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Monday, 28 April 2014

Game of Thrones S4E4: Oathkeeper.


Game of Thrones.
S4E4: Oathkeeper.



… God damn, I'm going to have to write about the books again in this post. Luckily, I'll have to do so in a much briefer and much more positive fashion.

This is a much more focused episode than the last three, which is fitting, given that we're nearly at the halfway point of series four and if it hadn't overcome its 'we need to get every viewpoint firmly established' pains by now, that would be a considerable problem.

One interesting thing this episode does which, I think, hasn't been done before, is to split its viewpoints up by half. The first half focuses mostly on Jaime, Daenerys, and Margaery, with a brief glance in at Sansa, while the second half shifts focus onto Bran and the Night's Watch mutineers. Jon has viewpoint scenes too, sprinkled throughout the episode but ultimately tying in most strongly to the second half.

Predictably, the baffling and derailing rape scene of the previous episode doesn't come up at all in Jaime's sections. Instead, he seems to have sprung back to his redemption storyline like a kind of narrative elastic band – even in his scene with Cersei, it doesn't come up at all. In fact, their interactions are barely changed since the episode before last, leaving a confusing moment where you're left wondering if last episode happened or if Tommen has used his burgeoning time control powers to remove it from history.

"Are you going to keep making that jo - ..."
"YES, TOMMEN, YES, I AM."

If I'm being honest, as much as I liked Jaime's scenes a lot, and it's quite striking to see him having become this steady, soft-spoken, ultimately good man after being introduced to him as a child-defenestrating smug snake in the first series, I'm not sure what their point was. They didn't seem to much advance the plot, bar for his scenes with Brienne where he gave her his sword and sent her to protect Sansa – who direly needs protecting at this point, given that she's with Littlefinger – and it's a little jarring, given that only last episode we saw him pin his sister to the ground and violently sexually assault her.

Seeing Gwendoline Christie again as Brienne is, as always, a joy. She has a quality I have previously only ascribed to Idris Elba, to grab your attention and drag it towards herself in every scene, so that when you think back on it all you can really remember is her, and that the person she was talking to had hair … maybe? You think they had more than one limb? But you're not sure? But you know that they were definitely saying words to Gwendoline Christie? Possibly in French?

"I think they were human ... ? They might have been wearing clothes?"

Although speaking of Sansa and a need to protect her, I adored her scene with Littlefinger. It was the only scene in the episode for either of them, in a dingy ship's cabin, but it displayed Sansa showing a Tyrion-oid ability to match wits with Littlefinger – better than Tyrion-oid, even, because while Tyrion has never shown an ability to understand Littlefinger, Sansa seems to have him all figured out.

Sansa surmises pretty quickly that Littlefinger killed Joffrey, and when Littlefinger points out that he wasn't at the wedding, they run through possibilities for his accomplice. Sansa rules out Dontos straight away, knowing that Littlefinger would never have trusted him with that task. He suggests Tyrion, and she quickly shoots that down too.

The conversation shifts to Littlefinger's motive, with Sansa pointing out that the Lannisters are his allies. When Littlefinger gives a speech about how if everybody finds your actions confusing, nobody can predict what you'll do – and once again, Sansa calls him out on his bull, and forces him to admit that Joffrey was an unstable ally, and that he has new allies who wanted Joffrey out of the picture. We don't see for sure if Sansa realises that said allies are the Tyrells, but the implication is that she does.

It's a great, tense scene, and it shows what people have been saying about Sansa for a while: While she's been being used as a pawn in other people's political games, she's been learning from them, and she's become a force of court intrigue in her own right.

Margaery, meanwhile, sets herself about seducing Tommen, who is sweet and a perfect gentleman, but clearly so in her thrall that he'll do anything for her by the end of their short, chaste meeting.

"BY THE NAME OF THE SEVEN, WHO OVEREXCITED TOMMEN?"


Daenerys doesn't get nearly as many scenes as Jaime, but her scenes actually advance the plot a lot better. In the space of maybe four scenes, we see her arm a slave rebellion and take the city of Meereen, before having one-hundred-and-sixty-three of the city Masters crucified. So, really, more of a normal day's work for Daenerys Targaryen, but it's tying up a plot thread and laying the groundwork for future episodes.

Less enthralling is Bran, who in this episode gets absorbed into Jon Snow's storyline. As Jon is given permission to travel North and kill the Night's Watch mutineers (by Acting Lord Commander Evilbeard, who wants Jon dead so that his popularity and pretty hair won't pose a risk to Evilbeard's designs on running the Watch), Bran is captured by said mutineers, led by Burn Gorman hamming things up while drinking out of a skull.

Gorman's focus scene is long. Too long, given that he spends most of his time ranting insanely and screaming profanity. It does establish him as an unstable, volatile person, though, giving him access to an exclusively club with Ramsay Bolton as its president and Joffrey Baratheon lately as its secretary.

Like a fool, Bran gives away his identity to them, because it's not as if Starks are in high demand or anything.

If you're wondering why the first half of this episode has gotten about eight-hundred words written about it and the second half has about nine so far, it's because there's not a huge amount I can say. It does move the plot along – we are now heading rapidly towards a confrontation between Jon and Burn Gorman's character Karl, where Karl holds pretty much all the cards, possibly inside Jeor Mormont's skull, and we can see the beginnings of a schism in the Watch forming, between those who would rather follow the man with years of experience and those who would rather follow the man with the nice hair.

Oh, stop it, you know full well that's the only reason they
follow you, Snow.

I mentioned that I'd have to talk about the books at some point, and the very final scene, which I loved, is what I meant. In it, we see a White Walker on a horse passing through a very intimidating, very evil looking place beneath the Northern Lights, which I can only assume is the Land of Always Winter, the area far, far to the North of the Wall where the White Walkers hail from.

He's carrying Craster's last child, which Karl earlier sent to be sacrificed to them. Placing it down on an altar of ice, another White Walker approaches, touching the child. Their eyes turn all blue, like the Walkers themselves.

It's a beautiful, tense scene, and the highlight of the episode. It's not, to my knowledge, in the books – we've not seen the Land of Always Winter yet. So is it a scene from an as-yet-unreleased book, which we know the Game of Thrones producers have notes for? Is it an entirely original creation? Is the child becoming a Walker, or some kind of servant to them? 

Seriously, this place is gorgeous. I would build a summer home here.

Either way, it's an amazing scene, and I want to see more of the Land of Always Winter. That place is atmospheric, man. 

Saturday, 26 April 2014

Professor Layton vs Phoenix Wright.


Professor Layton vs Phoenix Wright.


[Contains spoilers for Professor Layton vs Phoenix Wright.]

Well, this is an interesting thing, isn't it?

Cross-over games aren't exactly uncommon, especially between Japanese IPs, which tend to be less reticent about combining their works than UK or American companies often are – which is not even to say that the latter are particularly over-reticent about it. Still, I'm not sure anybody saw the combination of courtroom-visual-novel/point-and-click adventure Phoenix Wright with puzzle-game-adventure Professor Layton.

A friend introduced me to the Phoenix Wright games a few years ago, with great fun being derived from voicing the (almost entirely unvoiced) characters. They're very fun, if sometimes quite frustrating, games, with clever and off-the-wall stories and a lot of genuine passion behind them, and I look forward to every new release in that series.

(- Admittedly, one of the reasons I so look forward to every new release is that while Gyakuten Saiban, the original Japanese games, is set in Japan, Phoenix Wright is set in California, and each new installment cruelly torments the Capcom USA team more and more by being more overtly Japanese than the last.

Here's an example: The last game had a literal samurai in it. As I type this, the next game has been announced – it's set during the Meiji era, a period of incredible importance in Japanese legal history, and will almost certainly be heavily grounded in the formation of a formalised court system that was taking place at that time.

Did the localisation team kill your parents, Capcom?

Increasingly, it seems that Capcom hates its localisation team, and wishes only for them to know the truest and deepest despair.)

I'd never played a Professor Layton game before, so that side of the crossover was new to me, but I knew the basic schtick – it's about Hershel Layton, an archaeology professor and puzzle enthusiast, who lives in a strange version of the UK where London is an easy train journey from a desert full of Scottish people.

"I say, Luke, Glasgow has certainly taken a turn for the better."

The game has a slightly convoluted plot set-up, although nowhere near as convoluted as its ending. In London, Layton and his apprentice Luke are visited by a young woman, Espella Cantabella, who says that she has escaped from a town called Labyrinthia. It isn't long until a witch appears, kidnapping Espella and attempting to whisk her away. While Layton and Luke help her escape, they are sucked into the book Espella brought with her, and taken to Labyrinthia, a medieval fantasy village terrorised by witches, where the Knights of the Inquisition consign any and all witches they find to the flames.

Cut to Phoenix and his assistant Maya. On a trip to London as part of the Legal League of Lawyers' exchange, he finds himself dragged into the trial of Espella, accused of theft and assault. It seems that the UK, in this universe, shares the absolutely lunatic legal system of Wrightverse California in that a defendant can only be declared Not Guilty if one of the witnesses is revealed to be the actual culprit. Which is fine: It's not as if the US or Japan actually have that requirement in real life either, so we may as well go the whole hog and say that everywhere has it.

He reveals the true culprit and saves Espella, only for her to drop a book – and he and Maya get sucked into Labyrinthia too.

There's no joke here, this is just some incredibly pretty artwork.
Good job, Capcom/Level 5.

So how does the crossover hold up? Well, not badly. The two games are never really fused. You flick back and forth between playing Layton, solving puzzles and gathering clues, and Phoenix, defending 'witches' (usually Espella) in the game's witch trials. There's a decent amount of coverage of both gameplay styles and both characters, but the game makes it rather clear who it favours in terms of storyline, with Layton practically having to hold Phoenix's hand, even during trials, and uncovering all of the mysteries before Phoenix or the audience. This makes sense, in a way: Phoenix's main heroic attribute has always been played up as his ability to turn a bad situation around just when it seems hopeless, whereas Layton is clearly meant to be an erudite Renaissance man in the vein of Sherlock Holmes, but it still gets a little annoying at times.

The puzzle gameplay is fairly straight forward and, I imagine, not changed much from the Layton games from which it was drawn. There aren't really many ways you could change that kind of gameplay mechanic. The court room gameplay, however, undergoes a massive change from other Phoenix Wright games: Namely, that you can cross-examine multiple witnesses simultaneously.

Not just two or three either. In the second trial of the game, where this gameplay element is introduced, you are interrogating five people simultaneously, finding contradictions between their testimonies, and watching for everybody else's reactions to other witnesses' testimony. In the final trial, in a twist that utterly delighted me as much as it left me stunned, you are called upon to simultaneously interrogate ten witnesses: A guard captain, his pale subordinate, his tan subordinate, his black subordinate, his subordinate with all his limbs broken, a man desperately in love with a dominatrix, the dominatrix, another man desperately in love with her (they're not in competition, it's a threesome), a child, and an old man who had shown up in every witch trial and never had anything useful to contribute.

Look, this game has a lot of pretty artwork, okay?

It's enormously fun, and perfectly captures the chaos of a medieval trial, and the wacky humour of the Phoenix Wright games in general, especially when combined with other hijinks taking place at the same time: At one point, you have to cross-examine a parrot (a second for the series), and at several points during the game, the trial will be interrupted by some random person from the gallery declaring that they will join the witnesses.

So the gameplay is fine. Where the game really shines, though – and where it really falls down, at points – is its story. As you explore Labyrinthia and discover more clues, you uncover the legend of the Great Witch Bezella, a witch who destroyed Labyrinthia in the past and who, it seems, resides within Espella, who is also revealed to be the daughter of the Storyteller, the ruler of the city whose stories always come true. You meet numerous interesting characters, including stalwart Inquisitor Zack Barnham, who swiftly became my favourite character, and enigmatic High Inquisitor Darklaw, who swiftly became my second favourite character.

It's a solid fantasy plot and, to be honest, it's pretty clear pretty early that there's going to be a reveal that the witches don't really exist, there's no such thing as magic, and that Labyrinthia isn't what it seems. How that reveal happens is … odd.

Because Labyrinthia is actually a giant research facility testing hypnotic substances for a massive pharmaceutical company.

Thank you, Prosecutor Godot.

Which is in turn an elaborate ruse by the Storyteller to convince a traumatised Espella, who accidentally caused the fire that burnt down the town she lived in, that she isn't the (entirely fictitious) Great Witch Bezella.

Thank you, Judge.

And this is all funded by the British government.

I'll be honest, the Tories have made far more stupid decisions.

This is never foreshadowed.

As I said earlier, it's made fairly obvious fairly early that Labyrinthia isn't what it seems, that magic and witches don't exist, etc. What isn't foreshadowed at all is the hypnotic drugs, research facilities, big pharmaceutical companies, and so on, and so forth. That all comes out of the blue.

It also comes out of the blue in a really long-winded way. I meant to post this review in the morning. As I write this sentence, it is the mid-afternoon. Why? Well, because I didn't plan this very well, and because I didn't realise that the epilogue where this is all explained would literally take hours.

I began to hate Layton by the end of the epilogue, because every time I thought the game was finishing, he would go “Ah, but that's not the whole truth, is it?” and I would nearly throw my 2DS across the room in anger.

But it's a good game with a good, if completely off the wall, plot. When it finally does end, you get to see what all the characters are doing afterwards, including Darklaw, Barnham and Espella, and you even get a fully voiced cameo by Phoenix's long time rival, Miles Edgeworth.

So, overall? Solid. Really good, actually, even if it was exhausting enough that by the end it was a little bit of a slog to get through. There are some clever puzzles, some great court cases, and some excellent humour tied together by a great storyline here. If you're a fan of Phoenix Wright or Professor Layton, I strongly suggest you pick it up. If not, then I still suggest it, to be honest. It will give you a good taste of what both game series are like, and doesn't really require knowing either.

I mean, really, though.

The British government.

I mean really. 



Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Orphan Black S2E1: Nature Under Constraint and Vexed.


Orphan Black S2E1: Nature Under Constraint and Vexed.



Things I don't love: When I write an entire review and then the file gets corrupted.

So. As much as I loved the first series of Orphan Black, or Tatiana Maslany Is Everyone Oh God She's In My House With A Knife Wait The Police Are Tati - … as it's known in Canada and some parts of Yorkshire, this second series rather crept up on me. I didn't know it was going to be airing until, well, the day it aired, and I was a bit taken aback. I wondered whether I would enjoy it, as my relationship with Orphan Black has always been characterised by really, really loving it while at the same time being hyper-aware that it's very far outside what I usually like.

But I dived in anyway, and the series was kind enough to jog my memory as to what happened last series, although it only took a light nudge before everything came back. When we left Sarah and her clone buddies, Sarah had murdered Helena the Religious Assassin Clone, they had been offered a deal by Evil Corporate Execuclone Rachel – a deal Sarah and Cosima had discovered was complete crock – and Sarah's daughter and foster mother had been abducted.

We join Sarah again almost immediately after this, as she plays a game of cat and mouse with Rachel and the Dyad Institute. The episode lays down the stakes early: Rachel, and Sarah's morally conflicted boyfriend Paul, have Sarah's daughter, Kira, and they want Sarah. Two rather creepy gentlemen are sent to retrieve Sarah from the dining establishment of a pleasant if gun-toting bald man, resulting in a shoot-out and daring escape.

Goddammit, America.

The plot spirals out from there, as Cosima learns through her own morally conflicted romantic interest, Delphine, that the Dyad Institute are holding a lavish party that will be the perfect chance to get close to Rachel. Opinion is divided on how best to take advantage of this: Cosima thinks that as an invitee with a girlfriend in the Institute, she should go and talk to Rachel, and they can work it out like civilised women; Sarah thinks that she should acquire a gun and take a more direct, if slightly less cordial, route.

It's Sarah who wins out, in no small part because Cosima has her own problems to deal with: She has developed the Mysterious Clone Respiratory Disease, and is both attempting to figure out what it is and if there's a cure, and fending off employment offers from Delphine and the Dyad Institute. Not that she wouldn't love employment from them, I'm sure, but Cosima's a smart girl and realises that they are pure evil.

The task of acquiring a gun then falls naturally to football-mum (that – does not sound the same in an English dialect) Alison. Why? Well, they know that Alison has guns, they've discussed it before, but if we're being honest, it's because Sarah and Felix are both British people raised by an Irish woman, and Alison is so American she's practically incapacitated.

The inside of Alison's mind. Always.

Which is odd, I'm fairly sure she's Canadian.

Actually, that's a point of a slightly odd lack of realism there. Neither Sarah nor Felix seem at all unnerved by the idea of a gun, and as a British person, I can say that we pretty much uniformly hate guns. It's not fear, as such, just a really quite intense loathing. Sarah has an excuse here – I think if it meant rescuing Kira she'd wander into the Dyad Institute with the entire nuclear payload of China stapped to her back – Felix less so, especially as he's never been shy to voice his opinions even at the most inopportune of times

But either way, a gun is acquired from the delightfully skeezy Ramone, a young drug dealer/gun salesman operating out of his car boot. Actually, the scenes with Alison acquiring and then passing off the gun form most of the humour in the episode. It's not laugh-out-loud humour, that would just feel strange, but it's a wry, dark chuckle type humour: A moment that immediately springs to mind is Alison's rehearsal for the unnamed musical, in which the first song they practice is about cleaning up a dead body from a kitchen, neatly paralleling Alison standing by and doing nothing while her best friend died a gruesome death in her kitchen last series. 

I'm not sure what musical it is, but I know what it's not.

(The fact that the character Alison is playing has asthma does not bode well at all.)

Eventually, the big party arrives, and Sarah sneaks into the Dyad Institute disguised as Cosima, a disguise that fools Leekie but not Delphine, although the latter helps out anyway. Sort of. Either way, Sarah has found Rachel before long, and a tense stand-off ensues in which Rachel reveals that she lied: She doesn't have Kira. She doesn't even know who does. She only said she did to draw Sarah in.

It's a nice scene, contrasting Rachel's clipped and icy nature with Sarah's rage, and one that highlights that Rachel might not be as stable as she seems when, after being tackled to the floor by a woman with a gun, her response is to scream that nobody touches her. Sarah escapes, though, Kira-less and even angrier than before.

Who kidnapped Kira, then? Well, Art, Kira's once-partner-on-the-police back when Kira was pretending to be a police officer, has the answer: The Proletheans, the religious extremists who raised Helena to be an assassin, have her, and the creepy man from the diner was working for them, not the Dyad Institute.

As the episode closes, we get a glance of someone dragging themselves through a hospital? Who can it be? Is this a – okay, no, it's Helena, of course it's Helena, we saw in the first series that the woman practically has 'not dying from fatal wounds' as her superpower, frankly Sarah should have realised that if you don't burn Helena's body and fire the ashes into the sun, she will return in two episodes or less. She's like - she's like ... who am I thinking of?

Actually, I was thinking of Deadpool.
But nice try, me. 


I'm glad Orphan Black is back – partly because it is nice to see a show that breezily passes the Bechdel Test and has both numerous and varied female characters and multiple LGBT characters, and partly because it's a well-written show with excellent cinematography and excellent acting from everyone, but especially from Tatiana Maslany.

I'm probably preaching to the choir here, but Maslany is not only playing five very different characters, often in conversation with each other, but also, quite frequently, those characters impersonating other characters that she's playing. In this episode, we had Sarah impersonating Cosima, with just the right amount of Cosima-yness and just the right amount of shifty Sarah-ishness, but previously we've also had Sarah impersonating Beth, Alison impersonating Sarah, and Helena impersonating Sarah.

It's a fairly titanic feat of acting, and I'm looking forward to seeing more of it, and more on where the plot takes us. I'm invested now, and I rather want the clones to all just turn out fine and go on with their lives and occasionally meet up at holidays.

Rachel has joined Margaery Tyrell in the 'Women In Gifs I Will
Use Frequently' group.

I know, Rachel. I know. It's a pipe dream.


Monday, 21 April 2014

Game of Thrones S4E3: Breaker of Chains.


Game of Thrones S4E3: Breaker of Chains.


This post contains spoilers both for this episode of Game of Thrones and for the
A Song of Ice and Fire books.

Trigger warning for discussion of sexual violence.


I try not to talk much about the books on these Game of Thrones review posts. As a rule.

It's a practical thing. As a reader of the books and a watcher of the TV series, I prefer to take each of them on their own merits, because a TV adaptation should not be slavishly loyal to the books. It's also a personal thing, as the ranks of Game of Thrones fans are filled with people for whom having read the books is a rather crude tool with which to self-aggrandise, whether it's by endlessly wailing about how the TV series will never compare, or by teasing spoilers in a manner that is not nearly as coy and subtle as they might like to think.

I'm now going to break that rule.

Twice.

This episode had two changes from the books in particular that I feel should be highlighted – one as an example of a fairly good choice and one that definitely is not. We'll get to those as they come up. This is just an advance warning.

This episode hops around less than the others, focusing on the King's Landing Krew, as they shall now be known, Samwell, Arya, Daenerys and Davos. To the relief of one and all, Bran is not in evidence, and neither is Ramsay, although for almost the exact opposite reasons. Even Jon only gets a brief cameo, in which he stares mournfully at people while they talk about Wildling cannibals.

The King's Landing Krew at the height of their
popularity, just before artistic differences caused
them to attempt to murder each other.

With the exception of Daenerys' sections, this feels very much like a bridging episode, designed to slide the characters from Point A to Point B in such a way that the meat of the plot can resume as soon as possible.

For Samwell, that's a story about Wildling cannibals terrorising villages while he tries to find a safe haven for his Wildling girlfriend, which is mostly set-up for Jon declaring that they need to ride beyond the Wall to kill several mutinous and loose-lipped brothers of the Night's Watch. Sam has never been the most interesting character on Game of Thrones, although he wins points for not being Bran Stark, but he's quite possibly one of the most relateable: He's not a great soldier, he can't telepathically control animals, he's not the scion of multiple great houses – he's a minor noble of no particular skill or talent who attempted to escape a disappointed father by joining the Night's Watch, a place where he's outshone frequently by characters with more natural talent, wolf pets, and strangely perfect hair, but where he eventually manages to thrive because he's loyal, hard-working, and – even if he does screw up sometimes – not evil.

That last is italicised because there aren't all that many characters who that can definitely apply to in Westeros. Even Ned Stark and Daenerys, most honourable people around, have done some bad things. But Sam is wholly good in a wholly normal way, and his presence grounds the world and stops it from becoming caricaturish in how absurdly awful everybody within it is.

We're also given a brief and entertaining glimpse of Davos' reading lessons with Stannis' daughter, an adorable and severe young girl who Davos wryly remarks is truly her father's daughter after she berates him for reading while moving his lips, that leads into a plot point about the Iron Bank of Braavos, hinting at a future alliance between Tywin Lannister's shadowy benefactors and the One True King of Westeros.

Look, I'm being topical.

This is the first of the changes from the books. The Baratheon-Iron Bank alliance comes much later in the books, and Davos' breakthrough at this point is his reading of a discarded letter from the Night's Watch. So why has this been moved earlier? Well, the latter plot point can't happen yet, not without having Stannis vanish from our screens for practically the rest of the fourth series. By shifting the plot points around a little, a major power player can be introduced earlier, Stannis and Davos are given something to do, and we all get to see Mark Gatiss hamming things up several years earlier than we originally suspected.

It's a good change to make, although I'm sure somebody will complain about it.

Its evil twin, the bad change, comes in the adventures of the King's Landing Krew – if you're wondering why I haven't mentioned Arya's plotline yet, it's because there's not much I can say about it, except that both Maisie Williams and Rory McCann are superb actors – who are alternately mourning for and looking for revenge for the death of Good King Joffrey.

Everyone is dealing in their own way. Tywin is scheming and explaining sex to Tommen, for whom the shock of his brother's death has caused him to age about five years in a matter of hours. Tyrion is trying to scheme with very little success. Margaery and Olenna have taken a break from scheming to drink some tea. Sansa is escaping to join Littlefinger's band of pirates, the latter having styled himself as 'Captain Littlefinger of the Jolly Catelyn'.

"Arr, they do call her the She-Wolf of the Seas,
this is totally not just wishful thinking, avast."

The problematic change comes in a scene in the Great Sept of Baelor, where Joffrey's body lies in state. Tywin, having just lectured Tommen on politics and (rather more sternly) the virtues of respecting the laws of time, has retired with the boy to have what will almost certainly be the most awkward birds-and-the-bees conversation ever. Jaime enters, and having ordered everyone else out, proceeds to, er …

Well, I'm not going to beat around the bush, proceeds to violently rape Cersei on the floor of a temple next to the corpse of their son.

In the books, Cersei initiates the sex (and Joffrey is still alive at the time), and while she protests the location as being inappropriate, she is an eager participant in the act itself, and when she thinks back on it later, she doesn't think of it as rape. It's very far removed from what happens in this episode, in which Jaime growls about how she's a hateful woman before throwing her to the ground and really quite brutally assaulting her, while she continuously and tearfully voices her total lack of consent, and he continuously yells that he doesn't care.

This is something the show has done before, as well: In the very first episode, Daenerys is raped by Khal Drogo while she cries, whereas in the books, this is exactly what Daenerys expects, and her realisation that Drogo is completely willing to respect her boundaries and has zero interest in having sex with someone who doesn't consent is the first step in their romance.

In both instances, these changes do not help the plot along at all, in fact they are to its detriment: In Daenerys' case, it colours the whole rest of their romance in the audience's mind, making it rather distasteful. In Cersei and Jaime's case, it serves almost no purpose for Cersei's plot, and only derails Jaime's, which is a story of redemption now rather spoiled by his transformation into a rapist.

It's a bad change, undeniably and completely, and a confusing one – is it there to titillate? Because there was nothing remotely titillating about it. Is it there to shock and to hammer in the grimdarkery of the show? Because you just had a time-manipulating teenage boy being led away from the body of his older brother, that's pretty dark. I am baffled. Answers on a postcard, please.

Like this one from St. Ives. Postcards from Ohio will be burned
on receipt, in accordance with this blog's policy on Ohio.

The only way I can see for the show to deal with it now is to pretend it never happened, and that would be a rather odd thing to do. You screwed up, Benioff and Weiss. You really screwed up.

Oh, it was nice to see Daario again, though. I can't wait to see him and Tommen travelling about in the TARDIS.

But think of the honeymoons, Margaery!


Saturday, 19 April 2014

Zero: Black Blood


Zero: Black Blood.



In the spirit of full disclosure, I adore Keita Amemiya's work, both on a creative level and a 'man, that dude has business savvy' sense. One day, the law will be passed that legalises marriage between a blogger and a designer and director that he has never met, and that shall be a most glorious day for me.

Garo, for those who don't know, is a Japanese superhero series, formulated after the fashion of early 21st Century Kamen Rider – itself a very long superhero series aimed at a roughly Doctor Who-oid audience – but more 'adult'. At its worst, this adult flavour is reminiscent of a teenage boy waving a porn magazine with one hand and a bloody butcher's knife with the other while breathing heavily in your ear. At its best, it is characterised by intelligent, often very touching writing.

From its humble beginnings as an extremely low budget TV series airing in a midnight timeslot on Japanese TV, it spawned multiple sequel series, a miniseries/TV movie, two cinematic films, and – this.

This … thing, which I'm not entirely sure how I'd describe.

Zero: Black Blood is a six part miniseries revolving around a supporting character of the first two series, Rei, written by Yasuko Kobayashi of Attack on Titan and CLAYMORE anime fame. I have enjoyed a lot of Kobayashi's work before, so I was rather looking forward to this.

As we join Rei, at some undisclosed point after the end of the second series, he's living in a fancy house and fancily frequenting a fancy bar when he's not fancily donning his fancy armour and fancily killing demonic monsters. His relatively serene life is interrupted when a human, poisoned with demonic blood, is abducted by a man in white; and shortly thereafter disrupted again when a young woman breaks into his home with a magic sword to fight him. 

Also, a dude with an umbrella and an irritating
moustache instead of a personality.

At which point, the plot kind of goes 'Whew, that was, like, fifteen whole minutes of set-up, I am bushed' and proceeds to fall apart on itself like a soufflĂ© dropped from a great height. Plot elements start being thrown out here and there in ways that don't really make sense and don't really connect to each other, often contradicting previous canon. A fine example of this is with the aforementioned young woman with a magic sword – while previous canon has established that women are forbidden from wielding said magic swords (with the implication that they're perfectly capable of doing so), the series repeatedly implies that women are wholly unable to use them, going so far as to introduce the plot device of her father's bone embedded in her arm, as if it were the feeble feminine bone marrow of womenfolk that precluded them from swording things up.

Then again, it's entirely possible that this is just poorly explained, as the series rarely gives a satisfactory explanation for anything. Plot points are introduced and, while never forgotten about, are never adequately explored, and tend to just become confusing. “What a mysterious singing woman,” the series murmurs, delicately cartwheeling by while you're eating your morning crumpets, “she has turned evil because she is blind.” “Wait, what, that doesn't even make se - ...” “Rivers,” the series tells you solemnly. “Rivers.”

"What do you mean ri - ..." "Unsubtle wedding imagery."

There are some genuinely interesting concepts here. For example, the main villain, Ring, is a demonic being who genuinely wants co-existence between humans and his brethren, and who has to that end set up a cult-like commune in which one human becomes food every month, in exchange for the safety of the others. While his position is decried as monstrous, he has clearly thought it through, throwing out statistical, historical, and philosophical arguments that support his position. It's a fascinating basis for a villain, and certainly different from anything seen in Garo before. I found the bartender to be a very interesting character too, with his knowledge of the secret war waging in the series' world set against his helplessness to do anything about it giving him a pleasing sense of gravitas.

Where the series falls down, really, is everything else. As I said before, the writing is often confusing, contradictory, and vague, but I could have forgiven that if the series had forged an emotional connection with the characters and a desire to see them succeed. It didn't. The main characters, both returning and new, were painted with very broad strokes, and while I certainly didn't dislike any of them, neither did they rouse any kind of affection in me. I felt nothing for them at the beginning, and by the end I still felt nothing for them, leaving almost everything that happened in the series with no emotional weight.

It wasn't even that they were poorly acted. The acting was all fine. It's just that at the very first question – 'Why do I care about these people?' - the writing stumbles and can't give me an answer, and resorts to instead stammering in a corner about bones and parentage. I felt a greater emotional connection to the bartender than to any of the other new characters, because his quiet, matter-of-fact helplessness against a force far greater than him is something that everyone can relate to, even if for most of us that force isn't 'a secret world of human-eating demons.'

I mean, I'm not saying I'd watch a miniseries about him,
but yeah, I'd watch a miniseries about him.

I don't want to say I didn't like this series. I did. But I am beset by an awareness that, as entertaining as I found it, there was potential here for something much better, and that potential was wasted. Still, with its end, the newest full length Garo series, Makai no Hana, has begun, and I'm interested to see how that turns out.  

Monday, 14 April 2014

Game of Thrones S4E2: The Lion and the Rose.

Note to self, work on chewing on ropes.

(Maybe sharpen teeth?)

Ahem.

Game of Thrones S4E2
The Lion and the Rose.


First, a moment of silent appreciation for Margaery Tyrell's 'I want to murder you, my liege' expressions in this episode.

Margaery Tyrell of Highgarden, seen here planning
a boar hunting trip.

Marvelous.

This episode spends a few scenes making up for the point-of-view shortfall of the previous episode: That is to say, we get a brief look in at the characters who there just wasn't time to fit into episode one. It's a side attraction, mostly there to break up the action at King's Landing and to establish where those characters are starting off from, but it's very entertaining.

We get a quick glance at Bran Stark, on his way to the Wall with Hodur, the boy from Love Actually, and the boy from Love Actually's sister, as he begins to grow into his warging powers more and more. This, Bran is warned, is dangerous: If he spends too much time projecting his mind into his direwolf, he'll forget he's human. Given that Bran is far from one of the most interesting characters on the show and a frequent cause of 'skipping chapters syndrome' in the books, worse things have been proposed.

A little more time is spent on Ramsay Snow, the only character that everyone can agree would be a worse candidate for the Iron Throne than Joffrey, and his father Roose Bolton, now despised by everyone in fandom after the murder of fan favourites Robb and Catelyn Stark at the Red Wedding. Their scenes are incredibly creepy and very effective: Ramsay opens the episode running through the forest with his dogs, laughing and shouting with the gleeful hubris of youth. What an idyllic rural scene, we did not say, because we'd seen the Game of Thrones logo just seconds before, what a perfect autumn image of joyous youth.

Then a sobbing woman got shot in the leg and eaten by dogs.

Pretty much its own warning label.


Later, we see Ramsay and Roose discuss Ramsay's utter failure to keep Theon Greyjoy unharmed as a hostage, instead flaying, torturing, and castrating him, and turning him into 'Reek', a servant. While Roose is understandably displeased that his son has less impulse control than Joffrey Baratheon of all people, he does seem rather impressed by how Theon is so completely broken that Ramsay can hand him a cut throat razor and get a straight shave without ending up Sweeney Todd'd. It's a very tense, creepy scene, as we hope – even though we know it won't happen – that Theon will take the razor and cut Ramsay's stupid grinning face open.

Like I said, these are side attractions, though. Like the previous episode, almost all of the action of this episode takes place in King's Landing, revolving around the joyous nuptials of Margaery Tyrell and Joffrey Baratheon. Unlike the Red Wedding, which was a rather joyous affair until people started dying, this wedding keeps getting worse and worse, in ways that are rather horribly reminiscent of all of the pain of regular family gatherings writ appropriately large.

Anybody who has ever been to a party with that one obnoxious family member who only gets more obnoxious as the night wears on will be cringing in sympathy with Margaery as her new husband hacks up wedding gifts; throws money at bards; ruins pies by killing the live doves inside and then eats them anyway; and hires a troupe of acting little people to perform a rendition of a recent war that culminates in one of the actors engaging in sexual relations with a cardboard wolf's head.

Although, really, every wedding should - Wait, why are those bridesmaids
wearing black? It's not a funeral!

The only thing that prevents the deep sense of second-hand embarrassment – and to be honest, I found some of that leaking through anyway – is the knowledge that this represents something much more sinister. After all, every social faux-pas Joffrey commits involves violence somehow, from killing birds to having an actor essentially portray the concept of 'Joffrey Baratheon has sex with Robb Stark's corpse', and he's doing it in full view of his mother, uncle, wife and grandfather, all four of whom have previously displayed the ability to control him, and all four of whom now find that ability either waning (Tywin, Margaery) or vanished (Cersei, Tyrion). As we've seen in previous series, Joffrey is getting bolder, more erratic, and more violent, and increasingly it seems that nobody is able to stop him. Eventually, he always grows immune to any methods of restraining him.

Or possibly I should say 'grew immune' and 'was able' – last episode didn't have a twist, but this one did, and one fans have been waiting for. After a confusing game of 'pass the cup' in which a wine cup and bottle passes between Tyrion, Sansa, Margaery and Olenna, Joffrey downs some wine and promptly dies, choking and hacking his way to a painful death that leaves him with just enough time to accuse Tyrion, who everybody would likely have suspected anyway. 

The use of sparkles in-show was mandated by GRRM himself.


Social networks are now swarming with two mini-factions on this: Those who are quite pleased about his death, and those who are bemoaning the fact that he was a young man who may have grown out of it. To which I remind people that he has committed multiple murders, usually of women, and has threatened to commit rape.

Also, that he's fictional.

That most of all.


Yes, marvelous, Margaery, marvelous.  

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Guest Post: Skyborn.

This guest post experience brought to you by: Hattie.


Hello, don’t mind me.

I just kidnapped Doug and forced him to hand over his blog for the weekend.

Don’t worry, we’ll have lots of fun together!

We, meaning you the reader and myself, of course.

Doug is still cowering in the corner.

Anyway, speaking of kidnapping; let’s talk about Skyborn as it starts with a botched kidnapping.
As in, a botched attempt to run away resulted in a kidnapping.


Skyborn.



Skyborn’s story follows around Claret Spencer, a promising airship mechanic who works for her brother. She gets her own arc, and it’s compelling, but really, this is a story that revolves around three of the other party members.

Not to say that Claret isn’t important. She is, she’s pivotal in the events of the game, it’s just that the actual story is more about Sullivan ‘So many initials’ Chesterford IV, Alda ‘I have a tragic backstory in the form of a flashback’ Kims and the cutest little girl with a monstrous arm.

So monstrous, so cute.

I actually really like this, the girl with the moderately sheltered upbringing who is kind of oblivious to the true extent of the evils of the world and goes through a harsh awakening to those evils is, basically, incidental to the plot.

She’s there because she’s useful, not because she’s the driving force of the story.

Now, about that kidnapping.

Claret starts the story fixing an airship for Sullivan, right up until her brother tells her that he’s selling the shop to Sullivan and that he’s also talked Sullivan into marrying her.

Oh, did I forget to mention that he’s the blatantly obvious love interest? Because he is, blatantly so.
Claret is not happy. She already had this day go a bit sour when the oppressive Skyborn overlords decided to come into the shop and beat up the receptionist before actually attacking her in the street.

Frankly, this just took the cake.

So, she gives her share of the sales money to the receptionist to give her brother in return for the airship and steals it to make good her escape.

With Sullivan on board.

Nice one Claret.

The Skyborn don’t take kindly to people trying to fly off and they get attacked by drones.
This is your second fight in the game and you’re still hurt from the last one. Sullivan’s fine, but Claret is pretty low on the old HP and you’ve got no healing items. So, what are you to do?
Well, Sullivan, being a dashing swordsman, offers to take the brunt of the attacks by raising his threat level while Claret tries not to draw attention to herself.

The threat level is a pretty cool gameplay mechanic where if a character attacks, they make their threat level go up and enemies more likely to attack them. If they guard or heal while another character attacks, their threat level goes down.

It’s a really nice part of the battle system, and Sullivan has a higher threat level at the beginning of every battle. Well, most of them.

Unfortunately, there’s this problem a bit later on where, because Claret is faster and can duel wield, she still ends up taking the brunt of the attacks despite her lower HP. So you have to have her guard or use non-offensive magic so that Sullivan can draw the attacks off her. Which is something I pretty much never did because she usually ended up hitting for over twice the damage he did.

Then again, on the other hand, she usually ended up hitting for over twice the damage he did, and I can really appreciate that.

I can also appreciate the fact that the dedicated healer is a boy and the black magic user is still a heavy physical hitter in her own right.

So swings and roundabouts, really.

Which is what Claret gets after they fight off the drones and make port in Uptown.

Sullivan agrees to hand over the deeds to the airship and on the way you see the Red Spectre bothering some guards. Sullivan tells you that he’s been a menace in Uptown and then gets really into the excitement, waving it off as being a big fan because the Spectre is so stylish.

I’m not going to even consider this a spoiler, because it’s so blatantly obvious.

And no, I don’t care that I literally just told you that Sullivan and the Red Spectre were in the same place at the same time.

He’s the Red Spectre.

Anyway, after signing the airship over, Sullivan pulls a dick move and calls the guards to arrest Claret for kidnapping him and stealing his airship.

He has his reasons, but still. Not cool.

This event kickstarts the plot proper, because while she’s in prison, she gets the old ‘do what I say, or I’ll kill your brother’ spiel off a guy named Dahcian. So she reluctantly agrees to be put in with some other prisoners (including the receptionist who is a lying toerag. That is, a toerag that lies, he had a good reason to lie) to be rescued and taken to the Red Spectre’s hideout so she can report back where it is.

Thankfully, Claret is only slightly slower than I was, and calls out the Red Spectre for just being Sullivan.
He does a Wonder Woman spin (his primary method for changing clothes as far as I can tell) and becomes substantially more rakish. Which is yet another thing I can appreciate.

There’s so much to appreciate in this game.

Which is the basic message I want you to take away from this.

This is a good RPG, definitely in the vein of a Breath of Fire II or a Chrono Trigger (the battles specifically, in the latter case). The characters are well developed, even the receptionist who I do not like, and the story pretty compelling and complex. It’s definitely worth the £11.99 I spent buying it on Steam.
If I had a criticism, it would be that it isn’t all that long. It took me about eight hours to complete.

Why isn’t it loooonger?!

I want it to be longer, there’s places I want to go and see. There’s a world and story here that I’d love to spend more time exploring.


Anyway, must dash. Doug is starting to loosen his ropes.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Captain America: The Winter Soldier.


The Phase 2 Marvel films have been an odd bunch, haven't they?

The decision to create Guardians of the Galaxy over a film about Black Widow, Nick Fury, or even someone like Doctor Strange or Captain Marvel, remains one of the oddest decisions Marvel has ever made. Iron Man 3 was, while perfectly enjoyable, also a very poorly put together film riddled with plot holes, ending with a plot twist that made perfect sense for the character of Tony Stark, but does rather put Marvel in a pickle for Avengers 2: Avenge Harder. Thor: The Dark World, while a perfectly solid action film with a lot going for it and, again, a plot twist that changes the entire MCU world, also failed to wow me.

I wasn't entirely sure what I was expecting from Captain America: The Winter Soldier. I mostly went to see it so that I could write this review, otherwise I'd have cheerfully left it be until it came out on DVD.

It's not that I didn't like Captain America: The First Avenger – it was a solid, technically very well made film that combines the WW2 war film genre (with all the exaggeration of the US' role in the war that implies – although, to be completely fair to The First Avenger, not nearly to the same extent as some examples) with the comic book action film genre in a very skilled way. It's not even that I don't like the character of Steve Rogers, who I quite like, even if he isn't my favourite Avenger. I just wasn't filled with anticipation for The Winter Soldier.

Having said all that, I'm very glad I went to see it.

If The First Avenger was a WW2 war film, then The Winter Soldier is a 1960s spy thriller, and quite an excellently done one. All the spy film tropes are here: Fury has a gadget-laden car with guns and flight capabilities; people are betraying each other left, right and centre, with the words 'trust nobody' being thrown around with cheerfully careless abandon; there are dark, secretive plots from the past, and more double agents than you can shake a stick at, and brainwashed assassins. It's a grand homage to the entire spy film genre, and it's not afraid to indulge in the silliness that that genre often partook of, usually with a completely straight face.

If I'm being honest, there aren't any gaping flaws I could find with this film. It's paced well, it has an interesting plot, it has good comedy beats while still knowing when to be serious, the action scenes are really quite superb, being frenetic, stylish and varied – not to mention usually accompanied by everything nearby exploding, regardless of whether it should be or not.

Steve isn't the most interesting character to build a film around – I mean, he's fine, but he's no Tony Stark – but the film supports him with an ensemble cast of engaging characters that interact with him well. While it's his name in the title, the film really has four main characters: Steve, Natasha, Fury and Sam Wilson/Falcon – who in comics was the first African-American superhero (not the first black one, that's Black Panther), so I'm glad he's getting his slice of the MCU pie. All of them get their moments to shine without it seeming forced, all of them get to play off each other, with Steve usually serving as the beleaguered straight man to Natasha's whimsical humour and cheerfully deceptive nature, Fury's grumpy sarcasm; and Sam's deadpan.

(It's still quite bizarre that none of those three are getting films before the Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man, of all people.)

Like Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World, this film also has a plot twist that could be described as a game-changer for the MCU – and it's a big one, as SHIELD is revealed to have been infiltrated by HYDRA, the Nazi science division of the first Captain America film, since practically its formation, and is summarily destroyed, with all its secrets leaked onto the internet and Fury going into hiding. We've seen how Agents of SHIELD coped with the events of the film already: It'll be interesting to see how they deal with the aftermath.

All in all, I'd call this the best Phase 2 Marvel film so far. If you're a Captain America fan, which I am not, you'll probably enjoy it even more than I did. But who knows, maybe Guardians of the Galaxy will be better?


Hm.


Monday, 7 April 2014

Game of Thrones, Series 4 Episode 1, Two Swords

Game of Thrones.
Series 4, Episode 1.
Two Swords.



Increasingly, it seems that most Wildling conversations revolve partially or completely around how pretty Jon Snow is. He's not even with them any more, and they still seem to be wistfully pining for his hair.

Anyway, yesterday aired the first episode of Game of Thrones Series 4, and it was – roughly what you'd expect from a Game of Thrones series opener. Nothing truly startling happened: Instead, the episode was mostly devoted to establishing the 'starting positions' of the characters in question.

The story was strung out thinly, as GoT openers and finales are, with some characters getting only single scenes. But that's fine – as has been the case in previous series, it seems likely that subsequent episodes will focus on only a few viewpoints. Perhaps we might even get an episode like Blackwater, which remains the best episode in Game of Thrones, which is anchored in a single location throughout.

Most of the action in this episode was set at King's Landing, with the Lannisters, in no small part because with the demise of Robb Stark and his retinue, and the wedding of Sansa to Tyrion, the Lannisters now hold the lion's share (heh) of the viewpoints. There is discontent brewing amongst the ranks of the Lannisters (when isn't there?) as Jaime has handily (heh) managed to irritate his father, his sister and his nephew in one fell swoop by refusing to step down from the Kingsguard. Tyrion, meanwhile, is at his most awkward peacemaking as he attempts to console Sansa while simultaneously reassuring an increasingly jealous and dissatisfied Shae, and it looks like Cersei may have her eye on making his life as miserable as possible.

None of this really adds to the plot yet, as the politicking and machinations that characterise almost any gathering of Lannisters within a fifty mile area have yet to properly begin, but it gives us a good viewpoint into how each character is coping with some of the bombshells of the last series: The Red Wedding, Jaime losing his hand, and Joffrey's impending nuptials, or as hopeful fans are already calling it The Red Wedding II: Would a stag's head or a lion's be more ironic?

My personal suggestion.

Neither do the scenes for Jon, Ygritte or Arya really benefit the plot any: Jon's ties up a loose end, while Arya's is character development – my hopes are high that this will lead into a wacky spin-off sitcom called One and a Half Hounds in which Arya and Clegane roam Westeros getting into wacky misunderstandings and then brutally murdering every incidental character nearby – and Ygritte's is mostly to establish that the Wildlings are still South of the wall.

The bulk of plot, then, rests on the arrival of Oberyn Martell, and Daenerys' ongoing march towards Mereen. We're given a brief overview of the Martells' beef with the Lannisters and an assurance that vengeance is going to be sought, and some establishing moments of Oberyn Martell as a jolly fellow who enjoys subtle insults, remarks about how he's going to murder all the Lannisters, and engaging in foursomes with his wife and prostitutes of both genders. Man has many hobbies, is what I'm saying.

For Daenerys, most of the plot is establishing that she'll soon be invading another slave-holding city in Mereen, who have established their villain status early by crucifying over a hundred slaves in an attempt to deter her. We can presume that Daenerys is also rather pleased that in between series, Daario Naharis has regenerated into someone better looking and less irritating to watch.

Some fans of the books are still wondering why Daario's hair is not blue. Ignore them.

"Yes, that's perfect! Cast that man immediately!"

It was a solid but not striking episode, and the series should start getting into its rhythm a bit more with Episode 2, when we can probably expect something shocking and awful to happen. Personally, my bets for this series are on Daario transforming into Peter Capaldi half way through; a crossover with Eastenders in which Tyrion gets thrown out of the Queen Vic for being a 'half man'; and a thrilling Joffrey/Jon love story in which they meet at a masquerade ball but find they are cruelly divided by their warring houses and several hundred thousand kilometres.