Now Playing June 2020

Beaten

Shantae and the Seven Sirens – I wish I had more to say about this game. It’s good. Really good. Maybe not as good as Pirate’s Curse from a half decade ago, but Seven Sirens is a solid execution of the Metroidvania formula. It doesn’t have the best designed map, but there are a nice variety of powers to find and the game looks and plays wonderfully. But it is just a new Metroidvania; there really isn’t anything here that hasn’t been done before. Sometimes all you want is a comfort food, and Shantae and the Seven Sirens delivers that in spades. It is a really good game, but not one I have a lot to say about.

Tales of Vesperia – Read about it here.

Jake Hunter: Ghost of the Dusk – A 3DS detective game. It has a bunch of smaller cases that I haven’t yet finished, but the game’s big case is done with. I liked it well enough. It is decently translated, with a few parts that seem a little ill-fitting but for the most part being well told. The game sets up an interesting mystery to center things around, but my one big complaint with it is that it becomes kind of obvious. There aren’t really any red herring or misdirections, making it play out a little more like a procedural than a mystery. It is pretty early when it is clear what the resolution of a lot of the major mysteries is pretty early on. Still, I mostly enjoyed my time with it, and will likely check in with it later ro finish up some of those other stories.

Ongoing

Final Fantasy II – Some progress made, same concerns that always put me off before are putting me off again. I don’t want to dig too deep into it right now, but I will say that the leveling mechanics of Final Fantasy 2 are more interesting than good.

Final Fantasy VII – I progressed through another decent sized chunk of this game. I have been too busy to give it a lot of time, but I pushed through some early areas after leaving Midgar. The game simultaneously opens up and loses steam at that point. The player is finally out of the giant, dingy, dystopian city and dumped into what appears to be a fairly normal jrpg world. You also get a better sense of the imperialist power of Shinra. Nobody outside of Midgar seems to like them, but other than a few places most have accepted their dominance. The game also chooses that time to give an info dump about Sephiroth. It makes sense; while he has been mentioned a few times, Sephiroth did not really come into the story until right before escaping Midgar. Now the rest of the party is demanding answers from Cloud, and he has to give them. So the game starts to dig into the backstory.

Yakuza 4 – I started this up and played the first few hours of it. It is such an improvement over Yakuza 3. It looks a lot better, it plays a lot better. However, nothing important changed; it is still Yakuza. The game kind of has it both ways in terms of starting slowly and getting right into it. As the game starts with the player playing as Shun Akiyama, it is not immediately clear how he is connected to events. Akiyama is one of my favorite characters in the series; he has a kind of louche charm that contrasts nicely with Kiryu’s more straightlaced acceptance. He is also a good choice to ease players into not controlling Kiryu. I hope the rest of the game holds up, though I’ve always thought of Yakuza 4 as a lesser game in the series.

SteamWorld Quest – Still progressing, although slowly. I like everything about this game from an aesthetic point of view. I like a lot of the story so far. I am still not really warming to the card based battle system, and I’m far enough in that I doubt I ever actually will. As with every card-based rpg battle system, SteamWorld Quest turns every battle into a maddening struggle against randomness. This game is not the worst in that respect, but I don’t see what the games gain from this system over just having a ‘normal’ battle system.

Upcoming

Okami – I might have some Switch time, and this game is just sitting there. If I have time, then it will get some play. I have beaten Okami once and gotten about halfway through it a couple more times, but maybe having it handheld will help me get to the end of it again.

More Final Fantasy – I hope to finish II and VII before too long. I am planning something of a series replay, inclusive of many of the spin-offs. With 1 and 15 recently beaten, as well as the ports of 8 and 12 in the not too distant past, I have already made significant progress. The Crystal Chronicles remake is coming out in August, but before then I have quite the list of games to get through.

What I Watched June 2020

Movies

Blow the Man Down – An interesting little black comic thriller, something like a lesser Coen Brothers work. Two sisters in a small northeastern fishing town get mixed up in a murder plot, which leads to airing a lot of the towns dirty laundry. It’s pretty good. ***½

The Vast of Night – It’s hard to describe the movie without spoiling it. It is a very old school alien invasion movie, following a couple of young people looking into a possible alien sighting. It is very low budget but entirely captivating. ****½

Sukiyaki Western Django – A delightful mix of western and samurai movies. It is basically just Yojimbo/Fistfull of Dollars. An unnamed gunman wanders into a town that is at the mercy of two warring gangs. Things escalate and a lot of people get shot. It is a lot of fun. ****

Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey – I still love this movie. I can’t wait for the sequel. *****

An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn – I did not like this at all. Someone else described it as absurd but humorless, which is pretty accurate. That is doubly disappointing because it is full of people who generally do stuff I like, but this was a misfire. *½

The Nice Guys – yup, it’s still great. *****

Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade – I watched a lot of comfort food movies this month. It felt necessary. *****

The Night Clerk – A would be erotic thriller starring Tye Sheridan and Ana de Armas. It doesn’t quite work. Sheridan is a man with Asperger’s who works as a night clerk at a hotel. He ends up as the lone witness to a murder in the hotel, as well as possessing video evidence of the crime. He is transferred to another hotel and meets a beautiful woman. Thriller things happen without any particular verve. **½

Da 5 Bloods – Review coming soon. (Hold me to this) This movie is pretty great. ****½

13th – This should be required viewing for everyone.  Just an amazing film. *****

The Disaster Artist – My thoughts on this haven’t changed. It is largely enjoyable. ***1/3

Back to the Future Part III – Nothing new to say. I love this series. *****

Hail, Caesar! – This movie rises in my estimation every time I watch it. I think it is the most underrated Coens movie. *****

For Love or Money – Michael J Fox and Gabrielle Anwar are charming to sell this movie, but it feels like a setup without a story. I guess it works, I enjoyed my time with it, but it still feels like a missed opportunity. ***

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga – There is a lot of Ferrell’s work in stuff like The Spoils of Babylon and Casa de mi Padre in this, while also not being too far from his more commercially successful stuff like Talladega Nights and Blades of Glory. Rachel McAdams is again excellent. This is a sweet, largely funny movie. Definitely worth a watch. ****

The Last Days of American Crime – I hated this movie; it is ugly and incompetent and I don’t want to say anything more. *

TV

The Great British Baking Show – I have watched everything Great British Baking Show related available on Netflix. I wish there was more; I love it.

Community – This might need its own post. I planned on it having its own post, but I also assumed that I would enjoy watching this show. I have liked watching it when I’ve caught episodes here and there, but I never really sat down and watched Community during its run. It showed up on Netflix recently (I know it’s been streaming elsewhere, but it showing up on Netflix was my motivator to get to it.) I really did expect to enjoy this. There was that prime era of NBC sitcoms in the late aughts and early teens when they were airing The Office, 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, and Community all at the same time. People whose opinions I respect told me that Community was the best of the bunch. I was deep into The Office at the time, slowly warming up to Parks & Rec and 30 Rock, and mourning the loss of My Name is Earl. I only ended up catching Community on repeats of just the occasional episode. Watching it all in order did not do anything to make me like the show. It’s fine. It has a great cast. There are some really funny bits. But overall, the show seemed really impressed with its own cleverness. It was trying to be clever not to be funny, but to show off how clever it is. And it wasn’t actually that clever. Fans of the show hate on the fourth season, but I ended up liking it more than the surrounding seasons. Season 3 felt desperate, with actively not funny recurring bits like Professor Spacetime becoming more and more prominent. Season 5 came back spiteful, eager to settle grudges that led to the change of showrunner in Season 4. Season 4 meanwhile, seemed happy to just execute the premise of the show, that a motley group of community college students had formed a study group. I feel like the show bought its own hype.

Arrested Development – I am sure I’ve written about this show before; for a long time it was my absolute favorite show. I don’t know that it still is. That is not because I think less of the show or because the Netflix seasons (which I like quite a but) but because I think some of the shows that came up in its wake, like 30 Rock, are maybe just a little bit better. Still, rewatching it from the start for the first time in a couple of years was fun. This show hits the ground running and maintains a high level of excellence throughout its original run.

What We Do In the Shadows S2 – This show somehow got better. It is managing to build on the mythology of the show and have some forward progress for its characters while still being largely an episodic sitcom. Everyone on the show is great, but I am really growing to enjoy Colin Robinson. This is probably the best show currently running.

Columbo S4-6 – I have a partially written long post about Columbo and how much I love the show. I promise to finish that soon. These three seasons were 15 or so very good episodes of Columbo. Some really memorable murderers, like William Shatner, Patrick McGoohan, Dick Van Dyke, Patrick McGoohan, and Janet Leigh. Good stuff.

Shades of Grey: The Road to High Saffron

“I’m not a big fact person; unproved speculation is more my thing.”

I fell in love with Jasper Fforde’s writing pretty much as soon as I encountered it. That first encounter was by way of a review of one of the later Thursday Next books, I am pretty sure it was One of Our Thursdays is Missing, in the paper. I cannot remember the specifics of what it said, all I knew was that it sounded like it was just for me. So I tracked down a copy of The Eyre Affair and that was pretty much it. While I have not encountered a Fforde novel that I did not like, one clearly stood above the others in my esteem. That is Shades of Grey, a post-apocalyptic science fiction coming of age story that is unlike anything else I have ever read.

It is hard to explain exactly what Shades of Grey is. The genres I listed above are accurate, but they do not really get what the book is across. While it is set in the future after some great disaster, the book largely is not about that. Every other story I can think of with a similar set up would be all about how the world went wrong. It would be dropping hints about how things came to be the way they are, and the protagonist would pretty quickly get wrapped up in a quest to unravel this unfamiliar world’s mysteries. Shades of Grey kind of does that stuff, but it mostly puts it to the side for the first two thirds of the book. Instead, it is a comedy of manners, more akin to something by Jane Austen than another post-apocalyptic science fiction story. That comedy of manners framing works, because explaining the minutia of the color-based society that Eddie Russet lives in creates an effective way to do a lot of world building. The framing also works to establish who and what the characters are. By digging into the doublespeak-esque Munsell’s Rules that govern this world and character obey or appear to obey while flouting the rules does a lot to inform the reader about who they are. The prefects, like the vile Gamboges and the grasping de Mauves, use the rules as clubs to hold over the heads of those they believe lesser than themselves. Meanwhile, Eddie’s dad uses the Rules as a shield to protect the vulnerable.

The start of Shade of Grey gives Eddie a problem. He was set to marry a woman higher up on the chromatic scale than he is. (More on that in a paragraph or so) But thanks to an ill-timed prank, he is sent with his father to the outer fringes, a backwater far from the society he’s known. His father has an important job, taking over as essentially this world’s version of a doctor for a friend who died suddenly. Eddie is given busy work, doing a chair census. After a few chapters, Eddie arrives in East Carmine and has to navigate a whole new social climate. His goal is to finish his work and get back to his would be paramour; to do that he has to navigate the social dynamics of this new town.

This allows Fforde to really dig into how the Chromatacia works. People in Shades of Grey fit into society based on which colors they can see and how well they can see those colors. Those who do not see any color well enough are Greys, who do the back-breaking menial labor. Following the chromatic scale, ROY G BIV and all that, people are ranked. Eddie Russet is a red, lowest on the scale other than Greys. It goes all the way up to Purples, who are the highest rank. Different colors get different jobs. Yellows, for example, are generally in charge of managing the Greys. There are all kinds of social rules that are carefully explained, like how complementary colors do not mix.

Eddie is essentially a very attractive man coming on to the marriage market. While he hasn’t had the test that will tell him how much color he can see, he knows he will rank very high. That makes him a viable commodity for families with compatible colors, like rich old red families whose colors are fading or purple families who are leaning too far too blue. Eddie, as a true believer in this color-based society, is trying his best to move up within the scale of red, marrying into an old money red family. But once his abilities are known in East Carmine, he becomes the target of the much too blue purple family, the de Mauves.

All of this is beside the point of the mystery going on behind the scenes. That mystery is threaded in early on; with a Grey masquerading as a different color, a pretty young grey woman that Eddie runs into in places she shouldn’t be, and the mysterious death of the previous doctor-like swatchman that prompted Eddie’s father’s move. In some ways it resembles the current trend of the hyper-competent woman teamed up with the bumbling hero. Except Eddie isn’t really bumbling. He starts ignorant, true, and he can be a little passive when he comes up against authority, but Eddie is largely smart, inquisitive, and capable.

At about the two thirds mark of the book, the balance shifts, with the post-apocalyptic stuff beginning to outweigh the comedy of manners stuff. Eddie starts to learn exactly how much of what he knows about the world is a lie. I do not think it is a spoiler to say that this color-based society is largely built on lies. Neither Eddie nor the reader is quite ready for how horrible the truth is once Eddie ends up in the abandoned city of High Saffron.

The whole thing works perfectly for me. The first part of the book is a constant delight, exploring an absurd world with some definite darkness hidden behind it. Still, it largely feels more playful than dangerous. Then it starts to become dangerous, while remaining pretty playful. The big turning point is a field hockey match that gets out of hand. By that point, Eddie knows strange things are afoot, but he is still set on getting out of town as fast as possible. Soon, that becomes impossible. So Eddie takes another path.

ENDING SPOILERS.

The big revelation is that the people who are sent to the Emerald City for reeducation are actually sent to High Saffron and essentially euthanized. After that revelation, the book ends with a series of successive gut punches. By the time secrets are revealed, Eddie and his grey counterpart Jane have developed a solid romance. Then that is derailed. At least Eddie has managed to create a happy ending for his friend Dorian and Dorian’s love Imogen. Theirs is a forbidden romance; she is a purple, he is a grey. But they fell in love and Eddie helps facilitate their elopement.  However, the representative of National Color, the organization that keeps society in order, redirects their train, sending them on the night train to the Emerald City. It is a ploy to see if Eddie knows the secret of the Emerald City. The naive Eddie of the start of the book would have immediately stepped in to help his friends, would have trusted that National Color was doing the best they could. Instead, he has to stand there and smile as his friends are sent to their deaths, because if he spoke up he would be joining them. That heart rending ending really whets the appetite for how Eddie and Jane will work to undermine the Chromatacia. Too bad there is not yet a sequel.

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.