence Files – It is kind of sad that Tiger King is the docu-series that has taken the world by storm, because this is the better series. The Innocence Files deals with people who were wrongfully convicted. Its nine episodes deal with three different categories of wrongful convictions. It looks at junk science evidence, at faulty eyewitness testimony, and at prosecutorial misconduct. All three can lead to putting innocent people behind bars. The first looks at bite-mark evidence, which it largely unconfirmed (or outright debunked) results and inconsistent methodology. However, when the state puts a man with Dr. before his name on the stand and he says the evidence proves someone did it, it is powerful for the jury. Eyewitness testimony is known to frequently be unreliable, but our criminal justice system is very reliant on it. It just shows all the ways the system can fail, and how hard the system fights against admitting its failures. Amazing show.

How to Fix a Drug Scandal – This is just a shocking look at institutional incompetence and neglect. It shows the different ways that the Massachusetts drug testing labs have failed. There are two separate scandals here. One is about a lab technician who started dipping into the evidence, eventually smoking crack at work. The other is about a lab worker who falsified results to go through the evidence faster. Both undermine the credibility of the criminal justice system. I was not as over the moon with this show as with The Innocence Files, but it is an amazing story.

Little Fires Everywhere – This show finished up and it was mostly strong. Reese Witherspoon has created one of the great TV villains on this show as a nice (white) lady who is just trying to help, and she just keeps digging and trying to force things to be exactly what she wants it to be and becoming more monstrous as the show goes on. She is not the only flawed character on the show, almost all of the characters make mistakes. But she is unique in how she keeps doubling down on those mistakes and refusing to learn from them. This show isn’t really my thing overall, but it was really well done.

The Big Show Show – There is no reason to watch this. I mean, it isn’t the worst thing I’ve ever seen. The Big Show is reasonably good as the affable patriarch to his family. But the show seems to be aiming straight for the middle and coming up short. The kids are that too precious type that tend to show up in a lot of bottom tier sitcoms. They can work; the youngest daughter is not too different from Louise from Bob’s Burgers. The difference in the quality of the writing around them. I think there is an audience for this type of thing, but it isn’t me.

Brews Brothers – This is another new Netflix sitcom from veteran writer/producer Greg Schaffer and his brother Jeff. It is about two brothers who brew beer, with diametrically opposed views on how it should be done. As things tend to work in sitcoms, they are forced to work together to operate a brewery. It’s pretty raunchy and intermittently funny. I think it started to find itself near the end of the season. I would watch more.

Ozark S3 – This season has got a lot of positive reviews, but I think this show is really starting to lose me. Laura Linney is great. So are Jason Bateman and Julia Garner. I don’t know, I just find myself progressively less interested in the moral decay of this family. I can’t really say why this is. I am not, as a rule, a big fan of this kind of show. I have never made much progress into Breaking Bad. I don’t have a problem with the craft of the show, it just isn’t the kind of story that really interests me. Ozark drew me for its proximity to where I grew up, a relatively short drive from Lake of the Ozarks, but that isn’t enough to carry me through anymore.

Letter for the King – I ended up liking this quite a bit. It is a story about a young kid who wants to be a knight. In the midst of a ceremony raising him to the knighthood, he stumbles onto a quest, which can be guessed from the title. It is a solid fantasy series. Aimed at a somewhat young audience, but still reasonably enjoyable for anyone.

Brooklyn 99 S7 – It was a short season, but Season 7 of Brooklyn 99 continued to be really good. It had a solid set of guest spots for Vanessa Bayer. The demoted Captain Holt was fun for a few episodes. Just some good stuff.

Always Sunny S14 – That this show is still going strong this deep in is amazing. I don’t know that the 14th season is the best, but this show hasn’t really lost a step. The Janitor Always Mops Twice and Thunder Gun 4: Maximum Cool are both great episodes of television. This is just a great show.

Columbo S2 & 3 – I’m working my way through my DVDs of this series. There are some really good episodes in these two seasons. There isn’t a lot of say about individual episodes. I haven’t run into a bad one yet. And Columbo pretty quickly has all the characteristics he’s famous for. Watching him work never gets old.