Tales of Vesperia

My rocky relationship with the Tales series continues with playing Tales of Vesperia. I believe I’ve written before about my experience with this series. Tales of Symphonia hit at just the right time for me, with its relatively bright tone contrasting with the PS1 rpgs I had been playing before that. I haven’t revisited it in the fifteen years or so since, but I have very fond memories of it. I had those same memories in the late 00’s when I tracked down copies of Tales of Legendia and Tales of the Abyss. Tales of Legendia is pokey and awkward, but honestly I found it largely charming. Tales of the Abyss, as I have previously explained, just rubbed me the wrong way. It may have been an improvement over Tales of Symphonia as far as systems go, but the plot and characters made me angry in ways that almost no other game has. Tales of the Abyss left such a bad taste in my mouth that I largely wrote off the series since then. I picked up a couple of games for the PS3 when they were dirt cheap, but I never really felt the desire to play them. A few hours of Tales of Graces f was all I played before deciding it just wasn’t doing it for me and putting it away. However, when I got my Switch, Tales of Vesperia just so happened to be on sale, so I thought I’d dip my toe in this series once again.

Tales of Vesperia mostly works, but everything good I have to say about it will be followed by something negative. Those negatives are easy to ignore in the early going, but by the time you invest fifty plus hours into this game they start to loom larger and larger. To start with one that is all on me, it appears that there is a lot of depth and strategy to the battle system. While I beat the game, I honestly can’t say the more intricate parts of the battle system ever really clicked for me. I mean, I generally understood it, but the harder I tried to work combos or use the overlimit system, the more I got destroyed. So I stuck with pretty basic combos and mixes of arts. It mostly worked. I am sure that people who took the time to learn the ins and outs of burst arts and the over limit gauge could do amazing things, but I had neither much aptitude for nor interest in learning how it worked. So getting annoyed at 50 hours of tame combos is largely on me. I admit that and I don’t really hold it against the game. However, I do not think the game does a good job of teaching the player how its systems work. The game just kind of throws all of its mechanics out there and leaves it to the player to figure them out. It might be better than weighing the game down with tutorials, but some more explanation would have been appreciated.

I do really like the characters in this game; the player’s party, which contains about eighty percent of the worthwhile or interesting characters in the game, is truly excellent. They fit pretty neatly into well worn tropes, at least to start, but the game does good and interesting things with them. For the most part. JRPGs, especially Tales games I’ve played, frequently seem to be working with a finite number of character traits that are shuffled and distributed at random amongst the cast. I am not sure Tales of Vesperia gets away from that, but with one glaring exception, the characters all feel well realized. The big exception is Patty, who is fine. She has a convoluted backstory and it is clear that she is a late addition to the rest of the cast. I think protagonist Yuri does the edgy badass thing better than any other character has done it, largely because of the parts of that character archetype he avoids. At first blush he’s not unlike so many other rebellious leads. There are shades of Squall from FF8, Ryudo from Grandia 2, and Yuri from Shadow Hearts in Yuri’s character, but he is much softer than any of them. He genuinely seems to want to connect with his fellow party members. He is not eager to deal with inanities, but there is a version of his character that is much harsher than the one in the game. It makes it that much more impactful when he actually does dark and edgy things.

The negative that pairs with my love of the characters is that the game’s plot is garbage. The game refuses to build any story momentum or execute any sort of rising action. It is split into three distinct arcs, each one ending like some slowly letting the air out of a balloon. It keeps the player in the dark as to what is going on and what actually matters for way too long, then concludes in a hurry. It is just a badly told story.

I think part of that comes from this being a relatively early HD release, and the game tries its best to mask how small its world actually is. It looks nice. But there are like 3 consequential towns and the game keeps the player running back and forth between them, while occasionally going to new dungeons. The player will have seen about two thirds of the world by the twenty hour mark and the rest of the game just feels like padding things out with reused assets. I don’t mean to be too harsh, as I said the game mostly works. It is just a game that really seems to wear out its welcome by the time it ends. It is a great 35-40 hour game that unfortunately takes about 50 hours to beat.

The most foolish thing is, despite me not having genuinely liked a Tales of game since my first experience with Tales of Symphonia back on the GameCube, I made a detailed plan to do a tour of the series. It didn’t cost much. I already owned most of the games. I picked up Tales of Berseria and Tales of Zestiria for a combined total of about twenty dollars. That left only Tales of Xillia 2 and Tales of Hearts as the US released Tales of games to which I did not have access. But the last ten hours I spent with Tales of Vesperia kind of killed my desire to do that. I still might do it. Right now I am split by several competing interests. The first is that I also planned out a Final Fantasy series replay and that sounds a lot more fun to me. Also, I’ve got a couple more Yakuza games to replay. Finally, I am torn on revisiting Tales of Symphonia. On the one hand, I want to see how the game holds up fifteen years after I first played it; on the other, none of the other games in the series have grabbed me like it did and I’m afraid to have my memories tarnished.

What I Read July 2020

I spent the whole month studying for the bar exam, so not a lot of reading happened. I finished up a couple of books I mostly read in June and that’s about it. Next month hopefully I can read more.

The Color of Law

Richard Rothstein

This book is infuriating. Not because it was poorly written, but because the truth of the law and history it explicates is so frustrating. I don’t know what I have to say about it. I think it is an important book, one that people should read if they want to understand why certain things in the US are the way they are. The Color of Law lays out the stark reality of how racism has embedded itself in the history of American housing policy. The fact is that policies like segregation were deliberate government policy, and remained such long after most people think that stopped.

Cold Magic

Kate Elliott

I was a little disappointed with this. Mostly because it was sold to me as a mix of a Gothic romance and a fantasy, but I don’t think it really delivered on the romance part. It starts with a very romance-y set up, with protagonist Cat forced into marriage with a mage by her aunt and uncle. Her parents died when she was young, so she was raised with her uncle’s family. While it starts with that romance but, the whole novel doesn’t really slow down enough at any point to let the reader get comfortable with its characters. It kind of follows the outline. At first her new husband is short and peremptory, quickly rushing her from place to place and seeming completely unrelatable. That facade starts to crumble the further on they get, and protagonist Cat starts to show her mettle.

Still, I enjoyed this book well enough. Elliott sets up a very interesting world and some interesting characters. It is just that this book seemed to end just as the revelations were starting. I am already on to the sequel; hopefully it follows through well after this fine but introductory feeling first volume.

What I Watched July 2020

Movies

Godzilla: King of the Monsters – I don’t think my thoughts have changed since first seeing this last year. I find it delightfully ludicrous. ****

Scoob – This certainly was a choice. I would be more than happy to watch a Scooby-Doo movie. It has a brief origin story, unnecessary but inconsequential. The stranger choice was to use the Scooby-Doo characters to try to springboard a Hanna-Barbera cinematic universe. Not just bringing in some other HB characters, but making it as much a Dynomutt and Blue Falcon movie as a Scooby-Doo movie. It doesn’t quite work, but there are still things to enjoy about it. **1/2

Ford v Ferrari – Another rewatch. This is still a very entertaining film. Just a solid and well-made movie; proficient in every way. For me it lacks the tiniest thing to take it from a movie I really enjoy and respect to one I love, but I was more than happy to watch it again. ****1/2

Hot Rod – Still one of my favorite comedies of the 00s. I can watch this any time. *****

Palm Springs – review coming, I swear ****1/2

The Old Guard – review coming, I swear ****

Three Musketeers – This is the 90’s Disney version of this movie. It is not as good as I remember it being. The fencing is not as good as I remember and the movie, though it tries very hard, is not as ‘cool’ as it wants to be. Still, I generally enjoyed it, and it is hard to not enjoy Tim Curry having as much fun as he was here. ***

Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace – I think I liked this movie on this watch more than I ever have before. All it took was challenging some of the common criticisms I’ve seen of it and actually experiencing a truly bad Star Wars movie. I am thinking of doing some Star Wars posts, maybe one for each of the trilogies, but for Episode 1 two things stood out to me. The first is how great a character Qui-Gon Jinn is and how tragic his death is at the end of this movie. The other is just how much of a discordant miscalculation Jar Jar is. I see how Jar Jar is intended to be this replacement for C-3P0 and a bit of Chewbacca, but there is simply too much of him and he constantly draws negative attention to himself. Still, I really liked the movie. ****

Jaws – This is a perfect movie. I can always watch Jaws. *****

TV

Star Trek Deep Space Nine S3-4 – I was not fully in on this show early. It was darker than I wanted out of Star Trek and honestly, the cast did not grab me initially. But the show really finds some depth as it goes on, and through three full seasons has continued to get better and the addition of Worf in season 4 brings in a well liked old friend. The Past Tense two-parter in Season 3 is among the prescient sci-fi I’ve ever seen. I hope to get through the back half of this show pretty quickly.

Better off Ted – An old favorite. This is a show that should be rated up there with Arrested Development and 30 Rock as great shows of the 00s, but I don’t think near enough people have watched it. I’ve written about it before, and I don’t have anything new to say. It is a great show.

Home Movies – HBO Max has Home Movies. That almost justifies a subscription for me. This show, something of a predecessor to Bob’s Burgers. I know I’ve written about this show before. It is one of my all-time favorites and was really easy to just put on in the background as I did other things.

Brave New World – Peacock’s prestige launch show seems to have gotten a pretty mixed reaction, but I really enjoyed it. It does its best to stay true to the source material while both adapting it to a new medium and making its future fit a little more sensibly with the now. It takes a little bit to find its grove, but eventually it really finds itself. I think I need to do a full rewatch to make sure I fully understood what I watched, as much because I watched while distracted as because of any real complexity of the show, but there is complexity there. I especially like Alden Ehrenreich, who is the closest thing to an audience stand in as the newcomer to New London, but is far enough from any real connection to the viewer. His is not the greatest journey on the show, but his relative relatability works to compare the journeys of the other against. I think the show works really well, and hope it gets another season or so to tell its story.

Columbo S6-9 – Yeah, Columbo is great. I’ve transitioned from the original run to the revival, but the show doesn’t miss a step. I could watch Peter Falk as Columbo forever.

Now Playing July 2020

Beaten

Final Fantasy Tactics Advance – full post coming soon. I don’t know that I am going to work it into my post about the same so this feels like a good place to explore my history with it. I was a huge fan of Final Fantasy Tactics. I had never previously encountered any kind of strategy rpg and was only vaguely familiar with the Final Fantasy job system before I stumbled upon a copy of FFT. I didn’t even own my own PS1 at the time, I had traded my cousin for my N64 for a couple of weeks. I instantly fell in love. When I heard that not only was Square coming back to Nintendo consoles, but they were doing so with a portable FFT follow up, I was over the moon. At first I was very resistant to the changes it made to the game, but I still enjoyed it. Enjoyed it enough that I snuck my GBA into school and played it behind my algebra book during class. I didn’t beat it, though. Sharing one copy of the game and one system between several brothers was a problem and my save got lost along the way several times. Despite being generally familiar with the game and having made attempts to play it numerous times in the last 15 years, this was the first time I actually beat it.

Ongoing

Final Fantasy 9 – I broke down and bought this for my Switch, about two days before it went on sale. I have since played through the first couple of hours. Final Fantasy 9 has long been a favorite of mine and I am enjoying this so far. I’m happy to have the port, but I wish it could get a fuller remake/release to fix some of the problems that are kind of inherent in designing around the limitations of the PS1 that it was pushing against.

Upcoming

Fire Emblem Three Houses – This is my reward for myself for taking the bar exam. I intend to get started and get into it real soon.

Yakuza 4 – I started this a little bit ago, and I want to get back to it. I don’t really think too highly of this particular entry in the series, but maybe a replay will change my mind. I will also probably move on to its sequel.

Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles Remastered – It doesn’t hit until late in the month, but I will be playing it.

More Final Fantasy – I’ve got FF9 going, FF7 about halfway done, I started FF2 a few months ago and made some progress, and a big plan to replay the whole series. I will keep working on that.

What I Read June 2020

Four books in June, and a good mix of genres and tones. It feels good to be back on pace.

A Memory Called Empire

Arkady Martine

Set in a vast, aging space Empire, A Memory Called Empire follows a new ambassador, Mahit, from an independent space station coming to the Teixcalaanli Empire to assume the place of her recently deceased predecessor. She has trouble adapting to her new post. Part of it is the suddenness of her having to assume that role. The bigger part of the problem is that her home station has technology to implant the memories and expertise of people’s predecessors in their minds, and Mahit is going in blind. It is especially hard because she has to keep the existence of that technology secret, unless her predecessor has already spilled everything.

Mahit is thrust into a swirling mix of colonial condescension, succession politics, and general intrigue. She has few, if any, allies and no real idea what is going on. She spent her life on her home station training for this job and learning all she could about the Teixcalaanli, but still when she gets there she is clearly an outsider. The book has her navigating these fraught waters just as the entire political makeup of the empire is starting to come apart, as the Emperor is getting old and someone will have to replace him. It is heady, heavy stuff, but wrapped in a propulsive thriller plot. I am eagerly awaiting the follow up.

Shades of Grey

Jasper Fforde

I wrote a whole thing about this book already. It is definitely one of my favorites.

In Farleigh Field

Rhys Bowen

This is kind of a spy/mystery set during WWII. At Farleigh Place, the home of Lord Westerfield and his family, an airman’s parachute fails to open and he falls to his death. This is tragic, of course, but it also opens up a mystery because no one seems to know what regiment the man is from. The family’s daughters are spread around, one still living in Paris, trapped there while studying when the war began. The youngest is the one who stumbled upon the body in the field. Another, Pamela, is aiding the war effort in London. Family friend Ben Cresswell, injured himself as a young man, works for MI5 and is tasked with finding a German spy in Britain. That search ends up bringing him close to home.

There is the mystery of the spy and the dead man. There is also a romance between Ben and Pamela and Jeremy, an RAF hero pilot. There is some more political and family stuff in the background. It is a book with a lot going on, but none of it hits quite as hard as it could. It all feels just a little vague or insubstantial. Still, the central characters are likable enough. I’m trying not to spoil anything, but the answers are a little too obvious from the start, taking any kind of surprise out of the mystery. Still, for a bit of light reading I enjoyed it enough.

Flinx in Flux

Alan Dean Foster

Flinx in Flux is one of a series of space adventures following a young man named Flinx. He has a telepathic collection with some kind of venom spitting, flying space snake. In this book, he encounters a young woman almost dead in the wild and tries to help her get back to safety. She is being hunted by some ecological terrorists who want her for her ‘gengineering’ expertise. That expertise makes Flinx wary, since he was genetically engineered, which is why he has telepathic powers and that is why he is not of the practice. Still, a bond forms between him and the woman, Clarity, as he tries to get her back home.

The book didn’t really do anything for me. The ideas it explores are not ones that greatly interest me. The adventure parts are fine, I guess. I assume that if someone read the whole series perhaps they would have greater affection for the characters and perhaps a greater interest in the setting. As it is, it is a perfectly fine piece of science fiction.

Community

For the better part of a decade, NBC consistently aired a handful of all-time great sitcoms all on the same night. Starting with The Office in 2005 until Parks & Rec ended in 2015, sitcom greatness aired on Thursday nights on NBC. The Office, Parks & Rec, 30 Rock, and Community are all held up as exemplars of the form. As someone who was a big fan of three of those shows while they were airing, I somehow managed to never really watch Community. That is an oversight I’ve fixed over the last few weeks. I have friends and acquaintances who maintain that Community among the sitcom greats. After watching the whole series, I can’t agree. Among NBC shows of the time, I would rate it fifth, below the three previously mentioned shows and the criminally underrated My Name Is Earl.

Despite my reservations about the show, the first two seasons are really good. The cast and concept are impeccable. The show manages an excellent balance of high concept explorations of genre and character development. Really, the cast is what really pushes the show over the top. I am not going to go into everyone individually, but there is not really a weak link there. It gives a solid reason to gather this disparate group of characters and builds a compelling world for them to inhabit.

Then season 3 happened and the wheels promptly fell off. There is the occasional episode that shows the greatness present in the first two seasons, even surpassing it at times. Most of the season, though, has this feeling of sweaty desperation to it. In contrast with a show like Parks & Rec, which took two seasons to really find its footing, Community hit the ground running early but seems to have run out of gas by this third season. The characters get pushed further and further, and they start to fray. Character is sacrificed for the plot. Their relationships and mannerisms seem at least partly determined by the needs of the episode. If someone needs to act out of character to make an episode work, then that is what they do. That doesn’t mean there isn’t the occasional excellent episode, but you can feel the show straining.

Honestly, even if you had no idea about the turmoil going on with the show I think most viewers would pick up on the fact that something is not right in season 3-5. I include season 3 in with the troubled seasons, though I know many people count it among Community’s ‘great’ seasons. The behind the scenes troubles are well documented and come across in the show. Creator Dan Harmon did not return for season 4, in part because of conflicts with Chevy Chase. Chase had conflicts again and left during the next season. After that, Harmon returned. Then Donald Glover left early in the fifth season, though it seems his departure was amicable. While nearly everything about Chevy Chase’s career paints him as difficult to work with, I understand why he was not happy on this show. Not only is he stuck playing seventh banana on the show, his character is also hated by the rest of the cast and stupid racist. As the first three seasons go on, his character pushes deeper and deeper into his worst traits. A justifiable character development choice, but likely not a fun one for Chase. Season 4, other than leaning hard into the racism at times, actually lets him be the wise elder figure that usually uses him to mock. I’ll have some more to say about season 4 further on. With season 5, the show comes off pretty mean spirited, dumping on the whole previous season and on Chase personally.

The accepted narrative about this show is that season 4 is the weakest season, and it found itself again once Harmon returned. Maybe it is just a symptom of how the show does not quite work for me the way it does for its fans, but I think season 4 is better than the seasons that surround it. Season 3, as I said above, is a sweaty mess. Season 5 has some highlights, but struggles with how the show has really pushed beyond its original concept. And season 6, while largely enjoyable, feels like it has lost too much to be the same show it started as.

My real problem with Community, why I think of it as fine more than great, is that I just never really connected with the characters. The show, especially from season 3 on, seemed to treat the characters with contempt. And if the viewer was dumb enough to care about the characters, the show had some contempt for thta viewer as well. It is an understandable tough task to fit the characters into the shows frequent parodies and homages and keep them as distinct and clear. Instead, they become one or two traits that are hammered on repeatedly.

I feel like I’ve been pretty negative writing about this show, which is honestly not how I think about it. I really liked it in the first two seasons. After that, when it was good it was still really good. It is just that the quality was so variable. And the bad episodes are degrees worse than any of its NBC contemporaries. The post-Carell seasons of The Office are more enjoyable than the bad parts of Community. The show is really harmed by the inevitable comparisons to the shows that aired at the same time. Still, it is leagues better than anything on CBS. Community is a good show that doesn’t quite stand with the giants.

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.