Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Star Wars The Rise of Skywalker poster.jpg

Can't write a really detailed review since the film is full of spoilers from start to end, but we do see actual things such as the Knights of Ren Kylo Ren spearheads, and the film I think struck a good balance between being fun and serious, akin to a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie. Like its predecessors in the sequel trilogy is somewhat a case of Real Life Writes the Plot, but luckily I wasn't spoiled beforehand as to the film's major twists, and there is plenty of callback to its chronological predecessors.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Dangerous Games


The second installment of author Clayton Emery’s Netheril trilogy opens with magician Candlemas continuing to seek a solution to the blight that has been plaguing crops, although the sequel quickly forgets this subplot. Meanwhile, Sunbright misses his former companion Greenwillow, and attempts to move on, feeling that he needs time alone in the woods. Candlemas and he find a mysterious shard from the skies in the forest that has explosive properties, with the two thrown through time and dealing with whatever comes their way as they attempt to find a way back home to their period.

The main antagonist of the second entry is the magician Karsus, a cousin to a woman named Aquesita who serves as something for a love interest to Candlemas. Sunbright himself finds a love interest as well, in his case a shaman-in-training named Knucklebones. Playing a minor role throughout the story are a group of spirits known as the Phaerimm, who conspire against the humans. Karsus is believed to be savior of the empire, and researches high-level magic, involving Candlemas as well, and developing an interest in the fallen star piece.

A number of climactic conflicts conclude the story, which is for the most part an enjoyable sequel, although it does sport occasional clichés prevalent in the fantasy genre such as time travel, an adversarial empire, racial unrest, the quest for godhood, and so forth. However, the relationships between the characters are definitely believable and have some semblance of development, and the story is full of action up until the very end of the sequel, which I would definitely recommend to those who enjoyed its precursor, and I look forward to reading the trilogy’s conclusion.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Jumanji: The Next Level


Follows another adventure within the videogame with the same actors reprising their avatar roles from the previous movie, although they have different occupants in most cases. Like its predecessor shows that videogame elements can work in movies, such as NPCs with repeating dialogue, finite lives, and even cutscenes, and has plenty of self-aware humor.

Friday, December 20, 2019

Editorial: Shaggy Dog Gameplay

TV Tropes defines a “Shaggy Dog” Story as a plot with massive buildup and action, only for its resolution to consist of an anticlimactic reversal that renders it meaningless. The term originates from an archetypical tale of a man who finds a shaggy dog looking similar to one in a lost dog poster. He bankrupts himself trying to return the dog to its owner, only to be told it “wasn’t that shaggy” and have the door slammed in his face; the end. Cinematic examples include Indiana Jones films Raiders of the Lost Ark and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, both whose conclusions render the struggles over their eponymous MacGuffins meaningless and would have had similar outcomes if Indy just stayed home.

The term could possibly apply to videogame mechanics, especially those where the player can invest significant time, only for their efforts to become pointless with things such as death in a battle, a consequential game over, and trip back to the title screen without progress or levels retained. Tactical RPGs, especially those with lengthy battles, in particular tend to suffer most from this in my experience, and are in fact one of my reasons for my disdain of the subgenre. Titles in the main roleplaying game genre can feel this way as well, especially if they utilize save points spread far apart alongside grueling difficulty with no progress retained from death.

Some games do make efforts to counter shaggy dog mechanics, among the earliest being the Dragon Quest series, where death results in half the player’s money lost and trip back to the last save location, albeit with acquired experience and treasure retained, later entries allowing players to bank their money to reduce the sting of financial loss and decease. Other titles such as Riviera: The Promised Land allow players to restart battles with part of the enemy’s health depleted if they die, giving them a fairer chance in their next attempt. A few even apply this to non-combat mechanics, such as Tales of Phantasia, where failing a switch-pressing puzzle a few times results in the game doing it for the player, at the minor cost of not getting a title.

Notable games that take shaggy dog mechanics to the extreme include the Soulsborne series, where death results in the loss of all experience necessary to empower the player’s character. While they do allow players a chance to recover their lost progress, subsequent demise makes the loss of experience permanent, with this cycling continuing throughout the games. RPGs that feature a heavy emphasis on puzzles and minigames can feel this way at times, since regardless of how powerful the player’s characters are, such progress is meaningless in the face of these diversions that could potentially drive them to use a guide.

I’ll admit I almost gave up on the revered Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic due to a mandatory minigame where the player has to shoot down attacking spaceships, where I was unable to advance until finding the tip of firing where the ships were traveling instead of at the vessels themselves. Its sequel features a similar minigame, but luckily, if you fail, the game continues at the expense of needing to fight foes that invade your ship. Some titles, however, such as Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep feature mandatory and difficult minigames that the player has to win to continue the storyline.

Some series such as Wild Arms have heavy emphasis on puzzle-solving, where the player’s levels from fighting battles are pointless in the face of some riddles that can potentially leave players stumped for significant chunks of time without the aid of walkthroughs. However, titles such as Castlevania: Lords of Shadow counter this by making puzzles completely optional, at the expense of not acquiring items that luckily don’t have much significance in completing the game. Other games such as the Golden Sun franchise tie puzzles in part to combat mechanics, and have in my experience haven’t tended to suffer harshly as a consequence.

Some RPGs such as later Etrian Odyssey and Persona games appeal to gamers of different skill levels by making shaggy dog mechanics optional. All entries of the former franchise would allow players to keep their cartography in the face of defeat, while later titles would have difficulty settings determining how they handled death, with easier settings transporting players back to town in case of demise. Easier settings of Persona games starting with the third allow players a certain number of “continues” in case the protagonist falls in battle, while higher settings maintain the harshness of defeat.

A game’s save system can be a factor in whether its gameplay one could consider to be of the shaggy dog variety. Titles that utilize standard save points akin to most Japanese RPGs and feature harsh death penalties tend to fall under the umbrella, especially if save opportunities are scarce. A few take this to the maximum, such as Grandia Xtreme, which features lengthy enemy-infested stretches between teleportation back to town and bosses, with one’s demise resulting in an unceremonious trip back to the title screen. Games such as Final Fantasy III and its DS version also have drawn-out endgames with no save opportunities during their concluding stretches at all.

Apologists for save points argue that they add “tension” to games, and in the case of unpredictable things such as power outages and game freezes, they are absolutely right. Being a resident of part of the world that is meteorologically-inconsistent, I’ve lost significant progress due to the former, and have had games such as Star Ocean: Till the End of Time and Arc the Lad II freeze on me without having being able to record my progress for an hour or more. Happily, some contemporary games such as Secret of Mana’s PlayStation 4 and Vita versions feature autosaving during transitions between areas that reduce the potential for wasted playtime.

As I’ve stated, shaggy dog gameplay tends to affect tactical RPGs most of all, given the potential for their battles, especially harder ones, to take a significant chunk of the player’s time. My first strategy RPG was the original Shining Force on the Sega Genesis, and surprisingly, it had a safeguard against wasted playtime, specifically the hero’s death returning the player back to the last town with half their money lost but experience retained from battle preserved. Some contemporary simulation RPGs that feature shaggy dog mechanics do attempt to shorten battles such as later Fire Emblems and various Disgaea games, which allow for animations that would otherwise drag out fights to be turned off.

In summation, developers should definitely consider the potential for players to spend significant wasted time with their games and thus implement features to alleviate shaggy dog gameplay in whatever they create, an easy solution being adjustable difficulty settings that determine whether they sport all-or-nothing mechanics. Such implementation would pacify gamers of most skill levels, from casual gamers such as I that believe playing videogames should never be a chore to those who bemoan anti-frustration features and yearn for more challenging gameplay, cheap or not. Titles with those kinds of accommodations would definitely be accessible an enjoyable by any audience.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Oliver & Company

Oliver poster.jpg 

A (very) loose animated adaptation of Dickens' Oliver Twist. Cheech Marin, Billy Joel, and Bette Midler voice dogs. Enough said.

Saturday, December 14, 2019



The final entry of author Terry Brooks’ Voyage of the Jerle Shannara trilogy opens with the introduction of the eponymous Morgawr, mentor to the Ilse Witch, whom an aspiring Federation Prime Minister named Sen Dunsidan encounters. Sen secures airships for the Morgawr, and months later and thousands of miles away off the coast of the continent of Parkasia, his fleet that is placed under the command of the Morgawr and his Mwellrets closes in on the Jerle Shannara. Meanwhile, the Ilse Witch continues to struggle with her past, and Elven Prince Ahren Elessedil and Ryer Ord Star are in the ruins of Castledown.

The shapeshifter Truls Rohk finds himself in conflict with the Ilse Witch, and Rue Meridian commences her search of Castledown’s ruins. Bek Ohmsford also seeks to reconcile with his sister Grianne, with several climactic battles erupting within the book and characters regularly finding themselves knocked unconscious and awaking in strange environs. Meanwhile, the Morgawr yearns for the power of the magical Elfstones, and the crew of the Jerle Shannara is gradually shaved down. Loyalties among characters regularly waver, with a grand airship battle concluding the text, along with a hook for another Shannara sequel series.

Overall, this was an enjoyable conclusion to the Voyage of the Jerle Shannara trilogy, with plenty of action and twists, although reminders as to the races and appearances of specific characters, as with other entries of the franchise and its various subseries, would have been welcome. There are, moreover, occasions where the novel refers to certain characters specifically with pronouns, and one can find difficult keeping track of whom they’re referring to. The plot point of a character being torn between good and bad, moreover, parrots the themes of the Star Wars franchise, but I would certainly recommend the third book to those who enjoyed its precursors.  

No Game No Life: Zero

A decrepit, naked robotic girl sits against a dark sky with the film's logo emblazoned over the top. 

A decent anime film with good animation, if fairly unmemorable.

Monday, December 9, 2019

Bambi II

Bambi II.jpg 

Is actually a midquel to the first film, taking place before Bambi comes of age and he attempts bond with his father, the Great Prince. Somewhat excusable in that Felix Salten did write a sequel to his original novel, and in the end it's one of the better Eisner-era direct-to-video Disney sequels.  

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.png 

Like its predecessors, the third Indiana Jones movie opens with a subplot irrelevant to the main storyline, centering around the cross of explorer Coronado, although the opening scenes do give Indy’s backstory as a Boy Scout who believes said artifact belongs in a museum, and gives the origins of elements such as his fear of snakes, proficiency with a whip, and signature fedora. The flashback hints at the primary plotline of the search for the fabled Holy Grail initiated by Indy’s father, the Nazis seeking the MacGuffin as well, somewhat illogically thinking they could use it for mass application across their military forces.

Sure enough, Indy, simultaneously seeking his missing father, aims to get the Grail before the Nazis, beginning his search in Venice, Italy, where he has an encounter with a brotherhood seeking the protect the artifact. One of them, Kazim, has an awesome quote that pretty much sums up my personal religious views: “Ask yourself: Why do you seek the Cup of Christ? Is it for His glory, or for yours?” Jones does find his father held prisoner in an Austrian castle, the two joining on their search for the Grail and generally having some humorous chemistry, with Last Crusade, akin to modern Marvel Studios films, striking a good balance between humor and action.

The action ultimately climaxes at the sanctum where the Grail lies, although akin to Raiders, the conclusion somewhat renders the whole search for the artifact irrelevant. Nonetheless, the film is probably my personal favorite of the franchise, given the aforementioned religious commentary, with Sean Connery definitely being one of the best sidekicks to Indiana Jones. Indy’s friend Sallah, who returns in the third film, has been ballyhooed as a “great” sidekick by critics whom nostalgia has blinded, but I never found him that interesting a character, and while the film has largely aged well, I again think movies should be judged based on their actual content and cohesion.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Deep Look - Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia

Fire Emblem Echoes cover.png

Strong Shadows, Little Light

While the franchise has existed since the eight-bit era of video gaming, the Intelligent Systems-developed and Nintendo-published Fire Emblem series wouldn’t see the light of day outside Japan until the company released its Game Boy Advance system worldwide, and since then, it has garnered acclaim to the point where it’s oftentimes impossible to find legitimate criticism amongst mainstream reviewers. When a remake of the franchise’s very first game, given the English subtitle Shadow Dragon, saw its release, I saw this as an opportunity to dive into the series, thinking the rerelease would deliver the experience promised by the posh pieces the series has received since its worldwide releases.

Unfortunately, Shadow Dragon proved one of the very first games I couldn’t complete, given its lack of opportunities to grind to make the endgame easier, and I wouldn’t see its ending until a year or so later, but just barely so. I would swear off the series until the Nintendo 3DS entry Awakening added a casual mode that made optional one of the series’ key gameplay mechanics, the permanent death of allies, and it got me reinterested in the franchise. I enjoyed all three flavors of the following franchise release, Fates, and would pick up the final 3DS entry, Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia, a loose remake of Fire Emblem Gaiden for the Famicom.

As with localized Fire Emblem games Awakening and beyond, Echoes allows players to make the permanent death of allies optional with an alleged “Casual” mode. The game divides playtime between primary protagonists Alm and Celica, each having their own set of allies with whom to participate in combat. Fights themselves mostly follow the same rules as in prior Fire Emblems, the player positioning their characters prior to combat before commencing, with the occasional option to retreat from the battle back to the overworld where each character is should players not think themselves up to combat at the time.

As in past entries, the player and the enemy have separate turn sessions, players able to move their characters across the map, able to attack foes when in range of being able to do so. One useful feature inherited from previous games is the ability to bring up a “danger zone” that shows where the player can advance their party without fear of reprisal from the enemy. When the player’s characters or the enemy do engage one another, they exchange attacks, with certain classes gaining the upper hand against others with extra assaults.

Gone from previous games is the ballyhooed “weapon triangle,” with characters, once they’ve acquired enough experience proportional to their levels, able to change classes, in which case they reset to level one to restart the process, with multiple class advancements possible. Mercifully, players can still see a forecast of mutual damage before deciding to attack enemies, although many times, especially late into the game, the random number gods can be fairly cruel, with a high miss rate, especially inconvenient against boss units that can slaughter characters in one hit. Moreover, in the last battle of the fifth act, while the game does give a “forecast” of damage versus specific major foes, they can hit the player’s attacking character first without any reprisal whatsoever.

Echoes can be downright unplayable with full attack animations and actions taken by the enemy turned on, potentially adding hours of superfluous playtime. In the last battle of the fifth act, even with animations turned off, the player must fully sit through actions that the final boss unit takes. As with most Japanese tactical RPGs, losing a battle results in wasted playtime, with no experience obtained retained and the mentioned final battle of act five being incredibly cheap with multiple cheating boss units. Moreover, the game only has three save slots, with the endgame of act five being a lengthy point of no return, and I had the special misfortune of overwriting the save slot I used for said portion before the mentioned difficult battle, resulting in my efforts being all for nothing.

One of the main differences from other entries of the Fire Emblem franchise is that there are multiple explorable dungeons with visible enemies that trigger tactical battles when contacted, although the player can slash a foe with the controlled character’s sort to shave only slight damage from all encountered foes, which is rarely critical. If enemies surprise the player’s party, they receive their phase first, though mercifully, the foes are almost always out of attack range. Regardless, an “instant victory” akin to Earthbound would have been preferable, and given the awful dash system, where the player can only list slightly left or right, these encounters are difficult to avoid.

Winning battles nets all characters that survived some experience, but unfortunately, they cap at ninety-nine points, and players must level their units within the battles themselves. Moreover, the player can only take up to ten units within a dungeon, in contrast to battles outside where all their allies actively participate, and after some time, characters become fatigued, in which case their HP decreases in battle, although this is recoverable at shrines where the player can donate a largely-useless consumable item to a goddess statue to recover. Players can record their progress in rooms with said statues, although some parts of the final dungeon have long enemy-infested stretches without save opportunities before fights with cheap boss units.

One improvement from previous games, however, is that weapons no longer have limited use, and through repeated usage unlock arts for each character, but these are rarely critical. In towns, players can improve armaments through the expenditure of silver and gold coins, although this feature is unavailable in the dreaded point of no return, and at times money is generally hard to come by. Another feature is the Turnwheel where the player can turn back time a few turns to undo things such as unit death. However, this mechanic has a “use it or lose it” implementation, with no chance to utilize it if either Alm or Celica dies.

In the end, the aforementioned negative elements hamper what could have potentially been solid gameplay, with the endgame of the fifth act in particular spoiling the preceding part of the game, which otherwise proves solid until then. The “all or nothing” system of battle also makes the game more inaccessible to casual players seeking to avert a frustrating experience, in contrast to tactical titles such as the Shining Force games more generous in this regard. I couldn’t imagine how much of a nightmare the game would have been to play with permanent death enabled, and overall the gameplay is a step down from Echoes’ more forgiving precursors.

Control doesn’t fare any better, although there are some bright spots such as a general linear structure and general difficulty of getting lost. However, the dungeons don’t mesh well with the gameplay, and the last of act five in particular can be borderline impossible to clear without referencing the internet. While dungeons do have maps, additionally, the player can’t open them up to view them fully, not even with the touchscreen. As seems to be the case with many Japanese RPGs, moreover, the game only allows players to view playtime within the save screen, and after saving, the interface exits, forcing them to bring it back up to see how much time they’ve logged. In the end, interaction is middling.

The storyline also falters significantly, lending the impression that its writers watched a little too much Star Wars, given the focus on an “evil empire,” a rebel group hilariously named “the Deliverance,” and twists filched straight from the fabled science-fiction franchise. Some of the backstory, however, is actually somewhat passable, although upon noticing the derivative disposition of the plotline, I rolled my eyes and lost interest a few hours in. The translation is largely adequate, aside from the terrible names such as Alm, Celica, Boey, the aforementioned Deliverance, and so forth, not to mention a mixture of faux old-world speak and contemporary expressions.

Much of the music is actually pretty good, if unmemorable, but the English voice acting is simply terrible, with unconvincing grunts, moans, and other irritating onomatopoeia that plagues the dialogue.

The graphics are fine, with okay use of the system’s three-dimensional capabilities, but pretty much nothing to write home about.

In conclusion, I desperately attempted to like Fire Emblem Echoes, but it just didn’t love me in return, given many foibles with its gameplay, particularly the annoying endgame and potential for a nightmarish experience on higher difficulty settings. It does have some redeeming aspects, particularly with regards to its musical and visual presentation, but the voice acting really mars the aural element. Having liked Awakening and the three iterations of Fates, I expected a better experience, and will without hesitation avoid anything else Intelligent Systems produces in the future. As far as I’m concerned, Fire Emblem is dead to me…again.



Walt Disney's Bambi poster.jpg 

Sort of takes artistic license with regards to its depiction of certain animals (rabbits, for instance, don't have button noses or pawpads), and the soundtrack grounds it to the 1940s, but it's still a classic.

Friday, December 6, 2019



The second entry of author Terry Brooks’ Voyage of the Jerle Shannara trilogy opens with backstory focusing on Grianne Ohmsford being skilled in use of the wishsong, with her childhood symbolically ending when she was six, given her “rescue” from the Dark Uncle, or Walker Boh, after which she becomes the Ilse Witch. In the book’s present time, her brother Bek calls out to her, although she still thinks her sibling is dead, and wants vengeance against the Druid Walker. Meanwhile, the shapeshifter Truls Rohl carries Bek away from the Ilse Witch, the two discussing treasure in ruins Walker Seeks.

Furthermore, the airship Jerle Shannara is adrift and derelict, with Redden Alt Mer and his sister Rue Meridian talking about their companion Hawk’s sacrifice, aiming to go to the coast for repairs. As they do so, Quentin Leah and the dwarf Panax explore ruins, yearning for a chance to find Ard Patrinell and their other allies. Furthermore, the Elven Prince Ahren Elessedil is in an abandoned warehouse and finds Ryer Ord Star, with the two hiding from creepers that seek them. In the meantime, the book’s titular Antrax, a mechanical homunculus known as a wronk, traverses the depths of Castledown, programmed to believe nothing is more important than its survival.

The truth about the wronk is found out, with Ahren evading its trap and making use of an artifact known as a phoenix stone. Another truth about Ryer Ord Star the book reveals, with Walker seeking knowledge from the Old World in the wronk’s lair. A battle with Antrax occurs over several chapters, and Walker confronts the Ilse Witch, with Bek Ohmsford awaiting deliverance aboard the enemy airship Black Moclips. Quentin and Tamis join the fight against the wronk, and a search for the fabled Elfstones concludes the events of the story.

Overall, Antrax is another enjoyable entry of the Voyage of the Jerle Shannara trilogy, with plenty of well-written action and mythos, with greater connection and reference to the Old World before Shannara’s genesis than many of its precursors, given the appearance of technology from back in that particular era, along with some good twists. Granted, the second installment does do a bit of jumping back and forth between various sets of characters, and the cliché of a relative turned evil does play part as it does in franchises such as Star Wars, but I would gladly read the trilogy’s conclusion.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Green Eggs and Ham

Image result for "green eggs and ham" netflix

An Adaptation Expansion of the Dr. Seuss book of the same name, focusing on an enthusiast of the eponymous meal, Sam-I-Am, and a curmudgeonly inventor, Guy-Am-I, who's reluctant to try the new dish. One of the main differences from the book, aside from being far longer, is the plot focus on Sam's attempt to get a rare species, the Chickeraffe, a chicken/giraffe hybrid, back to its native island. Is actually pretty funny and enjoyable by adults as well, with good use of music from decades past, and I would gladly watch another season.