What I Read April 2020

I read a lot in April. The situation kind of allowed me to indulge in sitting with my kindle for long periods of time. I expect similar results in May.

The Bully Pulpit

Doris Kearns Goodwin

I loved this book. It looks into a fascinating time and one of the most interesting stories in American history. The book follows three separate, but related threads. The first follows the life and career of Teddy Roosevelt. The second does the same for William Howard Taft. And the third follows the muckraking journalists, from the magazine McClure’s that were influential at the time, both influencing and being influenced by Roosevelt and other progressive politicians.

It does a good job of condensing the history into a readable story. I have read several Theodore Roosevelt biographies, and this does an excellent job of giving a quick, yet fairly thorough look at his life and his time as president. I know less about Taft, but it makes for a readable look at his life and the forces that shaped him. I knew next to nothing about McClure’s and this book does an excellent job of showing how the magazine came to be and why it was so important for a time.

The real meat of the book is the friendship between Roosevelt and Taft, and the completeness of its rupture during Taft’s presidency. It plays out almost like a Shakespearean tragedy. How they worked together so well while Roosevelt was President to the inevitability of everything coming apart once Taft ascended to that office. Roosevelt had this absolute need to be the center of attention, and he was never going to be comfortable stepping aside. Especially since he honestly could have won a second/third term had he run for it. While Roosevelt was brash and commanding, Taft was slower and more contemplative. He lacked the force of will to get things done that Roosevelt had, and Roosevelt treated his compromises as turning his back on the things they did together. So things fell apart.

The Bully Pulpit really changed my opinion of Taft. He comes across as the true tragic figure here. From his continually put aside desire to be a Supreme Court justice to his wife suffering a stroke early in his presidency to his demoralizing defeat in the 1912 Election. He comes across as a flawed but reasonable and conscientious man. The most crushing part is the anecdote from an interview, which never ran, from just before the 1912 election, where he was asked about what happened between him and Roosevelt and all he could say was that Roosevelt was his best friend.

This is a great look at a very interesting time in American history.

Dragon Weather

Lawrence Watt-Evans

This book is a take on the Count of Monte Cristo, but with dragons. The protagonist, Arlian, loses his family to a dragon attack when he is young. In fact, he is the only survivor from his town. Unfortunately, when he is found by the scavengers searching through the destruction, instead of saving him, they sell him into slavery. After growing to adulthood in some mines, Arlian manages to escape and sets out to get revenge on the men who sold him as a slave and the dragons who destroyed his town.

I really struggled staying interested in the first part of the book. After Arlian gets out of the mines and starts to plot his revenge I liked it a lot more. There are still things that give me pause. This book has a lot of mutilated women. It is a harsh book all around, but it is all seen through the eyes of the protagonist, and he seems to focus on women missing body parts. That said, it is mostly an enjoyable read. I don’t really have a lot to say about it.

Fairest

Gail Carson Levine

This is related to Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted; this time a retelling, of sorts, of Snow White. Aza feels ugly compared to the rest of her adopted family. She does have the power of magic ventriloquism. A useful skill in a land that greatly values one’s singing voice. This eventually leads to her getting entangled with the beautiful, but weak singing, new queen of her homeland. It deals a lot with how much Aza lets her perception of how people see her control how she acts. The queen, who isn’t really evil here, has similar problems, focusing mostly on her looks and being afraid to let people know her weaknesses. It was an enjoyable enough take on a fairy tale retelling.

The Mystery of Three Quarters

Sophie Hannah

Another of Hannah’s Poirot continuations. I enjoyed this quite a bit. I don’t think it really reads like Christie in the prose, but the mystery is suitably inventive and it does a good job of fleshing out a wide variety of characters to be potential suspects. The book starts with four separate people coming to Poirot, angry about a letter he had written to them, accusing them of murdering a man. Poirot is confused, both because he did not write any such letters and because the letters accused the four of them of murdering the same person. That person was an old man who died without any suspicion of foul play. Still, Poirot begins to investigate, as the letter writer likely intended.

The four people initially seem to be unconnected to each other, but as Poirot digs in, some connections start to turn up. Also, all four appear to be keeping some secrets from him. Somewhere in those secrets is the truth about who wrote the letter and who, if anyone, committed a murder. It seems to play fair, and the mystery keeps you guessing. I don’t know that I completely buy the big revelation near the end, but it did not lessen my enjoyment.

The Crime at Black Dudley

Margery Allingham

I’ve now read two of her books, and I do not think Allingham is for me. I have found both this, and its sequel Mystery Mile, which I accidentally read first, to be kind of muddled. Nothing about them comes across particularly clearly; not the characters, not the plots. This one clearly sets the eventual starring detective Albert Campion as a clear side character. It is about a group of guests invited to a house party at a remote manor, the titular Black Dudley. It is a mysterious old manor, with hidden rooms and secret passages. Things start to get strange when they play a party game based around a family heirloom jeweled dagger. The owner of the manor falls ill, with some of the guests convinced he is actually dead. It is soon pronounced, by a doctor present, that he is indeed dead. Things get weirder from there, with the victims’ associates, who are not part of the house party being thrown by the victims nephew, confining everyone to the manor and sabotaging their cars. One fly in the ointment is Albert Campion, a party crasher who seems to know more than he lets on.

The central figure to the mystery is one Dr. Abbershaw, who is trying to get to the bottom of everything and win the heart of Meggie, another guest at the party. It plays out as much like a spy adventure novel as it does a mystery. Really, there isn’t much mystery to it. Maybe knowing who Campion is going changes how I viewed things, but it seemed pretty clear who were the bad guys and who were the good guys. It was also pretty clear generally what people were up to, though not all the detail. I just can’t tell you much about Abbershaw or Meggie, let alone the bad guys. It’s just not for me.

Manners & Mutiny

Gail Carriger

This is the fourth of Carriger’s Finishing School series. They are kind of hard to define; steampunk historical supernatural adventure romances, I guess? It has been some time since I read the first three. I remember enjoying them, but I don’t really remember the details of what happened. I did retain a solid memory of who the characters are. Sophronia is now close to graduating from her finishing school. That school is set on an airship that flies around an alternate reality Great Britain. And this finishing school trains its students to be expert spies and assassins. Sophronia is just as much of a go getter as she ever was. She has taken her lessons to heart, and she is a very talented operative, if not an especially stealthy spy.

In this book, the school gets taken over by the nefarious Picklemen, and Sophronia, who knows more about what is going on than even her teachers, stays on the ship to try to stop them. That is the big climax, the first half is exactly how Sophronia came to have that knowledge. It also has her dealing with her love life. While she seems to have pretty definitely chosen between the two handsome young men who are interested, social issues seem destined to keep her and her love apart.

It doesn’t have the impact it likely would have had I read it closer to the rest of the series, but once I got into it, it was really enjoyable.

Now Playing April 2020

Beaten

Owlboy – To start with, this game is gorgeous. Just some of the best sprite work I’ve ever seen. It is impossible to overstate how good this game looks. I wish it played as well. It’s not bad, it is just kind of pedestrian. The central gameplay mechanic, of having Otus, the protagonist and the owlboy of the title, carry around an ally who actually does the fighting. A lot of the game is based on grabbing and tossing and the mechanics are just slightly clumsy. The story is involved and really good. The game creates quite a few well realized characters. It verges on being too much and getting in the way of the gameplay, but mostly nails the balance. It is just an interesting game. It makes such a great initial impression because of how it looks, but doesn’t quite hold to that level as it goes on. Still, as a first physical game I bought for my Switch, I think I made a good choice.

Golf Story – This is a charming little rpg where the battle system is golf. The golf is pretty solid and a lot of fun. Some of the challenges seem a little unreasonable or really fiddly, but those are mostly near the end and are designed to be hard challenges. Also, the game is not nearly as funny as it thinks it is. That is very much just my take; comedy is hard and maybe it will hit other players better. The overall flow of the game is just very relaxing and addictive.

Bravely Default II Demo – I am not particularly impressed with anything other than aesthetics from this demo, but I have really enjoyed the previous two Bravely games, so I am willing to give this a chance on full release. Especially because a big part of my problem was about the balance in this weird slice of demo. Assuming that stuff is at least somewhat straightened out by the time the game comes out, I am ready for this.

Final Fantasy VII Remake – A full post is coming soon. This game is kind of amazing.

The Alliance Alive – A post went up. Good game.

Transistor – I feel like I did this game a disservice because I had trouble hearing it while playing on my Switch Lite. A lot of the plot seems to happen in incidental dialogue as you traverse the game world, and I missed anywhere from a third to half of it. Otherwise, it is short and sweet and really pretty interesting. The game gives the player a bunch of skills and lets the player combine them in different ways. The skills have different properties depending on how you use them. For example, there is a charm ability. If you set it as an attack, you charm an enemy. If you set it as a modifier, then the main attack will have a charm status added to whatever that attack is. Or you could set it as a character modifier and (I think) give Red, the protagonist, a boost to her hp. With 20 or so skills, there is a lot of customization available for the player. The plot, which I’ve already admitted to missing a significant amount of, seemed simple, but enjoyable. Red is a singer attacked by the Camerata, some kind of shadowy criminal group. She ends up with the transistor, a sort of big sword that can fight the Process, the robotic enemies that the Camerata have lost control of and are taking over the city. So you are fighting on two fronts, with little idea of what is really going on. The game is just a lot of fine.

Ongoing

Dragon Quest XI – I don’t want to write a whole lot about this, mostly because I will be writing a full post about it soon, but this game has been a really interesting contrast with Final Fantasy XV and Final Fantasy VII Remake. Both series started in roughly the same place, and while Dragon Quest has had its experiments, like 9’s multiplayer focused game and 10’s MMO, it has stayed fairly close to its root, while Final Fantasy, especially over the last decade or so, has really gone wild places. For the most part, Dragon Quest has remained Dragon Quest. This game is the future version of the Dragon Quest games on the NES, as though there had been little evolution in the series in the decades between. It is wonderful.

Valkyria Chronicles 4 – I loved the original Valkyria Chronicles, and tolerated the PSP sequel. This one, through the first four chapters or so, the game feels like a refreshing turn back towards the original, though it still feels a little more simplistic than the original. Or maybe I am blinded by nostalgia. The game does make me feel like my R1 button is broken, because it takes forever to pull into shooting mode. Still, this has been a lot of fun so far.

Earthlock – This was cheap when I got my Switch and seemed interesting. Reviews I read compared it to Final Fantasy 9, which I love. This game didn’t really do it for me. I played for roughly 5 hours, and I am still waiting for the plot to do something interesting, the writing is pedestrian, and the battles are just ridiculously slow. It felt like treading water. I might go back to it at some point; but it has fallen to the bottom of my list.

Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle – Another game I picked up on sale with my Switch. I’m going to have a full post soon, but this is a strange game. I have some problems with some of this game’s mechanics, like how new enemies show up and the dash attacks, but it is mostly a really interesting strategy game with a very odd mix of characters. I’ve nearly beat it, and after I beat some other things I’ll come back for the challenge levels and the Donkey Kong DLC.

Upcoming

Final Fantasy VII – Beating the remake has made me kind of want to go back to the original game. Honestly, I have something of a hankering to replay the entire series. I’ve got FFVII on my PS4, we’ll see how that goes first.

Super Mario Odyssey – I have to get this from my brother, but this game is a big reason why I ended up taking the plunge with the Switch.

Tales of Vesperia – I have a weird love/hate relationship with the Tales series. I really enjoyed Tales of Symphonia and absolutely hated Tales of the Abyss. I find the anime aesthetics of the series both somehow attractive and repellent. I am in right now, and will play this Switch version of Vesperia I picked up on the cheap.

Shantae and the Seven Sirens – This is lined up to come out late in the month and I am going to jump on it. The series hasn’t led me wrong yet.

The Alliance Alive

After finding Final Fantasy XV to have a surprising number of connections to Final Fantasy VI, I found myself comparing another relatively recent game to that SNES classic. The Alliance Alive has some shades of Final Fantasy VI, too. In fact, there are shades of a great number of games in The Alliance Alive; not just Final Fantasy VI, but its spiritual predecessor Legend of Legacy, various games from the SaGa series, and the first two Suikoden games also clearly influenced that game. Those influences blend together into a game that manages to feel like something original.

That said, I am not a fan of all of those influences. Specifically, I am not a fan of The Legend of Legacy or the SaGa series. I know those games have their fans, and I do not begrudge them their enjoyment, even if I cannot share it. The very things that fans of SaGa like about it are the things that turn me off. I do not want a different experience every time I play the game, I want it to react in entirely predictable ways. I do not want to learn abilities or gain stat increases at random. The Alliance Alive is not particularly bad about this, largely because most of the characters’ stats are static. You do get random HP and SP increases, but they occur on a schedule that makes it pretty clear when you have reached the maximum level for an area. If you are gaining HP after fights, that is a sign you need to keep fighting. Once you go a battle or two without an increase, that is a pretty good sign it is time to move on. The learning of abilities is more problematic, but I tended to learn them fast enough that even if there was a hole in a character’s skill list, there was something else to use instead.

One thing it keeps from its immediate predecessor, Legend of Legacy, is this sense of opacity. While the information might be there, the game is not particularly clear on what a lot of its little systems do. While truly engaging with them is hardly necessary, there is some frustration at not knowing how things actually work.

Where I feel the game is much more successful is how it has echoes of Final Fantasy VI and the first two Suikoden games. Like FFVI, this is a game with no true protagonist. To start with, various characters take the role. You start with Azura and Galil, then move through Vivian to Gene, all with an assortment of supporting characters before they all meet up to form one big party. It is an eclectic and interesting group of characters. Tiggy is a child prodigy who goes into battle inside what is essentially a duck mecha; Robbins is a tiny little penguin warrior. It really nails that feeling that Suikoden and FFVI had of assembling all the people who just happened to be there to aid in the fight. Robbins is an optional recruit, not unlike Umaro or Gogo from FFVI, or any number of Suikoden weirdos. The Alliance Alive, on a couple of occasions, did the trick that Final Fantasy VI and Suikoden did so well, putting their large casts to good use by dividing the large party up into several smaller parties. Suikoden II has the big showdown with Luca Blight where the player has to make 3 different teams for different phases of the fight. Final Fantasy VI has several big dungeons that have split parties. The Alliance Alive does not lend itself Final Fantasy VI’s light puzzle dungeons. That said, it still does not really take advantage of the idea. The big split party moment in The Alliance Alive feels kind of like the big climax of the game, after that things kind of fall apart.

The first three quarters of the game are filled with events and interesting dungeons. The full team’s first mission is the splitting party mission. It is a big moment and the game never tops it. It never really even tries to top it. The next dungeon is long, but absurdly straightforward. And the end is rather simple. It is almost like the game just kind of gave up. It finishes things off, but still feels kind of unfinished.

The story is kind of similar. It starts with each of its protagonists getting pulled into the mystery of what exactly is going on in this world. The Daemons control the world, using Beastment to keep the humans in line. The mysterious Dark Current divides the world into quarters, with passage through it impossible. Of course, all is not how it seems. It is told in a style reminiscent of SNES jrpgs, playing out more like a sketch or an outline than an in depth plot. It leaves a lot of space for the player to fill in the gaps; to invent depth where none may actually exist. I could see it leaving people cold, but to me it was broad and comforting.

In a lot of ways, The Alliance Alive is not quite what I wanted it to be. It is really close to being everything I wanted, but in a lot of small ways it just isn’t. Still, I really enjoyed it. It is the kind of game that if I was in a different part of my life I could spend a lot of time really learning, getting into all the various systems and really picking this game a part. Instead, I am treating it as a largely pleasant romp that reminds me of other games I’ve loved.

Final Fantasy XV

(There are going to be some Final Fantasy 15 spoilers in this)

I don’t know that I actually expected to enjoy Final Fantasy 15. I was aware of the troubles of its long development cycle. How it started as Final Fantasy Versus 13, before disappearing for years, only to reappear, reimaging and rebranded as the fifteenth main entry in this series. The legacy of the Fabula Nova Crystallis is not a great one, hampered by development delays and other conceptual problems. But Final Fantasy 15 is the best game to come out of that ambitious project.

I don’t have a lot to say about the gameplay here. The battle system is functional and intuitive, but I would be lying if I said I ever fully grasped the nuances of it. I mostly just let it happen, and tried my best to use the skills the game gave me. It works, but I can’t say I ever developed anything like a strategy with it. But that is not too different from most games in the series. Outside of some outliers with the job system, the series often tends to the easy side.

I was definitely not prepared for how much this game takes from Final Fantasy 6. In my experience, that SNES classic is considered one the best games in the series. However, it does not tend to be one of the more influential or referenced games in the series. The modern series is built on the image of FF7, and throwbacks tend to look to the first five games. FF6 is more of a transitional game. Still 2d like its predecessors, but with sensibilities that are closer in line with the next few games in the series. FF15, though, brings back many elements from FF6, often recontextualizing them.

The big one is FF6’s signature twist. Throughout the first half of the game, the player has built a party to combat an Empire bent on conquering the world through the use of magically enhanced soldiers. The empire has largely acted through two of its leaders; the fierce but honorable General Leo and the devious clown Kefka. When the Empire raises a floating continent from which the Emperor plans to rule on high, it appears to be setting up the endgame, only for Kefka to turn on his master, usurping his power to destroy the world as the player knows it. The player is put back at square one, having to rebuild their party and put the new world to right.

Final Fantasy 6 is likely not the first game to do this, and Final Fantasy 15 is not the first to copy it, but it seems to share the most direct elements with its predecessor. The big twist comes later overall in the game, and the revelation of the big bad guy and his plan is a little less of a swerve, but it still follows a similar structure. Near the end of the game, the bad guy wins, and the player has to fight through a destroyed world to achieve a somewhat hollow feeling victory.

There are more concrete connections between the two games as well. The existence of Magitech, for example. The game has both magically enhanced soldiers, like FF6’s Celes, and the magic shooting mechs. The summons are imagined as characters in similar fashion to the espers from FF6. FF6’s tools, probably its longest lasting contribution to the series, are here as well. For a game that has long felt somewhat lost in the legacy of this series, Final Fantasy 15’s connections to Final Fantasy 6 are greatly appreciated by a big fan of that game. That is not to say that FF6 is the only previous game in the series that 15 echoes. For starters, even though it is no longer Final Fantasy Versus 13, the game did not completely exercise its feeling of connection with that game. Many of the gameplay systems feel reminiscent of Final Fantasy 12, from its open world aspirations to its monster hunts to its freeform feeling battle system. Also, the brief glimpses the game gives of the empire and its machinations feel reminiscent of FF12 as well.

Final Fantasy 15 manages to stake its own claim to originality in this, a big part of which is from a somewhat controversial design decision: limiting the party to just the four (male) main characters. It is a choice that does not feel in keeping with the series’ history. Plus, there are plenty of characters that feel like they belong in the party. Iris, Lunafreya, and even Cidney would be obvious choices to add as permanent party members. That is leaving out temporary party member Aranea. Excluding those characters from the party limits the impact they can have on the story. They are each limited to small interactions with the main party and end up feeling kind of inconsequential. That said, the four person party ends up being one of this game’s biggest strengths. The first two thirds of the game are all about this foursome cruising around the continent in their sports car. The game does an excellent job building the camaraderie between them, as well as showing the cracks that crop up in the later part of the game. Noctis is the somewhat spoiled prince; he means well and tries hard, but at the start of the game is not ready for the burden he must take on. Gladio is his dedicated bodyguard; he is generally pretty laid back, but his patience for Noctis’s floundering is limited. Ignis is his counsel; he is the calm and collected member of the group that keeps things together even as it all falls apart. Finally, Prompto is simply Noctis’s friend; he is comic relief and the instigator of many interactions.

Where Final Fantasy 15 really succeeds is in the first section of the game, where the player builds a connection to these four characters and they build connections with each other. The game gives the player a fairly open-ended quest, finding the tombs of the previous kings and earning their magical blessings, that lets the player just explore the continent to their heart’s extent. Then the game switches gears and things get more serious. The larger elements of the plot (more on that later) start to come into focus and Noctis gets closer to his long awaited meeting with his betrothed Lunafreya. The game then has the player leave the continent and cross the ocean, and the open world aspect of the game falls away.

It is there that it all falls apart, but in the narrative and as a narrative. Things go awry for the party, and it strains those relationships built in the first part of the game. They end up maimed and separated, fighting desperately to finish a quest that feels increasingly quixotic. When an angry Gladio lashes out at a sullen Noctis, it makes sense. You might not agree with Gladio; the player has seen recent events through Noctis’s eyes, but you have to admit he has a point. But the greater problems with the game crop up there. The open world falls away, leading to some very limited areas and an extended solo/stealth dungeon that is sure to test players’ patience. Also, the general lack of story starts to become apparent.

The long development cycle of Final Fantasy 15 is felt in how the story pulls the player one way and another in the plot without ever really giving the player a clear idea of what everything means or who the pieces fit together. Some of it is how the game sticks to Noctis’s POV; if he doesn’t have access to the information, then the player does not. But much of it feels like it was left on the cutting room floor. I am not talking about stuff that is reserved for DLC; that stuff is clear and I will eventually buy it and experience it. Other parts feel like they were excised in order to get the game finished, and added back in as a data log or a radio broadcast. Just so much of the story of the game does not appear to be in the game. It is frustrating, especially in an otherwise very enjoyable experience.

Final Fantasy 15 feels a lot like the last few entries in this series. It is largely an incredibly enjoyable, innovative experience that feels compromised in some way. I consider it absolutely essential playing, a more than worthy entry in the series, but one that has noticeable flaws. I still need to play the DLC and to watch the movie, things I intend to do, but I do not expect them to fix the larger flaws with the game.

What I Read March 2020

Given the way things are now, I expected to finish more books in March than I did. However, I am certain I will have read a greater number of books in April, I will have read more if I just finish the ones I started in March. Though I am not making the progress I thought I would be being stuck at home. Still, three books in March is not bad, given everything else that is going on.

Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth

Sarah Smarsh

This is a non-fiction look at poverty in America, and how growing up poor can affect your entire life and outlook. It reflects Smarsh’s personal and family history, but it also highlights larger problems. There are no systems or structures in place to actually help people get out of poverty. The time period covered by the book details the erosion of much of what could help, especially in the farmland where she grew up.

Smarsh’s story does a great job of showing the cycle of poverty that catches people in ways they can’t escape. Her grandmother keeps moving, but cannot make enough money anywhere to give her protection when any sort of financial or personal tragedy hits. No amount of hard work or skill can counteract the weight of the system against the poor; meritocracy is a lie.

If there is a weakness to the book it is the sentence to sentence writing. Smarsh uses a conceit where she is writing to her unborn daughter, a conceit I do not think really works. Other parts are just kind of awkward. None of that really gets in the way of the power of the story she is telling. I grew up in a similar area, if just a little more well off than her family. Smarsh really captures the feeling in rural communities.

Justice Brennan: The Great Conciliator

Hunter R. Clark

My second biography of one of the greatest Supreme Court Justices to ever sit the bench. This one is less in depth than the previous one, but it is still good and gives an excellent look at the life and jurisprudence of William Brennan. As the title indicates, this book highlights Brennan’s ability to build consensus. While other Justices were often brilliant, they could also be rigid. Getting Hugo Black or William O. Douglas to agree to a compromise in an effort to reach a decision that the requisite number of judges could agree on was no easy task, even if one agreed with them. The same could be true of conservative justices like Rehnquist or Burger. Brennan had the ability to determine where the disagreements were and to build a consensus. When the court took a rightward turn in the 1980’s, he used that ability to limit the damage they did to the court’s jurisprudence. Brennan is not one of the most exciting figures of the court; he has nothing on the life of Douglas or Thurgood Marshall, but he was definitely one of the most effective justices.

Myths & Mortals

Charlie N. Holmberg

The second of Holmberg’s Numina trilogy. I do not have a lot to say about this book. I liked Holmberg’s Paper Magician books, but this one feels a little like the story is chasing its own tail. It is the same characters doing the same things, never really feeling like they are making progress. I am intrigued by the world and the characters, but until near the end here, I do not think this book did much. I will likely read the third book at some point, but I have not been crazy about these.

Now Playing March 2020

Beaten

Final Fantasy XV – read about it here.

Yakuza 3 – read about it here.

Chrono Trigger – I’ve been building a save file on the DS port of this game since it was released more than a decade ago. I’ve seen roughly half the endings on this save. If I was truly determined to complete the save file, then I would have done it already. But when the mood strikes me to play Chrono Trigger, which the mood does fairly frequently, I have lately tried to get another ending filled in and get my save that much closer to being complete. Of course, sometimes you just want to play the game the right way, no New Game + or any of that, and I’ve done that a few times. But I have my first file, and I keep playing at it. At some point I am going to do the new stuff added to the port that I was warned off of all those years ago and never truly investigated for myself. Chrono Trigger is among the best games ever made, and it remains unsurpassed 25 years after it was first released.

Ace Attorney: Dual Destinies & Ace Attorney: Spirit of Justice – read about them here. (and here and here)

Ongoing

Rune Factory 4 – This was the game I intended to fill my 3DS time with after beating some other games. And I did play it. Some. About a week of game time. I really like the idea of Rune Factory; I like it more, it seems, than actually playing it. This game seems to do just about everything right, the combat is relatively fluid, the farming stuff is intuitive, and the game manages to mix the two almost seamlessly. I just can’t get into a comfortable playing rhythm. I am still intending to keep playing this game, but I think it is going to be sporadic. That is, unless it really grabs me and I get pulled in. That has happened before. But this is feeling like it might be the last game standing in my 3DS backlog.

River King: A Wonderful Journey – The problem I am having with this game is that I am just not the habit of turning on my PS3. It just feels foreign these days. And the hour or two I spent with River King do not do a lot to make me want to stick with it. The game is fine, if a little bit slight.

The Alliance Alive – On paper, this game is everything I want out of a video game. A colorful cast. Directed by the creator of Suikoden. An interesting world. It does have some SaGa-like elements, and those have never been good. I am saving a full explanation of that for when I finish this. But I gave it barely four hours when it was released and kind of forgot about. Its efforts to be old school make it kind of not fun to play at times, but as I get further into it, I am at about fifteen hours now, its charms become more apparent. I expect to be finished with it in a week or so and will have a full write up then.

Shin Megami Tensei Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers – I put another hour or two into this. It is not a great game for easing the player back in after a long break. This is a twenty year old game and while there are some acknowledgements of modern quality of life improvements, this still largely plays like a 20 year old game. I need time to acclimate myself to that, and I am not really feeling SMT right now.

Double Dragon and Kuni-Kun Retro Brawler Bundle – I am still kind of sampling these games instead of really digging into them. I don’t know that I will do much more. The Kunio sports games are made for sampling, though they often hide surprising depth. Renegade is just not good, and there is no reason to play it. If all this bundle turns out to be a place for me to play River City Ransom, I still think it was worth the money.

Dragon Quest XI – I made a little progress, but this game got sidetracked by Yakuza 3 and then Final Fantasy XV. I am getting back into it, though Final Fantasy VII Remake is on the horizon and likely to sidetrack it again. The plot is kind of revealing itself, finally, 30 hours in. I have pretty much the whole cast together finally. It really feels like I am about out of the introductory phase of the game and hitting the real meat. Luckily, Dragon Quest games are pretty episodic, so picking it up after a break is not really a problem.

Upcoming

Final Fantasy VII: Remake – I am shocked at how excited I am for this game. I was never the biggest fan of FFVII. I was super excited about it when it came out, but I didn’t really get to play it (other than a few hours with the PC version) for almost a decade after its release. I like it, but it is not one of my favorites in the series. Apparently though, I have a lot of nostalgia for this game, because seeing trailers for this game has me really excited. I am ready to go.

Valkyria Chronicles 4 – With being stuck at home I have a lot more time for video games. I picked this up on a sale, but I have never really had the time to play it. While I will have to get through FFVII and probably DQXI, this is next on the list.

Legend of Legacy – With me actually kind of getting into The Alliance Alive, I intend to get back to its spiritual predecessor soon. I did not connect with this game about five years ago. I am not sure I will connect with it going back to it. I do not like a lot of its character progression systems. I do like the aesthetics, so I will give it another go. Plus, I am straight running out of 3DS games.

What I Watched March 2020

Movies

All the Bright Places – A fairly well done, teenage romantic tragedy that is mostly about mental health. It is a real downer and not really what I want right now. Elle Fanning and Justice Smith are really solid as the stars, I just didn’t like it that much. **1/2

The Coldest Game – Bill Pullman plays an alcoholic US chessmaster caught in the midst of Cold War spy stuff. He has to try to win a chess match against a Soviet master while helping a Soviet spy deliver information relating to the Cuban missile crisis. It’s mostly pretty good. **½

Emma. – read review here. ****½

The Way Back – read review here. ***1/2

Goodfellas – Yeah, this movie is just about perfect. I don’t really have anything to add to the Goodfella discussion; it’s great. *****

Tremors – Okay, this movie is much better than I remember it being. Cheap and goofy, but a lot of fun. Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward are great as an odd couple of handy men who find themselves stuck in a monster movie. It is a lot of fun. ****

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – I am always shocked at how well this movie holds up. It is legitimately good and the turtles still look great. I love this movie. ****

Dick Tracy – This movie is kind of all over the place. Most of the cast is in a live action cartoon, Madonna is in an erotic thriller. Most of it actually works, but it still feels kind of disjointed at times. ***

Hard to Kill – I don’t think I like Seagal and I did not really care for this at all. **

Spencer Confidential – This had all the makings of being really fun, but it kind of doesn’t work. Wahlberg and Duke are good. But they are kind of stuck in a movie that isn’t really sure what it is. Wahlberg’s character has to constantly be the best at everything and be beaten down by the world. **

Pokemon: Mewtwo Strikes Back – A cgi remake of the original Pokemon movie. It isn’t great, but it is entertaining enough. As someone who hasn’t seen the Pokemon movie since I took my little brother to the theater for his birthday, I was pleasantly surprised at how much I liked it. It is definitely nonsense, but there is something remarkably enjoyable about a video game movie that sets out to tell one story and tells it, even if it is just a small chapter of a big story. ***

Lost Girls – An incredibly well made and frustrating movie about a young woman who goes missing. It is really about the incompetence and inertia of the police who are supposed to be investigating the disappearance, but do not really care because the girl was an escort. The roadblocks that Amy Ryan’s mother continually runs into are viscerally frustrating. It makes for an amazing, difficult movie. ****1/2

A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon – This was actually a fun stop motion take on E.T., mixed with all kinds of other movies. I have not previously been much of an Aardman fan, but this was pretty delightful, even if low key. ***1/2

To All the Boys P.S. I Still Love You – A really solid teenage rom-com sequel. It really does a good job of building on the characters from the first movie, not just redoing the first movie. It actually makes the characters deeper and more well rounded. It is really good. ****

Altered Carbon Resleeved – An anime movie that takes place before the Altered Carbon show, or at least season 2, that fills in some backstory and is about some Yakuza line of succession in a world where people are functionally immortal. There is some fun to be had here, but I thought it looked ugly, which is a big problem with an animated film. **1/2

Night Hunter – A thriller starring Henry Cavill and Alexandra Daddario. It executes its formula pretty well. It isn’t going to blow anyone’s doors off, but if you want something in the vein of Silence of the Lambs, there are worse choices. **1/2

TV

Locke & Key – An adaptation of a series of comics created by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez. A trio of kids move back to their recently deceased father’s childhood home and start to find magic keys. This starts a game of cat and mouse with an evil entity that is also trying to get the keys. It is okay. Nothing special, but good enough.

The English Game – This feels like a show made only for me. It is a late 19th century period piece about the development of English football. It has a kind of upstairs/downstairs set up, contrasting the wealthy, upper class players of the established game against the lower class factory workers, with some of the factory workers even stooping to being paid to play. It isn’t the best thing ever, but presses a lot of my buttons. I loved it.

The Pale Horse – A lesser known Christie about a seemingly supernatural mystery. The show really plays up the unreliability of its protagonist. It is pretty entertaining; I don’t have much to say.

Hunters – This show goes places. I am not sure they are all good places, but they are places. Set in the late 70s, Hunters deals with a group that finds out Nazi’s relocated to the USA after WW2. Logan Lerman plays Jonah, who after the murder of his grandma falls into the orbit of Al Pacino’s Meyer and his group of Nazi hunters. The show tries to both be a mediation on how to deal with loss and grief, and a sort of exploitation movie. The two halves are never really adequately combined. It is certainly flawed, but even with all of its flaws it remains largely entertaining.

The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez – This one is a rough watch. Just the vilest of humanity on display, and the complete failure of every level of a system that is supposed to prevent things like this. It is a revealing look at personal and systemic failures, but it also simply turns the stomach.

Tiger King – I don’t have time for this. This documentary is impossibly to look away from, and just keeps getting crazier and crazier as it goes along. Judging by the internet from the last couple of days, everyone has seen it. I do have some qualms with how it treats Carol Baskin. The doc makes a convincing case that she killed her husband without any real evidence that she killed her husband. I don’t like that a bunch of internet weirdos are going to be harassing her for the rest of her life based on innuendo and the ramblings of a meth addict. Still, this is impossibly entertaining.

Castlevania S3 – I think I came to the same conclusion with each season of this show, but I do not like it all that much. It seems to revel in the parts of Castlevania story that I don’t like, or to reimagine parts I do in ways that I don’t. Each season I find that I am very much not on the same page as this series. Season 3 had a decent story with Trevor and Sypha fighting a town of cultists, but I kind of hated everything around that. I am not saying this show is bad, I am saying it is aggressively not for me.

Altered Carbon S2 – I remember really liking the first season of this, but the second season kind of lost me. It wasn’t the change from Kinnaman to Anthony Mackie as the main character. I liked Kinnaman, but Mackie is really good. There is a lot of interesting stuff in this show, but this season focuses more on a bigger plot than the first season, which started as a something of a murder mystery before morphing into something greater. The production values are still amazing, but writing does not quite work.

Sanditon – This is a show based on an unfinished Jane Austen novel. You can almost tell, sometime near the end of the first episode or beginning of the second, where the show runs out of book. It then goes in some pretty non-Austen directions. Mostly in having character be a lot more complex in terms of morality instead of just personality. (That sounds like a dig at Austen, but at the end of an Austen novel, you know who is good and who is bad) Until the last episode, it still mostly works. I think it kind of fell apart in the end; maybe setting itself up for a second season. There are some problems that seem to stem from how much it departs from Austen’s, admittedly incomplete, set up. Still, it looks good.

The Office – Trapped in my house led to me watching a lot of The Office in the background. It still sucks me in when I watch it.

Black Lightning – The third season of what has been one of the better CW superhero shows wrapped in a largely satisfactory manner. The big problem I had with the end of the season seems likely to be fixed sooner rather than later and is hopefully just a story hook for next season. This season went big. Not only did Jefferson get involved in the Arrowverse as a whole during Crisis, but it also replaced the largely street level, local conflicts with an international story with larger ramifications. In the end, I think it pulled things back together pretty well and managed to bring a sprawling story that at times seemed to get away from the writers home. I hope next season sees a refocusing on the matters that the show started with, as I liked the first two seasons better.

Star Trek: Picard – The Next Generation is the version of Star Trek that I’ve always liked best. I felt a little trepidation hearing that Patrick Stewart was coming back to star in a Picard focused tv series. I was also excited, doubly so because Michael Chabon was involved. The show is not quite the home run I wanted it to be, but it is largely very good and ultimately pretty satisfying. I think the show did itself a disservice with its central plotline, which went too big and too urgent to really let people get to, in my opinion, the parts of Star Trek, which are when the crew has a little downtime. I like to see the ship’s crew interact, and this show didn’t really get to that until about halfway, and even then only did it about half way. Still, I liked it,

A Few Ace Attorney Cold Cases

It is likely too soon to be writing off the Ace Attorney series as a thing of the past. The last game was released in Japan less than three years ago. There was a longer gap between games four and five of the series, and as long a gap between games three and four. That said, the series has gone pretty much dormant in the West since the release of Spirit of Justice in 2016 and I am not especially hopeful that we’ll ever see more of it. However, I was recently reminded that both of the 3DS Ace Attorney games, Dual Destinies and Spirit of Justice, had downloadable cases that I had never played. With the 3DS dead, and the Ace Attorney series absent, I decided it was high time that I played those dlc cases. The Dual Destinies one had been available for nearly seven years, there really was no excuse for me to have not played it.

One thing that has changed since the last Ace Attorney game was released that was guaranteed to change how I saw the series; I went to law school. Oddly enough, it didn’t make that much of a difference; if anything I find the legal nonsense more plausible now, even though I know just how far it is from reality.

Dual Destinies’s dlc case is Turnabout Reclaimed. It is a kind of goofy, classic case. It has a small role for the whole cast of the game, it is really a Phoenix showcase in a game that, if I recall correctly, tended to lose him for large stretches as he slipped into more of a mentor role than protagonist. The rest is about as silly as the series got, with a pirate themed aquarium and an orca accused of murder. The case, as they tend to do, twists around like a snake, but the whole thing builds to one moment: Phoenix Wright cross examining an orca.

The game teases it, pretending it is going to have Nick call the orca to testify, before pulling back. Finally, near the end the inevitable happens. It is worth the wait. Turnabout Reclaimed is a fun case; it feels more like the second case of the game than something that should have been dlc, but that doesn’t make it any less fun.

Spirit of Justice’s Turnabout Time Traveler is the one that really caught my attention. That is because given its cast, it caused special feelings for this longtime fan of the series. Turnabout Time Traveler starts with Larry Butz bursting into the Wright Anything Agency with a new case; saving his bride from a murder conviction. It is soon revealed that Larry is wrong about pretty much everything, but Phoenix is still on the case. The title promises time travel, and while the case does bring that up, and summarily dismisses the idea with such fervor that you expect it to twist back around to being real, there is some time travel involved. That is for the player. This case goes all the way back to the original Ace Attorney, with Phoenix partnered up with Maya and going against Miles Edgeworth. The only person missing is Gumshoe. This case hit the nostalgia hard.

I don’t know if it feels more like a reunion or a farewell. Maybe it’s both. This is the case that got me thinking that we are not going to see any more of these characters. The reunion aspect is obvious. Phoenix never fully left the spotlight, but Maya disappeared for two games and Edgeworth was relegated to his own spin off series. This case has Phoenix and Edgeworth facing off for the first time since the first game, and those two together with Maya for the first time since the end of the third game. Still, I feel a farewell in all of this. The game is kind of acknowledging that there really isn’t anywhere else for these characters to go. At least, nowhere that the game is willing to acknowledge. There are some oblique hints at romance between Maya and Phoenix, but the game wisely leaves that alone. Otherwise, these characters are fully formed now. Maya is spunky and determined, Edgeworth is stolid but kind-hearted, and Phoenix is dedicated and quick thinking. They are a fun trio, but the series has gotten pretty much all it can out of them. They could, theoretically, crank out cases of the quality of Turnabout Time Traveler forever. I would play them; they are fun interactive murder mysteries. But that is not really forward momentum for the series. If this is the last we see of this trio, or any part of the trio, I am glad we got it. It makes for a good send off.

I really miss this series. Maybe a Switch port or compilation would drum up enough interest to get things going again. Still, we got 8 great games in America and for that I am glad.

Yakuza 3 Remastered

It has been some time since I played Yakuza 3. Accordign to my psn trophy information. While I played the first game on PS2, Yakuza 3 was the game that made me truly a fan of the series. While I have frequently seen it rated fairly low on lists like [this], Yakuza 3 has always been one of my favorites in the series. Replaying the remastered version has solidified that in some ways, though I how the series has improved with time, and solidified another opinion of mine in relation to the series.

I’ll start with that other opinion. Here is my mildly warm take: Yakuza 3 should have been the last game to feature Kazuma Kiryu, at least chronologically. Yakuza 3 is the logical ending place of his story. Kiryu dealt with his problems in the first game, settled the Tojo Clan in the second game, and in the third game firmly established himself in a new place. His story is done. The next couple of games seem to tacitly acknowledge this, moving him from primary protagonist to one of four or five. But they keep pulling him back in anyway. I understand why; Kiryu is a great character. Most of his replacements have struggled to show similar qualities as him. Some of that is on purpose; they largely exist as foils for Kiryu in some way. Still, Shun Akiyama could have been that character with a little adjusting, fitting him into space that didn’t exist because Kiryu was there. The same is true, to a lesser extent, for Taiga Saejima. Akiyama has some knowingness, a little sleaze that separates him from Kiryu. Saejima is a little too quiet, a little too hard. He doesn’t have the charisma. But again, is that innate to the character, or does he exist that way to differentiate him from Kiryu.

After Yakuza 3, Kiryu ceases to be a real player in the plots of the games until Yakuza 6. Even in Yakuza 0 his plot feels somewhat subordinate to Majima’s. Here, we see the final evolution of Kazuma Kiryu. It is telling that a lot of this game has nothing to do with the internal politics of warring Yakuza clans. It is largely about Kiryu raising his gaggle of orphans. What even gets him back to Tokyo is a plot to takeover the land on which his orphanage rests. This game definitively sets Kiryu’s place as in Okinawa, at the orphanage.

The plot is generally where I think this game excels. It is likely the most simple in the series. For all the appearances of twists and turns, it is actually pretty straightforward. There are two different plots going on. One is Hamazaki’s plan to use the Triad’s to take control of the Tojo Clan. The other is a power grab by Mine, who idolizes the injured chairman Daigo Dojima, but despairs at the possibility of his recovery. The grotesque Kanda believes he is player in this game, but he is revealed to be Mine’s pawn early on. The other big player is the CIA, who are pushing the Tojo clan and the Japanese Defense ministry to negotiate a land deal to catch arms dealers Black Monday. All of this plotting involved in the land deal matters to Kiryu for one reason: the land that his orphanage rests on is one of the final pieces of the puzzle.

That land is owned by Ryudo Family, a tiny Tojo affiliate in Okinawa. Kiryu, of course, forges a friendship with the family and they refuse to evict him. So the deal is at an impasse. Until, that is, Daigo is shot, causing upheaval in the whole Tojo clan. At the same time, the head of the Ryudo family is shot, and the deed for the Orphanage is stolen. They were both shot by the same man. This leads Kiryu back to Kamurocho to find who did this and secure his orphanage. Kiryu unravels it all with his fists and sets things right.

The most affecting part of the game is Kiryu with the Ryudo Family. There is good stuff in Kamurocho, as Kiryu fights his way through everything. But it feels a little deflated. Most of the characters from the first two games are dead, or disposed of pretty quickly. Even Majima has precious little to do, though he makes the most of his brief appearances. But in Okinawa, it is prime Yakuza stuff. Because it is personal; because it matters. Ryodo family head Nakahara is an old man who is like an older, somewhat failed version of Kiryu. He too has an adopted daughter, the silent Saki, and like Kiryu he would do anything for her. The only other members of the family are the hefty comic relief Mikio and hot-headed second in command Rikiya.

Rikiya is, in my opinion, one of the best, if not simply the best, supporting characters in the city. Whereas Nakahara is an older version of Kiryu, Rikiya is a younger version of him. He is proud and strong and fiercely loyal. He is like a fully fleshed out version of Yakuza 1’s Shinji. The game keeps him around just enough for the player to get to know him. First, he is something of an enemy, then he sees Kiryu in action. He helps out throughout the game and the player really learns a lot about him. Especially if the player does the two Rikiya centric substories. While he doesn’t quite reach the heights of series mainstays Kiryu, Haruka, or Majima, Rikiya is as good as anyone else.

Where the game falters is in the gameplay. It is stuck between the later PS3 and PS4 games and the PS2 games. There are significant improvements from the early games, but the game is not as fleshed out as the series would become. The substories are not especially good, but there are a lot of them. Eating at restaurants is a chore. A lot of the minigames are weird. It is a transitional game in the series. It is still a lot of fun, but with just Kiryu and just one fighting style, the game feels limited in some ways.

I am no longer sure it ranks up there with 5 or 0 as the best in the series, but it is one of my favorites. I kind of wish it had gotten the Kiwami treatment like the first two games, as a simple remaster leaves this as the most archaic game in the series, but it is not so old fashioned that it is not worth playing.

The Way Back

The Way Back is strange in how it manages to be both kind of slight and very heavy at the same time. It hits all the familiar marks of its genre, but underplays them in such a way that they actually have more impact. It isn’t a great movie, but it is one that makes a solid impact.

Ben Affleck plays Jack Cunningham, an alcoholic former high school basketball star. While he is slowly killing himself drinking, his old high school comes calling. Their basketball coach has suffered a heart attack and they need someone to step in and finish the season. Jack is reluctant to do so, but he eventually takes the position. While the school was a powerhouse back in his playing days, they are now down to six varsity players and have won only one game all year. From there, he helps teach the players about basketball and he learns how to move on with his life.

While several sports movies come to mind while watching The Way Back, the big one is Hoosiers. It hits a lot of the same beats. That movie also involved an alcoholic basketball coach who initially alienates some of his players. A coach who frequently lost his temper on the sidelines. With players whose parents are leery of letting them play over concerns about schooling. But while it hits a lot of the same beats, it does so with different enough emphases that it feels like its own thing instead of a pale imitation of the past. It also doesn’t have the pat conclusions that many other inspirational sports movies have.

For the Way Back, the basketball is secondary to the personal journey of Jack. Affleck immediately instills in him a bone deep weariness; you can feel the pain and trauma this character has suffered in every move he makes. However, the movie holds back on the exact details of that pain. He is separated from his wife and there was some past tragedy, but it doles out the information at a measured pace. Meanwhile, you see Jack slowly start to work through his pain. The basketball gives him something to hang on to. There is no call for him to stop drinking, he merely tries to sober up to better do his job. It is obvious he is white knuckling it, and when a past tragedy comes back, he can’t handle it. Setting up the usual backsliding portion of the movie.

There is just enough of the basketball team and strategy to keep it interesting. The team is limited in size and numbers, so Jack comes up with a plan to offset those weaknesses. He tries to instill in his team a sense of toughness. The players do not get a lot of development, but what is there is put to good use. The center, played by American Vandal and High Flying Bird’s Melvin Gregg, likes to shoot threes and has an exaggerated opinion of himself. The sharpshooter is a wannabe ladies man. The best player is a point guard too soft spoken to lead the team. Jack helps some of them become better players. Mostly, just the point guard.

The Way Back is an understated and effective drama. It feels like the kind of movie that won’t really stick with people, but the people who see it are likely to really enjoy it. I know I did.

***1/2