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Friday, 31 October 2014

Editorial: Four Ingredients of Horror.

Today's spooky archive post is Coraline (2009).

Editorial: Four Ingredients of Horror.

It's going to be a little difficult to write this post, because the ultimate aim of horror is always to be scary, and what that is always varies between different people. I'm not particularly scared by lots of blood, for example, but the success of the Saw films indicates that some people are. Similarly, I am very vulnerable to jump scares, even though there are plenty of people who have never been taken off guard by a jump scare in their life. 

But there have to be some universal ingredients of horror, otherwise it'd be an impossible genre to work in, with entertainment developers pursuing the white whale of a scary game only to have two thirds or more of their market react to what they've produced with a shrug. Let's try to pin down what four of those ingredients are. 

1: Mystery.

You can't have a horror without mystery, because a horror without mystery is just a sequence of slightly alarming but totally understandable events. 

Or, to put it another way, there's nothing more scary than the unknown, and fear thrives off the unknown. An axe murderer is a lot less scary if you know he's located in the bathroom and that his name is Steve and that he bought his axe from B&M, than if you have no idea who he is, why he's there, and most importantly, where in your house he is. 

The spider which was on the opposite wall and is now mysteriously gone is a lot more likely to be laying eggs in your lungs than the spider that's still on the opposite wall. 

2: Being anchored in real life.

A horror that has no connection to real life isn't a horror anymore, it's just a fantasy.

Of course, what 'anchored in real life' means varies. It could mean 'it's set in a world not unlike modern day earth', and that works fine. Going one step further, it could mean 'it revolves in some fashion around fears that real people might have' - sickness, trauma, paranoia, the abduction of children. 

Or you can pull it right back, and it can just mean 'it's set in a world which could happen'.

The connection can be a thin one, but it's important, because it's much easier to be afraid if you can relate what you're experiencing back into your own life in some way, which brings us neatly to point three.

3: A way for the audience to identify.

Closely related to four, the audience has to be invested in the fate of the character in the horrifying situation. They need to be able to identify with them - and while this is true of all fiction, it's especially true of horror, because if you don't identify with the character or characters thrown into this scary situation, no amount of interesting plot or beautiful setting or great soundtrack is going to sway you into being scared.

This is why horror films don't really work for me. In horror films, their preferred method is a fairly ineffective one, usually along the lines of 'make the protagonist as generic as possible in the hopes that any audience member watching will be able to project themselves onto them' and it doesn't usually work, I think, for anyone, which is why that same film genre has become so dependent on jump scares. 

Horror video games, meanwhile, really work for me. In a video game, you automatically identify with your character, no matter who they are, because you're controlling them. They've become an extension of you through which you act in the video game, and you treat them as such. How many people, after all, describe what's going on in a video game with 'And then [character name] did this?' You don't, generally. 

(I once mentioned this to someone and they scoffed at me, but then, they also said that FPS games were the only real video games. What a tool.)

4: Danger. 

I was reluctant about typing this, because one of the most recent horror games I watched someone else play as The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, where you are never in danger, ever. It's a horror game that works purely on atmosphere, but it's still pretty scary. 

Except there is danger in Vanishing. Quite apart from things like the miner section, where there's a monster that can't kill you but certainly can pop up and attack you, there's also the ever looming danger in the title: That a young boy has vanished, and if you don't find him, something awful is going to happen. 

You can't have horror without danger, because if there's no danger, what exactly is it the audience is fearing? That danger can be something like 'a monster will attack and eat me', or it can be something more subtle like 'I'm going to find out something horrible' or 'I'm going to fail to achieve my goal'. Just something. 

Thursday, 30 October 2014


Today's spooky archive post is The Apprentices attempting to make Youtube videos.

Okay, it's actually Condemned: Criminal Origins but go check out my guest post, guys.


So, here was one that I think caught everyone by surprise when it first came out.

Appearing on online marketplaces with no warning and credited to a company that doesn't actually exist, P.T puts you in an L-shaped hallway of a rather nice if slightly messy house where apparently nobody finishes their food and there may be a slight roach infestation, and tasks you with walking from one end of the hallway to another, whereupon you are deposited at the beginning of the hallway again. Naturally, not all is as it seems, as every successful loop through the hallway alters it slightly, causing it to descend into greater and greater depths of nightmarishness. 

That is - it, really. That's the game. It lasts about half an hour, maybe a little longer, and you never leave that hallway, unless it's to go into the small and filthy bathroom just off from it. There's nothing you can do except walk and zoom in on things. But it's a great example of suspenseful but simplistic gameplay, in stark contrast to Alan Wake, yesterday's subject of review, which was not simplistic at all and also not remotely suspenseful. 

See, this just looks eerie.

'Simplistic' is a key word here, as in addition to the relatively simple gameplay, the story is also pretty bare bones. There's no dialogue save the radio and occasionally creepy remarks from unknown sources, and there's no narrative except 'you're walking through a hallway' and, potentially, whatever backstory you can leech from the game by way of making inferences from what you see and hear around you. 

You can tell the moment you enter the hallway on the first loop that something is wrong. It's empty, it's quiet, and perhaps most importantly, gamers have been trained to view any kind of brightly lit, deserted hallway in a suburban home (or worse, a block of flats) with the kind of suspicion regular people reserve for clowns and people who say your skin smells nice. 

P.T. also stubbornly refuses to ever break the tension. Jump scares are few and far between, as they should be - really just enough to put you on edge - with the main mode of scaring you instead being the build up of eerie noises (like the radio story about a man murdering his family, a woman groaning, a child crying, whispers, the repetition of a set of numbers), distant glances at a woman with a deformed face, and changes in the environment around you (whether that be opening doors, the chandelier being replaced with a bloody fridge, or something more subtle like the pictures in the room changing). 

The game culminates in a frenetic sprint through a surreal and labyrinthine hallway that seems to never end - largely because if you just keep going, it never will end, and you have to instead calm your desire to escape that iteration of the hallway as quickly as possible and search around for the clue that will push the story to continue. It's the most unintuitive part of the game, because I know that when the hallways of my house become infinite, hellish labyrinths of horror with eyeballs staring at me, I try not to stop and take in the scenery.

... Okay, less eerie, more hellish now.

It's an exercise in the kind of things that indie games can do with very little, and how, when you strip away all of the convoluted gimmickry of triple A games, you can be left with something very simple, but very effective, especially at generating an emotional reaction from the player.

Except, of course, that P.T. is not an indie game. P.T. is not a game, as people who finish it will discover. P.T. stands for Playable Teaser, and it was the announcement trailer for Konami's Silent Hills, the new Silent Hill game that includes Hideo Kojima as writer, Guillermo del Toro as director, and startlingly ugly and irritating-voiced Walking Dead star Norman Reedus as the protagonist. 


One presumes they hope it will save the Silent Hill franchise from the building distaste for it that started with the travesties that were Origins and Homecoming, and only became worse with the less awful but still not all that great Downpour. If P.T. is anything to go by, they might - but, of course, it's a lot easier to make a creepy thirty minute game with a silent protagonist than it is to make a triple A twelve-hour plus horror game when you have the most ratfaced actor this side of Benedict Cumberbatch as your protagonist. 


Good job, Konami.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Alan Wake.

Today's spooky archive review is indie game The Path.

On with today's review!

Alan Wake.

Alan Wake might be the perfect case study of the principle of 'anger is the death of fear'. 

A curious beast, Remedy Entertainment's Alan Wake was a horror game styled after episodic American dramas - by which I mean that it was literally split into episodes with 'previously on' segments and breaks in the middle and all that stuff. In it, writers-block-afflicted crime author Alan Wake is dragged by his wife to the idyllic town of Bright Falls (a name that sounds about as comforting as 'Silent Hill') in the hopes that it'll spur him to write. What actually happens is that his wife vanishes, and Alan sets out to find her, learning along the way that Bright Falls is under the influence of a 'darkness' that takes people over, and has a greater plan for Alan. 

Sounds like a solid plot, right, at least for a survival horror game, where originality is quite often treated as an afterthought in favour of tried-and-true horror tropes that game developers know will produce a reaction from their audience. 

Alan Wake does produce a reaction. That reaction is irritation. 

I hate both characters pictured here.

It's not necessarily irritation because of the clunky controls, or because the 'burn away their shield with your torch light before shooting them' means that you essentially have to kill every monster in the game twice, or because our protagonist Alan has the charisma and charm of an angry brick - Although those are certainly all issues, to say the least.

No, the big problem is that the game has about three tricks that it uses for creating suspense, and it's determined to use them as much as possible its twelve hour run. 

The first is the 'everything seems normal, but then suddenly it's night and there's darkness and everything is terrible' trick, which is more or less fine: The game uses it once an episode or so, and it's a pretty standard horror game trope, but the sections where you're 'safe' are chronically underutilised: There's no attempt to build tension, there's very little attempt to establish plot. It's just clumsily inserted sections of wandering around small, well-lit areas, as some kind of distant facsimile of the plot sections of the dramas the game is aping. Contrast with American McGee's Alice, for example, which did something similar, but in a far more interesting way, using it to establish setting and character information and to provide a 'real life' basis for the wacky Wonderland sequences we would be seeing. 

What a pretty landscape.

The second is mean-spiritedness, with very little idea of when to stop. If there's ever a short or direct route to somewhere, you can bet it'll be blocked and you'll have to go around the long way. If you ever think you've cleared an area out quickly, there'll be more monsters on the way. That's a feature of most games, but Alan Wake takes it to absurd levels, with you being shown short routes then barred from them three or more times an episode, sometimes. It makes it very difficult to be afraid, because the emotion you're primarily feeling is frustration at the busywork you are being forced to do. 

The third is dramatic set pieces. Gosh, does this game love its dramatic set pieces. Some of them work really well: A section where you defend a heavy metal band's stage from hordes of monsters is great fun, even if it's not especially suspenseful. Most of them really don't: There are only so many awkward turret sections you can have with floodlights before you start wondering what awful person put so many floodlights in so many weird places. 

Well, this is trippy.

The overall effect is a game that's just - not good. Fission Mailure's resident survival horror player actually could not get past the prologue because it was just such an annoyingly awkward game to play, and when I played, it was just clunky, irritating, and extremely frustrating. I don't remember a single point where I was actually afraid, because no matter how much suspense they tried to pump into it, I was just vexed.

Also, your final boss battle is a tornado. I'm pretty sure the only other game to ever do that was Superman Returns. 

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Kamen Rider Drive E4: What Is The Proud Chaser Thinking About?

Oh, man, guys, I totally meant to be posting links to ~spooky archive reviews~ in the pre-review spiels this week, but I forgot yesterday, so here's two:

Garo: Makai no Hana is the first ~spooky archive review~ for today, and Murdered: Soul Suspect is the second.

I also meant to have a Kamen Rider Bingo done, but then my computer crashed, and I hadn't saved. Folly.

Kamen Rider Drive
Episode 4
What Is The Proud Chaser Thinking About?

This episode opens on a rather uninspiring fight scene between Drive and Chase, before quickly moving on to a conversation afterwards that sums up a lot of my problems with Drive so far. Kiriko demands to know why Shinnosuke didn't fight, and Shinnosuke replies that there was a victim at the scene, before leaving Mr. Belt to explain that Shinnosuke was protecting those two through that fight. 

Let's talk about showing and telling, shall we? Telling and exposition does have a place in fiction. This is not that place: This entire conversation should have been unnecessary, because we should have been able to see in the fight scene that Shinnosuke was trying to protect those two instead of fighting. We didn't, really: What it looked like instead was that Shinnosuke just didn't care, and that made Chase look like he wasn't really a threat.

It's all well and good to tell us that it was a tough fight and that he was protecting Kiriko and the victim-painting, but it's useless. Your window of opportunity for prising an emotional reaction from your audience has passed, show. You wasted it with poor writing, poor fight choreography, and apparently not knowing the basics of writing fiction.

This is not the mask of a man desperately trying to protect something.

Things luckily pick up from that disappointing first fifth of the episode, as we get a pretty interesting scene between the villains. Heart and Brain explain that they have been tasked with gathering a certain quota of evolved Roimyude - what Paint/Asaya refers to as the Promised Number - before the appointed time, and that Roimyude who endanger that plan by drawing too much attention will be executed. 

Paint's confident that the police won't be able to pin the crimes on him, though, and he seems like he might be right, as Gen and Shinnosuke find that all the paintings are now gone (stolen, Paint informs them), although Shinnosuke does notice coloured cables going into the wall in what might be the most obvious clue ever. There's a short interrogation at the station, where Paint unsubtly implies that if the police move against him, he'll kill or harm the women he has trapped, something which makes Shinnosuke respond with understandable anger.

This is probably the most compelling I've found Shinnosuke, to be honest. I do like the trope of someone who is easygoing but can turn stern and severe at a moment's notice in the right circumstances, I really do, the writers just really need to work on making him a) Not sometimes irritatingly smug, and b) Remotely consistent. They also need to work on making the rest of the Special Crimes Unit not obnoxious, and giving Kiriko some character depth. 

But still, neat.

Speaking of the Special Crimes Unit, aaargh. Luckily, they're showing up in a plot relevant scene, and actually a pretty okay one at that, as Scientist Lady Person says that she analysed the canvas and found out that it's made of a conductive material for storing data, and that it requires an enormous supply of power. 

... What's going to happen to this painting, then? The one disconnected from a power supply for what must have been at least a day? Is the woman within going to be released and assume her natural, fleshy form, or be released and die? I bet this will never be answered.

We also get to see Shinnosuke's piecing-together-evidence computer-y effect again, which is - stop it, show. Just stop it. It's not as dramatic as you think it is. 

Speaking of things that aren't as dramatic as the writers think they are, there's a scene which perfectly exemplifies both that issue and the showing-vs-telling issue, as the show desperately attempts to make us sympathise with a small, plastic car by having a belt exposit on how said plastic car used to be light-hearted and fun, until his partner, Dimension Cab, was damaged and had to leave service.

Firstly, I - I have no idea how you'd show that personality change, but god knows it's something you need to show, instead of just telling me. Secondly, thanks for that unsubtle callback to Shinnosuke's partner being injured and how you sapped the tension out of that situation with expert speed. Thirdly, a tiny toy car called Dream Vegas is melancholy and full of revenge because his partner, Dimension Cab, was injured in a battle against a robot? 

This picture of Chase isn't relevant, bar his look of suppressed distaste.

That might be the most ridiculous thing in Kamen Rider for a while, and I invite you to remember that the last series was about dancing fruit samurai.

Luckily, we get to swiftly move on from that, as Paint lures Shinnosuke into a fight with Chase. It's - better than the last one, I guess. There's a steering wheel sword. Chase exposits, because of course he does.

The episode does start to pick up again from here, though, as we get a scene where Kiriko confronts Paint, with Paint very effectively shown to be incredibly creepy and also a total lunatic. Her resolve to do her duty as a police detective and take him down despite her fear kind of falls a shade flat when she's incapacitated mere seconds later, but it's revealed shortly thereafter to be a ruse on her part, meant to help Shinnosuke track down the paintings by having Mr. Belt pinpoint the centre of the density shift.

Aw, look at these two, being all badass.

After a short and pretty good fight scene, we head into the end of the episode. Shinnosuke and Kiriko are now fully fledged friends, the women have all been released from the paintings, I hate the Special Crimes Unit, and Heart, Brain and Chase are talking about Shinnosuke. While Chase wants to, er, chase him down, a very large Roimyude who likes eating says that he'll do it instead. Brain is - displeased.

We also see that Scientist Lady Person - who is called Rinna, I learned in the preview for the next episode - knows about Shift Cars and might be evil. I have total faith that this will come to absolutely nothing and in fact be entirely forgotten about two episodes from now. 

I have mixed feelings about this episode, let's put it that way. Hated the beginning, kind of liked the end, so it's definitely an improvement over the last episode. I admit, by that last scene with Dream Vegas and Dimension Cab, I was a little invested in their character arc, too.

Monday, 27 October 2014

Doctor Who S34E10: In The Forest of the Night.

Doctor Who S34E10: In The Forest of the Night.

Not going to bother with the bingo this week, since there were no changes.

I'm glancing at this episode's title with some bewilderment. It's a William Blake reference, to the poem 'The Tyger', and the only connection I can see is that this episode has a tiger in, very briefly, and a forest. But the poem itself is about the contrast between aesthetic beauty and a ferocious nature, and when paired with 'The Lamb', its sister poem, about understanding God by seeing his creations from different perspectives. 

It's a good poem, read it. I'm just not at all certain how it relates to this episode of Doctor Who, apart from the fact that there happens to be a tiger, and happens to be a forest (a forest of the day, even). 

There are also wolves in this episode. The explanation given is 'they escaped from London Zoo', but London Zoo doesn't have any wolves. It hasn't since the early 20th century, according to the UK Wolf Conservation Trust. That's a minor nitpick, but, you know. 

The Doctor seems alarmed.

Written by Frank Cottrell Boyce, previously of a bunch of miniseries I've never heard of, in this episode, the Doctor arrives in London to find it covered in a massive forest. Accidentally discovering a young girl who hears voices, called Maebh, he quickly also discovers Clara, Danny and a class of special needs pupils who were having a sleepover at a museum (because ... schools having sleepovers at museums is a thing? Apparently? First I've heard of it). Together, they set out to find the cause of the gigantic forest.

(Unfortunately, it's not Helheim from Kamen Rider Gaim. That'd have been a twist and a half.)

This episode has some things that I hate and some things that I absolutely love. I hated the 'oh, you humans always want to just ~suppress~ the ~specialness~ of people hearing voices!' Be quiet, Boyce. Mental illness is a serious problem that has a serious impact on people's lives, and people who suffer from auditory hallucinations often also suffer from paranoid delusions and a lack of self-insight: Having a primetime TV show tell them that they just don't need their medication, because there's nothing wrong with them and the world is just out to get them: I can think of no worse lesson.

Stop sending out bad messages, Doctor.

One thing I loved: The Doctor can't tell children apart by their physical appearance, regardless of their gender or ethnicity. Reecey of Nine Over Five liked it but thought it didn't make much sense, since he has perfectly working vision, I think it kind of does, since he comes from a species that identifies each other using telepathy, not sight - and from a subset of that species that frequently changes their appearance. 

Overall, though, the episode is - ehhh. It's nowhere near the worst of the series, I'll say that. It probably comes in fourth, beneath Flatline, Mummy on the Orient Express, and Time Heist. Good, but not good enough to beat out those three episodes.

Danny, with students.

The premise is an interesting one that we haven't really seen in Doctor Who before, it was a great example of an episode that didn't require a villain, and it left you with some interesting questions at the end: Is Maebh causing all of this? Why did her sister materialise out of a bush? Did Maebh conjure her there? Because she takes responsibility for the forest, and she implies she may have had a hand in bringing back her sister. It'd also close up the plot holes in this episode: Why does the solar flare 'burn through the excess oxygen' instead of just igniting the whole thing, like it should? Maebh believes it will, that's why. Why does the government stop deforesting the planet just because a little girl asked them to? Because Maebh sees no reason why they wouldn't.

Danny is at his least irritating here, which is a welcome change after - well, every episode since The Caretaker, really. Clara is pretty all right, too, but she's dragged down by the looming spectre of The Subplot. Everything is going fine, except when it rears its head, bellowing 'MEANING', and making Clara do stupid things like demand the Doctor leave a class full of students behind instead of getting his massive time machine, picking them up, picking up their parents, and getting a selection of other humans to store in his impossibly gigantic Noah's Ark-oid timeship that could easily survive a solar flare. 

It wouldn't be pretty, but it'd be a lot better than Clara's 'I could save these children, but I think they should all die' plan. If those kids' parents found out that she did that, they would be furious. 

The episode's ending was also a bit anticlimactic. The Doctor is about to leave, but then he realises it was all fine, and they were in no danger, and the episode just ... keeps going for ten minutes. It didn't ruin the episode, but it does mean it ends on a kind of flat note, rather than ever having a narrative climax. 

So, not the best episode, not the worst, but definitely in the top half. If I had to rank the episodes in order of worst to last right now, it'd go: The Caretaker, Deep Breath, Kill the Moon, Listen, Into the Dalek, Robot of Sherwood, In The Forest Of The Night, Mummy on the Orient Express, Time Heist, Flatline. Maybe the finale episodes will carve out new slots at the top of that list, but probably not, they are written by Moffat, after all.

Coming up next week, we have Clara announcing that time can be rewritten and she never existed, and seemingly going full villain, as well as the return of the Moffat-era Cybermen, which means I can cross another square off that bingo and leave myself with just one and the thus-far unused free slot. Neat. 

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Editorial: Four Game Developers Who Deserve Unlimited Funding And Very Little Oversight.

Editorial: Four Game Developers Who Deserve Unlimited Funding
And Very Little Oversight.

"Woah, woah, woah, hold up there, Murphy, someone's been talking to the Bad Idea Monkeys and sipping too many vodka daiquiris again. Unlimited funding? Worse, very little oversight? Who could possibly warrant such a thing?!"

Well, I can safely say that probably nobody on this list will surprise you. This is not a very avant-garde list, it's - this will be my least surprising editorial ever written, I think. Also, some of them - and I'm not going to name names but you will know exactly which gentlemen I'm talking about when you see their names - require more oversight than others. Just not, you know. A gigantic amount.

Tim Schafer.

Who doesn't love Tim Schafer? That's right: People waiting for the second installment of Broken Age don't love Tim Schafer. Well done for guessing that one.

Tim Schafer has put together some of the most off the wall and funny adventure games in history, and it's a little sad to see him struggling to scrounge up the money for passion projects. So I say, no more scrounging, let's just give him an unlimited fortune and set him loose on the world to run free like the majestic wildebeest of gaming he is.

Broken Age would get completed pretty sharpish, and before long we'd probably be seeing Psychonauts 2: Psych Harder floating to our shelves.

Hideki Kamiya.

One thing is for sure: Hideki Kamiya is quite, quite mad, and his work is pretty varied. You can't compare Devil May Cry to Okami to Wonderful 101, after all, it just wouldn't work. But he has one constant: His work always pushes the envelope past what's expected and into the 'please stop, my mindbrains are burning' territory. It was true of his work with Clover Studios, and it's equally true now that he's working with Platinum Games. 

(Love Platinum Games.)

If you gave him unlimited funding, you know what you'd get? The best action game ever created, probably, with an absurdly skilled and stylish protagonists wailing on monsters so bizarre and over-the-top that you're entirely unsure what to make of them. That's probably what you get, but not necessarily: It's a delightful mixed bag, and I'd be intrigued as to see what comes out of it.

Peter Molyneux.

Here is one truth that's absolutely true: With unlimited funding, Peter Molyneux would never announce some minor feature of a game that turned out not to exist again. His games would be vast, sprawling, absurdly detailed simulations of life - whether as a fantasy hero or a god or a small pigeon or whatever had seized the man's mad fancy at that particular time. 

Imagine it. The man already produces excellent games, as a rule - just imagine the glory of it if every ridiculous whim and dream of his could be fulfilled. The games that resulted from such a thing would change the face of video games as we know it.

Or we'd just get another god simulator.

He seems to like that particular whim.

Rhianna Pratchett. 

I love Rhianna Pratchett's work, and I will fight anyone who says it isn't great. Apart from Thief, that was a bit - yeah. But in general, she's a very strong writer, responsible for a great Tomb Raider reboot, as well as having worked on classics like Bioshock Infinite, Overlord II, and Heavenly Sword. 

So far, Pratchett has always been writing for other people's games, so to speak - she's a script writer who pens stories and scripts for game concepts that other people have come up with. But those are concepts which would have sunk without a writer as good as her - you only need to glance back at Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness to see how bad a Tomb Raider game can be, after all.

What I want to see is a game that is completely Pratchett. Her own concept, her own script, her own gameplay ideas. I think it'd be pretty excellent.

Friday, 24 October 2014



If someone asks me why I did this series of reviews, I'm going to have the really undramatic answer of 'eh', because I totally just had a day I needed to fill and decided to vent my spleen on Fable III. But it's relevant, right? Fable is always relevant to gamers. 

Coming out in 2004, Fable was an open world fantasy action RPG, in which your character, who you would see grow from a child into a wrinkled elderly man, travels the land performing heroic quests as part of the Heroes' Guild of Albion. Torn away from his loving family by bandits when he was young, the hero sets out to rediscover his elder sister and his mother, bringing him into conflict with famed Hero Jack of Blades, who may be more than he appears. 

Who wouldn't trust this man?

Fable was iconic largely for how accessible and open it was. Dropped into the world, you had your choice of which sidequests to do - from helping farmers defend their farms from bandits to helping those bandits steal from the farm in question - your choice of whether you relied on your sword, your magic, your bow, or all of the above, and your choice of how to interact with the people around you, whether you wanted to up your sex appeal and charm them, or up how scary you looked and intimidate them, or just bribe them, or anything in between. Every action you took affected you, not only by leading you towards a different ending but also by changing your appearance and how people responded to you. For its time, it was very advanced, and it was a breath of fresh air coming in what had otherwise been a very stagnant period for games.

Not that it was perfect. I played it just before Fable II came out, and even in a rather small intervening period of just a few years, its age had started to show. The sidequests are often ill-fleshed out (although there's something pleasant about the ridiculous drama of fending off giant wasps from a picnic site) and basically amount to killing things, the main storyline can feel rushed at times, the open world is - not that small, actually, but there are certainly sections of it that feel bizarrely tiny - and the combat is clunky and awkward. 

If you tell me my health is low one more time.

But the other thing about Fable is that it sticks with you, in a big way. It's here that the Pratchett-style humour is most at the forefront (and occasionally Douglas Adams' style humour, including what I can only presume is a direct reference to THGTTG), here that we see the groundwork laid both for the more complicated sidequests in Fable II and the more complicated 'your character changes according to your actions' game mechanics that would show up both in future Fable games and in a slew of other games by other developers. 

It's well-plotted, well-paced, with interesting and nuanced characters like Thunder and Whisper, and with an engaging villain (I am irrationally intrigued by Jack of Blades, and keep hoping for him to show up again, even though we know barely anything about him), more than a few genuinely emotional moments, and a final battle - or two, if you're including the one in The Lost Chapters - that's definitely memorable, if a little frustrating. I mean, really, an invisible attack, Jack? Really? The plot knew when to put you on edge, too. The prison section, where every failed escape attempt meant staying in there for another in-game year, was particularly difficult to stomach, even if they did one-up themselves for Fable II where you could literally haemorrhage experience. 

Whisper's great. I like Whisper. This is the best picture I could find of her
on short notice, unfortunately.

It also put British game development on the map in a big way - which has turned out to be a fortuitous thing, given that since then British game companies have produced games like the rebooted Devil May Cry, the rebooted Tomb Raider, Sleeping Dogs, and loads more that are generally very high quality, very well received, and, most importantly for any game from any country, not Call of Duty. These games may not have ever happened without Fable. 

So, it's not a perfect game, but it is a fun one, and it is an iconic one that has altered the industry as we know it, and the beginning of a franchise that seemed destined for great things. That alone should be recognised and praised, by which I mean that Peter Molyneux should just get that knighthood he's on track for already. There are openings, a few people have lost them recently. 

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Legend of Korra: The Video Game.

Do you think the thing lacking on this blog is ranting about poor businesspeople vying for the attention of a grumpy working-class lord? I have a guest series at Nine Over Five.

Legend of Korra.

I think this one might come down to cost versus reward, to be honest. We'll get to that.

Legend of Korra, based on the animated series of the same name, is a tie-in done mostly as a passion project by game developer Platinum Games, best known for Bayonetta and Vanquish, both of which I adored. Set between the second and third series of the show, the game puts you in the shoes of multi-element wielding god-spirit-woman Korra, who, having been attacked by an elderly gentleman and left without her abilities, has to regain each of her four elements back one by one and defeat him. 

It's a very bare bones game, which is where the idea of cost versus reward comes in, to be honest. I don't think people who bought this game were expecting a lot. Some fun bending action, some of the voice actors back, preferably an interesting plot to go with it, in more or less that order of preference. The game does sort of deliver on the first two, even if it falls flat on the third, and it has a pretty low price tag of £12 for UK audiences and $15 for US audiences. If it was a smooth, well-oiled game, it would have definitely been worth the cost. 

But there are issues. By jove, are there issues.

Pro-bending mode is a massive issue all on its own.

Let's start with fun bending action. It was a lot of fun, and to be honest, one of the main good points about the game. You get to switch between four styles - water, good for long ranged attacks; earth, good for defending and countering and thus your go to when dealing with bosses; fire, good for short range attacks and combos; and air, good for crowd control. Pretty solid basis. What lets it down is that there isn't really much to use your skills against. I don't mean a shortage of enemies here: I mean a shortage of enemy varieties. You have three strains of chi-blocker, all with different abilities - fine. Mecha tanks that are functionally minibosses - fine. Bending triads who fight much like Korra does - great. That's ... really it. Even when dark spirits show up in the game later, they fight fundamentally like those five enemy types.

A few more types of enemy would have done wonders, especially if they took advantage of the style-switching mechanic. Chi-blockers who actually block your chi, maybe, temporarily cutting off whatever bending style you're using and forcing you to switch to another. Benders or spirits who can only be defeated by using the opposite style. Metalbenders, lavabenders, bloodbenders, lightningbenders, combustionbenders. You have so many options here, and the variety of enemies is conspicuously tiny even for the price tag. 

These exact guys will show up multiple times with different hair colours.

Let's move on to voice-acting. Janet Varney's in as Korra, along with Kiernan Shipka as Jinora. We get to briefly hear JK Simmons, David Faustino and PJ Byrne as Tenzin, Mako and Bolin respectively too. It's not a gigantic amount of voice actors back, but I don't think anybody expected much in the regard, so I'm not going to dwell too much on it.

Storyline, meanwhile - it was bad, guys. Bad, and not improved by the very shoddy cutscene animation that looked vaguely like the actual series if it had been transported back to the early 90s. The villain is unconvincing, the story is loosely sketched out at best, and the inclusion of certain villains from the series is barely justified and feels wrong. For a game that ties in to a series praised for its storytelling, you would think it would be a little more story driven to, you know, cater to its most obvious audience.

It's not even that difficult to think of a storyline for it. Here goes: Republic City has a new, charismatic Triads boss, and she's gathering a Triad large enough to be an army, having recruited leftover chi-blockers who were disillusioned and faced with otherwise being fugitives after Amon's fall, along with a range of benders, including dirty metalbending police officers. Seeking to take out the biggest threat to her power, she has Korra chi-blocked, cutting off her access to her bending, and starts to consolidate her power over Republic City, throwing it into a state of all out war (thus explaining why nobody's around, but their cars and belongings still are - the explanation given in game is that it's 'the abandoned part of town'). But all is not as it seems, as Charismatic Triad Boss Woman has partnered with a mysterious spirit with his own vendetta against the Avatar. 

Get used to these guys.

See, now we have an excuse for all of the enemy types in the game, we have an opportunity for at the very least metalbenders, we have a good reason for there to be no civilians around, we have a charismatic villain (you know she's charismatic because I described her as charismatic, you see), and we have Spirit World Shenanigans.

Add to this that the game is incredibly laggy (to the extent that at one point during playing, I had to leave Korra standing around for so long she went into her idling animations, just waiting for the main villain's attack to hit) and this is a very flawed product, even for the price attached to it. Also, there are no subtitles. What about deaf people?

Oooh, fire.

I don't really regret buying it, though. I haven't really harped on about it in this review, but even with the lags and the lack of enemy variety, the gameplay is really fun. I enjoyed myself greatly playing it, especially once I got a hold of airbending, which was by far the most fun of the four styles. So I have good feelings towards this game. It's not all it could be, I'd hazard to say it's not even all it should be, and if you're not already a fan of the series you will probably hate it and be entirely justified in doing so. 

It is nice to have a video game coming out just as the series is winding to a close, though. That - that is nice.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

How To Train Your Dragon 2.

I have been wanting to watch this film for ages, guys.

How To Train Your Dragon 2.

I actually didn't watch the first film of this series for ages after it came out. It wasn't until nearly a year ago, when I was doing a job that involved spending long periods sitting in an office and doing nothing, that I watched it. I watched a lot of films during that time, and a lot of them made me tear up and blubber, partly because I was a shade fragile at the time and everything made me tear up, and partly because even when I'm not feeling off I cry at films really easily (which is one reason why Reecey will never convince me to play Valiant Hearts), and partly because it was one of those films which just makes people cry.

(I didn't do much better with keeping my composure during either of the two TV series.)

Needless to say, I enjoyed it greatly - and, to be honest, I didn't really have any doubts that the sequel would live up to the standard that its predecessor had set. 

So did it? Well. Mostly. While watching, I didn't feel the same rush of overwhelming, excuse-me-I-need-a-moment-there's-a-dragon-in-my-eye emotion that I did while watching the first film, but then I'm not quite as easily teared up right this second as I am then. It's certainly a fine film. 

Behold! The passage of time!

Taking place five years after How To Train Your Dragon (which I keep accidentally mistyping as How I Met Your Dragon), the island of Berk is now a haven for dragons, and Hiccup is in line to be chief. But there's a crisis, as the dragon riders stumble upon Eret, a dragon trapper, who claims he is gathering the beasts for the army of a violent madman named Drago Bludvist. To make matters more complicated, Hiccup meets his long-absent mother, caretaker of a sanctuary of dragons under the rule of the Great Bewilderbeast, the king of all dragons. 

The animation is absolutely stunning, the voice acting all very strong (with Cate Blanchett, Kit Harington and Djimon Honsou joining a cast that includes Craig Ferguson, Gerard Butler and Jay Baruchel), and the soundtrack as amazing as that of the first film's - although Sigur Ros' contribution is a little strange on the ears, especially when contrasted with the rest of the film's orchestral soundtrack. 

So, mechanically, it's all very good. As far as plotting and storytelling goes, it faces much of the same issues that you'd expect from a sequel: It's always difficult to know quite where to go after a first film, especially as in this case the dragons have more or less been trained, and since the film is only very loosely based on the books by British author Cressida Cowell, they don't provide much of a roadmap for where to go to. 

The answer here, it seems to be, is to introduce a new human villain, give Hiccup several personal problems to replace his outcast-tiny-viking issue, and give Eret the 'learning to love dragons' character arc that the rest of the cast spent the first film going through.

Cate Blanchett plays Valka, dragon sage-y type thing.

It works, mostly. One of Hiccup's issues - his parents' estrangement, is solved almost too easily. The other, the expectation that he'll become chief despite his own wishes, is dealt with with a lot more force and emotional weight behind it, but still, it felt, a shade too quickly and easily. I don't often recommend that films be longer, being one of those people who dislikes the idea of sitting down for two hours or more to watch anything, but this film could have used another twenty minutes of time. 

That would have also given Hiccup's band of merry dragon riders a bit more chance to shine. They're not overlooked as such, but it would have been nice to see them be a little bit more involved in the plot, just like they were in the first film and are in the TV series.

Eret and Valka are both great new characters, though, and Drago makes an effective villain. I profess, I found the final confrontation a shade underwhelming - for me, it was the low point of the film, and not really a scratch on the final battle of its predecessor. It wasn't unenjoyable, though, and even a low point in a film like this is relatively high.

You look vexed, son.

The How To Train Your Dragon franchise is going to be getting a new television series in Spring of 2015, and has another one after that planned for the next year, after which we'll be getting the third (and perhaps the last) film in the series, scheduled for June of 2017. If you've not seen the films or the two TV series yet, I recommend watching all of them, preferably in order. 

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Kamen Rider Drive E3: Who Stole Her Smile?

If you're wondering why this is up fairly late, the answer is 'hurricane'.

Kamen Rider Drive
Episode 3
Who Stole Her Smile?

I should do a Kamen Rider bingo for Kamen Rider Drive. That's been fun to fill out for Doctor Who, after all. Okay, aspiration for next week: Kamen Rider Bingo. It's fitting, because in this episode we got a luck-themed giant tire sash.

As this episode begins, we're told immediately that there's a new Roimyude (Roidmude? I saw it romanised as Roimyude first and I'm stubbornly stuck in my ways, but Roidmude, which is what Over-Time uses, is almost certainly the correct way of writing it), and this one kidnaps young girls. How extremely creepy. 

We get a lot of exposition in the few minutes afterwards, some of it unsubtly worked into the story, as Shinnosuke and Kiriko discuss previously discussed plot points like Shinnosuke's medical condition that he should really see a doctor about, and how the Roimyude called him a Kamen Rider, and some of it literally just given to us in lazy voiceover narration, so that's - that's great, guys. You keep on keeping on giving us exposition on what's already happened in the third episode. 

It continues smoothly on to - exposition about what's going on in this episode, as the characters spend two minutes what could have been exposited at us in one. This is an incredibly exposition heavy episode so far (I say, a quarter of it in), and the only real plus is that we get Kyu, their computer guy, being a representative for all of us as he is told to go post his theories on his beloved internet. Fine, then, Lt. Gen. Maybe we will. 

After a quick discussion about how the sparkly white shift car Kiriko reacted poorly to earlier is working a case of relevance to her, we meet an artist, Asaya Kazuhiro. He's flamboyantly dressed, drops French words into his speech, and he commits assault against Kiriko (yes, grabbing and rubbing someone's arm and then pulling them along without their permission is legally assault) within twenty seconds of meeting her. He is obviously the villain of the story arc, even moreso since he has a bunch of paintings of young women.

I have no idea why they don't just literally murder him in the face here. Due process, I suppose.

Or at the very least, arrest him for common assault.

We also meet his assistant, who is also obviously a villain. Once they leave, they're attacked by a Roimyude, who has an ability far scarier than the last one we saw: He causes people to start dissolving into coloured strands. That is genuinely pretty creepy. They did well there. We also find out that Kiriko was attacked by a similar Roimyude. 

To continue being honest, this episode, like last episode, isn't doing much for me. I feel more bored than anything, despite liking the characters. We'll see how it goes, but contrast this episode with a W episode: In W episodes, even the very early ones, Shotaro, Philip and Akiko were always being put in situations which strained them, and encountering colourful characters that produced very strong reactions. It meant that even episodes which aren't plot relevant had a certain energy to them. 

This episode feels like a rather pale imitation of that, despite having the same writer. Shinnosuke and Kiriko should be in a situation which strain them, because Kiriko has a personal connection to it, and they should be encountering colourful characters that produce strong reactions, because Asaya is clearly meant to be that kind of bombastic, rather creepy character. But nothing is happening: Shinnosuke and Kiriko are just drifting through this episode, and Asaya feels like the attempt at a colourful character by someone who has never actually encountered other human beings. It all falls a bit flat.

Anyway, as the episode enters its second half we get a merciful break from those two to see Chase executing a wayward Roimyude. He has a very Rider-ish transformation sequence. Back to Shinnosuke and Kiriko, we get more exposition and then an argument that, again, just falls flat. I want to see more from these characters, and instead everything they're doing in this episode feels very watered down.

We do also get a flashback for Kiriko, though, which is great! It's atmospheric, it shows rather than tells, we get to see an emotional reaction from her that seems sincere and well-acted, and we get a better look at the previous Drive, termed Proto-Drive by Mr. Belt. Specifically, we get to see that he's black and purple, and from the looks of it substantially shorter than Shinnosuke. 

Not that you can tell in this picture.

You all know the theory I'm going to propose, but I'll wait until the end.

Kiriko walks into an obvious trap on her own - and that would feel like a less out of character move if the argument earlier had not been so very lacklustre - and ends up discovering at roughly the same time as Shinnosuke that the women are in the paintings, thus making both of them slower than the entire audience. 

I feel like this location has been used in Kamen Rider befo - what am I saying, of course it has.

The architect of the trap, the artist's assistant, quickly reveals himself to be, predictably, a Roimyude, but Shinnosuke shows up in time to stop him sketchbook-ifying Kiriko. A fight scene ensues that is luckily nowhere near as long as the ones in previous episodes, and include looks at a cement mixer tire and a monster truck tire, before the assistant is killed. While the sketchbooked women are released, the painted ones remain imprisoned, because, you know. The painting Roimyude that you literally saw earlier is still alive. I don't know why Shinnosuke and Kiriko are confused by this one, even if they do get over it after about eleven seconds.

Machine Chaser shows up, and we get a proper look at his extremely Drive-like transformation sequence. Mr. Belt seems to recognise him too.

At this point, I'd say it's stunningly obvious that Chase is meant to be Proto-Drive, brainwashed and possibly cyborg-ised into Machine Chaser. They share a colour scheme, Mr. Belt recognises him, and his powers are Rider-esque in nature. With our second rider, Kamen Rider Mach, coming soon, the big question for me is whether we're going to see Chase regaining his memories and becoming Mach, or whether it'll be somebody completely different (please be Kiriko, please be Kiriko). 

Next week, we apparently have Asaya giving the police the runaround, which should be interesting. 

Monday, 20 October 2014

Doctor Who S34E9: Flatline.

It's weird not having Bravely Default around. I played so much of it over a period of, like, two weeks that I've now forgotten what it was I did with my time before it.

Doctor Who
Series 34, Episode 9

Right, let's get the admin stuff out of the way first. Here's last week's bingo:

Moving on to this episode, this is the second episode by Jamie Mathieson this series, and one of only five episodes this series not written in part or in its entirety by Steven Moffat, although I'd argue that his hand has been heavy even on the episodes that he hasn't written. The last Mathieson episode was last week's Mummy on the Orient Express, which as you'll recall I said was tied with Time Heist for the best episode of the series, and was only really dragged down by the inclusion of the godawful Clara-hates-the-Doctor-but-she-just-can't-keep-away-from-him subplot, that I wish would die already.

Looking back on that episode now, I wonder if Clara was even meant to be in it, or if it was a diktat from on high - whether that be Moffat or somebody above him. I say that partly because Clara was given almost nothing to do in that episode, just shunted off to the side; partly because she wasn't on any promotional materials including the official cast list; and partly because if she hadn't been in that episode, these two Mathieson episodes would have formed a pretty complete arc. The Doctor travels on his own for a while before the shrinking TARDIS problem forces him to find Clara, who is then compelled to step into his shoes, leading to a greater understanding of both of their positions that makes Clara want to journey with him again.

It's just a theory, and we'll likely never know.

On the bright side, tiny TARDIS! There's a tinier TARDIS which
I believe may actually be a TARDIS alarm clock from Argos.

Anyway. Flatline takes us back to modern day Earth, where Clara and the Doctor land in Bristol, rather than London as originally planned. There, they find that people on the estate are being abducted, and the culprits appear to be a set of entirely two-dimensional aliens who want to understand us and/or kill us. 

This episode is what's colloquially known as 'the cheap one', the episode that comes every series where the BBC strains to eke out an episode on as horrifically low a budget as possible in order to conserve funding for the explosive finales. Previous cheap ones have included Closing Time, The Lodger and Midnight. Mathieson definitely uses his limited means well, following a small cast as they attempt to flee from, in essence, photoshop blur effects and hasty wall paintings which still manage to be quite intimidating.

Part of that is that there's a lot of great ideas here. Clara stepping into the Doctor's shoes: Great idea, and pulled off very well with excellent performances from both Jenna Coleman and Peter Capaldi. Man everyone wants to die not dying: Great idea, and I think everyone who watched really hated Christopher Fairbank's character. Two dimensional aliens who are mysterious and bizarre and unknowable, and who can only perceive us through our impressions on two dimensional objects: Great! Easily one of my favourite New Who monsters. 

(On an unrelated note, Matt Bardock, who plays Al, had literally just left Casualty when this episode aired. It's like his character died and was reincarnated high-vis jacket and all in another BBC show.)

Another part of that is that it's a very tightly written script. A lot of the interactions between the Doctor and Clara are hilarious ("What are you a doctor of?" says Rigsy, "Of lies," the Doctor hisses while Clara remarks that she thinks she just picked the title to sound impressive), the script is well-paced and slick - I don't have many complaints.

Funny glasses!

I do have some. 

Our old friend Unfortunate Implications returns, as the Doctor makes an offhand remark about Rigsy, a young black man, being 'barely sentient.' Obviously, it's meant to be a reference to his being human, rather than his race, but in a series where we've had the Doctor make similar remarks at two other black characters - and by remarks, I mean a sustained campaign of insults about his intelligence at Danny, and several snide remarks at Courtney about her being criminal and stupid - it comes off as more than a little skeevy.

Again, I will note, these episodes do not exist in a vacuum. There is not only an unfortunate pattern set by previous episodes to take into account, but also a wider cultural context in which black people are characterised as being stupid or criminal constantly. One case of unfortunate implications was uncomfortable. Three in a series is making me squirm in my seat, and these incidents should be getting caught by someone at the BBC. This is your flagship series, Beeb, there is absolutely no excuse for not catching these. 

My other complaint is that our old friend the interminably awful Clara-Doctor-Danny Subplot returns. It's in a small way, but it's there, in her phonecall to Danny and Doctor's subsequent conversation with her about how she lied to him about that. Just - go away, subplot. Nobody likes you. You are cliche and tired and you've been sapping the life out of every single episode. You are the writing equivalent of a guy with an acoustic guitar and a t-shirt saying 'If found, return to pub.' 

Here's Clara judging you, subplot.

But apart from those things? I really liked this episode. It's knocked both Time Heist and Mummy on the Orient Express off the top spot and has now seized the position of best episode this series. Come pick up your Golden Dalek, Flatline. Mathieson, come pick up your prize for most consistently tolerable writer this series. Your competition was not steep. 

Let's take a look at this week's updated bingo:

This week's crosses are in 'eggshell salmon'

It's exactly the same as it was before this episode. I only have two slots to cross off, so that's not all that surprising, but still, this is the first episode since I started this bingo that I've not been able to cross at least one square. Even if I was working with an entirely blank bingo, I probably wouldn't be able to cross off many squares at all. 

Next week, we have another episode with Clara and Danny both involved, as London is replaced with a vast forest filled with wolves and tigers, two animals who generally don't live in the same places, but also who don't exist in Britain anyway (that one part of Scotland where they've reintroduced wolves does not count), so I'll definitely let it pass.