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Saturday, 28 February 2015

Broadchurch Series 2.

Series 2.

I was pretty sceptical of a second series of Broadchurch, and for good reason, I'd say. The original series was a self-contained piece of storytelling that wasn't ever truly meant to have a continuation. It stood alone, and as the writers have pointed out when talking about their work on the second series, the basic premise of Broadchurch revolves around the events of the story being unusual, a once-in-a-generation tragedy that would usually be unheard of in a small town. It isn't exactly fertile ground for a continuation.

Broadchurch's second series has two plot lines running next to each other: The first being the trial of Joe Miller, husband of protagonist Ellie and the murderer from the first series; and the second being Alec's renewed investigation into the Gillespie murders, which had been mentioned in the first series as being a major failure in Alec's past. As the trial heats up, with two opposing lawyers with fraught history with each other butting heads, Alec and Ellie discover that their original assumptions about the Gillespie murders may have been entirely incorrect.

So, how does it measure up to the previous series?

Well, it has seventy percent more evil fluttering police lines, that's for sure.

Not all that well, unfortunately. It's still very good television: The trial is tense, with a genuine sense throughout that this could all turn out terribly for the protagonists; and the murder plotline has much of the suspense, mystery and sinister turns that the first series had. It's very good television, but it in no way reaches the standard set by its predecessor, which was nothing short of a national phenomenon for the entire time that it was airing, with an entire country so hooked on it that giving away a plot detail was practically grounds for the death sentence.

In a way, it feels like what it is: A sequel that was never planned, which is trying to capitalise on anything that could be considered a sequel hook in order to keep a sense of continuity. But I was never all that interested in the Gillespie murders, the series never made much suggestion that there was any mystery still left to solve there - instead, they were an example of Alec's failings as a person and an officer, that he knew who had did it but had allowed critical evidence to be lost. For it to suddenly become a mystery seemed forced, even if it did create an interesting plotline.

Similarly, while the trial storyline interested me more, I didn't finish the first Broadchurch thinking 'I really need to know what happens at Joe's trial.' The series didn't end with any suggestion that it was a pressing concern - if anything, the quiet implication was that from the point where Joe was arrested, everything would be fairly straightforward.

Hands up if you didn't realise Lee Ashworth is Edwin Jarvis.

Yet, I did enjoy both plotlines, and they were well-handled. The introduction of Claire Ripley as a potential witness to her husband Lee's guilt, only to later become a suspect herself, was a nice touch, allowing the story to flow smoothly from 'we need to prove this man's guilt' to 'mystery'. Similarly, the trial plotline got off to a strong start when events from the end of the last series, such as Ellie attacking Joe while he was in custody, were used to build suspense by having Joe's confession thrown out.

It's from that point that the trial storyline starts to go downhill, with the defence's case seeming to mostly consist of wild conjecture, while the murder storyline starts to pick up momentum (but never really manages to sustain my interest), but both storylines came together for a very dramatic finale.

Once again, the acting is very strong - David Tennant and Olivia Colman put on excellent performances, with a very engaging supporting cast. Eve Myles, James D'Arcy, Meera Syal and Charlotte Rampling, among others, are added to the cast, and they all put in great performances. From an acting standpoint, this series is as flawless as the first. 

Broadchurch's collection of Doctor Who alumni is growing.

(The same cannot be said for Broadchurch's American adaptation, Gracepoint.) 

Similarly, the music was very good, the cinematography lovely - in all technical aspects, Broadchurch excels, which is nice, but doesn't make up for how wholly unnecessary this entire series felt, or how lacklustre it often seemed. At times, it seemed like the writers didn't really want to write this sequel, and I'd hardly blame them.

Broadchurch has been renewed for a third series, and while I probably should be a bit excited, I find myself more alarmed than anything. Like the first Broadchurch, the second series doesn't leave itself open for a third series - it ends with all of its loose ends very firmly tied off. I didn't think there should be a second series, and while I did have fun with it, I still think that it was a mistake. A third series, though, boggles the mind, and not in a good way.

Friday, 27 February 2015

How To Get Away With Murder, Series 1 (Second Half)

How To Get Away With Murder
Series 1 (Second Half).

I say the second half, but the second part of this series was actually only six episodes, compared to the first part's nine. Which might explain why I was, perhaps, not quite as tense and hyped about it by the time that it finished - I'd had three episodes less for it to wind me up than I'd had the first time. Or perhaps it was that without the looming spectre of a murder in the future, there wasn't a clear dramatic end point that it was building up to.

Either way, this second part of the series felt less dramatic and tense to me than the first. Picking up just after the murder of Sam Keating, the series follows Annalise Keating and her five murderous law ducklings as they attempt to save people from being prosecuted for heinous crimes, and attempt to cover up their own terrible secret.

It does, in a way, seem like much of what made the first nine episodes great was forgotten for the second part. It seemed like there was less focus on the cases of the week, and the tension of trying to avoid prosecution for a murder will never quite be able to live up to the mystery of figuring out who committed a murder (and who will commit a murder). The series tries a few different ways of getting around this: First by introducing a tangible antagonist in the form of Sam's sister (who pretty much just vanishes eventually), and then by bringing the Who-Murdered-Lila mystery back for the two episodes of the series.

Her face really does say 'annoying but not intimidating villain.'

That said, these last six episodes have still been some of my favourite stuff on television. They're sharp, witty, and I like pretty much all the characters. The last two episodes, which had the panicky law puppies attempting to figure out if Rebecca, Wes' girlfriend, may actually have been the murderer after all, was basically two hours of being hit with the steam train of dramatic revelation over and over again, including a disturbing flashback scene where Rebecca drugged a man to cause him to have a psychotic break, and a plot twist involving Connor and Oliver that made me feel nauseous and uncertain of whether I would be tuning in for the second series.

(I almost certainly will, but it's noteworthy that there's only been two other occasions when a piece of media has upset me that much - the Red Wedding in Game of Thrones, where one particular act of violence against a pregnant woman set against the general background of ultraviolence left me very shaken, and Telltale Games The Walking Dead Season 2, Episode 1, where a child has to shoot a dog. This plot twist wasn't as violent as either of those, but it did hit me just as hard.)

N'aw, Rudy.

The finale also had several great character moments, with my favourite probably being Michaela's conversation with her future mother-in-law, which sees her accent shift slowly as she sheds the persona she'd built in order to ingratiate herself into the world of the rich and powerful. It was a very subtly powerful scene, and Aja Naomi King's performance in it was excellent.

What the series should have done, though, is either re-open the mystery of who killed Lila from the get-go of the second part, having Best Christmas Ever introduce the idea that Rebecca could be Lila's actual killer, along with maybe throwing another suspect more into the light (Bonnie, perhaps, who was considered as a suspect a few times by fans); or have a more solid antagonist attempting to chase down Annalise and the law otters - Hannah Keating, while certainly insufferable, lacks either the intimidating manner or the authority to appear as a real threat, especially when there are scenes of the police just being tired with her. A scheming detective, on the other hand, who's not afraid to cross boundaries and sow dissent amongst them, might have worked a bit better. 

I don't know whether Lahey stripping for prison is fan service because of the
stripping or fan disservice because a black man imprisoned on flimsy evidence
for a crime he didn't commit is much more horrifyingly common in real life than most of
the situations in this show.

As it is, about three of those six episodes feel a little bit aimless, with the episode where Annalise is (quite justifiably) filled with malaise and ennui being the most aimless feeling one of all. A lot of people rather enjoyed that episode, as it introduced us to Annalise's mother - I actually found Annalise's mother a little grating, alas.

The show will be returning in the Autumn, and if it capitalises on the plot twists at the very end of this series, then it might be - well, very engaging, but also incredibly disturbing to watch. I don't like the Connor-Oliver twist, if I'm being honest, but both the revelation of Lila's true killer and the revelation in the closing moments of the episode should make some great television.

Rest in peace, Leonard Nimoy.

Rest in peace, Leonard Nimoy.

As a lot of people probably already know, Leonard Nimoy has just passed away from end-stage chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. 

He was a giant of the entertainment industry, a household name from his work on Star Trek, and worked in writing, directing, voice-acting, singing and photography. For me and many others, he was a constant and admirable figure while we were growing up. 

Please keep his family in your thoughts over the next few days.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Editorial: Stop Trivialising Folk Heroes - Part One: Boudica.

Hey, guys, Murphy here. Today we have a guest editorial for you by Reecey of Nine Over Five, talking about the mistreatment of folk heroes, which is something we have ranted about together many a time over a mug of warm eggnog, with a snarling hellbeast sitting nearby staring intently at us.


Editorial: Stop Trivialising Folk Heroes.
Part One: Boudica.

Guest editorial by Reecey.

Ryse: Son of Rome was a launch title for the XBox One.

I thought it sounded incredibly lackluster and daft, and dripping with American imperialism, since you are literally playing a Roman and fight for Rome as opposed to against the empire.

Yes, you fight for Rome against Boudica.

Let me break down exactly why this is dripping with American imperialism.

Boudica is the leader of armies of the native people and you play as the invader who is crushing their attempts to expel the Roman empire.

This is the first century equivalent of playing as a European colonist crushing Native Americans trying to get you to go away and stop oppressing them.

That’s what I thought of it, but then I read the Wikipedia page and I got mad.

In Ryse, Boudica is the daughter of King Oswald.

In real life she was the Queen of the Iceni.

Yes, a Queen has been demoted to a Princess.

But, actually, this is even worse than that.

The King she has been demoted for lived several hundred years after she died and about two hundred years after the Romans left.

Also, she was the Queen of the Iceni, who lived in Norfolk and Suffolk, and Oswald was the king of Northumbria, which is further north than Norfolk.

So, he lived after her, further north than her, and after Roman rule ended and somehow has been rewritten as her father.

On top of time and space concerns, King Oswald of Northumbria is of a totally different ethnic group to Boudica. She was a Celt, he was a Saxon. This is a big problem in its own right and we’ll get to that in a minute.

For now, I want to bring up the worst thing that Crytek did to Boudica.

In real life, Boudica was a menace to Roman Britain and she killed a lot of people.

Her motivation wasn’t just driving out the invaders, it was revenge.

Her husband was a client king, and he wrote in his will that the kingdom was to go to the empire and his daughters.

When he died, however, Rome annexed the Iceni kingdom, Boudica was flogged and their daughters were raped.

In Ryse you play as a soldier fighting for the empire that had two young women raped because their father wanted them to have partial control over their kingdom.

Of course, we can’t have that, so Crytek ripped Boudica away from her position of authority and her tragic past, writing her daughters and their rapes out of the story altogether so that Americans could play their imperialist fantasies without having to recognise the monstrous crimes of invaders against the native people.

(Oh, by the way, Rome’s over the top reaction to Mr Boudica’s will and death was half because they refused to recognise a will leaving a kingdom to a woman. So you’re not just fighting for imperialists, but misogynistic imperialists. Considering what a depressingly large proportion of gamer dudes are like, leaving that in may have gained them sales.)

Now, the Celt/Saxon thing.

It’s worth bringing up another Celtic hero here. Specifically King Arthur (who was definitely Celtic, don’t believe Geoffery of Monmouth when he calls him a Roman, he was a racist and a liar).

King Arthur is said to have lived in the Dark Ages, he and the legends that surround him were created because the largely Celtic people of Britain (who Rome had abandoned at this point) were having to deal with a new invasive threat.

Namely, the Saxons and other Germanic peoples from that area.

Oh, yes.

Crytek, (a German company) rewrote a woman who would have been legend to King Arthur as the daughter of a king from a people who invaded Britain and subjugated and absorbed the Celts.

Again, this is the first century equivalent of taking a Native American chieftain and rewriting him as the son of… I don’t know, time transposed John Quincy Adams and stripping all of the horrible things that happened to the Native American chieftain out of the story.

Just because these things happened a long time ago doesn’t mean they didn’t happen and doesn’t mean that you get to do what you want with them.

Boudica was a real person who killed real people (a lot of real people) and was assaulted by real people.

Her story reflects the struggles of oppressed native peoples everywhere and the fight against imperialism in all its forms.

She is not some fictional character who can be used and abused for the sake of sub-par video games.

In the next part I’m going to go more into the treatment of King Arthur by the media (especially the American media) and why framing him and Robin Hood as fairy tale characters is awful and needs to stop.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Agent Carter.

Agent Carter.

Guys, I was so excited about this series when it was announced. I actually considered doing it as an ongoing, and only didn't because I predicted - accurately, I think - that the density of plot would make it difficult to cover episode-by-episode in a satisfactory manner. But this was definitely one of the series that I was most enthused about this year, because I adore Peggy Carter almost as much as I adore fiction set in the 1950s and spy dramas. 

Set in the aftermath of World War Two, Agent Carter sees Peggy Carter relegated to demeaning chores within the Strategic Scientific Reserve. This all changes when Howard Stark visits her, having been accused of the theft and sale of his own deadly inventions. To prove Howard's innocence, Peggy becomes a double agent, working with the SSR to hunt him down while simultaneously attempting to find the real culprit of the crimes pinned on him, with the aid of his butler Jarvis.

I was completely correct to be excited about this. I actually didn't see the first episode, instead starting on the second one while under the mistaken impression that it was the first, so I spent the first twenty minutes or so very confused. Once I had my bearings though, I started to really love this series. A lot of care and thought was clearly put into the show by its creators, and it really does pay off.

That is a stylish hat.

I'm going to start by praising the two leads. Hayley Atwell as Peggy and James D'Arcy as Jarvis are both excellent in their roles, and their characters play off each other delightfully: Peggy is sharp, witty, and no-nonsense, and only bolstered by Atwell's incredible range, while Jarvis is an awkward mother hen, with D'Arcy's excellent comedic timing and manner making him one of the funniest characters in the show.

(It's worth mentioning that D'Arcy does also have excellent range, to the point where despite the two shows airing roughly at the same time, I and many others didn't realise that he was playing a major character in both of them.)

The two make an excellent contrast with each other, and some of the best scenes in the show come from when they're working together, with Jarvis' nervousness clashing with Peggy's calm, no-nonsense attitude. The most memorable example of that for me is, when preparing to smash an interrogation room window, Jarvis anxiously stops to ask what will happen if there are people behind the glass, only for Peggy to irritably fire back that 'they may be hurt, there'll be a spray of glass.' As they again prepare to smash it, Jarvis stops once more to ask what will happen if those people have guns, only for Peggy to just as irritably respond that 'we may be hurt, there'll be a spray of bullets.'

Thompson fulfils the role of eye candy for this series.

The other characters are also pretty fun. Peggy's friend Angie isn't involved in the plot much, but is massively enjoyable to watch whenever she's on screen; her adversary Dotty is intimidating, fascinating to watch, and has a fair few darkly comedic moments of her own (and a possible connection to Natasha Romanoff?); and Peggy's male co-workers are - well, they're probably the least interesting cast members, to be honest, but they're interesting enough, and as they get development over the series they only become more so. The only one that never managed to get me interested in him is Dooley, Peggy's boss.

(Like a lot of people, I ended up thinking that Thompson and Sousa should be a couple. An LGBT romance in the 1950s would make an interesting storyline, and Sousa, despite being set up as a romantic interest for Peggy, would make a terrible love interest for her. She almost never reciprocates his interest, and it's made very clear in the show that his image of her is significantly divorced from reality.)

The plot, too, is very well done. It's fairly typical spy drama stuff, with a mysterious organisation using Howard Stark's weapons to cause havoc, but spy dramas are fun, and Agent Carter never pulls a Spooks and forgets that the espionage hijinks are meant to be ridiculous and enjoyable to watch. The episodic plots are all coherent and well-crafted, and the overall series plot, while its pacing isn't ideal at times, is engaging and enjoyable.

Jaaaarvis. Presumably the model for Tony's AI butler of the same name.

The 1950s setting is also worked in well. The set, costume, and manners of speaking all scream the era at you, and the intense misogyny of the era is weaved into the plot very skillfully. A lot of things set in the past choose to skirt around the uglier aspects of it, instead choosing to render whatever time period they're harking back to as a magical wonderland of joy and whimsy, and thankfully Agent Carter mostly avoids doing that.

There's no word yet on whether it's getting a second series, but it really should. There's not a lot of programs on television right now that can quite match up with Agent Carter, and I'm including its sister show, Agents of SHIELD, when I say that.

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Sleepy Hollow Series 2 Second Half.

Sleepy Hollow
Series 2, Second Half.

Coming back after a gratifyingly shorter hiatus than some shows I could mention (I still don't understand or approve of the US preoccupation with Christmas hiatuses), Sleepy Hollow picks up some months after the death of Moloch. While it seems like their troubles might be over, Ichabod and Abbie (now with Katrina joining their team full time) find themselves quickly facing miscellaneous supernatural threats, including a still-active Horseman of Death, a returned-from-the-grave Irving, and a monstrous thief.

I was moderately effusive in my praise of the first half of this series, and I was looking forward to them having a more tighter, focused plot in the second half of the series. I was, perhaps, wrong to do so: The plot of this second half is far, far less focused: With no villain appearing to step into Moloch's shoes, the series instead falls firmly into a monster-of-the-week format, with no real overarching plot, and it more or less ends that way, too - Henry is reintroduced only to die on the outing of his first plan. Katrina spends about two episodes contemplating evil before joining Henry on his evil plan, and then becoming a rather lacklustre villain for the finale (for while she's the catalyst that sets the episode in motion, the episode actually sees her do remarkably little). only to also die.

I do kind of understand why. With a third series not confirmed, and dropped ratings meaning that it's far from a certainty, the writers want to end with all the proverbial loose ends tied up, and you can't really do that if you introduce a new major villain, unless you only have him or her be active for half a series. Having to finish a series without knowing whether it'll be your last series or if you'll be having one, two, five more is not an easy position to be in.

Hello, Potential Series 3 Villain #1.

I'm also definitely not saying that this second half of the second series is terrible. Actually, I really enjoyed it: Ichabod and Abbie's friendship, which is really the centrepiece of the show, remains excellently written, and I can find very little fault in it. The episodic plots are fun, engaging romps, even if they don't tend to impact on a larger narrative. I am still deeply enjoying this series, I'm just also aware that it felt a shade aimless, a bit meandering, like it didn't know what to do with itself.

Another key issue is how badly it used some of its characters: Matt Barr's Hawley is written out in his focus episode and not seen again; Death shows up in the first episode (and not even as the antagonist of it) and then isn't seen again until the finale (where, like Katrina, he doesn't actually do a great deal); Henry, who was a more active villain than his master during the first half of the series, puts into motion approximately one evil plan and then is unceremoniously shot.

Not to be confused with this Founding Father dude (nobody can actually remember
which one is which, don't pretend you can), who explodes.

Katrina might be the worst example of this, though, as with her now fully on the team, the writers seem to have no idea what to do with her. They spend numerous episodes having her slightly tediously be ambivalent about everything, a few having her work with Ichabod and Abbie (and those episodes are a joy), and then towards the end have her suddenly and bafflingly go evil. The reasons for her doing so always seem false, too: A witch from the past riles her up and introduces her to blood magic, then Henry shows up and sweet-talks her a little, and then she is completely evil. As in 'murder my husband and his friend, conquer the world' evil. It's a terrible misuse of a great character, in my opinion.

But again, I do sort of understand it. Katrina's witchy powers mean that suddenly there's a lot less you can do in terms of plot, because you always have the question of 'Why doesn't Katrina just witch it to death' hovering about, especially since her powers are never clearly defined, and no rules are clearly given. It's a problem that the writers clearly hadn't considered when they introduced her - but gosh, if you're going to make her evil, have it be a slower burn and have her actually be a major villain. Katrina could have made a great third Horseman. 

(Still could, in all truth, as death is a fairly impermanent affair in this universe.)

I mean, they've already introduced time travel.

All that having been said, though, Sleepy Hollow is a show I have genuinely deeply enjoyed, and I hope it returns. It's good fun that doesn't take itself too seriously, and there is precious little of that on television right now, so I would firmly suggest that you check it out if you've not already done so. 

The show's preoccupation with American history is still kind of weird and jingoistic, though. I'm sorry, guys, it just - it just is. 

Monday, 23 February 2015

Kamen Rider Drive E19: What Can Judge The Police?

Kamen Rider Drive
Episode 19: What Can Judge The Police?

Last week, we had the makings of an interesting arc looking at the difference between justice and revenge, and exploring Gen's character as more than just the out-of-touch-bumbling-comic-relief-guy (as opposed to the geeky-comic-relief-guy, the kooky-comic-relief-guy, et cetera). Before we look at this week's episode, which concludes that arc, let's glance at last week's bingo:

It's very satisfying to me to see so many squares filled. Deeply, oddly satisfying.

Having just discovered that the Roimyude of the week, Judge, looks like Gen's superior Tachibana, the crew immediately go to - demand answers from Tachibana, thus immediately falling right into one of my bugbears with this arc and several Drive arcs in general. I ranted about this last week, so I'll try to avoid doing so too much this week, but Roimyudes copy people, and we've seen them do so without consent. 

In fairness to the writers of this episode, this time the characters aren't acting like Tachibana is the Roimyude, but they do automatically assume that he's allied with it, which doesn't match up at all with their experiences or what the audience has seen. Sometimes Roimyude hosts are allied with their Roimyudes, but just as often they're unwilling participants, or absent-and-presumably-dead. 

(In this case, they're right, and Tachibana is in league with Judge, which just makes me more annoyed.)

Oh, and the Chief is back.

My second big 'have you forgotten your own plot' irritation with this episode is the joke of Gou staying in his Mach suit indefinitely so as to not be mobbed with people tricked into thinking that he's Judge, after his embarrassing video rant was poorly dubbed over. This is a joke, so I don't want to be too stingy about it - nothing irritates me more than when people take jokes and pick them apart like that - but Gou can only stay in that suit for a limited amount of time. The joke could have arguably been made more funny by having someone point this out, even. I'd be less of a stickler for this, but the suit's time limit is almost certainly going to end up being an important part of Gou's character arc. 

But those are my two only real problems with this episode, which wasn't massively remarkable but was a perfectly fun twenty minutes. The mystery plot was set up well, even if at times the pace slowed to a crawl (the Deco Traveler-Gen scene was the worst offender for this), and it had an nice conclusion that wrapped everything up neatly, even if I do rather disagree with Shinnosuke's 'your only crime was giving in to your torment' spiel at Tachibana, who has literally aided and abetted a monster in committing assault. It probably would have made more sense to have Tachibana be arrested, especially since the theme of the arc is 'justice', but I can see why they didn't, since Tachibana has been framed throughout as a sympathetic character working for the benefit of a vulnerable young woman, and also since the last arc ended with a close associate of the supporting-character-of-the-fortnight being taken away in handcuffs. 

(The villain idol group was more or less absent in this episode, bar Chase, which is a bit of a shame, but was also barely noticeable. They don't need to be in every episode, after all.)

Also, there's this delightful but bizarre scene.

The action sequences were also quite fun. We had a terrible CGI fight between Tridoron and the Ride Crosser at the beginning, which was gratifyingly short, and in a nice twist, this episode was fairly restrained in how much action it included from then on - keeping in mind that at its worst, Drive has sometimes devoted half an episode at a time to action scenes, it was good to see the writers scale that back slightly, limiting it to one short fight between Judge and Gou, and then the arc's final battle, pitting Shinnosuke against Judge and Gou against Chase (which is, at least, a welcome change from having Shinnosuke vs Chase every episode). They even managed to work a nice joke into the latter, with Gou dramatically exclaiming that this time, Chase won't be able to form the Ride Crosser, because Gou hadn't brought his bike with him.


Overall, a pretty solid episode in what's shaping up to be a fairly solid series, despite having gotten off to a slow start.

This episode didn't tick any bingo boxes, so we'll skip that and look straight ahead to next week, where we have another supporting-character-focus-arc, this one looking at Kyu, the aforementioned geeky-comic-relief-guy. I quite like Kyu, so that might be pretty fun. This upcoming arc also seems to be shifting focus a little bit more onto Medic, too, with the preview having her cheerfully remark that she'd quite like to dispose of everyone except her and Heart. We might even get to see her Roimyude form.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Darksiders II.

Darksiders II.

In a way, the premise of Darksiders II is one that guarantees instant success, both commercially (people are suckers for vaguely Biblical fantasy antiheroes) and critically, so long as you can follow through on either a thoughtful philosophical journey ala El-Shaddai, or a ridiculous heavy metal over-the-top beat-everything-up gorefest. 

Darksiders II, the sequel to a story about the horseman of War setting off the apocalypse, follows his brother, Death, as he attempts to prove War's innocence, and in the process gets dragged into restoring humanity, which has been all bust destroyed in the apocalypse. 

It's ridiculous schlock, but it's very fun ridiculous schlock, taking the ridiculous heavy metal Biblical fantasy route with a distinct emphasis on 'fantasy'. The plot is almost an afterthought, popping up here and there to mumble some vague reasoning as to why you have to go to a particular dungeon or so on, but mostly serving to prod you in the direction of the action, and to give you a reason to go to different worlds. 

Seen here: Bling, and a frosty world.

The different worlds are the most distinctive part of the game, and they are varied. The game gets off to a very slow start in that regard, as after the tutorial world, your first two worlds are Grassy High Fantasy Dwarfland and Grey-and-Purple Skull-themed Underworld, and while they're both very nice to look at, you spend ages there. The Land of the Dead in particular gives new meaning to the term 'busywork', as you are constantly, constantly, being sent off on fetch quests. At one point, you have to find three particular people in the Land of the Dead - upon finding one of them, you're told he'll only come with you if you find three more things. It's a matryoshka doll of dull, interminable busywork. 

After those two, the worlds become gratifyingly shorter. There are only about three more worlds after this, though, and though they're varied and interesting - including one with a timeshift mechanic and one that forces you to play it as a cover-based shooter - they make up a considerably smaller chunk of the game than their predecessors.

(They are, at least, all rendered very prettily, with the game's relatively gorgeous graphics put to good use on its range of environs. The soundtrack is all very nice too, which is a plus.)

Nice throne.

The gameplay is, for the most part, very fun as well. Each world has its own gimmick, from activating golems to perform tasks to jumping backwards and forwards in time, but most of the gameplay is typical, if well done, hack and slash fare, with the game throwing hordes of enemies at you and you dealing with them by button-mashing. Death's main weapons are two scythes, but there are also a lot of secondary weapons, which deal varying damage at varying speeds and which you'll likely want to experiment with, as well as a gun, separate from the secondary weapons, which does very little damage and is usually used for puzzles. There's a vaguely RPG-oid system where you can put skill points into different abilities, but it's not an especially memorable or important part of the game. In the open world, Death can summon a horse to travel faster on, too, which is nice, but not something you'll be doing very often.

The gameplay gets a brief change-up on Earth, where you're thrown into a third-person shooter that seems to be one big Resident Evil reference, as you stride through the blasted ruins of an American city killing zombies. This might well be frustrating to you at first, as it was to me, and you can switch to your regular weapons and use those instead. What you might find, like I did, is that it's better to stick with the gun, as it's fast, powerful, and restores your health bit-by-bit when you're killing enemies. I do like that touch, incidentally - the gameplay change is not enforced, but it's offered and made worth your while.

Oh, right, and there's a super mode too. Standard.

It's a very flawed product, I won't deny that, but it is a lot of fun, and I finished it easily and with a minimum of grumping, so I would actually recommend it to people. It's available on Steam, as well as for pretty much every console. As of yet, there's no announcement of a sequel, and it's entirely likely that there won't be for some time - THQ, the company that owned it, went bankrupt and sold its assets, with Nordic Games, publishers of, among other things, Alan Wake and The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, having acquired it. Nordic Games has said to not even start looking for news of a sequel earlier than halfway through 2015, and sure enough there has been no news.

So, we'll see on that count. I would very much enjoy a Darksiders III, though.

Friday, 20 February 2015

The Maze Runner (2014).

The Maze Runner (2014).

So, I wasn't much interested in watching this film when it came out, and my interest in watching it came about entirely accidentally, the result of needing a book to cover a couple of train journeys and only having turgid crime, the Frozen novel, and the book of The Maze Runner to choose from. As you can imagine, it was an obvious choice.

I did enjoy the book, although it probably wouldn't be making an appearance on any recommendation lists I'd be making, so it seemed like a not-terrible idea to check out the film, and maybe do a review with some comparison work.

The Maze Runner follows Thomas, a young man who wakes up with no memory in an ascending box, which deposits him into the Glade, a small community of teenage boys at the centre of a vast and imposing Maze. As Thomas attempts to adapt to this new life, it starts to become clear that he's more deeply connected to the Maze and its origins than he could know. 

Pictured: One of the few moments where these three aren't staring longingly at
each other. And I'm pretty sure this is just a promotional poster.

One thing that was immediately obvious when watching the film is that the tone and pacing were odd, especially at the beginning. In the novel, the Glade and the boys who inhabit it is presented as confusing, hostile and alien: There's a dialect barrier, people are reluctant to give Thomas any information and have very little patience with his confusion, and one of the foremost figures in the Glade, Gally, insists that he recognises Thomas and hates him. In the film, the Glade is fairly serene: People, including Gally, are friendly; they are free and open with information; even the danger of the Glade and the Maze is oddly downplayed, with dialogue deliberately adjusted to reduce mentions of how many boys have died. 

(Gally even comes off as downright reasonable, amicable, and healthy for most of the film, as opposed to the book where he's embittered, haunted by what few memories he has, increasingly paranoid, and implied to be suffering from some form of PTSD.)

The pacing is also bizarre. Events are compressed enormously, resulting in a strange disconnect as the major story beats just fling themselves at you out of nowhere. If you don't know the book, the pacing will turn the film into a bizarre string of seemingly nigh-unconnected, jumpily edited together moments; and if you do know the book, the result is a jarring, packed-together footnotes version of the storyline.

See here our deuteragonist, introduced more than halfway through the film.

The other effect of this is that moments which should have an emotional impact just end up falling flat. There are several major character deaths throughout the film, but while they were reasonably effective in the book, where we had gotten to know these characters and see their friendships with those around them, in the film they just feel like pieces being taken off the board, because you're not at any point given an opportunity to form an emotional attachment to any of them. 

It is, at least, a very pretty film, which some gorgeous settings. Well done to the underpaid CGI people who created the Maze, which looks intimidating, vast, and both ancient and industrial in nature. Well done also to whoever designed and animated the Grievers, which are very sinister and frightening to look at, although they start to lose their punch a little towards the end of the film.

The cast is composed entirely of very good actors, but none of them are really bringing their A-game, and quite a few of them barely have the opportunity to - Kaya Scodelario, playing a major character in the book, has her total screentime drastically cut down, leaving her with barely any time to show her acting chops. The standout performance probably has to go to Thomas Brodie-Sangster who, while being a total miscast (being, as he is, small and elfin looking, and playing tall, brawny, square-jawed Newt), does put in easily the most charismatic and engaging performance of the bunch.

Except you, obviously, CGI Griever.

(Speaking of miscasts, well done to the studio for not whitewashing anyone. I realise that's an incredibly low bar for me to set, but since it's a low bar that studios constantly seem to fail to reach, I think it's worthwhile to give some praise where it's due here.)

The soundtrack is fine, but not memorable in the slightest, so there's that, too.

The film's left open for a sequel, and with a sequel hook besides, but I'm not really sure it should get one. The second and third books of the trilogy were incoherent messes, and it's difficult to imagine that the films would be any better. But moreover, this wasn't a very good film. It was a terrible adaptation of some fun but hardly brilliant source material, and the result is something that only barely manages to tell a story, and does so in the most lacklustre fashion possible. Even if books two and three were inspired tomes whose every word filled the soul with divine light, this film still wouldn't warrant a sequel.

It's just - man, I did want to like it. I did. But I didn't.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Editorial: Is the USA a classic dystopia?

Editorial: Is the USA a classic dystopia?

I pondered for a while whether this fit into my blog's remit - this being, after all, a blog on entertainment, not politics, although the overlap between the two has always been considerable. I eventually decided that it did, because you can't truly talk about a dystopia, and what it means in real life, without talking about what it means in fiction, and how our media both mirrors and attempts to distance itself from situations in real life.

It's a question that bears asking, as well. Partly because, as the biggest producer and audience for dystopian fiction, particularly for young adults, it's worthwhile questioning whether such fiction inadvertently describes it. Mostly because for everyone who isn't American, it's very obvious how awful a place it is.

So, let's roll on with the characteristics of a dystopia.

1. Propaganda is used to control the citizens of society.

Seen in: 1984, Animal Farm.

Well, this one is startlingly relevant with the recent release of American Sniper, a film that is sheer and pure propaganda and exists almost entirely for the purposes of convincing people of the inherent moral goodness of killing people for your country, regardless of if they are soldiers, civilians, men, women or children. 

Those types of films come along every year, and they are as unpleasant as each other. Red Dawn, which borrowed its plot cues from Victorian propaganda novellas. Pearl Harbor, which erroneously portrayed the Japanese as attacking civilians. 

But it's not just American Sniper and its ilk - the thread of propaganda is, in many ways, an almost omnipresent one in US entertainment, and they manifest in myriad ways. When Rick Riordan writes book series in which the deities of Greece and Norway make their homes in the continental US, that carries a tinge of propaganda to it. When a TV series like Broadchurch is adapted almost scene for scene, but airlifted to the US so that the audience doesn't have cope with seeing something set outside their borders, that must necessarily carry a tinge of propaganda. When 24 portrays torture as supremely effective and justifiable in the face of destruction from nebulous, foreign forces, that is most certainly propaganda. Even a pretty benign series like Sleepy Hollow, which I deeply enjoy, comes equipped with the idea that the Founding Fathers of the US were a cabal of demon-fighting super-geniuses.

This has to be a yes, because the US propaganda machine works so hard that it is nigh impossible to escape.

2. Information, independent thought, and freedom are restricted.

Seen in: Pretty much every dystopian novel ever.

So, remember how every day for the entirety of their school lives, children are expected to chant a literal oath of fealty to a flag? That's kinda weird, and also, like any brainwashing process, an example of suppression of independent thought.

But it goes beyond that: The supply of information in the US is often radically different and more narrow than the rest of the world. Education provides a distorted form of history framed to place America in the most rosy light possible; information about events in other countries is so absurdly distorted that many people who were literally growing up while the Troubles in Northern Ireland were going on have no idea who the IRA or UVF even are, despite that conflict having completely revolutionised military and diplomatic approaches to conflict resolution worldwide, and is enormously relevant to current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

From an early age, Americans face massive restrictions on the information they receive and can access, and vehement suppression of independent thought, so this one is a yes too.

3. A figurehead or concept is worshipped by the citizens of the society.

Seen in: Bioshock Infinite.

The 'seen in' for this one is especially relevant, since Bioshock Infinite is riffing off the US' tendency towards this. It's exaggerating it, obviously - the US is not led by dictatorial prophet - but it is intended as political commentary on the hyper-religiosity of the US.

And for a secular country, the US' religious fervour is stark - not just for the Christian God, although there is certainly a strange fixation on him (with Baylor University conducting a survey that found that 65% of Americans had no doubt in God's existence, and a further 10% believing in him with some doubts), but for the nation itself. 

Entire philosophical movements have sprung into being around the idea of the US as a semi-mythical place styled after the biblical City On The Hill. Entire religious denominations born in America include in their mythology that Missouri is the location of the Garden of Eden, and that Jesus came to the US. 

This one has to be a yes.

4. Citizens are perceived to be under constant surveillance.

Seen in: THX 1138, Equilibrium, 1984.

This is a bit of an odd one, because perceived to be under constant surveillance is not the same as being under constant surveillance - and I'm not sure the latter is true, as that would be a logistical nightmare. Certainly, though, the US's surveillance state is bloated and invasive, with a succession of laws like the PATRIOT Act having practically made privacy meaningless.

But perhaps more alarming is the US' relatively high acceptance of surveillance. The Pew Research Centre found that 56% of Americans think it's acceptable for their cell records to be consistently tracked, and 45% thought it was acceptable for their e-mails to be monitored. When asked a general question as to which was more important, privacy or security, 62% said security.

That's a little terrifying, and does suggest that a majority of Americans do perceive themselves to be under constant surveillance, and are okay with that. So, let's go with a yes. 

5. Citizens have a fear of the outside world.

Seen in: Psycho-Pass, Bioshock Infinite. 

Actually, a colleague of mine literally did her dissertation on how the entire American idea of patriotism is in fact jingoism and nationalism. It's true, too: What Americans term 'patriotism', everyone else terms 'distasteful nationalism', of the sort usually associated with Germany of a certain era.

But fear, that is a different thing altogether. Anecdotally, I can say that I've observed deep anxiety over even the existence of other countries, discomfort at hearing about things being done differently. But if you want to see fear of other countries, you really need only look at how American media frames countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, Russia, North Korea, China, or even the UK.

Iraq, Afghanistan and North Korea are frequently framed as imminent and terrifying threats to the US, with the US military as the only thing defending the freedom of its citizens, despite only one of those three having even a potential interest in harming the US, and none of those three having the capability. Russia and China are often framed as the two great arch-enemies of the US, poised to strike at any moment - but in truth, neither of them care about the US that much, with Russia's vim being directed at pretty much everywhere else in the entire world, and China's interest being mostly directed inward. 

It's just bizarre how often I see the UK framed as secretly hungering to reabsorb the US into its empire, despite the fact that I think if you offered the people of the UK that option, they would flee screaming in the other direction.

Even when the US doesn't view another country as intending to destroy them with military might, they are quick to cast them as threats. It took only a tiny amount of ebola cases in barely any African countries for the entire continent to be cast as a vast swarm of plague rats drawn inexorably towards US soil.

The US' views of other countries are defined by fear, ranging from discomfort and anxiety to outright terror, so this one, as well, has to be a yes. Fifth verse, same as the first.

6. Citizens live in a dehumanised state.

Seen in: 1984, The Hunger Games, Pretties.

If you want to see citizens living in a dehumanised state, you really need only look towards the US' treatment of black people. The shooting of Mike Brown, the choking of Eric Garner, and countless more atrocities are brutal and dehumanising events all on their own - but the total failure of the legal system to enact justice on their killers is as dehumanising, suggesting a state and a people that don't see a large portion of their citizenry as deserving the same basic human rights. 

That's not even getting into how the media treats black victims compared to white ones.

Nor is it just black people that the US dehumanises in this way. Muslims, LGBT people, women, Native Americans, any other non-white ethnicities - all are treated as less-than-human, less deserving of rights than the narrow section of society that the US assumes is the correct one. So this is undeniably a yes. 

7. The natural world is banished and distrusted.

Seen in: The Longest Journey, Blade Runner, Pretties.

Well, certainly the US is heavily industrialised, but so are most Western countries, and that doesn't necessarily mean that the natural world has been banished or is distrusted. That would suggest an utter revulsion or even outright terror at nature, and I don't think that really holds true, especially given that the characteristic refers to an extreme, ala seclusion in domes and suchlike. 

(In fact, the US has a thriving agricultural sector - not necessarily a healthy one, as like all US industries it's overwhelmingly dominated by the few - but certainly a thriving one.)

So, I'm going to mark this one down as a no.

8. Citizens conform to uniform expectations. Individuality and dissent are bad.

Seen in: Pretties, 1984. 

See Point 6, it's relevant to this.

But it goes beyond that, because uniform expectations implies things that people have control (or can be believed to have control) over - and it's true, US culture does enforce strict standards of uniformity. Its relative intolerance for religions other than Christianity is one such standard, its total intolerance of people being poor is another, and its deep distrust of anybody who doesn't vocally support the state is another.

So this one must be a yes.

9. The society is an illusion of a perfect, utopian world.

Seen in: Psycho-Pass, Bioshock Infinite, Pretties.

Much is made of the US as a utopia of freedom, wherein a person can achieve their dreams with just the sweat of their brow. Indeed, for much of its history, American philosophers and historians used the principle of American exceptionalism as a starting point when discussing the US and its place in history, more or less guaranteeing that it would always be presented as a utopia the likes of which the world has never seen.

I'm not sure many people believe that anymore. Probably some, but not many, so I'm going to place this one as a no, but I do so - reluctantly.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Star Wars: Battlefront II.

Star Wars: Battlefront II.

I actually can't remember what prompted me to get this game. It was so long ago now. I've always been a fan of Star Wars, even when I was too young to understand what was going on and was just watching the films for the pretty effects and lightsaber fights, and I have bought no shortage of games based on the series: Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast was one of the earliest games I ever played, and Jedi Academy and Knights of the Old Republic remain old favourites.

But I can't remember what prompted me to buy Battlefront II upon its release. Certainly, it wasn't an overwhelming interest in either its gameplay - which is, for the most part, standard shooter fare - or its plot - which isn't really a plot so much as it is a hastily contrived reason to dump you onto various iconic planets from the series.

Battlefront II, the sequel to, er, Battlefront, puts you in the shoes of a succession of soldiers working for four different sides. Playing in iconic battles from the film series, you can pick any of five different units to play as, each with unique abilities - and when you die, you can simply respawn, either with the same unit or a different one, with a game over or victory only coming when either all of one side's command points are captured, or they run out of reinforcements. Additions to this entry in the series include 'hero units' - Jedi, Sith, and other prominent characters from the series, who you can only use for a limited amount of time - and space battles, where you can board starfighters and battle in three dimensions.

There's a flimsy narrative campaign too, in which you play as a stormtrooper - presumably a stormtrooper with the magical ability to transfer his consciousness between military personnel on his death, or else hello ludonarrative dissonance something awful - reminiscing about his service in two different wars.

That stormtrooper had a family before you bodyjacked him and drove him to die
in a frozen wasteland like a mouse with toxoplasma gondii, you monster.

For all that I can't recall what made me buy this game, it is one I very much enjoyed. Not so much the land battle gameplay - while perfectly adequate, and with some gorgeous settings and a wide range of different troop types (my personal favourites being the droidekas, fast moving robots that can erect a shield when standing), it only really became fun when you were playing as one of the heroes, who are without exception whirling maelstroms of death. The game isn't stingy with the time it gives you to play as them, and the timer is extended each time you kill an enemy, which barring unhappy accident will be constantly. 

At points, the land-based gameplay can become a bit of a mad dash, with both sides taking command points almost at an equal rate, causing a strange equilibrium where it basically comes down to who can seize the advantage for just a few minutes, as the fewer command posts one side has, the more reinforcements they burn through when respawning. That's not a bad thing, to be honest: I'd rather mad, frenetic dashes to gameplay that bores me.


But no, where the gameplay really shone for me was in the space battles. It's a weird thing to say, really, because three-dimensional movement in games is so rarely done well, and it's not as if Battlefront II's gameplay in this regard is groundbreaking - but it's very fine tuned and, once you get the hang of it, feels very smooth. It's a lot of fun, too: You can zoom about the battlefield blasting people with homing missiles in an A-Wing, which never gets boring, and just as fun as jumping into a bomber and doing bombing runs over an enemy ship. Other ships, like the personnel carrier, meant to cart marines into the docking bay of another ship so that they can start sabotaging it from the inside, are best left for multiplayer, as the NPC soldiers are practically useless during space battles.

The narrative campaign is okay to play through once, and then never again - it can't offer you anything that the Instant Action or Galactic Conquest modes can't, unless you like people narrating at you. But, you know, that's not a problem. Not every game has to be story-driven, after all.

Especially when it has spaceships.

It's certainly not game-of-the-year material or anything, but I also can't say it was ever dull, and it's a game I have consistently kept in my library and wouldn't consider selling. It's a very solid entry in a series that has, alas, almost died since, with a sequel (confusing just called Star Wars: Battlefront) only very tentatively scheduled for later this year.

If you want to play it, it can be found on Steam, and I do recommend the PC version over the absurdly clunky PS2 version.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Kingdom Hearts II.

Kingdom Hearts II.

Oh, the Kingdom Hearts games. What a glorious mess. I've reviewed several of the more recent games - Dream Drop Distance and Birth by Sleep, and while my views on them generally haven't been positive, this is a franchise that I absolutely adore. I think it's a premise with a ton of potential, both in terms of story and gameplay, I've always found it to be one of those delightful kids-in-a-sandbox things where there are so many interesting directions that you can take it, and it does have a large cast of interesting characters, some great music, and even some great voice-acting (hey there, Leonard Nimoy, Robin Atkin Downes, Willa Holland, Mark Hamill, and Sir Christopher Lee).

If I have any problem with the franchise as a whole, it's that I don't think Tetsuya Nomura is very competent at making games. The development hell kerfuffle over Kingdom Hearts III and Final Fantasy XV is proof of his inability to get games finished, I don't rate him much as a character designer, and both Kingdom Hearts and the Final Fantasy XIII trilogy are evidence of his inability to write a story that doesn't spiral off into pretentious incoherence.

Kingdom Hearts II, the third entry in the series, initially puts you in the shoes of a young man named Roxas, enjoying his summer holidays in the charming world of Twilight Town. As time passes, Twilight Town becomes more and more bizarre, and Roxas starts to increasingly realise that something's wrong with him, as well. Before long, circumstances have you playing as Sora, the franchise's main protagonist, as he is given a new task - travel the worlds in search of Organisation XIII, a mysterious cabal of 'Nobodies', creatures formed from the bodies and souls of those who have lost their hearts. 

II is widely considered to be the best game in the series so far, and I'm inclined to agree with that assessment. 

Except Timeless River, which is so nightmarish I know people who can't bear
to watch it.

Part of that is probably gameplay, in that the gameplay is definitely - adequate. I can't actually say it's better than the gameplay of any other Kingdom Hearts game, they all functionally play the same, but Kingdom Hearts II does have something going for it that Birth by Sleep and Dream Drop Distance don't, which is that you're not retreading the same worlds with two or three characters that all play functionally the same. The gameplay feels fresher than the games that come after it, because there's distinctly more variety in the foes you're facing and the locations that you're facing them in. There are other factors that make it feel fresher too - the Drive Form mechanic both offers more freedom of choice than the Command Styles mechanic, as you pick when you transform into your different forms, and it's more varied, with all four of your major Drive Forms playing in a substantially different way and requiring different tactics.

(I personally absolutely loved Wisdom Form and used it whenever possible.)

As I think I've said before, if I were to create a Kingdom Hearts game with multiple playable characters, the Drive Forms would be what I'd base their gameplay on, having one character emulate Wisdom Form, another emulate Valor Form with a greater focus on speed than that form actually has, while another played more like your regular, base form, but with a more significant focus on strength.

Another part of why II is so well-received is that the story isn't nearly as tangled as later installments in the series would make it. For the most part, II has a fairly straightforward story, and it and its two predecessors form a perfectly adequate, self-contained storyline. It isn't until Birth by Sleep, where we got heart-swapping, people-splitting, people linking their hearts with others, more doppelgangers, and complicated plans involving ancient, divine swords; and Dream Drop Distance, where they took that tangled skein of plot threads and shoved time travel into the mix, that the storyline actually became as ridiculous and incoherent as it currently is. 

You know, The World That Never Was would be massively popular with tourists.
Think Vegas.

Not that II's story is perfect. One thing I found particularly grating is that Organisation XIII had half of their number killed in a previous game, despite being the main villains of this one, and despite there being more than enough space to adequately fit all thirteen into it - in fact, for the main villains, they aren't nearly prominent enough in the game as it stands, and could do with showing up in more worlds. I groused about this on social networking, and had several people apparently not understand, assuming that I had either never heard of Chain of Memories or that I didn't understand what happened in it - that is not the issue. My contention is that Chain of Memories should not have had five members of the Organisation be defeated in it - it wasn't a massively necessary game anyway, but if it was truly needed, why not use a cabal of Disney villains instead, with Organisation XIII as their distant, ominous handlers pulling the strings?

Essentially, either have the Organisation be the villains of II or the villains of Chain of Memories, not this halfway house mess where half of them die in one game, only for the rest of them to appear and then be killed off in another game. With worlds like The Pride Lands, Disney Castle, Space Paranoids, Agrabah, and Halloween Town not having any Organisation presence in them at all, and The Land of Dragons barely enjoying a three second cameo by an Organisation member, there was certainly more than enough space for the entire group.

But apart from that, it's a fine plot. It won't win any awards, but it was fun, interesting, and even managed to explore some interesting ideas, such as the nature of self and suchlike. Sora grates on me a little, but not nearly as much as he would come Dream Drop Distance, where the writers apparently forgot half his personality.

Pictured: Not Sora, but also a candidate to have half his personality surgically
sheared off if he ever shows up again.

The game's music is very good, its voice-acting ranges from sufficient if a little grating to excellent, and the graphics are fine. The Disney settings could use some work, but a lot of that is that they appear totally absent and empty: Places like Agrabah and the Imperial City, which are canonically bustling and crowded, are rendered entirely empty of anybody. This is obviously to reduce workload and to make having fight scenes in those places easier, but it kills any sensation that you're actually in those worlds.

In conclusion, a fun but by no means perfect game, but it has earned its stripes as the best entry in the franchise. If we're lucky, Kingdom Hearts III will beat it, but that would require it to ever be released, and with Nomura in charge, that is spectacularly unlikely.