Final Fantasy Tactics Advance

I am apparently doing my expansive Final Fantasy series replay in an order that only relies on current availability or convenience for me and not any kind of rational order. So following up the original Final Fantasy, I beat Final Fantasy Tactics Advance.

Outside of anything about how it plays, FFTA is an interesting game from a historical perspective. Not only did it mark Squaresoft’s return to Nintendo platforms after a nearly 8 year long absence, it was also one of the final games released before Squaresoft became SquareEnix. There is a lot there, and the above is all I am going to write about it.

FFTA was kind of positioned to fail. It was the follow up to a beloved and for many players unique game; but nearly everything about FFTA seems designed to disappoint people who wanted more FFT. For starters, it was a follow up on a significantly weaker system; so despite being a follow up it was always destined to look and sound like something of a downgrade. That is not the only thing seemingly designed to disappoint. Final Fantasy Tactics was loved for its intricate, labyrinthine plot and its deep, highly customizable job system. The first was thrown out entirely for the follow up, and the other was modified just enough to make it somewhat unsatisfying. Using the original as the standard, there are measurable ways that FFTA does not measure up. But who is to say that the choices made by FFT are superior to FFTA. FFTA is a different game, made for a different platform and with different goals.

The story of FFTA is a frequent source of complaint. People either hate how ‘dumbed down’ it is, or trot out the tired take that protagonist Marche is actually the villain. The first one is a fair complaint, even if I presented it in a skewed way. FFT’s plot was complex and labyrinthine, with dozens of characters whose stories proceeded often with little connection to Ramza’s. FFTA’s plot, on the other hand, appears to be about as simple as possible, at least on first glance. There are only a handful of named characters, with seemingly simple motivations. A group of children are sucked into a storybook world that seemingly grants all of their wishes. The game has much more depth than immediately apparent. It is about how having all your wishes immediately granted can be infantilizing. There might be some lessons to be learned in the fantasy world of Ivalice, but at some point the characters have to go home and face their problems. That is where the second complaint comes in. Upon finding himself in the fantasy land of Ivalice, Marche sets out figuring out exactly how he got there. Then, he starts trying to find his way back, which involves destroying the fantasy world. This eventually puts him into conflict with the other characters trapped in the world with him, primarily his friends Ritz and Mewt. All of them have been given what they want being transferred to this world. New kid Marche gets quickly adopted into a clan and quickly becomes popular. Ritz, embarrassed by her ‘odd’ white hair, has her hair color changed in the new world. Mewt gets the most, his dead mother is not only alive, but queen, and his drunken father is now the most respected judge in the land. Unlike Marche, the others do not want to go back to the real world, happy to stay in Ivalice. Marche working to take things away from them has given rise to the facile reading of the game that Marche is actually the villain, destroying the other’s lives. This ignores several things to make any kind of sense. It requires a rejection of the very idea of personal growth. In Ivalice the characters are simply given the answers to their problems, at no point do they have to learn or change. It proves infantilizing, especially in the case of Mewt. Marche is freed from his familial responsibilities and has all the friends he wants, but he realizes he needs to go home and deal with his problems. Mewt pulls closer and closer to his fake mother, his every wish granted and no troubles facing him. The other thing that must be ignored is more subtle and only really shows up near the end of the game, and that is the fact that this fantasy world is draining the life out of people it has sucked in, feeding off them. A lot of that was apparently lost in the translation, but hints of it show up near the end. So not only is the world a stultifying fiction, it is also deadly. But somehow Marche forcing everyone to reject the fantasy and embrace reality is the villain.

As far as the gameplay goes, there are bigger reasons to be annoyed at the changes. While FFTA uses the job system, the way it is implemented is very different from FFT. Gone is the free form experimentation, with every job and ability there if only you have the job points to unlock it. FFTA gates things behind equipment, with some abilities not available until late in the game because the weapon that unlocks them is not available. It makes it easier for the developers to control the difficulty curve, but it also severely limits players’ freedom. I think the FFT system is better, but the FFTA one works just fine. It also adds something that would become a staple of Ivalice games: different races. This feels a little like bringing everything closer to Dungeons and Dragons. The designs for the different races are good, though it can be annoying trying to figure out class requirements for five different class sets.

The most controversial, and ultimately least consequential, addition to the game is the law system. Each battle sets up a few ‘laws’ that forbid a certain kind of action. It can be frustrating if you get a particularly onerous law early on, but the game quickly gives the player the ability to negate laws and with even the smallest effort to work with the system the laws become an afterthought for the last three quarters of the game. The laws are an interesting idea, forcing the player to be flexible in developing strategies, but the combination of frustration and being inconsequential make it a not particularly well integrated change.

All these changes serve to make FFTA feel much smaller than the original FFT, but they also serve its handheld nature well. They largely work together to make a game feel natural to pick up for one or two battles, face a few new challenges and then put it down. While I played this game a lot back in the day, this play through is the first time I’ve beaten it. It largely holds up. The only problem that stands out when examining the game strictly on its own merits is that it can be kind of slow. There is simply a lot of waiting during battles, as enemies can take a long time to make their move and little you can do while waiting. A small concern in an otherwise excellent game.

Bill & Ted Face the Music

I loved this movie. Probably more than it deserved, but I don’t care. It is easily one of my favorites of the year and I am glad to set it next to its excellent predecessors.

It is something of a miracle that this kind of late come sequel actually manages to stand alongside the originals. Most of the time, a late coming sequel like this, especially to a comedy, is a recipe for disaster. Look at Dumb and Dumber to, Blues Brothers 2000, or Zoolander 2. Whether the people behind them were returning for money or if they wanted to return to some of their most loved characters, these movies haven’t really worked at all. Bill & Ted Face the Music, despite being even further removed from the heyday of the originals, doesn’t have this problem. For lack of a better word, Face the Music bucks that trend by just being incredibly genuine. Yeah, it has been nearly thirty years since Bogus Journey, but Face the Music feels like a natural extension of the previous movies.

Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves step right back into the shoes of these characters and it just feels right. Winter does a better job than Reeves of feeling like his younger self; Reeves seems a bit too thoughtful to slip seamlessly back into the shoes of the dopey Ted. For the most part, though, they feel like the same dim but positive buddies you know and love. Death returns, and William Sadler is as much fun as he was in Bogus Journey. As far as new additions go, Samara Weaving and Brigette Lundy-Paine are great as Thea and Billie, Bill and Ted’s doppelganger daughters. Those two do an excellent job of echoing their parents without seeming like they are doing caricature.

The plot manages a similar balancing job; feeling like an echo of the first two movies without being a carbon copy. At the start of the movie, Bill and Ted have fallen pretty far from the fame they rose to during the credits of Bogus Journey. They have started to crack under the pressure of creating the song that will unite humanity. Even their wives, princesses from Medieval England, are growing concerned. Then they are whisked to the future and told that they have to have the song in a few hours. The duo gets the bright idea to nab the time machine and go to the future, where they have already written the song. That sets them meeting up with increasingly farcical future versions of themselves as they get more and more desperate. At the same time, Billie and Thea travel backwards in time on their own mission to help their fathers, a mission that is highly reminiscent of the first movie.

There are some flaws. The movie feels rushed at times. It comes in a brisk 90 minutes and feels like there is another 30 that were cut. Splitting time, somewhat, between Bill and Ted and Billie and Thea means that at least one of those stories doesn’t get quite enough time. There is a third prong with the wives that is barely worth a mention. The movie also looks kind of cheap. It feels more charming than anything, but there really isn’t hiding it in some situations.

That said, Bill and Ted traveling through time meeting different versions of themselves is absolutely delightful. Winter and Reeves appear to be having a great time with these variations on the characters and most of the jokes land.

Bill & Ted Face the Music is about as much fun as I remember having with a movie in ages. It is just heart warming and joyous. Most of these late coming sequels reek of sweaty desperation; Face the Music feels like the intended culmination of a long journey.

****1/2

Yakuza 4

I beat this game the first time while doing this blog, and I looked back to see what I wrote about it a few years ago. It turns out, I only wrote about it in my monthly catch-up post and while I liked it, I didn’t have much to say about it. I have that same problem after beating it again.

Most of what I am going to say is going to be about the narrative and structure of Yakuza 4. As far as gameplay goes, it is a modest evolution from the previous game. The combat expands by having 4 playable characters who all have distinct fighting styles. It makes some difference, but the core of how the system works doesn’t change. There are a myriad of quality of life improvements; the game just plays smoother than the previous one. It looks better. But those are all just incremental improvements. It looks and plays better than any Yakuza game that came before it, but outside of the playable characters, there are no fundamental changes.

The story is the game’s biggest swing, and while it is compelling while it plays out, the game does not manage to bring things home. Yakuza 3 ended on an ambiguous note, series hero Kazuma Kiryu, stabbed in the gut, lay bleeding out on the streets of Kamurocho. Yakuza 4 does not pick up on that, but instead widens the scope on what until this point had been the Legend of Kiryu. It picks up in the familiar confines of Kamurocho, with the player controlling louche loan shark Shun Akiyama. The game then progresses to taciturn, regretful hitman Taiga Saejima and then to committed and benignly corrupt cop Masayoshi Tanimura. Finally, the game concludes with a handful of chapters for Kiryu.

The Kiryu chapters at the end feel a little like the game chickening out. It seems to want to move on from Kiryu, but can’t quite bring itself to do so. It decenters him in the narrative, but then uses him as the anchor in this protagonist relay. It is the wrong choice. Kiryu is the character the player, assuming the player is a veteran of the series, has the greatest connection with. However, he is the character that has the least connection to the plot. He doesn’t really have a reason to be there. It almost feels like the development team wanted to replace him completely, but then did not have the courage to do so, leading to his late game appearance and prominence. His appearance is the right choice, though. As much as I want, from a story perspective, for Kiryu to be allowed to walk away to his happy ending, I also really like playing as him.

The other protagonists feel like they are auditioning to take over the position full time. Looked at that way, there are two viable candidates. The one that doesn’t quite make the grade is Tanimura. That is a bit harsh, but it is hard to imagine more stories with him after Yakuza 4. His story is the one most tied to one aspect of the plot. He is on the lookout for the man who killed his father. His story is tied to corruption within the Tokyo police. That story comes to the fore with Tanimura’s part of the story and is a big part of the machinations that drive the plot of this game, but it is resolved at the end. Unless they were looking to change the direction of the series entirely, he is not really a viable choice going forward. Plus, he is not the most interesting new character. There just doesn’t seem to be a lot there.

Akiyama and Saejima, meanwhile, seem to split aspects of Kiryu into new characters and fill in the rest with different answers. Saejima is the tortured Yakuza legend. Like Kiryu he was in prison for murder. Unlike Kiryu, he actually did it. He did it because he bought in fully to the Yakuza ideal. He did it for his Patriarch. Unlike Kiryu, Saejima wants to get back into the Tojo Clan. He is quiet and brooding, just a big scary mountain of a man. He feels credible in the role as Yakuza heavy in a way that Kiryu always seemed too genuinely good to be. But that also makes him less compelling than Kiryu. He actively wants the criminal life; he is not seeking to break free of it. Also, there is a scene that suggests a close attempt at a sexual assault against Haruka that really does not endear the player to Saejima. Akiyama, on the other hand, is the Kiryu that gets embroiled in weirdo nonsense. He is also the outsider that, for some reason, has the respect of some Yakuza family. Unlike Kiryu, Akiyama faces the weirdness, especially when it gets smutty, with more than a little enthusiasm. Kiryu is this blank slate that takes all the strangeness in stride, Akiyama actively leans into it. He is also just genuinely charming, with a roguish air. Honestly, if one of these three were to be the new protagonist, I would have voted for Akiyama.

The story starts strong. Akiyama meets with Lily, a woman who wants to borrow an obscene amount of money for an unknown reason. He tests her before agreeing to loan the money. Simultaneously, he gets embroiled with some strange goings on with Kanemura Enterprises, a local small time Yakuza family. When his friend Arai apparently kills a member of a rival family, things get serious. Akiyama falls in love with Lily, but he also learns of a few more murders. The story then switches to Saejima, and it is revealed that Lily is actually his sister. In order to find out what went wrong that landed him in prison 25 years ago, which is somehow connected to Akiyama’s story. As Saejima starts to get his answers, it switches to Tanimura, who is looking for the man who betrayed and murdered his father, 25 years ago. It is all connected. Then finally, it moves to Kiryu, who is now with Lily and has found a connection to the pile of cash the Tojo Clan had on hand in Yakuza 1.

The game builds an intricate web of deceptions and double crosses, with interesting characters and slowly unfolding mysteries. Then it gets to the end, and there is no ending. The finale is four consecutive boss battles, one for each playable character, that make varying levels of sense. But there is no final reveal that really ties it all together, and since you spend the last section playing as Kiryu, all the final revelations that exist happen to a largely unconcerned interloper. It is a lot of fun while playing through it, but the ending is just deflating. It mostly feels like the developers watched Infernal Affairs, or The Departed, and tried to replicate that in a video game, only to completely lose track of their plot and just have the player fight everybody at the end.

Yakuza games are generally games more for moments than overall coherence, but the ending here just misses completely, making the ways it doesn’t fit stand out more than a game that builds to something satisfying.

This is still not my favorite Yakuza game, but I am glad that the one that holds the place in my memory is up next. Hopefully I can get it done before Like A Dragon hits. Maybe I’ll track down the Miike movie as well.

What I Read August 2020

I finished three books in August, though Lonesome Dove is a sprawling tome that I spent a lot of time with.

Cold Fire

Kate Elliott

The second of Kate Elliott’s Spiritwalker trilogy gave me more of what I wanted, though it is also a book that feels kind of jagged at times. It starts right as the last book left off, with Cat and her cousin Bee wanted by powerful Cold Mages and needing somewhere to turn. Each apparent place of safety quickly turns dangerous for them. About a third of the way into the book, the setting and circumstances change, turning focus in a new direction and opening up more of the world.

A mishap in the spirit realm separates Cat and Bee, with Cat ending up across the world in the Caribbean. She escapes from an island of lepers/zombies and meets up with Vai, her erstwhile husband. While their relationship grows, she also tries to work out how to save her cousin from an imminent threat and soon starts to conflict with the war hungry General Camjiata.

The jaggedness I mentioned is in how it transitions from the early book to the middle book to the late book. How the situation and problems that Cat faces constantly changes without resolving. This is not a book with a plot that flows seamlessly. It is a book that gets where it needs to go by seeming brute force. That’s too harsh; this isn’t the smoothest ride, but it gets where it needs to go.

What worked much better for me in this book is that it slowed down enough to let me feel like I was gaining an understanding of the world and of characters other than Cat. It shuffles out the old setting for a new one, with a population with a frustrating to read dialect, but it also presents a clearer picture of the world and how magic affects that world and works within it. It also presents a host of new characters who have time to develop since this book stays in one place for long enough for that to happen. It also deepens the relationship between Cat and Vai, actually giving that some time to develop. This book felt like it gave me more of what I wanted than the first book did, while keeping the things I liked about that book.

Lonesome Dove

Larry McMurtry

This is a bleak, beautiful western epic. It is not a complex story. Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call are two retired Rangers who run a cattle company near the Mexican border. Call does all the work and McCrae spends most of his time sitting on the porch drinking whiskey. When an old Ranger friend of theirs blows into town with a plan to start a cattle drive up to unspoiled land in Montana, the two decide it is time for one last adventure. So they do.

The real draw of the book are the numerous interesting and well rounded characters the book introduces. Setting aside Call and McCrae for now, there are the other members of their Hat Creek company. There is Deets, the black man who is the best scout and tracker any of them have ever known. Pea Eye, the dim but reliable hand. Young Newt, an orphan raised by the company who doesn’t know who his father is and who faces the adventures with fresh eyes. McMurtry keeps introducing characters as he goes, from the enigmatic and philosophical cook Po Campo to the unfortunate and in over his head Sheriff’s deputy Roscoe. There is Lorena, the prostitute who forces her way out of Lonesome Dove to try to find a better life in San Francisco, only to be met with the cold unfeeling world of the west. Really, that is what all the characters are facing. I could go on with characters that are worthy of being remembered; this novel is just full of them and is not afraid to treat them ruthlessly.

It is also about the cold, unfeelingness of nature. The west, as described here, is beautiful and dangerous. Even old hands like Deets and Call are not completely safe; the inexperienced are always in peril. The world is a harsh place, and the people in it are not making it any less harsh.

In the end, Lonesome Dove centers on Call and McCrae. Call is all work and McCrae is all play. It is easy to like McCrae. He does some amazing things over the course of the book, but he never stops being an irresponsible layabout. Call is harder to like, harsh and unforgiving. You keep wanting him to finally come out from behind his walls, but by the end it becomes clear that there is nothing there. He will never be able to express any actual emotion. The truth is that Clara, McCrae’s lost love, has the best read on Call with her utter disdain for him.

Lonesome Dove is an amazing book. Definitely worth reading for any and everyone.

Gentlemen of the Road

Michael Chabon

I am a big fan of Chabon, but somehow this one slipped by me. I didn’t know it existed. So I bought a copy for some post-bar exam relaxation and I am glad I did. It is a short book, sticking true to its pulp inspirations.

Gentlemen of the Road follows two jewish bandits in the Dark Ages Middle East. Amram is a giant of a man from Africa, Zelikman is a spindly man from Europe. They travel around, running small cons and robbing. One evening they get a proposition to take Filaq, a fugitive prince who has had his kingdom usurped, to a nearby friendly kingdom. While they don’t agree to that plan, they are left with the prince and plan to turn him over for ransom to whoever will pay.

From there, they go on several adventures to try to get Filaq to safety or put him on his throne. Chabon uses very pulpy, very sparse prose. It can be poetic, but it mostly just tells the tale in as straightforward a manner as possible. It works to get the reader very close to its trio of heroes. Originally published as a serial, it feels episodic. Each section of the adventure has a beginning, middle and end. Things move fast and the excitement never lets up. It’s a lot of fun. It feels special to have this much skill and care to this kind of material.

Palm Springs Review

Comedies seem to have become a hard sale lately. I can think of few recent ones that are legitimately good, and even those are either not strictly comedies or actually commercial failures. While I don’t know how Palm Springs did commercially, being a direct to hulu release, it is certainly one of the best comedies I’ve seen in some time.

Although Palm Springs uses a similar time loop concept to Groundhog’s Day, it takes things in significantly different directions. Groundhog’s Day is a cosmic morality lesson; he is trapped in the loop until he becomes a better person and earns his release. Palm Springs is more of a science experiment; no amount of self-betterment will free them from the loop; only understanding the nature of reality and crafting an experiment to get out of it. Compared to Groundhog Day, Palm Springs’s characters are more aware of the kind of story they are in. By the time the movie has started, Nyles is already trapped in the loop. Even he can’t remember how long he has been stuck there. But he has tried a bunch of ways to end the loop, failed, and resigned himself to solipsistic nihilism.

Palm Springs is largely a two-hander. Andy Samberg plays something not too far from his usual goofball character. He charms his way through the movie, appearing frivolous but not stupid. His counterpart is Cristin Milioti, best known to me for playing tragic, yet supportive wives on tv shows, as Sarah, the sister of the bride at the wedding that is every day. Here, she proves every bit a match for Samberg in both the comedy and the romance. He is already defeated at the start of the movie, using the repeating wedding as a playground to satisfy is every absurd whim. Sarah is the more dynamic character, going from disbelief to attempted escape to resignation, to renewed determination. Her desperation has more poignance than Nyles’. He is an interloper at this wedding, she is there for her too perfect sister, waking up to her greatest failure of a person every morning, not able to move on. The chemistry between the two of them is also excellent. You see what draws them to each other, and also what splits them up in the usual rom-com third act separation. Palm Springs feels both very familiar and also delightfully original. Combined with winning central performances, it results in a very entertaining movie.

While other attendees of the wedding filter in and out of the film, the biggest role outside of the protagonists is JK Simmons as Roy, who adds another layer to the already complex time loop problem. He is alternately scary and fatherly, with his own perspective on the predicament Nyles and Sarah face.

The humor in Palm Springs tends to the dark, despite the bright color palette. The movie deals with hopelessness and despair, and mines that for laughs that sometimes hurt. That lack of hope leads to the characters to do reprehensible things, to just treat the world like a pointless playground. And that sort of attitude is funny for a while, but the movie maintains its humor while also showing the emptiness of it.

Palm Springs is not an especially complex or profound movie. What it is is charming, well considered and outright funny. It is the perfect antidote to quarantine.

****1/2

Now Playing August 2020

Beaten

Fire Emblem Three Houses – I’ll have a full post at some time, but I think I am going to play some more before I do that. I’ve cleared one path and have started up my next one. I have some problems with this game, largely that I feel like exploring the Monastery keeps me away from the parts of the game I like, but I can see why this game has taken off like it has. All the stuff surrounding the battles are interesting even if I don’t much like running around, and the battles are top notch as well.

Yakuza 4 – I’ve got a post coming soon. This is not my favorite Yakuza game, but I still don’t regret playing it for a second time.

Ongoing

Atelier Ryza – I got this on sale about the same time I picked up Three Houses. Three Houses came first, but I am getting to it now. The last time I played an Atelier game for any significant time was Atelier Iris 2. (I do own Atelier Rorona, but I barely got started with it before getting distracted.) Through three or four hours I quite like this game. It sets up an interesting battle system and a fun low key adventure. I am looking forward to really digging into this. It seems relaxing.

Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles – This was released late in the month, and I only managed to play one dungeon. I still really like the moment to moment gameplay. I like the structure of it following your caravan over years, as you get stronger and stronger and go further and further from home, with the world changing as you get further in. I’ll soon see if any of the rest of it hold up to my memories. Hopefully in the next week or two.

Final Fantasy IX – This remains one of my favorite games in the series. I let myself get distracted by Three Houses and other things, but I will get back to it sooner or later.

Upcoming

Final Fantasy Tactics A2 – I have a stack of handheld FF games to go through in my replay, and I think I am going to stick with the Ivalice games for now. I remember liking this more than FFTA when I first played it, but I wonder how well it holds up.

Yakuza 5 – I am going to finish this series replay soon. In my memory this is the best one.

Chrono Cross – This game’s 20th anniversary passed recently, and I’ve developed a strong hankering to play it again.

What I Watched August 2020

Movies

American Pickle – This whole movie rests on Seth Rogan, playing a modern character and his ancestor miraculously preserved in pickling vat for more than a century. It is about the past and present meeting and about honoring family. It is fine. ****

Class Action Park – I have some qualms about how positive this seemed about the subject of the documentary at times. This is a horrifying story presented as a “those darn rascals” romp. It has fun with all the crazy things people did and the wacky dangerous rides they made. Then it gets to the part where a handful of people died from the negligence and outright flouting of safety regulations. It is fun, but it feels a little glib when it gets to the actual consequences. ***1/2

Drunk Parents – God, this movie is terrible. Just nothing about it works, despite a cast that keeps bringing in ringers for a scene or two. It is just not funny. *

The Sleepover – This honestly works better than it should. A lot of it is stupid kid stuff that maybe kids will enjoy, but the rest works pretty well. Ken Marino, always welcome, shines as a somewhat dim, well-meaning dad who doesn’t quite know what is going on. He is a lot of fun. ***

Project Power – This feels like Netflix trying to jump on the blockbuster train and it doesn’t quite work. Stealing from another review (if I could remember I’d link to it), the movie tills some fertile narrative soil and proceeds to plant nothing. It sets up a lot of interesting ideas to explore with superheroes, and then tells a pretty conventional action movie story. Still, it is well done enough, more disappointing for missed potential than actually being bad. ***

TV

Umbrella Academy S2 – A new season, a new time period, but the same dysfunction. At the end of last season the family was tossed back to 1960’s Dallas. Unfortunately, they all landed there years apart, with no knowledge that the rest of the team made it. So they all go their own separate ways to deal with the fallout from last season. It is mostly some good stuff. You want to see them get things together and get it at least a little figured out, but the magic of the show would be lost if the team operated with any sort of coordination. Since this season doesn’t really have to introduce everyone it seems to have more time to let them all bounce off of each other. It is really good.

Last Chance U S5 – Less completely dysfunctional as the last season, but still as compulsively watchable. Not much to say.

Cursed S1 – This one kind of missed the mark. It isn’t really badly done, but it feels a little muddled. I also hate how it uses Arthuriana. Some things feel like legitimate counterparts to the actual legends, some parts feel like they wrote this story and then just haphazardly added an Arthurian name to a character. Still, it feels like more of a near miss that a complete misfire. There are some good and interesting things here. If it gets a second season, hopefully it can refine those things.

Teenage Bounty Hunters S1 – I am not sure what to make of this. Like I honestly don’t know if it is good or not. There is a lot of soap opera nonsense, but also some good character work. It has a laugh out loud moment or two every episode, but other parts just fall flat. I think I liked it? There is some really good stuff here. This show deals with Christianity better than most shows, or at least in a way that is familiar to me as a person who went to a close enough to southern high school. The Christian doctrine you are taught is treated as a given, even if the kids don’t follow or really even understand it.

High Score – I feel bad, because this is a great story for people who are not experts in video game history. It presents a handful of important moments from that history and explains them effectively. It adds in some important and less well known personal stories. But despite being a big fan of this kind of history, this is really not for me, because I knew most of this already. In many cases in more depth. Still, it is very good for what it is.

Columbo S9 & 10 – A full Columbo post is in the works. Columbo looks older with this return episodes, but the show is just as good as ever. There are some really interesting episodes here, and I don’t think I’d ever get tired of watching Peter Falk.

Doom Patrol S2 – I absolutely loved the first season of Doom Patrol, but season 2 seems to have gotten a little lost. Maybe that is because it lost its season finale due to coronavirus. Perhaps that last episode would have tied all the disparate threads of this season together into a coherent story. That is possible; the characters’s storylines all share some common themes. I still don’t think it would be enough to pull this season up to the level of the first, and that episode does not currently exist. Still, there is a lot to love about this show. All the fundamentals remain strong.

Stargirl S1- I was ready to be disappointed by this show. I really like the comic it is based on and honestly, this is the first time one of my absolute favorite comics characters gets a show. It mostly knocked it out of the park. The two leads, Brec Bassinger as the title character and Luke Wilson as her step-dad, are great. It does a good job of building the characters and their relationships. It might have jumped into the JSA stuff a bit too fast, not giving quite enough time to either the team or to the Whitmore family, but it mostly just worked for me. I can’t wait for season 2.

Inuyasha – Man, was this a throwback to Freshman year at college. Every night I would watch adult swim, from the American comedy shows through the anime. Inuyasha was never a favorite, but it was watchable. It still is. Effective and mostly fun, if never outstanding. I ploughed through the first 50 or so episodes and mostly enjoyed it. I don’t know if I am going to keep going, but this was fun.

Wizards: Tales of Arcadia – This Arcadia series, not just a miniseries, focuses on magic and brings in some time travel. This superseries continues to be very entertaining. This feels a little rushed, but what is here is pretty great. This one ties in more closely with Trollhunters, leaving 3Below feeling a little like the odd man out. I need to write a full wrap up on these series, hopefully before the movie that should tie it all together comes out.

Da 5 Bloods

Whatever else one might think of Spike Lee as a director, he is not one to under deliver with his films. Da 5 Bloods is no exception; it has a running time of more than two and a half hours and manages to explore an array of facets of the African American experience, largely as it relates to the Vietnam War but also just existing in America. There is no way that Lee could have known it would be such a timely release, except that many of the problems and fissures it explores have existed as long as this country. Da 5 Bloods is one of Spike Lee’s best films.

Da 5 Bloods is about a group of war buddies going back to Vietnam to bring back the remains of their friend who died there. While that is their legit mission, they have an ulterior motive; to find a secret cache of gold they hid during the war. The four of them are joined by the son of one of the four. Each of the old guys has a different perspective and experience during and after the war. Former medic Otis has connections with people who can launder the gold for them; he also discovers that he has a child in Vietnam. Eddie did fairly well after the war, running a car dealership. The driving force of the movie is Delroy Lindo’s Paul, a cantankerous, combative man who still has nightmares about the war and has aged into an angry reactionary. The movie takes its time setting up these characters, letting the viewer get to know them and their struggles as the group begins their trek into the jungle to find their treasures.

Interspersed are scenes from their time in the war. An interesting choice, seemingly at least somewhat forced on the movie, was doing flashbacks to the war and using the same actors in both time periods. There, the fifth member of the Bloods, Chadwick Boseman’s Norman, provides guidance to his friends. The flashbacks not only play with the ages of the characters, they also play with aspect ratio, color and contrast. They are very interesting looking.

Eventually, things start to go sour and the movie goes in a pulpier direction. The group starts to splinter. There are betrayals and misunderstandings as plans go awry. It almost feels like a completely different movie, but one that is equally entertaining as the largely character based drama that proceeds it.

Weaved throughout all of this are insights on history and how African Americans have been treated in this country, about the systemic injustice that still exists. There are also references and comments on the history of Vietnam war films, from specifically calling out trash like the Rambo sequels or the Missing in Action movies, to referencing Apocalypse Now.

While there is not a bad performance in the film, it is hard to overstate just how good Delroy Lindo is in this movie. He is not a likable character; he’s a MAGA hat wearing asshole who manages to insult or irritate everyone else in the movie. But while his anger is misdirected, it is not unwarranted. And Lindo brings the viewer along as he goes further and further off the rails.

There was a lot of warranted adulation for BlackKklansman, but I think Da 5 Bloods is the more entertaining film.

****1/2

The Old Guard

The Old Guard was a pleasant surprise. Netflix tweeted out descriptions of movies they were planning early in the year, and this sounded good. Then the trailer hit, and it seemed like the most generic attempted franchise starter I’d ever seen. Still, it starred Charlize Theron, so I was going to give it a try. I am glad I did; The Old Guard turned out to be a lot better than its bland trailer suggested it would be.

Charlize Theron stars as Andy, the leader of a group of immortal mercenaries who heal and spring back to life whenever they are killed. A new such immortal, a US Marine named Nile, appears, and Andy goes to recruit her. While still integrating Nile with the team, someone who has learned her secret captures the team with the hopes of figuring the secret to their longevity through medical experiments, leaving only Andy and Nile to rescue them.

It is not the most complex plot, but the movie more than makes up for it with the care it invests in its characters. The movie spends its time giving the characters history, showing their pasts and how eternal life has worn them down. It also takes the time to show more of Nile’s life before her awakening. More so than most action movies, The Old Guard really seems to care about who its characters are outside of what motivates them for the action scenes. It is an investment that pays off, making it easy to invest in an otherwise flimsy plot because you care about who it is happening to. Andy and her team are weighed down by history. They have lived through countless years and countless battles. They have long, not always pleasant histories with each other. Newcomer Nile still has connections with the present day, a family that will miss her when she turns up missing. The movie makes sure you feel the weight that all of these characters feel, the tiredness and the struggle. It really works to make what would be fairly rote action fare feel like it has more depth.

The advertising positioned this movie as Netflix’s answer to superhero movies, but that really isn’t the vibe it exudes. It does not have the slick, pop feel of the Marvel movies. It is more like John Wick than Iron Man; a little darker and a little meaner than one would look for from a superhero movie. Another impressive aspect of The Old Guard is the action. The team may be unkillable, but they use very human fighting tactics. Though nothing in the movie reaches the heights of action sequences in the masterful John Wick movies, there are several impressive sequences in The Old Guard. Teamwork and a combination of old world and modern day fighting are the order of the day. Andy frequently reverts to using an old school battle ax when she has to lay down her machine gun.

The Old Guard isn’t quite like anything else. And once again, Charlize Theron proves that she is a premier action star if she wants to be.

****

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.