Jade Empire

I started playing Knights of the Old Republic, but for some reason I felt the need to switch over to Jade Empire, which I ploughed through very quickly. It is not Bioware’s best game, but it is a really interesting one. It is also the first Bioware game that takes place in a world of their creation; all of their previous games were set in established universes, Star Wars and D&D’s Forgotten Realms. They did a lot right with this game, but it doesn’t quite feel like the vision for this game was fully realized.

It kind of pains me to point out the flaws in this game, because I really liked Jade Empire. That, however, doesn’t really mitigate the games problems, chief of which is that the game simply doesn’t feel finished. It starts out with a solid ten or so hours of RPG then ends with a mediocre 5 hour action game. Characters join you in your travels then all but disappear. It feels like all the time spent creating the marvelous world of Jade Empire cut a lot of time that could have been spent creating content for that world. There are a lot of interesting ways to deal with obstacles, but not nearly enough obstacles to deal with. I really enjoyed having a handful of different martial art styles and weapons to use, but by the time your options really open up the game is nearly over. You are joined by a lot of interesting characters, but there isn’t a lot for most of them to do and since you can only bring one along at a time there are not many opportunities to bring them with. The game just ends up feeling slight or incomplete. Especially past the midway point, when all the RPG stuff and sidequests disappear and it just becomes an action game with a leveling system.

That doesn’t even to go into how big of a piece of crap PC port of this game is. It simply doesn’t work a good portion of the time. There are points when the enemies don’t turn hostile and block passages. After I reached the capitol city the game started loading up with the camera pointing straight at the ground about half the time. I just had to quick save and reload to fix it, but it was plenty annoying. I still enjoyed the game, but it did its best to keep from doing so.

While the game doesn’t have quite enough content, what is there is pretty good. It has something of a middle ground between the good and evil of the morality system in Star Wars and the Paragon/Renegade dichotomy. The Way of the Open Palm versus the Way of the Closed Fist tries to not be good and evil, but the game doesn’t really let there be many good actions for Closed Fist. It is kind of a selfless/selfish split. Open Palm players help others out, Closed Fist players tell people to help themselves. The only real problem I have with this system is that it doesn’t really affect anything. There are some accessories that can only be equipped by players of one path or the other, but few of them have effects that aren’t duplicated. The big moral choice that inevitably comes doesn’t rely in any way on the choices the player made before. In some ways that is not a problem, it makes sense that the player could choose either option there, but it makes the morality system somewhat superfluous.

I did enjoy the plot and characters, though it never really rises past the level of cliché. The overall quest, first to find your lost master and then to right a great wrong, is nothing groundbreaking but it is enjoyable and well executed. Your party members can’t help but feel like failures because while most of them are interesting, there is just so little for them to do. Henpecked Hou is kind of hilarious, but he joins in the woods and just sticks around to avoid his wife. Funny, but there isn’t a lot there. Likewise Sky is just sort of there. The only ones with any real plot importance are Silk Fox, who really pushes the player along near the middle of the game and childhood friend and game long companion Dawn Star. Otherwise, they are just slightly amusing character outlines along for the ride.

In many ways Jade Empire feels a lot like the first Mass Effect. The world is cool and it is clear that a lot of time was put into creating it, but it is only explored through a somewhat rough game. Mass Effect got a couple games to fix its problems, and become something else entirely; Jade Empire is only one game. This is all there its. I liked Jade Empire a lot, though I can’t help but be left wanting more in a bad way. What Jade Empire does it does well, it just doesn’t do enough.

Inside Out Review

io

The accepted, though not correct, narrative is that after a nearly unprecedented run of success, Pixar has been flailing a bit with their films lately. I don’t agree with that at all, their previous two films have not been as well received but we just as good as the first ten or so. The one black mark on their resume is Cars 2. The difference now is that Pixar actually has competition putting out good animated films. The Disney ship has been righted over the last few years and Dreamworks has put out a couple of good movies. No matter what you think of Brave or Monsters University, with Inside Out, Pixar is unquestionably on top of its game.

Inside Out is about a young girl, Riley, and the emotions that control her brain. That is the big hook of this movie; it is about a handful of entities representing the different emotions that control this girl and everyone else. Joy takes the lead, making it her, and her companion’s, mission to keep Riley happy. When her family moves from Minnesota to California, her emotions have trouble dealing with it. Joy and Sadness end up removed from the control center. It is really a quite brilliant premise, both amusing and affecting. I don’t know that the metaphor of these emotions quite hold up through all the little details, but it is packed with enough energy that it really doesn’t matter. Inside Out pulls out a very effective twist. It starts as Joy’s quest to get back and make Riley happy again, but it really becomes her journey to realize that Sadness is just as important as Joy to a person’s emotional health.

Like all the best Pixar films, it toes the line between being a children’s movie and a mature film. Because Inside Out is packed with mature themes, in the sense of being actually mature, not in the sense of having nudity and cusses. The human characters don’t do a lot; they are merely learning a new place, but still the end up feeling very human. There is no big action or humor plot, just a girl having a tough time adjusting to a cross country move. That being said, it perfectly nails a truthfully all ages approach to humor. Inside Out evokes many emotions, but it is one of Pixar’s funniest films. Looney Tunes sight gags and clever word play are the order of the day, especially with the emotions left in the control center. Disgust is constantly disaffected by everything, Fear has a terrified manic energy and Anger is a delightful hothead. Possibly the best gag in the movie is the brief look it gives into the emotions of Riley’s mother and father. It isn’t a particularly inspired bit of comedy, but it is undeniably funny.

The true emotional content comes from the adventures of Joy and Sadness, who must trek back from Long Term Memory before Riley’s life goes completely off the rails. The meet up with Riley’s somewhat shady former imaginary friend and try to board the train of thought. There are plenty of amusing bits, but it is here that the various emotional lessons are learned.

Inside Out is terrific. It might not be quite as good as the absolute best of Pixar’s catalogue. I wouldn’t put it above Wall-E, Up or The Incredibles. But it is right there in that next echelon of truly excellent movies. This is one of the best animated movies to come out in the last five years.

*****

What I Read in May 2015

May was another eight book month for me, propped up by a quick run through of the rest of the good Star Wars books. I might read some more next month, I have never read Zahn’s later Star Wars books, but I think I am about done with those for now. I really don’t have a lot to say about them, they are largely simple books. I also finished with Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series and with Edding’s Mallorean, which frees me up next month to move on to some different authors.

May158

Timeless

Gail Carriger

This is the last of the Parasol Protectorate series, and it does a great job of trying everything up. It doesn’t do anything to move beyond the designation of “bon bon book”, but that doesn’t make it any less entertaining. This time Alexia and her compatriots make a trip to Egypt to meet an ancient vampire that lives there, as well as to get to the bottom of the so-called God Breaker Plague. It doesn’t quite add mummies to the combination of vampires and werewolves, but it does enough with that third of the monster triumvirate. Without spoiling the twist, there are varying motives for the call to have Lady Maccon and her unique family visit this vampire hive. And for once, things don’t appear certain to work out perfectly happily.

I greatly enjoyed this series. They aren’t the deepest books, but they are charmingly written and plotted. They are just pure fun. I look forward to picking up the books in the sequel series, as well as the forthcoming conclusion to her Finishing School books.

May154

The Krytos Trap

Michael Stackpole

The third X-Wing book is my least favorite of the series. This one gets even further away from pilots flying X-Wings than Wedge’s Gamble did. Protagonist Corran Horn is captured by Isard and held in her inescapable prison, while his completely innocent wingman Tycho is on trial for his apparent murder. Meanwhile, Isard has released a plague on the newly freed Coruscant that is bankrupting the alliance in their attempts to cure it. The Krytos Trap is still an enjoyable book, but it gets kind of ridiculous as it goes on, with copious deceptions and bluffs and double bluffs and misdirections all over the place. It isn’t truly hard to follow, everything is laid out rather clearly, but many of the plans are needlessly complex. Corran, stuck in prison, isn’t able to do anything and what the rest of the team spends most of their time doing, defending Tycho, turns out to be useless as well. Still, it does set the stage for Stackpole’s excellent final book, at least for a while.

May155

The Bacta War

Michael Stackpole

This one gets back to the good stuff. Rogue Squadron goes rogue, leaving the Alliance to chase down Isard to where she fled to at the end of the last book. Of course, one squadron of X-Wings is no match for a Super Star Destroyer, so they must find help. This book closes up most of the plot threads that Stackpole has been working with since the first book and it provides some of the best action in the series so far. The team wages a guerrilla war on Isard, systematically dismantling her small fleet that holds her monopoly on bacta, the Star Wars miracle dug. The only real problem I have with this book is that by this point Stackpole has established most of the squadron with fully realized characters and does little to make them seem in danger. And that is held true with how few casualties they have. I really do like the conclusion of Corran and Mirax’s romance, which is one of the most fun parts of this series.

May152

Heir to the Empire

Timothy Zahn

Zahn’s Star Wars books, though they are contradicted in many ways by the wholly inferior prequel movies, are the best that the Star Wars EU has to offer. With this first book, he does a great job of nailing the voices of the main trio, Luke, Leia and Han, and adds in a handful of compelling new characters. The most compelling of those is the new villain, Grand Admiral Thrawn. He has a great visual, with the blue skin and glowing red eyes, as well a more considered approach than Vader’s murderous one, though he is no less dangerous. Like any great start to any multi part saga, Heir to the Empire tells a great small story while also setting up the conflicts that will come up in the later books. This book has the remnant of the Empire, now under the control of Thrawn, starting some kind of big new plan. The heroes are beset by alien assassins trying to kill the pregnant Leia while they turn to Lando and new character Talon Karrde to help them with secure some former smugglers to help with shipping.

May153

Dark Force Rising

Timothy Zahn

Things continue here, with Luke meeting with supposed Jedi Master Joruus C’Baoth while Lando and Han look for the lost Katana fleet and Leia goes to the home of the Noghri to learn how Vader supposedly helped them. Meanwhile, there are power plays going on in the new Alliance Capitol that could disrupt the war effort. Aside from Thrawn, Zahn also introduced a few other highly memorable characters to Star Wars. Talon Karrde is the secretive leader of a smuggling ring. He is not Han Solo, the rogue with a heart of gold, he is a more pragmatic opportunist. Unfortunately, his attempts to stay neutral in the galactic Civil War and his access to some choice knowledge eventually force him onto the side of the angels. While he isn’t one to do the right thing because it is right, he does have a certain sense of honor, including repaying his debts. The other is the first in the fairly long line of women introduced to be Luke’s love interest. Luke’s love life is fertile ground that was largely left untouched in the movies, and Mara Jade is easily the best character introduced as a potential love interest. She is a sort of apprentice of the Emperor, trained with some rudimentary force knowledge to be his assassin. She doesn’t have any conscious use of the force, but enough of certain skills to be useful to the Emperor. Her connection to him allowed him to give her one last order before he died, to kill Luke. Her gradual shift from hating Luke to realizing his innate goodness is some great character development over the course of this series. Again, this book does a great job of maintaining the feel of Star Wars, giving all of the main characters plenty to do but never running short of new ideas and situations.

May151

The Last Command

Timothy Zahn

The conclusion has everyone meeting up at a backwater planet that houses some preserved cloning facilities. This plot thread about the Clone Wars is where this book is completely different from what the prequels established, but I have to say that this series version of the Clone Wars far excels that of the movies. Thrawn made a deal with the devil to recruit the services of the mad Jedi clone Joruus C’Baoth and now the clone tries to take over. He used the clones Force powers to help control his troops, especially the mentally weak ones he is churning out of the cloning facilities. And while Thrawn has measures in place to deal with him, it is a distraction. Luke also battles C’Baoth, as well as a clone made from the hand he lost on Bespin. His only ally is Mara Jade, who is just as likely to want to kill him. Han and Lando are there, but they are distracted by trying to take out the cloning facility and Leia has to deal with problems on the effectively blockaded Capitol. This book is just as good as the previous two, though I don’t know how well the final showdown between Luke Luuke and C’Baoth works. It is also disappointing that Thrawn gets dispatched. His end is fitting and deserved, but it would have been nice to keep such an effective threat around for later books.

May157

The Seeress of Kell

David Eddings

I never really warmed to this series. It ends just as strangely as it started. It is anticlimactic and sees the main character sidelined for a big part of its climax. The ever growing gang finally reaches their destination and they actually use their powers, some. I don’t really want to tear this series down, I didn’t like it but I don’t feel the need to hate it. It wasn’t awful or offensive, I just didn’t like it. I will not seek out other books by Eddings. I’m done.

May156

John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood

Michael D Sellers

This is an interesting look at just what went wrong with Disney’s John Carter movie. While I would argue that the film itself is excellent, there is no denying that it was a significant flop for the company. It is written by a fan of Burroughs’ Sword and Planet series who not only watched as the film was left to die as it was released, but who actually cut some fan trailers and contacted Disney about helping with marketing. So he definitely has an agenda. This book is far from perfect, a lot of page space is spent expounding on numbers of social media posts instead of drawing conclusions about why the numbers were what they were and what those numbers meant. It does set a pretty clear series of events that led to Disney’s disinterested marketing of their very expensive movie.

It is really a stunning tale of incompetent and lack of interest. It was the last movie greenlit by a leaving studio head, working from a mandate that was no longer necessary, with marketing lead without any strategy by another employee that was leaving the company. When work on John Carter was starting, Disney was desperate to get into the teenage boy market, but the time it was to be released they had bought Marvel Comics (and were working on buying Star Wars), which pretty well secured that market, making John Carter redundant. Without anyone passionate for the project left at the Disney office, they simply left it to die, seemingly hoping that the name of the Pixar veteran director to sell the movie. Then they threw it under the buss as a massive flop just as it was released. It is a sad tale, since John Carter is a damn good movie based on some very entertaining books.

Unrequested Thoughts on E3

So E3 was this last week and I spent too much time streaming it. It is always a good time. Now it is time for me to share my thoughts about everything I saw, since I am sure that everyone is waiting with baited breath to hear what I think. Last year I was blown away by Nintendo’s excellent Direct while Sony and Microsoft bumbled through awkward and disappointing presentations. This year there was not such a clear cut winner, but there was still a lot of good stuff to see.

If I had to pick a “winner” of the show, it would be Sony. They had the most exciting stuff to show, though most of it won’t be anywhere near store shelves until next year at the earliest. Still, the announcement of a remake of FFVII is plenty exciting. FFVII is not the best game in the series, and it has a lot of moments that won’t really translated into HD all that well, but it is still an intriguing prospect, even if just to see how modern Square Enix deals with the work of the old Squaresoft. They also finally showed more of the long delayed The Last Guardian. That game has me very close to wanting to get a PS4, though like many people who bought a PS3 to play that same game I will wait until it is out to make the jump. Unless, of course, something else pushes me over the edge first. Sony also announced a Kickstarter for Shenmue 3. I have no attachment to that series, but the overwhelming success of the campaign is amazing. I’m not sure how much I like a company the size of Sony using Kickstarter to fund a game, but if that is the only way the game can get made no big deal. Horizon: Zero Dawn also looked very good. I want to know more about how the game will work, but what they showed was impressive. Too much of Sony’s stuff was really far off, but I definitely want to play a lot of it.

Microsoft actually showed some good stuff this year. Backwards compatibility is a nice addition, though it is both very late and seemingly not very well supported. Still, it is a smart move. They also announced a Rare compilation. Sure, they haven’t made a good game in about a decade, but they have some really great stuff from the 80’s and 90’s. I am disappointed to see that it won’t have any Wizards and Warriors games, but a lot of their N64 games were good and some of their NES games were excellent. I always really liked Solar Jetman. Their indie exclusive Cuphead was one of the best looking games of the show, with amazing looking 30’s style animation. There was also ReCore, from Keiji Inafune, which looks promising, if far off. Most of the rest of Mircosoft’s offerings continued to not interest me much, but at least this was a positive showing.

Nintendo’s E3 has been met with considerable cries disappointment, but I can’t say I agree with the people who found it so. No, they didn’t match last year’s show. Last year had them firing desperately on all cylinders, showing off some new games, like Splatoon and Codename STEAM, as well as new games from favorite series, like Kirby, Star Fox and Legend of Zelda. This year they didn’t have all that, Nintendo stuck to mostly what they have coming out the rest of this year. Unfortunately, a lot of that stuff was shown last year. They had some intriguing new 3DS games, but the only new WiiU offering they had was a new Mario Tennis, likely fun but certainly not exciting. Still, Nintendo definitely had the most stuff that I will play before next year’s E3. If you include the Smash Bros stuff and the Nintendo World Championship, Nintendo had a more than good show.

The WiiU might be heading for a premature grave, but Nintendo has got a solid slate coming out this fall. Fatal Frame 5 is supposedly coming this fall, as is Devil’s Third. Neither of those are really up my alley, but they both could be solid games. They also have the much anticipated Xenoblade X and Yoshi’s Wooly World. Those were both focuses of last year’s show and they still look great this year. They blew the lid off the new Star Fox game, now named Star Fox Zero, also due late this year and it looks excellent. The most exciting thing they showed for the system was Super Mario Maker, which just keeps adding interesting features. The crazy stuff they made for the NWC was mind blowing. The sheer wealth of options in that game is promising, even if I don’t expect most people to create anything truly fun with it. Still, the cream of that crop is sure to be magical. The most baffling showing they had for the system was for Genei Ibunroku #FE, formerly known as SMT vs FE. It is not at all what I expected from a combination of those two series. It looks like it will play like the recent Persona games, which I love, but with the mythical persona’s replaced with Fire Emblem characters. The story stuff looks dumb, but it might be still be highly entertaining. Other than that game, I think everything else they showed for the WiiU is due out in 2015. Does that mean that Nintendo doesn’t have anything else in the pipeline for the WiiU after this year, other than Zelda? I hope not, but it seems possible. The continued sales failure of the WiiU is disappointing, since the system has about the best array of exclusives this side of the Dreamcast.

Most of Nintendo’s big announcements were for 3DS, which before this was looking to have slim offerings coming this fall. The addition of Zelda Triforce Heroes, an updated take on Four Swords, is something I’ve really wanted. The Four Swords games were hampered by the technology for playing them (really, who had 4 GBAs and link cable to play the Gamecube one?) but were sublime experiences in the right circumstances. They also announced Mario & Luigi Paper Jam, a combination of the Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi series. The concept is just great, even if the last games in each series were a little disappointing. The third new game, Metroid Prime Federation Force, has generated a lot of complaints from whiny pissbabies. It is not a “true” Metroid game, instead being a co-op shooter starring generic space marines. It is not necessarily what I wanted from a new Metroid game, but reaction it has gotten is comical.

In all, it was a really good show this year. No one really blew me away, but neither did any one crap the bed. I am still not completely sold on the idea of getting a PS4 or XBOne, though I am leaning somewhat closer to picking up a PS4. Honestly, I am still more than happy with my Nintendo systems and PS3. With the big N’s second half offerings and Yakuza 5 and Persona 5 on PS3, I see no need to rush to upgrade.

Top 5 Games of E3 2015:

  1. Super Mario Maker
  2. Cuphead
  3. The Last Guardian
  4. Horizon: Zero Dawn
  5. Star Fox Zero

Etrian Mystery Dungeon

It has taken me the better part of two months, but I have finally hacked my way through the main game of Etrian Mystery Dungeon. I enjoyed it quite a bit, but near the end I really had to force myself to keep playing it. I am tempted to call it two great tastes that taste great together, but I’m not sure I believe that. I love Etrian Odyssey’s brand of first person dungeon crawling, slowly and painstakingly building a team as I map out a dungeon. That is exactly my thing. But I am not a fan of the Mystery Dungeon part of the equation. Etrian Mystery Dungeon is enjoyable in spite of its roguelike elements, not because of a fusion of them and Etrian’s dungeon hack. Despite how good the game turned out, its two parent series never really stop warring.

I really just don’t like Mystery Dungeons or roguelikes. I don’t have a moronic, early 00’s hate for them like the ‘esteemed’ magazine Game Informer, which relished dropping low scores on Mystery Dungeon games for the crime of being Mystery Dungeon games and not just JRPGs. I’ve given the genre several chances to win me over and I am able to see what draws people to them. I’ve read Retronauts’ Jeremy Parish wax on about Shiren the Wanderer all over the place and I see where he’s coming from. That doesn’t change the fact that each of my attempts to enjoy the genre have failed utterly. I didn’t much like Shiren or Izuna the Unemployed Ninja or Chocobo’s Mystery Dungeon. I was forced to the conclusion that I just do not like those sorts of games.

My indifference to roguelikes is why I was initially going to skip Etrian Mystery Dungeon, but strong reviews that highlighted the class building side of the game won me over. I am glad it did. It does the Etrian Odyssey character building very well. It may look like Shiren, but the team building is just like EO. It has a pretty standard array of classes, with the addition of a Wanderer class straight from the Shiren games. Building up a wide stable of characters while exploring the various dungeons is as engrossing as ever and it is easier to spread the love around thanks to the characters getting plenty of experience sitting on the bench or in forts. It makes for an addictive game, taunting the player to go down one more floor or to get one more level and keep building those characters.

The forts are where the two different branches of games fight with each other. While exploring the randomly generated dungeons, players can build a fort. Those forts lock in the surrounding floors of the dungeon. It is the static nature of the EO games clashing with the randomness of the roguelike. Periodically, super-powerful monsters, called DOEs, from deep in the dungeon will rise up and make for the town. The player can confront them with a party or by simply manning the forts with back up party members. If they lose, then the monster will destroy the fort. If there is no fort to block them, then they can rampage into the town.

Those monsters are a big reason why I didn’t want to play the game after a certain point. Those monsters don’t really play fair and the constant drain on resources it takes to battle them can be frustrating. The permanence of the gains made by an Etrian party doesn’t mix well with the frequent loss of everything that happens with Mystery Dungeons games.The DOEs are constantly coming to destroy the player’s hard earned progress. They really aren’t that big of a deterrent, most dungeons are cleared before more than a couple of them can make their way up from the depths.

I don’t know that this game actually managed to meld these two very different kinds of dungeon crawlers into a cohesive experience. However, Etrian Mystery Dungeon is still a really good game. I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as I do regular Etrain Odyssey games, but I still liked it. The forts that help keep benched party members leveled up is a good system that I hope makes it into latter EO games. If you happen to enjoy Mystery Dungeon style games more than I do this game should be an absolute blast. Even if you only like one of the two ingredients of this it is still a good time.

Now Playing in May 2015

Other than the games I beat, I didn’t play any games for all that long this month. I put a little time in on several, but most of my time was spent with the four I finished. I don’t expect next month to be all that different. I have a Bioware or two on deck and I want to finish Paper Mario, but I don’t see how I’m going to have time for much else. I did just buy Splatoon, but I doubt I will be buying many more games next month. I might, really should, get back into Monster Hunter 4, but I don’t know if I will.

Finished

Yoshi’s New Island – see here.

Mario & Luigi: Dream Team – see here.

Mass Effect 3 – see here.

Trine Enchanted Edition –

trine

I already owned the original version of this through a Humble Bundle, but it is likely I would never have played it if it hadn’t come to WiiU. Trine 2 was one of the first games I played on the machine and I loved it. This first one is more of the same, but it isn’t quite as good. The sequel takes the same concept but it feels more refined, as a sequel should. Trine 1 requires less combining of the three heroes’ skills and more sections that any character can get through with just their own skills. The core gameplay is just as fun, but the second game is just a tighter experience. Still, this is a very good game and I am glad to have played it.

Ongoing

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic – I haven’t made a ton of progress in this, but I did get started. It is very much a Bioware game; it feels like a step between Baldur’s Gate and Mass Effect. The biggest problem with playing it is that it just doesn’t play as smoothly as Baldur’s Gate or Mass Effect. It doesn’t just work as well as BG with a mouse and I can’t play it easily with a controller. Still, I really like it.

Wooden Sen’Sey – I’ve only played one stage and it really didn’t grab me. I picked it up on the cheap, so I’m not out much, but it just isn’t grabbing me. It is not a badly made game, but it lacks something compelling to make me want to play it. It isn’t that the game doesn’t work right; the controls and mechanics are fine. It just doesn’t feel fluid, the game has no rhythm; it just sorts of plods along. Maybe, hopefully, it gets better. I will certainly give it more of a chance to prove itself.

Fluidity Spin Cycle – The concept of this game is so good, too bad the stages get so ungodly finicky and intricate by midway point, let alone the end. The idea of controlling a puddle of water instead of a solid character is great; trying to jumping platforming with that puddle is less great. The difficulty is not so much from figuring out what to do or how to do it, but in wrangling the puddle into doing it. It becomes more frustrating than enjoyable. So while I put this in ongoing, I am likely done with it, having beaten about two thirds of the characters.

Paper Mario –

papwem

I didn’t make the progress I wanted to in this. In fact, I made it exactly as far as I did when I first tried to play it years ago: just past the first chapter. It still really like it and this time I plan on sticking with it. I just didn’t end up with the WiiU time I was expecting, and much of what I had was spent with Trine. It isn’t as ungodly frustrating with pointless jabbering; it actually hits much closer to the mark of enjoyable banter. Having played later Mario RPGs, it feels a little basic, but I know it gets more complex as it goes. This is a game I am crossing off my backlog this year, no question.

Etrian Mystery Dungeon – My progress on this has stalled. I like it, but I am having trouble mustering up the enthusiasm to turn it on. I hope to get it finished next month.

Persona 2 Eternal Punishment – I have been making really slow progress through this. The game is good, but there are some barriers between playing and enjoying it. I am enjoying it.

Upcoming

Splatoon – I’ve got it coming in the mail. I was on the fence, but reviews comparing the single player game to Mario Galaxy, in tone if not in consistent quality, pushed me over.

Jade Empire – When I’m done with KotOR, this is the Bioware game I have up next.

Yakuza 4 – Either this or Ratchet and Clank Into the Nexus is what I’m playing next on my PS3. Both have been near the top of my playlist for months, but I keep pushing them back.

Inazuma Eleven – I downloaded this a long time ago, but I kind of got distracted. I plan on getting back to it.

 

What I Watched May 2015

The largest part of my movie viewing this month was watching through the Star Wars movies with my little brother. I also caught some classics on TCM, really good stuff. I did see a couple of movies in theaters, one I liked more the more I thought about it and one that did not hold up so well to any sort of reflection. Those being Mad Max and Avengers Age of Ultron respectively.

Movies

Star Wars – Still great after all these years. *****

The Empire Strikes Back – Better than the first. The love story might be between Leia and Han, but the most compelling interactions are between Han and C-3P0 *****

Return of the Jedi – The space battle at the end is still the best committed to film, though some other parts sag a little. *****

The Phantom Menace – It really feels like the rough draft of something that could have been good. I had forgotten just how insufferable Jar Jar was. **

Attack of the Clones – Good Lord, there is little to recommend here. *1/2

Revenge of the Sith – This fails mostly because of how unbelievable Anakin’s turn is. It is just so ridiculous. **

Sunset Boulevard – Amazing movie. I do think its reputation is aided by Hollywood’s love of movies about Hollywood, though. *****

North By Northwest – Holy crap this is great. *****

Mad Max Fury Road – See here. Also, I saw it in theaters 3 times. I wish I had gone one more time. *****

Avengers: Age of Ultron – See here. ****

Lawless – Tom Hardy mumbles his way through this Prohibition Era crime movie. There is nothing all that great here, but it is a solid effort. ***1/3

Twins – They could have done more with the premise of DeVito and Schwarzenegger being twin brothers, but instead it gets caught up in some plot about stolen technology. Still, there are just enough laughs to not be a complete waste of time. ***

The Princess Bride – Still among my favorite movies. I love everything about it, from Andre the Giant to the swordfights to Peter Falk. *****

This is Spinal Tap – There is never a bad time to watch this. *****

The Interview – This is really only notable for the controversy about its release. I think the movie theaters, and Sony, were cowardly to not release it in theaters. Still, there nothing here worth getting excited or upset about. **1/2

Space Jam – I remember this being better in a cheesy, ridiculous sort of way. It isn’t. The premise is great, the execution is completely flat. *1/2

30 for 30: Once Brothers – A touching documentary about basketball players ripped apart by the civil war in the former Yugoslavia. ****

TV

Magnum PI Season 4 – I love how much this show loves mystery writers. They are constantly being brought up as part of the plot. Also, it is just a great show.

Poirot Series 3 – This series has as much affection for mystery writers as Magnum. These are all well made, but not particularly exciting.

Hitler and the Nazis – A documentary about the rise and fall of Hitler and the Nazi’s. There is something horrifically fascinating about this hateful regime and how people let it happen. This was a pretty good look at it, though its length does not let it be that detailed.

Ken Burns Prohibition – A look at America’s failed attempt to make liquor illegal, that recounts all of the reasons and ways that it went awry. A really interesting look at a really interesting time.

Mario & Luigi Dream Team

With Mario & Luigi Superstar Saga, Nintendo hit on a near perfect formula for making Mario RPGs. Using the A button for Mario and B for Luigi in both the platforming and in the timing based battle system was brilliant. The inventive gameplay would have been enough to carry things, but that game also featured a charming story that made the most of the Mario Universe. The first game received accolades for its story, especially the new villain Fawful, who spouts inspired gibberish as he hassles the Mario brothers throughout the Beanbean Kingdom.

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The seeds of the series’ downfall lie in that lauded story. Future games, no longer hampered by the relatively small cartridge space of the GBA, expanded on that charming dialogue, much to the games detriment. The first sequel, Partners in Time, was widely dismissed as an overly talky slog. Bowser’s Inside Story seemed to regain the series luster, but even that game was all kinds of too chatty. It was easier to accept, since much of that chattiness was from the highly amusing Bowser and the returning Fawful. The 3DS entry in the series, Dream Team, is even chattier than the others. It makes playing an outright chore. It is not that the dialogue is bad or that the story isn’t amusing, it is just that there is so much of it. The entire game slows to a crawl anytime you have to talk to anybody.

Also, the characters just don’t have the charm of the first and third games. Bowser is still great, but he doesn’t play that big a role in this game. There is no Fawful and the villainous replacements lack anything like his charm. The new allies similarly fall flat. There are quite a few humorous moments, but a lot of it is just dull. The worst part is, all the excess dialogue is completely unneeded. The biggest part of the humor comes from the excellent animation. Mario and Luigi more with charming grace and since neither of them talk, they do all of their conversing with delightful pantomime. Seeing Luigi tap his head as he tries to think never stops being amusing. Everything else looks similarly great.

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Also, the gameplay is largely excellent. Much of it is the same thing that the series has been peddling since the first game. There is still plenty of rudimentary platforming where you have to control both brothers in tandem. It is still fun. The battles are all about timing and using the right attacks; how enjoyable it is largely dependent on how good the player is at avoiding enemy attacks. Then there are the dream segments. Luigi falls asleep and Mario jumps into his head and into the dream world. There, the dream version of Luigi is able to merge with things in the background and through the touch screen affect the world. The game gets to stretch its legs and largely puts the touch screen to good use. There are some uses of 3DS functionality that just don’t work, though, mostly involving using the tilt functions. Tilting the screen around while you play seems like a good idea, but it rarely works out. Dream Team has a lot more hits than misses, making for what should be a fun experience.

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It all comes back to the fact that any enjoyment there is to be had in the game is almost completely destroyed by the incessant, pace breaking jabbering. It never lets up and it is never interesting. So many times the game has a cutscene where the characters joke and meander through a plot point for way too long only to stop the player immediately after it ends to recap it all one more time. It is tiresome. It you can get past that, or are able to appreciate the charm through the excess there is a lot to like about this game. I could not.

What a Lovely Day!

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Filmmakers attempting to return to the series’ that made them famous don’t tend to work out well. George Lucas made something of a dog’s breakfast with the Star Wars prequels and Ridley Scott’s Prometheus tried to excise its Alien connections until the movie didn’t make sense. I assumed that would be the case with George Miller’s return to Mad Max. Mad Max Fury Road made those concerns seem foolish. Fury Road feels like Miller was storing up energy for decades and it all explodes into one powerful, muscular movie. Mad Max Fury Road shows up every action movie of the last decade, making them look tame and heartless. It manages to tell a more coherent story than nearly any other blockbuster with something like one tenth of the dialogue. It is never pandering or wasteful, just pure essential action. It is an exhilarating rush unlike anything in years.

Tom Hardy stars as Max, a former cop turned loner in a post-apocalyptic world that is haunted by visions of his dead family. He is captured by a group of Immortan Joe’s War Boys and becomes their prisoner and “blood bag.” When Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) frees Tom’s breeder wives and heads for “The Green Place” the War Boys, with Max in tow, tear off after her, igniting the chase that takes up the rest of the film.

For the simplicity of its plot, Fury Road tells a fairly complex tale. There are probably fewer lines in this whole move than are spoken by just Iron Man in Avengers: Age of Ultron, but you learn more about the characters here despite how little they say. In something of a shocker for a modern action movie, the characters actually have arcs. Nux, a War Boy that ends up enmeshed with Max and Furiosa, starts out as a full-fledged believer in Immortan Joe’s homecooked religion. He wants nothing more than to die in service to the Warlord, so he can live again in Valhalla, shiny and chrome. He is crushed when he fails in front of his hero, then crushed even more as he comes to realize that maybe Immortan is not as all powerful as he claims. By the end of the movie, he has freed himself from Immortan Joe’s self-serving thumb. The wives also have arcs to go through, at first overwhelmed by the world outside of the Citadel where they had been held, but each of the five moves on in their own way, all of them becoming more self-reliant. Max goes through quite the change as well, starting the movie as all but feral and by the end coming to once again see some hope in the idea of human society. The only one of the main characters that doesn’t change over the course of the movie is Furiosa. Theron’s character is completely unforgettable, but her change has happened before the movie starts. Once she takes the wives from the Citadel she is set on her path. Still, she is the character that the viewer latches onto.

The biggest drawn is the action and Fury Road absolutely delivers. Nearly the entire movie is the chase, and its three big action sequences are exquisite. There is little weightless CGI, the movie is largely done with practical effects. It makes everything feel all the more real, since much of it is. Nothing is pointless or extraneous. It plays out like a delicate ballet of destruction, both exhilarating and by the end a little exhausting. The characters on screen are tired from their ordeal and the viewer feels that as well, the action is so visceral one can’t help but get swept up.

I have praised action movies before, but Mad Max Fury Road makes me realize how empty most of the genre has been for years. The joyous absurdity of Furious 7 feels pales to Fury Road, and it makes Avengers Age of Ultron look sick. There is no scene in either of those that touches any of the action sequences in Fury Road. They might be fun, enjoyable movies, but Mad Max Fury Road is on another plane of existence entirely.

*****